I was pretty excited to get to the South Island of New Zealand. The North Island was great, and everything I had read said that the South Island was even better.
The South Island –despite being the geographically larger of the two New Zealand islands – has only 1/3 the population of the North Island. In fact Auckland alone is home to more people than the entire South Island. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island, and it is still recovering from devastating 2011 earthquakes.
Still, the people who call the South Island home live in one of the most scenic places on earth.
Day 1 (Golden Bay)
The North Island had treated us well, but it was time to move on to the South Island. We got up early to head over to the ferry. You have to be at the ferry and checked in at least an hour before it leaves. And this is not a ferry like you typically think of (at least in my case). It was huge – more like a ship at 600 feet long with 10 decks.
We did not have any issues checking in, which I was a little nervous about because our tickets were booked through the car rental. There was a delay between check in and boarding time, but this allowed me to snap some shots of the sunrise.
The ferry ride itself took about 4 hours, but there is plenty to do on the ferry including a movie theater. I chose to sit up top on the observation deck. Alyce joined me at the beginning and end, but the wind whipping though Cook Strait (between the islands) was too much for her.
The scenery leaving the North Island was great, and the ride through Queen Charlotte Sound had you oohing and ahhing at every turn. So it really wasn’t a bad way to spend 4 hours.
We departed the ferry nearly 6 hours after leaving our Wellington apartment, but we still had a good bit of driving to do to get to Golden Bay.
I originally considered staying in Nelson (the big town in this area), but the main attraction around here is Abel-Tasman national park so I wanted to be closer to it despite a longer drive.
Everything I read kept bringing up Golden Bay as a truly untouched and pristine area of a relatively pristine and untouched country. The downside was that it was a 3.5-4 hour drive from the ferry as opposed to the 90 minute drive to Nelson (or 2 hours to towns a little closer to the park) with the last part being over a windy hill…and we had to backtrack to get our next destination.
In what would become a general theme for the South Island (and trip in general), the extra travel time was worth it.
We stopped at the winery Kahurangi Estate on our way to Golden Bay to break up the driving. It was a very nice property and had some good wine. It also had a cafe that was supposed to serve pretty good pizza. We purchased another bottle f wine and forged on on our longest day of travel in New Zealand.
Before crossing “the hill” that separates Golden Bay from Tasman Bay, we stopped at a grocery store not being exactly sure what was on the other side. This turned out to be unnecessary as we would have been just fine waiting to buy groceries in the town of Takaka.
After a long day of traveling, we finally made it to our the Villas of Ligar Bay. These were two identical two bedroom villas. The second one was empty our first night. They had a great outside deck overlooking Golden Bay and was perfect for watching the sun set.
The only downside was that there was no air conditioning or internet in the villas. We were there in some of the warmest times of the year, and it really only got hot when the sun was setting and beating down on the villa. The internet was inconvenient, but the owners of the main property offered to let us come up to their property and use the internet as much as we needed.
Which brings me to a sidebar: a couple places we stayed said they had internet, but it was this type of situation (no internet in your room, but you can walk to the main house). Not a huge deal, but when you rely so heavily on the internet for planning and communicating home, it can make a difference. In the future, I’ll be sure to ask whether internet is available in our room – not just on the property.
Anyway, upon arriving at the villas, we met the guy owner who used to live in the US and was very talkative and friendly. We also met his wife a little later and she was very friendly as well.
I generally have a pretty good idea of what I want to do (and what the alternative options are), but here I was not sure if we wanted to go to Wharikiki Beach. It was yet another hour and half ride further away, but he assured me that we would be making a mistake if we missed it and we should go. I’m very happy we got the push in that direction.
After settling in, we cooked lamb sausage and potatoes that we picked at the grocery store. We watched the sunset with some wine and caught our favorite New Zealand show (My Kitchen Rules) and then called it a night.
Day 2 (Golden Bay)
No messing around today; lots on the agenda…We woke up early and drank a quick cup of coffee before heading down to meet up with Golden Bay Kayaks to kayak around Abel Tasman National Park.
Golden Bay Kayaks was a very friendly and safe organization; it was also relatively reasonably priced. They provide everything you need and bring along some sweets and coffee/tea for a stop on a beach. We were joined by two couples. One older couple who were from New Zealand and lived there all their lives, but said they hadn’t been to the South Island in 20 something years. They had rented a camper and were spending a couple months exploring the country. The other couple was a couple of…..interesting people from the Northeast US. They looked like they would have trouble kayaking – and did.
After some quick training on the beach, we were off. Seeing the national park from the water was really cool. There was plenty of wildlife – birds, etc. – visible from the kayaks. We also saw some stingrays in the water. We didn’t see any seals or dolphins, which they apparently do frequently. The water itself was unbelievably clear (100m visibility – allegedly from the guide…I don’t know about that, but it was unbelievably clear). Pupu Springs is also located in Golden Bay and is supposed to be the clearest water in the world.
We paddled through some rock formations and then took a break on a beach, but we couldn’t stay too long because the tide was quickly falling. We did some more exploring on the way back – including checking out a green lipped mussel farm. We stopped at one more beach to have our tea and “coookies” as the guide pronounced it.
