The complete guide to New Zealand

Summer's on its way - well, it is if you live in the southern hemisphere - which means that now's the perfect time to escape the cold, grey British winter and head for another green and pleasant land. And it's not all kiwi fruit, cricketers and sheep either: there's a wealth of birdlife to be seen (including penguins), a chance to go whale-watching, and plenty of fine food and wine to be consumed.
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WHEN SHOULD I GO?

If you can get a ticket, New Zealand is a great place from which to see in the new millennium, since it will begin 13 hours before it does here. Celebrations are planned all over the country, including massive fireworks displays in Auckland and Wellington harbours. If you're looking for good weather, temperatures in the summer months - January to March - can get pretty hot, especially in the North Island. But don't expect New Zealand to be as hot as Australia; the climate is much more temperate, and the weather can be varied: presumably there was a reason why the Maori chose to call their land Aotearoa - the land of the long, white cloud. The South Island tends to be cooler; it is more rainy on the west coast, and the mountains that run down the centre of the island are nearly always covered with snow.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Flights to New Zealand are at a premium, and are likely to remain so until early next year, although the peak period doesn't start for another couple of weeks. The best deals are with Malaysian Airlines, which has a Heathrow to Auckland return fare of pounds 665. A combination of British Airways and Air Pacific via Los Angeles will cost around pounds 700, and Air New Zealand has a special offer, also via Los Angeles, of about pounds 750. There is currently more availability on Air New Zealand than the other carriers. These fares are available through discount agents such as Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322).

WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN I GET TO AUCKLAND?

New Zealand's largest city is a pleasant place to spend a day or two, although it is more a place to hang out than go sightseeing in. The harbour is the most striking feature, mainly because it is the focus of so much of the city's activity; sometimes there are so many boats on the water that it looks as if the entire population has gone sailing. There are regular ferries that cross the harbour to the picturesque village of Devonport, as well as cruises around the various islands. The city's main museum, in an area of parkland known as the Domain, has an extensive collection of historical artefacts, including an interesting Maori exhibition.

IS IT WORTH GOING TO WELLINGTON?

New Zealand's capital city is smaller than Auckland, but its spectacular location - on a series of hillsides around a natural harbour - makes it more attractive, at least in terms of scenery. This may be the only capital city in the world whose inhabitants have the option of commuting to work by cable car, a form of transport that can also be very useful to visitors. Although the distance between water level and the Botanic Gardens is only half a mile, the gradient is very steep, and the cable car can save you what would otherwise be a tiring walk.

The whole of Wellington's waterfront area has been redeveloped in recent years and it now provides the city with an area of shops, restaurants and cafes to rival those of other harbour cities around the world. There are various museums to visit, as well as the country's Parliament, and a building known as the Beehive, which contains the government ministers' offices. And all around the bay are a string of beautiful beaches.

IS IT EASY TO GET AROUND THE COUNTRY?

Both Air New Zealand and Ansett have large networks, and flying around the country is a normal way of covering quite large distances. Air passes exist, but it is usually cheaper to buy tickets as you need them; each sector will cost between pounds 40 and pounds 100 for a single ticket. There is also a regular car- ferry service which crosses the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton. The Interislander (00 64 4 498 3999) runs several times a day and takes just over three hours.

Various packages - wine tours, ski weekends and rafting trips - are also available, and these combine the ferry crossing with onward transport and accommodation. There is also a fast catamaran service, "Topcat", which operates twice daily all year round, with extra services during the summer months. The trip takes an hour and a half, and prices start at NZ$55 (pounds 18) return for an adult foot passenger; a car and driver will cost from NZ$109 (pounds 36).

The rail network (00 64 4 498 3303) is not particularly extensive, although trains do run on the main intercity routes. Mount Cook Landline (0181 741 5652) runs express coaches in both islands, although while there are lots of routes in the South Island, the North Island only has a service connecting Auckland with Rotorua and Wellington.

WHERE SHOULD I GO?

The country's main attraction is its natural beauty and the vast stretches of unspoiled countryside that you will find wherever you go. Some of the most attractive scenery is in the Fiordland National Park, which occupies the south-west corner of the South Island, and consists mainly of lakes and fiords. Good bases for exploring this area are Queenstown, Te Anau and Manapouri, all of which are pretty lakeside towns.

