24 February 2017

New Zealand South Island Week 3

From Wanaka to the West Coast, then up to Nelson

12/2416 - 01/04/17

On Christmas Eve we resumed our car journey. Our itinerary would take us north to Wanaka, then over the Haast Pass to the West Coast and on to the Nelson area, before heading south again on Alpine roads, ending in Christchurch. At the New World grocery market in Queenstown we stocked up on food supplies before heading out to Wanaka. Turning on to the winding Crown Range Road toward Cardrona, we began a steep ascent.

At the summit we followed tourist protocol - pulled over at the lookout to gawp at and photograph the undulating landscape, snowy peaks, and fields covered with tall tussock grass.


Similar to Queenstown with a lakeside setting, fringed by the Alps, Wanaka had a more peaceful ambience. People came here to enjoy nature rather than adrenalin pumping activities. We stayed in a modest, self-contained cabin at the Top 10 Holiday Park, 3 km out of town. Our afternoon was taken up by a saunter along a lakeside trail, with delightful views of snowcapped peaks. Later, we prepared a biggish "festive" dinner. Pastry puffs stuffed with spinach and feta for starters. Roasted veggies, sweet corn, soy sausages, and rustic bread for mains. A full bodied Central Otago Pinot Noir from a wine maker at the Dunedin market accompanied our meal. Dessert was the Christmas pudding from the Otago market, warmed and served with a rich custard. Scrumptious! 
A few more hours of daylight presented the opportunity to walk off this feast. We strolled down the road into Wanaka Station Park where we were amazed to see towering trees, easily over a hundred years old, and a fragrant rose garden which led to the lake's shore. 

Professional photographers, crouched on the shore, attempted to capture the changing mountain shades with a foreground of an unlikely tree awkwardly posing in the placid lake. Continuing along the gritty lake shore we arrived at the little downtown, enlivened by a crowd in festive mode. From the upstairs terrace of a bar we nursed a gin and tonic while gazing at the shimmering lake at sunset. At 10:00, right when the sun sank behind the Alps, the balcony doors closed, and we had to go inside. Sitting by a window with views of a pink horizon, we chatted with a young Canadian man who worked in Christchurch as a city planner. He told us about the problems to rebuild after the earthquake, mainly because the city was built on sand. Well, that was a bit depressing, but an invigorating 3 km walk back to our cabin gave us a boost of endorphins.

Haast Pass to Glacier Country

We awoke to the sound of rain on Christmas day. On this big driving day we started on Highway 6 heading west along Lake Hawea before entering Mount Aspiring National Park. Again we were immersed in sensational scenery, dominated by imposing snow capped mountains. We took advantage of the many opportunities for vista stops and short trails. The sheer cliffs of the Makarora River valley were impressive. A highlight was the Blue Pools trail, an easy 3 km walk through a forest, across a swing bridge and down to pools of astonishingly blue water. Continuing the drive west toward Haast Pass, we stopped at pullouts for views alongside Haast River. At Haast village we caught our first glimpses of the Tasman Sea over steaming coffee beside the fireplace of a rustic cafe. Back on the road we now headed south along the coast. Under a grey sky the choppy sea and desolate beaches enhanced the wildness of this area. When we spotted dolphins splashing in the water we made a brief stop at a scenic pullout, then proceeded to a quieter spot to eat our lunch with sea views. 

Thick cloud cover greeted us in Glacier Country. We stopped at Fox Glacier, anyway, and went on the short, easy trail. No luck. The glacier was utterly hidden. It was late in the day when we arrived at Franz Josef, a  small town buzzing with tourists. We stayed in a cabin at the Top 10 Holiday Park a little out of town. Using a shared kitchen we prepared a simple meal which we ate at an outside table. Annoying sandflies hastened the meal, and so off we went, on an evening saunter along the flat and wide Terrace Track. After a long day in the car, it felt great to stretch our legs and breathe in mountain air.

