IT’S JUST PAST 8 A.M. IN QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand, and the sun is beginning to peek over the snow-capped Remarkables mountain range. The sky is free of clouds and soft with the morning light. I’m standing in silence at the shores of Lake Wakatipu, where we’ve pulled off on the side of the road to take it all in. The frigid morning air is shocking and invigorating. This is the scene I had been fantasizing about from my shoebox-sized apartment in Bangkok that, for six years, I considered a refuge from the city’s sultry, pulsing air and incessant sounds and distractions. In moments of chaos, I would meditate on a simpler world where the scale and majesty of the landscape would cleanse my soul, returning to something unfallen within myself.
For my entire childhood, the forests, waterways and mountains of my native Pacific Northwest have been my shelter. Making forts under the canopy of low-hanging tree branches, digging for clams in the Puget Sound, diving for salamanders in my neighbors’ pond in the summers. But as I grew up, the magic of the outdoors lost its allure to the glamor of the city. I moved to Bangkok, a city that is the absolute antidote to my culturally bland, vaguely bucolic hometown, the day after graduating from college and had been so swept away by its electric energy I found it hard to imagine a world outside its concrete gates.
Like many of us, the past few years—especially the last year—have, for reasons no longer necessary to explain, left me consumed with questions over the meaning of life and happiness. I had gotten so used to the daily grind, never allowing myself the time to question the routine, that the shock of staying home for weeks on end was disorienting, leaving me in a nearly perpetual state of reflection.
This catalyzed me to make a few major changes. Most significant being a move from Bangkok, where I had fundamentally constructed my entire sense of self, to Phuket, an island where I knew all of one person. The transition from living in a commercial 17th-floor condo in the dense, kaleidoscopic capital city to a tiny bungalow backdropped by papaya plantations was a real revelation. It helped strip back all the material trappings that come from living in a metropolis and encouraged a better understanding of what I wanted out of life.
However, it was during the 10-day trip I took in May, just as the country reopened to tourists, when all of my ideas would come to a head. Through drives across the vast, deliciously lush New Zealand landscapes, meals made up of ingredients grown at the farm down the street, travel powered by the soul of the place, and conversations about history, culture and environment, I’d learn how integral nature and community are to feeling good—feeling whole—and that when we lose our connection to the land, we lose our spirit.
I should preface by saying that the purpose of this New Zealand trip was not to adventure in the great outdoors. In fact, my pensive moment at Lake Wakatipu was unfortunately experienced alongside one of the worst hangovers in my life after a night dropping it low to early-2000s pop hits and taking shots of Chartreuse at local drinking den The Blue Door in nearby Arrowtown, population 2,814. The trip didn’t consist of one hike or trek and the only close-to-extreme sport involved was biking along Lake Wanaka to a winery. Which only serves to underline the fact that the glory of New Zealand is that the general connection to nature is so potent, wherever you travel, or even randomly find yourself, you don’t even need to try to feel its effects.
Unlike other destinations gifted with abundant natural splendor, there’s a spiritual—almost mystic—air to how New Zealanders interact with their environment. And much of this is thanks to the Maori, staunch custodians of the land.
On my first day in New Zealand, sisters Ceillhe and Kristie, the Maori owners of luxury tour operator TIME Unlimited, explain to me just how integral the environment is to their culture. “We believe humans are deeply connected with nature. People are not superior to the natural order, they are part of it,” Ceilhe says. This is all reflected in the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga, which places people as the guardians and protectors of the environment.
It’s not just an idea you think of when standing under the towering God of the Forest, Tane Mahuta, the largest kauri tree in the world at 51 meters tall, and a sacred Maori site. Kaitiakitanga increasingly defines the approach of restaurateurs and farmers across New Zealand, who operate in harmony with the country’s flora and fauna. It is reflected in the eco-minded nature of the population and honed sustainability efforts across local companies. We weren’t entitled to the vistas of Mount Aspiring in Wanaka or the rugged coastline of Muriwai near Auckland; we were privileged to be in their presence.
