Located in the Southern Alps in the centre of the South Island, New Zealand's finest and largest alpine area, covering 70,696 hectares, features the tallest mountains and the biggest glaciers in the country. The tallest peak, Mount Cook, known as Aoraki by the Māori, is an awe-inspiring 3,753 metres (12,316 feet) high. Legend has it that Aoraki was a young boy who got stranded, and he and his brothers turned to stone from the cold winds, creating the Southern Alps. So daunting is the peak and its associated weather, it was where Sir Edmund Hillary trained before his successful ascent of Mount Everest.
The area was deemed so special by locals that reserves were established here as early as 1887, with the reserve formally designated a national park in 1953. Despite the credentials and the history of challenging climbing expeditions, the park is primarily a playground for walking, tramping, hiking, and ski touring. The glaciers, glacial lakes (complete with icebergs), and views of the mountains – of which there are 23 that reach over 3000 metres (9842 feet) – are jaw-dropping and can be enjoyed from short walks to multi-day hikes, departing from the base of Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, dramatically located on the edge of Lake Pukaki.
One of the highlights of the region is the massive Tasman Glacier, over 25 kilometres (16 miles) in length. Walkers can choose from ten short, well marked tracks, taking up to a couple of hours return, while serious alpine hikers can take three mountain pass routes, staying in overnight huts. The 17 huts in the park are positioned strategically for mountaineers on long treks. For climbers, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre is a must-do. Located at the historic and cosy Hermitage Hotel, deep in the National Park, the Centre highlights the history of the region and the exploits of the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
The Tasman Glacier also makes a great base for skiers who usually access the terrain by light plane. Other glaciers such as Bonney, Darwin and Murchison offer more advanced runs – and even more spectacular scenery. If you're not up for skiing, Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters have scenic flights, some of which land on the glacier itself. Local guides are available for all activities and are highly recommended as the weather can change here very quickly – just remember how the place received its name!
New Zealand’s diminutive capital Wellington, located at the southern end of the North Island, packs a lot of punch for its size. Rising up from a glistening harbour, its quaint houses are perched on forested hillsides, forming a natural amphitheatre. The country’s capital since 1865, the city's population is just 180,000 with around 440,000 people residing in the wider region. Lively and effervescent, it has none of the fussiness of a capital city, and a tangible slant towards art, culture and gastronomy that make it – for many – New Zealand’s most fascinating city. It’s home to a thriving film industry, which has flourished mainly on the back of local director, producer and screenwriter Sir Peter Jackson, known for his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, which has earned the city the questionable nickname of 'Wellywood', a conflation of its other nickname 'Welly' and Hollywood.
When the movie stars hit town, they're surely taken in by the pretty harbour and the sheer number of quality cafes, bars and restaurants – the locals love to dine out. The city has a booming food scene as a result, with an abundance of markets, cooking schools, foodie walks, and boutique beer tours. The region is also known for the Pinot Noir wines of the nearby Wairarapa and Martinborough wine regions. If you're really into wines you can take a ferry across to Marlborough – well known globally for its distinctive Sauvignon Blanc wines.
Being the capital, Wellington is home to the stories of New Zealand’s history, both Māori and European. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, is an innovative national museum with innovative interactive displays that is renowned for its fascinating stories of the indigenous Māori in its permanent exhibitions, as well as being home to New Zealand’s National Art Collection. Wellington harbour was the site of the first European settlement at Petone, where the Petone Settlers Museum compellingly tells that history. The city boasts a number of superb contemporary galleries, as well as being the home of the New Zealand Opera, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Given that New Zealanders are never far from nature, many locals will suggest a visit to Zealandia (also known as Karori Sanctuary), home to some of New Zealand’s fascinating wildlife in a protected reserve. It's also the best place to see the kiwi, the flightless bird that is endemic to the country that serves as the national symbol, and the nickname for New Zealanders overseas.