Safely, back at the beach, we thanked the instructor and took a picture or two, then headed back to the villa. At this point we made the call to go ahead and take the trip over to Wharikiki beach; there was no point in being lazy – who knows when (if ever) we’d be back.
The drive over was about 75-90 minutes all said and done with the last half hour on a dirt road. The villa owner said you’d think you were heading to the middle of nowhere then all of a sudden there would be a parking lot with people; he was right.
The walk to the beach from the parking lot was about 30 minutes, but it really was a great walk in itself. We saw plenty of roaming lambs while walking over beautiful grassy rolling hills. By the end of the walk, we were convinced that it was worth making our way over here no matter what the beach itself ended up being like.
Eventually you clear the end of the walk and this long, scenic golden sand beach appears. Just off shore are giant rock formations…At that point there was no doubt that the drive over was worth it. The beach was huge and extremely minimally crowded. I can’t help but think that a place like this in the US would be overrun with people, completely changing the scene.
The villa owner had mentioned to us that people were seeing seal pups out here. We didn’t see any right away, but there was an area where about 15 of the 20 people at the beach were huddled around. While not getting our hopes up, we walked over to check out the scene. Seal pups, playing all over the place.
It was really neat to see. The pups were very playful and inquisitive of the humans. We stood and watched them play for about half an hour and then decided to walk to the other side of the beach.
We snapped some pictures all along the way, but they do not come close to doing the place justice.
After a couple hours walking around and taking in the scenery, it was time to start the trek back. The hike back was as scenic on the way over.
Another attraction nearby this area is Farewell Spit. It was named this by Captain Cook because it is the last land you see on the journey to Australia. We took the quick 15 minute trek up to the viewing point and took some pictures. It was neat, but not like the beach. Tours are offered out on the actual spit that are supposed to be cool, but that didn’t make it on our agenda.
On the way back to our villa, we stopped at Mussel Inn, which was a bar/café we had read and heard a lot about. It was a neat and quirky place with an even more interesting crowd (hippies, bikers, you name it). But it was definitely worth the stop.
I had a sampler flight of their house brewed beers; Alyce went with a glass of white wine. We also got some sausages to snack on. We enjoyed our drinks and soaked in the scene and then hit the road back to our villa, but we had one more stop to make.
Village Milk is a farm near our villa that sells very fresh raw/untreated milk. The milk is dispensed from a vending machine type setup (that apparently is only used there and in Europe). You can bring your own bottle or buy one from the machine next to it. Being that raw milk is illegal in Louisiana (thanks gov., as always you know what’s best for me), we had to try it out.
It was delicious – and much better for you than the crap you buy in a store that has a 3 month shelf life.
With smiles on our faces and a bottle full of milk, we arrived back at the villa. The wife was out working on her gardens and saw get in and came over to say hi/see how our day was. She also brought us a bowl of just picked cherry tomatoes from her garden that were delicious.
She was glad to here that we enjoyed our day and asked what we were doing the next day. I said probably taking the quick hike to the waterfall before heading to our next stop. At that point, she visibly sized us up and told us to skip that waterfall – go to the cave.
She told us that it was a trek to Rawhiti Cave, but completely worth it. “If you’re over 60 go to the waterfall; under 60, go to the cave.” We didn’t really have much of an option at that point. We’re old at heart, but not so much so that we want to be lumped in with the over 60 crowd.
She told us goodnight and went back to their house. We cooked up some lamb chops and potatoes for dinner and watched the sun set with a bottle of wine followed by some My Kitchen Rules on TV.
Overall, it was a long, but great, day. Definitely one of our favorites on the trip.
Day 3 (Blenheim)
If we were going to do this cave hike, we had to get up and moving. We almost backed out – mainly because I didn’t want to have to ride in a car for three hours all hot and sweaty – but we decided to go for it.
We walked up to the main house and paid for our stay and talked to the owners a little more. They were very friendly and funny. The wife was happy to hear we were going for the cave, whereas the husband was more of a waterfall guy.
To get to Rawhiti Cave, you have to go through a couple of private gates – eventually reaching a little grass parking lot. There was one other car parked when we arrived. A single wood sign indicating the cave trek got you on your way.
The beginning of the walk was relatively easy. Not too steep, through some dried out river beds, under trees. Just as we were getting ready to hit the steep part, the other couple (from the other car in the parking lot) passed us by, looking pretty worn out. They said it was doable (but tough) and worth it. Ok off we go.
The trek was steep and constant for a good 20-25 minutes. There were many points where you had to reach out for roots/trees to help yourself climb up. It was also very narrow and kind of slippery in parts. We took a couple breaks on the way up and we finally made it. I was pretty worn out.
The cave itself was very cool. Lots of stalactites/stalagmites growing outward at an angle. I think I read somewhere that they grew that way because of roots from the trees above. Either way, it was unique. And we were the only people there.
The walk down was nowhere near as tiring as the walk up, but it was equally difficult because you had to really watch your step to keep you from slipping on the steep parts. We passed by a couple on their way up and told them they’d make it, just take breaks. It definitely felt better to be on the way down.
