New Zealand

Tours provide new perspectives to this magic land.

Hot air ballooning is easy to find in both the North and South Islands.


There is no question that New Zealand is one of the world’s most beautiful spots. This is a destination that forces visitors to literally stand back and gasp at unrivaled natural splendors. If there’s any doubt about its beauty, one has to but watch Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—the unabashed cinematic love poems to the country and filmed entirely within New Zealand.

Tongariro National Park, for example, is one of the most magnificent places in this stunning land. Its backdrop is three jaw-dropping volcanic peaks: Ruapehu, at nearly 10,000 ft., an active mountain that periodically spews clouds of ash and vapor; Tongariro, a web of sinister, pre-historic craters; and Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the movies), which just might be the most symmetrically perfect conical mountain on earth.

Much how like South Dakota’s Sioux value the Black Hills, the Maori, New Zealand’s native people think of the volcanoes as being “tapu,” a vague word meaning either “sacred” or “revered.” In a stroke of foresight of the highest order, and to keep the mountains from being sacrilegiously torn asunder by early English settlers, a Maori chieftain transferred them in 1887 to Queen Victoria’s personal care while bestowing all land surrounding the summits to the people of New Zealand. The area became the country’s first national park and presently is a protected tract of almost 200,000 acres.

Tongariro is the highlight of many a visit to New Zealand.

Another fascinating spot is Fiordland National Park on the South Island, one of the world’s wettest zones, with a rugged chain of mountains separating it from the Tasman Sea, where 14 rutted inlets make up the majestic fiords that give the region its name.

River bugging, a new way to conquer white-water.

Then there are the cities that give the country a distinctive urban panache. Their names roll off the tongue easily: Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and a multitude of lesser towns with unmistakable New Zealand character stamped all over them.

With all this beauty it’s no wonder that New Zealand was recently ranked as one of the “most desirable” destinations in the world by a variety of travel websites and magazines, despite the havoc caused by a devastating earthquake in February 2011.

“Although there was great destruction on the South Island and tourism to Christchurch suffered tremendously,” says Gregg Anderson, general manager, Western markets, for the New Zealand Tourism Board, “the area is now very close to full recovery.”

The recovery has been so rapid that American visitors to New Zealand grew by more than 2 percent during December 2011, when nearly 25,000 U.S. tourists visited.

Anderson adds that cruise liners avoided Christchurch after the quake, but tourism held steady, as the ships dropped anchor some 25 miles away in Akaroa, a colorful and historic British-French settlement that mesmerizes with its beauty.

This year, two southern New Zealand regions are particularly attracting international visitors. The Southern Lakes Region includes three major tourist destinations—Queenstown, Lake Wanaka and Fiordland—and promises to be a highly profitable destination in the southern hemisphere.

The second, Kaikoura, is the whale-watching capital and was recently awarded top honors by a worldwide environmental group for its community sustainability efforts, adding to the country’s already formidable sustainable tourism credentials.

Traveling to this fabulous land has never been easier. Air New Zealand, one of the world’s most lauded airlines, offers direct service (from about $998 roundtrip) from the U.S. west coast and its revolutionary “Skycouch”—seats that fold into beds—is changing the concept of economy seating while simultaneously winning many awards in innovation and design.

Those looking for adventure under the Southern Cross have a multitude of choices in the large number of tour companies listing New Zealand on their menu.

Since New Zealand is a relatively small country, tours—no matter their price—are bound to visit the same spots. The difference lies in the quality of accommodations, amenities, services offered and, of course, price.

Still, dipping the proverbial toe in New Zealand tour travel divulges that the cost of most tours does not vary dramatically, and that searching for low-end priced New Zealand tours is thorny since all travel there is far from inexpensive. So travelers basically face two choices: small, less expensive tour operators, or larger, more established companies.