- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The trail traverses one of the densest and lushest rain forests I have hiked through anywhere in the world. Only a trickle of sun manages to fight its way through the thick tree canopy above, from which a virtual aviary of birds entertains with a symphony of song.

Towering snowcapped mountains stretch to the horizon, overlooking valleys so packed with sheep they almost hide the carpet of grass on which they graze.

A menacing mountain of a man, dressed in a loincloth and grasping a spear, blocks the path of visitors seeking to enter a brightly painted wooden structure. He is a member of the Maori, the indigenous people who already inhabited the land when the first European explorers arrived. After a few moments, a smile replaces his frightening grimace, and he invites the group into the marae (sacred meeting place) for a cultural show and meal. Any of these experiences could highlight a memorable vacation trip. What makes them so enticing in New Zealand is so much variety crammed into such a compact space.

For its size, about the same as Colorado, New Zealand offers more to see and do than much larger countries. That diversity is among reasons why many travelers place it high on their list of favorites.

Mention New Zealand, and most people envision landscapes ranging from broad ocean beaches to rugged coastlines, flat plains that rise to soaring mountains, and sprawling meadows and steaming thermal pools in a moonlike landscape.

Much of this beauty is reminiscent of scenery elsewhere. The rolling pastureland, offset by bright yellow touches of gorse and broom bushes, resembles many an English landscape. Crystal-clear mountain-circled bodies of water in Fiordland National Park remind one of Norway. Anyone who has gazed in awe at the spine of jagged peaks that runs down South Island knows why they’re called the Southern Alps.

Auckland, with its international airport, is a good point to begin touring the North Island’s golden beaches along the western coastline. In a region referred to as the “Land of 1,000 Beaches,” the quandary is deciding where to spread your blanket.

Ninety Mile Beach at the northernmost tip is closest to the equator and is the best-known stretch of sand. Countless deep coves and sheltered bays offer other inviting spots for relaxing as the sun melts away memories of winter in Washington.

Each beach has its own appeals. I didn’t learn the name of one inviting sandy strand that stretched in both directions as far as I could see. Contrasting with the soft, white sand was an outcrop of gray rocks at the edge of the water, over which several seals clambered clumsily. Now and then, one took a break to plunge into the frothy sea for a refreshing dip.

Away from the coastline, North Island is a land of mountains, forests, volcanoes and steaming thermal areas. It also is the home of many of the Maori, a Polynesian people who arrived about 1,000 years ago after crossing the sea from other islands in double-hulled canoes.

Today, about 15 percent of New Zealand’s population of 4 million is of Maori descent, and their influence adds a colorful overlay to the country’s culture.

Maori names continue to define lakes, mountains and towns. Legends passed down over centuries are taught as both oral and written history.

We experienced the great respect for nature and the environment that is central to the Maori way of life. Before leading hikes into the woods, Maori guides asked for silence as they intoned a prayer of thanks for the beauty that soon would surround us. Along the way, they delighted in pointing out plants and leaves that provided food, medicine and tools to their forebears and that continue to be used today.

This close relationship with nature manifests itself in another, very practical way at Rotorua, in the center of North Island. There, the most spectacular display of thermal activity in New Zealand comes alive in a landscape of geysers, hot springs, boiling mud and spouts of steam escaping through fissures in the earth.

For about 300 years, the Whakarewarewa Village has stood in the center of this surrealistic scene; some residents are descendants of the original settlers. Much of the small village of a few narrow streets with modest houses is enveloped in steam and the mist from geysers that spews into the air. Sulfur adds its distinctive odor to the setting and in places has painted bright yellow splotches on the ground.

Among the appeals of this location for its original settlers were hot rocks for cooking food, warm pools in which to bathe and to soak sore bodies after battle, and natural heating during chilly winters.

Present-day dwellers continue to use the communal tubs and to cook food in the traditional method of underground steaming over hot stones. In a moment of candor, and with a twinkle in her eye, Nanny Chris, our spry guide and sort of informal village mayor, confided that a number of families have a stove or microwave to augment nature’s oven.

Even with these appeals, more visitors are drawn to South Island, where contrasting landscapes and views greet the eye around almost every turn of the road. The scenery reaches its pinnacle at the summit of Mount Cook, which towers more than 13,000 feet above the landscape.

Glaciers inch their way down mountainsides to the sea. The waters of deep fjords and lakes, the result of 500 million years of sculpting by nature, double the beauty by reflecting the scene.

Alternatives for enjoying this dramatic display are as varied as the terrain itself. Rugged outdoor types opt for mountain climbing, long-distance trekking and raft trips down the white waters of rushing streams.

Those who prefer more sedate encounters with nature may hike on gentle trails through terrain ranging from lush rain forests to growths of centuries-old trees, or climb into land and water vehicles to take in the sights.

Hiking is a way of life for many New Zealanders, and the choice of trails ranges from level, hard-surface walks to scrambles up steep hillsides.

The Truman Walk, on the northwestern coast of South Island, is typical of countless short trails that lace the land. It leads through a rain forest to cliffs overlooking the crashing Tasman Sea below.

Arthur’s Pass National Park, high in the Southern Alps about midway between the east and west coasts, offers a wide sampling of inviting alternatives. Among these are a one-hour walk to 430-foot-high Devil’s Waterfall, a slightly longer hike past alpine plants and flowers, and a four- to six-hour climb through mountain beech forest and subalpine vegetation.

There’s also a wide selection of water experiences, ranging from sedate guided boat tours to gentle lake kayaking to rough-and-tumble white-water rafting. We opted for a memorable sea kayak paddle through Milford Sound. That dramatic 13-mile-long fjord is the best-known body of water in Fiordland National Park on South Island.

Our four-hour paddle covered about half that distance, with many stops along the way to gaze at the scenery and listen as our guide described the area’s history and geology.

Sheer mountains hide their peaks in the clouds, then plunge almost vertically into the crystal-clear water. Narrow rivulets formed by melting snow high above tumble down over rocky cliff faces. A fur seal resting on a rock, disturbed by our arrival, casts an annoyed glance in our direction. A crested penguin, enjoying its bath in the icy water, ignores us.

I found more breathtaking beauty on the Southern Scenic Route, which winds along the lower end of South Island. Its myriad views — rolling green fields being mowed by sheep, towering peaks sporting jaunty snowcaps, small villages, waves crashing on graggy shoreline — prompt frequent stops to take yet another photograph.

In this never-ending display of the best the outdoors has to offer, the show extends to wildlife. Forests are alive with animals and birds, including rare species that have disappeared elsewhere but flourish on this isolated island terrain.

The world’s smallest marine dolphin and rarest sea lion are found only in New Zealand waters. The lizardlike tuatara, one of the oldest surviving reptiles, has a life expectancy of 300 years, and its lineage can be traced back 190 million years.

The kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, and the flightless takahe, an endangered species, are two of a lengthy list of birds that call New Zealand home. Most hang out on Stewart Island just off South Island, where they thrive in a sanctuary.

The variety of animal and bird life in New Zealand echoes the diversity of the terrain. The beauty of the countryside is as diverse as the opportunities for exploring and enjoying it, and the setting is augmented by the spiritual richness of the Maori culture.

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