New Zealand - Part 2 - The South Island


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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island
May 31st 2016
Published: May 31st 2016
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Picton – (The Marlborough Region). Entry/exit point by Ferry to the North/South Islands

The early 8am crossing from Wellington is pretty smooth once we get out of the Wellington harbour and cross the Cook Straits. We enjoy a great bacon & egg bap (called a Scots Bap for some reason?) for breakfast on the Ferry with some L’Affraire coffee. The facilities are pretty good on this Bluebird Ferry, for a short crossing.

We arrive in Picton, with some blue breaking up the clouded sky and get our first views of the Marlborough Sounds. On arrival, we are herded into a pretty clapped out old bus off the ferry to get to the main bus stop near the Interislander Ferry Port (which is more impressive & has amenities for travellers including a small café). As we have some time before hopping onto the Intercity Bus to Christchurch we get some refreshments and enjoy the best multi seeded breakfast slice, before we catch the bus about 50 meters away (5 mins walk into town but as we have luggage – we resist the temptation to explore the town).

The weather on the South Island for the past few weeks has been rainy & much cooler than the North – so we hope things will change as this could significantly impact our ambition to enjoy a few month’s sunshine all this way across the world.

Christchurch – a city in transition - post major earthquakes in recent years

The process of getting onto and setting off on the bus is pretty well organised. The driver is quite experienced and chatty along the way giving us a commentary on local sights, culture, terrain and nature. Well-done mate.

The bus is clean and very comfortable with reclining seats, and on board Wi-Fi. It’s a 5.5 hours drive to to Christchurch with a couple of local short stops (at Blenheim for 5 mins & Kaikoura – 30 mins). It’s dry and as we drive initially over the hills, then across the fertile Vineyards of Blenheim and finally along the coastal road towards Kaikoura. For quite a while we drive alongside the Tranz Scenic Coastal Railway lines - the train we took the last time we were here and it’s a great experience.

The bus arrives a bit late at the newly developed Bus Station in Christchurch and our friend Lynley (Hansen) is waiting for us with Zac (her 17month old son) by the terminal. We discover that she and Matt (her husband) are expecting another child in June’16. So congratulations to them. Matt is out at a corporate hospitality football game as part of his job as Sales Manager for a local Heating & Ventilating company.

We notice that the center of Christchurch looks like a building site with many temporary Car Parking areas, where buildings that got damaged in the earthquakes in 2010 were demolished. We are here for a couple of days and will be back for another night at the end of our trip, and are staying with Lynley & Matt at their new home in the suburbs.

We stop at a Fish & Chips place (run by a Chinese family) & get a nice bottle of NZ wine for supper for us, as our friends have eaten, & then it’s on to Springston (about 25 mins drive) where they live. Their new house is a lovely with huge gardens. They had their wedding and ceremony in the grounds here a year ago.

The evening is spent catching up on our respective journeys through life over the past 8 years. We met Lynley travelling overland through Africa (from Nairobi in Kenya to Cape Town in South Africa) and she kindly put us up at her place in Christchurch then and lent us her car to travel around the South Island.

The next day is lovely and sunny and as it’s the weekend, Matt is off work. We all go to a suburb of Christchurch called Sumner. The quake devastation is very visible & marked here and large sections of the roadside has huge containers acting as barriers along the cliff side of the road to prevent further damage. The area was once very sought after with many houses on the hillside – now much of which lies damaged. Caroline’s friend from England, Andrew, has a house here which (6 years on), the Insurers have still to settle the claim. Wow – what a mess. It also reminds us of the power of mother nature in the most poignant way.

Sumner itself is lovely beach area about 30 mins drive from the city center. It’s market day on The Green, and families are out in force as the weather is pretty good. We settle for lunch at the Beach Cafe (on the shoreline with great views). They do great Bennies & Risotto.

