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A land apart near the bottom of the globe Add to ...

I have always known I have to go to New Zealand. My dream is to rent a car and drive all around, taking time to explore what I find. It is so rugged and beautiful, similar in ways to Canada and yet such a different world.

- Kristine Henderson

The backstory

New Zealand seems to hold itself as psychologically apart as it is physically from many of the world's cares - perhaps for good reason. This small, peaceful and scenic English-speaking nation, near the bottom of the globe, harks back to an earlier time in North America.

It is arguably the safest and cleanest place to holiday in the world.

Long a member of the British Commonwealth, New Zealand traditionally functioned as an offshore farm for Great Britain - the country is often said to be composed of four million people and 40 million sheep.

But it's also home to the thriving Polynesian culture of the Maori, who identify themselves, socially and legally, according to that rich culture rather than by bloodlines.

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The country consists of the North Island and the South Island, which together stretch more than 1,500 kilometres.

How to do it

There are occasional cruises that leave from Vancouver and wind through the islands of the Pacific to finish in Auckland. But as a practical matter, most Canadians prefer to travel by air.

Minimum round-trip airfares will run about $2,000 on Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Qantas or United Airlines. Flights that leave Toronto usually go via San Francisco to arrive in Auckland after about 20 hours in transit - because they cross the dateline, two days later. (Some new Air New Zealand flights will begin 14-hour non-stop service between Vancouver and Auckland this November.)

Some first-timers to New Zealand like to get a taste of everything, hitting highlights on both islands, perhaps in areas centred around Auckland, Rotorua and Wellington on the North Island, then Christchurch, Queenstown and perhaps Dunedin on the South Island. All this can be done in planes, trains and automobiles. There's even a ferry between the two islands.

With the exception of Auckland, driving is a breeze in a country with good roads and a relatively small population. (Motorhome- and car-rental listings can be found at .) As in Britain, keep left and watch out for the ubiquitous roundabouts - traffic circles.

In the major cities, international standard luxury hotels, such as the Hilton and the Hyatt, can be as expensive as any in the world. But New Zealand is known for a plethora of modest motels and bed and breakfasts, which can keep day-to-day travelling expenses to a minimum. Even in Auckland and Wellington there are bed and breakfasts, some of them in charming neighbourhoods such as Parnell, in Auckland, and Kelburn, high atop the cable-car line, in Wellington.

The same principle is in effect for restaurants. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch feature a few respected gourmet palaces. The scene changes quickly and often on the whim of the Auckland cognoscenti, but current favourites in that city would include Fusion (32 Jervois Rd.; 64-9-378-4573). In Wellington, try the Boulcott Street Bistro (99 Boulcott St.; 64-4-499-4199; ). But New Zealand is famous for good food at smaller, unpretentious addresses throughout the country.

New Zealand wines are world famous. It's mostly known for its whites, and among the more expensive vintages is Sauvignon Blanc. Look for the Cloudy Bay brand. Beers are also excellent - my own favourite is a darkish brew called Lion Brown, especially good on tap.

Most travellers to New Zealand are not there for a hedonistic experience, however. Nature and the Maori culture are the biggest draws. You can catch both together on the North Island in Rotorua. The thermal areas there were used by a major Maori tribe who cooked with natural steam a century ago. Today's visitors can experience the thrill of geysers and boiling mud as they enjoy the products of Maori wood-carvers and the dancing and singing of talented Maori entertainers.

The big draw on the South Island is the Southern Alps - inviting, mountainous territory for skiers and hikers. Some years ago, my wife and I did the Milford Track, a relatively unchallenging but exhilarating three-day trek, sometimes billed as the "finest walk in the world."

Although Christchurch, a charming community bisected by a grassy, banked river, is the principal city of the South Island, most visitors seem to take more to Queenstown, which offers more excitement per square kilometre than anywhere else, from bungee jumping to rafting to fast trips in a jet boat on the nearby Shotover River, once the centre of gold mining in the country.

When to Go

Remember that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. Some Canadian skiers and winter-sports fans will be reminded of January in July, especially on the South Island. It seldom snows on the North Island, except at higher elevations, such as the ski area on Mount Ruapehu. There is no truly tropical area in New Zealand, but the Northland Peninsula and its scenic Bay of Islands, north of Auckland, have been known to grow a banana tree or two.

Tourism literature and information are available from airlines and New Zealand Tourism (1-866-639-9325; ).

You'll Never Forget

Unless you decide to take the plunge at the end of a bungee cord, a ride on the Shotover Jet (64-3-442-8570; ) near Queenstown just may be your fondest memory, at least after you survive it. It's one of the most hair-raising boat rides in the world. The skillful captains of these whirlwind craft seem to avoid dangerous rocks and other obstacles at the last second. There are lots of activities in the vicinity, but that one sticks firmly in my mind - as close to a violent death as I ever hope to experience. I've gone twice - and will probably go again.

Robert W. Bone is the author of several travel guides, including the long-running Maverick Guide to New Zealand.

 

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