As I traveled around New Zealand, the question I asked the most to both locals and visitors alike was, “Does New Zealand ever stop surprising you?” And everyone’s answer, regardless of whether they had been there a day, two weeks, a few years, or their whole life, was no. And each no came with a breathlessness that you knew was genuine. Simply put, New Zealand is stunning, and around each corner is a beauty more breathtaking than the next. From the wineries dotted along the Canterbury Plains, to the majestic mountains of the rugged West Coast, the landscape of New Zealand embraces you. Not only does the land embrace you, but so do the people. When I wrote about Kiwi hospitality before, I had never experienced the genuine kindness the people of New Zealand exhibit. From the couple I met waiting in JFK for my flight, to guides, and our team, to complete strangers, the people of New Zealand are as incredible as the scenery. Hugs become a handshake, and the smiles are the largest I’ve ever seen as the country returns to normal after being closed for so long.
My journey started in Christchurch to attend Trenz, an international tourism trade show. The hugs started immediately, with beaming faces and a genuine joy radiating through the beautiful new Christchurch Convention Centre. It was wonderful to meet all our partners, put faces to names for the people you speak with daily, and learn about all the new products that New Zealand has to offer. During my stay in Christchurch, I had the chance to visit some beautiful wineries and delicious restaurants, where I stuffed myself with some of my favorites; there was duck, venison, and seafood for days. I also visited a funky little sculpture park atop a mountain. Raymond Herber’s sculptures ranging from hilarious to mighty and moving, are dotted across the side of a mountain with views that would never cease to amaze you.
I continued on to the TranzAlpine. Something I thought was simply a train ride, but it is so much more. As the train chugged along and you first glimpse the Southern Alps, it almost brought tears to my eyes. That was the first time I asked my guide, who takes the TranzAlpine every day for work, “Does New Zealand ever stop surprising you?” and of course, her answer was no. Emerging from every tunnel revealed even more spectacular mountains and turquoise blue glacial rivers until we reached the West Coast.
The West Coast, where the cold churning Tasman Sea meets rugged mountains, with bases crafted of lush rainforest as they rise, transitioning into rocky peaks where they meet the long white clouds. It is a land where when the clouds clear, you can see the mighty glaciers, the formidable ice formed by the legendary tears of a woman who lost her love, according to Maori legend. There is nothing like the West Coast; the small towns spotted throughout are welcoming and intimate, with the most stunning scenery you may ever see. okarito, a town with only about 30 residents, hosts beautiful cruises along quiet lakes and the chance to bike through the rainforest, where the nature embraces you. I was certainly embraced after catapulting myself off my bike and headfirst into the river, but with the help from my guides, I dragged myself out, got on the bike, and pedaled on; back at the lodge with “kiwi cuddles” and a cup of tea I recovered and eventually dried off. And if the people couldn’t keep me warm, the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki at sunset sure did; there is nothing like that view.
After the West Coast, I came to Queenstown and Milford Sound. The town of Queenstown is like a hug itself with its small walkable city, lovely restaurants, and friendly people with endless possibilities for adventure. As for Milford Sound, it may be a full day, but it is a day I will never forget. The drive out weaves its way through undulating roads surrounded by the sheer magnitude of the Fiordland National Park, with lakes so still it looks like you are gazing into a mirror. These wonders soon lead you all the way to the spectacular Milford Sound. Where on the small cruise, you are greeted by dolphins as you set out toward the Tasman Sea, where you can also see penguins and, if you look hard enough, fur seals blending with the rockface; hundreds of waterfalls paint the mountainsides, and if you stand at the back of the boat, you can get a glacial facial as the boat backs towards the Stirling Falls. To feel the sheer power of nature cascading down and gently soaking you is an exhilarating experience that will be hard to forget.
To wrap up the trip, I headed to the North Island, where I trekked through the Shire and had a mug of Middle-earth’s finest. Afterward, I was dazzled by the glowworms; tucked away in the dark limestone caves, gazing at these little creatures is like looking up at a thousand blue stars as you glide silently through the dark, with them being your only light. I met our team on Waiheke Island, with its beautiful beaches, a delicious selection of wine, and the tastiest oysters I’ve ever experienced. It was the perfect way to end a trip with new friends and a glass of New Zealand’s best.
So, if you are looking for a stunning country, go to New Zealand; it is waiting to be embraced.