New Zealand in a nutshell

A 101 guide to New Zealand

New Zealand lies 1,6500 km (900 miles) southeast of Australia across the Tasman Sea. The nation stretches about 1,000 miles across two major islands: a North Island, home to 3.3 million people, and a South Island, home to just over 1 million.

The vast majority of these people live in Auckland (1.3 million) and the other cities—though none outside Auckland is very large. The capital, Wellington, and the South Islands' main city, Christchurch, have around 390,000 each.

In fact, if you take away the populations of just the top five urban areas, it leaves only a little under 2 million people to populate the entirety of the rest of the country. So, yeah: its pretty empty.

However, New Zealand is more than just its old rep as "clean, green, and full of sheep." With place-names like Bay of Plenty, Inferno Crater, Mount Aspiring, and a set of mountains called the Remarkables, you can tell this is going to be a fun land to explore.

New Zealand layout


The capital of Polynesia?
Auckland is home to the world's largest population of Polynesians.

Unlike most places where the clash between colonials and indigenous peoples have left a shameful legacy of oppressed minorities, New Zealand's native Maori have been much better integrated into general Kiwi society as full-fledged members who nevertheless manage to maintain their traditions.

In fact, rather than compeltely steamrolling native the pre-existing culture, New Zealand's Pakeha (non-Maori) have adopted many elements of Maori language and customs to create a more inclusive, synthetic Kiwi culture.

It has not been all peaches and cream, of course, but compared to, say, the Aboriginies in Australia or Native Americans in the U.S., the current state of Maori-Pakeha relations is downright sunny—and an excellent model for the rest of the planet.
One journalist described Auckland just ten years ago as "like Secaucus, New Jersey, only with lots more boats."

Nowadays, New Zeland's main city is a regular cosmopolitan metropolis, with restaurants to write home about, thriving nightlife, a theater scene, and, yes, lot and lots of boats.

Elsewhere on the North Island

Auckland is New Zealand's major metropolis, but the capital city is Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. Welly also boasts a vibrant cultural scene and friendly attitude. Surrounded by water on three sides, flanked by numerous parks and reserves, and blessed with excellent restaurants, Wellington is often cited by visitors as their favorite city in New Zealand.

By a lake in the center of the North Island lies its adventure capital, Rotorua, where the earth grumbles in geysers and bubbling mud pools in the nearby volcanic region of Waiotapu, and where you can engage in all sorts of fun and foolhardy sporting adventures, from adrealine activities to whitewater rafting to mountain biking (with a soak in the geothermal pools of the lakeside Ploynesian Spa afterwards to sooth your aching muscles).

Outside the cities—and that what you truly come to NZ for, to get out and see the gorgeous landscapes—a few North Island must-sees include the dramatic shoreline and postcard coves of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Northland with its Bay of Islands boating trips and the azure-watered sugar-sands of 90 Mile Beach, the Art Deco architecture of Napier surrounded by excellent vineyards, and the lake-filled underground caverns of Waitomo where you can abseil (rappel) into the deep dark to marvel at glowworms, jump off waterfalls, and raft underground rivers.

The South Island

A.K.A. Middle Earth
Kiwi filmmaker Peter Jackson shot his entire blockbuster Lord of the Rings movie trilogy here in New Zealand... Full Story
On the South Island, you can get your thrill on in Queenstown, New Zealand's adrenaline capital and gateway to the adventure sports that go so well with New Zealand's laid-back-yet-adventurous Kiwi attitude and its seemingly limitless supply of wilderness. You can risk life and limb at everything from the sober (skiing and trekking) to the daredevil (bungee jumping—which was invented in New Zealand—parasailing, jetboating, and other things not generally covered by your travel insurance). 

The city of Christchurch, by contrast, is a city of genteel charm with Victorian and Gothic-style architecture, has been voted variously the "Garden City of the World"-one-eighth of its land is public park or garden-and "The Friendliest City in the World." Sadly, much of the the city core remains cordoned off folloing the devastating February, 2011 earthquake (and more than 8,000 aftershocks)—but Christchurch is rebuilding and slowly coming back.

You can go sea kayaking with the seals on the South Island's Abel Tasman National Park.

Dunedin in the southeast is the gateway to the Otago Peninsula, home to rare albatross and penguin breeding colonies.

At the very southerly ends of the South Island lies the homey farmland city of Invercargill, gateway to the Catlins, a native forest rich in flora (including petrified forests) and fauna (elephant seals, penguins, blue ducks, and more).

The very southwest of the South Island, two hours south of Queestown, is a kind of South pacific version of Norway miles to the west lies the dramatic and vast Fiordlands National Park of towering mountains, deep lakes, and, of course, narrow coastal fjords.

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in October 2011.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.