Tag Archives: Mountains

Travel Guide: Queenstown and Milford Sound

As I wrote in my last post about our South Island road trip, this post comes out of order. My friend Sharon and I spent three nights in Queenstown, our longest stay of the whole trip, in the second week of our South Island travels. While we were farther away from Milford Sound than we’d realized (in the future I’d stay in Te Anau or even camp in Milford) we were glad to park the car across the road from our hostel and leave it there for a few days. As Sharon said, expertly guiding me into a parallel parking spot that I could only dream about without her, I deserved a break from all the driving. (And I did all the driving.)

After a brief stop in adorable Arrowtown for lunch, we drove up and down a few large hills and entered Queenstown. Somehow, it didn’t register to me that the “town” in Queenstown was literal – I was expecting a city for no other reason than I’d actually heard of Queenstown but it’s really small and very walkable. Quite a lovely place to be for a few days!

Queenstown is located right on the water and surrounded by mountains. I spent some time sitting under a tree looking out at Lake Wakatipu, New Zealand’s longest lake.

I also went on a very short walk up a hill just behind where we were staying (the YHA Queenstown Lakefront exceeded all expectations) and enjoyed breathing the air and listening to the wind.

Queenstown was the busiest place we’d stayed since Nelson and it was larger than Nelson, too. But even at its busiest, New Zealand is so sparsely populated that it didn’t feel crowded at all. Out of four million people across the country, only a million live on the South Island. There are about 1.6 million in Auckland and Christchurch, the next largest city, has about 380,000. So again, nothing feels crowded.

We met another friend who was also travelling in New Zealand at Atlas Beer Cafe, a wonderful bar that we frequented more than once. It was fun to catch up and hear about her trip. It was also fun to return to Atlas two nights later to find that the bartenders and servers remembered us! We treated our first night in Queenstown as our “going out night” and had a really fun time, including live Irish music. We accidentally went to one crowded bar and left after one drink – we’d gotten used to having space to ourselves. And besides, we had a hike to go on in the morning.

The next morning was hot and beautiful. We had a lovely brunch down by the water where a craft market was setting up. I love seeing what people make and do and create. You can learn so much about people by looking at the personal joys that are important to them and craft markets are a beautiful opportunity to talk to artists, which we did. (More on this in the Christchurch post!)

Our goal for the day was to hike Queenstown Hill, one of New Zealand’s iconic short walks. Queenstown is a starting point for some of the Great Walks, too, which I would absolutely love to do if I get the chance to go back. It would require packing and preparing very differently but like camping in Abel Tasman National Park, it’s an experience I’d love to have.

All that to say, I loved hiking Queenstown Hill. It was challenging in parts because it gets rocky and steep but the sun was shining and we met so many friendly people along the way. We experienced that on every hike and walk in New Zealand – everyone says hi as they pass.

And it was so, so beautiful at the top. The view down to Lake Wakatipu was stunning, but even more so the view towards the mountains. It stretched as far as the eye could see and the wind was incredible. Twice we actually had to sit down because of how it roared and swept up the dust all around. And then when the wind stopped, it grew so quiet and still and the world felt empty of life for just a moment.

As Sharon pointed out, we’d climbed plenty “Mount Something” while in New Zealand and this one, the most mountain-like of all, was called a hill. I guess that’s the only reasonable name to give it when it’s nestled among the Southern Alps, which are very real mountains.

We were happy for an early evening because we had an early morning and big day ahead of us – it was my birthday and we were going to Milford Sound! We had had beautiful weather and hoped the next day would be similar but, as luck would have it, it rained. Considering Fiordland National Park gets 200 days of rain per year, this shouldn’t have been surprising. We actually took an organized tour to Milford because Queenstown was four and a half hours away by car (again, this is why I’d stay in Te Anau or camp in Milford in the future). But the coach bus was really comfortable and we got lucky with seats right in the front. Greg, the driver, told us all about the flora and landscape and the drive passed really quickly. It also helped that we stopped twice to walk and look around. Just like Lisa at Franz Josef Glacier, Greg said we were lucky because the rain let us see the waterfalls and hear the roar of the water.

