A Small-Group Nature Adventure Amid the Scenic Splendors of the South Island
Please note: This itinerary applies to trips departing October 2017–March 2018.
Day 1: Christchurch, New Zealand
Our New Zealand adventure tour begins on arrival in Christchurch, where we'll meet for a welcome dinner this evening. Those arriving early may wish to join our Expedition Leader for an optional outing to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
Days 2 & 3: Christchurch / Arthur’s Pass
We’re joined by a local guide this morning for a short walking tour of Christchurch. A stop at the Canterbury Museum includes the Quake City exhibit, an interactive, multi-sensory attraction designed to engage and educate guests about the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. We depart mid-morning for Pegasus Bay where we’ll enjoy lunch at a local winery. Heading inland toward the icy heights of the Southern Alps, we continue west to the Craigieburn Range, where 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 and surrounding Arthur’s Pass National Park. Some 3,000 sheep are raised on this authentic farm, which produces fine merino wool. During our stay we’ll enjoy a private paddling excursion on Lake Pearson, as well as a chance to hike some of the nature trails around the lodge.
Day 4: Westland Tai Poutini National Park / Lake Moeraki
More of New Zealand’s legendary scenery unfolds as we travel along the west coast early this morning. We stop in Hokitika, a historic river port born out of the 1860 gold rush. Today, the small, picturesque town is the focus of an indigenous greenstone known as pounamu
, or New Zealand jade, prized by the Maori for its strength, durability and beauty, and used for weapons, tools and personal ornaments. We walk along the sandy beach where plentiful driftwood inspires imaginative sculptures, before heading toward Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
An optional scenic flight is available (additional expense), making the famed Grand Traverse across two national parks, Aoraki Mount Cook and Westland Tai Poutini, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Look down on New Zealand's highest mountains, turquoise lakes, braided rivers and massive glaciers, including the Tasman, Franz Josef and Fox, which pour down into primeval rain forest. Those who do not opt for the flight will take a guided walk to an overlook where the vast icefields of the Southern Alps spawn glaciers that wind like frozen highways nearly to the ocean. In this unusual mix of habitats, we find the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea. Afterward, settle in for lunch overlooking Lake Matheson, famous for its reflection of the icy peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. We continue to Lake Moeraki to check in to the Wilderness Lodge, a secluded outpost in this dramatic region.
Day 5: Lake Moeraki
Lake Moeraki sits at the heart of a natural paradise in the Te Wahipounamu–South West New Zealand World Heritage Area. Virtually unchanged since the Polynesians discovered New Zealand, this unspoiled landscape has been shaped by successive glaciation periods into fjords, rockbound coast, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, ancient forests and wild beaches of volcanic sand. Along with the kea, the rare and endangered takahe, a large flightless bird, also lives here.
From our ecolodge base, we explore the natural environs on guided excursions. Located away from light pollution near the International Dark Sky Reserve, a night walk under Lake Moeraki’s cover of darkness includes a guided star talk, plus the chance to see glowworms as their bioluminescent pearl strands dangle from the trees. On October and November departures, a private outing offers a chance to see rare Tawaki penguins, found only on the southwest coast of New Zealand. Also called Fiordland crested penguins, these are the only penguins that live in lush rain forest. About 2,000 pairs remain, with 10 percent of the population found along the shores of Lake Moeraki. At other times of the year, we take a rain forest hike to discover thousand-year-old trees, myriad ferns and orchids, and birdlife in the protected natural environs.
Day 6: 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 a nature walk 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, following turquoise streams to dramatic waterfalls. Our destination this afternoon is the vast blue expanse of Lake Wanaka, 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 Earth for stargazing, with some of the darkest night skies on the planet.
Day 7: 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 photogenic spot where we’ll have high tea serenaded by birdsongs with the panorama of the Southern Alps 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 stunning setting and rustic charm make for a memorable meal. Continuing to the Fiordland World Heritage Area, we overnight in the lakeside resort town of Te Anau.
Day 8: Fiordland National Park / Milford Sound
Fiordland National Park is a mythical-looking land of pyramid peaks and sheer rock walls, ribbons of falling water 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 a private chartered yacht for a scenic cruise, with lunch aboard. As we ply the steep-walled fjords, look for fur seals, crested penguins and bottlenose dolphins while our naturalist Expedition Leader, an expert on New Zealand wildlife, interprets all we see. Overhead, famed Mitre Peak rises two-thirds of a mile straight out of the sea. After an exhilarating afternoon cruising these waters amid some of the world's most dramatic scenery, return to Te Anau for dinner at our hotel.
Days 9 & 10: Stewart Island / Ulva Island
Drive this morning to Invercargill, at the bottom of the South Island, where we board a 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 contain 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 to a starlit beach on New Zealand’s southernmost point.
On neighboring Ulva Island, a short boat ride away, explore trails to pristine beaches and observe rare bird species that no longer exist on the main islands. We'll take an intimate nature walk with Stewart Island native, naturalist and birder extraordinaire Ulva Goodwillie, namesake of the Ulva Island sanctuary. A private boat cruise off Stewart Island offers a chance to view multitudes of pelagic seabirds that live and breed in these coastal waters. We’ll expect to see a great variety at close range—albatross, shearwater, prion, and several penguin species including yellow-eyed, blue and Fiordland crested.
Day 11: Invercargill / Dunedin
This morning, we fly back to Invercargill. At the Southland Museum, 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.”
We stop for lunch at a farm where we’ll learn from our family hosts about local rural life and traditions before continuing to 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. Late this afternoon we take a guided walk through a nearby yellow-eyed penguin reserve. This penguin species, found only in New Zealand, is one of the rarest in the world, with fewer than 5,000 remaining. Our visit to the colony is timed for dusk to watch the penguins return to land from the sea. Then, we cap off our grand adventure with a festive farewell dinner at Larnach Castle, built in 1871.
Day 12: Dunedin / Depart
After breakfast, if time permits, you may tour the elegant gardens surrounding Larnach Castle before your transfer to the airport for flights home.
Physical Rating: Moderate