The best of New Zealand (and not a hobbit in sight)
For a small, quiet nation at the lower part of the globe, New Zealand has done a pretty effective job marketing its national icons -- the All Black rugby team, incredible mountain scenery, fiords, bungee-jumping.
The recent release of "The Hobbit" movies turned the country into a substitute Middle-earth. Tourism around the films (particularly Chinese and Thai travelers), which were shot in New Zealand, has helped offset the economic drop after the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch.
But there's more to New Zealand than familiar places and faces.
1. Coffee culture
No need to hit the international coffee chains in New Zealand.
Small cafes and coffee stalls serve smooth, flavorful caffeine hits.
Reputedly with more cafés per head than New York City, Wellington is NZ’s coffee capital. The "flat white" (arguably one part espresso, two parts steamed milk) is the specialty.
Mojo Coffee, a Wellington-based roaster, now with more than 20 outlets there and in Auckland and Dunedin; www.mojocoffee.co.nz
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2. Fresh, unforgettable food
New Zealand's temperate climate makes ideal growing conditions for fresh, hearty food.
The freshest stuff can be found outdoors -- imagine crayfish or whitebait fritters -- from roadside stalls.
Picnic spots are easy to come by, or you could get involved behind the scenes in a tour. You’ll get lunch, but not before going out to forage in the bush.
Charles Royal’s Kinaki Wild Foods tours. The four-hour Soda Springs tour includes sourcing Maori herbs and spices from the forest, eating them, and a swim in hot springs; www.maorifood.com
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3. Vineyard tours
New Zealand has many vineyards producing world-beating sauvignon blanc and pinot noir as well as other grape varieties.
Several regions have a high concentration of vineyards. V
You can sample wine in scenically striking Marlborough at the top of the South Island; Central Otago is further south; Hawkes Bay is in the eastern part of the North Island; beautiful Waiheke Island is just off Auckland.
In the Wairarapa, not far from Wellington, Martinborough is the venue for the annual Toast Martinborough event, which bills itself as "New Zealand's premiere wine, food and music festival."
Toast Martinborough; November 17, 2013; tickets required; www.toastmartinborough.co.nz
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4. Star gazing
A relatively small population (roughly 4.5 million) keeps New Zealand free of the dulling effects of haze and urban glow.
A chunk of the South Island’s skies have been designated the Aoraki MacKenzie Dark Sky Reserve, meaning they’re highly rated for sparkling, smog-free views.
The best time for clear skies are summer and autumn months from December to April.
Mount John Observatory at Tekapo tours, www.earthandskynz.com
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5. Horse trekking
Horse treks are available all over the country, but one location to consider is Te Urewera National Park on the east coast of the North Island.
The largest forest on the island and the secluded Lake Waikaremoana make for a rainforest setting far removed from tourist timetables.
Ahurei Adventures offers horse treks in the Waiau River valley of Te Urewera National Park ranging from two hours to two days with a local guide; www.ahureiadventures.co.nz
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6. Cycling tours
The recently opened Queenstown Trail is 110 kilometers of cycling terrain through a region famed for its scenery.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is one for history fans -- the multi-day tour travels along a route built for trains in the late 19th century. The trail now serves walkers and horse riders as well as cyclists. Local sports stores rent bikes and gear and provide tours.
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7. Thermal spas
Rotorua’s hot springs and boiling mud can be put to good use as beauty treatments.
Polynesian Spa in Rotorua may be the best known spot, famed for its water’s-edge views from its Lakeside Spa.
Plunge pools vary from warm to super-heated. Mud wraps and manuka honey masks are also available.
Polynesian Spa Rotorua; www.polynesianspa.co.nz
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8. Scenic golf
There are about 400 golf courses throughout the country. Some of the most well-known, like Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliff in the North Island, run along clifftops beside the ocean.
Down south, Millbrook Resort’s championship course takes in three, nine-hole sections named after Queenstown landmarks.
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9. Aviation adventures
Off the coast of the North Island’s Bay of Plenty, White Island is the country’s most active volcano. The bird’s-eye view of the crater area shows a stark contrast between its fiery, rocky outline and the cooling sea that surrounds it.
Visitors can operate dual-control light aircraft themselves at U-Fly Wanaka.
For those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground, events showcasing vintage aircraft can be seen on both of New Zealand's main islands.
The biennial Warbirds over Wanaka takes place over Easter, the next one scheduled for 2014.
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New Zealand’s varying climate lends itself to the layered-clothing approach to attire.
Since practically everyone remarks on the country's sizeable sheep population, it makes sense that designers have spun wool into fashionable reputations abroad.
Icebreaker makes a collection of casual and sporty attire from fine merino wool that keeps you warm in the alpine chill and cool in a summer breeze.
The more fashion-conscious can shop at boutiques in Auckland’s Ponsonby and in the High Street area of the city’s CBD.
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Check out www.newzealand.com to explore further possibilities for New Zealand travel.