If ever there was a center for heart-pumping, sweaty-palmed adventure, the South Island of New Zealand is it, packing an absurd amount of action into an area roughly the size of Illinois. From personal flight to riparian rappelling, here's a sample of the island's most audacious offerings.
Queenstown: Set on the edge of a glacial lake surrounded by the aptly named mountain range The Remarkables, Queenstown is the South Island's adventure hub. It was here, in 1988, that A.J. Hackett threw himself from the 141-foot (43-meter) Kawarau Bridge and commercialized the bungee jump, a historic moment in extreme sports that you can re-create ($115; www.ajhackett.com). The Shotover Canyon Swing ($122; www.canyonswing.co.nz) is similar, with plenty of falling and swinging but less bungee. High-tech, high-speed, and pure Queenstown crazy collide on the Fly By Wire Queenstown ($106; www.flybywire-queenstown.co.nz), which involves strapping yourself to a very small, very fast airplane, à la Wile E. Coyote. After cheating death, stay 35 minutes from town at one of eight ultra-luxurious lakeside rooms at the Lodge at Blanket Bay ($986; www.canyonswing.co.nz).
Wanaka: There are some 40 streams and rivers that drain from Mount Aspiring National Park into Lake Wanaka, and the town is rife with ways to enjoy them all. Canyon (yes, that's a verb) your way down the Niger Stream ($164; www.deepcanyon.co.nz), sliding, jumping, and rappelling between roaring waterfalls and chutes. Or to sample the water from a drier perspective, hook up with a guide for a day of trout fishing in high-altitude valleys ($430; www.bestofnzflyfishing.com). Downstream, appreciate New Zealand's fine viticulture at Rippon Vineyard & Winery (www.rippon.co.nz). Try (or bring home) one of their lauded Pinot Noirs before tucking in at the six-room Whare Kea Lodge ($153; www.wharekealodge.com) surrounded by 60 acres (24 hectares) of private lakeside farmland.
Fiordland National Park: Home to 14 towering fjords, some of the world's most dramatic sea kayaking can be found in Fiordland National Park. Explore expansive Doubtful Sound on a two-day kayaking trip ($230; www.fiordlandseakayak.co.nz), cozying up to fur seals and bottlenose dolphins along the way. The 3.1-million-acre (1.3-million-hectare) park also boasts 300 miles (483 kilometers) of walking paths—enough to make Fiordland a premier destination for tramping, backpacking Kiwi-style with the benefit of bunkhouses ($30 a night; www.doc.govt.nz). Dodge the roadside crowds at Milford Sound (Kipling called it the "eighth wonder of the world") on a two-and-a-half-hour helicopter tour from Queenstown or Wanaka ($453; www.alpinechoppers.co.nz).
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park: The pinnacle of New Zealand tramping: With 19 peaks over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) and one whopping 18-mile (29-kilometer) glacier, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park will satisfy the most fervid of hikers. Routes can run from day trips to weeklong epics. Pack all of alpine New Zealand into one go with a six-day, 26-mile (42-kilometer) tramp over the Copland Pass (7,050 feet or 2,149 meters) with Adventure Consultants ($1,679; www.adventureconsultants.co.nz). En route, you'll take in views of the mighty 12,316-foot (3,754-meter) Aoraki, New Zealand's highest peak and the place Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth.
Getting There: Air New Zealand flies 12 hours direct to Auckland from Los Angeles ($1,480; www.airnewzealand.com); Queenstown is another two-and-a-half-hour flight south. Outside the cities, roads are empty and views are killer. Rent a car from Avis, Budget, or Hertz, or do as the Kiwis do and rent an RV from KEA Campers ($60 a day; http://nz.keacampers.com). If you'd rather bus it, InterCity Coach (www.intercitycoach.co.nz) goes nearly everywhere you'll want to go.
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