New Zealand By Paula Taylor
In 2007, my family and I took a vacation to the North lsland of New Zealand. When friends told me the South Island was even more beautiful I couldn’t believe it. Last Christmas, we had the good fortune to verify this for ourselves on our sixteen-day journey of a lifetime.
[Note: Since our visit. the tragic earthquake has hit Christchurch and it is difficult to say when reconstruction will be completed. I will still include some highlights and let you determine if they are still possible.]
I felt that two days in Christchurch was plenty -a day in the city and a day driving up the Pacific coast to Kaikoura. Other recommendations for day trips might be to the nearby wine country or the beach. The highlight of our time in Christchurch was a visit to the wonderful botanical gardens. Here, my boys enjoyed climbing the enormous trees (some over 40m tall) and tossing a rugby ball on the manicured lawns, while my husband and I strolled through the amazing rose garden and walking paths.
As a day trip from Christchurch, we took a beautiful 2.5 hour drive through wine country and rolling hills to Kaikoura. It is a small but hip village with a main street full of restaurants and shops and a rocky beach (no sand). Here, we did the seal swim encounter, which turned out to be the highlight of my trip in New Zealand. In total, it took about three hours: we donned wetsuits, rode a bus to the beach where we boarded our small boat, and rode for approximately ten minutes (within sight of the beach). We stopped at a rocky outcropping and snorkeled with seals — magnificent. We spotted dozens of seals, both in the water and on dry land. In several instances, we came within a meter of them. The rule was not to touch the seals (it was ok for them to bump into you), nor to do anything that might scare or threaten them. Time in the water was about one hour, which was plenty as the water was very cold. even with full wetsuits. There are also whale watching tours and dolphin/albatross encounters out of Kaikoura a highly recommended day trip.
As it was time to move to the next stop on our tour, we took the morning train from Christchurch to Greymouth. The weather was rainy, so it was not as scenic as expected, but we still enjoyed the beautiful views. The dining car had a good menu, so we had plenty to eat and drink along the way. The four-hour trip was a little long, but enjoyable. Arriving in Greymouth and renting a car took longer than expected – the car rental desks were very slow. We asked about restaurants and were given the option of a couple of restaurants in Greymouth, or driving forty minutes to Hokitika. We chose the latter and discovered Hokitika to be a small artisan town with several nice cafes. Hokitika is known for its handblown glass and jade, so we browsed some of the shops before continuing our drive to Franz Josef.
After a full day of travel, we arrived at Westwood Lodge, a beautiful B&B. The rooms were very large and nicely appointed. The only complaint was the shower, which was not enclosed, so it was not very warm. After our all our day hikes, a warm bath would have been welcomed. The grounds at Westwood Lodge were stunning, with a view of the glacier from our room. The staff was friendly, the breakfasts were delicious, and it was fun chatting with other guests while we dined in the lodge. The weather didn’t cooperate, so our helicopter ride and hike to the top of the glacier was cancelled. I recommend booking the helicopter tour early in the stay so you can have alternate options for later dates. The cool, wet weather didn’t dampen our spirits, though. We thoroughly enjoyed hiking on the stunningly beautiful trails and were thankful we brought waterproof hiking boots and jackets. Connecting with nature on such a grand scale was the perfect way to spend Christmas day.
The next part of our journey was a drive along the western coast from Franz Josef to Queenstown. The torrential rain hampered our view, so our drive was a little nerve racking. It was cool to see the waterfalls spouting from the hillsides (even along the roadways onto the roads!). The wide rivers, which are usually dry except for a narrow stream in the middle, became wild rapids and a force of nature. This drive has the reputation as being one of the most amazing in New Zealand (a good excuse to return one day).
Our outstanding apartment at The Rees made a very luxurious base for our six-day stay in Queenstown. The apartment, which overlooked the Remarkables Mountains and Lake Wakatipu, was only a 30-minute walk into the town center, so we enjoyed walking on the trail along the lake to go for breakfast each morning. The first two days were rainy, so not many adventure activities were available. On a recommendation from a friend, we ate at Winnies Pizza which offered far more than just pizza and had a great party atmosphere. Due to the rain, we went to the cinema next to Winnies – a good rainy-day activity.
The next day, the rain started to clear, so we took a short trip to nearby Gibbston Winery. We did their short wine cave tour and had an exquisite lunch. We noticed there were shuttle buses advertising winery tours, which would have been a good way to visit the dozen or so wineries in the Gibbston Valley without having to drive. In the afternoon, we went into the town center, played disc golf at the Queenstown Gardens and browsed the shops. We ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant called Minarni, which was delicious. It is very popular, so reservations are recommended.
The weather cleared for the remainder of our stay, so we participated in many more adventure activities such as the Shotover Jetboat ride, one of the most popular tours in Queenstown. There is a shuttle bus for pickup and drop off and the 25-minute boat ride is a thrill a minute – especially the 360 spins. The next day we slowed the pace and did a half-day tour with Dart Stables near the small village of Glenorchy. The beginner level horseback ride took 90-min and covered areas where movie such as the Lord of the Rings, Wolverine, Caspian and Lovely Bones were filmed. Our guide pointed out locations for various scenes which will make it fun to re-watch these movies.
