New Zealand South Island (mostly) Trip Report

Old Apr 13th, 2013, 12:49 PM
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New Zealand South Island (mostly) Trip Report

Hi, all -- since I find other people's trip reports so helpful I've decided to post one of mine. It's about our trip to NZ's South Island (with a brief stop in Auckland) in 2011. So -- slightly dated but might still be of use. If you're headed to NZ, I envy you. It was our best trip so far.

Friday, March 25, 2011: NY to NZ

And away we go! We took a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles on American Airlines, which didn’t even give us free peanuts. (What’s more, the in-flight movie, Made in Dagenham, kind of stunk.) Next came the 13-hour trip from L.A. to Auckland on Qantas, which scored big points for food (dinner, snacks and breakfast) and general hospitality. The trip seemed much shorter than we’d anticipated; we were able to sleep even in our coach seats. Susan also had an in-flight entertainment fiesta with The Black Swan (B+), Due Date (C), a couple of 30 Rocks and several episodes of Modern Family.

Saturday, March 26, 2011: En Route

This was an exceptionally short day, as we crossed the international date line. We did a fist bump as we tracked the plane’s progress on the flight monitor.

Sunday, March 27, 2011: Auckland to Christchurch

We arrived in Auckland around 9 a.m., greasy-haired and bleary-eyed but with 13 hours until our flight to Christchurch (yes, this was by design – we figured it would be nice to see a bit of the North Island). Auckland is the largest city in the New Zealand, and home to more than a quarter of its 4 million people.

After a quick trip through customs and biosecurity (where our hiking boots – er, tramping shoes – were deemed free of hoof-and-mouth disease and other contagions), we took the Airbus Express into the city. We walked through the Auckland Domain (a large city park) to the arty Parnell neighborhood, which had lots of interesting cafés and home design stores. For lunch, we ate very good Neapolitan-style pizza at Non Solo Pizza.

From there it was on to the Auckland Museum, where we took in a Maori cultural presentation with young people dancing, singing and playing traditional games. They seemed to be phoning it in a bit, but it was still interesting. We spent a lot of time in the Maori section of the museum, learning about wakas (canoes), Polynesian migration patterns and the like. We also learned a lot from the volcano exhibit (turns out Auckland is built on some 50 of them) and displays about indigenous animals. (The only kiwis we saw on our trip were stuffed.)

For a bargain sightseeing tour we took the Link bus through various neighborhoods, including the reportedly hip enclaves of Newmarket, K Road and Ponsonby. It all looked pretty good from the bus. We ended up on the main drag of Queen Street and walked down to the harbor, where we made a light dinner of Bluff oysters, pita and dips and beer at Mecca. Our waiter was overly familiar and weird (and took the liberty of assuming we were Canadian). We worried that this was the New Zealand friendliness we had heard about, but after meeting many more Kiwis we concluded he was just a kook.

From the harbor we took the bus back to the airport, and waited for our (delayed) flight to Christchurch.

Monday, March 26, 2011: Christchurch to Kaikoura

We arrived after midnight in Christchurch, and got picked up at the airport by the shuttle van from the Airport Lodge Motel, which we had booked at a very nice rate through Orbitz. The room was dated (hello, linoleum floors!) but clean and comfortable. It was actually more of a suite, with a living room and the kitchenette that features in all NZ motels. We fell asleep instantly and woke up at 8 a.m. not feeling at all jetlagged. The friendly and helpful (and not weird) motel owner called our rental car company, Jucy, to come pick us up.

After a quick van ride to Jucy we got our car – a Nissan Sunny Super Saloon that did not, as did some others, have “El Cheapo” emblazoned on the side. Mike the Driver quickly faced his challenge: a roundabout just outside the car rental place. Fortunately, he took well to driving on the left. We got lost looking for a place to have breakfast; on the upside, this allowed us to see a bit of the western suburbs, which looked completely unaffected by the devastating earthquake that had struck Christchurch just five weeks earlier. (The Central Business District is still a forbidden zone as of this writing.) We bought good muffins, croissants and coffee at the Village Bakehouse, a little shop owned by a French guy.

About the coffee: almost of all of it in New Zealand is espresso-based. This evidently is a relatively new phenomenon; locals told us that it used to be Nescafé or nothing. Anyway – it’s great. We quickly got used to ordering flat whites, which are like lattés only smaller and with less foam. To amuse ourselves we started saying it in a fake Kiwi accent: “flet white.”

