The trail traverses one of the most dense and lush rain forests through which I’ve hiked anywhere in the world. Only a trickle of sun manages to penetrate the thick tree canopy above, from which a virtual aviary of birds entertains with a symphony of song. Not far away, towering, snow-capped mountains stretch to the horizon, overlooking valleys so packed with sheep they almost hide the carpet of grass on which they graze.
Later in the day, I dig my toes into the soft, white sand of a beach that stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see. Seals clamber over an outcrop of rocks at the water’s edge, occasionally plunging into the frothy sea below for a tasty snack. Any of these experiences might be the highlight of a memorable vacation trip. What makes them so enticing in New Zealand is that such variety is crammed into so compact a space.
In an area about the size of Colorado, New Zealand offers more to-see’s and to-do’s than many much larger countries. That diversity is among reasons why so many travelers place it high on their list of favorites. Still not convinced? Keep in mind that because New Zealand is below the equator, its seasons are opposite those in the United States. While many Americans shiver in the winter cold, visitors down under bask in summer breezes, bathing off talcum-soft beaches, and taking in some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere.
Auckland, with its international airport, is a good place to begin a tour of North Island and its golden beaches. Ninety Mile Beach at the northernmost tip is the best-known stretch of sand. But in a region referred to as “Land of 1,000 beaches,” the biggest challenge is deciding where to spread your blanket.
More visitors are drawn to South Island, with its contrasting landscapes and views that greet the eye around almost every turn of the road. The soaring scenery reaches its pinnacle at the summit of Mt. Cook, which towers more than 13,000 feet above the landscape. Glaciers inch their way down mountainsides, in places almost to the sea. The waters of deep fiords and lakes, the result of 500 million years of sculpting by the elements, double the beauty by reflecting their surroundings.
Alternatives for enjoying this dramatic display are as varied as the terrain itself. Rugged outdoor types opt for challenges like mountain climbing, long-distance trekking and whitewater raft trips down rushing rivers. Those who prefer more sedate encounters with nature may hike on gentle trails through lush rain forests and growths of towering centuries-old trees.
Hiking is a way of life for many New Zealanders, and the selection of trails and environments seems endless. My experiences ranged from strolls of less than an hour to almost day-long explorations. The Truman Walk, on the northwest coast of South Island, is a short trail that leads through a rainforest to cliffs overlooking the crashing Tasman Sea below. I also enjoyed hikes through valleys and rolling tundra, trails in subalpine forest terrain, and jaunts to elevated snow fields.
There’s also a wide selection of water experiences, ranging from sedate guided boat tours to gentle lake kayaking to rough-and-tumble whitewater rafting. I opted for a memorable sea kayak paddle through Milford Sound. That dramatic, 13-mile-long fiord is the best known body of water in Fiordland National Park in the southwest corner of South Island.
Our four-hour paddle covered about half that distance, with numerous stops along the way to gaze in awe at the scenery and listen to our guide describe the area’s history and geology.
Sheer mountains hide their peaks in the clouds, then plunge almost vertically into the crystal-clear water. Narrow rivulets, formed by melting snow high above, tumble down rocky cliff faces. A fur seal resting on a rock, disturbed by our arrival, cast what appeared to be an annoyed glance in our direction. A crested penguin, enjoying its bath in the icy water, simply ignored us.
Even before this once-in-a-lifetime scene had a chance to be permanently etched in my mind’s eye, I found myself immersed in another that rivaled it in breathtaking beauty.
The Southern Scenic Route, which winds along the lower end of South Island, immediately earned a place high on my “most scenic drives” list. Its myriad views – rolling green fields being mowed by grazing sheep, towering peaks sporting a jaunty snow cap, tiny villages, waves crashing on the craggy shoreline — prompt frequent stops to take yet another photograph.
It is this never-ending display of the best that Mother Nature has to offer which attracts most visitors to New Zealand. The show also extends to the world of wildlife. Forests are alive with animals and birds, including rare species that have disappeared elsewhere but flourish on this isolated island terrain.
The world’s smallest marine dolphin and rarest sea lion are found only in New Zealand waters. The tuatara, the oldest living reptile, has a life expectancy of 300 years and traces its lineage back 190 million years. But it is the bird life that most fascinated, entertained and amused me. Nowhere else may you encounter the kea, the only alpine parrot, or hope to see the endangered takahe, a large flightless bird.
Walking through the woods, you’re often treated to an overhead concert that ranges from chirps and peeps to other less familiar sounds. I was able to identify clicks, creaks whistles and laughs from one treetop triller. Best known is the kiwi, a whimsical creature indeed, with its pear-shaped body, sturdy legs, plump backside and long beak.
While kiwis are observed during chance encounters, the best opportunity for seeing them is during an organized nighttime spotting excursion, an exercise as unusual as the bird itself.
Lending an overlay of colorful history to New Zealand as a showplace of nature is the enticing story of the Maori. When the first European settlers landed in the early 19th century, they found the plains and forests inhabited by a Polynesian people who had arrived there about 800 years earlier, after crossing the sea from other islands in double-hulled sea-going canoes.
Today, about 15% of New Zealand’s population of four million is of Mairo (pronounced MAH-ree) descent.
The Maori have maintained a rich culture that embodies their interaction with both the natural and spiritual worlds. Central to their beliefs is a close connection with the environment which combines respect and efforts to protect it. The Maori world-view links everything and every one in an extended family. Introductions to the Maori people and lifestyle are constant — in tongue-twisting place names for lakes, mountains and other natural attractions, and colorful legends that seem to explain virtually every aspect of life.
Visitors may observe and experience Maori customs and lifestyle during presentations at marae (meeting places) and other venues.
The spiritual richness of the Maori culture is augmented by the warm friendliness of the kiwis, as New Zealanders refer to themselves. The beauty of the countryside is as varied as opportunities for exploring and enjoying it.
For more information: newzealand.com