The great Kiwi outdoors

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THE Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies have long stopped screening in theatres, but New Zealand, where the movies were shot, are still drawing visitors.

According to data from Tourism New Zealand, Singaporeans have been flocking to the country in record numbers. Nearly 48,000 Singaporeans headed there over a 12-month period from August 2014 to 2015.

Steven Dixon, Tourism New Zealand's regional manager for South and South-east Asia, says that the country's appeal lies in its wide variety of activities.

Top that with plenty of open spaces, fresh clean air, and friendly and helpful Kiwis and it is easy to see why nearly half of the holiday makers from Singapore are repeat visitors.

"The New Zealand experience offers culture, food and wine, and adventure," he says. And while the country is many times bigger than Singapore, Mr Dixon sees it as fairly compact.

In fact, it is only one hour and 50 minutes by plane from Auckland in the North Island to Dunedin in the South.

"Besides, you get to experience different climates all within the same day," he adds. Both islands have their own charm, although the South is generally considered to be more scenic, which is where we headed to recently.

About 60 per cent of visitors move around the country by car, as "it is the best way to see New Zealand", says Mr Dixon. "You get to pick and choose your itinerary."

And if you do stop by the roadside to take pictures, be it of the amazingly beautiful lakes, or of a cute cow, do watch where you park.

Our rental car got bogged in the mud, and despite several attempts to move the car out, it just got worse. The cow, meanwhile, watched us nonchalantly while chewing grass.

Thankfully, a farm was within walking distance, and the farmer came out to give us a hand. Apparently, ours wasn't the first car he had to tow out.

The South Island has several must-see spots. Whether you are a first timer or repeat visitor, these are some that you don't want to miss.

Along the West Coast of South Island, the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are where visitors usually head to. The two glaciers are about a 30-minute drive from each other.

There are professional guides that take visitors on a hike or climb of both glaciers. Alternatively, you can attempt non-guided treks, which take visitors near the glaciers, which is what we did, since poor weather conditions meant we had to cancel plans for a heli hike over Franz Josef Glacier.

Unfortunately, global warming has resulted in the glaciers fast retreating, which makes seeing the glaciers more urgent.

While a car is the best way to get from one spot to another, it helps to have a strong pair of legs when checking out the individual spots, such as the Aoraki/Mount Cook area.

The good thing here is there are trails of different difficulties - from the easy 30-minute walks along formed paths, to alpine hikes that can last several days.

For the hardy adventurer, there is even mountain climbing on Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, and the same peak that Sir Edmund Hillary practised on before his successful ascent of Everest.

For an adrenaline rush, head to Queenstown, considered the home of the ultimate adventure bucket list. Go in winter and you could ski there.

In the other months, there is bungy jumping, sky diving, canyon swinging, downhill mountain biking, jet boating and river rafting. Ziplining, however, is the latest craze in New Zealand, and Ziptrek Ecotours is the place to do it.

You take the gondola up a hill and zipline your way down an ancient native beech forest finishing with a zipline ride that descends 30 storeys at speeds of up to 70kmh, upside down if you so wish to.

If taking it slow while enjoying the sights is more your thing, then a cruise to see Milford Sound is ideal.

Author Rudyard Kipling describes the fjords as the eighth wonder of the world.

There are day and overnight cruises that take visitors close to the waterfalls, some of which are as high as 1,000 metres. Some cruises also allow visitors to go sea kayaking or diving.

With the South Island being this beautiful, it is a challenge not to stop every five minutes to take a picture.

But if you ever run out of places to photograph, seek out Instagram posts.

This was how we came across the Lone Tree of Lake Wanaka. It is literally one single tree growing just off the shore of the lake, and when the lake is still, a perfect reflection of the tree is cast in the water.

No wonder then, that this is the most photographed tree in New Zealand.

The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo is another highly photographed spot.

Built in 1935, the church is interdenominational and services are held regularly throughout the year.

Photography is not allowed on the church interiors but cliche as it sounds, a picture of the church under the clear blue skies in the day, or under a blanket of stars at night is certainly worth a thousand words.

Speaking of stars, Lake Tekapo is renowned for its incredibly clear starry nights, and is also home to the Mount John Observatory, one of the clearest places in the Southern Hemisphere to view the night skies.

The best way to enjoy the night sky is to join a Mount John Night Tour, where the guides point out various stars, and you get to view the moon through a telescope.

The moon is surprisingly bright, in fact, so bright that it is considered the biggest light polluter in the area.

Most people arrive in the South Island via Christchurch.

The city was largely damaged by an earthquake in 2011, and today, Christchurch is still rebuilding itself.

ChristChurch Cathedral is still in ruins, but what people go to see mostly is the church's transitional building, the Cardboard Cathedral.

Built by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, the church is constructed from cardboard tubes, timber and steel, with a polycarbon roof and eight shipping containers forming the walls.

Ideally, you could spend two weeks or more just on South Island alone, but even a week-long holiday is enough to make you want to return for more.


This article was first published on February 13, 2016.
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