Unique is not a big enough word to describe the beauty of New Zealand. The country is wrapped in stunning, one-of-a-kind scenery - a mix of mountains and ocean, rain forests and glaciers. It is a place of space and grandeur. (New Zealand is about the size of California but has a population of just four million.) You can stretch out and breathe deep here.
It is a country that is made for hiking - or as the New Zealanders call it, tramping. The trails are threaded through the beauty but are also accessible. You can hike for a couple of hours or a few days.
Serious hikers will want to try at least one of New Zealand's `Great Walks', nine separate treks that wind through the country's most famous stretches of countryside. One of the most popular is the Abel Tasman trail on the South Island. It is mostly a coastal trail that hugs the high ground and granite cliffs then dips down to a series of secluded beaches. The entire walk takes between three to five days although there are water taxis along the walk so you can shorten the route.
Another favourite spot is the Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the west coast of the South Island. A World Heritage Site, the park encompasses everything from the tallest peaks of the rugged Southern Alps to pristine beaches. There are 60 glaciers within the park, including both the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, both reachable in one day walks.
Because of New Zealand's compact size, even its cities are tucked next to big league scenery. In Wellington, New Zealand's capital and cosmopolitan hub, there are a couple of sensational walks that capture both the energy of the city and the joys of the countryside. The Wellington City to Sea Walkway is a four hour ramble that begins in the downtown core, then rises through the hills and out to the coves of Wellington's coastline. Lining the horizon are the jagged lines of the Kaikoura Mountains and the broad shouldered Cook Strait.
When in Auckland, head to the west end of the city and the road that winds towards the Waitakere Mountain ranges. This is hallowed ground. In the early 1960's, New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard launched the jogging movement here. He invited American coach Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of Nike to New Zealand to experience the running and the people. Bowerman became an instant convert and introduced the running boom to North America. The road though is not only for casual hikers and joggers. Lydiard's top athletes trained on this stretch of ground and they went on to win six Olympic medals, including three golds by middle distance marvel, Peter Snell.
Trampers in New Zealand can tackle the trails solo or tag along on guided trips with companies like Ultimate Hikes based in Queenstown. Their trips range from `The Classic', an eight day, seven night trek through the magnificent Milford and Routeburn Tracks to a one day trip that climbs through the foothills of Mount Cook, the tallest mountain in Oceana.
Ultimate Hikes looks after everything - transportation, food, hot drinks, daypacks, rain jackets, even sunscreen. All you need are boots and a camera. Along the way, the guides will fill you in on local geography, history, fauna and flora.
No story on tramping would be complete without a mention of New Zealand's ultimate hiker, Sir Edmond Hillary. On May 29, 1953, Hillary along with Tenzing Norgay, became the first to reach the top of the world, the summit of Mount Everest. The ultimate adventurer, Hillary trained for his expeditions on New Zealand's hills and mountains and eventually made trips to both the South and North Poles. Ed Hillary's real fame though came not from trekking to mountain peaks or the ends of the earth but in raising millions of dollars to build hospitals, schools and roads in Nepal.
With Air New Zealand's unique Concierge Service. passengers on international flights can get advice on the country's top trails, complete with suggestions on places to stay along the route. A Star-Alliance member, Air New Zealand features non-stop, overnight flights from Vancouver to Auckland.