Canyoning: Routeburn River
When we looked over the edge of the first 20-foot waterfall, and at the bottom saw swirling whitewater disappear over the lip of the next pouroff, one editor voiced a collective, disquieting thought: “Do we really start here? How?” Our guide answered breezily, “No worries mate, you just jump.” And so it went for the next 3 hours, as we plunged, slid, rappelled, and zip-lined our way through a narrow slot canyon that alternates grotto-like pools with roaring cascades and vertical cliffs. The half-day trip is a signature Kiwi adventure-seat-of-your-pants fun that will scare you a little, thrill you a lot. If you’re hiking the Routeburn, you can do the canyoning trip in the morning, then start walking in the afternoon.
Cost; NZ$210 (from Queenstown),
Kayak camping: Pigeon Island
This peaceful little bird sanctuary, sitting out in the middle of Lake Wakatipu for all to see, is the best-kept secret in the Queenstown area. A comfortable hut stocked with firewood and mattresses sits in a sheltered cove, and a small maze of trails crisscrosses the 628-acre island. Bellbirds, tui, and wood pigeons are among the protected species that inhabit the island. So how does a prominent and beautiful island like this make the grade as a locals-only hideout? The trick is getting there. Until this year you could only rent kayaks in Queenstown, too far from Pigeon Island for a day paddle. But at press time a local outfitter had plans to rent boats in Glenorchy, just 4 miles away.
Glacier Kayaking: Mueller Lake
Each spring when the weather warms, chunks of ice break off the submerged snout of Mueller Glacier and bob to the surface of Mueller Lake, where they float like so many icebergs. Eventually the house-size bergs melt away, but if you’re lucky you’ll kayak right up to them. This half-day trip starts on the busy Hooker Track, but almost immediately leaves the hiking throngs for a short, scenic walk to the put-in. From there it’s a short paddle to the far end of the lake, where you can walk on the glacier and skinny-dip in bone-chilling pools left behind by the receding ice.
Mountaineering: Ball Pass
Pioneered only 2 years ago as an alternative to the justly-renowned–but crumbling–Copland Pass route, this breathtaking alpine tour takes climbing novices as close to 12,316-foot Mt. Cook as they can get without one of New Zealand’s ubiquitous helicopters. Highlights include an exposed ridgetop approach beneath the enormous Caroline Face–which was hemorrhaging avalanches during our stormy spring crossing; two nights at cozy, immaculate Caroline Hut, perched on a spur with picture-window views of New Zealand’s highest peak; a dramatic descent into the Hooker Valley down wildflower-covered hillsides; and customized instruction from expert guides. Alpine Recreation’s 3-day Ball Pass trip includes all meals and climbing equipment.