New Zealand: A Tale of Two Islands

WHILE NAVIGATING NEW ZEALAND’S MOST ICONIC SITES AND LANDSCAPES ON ITS NORTH AND SOUTH ISLANDS, IGNACIO MAZA DISCOVERS A COUNTRY RICH IN HERITAGE AND HOSPITALITY.

It’s not very often—some might say a rarity—when you discover a destination that checks all the boxes for the many traveler types. Nature lover? Adventurist? Wellness seeker? Gourmand? History buff? Welcome to New Zealand. And since the country spans only 268,838 square kilometers—roughly the same size as Colorado—you really can do it all.

New Zealand is defined by its wild, rugged and jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness—dramatic fjords, active volcanoes, crystal-clear beaches, and alpine peaks soaring 12,000 feet into the sky. Some will argue that this is reason enough to plan a trip. Yet New Zealand is also a haven for outdoor pursuits, from the approachable and amenable like hiking, golf, fishing, and sailing to the hair-raising, exhilarating activities. After all, this country invented bungee jumping, jet boating, and zorbing (that’s rolling downhill inside a giant transparent ball), so if ever there was a place for an adrenaline rush, it’s here.

When all that is said and done, you may need some down time, and both the North and South islands are chock-full of refined luxury resorts.

As for the food and wine scene, it’s flourishing. More and more local chefs, such as Sid Sahrawat, Ben Bayly, and Mark Southon are lauded for creative menus that source fresh ingredients and local flavors. Try fish such as blue warehou and paua, paired with an award-winning wine from such exceptional regional labels as Giesen or Greywacke.

And then there’s the country’s rich history. About 800 years ago, the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people, settled New Zealand. They named it “Aotearoa,” which literally translates to “land of the long white cloud.” Today, the country’s storied past is celebrated up and down its vibrant coasts and in the heart of its cities.

What’s more, getting around is easy, with frequent and reliable domestic flights, an excellent and well-maintained roadway network, and a squadron of helicopters ready to whisk you from place to place. Add New Zealand’s memorable places to stay, its warm and friendly communities, a favorable exchange rate, vibrant cities like Auckland and Wellington, and now’s the time to pack your bags.

QUEENSTOWN

I started my journey in Queenstown, the southernmost point of my itinerary. Surrounded by the Remarkables Mountain Range and set on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a must for any New Zealand visitor. Coined the “Global Adventure Capital,” the city offers just about every outdoor pursuit possible. It’s also the main gateway to Milford Sound, an iconic New Zealand site and part of Fiordland National Park, the country’s most rugged and impenetrable wilderness. The sight of 5,000-foot-high peaks rising from clear waters, cascades rushing down mountainsides, and lush rainforests with snow and glaciers at higher elevations, is truly mesmerizing. Rather than driving five hours each way from Queenstown to Milford, I took a helicopter flight, which got me there in less than an hour and provided an aerial view of the awe-inspiring beauty. On the return flight, the pilot touched down on an alpine glacier—the ultimate photo opportunity.

Glenorchy, a small village at the north end of Lake Wakatipu and the gateway for the Routeburn Track—the rainforest subalpine trail that’s one of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks”—could rival Queenstown’s beauty. Don’t miss experiencing the Dart River Wilderness via jet boat, a thrilling white-knuckle ride up river.

WHERE TO STAY: In Queenstown, I loved Azur, a modern luxury lodge consisting of nine individual villas with superb lake and mountain views from both the bedroom and bathtub. If seeking a central location, stay at Sofitel Queenstown, which features hospitality with a French twist. In Glenorchy, I stayed at Blanket Bay, one of New Zealand’s finest luxury lodges and a destination unto itself. The resort is nestled on a 60-acre estate and was built in the style of a grand alpine lodge. Expect a soaring living room with a cozy fireplace, excellent dining and service, and comfortable rooms with stunning views of Lake Wakatipu. Make time to swim in the outdoor lap pool, located in the shadow of the mountains.

MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS

My next stop was Marlborough Sounds, a labyrinth of bays, beaches, and green mountains located at the north end of the South Island. This area is heaven for sailors and fishing enthusiasts. It’s also a gateway to New Zealand’s premier wine region and the Queen Charlotte Track, one of my favorite hiking trails that meanders 40 miles through beautiful coastal scenery. Also a must: visiting Ship Cove, Captain Cook’s preferred anchorage, as well as Motuara Island, a bird sanctuary home to some of New Zealand’s rarest species.

WHERE TO STAY: Bay of Many Coves. This luxury lodge features an idyllic waterfront location, perfect seclusion, and pure relaxation. Enjoy outstanding dining, regional wines, and water views from terraced apartments. My favorite experience? Kayaking at sunrise on the still waters of the sounds.

