New Zealand travel guide: Seven things we love about our Kiwi neighbour

New Zealand is a tranquil sliver of a country perched out in the Pacific Ocean, 1000 kilometres from its nearest neighbours and a long way from almost everywhere else on Earth. It's safe and friendly, a bit old-fashioned in an agreeable Hobbit-y way, but with rather forward-looking attitudes.

It's a comfortable, sedate place with a surprising penchant for wild adrenaline sports; a place of civilised small cities and snug tourist lodges set amid irrepressibly rumpled landscapes, snowy mountains and wave-lashed coastlines.

This is a nation of welcoming, polite, self-deprecating, homey, humorous, chatty, quirky people.

None of this has changed, despite the most recent tragedy in Christchurch. If anything, the famed Kiwi hospitality has been honed in adversity.

All of this makes New Zealand one of the world's best travel destinations and certainly a perennial favourite among our writers. Here, in this special tribute, are just some of the reasons we love our neighbour and still adore travelling there, even in challenging times.

Kia kaha New Zealand. Brian Johnston

THE PEOPLE

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The Maori have gathered on the tarmac to receive us. "Haere mai, haere mai," they chant. Come here, come here. Welcome to this land clouded with sulphur, boiling with mud and veiled in steam that coils like phantoms from the earth's cracks.

We're on the first ever international flight to touch down in the geothermal city of Rotorua, and the powhiri (Maori welcome ceremony) is emblematic of salutations offered to all new arrivals to this country. It is warm and magnanimous; honest and affirming.

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One doesn't need a powhiri on the tarmac to feel welcome in New Zealand. "Kia Ora!" you will hear frequently by way of a greeting. Literally translated, it means "good health", and it's offered with conviction – from the flight attendants on the journey over to the taxi driver who picks you up at the airport and the ferryman who transports you across the river. These are words that embody the goodwill New Zealanders feel towards visitors.

The people of New Zealand endear the country to me more than anything else. They possess a guilelessness I've not encountered anywhere else in the world. They seem, collectively, to be incapable of keeping secrets or being capricious, of being disagreeable or pretentious. Their good temper hangs in the air like an unfurled banner: welcome, it says, you are safe with us.

The recipe used to cook up this country's remarkable populace can never be replicated, though its ingredients are well-known: a Maori population blessed with Polynesian charm and a strong allegiance to tradition; European settlers who have flourished, all-but-forgotten, on the far edge of the world; newer migrants who have heard the call – haere mai, haere mai – and who have brought with them their own gift of customs and culture. The finished dish is a delightful mix of self-deprecation and pragmatism, determination and sincerity, harmony and conviction – and a discernible lack of ego.

Without these inhabitants, New Zealand would be an achingly beautiful landscape devoid of an animating spirit. But the people have breathed magic into it; their energy is borne out in the land. On the tarmac back at Rotorua, I'm reminded that the haka symbolises strength and unity. The hongi conveys trust. Come here, they are saying, and we will enfold you in our welcome. Catherine Marshall

THE MOUNTAINS

A mountaineer with an orange dress in a symmetric picture looking to the taranaki volcano in the north island of new zealand and with the reflection of tho mountain and the climber in a lake. Zeland sunoct14cover - Under Rated & Over Rated
Rob McFarland
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Taranaki. Photo: Shutterstock

Boots. Packs. Parkas. Mountaineering is not just arduous work; it also involves lugging a lot of cumbersome equipment, much of it downright unattractive. Why would anyone bother? More precisely, why would anyone in New Zealand bother? Its magnificent mountains are not just among the loveliest on earth; they are also some of the most accessible.

No need to trudge for days along a hiking trail or clip on skis and slalom your way down snow-covered slopes. New Zealand's picturesque peaks can easily be admired from cafes, from wineries, even – if you are really lucky – from your hotel bed, no Gore-Tex required.

That means even the chronically lazy can soak up these scenic wonders. Some ranges slope steeply, while others are crumpled like used handkerchiefs. Some rise and fall like the stockmarket index, while other pinnacles push up against each other like waves washing endlessly across the ocean. There are bare mountains and forested slopes, peaks sprinkled with a light dusting of powder and others topped with a thick scoop of snow like an inverted ice-cream cone.