After getting our bearings we made our way up the eastern coast of the island to Kaikoura, listening to talk shows on the car radio. The topic of the day (and the next several days): Darren Hughes, a member of Parliament who had just resigned after allegations of some sort of illicit activity with an 18-year-old man. It felt like home.

In Kaikoura, we were amazed by the huge mountains (some of them snow-capped) right by the Pacific (which is, from our perspective, on entirely the wrong side of the country). We stopped for lunch at the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ, a little hut with some tables on the shore. Susan was disappointed in the crayfish fritter but Mike was OK with his paua (abalone) fritter.

In the afternoon we took the beautiful Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway on the cliffs over the ocean. We saw a variety of sea birds, including red-eyed, red-legged oyster catchers, and, at the end, seals. They looked a bit lazy or perhaps sick lying on the shore, but later we learned they were simply resting after five or six days of fishing at sea.

At the local New World supermarket we stocked up on groceries, including excellent apples (we would eat many of these during our stay). We ate dinner at Hislop’s, an organic joint with a nice ambiance. Mike loved his quinoa; Susan was less thrilled with her seafood chowder.

Lodging on the trip turned out to be a bit of a crapshoot. Susan had read that youth hostels (YHAs) in New Zealand weren’t the drunken youth-filled dorms she’d experienced as a college student, and that they were fine for 40-something couples. Thus, we found ourselves in twin beds at the Kaikoura YHA. Frankly, it smelled a little funny. We didn’t talk to any of our fellow travelers but we eavesdropped on a reasonably interesting conversation between a Dutch woman, some Australians and American guy. We didn’t sleep well as we could hear every footstep from the floor above us.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011: Kaikoura to Franz Josef

We started the day with a 7:15 a.m. trip with Kaikoura Whale Watch. Thanks to a two-kilometer deep canyon just off the shore, the area sees an unusually high volume of marine life, including – you guessed it – whales. Susan tested the holistic method of preventing seasickness (herbs and wristbands) and thus threw up twice on the boat. Even so, it was a fantastic trip. We got to watch two huge sperm whales dive below the surface. We also saw albatrosses without realizing they were such a big deal.
Sperm whale No. 2!

After the whale watch, we took the longest drive of the trip: a 7.5-hour trek through Hanmer Springs and over Lewis Pass to the west coast town of Greymouth. (It looked like Rutland, VT. We didn’t stop.) From there it was on to Franz Josef, home of one of the most famous (and easily accessible) glaciers in New Zealand. We stayed at the YHA in a double ensuite (i.e., with a private bathroom). The Franz Josef hostel also smelled funny, perhaps from the cooking of people from 30 nations in the communal kitchen. (We were particularly impressed by two young German guys who plowed through half a giant pan of lasagna.) We ate dinner at Speight’s Landing, which had fine beer, good veggie burgers and lousy penne pasta. In the clear night skies over the town we saw the Southern Cross for the first time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011: Franz Josef

We woke up early for our all-day hike with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides. We picked up our supplies – raincoats and overpants, crampons, hats and gloves – and got on the bus for the glacier. It quickly became apparent that we were the oldest people there by about 10 years.

Our guide for the hike was Jimmy, a 20-year-old with long red hair who spent the summer on the glacier and the winter teaching skiing in Wanaka. Jimmy’s patter provided us with two catchphrases we would use constantly during our trip: “cool, that” and “awesome, that.” Our group included travelers from Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and Hong Kong. We had great fun tramping on the glacier, climbing up stairs Jimmy cut for us with his axe, and squeezing through ice caves. Awesome, that.

We ended the day with a visit to Glacier Hot Pools (included in the price of the glacier hike), which were very relaxing and pretty. For dinner we had decent saag paneer at Priya. We stayed in a twin ensuite room at the YHA and while it was comfortable, the novelty of hosteling had very much worn off.

Thursday, March 31, 2011: Franz Josef to Wanaka

After muffins and flat whites at Full of Beans, we drove to Fox Glacier, where we took a lovely 40-minute hike to see, well, the glacier. The drive then took us over Haast Pass, where we stopped for some short walks and got feasted upon by sandflies, an evil combination of gnats and mosquitoes. We continued on along the beautiful turquoise Lake Hawea to the cool resort town of Wanaka, where we stayed at Panorama Court. Our unit was fantastic, with a big kitchen, a washing machine and lake views – quite a change after three days in YHAs.

