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New Zealand Nature Explorer

An Epic Small-Group Nature Adventure Amid the Scenic Splendors of the South Island
Day 1: Christchurch, New Zealand
Our New Zealand adventure tour begins on arrival in Christchurch, where we'll meet for an orientation dinner this evening. For those who arrive early, you may wish to join our Expedition Leader for an optional outing to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and Canterbury Museum.

Days 2 & 3: Kaikoura
This morning, a local guide joins the group for a short walking tour of Christchurch. Drive north to Kaikoura, stopping en route at a local winery for lunch. We head to sea on a whale-watching cruise from this coastal fishing village, an outstanding place to view marine mammals. We may see sperm whales, orcas, New Zealand fur seals and rare Hector’s dolphins found only in New Zealand. The next day we take a boat ride in search of five different species of albatross. Later, we are invited into the home of a Kaikoura Maori family, gaining insight into the traditions, values and contemporary life of these indigenous people. As part of this cultural experience we'll also take a guided bush walk offering a short introduction to plants used in Maori medicine and cooking. 

Days 4 & 5: Arthur’s Pass
Depart mid-morning for Rangiora where we’ll stop at a local agritourism farm for a barbecue lunch and tour. Our family hosts raise sheep, cattle and alpaca here on the Canterbury Plains, backdropped by the icy heights of the Southern Alps. Depending on what’s happening at the farm that day, we may have a chance to observe mustering or shearing and watch the sheepdogs at work. Continuing inland to the Craigieburn Range, we find endemic scree plants, giant weta insects and dramatic views of Castle Hill Basin. Our destination is Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge, a deluxe ecolodge on a working sheep station set amid mountain beech forest. Some 3,000 sheep are raised on this authentic farm, which produces fine merino wool. We’ll enjoy a private afternoon paddling excursion on Lake Pearson, as well as a chance to hike some of the trails around the lodge.

Day 6 & 7: Westland National Park / Lake Moeraki
More of New Zealand’s stunning scenery unfolds as we travel along the west coast this morning. We stop in Hokitika to experience the Treetop Walk through the temperate coastal rain forest, communing with the birds in the ancient rimu and kamahi tree canopy as we traverse an elevated steel walkway and ascend a 130-foot observation tower. In Westland National Park, the vast ice fields of the Southern Alps spawn glaciers that wind like frozen highways nearly to the ocean, their terminal moraines ending in primeval rainforest. In this unusual mix of habitats we find the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea. Later today, time and weather permitting, we may get a close-up look at the ice at Franz Josef Glacier, in the shadow of New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mount Cook. 

This afternoon we visit the West Coast Wildlife Center for a behind-the-scenes tour of the rowi kiwi exhibit. Kiwis are flightless, nocturnal birds found only in New Zealand, and the critically endangered rowi is the rarest of the five subspecies, with fewer than 400 remaining in the wild. Continuing on to Lake Moeraki, we check in to the Wilderness Lodge. Our November departure takes a private guided excursion to see rare Tawaki penguins, found only on the southern west coast of New Zealand. Also called Fiordland crested penguins, these are the only penguins that live in the depths of the lush rain forest. At other times of the year, we enjoy a rain forest hike.

Day 8: Haast Pass / Lake Wanaka
Traversing moss-draped beech forest, we cross Haast Pass into the heart of the Southern Lakes high country. We’ll stop for nature walks at the pass, which is one of three main passages across the Southern Alps and was once an important Maori trading route. The scenery is glorious, and trails lead from the road’s edge into the rain forest along turquoise streams to dramatic waterfalls. Our destination this afternoon, the vast blue expanse of Lake Wanaka, is the portal to Mount Aspiring National Park. The basin filled by Lake Wanaka was gouged out by the Wanaka Glacier born high in the ice fields that crown the jagged peaks in the distance. In the Maori language, Wanaka means “renewal of the soul,” exactly what our time here offers. The Wanaka region is one of the best places on the planet for stargazing, with some of the darkest night skies in the world.

