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Sights splendid to behold

Mountains, lakes, cliffs, countryside, and Kiwis wishing to befriend you

By Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2010

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QUEENSTOWN — My notion of adventure is the adrenalin rush of standing over a 5-foot downhill putt.

So when we flew to New Zealand in May, it never entered my mind to try bungy-jumping. Or sky-diving, though it seemed that often when I looked upward, I saw all manner of people floating downward, including many who should have known that the only sane way to exit an aircraft is after it lands and taxis to the terminal.

So there we were, sitting in a hotel dining room in Queenstown, the adventure capital at the base of the snow-covered Southern Alps, looking out at the stunning mountains called the Remarkables — which they certainly are. Then my wife struck up a conversation with some Australian tourists, the only people in the world for whom New Zealand is a quick getaway.

What they were talking about was a mystery to me, owing to the fact that one often needs an interpreter to talk to Aussies. The conversation, as I later learned, was about the nine-hour round-trip drive around the mountain range to witness the scenic majesty of Milford Sound.

“You blokes gilliga brownbat the salty wackenpouf,’’ is what I heard them advise, which frightened me not the least. What they actually said: “Take the scenic flight through, between, and among the razor-sharp mountain peaks, and if the plane doesn’t crash, then you’ll be in Milford Sound in 35 minutes. If you’re lucky, the crash won’t happen until the return flight.’’

Whereupon, my wife, Barbara Wojtklewicz, zipped up to see the concierge and booked us on a flight whose departure was so imminent that I hadn’t the time to muster an argument for living until average life expectancy.

Thank heaven, the pilot exuded confidence. “Rupert MacLachlan,’’ he said, thrusting his hand out. “How old are you?’’ I responded. “Twenty-one,’’ he said with much more confidence than I had at that age. Oh, and the plane? A Cessna 206, 13 years older than MacLachlan and about the size of a minivan. Hardly large enough that a crash would merit even a brief mention in the New Zealand Herald.

As we flew between and among the peaks — the Aussies were right about them — I turned to MacLachlan from my perch in the co-pilot’s seat and asked, “What happens if the engine quits?’’ Oh, he said, we would become a glider and have 20 minutes to find a landing spot. As far as the eye could see, which was quite some distance on such a gorgeous day, every surface was vertical and snow-covered.

Well, I didn’t write this from the grave, so we made it to Milford Sound and back. The boat trip through one of the world’s most stunning fiords made the risk bearable. But truth be told, the flight itself was the most amazing visual experience in what was the most visually extraordinary country we have ever visited.

It was well worth the 27-hour trip from Boston. Trust me, the experience, once you get here, is so memorable that the trip itself is quickly forgotten.

We picked far-flung New Zealand for its natural beauty, though ostensibly to be viewed from the ground: the rugged, snow-capped Southern Alps; breathtaking fiords; the volcanic lakes; the spectacular, rolling green countryside that mimics Ireland; the soaring oceanside cliffs that make California’s Big Sur seem pedestrian.

It is a country seemingly unspoiled by human presence; there were times we drove for miles without seeing another car.

There are just over 4 million New Zealanders, and a third of them live in Auckland, the largest city, and its environs. Meaning no disrespect to Auckland and its friendly inhabitants, but give it a pass. We have our own Auckland a lot closer in the United States. We call it Seattle.

Which is to say, visit New Zealand for its countryside, and the small towns where, if you pull off the road to take a quick look at your map, two or three locals will pull up and start a lively competition to see which one can be the most helpful.

Truth be told, the natural splendor served only as backdrop. We fell in love with the New Zealanders. They are almost too nice. Example: In 2004, we met a Kiwi couple in Athens, and exchanged e-mails from time to time. When we e-mailed Gayle and Noel Beattie to say we would be visiting New Zealand, they immediately responded: They would pick us up at the airport in Auckland. We should stay with them for the two weeks and use one of their cars for touring.

In the end, we stayed with them for two nights, in Matamata on the North Island, and did a day trip along a beautiful section of coast called the Bay of Plenty.

The climate is almost as nice as the people. Summer runs from December through February, which is when most tourists go — and prices are higher. We went in May, which is autumn there, just as November is in the States. But we donned warm clothing just once, for the Milford Sound cruise. Even in Queenstown, amidst the mountains, it was sunny and in the 60s. On the North Island, the temperature reached the 70s.

When the Kiwis are not trying to befriend you, they’re trying to feed you. We were amazed at the quality of the food, and the ingenuity of the chefs. The entire country is surrounded by millions of fish dying to be featured on restaurant menus. And those 47 million sheep aren’t all there just for the occasional shearing.

Oh, and there are vineyards everywhere, and many of the country’s best wines don’t make it to the United States.

