After brief stopovers in L.A. and Tahiti, I flew into Auckland because that's where the only international airport is. I spent about a day there to see a neat DaVinci exhibit and learned a bit about the Maori culture along the way. I spent the remainder of the first week in Whakatane with my friend, Kris, and her family. I took the time to rest up from the long flight and let my body adjust to the jet lag. Although I did do quite a few things there including hiking, surfing for the first time, volunteering at a riding for the disabled facility, and I tried to swim with bottlenosed dolphins. Also, my friend Kris gave me some lessons in driving on the left side of the road. Then I got my rental car and set off to the south island stopping at Tongariro Crossing along the way because it is one of the many Great Walks New Zealand is famous for. (I did the walk again on my way back to Auckland because it was very foggy on my first visit and I didn't see much.) There are several thermals and volcanoes in this area - and I'm glad I did it again because the views were incredible. I saw Mount Doom!
After a ferry crossing to the south island, I headed for Abel Tasman National Park where I spent a few days because it was a particularly beautiful place with beaches and I had a lovely campsite. Not only did I do a lovely day hike, I also had a chance be in a warm, dry place so I could get over a cold I caught at Tongariro. When I was feeling better I started to head south along the west coast visiting a colony of Fur Seals near Westport, continuing on to Punakaiki to see the incredible blowholes (ocean waves crashing up through holes in the rocks) of Pancake Rocks, and I took a hike on Fox Glacier and experienced the pesky keas. (There's an interesting kea story.) After that I headed inland a bit towards Wanaka, where I found a particularly nice (although windy) campsite with an AMAZING view. The day after that I went on a "Ride of the Rings" horse trek in Glenorchy, and saw close up one of the outdoors sets used for the Lord of the Rings movies. I spent quite a few days in Fiordlands National Park taking a cruise of gorgeous Milford Sound and doing two incredible day hikes (Gertrude's Saddle and Key Summit). After that I started to head north east stopping off to see Mount Cook, which is just DRIPPING with glaciers. Quite a few people suggested I cross the Alps at least once so I took a roundabout route crossing the alps twice - and I'm glad I did - again, incredible views. Eventually I arrived in Kaikoura, where I did three sea activities in two days including whale watching, kayaking with seals and swimming with dusky dolphins. Despite the rough weather (and rough sea), all three activities were incredible, once in a lifetime experiences... made the seasickness well worth it.
After crossing on the ferry back to the north island, I stopped again in Tongariro Crossing, and then headed up to the Coramandel Peninsula, specifically to see the Kauri trees - they're kinda like the redwoods of New Zealand. Logging has almost wiped them out, but there's an effort to restore them. I did yet another fantastic day hike to find one of the few groves of Kauri trees. Then on my last day I drove the rest of the way back to Auckland for the flight back to the US (after a brief stop in Tahiti).