Adventure: New Zealand
Three weeks of mountain biking, hiking, and touring New Zealand has convinced me that, yes, an alternative nirvana to my beloved Vermont really does exist. Both the North and South Islands have so much in common with my Green Mountain state that I wonder if perhaps Vermont is a 'little sister slice' of New Zealand that broke off and migrated north? Whatever the Ice Age history, if you love vistas that make you cry, mouth watering food that tastes like your childhood, and opportunities for adrenaline adventure at every turn, then add New Zealand to the top of your travel list.
The environment is staggeringly beautiful and nationally revered with a litter-free landscape and abundant waterways so clear you can see your freckles mirrored in the lakes. New Zealand is all the things a dream island should be: no snakes, no Lyme ticks, no predators, sparkling fresh air, lush rainforests, and bird breeds so confident in their safety, they don't even know how to fly. The Kiwi nation likes it this way. Your gear will be x-rayed at customs, so arrive scrubbed; there is zero tolerance for any foreign microbe, germ, or GMO fruit to infiltrate their pristine ecosystem. If you forget the apple in your backpack, biosecurity will slap you with a $400 fine on the spot. Be respectful and mindful when entering this wonderland–they are happy to share it with you, but they've got something special and they know how to protect it.
I spent months researching and planning this junket with my main playmate and pacer, Jeff, and our efforts paid off handsomely. Our idea of optimal adventure travel is to gorge on a big cafe breakfast, spend 4-6 hours on a mountain bike or a hike everyday, indulge in afternoon tea and meditation, take in a bit of culture on our walk to dinner, and then bounce into a starched white king bed every night for an episode of Rake.
‘Dirt by day, lux by night’ is our travel motto.
Blessed by glorious autumn weather, we managed nineteen straight days of adrenaline-filled sun and fun on our three-week 'survey' trip. We saw a bit of what each island has to offer, all the while making notes for a return visit. We use Trailforks, the international mountain biking app, to inform all of our trip planning, and to navigate our rides.
‘There's just too much to say about New Zealand, so if you desire more specific trip details, please email me for a PDF summary.’
I'd heard that New Zealand is heaven for mountain bikers but I didn't truly appreciate what that meant until I rode here. This is a country blessed with an epic environment and they are supremely dedicated to access-for-all tracks. The variety and availability for every level of fitness is mind-boggling. The purpose-built tracks are part of a planned national network with specific pillars incorporated such as the environmental impact, access to conserved lands, and an emphasis on beauty and recreation. Most of the tracks are multi-purpose, unless otherwise noted, and their 'share with care' culture makes for friendly exchanges between boot and bike on route. They definitely serve up plenty of the gnarly stuff here, but lots of the trails are 'puppy bellied' offering very little root or rock compared to what we ride in Vermont–the flow joyriding was thrilling. We found the overall trail level ratings to be very similar to our Vermont standards.
We saw many young couples riding together, frequently the female on an electric mountain bike, which pairs well with this kind of track engineering. I liked seeing this new trend: lovers out riding together, each one enjoying the ride at their own comfort level, both loving the exercise and the experience. While I'm not quite ready to give up my human-powered bike, I was able to glimpse the future and appreciate how the e-bike is going to contribute greatly to boosting sport participation and longevity, all the while enriching precious human dynamics in the woods.
Bike shops are plentiful in New Zealand–we loved the lads at Outside Sports. We brought our pedals from home, and they set us up with some sweet Specialized bikes. Bike shops are a touchstone for us when we travel, like a frat where we can find our tribe. A good bike shop will supply excellent rental bikes, but it will also have knowledgeable, enthusiastic employees who generously share ride beta and restaurant suggestions.
‘Graciously humble folk, New Zealanders exude exceptional personal integrity and have zero tolerance for braggadocious behavior…’
One of my favorite places in New Zealand was on the South Island at Lake Wanaka. We rode the drop-dead gorgeous Dean's Bank on the Clutha River in the Sticky Forest my favorite way: right from our hotel in a charming little town. The next day we did the Glendhu Bay/Millennium Track paced all along Lake Wanaka with continuous water vistas and plenty of grit and steeps built in.
Travel allows us to live in the exquisite human realm of connections–we all have more in common than our differences. Courtesy and curiosity go a long way with the Kiwis. The folks I met were generally relaxed and reserved, but also quite friendly when I made the effort to engage with them about their country. They weren't particularly curious about me, or where I hailed from. They seem a quietly confident, contented group of spirited souls who know how to live with spunk and spice in a spectacular environment–and they don't necessarily need me to know about it.
Graciously humble folk, New Zealanders exude exceptional personal integrity and have zero tolerance for braggadocious behavior, a variation of the tall poppy syndrome, where they simply do not tolerate jerks. When I say integrity, a cultural example would be their nationwide no-tipping policy. New Zealand is strongly driven by tourist dollars; despite this, they have a firm 'no tipping' policy. I could not get my head around this for days. When I enquired about it I was told, each time, that they simply don't believe in getting paid extra for doing their job expertly. They feel they are paid a good hourly wage, no matter their profession, and that it is their pride to do it without extra compensation. I tested this quirk out by offering a generous tip to our twenty-one year old helicopter pilot who politely, but firmly refused, embarrassing both him and myself. I flippin' love the Kiwis–what a refreshing bunch of wholehearted folks.
Despite our usual reluctance for group outings with strangers, we signed up for WildWire Wanaka, a via ferrata mountain climbing experience over a waterfall. It did not disappoint–there is a whole lotta of fun to be had in a harness. While we climbed serious rock straight up, the simple steel rope belay system guaranteed our safety and allowed us to relax and enjoy the vistas. The thrills are significant, but we didn't need special athletic skills–just a little flexibility, the willingness to breech our comfort zone, and a love of big, big waterfalls.
