There is so much to see in the South Island of New Zealand! While made famous from The Lord of the Rings, we had no idea how much of the beauty is natural – and not fabricated by Hollywood. We visited in December 2009/January 2010 before spending 10 days in Australia. We used Pacific Travel to coordinate our travel among cities and book our hotels. They were able to tailor a trip to the destinations we wanted to visit and were readily available via email. Highly recommend!
Queenstown – We boarded a quick flight from Auckland straight to Queenstown on Jetstar (<$100). The approach into Queenstown provides a sneak peek into the beautiful mountains in the area. We stayed at Scenic Suites Queenstown, located slightly up the hill with views of the Remarkables and Queenstown Bay from a balcony. The downtown Mall area was pleasant, a la New England towns, but walking back to our hotel on the hill was as strenuous as San Francisco!
We stopped for lunch at Flame. Great views of the lake; delicious cheeseburger and spiced shrimp. We also were introduced to Speight’s beer (tastes like Bass). We passed the Kiwi Birdlife Park and headed up the Gondola to the top of the city. Along the way, we saw sheep grazing on the mountain and wildflowers. Once at the top of Bob’s Peak, one can try go-carting or bungee jumping! We opted to watch the tandem hang-gliders and wait for the traditional Maori Kiwi Haka show.
The cultural show showcased traditional dance and customs. The 3 men and 3 women’s faces were painted to show where they were from and their rank in the tribe. They demonstrated a “battle” where intense facial expressions, tongues out, and protruding eyes intimidate the enemy. Just recently we saw the New Zealand Blacks use it when taking the soccer field!
Fjordland National Park and Milford Sound – This is one of the most beautiful places in the world! We were booked for a day tour through Great Sights. The tour guide provided history and told of legends on our drive to Milford Sound. We passed through rural areas with farmland, sheep, cattle, deer, and snow-capped mountain peaks with surprisingly steep slopes. Upon entering the National Park, one is greeted with the spectacular Mirror Lakes with a pristine reflection of the mountains.
Continuing through to the sound, we passed the remnants of “tree avalanches” – when trees’ roots are connected and the trees die, their falling creates a domino effect and trees slide down the mountain slope. Traveling further into the mountains and into “Mordor” (reached in less than 5 miles), we were awestruck with the misty, ominous feeling and constant rain.
Before entering the Homer Tunnel, we were able to glimpse a Kea bird.
After passing through the 1200 meter Homer Tunnel, we drove through the rocky mountains to the Cleddau Valley to see bright blue streams of water running into the Sound.
The cruise on Milford Sound began peaceful, but once we made it to the ocean mouth it was crazy bumpy! The magnitude of the cliffs is unbelievable (Mitre Peak at 1692m) and beautiful waterfalls fall into the sound.
After arriving back to Queenstown, we went to Winnie’s for dinner. We had Tui Blonde at the bar and watched a NZ reality TV show while waiting for our table. The pizza was DELICIOUS! I had chicken pizza with red peppers and pistachio sour cream, and my husband had BBQ meat pizza. Since it was December, the sun didn’t set until 10:30p so we headed to 5 Below. This bar is made of ice and drinks are served in cups made of ice. We had the full tourist experience with parkas and vodka drinks. The night sky on the walk home was crystal clear (no light pollution) but the stars seemed further away than in the Northeastern US sky.
Franz Josepf Glaciers – Our transport to Franz Josef (5-6 hrs) was via Newman’s Coachlines. Driving north, we wound through vineyards and along lakes. We stopped at an adorable fruit stand and English rose garden.
One of the most memorable sites of NZ was our stop at Thunder Creek Falls. The waterfall was so blue and the brook below was amazing to listen to. We even tasted a bit of the glacier-made water.
As we drove up the coast, there was a brief view of the deep blue Pacific waves crashing on the shore. A brief wind through the rainforests led us to the huge glacier. We stayed at Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier, with a cute lobby and comfortable beds. If we come back again, I would stay at Te Waonui Forest Retreat instead. This is an eco-lodge that feels like a boutique NYC hotel. We went for New Year’s Eve dinner and had the best experience – fresh ingredients, amazing service.
We ate at The Landing for dinner. Tables are wooden and the feel is rustic, almost like a ski lodge. I dined on an alternative chicken parm made with cranberries and brie cheese. All of the ingredients were fresh and from NZ farms. Though eating options were slim in town, we happily went back for lunch the next day and had gourmet pizzas.
Our early morning guided hike to Franz Josepf was wonderful. We were given snow pants, rain coat, hat and “cramp on” shoes. After a ½ hour hike across the dried river bed, we were shown “under the chain” and onto the glacier. Our group climbed up a metal ladder and were met by guys in shorts on the ice who were continuously hacking the stairs and checking the safety of the glacier. Deep within the glacier, the ice is bluer since it has less oxygen. We hiked among layers of the ice that were carved out for us to walk through (10-15 ft tall, and narrow) and stopped for lunch to ponder our achievement.
After a quick power nap, we visited the Glacier Hot Pools to relax our muscles. Surrounded by the rainforest, we enjoyed a private pool with some chirping birds. Since it was New Year’s Eve, we had reserved a 5 course degustation menu at Te Waonui. This wholly sustainable hotel felt like a trendy NYC hotel and the sampling of food and wine from across New Zealand was spectacular. Our table overlooked the forests and we leisurely enjoyed our dinner as we toasted to the New Year.
Tranz Alpine Train – We decided to head north to Greymouth and then take a train across the country to ChristChurch. On the bus up to Greymouth, we stopped at Hokitika to visit a local zoo with its own kiwis! They are definitely strange, nocturnal birds that walk around on 2 feet.
The beauty of the West Coast and Canterbury provinces unfolded as we wound along Lake Brunner and up over the mountains of the Southern Alps.
After going through the Otria Tunnel, it appears that we have arrived in a completely different country with views looking like Pennsylvania – beautiful mountains in the distance with rolling hills into a verdant valley. The train tracks precariously balanced along the Waimakariri River Gorge.
Christchurch – We took a leisurely walk around the Botanical Gardens and stopped to smell the eucalyptus as well as the 100 different varieties of roses. We were amazed to see a blue-beaked duck and family! Walking along the Avon River north, we saw the “May Peace Prevail on Earth” peace post – same four-cornered white post that I have seen at Mt. Fuji and at Niagara Falls.
We wandered towards Poplar Street and found an adorable French market with cheese, eggs, lamb, honey, and garments. Passing through this market, we found cobblestone streets with cute pubs and stores lining the street.
We visited the Cathedral (the tower collapsed in the 2011 earthquake). Compared with the cathedrals of Europe, it is significantly newer but gave a nice perspective of the British influence. I know that much of Christchurch has been rebuilt. It is a quaint town out of which to base your travels in the South Island, but Queenstown was prettier.
We loved the beauty and nature of the South Island. I’ll leave you with an additional photo of me with a “kiwi” as well as a view over the South Alps from our airplane trip to Australia. Hope you enjoy your trip as well!