When we arrived at the boat terminal, the rain hadn’t let up at all. We’d really hoped to kayak and were promised that we’d still be able to go as long as it didn’t get any worse. As it happened, the fact that it was raining gave us the chance to make friends who we ended up spending the day with! Had it been nice enough to stand outside for the duration of the cruise, I definitely would have done so. Since it wasn’t, though, Sharon struck up a conversation with Michele and Alice from the US and UK, respectively, and invited them to share our table. They were looking forward to kayaking, too, and the four of us found much to talk about beyond what we’d experienced in New Zealand so far.

But as good as the company was, feeling the rain and the spray while looking out at Milford Sound was what took my breath away.

And we did get to kayak! Much to our relief, the kayak company had proper wet gear and this time, I gratefully accepted it. Appropriately donned in completely unflattering but very visible yellow, orange, and red, we headed out onto the water. It was a short guided tour just around the cove but the view looking up at the mountains from the water gave a real sense of how dynamic the landscape is. It was even relaxing to just bask in the rain and look at everything towering over us. It’s a beautiful world in all of its forms.

The sun came out on our drive back to Queenstown and I didn’t even mind. It felt like a totally different landscape because the mist dispersed and left the world looking fresh and clean and awake again. And I’m glad I got to see Fiordland like that, too.

Sharon told Michele and Alice that it was my birthday and they were only too happy to join us back at Atlas for flights of beer. I had vegetarian poutine, too! It was so enjoyable chatting with people who I actually felt like I clicked with, which is something I do love about travellers. Spending the day in a beautiful landscape in a beautiful world with lovely people by my side was the best birthday I could have hoped for. I am so lucky to be part of it all.

And the next day we were back on the road for the final stop of our South Island road trip. As promised, I’ll write about Christchurch in a separate post – coming soon!

Travel Guide: New Zealand Road Trip – South Island

After a week on the North Island of New Zealand, which included Auckland, a few days on the road, and a final stop in Wellington, my friend Sharon and I arrived in Picton, a tiny town with a ferry terminal.

We picked up our new car, a red Toyota Corolla that I immediately named Roxanne, and then had a good meal, walked the one commercial street, and went to a phenomenal bakery for breakfast. And then off we went!

Our next stop was Nelson, which was really exciting because a friend and former colleague was living there! Along with another school family, we had plans to meet her upon arrival in Nelson, which was really nice. Nelson reminded me of a larger version of the town where I grew up. Cute streets to walk down, a pretty church, benches by the river. Nelson also had really beautiful flowers.

The primary reason for our stop in Nelson was to visit Abel Tasman National Park, which was an absolutely magical day. The weather was phenomenal for sea kayaking, hiking, and a dip in the sea. We even saw seals lounging on the rocks! Each lookout from the cliffs was more beautiful than the last and the views took my breath away again and again.

Abel Tasman remained a highlight of the trip for me and it also stands out as something I’d do differently next time. I’d pack differently, plan differently, and camp for a night. That would allow for a longer kayak trip as well as a longer hike. The stars throughout New Zealand were the biggest and brightest I’ve ever seen and I can only imagine what it would have felt like to see them there.

Next, we headed to Punakaiki to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach. The drive was beautiful . . .

. . . and left us very excited for our night on the beach. We ate cheese, crackers, and fruit and drank wine sitting on the rocks. It grew cold as the night deepened and we greeted 2019 under the Milky Way.

As our first activity of the new year, we decided to hike a 12km loop through a rainforest with streams, up a cliff, and onto a working farm with horses. We met very few people along the way and were glad to start the day in a beautiful place with our bodies moving.

On the way back to the car we took a quick detour to see the pancake rocks and blow holes that Punakaiki is known for.

