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The Siberia Experience

Editor's note: SmarterTravel.com Editor Molly Feltner is currently traveling around New Zealand and reporting back to us about her experiences in the "Adventure Travel Capital of the World."

When I tell other travelers here in New Zealand that I'm only in the country for eight days, their reaction, without exception, has been one of horror. Most everyone else I've met has planned to stay three weeks to three months. That allows time to explore both the North and South Island, try a whole variety of adventure activities, and fit in at least one of New Zealand's famed multi-day "tramps" (Kiwi for hikes).

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It's a shame for those of us Americans with our limited vacation time compared to the rest of the world, but luckily, as I'm finding, there are ways to cram a wide breadth of experiences into a small amount of time. While in Wanaka I was able to find a trip—the Siberia Experience—that allowed me to fly over mountains and glaciers, get deep into the backcountry for a hike, and take a jet boat ride down a wild river in a mere half-day.

The trip started with a flight over Mount Aspiring National Park in a four-seat fixed-wing airplane. That took me into the park's remote Siberia Valley where I could start hiking. The ride in was unbelievable. My pilot flew us skilfully through narrow valleys and over mountain ridges, tilting the wings to allow me to peer down into ice-covered tarns and waterfalls spilling off the glaciers. He landed us in a valley on a grassy airstrip that looked to be about the size of a Band-Aid from above.

From that starting point deep within the park, I was left to go on a hike through the valley, where my companions (a Kiwi couple) and I were the only people around. No need to hike two days in to get away from it all.

When we reached the Wilkin River, a stream that seemed to glow turquoise with all the glacial silica, a jet boat was waiting to carry us out. A jet boat, as I found out, uses a water propulsion system to generate speed, not an outside propeller, allowing it to travel on streams just a few inches deep and turn on a dime at high speeds. It whipped us back to civilization in a mere 25 minutes.

All in all, the trip took about five hours, which left me time to check out one of the top wineries in Wanaka, one of New Zealand's up-and-coming wine regions…

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