NZ South Island Road Trip Part 2 - Queenstown to Marlborough


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Published: May 5th 2014
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For the prequel to this trip please see NZ South Island Road Trip Part 1: Picton to Queenstown.

Queenstown is the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world. It's a thrill seekers paradise. Bungy jumping was commercialized here. There are hundreds of other adventure options as well, from swinging on a rope through a canyon to riding a jetboat a million miles an hour on the lake. The population of the town is only about 8,000 people, and all 8,000 apparently work in the tourism or service industry because there is not much other industry in town. At any given time the town has far more tourists than residents. This leads to an abundance of hotels and restaurants to choose from though. We are staying at the Copthorne Millennium Hotel and Apartments. We have booked a two bedroom apartment for three nights, which looks pretty baller from the pictures. Should be a good stay.

It's about 6:00 by the time we roll into town. Nimarta's mom, Dimple, has been here all day already, having flown in this morning. Nimarta can't make it to Queenstown but will meet us in Christchurch for the very end of the trip. Julia has not even met Nimarta yet but now she gets to hang out with her mom for three days! We meet her at our room, where she has already checked in. This place is definitely baller. There's a kitchen, a living room, and an enormous balcony. And that's just downstairs. There is an upstairs too, with a master bedroom with a king bed and a second bedroom with two single beds. The master bedroom has a huge balcony too. And we are overlooking Queenstown Lake below us. Definitely baller status!

After settling in, mom, Julia, and I head downtown for dinner. Dimple chooses to stay behind since she already ate and doesn't eat much anyways. We are about a half mile from the city center so the walk doesn't take long at all. We turn down the main street and start looking at all the restaurants. This is going to be a tough choice. It is just restaurant and bar after restaurant and bar. And they all look pretty similar too, at least according to their menus. The first place we pass advertises $4 beers all day every day. That may not sound like a deal but in New Zealand that is frikin' amazing. You don't get beers for $4 here. We make a note to come back here after dinner for a beer or seven.

After walking the main pedestrian street of restaurants we have a few places in mind but want to check out the waterfront too. There are a lot of nice places here on the wharf, with beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains. We can see the Remarkables Range, which is the main skiing area of Queenstown in the winter. It looks really jagged from here though. Clearly the ski slopes are on the other side.

We reach the proverbial end of the line and turn back towards the way we came. The town is tiny, and we've walked across it already. We decide to go to a snazzy Malaysian place that looks really popular. By now it's after 8:00 so we figure this place must be good if it's still crowded. It's actually even a bit too crowded. There are no seats available and the hostess tells us it will be about a 20 minute wait. That's fine, we say. She asks for a phone number she can call when the table is ready so I leave her my number and we decide to walk around a little bit more. After 20 minutes we still haven't heard from the hostess so we head back to see what the deal is. It will be another 20 minutes, she tells us. Seriously? Then why'd you tell us 20 minutes the first time? By now we are pretty damn hungry and not in the mood for playing the waiting game. We decide we'll just head over to the $4 beer place and have a few beers until the table is ready.

When we get to the bar we see they are also advertising 2 mains for $25, which is a pretty good deal since most mains are about $30 at Queenstown restaurants. We decide we'll just eat here and forget the Malaysian place. At least there is plenty of room. Our inner fat kids come out and we each order 2 mains for ourselves. We each get the chili and I get some chicken tenders as well. They are more like appetizers than mains, but 2 will be a lot of food. And of course we get our $4 beers. It's Monteith's too, so not crap beer. Satisfied with our decision we sit outside on the patio and watch the sky turn dark as we sip our beers. The food comes out quickly and we chow down. It's after 9:00 when I finish dinner and my phone rings. It's the hostess from the Malaysian place. Our table is now ready.

I'd love to stay and drink more $4 beers but it's been a long day and we have to get an early start tomorrow. We will be heading over to Fiordlands National Park to see one of the most amazing places in the world: Milford Sound.