That afternoon we drove to Franz Josef Glacier, which was my bucket list item for our trip. I first learned of Franz Josef when I was living in Malaysia and planned a trip then, which I didn’t take because I couldn’t afford it. It was really special to see that dream through, but the weather did not cooperate at all. It was pouring when we hiked the glacier the next morning and our guide, Lisa of Glacier Valley Eco Tours, could not have been happier. This was a very typical West Coast day, she assured us, and we’d be able to see the waterfalls that are only visible in the rain.

As we walked, Lisa told us more about plants than I’d ever heard and it was a real joy to learn from her. Though it would have been nice to be able to see the glacier a little more clearly, I was just so happy to be there. Getting soaked to the skin was less joyful but I learned an important lesson – when a tour company asks if you’d like to rent wet gear, you say yes.

The sun came out in the afternoon and we couldn’t resist going back out for another hike. We didn’t go back to the glacier but everything looked completely different!

The next morning we picked up a pair of hitchhiking German siblings and brought them as far as Lake Matheson. This was the only lake that we visited that was small enough to actually walk all the way around, which we were more than happy to do.

The landscape completely changed as we continued on our drive to Lake Hawea. What had been glaciers became mountains and deserts; rainforest gave way to tougher plants and grasses.

I’d read that Mount Iron in nearby Wanaka was a good place for a hike, so we drove a bit further in that direction. As promised, it afforded beautiful views of the mountains that were everywhere.

The next morning before getting back in the car we hiked along Lake Hawea itself. The day grew hot quickly and we were glad to be out and about early.

We stopped for on the road for yet another picture of mountains . . .

. . . and then in quaint Arrowtown for lunch on our way to Queenstown. I’ll take you around Queenstown and Milford Sound in a separate post so bear with me while we skip ahead three days. . . .

And then we arrived in Lake Tekapo! Lake Tekapo was our last short stay and our last real road trip stop. The landscape grew more desolate as we drove.

We were excited to learn that Lake Tekapo is located in an International Dark Sky Reserve. I spent some time walking on the beach when we arrived late in the afternoon.

We spent the night in a cabin on a campground and though I had to wrap myself in all of my layers and a blanket to stay outside, I was determined to see the stars come out. It was silent and dark and I greeted the Milky Way again. Such a perfect way to conclude our road trip around New Zealand’s South Island.

In our two weeks on the South Island, we spent much of our time on the road but stopped for a few days in Queenstown and Christchurch. Posts on both places are in the works. Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Santorini

One of the perks of being an international educator is the time and opportunity to travel. This October break, we scooted off to Greece! (Literally – Scoot is the name of the budget airline that provided an eleven-and-a-half-hour direct flight with food, water, blankets, or entertainment not provided but available to purchase. But it got us to and from Greece for under SGD550, so I’m not complaining.) Upon landing in Athens, my girlfriends and I switched terminals and then boarded our 45-minute flight to Santorini. (Olympic Air is a budget airline so we got those little cleansing towelettes and two snacks – Greek hospitality is just so lovely.) We were staying in Oia,  the town you probably picture of when you hear “Greece”. It is simply stunning.

Oia is pretty at night, too . . .

. . . and it has a fantastic bookstore, Atlantis Books, which we visited and purchased from twice. The exterior should give you a hint at the wonder of the interior. Books in all languages stacked floor to ceiling, hidden behind the staircase, and available to borrow and trade on the upstairs patio. Small signs and notes with suggestions from the bookstore employees. Just the best.

Watching the sunset is a popular activity in Oia, and considering how crowded the western part of town grew in October, I can’t even imagine how it would be during peak tourist season. It was cloudy every night, though only once during the day, so many of our fellow viewers were disappointed but I thought the clouds made for some really beautiful pictures. And just being there with good friends was easily the best part.

We took a few adventures from our first base in Oia. On our first full day, we spent five hours on a very fancy catamaran with a delightful crew, unlimited beverages, and delicious lunch. The weather was bright and sunny but slightly chilly so they even made us coffee!

