I’d have to say that New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. There’s so much to do here, and because the seasons are reversed, the possibilities are endless. Just wait until you discover what life is like “down under”—the equator that is!

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city. They call it “the City of Sails” because here, life revolves around the harbor. The “Maoris” are the indigenous people of New Zealand, famous for their art and culture as well as their intricately painted faces. The Maori translation for “Auckland” means “the City of 100 Lovers” because Auckland “was a place that was desired by all and conquered by many.” Located on New Zealand’s North Island, about one third of the entire country’s population lives in Auckland, making it New Zealand’s largest city. This is a crazy quilt of areas, comprised of three harbors, two mountain ranges, 48 volcanoes and more than 50 islands.

As your plane is landing in New Zealand, your first glimpse of Auckland looks very rural, with sheep all around the outskirts. But don’t let the tranquil farm setting that rings the city center fool you. This is a “with-it” cosmopolitan metropolis that continues to be ranked as having one of the world’s best lifestyles!

Wow! Great restaurants, outdoor cafes, really fun bars, and that view! There is nothing like the New Zealand Harbor! Auckland is a water lover’s paradise, with some of the best beaches, swimming, diving, fishing, sailing and water sports in the country.

It really is about the water, with more boats per capita than any other city in the world! It’s no wonder Auckland is always the one to beat for the America’s Cup! Speaking of that, have you ever wondered what it would be like to race in the America’s Cup? What a thrill, huh? Well, here in Auckland, you can! In fact- anyone can take the challenge!

Don’t miss the “Pride of Auckland”, a fleet of racing sailboats on the sheltered waters of the Auckland Harbor. With their trademark blue and white striped sails, these yachts racing each other across the harbor have become a nautical icon in Auckland. They’re extremely comfortable and relaxing for non-sailors but also provide experienced sailors with the thrill of helming the wheel and trimming the sails!

So there I was, “tacking”, first across to the left…then across to the right, just like an old salt. Never mind that I’ve a confession to make: I’ve never done this before! But, the captain and crew are old pros and they showed me the ropes. Literally! They make it look so easy! Of course, it’s not all work and no play. You can choose to just kick back and enjoy, and leave the sailing to someone else, with scheduled cruises throughout the day. From breakfast, coffee, lunch and dinner cruises to the “sailing experience” cruise, it’s the best way to get a feel for Auckland! The skipper told me they can also schedule “regattas,” in which two or three of their yachts race across the harbor, recreating what it’s like to be in the America’s cup!

Just don’t make my mistake and call this beauty a “boat”. This is a yacht, specifically a “mono-haul yacht! Just imagine, taking one of these yachts out for a spin, watching the sun set with a glass of wine or champagne. It’s like a dream! Dream on, Laura, dream on…

Now, land-lubbers…fear not. There’s still plenty of excitement ashore! I discovered an activity that’s a little more relaxing…and just as interesting! About an hour’s drive south of Auckland, in the beautiful New Zealand countryside is a working sheep farm. Yep…New Zealand means sheep in any language! Owned and operated by the Alexander family for the last 25 years, walking onto their farm is like walking into the past.

You’ll see 10,000 sheep grazing freely on these remote rolling pastures as a gentle breeze creates ripples on a natural lake. It’s idyllic – almost like… a movie set. Hmmmm…it does look familiar….but…let’s get a closer look at those sheep!

You know, some of these sheep look really familiar. I think I have a sweater at home that looks just like one of them. You don’t say, really? This sheep says my jacket was made out of the wool from his second cousin. Who would of thought? It’s a family reunion! The sheep are so sweet, just adorable…and being here is so peaceful, and, the kids will love it too! I feel so relaxed, it’s almost like I’ve been here before. Hmmmm…

In any case, this is a real working farm so if you’re lucky, you might get to actually watch them shear the sheep! You’d be surprised at the volume of wool that comes off one little sheep. I mean his one coat could carpet my whole living room! I was worried that the sheep would get cold in winter after shearing, but I learned that a sheep’s skin will double in thickness in about 24 hours after shearing. There’s some trivia for you!

