THE METRO KIWI
For all their adventure genes, Kiwis are very metropolitan. Auckland gets a lot of attention as the "City of Sails," but Lonely Planet just ranked Wellington, the capital, number four in its 2011 list of the world's best cities. Built on a hillside and overlooking a bay, this is the Kiwi answer to San Francisco: cool, close to nature, and compact. From a downtown bursting with cafés and clubs, you can ride a bus 20 minutes to Makara Peak (makarapeak.org), a 500-acre network of singletrack that overlooks the sailboats in the bay. The city of 410,000 is also packed with cultural creatives, like movie-industry icon Peter Jackson and outdoor-apparel entrepreneur Jeremy Moon, the founder of Icebreaker. The Ohtel, a new ten-room boutique inn, prides itself on its decadent bathrooms with oversize showers, two-person tubs, and views of the harbor (doubles from $175; ohtel.com).
The indigenous Maori make up 15 percent of New Zealand's population, but, like Native Americans in the U.S. and Aborigines in Australia, they have been marginalized—so severely that by 1995 their language was facing extinction. Fortunately, the past 15 years have seen a renaissance, with the Maori population growing 28 percent and tourism dollars beginning to support an economy of local pride. The most inspiring success story is Kaikoura, a village of 3,900 on the Pacific coast of the South Island. The Maori-owned Whale Watch offers a 95 percent chance of seeing a giant sperm whale and has become one of the hottest draws in the region (two-and-a-half-hour catamaran tour, $110; whalewatch.co.nz)
The U.S. dollar doesn't stretch as far as it used to here, but the exchange rate is still better than Canada's or Australia's (NZ$1.32 at press time). Three ways to get more for your money:
Airline Tickets: Round-trips to Auckland on most carriers cost around $1,000, but it can be cheaper to fly through Australia (as low as $800), thanks to 13 Aussie gateway cities. Consider doing a Down Under double.
Accommodations: Forget what you know about "hostels." Kiwi hostels are clean, cut-rate hotels with TVs and bathrooms en suite (but bring a sleeping bag). At luxury hotels, try negotiating on the price: tourism numbers have plateaued since 2006.
Timing: Peak tourism season in New Zealand is generally late November to early March. But the weather can still be perfectly lovely in October and well into April, when deals are widely available.