Around 180 millions years ago, NZ broke away from a giant landmass called Gondwana and drifted 3,000kms south to where it sits today. Polynesians sailed there and nicknamed it Aotearoa ie "Land of the long white cloud". A Dutch explorer arrived later, naming the land "Nieuw Zeeland" hence it now goes by both names. Nowadays the remote country is more known for hobbits, rugby and sheep but its main draw are the beautiful natural environments: national parks, wild glassy oceans and spanning lakes.
Self drive is the most popular and convenient way to see the country. I hired a car from Scottys. NZ roads are excellent, although small scenic back-country roads often are gravel so require a four wheel drive. Motorhomes are also very popular.
Auckland is a large, spread-out city with a cosmopolitan makeup. Kiwis (nickname for New Zealanders based on their national bird) are fond of the outdoors, and Aucklanders are no different. The city is built on an isthmus between two harbours, and with rugged hills and black-sand beaches to the west and golden bays to the north. You will never see locals in Auckland use umbrellas, as they know the wind will just make them useless.
Hobbiton is the farm-turned-filmset where they filmed parts of the Lord of the Rings & Hobbit movies. The NZ army helped build Hobbiton in return for roles as ogres.
Rotorua, a town set on its namesake lake, is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The Maori are Polynesian settlers who arrived in New Zealand on huge whaka (canoe) in the 13th century before "somehow willingly" ceding sovereignity to the British with the Treaty of Waitangi.. Rotorua is home to a living Maori village that can be visited. Maori names are a mouthful, I doubt I pronounced them correctly.
Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley
Waimangu Valley was born when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886 and is the world's youngest geothermal system. Awesome geothermal experiences include "Frying pan Lake", unique thermal plants, the world's largest hot spring, the huge 'Inferno crater', and the fractured 'cathedral rocks' vent that beautifully billows of steam.
Taupo is a tourist hotspot and one of the most unique and picturesque areas. Defined geographically by an ancient volcanic landscape, the largest freshwater crater lake in Australasia, geothermal attractions, and the mountains. One way to visit the lake is with the Ernest Kemp cruise - with the hand railing is a free 25 tonnes manicure if not careful. Beautiful scenery throughout, though the wind had a bite to it so if you do the titanic pose, you might end up with an impromptu swim.
Tongariro Alpine crossing
Often described as New Zealand best one day alpine trek, this 19.4km tramp is simply breathtaking and covers some of the most dramatic landscape you'll ever see. Passing over varied and spectacular volcanic terrain, in the presence of active volcanoes. A cold mountain spring, lava flow, active crater, steam vents, emerald coloured lakes and magnificent views combine to make this a memorable and arduous day. The hike is often subject to severe weather conditions that can change very quickly so best to check beforehand. You will need to book a shuttle to either the start or the end of the hike, as you'll end up 19 kilometres from the starting point.
One of the volcanoes you pass by is actually Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, so you can take a ring along and throw it in the crater.