New Zealand is not a place I thought I’d ever go – not on my radar screen, figuratively or literally. More, in my ignorance, I thought life would not be the poorer for having skipped it. Only when Danny and I were at a dinner at a friend’s some years ago, and he told us that New Zealand, to which he’d been that past winter, was the most beautiful place he’d ever been, did it occur to me that these islands floating some 900 miles southeast of Australia might be a destination worth considering.
That friend of ours, he’s been to lots of places, I remember thinking. Maybe we should look into that. Then, some years later, I befriended a lovely woman and discovered she owns a house in the North Island. Still, to lose an entire 24 hours of one’s life to continuous flying! (And that’s one way.) Why choose that when so many delectables lay closer at hand? Especially as New Zealand — tunnel vision confession – seemed to feature precious little distinguished architecture or urbanism, and even less of historic note. When the British colonized in the mid-19th century, the indigenous peoples, the Maori, were still hunter-gatherers. To most people, the thought of New Zealand conjures up little more than Hollywood films: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings.
In the monthslong flurry of researching this journey, reading, flipping through books, ordering more books, reading and flipping through them, speaking to friends and acquaintances, endless clicking on hundreds of websites, New Zealand kept hovering near the top of our minds. Pictures entranced us.
The Tongariro Alpine Track, the Roteburn track, Milford Sound. Lonely Planet made Auckland sound like a dump, but I found a publication about its recent Viaduct Waterfront renewal that made it look pretty cool. OK. Get on the plane, pull out the computer, work.
Over mostly deep, dark, ominous waters, you fly and fly and fly and fly – total flying time from JFK to Queenstown was nearly 30 hours — but the reward has proven extraordinary. The approach to Queenstown, in the South Island, said it all: New Zealand is absurdly, ridiculously beautiful.
As I write this I sit in the bedroom of our Air BnB in Queenstown, a town of between 14,000-19,000 (sources differ) on the eastern central portion of New Zealand’s South Island, its settlement strung along an inlet of Lake Wakatipu like little beads on a necklace.
Just the view from our bedroom could have kept us in bed all day long,
and here’s the sunrise that greeted us in the morning.
The climate here, I’m told, is a temperate rain forest, and I’ve never, ever seen landscapes this green – as though, during some bacchanalian festivities in the heavens, buckets of bright green dye were joyously dumped onto these lands.
Even the names of the geographic landmarks betray a struggle on the part of its early colonizers to accurately describe what they found here. The mountain range surrounding Queenstown is called the Remarkables; the area around Rotorua, the Bay of Plenty. NZ’s place names also betray British colonizers’ sense of humor: one extremely narrow waterway of questionable navigability is called Doubtful Sound. That sense of humor appears to have woven its way into the fabric of contemporary Zealandian cultural sensibility, as in both Queenstown and Christchurch, we found signs exhibiting the natives’ wry attitude about their distance from most of the rest of the world.
Every tourist website, every guidebook, every Top Ten or Top Twenty or just plain top insists upon Milford Sound, in the South Island, was named after Milford Haven in Wales by the British explorer who arrived on its shores in 1820. Getting there is a 4-hour drive from Queenstown, so we opted instead for a day trip in a prop plane, which flew so close to mountain ridges that I found myself reminding myself to breathe as I clutched every fingerhold I could find, unwillingly picturing us plummeting into the rocks,
Staggering views of snow-capped mountains, fjords, and some grass-covered farms in a place called Paradise, dotted with Merino sheep. (In NZ, Merino wool garments are everywhere on offer.) The boat ride around the sound itself proved less spectacular than we’d been led to believe it would be, but still:
seeing those mountains shooting straight out of its deep, black waters is unforgettable.