But what I found most comforting was the effortlessness of this mindset. At Glen Dene Station on the shores of Lake Hawea beneath the Southern Alps, Sarah and Richard Burden run the 6,000-hectare farm that has been operated by their family since 1929. The couple has opened up a camping site and geo-dome accommodations, as well as a hunting and outfitting business, so that the public can experience the cinematic setting of the mountain-rimmed lake as immersively as possible.
“I try to make it up here at least once a week,” Richard says while handing me a coffee that he had just brewed with a percolator. We’re sitting at what might be the highest point on his property, on a hill looking north into the rugged curves of the mountain ranges where the lake disappears. Sarah and he have set up a tent and invited us for coffee and oranges. From here, there isn’t another sign of human existence other than the tread marks of the pickup we rode up, through fields of hundreds of sheep, to get here. It’s one of the most special moments in my life—the views, the hospitality from the Burdens, their dedication to the land, the Whittaker’s hokey pokey chocolate bar I just devoured.
But I realize the cultural disconnect of my own lived experience when I find myself most dumbfounded by the fact that this place—this experience—hasn’t been completely exploited. It’d be so easy for the Burdens to build a lookout point, a cement road, set up farm tours or a cafe. “We want to do it the right way,” Sarah says. “By creating a place for people to gather, connect with each other, themselves and the land.”
We gather for dinner later on. The menu consists of venison and lamb from the farm, grilled vegetables from Sarah’s garden and wines from vineyards around Central Otago. I happen to be seated by Ash, a Wanaka local who had left her career at an NGO after the pandemic to join Lake Wanaka Tourism to help plan grassroots ways for the area to welcome tourists back in a more sustainable, thoughtful way.
I had always been under the impression that New Zealand was the pinnacle of a sustainable tourism destination, but as I learn, there is still more to be done. “We surveyed every house in Wanaka asking what they wanted for the future of the town, what is important to them and how we could help preserve it,” Ash says. I’m a bit taken aback. It’s hard to imagine any local tourism boards doing that in Thailand or the States. “Ideally, the tourists who visit this region would care about the land just as much as we do. They’d visit not just for the Instagram photo, but to learn from locals and create a connection with the landscapes.”
In Auckland, at the beginning of my trip, I saw this same sentiment in a vastly different context: a museum about the national rugby team, the All Blacks. As someone who is generally uninterested in sports, I know absolutely nothing about rugby. This wasn’t part of the itinerary I was most thrilled about, to say the least—but the experience turned out to be the most perfect way to start the trip. In two hours I not only developed an emotional interest in the team, but I also gathered a better understanding of New Zealand’s history, sense of community and pride. It felt like an initiation.
Back at the Glen Dene farm, we end the evening huddled around the fire. Marshmallows on sticks, mulled wine in hand. I think about that Thoreau quote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While I’m pretty sure the minimalist philosopher wasn’t referring to glamping sites and farm-to-table meals, his words still carried weight. Making friends among New Zealanders brought me into contact with a bond with nature that evoked nostalgia for my childhood, yes, but pushed me further—toward an understanding of ancestry and interconnectedness and a fiercely strong sense of belonging I had never known before.
Where to Stay
Park Hyatt Auckland hyatt.com; doubles from NZ$650
The Rees Hotel Queenstown therees.co.nz; doubles from NZ$396
Cross Hill Lake Hawea crosshill.co.nz; geodome tents from NZ$479
Where to Eat
Depot Eatery Auckland depoteatery.co.nz; meals for two from NZ$85
Homeland Auckland homelandnz.com; meals for two from NZ$90
Aosta Arrowtown aosta.nz; meal for two from NZ$110
The Blue Door Arrowtown bluedoorbar.co.nz; cocktails from NZ$18
What to Do
TIME Unlimited timeunlimited.co.nz; Maori-owned tour operator offering luxury tours around Auckland and the North Island. Contact directly for pricing
All Blacks Experience experienceallblacks.com; 90-minute guided tours from NZ$50 per adult
Air Milford airmilford.co.nz; scenic flights around Queenstown from NZ$149 per person
Onsen, Queenstown onsen.co.nz; one-hour private onsen experience from NZ$107