Close your eyes and think of New Zealand. Jagged mountains and velvety-green rolling hills, come to mind, perhaps; with assorted sheep and Hobbits thrown in for good measure.
You’re on the right track.
But, to really know New Zealand is to understand its complexity. There’s a richness to its culture, geography, flora and fauna not always grasped. Here are ten surprising selling points about the place the Māori dubbed Aotearoa, or “the land of the long white cloud.”
1. Proudly Indigenous
New Zealanders are a diverse lot, and that’s part of their charm. Indigenous, European and Pacific Islanders have all settled there, beginning with the Māori. The Polynesian people pre-dated Europeans by hundreds of years. Today, they comprise only 15 percent of the population, but their influence is interwoven with New Zealand identity.
Māori is one of New Zealand’s official languages. Their traditions, symbols (the iconic silver fern) and culture come up everywhere in the tourist experience. That’s particularly true in the North Island cultural hub of Roturua. The lakeside city offers several immersive Māori encounters. Two of the best known are Te Puia in Rotorua and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in the nation’s capital, Wellington.
2. Mysterious Islands
New Zealand’s North and South Island are wildly divergent in places. The former is subtropical, with parts touching two different oceans. The latter is a launch point for the Antarctic shelf. This unique setting has made for a wild evolutionary history. Humans make up five percent of New Zealand’s population. Animals make up the rest, and they’re an interesting crop.
Bats are the only native land mammals there. You’ll find the world’s only flightless parrot and the world’s smallest dolphin in New Zealand, but not a single snake.
And until about 500 years ago, you’d also find the largest bird to ever roam the earth there. The Moa stood up to 12 feet tall, and weighed nearly 700 pounds.
Of course, we associate New Zealand most of all with the flightless kiwi bird. It’s the country’s national symbol and moniker for New Zealanders themselves. The Kiwi Hatchery at Rainbow Springs Nature Park is working hard to sustain the population of the beloved bird. Visit this fascinating center, where you can even “sponsor” a kiwi chick.
3. Water, Water, Everywhere
New Zealand’s coastline is the ninth longest in the world, making water recreation a top attraction. Popular
destinations include the Bay of Islands, a three-hour drive from Auckland. It’s a beautiful setting for fishing, sailing, scuba and dolphin encounters.
The South Island’s Fiordland National Park offers a glacier-carved landscape and the scenic fjords of Milford, Dusky, and Doubtful Sounds. Sightseeing cruises and kayak excursions offer breathtaking nature encounters. The same is true at Abel Tasman National Park, known for golden beaches, lush vegetation and brilliant blue water.
4. Full Steam Ahead
New Zealand is a hot destination, and not merely in a figurative sense. Perched upon the "Pacific Ring of Fire,” the country’s steamy origins are still on prominent display. Visitors flock to Rotorua for natural hot spring spas, boiling mud pools, gushing geysers and volcanic craters.
Not far away at Tongariro National Park, three active volcanos form the backdrop for vibrantly-hued lakes, plateaus, alpine meadows, and hot springs. Experience all of them on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered the country’s best day walk.
5. Climb Every Mountain
On the South Island, New Zealand’s highest peaks rise above alpine landscapes in Aoraki National Park. Also called Mount Cook National Park, it’s home to the country’s longest glacier and tallest mountain, Mount Cook. New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest, trained on Mount Cook.
Also on South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are the crown jewels of Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Guided hikes explore ice caves at the base of the glaciers. Seaplanes and helicopter tours offer a bird’s eye view.
6. Adventure, Invented
New Zealand and adventure travel go together. Kiwi ingenuity has also given rise to a sport or two.
Bungy (it’s spelled bungy not bungee there) jumping tops the list. The world’s first commercial bungy jump took place from Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown in 1988.
Located on the South Island, Queenstown is New Zealand’s adventure capital. In addition to world class skiing, sky diving and river rafting, it’s home to the world’s highest cliff jump.
For adventure-seekers who want to stay on terra firma (well, kind of), Zorbing is another Kiwi invention. It involves getting inside a giant plastic ball and rolling down the hill like a hamster.
7. To Middle Earth and Beyond
That New Zealand is the setting for all things Hobbit is well known. The Hobbiton film location in Matamata on North Island is a top tourist destination.
But, director Peter Jackson used locations throughout New Zealand for his “Lord of the Rings” “The Hobbit” trilogies. Among them: Tongariro National Park, Rangitata Valley and Kaitoke Regional Park. And the biggest day of filming took place at Ben-Ohau Station near Twizel. Fans will recognize it as the setting for the big battle of the Pelennor Fields.
8. Wining and Dining
New Zealand wines have also come into their own in recent years. Oenophiles might be interested in the Classic Wine Trail. It stretches northeast from Wellington to Hawke’s Bay. It takes in not only wineries, but cutting-edge sustainable farms, top-rated restaurants and of course, beautiful scenery.
The regions of Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa, Wellington, and Marlborough (on North and South Islands) account for more than 80 percent of New Zealand's wine production.
Wellington is also becoming a coffee, cocktail and craft beer capital. The city is home to more cafes, bars and restaurants per capita than New York City.
9. Stewart Island
A 20-minute flight or one-hour ferry trip leads from South Island to Stewart Island. New Zealand’s “third island” is filled with rainforests, scenic walking trails, white beaches and clear water. More than 85 percent of the island is National Park.
Birdwatchers come to see sea birds and rare penguin species. But, the island’s biggest claim to fame involves the kiwi. It’s the only place in New Zealand to see them in the wild.
10. Know When to Go
Since New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, tip your calendar over to plan a trip. The summer months of December through February are the busiest times there. It’s better to travel in the spring months of October through November; or fall, during March and April.
Winter hits from June through August, and dramatic snowfall in the Southern Alps is a clarion call to skiers.