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Outdoor Adventures in New Zealand

Adrenaline Adventures
Outdoor Adventures in New Zealand
The land of the bungee jump, the zorb, and the jet boat is a testing ground for outdoor adventurers. Towering mountains, deep caves, wild rivers, and stunning fjords are all yours to explore.
By Guy Needham, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of AJ Hackett/Tourism New Zealand
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    Adrenaline Adventures
    Adrenaline Adventures
    New Zealand’s reputation as an adventure playground is well-earned; you can conquer just about all your fears here. Skydive 15,000 feet over dramatic scenery, paraglide from steep mountainsides, or zip-line between native trees. The Kawarau River in Queenstown is home to the Western world’s first commercial bungee-jumping operation, where you can throw yourself headfirst off a bridge toward a raging river below. The bungee springs you back at just the right moment—unless you opt for the wet version. To combine winetasting with zip-lining thrills, catch a ferry from Auckland to experience EcoZip Adventures on Waiheke Island.
    Photo courtesy of AJ Hackett/Tourism New Zealand
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    Walks to Remember
    Walks to Remember
    The Milford Track on the South Island is so revered that a government minister declared it a must-do for all New Zealanders. The country’s premier walk is also so special that only 40 people are allowed on the three-to-four-day hike at a time. Seeing this unspoiled landscape is worth the 33.2 miles of work, whether you carry your gear and sleep in backcountry huts or do the upmarket porter option. If you’re short on time, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island is a good bet. Emerald and blue lakes, volcanic formations, and snow-covered tundra make it the most popular day trip in New Zealand. (Make sure you come well prepared for the area's notorious weather swings.) A much shorter, but no less spectacular, walk is to Cathedral Cove on the North Island's Coromandel Peninsula.
    Photo by Bronwen Gregory
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    Cycling the New Zealand Countryside
    Cycling the New Zealand Countryside
    New Zealand has started to link up a national bikeway from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South. There are already numerous routes, both road and mountain paths, that make for an active alternative to flying between towns; if you want to see the real New Zealand, this is how to do it. From Auckland, pedal south to the Waikato River Trails. Or head to the country’s best-known cycling route, the Otago Central Rail Trail in the lower South Island, which was built along a 20th-century train line. The 90-mile route crosses old viaducts, passes country pubs, and enters dark tunnels; give yourself five days to explore. Other exciting two-wheeled options are the Great Taste Trail, incorporating food, wine, beer, and art galleries in the South Island region of Tasman, and the thrills of the easily achievable but still wild environs of the Old Coach Road near the North Island's Tongariro National Park.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism New Zealand
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    Island Wine Time
    Island Wine Time
    Lovers of New World wine will not want to leave New Zealand. Heady pinot noirs from Otago vineyards surrounded by mountains; some of the world’s best-selling sauvignon blancs, from Marlborough; bold cabernet merlots from Hawke's Bay—all will leave a lasting impression. And that’s doesn’t even include what’s in store if you take a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland to Waiheke Island, home to more than 20 vineyards and even more eateries. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t book a (very) long lunch. Local tip: Go early and soak up the sensational views of Auckland from Te Whau, Cable Bay, or Mudbrick. Other standout Waiheke vineyard restaurants are Tantalus Estate and The Shed at Te Motu.
    Photo by Sarah Reijonen
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    Icy Pursuits
    Icy Pursuits
    New Zealand’s best-known glaciers—Fox and Franz Josef—lie in Westland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage area on the South Island. These two ice slabs moving ever so slowly toward the sea formed over the course of millions of years, and are now only a 20-minute drive apart. Guided walks are available on both glaciers; you’ll get pickaxes, winter overalls, and safety gear. More-adventurous travelers can heli-hike to remote reaches of either glacier. Ice of a less permanent nature stars in Oturehua, in Central Otago: Every year, a frozen lake near Naseby plays host to a curling tournament, during which competitors slide heavy granite stones across a rink while their breath nearly freezes in the air.
    Photo by Jim Harding/age fotostock
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    Ride the Rapids
    Ride the Rapids
    The modern jet boat was invented in New Zealand. Thrusting down rivers at 50 miles per hour, spinning 360 degrees, and coming uncomfortably close to canyon walls are just some of the thrills of a South Island jet-boat jaunt. Now that the famous Shotover Jet has been joined on the water by the KJet, travelers have a choice for booking their thrilling rides. Not wet enough for you? Try Class V white-water rafting in the central North Island for a real fight against Mother Nature. The Wairoa River can only be tackled 26 days a year; a hydroelectric power station has to be shut down to release the water that carries rafters over the country’s most exciting drops.
    Photo by David Wall/age fotostock
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    Explore Way Down Under
    Explore Way Down Under
    "Black-water rafting" (or inner tubing through a cave) is dark and damp, scary yet exhilarating. The Waitomo Caves in the central North Island offer the best-known underground rivers. Outfitted in a wet suit, headlamp, and helmet, you’ll ride rapids, float between stalagmites, and gasp in awe at glowworms twinkling above. Advanced cavers can have the subterranean experience of a lifetime at Harwoods Hole, near Nelson. After a 45-minute walk through beech forest and along jagged limestone formations, you'll reach the sinkhole—one of the deepest in the Southern Hemisphere.
    Photo by Matt Long
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    Alfresco Dining
    Alfresco Dining
    While it may not constitute an outdoor adventure, dining at some of New Zealand's top restaurants comes with a thrilling view of the great outdoors. A glass of Elephant Hill Wine Estate's bright sauvignon blanc on the deck of the winery arrives alongside a delicious vista of Cape Kidnappers and the seemingly endless Pacific. In Queenstown, Amisfield Bistro itself is a stunner: The schist building with a sharply peaked roof is nearly camouflaged against the hills around it. A massive picture window inside provides views over Lake Hayes and Coronet Peak in cool weather; in warmer weather those panoramas can be enjoyed from the terrace. All this visual beauty is accompanied by a New Zealand version of an omakase menu, with all courses entrusted to the whims of the chef and whatever's available at market.
    Photo Courtesy of Elephant Hill
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    National Parks of New Zealand
    National Parks of New Zealand
    New Zealand’s stunning national parks have served as memorable backdrops for countless Southern Hemisphere adventures. With breathtaking fjords, dense rain forests, and white-sand beaches, the parks overflow with natural beauty that's only augmented by their isolation. The UNESCO-listed Tongariro National Park, in the central North Island, and Fiordland National Park, on the South Island, are two of the country’s stars. Nature lovers will delight in the abundance of endemic plants, rare reptiles, and, of course, the flightless national icon: the great spotted kiwi.
    Photo courtesy of Venture Southland/Tourism New Zealand
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    New Zealand's Favorite Mountains
    New Zealand's Favorite Mountains
    New Zealand’s mountains are nothing short of majestic. Sir Edmund Hillary honed his craft on the country’s highest peak, Aoraki/Mount Cook, before conquering Everest. The Southern Alps are the spine of the South Island, with ranges such as Queenstown’s Remarkables providing stunning backdrops to glacial lakes. In the central North Island, the troika of Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe mountains dominate the landscape and occasionally put on a lava show to remind mountaineers that nature still rules. In Maori mythology, Mount Taranaki left his fellow mountains after losing a battle. He's now said to be brooding in the Taranaki region where he's planning his return. Until then, skiers and climbers can make the most of his conical slopes.
    Photo courtesy of Fraser Gunn/Tourism New Zealand