We are out the door by 7:30 in the morning. After a not so quick stop at the grocery store for the day's food we are on the road. There is nothing at Milford Sound except a hotel and cruise companies, so it's not like we can just stop somewhere for lunch. The drive takes us along the banks of Lake Wakatipu. It's not long before we are totally out of civilization. It's a beautiful drive though. The skies are blue and the road is straight, for the most part. As we get further south we start to see some low hanging clouds. They appear to be at ground level. The tops of the mountains are clear, but there are clouds on the ground. WTF? This is weird, and it looks like we're about to drive right into one of these clouds. I've driven through heavy fog before but driving through a cloud is just plain crazy. I can't see anything, just like with fog. It's dark and I have to turn my lights on. Feels like I'm in the movie Twister now. There's gotta be a tornado around here somewhere. But just like that it's over and I'm out of the cloud, blue skies ahead. Just more crazy New Zealand weather.

We pass through the little town of Te Anau around 10:00. This will be the last town on the road. There is nothing but mountains and fjords from here to the end of the road at Milford Sound. As we drive northwest the landscape beings to change. I'm not surprised by this. I know we are heading back to the coast and it's rain forest environment. The mountains are becoming greener and the peaks are becoming more dramatic. Soon we enter Fiordlands National Park, the biggest national park in New Zealand, encompassing the entire southwest corner of the South Island. Most of the park is uninhabited and unexplored. In fact, this is the only road in the park. The only way to see the rest of the park is by foot or boat through the fjords. It's untamed wilderness at its finest.

Before driving all the way to the end of the road we pull off the road at the beginning of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks. We have allocated some time to walk part of the trail up to Key Summit, about 3 miles round trip. Unfortunately the blue sky is starting to be replaced by grey clouds here. Looking back east we see blue sky, but up ahead, towards the Sound, we see nothing but grey. Why does the rain forest always have to be raining!? There are a few specs of blue in the sky though, so we figure maybe it will clear as we set out on the trail. There is a big group of older folks with some serious hiking gear, definitely doing the entire 40 km trail, so we hurry by them so we can go at our own pace. Dimple has never hiked before, but she manages to keep up and does way better than she expected. The path is damp and green, with moss growing from literally everything. The forest is alive around us as we make our way up the mountain to Key Summit. We're about 30 minutes from the summit when we reach the top of the rain forest and into a more barren landscape. From here we can see that there is nothing but grey clouds below us. Visibility is maybe 100-200 meters at most. Once again we are in a cloud. We continue up for a while longer before the frigid wind convinces us to head back down. It's not like there is a view, so there's no point staying out here any longer than needed. We hurry down the mountain and pile back in the car. Milford Sound is next.

The remaining 30 miles on the Milford Sound Highway are nothing short of spectacular. The clouds are starting to clear and now we have view of massive snow-capped peaks and endless rock cliffs. After an incredible drive we reach the end of the road. We have made it to Milford Sound! We park the car and get out to observe the beauty of the fjord. This area is dominated by Mitre Peak, a jagged rock rising from the water up to almost 6000 feet. It doesn't look that big in pictures but here seeing in it person... damn that's impressive! Clouds are blocking part of the fjord but Mitre Peak is mostly completely visible. All around us are jagged mountains and steep cliffs. There are no hikes in this region and I can see why. There is nowhere to walk unless you want to go straight up the face of a cliff. I've been to the fjords in Norway, and those were amazing, but this is more rugged, more wild. People couldn't build houses here even if they wanted to.

We have about an hour till our boat cruise. We have used a Groupon deal for a 2 hour Milford Sound cruise with Jucy Cruises (http://www.jucycruize.co.nz/). If you come all this way you pretty much have to take a cruise in the Sound. It's a great view from the shore but we are excited to see what we can on the boat. Other than the lodge, there is just one building at Milford Sound. It's the cruise check-in building. It's similar to a rental car facility you see at airports in the US. You walk in and every cruise company has a booth. We check into Jucy then find a seat to sit and enjoy our lunch with this amazing view. Dimple eats like two bites of her lunch so I get two lunches (score!) and we watch the boats come into the harbor. The cruises go all day and we are on the last Jucy one at 3:15.