Later we are dropped off in Christchurch as L has a ‘Baby Shower’ to go to and we can tour around the remains of the City. Two very big earthquakes have devastated it since we last visited, with the loss of many lives and it is still under reconstruction and will be for at least another 5 to 10 years at least. We are really saddened to see how much damage was done and how much needs to be repaired and rebuilt. It’s a skeleton of it’s former self.

One ray of hope after all this time (due in large part to the ineptitude of the local authorities & politicians), some new and innovative solutions have been proposed as part of the reconstruction programme. Apart from the use of shipping containers in Sumner to protect road from rock fall, in the city they have used them to create a ‘Mini Mall’, which is really funky and has a great feel to it. It’s called rather aptly – Restart!

Nearby we see the remains of the once impressive iconic Anglican Cathedral in what was once the main square (aka Cathedral Square). In the square the city has two containers joined together to showcase the vision for the reconstruction programmed. It’s a pretty dynamic vision, however, with lots of politics and heritage issues to resolve. The running of the reconstruction was taken over by the Government for a time in Wellington, but it’s now back with a powerful body called CERA – Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, based locally & some prominent heavy hitters running the show. So there is hope at last that things will get down and perhaps Christchurch will rise from the destruction, a better and more spectacular city.

The Historic Tram still runs part way through the city. They have renovated Regent Street into a period style, colourful, shopping street. Christchurch is considered to be the most English of the NZ cities and has been slower to embrace the increasingly multicultural nature of urban NZ society, and this shows.

We make our way via Worcester Boulevard & Rolleston Way to the botanical gardens near the Art Museum and there’s a Party in The Park event with bands playing and it all has a lovely feel to it on this sunny day. Then its on to the to Antigua Boat Shed from where one can take a punting trip on the River Avon (which flows through the center of the city) from here.

Matt acts as chef for the evening and rustles up a mean prawns with stir fry veg and rice which is really good. Next morning Matt’s off to work & L drops us to the airport to pick up our hire car for our South Island Tour. We’ll meet up with her for supper when we return in 3 weeks, while Matt will be away on his first business trip in his new job – he’s off to Tokyo as a guest of Mitsubishi, their main product supplier.

Lake Tekapo – NZ’s Jewel in the Crown!

Driving across flat countryside (farmland & some vineyards) we arrive at Lake Tekapo after an uneventful journey from Christchurch in the afternoon. The lake is a beautiful turquoise and extends for ever with rolling hills by its sides. The diminutive and beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd makes the area look very picturesque and it’s near impossible to get a picture of the 'church in front of the lake without hoards of tourists in the shot.

Besides as it’s Chinese New Year (8th Feb – The Year of the Monkey), about 85%!o(MISSING)f the tourists are Chinese, travelling in Round the Island Bus Tours. It’s also a long weekend for the locals – as it’s Waitangi Day, so Monday is a Bank Holiday, which adds more Kiwi travellers than usual.

We are booked in at The Tailor – Made – Tekapo Backpackers, where we stayed the last time we were here & the facilities seem to have improved. Only downside is Wi-Fi is $2 per day. There’s a good shortcut to the town from the hostel and off street parking is plentiful.

Most people only pass through after a day – but it’s worth using the town as a base for visits to the Mt Cook area, which is about an hour’s drive away. On our first night we decide to go for a picnic by the lake and get ourselves an amazing Pizza from Pepe’s, who do a ½ & ½ choice – so it’s their fabulous spicy lamb with BBQ sauce and a vegetarian mix for us. It goes down well with a bottle of local Pinot Noir as we watch the sun go down.

We decide to treat ourselves and book an aerial trip with Tekapo Helicopters to go over Mt Cook and Franz Josef Glacier (1hour) the next day. The weather is kind to us (4 passengers and a trainee pilot), as it’s a beautiful sunny day and the conditions just right. And whilst the cost of the trip is $270 each – it’s definitely worth it. The views of the Mt Cook and surrounding areas covered in snow – even in summer, together with the enormous glaciers with their hint of blue between the crevasses that are really impressive. We even land up on one of the mountains for a while & get out to take a few pictures.