We made it back to the car, tired and I was sweaty (but nothing like a New Orleans summer sweat). After one more stop at Village Milk, we were on our way to Blenheim.
The drive to Blenheim was not bad; it was about 3.5 hours. I wanted to stop at Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson, but they were closed for a private function.
Blenheim is the main town of the Marlborough Wine Region, which is probably the best known wine region in New Zealand – famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. But, there are also a lot of other good wine varietals produced there as well.
Our accommodation was at St. Leonard’s Vineyard Cottages. This was a really neat property amongst several vineyards. The owners had an extensive vegetable and herb garden, lambs, deer, and chickens on property. This land was not an actual vineyard itself (like our cottage in Hawke’s Bay), but it was directly adjacent to vineyards. There were a couple cottages to choose from; we stayed in “The Cottage.”
Upon arriving, we were greeted by the owner who was doing some maintenance work. He was very friendly and took us right to our room and told us everything we’d need to know, including pointing out our breakfast of homemade bread/jams and fresh eggs. He also said to not hesitate to come to the homestead to get help/recommendations for anything we needed.
We weren’t really sure what we felt like eating for dinner, so we just set off to drive through the town center and see what we felt like. A little take out place called Roast on the Run caught our eye (Alyce kept calling it Pig on the Run because the sign had a pig running on it).
It had some delicious, reasonably priced home cooked style takeout meals. The only meat left at this point (and it wasn’t that late) was beef roast, which we both got. It also came with vegetable and potatoes…and it all really hit the spot.
Following dinner, we set out to explore the property before the sun set. We came across some lambs that got really excited about eating grass out of your hands, despite having an ample supply right at their feet. The property on the whole was very nice and well maintained. There was even a grass tennis court. This was a great place to stay – both for the cottages themselves and the location.
Back at the cottage, we popped open a bottle of wine knowing that we’d soon be buying more and watched some Sopranos episodes while working on blogs/pictures. We got some stuff posted then called it a night.
Day 4 Blenheim
After several early mornings in a row, it was nice to have a morning with no real rush. We slept in and ate a leisurely breakfast before heading out to taste some more wine.
Luck was not exactly on our side this day when it came to Vineyards being open. Our first attempt was Clos Henri…closed.
Next up was Seresin, which was fortunately open. We tasted through their wine standard tasting lineup and even got a few “behind the bar” pours. All the wine was very good. We bought a bottle of red and white to take with us. I’ve since found this wine sold at the Metairie Martin’s Wine Cellar. If you’re looking for a nice summer white wine, I highly recommend Seresin.
Fromm Vineyards was just a quick hop from Seresin. They also made some very good wines here. We tasted everything they had and bought a bottle of pinot noir.
I wanted to head to Te Whare Ra next, but – like Clos Henri – they were closed. Moving along.
Gibson Bridge was our next stop. This was a very small husband/wife run boutique winery. They did everything, from the farming and wine making to pouring the tastings for people who show up to taste. It was good to get the small winery experience. We tasted through their wines, which were also good. I don’t remember exactly what kind of wine we bought from them, but I think it was a red.
With several vineyards being closed, we had run out of my A-List stops. Another spot on my radar was Cloudy Bay, which also served food. So, we headed in that direction.
Cloudy Bay was a bigger, more commercial operation. I think I’ve seen their wine in the US. We tasted through their lineup (it was ok) and ordered a meat and cheese plate for a snack. It was good, but it did not come close to the Deliciosa charcuterie platter.
I had read about a chocolate shop, which I knew would be right up Alyce’s alley. So I figured we’d give that a shot. It was ok. There were a lot of chocolate options, but they were all very expensive. We did try a sample or two, but left empty handed.
Back at the cottage, we decided that we wanted Roast on the Run again for dinner, and we made sure to get there early so we’d get our pick of the options…But, it was closed for an offsite catering. Bummer.
Chi Chi’s Thai was a restaurant that was supposed to be pretty good, and we hadn’t had Thai food since we pigged out on it in Thailand. So that was next up.
The food was good, but not as good as the food we ate in Thailand. Though, that is probably an unfair comparison. A bachelorette party showed up shortly before we were finishing, so that provided some entertainment.
Before going to bed, we drank some more of our wine and caught a few Sopranos episodes (while working on the blog/pictures).
Day 5 (Kaikoura)
We were up with a purpose this day; we had a 12:30 booking to swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura. We packed and ate our fresh breakfast, then were off on the road.
Fortunately, this was one the quicker drives of the trip at only about 1:45. We did stop at Oahu point, which is a good spot for checking out seals. Still, we were at our destination with time to spare.
Swimming with the dolphins is highly regulated, so as to not disturb the dolphins. Only one company, Encounter Kaikoura, is allowed to operate this tour.
The dolphins encountered as part of the tour are Dusky Dolphins. These dolphins are relatively small with a pudgy nose. Like most dolphins, they are very intelligent animals.
The dolphins encountered on the tour are completely wild and are not even fed. As such, it is up to you to do goofy stuff (squeal, spin, etc.) to entertain the dolphins and get them to play with you. Otherwise, they just swim by you. This was all explained at a briefing after handing out the gear for the trip.
