Destin-Nation New Zealand: Southern Hemisphere Madness

There are few countries better suited for adventure travel than the remote island nation of New Zealand. The intersection of breathtaking landscape and death-defying Kiwi ingenuity has made New Zealand one of the top destinations for brave souls looking to try a variety of extreme sports and outdoor excursions.

There are few countries better suited for adventure travel than the remote island nation of New Zealand. The intersection of breathtaking landscape and death-defying Kiwi ingenuity has made New Zealand one of the top destinations for brave souls looking to try a variety of extreme sports and outdoor excursions.

New Zealand's North and South Islands have their own distinct offerings: The North Island is best known for it's beaches, volcanic formations and major metropolitan life while the South Island holds the majority of scenic and daredevil destinations.

Though these islands may be hard to reach, once a traveler makes landfall they will find it fairly easy to get around, whether on group bus tours or on cheap domestic airlines. The even better news is that friendly Kiwis are always eager to help tourists.

Bonus: New Zealand's seasons are opposite to North America's, so the best rates can be found during the Northern Hemisphere's summer months - a great time for skiing though the weather may not be favorable for much else.

The best times to visit? February through April or September through November, but keep in mind that the 2011 Rugby World Cup will be held in New Zealand from September 9th to October 23rd. Rates can be expected to be higher than average during the cup.

Destin-Nation New Zealand
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Destin-Nation New Zealand: Southern Hemisphere Madness

Travelers looking primarily for adventure should plan their itinerary around the crown jewel of the South Island: Queenstown. This town offers the greatest concentration of activities in New Zealand, so it’s become a popular destination for both backpackers and families, meaning there is a wide variety of available accommodations.

Dodge rocks, trees and bridges on Queenstown’s rivers in a Kawarau Jet boat and then jump off the second highest bungy platform in the world with AJ Hackett, the creator of bungy jumping. Or skydive from 15,000 feet over some of the most beautiful scenery in the world with NZone. Tired yet? Take in the sights from Skyline park’s swingingly scenic gondola ride to the peak overlooking the town.

If that’s not enough, perhaps white water rafting, canyoning, hiking, skydiving, tobogganing, or skiing will satisfy the most spoiled adventurer.

Where to Stay: The Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel offers an ultra-stylish environment in a central location that’s just a few minutes walk from the Skyline Gondola. Rooms start at $250 per night. For those on a budget, Nomads Queenstown is a massive hostel that’s well-kept and offers lively common spaces. Rooms range from large dorms to family suites and beds can be had for as low as $15.

Getting There: Air New Zealand offers direct flights to Queenstown from Los Angeles for $1,300. 

Milford Sound is perhaps the most renowned attraction in all of New Zealand. Mountains stacked directly on top of narrow waterways, dotted with waterfalls and the occasional penguin, dolphin or whale give it a larger-than-life reputation.

The most rewarding way to explore the area is the Milford Track. Commonly known as “The Finest Walk in the World," the track can be navigated with a guide or independently, and is easily completed in four days.

Where to Stay: Along the Milford Track are a separate series of huts for group hikers and independent hikers. The track is regulated in the summer months to ensure that enough huts are available for all hikers.

If seeing the sound by boat sounds more relaxing, a good base is the nearby town of Te Anau. Radfords Motel is reasonably priced ($130-$200) and has great rooms with clear views of the neighboring lake.

Getting there: The drive from Queenstown is doable in a day, but requires an early start. It’s best to rent a car and stay in Te Anau or look into guided tour packages from Queenstown.

Often overlooked because of its proximity to Queenstown, Wanaka is a quaint lakeside town that offers great access to ski resorts in the winter.

For beginner and intermediate skiers, Cardrona Alpine Resort is a well-rounded destination with on-mountain accommodation and a full-service ski school. For more experienced snowbirds, Treble Cone offers the longest vertical rise in the region and boasts a genuinely Kiwi skiing experience.

For the best snow, look at booking between August and October. August is the peak month for good snow, but September and October get their fair share of favorable Spring ski conditions. Just try to avoid New Zealand's school holidays.

In the summer, mountaineers, mountain bikers, waterskiers and sailors flock here.

Where to Stay: There are a range of cottage and hotel accommodations as well as budget-friendly hostels. Check out the Wanaka Homestead, with cottages from as low as $279 and rooms from $169 or the local branch of Base Backpackers, with dorms from $24.

