Of all the world's adventure destinations, there are few more tantalizing or dreamlike than New Zealand, a country that seems at once familiar and otherworldly. With its deep-azure seas, mist-shrouded mountains, dense forests, and deep caverns, it's a country that immediately seizes the imaginations of adventure-seekers, whether that adventure is an ascent into a star-streaked skyscape, a plunge off a bridge with only a bungee keeping you from certain death, or just chilling on an isolated beach.
If the country itself is a must-see for adventurers, the South Island is the nation's uncontested adrenaline champion. From the emerald coves of Tōtaranui to the snow-capped crags of Fiordland National Park, this varied landscape is fodder for fantasy. It’s hardly a coincidence that director Peter Jackson selected this part of the world as setting for much of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. You needn’t strain disbelief too much to imagine hobbits waddling along the shore as you cruise through Milford Sound, or elves summiting the sheer cliff faces as you peer out over The Remarkables. You'd be forgiven for thinking The Return of the King was actually a documentary.
The scenic grandeur is in direct proportion to geographic seclusion; for US travelers, a trip here has traditionally required a minimum of 17 hours worth of travel -- including at least one layover along the way. That's a hell of a barrier, even to somebody who ticks summits off their to-do list regularly. That all changes in 2020, when American Airlines launches the first direct service to Christchurch beginning in October. With more affordable fares, to boot. Now’s the time to get planning on your ultimate South Island excursion. Here’s some help to bring your own far-flung fantasy to life (hobbits not included).
MORE: New Zealand's lesser-known islands are also worth exploring