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New Zealand Revealed

There's more than one land Down Under,
and these enticing isles are ready for exploration

By Kathryn E. Worrall

Vacations Magazine: New Zealand Revealed
Tourism New Zealand
Kia ora! Welcome to New Zealand, a land of lake and mountain scenery, verdant hills and volcanic craters, sandy beaches and icy glaciers and, yes, even hobbits.

New Zealand was the last major landmass to be inhabited by humans, settled about 750 years ago, and today the population still is sparse. Sheep outnumber Kiwis -- residents are named for the native bird, not the fruit -- about 6-to-1. The country's first inhabitants were the Maori, a Polynesian group that arrived in canoes in the 13th century, and their culture still holds an important role in society.

The geography here transitions from sunny shores to frosty peaks, and the tourist spectrum is just as diverse. Some come as fans of Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, seeking Middle-earth wizardry. Others pack their togs (Kiwi slang for swimsuits) for dips in thermal pools and turquoise waters. The daredevils strap on a GoPro to capture every second of their gutsy skydiving excursion. In New Zealand, you can trek glaciers, tour a sheep farm, heli-ski -- maybe all in the same day.

This is New Zealand. It offers a bit of everything.

With so much to see, an escorted tour can take the stress out of planning your vacation. And, after a 15-hour flight to Aotearoa (its Maori name), letting a tour company take the reins helps ease the jet lag. Read on to learn about must-dos and suggested itineraries for the North and South islands, as well as some all-encompassing trips that take in both destinations. When you're ready to head Down Under, contact the travel experts at Vacations To Go.

North Island

The majority of New Zealand's population lives on the North Island. The country's largest city, Auckland, draws Kiwis with top surf spots. The capital, Wellington, claims the national museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa; the Maori moniker aptly translates to "container of treasures," and the collection holds ancestral Maori carvings, items associated with explorer James Cook and more.

Just a ferry ride from Auckland, 12-mile-long Waiheke Island is dotted with beaches and vineyards. Toast your trip with a glass of sauvignon blanc or sip chardonnay at a hilltop tasting room. Nearby Rangitoto Island is the youngest but largest of the Auckland area's 48 volcanic cones. Hikers pass lava fields, caves and pohutukawa trees, nicknamed New Zealand Christmas trees for their cherry-red blooms, on the way to the volcano's summit and its 360-degree views of emerald seas.

Thermal springs and mud pools draw spa-goers to the Rotorua region. It's also renowned as a center of New Zealand culture for its living Maori village, where visitors might be met with the hongi, a traditional greeting in which participants press their noses together. It's customary to partake in a hangi dinner, a feast of meat and vegetables steamed for hours in an earthen oven, and attend a kapa haka, a traditional song and dance performance. The Maori have various types of kapa haka -- lullabies, love songs, historical recitations -- and the national rugby team performs its own version, a powerful war cry, to intimidate opponents before games.

Visit Te Puia, one of Rotorua's top attractions, to witness the Pohutu Geyser spew water 100 feet in the air up to 20 times per day, making it the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere. Te Puia also is home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where daring guests can receive a ta moko (a Maori tattoo) on-site.

The country's oldest national park, Tongariro National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as its mountains hold spiritual importance to the Maori people. Trek the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for vistas of lakes, glaciers and lava flows -- but be sure to come in summer, which falls from December to February in this part of the world. Easier hikes lead to waterfalls or calm Lake Rotokura, revered as tapu (sacred healing waters).

Fans of "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies might recognize Tongariro's volcanic formations as stand-ins for Mordor and fiery Mount Doom, but that's not the North Island's only locale used in the beloved films. The Hobbiton set has preserved the furry-footed people's village, The Shire, where 44 reconstructed hobbit holes carved into the hillsides bring the fantasy world to life.

Magic abounds beyond Hobbiton. About 60 miles southwest, below the village of Waitomo, a series of caves radiates a mystical, glittering blue light. The illumination is due to thousands of Arachnocampa luminosas, a glowworm species only found in New Zealand. For more than 120 years, visitors have quietly floated, both by boat and inner tube, through these dark limestone caverns to marvel at the sparkle overhead.

The North Island is an adventure junkie's dream, with skydiving, parasailing, whitewater rafting and more. Calmer sports await: On the North Island's west coast, anglers cast their lines into the surf along Ninety Mile Beach (it's actually closer to 90 kilometers, or 55 miles) and, on the east coast, golfers tee off on a selection of courses in the Hawke's Bay region. Book a canoe or cruise on Lake Taupo for views of thundering Huka Falls, or kayak past dolphins at the Bay of Islands before lounging on golden beaches.

For a panoramic North Island jaunt, consider an itinerary like "New Zealand North Island Discovery" from Intrepid Travel. The eight-day escorted tour hits several hot spots, including the Waitomo caves, Rotorua, Tongariro National Park and Lake Taupo. It also heads to the Bay of Plenty's White Island, the country's most active volcano. Four departures from November to March are priced from $2,400.

