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New Zealand: Land of plenty

photoFor fans of nature, recreation and outdoor adventures, New Zealand ranks at the top of many travelers’ lists. The country has a spectacular array of beaches, mountains for skiing, camping areas, wilderness trails, kayak rides on rapids and treks through tropical forests or over glaciers and mountains. The Kiwis haven’t lagged on urban adventures, either. The largest cities can stimulate the other senses with pedestrian-friendly city centers, fine museums, galleries, eclectic shops, restaurants and reasonably priced food and lodging everywhere.

The people are warm, friendly and quick with a quip or two and mirror the openness of the country, which is roughly the same size as California or Japan, but has just 4.6 million residents.

Most visitors start on the North Island, in Auckland (roughly 12 hours nonstop from LAX), the nation’s largest city, with 1.4 million residents. If you have two weeks or more, rent a car and tour both islands. If you have less time, Air New Zealand serves even small airports. A major benefit: no security lines flying domestically.

For browsing in Auckland, Queen Street is a combination of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and Post Street in San Francisco. Attractions include Auckland City Art Gallery, Civic Theatre and Town Hall, the National Maritime Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the China Oriental Market. Our favorite nearby escape: a 35-minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island, with some 30 boutique wineries, nature trails and reserves.

For a smaller-town escape: Napier, which in 1931 was struck by New Zealand’s worst earthquake and ravaged by fire. The rebuilding had a theme: art deco architecture everywhere. Browsing the short blocks in the town center passes quaint shops, restaurants and bistros of all types, boutiques, museums and a wine center.

Nearby, Hawkes Bay wineries offer robust red wines (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah. Our favorites: Mission Estate, Te Mata Estate, Craggy Range, Vidal Estate, Te Awa Farm, Ngatarawa and Sileni Estates. Several have excellent restaurants. For details:

From Napier, the roads pass changing pastoral scenes: from grapes to apples to sheep and cattle country and through small towns with wide avenues, designed so ranchers could herd their cattle to a stock sale. Now: green areas, with picnic tables and trees.

Sheep grazing on a farm near Martinborough, North Island, New Zealand. Tom Gable

Sheep grazing on a farm near Martinborough, North Island, New Zealand.

Wairapa, two hours outside Wellington, characterizes New Zealand in transition, from lands with a million sheep to new vineyards and vacation destinations. A treat: one of the world’s great one-day wine events, Toast Martinborough in November, with a dozen wineries pouring wine (mostly pinot noir), food from different Wellington area restaurants and entertainment at each. Favorite wineries: Dry River, Martinborough Winery, Margrain, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga.

The capital city of New Zealand ( at the southern end of the North Island, has all the walking charms of San Francisco, Boston and Vancouver. The urban core includes Queens Wharf, Museum of Wellington, Academy of Fine Arts, Civic Square and the Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa), shops along Lambton Quay, and fun for foodies nearby in some 40 restaurants, bars and cafes.

photoFrom Wellington, the 50-mile ferry ride across Cook Strait ends at Picton, on the South Island, a short drive from Blenheim, in Marlborough wine country. Nearby, Nelson on Tasman Bay is the jumping-off point for outdoor adventures of all types, from four-hour to four-day treks to see penguins, seals and exotic birds. South of Nelson, the wild west coast is a land of magnificent contrasts, from driving through a rain forest to an hour later exploring Franz Josef Glacier.

Lake Wakatipu, toward Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island, frames a spectacular view but also is a popular spot for water sports and recreation.

Lake Wakatipu, toward Queenstown, on New Zealand’s South Island, frames a spectacular view but also is a popular spot for water sports and recreation.

For seeing urban transformation, visit Christchurch, which was rocked by a 7.1 Richter scale earthquake in September 2010 and another of 6.3 in February 2011, with major damage to the business district. The city rallied with incredible vigor to start rebuilding. It has new retail areas, including Re:START and The Tannery. The city offers tours of the central business district on double-decker buses to see areas affected by the earthquakes and new developments everywhere.

Queenstown (18, 000) is New Zealand’s most popular tourist destination and similar to mountain towns in Utah, Colorado and California. In warm seasons, the compact town (1 kilometer square) and waterfront are alive with visitors enjoying a little leisure before taking off for outdoor adventures. In winter, the town is packed with skiers. Also popular: the three-hour Dart River jet boat tour leaving from Glenorchy, where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed; bungee jumping; and tandem sky diving.

Just east of Queenstown: the booming Central Otago wine region, known for pinot noir and chardonnay. In the last decade, the area has gone from two to more than 40 wineries. Our favorites: Amisfeld, Carrick, Mount Difficulty, Mount Edward, Chard Farm, Peregrine and Quartz Reef. For a great day of tasting, without worrying about driving, sign up for a guided tour with wine experts from Appellation Wine Tours.

For a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, consider a helicopter tour. Our group used Over-the-Top helicopters for landing on a glacier, cruising over the Southern Alps, hovering along the Milford Sound to see waterfalls and wildlife at eye level and then going back over the alps to land for a picnic by a trout stream. You can book single-engine flights to Milford Sound from Queenstown, land and enjoy a two-hour boat tour. A more affordable option: a four-hour ride one way by bus or car from Queenstown, take the boat tour, and return.

Wherever you are, it’s easy to settle into the rhythm of the country and switch from high-energy, heart-thumping activities to quiet walks on a rain forest trail or along a beach, to tasting through a half-dozen wineries in a day, to enjoying a large city. The biggest challenge: narrowing the choices down to create the best itinerary for the time you have, which never seems to be enough (travel agents can be very helpful).

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