Fly over Water & onto Ice
Have you ever heard of Helicopter Flightseeing before? Standing on an ancient glacier, thousands of meters above the earth’s surface, is an exceptionally rare experience—typically reserved for expert mountaineers or intrepid heli-skiers. But adventurers up for the flight of their life can have the same thrill in New Zealand by riding high in a chopper as it gracefully slips between some of the earth’s most remote and jagged peaks. When you finally land on a massive block of ice nearly touching the clouds, the mind-boggling views, not to mention the dizzying sensation that you’re about to slide right off the mountaintop, is sure to get your adrenaline pumping. Flying over Milford Sound, once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, before landing on a nearby beach isn’t half bad either.
The Southern Alps in Fiordland, covering the southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, are just 35 minutes by plane or about 5 hours by car from Queenstown. There are more than 27 peaks reaching over 2,743m (9,000 ft.) and about 60 glaciers in this mountain range, melting into rivers and lakes of dazzling blue-green hues. The entire Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is full of nature’s best: mountains, virgin forests, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, and, of course, fiords (long narrow estuaries with steep sides, carved by glacial activity). The main attraction is Milford Sound, which is actually a fiord, bordered by sheer granite mountaintops including the oft-photographed Mitre Peak. Its waters and the surrounding land have been relatively untouched, and feel almost primeval. Rain or shine, the area is magical. Perhaps that’s why Peter Jackson filmed so much of The Lord of the Rings nearby.
Flightseeing in Milford Sound, New Zealand
While cruises and hiking are increasingly popular ways to explore the region, a helicopter ride offers the most exhilarating way to see more arduous sights. For one of the most thrilling overviews, try the Milford and Fiordland Highlights excursion with the locally owned company Over the Top. You swoosh past alpine lakes, rivers, forests, glacial valleys, and ice-capped mountains. After flying over the fiords, you land on a remote west coast beach and then a sparkling glacier. This trip takes about 2 hours, but the same company offers other journeys that range from 35 minutes to more than 5 hours. One of its other, and most unique, options is an active scientific expedition flight. On the Glacier Recline voyage, you work with a geologist, a mountain guide, and your fellow explorers to determine how New Zealand glaciers, their native flora, and local insect populations are responding to climate change.
Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters is another reputable company that also takes you to areas that are inaccessible by other means. Upon departing Milford via the Harrison Valley, you swoop and zoom between rocky cliffs with staggering views of bright blue waters before gliding onto Mt. Tutoko’s Ngapunatoru Plateau, an exclusive landing spot for this company that very few people have ever stood upon. As you feel the ice crunch beneath your feet and gaze at the vast white fields, the seclusion makes you feel as if you and your fellow riders are the only people on the planet.
New Zealand Tourism Board, Lakefront Drive, Te Anau ( 64/3-249-8900; www.newzealand.com).
Tours: Over the Top–The Helicopter Company ( 64/3-442-2233; www.flynz.co.nz). Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters, 2 Lucas Place, Queenstown Airport Base ( 64/3-444-3016; www.glaciersouthernlakes.co.nz).
When to Go: Sept–May.
$$–$$$ Hotel St. Moritz Queenstown, 10–18 Brunswick St. ( 64/3-442-4990; www.mgallery.com).
$–$$ Milford Sound Lodge, 94 Milford Sound Hwy. ( 64/3-249-8071; www.milfordlodge.com).