Wednesday, Day 1
From home to the Orari B&B in Christchurch took 32 hours door to door. Whew! Traveling business class helped but it’s still exhausting, particularly since New Zealand is 18 hours ahead. We left Florida Monday, 2/27/12, arrived Wednesday, 2/29/12, and stayed confused for days.
With only one afternoon in Christchurch, we headed out immediately to exercise ourselves and the camera. Damage from the region’s February 2011 earthquake was still evident. The city center – an area roughly a mile square – was completely cordoned off to all but demolition equipment. Nearby, brightly painted and stacked shipping containers had been converted into retail space creating a marked contrast.
We were sorry not to stay longer at Orari B&B, an elegant, spacious 19th century townhome near two universities, downtown and the city’s largest park. Everyone at breakfast but us was from the UK, something that repeated most everywhere we stayed this week. We rated Orari tops, 5 star.
The New Zealand portion of our trip was arranged with the help of a wonderful New Zealand travel agent, Michael Nees, to whom we had been referred. Michael suggested driving route, B&B’s, restaurants, activities and provided travel directions and times. He even gave us a cell phone to use while there.
Thursday, Day 2
Boarding the Tranz Scenic Train, we were off by 8:30am from east coast Christchurch to west coast Greymouth. It was a comfortable, relaxing (and yes, scenic) 4½ hours over Arthur’s Pass and the snow-capped Southern Alps.
Getting our Hertz car took no time but we explored Greymouth on foot before driving out. Supposedly the largest city(?) on the west coast of the South Island, what we saw was probably no more than eight or nine square blocks. After a devastating flood in 1988, a 15 foot high flood control wall was built with walking path atop. That was lovely despite the steady 30mph winds.
The Breakers, another 5 star plus B&B, was 14 km north of town on a cliff overlooking the Tasman Sea. A storm had just blown through and seas were extremely rough with white water as far as we could see. It was incredibly dramatic. This was by far our favorite accommodation of the trip – a room in a modern private cabin, well appointed, and with spectacular views.
It’s late summer here and doesn’t get dark until close to 9pm so driving the curvy coastal road back to Greymouth for dinner was easy. Speight’s Ale House came recommended and did not disappoint. Restaurants here do not add tax (VAT) and tipping is rare . . . only for truly exceptional service. (Wait staff are paid a regular wage.) We stopped at a supermarket before returning, not much different from home.
Friday, Day 3
At our family-style breakfast table, we chatted with a couple from Toronto. Jan, our hostess, gave detailed written suggestions with maps for day trips, making it even better.
The Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki village in Paparoa National Park was our first stop and one of the highlights of the entire trip. Pounding surf has carved away the limestone rocks creating narrow horizontal striations from top to bottom. Caves, blowholes and rock islands complimented the views of the pancaked coast. We heard German, French, British and Aussie accents as we walked the busy paths.
Driving further north, the coastal highway was spectacular with dips and climbs between cliffs and beach. We went as far as the isolated Fox River (~30 miles from the B&B) where we walked on the beach and across a narrow historic bridge, almost a century old and now closed to auto traffic.
An easy hike at Truman Track, back in Paparoa, led through coastal woods to another rock and beach overlook. This time it was loaded with biting flies so we didn’t dawdle. Strong coastal winds and salt spray make for a unique flora along this entire area, interesting to see.
Our final effort was a “one hour return” (i.e., round trip) hike Jan recommended and few tourists find. This was the only walk of the day that involved real effort. There were lots of ups and downs. The Cold Creek waterfall at the end was lovely with water cascading down a long series of boulders.
The clouds finally let loose with some drips and we headed to the supermarket for dinner to take back to the room. Fred was asleep by 7pm, me by 8:45.
Saturday, Day 4
With regret, we left The Breakers soon after breakfast armed with another set of suggested stops. It was a beautiful sunny day. Hokitika was a town with plenty of Maori nephrite and craft galleries. Also, lunch. But surprise of surprises, we found an OTB televising of all racetracks, Hawthorne!
Restored buildings from the late 19th century gold mining era were open at Ross, as were the public bathrooms and a dump station. Our next stop was an exceptional gallery in Whataroa. Not just the merchandise, but the staff/owner was Maori. And I thought the place was exceptional. Wood, bone and nephrite carvings were unique and conversation with the owner gave insight into Maori tradition and culture as well.
By 4pm we arrived at Fox Glacier Mountain View B&B. Not the same quality as our previous two stays but here absolutely all goods are trucked in, amenities are fewer and tourism is strictly seasonal. 3 star.
Lake Mathieson featured a one to two hour perimeter hike with spectacular reflections of both Mount Tasman and Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. We ate an excellent dinner first at the Mathieson Café. It was a lovely spot overlooking cow-filled pastures sandwiched between steep peaks and dense woods. We set out on the path before sunset and were amply rewarded with gorgeous views.