"Northern Discovery" spends its eight days in Auckland, the Bay of Islands, Rotorua (including a side trip to Hobbiton) and Wellington, and concludes its final full day with a meal of regional dishes at Te Papa Tongarewa. This Trafalgar trip is priced from $2,312 and departures run through September 2019.

South Island

Separated from its northern neighbor by the Cook Strait, the South Island was spotted in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the first European to arrive in New Zealand. (A few weeks before, he had discovered the Australian state that eventually would be named in his honor, Tasmania.) The isle mainly is made up of mountains, including the Southern Alps, and its largest city, Christchurch, is cherished for its street art as well as the extensive greenery that led to its nickname, Garden City.

Gear up for Queenstown, known as the Adventure Capital of the World. Peaks surround the city and, in summer, thrill-seekers set out for river surfing, jet boating and skydiving excursions. Queenstown is the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping, which launched in 1988 from the Kawarau Bridge using state-of-the-art cords, though the South Pacific pioneers of "land-diving" just used a few vines. The South Island is noted for its skiing, and travelers aren't deterred by the cold winters. Instead, they take to helicopters for backcountry powder experiences.

For travelers ages 18 to 35, escorted tour operator Contiki offers the seven-day "Ultimate NZ Ski" based entirely in Queenstown. Days are dedicated to the Coronet Peak, Cardrona and The Remarkables ski fields, which can accommodate any skill level. Departures are offered from June to September 2019 and prices start at $1,500, which includes four lift passes good for a full day on the slopes.

Several must-dos are found within Te Wahipounamu, a UNESCO site chock-full of glaciers, rainforests and wintry summits. It contains four national parks (Fiordland, Mount Aspiring, Aoraki/Mount Cook and Westland) and hosts kiwis, as in the native bird, and the kea, the world's only alpine parrot.

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park claims its namesake peak, the country's highest, as well as the 16-mile-long Tasman Glacier. Hiking, mountaineering and biking all are available, but showoffs can ski down Tasman or opt for remote terrain only accessible by helicopter. Turn your eyes to the heavens in this secluded sanctuary, officially an International Dark Sky Reserve, to spot Saturn and various constellations.

Fiordland National Park claims a few titles -- at 4,800 square miles, it is one of the world's largest national parks and boasts New Zealand's second-deepest lake, Hauroko -- but most visitors come for Milford Sound's dolphins, penguins and fur seals, found in a glacial valley framed by mountain crests and waterfalls. Guests of Natural Habitat Adventures' 12-day "New Zealand Nature Explorer" are treated to a cruise of Milford Sound accompanied by a naturalist, as well as encounters with rare reptiles, endangered penguins and more. The tour makes time for a stay at Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, located within Te Wahipounamu's stargazing territory, where a guided night walk reveals stars and luminescent glowworms. This tour is available through March 2019 and is priced from $10,895.

A few other hot spots afford close encounters with wildlife. Days at Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern end of the South Island, are spent sunning alongside green geckos or exploring turquoise waters in search of orca pods and little blue penguins, also known as fairy penguins. Stewart Island, off the South Island's southern tip, is noted for its bird population and offshore cage diving for brushes with great white sharks. Though predators lurk in deep waters, New Zealand has one advantage over Australia: The country does not have any snakes native to its islands.

Trafalgar's 12-day "The Southern Drift" includes two nights on Stewart Island, a generous amount of free time in Queensland and an extended exploration of Christchurch to reflect on the city's rebuilding efforts since a devastating 2011 earthquake. Guests are treated to a treetop walk through a rainforest and a guided look at Franz Josef Glacier. Priced from $5,800, the tour runs through March 2019.

Or, sip your way through the Central Otago region, where pinot noir reigns supreme. On the Otago Peninsula, throngs of albatrosses congregate, and Intrepid's seven-day "New Zealand South Island Discovery" makes time to visit the colony as well as winery tastings. The tour stops for Curio Bay's resident penguins and other sea life, including rare Hector's dolphins, and Mount Aspiring National Park. Departures from November to March start at $2,400.

Complete New Zealand

Several escorted tour companies hit both isles in a single vacation, often connecting them with a Cook Strait cruise. Globus' 14-day "Best of New Zealand" progresses from Auckland to Queenstown, stuffing a hangi feast, Te Puia, the Bay of Islands and more in between. Priced from $4,669, departures run through March 2019.

"Spotlight on New Zealand" 10 days with Tauck, hits popular attractions -- Wellington's Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland's Waiheke Island, Queenstown's jet boat scene -- but also indulges participants with the luxury of private charter flights and a cruise of the South Island's Marlborough Sounds, enhanced with wine and the country's famed green-lipped mussels. Prices start at $4,690, with departures until next November.

You also can head for "The Lord of the Rings" territory with Alexander Roberts' " Spectacular New Zealand." This nine-day tour includes a gondola ride over Queenstown, farmers market and winery visits in Central Otago, stargazing at Mount Cook and a trip to a homestead to watch sheepdogs herd their fluffy charges. Departures through March 2019 are priced from $6,149.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Fall 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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