We board the boat with about 40 other people and get a table on the first floor. Upstairs is an open deck. I'll be up there quite a bit but it's best to set up shop indoors. Especially since the further we get from shore the windier it gets. The motion of the boat combined with the astronomical wind makes it difficult to stand up on the deck, but it's worth it. The clouds are constantly swirling, giving us ever-changing views. We are headed out to the Tasman sea, the entrance to the fjord. We leave Mitre Peak behind us and explore new peaks and mountains. It's amazing out here. Julia is having a hard time believing that this is real life and that this place actually exists.

Fjords are glacier-sculpted narrow inlets in the sea. They only exist in certain locations in the world, due to needing the right latitude. The most famous are in Norway. The US also has some, in Alaska, and there are some in Greenland, Iceland, and Canada. In the southern hemisphere you can only find them in Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. The rarity of this geological feature makes this place even more spectacular. The base of these mountains is far below sea level. The captain tells us how deep the water is below us and it seems like the jagged rock cliff just continues down below the surface of the sea until it hits the mountain on the other side. Then he explains that that is basically what happens. Crazy.

It starts to rain as we head further towards the Tasman Sea. We reach the sea and hit the halfway point of our journey. We have cruised the entire fjord to its entrance. Apparently Captain Cook never found the entrance to this particular fjord on his journeys. He discovered plenty of other things so good to let someone else discover this place. Looking off to Tasmania (we can't see it but it's out there) the boat turns around and we head back into the fjord. We spot some seals hanging out on a big rock to our left. According to the captain these guys are here every day of the year. It's their home. Sure, they're cute, but the real draw here is the scenery. It even stops raining and now the clouds are clearing, revealing a huge rainbow running from one mountain, across the fjord, to another. Mother nature at her finest.

As the clouds clear we notice peaks that were hidden on the way out. There's a giant snow-capped peak right off the shore! We couldn't see this earlier. It's massive, and while not right on the shore, we have a great view of it. Mitre Peak is clearing too. Our luck is changing! By the time we head into the dock we have a great panoramic view of the entire fjord. It's literally breathtaking. I've been to some amazing places in my life but this is one of the best, if not the best, things I've ever seen. "How does this place exist?" Julia keeps asking. This is definitely the must-see destination of New Zealand, in my humble opinion. There's really nothing else like Milford Sound. If you don't have a car, take a day tour from Queenstown - they go every day. It will definitely be worth the money.

Back on shore, we bid farewell to our boat and walk the rocky shore for a little for some additional pictures now that it's almost perfectly clear. What a site to see. We will miss this place. Even my mom takes pictures here to remember it by. Back in the car we have a three(ish) hour drive back to Queenstown. The drive out is just as impressive, topped off by seeing some kea, New Zealand's native parrot species, on the road. We drive along the lake as the sun sets and reach Queenstown just after dark. We're starving so we decide to give the Malaysian place another try. It's 9:00 now so maybe they'll have a table for us. We get seated right away and order. We should have known that after all that build up we would be disappointed. It's not bad, but nothing special. Oh well, it was worth a shot. Tomorrow I am sleeping in. We have all day in Queenstown tomorrow so there is no reason to get up. I will enjoy my rest tonight.

Thursday morning is mostly cloudy. Julia and I go on a run through the gardens, which are nice with plenty of non-native plants and trees. We even pass an ice rink. This is where the Southern Stampede Play, one of the teams in the five team New Zealand Ice Hockey League. Oh yes, New Zealand has semi-professional ice hockey. How professional is this league? Well I have never seen a game so I cannot comment on that. It's no NHL though, I can assure you of that, but apparently some decent players from the US and Canada play in it. Auckland, Christchurch, and Denedin also have rinks and teams. Why did I decide to move to the city that doesn't have a rink? Good question. Anyways, I check out the rink for a moment before moving on.