You know, there’s something about this place…that I’ve seen before….Wait a minute…the sign over the barn says “Shire’s Rest”…Shire?…Isn’t that from…Hobbiton?

WOW! That’s it! We’re on the Hobbiton set from the Lord of the Rings movies! How cool is that! Chosen by Peter Jackson as one of his prime locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Alexander’s Sheep Farm was transformed into “Middle Earth” by the efforts of hundreds of designers, crew and even the New Zealand Army!

Jackson first spotted the farm while scouting for locations overhead in a helicopter. With no power lines and virtually no buildings, the farm had everything the set designers needed to work their cinema magic. The lake became the sight of Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party, and the natural mounds were perfect for Hobbit holes. Much of the landscape has been returned to its natural state, but there are still plenty of reminders of the endless filming that was done here.

You’ll see the remainders of the village of Bagg End, the stairs Gandolf climbed to greet Bilbo when he came for his birthday celebrations, and the Hobbit holes that are big enough for you to walk into. Of course, all the interior shots were done in Wellington, but a lot of the set is still here!

This is so great! To think, I’m at Bilbo’s house and Gandolf came right up that walk! For any fan of the Lord of the Rings….this whole place will blow you away. The Alexander Farm is now the location of the “Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours” a great excursion out of Auckland!

Shopping is at its best in Auckland, and the exchange rate makes shopping in New Zealand not only affordable, but fun! Just remember that not all stores take credit cards, so make sure you bring plenty of traveler checks when you go shopping.

Here in New Zealand, the big buy is sheepskin. Love that New Zealand wool! Parnell Street is my favorite area – it has a village quality about it that’s charming and quaint. This is where to find the trendy little boutiques and the local designers. While here, I also discovered a New Zealand treasure that I didn’t know about before…pearls.

Do you know difference between the Tahitian black pearl and the New Zealand pearl? I discovered the Tahitian black pearl is grown inside a big, black oyster. It only comes from the South Pacific and it takes about 2 1/2 years to grow, but it’s always a round pearl. The New Zealand pearl is grown inside a “power”, which is like an abalone, and it’s always a mauve colored pearl because it grows inside the shell before it’s cut out. That, too, takes 2 1/2 years to grow and colors vary depending on the inside of the shell.

These pearls are something totally unique to New Zealand. They grow in the waters off the South Island in a place called Ekkeroa and they’ve only been using them in jewelry for a few years. It took about 10 years to actually develop the process of being able to culture and grow a pearl, and this is certainly something that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

If you want unique, then you definitely have to see the Maori artwork. It’s fantastic! The painting and carving is very distinct and only found in this part of the world.

What is it about the Maori art that makes it special? It is because the Maori never had an original language as such. They told stories through their carvings and there are different styles by different carvers, depending on what tribes they come from.

Had enough R & R? New Zealand is a country where adventure should be its middle name. And here in Auckland, they’ve taken the sport of bungee jumping to a whole new level.

Taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Sydney Harbor Bridge and Great Pyramids, Auckland’s “Sky Tower” is over 1000 feet tall and is the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere. It has three circular public observation levels – Sky Deck, Main Observation level and Sky Lounge – all offering a 360-degree panoramic view of Auckland for 50 miles in every direction! A glass-fronted elevator ride takes only 40 seconds to get to the top of Sky Tower. But then, it only takes 20 seconds to get down…on the city’s most popular attraction: “Sky Jump!”

Sky Jump is a cable controlled base jump from the top of Sky Tower. Participants fly “Superman style” 630 feet at a speed just under 50 mph. Using the same technology the film industry uses to create falling stunts, jumpers wear a “flying suit” and full body harness. They’re then clipped to the jump cable by professional jumpmasters, and, finally….they simply “step off!” Floating on a cushion of air, jumpers fall very fast until just above the ground; then they decelerate to a safe landing speed. The rush is awesome! If you’re brave enough to try it, I guarantee you’ll never forget it!

New Zealand is truly full of surprises – everywhere you look there’s something to capture your attention…and your heart. If only I had more time, I’d experience it all! But as they say, all good things must come to an end, even great vacations, and New Zealand is definitely one great vacation!