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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: New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

After a weekend in and around Auckland (which was sweet as!) my friend Sharon and I picked up our North Island road trip vehicle, a white Toyota Yaris that I promptly named Sylvia. I can’t help it; cars speak to me.

We headed first for Rotorua where we spent two nights. This was also the part of our trip where it began to rain. It rained quite a bit during our travels but we didn’t let it stop us from seeing what we wanted to see. Our drive took us through farms and rolling hills and mountains that faded in and out of blues and greens. We drove with the windows down, enjoying air that was fresh, clean, and cool. We saw more cows, sheep, and horses than anything else, which was a theme throughout the trip. Even more than the animals, though, I noticed the trees. Part tropical palms, part enormous ferns, and part overgrown forest, the juxtaposition with cleared farmland was striking.

The climate of New Zealand reminded us of California and it wasn’t long before we realized how similar they actually are. Our first stop in Rotorua was the redwood forest that shares trees with California. Our walk through the woods was beautiful in and of itself . . .

. . . and the redwoods took my breath away. I sat for a time and meditated, listening to the wind.

When it got dark, which happens quite late in New Zealand in the summer and only later as you travel further south, we climbed the trees. The Rortorua Treewalk consists of 28 suspension bridges linking to 27 trees. I haven’t spent much time 20 meters up looking down to the forest floor and it was so cool. Oh, and there are giant wooden lanterns lighting the way. It was beautiful and felt like being in a fairytale.

The next day we went to Kuirau Park to check out the bubbling mud pools and hot springs. I expected a dinosaur to wander by at any moment. While sitting in the rain with our feet in the pools we chatted to travellers from Germany, South Africa, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere in New Zealand.

I love how much of New Zealand is just conservation land and public parks. There’s a unique feel to it, a sense that it is both important and expected that people spend time together as well as in nature. That afternoon we took a walk through Rotorua Park, which smelled more strongly of sulfur than Kuirau. It didn’t take us long to figure out why.

For Christmas Eve we’d planned a visit to Mitai Maori Village. I haven’t celebrated very many Christmas Eves but this was a darn good one! In addition to dinner, we were treated to a cultural performance which included entry by water . . .

. . . a walk through the village . . .

. . . and a cultural performance of songs, dances, and, of course, the haka.

Once it got dark, we went on a short walk to see the glowworms, which are famous in Rotorua, and to Rainbow Springs Nature Park to see the kiwi birds! Kiwis, we learned, are very rarely seen in the wild and they’re nocturnal, which doesn’t help make them easy to spot. Our very helpful guides had no trouble, however.

The next day we were back on the road heading to Napier for Christmas Day. On the way we stopped at Wai-O-Tapu, which call itself a thermal wonderland. That was pretty spot on. We were just in time to see the daily eruption of Lady Knox Geyser . . .

. . . and then followed the walking trails. The sun came out as we explored and it was a unique place indeed! While I took pictures, Sharon read aloud from the map about each of the natural wonders that we passed.

We’d heard that Lake Taupo was pretty (note: everything in New Zealand is pretty) so we stopped there for lunch and a walk. I thought we might walk around the lake but that was before I learned that Lake Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake; we walked along it instead.

When we arrived in Napier, the town was quiet and empty. Napier is designed in an Art Deco style that makes it feel like going back in time. It wasn’t until the next morning that we saw many people at all, and the emptiness and shuttered stores gave it the feel of an old film set.

The point of visiting Napier was to spend the evening on the black stone beach, which is exactly what we did. We watched the sun set and the stars appear; we listened to the wind and smelled the sea.

We shared a bottle of wine and had a beautiful evening.

After a night in Napier, we headed for Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Post coming soon!