Julia has decided to do her own thing today so Mom, Dimple, and I head down to wharf and book a 2 hour boat cruise on the lake. It's raining when we get on the boat, a little ship that holds about 30 people max. It's a pretty sweet boat though. There's a grill on the deck, a downstairs lounge that looks like the set of a Ron Jeremy movie, and a bar downstairs as well. Should be a fun little trip. We head off and cruise into the Franklin Arm of the lake. The skies have cleared now and we get a view of the surrounding mountains. From the water you can see just how small Queenstown really is. And it has an ice hockey rink and Wellington doesn't! I'm not bitter.

Cruising along the lake we get to see all the mansions on the shores. Holiday houses for the rich and famous I suppose. I'm sure one of these belongs to Peter Jackson. And maybe that Lorde singer girl. If I was rich this would definitely be an awesome place to have a house. Nothing else too eventful happens on the cruise but it's nice to see the town from the water. After a late lunch we hop in the car again to head over to the nearby town of Arrowtown, known for its gold mining history. It's about a 20 minute drive to sunny Arrowtown and we spend the afternoon walking around the streets exploring the historical sites. There was a large Chinese settlement in Arrowtown in the late 1800s. Chinese men came here to pan for gold, establishing a small town within the town, of which ruins are on display today. There is a lot of information posted about the history of this Chinese settlement. It's interesting to learn about the gold rush in another country.

After we are satisfied with Arrowtown we head back to Queenstown and hop on the gondola up to the top of Ben Lomand Mountain. It's an expensive trip, but the view from the top is worth it. We can see for miles and miles in every direction. The sun is setting too, so the colors on the mountains are spectacular. There is actually quite a lot of stuff on the top of the mountain. There is a wedding reception at the restaurant and multiple shops. Jelly Belly has a big shop up here. Random. There is also a little street luge you can do up here. It doesn't go too fast but you lay down on a little car and ride down part of the mountain. You can also bungy jump off a cantilevered walkway jotting out of the cliff face. You are never far from an adventure in Queenstown.

Dimple heads back to the hotel and mom and I meet back up with Julia for dinner. We go to Public Kitchen and bar for dinner, as their menu looks good (http://www.publickitchen.co.nz/). It is good. Maybe that's why every American and their uncle is here. Of all the places I've been in New Zealand Queenstown has by far the most Americans. I have to remind myself I'm in New Zealand and not Colorado there are so many Americans. At least that means we are traveling as a nation. Good for us. Queenstown and its surroundings have been amazing, but come tomorrow morning we will be moving on once again, this time back to Christchurch, where we will meet up with Nimarta.

It's a clear blue sky on Friday morning when we wake up and we're up pretty early so I decide we have time to get a closer look at Mt. Cook as we drive to Christchurch. Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. It's only 12,218 feet, but appears much bigger from the valley. It's rugged and tough, constantly covered in snow and ice. You can't just hike up there, you need some serious climbing skills. The route to Christchurch will bring us right by Lake Pukaki, where on a clear day you get a beautiful view of Mt. Cook. Hopefully the weather will keep cooperating with us. We just need to be in Christchurch by 4:30 to pick Nimarta up from the airport so we should have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of the drive.

After a quick breakfast we head out, passing the small town of Cromwell, and then basically nothing for multiple hours. It's still morning when we pass the small township of Twizel and I tell the others to keep an eye out to the left, Mt. Cook will be appearing soon. At the lake, we turn left onto Mt. Cook Road. There is a good viewpoint a few miles down on this road that I know about. It will give the others a great view of the mountain and its surroundings. We pull of at Peter's Viewpoint and greeted with a beautiful view of Mt. Cook all covered in snow. It really is an impressive mountain. Mom, Dimple, and Julia take pictures as I tell them a little about how Edmond Hilary used to climb around here before he tackled Everest.

After our brief photo shoot we are off. We stop for a nice lunch in Lake Tekapo then head towards the east coast. It's looking like we are going to have time to check into the hotel in Christchurch before picking up Nimarta but we get stuck in some serious traffic around Ashburton. Big accident. Road closed. We are forced to take a detour but luckily get moving again with enough time to make it to the airport in time. Nimarta runs out and joins our already packed car. It's a tight squeeze but we manage to fit all 5 people in with our luggage and bags. Some would call is cozy.

