Kayaking and Biking New Zealand's Epic Landscapes
Kayaking and Biking New Zealand's Epic Landscapes
A savvy couple embarks with friends on a month-long vacation in New Zealand to experience its rugged coastlines, scenic bike trails, and remote base camps.
Q: Looking through your trip details, it seems you had an unbelievable nearly month-long stay in New Zealand. Tell us, why did you pick this destination?
New Zealand had been on our bucket list for a long time. My wife, Sharon, and I had heard the people are friendly, we had seen spectacular photos online, and we love outdoor adventure sports for which New Zealand is known. Our dear friends Nat and Sarah were recently retired as am I, so the next step was to coax Sharon into taking four weeks off. “Sure,” she said, “let’s do it!”
"We biked six days, sea-kayaked five days, and hiked five days—just over half our time in New Zealand."
Q: Do your normally get away for so long, or was this an exception?
We don’t take three or four weeks off every year, but once in awhile we indulge for more distant travels such as Kilimanjaro or Bhutan. Being sensitive to Sharon missing work or our grandchildren, my antennae was up, but she loved it. “After four weeks in New Zealand, retiring is looking more attractive than ever,” she announced. Longer trips are squarely on our list.
Q: It looks like you chose to self-drive on both the north and south islands. Would you recommend this type of travel to your friends?
We researched driving tips and regulations online. In New Zealand the driver is on the right side of the car and you drive on the left side of the road. For Nat and me, it was just another adventure sport: you have to be focused, attentive, and not in a hurry. No multi-tasking allowed! We welcomed “backseat driving.” Today’s navigation devices make finding your way easy. Driving is extemporaneous: we could start, stop, and detour when and where we wanted. Do we recommend self-driving? You bet, but only if you actually enjoy some extra adrenaline in your system! And be sure to buy no-deductible collision insurance, as we did have one little scrape.
"Do we recommend self-driving? You bet, but only if you actually enjoy some extra adrenaline in your system!"
Q: You didn't just travel by car–you also biked and kayaked to different lodges across New Zealand. What was this experience like?
We biked six days, sea-kayaked five days, and hiked five days—just over half our time in New Zealand. We camped only two nights and pampered ourselves the rest of the time in lodges, vacation-rental homes, and boutique hotels arranged by Outside GO. All but one property had outside balconies or patios (an important feature for us). Half the time our meals were prepared by our hosts and half the time we ate out. We were amazed how healthy the Kiwis eat: locally sourced and organic is more the rule than the exception. Our itinerary was go-go-go with only three unstructured days in four weeks, so clean sheets was a must and helpful hosts were greatly appreciated.
As for bicycling, shoulders are skimpy but traffic is light, and most of the time we were on dedicated bicycle trails, generally gravel. The south island has two very different places to sea-kayak: Abel Tasman National Park on the northwest tip and Fiordland National Park (Doubtful Sound) on the southwest coast. Abel Tasman is temperate and lovely. Fiordland is unequaled for scenic drama, but the sand flies are fierce. We recommend both destinations, but not camping (as we did in Doubtful Sound). Find an overnight, live-a-board experience with a sea-kayak option from the boat. The sand flies are only a detriment while camping; however, they are a non-issue on the water. And we hiked the popular Milford Track, called “The finest walk in the world.” We don’t doubt that appellation, but it’s not a walk. It’s a very lovely hike and demanding at times.
New Zealand is known for rain, especially on the windward, west coast. But we lucked out. March is their early fall, mild and (for us) not much rain. Our view: There is no bad weather, only bad gear. Expect rain, buy good gear, be prepared, and smile through it all, rain or shine. The Kiwis always see the silver lining: rain brings lovely waterfalls and irrigates 180 species of fern.
Q: Did you have any stand out experiences while biking or kayaking, either with wildlife, locals, or weather?
We rented a canoe and sea-kayak at Lake Rototiti (Nelson Lakes National Park) from a nice man named Hamish. We asked, “Shall we have the boats back by noon?” Hamish replied, “Oh, give or take a few. It doesn’t matter. No worries. No drama.” We loved that: “No drama.” That became our little inside joke and reminder for the rest of the trip: “No drama!” Besides being friendly, the Kiwis are easy going and unfailingly helpful. Plus, they have an ever-growing infrastructure in place for outdoor adventure nuts like us.
We arose at 5:00 AM on our final day of sea-kayaking on Doubtful Sound, were on the water before dawn, crossed a windy, exposed channel, and paddled nearly nonstop for four hours to beat the storm home. One day of biking on the Alps to Ocean Cycle Trail we ascended single-track for nearly 2,000 feet above a lake in solid rain, crossed three creeks, and seven hours later soaked in secluded, outdoor hot tubs arranged by Outside GO. Another day we kicked back on a charter launch up the coast of Abel Tasman National Park and then kayaked back for two hours, and enjoyed seal families sunning themselves on the rocks while our skipper and his son prepared a lovely lunch spread back on board.
Which experience did we like better—challenging climbs in inclement weather, paddling choppy swells in the wind, or kicking back, being pampered on a charter launch? We liked it all. Of course, like anyone, we like being pampered. And we also like the satisfaction and sense of personal accomplishment from being challenged and stretching our limits—all the while knowing we have a nice lodge waiting for us at the end of the day.
"We rented a canoe and sea-kayak at Lake Rototiti (Nelson Lakes National Park) from a nice man named Hamish. We asked, “Shall we have the boats back by noon?” Hamish replied, “Oh, give or take a few. It doesn’t matter. No worries. No drama.” We loved that: “No drama."
Q: As a place known for dramatic mountains, beautiful coasts, and adventure around every corner, did New Zealand meet your expectations?
Absolutely! Stunning. Lovely. Varied. And all supported by friendly, laid-back country hosts. But pick and choose. Some options have been long discovered and you may share the experience with many other travelers. Fortunately, mostly we picked and chose, traveled New Zealand on the shoulder season three weeks after school was back in session, and savored most options with few other people.
Q: Where to next?
What an amazing earth we inhabit. Our list is long and exciting. Leaping to mind: tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Alaska has some amazing options (where does one begin?). Bicycling in Majorca. Kayaking rivers in western China. Or perhaps renting a villa in northern Italy for two months and inviting all our children and grandchildren to come over for alternating stays. We could not be more blessed or more grateful for the experiences we’ve had and for all the new adventures that still color our dreams.
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