Queenstown, an hour south, is a wild place that is wired for fun. Whatever your desire, you can probably find it there–from bungee jumping, to canyon slots, to jet boats, and all manner of aerial thrills. We hiked up Ben Lomond Mountain from town, a steep and satisfying hour-long climb. At the top is a carnival of fun–downhill MTB, bungee jumping, paragliding, luge, zip lining–the Kiwi's really know how to play. Non-hikers arrive by gondola for Lake Wakatipu views and cafe goodies. We rode the Lake Moke/Seven Mile Track for a great day ride with rentals from Vertigo Bikes. I disliked riding the 10K to the trailhead from Queenstown, as the main road is very narrow and busy. I usually love road riding, but there is something terrifying about riding New Zealand roads that makes me counsel strongly against it; get a shuttle and stay safe on the singletrack.
After a tough day in the saddle we treated ourselves to a stellar meal at Rata, another brilliant example of just how amazingly fresh and innovative New Zealand food is. This is a country where you can still eat GMO-free food and really taste the flavor upgrade. Biting into crisp apples and veggies reminded us of our youth, when food was simple and wholesome and bursting with flavor. We ate plant-forward and well on the entire trip, appreciating the creativity and skill Kiwi chefs devote to even the humblest of cafe fare. The cafe culture is highly developed and competitive with four or five excellent places even in the smallest of towns. Swift baristas pulling serious shots, delectable baked goods, and plates heaped with vegan, keto, paleo, and gluten-free options were always on the menu. With our busy recreation schedule to balance out the calories, we had an absolute blast eating our way through New Zealand.
From Queenstown we headed west to Fiordland National Park in Southland, the largest of New Zealand's fourteen spectacular national parks for a few days of tramping. A vast compilation of wild beauty, soaring peaks, and sea vistas located near the town of Te Anau, this is base camp for the Great Walks of the Kepler, Milford, and Routeburn tracks. The remote Doubtful and Milford Sounds are stunning glacier-carved fiords best admired from a helicopter. We did this one thrilling morning, soaring over jagged snow-capped mountains, giddy as little kids. Our pilot dropped us off after a couple of hours so that we could enjoy the 16K tramp from Luxmore hut to Mount Luxmore, and through the Kepler track rainforest to finish at the luminous Lake Te Anau. After hanging out on the beach for an hour with snacks, we took a quick boat ride back to town. We both considered this a perfect day of activity and adrenaline. We stayed at the lovely Fiordland Lodge where their genteel hospitality charmed us, and exquisite meals restored our energy and lust for more adventure.
After twelve glorious days spent ogling and enjoying the spectacular landscape of the South Island (Te Waipounamu), it was time to fly to the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) to ride the mountain biking meccas of Lake Taupo and Rotorua. The scenery here is more modest, the energy a bit more subdued. We exclaimed–on a daily basis–just how much it looks like Vermont, especially the vistas of Lake Taupo. We were now in thermal bath and volcano country, so we kept our suits and towels handy for the local custom: post-ride soaks roadside, in 104-degree streambeds.
We were in very high spirits the two days we rode The Great Lake Trail a 71K dream ride around Lake Taupo. Ted from Treadroutes provided 29er bikes, a shuttle, and maps, and then cut us loose to enjoy the ride on our own terms–just the way we like it. Sunny, 64 degrees in the rainforest, purpose-built singletrack flow with plenty of climbing and lake vistas, and a cafe at the halfway point to feed us–I don't believe it gets any better than that for Jeff and me ride-wise. We also loved the Huka Falls ride (from our hotel bed!) at Craters of the Moon bike park in Taupo. Here we were surrounded by stunning rapids and waterfalls in a uniquely planned mountain bike park that packed 45K into our quads and BIG smiles on to our faces. Taupo's reputation as a biker's playground is well deserved. We didn't want to leave, but big sister, Rotorua, awaited us just an hour's drive north.
Our nineteen-day streak of sunshine ended abruptly in Rotorua. We spent day one on a 'consolation' hike in the towering Whakarewarewa redwood forest that would have thrilled me to tears on any other day of the year–but still, our need for singletrack speed beckoned. So, on day two, we said 'screw it' and rode in the mud and rain, and frankly, it may have been my favorite day of the entire trip. We got just a quick, dirty taste of this place, and we were gaga in love. Along with great riding potential, Rotorua has a festive street party area called 'Eat Street' featuring a plethora of excellent outdoor dining options. Our future plan is to ride Rotorua more extensively and also bag the two IMBA Epic trails north, in Nelson: The Old Ghost Road and the Heaphy Track await us. Kiwi mountain biking is decidedly an ultra-special thrill, and we will be back–sooner than later.
We wrapped up the trip with a visit to Waiheke Island, a dreamy sanctuary just off the coast of Auckland. It's what Nantucket looked like forty years ago. We stayed at the charming Oyster Inn and yes—ate oysters at every meal. There was more fantastic hiking, and I even got to shop a little. Ironically, the only injury sustained during all of our adventures was when I fell off the curb at the ferry dock and scraped my elbow, lol. We spent only a brief overnight in Auckland, so I can't say much about it, except that it has a cool city vibe, and we plan to spend more time exploring it on our next visit to Kiwiland.
I feel extremely blessed and grateful to have had this amazing experience. I am willing to serve as travel scout for others—if you would like a PDF copy with more trip details, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you—feel free to send your comments to me.