Our hotel in central Christchurch is a POS but it was cheap and we're only here one night so whatever. As you may know, Christchurch is famous for a devastating earthquake that hit a few years ago. The whole central business district is in ruins, and they are slowly tearing down and rebuilding. The whole process of the Christchurch Rebuild, however, will take about 15-20 years. Julia and my mom are shocked at the devastation. It's quiet in central Christchurch, almost a ghost town. I wanted them to see this though. To see why I am here in New Zealand designing and upgrading buildings for earthquakes. We hope that nothing like this will ever affect the country again. We pass by the location of the CTV building, currently a memorial. This was the building that claimed most of the lives in the earthquake. It totally collapsed, killing almost everyone in it. We pay our respects and move on.

For dinner we head to Himalayas Indian restaurant (http://www.himalayas.co.nz/), which Dimple is particularly excited about. It turns out to be a good choice and is one of the best Indian restaurants I've ever been to. When an Indian who cooks all day says it's good you know it's good. After dinner Julia, Nimarta and I head off to a bar for a few quick drinks while the moms go to bed. There's a bar with an old city bus you can sit in and drink. It's awesome, but we don't stay out long. We have to get up pretty early tomorrow if we're going to make it to Marlborough with enough time to properly vineyard hop!

It's a nasty Saturday morning and we are on the road as soon as we're up. We are making good time until we pass Kaikoura and notice something down on the beach. Seals! hundreds of them! We pull over and run down the rocks to the beach. It's a frikin seal block party. There must be at least 500 of these guys out here. We are careful not to get too close to them, as the larger males let out a moan if they deem us too close. I've never seen this many seals before. Apparently this is where they all hang out. We are photographing the seals when all of a sudden we see a little baby one start hopping across the beach to the rocks near the car. Julia urges him on as he hops. We notice another little baby on the rocks. He went to go find his friend! The baby seals are like little Curious George monkeys as we get close enough to say hi. They stare at us with their dopey eyes as we get some good pictures. Crazy baby seals.

We could hang out and play with the baby seals all day but we've gotta go. The wineries will be open soon. The weather is dubious as we head north on Highway 1 into Blenheim, the heart of the Marlborough wine region. 80% of the country's wine is produced here. It's basically massive winery after massive winery. Most of the New Zealand wines you get in the States are from this region. We stop by the information center to pick up a wine map and pick a few places to hit. We first want to stop by Brancott Estates (http://www.brancottestate.com/agepage), Nimarta's favorite winery. It's almost 1 by the time we get there so we're limited to about 4 hours of wine tasting. We want to eat lunch here but it's quite busy and they tell us it will be about an hour wait. We put our name on the list just in case it's shorter and decide to do a wine tasting. The tasting is $10, a bit pricier than most places, but we get to try 12 wines, so not too bad. We go through the wines one by one end up tasting about 15. There are some ones we really like and we buy a few bottles. By the time the tasting is over my mom is pretty buzzed. She is having a damn good time. And by now they have a table ready for us. We didn't even have to wait an hour. We order lunch and a bottle of wine. The wine tasting has only just begun.

We hit a few more wineries and before we know it it's 5:00. Our ferry from Picton is supposed to leave at 8:00 so we don't have too much more time before this trip is over. our DD Nimarta drives us safely up to Picton where we head to a little bar to relax before getting on the ferry. As we head over to check into the ferry we discover that there is a significant delay. Some winds in the Cook Straight have delayed our departure. Hopefully we will be able to leave by 10:00. I nap in the car while we await boarding. Eventually we get on the boat and set sail, arriving back in Wellington around 1:00 AM.

It's been a hell of a week but my road trip has come to an end. The South Island of New Zealand is one of the most unique and stunningly beautiful places in the world. Where you can go from a wet, muggy rain forest to a cactus infested desert in less than an hour. Where glaciers flow into the sea creating magnificent fjords and mountains. Everyone should experience this island at some point of their life. Till next time, folks.

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