Kiwi with Contiki

New Zealand offers a real hot spot for adventurous travelers

By: Judy Koutsky

As I sat on the edge of the plane, 12,000 feet of nothing between me and the ground, I suddenly began to have second thoughts.

My tandem guide, Scott, assured me he had done thousands of jumps and had yet to have something go wrong.

With those words of assurance, we jumped well, more like rolled out of the plane door and started free-falling to the ground.

The next 90 seconds felt like a lifetime. Scott pointed in the distance: The Southern Alps to the left, the blue-green Wakatipu Lake to the right, the changing colors of the trees foot-by-foot everything came into focus.

Before I knew it, it was time to pull the chute and we glided slowly to the ground.

This was New Zealand, heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping, activity capital of the world.

Once a destination for those in the know, the country recently has benefited from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, which were filmed there.

Is the hype justified?

In a word, yes.

Not only is New Zealand breathtakingly beautiful, but the compact size of the two-island country is manageable for a two-week trip.

As an adventure travel fanatic, I knew I wanted to see all New Zealand had to offer in terms of beauty, while experiencing as many extreme activities that I could.

So I signed up with Contiki Holidays for its Grand Adventurer tour and spent three weeks traveling around the country by vehicle: something I strongly suggest.

Many people fly from the North Island to the South, hitting just the more touristy spots. But the country’s scenery is so beautiful and its people so friendly that driving is really the way to get the proper feel of the land.

I was a bit hesitant about my Contiki tour. I’m 31 (on the older side of the company’s 18- to 35-year-old spectrum) and not a party girl.

Fortunately, one of Contiki’s strong selling points is that the group usually is so diverse, any participant is likely to meet a fellow traveler who shares his or her interests.

Sure, there were people who were into the bar and club scene, but many others were interested in the active excursions that I enjoy, such as hang gliding and heli-hiking.

Also, according to Richard Launder, president of Contiki Holidays USA, more than 50 percent of Contiki travelers book solo. People traveling alone tend to be more outgoing and this was certainly the case on my trip. People were extremely friendly and after only a day I strongly felt that I was a part of the group.

Launder also notes that Contiki prides itself on its guides. Helen, our tour guide, and Jason, our motorcoach driver, were young, fun and incredibly organized. Helen not only set up our bar excursions and evening entertainment, but she organized all our day excursions as well.

For many younger people in the group, Helen was essential a fun older sister who made sure everything went well and everyone was having a good time.

For people like me, who didn’t want to spend time and energy booking activities, she was a godsend.

All eight Americans on my tour booked their trip through travel agents, including two couples from Hawaii who were on their honeymoons, and they all agreed that they would take another Contiki trip.

It’s no surprise that Contiki boasts an extremely high repeat-visitor rate. For one couple from New Jersey in their early 30s, this was their fourth Contiki trip and they had no plans on stopping.