You marvelled at its stunning locales in the Lord of the Rings trilogy ' and since then, you've always wanted to catch its incredible sights and sounds up close and personal. But if you've always cried off for some reason or the other, now with the Conde Naste Traveller Awards having voted it third amongst the world's top 10 getaways, you really have no excuse any more to put off that trip to New Zealand. So, travel down under for a spot of island fun, with sea, hills and forests topped with perfect weather, where paradise came calling and stayed on...
The early Polynesian settlers called New Zealand Aotearoa, meaning Land of the Long White Cloud ' a name by which New Zealand is quite often known. Home of Middle-Earth, this is a country of rare beauty: towering mountains, fast-flowing rivers, deep, clear lakes, hissing geysers and boiling mud. There are also abundant forest reserves, long, deserted beaches and a variety of animals and birds such as the kiwi, native to its shores.
The people, bound in a culture that melds European with Maori ancestry, are resourceful, helpful and friendly, ever ready to pass on their knowledge of local history and legend. Travel here is affordable and efficient, and accommodation, is cheap and varied. And the culinary promise of venison, fresh seafood and award-winning wines should more than whet the appetite of gourmets even as any number of vigorous outdoor activities satisfy the cravings of the adventurous.
The capital city of New Zealand, sophisticated Wellington is situated on a splendid harbour at the southernmost tip of the North Island. It's a lively city of arts and culture, good food and entertainment, and home to the country's government and national treasures.
Buildings of interest here include the modernist Beehive (the executive wing of Parliament), the old Government Building, the National Library as well as museums (including the renowned Te Papa museum) and a zoo. Cuba Street throws up some great shopping, Thorndon has historic sites of interest, Lambton Quay is the primary business street and Mt Victoria is the place to go for cheap accommodation and dining.
This city in the North Island is New Zealand's largest and the entry point for most international travellers. The attractions of this waterside city, are, not surprisingly, based around all things maritime. When you've had enough of aquariums and the history of sailing, explore Maori culture and dinosaur skeletons, or stargaze at the Observatory.
The cradle of both Maori and Pakeha (European) culture was the place where the Pakeha first made contact with the Maori, and where the first whaling settlements were established. It has a number of interesting museums; glorious, golden beaches and diving spots, including the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, reckoned by many to be among the top 10 diving sites in the world; historic towns, game fishing and flora and fauna reserves.
• Otago & Southland
Three highlights dominate Otago and Southland in the South Island: Queenstown with its on-the-edge activities designed to thrill any adventure-seeker; the walkways of Fiordland National Park; and Otago Peninsula, testimony to New Zealand's foray into eco-tourism. The last is a magnificent wildlife area, with woodland gardens, albatross, penguin and seal colonies, as well as aquariums, museums and historic sites. Dunedin, a student city, is a hub for arts and entertainment. It's a very old place filled with youth, famous for producing an eclectic pool of internationally successful rock bands.
There is a series of huge lakes in the area, including Hawea and nearby Wanaka in Otago, and Lake Te Anau in Southland. Another major draw is The Catlins, the largest remaining area of native forest on the east coast of the South Island, that has reserves of rarefied plants and trees, and fauna such as fur seals, sea lions and penguins.
Off the Beaten Track
• Ball Pass Crossing
This crossing is a demanding two-to three-day Alpine route in the South Island's Mt Cook National Park.
• Great Barrier Island
This island at the mouth of the Hauraki Gulf has white sandy beaches, deep-water sheltered inlets and a rugged spine of steep ridges running down the centre. Natural hot springs, towering kauri forests and a serene aura make it a perfect escape.
• Stewart Island
Stewart Island is an ornithologist's delight: tui, parakeets, kaka and bellbirds abound. The kiwi, rare in both the North and South Island, is common here, particularly around beaches.
• Whangaparaoa Bay
A succession of picturesque bays lead to Whangaparaoa Bay, 50km west of the North Island's East Cape. The beaches and the old Anglican church, nestled under Norfolk pines on a lone promontory, should not be missed.
• New Zealand's social calendar is choc-a-bloc with events throughout the year. Some of the famous ones include the Summer City Programme (January to February; Wellington), BMW Wine Marlborough Festival (February; Blenheim); New Zealand Festival (February, every alternate year; Wellington), Golden Shears Sheep-Shearing Contest (March; Masterton), and Canterbury Show Week (November; Christchurch). The country also has a vibrant music culture, which has spawned a pool of talent.
• Not for nothing is New Zealand called the adventure capital of the world. One-third of the country's landscape is preserved as conservation estate where outdoor adventure rules, complete with the adrenaline-pumping, heart-stopping excitement of extreme sports. Professional tour operators can be found in almost every town, offering everything from fun-filled pursuits to those that'll test your skill and daring to the max.
Enjoy the buzz of shooting white water rapids, riding a rocket ship on a wire, and throwing yourself off a bungee platform ' and that's just for starters! You can walk on a glacier, ski on an active volcano, abseil into a canyon and parapent off a high mountain or indulge in countless other daring adventures. Or else, swim with dolphins, gambol with lambs, whale-watch or fish for trout in the many streams.
However, despite the number of offbeat activities available, the most popular one is still tramping (Kiwi lingo for hiking or trekking). Thousands of kilometres of marked tracks and a network of trampers' huts make it a viable activity for everyone from experienced hikers to country strollers.
Food for thought
• Be it seafood, fruits, cereals or wine, you name it and the Kiwis serve it! The fish and seafood here come from the cleanest oceans in the world while the livestock grows on the greenest pastures. The wine list is stellar ' Sauvignon Blanc, red-Bordeaux blends, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines ' and the fruit available here is like no other. Tart kiwis, strawberries, apricots and luscious peaches are to be found in abundance and other specialities include New Zealand lamb, venison, salmon, lobsters and scallops. For Indian food, look out for the 'Little India' signs ' there are several of these restaurants scattered all over.
Where to stay
• Accommodation choices in New Zealand range from luxury resorts, lifestyle lodges and high-end hotels to motor inns, motels, B&Bs, farms and homestays. Budget travellers can get by on less than NZD40 (Rs 1,200 approx) a day if they're camping or staying in hostels but a top-class hotel can set you back by as much as NZD1,500 (Rs 46,500) daily.
When to go
• New Zealand is a year-round destination. However, seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere with December, January and February being the warmest months and June, July and August, the coldest.
• Although it's easy enough to get around in New Zealand, it makes good sense to fly ' especially for the views over the mountains or volcanoes. A variety of discounts also make flying economical. There's also an extensive bus network, with both major bus operators and smaller and cheaper shuttle bus companies luring travellers with attractive little 'extras'.
Train travel is reasonably fast and travelling by road is also a popular choice. Rentals of cars, motorcycles and campervans are available as are efficient boat services. And finally, there's always cycling. Many describe New Zealand as a cyclists' paradise: it's clean, green and uncrowded, and rental is cheap.
Nuggets from New Zealand
• New Zealand is just gorgeous, a wonderful place to get away from daily life. During my trip there, I visited Rotorua and went to an aboriginal village. There, I saw how the natives cook food in geysers and observed their whole way of living. I also visited a sheep-rearing farm, where I even reared sheep ' and I have a certificate to prove it!
tarot card reader
• New Zealand is a great place to vacation in as the place has so much to offer. I love its amazing countryside, replete with lots of open places. Also, it's a great place for adventure sports, especially bungee-jumping, which in fact, originated here. I've been to many places in New Zealand but my favourite by far is Christchurch.