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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.