Best of all are the mountains that soar majestically above alpine lakes. From Lake Wakatipu at Queenstown and its neighbour Lake Wanaka to the milky waters of Lake Tekapo south of Christchurch, New Zealand's mountain-fringed lakes are among its most scenic attractions.

Faced with the country's endless procession of peaks, the imaginations of the European explorers – never that impressive to begin with – proved utterly inadequate to the task of conjuring up suitable names. The lovely range around Queenstown, for instance, was saddled with the clunky moniker the Remarkables. Fortunately, the Maori names for these majestic mountains are appropriately grand, unlike the pakeha alternatives.

The Maori appreciated the mountains' power and drama, and saw them as powerful gods and warriors. The seven mountains ringing Lake Taupo, for instance, were all considered to be males, except for the beautiful Pihanga. Naturally, the other peaks were all deeply in love with her, and fought a fierce battle for her hand, one that lasted for days and came complete with massive explosions, fire and smoke and burning rocks.

Tongariro was the victor, and the other mountains were given one night to move away from the happy couple. Some, such as the grief-stricken Tauhara, chose to stay; the angry Taranaki, by contrast, gouged a huge rift in the earth as he moved, which filled with his tears and became the great Whanganui River. Epic landscapes and epic love stories; these mountains really do make an impact. Ute Junker

THE CITIES

KAF40J Auckland, New Zealand, NZ - September 20, 2017: People in the Britomart shopping and transportation precinct of Auckland Traveller ALAMY
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Auckland's Britomart shopping precinct. Photo: Alamy 

In a land of volcanoes, glaciers and fiords, the urban areas are always likely to be bit-part players. New Zealand's cities, however, regularly pull off memorable, scene-stealing cameos like characters in a Coen brothers movie.

Sometimes, the quirky personality comes from the architecture. Napier is awash with art deco, the little detail wanting to be picked out from the remarkable, unparalleled uniformity. Come the annual Art Deco Festival, there's full Great Gatsby and flapper dress buy-in, but for the rest of the year it acts as though this treasure-trove time capsule of deco density is perfectly standard behaviour.

Meanwhile, Dunedin's distinctive dark basalt has been shaped into grandiose fantasies by Victorian and Edwardian architects. The railway station hogs the photographic limelight, but it has plenty of competition. A vein of Scottish steeliness runs through the city's character, too, which probably comes in handy when walking home up the steep hills that offer majestic views over Otago Harbour.

Small, not sprawl, is the mindset of Kiwi cities, with manageability and walkability turned into selling points. Capital city Wellington has no intention of being a dominant colossus – it's perfectly happy being cute, low intensity and utterly rewarding to those who enjoy being nosy.

Stroll any of its central streets, and you have a good chance of encountering distilleries, coffee roasters, microbreweries, old banks turned into restaurants, and hawker-esque pan-Asian food joints.

This is not to say it can't think big, though. Weta Workshop shows off costumes and props from mega-budget movies; the Zealandia conservation project protects near-extinct native birds while restoring a valley to how it would have looked before humans arrived in the country.

Only Auckland has the heft to pitch as a truly global city, but Auckland's soul will always lie on its fringes. Its setting is an isthmus present, with two natural harbours, black sand beaches, a studding of volcanic cones, and a series of islands with strong, distinct vibes. Lava-strewn Rangitoto, wildlife haven Tiritiri Matangi and winery-packed Waiheke all serve different masters.

Auckland is the de-facto capital of Polynesia, but still feels more interested in yacht races than the rat race. The CBD, flanked by brunchy Parnell and cocktail-chugging Ponsonby, is evolving via big development projects such as the luxe shopper-friendly Britomart Centre.