That evening we went to see Secretariat at the awesome Cinema Paradiso, which was only the BEST MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCE EVER. It’s a one-screen movie theater that serves food and has couches – and an old Morris Minor car – instead of regular seats. We ate some pita and dips before the movie, then ordered veggie burgers to be served at intermission: they stop the film halfway through so people can have dinner or snacks, which are quite good. We also enjoyed two of the Wanaka Brewing Company’s beers and some homemade mocha chip ice cream. Susan thinks she could live in Wanaka just for the cinema.

Friday, April 1, 2011: Wanaka

Tired of AM radio, we fired up the Sunny’s CD player with a Time-Life 1970s compilation disk we found in our motel room. (You haven’t lived until you’ve driven around NZ listening to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Afternoon Delight.”) We picked up some hiking information from the local Department of Conservation office, then spent an hour driving back and forth trying to find the Isthmus Peak trailhead. After finally locating it, we embarked on the challenging 10-mile hike, which began on a sheep-and-deer farm and ended 3,000 feet up on a narrow ridge. We thought a few times about bailing out but were lured on by the promise of seeing both Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka at the top. We were so glad we did, as the views of the lakes, Mt. Aspiring and Mt. Cook were spectacular.

Back at the motel, we cooked dinner (Pam’s brand ravioli and sauce) and spent the night watching NZ television, including the Maori game show It’s in the Bag and the current-events comedy program 7 Days. (We were pleased to get the Darren Hughes jokes.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011: Wanaka to Queenstown

We beat the crap out of rental car by driving across eight fords on a gravel road to get to the Rob Roy Glacier Valley Track. It was a moderate three-hour hike to and from the glacier viewpoint, where we stopped for a picnic lunch. Seconds after Mike said, “C’mon, I just want to see a small avalanche,” a big chunk of ice fell off the glacier, creating a loud rumble and a large waterfall. Almost as cool: a baby who had made the trip to the glacier in his dad’s backpack and was inexplicably but charmingly dressed in Christmas pajamas.

After the hike, we headed for Queenstown, the home of bungy jumping and a magnet for thrill-seeking youth. We took the gorgeous and otherworldly Crown Range Road, which holds the title of the highest sealed (paved) road in New Zealand.

After two nights in the relative calm of Wanaka, we were overwhelmed by Queenstown’s plethora of businesses looking to separate vacationers from their money. We had some pretty good red curry at @Thai. As night fell we drove for 20 minutes on a winding road to reach the Lonely Planet-recommended Little Paradise Lodge. In the dark it felt like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales: there were no other guests, there were pelts of unidentifiable animals on the floors and furniture, and the whole scene was downright creepy. We considered bolting but it was late and the thought of driving to find a motel in town did not appeal. So we went to bed immediately, hoping we would not be murdered in our sleep.
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Old Apr 13th, 2013, 12:49 PM
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And here's Part 2:

Sunday, April 3, 2011: Queenstown to Te Anau

The Lodge was far less scary in the light of day. In fact, it was fascinating: the five acres of grounds were filled with trees and flowers and interesting sculpture. We stayed to have tea and cereal then drove to Te Anau, the gateway to the unspeakably beautiful Fiordland National Park.

After ruling out any freakiness (thank you, TripAdvisor), we booked a room at the Amber Court Motel, which was immaculately clean and comfortable. That afternoon we took the Glowworm Cave Tour with Real Journeys. The boat ride and neon bugs were cool, but we could have done without the three-year-old who screamed the whole time.

After some lousy pizza at Naturally Fiordland, we went to the Fiordland Cinema to see Ata Whenua - Shadowland, which seemingly every merchant in Te Anau had urged us to do. It was a beautifully shot, wordless 30-minute documentary about the stunning natural features of the area.

Monday, April 4, 2011: Te Anau to Doubtful Sound

After kicking around Te Anau (including a visit to Miles Better Pies) in the morning, we made the short drive to Manapouri for our overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, again with Real Journeys. The cruise would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

We took a boat across Lake Manapouri to a bus over a mountain pass to our ship, the 70-passenger Fiordland Navigator. We shared a four-bunk room with a honeymooning couple, but as we only went in there to sleep, that was fine. We spent most of the time on the deck, taking in the gorgeous scenery and listening to commentary by the ship’s crew. We also opted to take the 45-minute kayaking trip, which turned out to be a little too challenging for one member of our party (not Mike). The ship sailed to the end of the fjord, where we saw an island covered with seals and an absolutely amazing sunset over the Tasman Sea.

