New Zealand: Magnificence in miniature

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By Victor Block

The hiking trail winds through a lush rain forest. Only a trickle of sunlight makes its way through the thick tree canopy above, from which a chorus of birds entertains with a symphony of song.

Towering, snow-capped mountains stretch to the horizon, overlooking valleys where sheep munch on the green carpet of grass.

I dig my toes into the soft, white sand of a beach that stretches as far as the eye can see.  Seals clamber over an outcrop of gray rocks at the edge of the water, occasionally plunging into the sea below for a refreshing dip.

Any of these experiences would be a highlight of a memorable vacation trip. What makes them so enticing in New Zealand is that they offer so much variety.

New Zealand is only about 10 times larger than Massachusetts. Yet in that compact area, it has more things to see and do than many much larger countries. Another reason to visit is the weather. Because New Zealand is located below the equator, its seasons are opposite those in the United States.  While residents of Massachusetts are shivering in winter cold, visitors to New Zealand bask in warm sunlight and swim off soft sand beaches.

Auckland is a good place to begin a tour of North Island, one of the two major islands that make up New Zealand. It is known as “Land of 1,000 beaches,” and there are plenty of choices where to spread a blanket on the sand.

More visitors are drawn to South Island, which is famous for magnificent views that greet the eye around every turn of the road. The scenery reaches its peak at the top of Mount Cook, which towers 3,754 meters above the landscape. Glaciers move slowly down mountainsides, and the waters of deep fiords (lakes) double the beauty by reflecting their surroundings.

There are countless ways to enjoy this dramatic setting. Active people may prefer mountain climbing, long-distance hiking and whitewater raft trips down rushing rivers. Those seeking more sedate encounters with nature may hike on gentle trails beneath growths of towering centuries-old trees.

There’s also a wide choice of water experiences, ranging from boat tours to lake kayaking to whitewater rafting. I opted for a memorable sea kayak paddle through Milford Sound, a dramatic, 21-kilometer long fiord. The four-hour paddle included numerous stops along the way to gaze at the scenery and listen to our guide describe the area’s history and geology.

Driving by car on South Island’s Southern Scenic Route is equally as magnificent. The highway passes towering mountain peaks topped by snow, tiny villages and waves crashing on the rocky shoreline.

It is this never-ending display of the best that the outdoors has to offer which attracts most visitors to New Zealand. The show also extends to the world of wildlife. Forests are alive with animals and birds, including rare species that have disappeared elsewhere but flourish in this isolated island terrain.

The world’s smallest marine dolphin and rarest sea lion are found only in New Zealand waters. The bird life fascinated and amused me. People walking through the woods are entertained by an overhead concert of chirps, peeps, whistles and other sounds.

Best known is the kiwi, a strange creature with a pear-shaped body, sturdy legs and long beak. The best opportunity to see a kiwi is during an organized spotting excursion at night.

Also interesting is the colorful history of the Maori, Polynesian people who came to New Zealand from other islands centuries ago in large sea-going canoes. Today, about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population of four million people is of Mairo (pronounced MAH-ree) descent.

The Maori have a close connection with nature and the environment, and do what they can to protect it. Visitors may observe and experience Maori customs and lifestyle during presentations at villages where they live.

For more information about visiting New Zealand to observe the culture of the Maori people and the magnificent natural beauty there, log onto newzealand.com.