New Zealand packs a lot into a limited space, meaning you can visit many of the main sights in a couple of weeks, but allow at least a month (or preferably two) for a proper look around. The scenery is the big draw, and most people only pop into the big cities on arrival and departure (easily done with open-jaw air tickets, allowing you to fly into Auckland and out of Christchurch) or when travelling to Wellington from the South Island across the Cook Strait.
Sprawled around the sparkling Waitemata Harbour, go-ahead Auckland looks out over the island-studded Hauraki Gulf. Most people head south from here, missing out on Northland, the cradle of both Maori and Pakeha colonization, cloaked in wonderful subtropical forest that harbours New Zealand’s largest kauri trees. East of Auckland the coast follows the isolated greenery and long, golden beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula, before running down to the beach towns of the Bay of Plenty. Immediately south your senses are assailed by the ever-present sulphurous whiff of Rotorua, with its spurting geysers and bubbling pools of mud, and the volcanic plateau centred on the trout-filled waters of Lake Taupo, overshadowed by three snowcapped volcanoes. Cave fans will want to head west of Taupo for the eerie limestone caverns of Waitomo; alternatively it’s just a short hop from Taupo to the delights of canoeing the Whanganui River, a broad, emerald-green waterway banked by virtually impenetrable bush thrown into relief by the cone of Mount Taranaki, whose summit is accessible in a day. East of Taupo lie ranges that form the North Island’s backbone, and beyond them the Hawke’s Bay wine country, centred on the Art Deco city of Napier. Further south, the wine region of Martinborough is just an hour or so from the capital, Wellington, its centre squeezed onto reclaimed harbourside, the suburbs slung across steep hills overlooking glistening bays. Politicians and bureaucrats give it a well-scrubbed and urbane sophistication, enlivened by an established café society and after-dark scene.
The South Island kicks off with the world-renowned wineries of Marlborough and appealing Nelson, a pretty and compact spot surrounded by lovely beaches and within easy reach of the hill country around the Nelson Lakes National Park and the fabulous sea kayaking of the Abel Tasman National Park. From the top of the South Island you’ve a choice of nipping behind the 3000m 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 Island’s largest centre, Christchurch. Its English architectural heritage may have been ravaged by earthquakes – and its people still reeling from the upheaval – but signs of normality are returning, and, as the rebuilding process picks up pace, the city looks set to become the country’s most exciting.
From here you can head across country to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass on one of the country’s most scenic train trips, or shoot southwest across the patchwork Canterbury Plains to the foothills of the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook with its distinctive drooping-tent summit.
The patchwork-quilt fields of Canterbury run, via the grand architecture of Oamaru, to the unmistakably Scottish-influenced city of Dunedin, a base for exploring the wildlife of the Otago Peninsula, with its albatross, seal, sea lion and penguin colonies. 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 commercialized activity centre where bungy jumping, rafting, jetboating and skiing hold sway. Just up the road is Glenorchy, a tramping heartland, from which the Routeburn Track sets out to rain-sodden Fiordland; its neighbour, Te Anau, is the start of many of New Zealand’s most famous treks, including the Milford Track. Further south you’ll feel the bite of the Antarctic winds, which reach their peak on New Zealand’s third landmass, isolated Stewart Island, covered mostly by dense coastal rainforest that offers a great chance of spotting a kiwi in the wild.