For most visitors who are traveling in New Zealand, the area near Fiordland is about trekking, kayaking, and traveling to Milford Sound. It’s about hiking Great Walks like the Routeburn Track or sailing in Doubtful Sound, or visiting the eerie glow worms caves on the scenic shore of Lake Te Anau. To locals that live in the Southland, however, those activities are definitely nice, but what really defines the local culture is ranching, rugby, and rodeo.
Call it a casualty of modernization, but there are increasingly few places where it’s still possible to get where you’re going by train. There was once a time in the 1800s when train travel was the backbone of transport—the iron horses that steamed across plains and symbolized pioneers. Today, however, staring out the window of a slow-moving train is a romantic, antiquated throwback, although in a handful of places it’s still possible to spend a day on the rails. One of those places is the Otago countryside, a swath of land to the west of Dunedin that is made gorgeous by its vast sense of emptiness. Visitors traveling between Dunedin and Queenstown often zoom through this area by car, but to truly experience the rural beauty—and step back 150 years—a morning ride of the Taieri Gorge Railway is the best route across Otago.
Most visitors to the South Island of New Zealand know Te Anau from looking out a window. That, after all, is the extent that visitors will see of the town while on a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown. While the long, winding day trip from Queenstown makes sense for very tight schedules, Te Anau is arguably a better base than Queenstown for experiencing the beauty of Fiordland. Not only is Te Anau closer than Queenstown (by nearly two and a half hours), but the lakeshore town has its own sights that are well worth the time to explore.
If visiting the South Island with your own transportation—or are looking for a day trip from Christchurch—the South Canterbury Food and Wine Trail captures this small town tranquility. Often referred to as the “food bowl” of the South Island, the rolling plains and boutique vineyards give rise to bushels of locally-grown produce and exceptionally fresh cuisine. It’s the type of place that New Zealand locals might go for a long weekend holiday, and somewhere the majority of international visitors erroneously choose to skip.
There is an age-old argument between surfers and boogie boarders about which is the purest sport. Surfers will claim they harness more of the wave’s energy by successfully standing and riding it, whereas boogie boards claim it’s a purer thrill since they’re closer to the surface of the wave.
The same can be said for the Queenstown sports of whitewater rafting and sledging. One of the goals in white water rafting is to not fall out of the boat, whereas the goal of sledging is to eliminate the raft and swim the length of the river. Rather than bouncing on top of the rapids and avoiding a dip in the drink, sledging literally takes the rapids and shoves them right in your face.
New Zealand was one of the last places on Earth to be discovered by human beings. Native Maori didn’t arrive on these shores until the middle of the 13th Century, and Western explorers didn’t “find” the islands until 1642. New Zealand sat “empty” for thousands of years, and while the rest of the world was embroiled in conflict—the Roman Empire comes to mind—rugged mountains and golden beaches were just waiting to be discovered.
A lot has changed in the last century, however, as New Zealand’s landscape has become world-renowned for its reality-altering beauty. When traveling in New Zealand—and particularly when hiking—there comes a point when you seriously question how this beauty could possibly be real. Aside from the jaw-dropping natural scenery, there are many other reasons why New Zealand is one of the world’s best destinations for hikers. Sure, everyone knows the nation is beautiful—but the following reasons are what catapult the country from “excellent” to the “absolute best.”