Known to the Maori as "the land of the long white cloud," New Zealand is a long, narrow country located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean comprised of two primary islands, appropriately named the North Island and the South Island, and several smaller islands; these largest of the inhabited smaller islands are the Chatham Islands, d'Urville Island, Great Barrier Island, Waiheke Island and Stewart Island. Despite being approximately the same size as the state of Colorado, the country of New Zealand boasts an incredible variety of topography, caused primarily by its location on the border of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. It is a land that has been largely shaped by its isolation with its closest neighbors being Australia, located approximately 900 miles to the west and the nations of Tonga, New Caledonia and Fiji, located some 600 miles to the north. Known for its beauty, New Zealand's dramatic landscapes starred in the Lord of The Rings trilogy.
The South Island, the larger of the two main islands, is home to the snowy, far-reaching Southern Alps mountain range, making it a prime ski destination; its highest peak, Mount Cook, extends over 12,000 feet. The island has been tremendously influenced by the presence of glaciers. Its Fiordland National Park is home to rugged mountains, numerous waterfalls and the beautiful fiords of Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound. It is the largest national park in New Zealand, and travelers visiting here will likely come across dolphins, seal and many species of birds. It officially forms part of Te Wahipounamu, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, as do Mount Aspiring National Park and Westland Tai Poutini National Park, the latter housing the famous Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers.
Other must-see spots in the South Island include Abel Tasman National Park and its golden beaches; Marlborough Sounds, whose breathtaking beauty is best appreciated by boat; and The Kaikoura Peninsula, where vacationers can join the locals for some good, old-fashioned whale watching. The largest cities in the South Island are Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson while the resort town of Queenstown remains a major destination for tourists wanting to ski or do adventure sports.
The majority of New Zealand's population resides in the North Island, which has been heavily shaped by the presence of volcanos. Geothermal cities like Rotorua draw vacationers who come all year round to visit its hot springs, boiling mud pools and geysers. The North Island's plateau is home to the largest lake in New Zealand, Lake Taupo, which was created as a result of a major eruption 26,500 years ago. Of the many volcanos still active in New Zealand, one serves as the North Island's highest peak: Mount Ruapehu. Tourists flock here to ski and snowboard down one of the world's most active volcanoes. Mount Ruapehu, along with the other volcanic mountains of Ngauruhoe and Tongariro, forms part of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand's oldest national park. Because it contains many sacred Maori sites, UNESCO classifies it as both a cultural and natural World Heritage Site.
As does the South Island, the North Island promises visitors miles of diverse landscapes. They can visit Northland's beautiful beach that stretches an unbelievable 54 miles (inaccurately called "The 90-mile Beach") or spend the day touring scenic wine regions like Hawke's Bay. Te Urewera National Park, Whanganui National Park and Egmont National Park are also well worth a visit for their spectacular natural beauty. In Bay of Islands, tourists can enjoy one of New Zealand's best spots for sailing and fishing.
Caving tourism has also been popular in the North Island for over 100 years now with many visitors touring the limestone Waitomo Caves, dated to be over two million years old. Travelers wanting to experience the rich heritage of New Zealand's indigenous Maori heritage will find the majority of historic and culture sites in the North Island. The largest cities in the North Island are Auckland and Wellington - both of which are lively, cosmopolitan cities with excellent gastronomy and a wide variety of cultural activities.