Australia/New Zealand region: Exploring New Zealand's South Island
Ask Kiwis (not the feathered kind) why anyone should fly halfway around the world just to get outdoors and they'll tell you to come because New Zealand's South Island is the adventure capital of the world. Although that sounds like national pride talking, the South Island—with nine national parks packed into an area the size of Illinois and natives that seem to have more adrenaline than blood in their veins—more than lives up to its reputation.
"You are surrounded by soul-searing natural splendor everywhere you go," says New Zealand native Amanda Jones, a writer and photographer. And, with thrill-seeking Kiwis always looking for new ways to experience that splendor, there are more than enough adventure activities in the mountainous interior and along the coast to keep you busy for weeks. It's impossible to experience it all on one visit, but a good outfitter can set you up on a multi-sport itinerary that takes you to some of the island's top adventure destinations. You could do it cheaper on your own, but guides can take you places you'd never find yourself.
Hiking, or "tramping" as it's known in New Zealand, should be a mandatory part of any New Zealand adventure tour. The New Zealand Department of Conservation designates six hiking routes on the island as "Great Walks," but the 28-mile Routeburn Track, which connects Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Park, is the locals' favorite and is less touristy than the more popular Milford Track. For more a rigorous excursion, you can climb in Mt. Cook National Park, where Sir Edmund Hilary trained before tackling Everest.
There's plenty to do along the coast as well. One classic outing is kayaking through Milford Sound, a fjord on the southwestern coast where dolphins frolic in the water and sheer granite cliffs rise up thousands of feet to snow-capped peaks.
For a good taste of South Island's smorgasbord of adventure activities, try Active New Zealand's "Rimu" trip, which combines some of the island's best hiking, sea kayaking, and biking into one 14-day romp. For the hiking portions of the trip, guides opt for more off-the-beaten-path routes, like Angelus Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park and the Routeburn Track. Rates start at $2,499 per person, excluding airfare.
Hiking New Zealand's 10-day "Secret South" trip includes kayaking in Milford Sound, hiking in Fiordland and Mt. Cook National Park (including a portion of the Routeburn Track), and an exploration of Catlins Coast. Rates start at $780 per person plus $14 per day for food and camping. There is an extra $58 fee for sea kayaking.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from the West Coast to Christchurch, the start point for most trips, making a stopover in Auckland en route. Round-trip airfare in January starts around $1,670, plus taxes.
When to go: The best weather for hiking occurs December through March, summertime in the Southern Hemisphere.