Travel

High adventure in low gear

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 omensThe 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.

A few miles from Arrowtown is Kawarau Bridge, one of the first commercial bungee-jump sites. We spent an hour there watching normal-looking people with latex rubber cords wrapped around their ankles plunge head-first several hundred feet toward a gorge. More than 400,000 have taken the seemingly death-defying bungee dive off the bridge since 1988; the operators swear no one has been killed or seriously hurt. It cost $100, and the MacKays offered to book a jump for any biker wanting to embrace fear. Some did. We didn't.

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Finding Middle-earthThe towns grew smaller, the traffic lighter, the landscape emptier as we meandered north. Cardrona had a population of only 50, but the MacKays found a marvelous inn there for us. Built in the 1860s, the graciously restored, 20-room Cardrona Inn was said to be the oldest continuously operated pub in New Zealand. We had cocktails in its English gardens and a bountiful dinner. After dark, we walked through town, searching star-studded skies for the Southern Cross.

Two biking days out of Cardrona, skirting the northern border of Mt. Aspiring National Park and just beyond the town of Haast (population 200), the sound of crashing waves, heard from two miles away, announces the presence of the west coast. From Knights Point, looking southwest across the dark, roiling sea, you won't find another land mass until you get to Antarctica.

This is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth, a remote, rugged place of precipitous peaks, brown tussock plains, towering ferns and 300-year-old silver birches. The region, along with other South Island sites, formed the backdrop for the mythical lands in the film trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," directed by New Zealander Peter Jackson. I'm sure he warned his crew about the sand flies. They're dense enough to carry you off, piece by piece, and we needed blasts of repellent to hold them at bay.

"You're headed for a big hill," I called one day to a lone biker headed in the opposite direction after we'd made a 10-mile descent. "No problem," he called back with utter confidence. He stopped to chat and share a cup of coffee.

He was an Austrian, as lean as a fence pole, and said he did his training in the Alps. Four saddlebags stuffed with camping gear and cooking equipment hung from his bike. Funny how every time you get a little cocky and think you're a super jock just because you're on a bicycle, the real thing comes along to bring you down to earth and make you feel like a wimp.

Route 6, known as the Heritage Highway, is the only coastal road. Some towns along it, like Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, are named for the ice formations that lure tourists. Some peaks bear the names of Scottish postmen who risked their lives in the 1800s traveling by foot to deliver mail to lonely settlements. Some mountains have Maori names — like Te Rangi-nui, named for the Maori Sky Father.

For bikers, trekkers or bus-bound tourists, the west coast has its own character. It's as deserted as the Oklahoma Panhandle, as magnificent as the Big Sky Country of Montana. "Geez, I'm out of adjectives for awesome," someone said as we rounded a bend and were greeted with another sweeping panorama of glaciers pushing down deep gorges and waterfalls, 300 feet high and fed by melting ice, pouring into the valley below.

Sometimes towns were a day's ride apart. But there was no fear of getting lost, even when our group of seven couples was strung out over several miles, strong bikers leading the way: You just follow the sole road north.

The MacKays had worked out a good system to close the gap in our ranks. In the afternoons their van had drop-off points so that everyone had a choice of biking the final 30, 20 or 10 miles to that night's stopover.

We left the Heritage Highway near Hokitika and turned east on Route 73 for the final 140 miles to Christchurch, climbing over Arthur's Pass and across mountains fit only for riders of the Tour de France. Except for the few miles we biked, the van was our means of transport on this, our last day of the tour. In air-conditioned comfort, moving at a steady 40 mph, we wondered aloud whether we had lost weight because of all the cycling or gained it because of all the eating.

In the end we decided it didn't matter. We had had the best of all worlds. An adventure without risk. An exploration of doing, not just seeing. A holiday made up of equal parts challenge, exhilaration and relaxation. To misquote Jane Fonda: No pain, no shame. Let the pounds fall where they may.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Biking South Island

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (stop, change of plane) to Queenstown is available on Air New Zealand and Qantas. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,085.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 64 (the country code for New Zealand) and the local number.

BIKING PACKAGES:

Typing in the words "Bicycle Tours New Zealand South Island" on an Internet search engine will produce dozens of bike tour companies. Prices can run from a few hundred dollars if you camp out and provide your own food to about $4,500 for a fully supported, all-inclusive seven- to nine-day tour.

Down Under Dirt Cycle Tours, 130 Centaurus Road, Christchurch; 21-261-8338, http://www.downunderdirt.co.nz . Steve and Tania MacKay, who run this touring company out of their Christchurch home, put together a guided tour for our group, charging $1,600 per person for a weeklong trip, including bicycles, accommodations, meals, a support van and side trips.

WHERE TO STAY:

Cardrona Inn, RD1, Wanaka; 3-443-8153, http://www.cardronahotel.co.nz . The Cardrona, built in the 1860s, has 20 lovely rooms, some with balconies and is said to be the country's oldest continuously operating pub. Doubles from $135.

Millennium, P.O. Box 551, Queenstown; 3-441-8888, http://www.millenniumqueenstown.co.nz . The hotel has undergone extensive renovation and is pleasantly functional. A five-minute walk from downtown and Lake Wakatipu. Doubles $230.

The George, 50 Park Terrace, Christchurch 8001; 3-379-4560, http://www.thegeorge.com . The stylish and luxurious George has the flavor of a boutique hotel. The hotel has one of the city's top restaurants, Pescatore. Doubles, $273 with breakfast.

WHERE TO EAT:

Capriccio, 123 Ardmore St., Wanaka; 3-443-8579, http://www.welcome.to/capriccio.restaurant . This restaurant has impeccable service and excellent meat and fish. Beef Wellington with peppercorn sauce, $22; blue cod with honey glaze, $23.

Smithys Tavern, P.O. Box 51, Haast; 3-750-0034. The tavern, the quintessential New Zealand pub restaurant, is unpretentious and friendly. Flag down a waitress to place your order and collect it from the kitchen window when it's ready. Fish and chips, $13, sirloin steak, $20.

TO LEARN MORE:

New Zealand Tourism Office, (310) 395-7840, http://www.newzealand.com .

— David Lamb

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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