New Zealand has endured easier years than 2011. The 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch in February brought death and despair to a country better known as a realm of pastoral beauty. A second quake in June added to the misery. Beyond the news, though, this distant nation – huddled 1,300 miles east of Australia on the south-west edge of the Pacific Ocean – remains a destination of considerable appeal.
It lies divided into two main parts, the North and South Islands – each offering a staggering variety of terrain. The North Island claims the two main cities – the metropolis of Auckland and the capital Wellington – but also the largest expanse of water in Lake Taupo and, particularly in the upper reaches, a pleasing sub-tropical climate.
The South Island is less populated and more rugged, hosting the towering peaks of the Southern Alps, and deep fjords (notably Milford Sound) along the gap-toothed smile of its west coast – as well as the lush winelands of the Marlborough region.
Here is a country that has the air of an untouched paradise. New Zealand was one of the last of the planet's significant landmasses to be settled, first by Polynesian sailors in the 13th century, then European emigrants after James Cook's voyages into the Pacific in the late 18th century. That the country's early Maori residents named their new home Aotearoa – "The Land of the Long White Cloud" – rather sums up its charm. It is a charm that – along with hearty doses of sweat and aggression – will be on display over the next seven weeks as the country stages the world's third-biggest sporting event. And the Rugby World Cup will be perfectly at home here. Not only is New Zealand a rugby hotbed, but the organisers have crafted a schedule that distributes the 48 matches and 20 teams between a dozen cities – as far north as Whangerei, as far south as Invercargill.
The action should be dramatic. Surely the most iconic of all rugby teams, New Zealand's All Blacks have failed at the World Cup since winning the inaugural contest in 1987, and are under pressure to end the drought on home soil. But there will be resistance from 2007 champions South Africa, the ever-dangerous Australia, the flamboyant France and an England that has reached the past two finals. The hosts open the show against Tonga in Auckland this Friday (9 September), with the final set for the same city on 23 October.
Unusually for an event of this scope, tickets are still on sale – and are available for all but three matches (00 64 9 367 2011; tickets.rugbyworldcup.com). If you can cross the globe at short notice – or will be on holiday in the country anyway – you can buy seats for England v Scotland (Auckland, 1 October), Ireland v Italy (Dunedin, 2 October) and Wales v Fiji (Hamilton, 2 October). Adult tickets start at NZ$31 (£16).
Even if rugby is not your thing, there will be much to enjoy in the coming weeks. A high celebration of all things New Zealand – the Real New Zealand Festival – will shadow the tournament (nz2011.govt.nz/realnzfestival). The nationwide event, covering art, science, food and sport, boasts a programme featuring everything from sailing in Auckland to seafood fiestas in Whitianga. With many fans sure to combine scrums and sightseeing, the festival should provide a framework for tours around a country that has a lot to offer.
The writer flew to New Zealand with Rugby World Cup sponsors Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com), which flies daily from its hub in Dubai to Auckland and Christchurch, with connections from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle.
As the site of the country's main international airport, Auckland is the obvious point of arrival in New Zealand for most tourists. It is also the fiery proving ground of the World Cup, with 15 fixtures due to be contested at its Eden Park and North Harbour stadiums.
But beyond the roar of the crowd, Auckland is a fascinating city, worth further attention – its headcount of 1.4 million making it home to a third of New Zealand's population. This statistic brings with it a metropolitan swagger visible in its excellent restaurants, open parks – and even its skyline.
At 1,076 feet, the Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Brave souls can leap from its observation deck (at 630 feet) for NZ$225 (£118), plunging to earth in a high-wire harness (00 64 9 368 1835; skyjump.co.nz).
Less daring options include Auckland War Memorial Museum (00 64 9 306 7048; aucklandmuseum.com; NZ$10/£5.50), a stately institution that covers Maori society and New Zealand's role in the World Wars – and Viaduct Harbour, revitalised in the wake of Auckland hosting the America's Cup yachting extravaganza in 2000. Here, a slew of restaurants faces the water, including The Foodstore (00 64 9 377 0125; thefoodstore.tv), where television chef Mark Southon oversees a menu created entirely from New Zealand produce.
