As many have said and all who’ve been there know, New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Crystalline lakes reflect the sky like a polished mirror, lush green rainforests shimmer with dew, fur seals cavort on pristine shores and soaring, snow-caped mountains pierce the sky. All these sights can be experienced within short distances of each other on scenic route 6. New Zealand’s South Island is truly an outdoor paradise.
THE GLACIER TOWNS
Start at Greymouth on the island’s west side and head south on route 6 for about two hours. You will come to the small towns of Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier, New Zealand equivalents of the wild west. The surrounding area forms part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage park hosting glaciers descending from the Southern Alps.
During the day, most travelers hike the many, well-marked trails or go on helicopter rides to get a birds-eye view of the glaciers. Some rides include glacier hiking. I took one of these exhilarating rides over the mountain peaks landing and hiking on a glacier and saw some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever experienced. I felt my heart pound like never before when the helicopter soared off a cliff over a bottom-less precipice. That’ll give you about a month’s worth of cardio workouts.
The other must-do experience in either of these towns is a temperate rain forest hike, geographically the opposite of walking on a glacier. The humidity here is almost 100%. Surrounding vegetation is thick with exotic insects. Giant ferns and other bizarre plant-life loom overhead. Everything is carpeted with a moist moss in every variation of green. It’s like walking in a film set of Jurassic Park.
During the day, this makes for a fascinating hike in alien-like surroundings. But if you go on a midnight forest hike, the glow worms put on a “light show” for you. Bring a flash light, walk deep into the forest on the hiking trail then turn off the light. You will see thousands of lightning bugs twinkling in the total, absolute darkness like stars over a moonless desert sky.
Continue south to the town of Wanaka on the shore of a lake created by a receding glacier. The main street fronts the lake and has funky little cafes and restaurants with pretty lake views where you can idle with a glass of one of New Zealand’s crisp, white wines.
While in Wanaka, or anywhere else in New Zealand, be sure to sample one of the country’s signature dishes, lamb. Once New Zealand had up to 80 million sheep. Since dairy production has become more profitable, however, the sheep population has decreased to about 30 million. But lamb remains a local favorite in its many culinary iterations. One lamb dish I loved in Wanaka was lamb curry at The Spice Room, one of four, count them…FOUR Indian restaurants in town. Another good option for lamb dishes is Public Kitchen and Bar with branches throughout the country.
Stop by the Visitor Information Center on Main Street and book something that will get your heart pumping like a helicopter flight, hand-gliding over the mountains or a 4WD safari tour. We booked with Wanaka River Journeys and were glad we did. We opted for a jet boat ride on the Matukituki River in Mount Aspiring National Park piloted by a funny Maori guide. The tour included a wilderness walk to see waterfalls, forests and wildlife.
Route 6 in New Zealand is truly a wonderland of exciting and educational activities.
Read Part Two of NEW ZEALAND, ROUTE 6, THE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIP here.
Can YOU recall a memorable road trip?