CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand -- This is the most isolated country on earth and among the last to be settled . It consists of hundreds of islands , the largest of which, North and South, are separated by the Cook Strait.
South Island has 1 million of the country's 4 million people, along with 30 million of the country's 40 million sheep. Its mountains, the Southern Alps , stretch 400 miles on the western side of the island, rising above glacier-fed turquoise lakes. The rain forests, glaciers, and volcanic craters are reason enough to make the long trip here. The people are a bonus.
My husband, Peter, and I had decided that, despite the 25 hours of travel required, it was time for us to bike in New Zealand. We find biking a wonderful way to connect with people; if you are cycling by on a country road , folks are likely to talk with you. On our 12-day bike trip from Christchurch on the central Pacific coast across the island and then down to Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu in the mountainous south, we learned more about the country from the people we met than what we gleaned from guidebooks.
For example, many Kiwis, as New Zealanders call themselves (after the small, flightless birds that are the national symbol), credit their isolated location and culture of inclusion for making their nation so egalitarian. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, in 1893, and it has tried to address the grievances of the Maori, the settlers who long preceded the Europeans, with fairness. The locals attribute their legendary friendliness to New Zealand's small size and slower-paced lifestyle. According to Rick Main, a 60-ish farmer and teacher, ``A possible reason for the friendliness is that the difference in New Zealand between the haves and have-nots is not so obvious. We regard ourselves as the land of equal opportunity. When people feel valued, they can be more friendly and relaxed with others."
Peter and I began our journey on our arrival day with an easy 12-mile ride along the banks of the Avon River in Christchurch.
The next morning, we took off in a van to the nearby Joseph Banks Peninsula, and started biking on Summit Road. We quickly discovered two things on this route -- hills and spectacular views. The peninsula is an extinct volcano that filled with ocean water, but left an island in the middle. We rode along the rim of the crater and then biked down to the ocean for lunch on the beach.
By the next day we were comfortably on New Zealand time. We headed west by van from Christchurch across the Canterbury Plain , passing a series of braided rivers that flow from the Alps to the Pacific. At the top of an astonishingly steep winding road we crossed Arthur's Pass and began our bike ride on the western side heading to Hokitika, an old gold-mining town on the Tasman Sea. During the gold rush of the 1860s, Hokitika boasted 80 hotels. That number has dwindled to six , and the town is now a center for arts and crafts.
Leaving Hokitika the next morning, our destination was Franz Josef Glacier Village. A magnet for tourists, Franz Josef is 8 miles long, one of the world's fastest flowing glaciers, and one of only two that end in a rain forest. We could see it from our hotel window. We abandoned our bikes the next day for a rain forest walk in the morning and a hike to the base of the glacier in the afternoon.
Back on our bikes the next day, our destination was Wilderness Lodge, named one of the 10 best eco-lodges in the world by Outdoors magazine and about 45 miles south of Franz Josef Glacier.
The lodge is on Lake Moeraki. Our late-afternoon walk from the lodge through the rain forest to the sea was an impressionist's palette of greens as the sun beamed through the leafy trees and ferns.
After a torrential late-night rain, the next morning dawned gray. We rode to Lake Paringa , an hour or so away. There we talked with a young New Zealand couple who had camped overnight, kept dry by their tent and the rain forest canopy. They told us they were home on vacation from Germany , where they live. It is common, they said, for New Zealanders to have an ``overseas experience," especially between high school and university. About 800,000 New Zealanders live overseas .
After lunch , we were joined by two North Island vacationers for a kayak trip down the river to the Tasman Sea. As we walked through the rain forest to the launching point, our guide, Caid, showed us a 1,200-year-old kahikatea tree with 130 kinds of plants growing on its trunk. The Moeraki River is surrounded by rain forest; only bird songs and the gentle sound of our paddles hitting the water broke the silence.
The next morning, we cycled along the banks of the Haast River to the Haast Pass . We let the van take us up the pass, but rode a glorious 11 miles downhill into Mount Aspiring National Park. This day of stunning hills and turquoise lakes brought us back to the dry, east side of the Alps. We had biked through rain forest in the morning, yet at our destination, Wanaka, sprinklers were watering the fields.
Although we had seen many sheep from our bicycles, nothing prepared us for our visit the next morning to Fork Farm, Phill Hunt and Lizzie Carruthers 's spread an 8-mile ride from Wanaka . Their 1,000 acres in the foothills of the Alps, home to 3,300 sheep and 300 deer, has been in Hunt's family since 1928. We watched the dogs round up a pen full of sheep and plunged our hands into their soft, lanolin-laced wool.
After lunch, we cycled through ``The Lord of the Rings" territory, specifically the pine plantation where Arwen and Frodo 's horseback flight from the Dark Riders was filmed. The van met us in the town of Tarras and shuttled us to Queenstown, our home for the next three nights.
On a lake and surrounded by mountains aptly called The Remarkables, picturesque Queenstown was first settled by gold miners. It is a bustling center for every activity that water and mountains can offer.
Yet another highlight was our daylong bus trip back to the Tasman Coast to Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling called ``the eighth wonder of the world ." Of the many scenic spots on the way, none is more stunning than Homer's Saddle, the highest point of the pass, surrounded by soaring walls of granite with hundreds of waterfalls, seemingly yards apart.
Milford Sound is actually a 10-mile -long fiord. We took a two-hour boat ride, sailing around the perimeter of the fiord to the sea. We saw veins of jade and copper and flowers and trees growing out of the sheer 5,000-foot mountain walls. It rains about two out of three days in Milford Sound, and it rained on us. But that is why everything is so green and the waterfalls are so abundant.
We took our final bike ride the next morning, along a scenic lakeside route from Queenstown to Glenorchy, a small town whose misty snow-covered mountains also starred in the ``Rings" movies.
We had anticipated this trip for years. We think of ourselves as honorary Kiwis now, and like the New Zealanders who live overseas, we, too, feel drawn to return.
Contact Judy Kugel, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at firstname.lastname@example.org.