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NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. A country of stunning and diverse natural beauty with jagged mountains, rolling pasture land, steep fiords, pristine trout-filled lakes, raging rivers, scenic beaches, and active volcanic zones. These islands form a unique bioregion inhabited by flightless birds seen nowhere else such as kakapo and kiwi.

It can be said that in New Zealand it's the countryside that's magnificent and perhaps no more so than the Southern Alps of the South Island. In the Mackenzie Country, the snow-capped jagged peaks rising above turquoise lakes have provided the inspiration for many a postcard. Tucked in behind is the country's highest peak, Aoraki Mount Cook. The lakes and mountains continue south becoming a stunning backdrop for the towns of Wanaka, Queenstown and Glenorchy.

Another region where mountain meets water with striking effect is Fiordland National Park where steep, densely forested mountains rise from the sea. The most accessible and perhaps one of the most beautiful, spots is Milford Sound. The road in is spectacular and the view even more so when you arrive.

Glaciers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an island in the South Pacific but New Zealand has several. The most notable are the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers in Westland National Park. These glaciers are unique in how close they get to sea level and are sustained by the enormous amount of precipitation that falls on New Zealand's west coast.

New Zealand is a geological hotspot and has many dormant and active volcanoes, geysers and hot springs. The best place to start is Rotorua where the smell of sulphur lets you know you're close to the action. The surrounding countryside has many parks with geysers and hot springs, and Mount Tarawera, the site of one of New Zealand's more famous eruptions, lies a short drive away.

South of Rotorua is the town of Taupo, on the shores of the country's largest lake, which was formed in a massive volcanic explosion 26,500 years ago, and expanded by an equally massive explosion 1800 years ago (it reputedly turned skies over China and Rome red). Beyond Lake Taupo is Tongariro National Park, dominated by its three volcanoes, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. All three mountains are still active (Tongariro last erupted in 2012) and Ruapehu has a crater lake that can be viewed with a bit of hiking. Ngauruhoe is famous for filling in as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Northeast of Rotorua is Whakatane, with tours to White Island, a volcanic island not far off the coast. The island is truly a different world with its smoke plume, green crater lake and the pohutukawa trees clinging to a fragile existence on the volcanic rock.

Dormant and extinct volcanoes help define the landscape in many other regions, including Taranaki and three of the largest cities (Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin). Hot springs are sprinkled across the country, and are often popular bathing spots.

Being so remote, New Zealand has very unique plants and animals. One of the most impressive is the kauri tree, one of the biggest species of tree in the world. Few of these giants are left (a result of overlogging), but a visit to the Waipoua Forest in Northland will afford a glimpse. New Zealand has a large number of ferns for a temperate country, including the Silver Fern, the national "flower".

The beaches of the South Island, particularly The Catlins and the Otago Peninsula, are good places to see marine animals such as penguins, seals and sea lions in their natural habitat. The Otago Peninsula is also noted for its albatross colony.

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