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Stunning vistas fill New Zealand

Safe, tourist-friendly South Island is a ‘tramping’ mecca

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WAINUI, New Zealand — Something keeps drawing me back to New Zealand. I suspect something always will.

Part of it is how easy it is to vacation here for a woman traveling alone. It's safe, tourist-friendly and comparatively cheap for anyone coming from North America or Western Europe.

But mostly it's for moments like these: watching the bright turquoise sea wash up on the pure sand beach that fringes dark green rainforest. The soundtrack is the insistent chirping of crickets. I'm alone in the world, and I'm only 20 minutes' walk from where I left my car.

It's no overstatement: The coast of the Abel Tasman National Park has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Then again, New Zealand's South Island is one breathtaking vista after another, and in southern hemisphere summer — winter in the northern hemisphere — it's a mecca for walking, or "tramping" as it's known round here. The warm weather season begins there in late November and early December, but you'll want to plan way ahead for your trip. (I visited in February, and the cheap airfares were gone by October).

Though there were plenty of serious hikers around, loaded down with tents and sleeping bags, I chose a few creature comforts — I mostly stuck to walks I could complete in a day, and I had a rental car and motel accommodation. Every motel unit in New Zealand comes with a kitchen, so I cooked for myself.

Water taxis take day-trippers to points along the Abel Tasman coast, where they can walk part of the coastal track or simply relax on the beach. For a one-day taste of paradise, park in Marahau and take a water taxi to Anchorage Beach; the walk back will take about 3 1/2 hours, leaving plenty of time for swimming, sunbathing and lots of photography along the way.

New Zealand conservation authorities are visitor-conscious. Paths, from 20-minute nature walks to multi-day slogs, are well-marked and well-maintained.

Driving in New Zealand is easy. It's hard to get lost and there's no danger of traffic jams. But distances are deceptive, as roads can be twisty and steep. To get to all corners of the South Island, allow three to four weeks, but the main sights can easily be seen in a week or 10 days.

High on most travelers' lists is Queenstown, "Lord of the Rings" territory and the winter skiing center. It's a lakeside town surrounded by stunning mountains, with a host of activities for both the intrepid and the less adventurous, and plenty of souvenir shopping if you happen to arrive there on one of the many rainy days.

It's also the gateway to the southwestern Fiordland region, where lush tree-covered mountains rise straight up out of the smooth waters. Author Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world, and it's well worth the long detour to take a two-hour boat trip there. For a more complete experience, take a longer bus-and-boat trip to Doubtful or Dusky Sound from the regional center at Te Anau. Many companies also run kayaking trips into the sounds, and the Milford Track, one of New Zealand's great tramps, starts from nearby.

New Zealand's highest mountain, Mount Cook ("Aoraki" or "cloud-piercer" to indigenous Maori), is visible from locations on the west coast. But to get close to it also requires a detour, from the eastern side of the island. The South Island's central regions are continually surprising — by turns wide plateaus and river valleys, arid moonscapes and rolling green hills.

Though the village of Mount Cook itself is something of a manufactured tourist trap, the journey is worth it for the multitude of walks that start there, and for the very beautiful Lake Pukaki that reflects the peaks of the Southern Alps in its still, pale blue waters.

Less visited but no less beautiful is the Catlins region, in the south of the island, between Dunedin and Invercargill, where lush green hills and fern-filled forests rise over deserted golden beaches.

According to Maori legend, the South Island was formed from an upturned canoe. The anchor stone of that canoe became Stewart Island, an hour's ferry ride across the Fouveaux Strait from the southern tip of the mainland to Oban, the only community on the island. The rest of Stewart Island is wilderness, a haven for wildlife and walkers. The entire island forms the Rakiura National Park.

Stewart Island is the one place in New Zealand where visitors may get a daytime glimpse of the country's elusive national icon, the kiwi, which elsewhere is a nocturnal bird. At night here, it is possible to see the aurora australis, a phenomenon otherwise reserved for much more southerly latitudes.

Wildlife viewing is a popular activity for New Zealand visitors, and one that doesn't necessarily require much effort. The Ohau Point seal colony is a roadside stop on the main east coast road north of Kaikoura; a five-minute walk to a hide in the early evening allows visitors to watch endangered yellow-eyed penguins coming in from the sea near Kaka Point, in the Catlins; and sea lions lounge on the beach at nearby Cannibal Bay.

Kaikoura, between Christchurch and Picton, was a quiet fishing village until Maori entrepreneurs set up a whale-watching tour there less than 20 years ago. It's now a mecca for viewing — or swimming with — a wide variety of marine life.

The Otago Peninsula, on the edge of Dunedin, also offers the chance to see royal albatrosses and many other forms of wildlife.

The city of Dunedin fancies itself Scottish, while Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island, has a decidedly English feel, right down to the men in straw boaters navigating punts down the River Avon.

The beautiful Banks Peninsula, just outside Christchurch, is the day-trip of choice for residents of that city, with most heading for Akaroa, a town that plays heavily on its short-lived French colonial past.

But undiluted Kiwi urban life, such as it is, well, that's best experienced in the laid-back, affluent town of Nelson, in the north of the island. What's more, from here, it's an hour's drive west to the wonders of the Abel Tasman park, or south to the peaceful Nelson Lakes National Park.

And if all those day walks make you think you could take on something a little more adventurous, two hours from Nelson gets you to Picton, at the northern tip of the island (the ferry leaves for the North Island from here), the start point for the most accessible of the multi-day tramps.

A water taxi takes walkers to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track, on the Marlborough Sounds, and then transfers their packs each day to their hotel, hostel or campsite, leaving them to walk the three- to four-day track unencumbered.

Though hundreds of people walk the track every day, because they all go in the same direction, walkers rarely bump in to each other. Like almost everything else in New Zealand, I felt like someone had created this track just for me. I was alone in the world. And what a world!

Something keeps drawing me back to New Zealand, and I'm not over it yet. The North Island is calling .