In the morning we hiked up the Franz Josef Glacier trail for a close up view of this natural wonder. Quite joyful it was, under a mostly cloudy sky, with waterfalls spilling down green cliffs and mountain walls flanking a wide, rock strewn path. Luckily, the bit of sky above the glacier was cloudless, so we saw it clearly, in all its fascinating beauty.  
Anti-climactic feelings after our perfect morning were firmly prevented by a luxurious afternoon at Glacier Hot Pools. While soaking in these thermal pools in the midst of rainforest, we chatted with vacationing Kiwis and learned more about the area. The Hokitika Gorge was a "must do" and Greymouth, where we'd be sleeping the next night, was "grey".
In the evening we met an assortment of international families in our shared kitchen, and engaged in a longish chat with a Malaysian family of four from Australia. I love this aspect of traveling when you meet people from far and wide and realize how much in common we share.

The West Coast

The rain gushed down as we headed north on the the West Coast. We'd be sleeping in Greymouth, a convenient point to break our journey, but the main activities planned for the day were stops at various famous sites along this road. At scenic Okarito Lagoon a steady downpour forced us to remain in the car. In dismay we had to keep passing up opportunities for scenic tramps. We ate our picnic lunch in the car, luckily with a lake view inside a national park. In Hokitika we darted into touristy gemstone shops to check out the much hyped greenstone (jade). The rain continued to gush down, forcing us to skip Hokitika Gorge. Darn! We arrived in dull Greymouth way too early in the day. Our motel apartment, though, was spacious, tastefully designed, with a fantastic kitchen. A most welcome space to rest and unwind. We shopped for groceries at the Four Square Market across the road and made a decent pasta meal. For dessert we had broiled apricots with custard. After dinner we were thrilled to see a clear sky, and an opportunity to spend the remaining 2 hours of daylight productively. An amble along the flood wall of the Grey River confirmed our impressions of this town - sleepy, unattractive. The river mouth, though, was fascinating in its wildness. We caught glimpses of Hector’s dolphins, and enjoyed watching the savage Tasman Sea swallow up the sun.

We hit the road bright and early the next morning, starting with a beach walk. Rocky, pristine, with churning waters and sweet air, the walk under a clear sky was most invigorating. Continuing on SH6 along the Tasman Sea we arrived at Punakaiki at midday. We followed the hordes of tourists (jarring after the South's sparseness) along a paved path to see Dolomite Point limestone rock stacks resembling stacks of pancakes. As luck would have it, it was high tide, allowing us to witness the famous geyser like blowholes too.

The SH6 turned inland resulting in a drastic change of scenery. We were now skirting the Buller River with stunning views of the gorge. While sipping satisfying coffee at Berlins Cafe, we enjoyed sweeping views of Buller River. The hills around here were draped in a purple blanket of Manuka trees (aka the NZ tea tree). Heading north, we past numerous farmstands selling Manuka honey. More Alpine scenery followed before the landscape flattened out near Motueka Valley. A clear sky, and at last, warm temperatures. Summer! We had arrived in the agricultural heart of the country, advertised by flocks of sheep, fruit orchards, and kiwi plantations. Along a local, scenic road into Motueka we stopped at a couple of farm stands to load up on ollalaberries, blueberries and raspberries.

Abel Tasman, Nelson

In Motueka, our base for a taste of the Abel Tasman Coast Track, we had our most luxurious motel apartment which overlooked a kiwi plantation. While the drab downtown surprised us, considering its proximity to Abel Tasman, one of NZ’s great walks, the surrounding countryside and nearby beaches were beautiful.

A 5 hour hike on the Abel Tasman Track took us through coastal forest, and down to coves of golden beaches and turquoise sea. Compared to the dramatic Milford Track, the trail was gentle, and the magnificent scenery felt familiar, evocative of tropical paradises around the planet.

Late afternoon we hopped down a steep trail to Anchorage Bay. Here we climbed onto a high speed water taxi for a fun and memorable bumpy 15 minute ride back to the park entrance near Marahau. Also memorable was that we stayed on the boat as it got towed out of the water and taken to the terminal.

We ended this lovely day at the popular Sprig and Fern Pub where a chilled craft beer and delicious veggie burger reminded us of New Zealand's zeal to keep up with culinary trends.

