Correspondents' Picks: New Zealand

Abandoned by her brothers for the holidays, NEWSWEEK's Ginanne Brownell and her mother took off on an Antipodean adventure in New Zealand. Traversing the islands by car, they soon discovered it always takes twice as long as expected to get anywhere because of the windy roads, car-stopping scenery--and, of course, all those sheep.

Rotorua: Some call it the Las Vegas of New Zealand, although there are no casino slots--just lots of tourists. The small city, located in the central part of the north island, is famous not just for being the heart of Maori culture, but also for its thermal springs and bubbling mud. Head to Whakarewarewa (www.whakarewarewa.com), a Maori village in the midst of the thermal reserve. Locals provide tours of the village, and you'll have the chance to watch traditional Maori dancing and singing and enjoy delicious corn boiled in the thermal waters. (Note: add the butter to the plastic bag and shake -- don't be dumb like me and spread the butter with your bare hands. It's messy and you'll give yourself away as a tourist!) Te Puia (www.nzmaori.co.nz), a Maori cultural center, lets you glimpse traditional weaving and wood-carving workshops amidst the geysers. (Pohutu, the largest, erupts between 10 and 20 times a day.) Stay for a Hangi lunch—meat, potatoes, carrots, onions and corn are cooked in the ground over hot river stones. Delicious and different!

Wobbly Kea: Named after a cheeky local parrot breed indigenous to the South Island, the Wobbly Kea restaurant in Arthur's Pass village (www.apinfo.co.nz) is a great lunch set in incredible surroundings. To get there, you could take the TrazAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth, but it's much more fun to drive—especially across the heart-stopping Otira Viaduct, suspended 100 meters above a stunning valley (the area is aptly named Death's Corner). After you've successfully crossed, head to the Wobbly Kea to fill your gob. I had a delicious lamb salad with yogurt dressing and my mother had a yummy chicken, brie and cranberry sandwich on homemade wheat bread. They also serve up pizzas, nachos and burgers. It could have been the mountain air, but this food was fab!

Hokitika: This hopping village is the gateway to glacier country and the center of New Zealand's jade-crafts trade. Jade is the country's requisite tourist trinket, and along with the predictably touristy places, the town offers some quality shops like the Hokitika Craft Gallery Cooperative (www.hokitikacraftgallery.co.nz), which sells hand-carved earrings, well-crafted pottery and original watercolors and paintings. At the Hokitika Glass Blowing Studio (www.hokitikaglass.co.nz), you can watch local artisans craft beautiful vases, bowls and baubles. Some pieces are divine—others a bit kitsch. But it's a fun stop nonetheless. Grab lunch or dinner at Café de Paris, where they serve up freshly caught fish and exquisite desserts.

Cook 'n' With Gas: This fine little bistro in Christchurch (www.cooknwithgas.co.nz) is both the locals' favorites and one of the town's top tables. The restaurant has won numerous awards for its sumptious cuisine and efficient service. I loved the New Zealand mussels in gruyere and speck sauce, while my mother enjoyed the BBQ venison in a port wine glaze. And those were just the starters! The Strawberry-Paris-Brest was like nothing I have tasted: hokey-pokey ice cream (that's vanilla with crunchy toffee) and a choux bun (almost like a profiterole without the cream) served over a butterscotch sauce, with toasted almonds, passion fruit and, of course, strawberries. This is a dessert I will compare all others to.

Milford Sound Cruises: The best way to see this part of fjordland is to take a cruise through the sound. During the day these are crowded affairs with noisy backpackers and confused tourists in matching sweatshirts, so opt for an overnight cruise that leaves around 4 p.m. and returns to port at 9 a.m. the next day. Mom and I opted for the Milford Mariner (www.realjourneys.co.nz/Main/OvernightCruises), a more upscale version of the various overnighters, which included delectable food (think salmon, lamb and and the ever-popular hokey-pokey). The cruise takes you up the sound into the Tasman Sea, with a two-hour stop for those inclined to do some kayaking and swimming. The scenery is amazing—the mountains tower 600 meters above the water, and the breathtaking waterfalls are some of the world's best: Stirling Falls plunges 50 stories, three times the distance of Niagara! It's little wonder Peter Jackson used New Zealand as his backdrop for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (the "Narnia" series and the newly released "The Water Horse" were also filmed here). Middle Earth never looked so good!