Monday, September 14, 2009

4 New Zealand

After a fourteen-hour flight from Santiago, a layover in Auckland, and another short flight to the South Island, we arrived with bleary eyes in Christchurch, New Zealand. We were pretty excited about getting to a place where English is the first language, but we soon realized that Kiwis have their own variety of English; the accent and vocabulary are so different we often found ourselves scratching our heads. It took us a bit of time to figure out not to be insulted when asked if we were planning to "do some tramping" while on the island (meaning hiking). We love that flashlights are called "torches" and plan to incorporate that into our own vocabulary.

Our plan for New Zealand was to take a road trip around the South Island. We picked up our Nissan Sunny sedan from Jucy Car Rental and hopped in to start our tour. It wasn't a speedy start, as Katrina struggled to figure out how to drive on the left side of the road, but after a bump off the curb and some awkward rotaries we were off. (Thank goodness we bought Jucy's "stress-free" insurance!)

Day 1 - We started out with a beautiful day in the city of Christchurch. Or more like a town--the population is 300,000 and the downtown is small and very quaint. There is a central square with a landmark cathedral where we took in a choral concert, as well as some shops, restaurants, and a few museums. The Canterbury Museum was surprisingly diverse in its exhibits. We learned about Maori history, New Zealand geology, Antarctic exploration, and took in some art displays. But the highlight of our afternoon was definitely strolling through the botanical gardens. We were amazed at how beautiful the expansive grounds were with ponds full of lily pads, weeping willows, and blooming magnolia trees everywhere.

When it came time to find a hotel for the night we got a quick lesson in Kiwi preferences. Most accommodations are motels, which in New Zealand means "self-contained units" that are essentially little apartments with kitchenettes. The unit we got at Holiday Lodge Motel was a multi-story unit bigger than our Boston home--den, kitchen, and dining table on the first floor, bathroom on the second, and one and a half bedrooms on the third. All for less than $50 USD for the night. That night was an early one as Patrick had nodded off before dinner due to jetlag which gave Katrina time to acquaint herself with the most popular New Zealand television dramas.

Day 2 - Our drive to the west coast took us through mountainous Arthur's Pass, which was very picturesque but too blustery for tramping. We stopped for lunch in Greymouth at a delightful and popular cafe called Ali's and then headed north to Punakaiki. Here we found a great assortment of outdoor activities highlighted by roaming through the curious layered coastal "Pancake Rocks". We also took the Truman Track along a deserted beach cove and tramped along the Pororari River gorge track where everything including the water was absurdly emerald green. On our way back to town we stopped at a cave that sits just off the road, open for anyone to explore. Torches required.

We spent the night back in Greymouth at the fantastic Apostle View Motel. Definitely the best value of our New Zealand trip, with super cozy bed and sheets, modern amenities, and free wifi. The bath products were pretty great, too.

Day 3 - We set off south along the coast to one of the island's biggest attractions: the glaciers. Franz Josef was first and we got great views right away, just steps from the parking lot. The hike to the glacier's terminal face was about a 45-minute walk across an almost dry, stony, gray riverbed. It was fantastic to get right up next to it and see the rock-like terrain, blue ice, and trickling rivers of melt-off. Fox Glacier was similarly impressive in size but the trail was flooded so we were limited to views at a distance. Rain alternating with sun peaking through the clouds and mist coming over the mountains made for eerie weather to add to the atmosphere of our visits to the glacier valleys.

Being such big tourist attractions, the hotels in the area were rather overpriced so we just kept on driving south. In Haast we found a rundown spot steps from the beach with no name but a sign that said "Motel Vacancies". The woman we met at reception wore blue eyeshadow up to her eyebrows and took out a huge, blank ledger to decide which room to assign us. The winner was probably furnished in the 1950s and not updated since, and the bathroom seemed to have been constructed for an airplane with the shower and toilet each in its own cubbyhole and half-size sink in between. It was some combination of weird, creepy, and charming. It was also the cheapest accommodation of our New Zealand trip.

Day 4 - Our next leg delivered us from fog-covered hills southeast to a bright, sparkling day in Wanaka. The Visitor's Center informed us of many hiking paths around the lake town and up through the mountains that surround it, and we decided to tackle the towering Mount Roy. The track traverses back and forth up the mountain without any trees to inhibit the views of the nearby sheep pastures, shimmering Lake Wanaka, or the formidable snow-covered peaks that guard it; it's absolutely breathtaking. The grueling climb to the top took us most of the afternoon and our progress was surely slowed by peering back every other moment at the landscape behind us. The final assault of the summit involved trudging through shin deep snow...it is safe to say the Mount Roy kicked our butts.

