After 24 hours at home, here are our final thoughts about the trip plus some advice for next time!
Place: Pamela’s living room
Activity: Petting Aubry the Dingo
Sight: Pamela narrating her photo book
Angeleno’s with Pamela
BBQ at Andrew and Wendy’s
The ferry system is a great, pleasant way to get around. Plus, sailing into and out of Circular Quay provides amazing views of top sights! Sydney’s summers can be brutally hot, so visiting later in their fall (maybe in April) probably would have been more temperate but still not wintery.
The south island is without a doubt more mountainous and beautiful. Our itinerary order made a lot of sense given our time in Sydney but I can see why most tours run the other direction (since the scenery keeps improving).
I preferred Auckland to Christchurch, so would recommend it as an entry/exit point to the country. Since Auckland’s weather is so fickle, scheduling a couple days there at the beginning and ending of your trip might give you the best shot at good weather there.
If you can drive a right-hand drive car on the left side of the road, New Zealand would be incredibly road-tripable. In fact, after a week there, I thought there might be a chance I could cope with driving on the other side on the south island’s more deserted roads. Having a car would certainly give you more flexibility to travel between sights/activities without relying on expensive tours.
That said, I would still 100% recommend the flight-cruise-heli combo to get to and from Milford Sound if you’re day-tripping from Queenstown as a home base. That drive is just too far to make it worth doing twice in a day.
Activity: petting ALL the things!!
Sight: Opera House
Meal: BBQ and Dani making me soup
Don’t get sick! But if you do, have a fianc-wife there with you to make it all better <3
New Zealand Highlights
Activity: Landing on the mountain
Sight: Water all around from the waterfall
Hotel: QT Queenstown
New Zealand Advice
Spend more time in the mountains of the south island. I’d like to go back and stay around Aoraki Mt. Cook and try some day trips and hiking trips out of there. But whatever you do, make sure you find time to see some Kiwi Birds!!!!
This was our last day in New Zealand. Our most important task was to get from Rotorua to Auckland in time to fly back to Chicago tonight. We booked another Great Sights tour to do this, which also includes a stop at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
We gave ourselves plenty of time to get from our B&B to the bus terminal since we 100% couldn’t miss this tour. We arrived 30 minutes before our bus! Fortunately (and unexpectedly) we were again able to snag front row seats. There were only 9 people on this tour compared with the 45 that completely filled the bus on the way to Christchurch. It may be because today was the last day of Crankworks, a mountain biking and trick riding convention that happens annually in Rotorua.
Sadly, our driver/guide was not of the same caliber on this journey. His commentary was boring and sparse (which, admittedly, was better than boring and endless).
He did describe our 20-30 minute journey out of the caldera Rotorua sits inside.
After that he let us snooze for another hour and a half or so until we approached Waitomo for our tour stop. He roused us with a recording of a Maori performer singing “Kia Ora” (which means “hello” and is a common greeting in New Zealand).
Our timing was just about perfect, because we were able to join the 9:45 AM cave tour, giving us more time for lunch afterwards. Our day seriously perked up as soon as our cave guide, Danny, took over.
In Maori, wai means “water” and tomo means “hole.” Roughly translated, Waitomo means “water disappearing into a hole.” That’s exactly how these caves were discovered. In 1887, the local Maori chief, Tane Tinorau, noticed water disappearing into a hole. Brave man that he was, he explored the caves floating on a flax raft with only a candle to light his way. Fred Mace, an English surveyor, accompanied him.
The Waitomo caves are one of New Zealand’s oldest tourist attractions. They were open for business only two years later, in 1889, and have been guiding tours ever since.
Danny, is a fifth-generation cave guide and is descended from both the original explorers. Only 1% of the tour company employees can claim that!
(Like most caves, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so I’m borrowing some from the internet after this.)
The caves are limestone and have the typical formations you’d expect, including one stalactite that looks like a bungee jumping kiwi bird. The tour of the dry parts of the cave was pretty brief. We really only went through two “rooms” of the cave, including the cathedral (the name given to the highest room in any cave system).
Danny asked if there were any singers in the group because the acoustics in the cathedral are great. Two little girls from San Francisco did about 10 seconds of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star before they became too bashful to continue. Instead, Danny serenaded us with a Maori song. He was good!
However, the real attraction in these caves are the glow worms, which VASTLY exceeded my expectations. To be honest, when we booked this tour, I expected we would see maybe 10 or 20 glow worms. We saw thousands!
Danny started by taking us down onto an observation platform above the river. The ceiling was at about waist height. Crouched down, we could already see hundreds of glow worms when he turned off the lights!
He told us about their 11 month life cycle. They spend most of that time in the second stage, as a glow worm. To feed, they each drop down a handful of threads (very much like spider web silk) to catch flying insects. Danny turned on a spotlight aimed about six inches below the ceiling and all those threads were illuminated! It was so cool!
After the lifecycle talk, we descended some stairs down to the almost pitch-black dock and boarded our boat. Trish and I were in the very front, which is actually where Danny stood, on the bow.
Glowworms are sensitive to sound and will dim their light if it’s too loud. Because of this, the boat didn’t have a motor of any kind. Danny also didn’t paddle or use any kind of pole, instead, he stood on the bow and pulled us along a network of ropes strung throughout the cavern. Except for small murmurs of wonder and the sound of water sloshing against the hull, it was completely silent.
The caves were pitch black, looking up was like lying on your back outside in the middle of the night in the desert looking at the stars. The older a glowworm is, the brighter it glows, so there was a great deal of variation. I thought the brighter ones looked greener and the dimmer ones looked bluer.
There weren’t many glowworms on the stalactites so you’d see black areas against the light that shifted as the boat moved, but it was virtually impossible to make out any rock features by the light of the glowworms. Danny was also just a black shape against the worms.
It’s impossible to find a photo that truly captures what the experience was like. Any long exposure of the ceiling brings out many more rock features than were visible and tourist photos artificially illuminate the boat so you can see what you’re in for. In reality, it’s just you, the glowworms, and the dark.