A new day and a new city. The short drive from Motueka to Nelson is full of wonderful distractions. The taste trail, designed for cyclists, has a concentration of gourmet culinary stops. By car, we managed a sample of this on our way back from Ruby Bay Beach when we came upon a crowded bakery with shelves of freshly baked, rustic pastries, breads, pies and other goodies. We made some lunch purchases before proceeding along Highway 60, a scenic coastal road flanked by wineries and vineyards. 

Nelson felt like the "allegro" part of an otherwise serene symphony. I fantasized living here for so many reasons: 1. Sunny and warm 2. Interesting architecture - historic and new 2.  Queen's Gardens - with its gorgeous flower beds, ponds and graceful trees. 3. The craft beer scene, which we experienced at a popular pub called Free House. We met up with a friend of friend here, in the spacious garden, with great summer evening atmosphere. On his suggestion we drove up a steep road and found reason #4. Splendid views of Nelson Bay. 
5. It's a foodie city which you immediately notice from the trendy restaurants downtown, all with outdoor dining, creating a vibrant atmosphere. The excellent wood fired pizza and exquisite gnocchi we devoured at a small family owned Italian restaurant near our hotel was proof.
6. A wide, sandy, clean, and peaceful beach, which provided perfect after dinner entertainment. 
7. The Saturday farmer's market, easily bigger and more fun than our Santa Barbara Saturday market. Bountiful summer produce, diverse cuisine, coffee stands, and artisanal crafts reminded me of the markets in Provence, France.


Our drive to Picton from Nelson began on Highway 6, which allowed for the perfect lunch stop under historic Pelorus Bridge. We sat on boulders beside the river, surrounded by thick green forest, as we scarfed down dense, crusty bread, creamy blue cheese, juicy tomatoes and apricots acquired from Nelson's Saturday farmer's market. Continuing on our drive we left Highway 6 at Havelock and entered stunning Marlborough Sound on a narrow, winding road. We were transfixed by the color of the water and the curving, finger like projections of forested coast.

The harbor town of Picton throbbed with New Year's Eve excitement when we arrived. People milled around, and an arena by the waterfront was set up for live music. So after our dinner which featured sweet corn and other vegetables from Nelson's morning market, we headed down to the harbor to be a part of the celebrations. We had fun listening to familiar songs from past decades by the talented band singers. Around us a well behaved crowd tapped their feet as they munched snacks purchased from food stands that were set up. At midnight, dazzling fireworks lit up the sky to herald in 2017. We summoned our optimism and smiled.

We spent the first day of 2017 in the heart of the Marborough Wine region. Driving through Tuscan like landscape as we left Blenheim we made a couple of winery stops. We sampled the pinots and sauvignon blanc for which this region is famous. At Highfield Terravin Winery, a Tuscan style building we climbed up the tower for views after a sumptuous New Year's Day lunch. Delicate ravioli with a local Pinot, and a view of vineyards and distant mountains made it quite indulgent. 

Saint Arnaud (Nelson Lakes)

A short drive south on Highway 6 took us out of pastoral countryside and back into the Southern Alps. We stayed in a newly built log cabin in the alpine village of St. Arnaud in the Nelson Lakes region. 

We were a short walk from pretty Lake Rotoroa, at the foot of the Alps. Despite drizzly weather, we spent much of our 2 days here on hiking trails which took us through dense beech forest evoking Lord of the Rings scenes with moss covered branches and trickling water and mist clinging to tree tops. Pristine air,  lake views, and curvaceous mountains - it was all so energizing. This was a popular destination with lots of people around enjoying lake activities like boating, fishing, and swimming. 
The Alpine Lodge Restaurant served us a gourmet dinner despite painfully slow service, and a misunderstanding resulting in a main course not making it to the table. Perhaps they weren't used to serving a heavy customer load. However, a tasty substitute dish and splendid mountain and forest views from their atmospheric dining room made up for it. It must be noted that a cheesecake dessert arrived in an artistic geometric arrangement of accompaniments, adorned with a slice of dried apple and a berry sauce. Such refinement contrasted well with our active day on muddy trails deep in a forest.

On our last day of this road trip, another rainy day, our route back to Christchurch took us up and over gentle mountain passes. At Hamner Springs, when we stopped to check out lunch options (dismal), we peeked at the stunning gorge. Further on, in some little town, we found tasty pies and decent coffee at a bakery. 