On New Year’s Eve we drove 45-minutes through rolling hills to Cardrona Adventure Park, an adrenaline-filled place perfect for doing “guy stuff.” In retrospect, l would have stayed back in Queenstown and spent the day hiking or shopping while my husband and teenage boys enjoyed the adventure park. At the park we rode monster trucks and did a one-hour quad bike ride through beautiful countryside. My teenage boys said riding the quad bikes was the highlight of their trip to New Zealand, although they said the monster truck ride was not worth the money. We had a lovely discovery as we left the park and stopped at the historic Cardrona Hotel for lunch. The outside of the hotel looks small and not especially inviting, but when we stepped inside, we discovered a huge garden in the back with picnic tables and lovely landscaping. A small band began to play bluegrass music, so we thoroughly enjoyed relaxing in the lovely garden, eating wholesome food, and listening to good music.
Back in Queenstown. we had reservations at Flame Grill for our New Year’s Eve dinner. The restaurant is known for its BBQ ribs and in no time, my boys were elbow-deep in BBQ sauce. At the end of the meal, the pile of rib bones reminded me of something out of a Flinstones cartoon. We strolled along the beachfront in downtown Queenstown, which was set up for a big New Year’s party with two stages for bands. We had dessert at Patagonia, a well-known local ice cream shop which uses only local ingredients – the best tasting ice cream we’ve had in a long time. There was a fireworks show at midnight in downtown Queenstown, but we opted to stay home after our long day.
For our final full day in Queenstown, we took the Skyline Gondola to the mountaintop overlooking Queenstown – the view of the town and the enormous Lake Wakatipu was stunning. We chose to do the street luge, which was our third time to do it (the other locations were in Rotorua and Singapore). This was our favorite of the three. Although we only spent three hours here, it is definitely possible to spend the whole day (and of lot of money) doing other activities such as bungy jumping, paragliding, and mountain biking. We ate dinner at a local favorite sandwich shop called Jimmy Barr’s, which is another good place if you have a big appetite.
TE ANAU/MILFORD SOUND
Just when we thought it was impossible to match the beauty we had seen so far on our trip we drove to Fiordland and Milford Sound. The small town of Te Anau, while not particularly exciting, is basically the ”base camp” for activities in Milford Sound (it is the closest city with decent accommodations and dining). One activity that can be done from Te Anau is a visit to the glow worm caves. Real Journeys offers trip that includes a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Te Anau to the caves. The tour of the cave takes another 30 minutes and includes a wonderful cave hike and a pitch-black ride on a small boat to see the glow worms. As I sat in silence and total darkness, staring up at the small dots of light from the glow worms, I imagined I was in deep space. It was a very serene experience.
It takes about two hours (one way) to drive f om Te Anau to Milford Sound – something to consider when planning activities. Fortunately, it was only a one-hour drive to many of the hiking trails outside of Milford Sound. We did a 3-hour hike on the Key Summit trail, which was well marked and stunning in its scenery. The next day, we woke before sunrise to drive into Milford Sound for a kayak trip. Getting into all the gear and receiving instructions took quite some time, but it was worth it to be on the calm morning water and glimpse such astounding sights as Mitre Peak and Stirling Falls. We had the treat of getting up close to the Bowman Waterfall ( 150111 high) as well as paddling to within five meters of a seal sunning herself on the rocky shore. On our final day at Milford Sound, we started on a more advanced 4-hour hike, but the water in the creeks was too high and we had to turn around. We “settled” for a nature hike around Gunn Lake, a lush, moss-covered forest trail with ancient trees.
As we drove every day from Te Anau to Milford Sound, I wondered if it would have been better to stay in Queenstown and spend the money to take the short helicopter flights to Milford Sound. Some friends did the overnight stay on a cruise boat in Milford Sound and they had a wonderful time. That might be another option to avoid having to drive so much each day going back and forth. No matter how you plan your trip to the South Island, Milford Sound is not to be missed. For us, it was the icing on the cake and the perfect way to finish our idyllic vacation.
As I described to friends upon my return to Shanghai, experiencing such clean air and seeing the vibrant colors was like living in High Definition. My son described it like when you clean your eyeglasses and you realize you can see everything so much better! This rejuvenating vacation was a feast for all of my senses … and my soul.
- Blue Ice (only 12 tables – make reservations)
- Winnie’s Pizza
- Manami (Japanese)
- Flame Grill
- Vudu Cafe (breakfast and lunch)
- Fergburger (famous hamburger joint)
- Jimmy Barr’s (sandwiches)
- Patagonia (ice cream)
WHEN TO BOOK
September and October are the best times 10 book a Christmas trip to New- Zealand since it is peak tourist season. My trip was arranged with the help of Vicki Baensch at Australia Expat Travel.
Paula Taylor is the former editor of the Courier magazine. She repatriated in June and is now breathing the clean air and enjoying the blue skies of Texas.