Jagged cliffs, ancient forests, geysers and snowy mountains – think you've seen it all before? Well, chances are you have. New Zealand's own Peter Jackson chose his home country for the film location of Lord of the Rings with good reason, knowing well that it would satisfy most of the lush locations depicted in Tolkien's epic book. And New Zealand’s residents, with their blend of native Maori and ancestral European, are just as fascinating as the nature.
Many say that getting behind the wheel yourself is the best way to explore New Zealand, thanks to its terrific roads and staggeringly scenic drives. An efficient bus network also covers much of New Zealand, while Tranz Scenic also offers rail journeys with breath-taking routes through some of the country's most breath taking landscapes. Island hopping is made easy by numerous ferry services.
The two sizeable islands that make up New Zealand are special for a number of reasons. Firstly, there's the natural world. With forests, geysers, mountains and beaches galore, it boasts one of the most diverse landscapes imaginable, as changeable as it is beautiful. Many unique flora and fauna exist in New Zealand, including flightless birds – such as the kiwi – that are thought to have filled an evolutionary gap left by the lack of mammals.
Many come for the heavenly beaches of the Bay of Islands in the northern pinnacle of New Zealand, working their way down to the otherworldly peaks of the Taranaki and on to the craggy coastline that's being steadily devoured by the Tasman Sea. With rolling countryside, snow-capped peaks and rugged cliffs, the southern island is no less dramatic than the north.
Auckland is a truly vibrant city, and is formed by volcanoes and flanked by natural harbours. It’s also a gateway to many of the northern island's best natural attractions. Wellington makes for an exciting, cosmopolitan capital with great architecture from the Victorian and Edwardian errors and a gorgeous harbour.
With more than a dozen national parks to explore in New Zealand, the tough thing can be deciding which of these vast reserves to visit in the space of a holiday. Te Urewera boasts astonishing lakes, mountains and forests, while Whanganui is home to the eponymous river that's New Zealand's longest navigable waterway. Driving the Provincial Highway 35 loop between Gisborne and Opotiki in the east is very much the road less-trodden, but rewards with green peaks tumbling down to sandy coves, as well as half-forgotten old towns, and the oldest pohutukawa tree in New Zealand in Te Araroa. There are various isolated beaches along the way, plus Maori hotspots.
Influenced by Europe, Polynesia and Asia, New Zealand's cuisine is a lively medley. Apart from barbecues featuring lamb, pork, and cervena (venison), there are local curiosities such as paua, pipis and tuatua – New Zealand shellfish. The kiwi fruit is also widely eaten, as is kumara, sweet potato. From the Maori comes the beguiling hangi, whereby meat and vegetables are cooked in a deep hole dug in the ground, lined with hot stones and covered; try to get an invite to one of the celebrations involving this traditional feast. New Zealand is also known for its wines, with more than 300 wineries, and some excellent chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, to name but two.