KAIKOURA

Before leaving the South Island, I explored Kaikoura, one of the finest places in the world for spotting seals, dolphins, and sperm whales in their natural environment. For an unforgettable adventure, swim with pods of dusky dolphins off the coast.

WHERE TO STAY: Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses, a contemporary resort composed of a main lodge and five treehouses, each suspended 30 feet from the ground and outfitted with every comfort imaginable.

ROTORUA

From Kaikoura, I flew to Rotorua, the heartland of Maori culture and the center of New Zealand’s volcanic activity, including geysers and hot springs. I witnessed geothermal wonders at Wai-O-Tapu and was amazed by the active geysers at Te Puia. I also recommend walking through the Redwoods Forest, located adjacent to the Whakarewarewa thermal area. Trek from tree to tree via suspended wood bridges located high off the ground. The region’s many lakes make this area a perfect base for fishing, rafting, hiking, and mountain biking. And my ultimate experience? A helicopter flight over the Bay of Plenty to White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano. I felt as if I were on another planet while navigating the strange and eerie terrain near the crater. On the way back, our pilot stopped at the summit of Mount Tarawera for an unforgettable hike with 360-degree views.

WHERE TO STAY: In Taupo, stay at Huka Lodge, arguably New Zealand’s best-known luxury retreat that has been hosting guests, including Queen Elizabeth II, for nearly 100 years. The lodge is located on the Waikato River (the largest river in New Zealand) just above Huka Falls. In Rotorua, I have two recommendations: If you want to feel immersed in a vast wildlife sanctuary, stay at Treetops Lodge & Estate, a 2,500-acre property with enormous rooms and villas. The area’s native forests, lakes, and streams offer endless activities on and off property. During your stay, hike to Bridal Veil Falls and take a 4WD safari to the far corners of the estate. For superb views from every room in a privileged, intimate setting, stay at Solitaire Lodge, located on a peninsula on Lake Tarawera. Enjoy kayaking and speedboat adventures, accessed right from the lodge’s pier.

BAY OF ISLANDS

My next stop was the Bay of Islands, a region of countless beaches, turquoise waters, and more than 100 islands. It’s also a land steeped in history, including Russell, the first permanent European settlement and seaport in New Zealand, and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which commemorates the site where Maori chiefs signed the treaty with the British crown. The Museum of Waitangi is moving, celebrating what the treaty meant to New Zealanders in both the past and present.

WHERE TO STAY: The premier resort in this region is The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs. Access private beaches, 6,000 acres of farmland and forest, horseback riding, and golf at one of the world’s top 50 courses, all hosted by a welcoming, caring team.

AUCKLAND

Before returning to the U.S., I visited Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city and commercial hub. While in Auckland more than 100 years ago, author Rudyard Kipling wrote that the city was “last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.” I agree.

Set between two harbors, Auckland was built on hills and dormant volcanoes and is embraced by the southern hemisphere’s largest marina. I most enjoyed the view from Mount Eden, the city’s diverse neighborhoods, its black-sand beaches along the west coast, and dining at outstanding restaurants in the vibrant Britomart and Wynyard Quarters. Two musts: A visit to the Auckland Art Gallery, and a day trip (just a short ferry ride) to Waiheke Island’s beaches and 30 vineyards.

WHERE TO STAY: Auckland’s finest hotel is Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour, which faces the Waitemata Basin in the heart of the waterfront district. Enjoy bright guestrooms with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and modern design.

Insider Tips

Ignacio reveals the essentials of a New Zealand dream trip.

> Plan 8-9 months in advance for high season (December to February), and at least 4-6 months for the rest of the year. Demand exceeds supply.

>  Dress for any weather, especially on the South Island, where you can experience four seasons in one day.           

> Consider traveling during the shoulder season, especially March to May, which is New Zealand’s fall season. Fewer crowds, better value.

> Include at least one helicopter flight in your itinerary, for three reasons: breathtaking views, to save time, and to reach remote locations inaccessible by road.

> When staying at lodges, book a minimum of two to three nights. You typically need a day to enjoy all that the lodges have to offer.

>Be flexible. Many of New Zealand’s outdoor activities are weather dependent, so be prepared to change your plans on short notice.

> Less is more. Stay at fewer places and enjoy a richer experience at each location.

> Resist the temptation to combine New Zealand and Australia. There is enough to see and do in New Zealand to keep you busy for a month.

> US citizens need an E.T.A. (Electronic Travel Authority), starting October 2019, prior to arriving in New Zealand.

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Cover Photo: Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, New Zealand / Image by skeeze from Pixabay


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