Filled with towering peaks, icy glaciers, lush fields and dales, all balanced on two islands fringed by beautiful beaches, New Zealand -- the other Down Under --draws immigrants from near and far, looking for a new lease of life. Its cities are consistently ranked as some of the best places to live in the world, and with a population of only 4.4 million spread across the North and South Islands, there remain plenty of untouched landscapes to explore and enjoy.

What is it known for?
If you are a rugby fan, you would probably say the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team (who won the 2011 Rugby World Cup in October); if you are a movie fan, you would say orcs and elfs (the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in many of the country’s most spectacular spots); and if you are an adventure traveller, you would say bungee jumping and glaciers. All of the above is true, along with the great wines, the music scene, a robust Maori culture and all more sheep than people.

While New Zealand was originally settled by Polynesians 700 years ago, Europeans came along in serious numbers in the 19th Century. A serious recruitment effort to get Scots to emigrate to New Zealand took place in the 1850s and 1860s so Scottish place names abound, especially on the South Island. The country is 900 miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia, and like its larger neighbour to the west, it is part of the British Commonwealth.

The overwhelming draw for modern-day visitors is the country’s jaw-dropping scenery and natural wonders, from the Franz Josef Glacier to the Waitomo Caves to the Otago Peninsula. Sailing, surfing, hiking, camping, luging — name almost any outdoor activity and New Zealand has it in spades. With an increasing number of visitors arriving every year, environmentalists and the government are concerned about preserving the unspoiled nature that is the country’s richest natural resource. Sustainability is now the tourism watch-word.

Where do you want to live?
Auckland is by far the largest city in New Zealand, with a population of 1.3 million. Known as the City of Sails, it sits on a narrow stretch of land between the Waitemata and Manukau Bays. The city’s suburbs stretch for many miles up and down the coast. The most popular places to live, such as Westmere, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Ellerslie and Meadowbank, are within a roughly five kilometre radius of the Central Business District (CBD). These are the areas seeing the highest home prices in the country.

Nearby Hamilton, a smaller, inland city about an hour and a half drive from Auckland, attracts many immigrants, particularly from Great Britain. Here the most popular neighbourhoods, such as St Andrews, Flagstaff and Chartwell, are in the eastern and western parts of the city, but all are close the Waikato River.

At the southernmost tip of the North Island sits Wellington, the capital and diplomatic centre of country, built in the hills above the Cook Strait that separates the North Island from the South Island. It has the country’s best public transport, Metlink, and considers itself the coolest city in New Zealand (as well as the windiest). “The areas closest to the city are the most popular,” said Carey Smith, chief executive of Ray White New Zealand real estate. “They include Khandallah, Newtown and Hataitai.”

Christchurch in the Canterbury region is the largest city on the South Island and the second-largest in the country. It is also the country’s electrical and engineering hub. The February 2011 earthquake and the aftershocks that followed have caused people to look for properties in the northwest of the city, in areas such as Hornby, or suburbs like Lincoln and Rolleston.

Side trips
Kiwis are spoiled for choice no matter where they live, but “beach culture has always been a big part of our culture,” said Shane Mason, an Aucklander and video editor. “It’s pretty common to leave town during the summer and spend Christmas and New Year’s at the beach.” From Auckland, popular getaways in the Northland region for all sorts of water sports are Mautauri Bay, the Tututaka Coast, Waiheke and the Great Barrier Islands. The Coromandel Peninsula and Raglan, a surfing town, are hugely popular with North Islanders, as is the wine region of Martinborough and Hawke’s Bay. Christchurch residents and Cantabrians head to the west coast, Akoroa and the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs for their breaks. “Most Kiwis have their own secret spot they can slip away too,” said Mason. “I basically am happy anywhere with a beach and a barbecue.”

Australia, or the “West Island”, as it is cheekily nicknamed, is popular for short, inexpensive shopping and sightseeing trips in Sydney or Melbourne, or even for a rugby match. There are hundreds of thousands of Kiwis living in Australia, so many go over to visit family as well. Flying to any other major cities takes a long time: London is almost a full 24 hours and it is 13 hours to Los Angeles. Even holiday spots in Asia like Bali can take up to 11 or 12 hours.

Practical info
Renting can be difficult in New Zealand, as most people buy, so ex-pats may only rent for a short time before buying a property. But be warned, rents are expensive, as high as NZ$500 to 600 a week for a two-bedroom flat in the city.

House sales are recovering, but have not reached the boom levels of 2007. At the same time, all regions have had an increase in the number of properties sold. Auckland sale prices reached a new high last month: the median price of a house there is NZ$490,000. “Prices have continued to firm, particularly across Auckland,” said Smith. “The Official Cash Rate (interest rate) will remain at 2.5% until March 2012, giving confidence to home buyers and investors and keep the second- and third-home buyer market active.”

Sales in Hamilton remain flat, with an average sale price of NZ$315,000, and Wellington prices are rising, with an average sale price of NZ$392,000. The earthquake in Christchurch lowered sales and prices in 2011.

“New Zealand is a good place to visit but a great place to live,” said Mason, who currently lives in Berlin. “I’ve discovered there is no place like home.”

Further information
Scoop: city-specific blogs and news
Metro: Auckland city and lifestyle magazine
North & South Magazine: regional lifestyle and current events publication