Tag Archives: New Zealand

New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

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We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

New Zealand, Part 2(a): South Island

As promised, here’s the report on the second part of our New Zealand adventure (part one is here), in which we explored the South Island in our trusty camper van. Since we saw so much in the South Island, I decided to break this post into two pieces, so as not to overwhelm. New Zealand can overwhelm.

Al and I had heard before we came to New Zealand that the South Island was where the really impressive scenery was, but I don’t think we appreciated how beautiful — and varied, and, in some cases, extreme — it would be before we saw it with our own eyes. Although we didn’t travel through all of the North Island, and I’ve heard that the northern part of the North Island is spectacular, Al and I both agreed that the South Island was, overall, way more interesting. If you only have a week to spend in NZ, spend it on the South Island; I promise you won’t regret it.

Not bad, NZ.

Not bad, NZ.

After taking the ferry from Wellington, we started off in Blenheim, which is situated right in the heart of Marlborough, one of NZ’s best known wine regions. Blenheim, like most wine country towns, is pleasant and peaceful. Even the low-fuss campsite where we stayed was charming, with wandering sheep and rolling hills. But the main reason one comes to Blenheim, of course, is not for the scenery or the sheep, but for the wine tasting. Given the whole pregnancy thing that’s been happening, I played the designated driver for the day and ferried Al from winery to winery. I took sips of the wines and got an idea of what Marlborough has to offer (mainly, good aromatic whites, especially pinot gris, plus their famous, grassy sauvignon blanc, which is not my favorite but sure is distinctive), while Al got nice ‘n boozy and had a grand old time. I occupied myself by drinking a lot of flat whites (which, I’m convinced, are 99% milk and 1% actual coffee, which means it’s okay to have ten of them). To punctuate the wine tasting, we also had a great lunch at a pretty restaurant called Rock Ferry.

Blenheim

Blenheim

The entire next day we spent driving from Blenheim to Franz Josef, home of an eponymous glacier. Along the way we stopped in Punakaiki to look at the pancake rocks and blowholes.

Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks

Rainbow over a blowhole

Rainbow over a blowhole

In Franz Josef, in the morning, we took a hike out to view the glacier (you can’t get on the glacier except via helicopter), took some photos, and then got on the road to go to Queenstown.

Glacier in the background

Glacier in the background

Driving into Queenstown, Al and I were treated to one of the most stunning natural views either of us has ever seen (and keep in mind that Al’s been to LITERALLY a hundred countries, so that’s really saying something).

This doesn't adequately capture Queenstown.

This doesn’t adequately capture Queenstown. Like, at all.

Neither does this.

Neither does this.

Or this.

Or this.

The town is nestled among several ranges of mountains and is situated along a bright blue, lightning bolt-shaped lake (Lake Wakatipu), which makes for some truly breathtaking views. The town itself reminded me of a cross between South Lake Tahoe and Vail — cute and touristy. Queenstown is known for its scenery and for its outdoor (including adventure) sports. Again, being a preggo, I took a hard pass on the adventure sports, but I did go on some lovely runs along the lake (while Al did stuff like careening down a hill in a wooden cart — to each his own). We also ate some fantastic Thai food in town at the oddly named At Thai. Al claims his pad thai was the best he’s had in his life (and we spent three weeks in Thailand, so this is not faint praise).

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Also spotted while running

Also spotted while running

On our second day in Queenstown, we did some more wine tasting (okay, Al did most of it) in Gibbston, located in the Central Otago wine region. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, which, to an American palate, tastes nothing like pinot noir. It’s fruity and jammy and not really my cup of tea/wine, but Kiwis seem very proud of it, so Al and I were diplomatic in our comments. After tasting at a few wineries, we drove to an adorable little historical town called Arrowtown for dinner. Arrowtown used to be a gold mining town and was home to a population of Chinese immigrants who showed up to work in the mines. Today there’s a historic Chinese settlement with preserved buildings from the mining days, in which Al took many goofy pictures.

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We ate dinner outdoors at a tapas place called La Rumbla, and it was delicious.

La Rumbla

La Rumbla

Our next stop after Queenstown was Te Anau, a town situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. I really liked Te Anau; it was quiet and peaceful and, as an added bonus, our campsite had two lambs on the premises (and you could feed them with bottles!).

