New Zealand is proof that good things do come in small packages. Similar in size and population to the state of Oregon, New Zealand is phenomenally diverse in geography, and filled with friendly residents ready to show it off on a little “walk about” (‘little’ bearing no relationship to length or difficulty). Meeting life with a “no worries” attitude, they embody the native Maori welcome “kia ora” (good health). Completely sincere and unpretentious, no one here is ever “in a ratty” (a bad mood) since adaptability and hospitality are highly valued qualities.

That alone might explain why this small island country is often on the top of travelers’ bucket lists. But it’s the experiences and sites only found here which visitors come to see. In fact, its vistas and clear blue lakes are so dramatic that they were the setting for the mythical Hobbit film trilogy. And just as art can mimic real life, there are quite a few other things which make New Zealand’s two islands more than a little “otherworldly”:

  • Scientists believe the visible land is only the highest five percent of a submerged land mass meeting all criteria to be Earth’s eighth continent.
  • The kea, a giant parrot indigenous to the south island, routinely pulls rubber strips off windshield wipers and car door windows.
  • Home to the world’s smallest dolphin and heaviest insect (the giant weta), there are more species of penguins here than anywhere else. There’s also a giant carnivorous snail with a shell three inches in diameter.
  • The first country to have commercial bungee jumping as well as voting rights for women (completely unrelated facts!).
  • Sheep outnumber people nine to one.
  • The logo for the New Zealand Air Force is a Kiwi (a flightless bird). It’s also a fruit and the name for a New Zealand citizen. This little nocturnal bird is quite shy and almost extinct. (The “almost” remains unproven to us after every attempt to see one failed). The Kiwi’s near decimation from imported predators explains why the government strictly monitors what visitors bring into port.
  • In 1990, the government appointed a national wizard. Originally an eccentric tourist attraction in Christchurch, this man grew into a national treasure and was given the duty of “casting out evil spities.”

Much of New Zealand is rural. Choosing to drive (with a ferry linking the islands) is scenic, but limited roadside amenities and the challenge of driving on the opposite side of the road make it difficult. In fact, with so many accidents caused by travelweary visitors (especially after long flights), rental companies are often reluctant to lease. Gasoline is also expensive and with the boom in tourism, last minute lodging is rarely available. With no destination greater than 80 miles from the sea, the easiest transportation is by ship. But since cruises rarely dock for more than a day in any given port, passengers must choose between many compelling excursions. With research beforehand, those choices become clearer.

Normally beginning or ending in Auckland, cruises travel along east coast ports. Below are the most frequented harbors and the highlights of what each offers.

Auckland – Located at the top of the north island, Auckland’s population of 1.5 million is greater than that of the entire island to the south. The building boom of the last 30 years has unfortunately left little historic and architectural charm since demolition has far surpassed renovation. And with white concrete the predominant building material, even new construction often lacks any dynamic or modern features. Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower landmark may have been built in 1996 but looks like it stepped out of the 1970s (and it allows visitors to “step off” its observation deck attached to bungee cords). Located in the Central Business District, the tower’s rotating restaurant offers spectacular views of the city and harbor, as do the 46 dormant volcanoes throughout the city, especially from the highest of these, Mount Eden.One thing that was completely novel was the “scramble” intersection. Less frenetic than it sounds, signal lights stop all traffic at one time, allowing pedestrians to walk in every direction (including diagonally), simultaneously. To the unsuspecting it looks like chaos, but in reality it makes crossing extremely easy.

With the highest ratio of boats to people of any city in the world, Auckland’s renovated Waitemata Harbor is a hub of activity with warehouses now housing boutiques, restaurants, and the National Maritime Museum. An extensive ferry system is accessed through a beautiful but oddly out-of-place Neo-Baroque terminal providing easy access to the olive groves and wineries of Waiheke Island, charming parks and shops in Devonport, and a myriad of scenic day trips and harbor tours.

Auckland’s Ponsonby suburb is filled with Victorian-era homes, artist’s studios, and two popular destinations: Ponsonby Street (restaurants and boutiques) and Karangahape Road (bars and clubs).

