Yes, it really does look like Middle Earth.
Computer-generated imagery may have enhanced New Zealand's already otherworldly peaks and valleys, but what you see in The Lord of the Rings films is the real deal and is certain to fill you with the giddiness of a hobbit.
New Zealand's North Island is the spot to soak in traditional M?ori culture, bathe in geothermal wonders and sun along the country's best beaches. Dominated by towering volcanoes at its center, you can hike through wild microclimates, catch shows in two of the country's bustling urban centers or gape at stunning natural beauty from the window of your car.
The South Island offers a different pace. It's a lazy paradise of rolling green hills, craggy, glacier-clad mountains and rugged, wind-swept beaches -- a land where sheep outnumber people 13 to 1 and everything is sweet as.
Any guidebook will steer you on a course from Christchurch to Dunedin, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Abel Tasman and Marlborough on the South Island and Auckland, Rotorua, Napier and Wellington up on North Island. They're all great, but here's a different idea:
The Catlins, South Island
The Catlins jut out from New Zealand's South Island, two hours southwest of Dunedin, at the very bottom of the country. Follow the Southern Scenic Route through rural heartland and podocarp forests, past hidden lakes and meandering waterfalls. This peaceful corner of the country offers a chance to spot New Zealand's rare yellow-eyed penguin or feast on the region's famed oysters. The Catlins are also a great escape for those looking to spend less time in the South Island's earthquake-rattled metropolis, Christchurch. Among its rugged, windswept beaches, glowing lighthouses and rich maritime history, you'll be braced by salt air and southern seas.
Doubtful Sound, South Island
While tour groups crowd the waterways of Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound remains blessedly vacant. Three times the size of its famous neighbor, Doubtful is about as remote as you can get. Waterfalls pour off mossy green cliffs as you cruise through the mist. Tours start on the far end of Lake Manapouri, continue along Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove and wander along the sprayed fingers of this forgotten fiord.
Otago Central Rail Trail, South Island
New Zealand has several great walks but only one great bike trip. This multiday path along the former tracks of the Otago Central Rail links a series of small hamlets in the farm-covered plains of Central Otago. Want to see the real New Zealand? Pick up a bike in Clyde, and spend a few days daydreaming in the countryside.
Lake Tekapo, South Island
Lake Tekapo was extracted from Heaven and placed in New Zealand. Its dazzling, pale blue water is the spectacular result of glacial sediments from the last ice age. Stop in at the Church of the Good Shepard and pack a picnic lunch, because you'll want to stay and stare into the dreamy waters of Tekapo for a while.
Wild Foods Festival in Hokitika, South Island
Every fancied eating worm sushi or chugging moonshine straight from the barrel? If you are on South Island in March, make the pilgrimage to the small west coast town of Hokitika for the Wild Foods Festival. Whether this is a celebration of extreme delicacies or just an excuse for Kiwis to costume up and get on the piss, it's hard to say. Either way, you can't miss this full-on display of debauchery.
Whakatane, North Island
Use it as a stopover on your way out to the East Cape or spend a few days exploring the local M?ori culture, Whakatane is the Bay of Plenty's most picturesque town. Nestled below bushy cliffs where the Whakatane River meets the Pacific Ocean, this snug township is full of seaside accommodation and tantalizing fare. Head to any warfside restaurant and ask for the fish of the day -- it will not disappoint.
Russell, North Island
Gateway to the Bay of Islands, Russell is much preferred over nearby Paihia. Containing many of the country's oldest buildings, the town's historic streets have the quaint look of colonial New England. Russell is a quiet town with a row of shops, B&Bs and restaurants that close promptly at 8:00 p.m., but it was once known as the hellhole of the Pacific. In 1835, Charles Darwin noted that it was full of the refuse of society, and its picturesque beaches were notorious for debauchery.
Coromandel, North Island
Where Aucklanders come to play, Coromandel is the pristine peninsula on the far side of the Hauraki Gulf from the big city. Rugged coastline and sweeping aquamarine beaches await beyond the inner forests of Coromandel's core. Head to the hot sand beach or Cathedral Cove on the eastern shore, or stay in a quaint B&B on the rugged west. On Coromandel, the sea is never far away.
Gisborne, North Island
The wild and rugged East Cape's main town, Gisborne, is a wonderful spot to get away from it all. Gisborne was the filming location for many of New Zealand's great movies, including Whale Rider and Boy. As these films depict, the East Cape is the place to soak in traditional M?ori culture. Gisborne is also home to a budding wine region, renowned for its Chardonnay, and has many swimming and surfing beaches ideal for watching the sunrise.
Tongariro, North Island
New Zealand's first National Park, Tongariro, is not easily described. Part desert, part snow-capped volcano, part forest, this World Heritage area is a showcase of microclimates. Go for a ski on Mt. Ruapehu's volcanic slopes, or hike along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand's greatest one-day trek in the summer. Either way, Tongariro National Park is your best bet for a taste of alpine adventure on North Island.
*** All photos courtesy of Mark on the Map.