No pain, lots of gain

The group of friends in their 50s and 60s break their ride in Cardrona at the Cardrona Inn, said to be New Zealand's oldest continuously operated pub. Their trip took them from Queenstown to Christchurch. (Sandy Northrop)

The Southern Alps are behind us now, along with the glaciers and waterfalls and dense rain forests that have been our companions for a week. The 14 of us are normal tourists again, moving about the city on two feet instead of two wheels. We've turned in our rental bikes, having pedaled the final miles on the long ride up South Island's remote west coast.

An impressive feat? Perhaps. After all, there are no Lance Armstrongs among us, and 70% of South Island's terrain is hilly or mountainous. We're in our 50s and 60s. A couple of us are collecting Social Security checks. One of us had a hip replaced three months ago. No one is a biking fanatic.

So why would sane, middle-aged tourists want to spend their vacations bicycling 625 miles of two-lane roads from Queenstown to Christchurch? Wouldn't the cafes of Paris or the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, be a safer bet?

There are two answers: First, New Zealand has lots of flat roads, and if you put together your own group and customize your trip with a touring company, as we did, it's OK to cheat without feeling guilty.

We had a van that hauled us over the snow-clad peaks and gave us refuge when we were weary. We traveled as individuals when deciding how far to bike each day and as a team of friends when it came time to socialize over wine each evening.

Second, a bicycle is a good way to tour. It gives you a sense of intimacy with your surroundings. Walking is too slow; a car is too fast. But a bike, unlike a tennis racket or a pair of skis, rises to meet you at your level of ability.

If you're in good enough shape to walk six or seven miles, you can handle the bike trip we made through the spectacular beauty of the west coast, where every river is as cold and clear as a well-stirred martini and little towns miles apart don't seem far removed from the gold-mining frontier of bygone days.

My big contribution to our group was finding Steve and Tania MacKay, an amiable couple who arrange bike tours out of their home in Christchurch. My first e-mail, a year before our planned holiday, said I thought I could pull together a dozen or so friends for a New Zealand trip.

We'd want the best lodging and restaurants available, I said; some of us might want to bike 30 or 40 miles a day; others would probably be content with 10 or 15; we'd need a support van to haul our luggage and fix our flats; and we liked lots of stops to explore and poke around and dawdle over a cup of coffee or perhaps a beer. We were sightseers, not racers. Could they accommodate us?

"Absolutely," said the return e-mail. "That's what we do — customize trips whether you want to do 10 miles or 100 a day."

The price was $1,600 each, including solid 27-speed road bikes, seven nights' lodging, three meals a day and a 17-seat van. The cost was about one-third what large international biking and walking companies charge for a similar itinerary.

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Good omens

The MacKays and I exchanged numerous e-mails during the year, and they had warned me that the weather, even in New Zealand's prime summer biking season, from November through April, was unpredictable. Cold rains could barrel in with the southerly winds at any time. Head winds were common. Heat was sometimes blistering. Clouds could obscure Mt. Cook, Milford Sound and some of South Island's grandest vistas.

So when Steve and Tania arrived at the Millennium Hotel in Queenstown at 8 a.m. one Sunday in January, driving a minibus and hauling a trailer with 16 bikes secured on the roof and enough room inside to swallow a mountain of suitcases, it seemed a good omen that South Island was bathed in San Diego-like weather. The temperature was in the 80s, and clear blue skies stretched across Lake Wakatipu.

Queenstown (population 7,500) is South Island's tourist center. It calls itself "the adventure capital of the world" and leaves you with the impression that unless you're going biking, trekking, boating, fishing, hang-gliding or bungee-jumping, you're some kind of aberration. Pedaling through town on the way to Arrowtown, a gold rush-era Chinese settlement near Bush Creek, we saw a man alight from a car to which a bicycle and a kayak were strapped. He walked toward the water in a bathing suit, carrying his surfboard. The quintessential Kiwi.

Tania, a physical therapist by training, disappeared ahead in the van. Steve biked with us, extolling the virtues of New Zealand, the outdoors and his passion for cycling. Strangers waved as we pedaled by at 10 mph. Mountains were everywhere, but the road, mercifully, did not seem to rise.

"You come to New Zealand," Steve said, "and you're going to disappear in the country. You don't think about what's going on in the rest of the world. We're so far away, so isolated. We Kiwis, I suppose, live a sort of simple life, and we like to keep it that way. You wake up on a nice day and you go for a ride. What's better than that?"

Steve led us into a small town park in Arrowtown. It was 10:30 a.m. Tania had arrived first in the van and set out fresh brewed tea and coffee and morning biscuits. Adventure without hardship. Another good omen. Not once in the days ahead would the MacKays disappoint us: They spread out hearty lakeside picnics, arranged side trips to nature trails, glaciers, glowworm caves and vineyards. They cheerfully lugged bikes on and off the trailer when anyone decided it was time to cycle or rest, shared knowledge and enthusiasm and gave every indication of having as much fun as we were.