If Auckland has evolved by design, then Christchurch has by necessity. Once content to be a pastiche of middle England – cathedrals, gardens, punting – on the other side of the planet, tragedy has forced improvised innovation. The post-earthquake shipping container businesses brought the city's creative, resilient side to the forefront. This energy has filtered through a city that has shown it will not be cowed – and is likely to show that again. David Whitley

THE LODGES

Every country has its luxury hotels. Many have wilderness lodges. None, however, have lodges quite like those in New Zealand. Some are owned by hedge-fund billionaires and Russian oligarchs. Some have their own helicopter pads, flocks of decorative alpacas and cliff-clinging golf courses. And yet somehow none ever abandon the charming New Zealand liking for informality, friendliness and utter lack of pretension.

You might well be checking into some of the world's best accommodations, yet you'll never encounter a stuffy or snooty attitude. It's like checking into New Zealand itself, one of the world's best countries, the inhabitants of which don't seem to realise quite how special it is.

In a New Zealand lodge, no matter how posh you may be – celebrities, duchesses and heads of state often stay – you'll be bundled onto the back of a mud-splattered buggy for a tour of the paddocks. You may be invited to a beach barbecue in your bare feet.

In short, for all the suave service and luxury levels, you always feel that you're being treated as a friend. Similarly, you have every luxury amenity – and some you never imagined existed – and yet you're always subordinate to the wild landscapes. It's relaxing, it's exhilarating. Wall Street moguls and Shanghai executives come here to cast their cares aside and be normal.

Still, despite the welcome lack of formality, New Zealand lodges are a superb experience. You get crackling fires and modern art, colonial-era charm and contemporary walls of glass gazing over mountains.

Sometimes, you'll be sharing 250 hectares  acres and 60 staff with just 10 other guests. Some lodges have their own herds of deer, mountain-biking trails and ski butlers. You can enjoy flying fishing and helicopter rides, canapes and cocktails served in billiard rooms, evenings tucking into langoustine or roast Southland lamb accompanied by great New Zealand wines.

Most of all, you get New Zealand. Its lodges have some of the world's most sublime settings in rugged mountain ranges, or gazing over lakes, or clinging to clifftops. Some are set in rainforest with their own private beaches and waterfalls. You can lounge on manicured green lawns that slope into glassy green rivers, or float in heated pools with views to snow-capped alps, and feel very blessed. Brian Johnston

THE ADRENALINE

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Aerial view of twilight Queenstown. Suitable for tour image. This is the most popular and famous tourist destination and attraction in New Zealand. This image is taken from hill top

Queenstown is New Zealand's adrenaline capital. Photo: Shutterstock

"Bloody terrifying" is how Steve Norton describes his first leap off Queenstown's Kawarau Bridge. As a close friend of A. J. Hackett, he was one of the guinea pigs for Hackett's harebrained scheme to allow people to throw themselves off the 43-metre-high bridge with just an elasticised cord tied around their ankles. In 1988, that scheme became a reality and Kawarau Bridge became the site of the world's first commercial bungy jump.

Since then Queenstown has blossomed into a mecca for adrenaline-lovers with an unparalleled number of ways to scare yourself senseless. Visitors can charge through Skippers Canyon in a jet boat, take a stomach-churning 200-metre swing into Shotover Canyon and tandem skydive from 15,000 feet over the region's dramatic montage of snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes.

Queenstown gets a lot of the adventure glory but the rest of the country isn't far behind. Hop over the hill to Wanaka and you can take a thrilling helicopter ride over Mount Aspiring National Park then jet boat back through the remote wilderness of the Siberia Valley.

Head to the West Coast and you can heli-hike on the stunning serpentine glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef. On the North Island, there's rafting on the Tongariro River, zip lining through ancient forest in Rotorua and sand-boarding on the towering dunes at Ninety Mile Beach.

New Zealand will always have a special place in my heart as it's the setting for many of my most memorable adventure firsts. It is where I first sky-dived (a 45-second freefall over the teal blue Lake Taupo), first white-water rafted (a white-knuckle plunge over the seven-metre-high Tutea Falls) and first set foot in a jet boat (a thrilling boulder-skimming rush down the Dart River). Without exception, every activity was well-organised, safe and delivered with an entertaining dose of deadpan Kiwi humour.

It's a remarkable achievement that this slither of a country has established itself as a global adventure centre. And it says a lot about Kiwis' entrepreneurial attitude and indomitable spirit.

