This year for our family vacation we wanted a dollar-stretcher destination in a country that likes Americans, blooms with spectacular scenery, offers eco-adventures not available in the U.S, but bundles these with comfortable lodging and good food. Because the Euro shrinks our greenbacks to a mere 77 cents, we cut the Continent from our list. Since we‘ve traveled often to the Caribbean and Canada, we longed for someplace different.
The result: two-weeks of fun in New Zealand’s South Island.
The trip—about 13-hours non-stop from Los Angeles to Christchurch—is well-worth the haul. We found friendly people, fjord cut lakes, glaciers to hike as well as food and lodging we could afford. Because one U.S. dollar currently delivers $1.40 New Zealand, we even splurged on a few upmarket lodgings and award-winning restaurants. Plus, we admit it. The “Lord of the Rings’ ” movie images of milky blue lakes and valleys ringed with misty mountains piqued our interest. With just two weeks to explore, we focused on the scenic South Island, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage site in the southwest.
The South Island:
Heli-Hiking on a Glacier: From the helicopter, Franz Josef Glacier, part of Westland National Park, looks like a field of frozen white peaks sliced by translucent blue rows. After landing on a flat patch of snow high on the glacier, we attach talons to our boots and begin. For two hours we scramble over ice boulders and around pinnacles, wedge ourselves between crevasses and slither through ice caves. It feels like playing on a cloud at the top of the world.
Tramping the Milford Track: To reach the trailhead of the Milford Track, dubbed “the finest walk in the world” for its spectacular vistas, we cruise for an hour on Lake Te Anau, gliding by mountains streaming with waterfalls. Hearty trekkers take four days to complete the legendary 34-mile trail, but with limited time, we opt for Trips ‘n’ Tramps day-long adventure. Our 6.6 mile loop winds us through beech tree forests feathered with mosses and ferns and past huge rimu trees. We picnic alongside the fast-moving Clinton river and also walk a boardwalk trail through a wetland that opens to a wide glade rimmed with the green peaks of the Castle and Wick mountain ranges.
Relaxing at a Country House Hotel: A sheep ranch and luxury hotel, Grasmere Station spreads out on 13,000-acres in the heart of the Southern Alps. At this 13-room country house hotel, we read by the fire, play billiards before dinner, stroll alongside pastures green with rye, meet a few sheep, swim in the pool, horseback ride in the hills and admire the stars in the inky black sky. Grasmere also offers trout fishing in two lakes, nature trails and access to nearby Arthur’s Pass National Park. This good life getaway proves a welcome respite in our hike and drive vacation.
Milford Track: Trips ‘n’ Tramps, 64 3 249 7081,
Te Anau, a small lakeside town, serves as the base for Fiordland National Park explorations.
Te Anau Hotel & Villas, 64 3 249 9709, www.teanauhotel.co.nz
Grasmere Lodge, 64 3 318 8407, www.grasmere.co.nz
New Zealand’s seasons are opposite ours. October through March, the Kiwi spring and summer, are the best months to visit for temperate weather. If you want to cash-in your frequent flyer miles for complimentary seats, call 11 months in advance. That’s when the airlines first release the freebies. But keep calling as seats open up periodically.
For more information, 866-NEW-ZEALAND, www.NewZealand.com