It was truly magical.
Once we disembarked the boat and were allowed to take pictures again the entire group continued speaking in whispers. It was tough to break the spell the glowworm caves cast.
This was definitely a great way to conclude our trip!
The glowworm cafe actually had a really good smoked chicken and cranberry pizza.
We enjoyed our lunch outside under the large awning that covers the whole center.
After the glowworms, we just had about three more hours on the bus to get to Auckland.
We ran into some slight trouble in Auckland because we got stuck at an intersection shut down for a march supporting the Christchurch Mosque victims. We were actually only a few blocks from where we were supposed to end up, so we just asked to be let off the bus (which did mean dragging our suitcases up one excruciatingly long block) but the rest was downhill (literally).
The march also passed us and we stopped to watch and show our support.
The crowd was filled with signs pledging support for many marginalized groups, including Muslims, Jews, native peoples, rainbow pride, trans rights, and more I’m sure we didn’t see.
We caught an express bus to the airport (the Sky Bus), which basically costs the same as a SuperShuttle but runs on a schedule at specific stops. It made sense for us since our drop off was near a stop and we weren’t sure exactly what time we’d arrive due to traffic.
Traffic was light on a Sunday, so we made it to the airport by 4 PM. We reshuffled a few things in our checked bags to get rid of liquids from our day pack and redistribute some weight. After that, check in was a breeze thanks to the automated terminals (it’s soooo much more efficient than at ORD).
Considering we had almost four hours to kill, we really appreciated access to the Strata Lounge. I’m glad we had a chance to scope it out before our flight to Sydney because we were able to take full advantage of the amenities, including taking a shower.
The shower went a huge way toward making us feel ready to face a 15 hour flight.
We had some dinner and shared a well-earned beer (a lager from Marlborough).
At the appointed hour, we packed up our things and said goodbye to New Zealand.
I’m not sure if something specific triggered it, if it was random, or if it was related to the Christchurch mosque shooting, but there was extra security on the part of the terminal we left from.
Fortunately, with assigned seats, we didn’t really care.
We settled in and were again completely sold on the Sky Couch as a method of travel.
It even works if one of you wants to sit up and the other one wants to sleep!
We got strong tailwinds, so we were on the ground in Chicago almost an hour early.
Global Entry made customs a breeze and we were in a cab bound for home less than an hour later. Someone was very glad to see us when we arrived.
On the other hand, Thunderpuff just wanted to make sure we knew any souvenirs we brought back belonged to him.
My parents greeted us with a home cooked meal and we hit the sack a little before 10 PM. We both mostly slept through the night (with some Delilah cuddles interspersed throughout) and woke up feeling on schedule. It was a great trip but it’s nice to be home.
Our hosts at the B&B served breakfast at 8 AM, which felt a bit early after the disturbance last night! I took one for the team and got up to claim it and chat with our hosts while Trish slept in. They served a selection of fresh fruit, muesli, and freshly baked croissants. I ate my fill and fixed a plate for Trish. I caught up on blog posts until she woke up.
Our activity today was at Te Puia, a geothermal region and Maori culture arts center. We opted for a guided tour including a Steambox Lunch.
Uber isn’t in Rotorua (yet) so we had to do things the old fashioned way and call a taxi. He dropped us off outside Te Puia with plenty of time to spare. We met our guide, Ngaio, at the front of the park and she told us a bit about what we’d be doing for the next couple of hours.
Our first stop was the cafe to put together the makings of our traditional steambox lunch. A traditional way of cooking for the Maori is to dig a large pit in the ground, fill it with stones, and heat them. Then, ingredients are layered inside. The whole contraption is covered with a cloth and has dirt piled on top. Everything is left to cook for 4 to 6 hours.
The Maori tribes around Te Puia have an added advantage: geothermal steam. They use the same principle but seal their meals into a steam vent, which is exactly how ours was cooked. They also use an aluminum lid which cuts the cooking time in half (since this is a tourist attraction).
We started our lunch by putting the raw ingredients into a box.
We put all the boxes into a wire basket that got carted off to the steam oven. We’d see them again in about 2 hours when they were ready for lunch!
Next, Ngaio took us over to the craft school, which is a premier institution for passing on traditional Maori art forms. They offer scholarships as craftsmen must stay for two to four years!
Next, we watched the traditional Maori welcome ceremony and saw a group of tourists welcomed into the ceremonial house for a concert. We sat on the steps outside and learned (with varying degrees of success) to weave a flower out of flax.
Trish and I both did pretty well! Trish’s turned out especially nice. She might have a future as a weaver. I’ll stick with my day job but at least I can follow a pattern.
The couple next to us… well… they struggled.
Flowers completed, we continued our tour journeying further into the park. Our next stop is what we’ve been waiting for the whole trip: Kiwi Birds!!!!
We both prepared for the occasion by wearing our TomboyX kiwi bird print undies. It’s the little things.
Kiwi birds are nocturnal, so no lights or photography is allowed in the enclosure. It’s illuminated with dim red lights. The girl slept in her box, but the male ran around by the front of the glass showing off for us. We learned they can breed up to four times a year and the egg takes up about 20% of the female’s insides. For reference, that’s equivalent to giving birth to a two year old. Yikes! At least the male incubates the egg after that.
After the kiwi birds we worked our way towards the geothermal sights, including boiling mud pits…
An the famous geysers. We saw three. One just squirts little bursts that only last a few seconds. The Feathers is an indicator geyser that goes off before the large Pōhutu geyser.
The weather was a bit cool which resulted in even more steam than usual. It was a little hard to see the geyser through it, but we saw it peak up above the steam as it erupted.
At the conclusion of the tour, we went to see our lunch boxes lifted out of the steam oven.
They trucked our lunches back to a tented area overlooking the geysers and we saw the fruits of our labors.