We drove another hour and a half to spend the night in Queenstown, a resort town full of chill cafes, fancy restaurants along the water, and at least one great pub to watch the crucial Tri-Nations rugby match between the native All Blacks and the Springboks of South Africa. The crowd at the Ministry of Sports was in a frenzy as the All Blacks almost pulled off a miracle last second victory with two tries in the final minute, but glory that night was not in the cards for the Kiwi side as they fell a few meters short.

Day 5 - We continued on to Te Anau at the edge of Fiordlands National Park where we stretched out our aching muscles with a leisurely stroll on the Kepler Track. Moss covered seemingly every square meter of the forest floor; the track was like walking through fuzzy green clouds. We ended up on an empty beach overlooking another lake with more gorgeous mountains in the distance, a sight that certainly never got old over during our time in New Zealand. We returned to Queenstown for our second night at the comfy Amber Lodge. Dinner was provided by the very popular Fergburger where we couldn't resist the temptation to sample their deer burger. Mmmm Sweet Bambi.

Day 6 - Another few hours in the Sunny took us north to Mount Cook. This tallest peak in New Zealand is actually visible from Fox Glacier (or would have been, had we had a clear day), but the only direct route is a three-day hike through the mountains. It is shocking how accessible this 12,000 foot peak is; we were able to tramp right up to the foot of Mount Cook via the Hooker Valley track. That's right...we went tramping through Hooker Valley. What started as a warm, clear day turned into a gusty, cloudy one as soon as we got into town, and it was a struggle against the elements our entire hike through the valley. We had a fantastic time scampering amongst the rocks, crossing rickety suspension bridges while being blown by 40 knot winds, taking in the views of Hooker Lake dotted with icebergs, and standing in awe of the high slopes above.

Options for accommodations in Mount Cook are very limited so we headed to Twizel for the evening. Here we tasted our first of the savory pies that are so popular with the Kiwis--filled with mutton, no less. Mmmm. We'd heard a lot about "spa bath" rooms thus far in New Zealand so we decided to splurge for one at the Aspen Court Motel for around $70 USD. Now we know what all the fuss is about; it's like having your own private jacuzzi in the bathroom!

Day 7 - Twizel is just a few kilometers from the gorgeous banks of Lake Pukaki, a huge body of water created by melt-off from glaciers around Mount Cook. The color alone made us stop the car and drop our jaws to the ground: an otherworldly pastel blue. The white rocky shores and glazed over mountains in the distance just add to the feeling that you are on some movie set--it can't actually be real. We detoured off the main drive onto some backcountry gravel farm roads to stay as snug to the shoreline of the lake for as long as possible. An hour later we reached Lake Tekapo, similar to Pukaki but a greener hue and slightly less dramatic. We stopped in Geraldine for their reputed "gourmet goodies" and were not disappointed with our delicious mud cake and to die for chocolate devil cookies at Cafe Plumm. A few bites were certainly worth an eternity in a fiery underworld.

Back in Christchurch we got to the punting dock just in time to rent a boat and head down the Avon River. We spent an hour paddling around, playing with baby ducklings, and admiring elegant black swans. For sunset we headed out to Akaroa to watch the clouds turn pink from the hills.

Our next destination was Australia, but first we had a 9-hour layover in Auckland. We made the most of it and took the bus downtown to explore the New Zealand's biggest city. Our first stop was the impossible to miss Sky Tower that distinguishes the Auckland skyline where we stood below watching jumpers float down from the top. It's not exactly a bungy jump they offer, but a semi-fast lowering via harness and cables. Still pretty scary, if you ask us. Patrick got nervous just watching. We spent the afternoon roaming from the beautiful harbor to Albert Park, then through the University of Auckland campus to the Auckland Domain--we were very impressed with all the beautiful outdoor spaces the city possesses. All the while we were keeping an eye out for the Channel 3 studio where they film our new favorite morning show "Sunrise", but to no avail. We did, however, find some reminders of home: a downtown Wendy's and the Red Sox airing on NESN at a pub.

We were buying some fresh mini cinnamon donuts on the streets of Auckland, telling the fry master about our travels on the south island when he asked, "Did you switch off the lights when you left?" It was the perfect statement about the quiet, unfettered, lovely countryside we had left. New Zealand very well may have been the most beautiful place we have ever been. It's a place we could imagine returning again and again and always discovering something new and magical. And we certainly hope we do.

View more photos from New Zealand here.

4 comments:

  1. A. maz. ing. I so need to go to NZ. Um, I'll be the dork to ask, did you do any Lord of the Rings tours? :) Or at least see the opportunity to do any. BTW- I am going to use Sweet Bambi as an exclamation from now on, "Sweet Bambi! It's cold in here, close the window!"

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  2. We didn't do a LOTR tour (i think that is the proper slang acronym) but we certainly saw a bunch. In Melbourne there was a museum where you could reenact scenes from the movie on a green screen but everyone in line was less than 12 years old.

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