We arrived back at our very first motel in Christchurch in the late afternoon. An hour or so of souvenir shopping at the Re:Start Container mall, created from converted ship containers, was followed by our final dinner in New Zealand. We returned to the Indian restaurant we had discovered on our first evening. Once again excellent service and exquisitely prepared cuisine impressed us just as much as the first time. This time our meal was accompanied by a fine red wine that we purchased in the Marlborough region. There was no better way to conclude our three intensely enjoyable weeks in this friendly, progressive, beautiful land.

15 February 2017

The Milford Track - Week 2

Fiordland National Park, bookended by Queenstown

Week 2 (December 18 - 23, 2016)

From Dunedin we headed west to Queenstown to begin the next phase of our vacation. We were booked on the Milford Track, "one of the world's most beautiful walks" with Ultimate Hikes, and 5 days of Fiordland National Park wilderness lay ahead of us. Highway 8 started out in pastoral, undulating terrain, before the appearance of a rocky landscape as we entered Central Otago. Then came views of Lake Dunstan and the peaks of the Southern Alps. Near Cromwell we entered a thriving agricultural area with highway stands of apricots and cherries, along with numerous vineyards and wineries. Pinot Noir is the main grape varietal here. The last stretch into Queenstown where lush green gave way to brown mountain slopes, was even more breathtaking. 

We checked in at the Novotel, nicely situated right beside glimmering Lake Wakatipu. At the top of this lake is the picturesque town of Glenorchy where most of the mini-series "Top of the Lake" was shot. Queenstown, with an impressive concentration of hotels and restaurants, was hopping with tourists. Youngsters are drawn to the many adventure sports like bungy jumping. Our Milford Track adventure started here with a late afternoon orientation meeting at the Ultimate Hikes headquarters. We met our guides - four young, strapping nature enthusiasts - and our fellow hikers, an international group of mainly professionals of all ages.
At dinner time we strolled out into the balmy evening along the lake scouting out the restaurant scene. Lively Irish music from a crowded pub lured us in for a beer. We sat up on the balcony, gazing at the lake and the Remarkables, a mountain range framing the town, while tapping our toes to the happy music. We ended this perfect day at an Italian restaurant where we gorged on excellent gnocchi, drenched in a flavorful sauce, followed by a divine tiramisu.

In the morning we lugged our backpacks over to the Ultimate Hikes Center and braced ourselves for some serious outdoor adventures.

Day 1
A 3 hour coach ride through sublime mountain scenery got us to Te Anau where we had a decent lunch consisting of a selection of salads. The coach then delivered us to our boat at Te Anau Downs. Despite the grey, drizzly day which kept us inside, the cruise to the top of Lake Te Anau was a moving kaleidoscope of thrilling lake and mountain vistas.
Glade Wharf

From the wharf it was a quick 1 mile hike to our first lodge, Glade House. This meant another 32.5 miles of hiking lay ahead of us. I flopped on the bed in our room and just stared out the window at the Clinton River and steep mountain slopes. Already it felt like we were deep in the wilderness, far, far away from the festive hype of the outside world. After a satisfying cup of tea and a cookie, we followed our guides on a nature walk. Hiking poles came in useful as we went up a steep trail through dense vegetation. We arrived at the rocky bank of the river and just sat down and drank in the beauty that surrounded us. Later, at our lodge our pampered evening started with wine and an assortment of hors d'oevres - olives, sun-dried tomatoes, crackers and cheese. We got to know our fellow hikers a little better over drinks and board games. They were from all over the world- the USA, Australia, South Korea, Japan, China, Germany, France, and there some Kiwis too. A 3 course gourmet dinner was followed by a session of introductions. And then, a slide show briefing by the enthusiastic guides about our trail for the next day.

Day 2 
A warm, sunny day began with a hearty breakfast. Along with eggs and sausages, there were cereals, fruit, porridge, stewed fruit and yogurt. We made our lunches from a selection of sandwich fillings, together with a few sweet treats, trail mix, and fruit. By 8:30 we were all on the trail. But within minutes, it was clear that most of the group, far ahead of us, consisted of seasoned hikers. First, we crossed a suspension bridge over the Clinton River and entered a beech forest. About an hour later we detoured onto a boardwalk in a wetland area. Strange and colorful mosses (including an insectivore species), distinctly different from the rest of the area, characterized this little section of the park. The mostly flat trail continued into more rainforest area, before a gradual ascent up the Clinton Valley where the rock walls go up to 4000 feet high. 

From our sheltered lunch stop, where our guides served us hot drinks, we could see Hirere Falls across the valley. Continuing on through a clearing we got views of McKinnon Pass which we would be crossing tomorrow. After more forest, with a short delay to enjoy the song of a bell bird, we arrived at Prairie Lake where we stopped to take in the views and watch intrepid souls dive into the cold water and swim to a gentle waterfall. Further on, the track opened up to the prairie with views of permanent ice fields and waterfalls. We ended our ten mile hike with a stream crossing. At Pomplona Lodge buttery scones with cream and jam awaited our arrival. From our bedroom we had a staggering view of waterfalls spilling down a towering cliff. We spotted a few keas, noisy green parrots that love to eat the soles of boots! 
After a short rest we followed what became our routine on this 4 day hike. We washed and dried our clothes, using the convenient laundry facilities and spacious drying room. Then, to the lounge area for cocktails, hors d'oevres, light conversation and relaxation. Next was dinner, a hearty affair with 3 exquisite courses served with the flair of an upscale restaurant. A slide presentation with a description of the next day's trail rounded off the evening. 

Day 3
On this most challenging day of the hike I couldn't help feeling nervous about crossing a mountain pass, especially because heavy rain and wind was forecast for the entire day. By 7:30 AM we were all on the trail. An easy first hour on the flat to the head of Clinton Valley, then a gradual climb up Practice Hill leading to Lake Mintaro. Protected from a steady rain by all the necessary gear, coupled with hiking poles and backpacks, a bathroom stop was unthinkable! We stopped for drinks at Mintaro Hut, before proceeding to the section of switchbacks. Though not strenuous, we had to cross several gushing streams, resulting in drenched socks and boots. But wool stays warm, we learned! Our feet were never cold, despite being wet. Halfway up, the Nicholas Cirque came into view. This great carved out depression against a circle of glacial mountains looked so primeval, and with the rain and mist, so mythical. We couldn’t stop to admire the view though. We had to get to McKinnon Pass and over fast. The foul weather was worsening. The trail became steeper and harder, especially with a backpack. Hiking poles were absolutely essential. At Mackinnon’s Memorial, a monument close to the summit, gale force winds pummeled us. A guide gave us a “pick me up drink” - hot gatorade - and some words of encouragement. I put on my wool hat and warm fleece, and braved the elements. At times the stinging rain and gale force winds forced me to crouch down.

Mt. Balloon

At the summit, we made a conscious attempt to ignore the weather and take in the unique and startling scenery. Of course, much of it was hidden under thick mist. The partial views of sheer mountain slopes and deep valleys and little lakes certainly made us feel like we were in a movie setting. This was the climax of our four day hike ... But the finger-numbing chill, and lashing rain made it impossible to linger. Down a bit, then a most welcome lunch stop at Pass hut. How wickedly cosy it felt to be cocooned inside a warm shelter, sipping steaming coffee, while outside the world seemed at its harshest. 
We were warned that going down would be more challenging, but somehow I was convinced that the hard part was over. Wrong! First, rain stung my cheeks and I howled with pain. We had to move fast to get to milder altitudes. We came to a waterfall crossing, requiring scrambling up, across, and down huge boulders. I panicked, fearing that my backpack would make me lose my balance as soon as I lifted a foot to the necessary height. With Daryl's commands and encouragement, I scrambled across. Amazing what you can accomplish when you have no other choice! Eyes peeled to the ground we managed not to break any bones as we dropped altitude. We came to a series of rushing rivers. A guide was posted at the first one to instruct each of us on how to get across. Again, adrenaline kicked in. I imagined getting swept away by the staggering current. Definitely out of my comfort zone. But, I stepped on exposed boulders as instructed and made it across each raging stream. Soon, the terrain became less treacherous and the weather a lot friendlier. The scenery the whole time was breathtaking. Most notably were cascading waterfalls gushing down towering cliffs. We were immersed in a water soundscape - every possible pitch and tone that a gigantic volume of rushing water can make. A new challenge plagued me when we came to swing bridges. My left knee became inflamed and it was excruciating to climb up and down steps. I had to go slowly, putting most of my strength on the right knee. How annoying! We could have been sailing over these swing bridges otherwise. It was almost 5:00 PM when we crossed Roaring Burn swing bridge before limping into Quintin Lodge after a 9 mile hike. What a glorious moment! 
In our room, which once again looked out to jaw dropping Fiordland scenery, I peeled off my wet clothes, and collapsed into a deep slumber. An hour so so later we were both rested and refreshed and ready for the evening routine. Over dinner we had cheerful conversations with an Australian couple from Singapore, and a couple from England on their honeymoon.