Honestly, I expected it would turn into a soggy mess, but it was delicious! The meat was so tender and the starchy vegetables were perfectly cooked. I particularly liked the kūmara (a white-fleshed sweet potato). There was a lot of juice in the bottom of the box but it had basically turned into a chicken jus, seasoning everything. I thought we’d way overstuffed our boxes but Trish and I both ate the whole thing!
Lunch concluded our tour. We went back for another look at the kiwi birds and caught a brief glimpse of the female outside her box.
Then, we called a taxi back to the B&B. It was an odd call because when I told the dispatcher I wanted to be picked up at Te Puia I expected some name brand recognition… but nope! It felt like calling a cab in Orlando asking for a Disney pickup and having the person on the other end of the line draw a blank. Fortunately, he figured it out and we made it back.
We had a quiet afternoon to rest up for our tour and flight home tomorrow. We really weren’t hungry, so we just went to the local grocery store to stock up on Tim Tam varieties to bring home. We also got a deal on a jar of super-duper graded manuka honey.
I also experienced a great personal triumph!
We ate our leftover pizza from the night before and some peaches for dinner. We showered and then completely repacked our bags for our immanent departure from New Zealand.
This morning we got up early to bid farewell to Christchurch (and the south island) and head to Rotorua on the north island. We had breakfast at the airport and adopted a new friend.
I take full responsibility for suggesting all these early flights and excursions but Trish willing consented before we booked them. I think she’s regretting it now…
I did have time to *almost* win at a claw machine. I totally could have gotten that dinosaur with another $2 coin (or two).
Rotorua is a much smaller city than Queenstown or Christchurch so our plane was significantly smaller. In fact, it had propellers instead of jet engines!
Traveling between the north and south islands involves crossing Cook Straight. It’s amazing how quickly the terrain changes over a brief 1.5 hour flight!
Fortunately, we were able to check into B&B Abundance early so we were able to establish a home base and ditch our stuff.
Originally, we’d planned to go on a guided horse trek this afternoon. But since we were a little under the weather we’d hedged our bets and cancelled it in case we weren’t feeling up to it. Fortunately, we’re both much improved so we set off to the visitor center to get some recommendations and see what else might be available this afternoon.
The woman we spoke with at the i Site was extremely helpful and validated the activity we’d chosen out of the guidebook we’d perused was indeed phenomenal. We booked it (be in suspense!) and went to grab a late lunch near Eat Streat (where all the restaurants are).
We picked a small Japanese restaurant with lunch specials.
We had their tempura lunch box, which came with miso soup, ginger salad, tempura, and chicken teriyaki. It was delicious! The miso soup, in particular, was richly flavored and devoid of bland tofu chunks.
After lunch, Trish changed into contacts and we walked to a nearby hostel to get picked up for our afternoon activity…
But this was especially cool zip lining because it was through a virgin native forest, which means it’s never been cut down or logged. When Europeans arrived in New Zealand, such forests blanketed 85% of the north island. Today, only 15% of the north island is forested and only 5% remains untouched by man. This organization reinvests a percentage of its tourist-driven profits in conservation efforts, which have already had a huge impact on the health of the forest.
Matt and Hailey, our guides, drove us up into the forest. We disembarked and hiked about 30 minutes further up the ridgeline. It wasn’t too strenuous but I was more out of breath than I care to admit by the time we reached the start of the zip line track! Matt and Hailey stopped periodically to tell us about the native flora and fauna (and let us catch our breaths).
The silver fern is New Zealand’s most recognizable emblem (unlike their official flag, which can easily be confused with Australia’s). The Maori used to use it to navigate silently through the forest at night. The leader would break off fronds and flip them upside-down. The moonlight would reflect off the silver underside like a giant reflective arrow. After raiding their target, they would either flip the ferns back over (where the green topside just blended in) or point the “arrow” in another direction to confuse anyone trying to follow them and retaliate.
A large element of the conservation work involves getting rid of invasive pests, mainly possums, rats, and stoats, which have decimated native bird populations. 40% of New Zealand’s native birds have already gone extinct. All those vermin eat the birds or their eggs. Possums also consume a staggering quantity of foliage, often stripping trees beyond the point they can recover.
It’s sad that this conservation effort involves inventing more and more efficient ways to kill cute furry animals, but when they showed us a 5-year before and after picture of the forest the impact was stunning. Five years ago the forest would have been silent. They’ve gone from pest in 100% of the forest to just 15%.
We could also hear the difference all around us as birds chirped and sang. In fact, a friendly chap came to see us off before we embarked on our first zip line. Trish got to feed him a mealworm!
Note: It’s illegal to feed native birds in New Zealand, but they have a special permit in this conservation area.
Now! About zip lining. First, you are really high off the ground. You don’t often look down at the forest! At our highest point, we were about 200 feet off the ground.
Second, it’s AWESOME!
We also got to cross a swing bridge which, as you might have guessed, swings.
We had a blast! After we got a little more confident, we did things like going hands free, starting backwards, and even going upside down!
Look, Ma! No hands!
Hailey dropped us off at Eat Streat where we perused our dinner options.
Trish was in the mood for pizza, so we chose an Italian restaurant, Papa Tazio.
It was okay. Our venison pizza (with peppers, caramelized onions, and a spicy sweet sauce) was good but the wine service was a bit like Monty Python’s Cheese Shop.
We skipped dessert and took a taxi back to the B&B. We showered off the sunscreen and got ready for bed.
I was working on my blog and Trish had just closed her eyes when we started to hear some yelling outside. The couple next door started to have a huge obscenity-laden fight. At first, it just seemed embarrassing for them but then it started to escalate and we heard some pretty significant shoving.
Long story short, that’s how I ended up placing my first emergency services call (it’s 111 in New Zealand if anyone’s wondering).
It wasn’t the most restful way to end the night, but the police sent someone to sort it out and it quickly quieted down. The next morning I found out the couple only recently moved in and he’s strongly suspected to have a drinking problem, which explains a lot.
We only have one day in Christchurch so we wanted a broad introduction to the city. Our main activity today is a half day tour called appropriately enough, “The Grand Tour of Christchurch.” Breakfast isn’t included in our room rate at The Chateau on the Park so we decided to get an Uber into the CBD (central business district) and have a bite across the street from where our tour departed at a cafe called “Bunsen.”
