It isn&rsquot close. It isn&rsquot cheap. But if your budget will stretch to it and you have ten days to spare, consider New Zealand for a holiday. It isn&rsquot enormous in the way Australia is. Its relative compactness shields a geographic range that is bewildering in its complexity. It&rsquos in the Southern Hemisphere, so even the stars are different. It has great food, a native culture and millions of sheep. And it is beautiful beyond clichéd. I&rsquove been just as inundated as everyone else by Peter Jackson&rsquos loving lingering shots of snow-clad peaks and alpine meadows, and who hasn&rsquot thought that it&rsquos all a bit much by now But then you get here, and &ldquobehold, the half wasn&rsquot told me&rdquo. There is a grandeur about its landscapes that prompts you to search for the appropriate descriptive cadences. It&rsquos that kind of place.
Well, not all of it. Chances are you&rsquoll be flying into Auckland, the self-professed capital of the South Pacific. Auckland itself is a nice enough place, set engagingly on the water, but that&rsquos about it. It&rsquos billed as the city of sails, since there are more boats per capita here, allegedly, than anywhere else in the world. A sunny day on the water would certainly seem to indicate as much. Unfortunately, what Auckland is also famous for is rain. Don&rsquot bother bringing your bathing suits if Bali is the temperature you&rsquore used to for your seaside holidays.
Auckland is a city that seems to be discovering itself. The local press is full of articles about how the fine-dining scene is finally finding its feet. All very well, of course, but the tone of the articles is as much questioning as congratulatory as if the writers aren&rsquot convinced that it is true, or that it will last. The South Pacific isn&rsquot the same as the North Atlantic, clearly, and New Zealanders in general and Aucklanders in particular are keenly aware that their corner of the globe is still a bit of a backwater. What that does mean, however, is a refreshing lack of pretence. Wandering into one of Ponsonby&rsquos posh bistros could mean that you&rsquore sitting next to the New Zealand version of a celebrity. But the fact that you&rsquore wearing sneakers won&rsquot get you hurled into the street. This lack of pretension is in fact one of New Zealand&rsquos most engaging attributes.
Auckland itself has the full range of tourist stuff to do, including museums, a tall tower the locals are inordinately proud of and parks everywhere where you can take it easy. It&rsquos not a breeze to get around, however. Public transport is measly, taxis are expensive and the city sprawls like a drunk nawab. My advice would be to stick close to the sea in the Central Business District. Kelly Tarlton&rsquos SEA LIFE isn&rsquot far, and is a beautiful way for the whole family to get up close and personal with sharks, rays, penguins and the like. It also has a fantastic exhibit that replicates living conditions in Captain Scott&rsquos expedition to the South Pole.
When you tire of all this, take to the sea. The island of Waiheke is a cosy ferry ride away, but is a world removed from busy Auckland. Even though it&rsquos really close to Auckland, its weather is quite different, due to which vineyards have flourished here. We started our wandering around the island at one such place. Wild On Waiheke features stuff such as archery and clay-bird shooting, set within a vineyard that produces wines under the Topknot Hill label. Brilliant idea, you&rsquod think guns in the hands of the inebriated. Not to worry. No bullets, just &lsquoshotguns&rsquo engineered to shoot lasers. Still, drivers from different cultures might be shocked as they drive by. Further around the island, and with a fantastic view of Auckland (if it isn&rsquot raining) is Mudbrick, a famous vineyard with super wines and a truly wonderful cuisine. Apparently this place is available for weddings. One can see why. A dinner here will get the hormones pumping just as fast as the wine.
While on Waiheke, keep an eye out for the local flora and fauna. Remember that New Zealand had practically no indigenous land mammals till the Maoris arrived. What that means is lots and lots of near-flightless birds, who&rsquove taken an awful pasting with the onrush of possums, rats and the like who&rsquove settled in just as comfortably as humans. Relatively isolated islands are a good place to consider what an older New Zealand might have looked like. The famous kauri trees are practically all gone from Waiheke, but remnant specimens are still around for the treephiles to ogle at. Ask around they&rsquore truly wonderful to look at, and are what&rsquos left of a world that evolved over millennia and disappeared in the space of a few short generations.