Te Anau

Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Al makes a friend

Al makes a friend

 

On our first day in Te Anau, we took a boat out on the lake to go see the Te Anau glowworm caves. Looking at the glowworms involved walking through a series of dark, dank caves filled with dripping and rushing water, then boarding some little boats and being rowed slowly though the pitch dark while peering up at the glowworms clinging to the cave ceiling above. Glowworms (AKA arachnocampa luminosa) are really beautiful in the dark — they look like a starry sky — but, as we learned during the presentation afterwards, they’re actually pretty gross. For one thing, they’re a species of “fungus gnat.” Try to think of something grosser than that. I dare you. They’re also cannibals who eat each other whole. Plus, they look super gross up close. I’m just telling you.

On Lake Te Anau

On Lake Te Anau

Roadside lunch

Roadside lunch

On our second day in Te Anau, we drove to Milford Sound, a huge fjord within the appropriately named Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is supposedly NZ’s most popular tourist attraction, mostly because the scenery within the fjord — waterfalls, glacial peaks, wildlife — is so spectacular. Unfortunately, the weather in Milford Sound is almost always heinous, and the day we went was no exception. We took a two-hour cruise around the fjord and it rained the entire time, plus it was windy, which caused the boat to rock, which caused me to clutch my flat white and grimace stoically out the window while Al went outside and took photos. Here’s what I’m learning about myself as I get older: boats aren’t my thing. In fact, pretty much every time I go on a boat, I end up regretting it. I inevitably feel seasick, and scared, and spend the entire time wishing the boat would just stop moving, already, which it never does. But despite all of this, I don’t regret taking the Milford Sound cruise, because we got to see two rare crested penguins just hanging out on the shore, plus a bunch of fat sea lions lolling on the rocks.

View from boat, Milford Sound

View from boat, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

On the rainy and windy van ride back to Te Anau, we encountered another example of NZ fauna: the kea, a marauding parrot known for eating the rubber off of car tires and windshields. The keas we saw walked out onto the road where traffic was stopped and peered quizzically up at the cars and trucks, as if scoping out the best opportunity for rubber snacking. Luckily, our van escaped unscathed.

Kea

Kea – look at that beak!

More on the rest of our South Island odyssey in the next post!

New Zealand, Part 1: North Island

As much as I hate the term “babymoon” as a term to describe a last-hurrah vacation taken before the arrival of a baby, I very much like the idea of it. And given that Al and I love to travel, it seemed obvious that we needed to do something kind of ambitious for our Last Big Trip Before Baby. After much brainstorming, we decided on New Zealand, mostly because it’s so far away, we couldn’t imagine doing it with a child in tow, and also because it sounded so awesome. I mean, anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies knows that NZ does not scrimp on impressive scenery, and if that’s not enough to convince you, try resisting the charms of the NZ tourism campaign posters from Flight of the Conchords!

Red Beach, Auckland

Red Beach, Auckland – one of the first glimpses I got of NZ

On September 20, we embarked on our three week odyssey to NZ, and it ended up being one of our most unique, fun trips ever. Three weeks is a long trip, and we saw a LOT of stuff, so I will break my post into two manageable chunks: the North Island and the South Island.

We flew into Auckland (via Los Angeles and then Fiji, oof), where Al’s cousins Will and Gil picked us up from the airport. They moved from Scotland to NZ five years ago and live in a lovely, airy house in the far north of the city, in an area called Whangaparaoa. We stayed with them for a few days, adjusting to the radical time change (17 hours!) and eating home-cooked meals. We also checked out pretty Waiheke Island, a short (but pricey) ferry ride away from downtown Auckland and home to a bunch of fancy wineries and olive groves.

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

After a few days in Auckland, we were ready to pick up our transport for the rest of the trip: a camper van! When we showed up at the van rental place, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Al and I were both expecting to be shown to our huge, fully outfitted RV, in which we’d cruise around NZ like passengers on a luxury yacht, buffered from all the troubles and inconveniences faced by the lowly likes of common car travelers. I imagined laughing down at people in cars from my perch inside my Ashton Kutcher-style Windstar, where I’d drink artesian bottled water straight from my mini-fridge and flip channels on my satellite TV as Al drove. Never mind that the price quote we got for our entire three-week van rental was $500; I had convinced myself, against all reason, that we were going to be traveling around New Zealand like RV royalty.

Imagine my shock when we were shown to our camper van, which was, in fact, just a regular old van. There was no TV, no reading nook, no bathroom. In other words, it was not at all what I had envisioned in my completely unrealistic fantasy. I was especially disappointed by the fact that our van did not have a bathroom, since, as a preggo, I have to use the facilities approximately every three minutes. But I tried not to seem as horrified as I was as we loaded our giant suitcases into our tiny, wheeled home and drove uncertainly away, trying to remember to keep to the left. Overall, the van worked out fine. Was it the most comfortable place to sleep, change clothes, and sometimes eat? No. But I did learn how to cook eggs on a camp stove situated inside a vehicle, and that’s a (probably dangerous) skill that’ll last me a lifetime.

