Driving north from Auckland, you might be surprised to find yourself in need of a translator.

The Maori language is now so prevalent on street signs that your maps should be bang up to date.

New Zealand has committed to bilingual road signs by 2023, with Indigenous names first and in the largest font. It’s an important reminder that the Land of the Long White Cloud and haka is different. And that’s just the way it should be.

Our neighbour may be only a three-hour flight away, but New Zealand is as gloriously different as it could be – though, of course, there are a few echoes of home.

We’re on a lightning visit to Auckland and the surrounding countryside which underlines the differences – and similarities – between our two cultures. Australia may be 29 times bigger, but New Zealand is every bit as fascinating and culturally diverse.

Thankfully, hours before we touch down, the New Zealand government relaxes the hard-line pandemic measures that have ruled out visits for two years. Apart from taking a RAT test (free kits on arrival) on our first day and sending the negative results by text, we only had to remember to wear masks on public transport and in shopping malls.

A second RAT test is required on day five of a New Zealand stay.

We’re staying at the uber-trendy SO/ Auckland hotel in Britomart, on the harbour. It’s a short hop to the ferry terminal and slap in the middle of a trove of designer shops and new-wave eateries.

The foyer is filled with sequined mannequins and chandeliers, and our suite is designer cutting edge, with black-marble bathrooms and a balcony view of the sea.

Window shopping in the laneways, where Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester rub shoulder pads with Tiffany, Gucci and Dior, is a great way to while away some time.

But we spend our first day on Waiheke (Wai-heh-kee) – sometimes known as the Island of Wine.

It’s a 45-minute ferry ride to this extraordinary outpost where 30 vineyards jostle for space on 92 square kilometres and most of the 9700 population works either in hospitality or wine. You can hike, bike or kayak your way around the coastline, or slide across the valleys on a zip line.

Jenny McDonald, a former district nurse, has been running Ananda Tours for two decades. A trip with her means everyone will give you a cheery wave.

The island’s specialty is big reds. We try Stonyridge – its Larose 1987 was voted the best red ever made in this country, and its ripe plums, berry fruits and vanilla flavours make it the most collectable wine in New Zealand.

We are happy to confirm it is truly delicious. You can buy it through its own fan club – En Primeur Larose Loyalty Club at Stonyridge.com. Sadly, as winemaker Martin Pickering said, just 9.5 hectares and a determination to produce only high-quality wines mean there isn’t much of it. The 2019 vintage costs $338 a bottle. 

Over at Mudbrick, an award-winning restaurant and stunning views of the Hauraki Gulf and the Auckland skyline make this winery a must-book for weddings and corporate events, and big reds and fascinating whites are the order of the day.

For lunch, we feast on oysters from a farm on the Te Matuku Marine Reserve at the southeast corner of the island.

On the way to the ferry, we stop by a stunning Tuscan-coloured house and studio built by American abstract painter Gabriella Lewenz – and she’s at home to show us around.

Ms Lewenz and her family moved to this remote location 27 years ago, but her works are in private collections throughout the EU, US, Canada, UK, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan and Singapore.

But her story is fascinating. She and her husband built this amazing Tuscan-style villa, and found a mudbrick maker to complete it. It’s almost as abstract as her paintings, with distressed marble tiles and driftwood stairs.

These are the stories that make New Zealand such a fascinating destination.

The next day, we are driving north in a bus with a French tour guide, on our way to Matakana.

Here, the tales are all about art. Sculpture, to be precise.

The Brick Bay sculpture trail was built by one of New Zealand’s richest families, the Didsburys. The works are amusing and fun – and outdoors. About as far from a traditional museum as you can get.

There are “Global Weirding” road signs, giant chrome waves, all buried deep in a forest where speakers play choral music. It’s certainly different.

After a platter of dips, meats and local olives, we adjourn to the Sculpuream – home to the eclectic but absorbing collection of Anthony and Sandra Grant, two lawyers who simply collected and collected and collected.

The 25 hectares of glass, brass, rock and driftwood are astonishing. This couple’s obsession has produced a unique collection and it’s no surprise they needed to buy a park to exhibit it.

As we drive back to the city, past new dormitory towns of gleaming low-rise public housing, there’s time to reflect on how this part of the country has managed its mix of rustic beauty and city chic.

Back in town, we dine at the QT Hotel’s Esther – where chef Sean Connolly has managed to produce an amalgam of gorgeous Mediterranean such as Portobello mushroom and labneh in chilli oil and gnocchetti sardi and Tasmanian octopus ragu.

We round off the evening at the hotel’s rooftop bar and the manager kindly opens the roof so we can glimpse Auckland’s famous Sky Tower with its pink lights.

To complete our culinary tour, we breakfast at the Homeland, a cooking school, produce shop and restaurant which calls itself an embassy for Aotearoa and The Pacific. 

This is Maori fare, cooked by renowned chef Peter Gordon, who has taken the food around the world for 30 years and has now settled at his “embassy” to pass on his knowledge. 

On the menu is hangi pork belly, fried banana and date tamarind puree, or our choice: paua, a Zealand species of large edible sea snails, in cream on Ciabatta bread. 

It’s a fabulous dining experience, and culturally unique. 

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said recently that Australia and New Zealand belong on the same holiday itinerary because they are so similar. 

No, they don’t.

As the Aldi add says: Good. Different. 

Take me there

Fly: We flew to Auckland with Qantas – from $496 one way (if you want premium, business or first, there are virtually no seats to be had).

Getting around: The ferry to Waiheke costs $46.

Stay: The SO/ Auckland Hotel was fabulously central. Our suite costs $757.94 including breakfast. Book at all.accor.com

Tour: Ananda tour of Waiheke Island start at $195. See Ananda.co.nz

Deals: For specials on trips to Auckland and surrounds, see book.exploretravel.com.au

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