WHERE TO GO Tourism is big business in New Zealand but even the key destinations Queenstown and Rotorua, for example only seem busy and commercialized in comparison with the low-key Kiwi norm. New Zealand packs a lot into the limited space available and is small enough that you can visit the main sights in a couple of weeks, but for a reasonable look around at a less than frenetic pace, reckon on at least a month. However long youve got, look at spreading your time between the North and South islands: the diverse attractions of each region are discussed fully in the introduction to each chapter, but heres a quick top-to-toe summary. Obviously, the scenery is the big draw and most people only pop into the big cities on arrival and departure something easily done with open-jaw air tickets allowing you to fly into Auckland and out of Christchurch.
Certainly none of the cities ranks on an international scale, but in recent years they have taken on more distinct and sophisticated identities. Go-ahead Auckland is sprawled around sparkling Waitemata Harbour, an arm of the island-studded Hauraki Gulf. From here, most people head south, missing out on Northland, the cradle of both Maori and pakeha colonization, which comes cloaked in wonderful sub-tropical forest harbouring New Zealands largest kauri trees. East of Auckland the coast follows the isolated greenery and long, deserted, golden beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, before running down to the Bay of Plenty resorts. The lands immediately south are assailed by the ever-present sulphur stench of Rotorua, with its spurting geysers and bubbling pools of mud, and the volcanic plateau centred on the trout-filled waters of Lake Taupo and three snow-capped volcanoes. Cave fans will want to head west of Taupo to the eerie limestone caverns of Waitomo, where you can abseil in! to, or raft through, the blackness. From Taupo its just a short hop to the delights of canoeing on the Whanganui River, a broad, emerald green waterway banked by virtually impenetrable bush, or if you dont want to get your feet wet, head for the almost perfect cone of Mount Taranaki, whose summit is accessible in just one day. East of Taupo lie the ranges that form the North Islands backbone, and beyond them the Hawkes Bay wine country, centred on the Art Deco city of Napier, and the up-and-coming wine region of Martinborough. Only an hour or so away is the capital, Wellington, the most self-contained of New Zealands cities, with its centre squeezed onto reclaimed harbourside land and the suburbs slung over steep hills overlooking glistening bays. Politicians and bureaucrats give it well-scrubbed and urbane sophistication, enlivened by a burgeoning café society and after-dark scene.
The South Island kicks off with Nelson, a pretty and compact spot surrounded by lovely beaches and within easy reach of the world-renowned wineries of Marlborough. From there youve a choice of nipping around behind the 3000-metre summits of the Southern Alps and following the West Coast to the fabulous glaciers at Fox and Franz Josef, or sticking to the east, passing the whale-watching territory of Kaikoura en route to the South Islands largest centre, straight-laced Christchurch, a city with its roots firmly in the traditions of England. From Christchurch its possible to head across country to the West Coast via the famous Arthurs Pass scenic railway, shooting southwest from the patchwork Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps and Mount Cook with its distinctive drooping-tent summit.
The flatlands of Canterbury run down, via the grand architecture of Oamaru, to the unmistakably Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin, birthplace of some of the countrys best rock bands and base for exploring the teeming wildlife of the Otago Peninsula. In the middle of the nineteenth century prospectors arrived here and rushed inland to gold strikes throughout central Otago and around stunningly set Queenstown, now a highly commercialized activity centre where bungy jumping, rafting, jetboating and skiing hold sway. This is also the tramping heartland, with the Routeburn Track linking Queenstown to the rain-sodden fiords, lakes and mountains of Fiordland, and the world-renowned Milford Track. The further south you travel, the more youll feel the bite of the Antarctic winds, which reach their peak on New Zealands third land mass, the tiny and isolated Stewart Island, covered mostly by dense coastal rainforest and famous for testing the patience of even the most avid trampers ! with its almost permanently muddy tracks.
WHEN TO GO With over a thousand kilometres of ocean in every direction, it comes as no surprise that New Zealand has a maritime climate: warm through the southern summer months of December to March and never truly cold, even in winter.
Weather patterns are strongly affected by the prevailing westerlies, which suck up moisture from the Tasman Sea and dump it on the western side of both islands. The South Island gets the lions share, with the West Coast and Fiordland ranking among the worlds wettest places. The mountain ranges running the length of both islands cast long rain shadows over the eastern lands, making them considerably drier, though the south is a few degrees cooler than elsewhere, and sub-tropical Auckland and Northland are appreciably more humid. In the North Island, warm, damp summers fade almost imperceptibly into cool, wet winters, but the further south you go the more the year divides into four distinct seasons.
Such regional variation makes it viable to visit at any time of year, provided you pick your destinations. The summer months are the most popular and youll find everything open, though often packed with holidaying Kiwis from Christmas to the end of January. Accommodation at this time is at a premium. In general, youre better off joining the bulk of foreign visitors during the shoulder seasons October to Christmas and February to April or May when sights and attractions can be a shade quieter, and rooms easier to come by. Winter (JuneSept) is the wettest, coldest and consequently least popular time, though Northland can still be relatively balmy. The switch to prevailing southerly winds tends to bring periods of crisp, dry and cloudless weather to the West Coast and heavy snowfalls to the fine and plentiful skiing pistes of the Southern Alps and Central North Island.
--This text refers to an alternate