The secret's out on New Zealand

Movie fans will recognize Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula from 'The Chronicles of Narna: Prince Caspian.'
Movie fans will recognize Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula from 'The Chronicles of Narna: Prince Caspian.'

It’s easy to see why director Peter Jackson chose to film the fantasy trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” in New Zealand.

Known in the Maori language as Aotearoa, “The Land of the Long White Cloud,” the island nation boasts an array of stunning landscapes, from the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps to the azure waters of Abel Tasman National Park. It’s a land of lush rainforests and roaring rivers, of snowy glaciers and rolling hills.

My husband Chris and I recently visited New Zealand for the first time.

As we discovered, its North and South Islands are rich in scenic beauty, history and, of course, friendly Kiwis, as natives are known. No wonder this Colorado-size country attracts around 2.5 million international travelers each year.

Gateway to the North Island

Our trip began with a 13-hour plane flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, gateway to the North Island. With an urban population of 1.35 million, it’s New Zealand’s most populous city.

During our rain-soaked visit to the bustling, businesslike metropolis, we strolled along the scenic Princes Wharf area and explored Albert Park, a beautifully landscaped spot. The adjacent Auckland Art Museum boasts a superb collection of Kiwi art, ranging from 19th century paintings of Maori chiefs to avant garde sculptures by the nation’s most innovative artists.

The weather was too wet and windy for us to explore the City of Sails by water.

Luckily, Auckland is ideally located for daytrips to the sunny Bay of Islands, the rainforest-rich Kauri Coast, or the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where government representatives and Maori chiefs signed an 1840 treaty granting Britain sovereignty over New Zealand.

We opted for a trip to the Coromandel Peninsula, a 90-minute drive from Auckland.

Traveling along State Highway 25, we saw lush tree ferns, lofty kauri trees and golden-flowered Scotch broom. Black-and-white tui birds flitted through a leafy pohutukawa grove.

At Hot Water Beach, located between Tairua and Whitianga, visitors can dig their own steaming spas during low tide. We arrived too early to take advantage of the hot water bubbling beneath the sand.

However, we had plenty of time to explore nearby Cathedral Cove, the looming limestone archway seen in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

Hobbiton and hot springs

Of course, no pilgrimage to “Lord of the Rings” country would be complete without a trip to Hobbiton, about two hours south of Auckland in pastoral Matamata.

The “Fellowship of the Rings” movie set features a towering pine tree, a large pond and several small, cozy dwellings set into the grassy hillsides — including Bag End, the green-doored domicile of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood).

Jackson recently returned to Hobbiton to film another series based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s books. 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and 2013’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” will follow the earlier adventures of Bilbo (Martin Freeman).

As excited as I was to see Hobbiton, however, I was equally thrilled to feed an adorable baby lamb. (The property doubles as a sheep farm.)

From Matamata, we journeyed south to Rotorua, a popular destination due to its numerous geothermal hot pools.

We soaked our feet at Kuirau Park, then headed downtown to the Government Gardens to see the stately Polynesian Spa and Blue Baths.

For adrenaline junkies, Rotorua offers ski diving, bungee jumping, white water rafting and Zorbing (rolling downhill in a plastic orb). There’s also the Agrodome, an agricultural theme park complete with cow-milking and sheep-herding demonstrations.

Those looking for something more meaningful can try a Maori cultural experience, which typically involves traditional singing, dancing and storytelling plus a “hangi” feast cooked in an earthen oven.

Glowworms and volcanoes

Chris and I were interested in one of the region’s other attractions, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. We stopped at the state-of-the-art visitor center on our way south to Taupo, which stands on the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake.

First explored in 1887 by Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace, the caves take their name from the bioluminescent gnat larvae that spangle the ceiling like soft stars.

The highlight of our tour was an underground boat ride beneath those hazy quasi-constellations. As we emerged from the caves, our guide uttered a short passage in Maori — no explanation offered or required.

We also visited the nearby Aranui Cave, discovered by Maori hunter Ruruku Aranui in 1910.

Visitors leaving Taupo can head east toward Napier and the Hawke’s Bay wine region, or west, as we did, to Tongariro National Park and its active volcanoes.

The home of Mount Ruapehu, a popular North Island ski destination, this 196,690-acre park also boasts superb hiking opportunities. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing features 10.6 miles of beautifully maintained trails past old lava flows, craters, hot springs and waterfalls.

Chris and I made it as far as bubbling Soda Springs, but spring snow prevented us from accessing the acid-green Emerald Lakes.

Wellington, New Zealand’s cultural capitol

We spent the night in the pleasant port town of Wanganui before continuing down the coast to Wellington.

Jackson, who grew up just north of here in Pukerua Bay, filmed much of “Lord of the Rings” in or around New Zealand’s capital city. His Weta special effects house is still based in Wellington.

Chris and I found Wellington, which many consider the nation’s cultural capitol, a charming, compact city with a Seattle vibe.

We passed by Parliament House and its funky Executive Wing (known as “The Beehive”) on our way to the Lambton Quay shopping district, strolled through the waterfront Civic Square, and wined and dined in the hip Cuba Street neighborhood.

We also spent a windy afternoon exploring the beautiful Botanic Garden and Bolton Street Memorial Park, final resting place for several city pioneers.

As luck would have it, our visit to New Zealand coincided with the Rugby World Cup.

Chris and I watched the United States battle Australia at Wellington Regional Stadium alongside thousands of fans in red, white and blue.

Our Eagles were no match for the far more experienced Wallabies. (The final score was 67-5.)

Still, we felt a surge of pride as we sang “Stars and Stripes Forever” with fans from across the globe. Only the Kiwis could make us feel so wonderfully at home.

NEXT MONTH: Our trip to New Zealand concludes with a visit to the wild and wonderful South Island.

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