Please don’t call New Zealand paradise.
The island country, like any, has its share of ills, from the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world to a brain drain that, for years, sucked many of its brightest away to places less remote — which would be just about anywhere. New Zealand, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, is far from everything, a fact that’s both its challenge and its treasure.
That’s the message drilled into me by my college friend Kyle, a New York-reared writer who married a Kiwi and who managed a farm on the country’s north island.
Countless travelers fantasize about New Zealand as a place untouched by much of the world’s bustle and strain. It has also greatly inflated the country’s tourist trade that it’s commonly seen, and actively promoted, as “Middle Earth,” courtesy of “The Lord of the Rings” movies filmed here, along with countless other fantasy flicks, right up through “A Wrinkle In Time.” “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson has his Weta Workshop in the capital city of Wellington, while his fellow mega-budget fantasy director James Cameron owns a farm in nearby Wairarapa Valley.
The projects produced by those two alone have gone a small ways towards reversing the country’s “brain drain,” giving local creatives work while drawing talented geeks from around the globe. The last two decades have also rallied locals through the rise of New Zealand’s wine industry, which now produces world class product I downed on Waiheke Island, near the city of Auckland, and in the lush vineyards of Marlborough on the northeastern tip of the South Island.
I paired the boozy beauties with the country’s coveted cheeses, some of which are creamy and complex enough to threaten France. Dairy products spar with tourism and wood as the top industries here. Though New Zealand may also be heralded for its prized lamb, in my week-long trip I heard far more mooing from cows than bleating from sheep, accounting for those rich cheese products. Cows rule the North Island, where I spent my trip. The less-touristy North Island boasts a screen-saver-worthy beauty that rivals the more mountainous and remote south.
The island also offers great opportunities for bicycle fetishists like me. During my stay, I took four cycling jaunts, each vastly different in challenge and setting. The first sent me around downtown Auckland, which boasts many dedicated lanes, all easily navigable, despite the city’s hilly topography. Biking let me breeze through the Wynyard Quarter which snakes around the wide harbor, on over to the Britomart precinct, which features some of the few heritage Victorian buildings preserved in a town more prone to tearing-down-and building anew. That’s especially true now that tourism has brought in tons of fresh cash, while also driving up prices in Auckland.
For a sense of New Zealand’s sadly buried history, two museums are musts. The Maritime Museum (maritimemuseum.co.nz), by the harbor, finds its highlight in the finely carved wooden ships created by the native Maori people. It’s mind-boggling to realize they only arrived here, from Polynesia, 800 years ago.
Up a few hills, you’ll find The Auckland Museum (aucklandmuseum.com), which features a perfectly chiseled Maori meeting house (a wharenui) which you can enter, along with a fun immersive simulation of the volcano blow that’s always threatening to turn the place into the next Pompeii. (Earthquakes are common around here). Ditching the bike, I took a fast, 35-minute ferry out to Waiheke Island, which boasts first-class wineries. A highlight was Passage Rock, where I sipped a Reserve Chardonnay that lingered on the pallet. The rolling land has equal staying power. Views from tony wineries like Mudbrick Vineyard stretch all the way back to the city.
Snaking down to the picturesque town of Rotorua, I stopped at Hobbiton, the set for all flicks related to works by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. You can see why Peter Jackson chose this dreamy sheep farm over the zillion others he rejected. The sculpted land, by the Kaimai Range of mountains, evokes a children’s book in a way that seduced even me, who’s bored by fantasy flicks.
Far more legit is Rotorua, the center of New Zealand’s Maori life. Here, you can learn about the rich culture, and cruel treatment, of the indigenous people. Te Puia (tepuia.com), a center dedicated to their culture, is the best place to absorb all that. You’ll see how traditional wood carving, and craft-making, are being handed down to the young Maoris who study here. At the same time, the place offers one of those kitschy native-dance/dinner theater showcases made to wow the Carnival Cruise crowd.
There’s also a reliably blow-happy geyser on the property. It’s one of the most active of the sulfur spews that ring Rotorua. You can experience them most tranquilly by soaking in one of 28 hot pools at the Polynesian Spa (polynesianspa.co.nz). The property has a warming view of the central lake.
The town’s other draw are its many adrenaline activities, the most local of which is “Zorbing,” in which you’re shoved into a giant spinning orb and thrown down a hill, turning you into a human ping pong ball. I got my jollies instead on Mohawk Ebike Tours (mohawkmtb.com), via one of their runs though the local redwood forest. There, you can race up, and bomb down, insanely high and winding hills. Exciting, too, was my Volconic Air (volcanicair.co.nz) helicopter ride that landed me smack in the middle of an active volcano (White Island). There, you can walk around the lunar-like interior and gape at a deep inner lake, when not choking on the spewing sulfur that turns the loveliest part of the landscape lemon yellow.
My last stop was Wellington, the once sleepy seat of government which has transformed into an arty, Portlandia type town, complete with challenging hills and charming wooden Victorian architecture. The country’s national museum, Te Papa (tepapa.govt.nz), which anchors the harbor, is a vast resource of historic and modern art pieces, crowned by a new $8.4 million Toi Art gallery.
Fantasy fans who weren’t sated by Hobbiton can tour Weta Workshop (wetaworkshop.com) to see how all those gnarly special effects are created. One hour north lies the Napa Valley-like Wairarapa Valley, which contains James Cameron’s vegan-pure Food Forest Organics (foodforestorganics.co.nz) shop in adorably precious Greytown. I had the most leisurely, and drunken, bike experience of my trip here, via Green Jersey tours (greenjersey.co.nz), which wound me through many wine tastings. Maybe it was the booze, but as I peddled through this blissfully flat land, I found myself thinking, “So what if New Zealand isn’t paradise? Parts come as close as earth is likely to get.”
Fly: Air New Zealand has great deals, with non-stops from L.A. and Chicago as low as $1,035. New Yorkers just need to get to those cities first.
In Wellington: Grand Mercure (accorhotels.com) has wide views from its hilly perch.
In Wairapa Valley: Peppers Parehua (peppers.co.nz) in Martinborough is a luxury indulgence with its own private lake.
In Auckland: Heritage Auckland (heritagehotels.co.nz) is prized for its location by the harbor.
In Rotorua: Regent of Rotorua (regentrotorua.co.nz) has a zany, gothic design.