Cover: A hidden hobbit house in perhaps the most endearing sight of the North Island, Hobbiton, site of the famed movie series The Hobbit.
The Wonder and Diversity of the Islands of New Zealand
By: Amber Creighton
Photos By: Amber Creighton
As the sun crests over the piercing mountains of fabled Middle-earth Mordor (in reality known as The Remarkables), the striking landscape of Queenstown, New Zealand where our journey begins, is illuminated and bathed in a surreal, breathtaking light. One may well expect to see a sturdy hobbit emerge from the thick, prehistoric-looking, green foliage of forests! And from the pure, crystal clear glacial blue, waters of Lake Wakatipu at the foot of The Remarkables that the talented Peter Jackson carefully selected as his Mordor, one would certainly not be surprised to get a glimpse of a lithe elf or a powerful battle readied Orc emerge. The blue of the waters of Lake Wakatipu is brilliantly vivid and seemingly artificially colored for a movie set. The scenery of Queenstown is so rugged, striking and breathtakingly beautiful that a visitor to this region is unwittingly transported to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
I look forward to this journey of taking you on a tour of the diversity of New Zealand. The key to experiencing the REAL New Zealand, is not to visit only one city or even multiple regions in only one of the two main Islands, North and South, of New Zealand. Rather, in order to get a true sense of the country, it is critical to travel throughout both islands and observe the vast differences within this volcanic and glacial formed masterpiece of a country.
My husband, Paul, our eighteen-month-old daughter, Victoria, and I began our journey in Queenstown in the southwest of the Southern Island of New Zealand after flying from New York. Queenstown is widely known as a mecca for young travelers in search of thrills such as bungee jumping, ziplining, zorbing and other fun memory-creating perils. However, what is not widely known is the many incredible sites and unique Kiwi experiences that are enjoyable for families and more established travelers alike. Some of these include a cruise on the deep blue Lake Wakatipu of Queenstown. This cruise lasts several hours and reveals the dramatic changes in scenery even in just this section of this one region of New Zealand. Another exciting excursion for all ages is the Lord of the Ring’s Tour. The Remarkables, the renowned mountains used as the setting of Mordor, are plainly visible towering above picturesque Queenstown. The Lord of the Ring’s Tour takes visitors on an in-depth tour of many of the natural sites used as battle scenes and even Gollum’s well-known antics in the trilogy. The fine dining of beautiful Queenstown is not to be missed. The food fare is top notch but amidst views of the striking mountains and crystal clear Lake, meals here are unforgettable. We took a ride up the famous gondola offering a brilliant overview of the beauty below followed by a series of luge rides down the mountains – as a family. Victoria loved it.
Milford Sound is the epitome of quintessential New Zealand and is about a four-hour coach ride from Queenstown. A coach ride to reach this destination is recommended and includes stops at such lovely sites as Mirror Lakes and many photo opportunities in the natural ever-changing landscape with its backdrop of mountains and glaciers. The best way to see Milford Sound, itself, is through a relaxing three-hour ferry cruise throughout the Sound. However, the weather here is as unpredictable as the natural elements that created these marvels. Milford Sound is composed of jetting, sharp mountains that seem to shoot up directly from the blue waters. Playful fur-seals and frolicking dolphins inhabit these waters along with other biodiversity. During calm weather, the placid waters reflect the vivid colors of the sky and create an almost out-of-body experience with the intense, diverse beauty. On the other hand, if you see it as we did, in the rain and choppy waters, another amazing natural phenomenon emerges… In addition to the constant powerful waterfalls, thousands of new waterfalls appear and began to flow uphill and into the air! It feels like heading into a mysterious land where anything is possible.
After completing the fantastic cruise (honestly recommended in almost any weather) through Milford Sound, return trip options present themselves. Seeing Milford Sound from the air is often heralded as one of the greatest experiences in New Zealand. Most highly recommended are the small sea planes that glide low over the mountain peaks of the Sound. Light as they are these planes do not fly in stormy weather, but helicopters still do! Having originally booked the now canceled seaplane, my family opted for a lovely helicopter tour back over the sound with a landing in the bush included! As with most adventures, if the challenges of the journey were known before the creation of an eternal memory at the journey’s end, many would have never embarked. The helicopter ride was so rough that the pilot had to constantly shift the chopper over in an attempt to find smooth air currents, which did not exist in the pocket weather created by the unique geology of the Sound. It was all well worth it, when we emerged out of the rough weather and made a beautiful landing by a glacial stream in the bush of New Zealand. We then just had a short twenty-minute flight back to Queenstown and the views of the mountains and Lake Wakatipu from the air were so stunning that they will haunt my dreams eternally. In summary, this particular helicopter ride was much more of an adventure than this family of three expected when suspended in a tiny bubble of air rocked by a raging storm above sharp peaks, but Oh! how beautiful and how well worth it was in the end. Another unforgettable memory created in New Zealand.