Consider this about &lsquounspoilt&rsquo New Zealand. The sheep that symbolise it aren&rsquot from there. The pastures they graze on have been torn out of the earth in the past 150 years or so. And their emissions do their bit to poop on the ozone layer. Even the most beautiful places have their dirty secrets. The good news about New Zealand is that the country&rsquos aware of this, and everyone seems to be doing their bit to keep what&rsquos left virgin, and return whatever&rsquos possible to its original state. You can muse over this as you roll through the open country south of Auckland on the way to Rotorua.
We made a couple of detours en route, the first of them to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. You can stay overnight, and there are numerous adventure options available, including abseiling for the hardcore cavers. But for the journeyman tourist, a quick couple of hours should suffice to check out these old limestone caves, cut into fantastic formations by water. What makes these old cathedrals especially memorable is that once you&rsquore inside and acclimatised, you&rsquore stuck into a boat, which then navigates by the light of glowworms attached to the walls and ceilings of the caves through which the subterranean river runs. You come out into the light, and there&rsquos a super restaurant on the premises, serving a delicious local Angus beef burger. Naturally, weddings are welcome.
Closer to Rotorua is something that you have to do, regardless of how you feel about Tolkien, Jackson or the Hobbit industry. Just outside the town of Matamata lies the Alexander sheep farm, where the Shire was recreated for the original Lord Of The Rings movies, and now for The Hobbit. This place is utterly magical, and made more so for us because our guide was the genial Ian Brodie, whose publications on Ring lore and photos of New Zealand alone are enough to make him a household name. He was a fount of information about the movies in particular and New Zealand in general but, I have to say, you could come here solo and still be captivated. Bilbo Baggins&rsquo home, the water in the distance and the party tree are all lovingly preserved, and now you can get The Green Dragon Inn&rsquos home-brewed suds in a tankard by the fire as well. I&rsquove no doubt it&rsquos available for weddings.
Rotorua itself seems the tourist heart of the North Island. Famous for its geothermal activity &mdash which means hot sulphur springs and bad smells in close conjunction &mdash it is also fast acquiring a deserved reputation for adventure tourism to go with its seedier casino culture. Ignore the latter, is my advice, and check out the natural beauty on display. Set by a gorgeous lake, between rolling meadows and forested peaks, it really is almost tritely lovely. Even the resident cattle, sheep and deer are photogenic. You can see plenty of these beasts just driving around. A closer, funnier look can be had at the Agrodome, a fun place for urban families to feed animals, watch sheep-shearing and wander about looking at all the meat and wool. World-class mountain bike trails for novices and experts are to be had in the Whakarewarewa redwood forest just outside town. Hire a bike for the day or a few hours, hire a guide or follow a map the choice is yours. There are few things as therapeutic as cycling through a preserved forest. If you get sore, never fear. Wash away the pain in the naturally hot pools at the Polynesian Spa, where there are even &lsquoprivate&rsquo pools for couples. The hot pools here are boiling, by the way, and not pleasantly warm. Be careful you don&rsquot get cooked.
Up in the hills, a short car ride away, are two other gems. One is a canopy tour, via ziplines, of one of the North Island&rsquos remaining patches of virgin temperate rainforest. A walk through this primeval forest, a few yards away from a major road, is a thrill to coast through these enormous sentinels suspended from a wire is something else again. Up the road is another way to check out this forest. Private entrepreneurs bought a disused railway line a few years ago and now run small electric railcars on it. The line runs past this forest, a quiet highlight of a fun, silent voyage that takes in pastures, farms and splendid views of Lake Rotorua in the distance.
Back in Rotorua is the highlight of my visit. A visit to one of the Maori cultural centres that dot the area is a given. We had the luck to go to Te Puia, which prides itself on being dedicated to cultural conservancy. It maintains schools that teach Maori carving and weaving, and the shows they put on are impressive, from the intimidatory Haka to the beautifully harmonised singing of larger groups. The show&rsquos rounded off by a hangi meal, where the food is slow-cooked over superheated stones. The Maori have had their own issues with the European era in their land. A place such as this is a good place to see the Maori and their culture in a way they&rsquod like it represented. A chat with one of the genial guides will tell you a lot more than an internet search will about the state of race relations as well.
Meanwhile, on the tourist side it&rsquos time to head to the colder, even prettier South Island. If you&rsquore lucky, as we were, the weather will be clear and you&rsquoll get a good look at Mt Cook rising out of the clouds. And then you&rsquore over Queenstown and landing in the shadow of the well-named Remarkables. Apparently, the winter skiing here is world-class. I&rsquom here to tell you that it isn&rsquot too shabby in summer either.
