If you're going to New Zealand - and want to enjoy the country to the fullest - DO NOT LEAVE WITHOUT THE LONELY PLANET GUIDE! I embarked on a 6-week long trip with 'Lonely Planet New Zealand' and fate as my only guides. I was impressed to the max! The only other guide I needed was a road atlas I picked up at the airport in Auckland (and since I was touring some of the Lord of the Rings film locations, Ian Brodie's lovely 'Lord of the Rings: Location Guidebook'). I do recommend renting a vehicle - as someone under 25 years old, Budget was a good bet for rental. Just remember, "Left, left left." It's a cinch! With the US dollar exchange rate favorable, we cheaply rented a top notch 4WD SUV for the entire time based on the recommendation of this book. I love the Lonely Planet series for the sheer fact that it gives you pointers on fantastic locations that may be slightly off the beaten path while at the same time informing you of the best of the best in those tourist meccas. It's a lovely balance. My only regret is that 6-weeks is far too short a time to see everything there is to see in New Zealand!
The top 5 places you shouldn't miss on the North and South Islands:
1) Take the short ferry ride from Auckland to Rangitoto Island and hike to the summit - otherwordly!
2) Do a touristy bus tour to Cape Reinga out of Paihia - on the bus to Cape Reinga you'll get to: learn a lot about the Maori culture, hug a Kauri tree, stop and surf down sand dunes, wonder in awe at the northern most point of the North Island where untouched white beaches are visible as the Tasman and Pacific Ocean meet and clash (an amazing scene), and to top it all off you'll cruise down 90-mile beach as waves lap the wheels of the bus (yeah, the beach is actually a registered roadway).
3) Drive around the gorgeous Coromandel Peninsula - leave the Thames area just before sunrise and the landscape will just take your breath away! You will come to understand the meaning of Aotearoa/New Zealand: land of the long white cloud.
4) Wander the volcantic parks of Rotorua - Wai-ti-pau was a highlight! Don't forget to sign-up for a traditional Maori concert and haka at the Tamaki Maori Village for a cool cultural experience!
5) Cruise Cuba Street in Wellington for food and shops, and don't forget to visit Te Papa - the national museum of Wellington.
1) Plan a kayaking trip out of Motueka: the Tonga Island wildlife option is cool - we saw wild Orca and New Zealand Fur Seals up close and personal and then lunched on a secluded beach reached only by kayak!
2) Take a helicopter ride up to Fox Glacier and do an afternoon hike - see where semi-tropical rainforest meets glacier meets the Tasman Sea.
3) Go white water rafting on the Shotover River in Queenstown (be sure you get an option with the Oxenbridge Tunnel)! Then go jet boating, then bungy jumping, you name, it they do it there! Don't miss Deer Park Heights either - say hello to the free roaming buffalo for me!
4) Head to the beautiful city of Kaikoura for whale watching and a dolphin swim.
5) If you love wildlife - head to Dunedin and take a tour out to the Otago Peninsula (you'll see albatross, fur seals, sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins and a variety of bird life up close and personal - by up close I mean walking on the beach less than 10 feet away from a Hooker Seal Lion twice your size). While in Dunedin, visit Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world, and don't miss the Cadbury Factory! It's well worth the admission price!
There is so much more to see and do that I haven't listed - and this guide helped me find it all and point me in the right direction every step of the way. The only thing the guide failed to mention was the abundance of rainbows in this enchanted country - I don't know about you, but where I come from rainbows are a special once in a great while occurance. In New Zealand you see them on a daily basis. I guarantee that with the help of this guide you will leave New Zealand with enough fantastic memories to last a lifetime. Kia ora.