An emerging volcano trekking alternative is the Pouakai Crossing. Passing across the face of the arresting Mt Taranaki, the 19km trek finishes with waterfalls, lakes and ancient forest. / Tourism New Zealand

With the Cricket World Cup starting, New Zealand is in the spotlight, says David Whitley

Over the coming six weeks, the world's greatest cricketers will be zig-zagging across New Zealand. The Cricket World Cup starts today, drawing to a close on 28 March, with the games split between Australia and New Zealand.

For the cricket fan, that's a fine excuse to disappear to the other side of the world to catch the clashes at non-insomniac hours. But for those who haven't the faintest interest in the thwack of leather on willow, a New Zealand road trip is now more appealing than it has been in recent years. It's now possible to get two New Zealand dollars to the pound again (the exchange rate dipped as low as 1.79 to the pound in 2013) making crossing Kiwiland much easier on the wallet.

The two main islands have very different looks and personalities, with South Island's mountains and fjords making it the most conventionally attractive. But North Island is much feistier, with bubbling hot pools, steam vents hissing out of the side of volcanoes, and surf-thrashed black-sand beaches. These are interspersed with idyllic rolling hills, and fields that are as likely to be full of lava as sheep.

There's more cultural energy too. While North Island is still sparsely populated by British standards, it crams in three-quarters of New Zealand's population and it has the country's most engaging cities. Napier is striking through its Art Deco uniformity and Auckland's sprawl has a greedy collection of beauty spots sandwiched between two natural harbours. But Wellington is the pocket-sized star.

Geography helps constrain the capital's centre to a small, pedestrian-friendly area. And the wealth of walk-past trade is a boon for experimental cafés, microbrew bars and coffee shops with in-house roasteries. The creativity in the food and drink stretches to the busy cultural and festival scene.

Te Papa (00 64 4 381 7000; tepapa.govt.nz), the country's best museum, is perched on the water's edge and covers everything from tempestuous geology to the migration routes of the Pacific Islanders. It also hosts a large meeting house designed to be used by all Maori tribes – effectively the town hall of the Maori nation.

The vast majority of New Zealand's Maori population is on North Island, and the East Cape is the region with the most traditional feel. It's a place of unflashy villages and a wariness of outsiders, but that comes as a welcome contrast to the showy cultural experiences around Rotorua. If you're after hakas, greeting ceremonies, costumes that are no longer worn in real life and communal meals cooked in an earth oven, though, Rotorua is the place.

Once you get used to the smell – geothermal activity gives off a permanent eggy whiff – Rotorua is also the North Island's action capital. Whitewater rafting, skydiving, bungee jumps, jetboat whirls and rolling down hills in big plastic balls are among an alarmingly long menu of thrill-seeker options. But many less hair-raising activities are suitable for children, making it a strong choice for a family holiday itinerary.

For families, Bridge and Wickers (020 3355 5302; bridgeandwickers.co.uk) offers a 12-day self-drive trip around North Island, including favourites such as the hot water beach on the Coromandel Peninsula and the vertigo-sparking glass floor at Auckland's Sky Tower. It costs from £877pp with car hire but not international flights.

Audley Travel (01993 838 820; audleytravel.com) has a two-week North Island highlights package that balances natural wonders, cultural experiences and vineyard-hopping. It includes Cathay Pacific flights from Heathrow via Hong Kong, car hire and three-star accommodation from £2,885pp.

Volcano visits

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a 19.4km route across the volcanic heart of the island: through lava fields, along the rims of vast craters and past eerily dazzling lakes. It is unquestionably one of the world's most visually spectacular day hikes, and has now fully reopened following eruptions that partially closed the track in August 2012.

Adrift (00 64 7 892 2751; adriftnz.co.nz) offers guided treks, including transfers to and from National Park Village at either end, for NZ$225 (£112).

An emerging volcano trekking alternative – one that is much more punishing on the thighs – is the Pouakai Crossing. Passing across the face of the arresting Mt Taranaki, the 19km trek finishes with waterfalls, lakes and ancient forest. Outdoor Gurus (00 64 6 758 4152; outdoorgurus.co.nz) runs shuttle transfers from New Plymouth from NZ$30 (£15).

The least-exhausting volcano experience involves taking a helicopter flight right into the crater of the highly active and fumarole-filled White Island. Volcanic Air (00 64 7 348 9984, volcanicair.co.nz) offers tours from Rotorua for NZ$835 (£417).

Ride the rails

The decline of New Zealand's railways has been an unexpected boon for cyclists. Two disused branch lines have now been turned into biking routes; the easiest is the 82km Hauraki Rail Trail on the Coromandel Peninsula and Hauraki Plains (00 64 7 868 5140; haurakirailtrail.co.nz), best tackled over three days. Bikes cost from NZ$45 (£22.50) a day at the Thames base, and the shuttle back (00 64 7 868 7824) from Te Aroha costs NZ$40 (£20).

