Jet lag has its advantages.

I awoke before dawn on a crisp morning in late May in Kaikoura, on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. I stumbled into the living room and peered through the glass doors of our rented condo overlooking the sea and the mountains. Only the faintest light was visible over the horizon, so I excitedly roused my husband, Alan, from sleep. Like kids on Christmas morning, we pulled on our jackets and shoes and walked to the cold, rocky shore to watch the sunrise while the town slept.

Witnessing the sun rise over the ocean — and knowing you’re one of the first people in the world to see its rays that day — gave me an otherworldly sensation. In the distance, dark, jagged figures grew more pronounced against a lightening sky. To my left, the imposing, snow-dusted tips of the Kaikoura Mountain Range became bathed in a hazy, deep pink. In front of me, the ocean, previously calm, began to ebb and flow with increasing urgency. Above, the patchy sky was ablaze with hot pinks, fiery oranges and pale blues, and I thought of the Maori name for this country: Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud.” The spicy aroma of Norfolk pine and the sound of crashing waves filled out the rest of my senses.

I sat on the rocks, feeling whole.

Five days earlier Alan and I had arrived in Auckland, near the top of the North Island, early in the morning after a 12-hour flight from San Francisco (following a three-hour flight from Minneapolis). Our objective was ambitious: to drive across New Zealand, from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, in two weeks’ time. Along the way, we’d go on once-in-a-lifetime adventures, see incredible sights and stay in choice accommodations.

During our first days, we saw the truly spectacular Hobbiton movie set in Matamata, used for “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movies. We walked through a geothermal valley, witnessed geysers and pampered ourselves with a visit to the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua. From there we drove to Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island; it is the nation’s capital and New Zealand’s cultural center, but our time there was sadly brief.

Our first stop on the South Island was Kaikoura, one of those little towns that seemingly fly under the radar yet offer a wide range of recreation. We could’ve taken part in any number of pursuits, and ultimately decided to go whale-watching. Just off the Kaikoura coast, the continental shelf drops significantly and the waters host a hotbed of sperm whale activity.

We were warned that whale sightings are hit-or-miss. The ocean was a pristine cerulean color and glittered in the sunlight, and before our guide could even finish his introduction, the boat took a hard right toward where a sperm whale had just been spotted. At the end of our short excursion, we’d had three whale sightings, and came across a colony of seals and a school of dolphins, too.

The next day, we explored Christchurch, a medium-size city that has the distinct feel of an English college town (think Oxford or Cambridge). We were hardly very far away from those mountains and whales, and yet we might as well have been on the other side of the world.

The owner of our boutique hotel for the night had a nugget of wisdom that seemed to echo my own thoughts: “We have everything that everybody else has got, just … small.”

Indeed. I’ve never been to Ireland, or Norway, or the south of France or Switzerland, but I have now seen velvety rolling hills peppered with sheep, dramatic green fjords, acres of breathtaking vineyards and even the Alps. Granted, these were the Southern Alps — but alps, nonetheless.

Our first run-in with the alps was in the Aoraki/Mount Cook region. We were staying at the Hermitage Hotel, a fantastic luxury accommodation boasting panoramic views of New Zealand’s tallest mountain from every window.

Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with the season’s first snowstorm.

What followed — during two days marred by cloud cover and sloppy snow — was an almost humorous series of mishaps. A tour of Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s longest, was called off due to a frozen lake. A stargazing tour at Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve — one of the darkest areas on Earth — was marred by cloud cover at the last minute.

There was some respite, however. On the day we departed the region, we woke up again before dawn, and from our top-level room, it gradually became apparent that the sky was clear. We saw Aoraki/Mount Cook glowing pink by dawn’s light.

We would see Aoraki/Mount Cook a couple of days later, too, but from the air, hundreds of miles to the south. We were on a tiny plane high above the alps, flying toward iconic Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, the wettest place in New Zealand. Our cruise there took place early in the morning, which meant that the air was cold and clear, and the sun was just starting to peek out behind soft green mountains.

We ended the day in Queenstown, a destination for sporting enthusiasts. We took the gondola above the city to see the sun that had stayed with us all day set over Lake Wakatipu, in the famed Remarkables mountain range.

By the end of our trip, Alan and I had logged 1,000 miles on the road, and felt like we’d seen a bit of everything — barren volcanic terrain; lush, steaming geothermal valleys; and mossy green sheep farms — and yet had barely scratched the surface.

New Zealand is a tiny nation in the South Pacific, only a little bigger than Minnesota, yet it somehow manages to pack in great diversity of climate and landscape.

It’s no wonder “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson chose it to become Middle Earth. It’s a literal fantasy world.


Caroline Royce is a Minneapolis-based graphic designer, photographer and occasional blogger. She can be reached at