Do you ever feel the need to explore the world and reconnect with the natural beauty of our planet? Do you ever find yourself annoyed by the towering city skyscrapers, or baking asphalt of modern American cities? Perhaps a weekend getaway to National Park or local greenspace can satisfy that itch for a moment, yet you still have that irresistible urge to surround yourself with untouched natural wonder.
In January of 2020, I was fortunate enough to host the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia’s expedition to New Zealand, a country of breathtaking beauty, and raw, unfiltered nature. Through this experience, I met some incredible people, and made lifelong memories and friendships, both with the kind-hearted people of New Zealand, and the adventurous explorers from the Council. But perhaps the aspect of this wonderful country that attracted me most was its duality, the seamless mixture of awe-inspiring nature and cosmopolitan cityscape. The Council’s 2020 tour of New Zealand perfectly straddled this duality, beginning with a stay in Queenstown, before embarking on a truly wondrous open-sea cruise.
Upon landing in Queenstown, and taking my first steps in the gem of the southern hemisphere, I became immediately grateful for two things: first, to finally step out of airports and airplanes, and second, to step into a rugged and wild country, with a clear view of the Remarkables, the grand mountainscape encircling the small city. Those first steps reinforced my reasoning for traveling halfway around the world, that this trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go where few have had the opportunity to travel.
Queenstown, the slice of paradise on Lake Wakatipu's southern tip, was everything that a traveler could have desired. From upscale dining and hotels, to international dive bars full of 20 somethings with an itch for adventure, Queenstown had almost everything for anybody. The Council’s guests stayed in the picturesque Novotel, a waterside luxury hotel mere seconds from the city's restaurant and shopping district. It was here, at the Novotel, that travelers from Texas, California, Florida, and Philadelphia joined together before embarking on a truly remarkable shared experience.
After our brief introduction into cosmopolitan city life, our group of adventures set off to rendezvous with our ship, the Caledonian Sky, for a 10-day cruise around the New Zealand archipelago. The Caledonia was anchored in Milford Sound, one of New Zealand's most famous and most historic fjords. It was here that our adventurers left the city life for New Zealand’s vast natural beauties.
Standing on the deck of the Caledonia, looking at the sheer cliffs and staggering heights of Fjordland National Park, our group began to understand the scope of our great adventure fully. New Zealand remains one of the last great untouched wildernesses on Earth. Its unique geology, ecosystems, and environments make it a harbor for wild species and habitats that simply do not exist anywhere else on the planet.
From our first minutes onboard the spacious and luxurious Caledonia Sky, we were treated to views of dolphins and migrating birds, including the magnificent Royal Albatross. Throughout the next 6 days, as we cruised around the southern tip of the South Island and headed up the Eastern Coast, we encountered blue penguins, seals, and a wide array of coastal birds. Perhaps the highlight of the trip was the various bird sanctuaries and animal refuges that we were able to visit. As we split into groups, each member of the expedition had different encounters with wildlife, with the luckiest of us seeing New Zealand’s pride, the Kiwi, in the wild! Those who weren't as fortunate still had the opportunity to view the Kiwi in a zoological habitat, which was also quite exciting.
After the powerfully immersive experience of the wilds of New Zealand, we were able to hear a series of lectures from our brilliant onboard experts. We were fortunate to have the company of Peter Hillary, the son of famed adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary. In addition to being one of the kindest and humblest people I’ve ever met, Peter’s adventuring accomplishments mirrored those of his father’s. Hearing his stories of crossing the Arctic, and summiting mountains was a truly remarkable addition to an already splendid trip.
In addition to Peter, we were fortunate to have Neville Peat on board as well. Neville, a native New Zealander, and leading ecologist and historian, provided our group with incredible knowledge and information regarding the ecological and natural elements of the tour. Everything from identifying bird species, to teaching lessons on Maori language and culture, Neville’s lessons were an incredible addition to the trip as well.
While the early portion of the trip showcased the island’s unique environments and ecologies, the second half of the trip highlighted the unique people and cultural elements of New Zealand. We were fortunate to travel to Tauranga, a city on the country’s north island, and the home to the country's largest indigenous population, the Maori. Through immersive discussions and an entertaining visit to a preserved Wharenui (the Maori communal center), our tour was given rare access to the Maori's incredible people and culture. This experience was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and our tour was incredibly grateful for the kindness and warmth shown by our hosts.
Our New Zealand tour also included a stop in Wellington, home of the country’s largest university and several breathtaking botanical gardens established during the early and mid-19th-century gold rushes. Wellington, although smaller than Auckland, offered a great snapshot of historical New Zealand, with much of its old city still preserved.
By the time we reached our last stop in Auckland, our expedition had nearly circumnavigated the entire country. While our travelers packed and disembarked from the historic Caledonia Sky, we couldn’t help but reflect on the 10 days of adventure and exploration. The country, almost as pristine as the day the Maori arrived, regaled us with its natural beauty and wonder, and the people of New Zealand treated us with immense kindness and hospitality. I will surely never forget the opportunity to tour New Zealand in all of its rugged, wild beauty.