Day 4

We followed a steady downhill trail on this last day of hiking the Milford Track. Reasonably easy, but due to my inflamed knee, it was absolute agony to step over the many fallen tree trunks. The weather was pretty good, starting out with a slight drizzle, and clearing up as the day progressed. We encountered stream crossings immediately, meaning another full day of soggy socks. 

Spectacular scenery was once again the order of the day, starting out with thundering Sutherland Falls, the 5th highest waterfall in the world. More swing bridges as we descended Gentle Annie, a rocky hill. Then came a flat stretch through moss covered rainforest. We stopped for coffee at Boat Shed, a welcome shelter from the infamous sandflies which were starting to annoy us. After crossing a swing bridge we came to Mackay Falls, famous on this trail, and Bell Rock. Just before our lunch stop we arrived at a tricky section. A narrow, sloping trail was cut into a steep granite cliff. To the right was a sheer drop into Lake Ada. Luckily, the "sweeper" guide was with us. He cautioned me to take small steps into rock grooves. With adrenalin pumping I finally got past this 200 meter stretch. The trail leveled off into a rainforest. The last stretch, after lunch, was pretty flat and wide, making it possible to pay full attention to the lushness, and the dramatic slopes and valleys and the mountain peaks and water falls and Lake Ada. 

The track came to an end at Sandly Point, after a 13.5 mile walk today. Here, we were served hot drinks, used the clean, modern restrooms, fought off sandflies, then boarded the boat to Milford Sound. As we approached the harbor, the stunning fiord scenery evoked memories of Norway's west coast. Mitre Peak, instantly recognizable, poked up through a cloud layer.  
At the harbor we boarded a coach which deposited us at luxurious Mitre Lodge. What an amazing location! The view from our bedroom was iconic Milford Sound. I could've just planted myself on the bed and stared out forever. 
As it was our last evening together as a group, we celebrated by dressing up in more elegant clothes which the company had collected from us back in Queenstown and ferried over to this lodge. Costumed cooks and the guides dressed in fancy evening wear added to an atmosphere of celebration. After dinner we gathered together one last time to receive certificates for completing the hike. 

Day 5 
When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Mitre Peak rising up from the beguiling waters of Milford Sound. Patches of fluffy cloud floated along its slopes adding to its mystique. My gaze shifted to the sunlit glacial mountains, some draped in a layer of snow, their contours clearly defined against a cerulean sky. I could even just about see some spray from the famous Bowen Falls. This was certainly one of those rare life moments to savor. How could I not feel a profound gratitude to be granted this incredible privilege?
After breakfast, we made our lunches one last time, a final group ritual, before packing up. 

Milford Sound

The short stroll from Mitre Lodge to the harbor provided a chance to feast our eyes on the scenery. We took photos, lots and lots of photos in hopes of making this moment last forever. The weather was just glorious for our cruise through the sound. As the boat left the harbor we got full frontal views of majestic Bowen Falls overlooked by a snowcapped mountain. We sailed through inlets, where we saw many waterfalls, then out into the Tasman Sea before turning around. The only interesting wildlife we saw were New Zealand fur seals basking on a gigantic boulder. We got as close to Stirling Falls as possible, and I managed to take a photo without getting drenched. Well, this most entertaining cruise was the perfect end punctuation mark on the Milford Track.