The Sky City Grand Hotel, beneath the Sky Tower (90 Federal Street; 00 64 9 363 6000; skycityauckland.co.nz), offers double rooms from NZ$199 (£105), room only.
While Auckland basks in its slot on the west coast, Wellington (which hosts eight World Cup fixtures) is a different prospect – a quiet child on the lower rim of the North Island. Just 390,000 live in the capital, its centre is so small that you can walk it in 15 minutes.
Attractions are plentiful: the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa (00 64 4 381 7000; tepapa.govt.nz; free), which examines all aspects of New Zealand's past and present; the views from the Wellington Cable Car (00 64 4 4722199; wellingtoncablecar.co.nz; returns NZ$6/£3); the eateries on Cuba Street – such as Logan Brown, lurking within a former bank (00 64 4 801 5114; loganbrown.co.nz). The Bolton Hotel, close to the national parliament (00 64 4 472 9966; boltonhotel.co.nz), has double rooms from NZ$234 (£123), room only.
The lower north
Aside from Auckland, Wellington and Whangarei, five other North Island cities will host World Cup face-offs: Hamilton (three games), south of Auckland, has a fine food scene; New Plymouth (three games), on the west coast, is a surf hotspot; Napier (two games), on the east coast, has an Art Deco look (the result of rebuilding after an earthquake in 1931), and is flanked by wineries; Palmerston North (two games), in the south-east, proffers an arty vibe and the New Zealand Rugby Museum (00 64 6 358 6947; rugbymuseum.co.nz; NZ$12.50/£6.60); Rotorua (three games), in the north, is best known for its neon casino-hotels and nickname of "Roto-Vegas", but is more remarkable for its mud pools and hot springs.
Examples of natural wonder are strewn across the North Island: the Bay Of Plenty – 200 miles of shore where fruit-growers thrive; the Coromandel Peninsula, which juts up 60 miles, forested and hilly, from the north coast; Lake Taupo, at the heart of the island, its water filling a colossal caldera; Tongariro National Park (00 64 7 892 3729; doc.govt.nz), south of Lake Taupo, where three active volcanoes (including the lofty Tongariro itself) have religious significance for the Maori – and add up to challenging terrain for hiking.
The far north
Above Auckland, New Zealand fans out into the area that the Maori eloquently describe as "Te Hiku O Te Ika" – "The Tail Of The Fish". Sparsely populated but warm of weather, the thin Northland Peninsula will witness two matches, both in the only city Whangarei.
The peninsula's calling card is its scenery: Ninety Mile Beach, which traces the west coast, and is no less majestic for only measuring 55 miles; Cape Reinga, at the north-west tip, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific butt heads below a lonely lighthouse; the much-photographed Bay Of Islands, on the east coast, where sharp inlets spear the land.
The lower south
Awash with peaks, valleys, glaciers and lakes, the lower half of the South Island is the poster image of New Zealand. Here is a bucolic wonderland light on sprawl – even if its two main urban pockets are sufficiently sizeable to appear in the World Cup diary: Dunedin, a university town that wears its 19th-century Scottish origins with relish, hosts four games; Invercargill, a calm outpost flanked by farms on the south coast, has three more.
Invercargill is also the gateway to Stewart Island, which lies 20 miles distant across the Foveaux Strait. New Zealand's final throe is a tree-lined nugget of walking paths, birdlife and unhurried peace, and easily accessed by ferry. Stewart Island Experience (00 64 3 212 7660; stewartislandexperience.co.nz) offers return crossings (from Bluff) for NZ$132 (£69).
A three-hour drive north from Invercargill, Queenstown is the ideal base for exploring the lower South Island. This idyll, pitched on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, is well aware of its good looks – the surrounding region featured heavily in The Lord Of The Rings films. Nomad Safaris (00 64 3 442 6699; nomadsafaris.co.nz) operates two half-day "Safari Of The Scenes" routes that tick off some of the key locations by 4x4 – NZ$153 (£81) per tour.
