Updated: March 23, 2014 at 4:25 pm
For a country with a land mass no larger than Colorado, the variety of scenery packed into New Zealand is incredible. From damp caves and snow-capped mountains to sandy beaches and geothermal wonderlands, New Zealand has it all. In our 10-day trip to the islands in the Southern Hemisphere, it seemed like we traveled the world.
Early on a rainy Sunday, my family and I left the Auckland airport to head to the small town of Waitomo. After stepping into the wrong side of the car, remembering to drive on the left side of the road and traveling clockwise around a traffic circle, we were on our way.
A sea of light
Waitomo, we were told, offers the magnificent opportunity to see glowworms in caves tucked into the hillside. But we also heard that it's crowded. At the Spellbound tour guide office, a sign boasted "less touristy tours" that provided "genuine experiences," so we decided to give it a shot.
After a 20-minute drive and a short hike, we arrived at the mouth of the cave. Donning our headlamp hard hats, we walked into the darkness and began to see bright blue specks shining on the ceiling. Using his flashlight, our guide showed us the worms attached to the walls. Their sinewy strings, used to catch prey much like spiders, hung down. Joking that the bright light comes from "the south end of a north-bound worm," our guide instructed us to shut off our headlamps.
The effect was profound. Once the lights were off, thousands of tiny lights became visible, illuminating the cave walls. With each minute we stayed in the darkness, hundreds more glowworms appeared.
Climbing into a small raft, our guide took us through the cave under what appeared to be the night sky. Above us, the tight concentration of glowworms shone like the Milky Way, streaking down the cave as far as we could see. Not even the screams of one couple's baby (not to mention a little boy's rendition of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm") could take away from this breathtaking illusion.
Leaving Waitomo, we headed south to spend a few days in the geothermal region of Rotorua. The first thing you notice about Rotorua is the horrible smell of sulfur; the next is the steam rising from hundreds of natural vents scattered across town. In remote parts of the city, boiling water bubbles up through cracks in the street.
You don't have to go far to find evidence of geothermal activity, but you do have to cough up a few bucks if you want to see the main attractions. Though a bit pricey at $27.87 per person, our visit to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland was worth it.
Meaning "sacred waters," Wai-O-Tapu was filled with geysers, craters, boiling pools of mud and water of astounding colors. Starting at the path's exit to avoid a crowd ahead of us, we stopped at 25 marked attractions throughout the park.
First up was Devil's Bath, a crater filled with neon green water. Farther along we came upon the Champagne Pool, one of the more impressive sights in the park: At 213 feet in diameter and 203 feet deep, this steaming pool was stunning. Because of the many minerals present, the dark bluish-green water in the middle abruptly transforms into a bright orange along the shallow sides. Together with rising steam, the Champagne Pool awes tourists gathered by its banks.
As spectacular as the colorful pools are, the other stops are equally fascinating. Graphite and crude oil bubbled to the surface at the Devil's Ink Pots; the Lake Ngakoro Waterfall flowed into a beautifully green lake; and the many steam vents scattered across Frying Pan Flat threatened to singe our eyebrows. Perhaps the most fun was the giant pool of boiling mud a short drive away. The violent bursts and lethargic bubbles left us laughing.
After getting our money's worth at the national park, we stopped for a free visit at Hamurana Springs. Dazzling greens and blues mixed in the clear water filled with large trout, and the giant redwoods lining the banks added to the stunning scenery. At the head of the river, a 164-foot-deep spring pumps out gallons of water per minute, enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools each hour.
After caves and geysers, we flew from Auckland to Queenstown on the South Island for our next major stop, in Fiordland to visit Milford Sound. The flight into Queenstown was eye-catching as we descended over mountains, rolling green hills and plenty of sheep.
We stayed in the beautiful lake town of Te Anau and took a long but scenic drive to Milford Sound early in the morning to take advantage of a full day at the fiords, which, if your grade school geology eludes you, are the narrow part of the ocean between cliffs, steep hills or mountains.
Right off the Tasman Sea, Milford Sound was carved thousands of years ago by a glacier, leaving behind strikingly steep cliffs that drop into the water below. In order to fully experience the sound, we embarked on a half-day kayaking trip with a guide from Fiordland Wilderness Experiences.
Being up close and personal to the landscape was surreal. Clad in multiple layers to block the humid, chilling wind, we paddled around for about four hours. Along the way, we paddled up to the shore and took a short hike to the gushing Lady Bowen Falls, which powers most of Milford Sound and serves as its source for drinking water. For the next few hours, we paddled alongside the giant cliffs, feeling quite small. With the strong wind, we were able to raft our kayaks together and hold up a giant, parachute-like cloth to sail across the sound. We even spotted a Fiordland crested penguin hiding in the rocks.
Later that day, we boarded a small cruise ship to travel farther off shore. Although it was cool to experience a larger expanse of Milford Sound as well as the Tasman Sea, it couldn't beat the intimate experience we had on the kayaks.
On the drive back to Te Anau, roadside stops added to our appreciation of the beautiful country. A brief walk to Mirror Lake was gorgeous despite an overcast sky. Short breaks at the powerful waterfalls at The Chasm and Lake Merian were well worth it. And, of course, pulling over to watch the bungy jumpers in Queenstown was quite entertaining, though no one in my family was brave enough to participate.
The last day
At this late point in the trip, we had seen about everything. So for our last stop, we headed over the mountains and into glacier country.
After spending the night in the town of Franz Josef Glacier, we woke to pouring rain on our last full day in New Zealand. We put off our expedition until after lunch and then ventured into the cloudy weather to visit Fox Glacier in the neighboring town.
Because of the rain, we couldn't get that close to the ice and barely could see the bottom of the glacier. Disappointed, we went on a short but gorgeous hike to the reflective waters of Lake Matheson.
The skies cleared upon our return, so, we headed back to Fox Glacier. This time we were not disappointed. The path was open and we could walk closer to the glacier. After a short hike and a steep, calf-burning climb, we reached a viewpoint that looked straight across at the enormous glacier. The sunlight bounced off the shimmering white and blue ice (I tried to ignore the dirt that also covered much of the glacier), and the tour groups hiking across the ice looked like they were about to be swallowed by the massive ice shelves above them.
Encouraged by our second trip to Fox, we made the short drive to see Franz Josef Glacier. Although the hike was longer, Franz Josef was just as impressive.
On New Years' Eve, following a long drive to Christchurch, we began the roughly 16-hour trip home to Colorado. Shortly after takeoff, the clock struck midnight, launching us into the new year and far away from the remarkable country of New Zealand.
Hopefully, it won't be for long.