Sunday, Day 5
Fox Glacier here we come. Our helicopter held six plus the pilot. Several trips were needed to get us all onto the ice. Though the flight took less than ten minutes, it provided dramatic views and more than one stomach flip flop. We landed about 3000’ up, mid-glacier, on a small cleared patch. The ice was choppy but very slick. It was all we could do to get to the nearby box for our crampons. Fred and I were the only ones to have brought hiking poles and they proved indispensable. We were also the oldest – approaching 70, we were twice the age of most.
Our group of 12 had two guides. They hacked with axes constantly at the front of our single-file line to make footing easier. Despite the improved traction, we slipped and slid, falling several times. We came back with plenty of bruises but didn’t regret any of them. Staff and fellow guests couldn’t have been more helpful or considerate.
Some distance above us sat a small climber’s cabin. It had two sleeping rooms . . . one for men, the other for women . . . and one toilet. We were told the toilet door was invariably left open because the view from the ‘thrown’ down the glacier is so spectacular.
The town of Fox Glacier boasts four helicopter companies and 14 helicopters to serve the summer crowd. At our B&B, Karen rents her garage for helicopter storage and one appeared next to her SUV as if by magic. It landed on what looked like an eight-foot platform on rails that was then rolled under cover.
The government restricts usage on the glacier to 300 people per day. Between helihikes and hikes from the base, they probably fill their quota. We spent 2½ hours on the ice, stomping across rivulets of melt and in and around ice caves. The blue of the deep ice was beautiful. My husband and I were the only ones to opt out of going down into a cave where we needed to lower ourselves by knotted rope.
We were so exhausted by the time we got back, both of us promptly fell asleep. For us this had been strenuous stuff. Despite sore muscles but wouldn’t have missed it for the world. After dinner in town we had no energy for anything else.
Monday, Day 6
We left by 9am for the four hour drive to Wanaka. More spectacular scenery followed us through the mountains and along the coast. To spend time exploring at our destination, we opted to limit stops along the way. We passed up waterfalls, overlooks and short hikes though they had been recommended.
Our only stop of interest was a salmon farm. There were several artificial ponds and fish being harvested as we watched. The farm also had a café with delicious bagel, cream cheese and smoked salmon sandwiches we bought for a take away lunch. We ate them later at beautiful Lake Ianthe.
According to another tourist we met, NZ does not stress road safety. Yes, the roads are paved and smooth. But we agree. Lanes are narrow, shoulders nonexistent (even on cliffs) and most frightening, passing is allowed on blind curves. The coastal highway (Route 6) is one lane in each direction, except at bridges which are generally just one lane. Our first single lane bridge also happened to serve as a train crossing – we had to check for oncoming trains as well as cars. Most drivers exiting a bridge will give a high five to the waiting car as a thank you. This might be the only place where you get five fingers instead of one.
Te Wanaka Lodge was the next B&B. We settled in for the first of three consecutive one-night stays. The weather was lovely – warm with high clouds. The location was good too and we enjoyed a 1½ hour walk along the lake. Wanaka was my opportunity to have NZ lamb. Capriccio’s Restaurant specialized in lamb shoulder slow roasted for six hours. It was excellent, though I was still tasting it come morning.
We rated the Lodge 4 star . . . tiny shower, overheated room and poor lighting, but recently renovated and exceptionally nice staff.
Tuesday, Day 7
By 8 we were on our way for the 1½ drive to Queenstown. Between winter skiing, lake activities, proximity to fiords and gorgeous setting, Queenstown is a year round tourist town. Though parking can be difficult, a spot opened up near the Skyrail gondola. Nearby was a street sign that read “Cemetery” and “No Exit.” Needless to say, we found it hilarious.
The Kiwi & Birdlife Park was definitely worthwhile. Feeding of the kiwi chicks and adults was scheduled for 10am so we were just in time. A biologist provided fascinating commentary in a black light room. These indigenous nocturnal birds live up to 60 years, have vestigial wings and are the bird equivalent of a teddy bear – their feathers hang loose like soft hair. They are the only bird in the world with nostrils at the tip of the beak, giving them an advantage as they probe the ground for insects, worms and berries. Kiwi are related to emus, ostrich, rheas and cassowarys.
The Park housed other native, endangered birds including the morepork owl, kea parrot, black stilt, blue duck, tui, NZ pigeon (aka Kereru) and brown teal. Our self-guiding audio headsets enabled us to appreciate what we saw as we walked the extensive grounds. Definitely an interesting stop.