Upon arrival, we realized the name is an homage to the surrounding complex’s history as a university! Various antique scientific oddities decorated shelves around the cafe and the tables had organic molecules and equations branded on them.
Trish had yogurt with pistachio granola and kiwi fruit. I had two fried eggs on sourdough toast. Both were excellent.
Before continuing with the happy events of the day, it must be mentioned that there’s currently a 300 meter long memorial tribute to the victims of the horrific mosque mass shooting last week in the heart of Christchurch. The shooting seems to have deeply shaken Aussies and Kiwis alike. The contrast between their reactions and that of Americans and is a stark reminder of how commonplace such tragedies have become in the States. We’ve become desensitized to the horror. The flowers, signs, candles, and prayers left at the memorial show how deeply the event has affected the city. We didn’t want to intrude so we kept a respectful distance and paid our respects from afar.
We met our tour group less than half a block away from Bunsen in front of the Canterbury Museum. It was a small group of 14 led by a cheerful guide named Tony.
It was a bit silly to get on the coach because our first stop was just 300 meters behind us (which involved driving around several blocks) to go punting on the river Avon. The boat shed is the oldest building in New Zealand still being used for its original purpose.
I expected punting to be silly but it was actually a highlight of the day! Trish and I both thoroughly enjoyed it. We got seats in the front so we had an unobstructed view and the gentle motion of the boat soothed us despite the slight chill.
Our group had two punts and our punters bantered back and forth teasing each other while they told us a bit about the Avon, the history of punting, and the gardens and wildlife around us.
We saw several pairs of paradise ducks (which mate for life). If the female dies, the male stops eating and dies soon after. If the male dies, the female goes and finds another mate.
For the first half of the ride, Trish and I thought the only thing missing was a dog. Then, a terrier leapt from the bank into the muddy shallows in pursuit of wayward ball. He got so muddy! From his owner’s nonchalant expression I doubt this is an uncommon occurrence. On our bus ride in the day before, Trish noticed a sign for a “Self Service Car and Dog Wash.” I guess we know who’s keeping them in business!
After punting, we got back on the bus to drive 300 meters back to where we started for a Botanic Garden Caterpillar Tour. They call it a caterpillar tour because the little green covered tram looks like a caterpillar (don’t worry, Mom, there wasn’t a butterfly in sight).
The botanic gardens have a stunning variety of plants. Our guide had a sense of humor and was good at telling us interesting things about the plants (not just what they’re called) so it was an interesting ride despite not knowing anything about plants.
Here are some pretty ones:
My favorite story was about this special pine tree native to Australia. It was thought to be extinct until a grove of them was discovered. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens wanted to bring in some seeds but weren’t allowed to due to the biosecurity import laws. They managed to find a legal way around it though. They brought back some of the tree’s bark (or maybe pulp?) in a test tube and managed to germinate it. It’s behind bars to keep it safe and prevent anyone from stealing it.
The ride got a bit chilly as the clouds thickened and a breeze kicked up (they call it a Nor Easter since it comes from the antarctic). Our guide handed out blankets which were most welcome.
After the Botanic Garden tour, Tony got us back on the bus and we started to see more of Christchurch proper. The effects of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes are still palpable (and visible) in almost every sector of the city and surrounding suburbs.
More than 75% of the buildings in the CBD were damaged (many destroyed) as a result of the earthquake. The city was basically leveled and is being replaced bit by bit. Some buildings haven’t been touched since the earthquake and are simply surrounded by shipping containers full of concrete to keep them from collapsing on anything (or anyone) in the event of another earthquake.
The famous Anglican cathedral is in ruins and has yet to be restored.
A Scandinavian architect designed temporary replacement to last 40 years that’s built primarily of cardboard.
An entire section of the city full of suburbs built on unstable reclaimed land is gone. The city decided it wasn’t safe to rebuild so they paid people for their land and “The Red Zone” simply sits empty.
Given the amount of destruction, it’s amazing only 185 people lost their lives (115 of them in one poorly designed building that completely collapsed). Their memorial is home grown, originally the work of one man, and now maintained by a host of volunteers who repaint and mow around 185 empty white chairs.
Every person we talked to today, from the tour guides to our Uber drivers mentioned the earthquake or its effects. The city exists in a strange limbo, caught between a “life must go on” attitude and an inability to forget its past.
Tony drove us out away from the CBD into the seaside suburbs and the effects of the earthquake remained present, from missing buildings to collapsed cliffs. Some old buildings survived almost unscathed (usually because they were made entirely of wood). He pointed out features along the way, including an alarming number of houses built on steep hillsides (much like in California).
Our final destination was the Christchurch gondola ride. Unfortunately, clouds built up throughout the morning so we encountered a sign that said “Due to low cloud cover there is no view from the scenic viewing deck.” Guess you can’t say they didn’t warn you!
We went up anyway to see the quaint Time Tunnel “ride” (I use the term loosely).
We also took some pictures with the signs showing what our view should have been of.
The Grand Tour ends with between 90 and 120 minutes at the observation deck for lunch (at the observation cafe) before heading back to the city center. Trish and I decided to cut that short and make our own way back to the CBD via Uber and find some better food.
Our driver recommended the Polo Bar inside the unassuming Hotel Montreal for Mediterranean tapas. I thought our waiter misspoke when he told us to order two tapas plates (I assumed he must have meant two per person). We ordered three and I’m glad we didn’t order four!
We had smoked pork empanadas, garlic and pineapple shrimp, and garlic and paprika dusted potatoes. They were all quite tasty, but I think the potatoes were my favorite. We contemplated getting an Uber to the Antarctica experience to meet penguins and huskies (and, I mean, learn about Antarctica and Christchurch’s role as a gateway city). Ultimately, we decided the $60 per person ticket wasn’t worth it for the two or so hours we’d have to explore it. Next time!
