A Taste for Kiwi
I admit it. The images of silky-blue lakes and valleys ringed with misty mountains from Lord of the Rings had piqued my interest in New Zealand the moment that epic film unfolded on the big screen. And when it came time to plot my next family outingone we were determined would stand out as one of the best in a long history of traveling togethera surplus of frequent-flier miles promised to make this ambition a reality. With my daughter in college and my son working full time, the long-distance journey also meant wed be able to spend a lot of quality time together despite their busy schedules (my husband, unfortunately, fell victim to his own hectic schedule and wasnt able to join).
About 13 hours after departing Los Angeles, we landed in Christchurch, the first stop in our active tour of the scenic southwestern region of the South Island, a designated UNESCO World Heritage known as Te Wahipounamu. The sweeping vistas in this series of national parklands were as Id expected: verdant horizons, fjord-cut lakes, and expansive glaciers glistening in the sunlight. But we also found comfortable lodging, delicious food, a list of adventures that made our two-week itinerary read like a modest introduction, and some of the most good-natured people on the planet.
Heli-Hiking on a Glacier
Ice talonz, my daughter Alissa and I quickly learned, are trickier to walk in than four-inch Manolo Blahniks. Unlike the fashionista footwear, the sole-shaped spikes of talonz are de rigueur not for the dance floor, but for the slippery ice field of a glacier. Ours was the Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealands lower half, South Island, about halfway down its west coast.
We strapped the spikes onto our boots after a ten-minute helicopter ride dropped us into a vast frozen realm of massive cliffs, twisting peaks, and rounded ice boulders pocked with turquoise-colored swirls. Here, ice talonz proved to be a girls (and a guys) best friend. Without them, we had no hope of trekking through this otherworldly landscape.
Our guide patiently watched as my family, and the ten other travelers in our group, slid and tripped as we grew accustomed to our glacier get-up. My son Matt quickly gained his balanced and thus qualified for the advanced group, but he hung back with me and Alissa. Once we all appeared to be more comfortable on the ice, the guide grabbed his ice axe, which he would use to chop away frozen overhangs and cut paths across slick mounds, and took off. We followed.
The trek proved exhilarating, and both the super-sized scenery and eerie stillness-inspired awe. For two hours we trekked (and slid) around curling pinnacles and peaks, scrambled over ice boulders, and became wedged between ice walls, careful not to fall into the ever-present deep blue crevasses in the ice big enough to swallow a linebacker. Fall in and you might discover Middle Earth, or, eons later, be discovered, preserved, by explorers.
My favorite maneuver involved slithering into the deep blue opening of an ice cave and wiggling through to the other end. Matt preferred hiking up the hilly terrain, while Alissa was in her element photographing the amazing scenery.
Both the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier, a 45-minute drive apart, are part of Westland National Park. Their claims to fame are the low altitudes to which the ice descends (a function of climate), their funnel shaped valleys, and the relatively active rate of flow. As a result, novice trekkers like me, my daughter, and my son can land on this glacier smack in the middle of the ice field at an elevation of 3,000 feet, whereas in Europe most glacial heli-hikers must travel to much colder and more difficult-to-reach altitudes of 6,000 feet or higher to get onto the ice.
Tip: Heli-hikes only take off in clear, light wind conditions. To do a heli-hike, plan to stay in the town of Franz Josef for two days, just in case weather cancels your initial booking (www.explorefranzjosef.com).
Info: The helicopter line in conjunction with Franz Josef Glacier Guides offers a scenic ten-minute flight up to the glacier and two hours of tramping around the ice. The minimum age allowed is six years old, but the guides prefer kids to be at least ten years old ($232 USD per person; +64.3.752.0767; www.helicopter.co.nz).
Franz Josef is a small town of about six blocks with a few lodging options. We stayed at the comfortable Franz Josef Scenic Circle Hotel. Rooms come with TV, mini-fridge, and private bathroom. ($291 USD per night, includes breakfast; +64.3.752.0729; www.scenic-circle.co.nz)
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication