It's the adventure of a lifetime - a 2,109-mile odyssey through verdant NEW ZEALAND - and we're taking you along for the ride. Bungee jumping, skydiving, and all.The sudden swoosh of wind is disorienting, not to mention the first few somersaults. Which way is up? I wonder. The deafening roar of the Cresco turbine aircraft is gone in an instant. What have I just done? The pressure eases as quickly as it began; my eyes eventually open, watery and blurred; and a serene calm ensues as the earth below comes into focus. From this vantage point, Lake Wakatipu is a cobalt blue oasis surrounded by a lush, green, mountainous dreamland. It takes a few seconds, but my brain eventually registers that I have just voluntarily thrown myself out of a perfectly good airplane - something that, like most sane people, I've always said I'd never do. But, as anyone who has ever visited Queenstown, New Zealand, can attest to, never say never … around these parts, anyway.
Billed as the adrenaline-junkie capital of New Zealand - if not the world - Queenstown is one of the final stops on a 2,109-mile road-trip odyssey I've undertaken with James, a Kiwi and a fellow journalist, through both of the islands of this South Pacific wonderland, which has been made instantly recognizable by a surge of recent Hollywood affairs (the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong among them). Minds are changed quickly around here. To not bungee or skydive or parabungee or canyon swing means you won't have much to add to the dinner conversation that evening.
And this reversal of thinking happens in an instant. One minute, I'm safely on the ground, laughing it up with friends over a couple of pints of Speight's Old Dark 5 Malt Ale as we talk about the idea of jumping off bridges or out of airplanes. Ha-ha. The next minute, I'm airborne and plummeting to earth at terminal velocity (that's around 120 to 130 mph, in case you were wondering). Queenstown is the kind of place that flips switches in you that you weren't aware you even had. It's the kind of place that makes you think a 45-second free fall from 12,000 feet is a perfectly normal part of the day, like your morning cup of coffee. It's the kind of place that makes New Zealand special. And, as I'm soon to discover, there are many other things that do as well.
Days One and Two: Auckland to Rotorua
One of the first road signs we see on State Highway 1 out of Auckland says "If you're prepared to speed, be prepared to kill." Wow. That's heavy. James is used to New Zealand's graphic approach to curbing traffic violations, but for me it's a jolt. Fortunately, we need not worry about such things. We scored a major deal on our rental car from an outfit called A2B Rentals and ended up with a beat-up 1995 Toyota Sprinter with 66,000 miles on it - we're lucky if it pushes 50 mph. Off we go.
To the northeast of Auckland is a jutting stretch of land called the Coromandel Peninsula, one of the most beautiful parts of the North Island, the island that often gets the short end of the New Zealand stick. South Islanders will say things like, "There are only two kinds of people who live in New Zealand: those who live in the South, and those who wish they did," and so forth. Oddly, North Islanders tend to agree. Still, there is much to be seen here.
We hug the opaque green waters of the Firth of Thames on our way to Cathedral Cove, a stunning patch of sand accessed via a hilly coastal track (or by boat, though the rental company didn't throw that in to the deal). This secluded haven is framed by jagged white cliffs and bisected by an enormous rock arch that resembles the nave of a looming cathedral. It would be a perfect spot for a romantic picnic (though not with James).
We wake up the next morning in Mount Maunganui, a superb surfer's town on the northeast coast, where James grew up. It's not big on the tourist map - I'm not sure why - but tell any Kiwi you're from "the Mount," and the jealousy is palpable. Here I'm introduced to the spirulina smoothie, a wonderful morning wake-up drink that's ubiquitous in New Zealand. At Sidetrack café, the best of many charming cafés along the Mount's beachfront, it's a frothy, earthy, grass green concoction that's healthful and tasty at the same time. It will become the first of many surprisingly pleasing café experiences along the road.
That evening, we roll into Rotorua, where we find the Zorb. Now, you've seen the Zorb on TV. It's that big, plastic bubble-looking thing that rolls down hillsides, with people inside. Kind of fun, kind of cheesy, right? Well, James and I pile inside with low expectations and come out on the other side a wet, laughing mess. Oddly enough, tumbling down a nearly 500-foot hillside in a plastic bubble full of water with another person is a lot more fun than it looks. I hear having three people is even better.