After lunch, we walked along the tram tracks for a while, taking in the sights.
Our Grand Tour ticket included unlimited hop-on hop-off tickets, so eventually we hopped on and listened to our driver’s commentary (again heavily focused on the earthquake).
We ended our day in the free Canterbury Museum where we saw an exhibit about the sled dogs of Antarctica. They were beloved by the explorers but an unsettling number of them got eaten.
This is a fantastic museum for children because great thought has been put into designing the exhibits to be interesting, meaningful, and interactive. In the pounamu exhibit, you were allowed (and encouraged) to touch the large boulders. They also had a smaller one sitting in a gravel and water filled basin and you could pick up handfuls of gravel to scrape across the surface to see how much work it takes to strip away the outer layer of rough gray stone to reveal the smooth green interior.
We also saw some great exhibits about early Moari culture and early European settlers. The section about the early European settlers is designed to look like a turn of the century street. They’ve even left a dollhouse in disarray after the earthquake.
We headed back to our hotel and changed for dinner. I decided to officially celebrate my birthday (belatedly) at Inati (which is a Moari word meaning “to share food”). We did their eight course tasting menu with wine pairings and it did not disappoint!
We sat on the corner of the chef’s bar where we could see each other and also watch the chefs prepare the various dishes.
We started with a twist on Kiwi chips and dip. The chips were pork and bacon cracklings and the dip was crayfish that had somehow been whipped into a creamy form. It was tasty, but not particularly wowing.
Things started looking up with our second course, a refreshing salad of red and yellow beets, pickled peaches, hazelnut crumbs, and goat cheese.
These two courses paired with a 2013 Pisa Range Estate Riesling from Central Otago (which we drove past yesterday). It had a petrol nose but very little residual sugar, making it crisp, clean, and an excellent food wine.
Our third course was the first home run (especially as far as Trish was concerned). It was smoked fish, burnt sweet onion, herbs (all foraged within four blocks of the restaurant!), and seaweed puffs. Outstanding. (So good I forgot to take a picture till we’d eaten most of it.)
Next came seaweed braised potatoes (I’m pretty sure a full stick of butter was also involved). Inside (under the potato crisps) was a homemade crème fraîche topped with sweet onion jam. Again, incredible.
These courses paired with an unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend made by a winemaker who buys everyone else’s extra or unwanted grapes and blends them into unique blends. This hit you over the head with a fruity pineapple nose but was buttery on the palate, which suited both dishes.
I loved our next dish of curried cauliflower, crispy chickpeas, salted grapes, and pretty white shavings of… something.
After that, we had incredible octopus. It was a great texture, not at all chewy or rubbery, but still substantial. The chili peppers added a nice kick cooled by the creamy sauce.
These paired with a 2018 Beachhead Chardonnay from Clearview Estate Winery in Hawkes Bay. It was super buttery and malolactic but had seen almost no oak.
Our last dish was tender roast chicken with jus. It was very good but didn’t quite elevate itself to the level of some of the other dishes.
We got a 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir from Riverby Estate in Marlborough to go with the chicken.
For dessert, we had a sweet corn mouse, salted caramel ice cream, topped with kettle corn. Individually, each component was just average, but together they combined into something delicious.
We had Scoundrels and Rogues Cold Shoulder Ice Cider to pair with dessert. This was fascinating! Much like an ice wine it’s allowed to freeze. In this case, they pick apples in the summer, juice them, and then freeze the juice. That frozen juice is then allowed to ferment. This produces a viscous, sweet, but richly caramel flavored cider.
Trish also let it slip earlier in the meal we were celebrating my birthday so I got a bonus chocolate mouse topped with gourmet candy bar bits.
I highly recommend Inati to any foodies traveling through Christchurch!
This morning we got up before the crack of dawn (again) and enjoyed one last breakfast at Bazaar (and I finally remembered to take pictures of the spread).
At the tender hour of 7:10 AM we said farewell to Queenstown and a coach picked us up to drive us to Christchurch via Aoraki Mt Cook (well, technically The Hermitage Hotel in Mt Cook Village, but it had a view of Aoraki).
New Zealand seems to have a very large Japanese tourism industry, so our coach actually had two tour guides, one who gave a Japanese tour for those with headsets, and our bus driver, Stuart, who gave English commentary over the bus speaker system as we drove.
Trish and I snagged seats right behind Stuart since we were the first hotel pickup of the morning. This gave us spectacular views all day and the chance to take some fun time lapse videos of the journey.
Stuart was a good guide. His delivery was a bit understated but he knew A LOT about the region, especially when it came to geology and farming, and he told a good yarn.
The scenery around Queenstown is mountainous. This time of year there’s obviously no snow, which makes it difficult to imagine what it looks like blanketed in white. Instead, scrubby little plants blanket the hillsides in tufts. Stuart told us they were an herb used in Mediterranean cooking and left us guessing for a while. My first guess was oregano (wrong) but I eventually got it: thyme.
We drove past/over Gentle Annie Creak and Roaring Meg Stream. Both named after barmaids in the area during the gold rush in the late 1800s. Both were well liked, but you can guess their personalities from those names!
Our first rest stop was at Jones Orchard, where we had 15 minutes to use the toilets and shop. They set out samples of their produce, including red kiwi fruit, which is the sweetest variety. We also sampled some honey and learned the famous Manuka honey is ridiculously expensive!
After that, we drove through Cromwell, around Lake Dunstan, which is manmade. The reservoir took 25 years to engineer and build due to the risk of earthquakes and mudslides causing severe flooding. So far so good and the reservoir produces about 8% of New Zealand’s electricity.
We made a quick stop for photos and Stuart picked a bunch of thyme for everyone (which does indeed grow everywhere). The wild variety has a slightly different colored flower (pinkish) than the domesticated variety (pinky-blue).
Along our next stretch of path, Stuart told us the story of Shrek the Sheep, a New Zealand icon for inexplicable reasons. He was a wether (a gelded male) returned to the flock to produce wool. He did NOT like dogs. So one year he decided he didn’t want to get herded down for his annual haircut and found a cave to hid in… for the next 5 years! At that point, he had so much wool on him he couldn’t see through it and had trouble moving around.
