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.
Coney Wines offers a tasty lunch — served in the vineyard in nice weather. Wine names here have a musical twist — Pizzicato Pinot, Rallentando Riesling — and owner Tim Coney swears the grapes respond well to '70s music. Ata Rangi Wines is owned by a family partnership and makes a variety of wines including pinot noir, pinto gris, chardonnay, Riesling and sauvignon blanc.
We ended our tour not with wine but olive oil. Olivo is the oldest commercial grove in Wairarapa. Owners Helen and John Meehan specialize in extra virgin oils, which they frequently infuse with different herbs or spices — the bottle I bought was infused with smoked paprika.
John taught us how to taste olive oil. “First slurp it and coat your tongue,” he said. “Hold it, then suck air twice. Hold again and swallow. You'll get a peppery feel at the back of your throat. With really intense flavor, you may even cough.” Who knew?
By plane we went from the southern tip of the North Island to the southern part of the South Island and Queenstown. On the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is headquarters for travelers looking for great outdoor adventures. Thrill-seekers will find opportunities to bungy jump, paraglide, hang glide, sky dive, zip line or white-water raft.
Jack and I, not having a death wish, passed on these choices, choosing instead a jet boat trip up the lake into the Dart River and Mount Aspiring National Park.
The Dart is a braided river — shallow streams splitting and winding over a gravel bed. The boat operators have to know the river intimately to determine the changing channels as they zip over inches-deep water at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. High mountains, quiet coves and tumbling waterfalls present spectacular photo-ops.
Nomad Safaris have a number of touring options, taking you into the backcountry most tourists never see. Or you can do as we did and focus on Lord of the Rings film sites, which included having tea in a beautiful beech forest, the movies' Forest of Lothlorien. Lunch was served al fresco at Kinloch Lodge, a hostelry and restaurant overlooking the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Our spread included several local specialties — Whitestone cheese, Kinloch applesauce, home-baked bread, and New Zealand green-lipped mussels.
In our far too short seven day trip, we discovered just a few of New Zealand's many delights. The greatest one, however, was the Kiwis themselves. Self-effacing, unfailingly polite and with a cheeky sense of humor, New Zealanders can make the best of a miserable situation — the 13-hour flight from the West Coast to New Zealand.
The library wallpaper in the Air New Zealand airplane bathroom featured titles like Porcelain Polisher's Guide and Uncovered: A Brief History of Underwear. On an in-country flight, attendants wore print vests decorated with quirky drawings and humorous quotes. They even served tea and candies before we left the ground. And Hobbits presented the in-flight safety video.
Before our flight home, we toasted one another with a glass of wine and said goodbye to New Zealand with a traditional Maori phrase, “kia ora.” Used for hellos and farewells, the words mean “be well.” And we added, “We'll be back.”