New Zealand lies in the south-west Pacific Ocean, 1,600 km east of Australia. It is made up of the North and South Islands and a number of smaller islands, with a total land area of 268,000 sq km
New Zealand is the most geographically isolated of all countries. Its closest neighbour, Australia, is 2,000 km to the northwest of the main islands across the Tasman Sea. The only landmass to the south is Antarctica, and to the north are New Caledonia, Fiji, and Tonga.
Because of this geographical isolation, New Zealand was one of the last parts of the world to be occupied by humans. In contrast to Australia, the people considered to be indigenous, the Māori, only arrived themselves from Polynesia around 1300AD, just a few hundred years before settlement by Europeans. A good place to start to understand the history of conflict between Māori and Europeans is the Waitangi Treaty House in the Bay of Islands (open from 9am daily except Christmas Day).
The country has a high standard of living with GDP per capita estimated at $24,100.
The population now is mostly of European descent, with Māori being the largest minority.
Where to go and what to see in North Island:
The North Island is where Māori culture is most visible, and if you visit Rotorua, 230km (130 miles) south of Auckland, you can combine an introduction to the indigenous people with an experience of the geothermal activity of hot mud pools and geysers at Whakarewarewa village.
(Ironically, the tourist attraction of geothermal sights and smells has also had its downside in terms of natural disaster: in 2011 and 2012 Christchurch, on South Island, suffered a series of big earthquakes that destroyed over 1,000 buildings, including the magnificent cathedral, in the most European-style city in New Zealand.)
Napier is an attractive art deco city which owes its architectural beauty to an earthquake in 1931, which resulted in a complete re-build in the fashionable architecture of the period.
Wellington, the second largest city after Auckland, is the capital.
The Bay of Islands, in the extreme north of North Island, is magical for boating and sea fishing. Take the “Cream Trip” excursion to visit some of the islands.
The South Island is the largest land mass, and is divided along its length by the Southern Alps. The dramatic and varied landscape of New Zealand has made it a popular location for the production of television programmes and films, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Where to go and what to see in South Island:
Marlborough, the principal wine region of New Zealand, is the first area you pass through after crossing from North Island. There are plenty of wine tours and tastings on offer.
For whale and dolphin watching, head for Kaikoura on the east coast.
Queenstown is the place for extreme sports like bungy jumping and white-water rafting.
Arthur’s Pass, (elevation 920 metres) is accessible by train or car, and offers superb walks and a visitor centre.
The two glaciers on the west side are Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier.
Further to the south west are two fiords which could be the highlight of any visit to South Island, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.
Abel Tasman National Park in the north east offers a stunning coastline with opportunities for walking, kayaking and camping.
Tourist tips: most visitors land in Auckland and hire a car to drive to Wellington, but if you can do it the other way round you may get a cheaper rate as you are returning a car to where it is needed.
Secondly, if you are driving round both islands, most rental companies require you to leave your car at the port in North Island, take the ferry with your luggage and pick up a new car in South Island. Only a few companies allow you to keep the same car throughout your trip on both islands, which is much better.