The food in New Zealand, in my mind, had been restricted to mainly lamb and seafood, seeing how sheep farming is such a huge industry there and the seas around its islands are teeming with marine life.
A recent trip to the North Island, however, reveals that the country has much more to offer.
Local farms produce excellent vegetables, which can be purchased at farmers' markets and savoured in restaurants.
Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines fly to and from Auckland daily. The flight takes about 10 hours each way.
The country's celebrity chefs are not known in Asia and throughout a week-long trip to Auckland, Hawkes Bay and Wellington with journalists and our hosts from Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand, we do not even know the names of the chefs at most of the restaurants we dine at. Still, we enjoy good food and excellent wines.
In between meals, there is also lots to do - sailing around Auckland, visiting vineyards in Hawkes Bay and seeking out artisanal food purveyors in Wellington.
And fans of The Lord Of The Rings should visit the Weta Workshop in Wellington, where the costumes and props were made for the movie trilogy by director Peter Jackson, who lives in the city.
•The writer's trip was sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.
•This story first appeared in the March edition of The Life e-magazine.
AUCKLAND: CITY OF SAILS
WHAT TO DO
The largest city in New Zealand, Auckland is a financial centre and very cosmopolitan. It is also known as the City of Sails and one finds plenty to do on the waters around the city.
On a late morning, we drive to Waitemata Harbour off the city centre, which is packed with marinas and sailing clubs.
About 10 minutes after we arrive, a wooden ship sails in gracefully and docks. That is our ride, a waka, which may be called a canoe, but can refer to a big vessel with a sail.
Our boat is one of those. It was built to retrace the journey of the original Maori from northern Polynesia and is fitted with solar panels to harness power from the sun. Otherwise, it depends on just the wind and waves, with a crew member always on deck to steer it with a paddle.
The sail around the harbour takes about an hour. Waka tours can be booked online via companies such as Waka Quest (www.wakaquest.com) at about NZ$150 (S$140) a person.
The next day, we take a 35-minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island, a popular weekend getaway spot about 17.5km from Auckland. The best way to see the island on a tight schedule is to book a local tour, which we do.
Ms Jenny McDonald, an islander who started Ananda Tours (www. facebook.com/Ananda-Tours-356366 230673), is waiting for us at the wharf with the day's itinerary.
We are there on a Saturday, so we stop at the Ostend Market (www. tourismwaiheke.co.nz/see/ostend- markets), a weekly farmers' market where stalls sell anything from vegetables to manuka honey to trinkets.
Everything is produced locally and some in our group buy tubes of beeswax lip moisturiser as gifts.
In Auckland, a highlight of the trip is to cook a hangi, a Maori experience where a meal is cooked in the ground using heated rocks.
Mr John Panoho and his colleagues from Navigator Tours (www.navi gatortours.co.nz) are up before dawn to prepare the cooking pit at Awataha Marae, a Maori cultural venue.
In an open area, they dig a hole a couple of metres deep and lay large stones at the bottom that are covered with burning logs.
When we arrive, the fire is just about to die out, the logs are smoking and the stones red-hot.
We help to prepare the meal. Wire baskets, lined with leaves, are filled with vegetables, meat and fish. While some of us scrub and cut root vegetables such as kumara - a local version of sweet potato - others marinate the meat and clean the fish.
Then the stronger men hook up the logs from the pit before the filled baskets are lowered in. These are covered with layers of wet cloth before the pit is filled up with earth. When we return 11/2 hours later, lunch is ready.
The meats - chicken, lamb and a pork hock - and vegetables are soft from the long, slow cooking and have a smoky aroma.
My favourite is the whole snapper, marinated in a mix of coconut milk, lemon juice and seasonings. It tastes delicious.
WHERE TO EAT
We arrive in late November and visit the annual Federal Street Festival (www.heartofthecity.co.nz/auckland- events/food-and-drink-events/federal -street-festival), featuring stalls set up by restaurants and bars from SkyCity, a casino, entertainment and hotel complex.
It is a great chance to savour the food of some of the best-known eateries in the city. We have an excellent savannah cheese burger from Andy's Burgers & Bar and lamb and beef skewers from Bellota.
Do visit Giapo (267 Queen Street, www.giapo.com), which serves the best ice cream I've had. One of my favourites is the Rum Baba, inspired by the dessert and featuring button- shaped babas (yeast cakes) pressed into a rum zabaglione gelato. Most cones cost slightly above NZ$10 each.
WHERE TO STAY
We stay at the SkyCity Hotel (www. skycityauckland.co.nz), which is next to the iconic 328m-tall Sky Tower. This is the best place to stay if you plan to attend the Federal Street Festival, as the stalls start outside the hotel. Rates start at about NZ$300 a night.
HAWKES BAY: ART DECO BEAUTY
WHAT TO DO
Hawkes Bay lies on the east coast of North Island and is an hour's flight from Auckland. It is New Zealand's oldest wine region and the oldest vineyard, Mission Estate, was established in 1851.