Mt Cook (Aoraki) National Park (World Heritage Site)

Later in the day we drive to the Mt Cook (aka Aoraki) NP. It’s famous for it’s awesome views and mountain climbing. In 1948 Edmund Hilary & Tenzing Norgay climbed the South Ridge before their successful ascent on Everest.

The drive to the NP is fabulous & very picturesque, and there are many terrific view points of Mt Cook across from Lake Pukaki from the roadside. Lake Pukaki itself, is breathtakingly beautiful as a glacial lake.

We visit The Heritage Hotel with its close up views of the mountain and nearby glaciers. There are two main Visitor Centers here from where one can get great views, though the Old Mountaineers Café has the best views.

We return the next day to do a short ½ day hike known as the Hooker Valley (Glacier) Trek. It’s relatively easy and takes us through some beautiful countryside and scenery. The trek finishes at the bottom of the Glacier’s lake. This is the turn around point. The trek is very popular and you’ll never feel alone.

We settle for a lovely BBQ for dinner as most of the Chinese tourists have moved on and the kitchen area is a lot quieter. We do come across quite a few Taiwanese travellers here as well & they seem generally more friendly and engaging than the Chinese.

The area is a special place for stargazing and there is a world-class observatory at the top of Mt John nearby, where we visit to get 360 views across the region. The stars viewed at night are awesome as the air here is a lot cleaner. We haven’t seen the Milky Way looking so good to the naked eye since we were in The Outback in Australia – 16 years ago.

Dunedin – University Town with a liking for Rabbi Burns (the Scottish Legend!)

It’s an early start for us (and the drive through the countryside is lovely), to ensure that we get to Fleur’s Place at Moeraki Boulders for 12.30pm where we have a lunch booking from 4 months ago. It was a must do again destination for foodies like us and the amazing lunch did not disappoint. It’s a place made famous by Rick Stein and Fleur the owner is definitely a larger than life person with an amazing story to tell. She opened this place when diagnosed with cancer and came here for a quieter life and now years on she’s well and the business is thriving. Well done Fleur!

The café & it’s location is a photographer’s delight by a beautiful bay. We enjoy Seafood chowder, Trio fish fillets & Smoked fish & Mussel pie with the best salad ever. Fleur was in attendance as usual, friendly as ever.

After a fabulous meal, we drive into Dunedin. This is a University town where 3 of our ‘African adventure’ Kiwis went – Evonne, Linda & Penni. We are booked into the Hogwartz Backpackers up a hill but it’s great for parking, and is only a short walk into the town center. It is a quirky old house with a lovely kitchen.

We walk to the ‘Dog with 2 Tails’ for Coffee and notice the Weatherboard Houses (some stately & others ram shackled) along the hilly suburbs and the nicely preserved Victorian bluestone buildings. The place is a strange mix of historical and contemporary buildings – which in places look odd and work well in others.

The Scots landed here first, including the nephew of Robbie Burns the ‘Patron Saint’ of Scottish poetry. This may explain his statue at the top of the Central Area called The Octagon, which has free public WiFi - A first for us and very helpful it is too.

We continue our short exploration as we are only here for 1 night, so we make our way to the famous Edwardian Railway Station, which is really impressive and well worth a walk around. Across the way is Cadbury World, where they hold regular 75min tours of the place. Other than Speight’s Brewery (90 min tours available), there are many Museums, galleries & churches. St Paul’s Cathedral is right opposite the hostel and looks more impressive lit up at night.

After taking in the views and quite a few pictures we settle for a pint or 2 of Monteiths at a local bar looking onto the center of the Octagon area and watch life go by – which is enjoyable. As it’s getting dark we settle for a Vegetarian Burger at ‘Velvet Burger’, which is a wow. They do have some interesting combos and we’d definitely recommend it.

We pop into the New World Supermarket to stock up for our trip to The Catlins, and find an amazing selection of food here (not available in NW stores elsewhere we have visited!). It’s the best supermarket in NZ so far & the seafood is not only fresh and plentiful, it’s also ridiculously cheap e.g. $5 per Kg for Skate wings.

