New Zealand - South Island
December 2015 - January 2016
Our ferry landed in Picton around 5 pm on Sunday, December 6th. We were only staying in Picton for 2 nights so we could plan some of our South Island travels, but we did get in a really awesome hike that took us along the water.
We also found a (possibly dead) jelly fish floating near the beach:
After 2 days in Picton it was time to start our month long tour of the South Island! First stop, Takaka!
Takaka is a really cute little town on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park. Abel Tasman is between Golden Bay and Tasman Bay towards the north end of the South Island. It's full of beautiful trails through the forest and along the ocean. We hiked about 14k one day to Separation Point where we saw some seals from afar.
On the ride back after our hike we saw a sign on the side of the road that advertised for coffee so we pulled off and followed the signs to a harbor where we arrived at the Espressoship:
This ship belonged to Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s and was bought by it’s current owner a few years ago and turned into a cafe on the water! I got a real ice coffee (so hard to find here!) and Dennis even got coffee. It was a great surprise pit stop.
After our hike we were exhausted so that evening we treated ourselves to pizza, soup, pasta, and a few beers at Dangerous Kitchen- a really yummy restaurant inspired by Frank Zappa.
Our second full day in Takaka was spent out at Farewell Spit- a very narrow sand “spit” that stretches out from the island’s northern most point. The water was beautiful and the dunes were incredible, but the wind was nearly unbearable. We hiked a few kilometers down the beach and collected some shells, but then decided the sand in our faces wasn’t worth it so we turned around.
Before heading back home we decided to stop at The Mussel Inn for some (more) mussels!
Our 3 days spent in Nelson Lakes were very rainy and cold so we spent most of our time in the super cozy cabin we found on AirBnB doing puzzles, drinking wine, and watching movies.
It was honestly a good excuse to just chill for a few days. We had been doing lots of hiking and had been pretty active the last week and it was nice to just relax. We also liked having the house to ourselves and not having to share a kitchen or bathroom with anyone.
We were a little bummed that we couldn’t spend any time at the lake so we stopped briefly on the way out. It was still raining but very beautiful.
After Nelson Lakes we headed west to the coast where we stayed in the small town of Westport. We only had one full day (2 nights) there and we spent it hiking at the Oparara Basin, eating whitebait fish fritters, and playing Scattergories.
There was also a really great coffee shop in town that I loved.
From Westport we continued down the west coast of the South Island. Before our next destination we stopped at the Pancake Rocks, which are huge, limestone formations by the ocean.
For the next few days we stayed in the beach town of Hokitika.
We did a hike to the Hokitika Gorge- a beautiful granite gorge filled with turquoise water. There was a really awesome bridge that crossed the gorge that made us feel like we were in an Indiana Jones movie.
We also did an amazing hike through an old mining area. We had to crawl through super narrow tunnels, duck under fallen trees, and watch out for abandoned mine shafts. It was super damp and a little buggy but really beautiful.
The rest of our time in Hokitika was spent on this insanely hard puzzle:
We also went to see a midnight showing of Star Wars the night it opened (a whole day before anyone in the U.S!) and ate a delicious whitebait pizza:
And, as per usual in NZ, we saw tons of these guys:
Franz Josef / Fox Glaciers
The next stop on our journey was Franz Josef Glacier & Fox Glacier. For travelers like us in the South Island, this seems to be the place that everyone makes a stop at. After all, it’s not every day you get to see a massive, sprawling glacier that reaches from the top of the mountains to almost sea level. These two glaciers are about an hour apart and we decided to stay in Franz Josef, explore that glacier, and hit Fox on the way out.
A few days before arriving to Franz Josef, we heard of a tragic helicopter accident in which the pilot and several passengers crashed into Fox Glacier and died. It was also an incredibly challenging situation for the people trying to retrieve their remains since the glacier is incredibly volatile, especially at those heights. The crash and subsequent search were all over the news and probably had a lot of people shaken up - ourselves included. Needless to say, we were a little apprehensive about getting in a helicopter- which is known to be the best way to experience the glaciers, and the only way to get up close.
