The comparisons between New Zealand and California are inescapable. Both are long and narrow with Pacific coastlines that seamlessly combine cliffs and beaches. Both boast some of the world's most spectacular national parks in the mountains and some of the most prized wine regions in the hills and valleys.
Some similarities are flip-flopped, because NZ straddles the 38th parallel south of the equator while California is on the 38th parallel north. That's why New Zealand's North Island shares Southern California's warm, dry climate and the South Island shares Northern California's cooler, wetter climate. That may also be why New Zealand's two largest cities (Auckland and Wellington) are in the sunny north, while California's (L.A. and San Diego) are in the south.
There are differences, too, and they favor New Zealand. Although it's about two-thirds the size of California, NZ is only about one-tenth as crowded (4.5 million compared to 40 million people). And NZ is surrounded on all four sides, not just one, by the Pacific.
But don't take our word for it. Visit New Zealand and make your own comparisons.
From the 1,076-foot-high Sky Tower that dominates the Auckland skyline, you'll behold a city bordered by bays and peppered with parks. Locals take full advantage by sailing in the city's two harbors (Auckland is the “City of Sails") and participating in almost every other type of water and land sport — especially rugby, cricket, golf and tennis, all imports from the British who founded New Zealand.
Auckland's literal high points besides the Sky Tower include Mount Eden, Mount Victoria and One Tree Hill, three of the dozens of small dormant volcanoes with 360-degree views that punctuate the city. Another is Auckland Harbour Bridge across Waitemata Harbour, where you can climb the span or bungee off. Additional Auckland attractions include the Auckland Museum and Auckland Art Gallery; the family-friendly New Zealand Maritime Museum and Sea Life Aquarium; and sprawling Cornwall Park, where cricket enthusiasts share the grass with sheep.
Wellington and Christchurch
These two coastal cities south of Auckland are each about a quarter of the population of Auckland, making them favorites of visitors who prefer compact cities. In the capital city of Wellington, most attractions are along the waterfront promenade, always teeming with walkers and runners, while others are in the steep hills. Be sure to visit the Museum of New Zealand and ride the Wellington Cable Car. Christchurch is still recovering from the big 2011 earthquake, but the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park are still lush and lovely, and Quake City at the Canterbury Museum is both educational and moving as it chronicles the devastation of the quake and the rebuilding efforts.
South Island Mountains
New Zealand may be best known for its mountain hiking, known to the locals as tramping. The highest peaks are in the Southern Alps, topped by 12,218 foot Mount Cook, but surely the most famous hike is the Milford Track — so popular that reservations are required to tackle the 33 mile hut-to-hut walk through glacially carved mountain passes, fjords, majestic waterfalls and rainforests in Fiordland National Park. But you needn't hike at all to appreciate the beauty of New Zealand's mountains. Driving past them or through them, such as the drive to Milford Sound where the Track begins, or to Mount Cook Village, does the trick.
Beaches and volcanoes
Stellar surfing and sunbathing beaches are found throughout the country, even in Auckland, although keep in mind that “beach weather" is more likely on North Island. NZ's Volcanic Zone, however, is concentrated in one North Island region, not far from Auckland. It's there, especially in Tongariro National Park, that you'll discover recently erupted volcanoes, lava flows, steaming geysers and hissing ponds — plus thermal pools, springs and baths in the towns of Rotorua and Taupo. You may recognize some of this region's mountains, where the hiking is nearly as splendid as on the South Island, from scenes in “The Lord of the Rings" movies.
Towns, villages… and sheep
Sheep are everywhere in New Zealand, even in the cities. You can even observe them being herded and sheared at SheepWorld near Auckland, but mostly you'll see them in the countryside while driving between cities and national parks, such as on one of NZ's 10 themed highways. You'll also go past farms, vineyards, mountains, coastline and dense wilderness. But don't drive straight through. Your fondest NZ memories after the trip may be of conversations with locals at a village café over coffee or a country pub over a Double Brown beer.
New Zealand's 14 wine regions blanket the east coast of both islands, but the Marlborough region near Blenheim at the top of South Island has the most wineries, including dozens that offer tastings. This region's Sauvignon Blancs are internationally acclaimed. While you're in the area, you should also stop by the charming town of Nelson and visit Abel Tasman National Park, a marvelous mix of rainforest paths and beaches.
Sauvignon Blanc pairs nicely with fish — and that's a good thing, because New Zealand fishermen operate in the sixth-largest fishing zone in the world, making seafood a NZ specialty. While myriad fish choices fill menus in coastal restaurants, expect a wide variety of cuisines (often broadly called “Pacific Rim cuisine") in the cities. That's especially true in Auckland, where nearly half of residents are non-natives from China, India, Fiji, Samoa and elsewhere. Wherever you dine, the food was probably grown or raised locally because importing ingredients is expensive — the nearest continent, Australia, is 1,300 miles away.
Besides New Zealand's two main islands, smaller islands off their shores are a treat to visit. The largest (about the size of Maui) is Rakiura/Stewart Island, a one-hour ferry ride from the southern tip of South Island, where a national park occupies 80 percent of the land. NZ's most populous small island (pop. 9,000) is Waiheke, a 45-minute ferry ride from Auckland, which features forest trails, beaches, restaurants and wineries.
Don't forget that the seasons are reversed in New Zealand, so their “summer" starts in December. Plan a trip between November and April to enjoy mild temperatures and to avoid too many rainy days. When you arrive, driving a rental car is the best way to see the country. (You'll soon get used to driving on the left side.) And driving won't be tortuous within the country because there are no “boring" stretches of road — and a scenic, 3 1/2-hour Interislander or Bluebridge car ferry connects Wellington and Picton, letting you travel freely between North and South Islands.
If you go
United Airlines launches 787 Dreamliner nonstop service from San Francisco to Auckland on July 1, 2016. The overnight flights will be offered three times a week, with plans to offer daily service beginning on October 28, just in time for New Zealand's peak travel period. Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your trip.