New Zealand at last!
Flexibility is always important when traveling, and this trip made it especially important. Floods and Cyclone Gabrielle made entry into the North Island of New Zealand impossible, so we, like many other tourists and even Kiwis (what people from New Zealand are called) made our way to the South Island, specifically Queenstown.
The flight into Queenstown was breathtaking with snowy mountains, green-topped mountains, and beautiful blue lakes. It felt as though the pilot was giving a tour through the majestic area as he carefully threaded his way through the mountains to land at the small international airport. The deep almost ice-cold lake, Franklin Arm, lies beside the airport making the town conform to the shape of Harry Potter’s mark.
We had been warned to be careful what we took into New Zealand since they carefully guard the safety of their plants and animals. As long as you are honest about what you are carrying and areas you have been visiting, their customs agents are very friendly and helpful. (We made it through without any difficulties. The customs agent was even careful to tell me I didn’t have to show him the bottoms of both my shoes at the same time!)
The short, picturesque drive into Queenstown took us along the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown has only four main streets in town, so it is difficult to get lost. The people are friendly and the views spectacular. We only stayed one night during this first visit, but we returned at the end of our trip so we could explore more.
The highlight of the one evening in Queenstown was picking up fish and chips at Erik’s and taking it aboard Perky’s Floating Bar—it’s on an old floating boat--for a fun and delicious evening. The line at Erik’s was long, but the food was definitely worth it.
The next day we headed to Christchurch—kind of. We were trying to catch up with the original tour schedule since hotel reservations had already been made. This effort did take some machinations.
Our first stop was in Arrowtown, a picturesque gold rush community that has retained many of its historical buildings, including huts once used by Chinese goldminers who had a much more difficult lifestyle than other miners. (In sharp contrast to the historic buildings, we were all captivated by the high-tech public restrooms whose computerized voice told me that I had 10 minutes maximum before the doors would open automatically. I wasn’t worried about taking anywhere near 10 minutes, but I did have a fear that the doors would open sooner and even the nature sounds that played calmingly in the background couldn’t totally eliminate my anxiety.)
The drive was beautiful. We passed dairy cow, sheep, and deer farms with beautiful mountains always in sight. The turquoise-colored Kawarau River flowed below us in many places. The river is a great place for white water rafting, but we didn’t have time for that. Near Cromwell, NZ, we passed many fruit and vegetable stands, but we stopped at Mrs. Jones’s stand, with the original Mrs. Jones still working at Mrs. Jones Fruit Stall. Of course, we had to try the hokey pokey ice cream while we were there. (Hokey Pokey is vanilla ice cream with teensy bits of honeycomb toffee in it.) We drove through Lindis Pass and stopped at the Wrinkly Rams for a great lunch of smoked salmon salad and seafood chowder.
The snow-covered peaks of Mount Cook and its neighboring peaks could be seen in the distance as we drove into the wee town of Twizel, with its approximate population of 1,650. The town is a tourist base for exploration of many outdoor activities. Surprisingly, the town has multiple motels, restaurants, and at least four pubs. Our motel, the MacKenzie Country Hotel, was within easy walking distance of the Top Hut Pub where we went for a drink. The pub filled up quickly as workers stopped by on their way home from work and their families slowly joined them. The residents were wonderful to include us in their Friday afternoon activities, so we had a great time visiting with them and with our group. You understand how safe the country is when you realize that the hotel doesn’t lock its outside doors at night and the only air conditioning is through screenless, open windows, even on the first floor. Twizel was a fun, serendipitous stop, a place we would have never experienced without the bad weather on the North Island.
Thankfully, the weather on the South Island continued to be beautiful for us as we drove to Christchurch. We passed Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, beautiful natural lakes with gorgeous glacial blue water. Our drive took us through Burkes Pass and then a lunch stop and a little shopping in the picturesque town of Geraldine.
We arrived at the Christchurch Novotel which is conveniently located near the Riverside Market and the heartbreaking ruins of the cathedral which was destroyed in the 7.0 earthquake in 2011. The cathedral is being slowly stabilized and rebuilt, but the process is not a fast one.
We had a great experience—we ate in the home of a local couple, Anthony and Gail. The local food was delicious, and we learned so much as we visited in their beautiful home.
Unfortunately, we were only able to stay in Christchurch one day with the change in schedule; the next day we did a lot of backtracking to arrive at Mount Cook (aka Aoraki) National Park where we stayed at The Hermitage, a beautiful hotel on the park property.
Because of our late arrival time, we only had time for a fast hike along the Kea Point Trail to the overlook. The 4-mile hike is fairly easy with lots of beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to stop and admire the view because we had to be back for dinner. We did linger at the Overlook to take pictures. The gentleman who was sitting at the overlook offered to take our picture and then kindly—aka he wasn’t laughing out loud--asked if we’d like to know which mountain top was really Mt. Cook since we had been taking an exorbitant number of photos of Mt. Sefton instead. We quickly adjusted our focus, but both mountains are stunning.
We made it back to the lodge in time for a wonderful buffet that included almost everything imaginable, followed by drinks in the impressive bar area. The only thing that topped these activities was the magnificent show the sky performed for us. As darkness fell, we walked outside for a short distance to get away from the hotel lights. What we saw was amazing! The Milky Way, in all its splendor, was clearly visible, and the thousands of stars sparkled exuberantly in their places. Thankfully, several had the StarWalk app on their devices to locate and identify the constellations visible in the Southern Sky. Leaving the magnificent display was difficult, but necessary, since the next day would be long. (Unfortunately, the pictures from our older phones didn't capture a decent picture--we upgraded as soon as we got home!)
