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Trip Report New Zealand South Island (mostly) Trip Report

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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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