From Queenstown, you can forge into the wilderness, not least by dashing north to Mount Cook National Park (00 64 3 435 1186; doc.govt.nz), where Australasia's tallest mountain climbs to 12,316ft and Glacier Explorers (00 64 3 435 1641; glacierexplorers.com) offer cruises amid the icebergs that drop into the lake below the Tasman Glacier – NZ$140 (£74).
Alternatively, heading south-west from Queenstown brings you to Fiordland National Park (00 64 3 249 7924; doc.govt.nz), New Zealand's last corner – 4,800 square miles of raw rock and water, where Lake Te Anau does mirrored placidity and the deep groove of Milford Sound proffers isolated majesty, walls of granite rearing to 5,000ft on each side.
The upper south
Largely unused by the World Cup (only three games will be played here, all in the pretty city of Nelson), the upper areas of the South Island are still worth seeing. Again, the siren call comes from the scenery. North-west of Nelson, Abel Tasman National Park (00 64 3 546 9339; doc.govt.nz) is alive with seabirds, and promises hiking heaven on the 32-mile Abel Tasman Coastal Track. Even further north, Farewell Spit, the tip of the South Island, is a restricted area – but Farewell Spit Nature Experiences (00 64 21 874 655; farewell-spit.co.nz) operates tours of this 20-mile sand-strip from NZ$95 (£47).
In the north-east corner, the Marlborough region is the star player of New Zealand's wine industry, its fertile soil and favourable climate making it responsible for 60 per cent of production. Most of its wineries, dotted around Blenheim, Picton and Renwick, welcome visitors: Cloudy Bay (00 64 3 520 9141; cloudybay.co.nz); Grove Mill (00 64 3 572 8200; grovemill.co.nz); Saint Clair Estate (00 64 3 570 5280; saintclair.co.nz).
Christchurch in recovery
The six months since the devastating earthquake on 22 February have not been easy. Indeed, the seven World Cup games that were due to be played in Christchurch have been moved elsewhere, and parts of the centre remain cordoned off.
Slowly, though, this picturesque enclave of Victorian architecture, located halfway down the east coast of the South Island, is recovering. The airport is open, as are key sites such as the International Antarctic Centre (00 64 3 357 0519; iceberg.co.nz; NZ$65/£34), which acknowledges the city's position as a regular start-point for Antarctic expeditions. The local tourist authority has further information on the regeneration effort and accommodation: christchurchnz.com.
* If you plan to combine both islands you can save time and money by choosing a carrier that offers links to both islands. Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) serves Auckland and Christchurch from its hub in Dubai, with connections from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Newcastle. Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.com) has one-stop links from Heathrow to both cities.
* Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) has the only direct flights from the UK, with daily departures from Heathrow to Auckland via Los Angeles and five flights a week via Hong Kong; you can include these cities as stopovers on a round-the-world itinerary. Other airlines offering one-stop flights to Auckland include Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Thai.
* Discover The World (01737 214251; discover-the-world.co.uk) offers an 18-night "New Zealand Wanderer" trip that offers a close-up look at both islands, from £4,067 including flights from the UK. Exodus (0845 805 9211; exodus.co.uk) runs a 22-day "Trails of New Zealand" package that offers similar scope from £5,699 with international flights and most meals.
Others tour operators include New Zealand In Depth (01298 74040; newzealand-indepth.co.uk) for tailor-made holidays and honeymoons; Bales Worldwide (0845 0571819; balesworldwide.com), which offers a 27-day "Grand Tour Of New Zealand" from £4,995 with flights; and Explore (0845 5276630; explore.co.uk) which runs a 19-day "New Zealand Explorer" package from £4,383 including flights.
* For rugby fans, holidays that include accommodation, World Cup tickets and flights are still available. Gullivers Sports Travel (01684878154; gulliverstravel.co.uk) offers packages from £4,621; England Rugby Travel (0844 788 5000; englandrugbytravel.com) from £4,999.
Tourism New Zealand (020-7930 1662; newzealand.com).