While hiking, biking and walking tightropes through New Zealand, a writer tries fantastic Pinot Noirs and gets up close and personal with Mount Doom.
I am 40 feet above the ground, precariously balanced on a tightrope with a pair of rope handholds (my training wheels). The goala small wooden platform in a pine treeis just 20 feet away, but I'm only inching forward because the tightrope started to sway as soon as my full weight was on it. I manage to take a few wobbly steps, and then I get it: I have to push the hand ropes out hard, locking my elbows, and walk with my feet turned out, like a ballerina. It works, and instantly I'm Philippe Petituntil I near the finish. With my weight now all at one end, the three ropes abruptly sag in unison. I cover the last few feet of the incline by pulling myself up the tightrope, hand over hand.
And this is just the foreplay.
The perch is but the jumping-off point for the main event, the Flying Fox Zipline, a New Zealand brand of daredevilry in which you hang from a small wheeled carriage and ride a 750-foot-long cable down and across a valley. Damian Johansen, who runs the Zipline, quickly hooks my safety harness onto the carriage and I'm off. I pull my knees in to my chest to maximize acceleration, then, after shooting through a little notch in the pines, extend them to create some drag, and watch, more fascinated than frightened, as the ground rushes up at me. "Feet up, feet up," comes the cry from the landing area, but it's too late. I hit soles first, carom and spin, then slow myself by digging in my heels.
This ride is the beginning of day five of Backroads' 10-day New Zealand Multisport Trip, which I took in January, and it leaves me with the giddy sense that the rest of the day is a lagniappe. The trip skips down the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, taking in four major regions of spectacular natural beauty: the Bay of Islands, a vast canvas of rocky headlands and turquoise water; the rampart coast of the Coromandel Peninsula; Lake Rotorua's geothermal ferment; and the alpine splendor of Lake Taupo, created in 181 a.d. by a volcanic eruption that blew a 238-square-mile hole in the earth (now the lake) and dimmed the sun as far away as China. Over the course of the trip, I bicycle 87 miles (including one 50-mile trip) and hike 20 miles; kayak and river raft; tumble down a hillside inside a Zorb, a plastic ball nine feet in diameter that's partially filled with water; pitch myself off a 20-foot-high rock into the ocean; and watch three members of my group bungee jump from a platform 154 feet above the Waikato River. I also have a couple of memorable meals and make a New Year's resolution I won't break: to start filling my wine cellar with bottles of the New Zealand Pinot Noirs that I had at dinner along the way, particularly those of Herzog and Palliser Estate.
Meeting the Flying Foxes
The trip starts where the nation of New Zealand started: at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a National Trust property, in Paihia, on the northeast coast of the North Island. On the first evening, my Backroads group gathers at the visitors' center to get a quick historical overview of New Zealand's founding. It was on this spot in 1840 that the major Maori chiefs, wearied by internecine warfare and white-settler lawlessness, accepted Britain's offer to govern the islands, which it did until 1947, when New Zealand gained its independence.
Then, over cocktails and dinner, I get acquainted with the 13 other participants and our leaders, Wally Bruce, a Kiwi, and Deb Skelton, a Canadian. The group ranges in age from early 30s to early 70s and consists of three couples, one single man (me) and seven single women, four of whom are in the midst of major life changes (job, career, partner). The women quickly form a you-go-girl sorority, dubbing themselves the Flying Foxes after doing the Zipline. The class clown (and flirt) turns out to be Andy Hajducky, whose surname, pronounced HAY-ducky, is deftly turned into "Heychicky" by the Flying Foxes.
The first day begins with a cruise on the Bay of Islands; we're in search of dolphins to swim with. The only pod we find, however, has babies in tow, and a New Zealand law designed to protect toddler dolphins from playful humans prohibits our swimming with them. But the cruise is terrific, and the dolphins loiter beside us, doing barrel rolls and synchronized breaching.
We dock at Urupukapuka Island for a fish-and-chips lunch at a little beachside café. (Lunches on the trip are simple, packed by Backroads or eaten at small cafés, because we're in rural areas and on the go.) Then we're off on a magnificent five-mile walk around the perimeter of the island, a trip high point. The well-groomed trails climb steeply to hilltops that sheep have cropped to a putting-green sheen, then run along ridges that offer vistas of a landscape quilted with shadows. From the hillcrests, I can see the coastline, a scroll painting of long-fingered bays and beveled headlands. The day ends with a barbecue dinner at Paihia Beach Resort.
Obstinate storm clouds keep us from taking off on time the next morning. We're headed for Pauanui, 300 miles south on the Coromandel Peninsula, in a pair of eight-seater planes, to a grass airstrip with no control tower. Only after collating reports from two other pilots and from Wally (who is in Pauanui, having left at dawn to drive the bicycles down) do our pilots decide it's safe. We fly through some squall lines, then a bank of cloudsand abruptly the sky is what pilots call "severe clear." We can almost see Auckland, 50 miles off the right side.
Our hotel in Pauanui, Puka Park, is a collection of small, homey cabins built on stout pilings in the bush. Stepping out on my deck, I find myself looking down into the tops of immature trees. That evening I get into a conversation with the bartender, John MacFarlane, and discover that he's a lover of the country's Pinot Noirs, which are not as well-known internationally as its Sauvignon Blancs. He suggests the Gibbston Valley, from Central Otago on the South Island, which has very plump forward fruit, akin to some Pinots from California's Central Coast. I head to dinner with a souvenir: MacFarlane's list of Pinot Noirs to seek out, at the top of which is the cult Felton Road, along with some familiar names like Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyard. These wines, MacFarlane told me, are more nuanced and structured than the Central Otago Pinots I'd been tasting.