The ride to find the dolphins can be up to an hour long; it is apparently very rare to not encounter the dolphins at all. Once the boat is on a pod of dolphins, they tell you to hurry up and go sit on the stern of the boat. When the engine is completely killed, a horn sounds and you jump in.
The first jump in takes your breath away – literally. It was freezing cold. But you get used to it pretty quick with the thick wetsuit provided, and then you notice all the dolphins swimming around you. It was really cool; if you do the goofy stuff they said some of them would swim in a circle around you and check you out.
After a couple minutes, the dolphins swim away. At that point, the boat sounds the horn, and you swim back to the boat to go to the next spot. All said and done, you get 5 swims, which is the limit the government enforces.
On the way back, the boat found some more dolphins that were swimming and playing at the bow of the boat. You can walk up to the front and get a very good view of them playing which was neat too. Overall, the dolphin experience was definitely worth it.
We were spending the night in Waves Apartments, which were located right by the dolphin encounter. The apartments were very nice and had a lot of the little modern touches that some of the more rustic cottages had been missing – hello air conditioning. That said, we were freezing when we arrived, so I hopped straight into a hot shower.
New Zealand is known for its fish and chips, and we had not yet tried despite being in the country for nearly two weeks. I had read about a takeaway place called Himes Fish & Chips that was supposed to be very good. It was packed with locals, when we got there – so I took that as a good sign.
I ordered fish and chips; Alyce got a grilled fish. They do an unbelievable job of frying the fish and draining the oil. It was served in a paper bag, and the bag did not have a single oil spot on it after the 10 minutes it took us to get home. I was impressed. Both of our meals were very good. I was happy we gave it a shot.
We finished the day with our normal routine of wine/Sopranos/blogging and called it a night.
Day 6 (Akaroa)
We had another early start this day with an early morning whale watching trip. Whale Watch Kaikoura is the only organization that is allowed to do whale watching tours in Kaikoura. Despite not having competition from alternative vendors, the company really did a good job and was very professional in its operation.
Kaikoura is the whale watching capital of New Zealand. There is an abundance of sea life just off shore as a result of the unique underwater habitat.
There is a deep trench just offshore of Kaikoura in which two ocean currents collide, making the water extremely nutrient dense (and this is apparently what also gives the water its unique greenish color). All the nutrients provide a hefty start to the bottom of the food chain, which works its way up and is why there are many whale species there year round. Kaikoura is also home to a lot of marine research vessels.
We arrived early for our cruise and checked in. While waiting for your cruise, there is a video playing that describes the area and all the marine life typically seen. Once it is time to depart, a brief safety presentation is given then everyone is bussed to the whale watching vessels.
The vessels are specifically designed for whale watching and were very nice. Inside were rows of seating almost like an airplane – but more spacious. It was also designed to be as stable of a ride as possible in waters that can get rough. The outside decks had plenty of space for everyone to have a good view.
It took the captain about 30-45 minutes to find a whale on the surface. Once one is found, the boat has to race over because they only surface for 5-10 minutes before diving down for an hour.
We got a good 5 minutes or so with the first whale. It is pretty cool to watch it sit on the surface and recover before it dives down deep to feed. The boat crew can tell when the whale is getting ready to dive down. They warn everyone to that wants a picture of the tail to get their cameras up.
It was only a couple minutes after the first whale dove before we were on the next one. Having seen one and gotten some good pictures, the second sight is more relaxed (for lack of a better term). You can really just watch the whale and enjoy it.
On the way back to the dock we rode through a pod of dolphins and stopped to watch them for a little bit. The tour guide also explained a lot of what is currently known about sperm whales. I didn’t realize that sperm whales were never hunted for their meat, but it is their oil that is prized. Apparently modern technology still can’t create an oil that matches the performance or sperm whale oil at all of the varying pressures/temperatures that are needed.
Back on land, we snapped some more pictures of the scenery with the sun out and shining before heading to our next destination.
The drive to Akaroa wasn’t too bad. It took about 3.5 hours. To get there, you pass through Christchurch, which is where I originally planned to stay. But, it is still hurting from the earthquakes suffered a couple years back. Plus, Akaroa looked like a neat little town to visit.
All that said, I was questioning my decision to have us venture roughly 2.5 hours out of the way (1:15 in each direction) for a one night stay as we were driving past Christchurch. Again continuing with the general theme, it was worth it.
Akaroa is a small coastal town with beautiful greenish water set amongst green rolling hills. There are several good dining options in the town, and it was a nice relaxing place.
We stayed at Mumfords vacation rental in Akaroa. It is a side house off the main home of a Christchurch law professor and her niece. The lady was very nice and said that she planned to one day use the rental as her retirement home because the main house was a little bit of a climb to reach. In the meantime, they rented it out to provide a little extra money to spend while traveling.
Mumfords had all the necessary modern conveniences along with a great deck overlooking the harbor. It also had a very good internet connection, which was much needed after having to use our phones for most of the past week. Overall, it was one of our favorite accommodations of the trip; we easily could have spent several days here just taking it easy.
After getting settled in, I took a walk around the property to take some pictures and just check it out. When I returned, we opened a bottle of white wine and drank it out on the porch before heading out to dinner.