The next day we were “on the road again,” this time heading back to Queenstown, the base for the remainder of our New Zealand adventures. We did run into a traffic jam as we left Mount Cook National Park—or should I say we ran into a sheep jam? We waited patiently as the shepherds gathered their recalcitrant flock to the side of the road to allow us to continue our journey, some of which was a bit repetitious from our mad race to Christchurch. We did stop at a salmon farm, High Country Salmon, near Twizel where I wanted to sample some super fresh sushi, but we were still full from breakfast so we, instead, fed the fish.
We had a photo stop at Lindis Pass, one of the 3 north/south passes of the island—and back on the bus for lunch in Tarras, a small town with a great little café.
Our final stop before Queenstown was at Kawarau for bungee jumping at the place of the first commercial bungee jump. (No, I did not bungee jump, but I enjoyed watching those who did!)
And then on to Queenstown. This time our hotel was The Heritage Hotel, a beautiful resort about a mile from downtown. (We were thankful we were with Collette Tours and our wonderful guide, Rob Lippitt, so we didn't have to rearrange schedules on our own.) The lakeside walk into town is beautiful as you stroll along the lake, but there is also a bus that stops just across the street from the hotel entrance. (The walk is basically flat—except for Fern Hill that presents a steep challenge.)
My husband and I walked into town for dinner and discovered that reservations are a “must” at many places. That being said, we found a restaurant, Pier, on the water’s edge and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. (We also made a reservation at The Bunker for the next night.)
The next morning started way too early so we could get to Milford Sound before the million other tour buses. (A million may be an exaggeration, but it felt like even more.) There are benefits of early mornings. The sunrises over the mountains provided an ever-changing display of lights and colors that defies pictures and can only be captured in memory. We stopped in Te Anau, the gateway to the Fjordland National Park. The road to Milford Sound is busy, small, and winding; therefore, it is monitored closely and, if anything happens, the road is closed at Te Anau.
As we drove into the National Park and through the glacial valley, the scene became increasingly like Jurassic Park with fog descending quickly and rain beginning to fall. We were told that the best days were those that immediately followed rain because the waterfalls then roar even more spectacularly. Milford Sound (Piopiotahi) has a very high rainfall each year, sometimes up to 30 meters. (Note: Restrooms are limited on the way to Milford Sound so don’t pass one up.)
Beech forests lined the narrow winding road as we hurtled toward Milford Sound in a race with those million other buses to be the first to arrive at our destination—and the next rest stop. The multi-hour trip and the narrow roads made us even more grateful that we weren’t driving ourselves as we drove through Hollyford Valley followed by the long tunnel to the Cleddau Valley--all the while looking for the reclusive Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. We came out of the tunnel to find ourselves in an eerie, other-worldly environment of dramatic mountain tops peeking out of fog and clouds. The large ferns hugging the road enchanted me and gave the feeling of being in a distant world.
We reached the dock where we boarded the Pride of Milford, picked up our picnic lunches, and sat back to enjoy the towering cliffs, crashing waterfalls, entertaining fur seals, and the engaging photo ops. The pouring rain did make the waterfalls flashier, but the rain and encroaching fog made pictures difficult yet still added a touch of fantasy to the trip.
Before the scenic drive to Milford Sound and the cruise that followed, I could not sync the Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings movies with the New Zealand I had seen. The land was too barren. After visiting Milford Sound, I can imagine scenes from the movies being filmed in this fantastical place. The four-hour drive there and back was long, but worth it to see the magnificent beauty.
We made it back to Queenstown just in time for our reservation at The Bunker for one of the best meals we had on the trip. The service was impeccable and extremely friendly. The venison steak was the most delicious we had ever eaten, and every course was equally delicious. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The next day, we enjoyed time on our own exploring Queenstown. We visited the Kiwi Birdlife Park for up-close views of native birds, including the Kea which we had not been able to spot on our trip to Milford Sound. We were also able to see Kiwis—the birds, not the natives of New Zealand. These nocturnal birds are amazingly different. They are the only birds with nostrils at the end of their beaks. In addition, their eggs are huge. An analogy is that a kiwi’s egg is relative to the size of a human giving birth to a four-year-old child. The coffee shop provided a great break for us and a chance to warm up. (Note: Even if you visit in their summer, you may encounter cool weather so layer and always carry rain gear.)
After the Kiwi Birdlife Park, we walked to the nearby Skyline Queenstown for a ride up to Bob’s Peak in the Southern Hemisphere’s steepest cable car. The ride doesn’t take you all the way to the top unless you do the luge experience, but we had fun walking around the store and snapping photos from the observation deck. We saw at least one trailhead, but between the construction and the cold whipping wind we were ready to head back down in the gondola. The ride was even long enough for us to enjoy a snack of cheese and crackers we had brought with us. (It’s always cooler at the top of the mountain than at the bottom.)
We had a great time for the rest of the day as we wandered around the town and then nibbled on more cheese at The Winery, a very neat place where you can try a small sip of a wine or enjoy a full glass and simply pay according to the amount you get. There was much more to be done in this beautiful city such as hiking or taking a Lord of the Rings tour, but our visit came to an end with a great dinner with our group and then on…to Fiji!
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