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.