New Zealand has an unfair share of natural beauty

With mountains and plenty of rainfall, New Zealand is a land of waterfalls, especially in the more mountainous South Island, where peaks in the Southern Alps reach 10,000 feet or more.
With mountains and plenty of rainfall, New Zealand is a land of waterfalls, especially in the more mountainous South Island, where peaks in the Southern Alps reach 10,000 feet or more. KRT

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — It's Sunday morning on New Zealand's North Island, and I've just arrived after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles. Unusually wired after the marathon flight, I go for a stroll around the bustling Viaduct Harbor.

Sails from an armada of boats billow in the gentle breeze; plump seagulls perch on pilings, and I get a whiff of the salty tang of the sea.

Later this afternoon, I've scheduled a bush and beach tour to the lush Waitekere Rainforest on the wild west coast, with its black-sand beaches, waterfalls and surfing waves rivaling Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, or Oahu's North Shore in Hawaii. For now, however, I'm content to wander idly, no particular destination in mind — a perfect plan for a laid-back city like Auckland.

Dubbed the City of Sails because of its position on two beautiful harbors, Auckland, like Sydney; San Francisco; and Vancouver, British Columbia, is a happy marriage of land and sea.

Indeed, New Zealand is a nation blessed with what seems an unfair share of the world's natural beauty — from the temperate rainforests of the North Island to the fiords and glaciers of Milford and Doubtful sounds on the South Island. Sandwiched in between are vineyards, secluded bays and inlets, forested hills and miles of unspoiled vistas where sheep outnumber people by a ratio of at least 6 to 1.

Beyond Auckland

From Auckland, it's a 25-minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island with its stunning beaches, arts and crafts centers, and wineries. This is a great place to taste New Zealand's famous wines in uncommonly picturesque settings, such as Te Whau Winery, where the vineyard spills down a steep hillside practically into Putiki Bay.

A short drive north from Auckland will take you to Kauri Country, famous for its eponymous kauri trees, the largest trees in New Zealand and the second-largest in the world, after California's giant sequoias. From Matakohe, you can join fifth-generation bushmen on a three-hour eco-hike into the interior to marvel at the 600-year-old trees.

A bit farther from Auckland is the stunning Bay of Islands. This area of hundreds of islands and secluded bays is the cradle of European civilization in New Zealand and a bastion of its native Maori culture.

Start with a visit to the Waitangi National Reserve, where in 1840, the Maori, the most southern of the Polynesian peoples, met with the British to cobble together a treaty whereby they accepted Queen Victoria's stewardship of the land.

On the lush grounds of the reserve, visitors tour the Treaty House, see a traditional Maori war canoe and visit a replica of a meetinghouse, with its intricately carved totems of Maori gods.

Another must is a leisurely sail through the waters of the Bay of Islands, passing under the incredible Hole in the Rock, a feat possible only if the water is calm and the tides cooperate. You can stop at Urupukapuka Island, where American Western novelist Zane Grey once ran a fishing camp.

After the cruise, you can explore the bayside port of Paihia, with its waterfront cafés and shops with Maori and New Zealand crafts.

Wellington and south

Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island, is a sister city to San Francisco. It's easy to see why. Steep streets, lined with gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses, plunge toward an oval bay, while a road zigzags up a cliff to the scenic overlook on Mount Victoria, with its views of the city and the bay spread out below.

Wellington is home to Parliament, the excellent Te Papa Museum of New Zealand, and a thriving film industry. (Peter Jackson is filming The Hobbit there now.)

It's a 30-minute flight from Wellington to Bleinhem, on the South Island in the heart of Marlborough, the country's largest and best-known wine region, with 65 wineries.

On the Marlborough Wine Trail, you can visit internationally renowned wineries including Cloudy Bay, known for its award-winning sauvignon blanc. But don't overlook some of the smaller boutique wineries, including Allan Scott's and Highfield Estate, with its Tuscan-style tower commanding a view over the Wairau Valley.

The Marlborough Region also is the place to spot dolphins in the Marlborough Sound or go on a full-day walk along the Queen Charlotte Track, which will take you from Ship Cove — with its forest of star-shaped tree ferns and palms — to Resolution Bay and Endeavor Island.

Along the way, hikers may stop at lookouts offering views of the outer Queen Charlotte Sound and Motuara Island, where Capt. James Cook declared sovereignty over the South Island.

A city fit for a queen

Farther south is one of the world's most spectacularly situated cities: Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu in the Remarkables Range, part of the Southern Alps.

The city reputedly got its name after the discovery of gold in 1862, when a prospector declared, "This place is fit for Queen Victoria."

Today, it is fit for thrill-seeking adventurers who flock to the area where bungee jumping was invented, and for river surfing and canyon swinging (don't ask).

I've made it my top priority to never bungee jump, but I did want to see where the phenomenon began. I drove to the Shotover Canyon Swing, at 360 feet the world's highest cliff jump. Just looking at the microscopic platform above the Shotover River made my stomach turn, and I couldn't help wondering who the first person was to think this would be a good idea.

What was a good idea was the two-hour drive south to Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland National Park. Carved by glaciers over 100,000 years, this is a landscape of waterfalls cascading down mountains to disappear into ancient rainforests, where ferns the size of small houses are common.

The park is the setting for two of New Zealand's most famous attractions: Milford and Doubtful sounds. Doubtful Sound is larger and equally beautiful, but Milford is the more visited. The sound runs inland from the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by sheer rock faces rising 4,000 feet above the water.

In winter, when glacial ice covers the formations, the sight is spectacular, and the best way to see it is on a two-hour boat cruise. As I stood at the rail of my boat looking at scenery that even a writer has trouble finding words for, I thought that of all the countries in the world, New Zealand has to be the most beautiful.