We stopped at the hot springs, where I actually got into the very chilly water . . .

. . . the Red Beach . . .

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. . . and the White Beach. Snorkeling was an option but it was cold! And I was perfectly happy to bask in the sunshine and chat with the crew. I miss being on boats.

The next day, we walked down the steps of Oia, from the top of the volcano to the water, to check out the seafood restaurants at Ammoudi Bay and go on our next adventure. I’m a vegetarian but one of my friends was really excited about the sun-drying octopus and booked us a seat for dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be delicious.

We waited at Ammoudi Bay for a ferry to take us across to Thirasia, another of Santorini’s islands. My brother recommended that we go and it was really cool to be able to share travel experiences and advice with him. He told us to walk up all the stairs . . .

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. . . and eat at the restaurant at the top where an elderly man greeted us, singing and grilling fresh fish. So we did!

And then we wandered around town, which was eerily empty. It felt like a combination of an abandoned film set and a ghost town. In addition to the people running the restaurant, we saw three construction workers, one elderly woman, and another woman running the town’s only other restaurant (it was actually called Different Restaurant because it’s obviously not the one, but the different one). My pictures are a little weird and grainy, which accurately reflects the strangeness of the town but is actually because I mistakenly used the wrong setting.

The part of the town near the water was more like a boardwalk of restaurants and again, this was low tourist season. Empty.

Our last full day in Oia was probably my favorite day of the whole trip and that’s because it was the greatest adventure. It’s pretty common for travelers to hike the path between Fira, Santorini’s largest city on the eat side of the island, to Oia on the west. We’d read that the path is mostly downhill, not terribly strenuous, and difficult to lose. Great!

But not so when you go the other way! Of course, we learned this hiking the other way, from Oia to Fira, and it was challenging in parts, a little scary when we found ourselves on the side of a cliff in gusts of wind, and a little more scary when someone we couldn’t see started hunting birds. But we made it!

We left Oia at 7am, which is before the sun rises and before anything is open. It was so cool seeing the streets dark and empty, lit by streetlights.

There were some signs along the 10.5km route . . .

. . . but also a critical point that was difficult to navigate coming from Oia. Turns out we did have to go behind the desalination plant on the edge of the cliff. Found that out after realizing we were on a road curving the wrong way and had to hike up a hill behind a hotel to reorient ourselves. And then, under a menacing sky and loud gusts of wind, we traversed the beautiful, sometimes desolate wilderness that is the edge of the caldera.

No matter how tiny or empty the landscape, though, Greece has many churches . ..

. . . and their frequency increased as the hike became more urban. . . .

At times, the hike took us through resorts and villas, which was a little strange, but it was also comforting to see people. After a stop for breakfast and about four hours, we were delighted when we finally reached Fira!

Once in Fira, we found a taxi to take us a little further to Santorini Brewing Company, the only brewery in Santorini. They brew five beers and offer free tastings of three, which we enjoyed very much. And because I wanted to be able to say I’d had all of them, we bought bottles of the remaining two and sat outside the brewery (because it doesn’t have a liquor license) to drink them.

Afterwards, hungry from our hike and having made the acquaintance of the adorable kid on staff at the brewery, we asked for recommendations for lunch. He suggested Artemis Karamolegos Winery, a 5-minute walk down the road. The winery is beautiful, staff delightful, and food absolutely excellent. Best meal I’ve had in recent memory and the most full I’ve been in recent memory. And then they turned up with desserts and a digestif, which happened throughout our time in Greece. Truly an amazing country with wonderful people.

Finally, we decided it was time to return to Oia. Hiking the four hours back would have lost me two friends so we took the local bus first into Fira and then onto Oia. Forty minutes and keeping my friendships instead of four hours and losing them seemed worth it.

All in all, we loved our time in Santorini (and in Athens and Delphi). The people were wonderful, the food superb, and the wine plentiful. And it’s just gorgeous.