It’s been named destination of the year seven times. Its national carrier has been voted best airline six times. But what makes New Zealand such an all-time favourite? Legend has it that the demi-god Māui was out fishing with his brothers when he dropped his magic fish hook into the water and pulled up a mighty fish. Te Ika a Māui, the fish of Māui, is now called the North Island of New Zealand, and there’s still plenty of magic to be found here. 

Readers of the UK Daily Telegraph recently voted New Zealand the Greatest Country on Earth for the seventh year, and there’s never been a better time to take advantage of our southern neighbour’s hospitality. If your time is limited, this week-long itinerary ticks off most of the top spots and includes a few extras the locals love. 

Start your trip with a couple of nights in Auckland, the sprawling harbour city the rest of New Zealand loves to hate. This multicultural hub draws together flavours of the Pacific, Asia and further afield to create a unique cosmopolitan vibe. Base yourself in a hotel in the heart of the CBD – try around Viaduct Harbour and Britomart train station – or avoid the crowds in the trendy inner-city suburb of Ponsonby. 

Spend a day visiting Waiheke Island, 40 minutes by ferry from downtown. You can rent cars or e-bikes to get around or use local buses and taxis. Have a luxurious long lunch at one of the many excellent wineries – Mudbrick is a great option for show-stopping views back across the water to Auckland – then walk off your meal on the easy scenic coastal track.

The Auckland Museum, in the parklands of the Domain, offers a well-curated insight into New Zealand’s history and culture in a short time; schedule your visit to catch one of the four daily Maori cultural performances. For 360-degree views of the city, venture up the tallest building downtown, the Sky Tower, or head to Mount Eden, a village-like suburb just outside the CBD, and take an easy walk up its namesake mountain.

Don’t dally more than a couple of days in Auckland; there’s lots more to see, so pick up your rental car or campervan and hit the road. A note: free camping is illegal in New Zealand so if you’re taking the campervan option, only stay in designated sites.

As you’re heading south, if you can spare an hour or so, detour slightly to the east to a town called Paeroa. It’s the home of New Zealand’s own soft drink, L&P (Lemon & Paeroa), and the town has commemorated it with a giant bottle at the end of main street. Snap a selfie in front of it – don’t worry, the Kiwis are doing it too – and grab a cold bottle from the local dairy (aka the newsagent). 

It’s just a 90-minute drive south to Rotorua where you’ll spend your next couple of nights. Don’t worry: you’ll get used to the smell. A literal hotspot of geothermal activity, the city has a distinctive, sulphurous aroma that can be a little off-putting at first. But there’s so much to do, you’ll forget about it in no time. Rotorua is an adventure playground and there’s plenty of thrill-seeking action; from family-friendly Zorb rides and the Skyline Luge to bungy jumping at Velocity Valley. You could easily fill your time with adrenaline, but Rotorua is also the heartland of Maori culture. Spend a few hours at Whakarewarewa Living Māori Village to learn about Maori traditions and enjoy a meal cooked in a traditional hangi. 

Leave Rotorua in the morning to give yourself enough time for a stop in Taupo, on the edge of the lake of the same name. The water on the surface is cold year-round, but if you brave it and dig into the sand in the right place, you’ll find the geothermal activity creates pockets of naturally hot water. There are plenty of bath complexes you can swim at, or you can do as the locals do and drive a little way out of town to the (free!) Otumuheke Stream for your soak. 

About 100 kilometres south of Taupo, you’ll find the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in spectacular Tongariro National Park. The crossing is the North Island’s most-epic day hike – 19.4 kilometres of pure, rugged New Zealand beauty – and the pinnacle of your journey.

The night before your planned walk, check in to the National Park Village – there is a range of sleeping options, from budget to higher end. Village staff will drop you off at the starting point of the hike and pick you up at the other end. The trail begins in the scrubby low-lying plains, before heading steeply up the aptly named Devil’s Staircase to the top of active volcano Mount Tongariro and along the treacherous ridge between its two craters, passing Mt Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings. From the summit, take in the breathtaking views of the other-worldly Emerald Lakes, before slogging down ankle-twisting volcanic scree winding past old lava flows and steam vents, and head back into the hilly tussock country. 

While it’s not a technically difficult hike, it’s challenging and the weather is unpredictable – even in summer there can be icy, windy conditions at the top – so make sure you’re adequately prepared with good walking shoes, cold- and wet-weather gear, lots of water and plenty of food. If the weather turns and you can’t do the hike on the day you planned, there are plenty of other activities to occupy you in the village. 

After your walk, you can spend another night in the village, or you drive three hours east to gorgeous Napier. This charming coastal city boasts tree-lined streets bursting with well-maintained Art Deco buildings, a thin strip of beach and easy access to one of the best and most beautiful wine regions in the country. Base yourself here for a night or two to spend a day exploring as many of the Hawke’s Bay wineries and beaches as possible; if you can’t convince anyone in your party to be the designated driver, you can join a van tour or rent bicycles. 

The final stop on your North Island highlights itinerary is Wellington, labelled “one of the coolest little capitals in the world” by Lonely Planet. Ditch your car on arrival – this compact city is best explored on foot. Nestled between green hills and a glittering harbour, Wellington has a thriving arts and culture scene, with plenty of live music, street performances and public artworks. 

The local catchphrase is “nothing beats Wellington on a good day” and if you’re blessed with glorious weather, follow the crowds down to the harbour for a drink in the sun at one of the many outdoor venues beside the water, or rent a kayak to paddle around the safe bays. 

If it’s a proper windy Wellington day, you’ll have an excuse to explore the city’s excellent food and drink scene. Follow Craft Beer Capital’s map for a self-guided tour of breweries and tap houses, or head to one of Cuba Street’s popular cafes (Midnight Espresso and Fidel’s are favourites for a reason). And whatever you do, don’t miss Te Papa, the spectacular contemporary museum at the south end of the harbour. 

From here, it’s an easy direct flight back to Australia, but there’s still so much to see, no doubt you’ll be back. Ka kite ano, see you again.

Take me there

Fly: Air New Zealand – recently named Airline of the Year 2020, the sixth time it has taken out the title – has deals on return flights to Auckland from Sydney ($366 return) or Melbourne ($317 return) in January 2020.

Drive: Rental for a minivan that sleeps two starts from $360 for one week. Or weekly car rental from Europcar starts at $600.

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Welcome to Middle-earth

About 170 kilometres south of Auckland, just outside the town of Matamata, you’ll find the Hobbiton Movie Set. Even those who haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings film series will be impressed by the incredible detail that’s gone into this miniature village. Access is only via guided tour and you’ll need to book well in advance – but it’s well worth it. You’ll explore the five-hectare site, have a drink at the Green Dragon Inn, before taking a peek at Bilbo’s house, the massive tree they painstakingly reconstructed piece-by-piece, and other key locations from the film. Adult Entry is $80/$40 for children aged 9-16, or $185 (discounts available for under 16s) for a tour at dusk followed by a banquet fit for a Hobbit.

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