Instead of a chopper, we hiked to (what used to be) the base of the glacier. It was still pretty spectacular. The valleys leading to the glaciers were astounding in their own right. Massive walls of jagged rock with waterfalls and running streams below. After a few miles you eventually make it to the end of the trail where you are greeted with a beautiful reveal of the glacier. Most of the area is roped off to prevent visitors from getting hit by fallen ice or debris, and looking at the ice from where we were we could definitely see the advantages of taking a chopper and landing on the ice for a walk around, but we both agreed that we’d done enough “extreme” stuff on this trip and did not want to pay $400 each for a few more hours of fun.
One of the highlights along the way was Peters Pool, which was formed by melting glacial ice over 200 years ago. If the weather is right you can see an amazing reflection of the ice on the surface of the water (the weather was just ok for us).
On our off days we spent our time nestled in our room, watching several episodes of Homeland, and writing postcards to friends and family. We also had a really sweet bakery right around the corner from where we stayed, furthering our love of mince pies and doughnuts for breakfast.
While driving towards Lake Hawea, our next destination, we stopped at the very popular Blue Pools walk, just north of Makarora. Dennis had learned about these crystal clear pools through one of our favorite photographers, Chris Burkard. Once again the weather wasn’t really cooperating, so our pit stop was pretty short. The water was incredibly beautiful but this place had SO MANY SANDFLIES. I'm not sure if I've mentioned these little buggers yet but they are the absolute worst! They're tiny little flies that leave incredibly itchy and painful bites- and magically are able to get through whatever clothes you're wearing. Being that it was too cold for us to take a dip we had several layers on and these little jerks still managed to eat us alive!!!
After the pools we made it to the Kowhai Den at Lake Hawea. Our hosts Scotty & Joe had a lovely little apartment where we spent the next two days. Our first afternoon was spent straight relaxing, Dennis sat outside in a hammock and listened to Ween’s “The Mollusk” album, while I did my nails and watched Netflix. We cooked dinner in our cute little kitchen and went to bed early to prepare for a big hike in the morning.
The next day we decided to attempt the climb to Isthmus Peak, which overlooks both Lake Hawea & Lake Wanaka. After parking our car we noticed another couple our age walking around looking for the trail head. We made some small talk with them and it turned out that the guy grew up in Monroe, CT - right near Dennis’ parents house! Small world huh? We walked and chatted with them for a bit and then forged ahead once they started to slow down.
What followed was an incredibly challenging hike up to the summit. The trail was very rocky, with lots of switchbacks and tons of sheep crossing our paths. I tried hard to make friends with them and take some photos but they were very sheepish (now I know where that saying comes from!) and just baaaaed and ran away. As we continued to climb, there were several times that we looked ahead and noticed we were getting very high up in elevation and thought “we must be getting close”. Soon we ran into a hiker who was on his way down and he informed us that we were actually very wrong. He said "once you get to where you think is the top - it just keeps going." And MAN did it ever. You basically reach the peak that over looks the whole mountain you just conquered, and then it breaks further to the west over rolling hills... for a few more miles. We were definitely feeling the burn at this point so we stopped for a snack and some hydration before moving forward. The landscape up there was incredible though. Lots of browns and rustic looking shrubs (it looked kinda like a Dr. Seuss book) and tumbleweeds- and towering above everything was just more mountain tops. At this point we were walking right in the middle of two mesmerizing lakes so it was incredibly beautiful but utterly exhausting.
After about 7 miles, we finally reached the summit.
After lunch and a few photos we were ready to hoof it back down as the wind was whipping wildly up there. One might naturally assume that the way back down is easy but that WAS NOT the case. The harshness of the path was beginning to take its toll on our feet and another 3 hours tramping down got pretty painful at times. My head started to ache and pound and my legs and feet were giving way. I was miserable. As soon as we got back to our car I crashed hard. Thankfully Dennis was able to drive home while I tried to ease my pounding head. I thought after Ruapehu this would be cake but it wasn’t. 5,000 ft and 8 hrs round trip sure kicked our butts- but it was well worth it.
We got some much needed rest that evening and left for Lake Hayes the following day.
