Extreme Adventures in Paradise

New Zealand satisfies thrill-seekers and nature lovers

By: Judy Koutsky

AUCKLAND, New Zealand I admit it, I’m an adventure travel fanatic. Which is part of the reason I choose Contiki Holidays’ Grand Adventurer tour last year and spent three weeks seeing both the North and South islands of New Zealand. Not only was I interested in the country’s great natural beauty, but I was also looking to experience as many extreme activities as New Zealand had to offer. I was not disappointed in either aspect.

Up North
The tour began on New Zealand’s North Island. Auckland, the country’s largest city, has a laid-back feel, and while the majority of New Zealanders live here, it can hardly be described as crowded. Two wonderful sights worth the time here are the Auckland Zoo and Mount Eden, where some of the best views of the city can be found.

A short drive outside of Auckland are two other must-see sights. First, the Maori Crafts and Arts Institute features educational information on the Maori people the indigenous people of New Zealand. Second, Crater of the Moon resembles a scene right out of “Lord of the Rings” on my visit, a sulfuric mist was blowing over the geysers, mud baths and piping hot water springs. The mist was everywhere, creating a mystical and magical feel as I walked through the wooded walkway of the geothermal hot springs.

Next, we headed south past the magnificent mountains of Tongariro National Park. We traveled along the scenic waterfront drive to Mt. Victoria and Wellington, the capital city and the southernmost town in the North Island.

The best sights here can be had by taking the cable car up to the top of Kelburn for spectacular views of the city and harbor. Here’s a great place to have lunch and then walk down the hill through the botanical gardens, with lush displays of roses, herbs and exotic flowers, to the downtown area.

To fulfill our adventure taste, we went quad-biking in Wellington a great adrenaline rush as I navigated a four-wheel mini-vehicle down steep roads, through tropical forests, into streams and out in the open savannah. Three hours felt like 20 minutes. After about a week on the North Island, we were ready to travel south, to where many say the most beautiful sections of New Zealand lie.

Getting to the Bottom of Things

There is no bridge between the North and South islands, so we took the Inter-Island Ferry. The scenery is beautiful as the ferry travels through Marlborough Sounds and Cook Straight. Once on the other side, the Kaikoura coastline was the perfect place to spot seals, as their colonies are abundant along the coast.

Here, indulging in the cost of taking a whale-watching flight with Wings over Whales was well worth the fee. For $150, the sight of a whale from the air is like no other. Whale watching from a boat does not allow visitors to comprehend the size of these gigantic submarine-sized animals. From the air, we followed a sperm whale swimming just below the water surface, spouting water and moving along at a leisurely pace.

The views of the seal colonies and coastline from the air were priceless also. The flight is 45 minutes and according to Wings Over Whales, there is a 99 percent chance of spotting a whale (they hold their breath for 45 minutes at a time and there are eight whales in the vicinity).

In Fox Glacier we explored the icy side of New Zealand. A helicopter flew us to the top of the glacier, where we donned crampons and walking sticks for our walk through the icy wonderland. We explored ice caves, gingerly avoided crevasses and learned about the history of glaciers.

I was beginning to think Queenstown, our next stop, could not possibly live up to expectations. Of course, little did I know that Queenstown is so ruggedly beautiful with Lake Wakatipu, the Southern Alps and lush greenery that it’s the perfect setting for world-class adventure sports.

I went hang-gliding, soaring through the sky above the river’s roaring water, as my tandem instructor pointed out the changing colors in the trees (it was March, New Zealand’s autumn). The sun began to set as we gently floated down, and the explosion of reds, oranges and yellows illuminated the sky.

With two days in Queenstown, I decided to spend the next day exploring water activities. I partook in the triple challenge: jet boat, helicopter ride and white-water rafting. The jet boat ride is world-famous, and its 360-degree turns, top speeds and daredevil closeness to the rock formations make it one of the most popular activities in Queenstown. The helicopter ride and white-water rafting experience completed the thrills.

As many in the industry know, New Zealand tourism has exploded over the last few years. The Contiki tour showed me that the country really does appeal to all. Luxury travelers will find fine dining, luxury accommodations, and activities like wine tours, whale watching and pleasure cruises. For adventure travelers and those on a budget, this green paradise boasts accommodations for every level and one-of-a kind activities, like heli-hiking, skydiving and more.

Things to Keep in Mind

New Zealand and Australia unfortunately have one of the highest skin cancer rates due to a hole in the ozone layer. Make sure clients bring plenty of sunscreen.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture boasts one of the strictest systems in the world (to prevent visitors coming in and spreading hoof and mouth disease, for example). Clients must declare their hiking boots, otherwise they could be slapped with a hefty fine at the airport.

New Zealand is a beautiful, green, lush country as a result of rainfall. Make sure you tell clients to pack raingear and remember that many activities (heli-hiking, skydiving, hang-gliding, etc.) are weather-dependent. Fortunately, there are ample other activities that can be done in any weather.