IT'S almost impossible to pick out one single highlight after travelling in New Zealand when there are a multitude of unforgettable moments.
Both North and South Islands are lusciously green, featuring diverse landscapes and unbelievably wide open spaces.
Be prepared to be amazed.
On a driving tour, you can see a kaleidoscope of changing countryside with rugged mountains, picturesque fiords, spectacular glaciers, rolling hillsides, vast plains, subtropical forest, volcanic plateau and miles of coastline with sandy beaches.
Much of these landscapes are protected by national parks with thousands of kilometres of walking trails opening their beauty to the public.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of some of the highlights I experienced in Christchurch, Canterbury and the Banks
Peninsula, followed by Rotorua and Hamilton-Waikato region.
Positive Christchurch vibes
The South Island's largest city, Christchurch reveals the heritage of early English settlers in the architecture of older buildings.
The Garden City pulsates with positive vibes: rebuilding and moving forward from devastating earthquakes in recent times.
Christchurch Canterbury Tourism CEO Tim Hunter is optimistic about the future. More than an estimated $30 billion is being put into the reconstruction program.
Apart from the Christchurch Cathedral, other prominent places of interest include the beautiful Neo-Gothic Arts Centre, Canterbury Museum and the Botanical Gardens.
These gardens are an oasis in the city featuring more than 20ha of beautiful horticultural displays, several conservatories, memorials, garden art and walking tracks.
You have to see the Botanic Gardens from the Avon River onboard an Edwardian punt followed by unwinding at the Peppers Clearwater Resort.
Make your way to Governor's Bay and discover the magic of SHE Chocolat and tantalise your sweet tooth.
Be dazzled by the beautiful harbours, volcanic hills and passes and hidden bays as you make your way to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula.
Here, you have a chance to marvel at the world's smallest and rarest dolphins called Hector's dolphins, fur seals, little blue penguins and a myriad of birdlife. Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora) and Lake Forsyth (Te Waiwera) are home to more than 100 species of local and migratory birds.
Freshen up at the Akaroa Village Inn, then take lessons from Lou and Ant Bentley, from the Akaroa Cooking School. They have put their heart and soul into this venture.
The Giant's House is a historic residence with original artworks, terraced gardens with sculptures and mosaics that are the brainchild of Josie Martin. Visit the Canterbury Museum and see the cool design exhibits together with "real" people.
Back in Christchurch, stay at the Huntley Lodge that's set in park-like gardens in a tranquil, secluded environment, offering all the charms of yesteryear, combined with modern luxuries.
Highlights of Rotorua
Rotorua straddles two tectonic plates and sits on the Pacific Rim of Fire that has resulted in some spectacular geothermal areas and volcanoes, some of which are still active.
You can see this geothermal activity close up with spouting geysers, hot water and bubbling mud pools.
An authentic introduction to Maori culture awaits at the Mitai Maori Village. Then visit Te Puia New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where the traditional welcome - the Powhiri - is an exciting start to the evening.
Be thrilled by the challenge of Maori warriors or the spine-tingling cry of Maori women as they welcome visitors in their powerful and time-honoured way.
Explore the heart of Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, with Pohutu Geyser illuminated as a natural and spectacular backdrop.
For great dining, fine wine, good company and fabulous entertainment, make a point of visiting the Spanish mission-style Blue Baths, set in the tranquil beauty of Rotorua's Government Gardens.
Head down to the world-renowned Whakarewarewa Forest for an energetic mountain bike ride, run or brisk walk to start the day. Take a guided tour by KiaOra Guided City Walks around Government Gardens, be adventurous and go on a guided mountain bike tour and traverse the geothermal park and bathe in the mud pools at WaiOra Hells Gate geothermal reserve.
Hamilton Waikato will amaze
On the drive to Hamilton on the banks of the Waikato River, you can't go past the world-famous Glowworm and Ruakuri caves.
Then enjoy a lamb burger at HuHu Café and after dinner at the Smith and McKenzie Restaurant (a vibrant New York-style steakhouse), spend the night at Kingsgate Hotel.
An hour's drive the next morning gets you to Raglan, a popular destination for artists, surfers and local weekend holidaymakers alike.
See the town on a Bike 2 Bay tour, cruise on the Wahinemoe partaking of a barbecue lunch, be fascinated by the knowledge that Charlie Young, director of Discover Raglan, has amassed and be stunned by the rugged scenery and Whaingaroa Harbour.
Travel to Manu Bay in an electric bus to the famous surfbreak, go on a 17km quadbike safari, ably assisted by Percy Kukutai and Dennis Holland.
Then end the day on a winning note with a sumptuous dinner at Orca, followed by a good night's rest at the Raglan Sunset Motel.
Raglan Scenic Tours takes you to Bridal Veil Falls, a spectacular 55m cascade near Raglan that's set in a beautiful native bush reserve. Enroute to Rotorua International Airport, a lunch stop in quirky Tirau uncovers funky corrugated iron animals and sculptures.
This was an incredible, ever-memorable, welcome to New Zealand. Kia Ora!
The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand, Destination Rotorua Marketing and Hamilton and Waikato Tourism
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT NEW ZEALAND
Air New Zealand has regular flights from Australia to New Zealand cities. Check out the website: airnewzealand.com.au
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