It wasn’t until I landed in Los Angeles for the first time in 1995, with big dreams of embarking on a career in travel, that I realized just what I’d left behind. But I learned to appreciate New Zealand even more in my next ten years living in America than I ever would have if I’d stayed.

I’ve had the opportunity to sell trips and work on marketing campaigns for New Zealand from the United States, and continued traveling to Auckland several times a year. Gradually, the country that was best known for having more sheep than people evolved into a sophisticated travel destination. Movies like The Lord of the Rings put New Zealand on the map by showing the world some of its stunning landscapes (thank you, Peter Jackson). Even though I had lived there for years, and have returned again as a tourist, New Zealand’s scenery has never failed to amaze me.

I’ve heard “I’ve always wanted to go” about a thousand times, just about every time I meet someone. The reason why this place is high on wish lists but low on to-do lists is the seemingly huge distance. In reality, New Zealand is no harder to get to than Italy from Los Angeles. After years of planning trips for friends and clients, I decided it was time to put together the ideal trip. If you have 7 days, this is how I’d suggest spending it: New Zealand: A Wine Lover’s Vacation of a Lifetime

If you’re considering a trip to New Zealand, here are my tips:

No, really, don’t let the flight distance put you off: Distance is a mindset. This is no different than flying to Asia from the East Coast or Europe from the West Coast. And the planes, meals and quality of service are much better than we are used to on US carriers. The flights are timed perfectly out of the West Coast and leave in the evening, making it easier to sleep. The meals and wines make this one of the best flights you may have ever taken.

Overestimate how long it takes to drive: New Zealand is made up of two main islands, and size-wise is about the same as California. Despite the seemingly short distances, there are very few multi-lane highways — roads can be as small as one lane in each direction. Take special care especially on your first day – you’ll also need to quickly get used to driving on the left side of the road. The other thing that will slow you down is the scenery. It really is dramatic and can change very quickly. Finally, there’s also a good chance you’ll find a herd of sheep crossing the road in some of the more remote parts! Make sure you have your camera charged and allocate more driving time than you normally would.

Get a window seat on internal flights: The view from the plane when you’re flying within New Zealand, especially in the South Island, can be spectacular. You don’t want to miss out on that view!

Make sure you try local specialties: New Zealand is a foodie nation, and because the country is small, you are never far from your next great meal. Coffee lovers will be in heaven here (order a “flat white”). You can also find excellent wine and gourmet food, even in some of the small towns. Make sure you local specialties like lamb and seafood (especially the green-lipped mussels). Many wineries have great restaurants, so they can be good places to grab a bite to eat. You will never be hungry in New Zealand!

Get to the real New Zealand: For the real New Zealand experience, I always recommend a trip into the native bush. There is nothing like the sounds of the native birds. In the itinerary we’ve included the Dart River Safari Jetboat and 4WD experience – you’ll explore a remote area of the South Island. The overnight Doubtful Sound cruise is fantastic as well, and of course there is the ever-popular Milford Track, which attracts hikers from all over the world. For those that want to add extra days I’d recommend a trip to Rotorua or the Bay of Islands, to learn more about New Zealand’s Maori culture. If you ever get the chance to go to a Maori event or ceremony it is a moving and fascinating experience.

If you’re a wine lover, go exploring: There are wineries and vineyards scattered all over New Zealand. Marlborough, at the top of the South Island is known as the home of Sauvignon Blanc, and that’s where you’ll find a lot of names you may recognize, like Cloudy Bay and Allan Scott. Central Otago is best known for its Pinot Noir, but you’ll also taste other varieties here.  You will also find excellent wineries to visit in Hawkes Bay, Martinborough and just outside of Auckland.

If you have any questions on traveling to New Zealand post them below or tweet them to @mindyjoyce

Photos courtesy of Tourism New Zealand