For Christmas we stayed at the Hope Cottage in Lake Hayes, with our hosts Dave & Melissa. Lake Hayes is a little residential community just outside Queenstown. Queenstown is known as the birthplace of bungee jumping and has become somewhat of an extreme sports capital of NZ. Bungee, skydiving, luging, high speed boats, kayaking, water jet packing, etc…it’s all possible in Queenstown. At this point in our trip, though, we agreed that we weren’t going to do any more super expensive activities since we were getting a little low on funds and there wasn’t anything that we were really dying to do. We were just happy to be there for the Christmas holiday and soak in the great buzz from the activities surrounding us (we were literally watching parachute after parachute open up and fly around in the sky above us).
On Christmas Eve we walked around Queenstown for a bit and then went to Arrowtown, which is a historic gold mining community.
We stocked up on some local NZ wines & beers and then celebrated by drinking two bottles of wine and watching Bad Santa with some yummy Thai food takeout (we hadn't had Thai food since Thailand so it was a nice treat!). On Christmas morning we started celebrating early by having mimosas with breakfast and watching A Very Murray Christmas. A Very Murray Christmas was a little disappointing, but the mimosas were not.
We then decided to take a walk around Lake Hayes (with Santa hats!) since we’d never spent Christmas somewhere so warm (even though in CT it was almost as warm!). It was really wild to be wearing shorts and to see so many people outside enjoying nature on the biggest holiday of the year.
After a nice walk we went back home and had a few beers while watching Elf and starting to prep for dinner. Our holiday kitchen situation was a little challenging. We had one hot plate and one small grill so we decided to make super cheesy Mac&Cheese with some small steaks. It was a bit of a juggling act considering the small size of the “kitchen” and the amount of pots we had to work with. But we were determined to have a great meal and we definitely made it work- the food was delicious. We missed our families and traditions back home but this was a really unique way to spend our first Christmas as a married couple.
On our way out of Queenstown we stopped at the Queenstown Skyline Luge park and did a few luge rides down the mountain, overlooking the city and the lake. It was pretty awesome. Video coming soon!!
Approaching the near bottom of the South Island was our next destination of Te Anu, the gateway to the Milford Sound. The road that connects Te Anu and Milford Sound is considered by many to be the most scenic drive in all of New Zealand. At the end of the winding road through Fiordland National Park is the sound, a mind-blowing fjord created from centuries of glacial erosion.
After settling in our hotel we got right down to business and booked a boat tour of Milford Sound for the next afternoon. The drive is only two hours or so but everyone says to plan for four as there’s so much to see along the way. That was definitely an understatement. You could spend months exploring this road and still be spellbound. With only a few days in the area here’s what we experienced:
Beautiful but crowded by nearly every tour bus that travels this road. We were here for about 3 minutes before it became too overwhelming.
Incredible open field with views of mountains ahead.
Key Summit Track (part of the great Routeburn Track)
We did a hike here the day after our boat ride on the sound. The track is part of the Routeburn Track which is recognized as one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” It wasn't as hard as the Isthmus Peak but it was still plenty challenging. At the top we were rewarded with really amazing views of the surrounding Humboldt & Darran Mountains.
Walker Creek & Cascade Creek
These were two campsites right off the road that had the most vibrant fields of lupin flowers we had ever seen, surrounded by small creeks on either side. We probably spent a whole hour here just taking pictures and smiling the entire time.
We arrived 45 mins or so early for our boat ride so we walked around the small harbor area and took it all in. It was really cool to think about how we’d traveled from Milford, Connecticut all the way to Milford, New Zealand. And what better way to see this coastal area than by sea!
After getting on board we opted to sit towards the front of the boat on the deck and not in the cabin areas. We were warned that the first 10-15 minutes of the trip would be pretty choppy and the captain expected there to be “some spray” along the way. We could handle some splashes right? Good thing our camera was covered and secure because we got SOAKED. It started off light and then quickly escalated as we propelled along the mighty sound. After a few minutes it got so bad that we were the only people left on the deck. We just laughed it off at this point. It felt like an initiation to the sound and we were still so amazed by our surroundings.
The boat took us past several incredible peaks and waterfalls all the way to the end of the channel to the edge of the ocean. And if the fjord wasn’t breathtaking enough, at one point we spotted a small pod of dolphins swimming just ahead of the boat. It was pretty amazing.
