New Zealand is a geographical everyman — or, more accurately, everyplace. At just a bit over one-and-a-half times the size of the state of Oklahoma, it is blessed with such variety of scenery that it has become one of the world's favorite go-to spots for movie locations, standing in for sites as diverse as the sand dunes of Turkey or the Himalayas.
It's a narrow country made up of two main islands and a number of smaller ones, stretching more than 1,000 miles from north to south, equivalent to the distance between Minneapolis and Austin.
My husband, Jack, and I started our exploration on the North Island in the Waikato region, the fourth largest of New Zealand's 16 regions (similar to counties). The region features New Zealand's longest river (the Waikato), largest lake (Lake Taupo), native forests and some of the country's most important geothermal sites
It's also an area with lush, rolling hills and pastures dotted with sheep — perfect for the location of “Hobbiton,” home of the little stars of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. The popularity of these movies has done wonders for the tourism industry of the country. The Hobbiton site near Matamata is the only place where original set pieces remain.
At the southern tip of the North Island is Wellington, capital of the country. Named “Coolest Little Capital in the World” by Lonely Planet in 2011, Wellington lives up to the name for its lively art and culture scene.
The town embraces the harbor where boats, large and small, skitter across blue water. Our quick tour around town included a cable car ride up the hill to Kelburn Lookout and a The Cable Car Museum tells the history of the century-old funicular. Nearby, paths wind through the 60 acre Botanic Gardens.
Down the hill, in downtown, is the “Beehive,” the executive wing of the national government. Its modern architecture is an odd companion to the neo-classical Parliament House and the Victorian Gothic Parliamentary Library.
Just a few blocks away, stands Old St. Paul's — still consecrated but not in use as a parish church. Built in 1866, the wooden building is an example of 19th century Gothic adapted to colonial conditions. It's a sentimental favorite with many American tourists because it honors American troops, specifically members of the U.S. Marine Corps Second Division, who trained and recuperated in New Zealand during the battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The American flag and division colors are on permanent display and an annual memorial service is held in the church.
Wellington is also home to Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand. The museum covers Maori, New Zealand, and the Pacific area history, art and natural environment. My favorite exhibit was the colossal squid, a 14 foot-long, 1000-pound cephalopod which was caught in 1997. The work it took to get this preserved and displayed is a great story.
From Wellington, it's about an hour's journey north to the Wairarapa wine area. Martinborough, a small village, boasts more than 25 wineries within walking distance of the town square — and more nearby. The soil here is similar to that of the Burgundy region of France and this area is now the country's primary producer of pinot noir wines.
The Martinborough Vineyard, one of the founding wineries in the area, has produced a number of medal-winning pinots in a picture-book setting. Wildflowers grow between the rows of grapes and mounds of colorful flowers and curtains of hanging blooms surround the buildings.