You will find that getting around by road is almost impossible, but there are some stunning trips through a landscape forged by several ice ages. Fiordland Travel (00 64 3 442 7500) takes passengers by boat across Lake Manapouri, and from there by bus across the Wilmot Pass, using a road built for the construction of the Manapouri hydro-electric power station.

The cruise then continues through Doubtful Sound, a narrow fiord that opens out into the Tasman Sea. If that whets your appetite, similar trips are organised to Milford Sound, slightly further north.

CAN I GO WALKING ANYWHERE?

There is plenty of excellent walking territory on both islands, but if you want something a bit more unusual, try walking on the Fox or Franz Josef glaciers. They are a short distance apart on the South Island's west coast, and are worth a visit if only for the rare opportunity of seeing a glacier that is advancing down the mountainside. Climbing trips can be arranged, as well as three-hour-long guided walks, for which you will be lent proper spiked boots.

Although you don't have to be an expert mountaineer, this is not suitable for anyone who is wobbly on their feet, although the walk across the rocks to the base of the glacier is worth doing, even if you decide to stay at the bottom. The villages at the bases of both glaciers are small, and accommodation can be scarce, so you may need to book something in advance, or plan to stay further away. If you are in the North Island, Mount Ruapehu offers the opportunity to walk on a live volcano!

HOW EASY IT IS TO FIND ACCOMMODATION?

There are plenty of hotels and motels, particularly in the main towns and cities, so finding something in a suitable price range is rarely a problem. New Zealand is a country that is geared-up for bed-and-breakfast accommodation - often the best choice is in the smaller towns and villages. Local tourist offices will always help, and there are networks of Heritage Inns, farms, country homes and others that put out well-publicised leaflets.

The New Zealand Tourist Board in London (0839 300900) can provide you with copies of their "Where to Stay" guide before you leave; this is free if you pick it up from New Zealand House, 80 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TQ, or pounds 3 by post.

WHAT ABOUT HISTORICAL SIGHTS?

Most of the key events that shaped modern New Zealand took place north of Auckland, around the Bay of Islands. An early Maori settlement, the Bay was a stopping point for all the European explorers, as well as for the whalers and missionaries who came to the Pacific. The main town here is Russell, an attractive place with several well-preserved old buildings. A series of skirmishes between the Maori and traders from Britain was brought to an end with the signing of a treaty in 1840, and various monuments to these events are preserved at the Waitangi National Reserve, which overlooks the Bay of Islands.

BUT ARE THERE NO MONUMENTS TO THE MAORI?

Within the Waitangi Reserve is the Whare Runanga or meeting house, a central feature of Maori culture. The house's wooden interior doesn't contain any furniture, but it is beautifully decorated with symbolic carvings representing the ancestors of the tribe. Nearby is a war canoe, built from three large kauri trees, and long enough to have held 80 Maori warriors. It is launched each year on Waitangi Day in commemoration of the signing of the treaty.

WHERE ARE THE MAORI NOW?

They are now integrated into western life, although there are still areas where their traditions survive. If you are interested in the theme- park version of Maori culture, albeit tastefully done, visit Te Whakarewarewa (00 647 348 9047), in Rotorua, a lakeside town in the North Island. Part thermal pools and geysers, part Maori village, this is an interesting experience in that you are taken around the reserve by Maori guides who are keen to talk about their indigenous way of life. They will explain the significance of the meeting house, take you to see various craft workshops where carvers and weavers are at work, and show you how meals are prepared, by cooking the food in containers placed in the thermal waters.

FOOD IN NEW ZEALAND IS DULL THEN, IS IT?

Far from it. You will eat better here than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. There is a stunning variety of local fish - and even if you have seen some of them in British supermarkets, they taste completely different when they have just come out of the water - look out in particular for Orange Roughy and Warehau. The cuisine involves an interesting blend of local produce and oriental spices; don't expect to eat lamb and kiwi fruit all the time. Even the smaller towns have some good eating places, but the selection in Auckland and Wellington is spectacular; in both there's a good choice of restaurants around the harbour.

WHERE ARE THE BEST VINEYARDS?

Wine is grown in nine main areas across the country, and one of the vineyards in Otago is the most southerly in the world. Most are well-equipped to receive visitors, and they usually have tasting rooms, staffed by people who are both enthusiastic and well-informed about their wines. Many also have restaurants, where it is possible to combine a meal with a few samples of the local vintages.