The next morning is our first strenuous activity, a 20-mile ride to Hahei Beach. It includes one steep winding climb, during which I manage to keep pace with a tractor-trailer laboring up the grade. From the beach we hike 40 minutes to Cathedral Cove, named for a V-shaped nave that the sea has cut clear through a cliff. It's a glorious place, two small beaches backed by vertical rock faces and a bay checkerboarded with islands. The water is brisk and the onshore breeze more so, but the mushroom-cap rock 20 yards out is too good a diving platform to pass up. A few of us spend the next half hour doing cannonballs and flips off of it, then retire to the beach.
Visiting the Hobbits
By day four the group dynamic has taken shape. The Flying Foxes and the Hajduckys form a raucous (and increasingly ribald) nucleus. One ring out are Wally and Judy Waugh, an older couple from Washington, who look benignly (though sometimes quizzically) across the generations. Aligned with them are Toronto oenophiles Sheila and Ossie Doyle, she poker-faced, he possessed of a Canada-dry wit that often has the group in stitches. I'm a free electron but spend most dinners with the Doyles, honing my knowledge of New Zealand Pinot Noir.
The next morning, after the Zipline, we set off for the town of Matamata, now better known as Hobbiton of Middle Earth. (The sets for Lord of the Rings were built right outside of town but only on condition that they be torn down after filming was finished, a decision doubtlessly regretted now. Only a few remnants of one set remain.) We have the tastiest lunch of the trip so far at the retro-kitsch Workmans Cafe. One entire wall is papered in funky postcards, and a cake stand on the bar serves as the plinth for a male mannequin head with thick black hair and well-rouged lips. The chook (Kiwi patois for chicken) tandoori is a tangy-hot, diner version of the Indian classic, and the "Bestest Bowl of Fries" lives up to its name.
For the next two days, we stay at the best hotel of the trip, Kawaha Point Lodge, a spacious 1930s-era residence on the shore of Lake Rotorua. The grounds are English perfect: box-hedged croquet lawn abutting a glass conservatory, banks of agapanthus, superb pergola in a terraced garden, wooded lakeside gazebo. There's even a dovecote. On the second floor of the main building, French doors lead from the living and dining rooms to a wraparound veranda, which has a marvelous view of the lake and the hills running up from the far shore.
Inside the atmosphere is slightly Gallic, in part due to André Riaille, the bantamweight, mustachioed, very debonair maître d'. He's everywhere at once, taking drink orders, closing the doors in the dining room when the wind comes up, rendering a firm opinion on which Pinot Noir goes best with the wine-poached tarakihia type of perch. (Only the lighter ones, the Collards Queen Charlotte, from Marlborough on the South Island, or the Morton Estate Black Label East Coast, from the North Island, will do, he insists.) The chef, Silvio Sakrzewski, trained in a trio of German Michelin-one-starred kitchens, and his cooking shows a Teutonic adherence to classic flavors applied to New Zealand specialties. Sakrzewski roasts rack of lamb with rosemary and thyme and hot-smokes South Island salmon over indigenous manuka wood, then serves the fish with a creamy Pernod-and-chive sauce that has me nostalgic for the days of Happy Rockefeller at the Four Seasons.
The Ultimate Challenge
Our most strenuous bicycling day is all about humidity and headwinds. We head from Rotorua into the Waikite Valley bound for Waikite Hot Springs, where the water comes out of the ground nearly boiling. It's a larkmostly a high-gear ride through a landscape of no-store villages, elephant-rump hills and mammoth lava escarpments. We break for lunch at a nearby café, where most of the group decides soaking is better than cycling. Only four of us undertake the second leg of the trip, 25 challenging miles that include long pulls up gravel roads and culminate in a three-mile stretch with several sharp climbs.
On the penultimate hill, I click the lever to downshift, but there's no lower gear left. My only choice is to drop into the granny gears, something I haven't done the entire trip and am not about to do now. Numb left foot notwithstanding, I grind out the grade, still in the lead, only to find the one really fit Flying Fox (Susannah Gordon) passing me at the crest. And then, to my dismay, she surges ahead until I have no hope of overtaking her. As she disappears around a curve, I doff my sweat-soaked hat in tribute.
The Tongariro Crossing, our last day, is billed as "the finest one-day walk in New Zealand." Finest is accurate, but walk is understated. It's only 13 miles long but has an elevation gain of 2,800 feet, with a third of it coming in a roughly one-mile, maximus-gluteus stretch called Devil's Staircase. It takes the fastest of us six and a half hours to finish.
The trail starts off by traversing a landscape of volcanic destructionfields of burnt-popcorn boulders, swales of fudgy lava thinly covered with wild grass. At the top of Devil's Staircase, we have a dead-on view of the ominous-looking Mount Ngauruhoe, which Lord of the Rings fans know as Mount Doom. Then the trail heads across South Crater and steeply climbs the far wall. Halfway up, the temperature drops 10 or 15 degrees, and the wind suddenly blows stiffly. At the summit of Mount Tongariro, Red Crater, the wind abruptly dies, the ground is warm to the touch, and smoke issues from a huge frog-mouthed vent in the side of the crater. All that's missing are the Mars rovers.
Then we go into the tricky descent, a slope of loose gravel that drops off several hundred feet on each side. I snowplow down to Emerald Lakes, a trio of sparkling crystal-blue ovals. After one last push, we round a long curve and suddenly see the landscape spread out before us, dominated by the silvery surface of Lake Taupo. Below us the trail slaloms down the mountainside, and to the left, Ketetahi Springs fumes away. It's a grand finaleand the better for being all downhill from here.
Gary Walther, the former editor in chief of Departures and Expedia Travels, has written for Town & Country and Forbes FYI.