The Skyrail gondola rose steeply to the top of Queenstown’s adjacent mountain ~1475 feet. Views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu gave us great photo ops. But the best part was the lunch of fish and chips. We passed on the bungee jumping though we actually saw several fearless (and insane) souls suiting up. Back below, we walked along the waterfront (very touristy), then drove the squiggly, wiggly two lane for two hours to Te Anau.
Te Anau Lodge was another B&B gem – 5 star. A former convent, the facility had dark wood floors, doors and window frames, large beautifully landscaped acreage, nice views and an exquisite library where we could enjoy afternoon tea. We were sorry to stay just one night. As before, breakfast gave us the chance to meet others. We actually ran into one English couple at different towns on three separate days.
Though overcast, the rain held off all evening and made our boat ride on Lake Te Anau a pleasure. The Te Anau Glowworm Cave was another ‘must see’ we won’t soon forget. First came a 20 minute sail during setting sun on dead calm waters. At the cave itself, we got an orientation, then a tour.
The cave entrance was low enough to hit our heads and we did. Our group of 14 (and there were many such groups) walked a ways beside an underground river to a boat ramp. Once seated, all lights were extinguished, voices silenced and we were pulled along a chain rope to an inner cavern. Tens of thousands of tiny Dipteran bioluminescent larvae (Arachnocampa luminosa) lit the cavern ceiling and upper walls. The larval stage lasts 6-12 months. They spin a silk nest, then suspend as many as 70 threads lined with beads of sticky mucus. When a flying insect gets stuck, it is hauled up and eaten. The hungrier the larvae, the brighter their glow. And they glow 24/7 unless disturbed. A very efficient insect indeed!
Wednesday, Day 8
The day spent with Trips ‘n’ Trams was exceptional. Picked up before 9am, our van held 12. Four were dropped off within an hour for their scheduled four day hike so we were an intimate group. Milford Sound, our destination, is part of Fiordland National Park and a World Heritage site. This area of the Southern Alps boasts “superlative natural features, exceptional beauty and a role in demonstrating the earth’s evolutionary history.” It has steep, rugged mountains and coast, dense forest and a challenging climate. Forests to the west of the Southern Alps divide are dominated by silver, mountain and red beech.
Our guide made several stops along the way for both beauty and bathrooms.
The 2½ hour Milford Sound cruise to the Tasman Sea was breathtaking. Our boat with a capacity of 90, held no more than 20. The captain took us against limestone cliffs containing huge blotches of green (embedded copper) and long streaks of bright gold (compressed quartz?) . . . within the spray of waterfalls . . . and alongside basking (protected) fur seals. Scenery was spectacular. While the town of Te Anau gets perhaps 50 inches of rain annually, Milford – almost 75 miles away – gets closer to 280 inches! This is temperate rain forest and one of the wettest places on earth.
Fiordland National Park lies next to the boundary of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. It is the Pacific plate being heaved up that forms the Southern Alps. Glacial valleys like Milford Sound abound. Milford is actually a fiord . . . an ice-carved valley, typically narrow and steep sided, that is flooded by sea water after a glacier retreats. A sound, in contrast, is a river valley flooded by rising sea levels or sinking land. At Milford the top 7-10 feet is fresh water, stained dark by tannins, while salt water lies below. As a result, marine life here is unique.
The only mammal native to NZ is a species of bat. European settlers imported rats, stoats and especially possums (native to Australia) that have become major pests. Today the possums number in the millions. We saw plenty of evidence that they don’t always make it across the road.
The historic Homer Tunnel was unusual. Started in the 1930’s, it was not completed until the 1950’s. Work was hampered by major snow melt floods, rock fractures, WW2 and frequent avalanches. Storyboards at the east entrance provided history and photos. Today a government-run avalanche patrol monitors the 40+ glaciers in the Park and forces avalanches deemed to be potential hazards.
Mary, our driver-guide joined us for an easy walk to a series of rapids, then dropped us a while later for a 40 minute walk in a less dense forest. A NZ robin flew to our feet and actually climbed on my boot pecking the metal eyelet. No idea why.
Clouds, drizzle/mist and cool temperatures prevailed all day except during our cruise where we had plenty of warm and sunny moments. Trips ‘n’ Trams had been an excellent choice. Had we opted to fly to Milford from Queensland for the day, as many do, we probably would have been cancelled.
There are an enormous number of small campers on the roads here. Apparently, they offer a more economical way to sightsee than doing the hotel or B&B thing. But they go slowly and present a passing hazard as we found throughout the week.
Back in Te Anau by 6pm we grabbed sandwiches and headed back to Queenstown. The 50 mile drive at dusk along the curves of stunning Lake Wakatipu was challenging but we made good time. Chalet Queenstown B&B was no more than a brief overnight as our flight to Auckland left early the next morning.