Getting there: Wanaka has a small airport that has daily Air New Zealand flights from Christchurch. Otherwise, rent a car or hop on a shuttle from Queenstown and enjoy the scenic hour-long drive to Wanaka.

On the center of the South Island’s west coast lay two massive glaciers that descend from the Southern Alps into the Tasman Sea.

Both the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers offer half-day hikes, full day hikes, and helicopter landings that will allow anyone to strap on crampons and feel what it’s like to navigate shifting ice. The Franz Josef Glacier Guides offer full day hikes from $150 USD for adults, $120 for children, which includes a free visit to the local hot pool facility after the chilling expedition.

Where to Stay: There aren’t an overwhelming number of lodging options in Franz Josef, but there are a few budget-friendly establishments that are basic, but well run. Check out either 58 On Cron Motel ($90-150) or the budget Glow Worm Cottages ($40-$80).

Getting there: The downside to Franz Josef is that it’s difficult to get to. The only access is by car or tour bus, and it’s roughly a 5-hour drive from either Greymouth or Wanaka. That being said, exploring the glaciers and the opportunity to ease into the slow pace of the small town make it well worth the extra drive.

Auckland is popularly known as the “City of Sails" because it harbors more yachts per capita than any other city in the world.

So what better way to see Auckland than aboard a retired America’s Cup yacht? For $125 the crew at SailNZ will take the whole family out to cruise the Waitemata Harbor and even show those willing to put in some work a few things about what it takes to sail a real racing machine.

Where to Stay: There is a great selection of budget options to accommodate the backpacker crowd in Auckland. A good place to start is the recently refurbished Jucy Hotel (formerly Aspen House) which offers beds from $20. If splashing out with a great view sounds like a better option, try the Hilton Auckland (starting at $185) which is situated on a modern pier development that overlooks the harbor and is near to ferries that service Rangitoto Island.

Getting there: Auckland Airport is the largest airport in New Zealand, and home to national carrier Air New Zealand. There are many options for flights to Auckland, but the best way to go is inside Air New Zealand’s newly redesigned 777-300ER. Public buses from the airport to the center of town are easy to find and take about 45 minutes each way.

The best kept adventure secret in New Zealand is located near the remote region of Abel Tasman National Park. Aside from an abundance of kayaking and trekking opportunities in the area, one of the best reasons to visit Abel Tasman is the chance to pilot a real stunt plane.

At $325 for a 20 minute flight, it’s not exactly a cheap thrill. But how often does a traveler get to strap into a stunt plane and pull loops, dives, and rolls with no prior cockpit experience?

Aside from the fact that there aren't many other places in the world where would-be pilots can just sign a few forms then start piloting a stunt plane, the scenery of Abel Tasman makes this a clear winner. The vivid blue waters and surrounding hills add to the thrill and give it the edge over flying grandpa's crop duster over the plains of Kansas.

Though Abel Tasman is a remote corner of the South Island, the hiking and wildlife encounters offered in the region make it a must-visit for adventure travelers.

Where to Stay: The biggest town in the region is Nelson, where you can find a variety of motels & motor inns. Try the Wakefield Quay House ($180-260) or Te Penua Wai Lodge ($140-160); both offer spectacular views & amenities, though there are cheaper options in the area.

Getting there: Abel Tasman is best reached with a rental car or by coach and is just three and a half hours from Picton, where visitors can catch a ferry to the North Island city of Wellington. There are regional flights into Nelson Airport offered by Air New Zealand, but service is limited.

Rotorua is the North Island’s answer to Queenstown. Permeated by a distinct sulfur smell, Rotorua originally developed as a tourist center because of the surrounding volcanic and geothermal activity.

Often called “Roto-Vegas” by Kiwis, Rotorua is geared toward tourists looking for a good deal on packaged thrills. Of these, Zorbing is the most iconic: For around $25 nauseous adventurers in giant inflatable spheres roll, bounce, and slosh their way down a hillside. This may be the best example of adrenaline-centric Kiwi creativity.

Where to Stay: Travelers looking to save their money for all the crazy activities that Rotorua has to offer should check out the YHA Treks Backpackers where beds start at $20. For something a little more substantial, head to the Regent of Rotorua, which has rooms for about $160 and won the 2011 Traveler’s Choice award for Best Service.

Getting there: Rotorua is just a three hour drive from Auckland, making it easy to get a coach or rent a car and drive from New Zealand’s biggest city.


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