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.

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