Dinner was at a place called “The Little Bistro.” We called to make reservations before going, which the owner/hostess really appreciated, as opposed to lining up with the rest of the crowd waiting for it to open.
The food was something like a modern French style and was very good. It was probably our favorite meal in New Zealand (along with the Charcuterie platter at Delicosa). After dinner, we walked around the town a little more before heading back.
We had some more wine while watching the sun set and caught some of My kitchen Rules before going to bed. I was up later than I should have been as I found the season finale of the first season of 24 just getting started as I was going to bed; I obviously had no option but to stay up and watch it.
Day 7 (Mt. Cook)
We weren’t in a huge rush to get going this day, but we couldn’t delay too long as we still had a decent drive. Plus, there were supposed to be several spots to stop and take pictures along the way.
After some coffee (including making some for the road in our new souvenir travel mugs), we checked out and hit the road. The first portion of the drive was pretty uneventful, and I was a little disappointed to be leaving the coastal regions for inland. That said, we’d soon come across more water – just in the form of lakes.
There were a couple lakes along the way with very blue glacial water, along with a mountain backdrop. It was really quite scenic. Apparently the water is colored that way from something called glacial flour that develops in glaciers. We had to stop and explore along the way at a couple places.
After about 6 hours of driving and exploring (about 4.5 hours of pure driving), we arrived at Aoraki, which is what the town at Mt. Cook is called. I had expected this to be the coldest stop in New Zealand…you know with all the mountains and glaciers. Nope. It was in the mid 80’s when we got there – probably our hottest stop in New Zealand. It did cool down at night though.
We were staying at the Mount Cook Lodge, which is exactly what it sounds like – a lodge. There was a common kitchen/common area, but each room had its own bathroom. Really, it was a fine place to spend the night…and at a fraction of the cost of the nearby hotel (The Hermitage).
With the car unloaded, we iced down some white wine to cool us off. Then we walked over to the Mountaineer Café for dinner. Our meal was good, though nothing spectacular. It did have a really nice view of Mt. Cook, but everywhere you walk does in this area. Still, it was reasonably priced (for the remoteness), and I’d have no problem returning.
After dinner, I decided to go for a walk while Alyce caught some of her favorite new TV show (My Kitchen Rules). I was lucky enough to catch a really neat sunset. The sun had ducked behind one part of the mountain, but remained at the perfect angle to paint Mt. Cook red. It was very cool; the pictures don’t do it justice. Even the lodge workers were taking pictures with their cell phones, so it must have been pretty rare.
When the sun had completely disappeared, I joined Alyce in the room to watch some TV and catch up on the internet (which was extremely reasonably priced at something like $5 for unlimited internet for 24 hours).
Day 8 (Queenstown)
Three straight one night stays had worn us down a bit. Moving at that pace was necessary, but tiring. Fortunately, we’d be heading to Queenstown today for 4 straight nights. That said, it was a little bittersweet knowing that Queenstown was our last New Zealand stop.
We wanted to go out and do a walk before leaving Mt. Cook, so we were up and at ‘em. The lodge worker helped us pick out a good trail, which we decided on the glacier walk.
It was a pretty uphill 30 minute trek or so – but nothing like Rawhiti Cave in Golden Bay. We relaxed at the top and took some pictures. You don’t get a scale for just how large the glaciers are until one of the glacier tour bots rides by looking like an ant.
We made it back down and were off on our last drive of New Zealand. The drive turned out to be a very scenic one, passing through Lindis Pass. It was also pretty twisty/windy, but not the most curvy road we had been on.
The drive would have been about 3.5 hours of driving, but we took a little detour to Felton Road Winery in Central Otago. Central Otago is known for its Pinot Noir, being a more fruit forward Pinot than those found elsewhere in New Zealand.
Felton Road was located on a very nice property and has a little tasting room right in the middle of the vineyards. We tasted several of their wines and enjoyed them all. And despite having more wine left to drink than days to drink it, we bought another bottle.
Another hour or so of driving later, we had made it to the Hilton Queenstown. The hotel was pretty crowded as the New Zealand PGA Championship was being played the weekend we were there, and the Hilton was its headquarters.
The Hilton is located across the lake from downtown Queenstown. This was a minor inconvenience, as you have to drive to town and park. It wasn’t too bad though, as it was actually closer to some of our activities (Milford helicopter/skydiving).
We used hotel points, so staying at the Hilton was a no brainer. Otherwise, I’d check what rates look like at the downtown properties (including parking which was free at the Hilton).
Otherwise, I though the hotel was pretty nice. All of the staff was very friendly, and we had a room with a nice view of the lake. Breakfast was pretty…meh, and we did not try any of the dinner restaurants.
We checked in and took it easy in the room for a little bit. Staying in all of the vacation rentals was great, but it is nice to have all the creature comforts and conveniences of a big, modern hotel.
I got on some planning while we were taking it easy. Queenstown was the one place I left pretty open because you can do pretty much anything there, and I had no idea what we would be up for at this point. One thing that was definitely on my list was doing a tour of Milford Sound.