The food on the ship was very good, with warm muffins as we got on board, soup in the late afternoon and a buffet dinner after sunset.

We shared our dinner table with a a Dutch psychiatrist, an Australian federal court judge and her husband, and a French woman who was on a trip around the world. When the Aussies learned we lived in Queens, they serenaded us with the theme to The Nanny and did Fran Drescher impressions (which were actually not bad).

After dinner we watched a slide show given by Wattsie, the ship’s naturalist. While it was clear enough to see stars, it was too cold to stay out on the deck for long.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011: Doubtful Sound to Te Anau

We woke up very early and watched the sun rise from the deck. After a buffet breakfast we got another treat: a small pod of bottlenose dolphins swam alongside the ship.

Back on land, we took Wattsie’s advice and drove on the spectacular road to Milford Sound. Along the way we did the Key Summit hike, which provided nearly 360-degree views of snowy peaks.

After making it through the scary Homer Tunnel – a ¾ -mile long structure that looks the esophagus of some giant beast – we finally saw a kea, the local parrot we’d been searching for since we left Christchurch. Disappointingly, it was begging for food from motorists stopped at the traffic light outside the tunnel.

We arrived at Milford Sound at sunset, which turned out to be the perfect time to see it: no helicopters, buses or boats. “Stunning” doesn’t begin to describe the sight of Mitre Peak backed by pink and orange clouds.

From there, it was back to Amber Court with bad takeaway pizza from La Toscana.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011: Te Anau to Dunedin

We left Te Anau bound for Dunedin via the rainy, windy Catlins, a largely uninhabited region in the southernmost part of the South Island. Susan took the wheel for the first time and managed not to hit any sheep.

The weather was so bad that we didn’t want to get out of the car, but we did take the short hike to Purakaunui Falls. They were pretty but the tourism bureau had clearly photographed them with a wide-angle lens.

We finally arrived in Dunedin at night in the pouring rain, which we’ve decided is the worst way to approach a destination. Happily, we had a great malai kofta (and mediocre tandoori mushrooms) at Anarkali. After finding all the motels on George Street were booked, we used Hotels.com to find the Arcadian Motel, which was slightly outside of town. Our unit was roomy and clean and the owners were funny and friendly. Their dogs, George and Rose, were cute too.

Thursday, April 7, 2011: Dunedin

We started our day in the university town of Dunedin with some very good croissants and coffee at Eat, a hip, airy café near the center of the city. After a quick trip to the impressive public library, we visited the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, which had excellent displays of work by New Zealand and foreign artists. The highlight was an exhibit by Brooklyn’s Nina Katchadourian, featuring Flemish-inspired self-portraits she took in the bathroom on her flight from New York to Dunedin.

We did a brief tour of the garish Dunedin Railway Station – reportedly the most photographed building in the Southern Hemisphere, after the Sydney Opera House – and then had a delicious lunch of salmon, orzo salad, and risotto at the Palms. After lunch we stopped by Too Tone Records, an old-school vinyl record shop that also had a collection of New Zealand CDs. Mike bought discs by the Verlaines and the Chills.

We then headed for the beautiful Otago Peninsula, just east of Dunedin. At windswept Sandfly Bay, we checked another animal off our list: the rare yellow-eyed penguin. That’s right, singular: we only saw the one, and it was from a great distance. Still, it was fun to watch him waddle through our binoculars. After trudging up the sand dunes to the parking lot, we helped some fellow penguin-seekers jumpstart their car and made our way back to the Arcadian.

Friday, April 8, 2011: Dunedin to Christchurch

We fueled up on excellent muffins and flat whites at the Good Oil before hitting the road for Christchurch. Along the way we stopped at the Moeraki Boulders, which, unlike most everything else in New Zealand, looked far more impressive in photos than in real life.

In Oamaru, we popped in to the Whitestone Cheese Factory, which makes a very nice blue.

Upon arriving in Christchurch we checked in to the Econo Lodge Canterbury Court, conveniently located across from the Addington Raceway. The owner informed us that due to continued plumbing problems from the earthquake, we’d have to boil water to brush our teeth. A complimentary bottle of water would have gone a long way.

