Editor's note: CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at travel locations for the explorer at heart. This week, we're taking a look at New Zealand. We'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to New Zealand? Share your story with CNN iReport.
(CNN) -- A country of dramatically diverse environments, New Zealand offers an array of activities for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.
New Zealand's remarkably varied landscape includes beaches, mountains, fjords, glaciers and rain forests, making it one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. The small country consists of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island, each boasting a surprising variety of natural wonders as well as urban centers.
If you are planning on visiting New Zealand, be prepared to be mobile in order to experience all the country has to offer. Although the entire size of the island nation is roughly the same as Colorado, there are countless different environments and geographically distinct regions. The best way to truly see the country is to make sure you plan and come ready to explore.
That being said, there are also plenty of options for a more relaxing and peaceful vacation, but after the 12-24 hour plane ride it takes to get there, you should have had plenty of time to rest up.
Much of the country lies close to the coastline, making for an overall temperate climate. However, some areas can experience four seasons in one day, as the climate can shift dramatically due to sharp regional contrasts.
New Zealand was one of the last major land masses on Earth to be populated by humans and is the second-closest land mass to Antarctica, behind Chile. The Polynesian Maori arrived on the islands around 800 A.D. and it wasn't until 1840 that they entered into a compact with Britain; they surrendered sovereignty but maintained territorial rights to the land.
The South Island
Christchurch is known as the gateway to the South Island and is New Zealand's second-largest city. Often referred to as the "Garden City," Christchurch has an impressive park system and features neo-Gothic architecture dating back to the English settlers who founded the city. Here visitors have easy access to sunny beaches and snowy mountaintops within a short drive from the metropolitan center.
Travel south along the eastern coast of the South Island to the small town of Akaroa on Bank's Peninsula. The route offers some breathtaking views of the mountainous countryside. Once there you can relax in the quaint former French settlement and soak up some of the local culture or take a boating tour of the harbor to see the rare Hector's dolphins, seals and other marine life that thrive in the turquoise waters of the flooded volcano crater.
Experience history and learn a little something
Continuing farther down the coast of the South Island through the Southern Alps you will reach the hilly city of Dunedin, New Zealand's largest city in terms of area. During the journey, be sure to stop at Koekohe Beach on the Otago coast to marvel at the Moeraki Boulders, huge almost perfectly spherical rocks that date back 60 million years.
The city of Dunedin is a cultural and environmental hot spot with a rich history. The city boasts a well-preserved historic district with Scottish roots, a vibrant art scene and a thriving university life.
For those interested in ecotourism, The New Zealand Marine Studies Centre, just outside Dunedin, is an attraction for those looking to learn more about southern New Zealand's remarkably diverse marine life. The Royal Albatross Centre, about an hour outside the city, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula, offers a rare chance to see one of the world's largest birds (with a wingspan of up to 11 feet) on the only mainland colony on the planet. Also just outside Dunedin is the Yellow Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve where visitors can see the rarest penguins on the planet up close and in their native habitat.
Once you reach the bottom tip of the South Island, be sure to stop at Porpoise Bay along the Catlins coast and explore the abundance of rare wildlife and a Petrified Forest dating back to the Jurassic period. The Catlins coast landscape is sparsely populated and is dominated by lush forests and rocky coastal bays. Another must see site is the Cathedral Caves, located a short walk through a flourishing forest in the Waipati Beach Scenic Reserve. The coastal caverns can only be seen during low tide and connect under the cliffs, reaching heights of 100 feet.
Fiordland: Dramatic natural beauty
As you continue to wrap around the southern tip of the South Island and enter into New Zealand's Fiordland, stop in the lakeside town of Te Anau. Known as the "gateway to the fiords," Te Anau has plenty to explore. Take a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Te Anau to visit the otherworldly glowworm caves. Those looking to stretch their legs a bit can check out the Kepler Track, across the shores of Lake Te Anau. The 100-mile trail can be broken up into more manageable portions and traverses a beautiful route from sandy beaches to lush forest to barren mountain tops, offering breathtaking views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding mountains.
Milford Sound along the west coast of the South Island is one of New Zealand's most beautiful and awe-inspiring natural wonders. Journey a few hours northwest of Te Anau through the steep, lush terrain of the Fiordland. Milford Sound was carved by ancient glaciers and is surrounded by towering cliffs that feature countless waterfalls. There are also several options for hiking on the series of trails that surround the sound and offer stunning views.