The Catlins – The wild southern coast of NZ!

On our drive from Dunedin to Invercargill we wind through lush farmlands, native forests & rugged bays on a lovely sunny day, which is a relief as this area has a reputation for poor weather conditions. We are on what is known as the ‘Southern Scenic Route’, which we joined at Balclutha and stop off at Kaka Point (which has a lovely beach).

Our next stop is the highlight of the region called Nugget Point and do the lovely walk to the magnificent looking Lighthouse on the hill. There are plenty of seals playing in the rough but ever so blue ocean. The views of the wave-thrashed vertical rock formation are awesome and remind us of the 12 Apostles in Oz off ‘The Great Ocean Road’ in Australia.

We stay at the Lazy Dolphin Lodge & Backpackers for 2 nights. It’s a great room $80 per night, which they recommended when we booked months in advance as it’s Bank Holiday weekend. There are very few Chinese tourists here but plenty of locals enjoying a long bank holiday weekend.

We enjoy a great BBQ for dinner but stay indoors and admire the views as the wind is so strong outside it makes it feel decidedly wintery.

Next day we drive via Owaka to the Purakaunui Falls, which is a 10 mins walk – return from the car park. It’s very pretty and the walk takes us through rainforest. Owaka is The Catlins main town. The area has very few facilities such as banks and petrol stations, supermarkets etc., so it’s best to come armed with food & a full tank of fuel.

We enjoy a picnic lunch and then go to Papatowai & Tautuku Bay, largely beautiful rugged countryside by the ocean with very long uninterrupted blue sea and beaches. One of the other highlights in the area is a trip to Cathedral Caves, which is only accessible at low tide (times vary). Unfortunately, the times for us are so inconvenient that we give it a miss.

We make it to the Niagara Falls Café for coffee. It’s a lovely family run eatery cum village (more a hamlet) hall, cum arts center and music venue. It’s almost the only place in this hamlet by the road to Curio Bay. They host the annual Blue Grass Festival which we attend one evening, for $10 per person. It’s packed with locals and has a great community feel to it. The music was pretty good too.

One afternoon as we visit Curio Bay, we are lucky to spot a, rare Yellow Eyed Penguin – it’s image is on one of the NZ currency notes. The bay is also famous for the Petrified Forest, which are dated as being 180 million years old & are only visible at low tide.

Next door to Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay, which a beautiful wide bay, which is famous for it’s Hectors Dolphins which appear alongside swimmers and kayakers. One the first day we see amazing surfs due to the very high winds and as the next day is calm the dolphins turn up on queue almost.

We drive to Slope Point at the costal edge of the Atlantic Ocean and are amazed by the ‘bent over’ forest (due the ferocious winds that batter the trees). This is the southern most point of NZ’s South Island.

Later that day we make for the Waipapa Point Lighthouse. It’s a beautiful setting in the sun and we enjoy a lovely picnic and watch for Sea Lions that live here. It’s very picturesque and is also ‘famous’ as being the site of NZ’s worst Civilian Shipwreck in 1881 with the loss of 131 lives.

A word of warning to visitors - Many sites have gravel roads as access roads – which is a pain and getting about takes a long time!

Te Anau – (Fiordland) - Gateway to the Milford Sounds

We take the ‘Southern Scenic Road’ again via Invercargill where we stop off for breakfast at Zookepeers (recommended by our friend Matt from Christchurch). It’s a really quirky place and we decide to try a ‘Mutton Bird’ on Bubble & Squeak with poached eggs and Hollandaise. It’s supposed to be a local delicacy – a gull like bird that lives on fish only and has a rather fishy flavour. It’s an interesting taste but not a dish we’d recommend (though that may have to do with the local preparation as it was on the menu at Fleur’s and their food is par excellence!).

