58. Nature at its finest…
Before visiting New Zealand, I’d been to 57 countries, and had lived in Switzerland for almost 8 years. I knew majestic beauty and I knew that New Zealand would be filled with natural beauty, but it definitely was more than what I expected. With that said there is a contrast between the North and South island. North Island is bucolic, with long bus and car rides passing green fields and farms. While the South is what you imagine New Zealand to be with vast mountains, mirror lakes, wildlife, and nature scenes that seem to be paintings come to life. I was told that the South is where you want to be in the winter season (June - August) and the North is perfect for summer months (December - February). I only had 14 days in New Zealand, and initially thought to only spend them all on the North Island because it was so big with the possibility of venturing on the ferry just to cross the Cook Strait, but that would have been the fastest south. But then I saw the photos of Milford Sound and was hooked - I must be there! And then with a little more digging I saw that there were kayak trips on Milford Sound - I must kayak there! Milford Sound is far far down on the South Island, not the farthest south, but it was way past where I thought I would go. But I have a tendency to see something, set my heart on it, and accomplish that goal. The kayaking, while we didn’t go far through the fjord, was amazing! We saw several seals up close and personal, we got to take in the natural features at a slower pace, and the experience was something so different to taking a cruise ship like most people end up doing. It’s something I would recommend as a must do.
My planning was sporadic up until right before arriving in New Zealand, especially since I was going to meet up with a bunch of linguist friends who happen to be there at the same time. I knew roughly where I’d be and where, and I had pre-booked two plane tickets - one from Wellington to Christchurch, and the other from Queenstown to Auckland so I would make my international flight the same evening. I ended up only staying 5 days on North Island, and remaining 9 on the South Island. New Zealand was the perfect Western comfort stop over coming from 6 weeks in Indonesia. I ate so very well - highlights were all the burger joints I hit up, Odettes Eatery, Pio Pio Cafe, and Ivy & Lola’s Kitchen. What I didn’t expect to love was the cold crisp air. After living in Hawaiʻi for about a year and a half, this was my first time being back in weather that was non-tropical, which is anything less than 18°C/64°F. Wow did I sleep well in New Zealand! I had missed lounging in sweat pants and sweat shirts, pulling my jacket closer to my body, and basically moving without sweating.
Another highlight was the visit to the Whakarewarewa Māori Village. What I found so special about this place is that they are called a living village, because the Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao people live there and they still practice cultural traditions daily. Before deciding on visiting this Māori Village, there were so many to choose from, I thought we would experience a dinner and a show type of Māori visit - very typical, touristic, and unauthentic. But since we were booking way too late, there weren’t any available and we luckily stumbled upon the Whakarewarewa’s website. It is a true Māori village practicing community ecotourism. We were guests to their native land, and were able to wander around their village, join a walking tour about it, learn about the geothermal area which keeps the village’s traditions alive, enjoy traditional song and dance, and eat delicious hangi food (food cooked in geothermal pools). The day we visited there was a funeral for a highly respected individual, and hundreds of mourners came to pay respects. Non-Māori visitors were not allowed to be spectators of this cultural tradition - this was authentic and I was in total awe of the balance this community was able to make between their culture and living amongst the Western community. This is what I am studying linguistics for, this is what I hope to see indigenous populations strive for. Though we weren’t allowed to watch, we could hear the powerful Haka chanting, not the one for show, but the chants made for the dead, the living, and their traditions. Unless a guest decides to stay for the night, their village closes promptly at 5pm, so the land is once again just for themselves.
Overall, New Zealand was a true vacation for this independent traveller of exotic locals. The familiarity of the language, the hipness of the cities and its people, natural beauty, and ease of travel make this country one where little effort gives you big and memorable rewards.
Day 1: Auckland.
Arrived very late and took the SkyBus into the city. Stayed at Metro Adventurer Backpackers, it’s right next to the Sky Tower. Went to grab a burger, fries, and vanilla shake a Better Burger - a must try!
Day 2: Auckland/Hamilton.
Morning spent doing a walking tour of the city and the harbour. Came across a hipster area, the City Works Depot, and was lucky to get a seat at the bar of Odettes Eatery. The braised lamb for brunch was delicious. Took a mid-afternoon Intercity bus to Hamilton. Met up with my friend and his family for dinner and made plans for the next day. Stayed at Backpackers Central Hamilton.
Day 3: Hamilton/Rotorua/Taupo
Tagged along with my friend and his family to visit the Whakarewarewa Māori Village - highly recommended! Took a road trip down to Taupo for a coffee and spent the night in Hamilton again.
Day 4: Hamilton/Otorohanga/Waitomo
Again tagged along to Otorohanga Kiwi House and then to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. If you don’t have any other chances to see glowworms then go here, but if you can see them in the wild on a hike then it is a much better experience. Headed back to Hamilton to catch an overnight Intercity bus to Wellington.
Day 5: Wellington
Arrived very early and waited for a friend who lives there at the Starbucks in downtown. After meeting up and dropping off our bags the Willis Wellington Hotel we did a short walking tour of the city. Due to the extreme wind and rain we mostly ate our way from restaurant to cafe to bar to grocery store. Unfortunately didn’t get to see much of the city but was a nice catch up with my friend.
