The Best Spot on Earth? Can You Repeat the Question?

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

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.

The Untamed Wilderness of Fiordland National Park
The Untamed Wilderness of Fiordland National Park

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.

The gushing spout of Lady Bowen Falls
The gushing spout of Lady Bowen Falls

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.

You’re the one who asked  🙂

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Film Location Fun & Folly

I still remember the first time I saw a film location site in person. I was young—preteens for sure. My dad had a business trip in L.A. and was able to have me come along. After the event was over we stayed another few days, and being the wonderful dad that he is, he worked it out so that we could stay at the Bonaventure Hotel with its famous outdoor elevators that also played a pivotal role in what was at that time one of my favorite movies: Midnight Madness. I don’t imagine many will recall that kitschy film of 1980 starring a very young Michael J. Fox, but for me, riding that elevator and peering down to see if the pool chairs were still arranged to spell out the location of the finish line (they weren’t) was a moment of cinematic glory and high point in my life to that point. Too bad we can’t stay 12 forever.

 

Aging aside, I know that I still enjoy being in famous film locales regardless if I’ve ever seen them or not. Somehow the fact that a motion picture studio would choose to work their magic in a given place sort of gives weight to a location, as if an appearance on the big screen makes that site a celebrity in and of itself. While I’ve never been star-struck by celebrities in the human form, there have been a few locales that I would have asked for their autograph if only they could hold a pen. Below I’ve included some of my favorites. And for those of you who DO remember Midnight Madness, I challenge you to read on without the cheesy theme song running in your head.

 

Mehrangarh Fort, Johdpur, India

 

My wife Susie posing in front of Batman's "prison"
My wife Susie posing in front of Batman’s “prison”

It was during my visit in December 2011 that I learned that only a few months before, filming had wrapped up for the upcoming Batman installment The Dark Knight Rises. I had to wait until the following summer to see what they filmed, but sitting in the theater I felt a thrill of excitement when I saw Bruce Wayne climb out of a hole with this massive landmark behind him. I also got a charge of seeing Ra’s Al Ghul walking the same embattlements that I did with the ethereal blue city in the background. The urge to jump up and shout “I was there!” was strong, but I thought jumping up and shouting in a crowded theater might cause more trouble than it’s worth, so I savored my connection silently.

 

Deer Park Heights, Queenstown, New Zealand

 

In Front of the Remarkables Range, a.k.a. Rohan, Deer Park Heights, NZ
In Front of the Remarkables Range, a.k.a. Rohan, Deer Park Heights, NZ

It is impossible to visit New Zealand and not stumble across one or more locations used in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In a game park across from the activity-packed town of Queenstown in the southwestern corner of the South Island, these sloping mountainsides of grassy tussock, rocky outcroppings and small tarns with the snow-covered Remarkables Range in the background, doubled for the land of Rohan and featured prominently in the film The Two Towers. It’s a fun place to spend an afternoon with some gorgeous scenery. These days it is also decidedly orc-free, which makes traveling a lot easier.

 

The Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

 

Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Lagoon of Bora Bora, French Polynesia

While I wasn’t crazy about the movie Couples Retreat, I was absolutely bonkers over the magnificent setting on Bora Bora. In a time of CGI and special effects, none are needed for the lagoon, which is arguably the most appealing body of water in the world. The movie was made long after I had been there, but I enjoyed seeing it again if only to validate my previously formed opinions.

 

There are many more places I can list but I think I’ve made my point. Having something from the silver screen on your camera’s viewfinder is one of the joys of travel. And sometimes it is that one scene in a movie you love that will send you on a trip many thousands of miles away. Is it silly? Yes. Is it fun? Sure it is, and it’s just another reason to get out into the big wide world.

 

Is there a location made famous in a movie that gave you a thrill to visit in person? Share it here! And if you remember Midnight Madness please share it here as well!

South Island Circle Tour Part I

The Untamed Wilderness of Fiordland National Park
The Untamed Wilderness of Fiordland National Park

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

The Glacial Blue of Lake Pukaki, NZ
The Glacial Blue of Lake Pukaki, NZ

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

In Front of the Remarkables Range, Deer Park Heights, NZ
In Front of the Remarkables Range, Deer Park Heights, NZ

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

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Mitre Peak, Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand

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.