A thrill-seeker's dream
Making your way back north up the western side of the South Island, make sure to visit the city of Queenstown. Known as the "adventure capital of the world," Queenstown is a thrill seeker's dream. It's chock full of activities to get your adrenaline pumping, ranging from high speed jet boating, canyon swinging to a variety of alpine activities such as skiing. It also is the birthplace of modern bungee jumping. Skydiving is a major attraction because jumpers can go as high as 15,000 feet, getting a breathtaking view of the county's landscape from above. Queenstown has a lively feel and features a condensed city center with restaurants, bars and many tourist-oriented shops.
There are also several hiking options in and around Queenstown, including the mountain ranges that served as the dramatic backdrop for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Take a stroll or a sip, and relax
Traveling farther north, stop off for a day in the serene lakeside town of Wanaka. Here you can explore the town's picturesque parks that line the shore, offering views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Stop at the Rippon Vineyard and Winery and sample some wine while you enjoy the view. New Zealand is known for sauvignon blanc, which grows well in the temperate maritime climate. There are a plethora of wineries throughout the country, thanks to the ideal conditions created by coastal regions bordered by mountain ranges.
Where glaciers meet the forest
Continuing up along the west coast of the South Island through the Haast Pass you will reach the Franz Josef Glacier. This portion of the island is perpetually rainy and often cloudy, but offers stunning landscapes and some of the most easily accessible glaciers in the world. Take a guided hike up the Franz Josef Glacier and experience the rare formation up close as the glacier meets temperate forest.
Heading farther north toward the tip of the South Island, visitors can stop by the famous Pancake Rocks near Punakaiki, a series of visually astonishing limestone formations that have been eroded to create unique rock patterns that jet out from the coastline.
As you make your way farther north, be sure to make time to visit the Abel Tasman National Park, just over an hour north from the city of Nelson. Here, visitors can take a guided kayak tour in the Tasman Sea and take in the clear blue waters and golden sand beaches. Explore the many lagoons and coastal caves and be sure to stop and relax on one of the many deserted island beaches.
The North Island
From here, travel east to the town of Picton and catch the interisland ferry for a three-hour ride across the Cook Strait to the capital city of Wellington on the North Island. Once in Wellington, head up to the Mount Victoria lookout to get you bearings and take in the panoramic view of the city center and harbor. While in Wellington, check out the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa, the country's free national museum, where you can get an overview on Maori history and the diverse natural environment. Wellington is also known for fine dining and nightlife, most of which can be explored on foot.
From Wellington, venture up toward the center of the North Island to the Tongariro National Park. The small town of Turangi is an ideal base for day trips into the park, where visitors can hike around New Zealand's largest lake, Lake Taupo, experience world famous trout fishing on the Tongariro River and take in the sights of Mount Tongariro and other volcanoes within the park.
Continue around to the top of Lake Taupo and visit the surreal Craters of the Moon Scenic Reserve. This geothermal phenomenon is caused by magma heating up pools of water deep beneath the ground, causing steam to rise up eerily from the large craters and surrounding ground. Also, explore the nearby geothermal pool sites, which contain geysers, waterfalls, sulfur caves and a series of pools that vary widely in color because of the heated elements in the water.
From here continue north to the Bay of Plenty, one of the sunniest regions in the world. This area is a popular vacation destination for locals and features access to countless water activities and some of the country's most pristine beaches. The region's major city is Tauranga and visitors here will find a bounty of fresh seafood and local fruit such as the kiwi.
Discover Maori history and unwind
Travel just under an hour inland and stop off in the town of Rotorua, a place deeply rooted in Maori culture. Treat yourself to a relaxing day at the Polynesian Spas. Here, thermal pools range in temperature from 96 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and contain minerals that are believed to have a variety of healing properties. Relax in the alkaline pools, surrounded by native flora, while you enjoy the view of Lake Rotorua.
From Rotorua, trek northwest to the city of Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. Auckland is also known as the "City of Sails," because it is said to have more boats per capita than anywhere in the world. Auckland is a progressive, multicultural city with a bustling nightlife and a diverse population. While the sprawling, modern city has plenty of metropolitan delights, its natural beauty is never far away as it sits nestled between the Waitemata and Manuka harbors and atop a series of dormant volcanoes, surrounded by lush forest. Explore all the cultural and recreational activities the city has to offer or escape from it all and jet away to a remote island getaway in the nearby Hauraki Gulf.