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A Memorable Place

Christmas on the other side of the world

By Charles L. Wagandt II


This past Christmas was going to be different -- no holiday festivities, no shopping, no opening of gifts.

Our family of five planned a different kind of gift -- sharing time together. My wife, Mary Jo, two sons, a daughter and I flew out of the darkness and cold of early winter in Baltimore to a land of long days and mild early summer.

Four flights across the U.S. and the Pacific landed us in Queenstown, overlooking Lake Wakatipu on the South Island of New Zealand. There we began our 16-day adventure.

From bungee jumping for our risk-taking sons, ages 20 and 24, to swimming in wet suits in the ocean with dolphins, the trip offered great variety. We cruised overnight in Milford Sound, where the bow of the ship edged so close to the cliffs that waterfalls sprayed the passengers on deck.

But it was the daily hikes that provided the biggest challenge to our bodies and spirits. Two hikes were reached by boat, and one was over a glacier. For three days we hiked on the famous Routeburn Track, climbing from rain forests to above the timber line to feast our eyes on lakes and snow-capped mountains. Nights were spent in dormitory-style huts.

On Christmas Eve, we found a small church whose bulletin board announced that services would be held at 8 p.m. When we arrived, we found neither a congregation nor a minister, so we improvised our own Christmas celebration, bathed in bright sunlight flowing through the clear windows.

The next morning, a different kind of surprise awaited us. My wife had arranged for a helicopter to pick us up in a nearby field. It was our magic carpet to another world. We rose to a wonderland of snow and mountains, with Mount Tasman and the 12,316-foot Mount Cook -- highest in New Zealand -- close by.

We landed on top of Fox Glacier. Sun, clouds and wind danced in the sky with the high peaks as their stage. Standing in the lee of the wind, we watched the drama from our protected platform of hard-packed snow. Awed by the glory of this natural wonder, we climbed into the helicopter and flew down the descending glacier to our landing field.

We enjoyed many other hikes and experiences along the mountains, sea and secluded beaches. We left New Zealand in time for New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australia. The good folks of that city closed their downtown streets and transformed them into promenades. People crowded their way to the harbor to watch a mammoth fireworks display.

We celebrated not only the New Year that evening but also the end of a glorious Christmas vacation, whose joyful memories will continue to bring us pleasure for the rest of our lives.

Charles L. Wagandt II lives in Baltimore.

My Best Shot

Swimming with the sharks

Steven M. Sass, Baltimore

In June, I set off from Eilat, Israel, to Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, with a group of scuba divers. We had to walk across the border and then pick up a waiting van for the four-hour drive. We were in for an interesting five-day boat adventure diving in the Red Sea. At one point, our vessel encountered a pod of seven whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea. Although the ones we saw were only about 20 feet to 30 feet long, it was a great experience. The sharks must have enjoyed it too, because they would swim off and then return.

Readers Recommend

Everglades National Park, Fla.

William Diegel, Bel Air

I have traveled a lot with a camera taking nature pictures, but few places can match the Everglades for large birds. When I visited in February, I saw a green heron (above), an adult osprey and at least four other adult ospreys and nests with fledglings.


Jonathan Weiner, Monkton

I visited the just-unveiled German Holocaust Memorial in June. In the heart of Berlin, next door to the Brandenburg Gate and the Parliament building, this controversial memorial consists of 2,711 uneven stone slabs. It is both stunning and unnerving. In addition to the massive undulating sculpture, there is a bunker-like information center below ground. This is a must-see for Jews and Gentiles alike.

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