Day 6: Christchurch
Got an Uber to the airport and took a Jet Star flight to Christchurch where I had yet another friend who happened to be in town pick me up. We had delicious meat pies at a cute little place called Procope Coffee House. Because of the bad weather, again heavy rain and winds, we made it a museum day - all free! The Canterbury Museum was a education, quirky, and random national museum. Besides the wonderful exhibit upon entry about the first peoples of New Zealand and the land’s history, my favorite was the Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House. We stumbled into CoCA, Center of Contemporary Art, before finding our way to the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. At night we met up with a friend of his at a happening marketplace called Little High Eatery, which is a space that holds a bunch of different restaurants and pop-up food stalls. I had to try Bacon Brothers, and it was the best burger I had in Oz. We stayed at an AirBnB.
Day 7: Greymouth
We hit the road in the morning to cross the Southern Alps and traveled through Arthur’s Pass to get to Greymouth. It was a super scenic drive and we saw so many Kea birds aka alpine parrots! They are super pretty and curious birds that will peck at tires and destroy any plastic parts of your car. But be careful not to run them over because they are so friendly, they are endangered and number less than 5000 left. Greymouth ended up being a cute little mining town right on the western part of the South Island. We stayed at an AirBnB.
Day 8: Fox Glacier/Franz Josef
With another early start we headed south to Fox Glacier to do the Lake Matheson Trail Walk. It was a very easy 1-1.5 hour walk with gorgeous scenery at every turn. If you’re lucky you’ll see the mirror effect on the lake. Then we drove back up to Franz Josef and did the hike to the famous glacier. It was another quick and easy hike. We stayed at Glow Worm Accommodation where you have access to their hot tub. Instead of turning in early we heading out to do the Tatare Tunnels Walk at night to see glow worms. It’s an easy walk in the day time and no rain but that wasn’t the case for us, so it took twice as long and I was scared. When we got to the tunnels we headed in one and the other since it was such a tight space and after venturing in for 15 minutes had only seen a handful of glow worms and decided to turn back. On the way out through the forest we actually paid attention to the surroundings and there they were - thousands of glow worms clinging to the side of the mountain. It was incredible the amount of glow worms there and how close we could get to observe them. It was simply magical and ended up being well worth the scary night hike.
Day 9: Queenstown
Since my friend was headed north, I got up early to catch an Intercity bus to go south to Queenstown. It ended up being a SightSeeing bus, so the bus driver gave very good commentary throughout the journey and we stopped at a few scenic spots. I wasn’t expecting this so it was a treat to be able to take a few minutes to enjoy the gorgeous New Zealand scenery without zooming through it. Once at Queenstown I checked into the Haka Lodge and made my way to Fergburger to see what all the hype was about. Luckily I got there earlier than the dinner crowd and ordered a burger, fries, and a hot chocolate. The fries were unbelievable. Queenstown is traditionally a ski resort town and the season was just about to start when I got there. So book accommodation early, otherwise you’ll regret it. It’s a very easy village type town to walk around.
Day 10: Milford Sound
Another early morning Intercity SightSeeing bus to get to Milford Sound. It was great with all the stops and commentary. The drive is so pretty that you won’t mind stopping every 30-40 minutes even for a 5 minute chance to take photos. There were a few National Parks we also stopped at and were given 10-15 minutes to run around in and take those photos, I think if I was driving I wouldn’t know where to stop for these great shots so I do think it was a good choice. The stop at Jones Family Orchard was an unexpected delight, with seasonal fruits and lots of yummy souvenirs like kiwi cookies to pick up. I stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge and tried to book a kayak trip through the Sound - after seeing pictures online of this area I knew I had to get here and do this activity.
Day 11: Milford Sound
Unfortunately, the kayak trip didn’t happen for me. Instead I walked from the lodge to the pier where all the tour ships took off from and enjoyed the lovely views from there. Luckily I was able to book a kayak trip for the next morning after some stressful back and forth. The two nights I ate at the Lodge’s restaurant, Pio Pio Cafe, and it was one of my top 5 dining experiences in New Zealand. The first night I had the Wild Fiordland Venison Tenderloin, the second night the South Island Lamb, and the afternoon of the third day the fruit crumble dessert was to die for - all seasonal and local ingredients.
Day 12: Milford Sound/Queenstown
The kayak trip with Roscoe’s was tops! A must do as it is such a different way to experience the Sound. We didn’t get too far, like you would on the cruise ships, but we got up close and personal with a handful of sea lions, birds, and fish. It was an exuberating experience that will work out your arms, back, and heart for a good 1-1.5 hours when you’re in the water. A new friend I met from the Lodge and my kayak buddy offered to let me ride with him back to Queenstown. We took off later in the afternoon so we were able to catch the sunset over the mountain passes. The only backpackers we could book when we got in past 10pm was Hippo Lodge Backpackers - it was not nice.
Day 13 & 14: Queenstown
I had a full day in Queenstown by myself and instead of spending money on the gondola I did the Queenstown Hill hike and was not disappointed. It took me 3.5 hours roundtrip because I took my time checking out the mushrooms on the way up through the forest and had a small picnic at the top with the views! It overlooks the whole town and Lake Wakatipu so taking my time up here was time well spent. I checked into Adventure Q2, a much nicer backpackers, then took a stroll to the Queenstown Gardens for sunset and had the best meal of my time in Oz at Ivy & Lola’s Kitchen & Bar right in the heart of the town. It’s located right on the wharf and are known for their three hour slow roasted rib-eye steak - AMAZING! It was the perfect night to cap off a lovely two weeks in this idyllic country.