Fortunately, shepherds found him and carried him down for a haircut. Someone snapped a picture of the funny sight and it later appeared in the local newspaper.
After that, the story went viral and the poor sheep attracted so much media attention he ended up getting shorn on live TV.
His name came from a bunch of school kids. Dreamworks agreed they could name him “Shrek” as long as any profits went to charity. After his long overdue haircut, Shrek was quite the personality and spent the rest of his life traveling around New Zealand (and even Australia) visiting hospitals and nursing homes.
We traveled through Lindis Pass (which I believe was the highest point on our drive) and typified central Otago landscapes.
We drove into a small city called Omarama for a 30-minute morning tea stop. There’s not much there apart from a restaurant/gift shop, an antique store, a gas station, and a small grocery store.
We hit a very large patch of fog caused by cooler air trapped on the plateau we drove through so there wasn’t too much to see between Omarama and Aoraki (the Maori, and proper, name for Mt Cook). We did get past it in time to take some great photos before getting to the Hermitage Hotel for lunch.
Trish and I had prepared for weather in the low 40s (which our forecast had predicted) but upon arrival it was high 60s and sunny (so hot!). We got a great table with an unobstructed view of Aoraki at the restaurant and had a lovely buffet lunch.
We went outside and took a couple photos but it was too hot to take even a short hike, so we colonized some couches by the elevator and surveyed Aoraki from air-conditioning.
After we left Mt Cook Village, Stuart made a quick unscheduled stop so we could take a picture with the startlingly blue glacier fed river. The bright blue color is caused by “rock flour,” which is what you get when rocks rub against each other. In small quantities it’s blue, but in large quantities it produces a yellow-brown color. Sometimes you see that at the edge of glacial rivers and it’s also responsible for the Yellow River’s distinctive color.
The drive from Aoraki to Christchurch was much less scenic than the first half of the drive. Once we got out of the mountains we were on the Canterbury plains, the largest flat area in New Zealand. There’s a lot of farming but not much else.
Stuart explained what a tremendous ecological impact the increasing use of irrigation causes for New Zealand. He’d already pointed out that virtually every plant we saw all day would be an invasive species brought to the islands by humans within the last 200 years. And, prior to human arrival, the only land-based mammals on the islands were two species of bat.
After lunch, we traveled past Lake Pukaki to Lake Tekapo, where we briefly stopped at the Church of the Good Shepherd for some photo ops.
We also saw the monument to The Sheepdog, commemorating all their hard work.
We successfully adulted at our last stop before Christchurch and beat a hasty retreat from the touristy rest stop. Instead, we hoofed it down the (short) main street to a pharmacy to replace our supply of decongestants (though we’re both feeling much better). Since many medicines have been rebranded here, we asked a very helpful and kind pharmacist to point us to the appropriate supplies. We were in and out within 10 minutes and back to the tourist gift shop with plenty of time to spend money on a blue and gold sheep patterned tie.
We rolled into Christchurch just as the sun set. We were the first hotel stop so we were checked in (welcomed with a free warm cookie) and in our room by 8 PM. Since it had been a long day, we ate at the hotel restaurant. The lighting left something to be desired but the ambiance and noise level weren’t bad considering there were several very large parties seated in the dining room. The food was nothing to write home about but it was easy and a short commute!
We’re staying at The Chateau on the Park (A Double Tree by Hilton). It’s nice and the hotel has some lovely gardens (and a koi pond) but the interior decor is a bit past it’s prime. Our room is comfortable and has nice high ceilings, but a coat of paint and some better illumination would do wonders for the vibe.
We slept in this morning and then made our way downstairs for another wonderful breakfast buffet at the hotel’s restaurant, Bazaar. We briefly contemplated going to ride the gondola after breakfast but decided to have a leisurely morning at the hotel instead. Trish caught up on emails while I worked on my blog and we both enjoyed the spectacular view from our room.
We called to check if the flight before ours (at 10 AM) made it out to Milford Sound. It had been cancelled so we didn’t have a lot of hope ours would make it out either. About 45 minutes before our final weather check I got a call from Milford Scenic Flights. I answered it expecting they were preemptively cancelling our flight but, PLOT TWIST(!!!), they said it looked like there was an excellent chance our flight would make it out AND they could also get us on a helicopter going to Milford Sound if we still wanted to do that. We said, “Yes, absolutely!”
We repacked our Milford Sound day trip supplies and slathered on sunscreen. A van came to collect us at the appointed hour and drove us to the airfield. We checked in at the helicopter pad and they weighed us. They’d hung a sign on the scale that said, “Holiday Enjoyment Calculator” which cracked me up.
The flight before us landed and the folks exiting the helicopter just raved about how wonderful it was. Their smiles were a mile wide. A good sign!
Our helicopter held 6 people, plus our pilot, Hamish. Due to weight distribution requirements, Trish and I got to sit in the front next to the pilot! Trish sat in the middle so she could see his instruments, which fascinated her. He seemed to think they were quite different she’s used to flying, but she recognized and understood most of them.
This was Trish’s first time in a helicopter and I don’t think the experience disappointed. Flying in a helicopter is so different from any other mode of transit. Takeoff and landing are so smooth as you just hover in place.
The scenery and the views were breathtaking. We got so close to both grassy and craggy mountainsides.
We also got to participate in an “Alpine snow landing” as part of the tour. This late in the summer (or early in the fall depending on who you ask) there was just a patch of snow, but we thoroughly enjoyed climbing up it and posing in the brisk mountain air.
Trish wanted to climb all the way to the top, so we did.
I think as a result this may qualify as my first ski trip 🙂
We had about 15 minutes to enjoy the slope and learned the snow is dirty because of bad fires in Australia. The ash has made it this far south in the past several weeks.
The flight from the landing to Milford Sound was about 30 minutes and we absorbed every minute of it.
