Travelers often think of New Zealand as just beautiful vistas as seen in “Lord of the Rings”. While this country does provide stunning landscapes, you will also discover a fantastic wine scene, unbelievable lodges and happening cities. New Zealand is comprised of two main islands, together about the size of California, located 4,385 miles southwest of Honolulu and 994 southeast of Australia.
Most international flights arrive in Auckland located on North Island and founded by the British on what was once native Maori land. This is a wonderful cosmopolitan South Pacific city with an unusual combination of Maori and British influence underpinned by a yachting lifestyle. The best introduction to the city is via Fuller Ferry, which crosses the Hauraki Gulf to colonial Devonport, a charming Victorian neighborhood with skyline views that include the Sky Tower, Southern Hemisphere’s answer to Seattle’s Space Needle. A view from Devonport includes 48 long dead volcanoes on which the city sprawls The Auckland War Memorial Museum located here contains an intact Maori meetinghouse and war canoe among its highlights. Auckland’s waterfront includes glitzy Viaduct Harbour north of Fullers Ferry landing, built in the late 1990s to host the city’s first America’s Cup race.
Moving inland to Ponsonby Road travelers will discover the city’s happening restaurants and bars. With the exception of “Food Alley” which houses a collection of no-frills pan-Asian food stalls much loved by the locals, travelers have no reason to go downtown after dark. The area around High Street comes to life by day with some of the city’s best shopping.
Many of the hotels in downtown Auckland cater to the modern conveniences of business travelers. The Heritage Auckland Hotel is the best of these hotels with its spacious suites and within easy walking distance of waterfront restaurants. The unique three-suite Boatshed Hotel occupies individual boathouses and a three-story lighthouse. Mollies, a 13-suite boutique hotel near Ponsonby Road, is the finest in-town choice with in-room fireplaces and worthy artwork.
An abundance of first-rate local fashions are created with homegrown materials. Kate Sylvester, a rising Kiwi star, favors minimalist sensual clothes with an edge for men and women. You’ll find jewelry made entirely by local New Zealand artists; jade pieces by Te Kaha are particularly exceptional. Native Agent is a Maori-run shop that stocks handmade blankets, pillows and clothing that incorporate native trading symbols.
The classic New Zealand wine trail, a 240-mile route, starts on North Island at Hawke’s Bay and ends in Marlborough at the northern tip of South Island. There is much to sample on the wine route from bold cabernets, complex pinot noirs to crisp sauvignon blancs. The only catch is seeing the wine country requires lots of driving (on the left side!) along winding one-lane roads. Visitors should plan on seven days to cover the highlights allowing time to enjoy at least one lingering afternoon lunch on a vineyard terrace. First stop on the trail on South Island is Hawke’s Bay, one of the most picturesque of New Zealand’s wine districts, is a remarkable town with intact Art Deco architecture that rivals South Beach. The Mission Estate found in this region has a welcoming climate that prompted winemakers to put down roots and produce New Zealand’s best cabernets, chardonnays and syrahs. Three outstanding local vineyards include Craggy Range, Sileni Estates and Te Mata each showcasing the region’s diversity.
The town of Martinborough, a 3-hour drive south of Hawke’s Bay, is flanked by dozens of nearby pinot noir vineyards, which date from as recently as 1980 - Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate and Te Kairanga wineries. A few other wineries are located within convenient biking distance from the heart of town, where travelers will find comprehensive wine tasting opportunities.
New Zealand’s leading winemaking region, Marlborough lies at the northern tip of South Island, below the scenic Queen Charlotte Sound and five hours by car and ferry south of Martinborough. The country’s viticultural reputation is based on the area’s sauvignon blancs – but the 65 wineries here also produce terrific sparkling, pinot noir, and Riesling varietals.
You cannot miss a visit to the lush plains and soaring, snowcapped peaks of the Southern Lakes Region. While South Island is a renowned outdoor mecca, the area’s softer side is just as amazing with its natural scenery, vineyards and quirky towns that lie in the hinterlands. Here you will experience astonishing Glenorchy, where dramatic vistas serve as the setting for Middle Earth in “The Lord of the Rings”. Capping it off, the region is also hosts wonderful outings into Milford Sound – a deep gorge once lauded by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth Wonder of the World. All of this is within easy reach of Queenstown, the prime base for the areas expectations.
Queenstown boasts one of the world’s most attractive mountain resort regions. The best overview can be enjoyed from the summit of 2,592 foot high Bob’s Peak, reachable by Skyline Gondolas, found on the outskirts of town. The site is also the location for one of the three local bungee sites. The picturesque flat plains and soaring snowcapped peaks that most of us now associate the New Zealand, thanks to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, are actually found near Glenorchy, a 40-minute drive from Queenstown. Thrilling jet boats speed along the glacier-fed rivers at breakneck speeds in this popular region. For a slower paced adventure, this is the site for great horseback exploration, the 20-mile-long Routeburn Track is found here.
Despite being known for New Zealand’s youngest vineyards, Central Otago region located southeast of Queenstown, is expected to overtake Martinborough as the country’s leading producer of pinot noir. Queenstown’s heightened tourist appeal has fostered a robust restaurant scene, with a casual alpine flair reminiscent of Banff and Vail. You will find a high-end cuisine at sophisticated Wai Waterfront Restaurant, which serves Bluff oysters, a South Island specialty. At The Bunker restaurant you will find local offerings such as venison and lamb which receive top billing.
In Queenstown there is no lack of wonderful hotels. The five-star Blanket Bay is a secluded lakeside lodge where Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt honeymooned. The Spire hotel is a splurge with 10 modern rooms complete with fireplaces and lake view balconies.
Fijordland National Park is a magical 3-million acre experience not to be missed. Located on the southwestern coast of South Island it is wild and pristine. Its windswept coastline rims the Tasman Sea, while deep glacial fjords are showcased by snowcapped peaks. The landscape is so magical it was deemed a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 1986. Milford Sound is an absolute right of passage which may be viewed on a 4-hour Fly-Cruise-Fly package, a scenic flight and intimate cruise experience.
If you are looking for outrageous scenery, adventure, welcoming people and wonderful wining and dining, fulfill your every desire in New Zealand. It definitely is one of my top picks for a fabulous vacation.