I called up a couple of the highly regarded tour places to see if they had any spots open for the next day and to see what the weather looked like for the next couple days. My first choice had two open spots for the next day at a pretty good discount (calling a day ahead of time is potentially a good way to save on helicopter rides). Plus, the weather was not looking that great for the following days – apparently you can only make it to Milford by helicopter about half of the days during summer…We were in, so I booked it before heading out for dinner.
We didn’t have firm plans for dinner, but we did have some ideas. So, we just headed downtown and walked around to check out the area and see what caught our eye. I was kind of in the mood for pizza, and Alyce wanted mussels – both of which were available at Winnie’s Pizzeria.
Winnie’s had a nice outdoor balcony on the second floor, so you could catch all the action going on outside. The pizza was good – definitely better than the pizza I had in Singapore. Alyce also really enjoyed her mussels.
Following dinner, we made our way back to the room for our nightly routine—wine and Sopranos. It was also nice to know that we did not have to get up and drive a couple hours the next day.
Day 9 (Queenstown)
We were excited to get up and moving this day. Our second helicopter ride along with a tour of Milford Sound was on the agenda. We had really enjoyed our helicopter tour of the Great Barrier Reef, so we had high expectations for this one.
Breakfast at the Hilton was decent. You had to pay extra to upgrade from the continental breakfast to the full breakfast (eggs)…but it was definitely not worth the cost. Service was also pretty slow and spotty with the hotel completely full from the golf tournament. Still, it was better than the Park Hyatt Sydney at a fraction of the room cost.
Our helicopter tour was booked through Glacier Southern Lakes helicopter tours. They sent a car over to pick us up; the tour included transportation, the helicopter ride, and the Milford Sound tour.
Sidebar: helicopter tours are really cool but are generally also really expensive. There were several other spots I would have loved to have taken a helicopter tour, but it was not in the budget. So what’s my point – If you are in New Zealand and are debating a splurge activity, I’d strongly consider this. Not only is the helicopter ride/glacier landing unbelievable on its own, but you skip 10 hours in a bus getting to/from Milford Sound from Queenstown.
Moving on…We had a brief safety orientation and were off on the helicopter. It was Alyce and I, along with two other couples. Somehow we lucked out and got the front seat of the helicopter the entire way to Milford Sound.
The views were incredible, starting with the moment you leave Queenstown, with its blue lake and mountain backdrop. But it only gets better.
Shortly later, you are above the clouds with mountains peeking through. You also swing by some glaciers/glacial lakes for a closer look.
But the coolest part of the trip is when you set down on top of a glacier and get out to take some pictures/walk around.
After some real ooh/aah moments approaching Milford Sound, we landed and caught a tram over to the boast we’d be taking for the tour. As per usual, I went straight up to the observation deck while Alyce went looking for some coffee or tea inside.
It wasn’t long before the boat took off. There was a tour guide over the loud speaker describing the different areas and the developmental history of each. It really was something to see. After viewing the sound from the air, you get a totally different perspective from the water. The peaks just shoot up from the water; they are unbelievably tall and steep.
Along with the scenery, we saw penguins, dolphins, and plenty of seals along the way. My camera was in danger of running out of batteries for the first time. Though I’ll repeat the chorus that the pictures can’t come close to doing this place justice.
The boat tour was a very cool experience on the whole. I had considered skipping it since we were doing the helicopter ride, but that absolutely would have been a mistake. It doesn’t take you long once there to figure out why people endure the 10 hour round trip on a bus.
Our helicopter pilot was waiting for us when we made it back to the dock, and we were shortly back on the helicopter and in the air. We sat in the back seat on the ride back, and – no matter what they tell you – the front seat is unquestionably better than the back seat.
After another scenic ride, we were back to Queenstown and got a ride from Glaicer Southern Lakes to the Hilton. On the day, Glacier Southern Lakes gets two thumbs up; I’d highly recommend them.
With such an eventful day, we were looking for something quick and easy for dinner. I had read about a no-frills fish and chips shack (Aggy’s Shack) in downtown that was supposed to be very good, so we decided to try it out.
I got the fish and chips, which was very good. Alyce had some more mussels, which was right up her alley. Aggy’s is definitely a good spot for quick no-fuss dinner.
We made our way back to the Hilton and ended our night with our normal routine…wine, internet/blogging, and Sopranos.
Day 10 (Queenstown)
Skydiving Day…Would we actually go through with it?
Alyce had gotten herself in this mess. She mentioned that she would be up for skydiving at some point several weeks back. I don’t think she meant it at all, rather it was just fun to talk about. Her mistake…I said that I’m on board and we’re doing it. Alyce wanted to back out…badly.
We ate our Hilton breakfast, then had some time to kill before our afternoon jump. Alyce used that time to try to talk me out of going; I was holding firm.
Finally, it was time to head to the drop zone. Upon arrival, they told us we had to wait for roughly 90 minutes before we’d start getting suited up. I thought Alyce would back out having to sit there and wait, but it actually calmed her. She was able to see all the people come down and safely land, seemingly really enjoying themselves.
N-Zone Skydive is the only skydiving operation in Queenstown. There was another one about 45 minutes outside of Queenstown, but they used smaller planes and were much further out of the way.
