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THE PERFECT PATH TO NEW ZEALAND

People often ask me where I like to cruise, expecting that, like Magellan, I've visited most ports around the globe. In truth, I'm woefully unfamiliar with great swaths of the planet, such as Africa and much of the exotic Far East.

Located as I am on the East Coast, I've avoided forays to the South Pacific and Indian Oceans because of the time needed to get there. But lately I've set my sights on New Zealand, that mustache of land skewed below the nose of Australia.

This year and next, Clipper, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Discovery and Silversea are offering cruises to a dozen ports in this uniquely picturesque country.

New Zealand, the size of Colorado, is primarily composed of two distinct islands, North and South, birthed by volcanic upheavals and rifted with geysers, thermal springs and rugged mountains. The country boasts nearly 10,000 miles of coastline dotted with deep glacial fjords; semitropical beaches; hundreds of bays and harbors; and peninsulas that are home to seals and penguins as well as coastal villages and cosmopolitan cities.

For first-time visitors, cruising is an ideal introduction to waterbound New Zealand. Princess, Radisson Seven Seas and Silversea offer six- to 10-day itineraries that visit up to seven ports. And Clipper's two-week itineraries on the 128-passenger Odyssey visit nine ports, with day cruises in Milford, Doubtful, Dusky and Marlborough sounds on South Island.

Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand's primary ports, are known for their museums, galleries and shopping. Christchurch has charming English gardens, punting excursions on the Avon River and wildlife cruises from Lyttelton's harbor.

Smaller vessels are able to navigate the narrow, deep gorges of Doubtful and Dusky sounds in remote areas of Fiordland National Park. Some cruise itineraries also include the port of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, with excursions to the Waimangu Valley, where seven craters form the newest ecosystem in the world. The ever-evolving environment includes rare terraces of sinter -- silica spewed from a geyser and hardened into layers -- and thermally adapted plant life.

On the Otago Peninsula, where cruise ships dock at Port Chalmers in Dunedin, passengers can head to Taiaroa Head, home to fur seals and birds such as the spotted shag; the world's smallest penguin, the blue; and the awe-inspiring world navigator, the Royal Albatross.

On New Zealand's North Island, some cruise lines explore lesser-known destinations:

Bay of Islands in Northland, a collection of 144 atolls. The Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand, was signed here.

Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. It has early copper mines from the 1850s as well as the historic Mansion House, once home to Sir George Grey, twice governor of New Zealand.

Waiheke Island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Auckland. It's a terrific spot for wine tastings and a vineyard lunch. Sculptor Park displays works by local artists fashioned from concrete, ceramic, bronze, stone, steel and wood.

Gisborne, an enriching cultural call. A half-day visit to the Te Wainui Maori Village gives an insider's look at native healing, carving, weaving, history, dances and a hangi meal.

Napier, rebuilt in the 1930s after a devastating earthquake leveled its art deco buildings. To see some of the best examples of the east coast city's architecture, take a tour in a vintage Buick with quirky guide John Cocking, a k a "Bertie."

Lesser-known ports visited by cruise ships on New Zealand's South Island include:

Westport, on the "Wild West" coast. The former coal- and gold-mining town today is known for its seals, which reside at Cape Foulwind, named by those who have been downwind from the seals.

Nelson, an artistic center. The city boasts more than 300 artists, including woodworkers, painters, sculptors and potters. Interactive workshops let you blow glass, work clay and even carve a bone or two.

Picton, in the Marlborough Sounds. A 45-minute hike away is Ship Cove, where Capt. James Cook landed in 1770, and the trailhead of the Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand's great coastal hikes.

Kaikoura, which means "meal of crayfish." It's not crustaceans but cetaceans, though, that take center stage in the nutrient-rich waters off this peninsula. A resident pod of sperm whales lives here, and whale watching is available year-round.

For more information on cruises to New Zealand, check with each cruise line. For information on visiting New Zealand, call Tourism New Zealand at (866) 639-9325 or see NewZealand.com.

e-mail: AJBleeckeraol.com

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