The 85km Timber Trail (00 64 7 878 4997; thetimbertrail.com) through rural Waikato is more about unlogged forests, ancestral Maori lands and precarious bridges. Bike hire costs NZ$40 (£20) a day from the trail HQ in Pureora and the Timber Trail shuttle (00 64 211 532 179; timbertrail.net.nz) will take you back to the starting point for NZ$50(£25).

A less saddle-sore alternative is trundling along the abandoned railway lines in a specially converted golf cart. Forgotten World Adventures (0800 724 522 78; forgottenworld adventures .co.nz) operates one-day trips through the pastures, hills and tunnels from Douglas to the self-styled "independent republic" of Whangamomona for NZ$210 (£105).

By the glass

New Zealand's wine is hardly a secret, and of the regions stretching down North Island's east coast, Hawke's Bay, close to Napier, is the best all-rounder for grape varietals.

There are numerous wine-tour operators including Bay Tours (00 64 6 845 2736; baytours.co.nz), which runs a full-day sampling expedition at five or six wineries, for NZ$150 (£75).

Further south, the Martinborough area has a similar terroir to the Burgundy region of France, but tends towards higher prices and better quality. It's also relatively small and flat, so perfect for exploring by bike. March Hare (00 64 021 074 6640; march-hare.co.nz) offers a day's bike hire, picnic lunch and winery maps for NZ$70 (£35).

Less well known for tipplers, however, is New Zealand's booming craft beer scene. Wellington is the centre of the movement, with microbreweries and beer-specialist bars banding together under the banner of craftbeercapital.com.

Island escapes

The isles of the Hauraki Gulf are a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland, and all have different vibes.

Rangitoto is the starkest, its lava fields emerging post-eruption from the Pacific just 600 years ago. Waiheke is more about the finer things in life, with coastal walks easy to fit in between winery visits. Fullers (00 64 9 367 9111; fullers.co.nz) runs ferries to both, with returns costing NZ$30 (£15) and NZ$36 (£18) respectively.

Near New Zealand's northern tip, the Bay of Islands is a prime family holiday region. Dolphins call the bay home, and the islands are easily hopped around by boat.

Dolphin Cruises (00 64 9 402 7421; dolphincruises.co.nz) is the main operator; its NZ$89 (£44) Island Adventurer Heritage Cruise delves into the area's history, including Maori sites and the country's first missionary settlement.

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Getting there

The only direct flight to Auckland is Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) from Heathrow, which refuels in Los Angeles. All other options demand a change of plane. The numerous one-stop options from Heathrow include Singapore Airlines (020 8961 6993; singaporeair.com) via Singapore and Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong. Cathay also flies from Manchester, offering the only one-stop route to NZ from a UK regional airport. Emirates has the widest range of regional departures, via its hub in Dubai, but all onward links stop to refuel en route to Auckland.

Getting around

Renting a car  is the best way to get around. The big international car rental chains are all represented at Auckland Airport, although if you're prepared to drive an older car with more miles on the clock, local outfit Ace (00 64 9 303 3112; acerentalcars.co.nz) has cars from NZ$17 (£8) a day in low season (British summer) and from around NZ$46 (£22) in high season (our winter).

For non-drivers, North Island has a single railway mainline, linking Auckland with Wellington, taking about 11 hours for the whole trip aboard the Northern Explorer (kiwirailscenic.co.nz). InterCity buses (00 64 9 583 5780; intercity.co.nz) connect cities and points of interest.

Where to stay

New Zealand's accommodation scene is largely made up of functional motels, slightly fuddy-duddy B&Bs and chains. Of the latter, Wellington's InterContinental (00 64 4 472 2722; ihg.com) has just had a long overdue multimillion-dollar refurbishment. Rooms start at NZ$319 (£155), room only.

For personality and pampering, though, the country's network of luxury lodges (lodgesofnz.co.nz) stands out. The granddaddy of them all is Huka Lodge near Lake Taupo (00 64 7 378 5791; hukalodge.co.nz). It opened in 1924 and has both tennis courts and a croquet lawn amid its lavish gardens. It's a special-occasions-only kind of place, however, at NZ$1,435 (£727) a night, B&B.

At the other end of the scale, hostel standards are impeccably high. The west-coast surf town of Raglan has arguably the most interesting, with the YHA Raglan (00 64 7 825 8268; yha.co.nz) putting guests up in private cabooses and teepees from NZ$72 (£36) a night, room only.

And if that's not quite ludicrous enough, Woodlyn Park (00 64 7 878 6666; woodlynpark.co.nz), near the caving and glow-worm cruise hotspot of Waitomo, offers rooms inside old trains, planes and ships. Prices start at NZ$180 (£90), room only.

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