In fact, it&rsquos stunning. Queenstown sits on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, a freezing cold lake in what the locals call the Southern Alps. It&rsquos an apt name. There are glacial lakes in the highlands, alpine meadows dotted about, ancient forests flanking the peaks and snow pretty much in every direction. No wonder, then, that practically every turn will have LOTR nerds sobbing in an ecstasy of recognition.
I&rsquom not one, thankfully. But Queenstown and its environs are beautiful almost beyond description. Our first afternoon there, the sun&rsquos up and we&rsquore sitting by the lake with a drink. The latitude and the depleted ozone here make the sunlight almost unbearable, but in a good way. Boats putter about in the clear blue lake, clouds mass behind the Remarkables I don&rsquot even mind the uncouth antics of the gap-year wanderers in the near distance as they hurl themselves about in their post-adolescent way. Across the water is the botanical garden, with its mammoth redwoods and Douglas-firs and beautiful beeches. Behind that is a golf course, also on the water. A hazy vision forms of bringing the family over and never leaving. It&rsquos a common enough thought, I find the area&rsquos beauty and abundant hospitality jobs lead to an expat population that rivals the locals. I see another reason the next day. Adrenaline junkies can spend their lives here.
Suffice it to say that I jumped off a bridge with a rope attached to my ankles and off a plane with a parachute. Funny thing there&rsquos more adrenaline in the bungee jump, perhaps because there isn&rsquot an instructor attached. I rocketed down a river on a jetboat. I spent lots of time in small planes. I spent an impossibly pretty afternoon scouting LOTR locations &mdash Really Okay. Isengard. Lothlórien. Amon Hen &mdash with a genial guide and a 4WD. And, in what is my most cherished memory, I took a small plane across the Southern Alps to Milford Sound, where Mitre Peak rises out of the clouds as if out of a dream. The little Islander putters through the Alps, glaciers and crags above us, and then we&rsquore over the Sound (which is actually a fjord, as its origin is glacial and not riverine) and banking over the ocean and then turning back towards the heightening sun and the landing strip on the sound&rsquos edge. We board a boat that takes us along the Sound, warm when the sun&rsquos on our backs and freezing when it&rsquos not. Seals and dolphins are sighted and ice-melt waterfalls that are pure enough to drink from drive our boat back with their force as they hit the water. Blissful.
Queenstown is the place you must end your trip. Start here, and everything else will be anti-climactic. It&rsquos certainly not undiscovered. The most visible expats are honeymooning Indians. But New Zealand in general, and Queenstown in particular, serves to illustrate what many travellers in these jaded times forget just because you know something is lovely from somebody else&rsquos experience, doesn&rsquot mean that it will be diminished when you get there. All of Peter Jackson&rsquos post-carding notwithstanding. And remember, practically the entire country&rsquos open to being booked for a wedding. Couples can even jump off a bridge in each other&rsquos arms. Now&rsquos that&rsquos something to plan towards.
The major airlines that fly east connect to Auckland, which is the main gateway to New Zealand. I flew Malaysia Airlines (return flights from Rs 59,000, which breaks the journey in a comfortable airport. Thai, Singapore, Cathay and Qantas are all good options as well.
A visitor visa costs Rs 6,800 ($140 visa fees are payable by demand draft in INR or USD only). A separate facilitation fee of Rs 625 is also levied. For further details, log on to immigration.govt.nz.
1 New Zealand dollar (NZD) = Rs 45
Buses aren&rsquot easy to figure out, there&rsquos no subway system and taxis are expensive. However, ferries to the islands aren&rsquot hideously pricey, and you will find cheap bus deals between cities on the internet.
For flights, Air New Zealand&rsquos (airnewzealand.co.nz) network is invaluable within the country.
Where to stay
Where to eat
What to see & do
Do check out New Zealand Tourism&rsquos website, newzealand.com, while planning for trip.
If, like me, you went there minus the partner, you can make it up to them, to some degree, by buying them something nice from Untouched World (untouchedworld.com). It features impeccably finished eco-fashion in Merino wool, bamboo and suchlike goodies. There are stores in Christchurch, Auckland and Queenstown. It&rsquos pricey, but so is New Zealand.