With a mix of togetherness and independent pursuits, family harmony comes easy amidst the glaciers, fiords, and snowcapped national parks on New Zealand’s South Island as shared by Candyce H. Stapen.
Fjords, snow-capped peaks, glaciers you can walk on, silky blue lakes, rain forests laced with beech trees and feathered with ferns, as well as mountains green with wild thyme and tall pines were just some of the reasons New Zealand’s South Island lured us.
The countryside proved to be so spectacular — even fairy tale enchanting — that at any point in our two-week journey, a hobbit sauntering by would not have startled us.
My twenty-something daughter Alissa and her boyfriend Adam, my thirty-something son Matt, and I eventually landed into Queenstown. Ala., my husband couldn’t leave work, but we kept him updated with emails and images. With Adam as start-up navigator and Matt the initial driver, we headed our van into one of our best family vacations ever.
New Zealand proved to be a perfect, something-for-every-age-group choice with its wacky soft adventures, gorgeous scenery, sophisticated wineries, good shopping, and wonderful walking trails. We had four willing drivers and lots of opinions about where to go and what to do.
That’s why on this trip, rather than take a group tour, we created our own itinerary and hit the road, retro sixties style. Instead of eight-track tapes (remember those?), we had a portable iPod player, speakers set to loud, and a mix of contemporary rock and oldies. We hit the highway singing.
Exploring Forests and Fiords
From Queenstown, we drove nearly three hours (about 100 miles) to Te Anau, the lakeside town that serves as the base for “tramps” (walks/hikes) on the Milford Track, part of Fjordland National Park. Reaching the trailhead required an hour-long lake cruise. Captivated by the numerous waterfalls cascading down cliffs and crowned by rainbows, we minded neither the wind nor the cold.Although the Milford Track, dubbed “the finest walk in the world,” extends for 34 miles, we opted for a 6.6-mile easy loop. We ambled through beech tree forests covered with mosses, paused for a picnic lunch alongside the fast-moving Clinton River, then walked a boardwalk trail laced with waist-high ferns that opened up to a glade rimmed with mountain peaks.
Up early the next day, we covered the 75 miles to Milford Sound in time for an overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, or a long, narrow inlet with steep sides carved by a glacier and filled by the sea. Cruising deeper into the fjord than possible on a day trip, we spotted seals, triple waterfalls marked by rainbows, and came so close to Bridal Veil Falls that the thundering spray doused us.
Landing on a Glacier
Although it looked closer on the map, it took us nine hours — our longest one-day haul — to drive from Milford Sound to Franz Josef, the small town at the base of Franz Josef Glacier.
Grumpy and in need of gas and time out of the van, we lunched at a café in Queenstown. Afterward, I drove the leg through the Crown Range Mountains with its valley views of gold pastures. Since the four of us agreed that the driver had control of the iPod, I headed to Lake Hawea, edged by fluted mountains, tapping along to old Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones tunes.
We shared snacks of hummus, pita bread, chips, and apples, and tried not to annoy each other as we pushed on through Mt. Aspiring National Park to Haast, finally arriving at Franz Josef.The highlight: our scenic flyby and ice walk.
From the helicopter, Franz Josef Glacier, part of Westland National Park, spread out like a field of frozen white peaks sliced by translucent blue rows. After landing on a small flat patch of snow high on the glacier, we put on ice talonz — trickier to walk in than four-inch Manolos. But we learned. Following our guide, we walked over ice boulders and around pinnacles, and slithered through an ice cave. It felt like playing on a cloud at the top of the world.
Meeting the Sheep
Did we mention the sheep? In New Zealand, sheep outnumber humans 10 to 1 and on every drive we saw meadows full, but never got up close until we explored Arthur’s Pass National Park.
At one of the region’s many sheep farms, I knelt in a meadow, holding the front legs of a wiggly ewe I dubbed Dolly. Neither one of us looked thrilled, but I did envy Dolly’s thick, curly locks. Claire, the sheep dog, impressively responded to different whistles, herding Dolly and a flock of her mates into a tight circle near us.In the national park, we sauntered along easy paths that wound us along the river and through the forest. We spotted yellow mistletoe in a grove of beech trees, saw the peaks of Black Mountains, soaring 6,600 feet, and followed a gurgling stream to a clearing showcasing the snow-covered, 8,000-foot high Bealey Spur. At night we admired the spray of stars in the inky black sky.
we departed for the U.S, tired but happy. We experienced an incredible journey. Next time, though, we’re letting the pros pick the places, book the outings, schlep the suitcases, and do the driving. That way, our trip will be even more enjoyable.
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