Hamish gave a wonderful commentary along the way about what we were flying over. It was a little hard to hear, but I caught most of it. He also flew us really, really close to the mountains.
We ended up circling Milford Sound waiting for a slot to land between the small planes flying in, which just provided more stunning views.
Once we arrived in Milford Sound we were the last two passengers to board our boat for a cruise of the Sound out into the Tasman Sea. It felt strange to be looking up at what we’d just been looking down at!
This particular cruise was lovely because the number of passengers was capped at a small number (I’d estimate 25) so there was plenty of room to move about the boat (inside and out) to get different views.
Trish took up a position on the bow with the wind (and spray) in her face. I preferred more sheltered enclaves!
Milford Sound is known for stunning views of waterfalls (most of which you see on the return leg of the cruise). Lucky visitors can also spot dolphins and boy were we lucky!
We ran into not one but two pods on our way out to the Tasman Sea! They beelined for our boat to play in the wash and put on quite a show for us.
I’m so glad I had the 360 camera with me because when we looked at the footage we discovered a couple of dolphins so close to the boat we couldn’t see them under the bow!
We also saw a flock of local sea birds (I didn’t catch their name, but I remember they are tasty according to the captain). Trish got great footage of them taking off over the Tasman Sea as our boat approached.
We sailed out past the mouth of the Sound. Captain Cook sailed past two or three times without realizing there was an entrance. I can see why! It really hides itself. Of course, the Maori knew about Milford Sound and came to quarry greenstone (pounamu).
On the sail back into the Sound we passed by Seal Rock, which has definitely earned a seal of approval from these sleepy fellows.
Shortly after that we encountered the most impressive waterfall on our journey. The Captain nosed the boat right up into the bottom of it. I grabbed our electronics and booked it inside. Trish got significantly more wet!
After the cruise, our pilot met us for the return flight to Queenstown. He also bore the picnic lunch boxes we were supposed to have gotten before the cruise. Oh well! We hadn’t noticed how hungry we were because we’d been to busy enjoying the cruise anyway. But it was nice to have a snack while we waited for the bus to take us back to the airport.
We boarded a small eight-seater plane and took off. The flight and views were still very impressive but it was difficult to top the helicopter ride. We didn’t get any commentary but we recognized the features well enough to realize we took a slightly different path back.
When we landed on cloud nine after our day’s adventure. Our pilot posed for a picture with us.
Then a very nice taxi driver took us back to the QT Queenstown. She’s planning a trip to the states with her 80-year-old parents in a few weeks to see her youngest son’s college graduation and then road trip around the upper east coast for 5 weeks. Her parents have never travelled abroad before so they’re really looking forward to it.
She also recommended a couple of restaurants we could consider for dinner, including White and Wong’s. We strongly considered it, but after stewing in our room’s extra large and extra luxurious soaking tub we decided to be lazy and order in takeout.
Thanks to the Internet we found a local Thai restaurant, Tham Nak Thai, with excellent ratings. However, they didn’t have a website, just a Facebook page. I figured that was either a good sign or a bad sign. We decided to gamble and called them to place our order.
It was a good move! We shared pad thai and a mixed appetizer platter with curry puffs, chicken satay, chicken wings, and golden purses. And the best part was we didn’t even have to put pants on!
This morning started before the crack of dawn (again). We had booked an 8 AM flight-cruise-heli excursion to Milford Sound. The final weather check happened at 6:45 AM, and if the flight had been a go, we would have had to been out the door at 6:50 AM for our pickup.
Unfortunately, bad weather in Milford Sound resulted in a canceled excursion. It was a bummer (especially after the 6 AM wakeup call) but not unexpected. The tour company advised booking the trip for your first day in Queenstown for exactly this reason. They were able to reschedule us for tomorrow afternoon (though unfortunately the helicopter portion isn’t available). Fingers crossed the weather looks good in both locations!
It was a fun chance to watch the sun rise over Lake Wakatipu. The iPhone’s camera is too adept at shooting in low light though! These pictures don’t do the change justice.
Fortunately, we were able to change tomorrow’s excursion to this morning at 10 AM. Trish decided the hour was too tender and curled up on the couch for some more Zs. I caught up on my blog and watched the morning dawn.
At about 9:30 we relaunched ourselves and headed to the New Journeys visitor center (taking a few tourist pics along the way).
We boarded the TSS Earnslaw, a 125 year old coal-powered steamship, to sail to Walter Peak Station’s sheep farm.
She was originally built in Dunedin and then shipped to Queenstown and reassembled in 1912. Her maiden voyage on Lake Wakatipu happened October 18 1912 and she’s been running continuously every since, though she’s served a variety of purposes from cargo ship, livestock carrier, passenger ferry, and pleasure cruiser.
The need for a ferry rose from the farming industry that started (by Europeans) in the 1860s. Walter Peak Station is one of New Zealand’s most famous high country farms with 170,000 acres of land and 40,000 sheep (fun fact: there are more sheep in New Zealand than people).
We cruised along the lake and reveled in the beautiful weather. Mid 60s, sunny, with a cool breeze… it doesn’t get any better!
The TSS Earnslaw is also very cool because you can see (and even stand over) the engine.
Once we arrived at the sheep station, Hamish and his two dogs, Jess (8), a New Zealand Huntaway, and Squee (5), a short-haired border collie, gave us a sheep shearing and herding demonstration.
Shearing sheep is no easy business! A grown sheep outweighs a grown man and they don’t like being flipped off their feet and plunked on their tailbones (I mean, would you?). Hamish explained the process and the pattern of sheering this lamb (smaller but more wriggly).
Squee didn’t do a *great* job herding the lambs but she seemed to have a great time running around the paddock after them. Jess whipped them into shape much more quickly with an intimidating bark.
After the demonstrations the group split up. A little more than half the group seemed to have booked a BBQ lunch. The rest of us went on a tour of the farm and fed cute animals. The tour was really just a walk around the paddocks to see and feed cows, highland coos, baby highland coos(!!!), fawns, and alpacas.