Milford Road, the road that leads to Milford Sound, in general was fantastic. We probably pulled over every 10 minutes- to take pictures or just to explore. Funny story: one afternoon we actually got pulled over for driving too slow, but the cop was super nice and just informed us that NZ law states that if you're driving under the speed limit you have to pull over to let cars behind you pass so not to cause an accident. Then, once we were back in the states, we got a speeding ticket in the mail from some drone or camera on the same road (different day) for going over the speed limit- a whole 5 kms (3 miles) over the speed limit. We just couldn't win!
After Milford Sound we thought about heading back to Queenstown for the duration of our stay but it turned out every place worth staying in the immediate area was booked months ago. So we started to think about heading far east instead, to the city of Dunedin. We didn’t know much about it aside from the fact there is a university there and seemed like a cool college town. At first glance there weren’t many accommodations available there either, but Dennis eventually stumbled upon a very unique lodging experience through AirBnB. Time was ticking so we had to pull the trigger fast. We’d be ringing in 2016 at the Whakamana Cannabis Museum!!!
Our host, Abe, greeted us outside the museum and gave us the grand tour of the facility. In the front room was a visual library dedicated to the history of cannabis use in New Zealand and the rest of the world. In addition to the wealth of literature there was a display of cannabis pipes, papers, and other paraphernalia, as well as a media room where they screen films and hold weekly podcasts dedicated to cannabis reform. And of course there was a plethora of information about the benefits of cannabis, both from medicinal and recreational standpoints, plus guides for safe cannabis use and the changing laws surrounding it.
The museum was open to the public from 10-4 but after hours it was all ours. We had our own private bedroom, a large living room with projector and sound system, a super cute kitchen, and a backyard veggie garden! Abe informed us that Thursday night was usually movie night at the museum but since it was New Year's Eve they were planning on throwing a little party instead. He asked if we’d mind if a few friends of the museum came by to celebrate, and we obviously said it was totally fine with us.
Before the festivities began we went downtown and explored the campus area while making a pit stop at the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. I was very excited at the prospect of tons of chocolate and the whole experience was a party for the senses. We had soft chocolate, crumbly chocolate, and warm gooey chocolate, all while catching wafts of sweet candy aromas coming from every direction. The tour guide gave us goodie bags which were generously replenished every ten minutes or so with more chocolate. And even after all of the free stuff we still bought more for NYE.
Another thing worth mentioning about Dunedin is the fact that the sun doesn’t set until 10:30 PM this time of year, so this celebration was extra surreal. It ended up being an intimate gathering of the minds, maybe 15 people or so total, and we ate, drank, and hung out in the backyard, in broad daylight, well into the night. It was really nice for us to chat with some locals and hear about their lives in New Zealand, while sharing some of our recent travel experiences. The clock eventually struck midnight with champagne & cheers and then we retired to our room, drinking beers in bed and watching SpongeBob Squarepants.
On New Year's Day we woke up and took a drive out to the Dunedin Penninsula where there are several small beaches, lookouts, and one spot where a bunch of sea lions were congregating. It was such a beautiful day and a really special way to begin 2016.
Dunedin turned out to be a really great experience and was totally worth the three hour drive. Before we knew it, the time had come for us to head back west to Queenstown and prepare for our return to America. We stayed at a really nice house in the Fernhill area of town overlooking Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain rage. On our last morning with our car, we took a scenic drive along the lake to the village of Glenorchy, another really “remarkable” stretch of road. After finally turning in the keys, we decided to lay low so our next few afternoons were spent shopping and eating in Queenstown (and walking A LOT- the house we were staying at was at the top of a huge hill), while watching Netflix’s “Making A Murderer” series in the evenings. Highlights included lunch at the world famous FERGBURGER , dinner at Eichardt's Bar, and one of the most incredible sunsets we’ve ever seen. It was the perfect conclusion to our crazy, 4 month, adventure abroad.
Our final days in Queenstown marked the end of our honeymoon abroad. After 4 months, 8 countries, 9,000+ photos, countless hours of video footage, and tons of absolutely incredible memories, we were headed back to the states. But our trip wasn't over yet! First stop, LA!