It may not come as a shock that New Zealand, land of endless hikes, off-season skiing, and fjord kayaking, boasts exceptional mountain biking, but the island's fat tire offerings are too often overlooked by adventure-seekers rushing toward the beach or the Southern Alps. The center of the scene on the larger South Island is the stately university town of Dunedin, which provides access to the country lanes of the Otago Peninsula, which in turn give way to a web of trails that run from slightly bumpy to full-on technical.
"I love the remoteness of the ride, despite the fact we are only a few minutes' drive away from Dunedin," says Nick Beekhuis of Off Track Mountain Biking, which leads visitors up paved roads through Perendale Sheep-covered hills and down grassy chutes . From the hill country it's a short out-of-the-saddle detour through the dunes to Allan's Beach, a sweeping expanse of sand and jagged rock outcroppings on the Great Southern Ocean. Here there are no signs of civilization, just lumbering or napping sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins. So flat and fine is the sand that you’ll be seeing double as the shore birds dashing along the surf’s edge are reflected in the mirror-like surface.
On the North Island, a population of just 69,000 supports Rotorua's six bike shops. Already internationally renowned for its Maori culture, thermal springs, boiling lakes, and spouting geysers, the town's bike madness is a relatively recent development that seems unlikely to abate. That enthusiasm has everything to do with the 130 kilometers of single-track trail cutting through the nearby Whakarewarewa Forest.
Ranging from easy Grade one and two paths to Grade five routes of unrelenting drops and leaps, the dirt trails slalom around blankets of spongy-barked pukanui trees and splash through crystal clear streams. Smart travelers to this land of lakes rent bikes from Tuhua and Takurua Mutu, two local brothers who specialize in training beginners and always bring along sandwiches and pastries for hungry pedallers. The brothers are involved in running the Roturua Bike Festival, which runs from mid to late February and spotlights BMX riders, but the same could be said for an impressive percentage of locals. If New Zealand is defined by natural gifts, it’s people’s desire to saddle up is certainly one of them.
More information: Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia fly visitors to Dunedin, and nearby Port Chalmers serves cruise-ship passengers. Rotorua is an easy drive south from Auckland, and you can get there via twice-weekly flights from Sydney. Riding the trails in the Whakarewarewa Forest is free.