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.
In my previous installment describing the South Island of New Zealand, I vigorously tried to defend my use of sweeping adjectives and grandiose superlatives. Once again I found myself facing the same dilemma of not sounding too impressed in relating the second half of my whirlwind tour, yet even if I were living in George Orwell’s 1984, I would have no choice but to give this place a rating of “double plus good.”
Queenstown to Fox Glacier
Leaving the adventure capital of Queenstown, our drive took us through scenic Mt. Aspiring National Park and its collection of raging waterfalls on the way through the Haast Pass to reach the rugged and untamed west coast. Sandwiched between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea, once again the visitor is inundated with natural and soft adventure opportunities. My first stop was the tiny hamlet of Fox Glacier, nestled at the base of its namesake. After taking the nature trail and obligatory photographs from the shore of nearby Lake Matheson, I took in the small but unique experience of observing clusters of glow-worms—tiny larvae of indigenous gnats that emit a small pinprick of greenish light while suspended on sticky threads. Put together they form a miniature universe speckled against the darkened backdrop of the cave ceiling or earthen banks where they reside. I know it may sound, well, disgusting to some, but the uniform reaction that I noted reflected more wonder than revulsion.
The next morning my group and I reported bright and early for our organized glacier walk excursion, since unaccompanied trekking on the glacier is not permitted. We were outfitted with boots, ponchos, and crampons then herded onto a bus for the short ride to the glacier’s base, which was situated in a valley that had it not been occupied by a thousand-foot deep block of ice, would have been an attraction in and of itself. However, it’s all about the glacier here, and after a challenging yet beautiful half hour hike to an entry point, we were ready to strap on our crampons and get out on the ice.
Once again I have to insist that I am not exaggerating when I say that it was impossible not to feel insignificant when scampering across the undulating ridges of blue and white that stretched all the way to the mountaintops. Longer excursions require a helicopter trip to the glacier’s upper reaches and boast trails that take would-be trekkers through ever-changing caverns of incredibly blue ice. Alas, my itinerary required that we were back on the road after only half a day. Out of our group, I can truly say that only our calves weren’t disappointed.
Punakaiki National Park
A few hours north along the western coastline is tiny Punakaiki National Park, and its main attraction, the Pancake Rocks. As the name would suggest, the bizarre rock formations here appeared layered—like stacks of pancakes if you will—bitten and eroded by the constant surf and spray. This worthy destination isn’t visible from the road, so it is important to know about it ahead of time. Fortunately I did, and my photo album is all the richer because of it.
Abel Tasman National Park
Situated along the aquamarine coast of Tasman Bay on the northern tip of the South Island, is Abel Tasman National Park—a coastal sanctuary that draws kayak enthusiasts the world over. Paddling the azure tranquil waters was yet another way I got revel in this country’s overwhelming natural splendor. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating again, but ask anyone who has been here and trust me, you’ll get the same response.
Rounding the corner of the northern tip and passing through the quaint town of Blenheim, we caught the highway south along the eastern shoreline, passing hill after hill covered in grazing sheep all the way down to Kaikoura—a favorite port for whale and other marine mammal watchers. Lining the rocky coastline were packs of playful seals basking in the sun or splashing in the waves—all close enough to the road to consider this an authentic animal encounter. Once back on the road it was two hours to Christchurch and the end of our visit here.
While I endeavored to provide the trip’s highlights here, this is by no means an exhaustive recounting off all there is to see and do on the South Island of New Zealand. It would take a small novel to recount all that, and in the end it really isn’t necessary. Words can hardly do this land justice, and until it is experienced firsthand, no description can accurately portray the wonders that await. As for me, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this will be the measuring stick by which I will gauge all future destinations, and I won’t be at all surprised if I seem a bit jaded. This doesn’t bother me though. There’s always the North Island, and I still have plenty of adjectives left.
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.