In two weeks we saw some of the highlights: two nights in Queenstown; a two-day drive through the mountains to Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city; five days exploring the east coast of the North Island, from Hawkes Bay to the cliffside drives up and down the Coromandel Peninsula; a visit with the Beatties; and finally, two nights in Auckland, the highlight of which was a professional rugby match at which we learned that there is really no need for football players in the States to wear pads and helmets.

But if you like to travel vicariously, as we do, planning the trip provided us with months of pleasure. We didn’t get it all right — one night in Christchurch was fine, but not two in Auckland — but we did OK and learned a lot.

Our first discovery: New Zealand is so remote that its travel industry — to include the smallest of B&Bs — is very Internet savvy. There are plenty of great portal websites; the best is the government’s tourism site: www.newzealand.com/travel/USA/.

Send an e-mail about your travel plans to anyone in New Zealand, and they respond so quickly and eagerly you would think they are working exclusively for you. Also, we have come to rely on tripadvisor.com for lots of helpful ratings and consumer forums that can help you avoid mistakes.

And then there is that still wonderful New Zealand dollar. Not too long ago, you could get two New Zealand dollars for a US dollar. Now you get about $1.36. So when a five-star hotel website lists a mountain-view room for $200NZ, book it. It’s really $147. And in New Zealand, the taxes are included in every price.

What’s more, tipping is discouraged, since service workers are relatively well paid. Even so, waiters subtly encourage tipping, and tourists accustomed to tipping are happy to leave a tip, especially for the exceptional service that we found to be common.

So there are bargains to be had, and especially in the off-season. Alas, gasoline is not among them, at close to $6.50 a gallon. Thank goodness, the car rental companies let us have fuel efficient autos, one of which got us 40 miles to the gallon.

But here’s a way to cut the costs of any foreign trip. Most credit card companies slap a 3 percent transaction fee on anything you charge in a foreign currency. So find one that doesn’t charge any fee. We did: the Charles Schwab Visa card. You can also find an ATM card that doesn’t hit you with exchange fees overseas. One such card: the TD Bank ATM card.

Opting to visit New Zealand is not a trifling decision. You have to want to go. From takeoff from Boston to arrival in Queenstown took 27 hours: a six-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover, a 13-hour flight to Auckland, a three-hour layover, and, finally, a two-hour flight to Queenstown.

You can make that trip sitting in coach, and I would if I had to for the chance to visit New Zealand. But we didn’t. We had accumulated enough miles to fly business class, which gives you a seat that turns into a bed.

But the real adventure is on the ground, and there’s more adrenalin rush from driving than from flying between those snowy peaks. Virtually every road is two lanes, seldom straight, and often featuring hairpin turns. And, of course, we had to drive on the left — though there were a couple of times we forgot to. But that’s another story.

Walter V. Robinson can be reached at W.Robinson@neu.edu.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story on New Zealand misidentified the country's capital. It is Wellington.

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If You Go

How to get there
Qantas nonstop from Los Angeles to Auckland; Air New Zealand from San Francisco to Auckland. Both airlines are quoting Boston to New Zealand fares of $1,400-$1,500 for November travel. Both Air New Zealand and Jetstar, a Qantas subsidiary, offer low-cost domestic flights.
Where to stay
Rees Hotel
377 Frankton Road
Queenstown
011-64-3-450-1100
www.reeshotel-queenstown.com
Every room has dramatic views of the Remarkables mountains across Lake Wakatipu. Rates in November from $244.
Lake Tekapo Luxury Lodge
Lake Tekapo
24 Aorangi Crescent
011-64-3-680-6566
www.laketekapolodge.co.nz
A home built to be a B&B, with fabulous views of the lake and the Southern Alps. The best breakfast we had in New Zealand. Rates from $185.
Where to eat
Annie’s Wine Bar and Restaurant
Arts Centre
Christchurch
011-64-3-365-0566
www.annieswinebar.co.nz
Housed in the city’s Arts Centre, which occupies the neo-Gothic buildings at the former University of Canterbury. Some of the most innovative cooking, and the best wine selection, in Christchurch. Dinner for two with wine, $110.
Mission Estate
198 Church Road,
Napier Hawke’s Bay
011-64-6-845-9350
www.missionestate.co.nz
In the wine region on the North Island, the winery, housed in a former monastery, offers gourmet cuisine and the best of its own wines. Dinner for two with a bottle of wine, $145.
The Brantry
45 Rifle Range Road
Taupo
011-64-07-378-0484
www.thebrantry.co.nz
In a former home, offers extraordinary contemporary cuisine, terrific wines, and perhaps the best desserts we had had anywhere in several years. Three-course dinner for two with a bottle of wine, $125.