Day 9: Lake Wanaka / Te Anau
A magnificent morning is in store with a 3-hour boat cruise on Lake Wanaka. We’ll go ashore on remote Mou Waho Island, a predator-free nature reserve that’s home to the rare flightless buff weka, a curious, even friendly bird that has been extinct on the mainland since 1920. A guided bush walk to the top of the island reveals a hidden lake on the summit, a very photogenic spot where we’ll have High Tea serenaded by birdsongs with the panorama of the Southern Alps displayed before us. This afternoon, along the spectacular Crown Range Road, vistas of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables Range unfold. Stop for lunch at the historic Cardrona Hotel, built in 1863 during the Cardrona Valley gold rush. Said to have the most photographed pub in New Zealand, the hotel’s rustic charm and stunning setting make for a memorable meal. Continuing to the Fiordland World Heritage Area, we overnight in the lakeside resort town of Te Anau.

Day 10: Fiordland National Park / Milford Sound
Fiordland National Park is a mythical-looking land of pyramid peaks and sheer rock walls, waterfalls and drifting mists, beneath a perpetual cap of snow and ice. It’s no wonder it was chosen as one of the major settings for the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Late this morning we travel to Milford Sound, where we'll board an excursion boat for a scenic cruise, with lunch aboard. As we ply the steep-walled fjords we look for fur seals, crested penguins and bottlenose dolphins as our naturalist Expedition Leader, an expert on New Zealand wildlife, interprets all we see. Above us, iconic Mitre Peak rises two-thirds of a mile straight out of the sea. After an exhilarating afternoon cruising these waters amid some of the most dramatic scenery on the planet, we return to Te Anau for dinner at our hotel.

Day 11: Stewart Island / Ulva Island
Drive this morning to Invercargill, at the bottom of the South Island, where we board our short flight to idyllic Stewart Island, 19 miles offshore. Much of this rugged granite island lies within the new Rakiura National Park, whose Maori name means “Land of Glowing Skies.” Its lush rain forests shelter many native plants, which we discover on nature walks through the unique habitat. The island is a haven for birds, and we’ll listen for the songs of parakeets and bellbirds. We’ll also hope to spy the elusive brown kiwi on a guided night walk. On neighboring Ulva Island, a short boat ride away, we explore pristine trails and beaches, observing rare bird species that no longer exist on the main islands.

Day 12: Stewart Island – Pelagic Cruise / Invercargill
This morning we embark on a private boat cruise off Stewart Island to view the multitudes of pelagic seabirds that live and breed in these coastal waters. We’ll expect to see a great variety at close range – albatrosses, shearwaters, prions, and several penguin species including yellow-eyed, blue and Fiordland crested. After a picnic lunch, we fly back to Invercargill. At the Southland Museum in town we stop to view the tuatara on an exclusive visit with a local expert. These ancient reptiles, endemic to New Zealand, resemble lizards but are part of a distinct lineage, the order Rhynchocephalia, which flourished 200 million years ago. Tuatara are now extinct on New Zealand’s North and South Islands and survive only on 35 offshore islands. The museum’s successful breeding program has become a key contributor to the survival of this “living fossil.” The rest of the afternoon is at leisure.

Day 13: Dunedin – Otago Peninsula
Driving northeastward, we break for lunch on a local farm before arriving in Dunedin. This historic city boomed during a series of gold rushes in the 19th century and was once the largest metropolis in New Zealand. Today it remains one of its most important commercial centers. This afternoon we set out on a wildlife cruise in Otago Harbor, following the rocky headlands of the Otago Peninsula to look for New Zealand fur seals, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, penguins and seabirds. Our cruise is timed for the early-evening return of the northern royal albatross to its colony at Taiaroa Head. This is the only mainland location in the world to view these giant seabirds in their natural habitat. Adults have white bodies with long black wings and grow to 45 inches long, weighing up to 20 pounds. Later we take a guided walk through a yellow-eyed penguin reserve. These penguins, found only in New Zealand, are one of the rarest in the world, with just 4,000-5,000 remaining. Our visit to the colony is timed for dusk to watch the penguins return to land from the sea, before our festive farewell dinner at Larnach Castle, built in 1871.

Day 14: Dunedin / Depart
After breakfast, if time permits, we may tour the elegant gardens surrounding Lamach Castle before your transfer to the airport for flights home.

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