I checked extensively in to N-Zone and skydiving safety in general and was satisfied that we would touch down safely. My only complaint was the policy to not let you wear a tied down GoPro for “safety reasons”…more like $200 photo package reason. Which is why we only got one photo package, and I made the call that Alyce would be more entertaining – I was right.
After the wait, they came and got us – time to start getting suited up. This was Alyce’s last shot to backout, and she did not.
Suited up, we each met our tandem jumper then walked over to the plane. The plane itself was a pretty good size for a skydiving plane. Everyone sat on the floor facing the rear and attached to their tandem jumper. The plane took off and it was a very scenic 15 minute ride to altitude.
We both jumped from 12,000 feet, and Alyce was first in line to jump. Though to be clear, you don’t actually do the jumping. You scoot out to the edge with your legs dangling and the tandem jumper actually pushes off.
Alyce definitely had an uneasy look to her, but there was no turning back at this point. A couple rocks back and forth on the edge and then they were out. There were a couple jumpers between Alyce and I, and then it was my turn.
I wasn’t too nervous; I had read enough to convince myself that this was a very safe activity. Still, you get a little nervous looking out the edge of the plane from 12,000 feet in the air. You don’t have long on the edge before you jump; before you know it, you’re free falling.
From 12,000 feet, the freefall is about 45 seconds. The weirdest part is when you first jump out because you are accelerating rapidly. After about 10 seconds or so, you are completely stabilized and at terminal velocity, so there is much less of an actual falling sensation. Though, there is still no doubt that you are hurling at a very fast pace towards the ground.
When we reached the altitude to release the shoot, the tandem jumper deployed it (there is an automatic backup in case of a malfunction). You decelerate very quickly once the shoot is released; it even feels like you are moving upwards.
The ride down was nice and relaxing. Queenstown is a beautiful area to just observe – the lake is a deep blue color and the Remarkables mountain range run along the city.
At one point on our way down, I said something to my tandem jumper about feeling some G–forces after he did some turns with the parachute – merely making an observation. He misunderstood and thought I wanted to feel more, so he took us into a controlled spin which left me feeling lightheaded.
Both of our landings were without issue, and we were safely on the ground with the experience of skydiving.
We took a picture and then changed out of our suits and were on our back to the hotel still on an adrenaline high. We called our parents when we got back – only then informing them that we were going skydiving and that we had already successfully done it.
After a little relaxing, it was off to downtown. The plan for the night was to ride the Skyline Gondola up and then ride the luges, followed by dinner. The gondola ride was about 10 minutes to the top. We bought a couple luge ride tickets and then caught the chairlift to the top of the course.
Having jumped from a plane 12,000’ in the air earlier in the day, going for a luge ride might seem pretty unexciting – but we actually had a lot of fun on the rides we did. You can race down, and it feels like you are moving pretty fast through the twists and turns.
We had purchased the buffet-gondola combo, which made the dinner pretty reasonably priced. The restaurant had great views with giant windows looking out over Queenstown in just about every direction. There were plenty of food options. Everything was enjoyable, and I’d have no problem returning….But at the same time, it won’t be confused with Takazawa or Robuchon any time soon.
After the Gondola ride back to the Queenstown floor, we drove back to the Hilton to end a pretty eventful day. We closed the night with our normal routine of internet/blogging/wine/Sopranos.
Day 11 (Queenstown)
Finally, a day to take it easy and relax…I had planned on taking our first day in Queenstown easy, but we ended up doing the Milford tour because I didn’t want to risk missing out because of weather. It probably worked out better taking the last day easy.
So, without much on the agenda, we slept in and ate a late leisurely breakfast at the Hilton. We then spent some time catching up on blogging and editing pictures. We also started getting organized for our first flight in 18 days.
We were facing one potential packing problem – wine. We had five bottles left with only one night to drink them, and we rarely drink more than a bottle. I had seen a product called “wine skins” downtown made for packing wine in a suitcase – these act to keep the wine from breaking and contain it in the event it breaks. I added buying a couple of these to our agenda for the day.
After a relaxing morning, we drove downtown one last time to try to spot the elusive kiwi…not in the wild, but at the Kiwi Birdlife Park.
The park was a nice relaxing way to spend the afternoon. We caught a kiwi feeding and were able to see the birds running around and feeding in their natural habitat – a very dark room. They were funny little creatures and would make some goofy noises. They kind of reminded me of Chunk. We couldn’t get any pictures because there was very little light and flash photography was strictly prohibited.
There were plenty of other bird exhibits at the park. The other highlight was the conservation show led by a staff member. They discussed a lot of New Zealand’s native animals and the problems they are facing from foreign species introduced to the country. One of the most troublesome creatures is the Australian possum – a creature we would soon cross paths with again.
Following the show, we took one final walk through downtown Queenstown for Alyce to tie up any shopping she had to do and to allow me to get some wine skins.
I decided on Ferburger for dinner. Ferburger is a very popular takeaway burger joint. I felt a little guilty about eating “cheat foods” because I had veered pretty far off path in Queenstown, but I decided it was worth it – and it was. Alyce ordered Mussels from Winnie’s to go, and we went back to eat at our hotel along with having a little wine with dinner.