I still have a long list of adventure activities I want to tick off. I'd like to go canyoning in the Waitakeres west of Auckland, abseil into the dark depths of Waitomo's Lost World cave and snowmobile through the pristine powder of the Garvie Mountains. And, who knows, one day I may even pluck up the courage to leap off Kawarau Bridge. Rob McFarland

THE TASTES

HYAJ32 Vineyard in Gibbston Valley, New Zealand. Central Otago is the southernmost wine region in the world and mostly famous for its Pinot Noirs and white w Traveller ALAMY
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Central Otago is one of New Zealand's best wine regions. Photo: Alamy

The first time I tried New Zealand's famed sauvignon blanc, which put the country on the wine map, I was visiting Marlborough. I'd ventured south of Auckland, where I lived at the time. It was a glass of Cloudy Bay with heady notes of zesty lime and passionfruit.

Along with the rest of Australia (and much of the world), I haven't stopped drinking it since. I fell hard for New Zealand's cool-climate wines, not to mention its Pacific Rim inspired cuisine and fabulous coffee.

Like Australia, New Zealand cuisine is a product of its colonial past (think meat and three veg) but it's thrown off its culinary shackles.

Lamb, dairy and sustainable seafood, in particular, are the country's gastronomic stars.

I know of several locals that would dive for scallops, crayfish and paua (abalone), or reel in enough fresh snapper to fill their chilly bins. New Zealand's Bluff oysters are among the world's best, as well as green lip mussels and whitebait.

Celebrity chef Rick Stein, when given the choice of eating anywhere in the world, chose Fleur's Place on the shores of Moeraki, a sleepy seaside hamlet on New Zealand's South Island where seafood comes from trawler to plate.

Contemporary chefs such as London-based Peter Gordon, known as the father of fusion cuisine, are largely credited with elevating New Zealand food to another level by melding local ingredients and Pacific Rim culture. Josh Emett, ranked among the world's best chefs, pays homage to the southern landscape at his Queenstown restaurant Rata (he also runs four Madam Woo outlets and Auckland's Ostro).

Given that eating out in Auckland a decade ago was limited, and decent Asian cuisine, even of the no-frills variety, was hard to find, it's astounding to see what's now on offer. You can sip shochu cocktails at the uber-cool Fukuko bar, tuck into steamed pork buns at Blue Breeze Inn, and enjoy contemporary Indian cuisine at Sid Sahrawat's Cassia. Meanwhile, the Hip Group, blessed with the Midas touch, is quietly revolutionising Auckland's food scene one stylish eatery at a time.

Said to have more bars, restaurants and cafes per capita than New York, the nation's capital Wellington is home to celebrity chefs including Martin Bosley, Rex Morgan and Monique Fiso, whose Maori fine diner is booked out months in advance. With the Wairarapa wine region to the north and Marlborough to the south, wine lists offer New Zealand's best.

My favourite place to taste New Zealand, however, is in its urban cafes. It's where you can you start the day with poached eggs on artisan baked sourdough, chin wag with the locals (provided the All Blacks won on the weekend) and enjoy some of the world's best coffee. It's not known as the Land of the Long Flat White for nothing. Sheriden Rhodes

THE NATURE

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The North Island brown kiwi on a close up horizontal picture. A rare cute little bird endemic to New Zealand. A strange flightless species with long beak and brown feathers.

A kiwi, the symbol of New Zealand. Photo: Shutterstock

I wake on Ben Lomond Station near Queenstown in New Zealand's south and walk alone along the sharp line of a rocky ridge high above Moonlight Creek.

Heavy mist packs the valleys below me while mountains burst sporadically through the cloud and into luminous flashes of sunlight. It is a reminder that even at the most troubling of times, nature retains its intense and restorative beauty, especially in a country such as New Zealand.

Kilometre for kilometre, there's no nation on earth that can match this country for natural variety. From where I stand, tussock grasslands rise into barren mountaintops. Rivers rage through canyons, running blue where once they glittered with gold. Cross west through these mountains and the landscape falls away into tangles of rainforest nourished by up to seven metres of rain a year. Not far away, on the east coast, barely half a metre of rain falls.