We were lucky enough to have dinner at the home of Mike’s co-worker, who lives in the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere. We saw some quake damage in the area: mostly brick walls that didn’t survive the shaking.

Saturday, April 9, 2011: Christchurch to NYC

Sadly, our adventure was over and it was time to go home. We dropped the car off at Jucy and walked a short distance to the airport. From there, it was CHC - AKL - LAX - JFK (with The Tourist, Mike Leigh’s Another Year and more episodes of Modern Family on the way). We got back the day we’d lost crossing the international date line, and arrived in Queens just in time for Saturday night.
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Old Apr 13th, 2013, 02:00 PM
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Yum, Whitestone blue cheese - my second favourite blue cheese.

An interesting time to be visiting around Christchurch, SZ. Did you feel any of the many quakes during the short time you were there?

Thank you for sharing your experiences of your time in NZ. There is quite a lot to see in The Caitlins so it was a shame the weather was not kind enough for you to explore. You managed to cover quite an srea in your 14 days.
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Old Apr 13th, 2013, 04:31 PM
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I'll return later to read the entire report, but this passage caught my eye...

<Our waiter was overly familiar and weird (and took the liberty of assuming we were Canadian).>

As an American who lives in Australia and has traveled extensively in both OZ and NZ, I've long since learned that Aussies and Kiwis will generally ask a person with a North American accent if they're Canadian, as Canadians tend to get insulted when they're assumed to be American, whereas most Americans don't give a rats arse one way or the other. An even safer bet of course is to ask if one is from North America.
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Old Apr 14th, 2013, 04:26 AM
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Ha, Melnq8, that's absolutely true. We should have pretended we were Canadian; would've been fun.
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Old Apr 14th, 2013, 04:40 AM
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Dottyp, I must know: what's your favorite blue cheese? We didn't feel any quakes while we were in NZ. We were so sad about Christchurch and hope to return one day when it's fully back on its feet. And then there's the whole matter of the North Island, Nelson, Napier, Abel Tasman National Park, etc. It was so tempting to cram it all into one trip, but I'm glad we kept things (relatively) pared down.
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Old Apr 14th, 2013, 02:22 PM
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bmk to read later!
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Old Apr 18th, 2013, 10:27 PM
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Quite impressed with your detailed summary of what sounded like a half decent trip,thought you were trying to hard to cut costs by staying at YHA'S,that is a definite no no,unless you are a teenager.I am a pom [you know us as English],married a kiwi & live in this great country,it sounds like you missed some of what I thought were the best parts of the south island,but then on a time restricted holiday its hard to fit everything in,its a pity you did not do the Tiare gorge rail trip whilst in Dunedin.Just as a matter of interest there is just as much to see in the north island that is as good,although living here we take it all for granted.Our holidays are mostly spent in Hawaii [for a couple of months at a time] or on a cruise ship,so we are all different.Hope you did not get to much abuse whilst in NZ as unfortunately some Americans tend to let your side down [being very very knowledgable about everthing],yet in their own country are very nice.Hope you come back to our fair country again,you do a fine trip report..Happy travels
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Old Apr 19th, 2013, 10:51 AM
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Thanks for the wonderful report. Better late than never ;-).
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Old Apr 19th, 2013, 08:00 PM
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Hey, glad you enjoyed my tales. Arge, the Kiwis were all nice to us (we're pretty quiet folks, especially by U.S. standards). We loved NZ and are definitely hoping for a North Island trip in the future.
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Old May 23rd, 2013, 10:08 PM
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Thanks for sharing your experience during the journey.
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Old May 23rd, 2013, 10:53 PM
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Hi SZ,

all things being equal, by this evening we'll have our plane tickets for our trip down under in nov-Dec including 17 days in NZ, starting in Aukland and ending in C/Church.

that seems pretty similar to what you did.

now for my question - how to divide our time between the two islands? it looks as if you just did auckland and the SI. my foetal plan is based on the fact that we land at auckland at about 2pm - I though about driving off to the Bay of Islands straight from the airport spending 2 nights there, then driving back to Auckland. is it worth spending time there? [we're really interested in scenery in this part of the trip, not cities as we'll just have spent 5 days in Brisbane at the Test match]

Then we would head south to Rotorua, Wellington, and the south island.

did you find that the time you had in the SI was long enough?

what did you want to spend more time on? what, if anything, would you miss out?
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