Ten years ago the film trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” made J. R. R. Tolkien fans out of millions of moviegoers. Building on that success, New Zealand director Peter Jackson has created a second trilogy based on another Tolkien novel “The Hobbit.” The first film in the series, “An Unexpected Journey,” opened last year and tallied over a billion dollars at the box office. Part 2, “The Desolation of Smaug,” will be released Dec. 13.
While these Tolkien fantasies include fascinating characters, dramatic sagas, and epic journeys, there is an unbilled star behind every frame: the spectacular scenery of New Zealand. Those majestic mountain ranges, stunning alpine lakes, craggy fiords, and ancient forests are all part of a country waiting to be explored. Here are 10 reasons to make the journey:
1. New Zealand is uncrowded and relatively unspoiled. National parks and reserves make up a third of its land. Its small population (4.5 million people in a land nearly the size of California), its remoteness from other continents, and the thousands of square miles of Pacific Ocean that surround it, keep the country pristine. Its terrain may be the most diverse and dramatic on the planet. In a single vacation you can hike (Kiwis say “tramp”) through native forests where many trees are more than 1,000 years old, kayak the turquoise waters of a tranquil bay, conquer a mountain, bathe in a thermal pool, ski a volcano, walk on a glacier, swim with dolphins, shoot the rapids in a jet boat, or just lie about on a sandy beach.
2. Residents speak English, though some expressions might confuse. If you’re told there’s beer in the “chilly bin,” look for an ice chest. If someone offers to “shout” you a drink, they’ll pay for it. When a tour leader urges you to “rattle your dags,” it means hurry up.
3. New Zealand offers a safe haven from a dangerous world. You won’t see machine gun-toting police on patrol. In fact, police are trained to work without guns. In many communities the local constable locks the station-house door and is home with the family at night. Even nature presents little danger. There are no snakes, venomous insects, or dangerous wild animals.
4. People are friendly, and Americans are held in high regard. Thousands of US soldiers received R & R here during World War II resulting in countless long-term relationships, even a fair number of marriages. These days, after the Australians and the British, Americans are the most frequent visitors. New Zealand hospitality even includes free accident insurance for all visitors.
The population is a rich tapestry of cultures, made up of about 68 percent European descent (mostly English and Scottish), 15 percent Maori, 10 percent Asians, and 7 percent Pacific Islanders. Kiwis are often said to be more British than the British. They swear allegiance to the British monarch, boast more bagpipe bands than Scotland, and cricket is their most popular summer sport. Their largest city, Auckland, contains a greater concentration of Polynesian people than any other city in the world. Moreover, because the country was created out of a partnership deal (Treaty of Waitangi) between the Maori and Britain, Maori influence on society is substantial. No doubt the first greeting you will receive will be the Maori expression for hello-welcome, “kia ora.”
6. If you get depressed when converting dollars abroad, you are going to love New Zealand, where 100 US dollars gets you 123 New Zealand dollars. And prices for accommodations, food, and touring are usually 20 to 30 percent lower than in Europe.
7. There are more than 400 golf courses with quality facilities, magnificent scenery, and low fees (averaging about $24 a round). In recent years US billionaire Julian Robertson has developed two spectacular (although expensive) courses along the coast, Kauri Cliffs in the Bay of Islands and Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay. They are considered to be among the top courses in the world.
8. This is an ideal winter destination. A long summer season stretches from December through April with mostly sunny skies and temperatures 75-85 degrees.
9. In recent years a foodie culture has taken the country by storm, and Kiwis have fully embraced the coffee culture. Food is all about fresh (and, increasingly, organic) produce, seafood from clean waters, and meats raised outdoors. New Zealand wine has made an excellent name for itself internationally. There are wine trails to explore in the Marlborough, Otago, and Hawke’s Bay regions.
10. With no place more than 75 miles from a beach, this island nation is a mecca for water sports. Auckland is called “city of sails,” and no other nation has a higher proportion of boat ownership. With more than 10,000 miles of coast to explore, whether you swim, surf, sail, kayak, or fish, you will be in for an adventure.