With dinner behind us, it was time to pack. Packing for all those flights in a row was a pain, but we always kept everything orderly knowing that another flight was on the way. Living out of a car for two and a half weeks, we got a little less organized. Compound that with trying to squeeze in 3 bottles of wine (we gave the other one to the hotel concierge, who was helpful) and flying economy on an airline with strict luggage rules, making this one of the tougher pack jobs of the trip.
We packed most of our things and relaxed with the little time left before bed, along with working on the blog some. New Zealand had been wonderful, but it was time to head back to Australia.
South Island Concluding Thoughts
Most things I read prior to coming to New Zealand talked about how great the South Island was, and how you should spend most – if not all – of your time in New Zealand there. I was skeptical, but it lived up to the hype.
Golden Bay was very nearly not even on our itinerary (or anywhere in that area). It was a late addition. When planning out the number of days needed, I lumped Nelson and Blenheim together for some reason (I guess their close proximity on the map). But there is no way you could hit both areas from one spot.
Fortunately, I realized that while planning in detail and was able to free up some days elsewhere (one from Wellington, and changing a 2 night Christchurch stay to a one night Akaroa stay). This allowed us to stay in the Nelson area in addition to Blenheim. I further made the call to drive the extra distance to Golden Bay.
I can say that – without a doubt – it was worth the hassle to get there. In fact, if there is one place in New Zealand I’d call a must visit, it is Golden Bay. It really is an untouched area of a country that is pretty untouched/pristine in general. And if anyone reading this makes it to Golden Bay, a trip to Wharikiki beach is a must do.
Blenheim was pretty similar to many other medium sized New Zealand towns, except that it is the home of the most well-known wine region of New Zealand (Marlborough). All the vineyards we tasted at in Blenheim served some very good wine, on top of being very welcoming and friendly. That said, unless you are a wine buff (or have the time to spare to stop and spend a day tasting wine), Blenheim may not be worth a stop. If you do like wine tastings and can work it in your schedule. Blenheim is a great spot to stop.
Kaikoura is a small little seaside town. The main draw here is the sea wildlife – whales and dolphins. You can squeeze both in on a one night stay (as we did) if you are coming from not too far away.
Kaikoura is a must stop if you want to go whale watching, otherwise not so much so. That is not to say there was anything wrong with the town; we quite like it. But, there are other places probably better to spend the time if you are on a limited schedule (like most people would be).
We really enjoyed our brief stay in Akaroa. It was a really nice coastal town with some absolutely beautiful scenery. There seemed to be plenty of good restaurants to choose from. There were also a surprising amount of activities to do on longer stays – a in depth tour of the nearby penguin habitat is offered and you can also swim with wild dolphins in Akaroa.
If you plan your itinerary to fly out of Christchurch, Akaroa would be a great place to end your trip with a couple of relaxing days. Or really, it would also be a great place to provide a break in the middle of your New Zealand trip. If we had an extra day on our trip, I would have spent it in Akaroa without having to think about it.
Mount Cook was another brief stop. It is a mountain town and a perfect spot to stop if you’re making your way from the Christchurch area to Queenstown. You pass by some really scenic lakes on the way, and Mount Cook is very scenic itself. There are also plenty of trails to walk; there were also camping trails if that is more your thing. On the other end of the spectrum, the town also has a luxury hotel if you’re looking for somewhere to relax at the high end.
A one night a stop in Mount Cook worked well for us. We got to walk a trail and catch a beautiful sunset on Mount Cook. More nights would have been nice but are definitely not a necessity unless you are planning to do lots of hiking.
I had thought Queenstown was one of the bigger cities in New Zealand heading in to the trip because it is one of the more well known areas. It is not. There are only about 30,000 permanent residents in Queenstown and they are almost all in the tourism industry. So, the town exists solely because of tourism.
That is not to say it is a bad thing. The Queenstown area is beautiful – like most of New Zealand. Plus, you can literally do just about any activity you want there…White water rafting, Helicopter rides with glacier landings, wine tastings/vineyard visits, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Jetboating, skydiving, bungee jumping…I could go on for a while.
Point being, it is not a bad place to end your New Zealand itinerary. You can try many things along the way and see what you like, and – if there is anything you really want to do again – you could probably do it in Queenstown.
Queenstown also had plenty of restaurants and shopping, as well as resort style activities (golf). So, it is not a bad place to unwind at the end of a lot of moving around.
I would definitely try to make the trip to one of the sounds, if you won’t be staying in another town closer to them (Te Anau). That would probably be my must do activity of the area (preferably in a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft).
All that said, unless you need some time to unwind, I don’t know that you have to spend 4 nights in Queenstown. It worked for us, but – if our itinerary had been in a different order – we probably would not have spent 4 nights there.
There are also plenty of other areas potentially worth visiting that we were unable to make it to. While we came down the East coast of New Zealand, the West coast is supposed to have some cool spots as well. And I didn’t even look in to the Southern areas of the South Island, but I have to imagine that there are some areas worth visiting there as well.
It was a quick 11 days across the South Island, but it definitely lived up to the hype.