The Southern Alps and Fiordland Feature
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Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park
Endless rolling hills, bungy jumps off high bridges, the glittering Skytower of Auckland … so you think you've experienced the grandeur of New Zealand. HA! Aoraki glowers severely at these puny sideshows as if to say try to bungy jump this, wee clown.
A few things about Aoraki/Mt. Cook: Yes, it's dually named with Maori and Anglo titles, but no one's going to spit in your eye if you just run with one or alternate for fun. Second, you may never see New Zealand's tallest mountain, as weather can shroud the peaks for days. Plan to stay in the park overnight in case your arrival coincides with curtains of clouds. The ice cornices and granite faces are the realm of serious mountain climbers. Nonclimbers can still get a strong sense of the place with hikes, scenic flights, glacier ski trips, and a visit to the excellent Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre at the Hermitage Hotel. And, finally, be prepared to be awed by these majestic peaks.
BEST TIME TO GO
For driving to and hiking in the park unhampered by bad weather, visit in the summer. Book accommodations and activities in advance between November and March. If your trip revolves around skiing or snowboarding, then winter is a wonderland here, albeit a somewhat inaccessible one during snow storms.
In December 1991, Aoraki shrank by 10 meters when 10 million cubic meters of rock and ice tumbled off its peak, but it remains New Zealand's highest mountain (3,754 meters [12,316 feet]).
Best Ways to Explore
Mountain biking is a great way to feel the bumps and dips of this dramatic landscape. Rent a bike and follow the Tasman Glacier Road from Mt. Cook Village. If you want something more adrenaline surging, sign up for a heli-bike trip and get dropped into the foothills of the Southern Alps.
Pat Icebergs With Your Paddle
Some activities are cool because they're genuinely enjoyable thrills; some activities are cool because they're unique and rare life experiences; and some things are literally cool. Glacial kayaking amongst icebergs falls into all of these categories, and this triumvirate of coolness is an intimate and beautiful way to see a glacial environment. It's available October through April.
Take to the Air
Spectacular as the mountains are, focusing on them means missing out on the enormity of the whole park. Touring the peaks in a fixed-wing airplane or helicopter is an excellent way to experience it. We highly recommend taking a ski-plane to one or all of the park's glaciers. In winter you can ski the Tasman Glacier, but just standing on this 27-km (17-mi) tongue of dazzling ice is exhilarating. Many visitors consider flightseeing here to be their best New Zealand adventure.
Walk, Don't Climb
Sir Edmund Hillary used Mt. Cook as practicing grounds for his famous ascent of Mt. Everest; for some serious climbers, Aoraki is their Everest. But there's no shame in just ambling along one of the park's 10 walks, all of which offer stunning panoramic views. Keep an eye out for alpine sundew, a glistening insect-eating plant, and the lovely Mt. Cook lily, which is the world's biggest type of buttercup. If you are climbing-curious, there are plenty of courses available for every skill level.
The Hermitage is committed to conservation initiatives when it comes to many aspects of the facility: they recycle and compost everything when possible, use recycled paper products, biodegradable bins and bag liners, and low-energy lighting. Exotic plant species are removed from the property, and they are nearing the completion of a 20-year, native gene-stock planting program. Many items on the Hermitage restaurant menus, such as cheese, wine, salmon, and venison, are sourced locally.
If you want to travel responsibly in the park, adhere to the alpine code: Pack it Out. Don't leave any of your waste in the backcountry. Poo Pots are available at the visitor center, and using them will keep this pristine country giardia free. Do your part before doing your business and put a poo pot in your pack.
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