It's a country where glaciers push through rainforest, fiords fray the southern coastline, and a band of active volcanoes runs through the heart of the North Island, releasing their energy like an escape valve on ever-belching White Island.

The ground boils and steams around Rotorua, creating lakes as vibrantly coloured as street art, while the thermal activity elsewhere around the country produces natural hot pools that offer soothing soaks.

There are beaches as black as others are white, and streams in Waitomo that pour through caves lit by constellations of glow-worms. Icebergs float about in lakes beneath the country's highest peaks.

New Zealand's only native land mammals are bats, and yet the wildlife encounters can be superb. Whales cruise by at Kaikoura, and I retain vivid memories of swimming years ago at Curio Bay in the Catlins, alone except for a pod of Hector's dolphins – the world's smallest and rarest dolphins, endemic to New Zealand – that surrounded me.

Three days after that morning on Ben Lomond Station, I am kayaking along the shores of Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island, a place where kiwis outnumber people by about 40 to one. Penguins peep from the water, a sea lion settles in for a nap on a beach, and an albatross looms as large as a plane as it touches down in the sea right beside me. Andrew Bain

A KIWI PERSPECTIVE

By Lauren Quaintance

Most people don't think of New Zealanders living in Australia as expatriates, as foreigners from some unknowable place. Partly that's geography – after all we're only separated by a few thousand kilometres of ocean – and partly that's shared history and culture: Anzacs, pavlovas and a love of sports played with an oval ball. New Zealand, however, is different and as a "Kiwi" who has lived in Australia for a dozen years there are things about my homeland that I miss profoundly, and they are the same things that any visitor really must experience.

THE BACH

Northland

The Russians call it a "dacha" and Australians a "weekender", but it's New Zealanders who have perfected the idea of the simple beach house. Some of the best examples of a traditional bach – usually a single storey fibrolite construction with a flat roof – can be found in sparsely populated Northland. While they may or may not have an indoor toilet, in all likelihood they will have a poster of New Zealand fish species tacked to a wall, and decades-old paperbacks stacked in the living room. Staying at a bach is an exercise in pleasurable deprivation. See bookabach.co.nz

COUNTRY TOWNS

Geraldine

The best road trip in New Zealand is from Christchurch to Wanaka on the Southern Tourist Route. Don't let the name confuse you; there is nothing especially "touristy" about this largely empty stretch of road that features some of the country's most spellbinding landscapes and one of its most perfectly formed small towns. The hub of a prosperous farming area, Geraldine is a thriving town (a village, really) with a bakery, a milk bar and a shop selling some of the best jams in New Zealand, which are made on a farm down the road. See barkers.co.nz

MAORI LANGUAGE

Waitangi

Expect to hear Maori words and phrases in everyday conversation – haere mai (welcome) kia kaha (stay strong) and aroha (love.) My favourite of these is turangawaewae – which literally means a "place to stand" and is used to refer to the places where you feel most empowered and connected, where you truly feel at home. You'll hear Maori, also known as te reo, used by everyone from bus drivers to shop assistants, but if you want to better understand the history of New Zealand and its language, head to the birthplace of the nation – Waitangi – and take in a kapa haka performance, a powerful mix of Maori song and dance.

BLACK SAND BEACHES

Karekare

Forget golden sand and gentle surf, it's the wild, black sand beaches of the North Island that linger in the imagination. Best known as the place that Jane Campion shot The Piano, there's something spiritual about Karekare, 35 kilometres from Auckland. With a vast expanse of volcanic black sand and thunderous surf, it's best enjoyed at dusk when you'll appreciate why this place has inspired some of New Zealand's best writers and filmmakers.

KIWI MUSIC

Wellington

Nothing reflects the laid-back New Zealand lifestyle – and the Polynesian heritage of so many New Zealanders – better than the unique sound of "dub" or New Zealand reggae. Wellington is where popular bands such as the seven-piece Fat Freddy's Drop got their start, and you can catch the next generation of dub musicians in bars such as the Rogue and Vagabond in the capital city's gritty Cuba Street precinct. See rogueandvagabond.co.nz

LISTEN: The things that will surprise you about New Zealand

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