A 3 hour coach ride back to Queenstown, with a lunch stop in Te Anau took up the rest of the day. Highway SH94 cut through rugged Fiordland mountain scenery, and I wondered if this ranked in the Top 10 of the world's most scenic roads. However, an intrusion to our enjoyment occurred when the coach hit a boulder and got a flat tire. We made it all the way to Te Anau, but slowly and noisily! 

It was late afternoon when we found ourselves back at the Novotel in Queenstown. Our intense 5 days on the Milford Track caught up with us. Even though the town buzzed with pre-Christmas atmosphere, we were sapped of energy. After a low key dinner at an Indian restaurant, we returned to the hotel for a indulgent hot tub soak. Wow! Our aching limbs were so thankful. Afterwards, we strolled along the lake, absorbing the lively atmosphere, and then watched the sun set and the lake changing colors in the fading light.  The setting elicited contented smiles and sighs. We had just experienced one of our most stupendous weeks ever.

10 February 2017

New Zealand's Captivating South Island - Week 1

It starts in Christchurch ...

December 13 - 18, 2016

Kia ora! This is how New Zealanders greet visitors. And instantly this Maori word for "Welcome!" sweeps you into the the warmth and openness of the locals. Cultural pride and a commitment toward ethnic integration are in full display. A 3 Week Car Journey into LOTR Country provided an escape from the political despair back home. What sheer bliss to be greeted by a constant panorama of emerald lakes, gushing waterfalls, snow blanketed ridges, steep gorges, dense beech forests, fields choked with lupines of many hues, desolate beaches, etc., etc. We sampled and quaffed Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Otago Valley Pinot Noir; we chatted with locals; and pigged out on berries, cherries, and apricots acquired from roadside farm stands. It was all quite magical. 

We flew into Christchurch, picked up our rental car, a Yaris hatchback, and keeping on the left side of the road, we arrived at our delightful motel. We quickly learned that in New Zealand, motels consist of units rather than rooms. Each unit is like an apartment, often bigger than most London homes! We settled in easily spreading our gear into the bedroom, living room and decent sized kitchen, then headed out for Indian food. And boy, were we astonished at the intense flavors and perfectly prepared vegetables. Cousin Angie sampled the lamb curry and was so taken by it, she declared that we had to return to this restaurant on our last day of the trip.

In the morning the December sun was fierce and the sky cloudless. We strolled along surprisingly mellow streets into the downtown area. We were struck by how English everything felt. Also the severe earthquake in 2011 pretty much destroyed downtown, and the city is still in recovery mode. Pretty heartbreaking to see the damaged main cathedral. Giant contemporary sculpture works have been installed to perk up the area.

The Botanic Gardens, on the other hand, were utterly breathtaking. Spread along the banks of the pretty Avon River, and with its numerous ancient trees, graceful and lofty, a meander proved most uplifting. We enjoyed the tropical garden inside a glasshouse, and sniffing the heady perfumes of the roses in full bloom. We continued through Hagley Park, a vast green space that wraps around the Botanic Gardens, before emerging onto the street back to the motel.

An afternoon drive into Banks peninsula, an area that arose from ancient volcanic eruptions, rewarded with splendid scenery. Almost as soon as we left the Christchurch city limits the road emptied out and the scenery turned pastoral. We stopped at a farmstand and bought 2 huge bunches of bright and healthy asparagus and some plump, dark cherries. Driving on Summit Road we got a better sense of this coastline with harbors and bays radiating out from the center. We stopped in the little "French" town of Akaroa. On its high street little shops and cafes strive to give off a French village vibe. We enjoyed strolling down to the harbor, drinking in the vibrant colors and elegant contours that surrounded us. We debated whether to join the queue for a boat ride to see Hector's dolphins, but it was a little too late in the day for yet another activity.

The next morning we went crazy with our purchases at the food markets, before heading south on Highway 1. When we cut inland on Highway 79 the Southern Alps came into view.
The weather turned blustery, so we had our lunch of asparagus and scrambled egg sandwiches in a sheltered cemetery esconced in bucolic countryside.