After we’d all been slobbered on and petted all the animals, we went back to the station for afternoon tea.
The TSS Earnslaw returned with the next load of tourists and ferried us back to Queenstown.
I set up a timelapse recording and promptly fell asleep. In my defense 1) I had been up since before dawn, 2) the seats on the lower level are warm from the boiler heat, 3) the boat was rocking, and 4) I still held the camera steady.
Once we got back to Queenstown we returned to the hotel for a real nap. A small confession for those of you following along at home: Trish and I caught some sniffles in Australia so we’ve been a little under the weather. Fortunately it hasn’t stopped us from enjoying our trip!
After our nap, we got dressed for dinner at The Grille by Eichardt’s (a famous Queenstown hotel). New Zealand is pretty casual but we decided to get fancy just because. Trish took some excellent model pictures of me on our walk to dinner.
Our dinner was lovely! So much better than last night. We got a table next to the window and watched the sun set over the other end of Lake Wakatipu.
Our waiter, Erin, was from Canada and was very friendly. We picked wines and she affirmed our choices would go well with our food selections. Trish had a Hawk’s Bay New Zealand Syrah and I had a glass of Australian Barossa Valley “Gnarly Dudes” Shiraz.
For our mains, Trish had Te Mana Lamb Rump (cooked medium well, which I’m sure broke the chef’s heart) with carrot puree, crispy kale, and black garlic.
I had a beautiful medium-rare Venison Striploin with tabbouleh, smoked sumac yoghurt, and blackcurrant jam. It was stunning! The sumac and smoked yoghurt pulled all the flavors together and went brilliantly with the venison (which was so tender!).
When Trish and I planned our trip we though we’d give ourselves an extra day after Pamela’s birthday to recover from the festivities before flying out, which was an excellent plan in theory. We didn’t realize the party wouldn’t be till the 16th! So we had to get up at 5 AM the morning (I use the term loosely) after the celebration to get to the airport for our flight to Queenstown.
We said our farewells to Pamela the night before so we didn’t need to wake her before the crack of dawn. We packed, made the bed, and snuck out before the sun rose.
It was a very rainy morning so our flight was slightly delayed.
The international terminal at Sydney is only set up to accommodate large planes and we had a small plane for the jump back to New Zealand. That meant they had to bus us out onto the tarmac to board, which would have been OK, except for the rain! We were all a bit soaked by the time we made if from the bus, up the stairs, and inside the aircraft!
The flight to Queenstown was actually faster than from Auckland (and we made up time in the air) so we didn’t arrive too late. Plus, the weather was MUCH better when we arrived!
We’re staying at the QT Queenstown, which is very conveniently located and has a gorgeous view (not that there are any bad views around here).
The hotel is built into a hill, so you actually enter on Floor 8. At first I was afraid we’d have to walk up and down that hill to get to and from town, but there’s another exit on the lake side that has a flat path to town.
Or room is neat and has a teeny tiny balcony.
We even saw the TSS Earnslaw steam past (which we’ll be taking later this week)!
We decided to have dinner at the hotel and call it an early night since we had to get up so early for our flight. The main restaurant looked cool, with its various chef stations, but the menu happened to be fried American foods and smoked meats. We opted to eat at the bar, Reds, instead.
Unfortunately, the food was just OK. The only standout dish was the razor shaved octopus Trish ordered.
I finally got a true New Zealand hit-you-in-the-face-with-pineapple-and-grapefruit sauvignon blanc and Trish had a chili mojito.
The spectacular view made up for the less than spectacular food. We also found three different examples of the different “styles” of mountains we encountered earlier this year in a wedding style quiz from The Knot. The idea of “casual mountains” continues to crack us up.
After dinner I enjoyed a luxurious soak in the tub, which is actually long enough for me to stretch out fully. I was in heaven! Afterwards, I snuggled up in a robe and enjoyed the sunset view.
Yesterday may have been Pamela’s actual birthday, but today was Party Day.
Trish and I are officially old ladies because we went to bed before Pamela got back from her 90th birthday dinner! When we got up in the morning we eagerly pressed her for details.
Andrew, Wendy, Brett, and Sandra took her to a club with a semi-private quiet room. The showered her with flowers and gave her a book of photos Wendy put together.
Pamela’s family knows how much she means to us, so Wendy had an extra copy made for the Alcorns, which was truly touching. There are amazing photos in there of Pamela as a small child, young woman, and throughout her many travels. One thing is consistent, she never changes! Proof that the best face cream money can’t buy is a youthful spirit.
Pamela sat down with Trish and me and went through the photos describing who was in them, where they’d been taken, and telling both funny and sad stories from her 90 years. That time was a great gift!
The rest of the day was spent preparing physically and emotionally for the evening’s festivities. Trish cooked us a hearty brunch of bacon and eggs.
…Though she couldn’t immediately identify European bacon in the refrigerator!
Pamela told us how she learned to make bacon from her mother. She fills the skillet with enough water to cover the bacon and brings it to a simmer for a minute or so. Then she dumps the water out and replaces it with a bit of butter or oil to finish frying the bacon. Trish executed perfectly!
The festivities began at 3:35 sharp, when Karina arrived right on schedule to collect us and drive us over to the golf club. Pamela’s party had a room set aside and her family had bedecked the hall with balloons. Brett encouraged everyone to take advantage of the bar and carried cheese trays around the room.
Pamela requested some 360 degree video of the party, so here it is:
It was a lovely party! There were about 40 people in attendance from all walks of Pamela’s life, from her cousin Janice to her friends from the Blue Mountains, to her Breakfast point community, and more. They’d all heard stories about her adventures with the Alcorns and knew Trish and I were expected at the party. We met her friends Thea and Wendy whose marriage she attended last year after Australia legalized same-sex marriage.
Andrew, Brett, and Simon gave beautiful speeches about Pamela’s life, accomplishments, and general awesomeness. Pamela herself concluded the evening with a lovely speech. At her special request, she had a carrot cake and champagne toast.