Of all the places I’ve dreamt of visiting New Zealand was always near or at the top of the list. In photos the country seemed mystical to me. Always amazed by the beauty of its mountains, fjords, glaciers, waterfalls, and beaches, the culture and the people, I had to see for myself. This is the first of four blog posts on this amazing place that will culminate in a shire on the North Island. When I planned our trip I knew I needed three weeks just to scratch the surface. After months of reading and researching I put together an itinerary that would take Mercy and I on the ultimate self-driving tour from South Island destinations such including Christchurch to Queeenstown, to Te Anau, to Milford Sound, to Lake Wanaka, to Fox Glacier, to Barrytown and Punakaki, to Golden Bay and finally Picton. From Picton we turned in our car and crossed the Marlborough Sound to the North Island city and capital of New Zealand Wellington. Having spent the majority of our time on the South Island we made our way directly to Lake Taupo, Rotorua, Waitomo, Hamilton and finally wrapped up our trip in Auckland.
GETTING THERE: We flew Virgin Australia non-stop from Los Angeles to Sydney and connected after a short layover to Christchurch. Returning we flew from Auckland non-stop to Los Angeles.
The absolute best way to get around New Zealand is by rental car or camper van. Since we were planning an assortment of accommodations from B&B to apartment to hotel we decided on the car. With driving in New Zealand there are a couple of challenges, but they’re easily overcome. The first is New Zealand, like the UK, Australia and Japan is left side drive. We overcame this by adopting a simple pilot-co-pilot plan. As the pilot I drove and kept my eyes on the road and Mercy as my co-pilot repeated the term “keep left” early and often. Another thing is that because everything is reverse on the steering column every time I turned on my turn signal my wipers came on instead. I’d like to say I overcame thins after a couple of days, but old habits are hard to break. The price of gasoline at $2.14 NZ per liter or about $8.08 NZ per gallon ($5.63 USD) might bring sticker shock to the uninitiated, but for those who have driven in other countries in Europe and parts of Asia I feel like we’re pretty spoiled with our prices in the United States. On the plus side there’s no traffic outside the major cities and the drivers are plenty courteous. One word of caution: Don’t speed. I got a speeding ticket and a mild rebuking by the local constable in-between Golden Bay and Picton. The officer told me, “now see what you’ve done…. you went and drove too fast and now you have to pay the consequences.” “What do you think of that?” Add a kiwi accent for effect.
After an overnight in Christchurch we headed to The Hermitage. This is a beautiful alpine lodge setting in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. This is a perfect accommodation to use as a base for a couple of days exploring the Tasman Glacier and other area attractions.
The two highlights of our stay in this area were the Blue Lakes excursion with Glacier Explorers and our amazing ski plane glacier landing with Mount Cook Ski Planes. For the former Glacier Explorers picked us up at The Hermitage and took us to the boat landing maybe 20 minutes away where we donned our life jackets and boarded a zodiac-like custom MAC boat and made our way onto the milky colored lake for our hour-long trip. The ride offered spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and an up close view of icebergs small and large and an opportunity to taste the water from a 500-year-old ice crystal scooped up from the remnants of a fallen sheet of ice that recently tore away from the glacier. The guides are professional and well versed in the geology and history of the area, the formation and transformation of the lake and the local flora and fauna. This is a must-do experience on the South Island and is highly recommended at $170 NZD for adults and $87 NZD for children.
One of the best experiences we’ve ever had traveling anywhere was our ski plane flight and landing on the Tasman Glacier. The pictures tell the story, but Mt. Cook Ski Planes safely gets you there and provides an experience like no other. I’ll caveat my enthusiasm about this trip by warning that this is not cheap. But, if you’re going to New Zealand and are carving up your budget make sure you plan well enough in advance to schedule and book THIS excursion. You won’t regret it. We chose the Grand Circle tour on the ski plane. This 55 minute flight offers amazing mountain and glacier scenic views of the Southern Alps, the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glaciers. The flight also briefly navigates north along the Tasman Sea before crossing the breathtaking snow-capped peaks before a landing on one of the glaciers. The take off and accent up the mountain was thrilling with the craggy edges of the mountains rock formations seemingly within a few yards of the wing tips. The landing was a little bumpy, but fun and stepping out of the plane onto the frozen glacier was incredible. It was so quiet and bright. Our pilots Ross and Sam were friendly and knowledgeable and really loved their job. Heading back Ross jumped into the tail section and Mercy got to be the “co-pilot” for our decent.
From Mt Cook we headed to the Queenstown area and opted for a B&B in the quaint picturesque town of Arrowtown. Arrowtown is a living historic settlement established during the Otago gold rush. Most of the old pioneer constructed shops and churches and cottages still stand and there is a Chinese settlement with restored buildings along the river that is worth a visit.
While staying in Arrowtown we took in some excitement in the adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere, Queenstown. It doesn’t matter the time of the year; Queenstown has something to do for the adventure minded traveler year round. We spent a full day walking around the town, visiting museums, eating a famous Lamb Burger at Furgburger (must do) and taking a wild white knuckle ride down one of the world’s most dangerous roads into Skipper Canyon for a Jet Boat ride on the Shotover River with Skipper Jet. If the ride in didn’t kill you the Jet Boat ride just might. Actually Mercy and I are all in for high adventure within reason and this seemed reasonable enough and I’d do it again. The ride down the 16 mile long steep dirt road unprotected by guard rail makes the drive along the Amalfi Coast seem benign. What’s remarkable is the skill of the drivers that take dumb tourists like us into these places. The road is so narrow that if two vehicles need to pass one may have to back up to a mile or more to allow passage. The cliffs are hundreds of feet high and the views are spectacular. One word of caution if you decide to take your rental car down that road: Don’t do it! Your insurance won’t honor anything that happens on this road. At the bottom we enjoyed an equally hair-raising JetBoat ride on the Shotover River.
On to Te Anau, Milford Sound and adjacent sites. Here I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. This was a nice wind down from the high adventure activities of the previous days. We took a boat onto Milford Sound which is beautiful and took a scenic drive and did some trekking and exploring in Fiordland National Park. Getting lost in this amazing country was a pleasure. If you have three weeks you can put a good dent in New Zealand, but if not you can always return again as we plan to.
NEXT: FOX GLACIER, the WEST COAST, GOLDEN BAY