Bountiful New Zealand; Climates Fit Nation of Contrasts

Article excerpt

Byline: Victor Block, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - The trail traverses one of the densest and lushest rain forests I have hiked through anywhere in the world. Only a trickle of sun manages to fight its way through the thick tree canopy above, from which a virtual aviary of birds entertains with a symphony of song.

Towering snowcapped mountains stretch to the horizon, overlooking valleys so packed with sheep they almost hide the carpet of grass on which they graze.

A menacing mountain of a man, dressed in a loincloth and grasping a spear, blocks the path of visitors seeking to enter a brightly painted wooden structure. He is a member of the Maori, the indigenous people who already inhabited the land when the first European explorers arrived. After a few moments, a smile replaces his frightening grimace, and he invites the group into the marae (sacred meeting place) for a cultural show and meal. Any of these experiences could highlight a memorable vacation trip. What makes them so enticing in New Zealand is so much variety crammed into such a compact space.

For its size, about the same as Colorado, New Zealand offers more to see and do than much larger countries. That diversity is among reasons why many travelers place it high on their list of favorites.

Mention New Zealand, and most people envision landscapes ranging from broad ocean beaches to rugged coastlines, flat plains that rise to soaring mountains, and sprawling meadows and steaming thermal pools in a moonlike landscape.

Much of this beauty is reminiscent of scenery elsewhere. The rolling pastureland, offset by bright yellow touches of gorse and broom bushes, resembles many an English landscape. Crystal-clear mountain-circled bodies of water in Fiordland National Park remind one of Norway. Anyone who has gazed in awe at the spine of jagged peaks that runs down South Island knows why they're called the Southern Alps.

Auckland, with its international airport, is a good point to begin touring the North Island's golden beaches along the western coastline. In a region referred to as the "Land of 1,000 Beaches," the quandary is deciding where to spread your blanket.

Ninety Mile Beach at the northernmost tip is closest to the equator and is the best-known stretch of sand. Countless deep coves and sheltered bays offer other inviting spots for relaxing as the sun melts away memories of winter in Washington.

Each beach has its own appeals. I didn't learn the name of one inviting sandy strand that stretched in both directions as far as I could see. Contrasting with the soft, white sand was an outcrop of gray rocks at the edge of the water, over which several seals clambered clumsily. Now and then, one took a break to plunge into the frothy sea for a refreshing dip.

Away from the coastline, North Island is a land of mountains, forests, volcanoes and steaming thermal areas. It also is the home of many of the Maori, a Polynesian people who arrived about 1,000 years ago after crossing the sea from other islands in double-hulled canoes.

Today, about 15 percent of New Zealand's population of 4 million is of Maori descent, and their influence adds a colorful overlay to the country's culture.

Maori names continue to define lakes, mountains and towns. Legends passed down over centuries are taught as both oral and written history.

We experienced the great respect for nature and the environment that is central to the Maori way of life. Before leading hikes into the woods, Maori guides asked for silence as they intoned a prayer of thanks for the beauty that soon would surround us. Along the way, they delighted in pointing out plants and leaves that provided food, medicine and tools to their forebears and that continue to be used today.

This close relationship with nature manifests itself in another, very practical way at Rotorua, in the center of North Island. …