It’s been nearly 16 years and 45 countries ago since I visited New Zealand, yet it still retains its top billing in my mind as the all-time most beautiful place on Earth. In the spirit of a throwback, I thought a stroll down Memory Lane, New Zealand would evoke some fond mental images of natural beauty in its most compelling state. Turns out I was right.
Destination: New Zealand (South Island circle tour)
What Brought Me There
What Brought Me There
In the 2000’s New Zealand was well on its way to becoming a hip and popular destination thanks to its spectacular scenery being broadcast to worldwide audiences via several blockbuster movies of the time. But even before that I had heard rumor of incredible, natural landscapes that had even well-traveled adventurers gushing like schoolchildren. Somehow I sensed that this would be “my kind of place.”
Using airline miles accrued through a combination of credit card rewards and actual travel, my wife and I joined my parents on an ambitious 3.5 week journey Down Under, visiting Australia and New Zealand’s South Island. While I enjoyed both destinations immensely, it became readily evident that it would take more than just the 1 week allotted to appreciate the ubiquitous splendor of New Zealand’s incomparable scenery.
What I Loved
Our whirlwind tour started in Christchurch, took in an afternoon at majestic Mount Cook, then lingered a few days in Queenstown before working our way up the wild West Coast and coming round to Christchurch again. The highlight was Milford Sound, in Fiordland National Park. Despite the many travels I’ve had since then, I still consider it to be the most beautiful place on Earth.
Another personal favorite was a hike on the Fox Glacier, mostly because of the incredible sense of scale when watching tiny dots clambering their way across a thousand-foot deep block of blue and white ice. In fact there several occasions when the sheer enormity of the landscape I was contemplating literally took my breath away.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
Even though by most accounts the South Island is where the most jaw-dropping scenery resides, there are several places on the North Island that I would like to see firsthand: The geothermal features of Rotorua, Tongariro National Park, and most of all, taking a blackwater rafting trip down an underground river in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Yes, you heard right – glowworms.
When speaking to clients or novice travelers about my travels, sooner or later I inevitably get asked the same question:
“What was the best place you’ve been?”
I know they mean well, and I’m sure they really do want to know. But the problem lies in what they mean by what is ‘best’. It is at this point that I ask my own follow-up questions, which only results in coming back to the original one.
“What was the best place you’ve been?”
So I will answer that now. And just so we’re clear, the following is the expanded version of the question(s) I will be responding to. “Of all the places you have seen, which would rate as best of all? What is the one spot that not only took your breath away, but a piece of your heart as well? And where is the one place that you were so overwhelmed by its beauty, you still use it as a touchstone to judge all other places?” Since you put it that way, I can respond unhesitatingly—Fiordland National Park in the Southwest corner of New Zealand.
In a previous blog post I included an abbreviated account of my visit there (see South Circle Island Tour—Part I), but to justify giving it my top honor requires a little more explanation.
For anyone without access to a plane, helicopter, or stamina for a four day overland hike, Fiordland National Park is about a three hour drive from Queenstown—the main hub of activity in the region. Once past the town of Te Anau, the scenery kicks into overdrive with grassy meadows of yellow-brown tussock draped beneath an impressive backdrop of towering mountains. Moving further into the park there’s an amazing sense of scale that just can’t be effectively translated into any media I’m aware of. Even words fail to fully capture the grandeur of standing at an overlook watching an emerald tinged river of raging water snake its way through a sea of intensely green temperate rain forest rising up steep mountainsides topped with ice. And this isn’t even the best part.
In an area of superlatives, the title of ‘Most Impressive’ goes to Milford Sound–the terminus of the road and the starting point for scenic cruises. Directly opposite from the small visitors center is the conical shape of Mitre Peak jutting several thousand feet out of the generally placid waters. A trip out to the mouth of the Tasman Sea & back will showcase sheer-sided cliffs ringed with more temperate rain forest, capped by glaciers, and spouting gushing waterfalls that dwarf any man-made craft in the area. Again, fully comprehending the scale of this enormous valley is difficult even when present, let alone a secondhand account.
Being an animal lover, I took special delight when a pod of bottlenose dolphins kept pace with our boat, arcing in and out of the water a few arm-lengths away. Lazing on the rocky shoreline were troops of seals, seemingly unaware that they were residing in a place of such amazing natural beauty. And while admiring the proliferation of indigenous flora, I had a run-in with a kea— parrot that is part of the indigenous fauna—who very brazenly approached looking for a handout.
So there’s my answer. I’ve given you not only the where, but the why. There’s lots of places I would rank higher for more specific questions (for example, “What’s the best place to eat good Italian food? Answer: Italy) but for an overall, all things being equal, ensemble cast award for the best spot on earth, my answer remains Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. And if you don’t like my answer don’t blame me.
People tend to toss around a lot of adjectives when describing the South Island of New Zealand, many of which would sound like so much hype to the uninformed listener. However, in just one short visit it become apparent that words—be they adjectives or not—simply cannot convey the surpassing beauty encompassed by this tiny nation that is roughly the size of California.
Located deep in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand is remote enough to be off the casual tourist’s beaten path, yet its high standard of living and modern infrastructure make traveling about a breeze. In March of 2005 I had the privilege to do just that, completing a circuitous whirlwind tour in a little over a week. After just five minutes on the ground I realized that a week is far too short a time to really experience a destination so richly blessed with natural beauty and adventure opportunities.
Christchurch to Mt. Cook
Most international travelers arrive via Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city and the only place that can even remotely be phrased as “urban”. Even so, admiring the city’s Scottish architecture and charm nestled along the leafy banks of the Avon River prepares the visitor for the harmony between man and nature that lay just outside the city limits.
From Christchurch my journeys took me south on the well-paved highway that runs the length of the level eastern coast. Not long after passing through the small town of Ashburton my route turned inland, and before long I was staring out at the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps that formed the horizon. As I drew near, the road hugged the hilly shorelines of the glacial blue waters of Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki—large inland bodies of water with the jagged outline of the mountains forming the perfect backdrop. The tallest of them all is Mt.Cook, or Aoraki, as it is called in the native Maori tongue. The national park that bears its name offers easily accessible trails that admire the mountain from different vantage points. This was the first time of many that I noticed how difficult it would be to effectively describe the scale of the grandeur this country possesses all within a very small space.
Mt. Cook to Queenstown
Heading south through the small town of Twizel, it was a windy road through central Otago and its hills of grassy tussock dotted with scores of sheep, all the way down to New Zealand’s adventure capital of Queenstown. Here, the visitor can defy death in any number of ways, from bungee jumping, to an exhilarating jet boat ride down the Karawaru or Shotover Rivers, to an alpine slide perched high above the town.
Hugging the northeastern shoreline of Lake Wakitipu, Queenstown is a year-round destination, doubling as a ski resort in the winter months. The modest waterfront offers numerous shopping opportunities for souvenirs and local goods—particularly wool textiles, though the exchange rate and prices now favor European and Japanese visitors far more than their American counterparts. My most pleasant discovery was on a small mountain on the opposite shore called Deer Park Heights. It was here that Peter Jackson filmed many scenes for his Lord of the Rings trilogy and it was very apparent as to why. I noted here, as I did in several other locations, that New Zealand was truly as close to Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” as it gets. There’s sort of a primordial feel about the place that makes it seem ancient yet innocent at the same time. Cinematic fame aside, this quasi-animal park also afforded some spectacular views of the entire Queenstown region, from the lake to the river to the appropriately named Remarkables mountain range.
Queenstown to Milford Sound
It was from my base in Queenstown that I made my first attempt to visit renowned Milford Sound, only to be turned back by the heaviest single day rainfall in nearly a century. Undeterred, I once again made the three and a half hour trip to Milford Sound, the popular attraction located deep inside Fiordland National Park, which is itself part of a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site that is most certainly a worthy entrant. In a land full of superlatives, this place reigns supreme. My jaw began to hurt from repetitive dropping as the road wound past raging boulder-strewn rivers, towering mountains ringed with temperate rain forest, and more waterfalls than I could count. Mind you, this was all just on the periphery. Once through the Homer Tunnel it was a short yet scenic drive to the terminus of Milford Sound—a cluster of buildings housing a visitor’s center, restaurant, and many sales counters for the various boats that ply the waters out to the mouth of the Tasman Sea and back. I boarded one such vessel and was soon admiring the gushing spout of Lady Bowen Falls. Once again the issue of scale came to mind as I watched other boats drift by its base, dwarfed by 4000 foot near-vertical cliffs rising up to glacier-topped peaks. It was then that our captain altered our course to bring us parallel with a pod of bottlenose dolphins arching in and out of the water. Later on the animal encounters continued as we saw an adorable pack of sea lions lounging atop the rocks at the base of yet another waterfall.
When the boat was finally settled into its moorings across from triangular and iconic Mitre Peak, I realized that in all my travels, and they are many, I have never seen another place that could match the natural splendor and grandeur that I witnessed here. And as I returned, tired yet satisfied to my rental car for the long trek back to Queenstown, I couldn’t suppress a smile. After all, leaving paradise behind is not so hard when you know that you still have so much more of it on the road ahead.