Our stay begins with a morning visit to the Hawke's Bay Farmers Market (www.hawkesbayfarmers market.co.nz), which is held on the Hawke's Bay Showgrounds outside Napier, the biggest city in the region, every Sunday from 8.30am to 12.30pm.
This is curated by a local team so there is a good mix of quality products. Everything is produced locally, whether it is the blueberry gelato, freshly roasted coffee or bottles of nut and olive oils.
The city of Napier was devastated in a major earthquake in 1931 and, when it was rebuilt over the following two years, most of the new buildings were in the Art Deco style.
When we drive into the city, it is like entering a film set of The Great Gatsby. Every February, there is an Art Deco weekend and tourists as well as the local folk dress up in costumes from the 1930s.
For a spot of nature, we go on a Gannet Safaris Overland Tour (www.gannetsafaris.co.nz), driving for half an hour on farm roads and passing fields of sheep to reach Cape Kidnappers. There, on the top of a sheer cliff is the largest colony of gannets in the world. Hundreds of the noisy seabirds nest there, some soaring overhead gracefully or landing a little clumsily, and you can watch them from just a few metres away.
WHERE TO EAT
Our meal at Elephant Hill is one of the most memorable. The setting is lovely, with a view of the vineyard. The cooking is light and bright, even my entree of twice-cooked pork belly, scallop, apple almond, crackling (NZ$23) that boasts crispy crackling and plump seared scallops. I am equally happy with my main of glazed duck, soft-shell crab, pomegranate, cucumber, coriander, vanilla lime dressing (NZ$39) - a wonderful mix of ingredients with varying flavours and textures.
For our last night in Napier, we are taken on a Twilight Odyssey, a dinner safari to three wineries - Vidal Estate, Craggy Range and Mission Estate - for food and drinks. Organised by Odyssey Tours (www.odysseynz.co.nz), it is ideal for visitors who do not have much time to spend in Hawkes Bay, but wish to experience as much of the wines as possible. At NZ$199 a person, it is a decent deal as it includes transport to the various stops as well as the food and wine.
WHERE TO STAY
The Art Deco Masonic Hotel (www.masonic.co.nz) is housed in an iconic building in Napier. The original hotel opened in 1861 and though it has been refurbished and now comes with modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi, the hotel's design is kept old-fashioned. Room rates start at NZ$159 a night.
It faces the Art Deco Centre, where you register for walking and vintage car tours, and is within walking distance of Napier's main shopping street.
WELLINGTON: HOME TO LORD OF THE RINGS
WHAT TO DO
Wellington is a city filled with culture and cafes and is the hometown of The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson and the famous Weta Workshop, which made the costumes and props for the fantasy movie trilogy (2001 to 2003).
Fans of the trilogy should take the 45-minute Weta Cave Workshop Tour (www.wetanz.com/cave, NZ$25 a person) in Miramar in Wellington, about a half-hour drive from the city centre, where a guide shows you props and costumes used in the movies. You discover how armour and weapon props are made from lightweight materials so that the actors do not get weighed down, and get to feel some of the materials, such as mithril or elvish chainmail, mentioned in the movies.
For those who are not fans, there are plenty of activities in Wellington too. Foodies can sign up for a walking tour with Zest Food Tours (www.zestfoodtours.co.nz, from NZ$179 a person), which takes you to various stops including a local coffee roaster, a tasting of local cheeses, a peanut butter factory and a chocolate factory. It is an introduction to the local food scene.
WHERE TO EAT
Our stop for lunch is Havana Bar (www.havanabar.co.nz), a hidden- away restaurant with a Cuban theme. The menu of tapas is meant for sharing and is Spanish-inspired rather than Spanish. There are some delightful items such as sauteed prawns in Kashmiri chilli and garlic (NZ$15) and roast pork belly with a mojo cilantro, pickled shallots and crackling (NZ$20).
The only other meal I have in the city is dinner at Whitebait (www.white-bait.nz), a seafood restaurant in a modern waterfront development called Clyde Quay Wharf that comprises eateries and luxury homes, somewhat like Singapore's Sentosa Cove.
The restaurant is buzzing on the rainy Tuesday night we are there.
You cannot go very wrong with fresh seafood and we feast on crispy whitebait with tomato consomme gel, shaved fennel and fried capers (NZ$26) and a very nice combination of fish and shellfish (NZ$38) that is cooked in a Josper oven Catalan-style with saffron broth and romescada. This is one of the best meals we have, a testimony to the good quality seafood that New Zealand has to offer.
WHERE TO STAY
The Museum Art Hotel (www.museumhotel.co.nz) is a boutique hotel with modern, comfortable rooms and very spacious bathrooms. But its main attraction are the many pieces of quirky, modern artwork that cover the walls and floor of its lobby and public areas.
Its location is also excellent as it is within walking distance of many bars and restaurants in the city centre. Rates start at NZ$269 a night.