Last Updated on February 21, 2023
By Diana Hechler
– Adapted from the just-published book “Strolling with Your Elephant:
Perfect Moments in Travel” by Diana Hechler
New Zealand is a place where you’ll find many enjoyable tours.
Queenstown, for example, at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, attracts all kinds of adventure enthusiasts. They come eager to bungee jump, experience the thrill of the Shotover Canyon jet boat ride, heli-ski, skydive, bike, hike, and enjoy numerous other outdoor pursuits.
As you amble down the streets of this beautiful sub-alpine town, you’ll encounter countless tour shops with sandwich boards advertising the incredible local activities on offer.
Not all of us are daredevils, of course. So the question is, can a less adventurous soul find enjoyable activities and tours in New Zealand’s Queenstown? The answer is, absolutely.
The drive over to Milford Sound to experience that glorious fjord certainly counts. But the Dart River Valley excursion should also command your attention. Setting off from Queenstown, you’ll follow the shores of stunning Lake Wakatipu to its northern end where you’ll pass through the small town of Glenorchy, perched at the foot of the Dart River valley.
Just a few shops and modest inns make up Glenorchy, but a convenient rest stop serves up light fare and features a good shop for local products. Manuka honey, anyone?
Now, the day gets a little Lord of the Rings-ish. Still traveling by road, you’ll pass through lush green meadows where numerous scenes from the trilogy were filmed. If you’re on a guided tour, your tour leader will stop at a certain point to show you stills from not only LOTR movies, but also Narnia and other well-known films, while pointing to the specific film locations all around you.
Finally, you are ready to board a small jet boat for just twelve passengers. This jet boat does not focus on giving you a thrill ride. Save that for its counterpart in Shotover Canyon.
A Tour in New Zealand Through A Gorgeous Valley
Instead, understand that only a jet boat can access the innermost reaches of this gorgeous valley. Shallow channels of water only a few inches deep allow for navigation by highly skilled jet boat pilots.
The rivulets shift this way and that over pebbles and rocks, each and every day. Also, no two routes will be the same. The jet-boat pilots have trained long and hard to negotiate these shifting channels. The boats penetrate deep into the valley, skimming over the fragile waterways. It’s one of the unique tours in New Zealand.
On every side you’ll look up at snow-capped mountain peaks. Craggy outcroppings define the valley walls. White waterfalls accent steeper rock faces. Hidden, verdant, and quiet glens beckon you to diverge from the main channel if enough water permits it.
Perhaps your driver will cut the engine here while everyone savors the incredible natural beauty all around you. Voices are naturally soft and gentle here, as if to let the dramatic landscape penetrate your soul. Eventually, it will be time to find new channels to take you back downstream to the opening of Lake Wakatipu at Glenorchy, and eventually your return to Queenstown.
Don’t bother taking pictures; no camera can really capture the scenes of alpine meadows, rocky crags, glistening water, and waterfalls. Like seeing the Grand Canyon, on this tour in New Zealand you just have to be there.
A Geothermal Stew
You may not know that New Zealand is bubbling away in a geothermal stew.
But the name Geothermal Highway may give you a clue. It should. This land is vibrantly alive.
After you arrive in Auckland on North Island (where the big international airport is), drive south about three hours on the Geothermal Highway to the small town of Rotorua.
Rotorua serves as a great base for tours in New Zealand. From here you can visit Hobbiton and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and experience the Maori traditional ways of life. Importantly, the area around Rotorua also boasts the largest collection of geysers, bubbling mud pots, steam vents, and sulfur pools in the world. You can smell the lake before you get there.
On the edge of town, you’ll find Te Puia, originally the site of a Maori fortress. Today it is home to Maori schools for woodcarving and weaving, as well as a traditional meeting house. The Maori built their impregnable fortress here on top of a “hot spot” and have been using the heat for comfort and cooking for hundreds of years.
The geothermal park comprises about 150 acres of bubbling, hissing, steaming, sulfuric materials emerging from the ground. You can count 500 pools. There are boiling mud pots looking chocolate-y, but you wouldn’t want to fall into one. It’s the kind of place where a mob boss could easily dispose of an inconvenient body.
Steambox Lunch at Te Puia – One of the Great Tours in New Zealand
Sixty-five geyser vents have been identified and seven of them are reliably active. In fact, Pohutu Geyser erupts about twenty times every day in a magnificent burst, shooting dramatically sky-ward up to about one hundred feet.
Boardwalks will take you up and down and through the gently rolling landscape, accented by hissing steam vents. This brings us to lunch—a “steambox” lunch, which is also one of the most unusual tours in New Zealand.
Plan your visit for around 11am. Before you head out into the steam-vent hinterland, head for the dining room to order your steambox lunch. The lunch is comprised of traditional elements of Maori cooking.
While you marvel at the geysers, mud pots, and sulfuric pools, local cooks prepare your lunch, and seal and wrap it. It’s then placed in a special “steambox” before it’s lowered into the ground above a hissing steam vent.
Earth Does its Work for You
The earth does its work and by the time you return, your lunch will be ready. Don’t forget to watch while the “chefs” haul your steambox lunch out of the ground. It’s boiling hot, of course, so great care is taken at this point. Gingerly, the “chefs” open the box, unwrap the food and present your “home-cooked” steambox lunch to you.
Maori traditional foods are not comparable to a fast-food restaurant, so don’t expect a hamburger and French fries. Instead, recognize that you are there to sample food that is representative of the local indigenous culture. Bon appetit!
I recommend a local Sauvignon Blanc (not included) to accompany this unique lunch, but with or without, it’s a remarkable demonstration of a traditional way of life. Who needs electricity?
Diana Hechler‘s “Strolling with Your Elephant: Perfect Moments in Travel”
is available for purchase on Amazon.