Our van!

Our van!

Our first stop after Auckland was Tongariro National Park, famous for its skiing and its views of Mt. Ngauruhoe, or, as it’s more widely known, MOUNT DOOM. We got to our campground in the evening, cooked a meal in the community kitchen, and went to sleep. The next morning, we went on a two-hour hike to look at some nearby waterfalls and ogle Mt. Doom in all its glory. It was pretty impressive. Then we packed up the van and headed to our next destination, Wellington.

Wellington waterfront

Wellington waterfront

Wellington is the political capital of NZ, and is famous for its nightlife, food, and blistering winds. Something about Wellington’s position on the mouth of the Cook Strait makes it particularly susceptible to gale-force winds, and we nearly got our faces blown off while we were there. After we arrived, we ventured downtown, ate dinner at a Malaysian place, and checked out a craft beer bar, where Al sampled some of the local delights. The next morning, I went running along the waterfront and admired the views and Victorian houses, which give the place a San Francisco-esque feel, and then Al and I checked out the Te Papa Tongarewa museum and the cool public art down by the waterfront.

In Wellington

In Wellington

(From Wellington, we hopped on a ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. I’ll cover our adventures on the amazing South Island in another post, but for now, let me pick up again a few weeks into the trip, when we arrived back on the North Island via ferry.)

When we got back from our exploits on the South Island, we drove from the ferry in Wellington straight to Rotorua, a city known for its geothermal activity: hot springs, boiling mud pools, and geysers. Because of hydrogen sulphide emissions, the whole joint smells like eggs. Weirdly, Al and I both enjoyed the eggy scent of Rotorua. (Another sign it’s probably good that we’re married.)

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Kuirau Park, Rotorua

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Anyway, being the cheapskates we are (or at least, have become since finding out we’re having a kid), we decided to do Rotorua the free way, and check out a local public park, Kuirau Park, which has its own mud pools and bubbling lakes, rather than shelling out money for one of the expensive geothermal parks. We wandered around the park with to-go coffees in hand and checked out the boiling mud pools and free public foot baths. Al actually stuck his feet in the foot bath, but I, fearing foot-and-mouth disease, kept my shoes on.

Al, looking like he's really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

Al, looking like he’s really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

After seeing enough boiling mud to feel like we had done Rotorua properly, we got on the road back to Auckland. But along the way, we stopped at Hobbiton, where you can go on a tour of the preserved set of Hobbiton and The Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, being us, we didn’t feel like paying $150 for the tour, so we got a bite to eat at The Shire’s Rest cafe, took a photo with the Hobbiton sign, and then left. I mean, a lot of New Zealand looks pretty much like The Shire (rolling green hills, sheep, blue skies), so I feel like we got the idea. I am kind of bummed I didn’t get to step foot in a hobbit hole, but as I told Al, I would rather spend my money on New Zealand merino wool than on a tour of a movie set. Hey, I have my priorities straight.

We came, we saw, we left.

We came, we saw, we left.

We had one full day left in Auckland before our flight, and we used it to go shopping for yarn (okay, that was just me) and to check out the Auckland Zoo. Our main goal at the zoo was to see a morepork (a small owl native to New Zealand and Tasmania) because we had become mildly obsessed with moreporks over the course of our three weeks in New Zealand. Why, you ask? First of all, the word “morepork” is awesome and I want to say it all the time. Second of all, moreporks are adorable, and everyone knows it. We even drove through an area of New Zealand in which the regional government had adopted a morepork-based PSA campaign, in which a cartoon morepork named RuRu (which is the Maori word for the owl) warns drivers to be careful in a variety of situations, including fog, rain, and snow. We thought it was so cute we stopped to take a photo of a sign explaining the campaign.

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Anyway, we were really jazzed on moreporks and wanted to see one at the zoo, but unfortunately, they’re nocturnal, and it was impossible to see anything in the zoo’s nocturnal exhibit (since it was, you know, pitch dark). We did see the outline of a kiwi bird poking around in the dark, we think, but that was about it in terms of nocturnal bird sightings. On the upside, we saw some seals and shags (cormorants) and blue penguins, so at least we got to view some native NZ animals. I still hope I get to see a real morepork some day. A girl can dream.

Stay tuned for a post on our adventures on the incredible South Island!