After four fun-filled days of fine dining, hikes, helicopter and movie tours, as well as luge rides as a family, we set off to the peaceful region of Lake Wanaka. The two-hour drive to Lake Wanaka glides through the countryside revealing incredible vineyards, the gorgeous site of the birthplace of bungee jumping, and historical towns preserved in their turn-of-the-century charm. The wine tours in New Zealand are a unique experience. Many offer superb wines that would turn the head of any sommelier, but they are boutique wineries, which means they offer wines unique to these lush, dappled vineyards only available in this region. Many tours of the wineries in this area take place in the unique wine caves, which offer tastings directly from the wine barrels and reveal the unique process of how wine is processed with this method. Many of the wineries such as Gibbston Valley Wines have excellent fine dining establishments that have the option of pairing courses with their unique wines.
Lake Wanaka is a spectacularly understated town set near a glacial lake in a naturally preserved area. The town itself is charming and offers some highly rated fine dining establishments. However, the true marvel of the area is exploring the lake itself and the surrounding wilderness. We had a relaxing picnic to celebrate my birthday here and I have to say the atmosphere far surpassed any five-star restaurant. Sunrise and sunset are breathtaking along this glacial lake. Minaret Lodge is a high-end, five-star accommodation, composed of log cabins and a welcoming relaxed family-style atmosphere, thanks to the husband and wife proprietors, with a marvelous brunch included each morning and it is just a ten-minute walk from Lake Wanaka.
Our next destination was Franz Josef, the surrounding Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. As in most cases, the journey is every bit as impressive as the destination. The West Coast of the Southern Island of New Zealand is host to incredible waterfalls, hiking, and pristine beaches. The drive from Lake Wanaka to Franz Josef is approximately five hours and scenery should not be rushed. The scenic hikes and overviews are to be savored. This region is a blend of subtropical views along the coast and the surrounding Australasian peaks carved by glacial streams. Fox Glacier and Lake Matheson Just outside of the entrancing, well-equipped town of Franz Josef, set in a valley surrounded by mountains that resemble a combination of the rounded mountains of Southeast Asia and the Canadian Rockies, is the eight-mile long Fox Glacier, which is well worth the hike up the steep gradient. The hike to Fox Glacier winds through a valley surrounded by mountains over ten thousand feet high. The glacier has been slowly advancing since 1985, reason not to delay a visit while it’s majesty and grandeur hasn’t melted away.
Another beautiful hike in this region is around the reflective Lake Matheson which is best viewed during a clear sunset or sunrise because of the crystal clear reflections of the Australasian Alps in the waters. The most epic way to view the pristine Franz Josef Glacier is by a helicopter ride over the Australasian Alps and a landing on the glacier itself.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
We continued to head north on the South Island of New Zealand to Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, where we spent Christmas Day exploring formations, hiking and relaxing on the beach with Christmas dinner in our chalet. Again, the drive reveals charming seaside villages such as Hothika. The destination of Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes is like stepping into an alien world. The geological formations here look like pancakes stacked on top of one another, jutting up out of the ocean. The forest walks with well-kept, clean paths and hidden beaches laced with coves are a constant source of surprises and more natural gems are uncovered when exploring this region. The weather on our Christmas Day visit was summer-like; warm, rejuvenating and sultry.
Abel Tasman National Park
After refreshing ourselves at Punakaiki, we journeyed to our last stay over on the South Island, Abel Tasman National Park. This area has it all; beautiful beaches, blue waters and the best rugged hikes I have ever experienced in my travels. I remember being immersed in the cooling waters of the Tasman Sea and then standing on the warmth of the yellow sand with the rugged mountains as a backdrop. We enjoyed a four-hour unguided hike through the mountains on the coastal track. Some people spend weeks hiking along these narrow, steep trails from the start of the coastal track to its completion while camping at night. The trails are sometimes non-existent when, as designated sections, they cut across areas only accessible during low tide.
