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Marveling at the raw beauty of New Zealand

Marveling at the raw beauty of New Zealand - Bus tour from Christchurch to Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island
International Travel News,  Dec, 2003  by Dan Gifford

"Break glass in case of emergency." Those were the words that kept drawing our eyes during the bus tour from Christchurch to Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island. Did our bus driver's off-key rendition of "The Ballad of McKenzie's Dog" count as an emergency? What about that guy in the front who spouted endless questions? Surely, whizzing past gorgeous scenery only to stop at overpriced souvenir stands merited grabbing the hammer and whacking our way to freedom.
Instead, we suffered eight hours all the way to Queenstown, checked into the Heritage Queenstown Hotel and went to our room. At atrocious room. A room that butted the freeway and hunkered over the laundry. Probably the worst in the hotel. Something had to change, fast.
A tour package gone bad
My traveling buddy, Steve, and I were five weeks into an around-the-world tour. This was our first significant stumble in a journey that had already spanned four continents and six countries. Our mistake lay in booking this leg of our globetrotting trip as a genetic bus-based package--transportation, hotel and excursions all neatly bundled and attractively priced.
Bought in the U.S. before we left, the package was in fact the standard itinerary offered by New Zealand-based operator Pan Pacific Travel through dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tour companies and travel agents from Tokyo to Tulsa. It seemed so convenient and so easy at the time, and yet it was so wrong for us.
I have participated in group travel before and I know it can be an excellent way to see the world. But this wasn't the highly personalized, exclusively arranged tour to which I had grown accustomed. This was the machinery of mass tourism grinding us up and spitting us out.
So we began slaying the dragons of our folly, starting with that room. I marched to the front desk and began the begging process. The cutthroat room rates we were getting through our tour package put us somewhere between vermin and pestilence in the eyes of the hotel management, and they obviously were loath to change rooms for the likes of us. But persistence and sweet talk eventually won the day, and we settled into a new room with views of snowcapped mountains and a lake so blue it would make you gasp.
Queenstown is one of the most striking cities on Earth. Known more these days as the birthplace of bungee jumping, its proximity to the Southern Alps and those indigo waves lapping its shores makes it a wonderful destination for anyone with a love of natural beauty.
Convinced that our luck was turning around, we ventured into the Copper Club for dinner, an unassuming and intimate restaurant tucked back from the flashier establishments around it. From the moment we walked in, we felt like we had made new friends. Somehow they knew we needed comfort, and they provided it in their rosemary and garlic-rubbed roast lamb and warm chocolate desserts. Wine lovers themselves, they steered us to choices by the glass that weren't on the menu and charged as if we had ordered the standard house brand.
We ate at the Copper Club all three nights in Queenstown and found it to be the best restaurant of our entire trip around the world.
The next day we set about remedying the rest of our week. Knowing we could never set foot on another group bus, we rented a car, determined to forge our own path across the South Island. We tore up everything from our package except the hotel vouchers, climbed into our newly secured Subaru Legacy and set out--emancipated and free.
We drove into the region around Glenorchy, where we later discovered much of "Lord of the Rings" had been filmed. It was easy to see why director Peter Jackson chose this idyllic landscape for Middle-earth. We day-hiked along the Routeburn Track and followed churning cascades of glacially discharged water. Fantastic shades of blue and green raced through towering forests toward a photography-studio backdrop of mountain peaks in the distance. It definitely seemed more fantasy novel than real life.
For our next adventure we leapfrogged over the tour buses' route by flying to Milford Sound. Enjoying a day so fine it made the natives giddy, we soared in a 6-person Cessna over mountain peaks and looked down on lakes locked within the glacial walls of the Alps. Landing a good two hours before the first tour buses would arrive from Queenstown, we cruised the mighty fjords of Milford Sound in relative peace and quiet. By the time we returned, it looked like Ellis Island in reverse--harried and bedraggled busloads filing onto ships by the hundreds.
Franz Josef Glacier
Eventually it was time to move on and leave our hard-won room at the Heritage and the comfortable familiarity of the Copper Club. We drove all day to Franz Josef Township in the heart of Westland National Park and settled into the Punga Grove Motor Lodge. Our split-level suite had rainforest views that tumbled right down to the windows with giant "Jurassic Park" ferns tickling our screens.
We had come here to tackle the Franz Josef Glacier. Actually, we did more than tackle. We stretched, squished, scrambled and, a few times, slithered. Outfitted and led by Franz Josef Guides, our group of 10 was the self-selected hardiest and toughest, eager to go farther than any group hiking on the ice that day. In hindsight, the fact that the rest of our group was 10 to 15 years younger than us might have given us pause, but at the time we were ready and willing.
Relating what it is like inside a glacier defies my abilities as a writer. It is so unique it is incomparable, so rare a beauty it is indescribable. Perhaps the best word is "otherworldly." There is something not quite of this Earth about being surrounded by a shade of blue unaccounted for in any crayon box.
We spent the day working our way past ice floes and through ice caves, our guide sometimes cutting steps that only marginally helped in the climb higher and higher onto the glacier. Exhilarated and exhausted, we marveled as ice and sky rivaled each other for the purest shade of blue. All around us was the sound of water--dripping above us, gushing below us and cascading off half a dozen waterfalls surrounding us at the edges of the glacier.
Our sense of accomplishment lasted long after the significantly sore muscles faded, and our high carried us through to Aukland on the North Island. Poor Auckland will always be the ugly stepsister to Sydney, and its image as a rather worn-looking town is not without justification.
But Auckland is like many American cities, not showy, hip or pretty but worth a visit for the good people, good food and occasional surprises.
For us, the surprise was Devonport, a 10-minute ferry ride across the harbor. Think "seaside village" and you've got a mental picture of Devonport, with streets and shops that are just begging to be called quaint. Filled with cafes, quirky stores, a restored movie house and a surreal museum (the owners proudly post their one-million-dollar-loss tax return in the window), Devonport is where we will stay when we return to Auckland.
I am able to say "when we return" because New Zealand merits another visit someday. No other place on our globetrotting itinerary matched the country's raw beauty. We are, however, unlikely to repeat our mistake of the package tour. One bus driver's performance of "McKenzie's Dog" is enough to last a lifetime.
Visitors to Kyoto should be sure to try okonomiyaki, flat pancakes/ crepes with a variety of fillings, sold at numerous streetside restaurants. Don't worry, you can avoid the raw egg often put on top by saying, "No egg"; the restaurants seem to be used to this Westerners' request.--JANE B. HOLT, Hinesburg, VT
Kiwi Contacts
Copper Club, Ground Floor, Steamer Wharf; phone (6) 3442-7503. A 3-course dinner for two with wine cost US$80.
Franz Josef Guides, Main road (next to Mobil Station), P.O. Box 4, Franz Josef, New Zealand 2000-2003, (phone 64) 3-752-0763, fax (64) 3-752-0102, e-mail walks@franzjosef or visit Our full-day glacier hike cost NZ$100 (US$60) per adult.
Heritage Queenstown, 91 Fernhill Road, Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand; phone (64) 3-442-4988 or visit NZ$175 to $300 (US$105-$180). Lake-view rooms are worth the extra expense.
Punga Grove Motor Lodge, Con Street, Franz Josef, New Zealand; phone (64) 3-752-0001 or visit NZ $190 to $210 (US$114-126).
Dan Gifford
Arlington, VA
COPYRIGHT 2003 Martin Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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