Tauranga – With a population equal to Visalia, Tauranga is the fifth largest urban center in New Zealand. Located in the Bay of Plenty, it’s a mecca for fresh produce and connects by bridge to the beach and hot saltwater pools of Mount Maunganui.An hour’s drive southeast is the cultural and geothermal center of New Zealand: Rotorua. Home to indigenous Maori, excursions often include performances of traditional Haka war dances (designed to frighten enemies with fierce shouting and outstretched tongues) and Hangi feasts cooked over geothermal steam pits. A visit to thermal hot pools, geysers and alien-looking landscapes (complete with sulfurous smell) are a “must do”. Government Gardens are the oldest tourist venue in the southern hemisphere, complete with an original bathhouse where early 1900s Europeans sought “medicinal” volcano-heated mineral baths. Surrounded by a modern city, Kui-tau Park’s bubbling pools may look colorful and harmless, but the heat and chemical “stew” can kill.

Lord of the Rings fans can travel 45 minutes southwest from Tauranga to the rolling hills and lush pastures of Matamata and the movie set of The Shire. Nearby is yet another experience found only in New Zealand the glowworms of Waitomo Caves. Located in subterranean caverns, these moth larvae attach to the ceilings by sticky silken threads. Their mesmerizing, blue bioluminescent displays attract unsuspecting insects (then caught in the sticky lines) as well as many tourists (whose fate is decidedly better). If you don’t relish traversing muddy, pitch black caves dressed in a wetsuit while bobbing in an inner tube through cold streams and rapids (while dodging random stalactites and giant Weta crickets), experience it on YouTube instead!

Napier – Rebuilt in the art deco style after a devastating 1931 earthquake, Napier’s real claim to fame are the renowned vineyards and foodie haven of Hawke’s Bay. Also nearby are the largest nesting Gannet colonies (6,500 pairs of birds) in the world. Overseen by the Department of Conservation, private tours are available. The first chicks hatch in early November and the last leave in May for their solo migrations to Australia. Returning five years later, they find mates and stay for life.

Wellington – The southernmost capitol city in the world, Wellington sits at the base of the north island. Compact and easy to walk, its waterfront, beaches, and cable car up Mount Victoria are popular activities. Ride up for spectacular views and the cable car museum, but walk back down through the botanical gardens.

Picton – Located at the head of the north island in Queen Charlotte Sound, wine tours through neighboring Marlborough abound, as do ferries to Wellington.

Akaroa – A quaint seaside town, it’s the closest port to Christchurch after earthquakes destroyed Port Lyttleton. With Akaroa’s “Giant’s House” gardens and mosaic sculptures (reminiscent of Gaudi), colonial architecture, and tours to the rarest and ocean’s smallest dolphins and blue penguins, cruisers often stay around town. Tours to the nearby Canterbury plains and high country offer thrilling jet boats rides in the steep, walled gorge of the shallow Waimakariri River.Christchurch is two hours by car, or 15 minutes by helicopter, from Akaroa. With earthquakes in 2010, 2011, and again in 2016, many of the historic stone buildings are damaged or destroyed. But this city is resilient and in the midst of a cultural rebirth. The parks and botanical gardens are best enjoyed while sailing on the Avon River in a flat bottom boat (called a punt), complete with a punter (gondolier), in waistcoat and straw-boater hat.

Dunedin – This city’s name is old Gaelic for Edinburgh; the street names, stone buildings (complete with gargoyles and gables), kilt maker, statue of Scotland’s national poet and whiskey distillery could convince visitors they were there. Larnach Castle (more man-sion) and its bagpipes speak to a time when Dunedin was the wealthiest and most influential city in New Zealand. The Taieri Gorge Railway’s two trains, one departing from Port Chalmers (where larger ships dock) and the other from Dunedin’s magnificent train station, sweep through the rugged inland. Completed in 1904, this is the most photographed rail station in the world. No visit would be complete without touring Baldwin Street. With the steepest grade anywhere in the world (35 percent), the tough 10-minute trek to the top has homes built on flat foundations, which causes them to be at extreme angles to the street.Otago Peninsula tours to the breeding habitats for royal albatross (the only place where breeding occurs so close to human habitation), seals, tiny blue and/or yellow-eyed penguins, and (no-show) kiwi are another option.

Milford Sound – One of the world’s top destinations, the dramatic fjords, spectacular waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks at the base of the south island also are home to unique flora and fauna.