The best-known region to do this, at least outside New Zealand, is Marlborough, centred around the town of Blenheim. Although the wines of this region are already known in Britain, there are many that do not get exported. In addition to Montana, this is the home of Cloudy Bay, Hunter's, Grove Mill and Stoneleigh. But don't miss out on Te Whare Ra (00 64 3 572 8581) - which is known for its gewurtztraminers - or Nautilus, where they make a good sparkling wine.

On the North Island, Martinborough is a small but fashionable area with some vineyards that are well worth visiting. Look out for Te Kairanga (00 64 6 306 9122), which has some particularly good chardonnays, and Winslow (00 64 6 306 9710), where, as well as some interesting reds, they make a cabernet liqueur that tastes like liquid Christmas pudding.

ARE NEW ZEALANDERS ALL MAD-KEEN ON SPORT?

There is certainly a great deal of pride in the national rugby team - or there was until the recent World Cup semi-final defeat. And at this time of year, cricket is the main enthusiasm; New Zealand and the West Indies will be playing the first of two Test matches in Hamilton, starting on 16 December, and a series of three matches against Australia begins in Auckland in March. Excitement is already beginning to build about the Americas Cup, the preliminary rounds of which are taking place at the moment in Auckland; the finals will be in late February.

Queenstown is a year-round destination and the main centre of tourism on the South Island, but it is also the place to go for various sporting activities, according to the time of year. The town itself is a mass of hotels, guest-houses, restaurants and shops, but its main attraction is its stunning location, beside a lake, nestling at the foot of the mountains. Trips of various kinds are organised on Lake Wakatipu, and if you want to go into the mountains, a gondola will take you up to a vantage point on Bob's Peak, nearly a mile above the lake. Bungee-jumping takes place just outside town - the sport was made popular when a New Zealander jumped from the Eiffel Tower - and the nearest ski slopes are about half an hour away in the Remarkables.

AND WHAT ABOUT SHEEP?

Well it is true that the ratio of sheep to humans is about 18 to one. Most of them are on the South Island, which has a less-populated feel than the North Island, although neither is thronged with people. But there is far more to the animal population than just sheep, and wildlife enthusiasts should go to Dunedin, a pleasant city at the southern end of the South Island. At Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Otago peninsula, is the only mainland albatross-breeding colony in the world.

Trips along the coast leave from Dunedin itself, or the jetty at Wellers Rock; some include a landing to visit the albatross information centre, while others concentrate on viewing from the water. Take your own binoculars or hire them on board, and watch these magnificent birds wheeling around above you or guarding their young in their nesting area on the top of Fort Taiaroa. Monarch Wildlife Adventures can be contacted on: 00 64 3 477 4276.

If you prefer to stay on land, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve (00 64 3 478 0286) is one of several points around the coast from which to view nesting penguins. Even if your interest in wildlife is limited, the sight of baby penguins chasing each other in and out of the water, falling over and splashing each other, in much the same way that children do, is a memorable experience. And, you can go whale-watching off the Kaikoura Coast, north of Christchurch.

THE TRANZALPINE EXPRESS

ALTHOUGH SHORT, this is one of the world's great railway journeys, a four- and-a-half-hour trip from one side of the South Island to the other, between Christchurch and Greymouth. There is a commentary during the journey, giving enough information to make the route interesting, without being a distraction to those passengers who prefer to enjoy the scenery in silence.

The first hour of the trip is across the Canterbury plains, flat countryside ideal for grazing sheep. Eventually the line begins to climb, and the track goes through tunnels and viaducts until it reaches Springfield. The high point, in both senses, is at Arthur's Pass, a break in the snow- capped mountains. From there the train continues past Lake Brunner, and along the Grey River, before reaching Greymouth. For further details, contact TranzRail on: 00 64 4 498 3303.

THE CREAM TRIP

A CATAMARAN trip from Paihia or Russell, in the Bay of Islands, in the northern part of the North Island, this was once a daily service delivering milk to the outlying areas.

Now it is continued mainly for the benefit of tourists, but the boat still makes unscheduled stops to deliver oil-drums, fresh produce and mail to the remote homesteads in the bay.

Apart from the curiosity factor of a different way of life, this is a wonderful opportunity to see some of the native wildlife at close quarters. Bottle-nose dolphins often swim behind the boats, and birds can be seen nesting in the rocks. Local trips are operated by Fullers (00 64 9 358 0259).

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