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.

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