An amazing and enchanting tour of New Zealand
Victoria Mitchell takes you on an adventurous tour of this wonderful, filmic island.
When arriving in a new country, you might be welcomed with a firm hand shake or a polite bow, maybe even a kiss on each cheek.
Having a towering, tattooed man press his nose against mine, however, has to be one of the more unusual - and enjoyable - greetings I have experienced.
In New Zealand, this exchange meant I was no longer considered a visitor but rather as one of the people of the land.
The 'hongi', a traditional Maori welcome, made an interesting start to an unforgettable trip to the country also known as Land of the Long White Cloud, after an exhausting journey through several time zones, as Air New Zealand flights from Britain to Auckland on the North Island go via either Hong Kong or Los Angeles.
We eased the jet-lag with a 45-minute drive to the west of the city, to the dramatic coast of Karekare where thunderous waves pound the iron-black sand.
After a bracing walk along the dunes, which featured in Jane Campion's Oscar-winning movie The Piano, we headed to nearby Piha and the Waitakere ranges, a stunning wilderness area, for a lesson in nature, and even sampled some plants which provided nourishment for Maori in the past.
This warm and friendly race welcomes strangers with open arms and is keen to preserve its heritage and traditions.
Our visit was rounded off with a 'hangi' - a feast of meats and vegetables cooked using heated rocks buried in a pit oven, and it was a perfect introduction to New Zealand.
Auckland itself is superb for fine dining: One of the best restaurants is the award-winning Dine by world-famous chef Peter Gordon at Sky City Grand Hotel. Oysters, scallops and of course, lamb, adorn an eclectic menu.
Auckland is also known as the City of Sails, so our next adventure was sailing from the massive marina to Waiheke Island on a 50ft yacht.
Pride of Auckland operates a fleet of sailing yachts where visitors - under the watchful eye of an expert crew - experience the hands-on the thrill of sailing in one of the world's most famous bays.
Huge gusts of wind might have tipped our boat over had it not been for the intervention of the skipper, so we arrived at the island's main jetty looking slightly bedraggled.
I was greeted warmly, however, by the delightful and informative guide Jenny, a retired midwife who personally delivered many of the 8,000 permanent residents on Waiheke.
The island, which can also be reached from Auckland by a 45-minute, and rather less eventful, ferry ride, is home to wineries, craft shops, beautiful gardens and beaches, and olive groves where tourists can sample some of the finest oil in the world.
It is little wonder that around 3,500 people also have holiday homes there.
Our next adventure was a 45-minute flight from Auckland to Hawkes Bay on the east coast of North Island and home to the oldest wine-growing area in New Zealand. It has more than 70 vineyards, around 40 with cellar doors offering tastings and a-la-carte dining.
It also boasts a stunning coastline formed from soft, grey, papa rock said to be some 15 million years old, that is slowly being eroded by the sea, which makes the impressive and unusual cliffs.
Cape Kidnappers, a breathtaking headland, garnered its name after the Maori tried to kidnap one of Captain Cook's crew in October 1769.
At Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve, home to the largest mainland gannet colony in the world where Australasian gannets have nested since the 1870s, I was able to get up close to the thousands of birds quite unperturbed by human visitors.
Near to the gannet colony lies Mangarara Station, a sheep farm of more than 150 years. The countryside hereabouts is steep hillside, dry and barren after years of intensive farming, but in partnership with the Air New Zealand Environment Trust, a programme of regenerative planting should restore the land to its original glory.
After a day with the gannets, we visited Elephant Hill Estate Winery which boasts a stunning restaurant as well as world-class wines. Nestled in rolling green hills, it is one of the most unusual buildings in the area; square, flat-roofed with walls clad in copper panels which have turned a bluey green.
Our next stop was the city of Nelson, on the northern shores of South Island, and at just under a two-hour flight from Auckland or from Hawkes Bay, it is said to be at the very centre of New Zealand.
It is also the sunniest place in the country, protected by mountains on all sides, and is renowned for its art galleries and museums, but I was there to experience a bit of outdoors adventure in the nearby Abel Tasman National Park.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European explorer to sight New Zealand in 1642, but I wasn't there for the history - I was trying my hand at sea kayaking followed by a forest walk along the park's well-trodden path.
It has to be one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating ways to experience what the area has to offer, and the views over the Tasman Bay from the top of the path were unrivalled.
After a full day outdoors, and feeling rather exhausted, I headed to the comfort of my hotel in Nelson, Warwick House, which was built in 1854, and is a fine example of early Victorian opulence and grandeur. It has been lovingly restored and offers a unique stay in the plushest of surroundings; swags, tails and all.
For those seeking a cultured experience, visits to galleries, vineyards and even a chance to meet local celebrated artist Anna Leary, are easily arranged.
Noel Kennedy, an expert guide from New Zealand Nature Tours plans a personal and authentic itinerary for the most discerning visitors.
To make the most of a visit to New Zealand, you really need to start planning in advance. Air New Zealand's route network includes 26 domestic destinations - covering North and South Islands - and people use the service like they would a bus.
Just buy your ticket, check in automatically, put your luggage on a conveyor belt and hop on the plane without a queue in sight - and in every destination, you will find something which amazes and enchants.
:: Best for: Outdoor adventure, culture and art, and some of the most highly regarded vineyards in world.
:: Time to go: Summer (UK winter) is the best time weather wise, but accommodation and flights are cheaper off season and New Zealand has a winter sports season (UK summer).
:: Don't miss: Visit to the top of Sky Tower in Auckland - at 1,076 ft, it is the tallest free-standing structure in the southern hemisphere.
:: Need to know: If flying via the US, you must fill in the mandatory application form online if you are eligible for a visa waiver.
:: Don't forget: Plenty of layers and waterproofs. The weather is changeable, particularly in spring.
Victoria Mitchell flew as a guest of Tourism New Zealand with Air New Zealand which offers returns flights ex-Heathrow from Â£884, incl taxes, until June 15, 2010.
Details on www.airnewzealand.co.uk and www.newzealand.com.
Air New Zealand reservations: 0800 028 4149 and www.airnewzealand.co.uk.
Operators to New Zealand include Austravel, which offers a nine-night Auckland, Rotorua and Napier self-drive tour from Â£1,599, which includes three nights' accom in Auckland (at SkyCity Grand), three nights in Rotorua and Napier, seven days' car hire and return flights with Air NZ. Price also includes day tour of Waiheke Island, a Maori village hangi and concert and a food and wine tour of Hawke's Bay. For departures ex-Manchester and Glasgow, add another Â£100 for return connecting flights to Heathrow.
Austravel reservations: 0800 988 4834 and www.austravel.com.
Details of her adventures available as follows:
:: Trips to Karekare on west coast at www.navigatortours.co.nz.
:: Pride of Auckland sailing at www.explorenz.co.nz.
:: Waiheke Island tours at www.ananda.co.nz.
:: Hawke's Bay trips to see gannets at www.kidnapperssafaris.co.nz.
:: Elephant Hill Winery at www.elephanthill.co.nz.
:: Kayaking in Abel Tasman at www.abeltasmankayaks.co.nz.
:: Tailored tours of Nelson with Noel Kennedy, email@example.com.
:: Warwick House boutique hotel at www.warwickhouse.co.nz.