Another prominent element of Abel Tasman is Split Apple Rock. I did swim about a mile out and back to climb up this geological feature at low tide. Don’t do that. Instead, take a boat out at high tide to the base of the Split Apple Rock and pose at the bottom. A ferry can also take visitors up and down the coastal track which is the only way to access the trailheads. Fur seals and other aquatic life can be seen playing in the waves and among the rocks. This region is well known for wineries and the bed and breakfast we stayed in was situated among them and the green hills about an hour outside of this beautiful national park.
From the sublime experience of hiking and exploring Abel Tasman National Park, we drove three hours north through exquisite lake-filled valleys and surrounding mountains to take the ferry to the North Island. The ferry port of Picton of the South Island is very tropical with swaying palms trees and spacious promenades. The ferry to the North Island is more like a cruise ship with its own movie theater and nine levels to explore while sailing through breathtaking scenery between these two islands.
We landed first at Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city where we spent our first night on the North Island. Wellington has a very small town feel despite being a large city and it is extremely clean with beautiful botanic gardens. Large groups are often seen kayaking past the outdoor sculptures and along the bays and under bridges of Wellington out to the open sea. The museums are not to be missed!
A short flight from Wellington, with it’s life-size Lord of the Ring’s character sculptures, is Rotorua. Rotorua has a kaleidoscope of entertainment and natural wonders ideal for everyone. We began our first day with a relaxing helicopter ride over for a hike through the famous hot springs and geysers of this volcanic region. Next, we drove to Wai-to-Tapu, the geothermal wonderland, for incredible hikes and views of such wonders as the Champagne Pool, an international symbol of New Zealand. The vibrant multicolored geyser pools and mud pots are too numerous to describe. In the evening, we enjoyed a traditional dinner with Haka dance, Maori canoe exhibition and night hike with glow worms!
We drove further north on the North Island of New Zealand to experience New Year’s Eve in the Coromandel. This region is famous for beaches, swimming, and spectacular hikes. The hour and a half return hike Cathedral Cove should not be missed. For a truly unique experience go to the Hot Water Beach; a geological phenomenon where digging in the sand at the beach during the small window of opportunity of the low tide reveals personalized hot spas designed by and for the user. Charming coastal towns dot the area and offer a small town, welcoming feeling even to strangers.
About an hour and a half drive from Coromandel perhaps the most endearing sight of the North Island is Hobbiton, site of the famed movie series The Hobbit. A guided tour is provided as the visitor explores acres and acres of life-size hobbit homes. These are the actual homes filmed in The Hobbit movies. There are also detailed vegetable gardens, little hobbit tools, and little hobbit clothes hung out to dry. The designers really did think of every element of hobbit daily life each still perfectly preserved. Even the great tree associated with Gandalf is standing in all it’s grandeur. The tour ends with a delightful stop at the familiar watering hole popularized in the big screen, the Green Dragon, with a complimentary pint in hobbit surroundings.
Auckland – Waiheke, The Volcanic National Park of Rangitoto Island and Devonport
Our final stop was in the international hub of Auckland. Auckland is a beautiful, bustling city, with a great nightlife and excellent museums. However, it is also a hub to some destination islands in the Hauraki Gulf. Just a short ferry ride away are the beautiful Islands of Waiheke, The Volcanic National Park of Rangitoto Island, and Devonport. Waiheke offers fine dining, lovely vineyards, epic views, and pristine beaches. It is famous for its outdoor sculptures dotted throughout the charming seaside towns. Rangitoto Island is a preserve that offers hikes up to the top of the dormant volcano and views of undisturbed nature. No amenities are available but the views make up for it.
Devonport is a charming town with Victorian homes, great beaches, and unspoiled views of the volcano as well as wonderful aquatic activities such as paddle boarding. West Coast Less than a two-hour drive away from Auckland is the West Coast with it’s famed black sand beaches with powdery soft sand amid huge mountains, site of many movies and TV series location. Piha beach has a regular surfing rescue reality TV show filmed there. More remote black sand beaches are nestled in Whatipu, Karekare, Bethells and Muriwai, which require hiking to reach and are surrounded by soft dunes as well as mountains and over hanging cliffs.
In summary, New Zealand is a destination for all ages, and despite the long flight from New York, it is well worth the journey. I hope our travel log has revealed the diversity of the landscape of New Zealand and the importance of taking appreciation of the many unique regions of this exquisite travel destination.