Lake Tekapo and the Alps

Arriving at Lake Tekapo, our second destination, the turquoise water kept us spellbound. From our motel apartment just above the lake we had jaw dropping views. The weather was awful, with gusty winds and a steady drizzle. This area, the Mackenzie Basin, has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve. We drove up to Mt John Observatory, but it turned out to be a wasted effort since the mountains were hidden under thick cloud. So we indulged in a luxurious afternoon at Tekapo Springs, soaking in the deliciously warm thermal water, while gazing at the lake and mountains which were becoming increasingly visible as the weather cleared up. An equally enjoyable evening followed, starting with a homemade dinner featuring a variety of spring vegetables, accompanied by a decent local wine and a stunning view of lake and mountains from our dining table. Around 8:00 P.M. the sky was clear and daylight would linger past 10:00 PM. So we went for a long, long stroll along the lake, gulping in fresh mountain air. As darkness fell, we gazed at the sky, but a full moon made it a challenge to identify southern constellations.

From Lake Tekapo we drove to Twizel along a very scenic stretch of Highway 8. Large expanses of lupines blanketed the ground. Lake Pukaki, much bigger than Lake Tekapo, has the same turquoise blue quality due to glacial deposits. We headed west on Highway 80 to Mount Cook National Park. The mountain views were spellbinding despite the cloud hovering over Mt Cook. Over a picnic lunch across from the Hermitage Hotel, we gawped at Mt Cook, catching glimpses of its peak whenever the cloud lifted. We then took a short hike on a gentle trail for more views. A coffee stop at the Hermitage Hotel, was followed by a hike on the Tasman Valley trail. A steep, but easy climb brought us to the lake across from which we had a clear view of the Tasman Glacier. We were fascinated by the ice floes on the lake too.

Back on Highway 80 to Twizel, then a long, long drive through rolling countryside. Flocks of sheep everywhere, but hardly a human face around. We arrived in Dunedin late Friday afternoon.


It's the "Scottishness" of the city that impresses first. After a simple dinner of red lentil dhal, veggie sausages, and steamed broccoli prepared in the very elegant kitchen of our contemporary styled motel apartment (grey and maroon decor), we strolled out into the octagon. Among historic, architectural sights likes St Paul’s Cathedral and the Public Art Gallery were bars, cafes, and restaurants. A great summer vibe emanated from a spirited crowd and live music. At 10:00 PM it was still light. It's the furthest south we've been.
The bustling Saturday Otago Market the next morning was delightful. Was the entire town here? Produce stands brimming with early summer fruit and vegetables required willpower to exercise restraint. There were stalls selling home made baked goods, cheeses, olives, coffee, just about everything. Miraculously we left the market with just coffee beans, wine, small pies, cherries, gooseberries and an irresistible Christmas pudding that looked better than homemade. The Edwardian train station grabbed our attention before we headed back to our motel. 
To our delight, the main road was closed off to traffic due to the city's biggest annual parade. It was graduation day and students in caps and gowns paraded down George Street, led by a band of bagpipers dressed in kilts. Couldn't have chosen a better day to be in town!

In the afternoon we drove into the Otago peninsula on a narrow, winding road right beside the water. The landscape became increasingly desolate and rugged. On a tour at the Royal Albatross Center at Tiara Head, we gazed in wonder at the great wingspan of the albatross gliding above us. From a look-out we watched adults sitting on eggs in nesting grounds.
As we strolled along the cliffs, and stared in fascination at the choppy waters out here in the roaring 40's, we wondered why living things would choose this harsh climate.

A 90 minute tour through a series of hides at Penguin Place gave us the opportunity to see a few yellow eyed penguins as they left the ocean and waddled over to their roosting sites.
We'd seen African dwarf penguins in Cape Town, South Africa, where hundreds are easily visible, so this was a bit disappointing.

We ended our time in Dunedin at the famous Speyside Brewery, along with the families of graduates. Here, we enjoyed a hearty tomato soup, filo puffs, and their special IPA. For dessert we returned to our apartment for Daryl's stewed gooseberries (from the morning farmer's market) served with a rich creamy custard. And that was just the perfect way to end our time on the east coast of South Island.