We stock up at the local NW Supermarket & fill up with gas. We travel via Riverton (a quaint village or town which looks like a semi deserted town from an American Wild West movie). We stop for a break and wander around and enjoy a trip to the Cosy Nook scenic bay before getting into Te Anau.

Fiordland is NZ’s rawest wilderness area, a jagged mountainous, forested zone sliced by numerous deeply recessed sounds (technically fiords). This is trekking country with the famous Kepler Track, which can take days to walk or you can do sections but need permits to stay in cabins along the way. Other activities include kayaking, boating, jet boating, trout fishing (it’s considered the Trout Fishing Capital of NZ)

Te Anau is a peaceful, lakeside township which people use as a base for treks and visits to the Milford Sounds. It is very busy with many Chinese visitors. We stop off at Miles Better Pies, a place we remember with some fondness from our previous trip here. We have the Venison pie, which is awesome, and a Lamb & mint pie, which was disappointing. We also tried the Pepper Steak pie a few days later and it was pretty good. As we have time on our hands and are impressed with the new local Cinema, we book to see ‘The Revenant’ at 8pm. It won the best actor Oscar for Leonardo DeCaprio a few weeks later, though the movie was too long & unnecessarily gruesome in our opinion.

We are booked into Rosie’s Homestay & Backpackers at the edge of town, which is a lovely place with owners Allister (he used to be a ranger for the NZ Countryside) & Rosie. They have a very friendly place with good facilities & equipment.

The town has grown a lot since we were last here. There are some really beautifully designed homes on new plots by the lake. Apparently prices have come down a lot since the crash in 2008 (almost 60%). There are a lot of Chinese day trippers & we notice that many businesses are owned and run by people with Chinese heritage. We later try the Sandfly Café & shop at the Fresh Choice supermarket.

One day we take a walk by the Lake and go past The Wildlife Center which has some lovely rare birds who are being reared here. We considered going for a swim in the lake but the wind picked up and it felt a lot cooler, so back to base.

As planned we drive for a day trip to Milford Sound. We set off at 8am ish to beat the tourist bus rush. It’s pretty misty and overcast to start so we go straight there. Thankfully the sun comes out and the views are great. We don’t do the customary, boat trip along the sounds as we’d done that on our last trip.

On our way back as the weather’s a lot better and we can enjoy the dramatic scenery, we stop off at the Chasm (sculpted rocks by blue water falls), on the other side of the Homer Tunnel (we witness a sudden change of weather from mist – on one side - to bright sunshine as we come out of the tunnel at the other end, which is a total and very pleasant surprise). We stop at the The Divide, and consider doing the famous short trek here but are put off as there is too much low cloud & mist so we would not be able to see anything. We enjoy the Hollyford River/Valley views, on the way back and have our picnic lunch by the Mirror Lakes lookout spot.

We get back to find that Allister had had a successful trip to the Sounds (setting off at 4am). He, together with his daughter in law caught quite a few Crayfish and a beautiful and large Blue Cod – a delicacy in NZ.

We treat ourselves to dinner at Redcliff’s – it’s relatively expensive but does lovely food and great service and is the best place in town. We enjoy some Venison, Duck with Pasta and Pigs Head (brawn some would say) for starter – all awesome. Next day we settle for a simple BBQ for dinner.

We enjoy some Pancakes for breakfast thanks to a French girl staying at the hostel (it’s Shrove Tuesday after all) and she loves cooking so makes for all who would eat her offering. It was lovely. Later we pack up and leave at about 9 am for our drive to Queenstown

Queenstown – (Central Otago) – the High Energy City with loads of activities

We’ve set off early for our journey to Queenstown (QT). However, we take a pit stop at Kingston where there is a Heritage Steam Train at the bottom end of the village by the entry to a lovely lake. The town is shut bar a small café by the main road so we go in for coffee (not the best!) and to stretch our legs. Then move on.

Arrowtown

As we are a bit early for the hostel checking in time, we take a detour to Arrowtown. It’s a quaint little Heritage town with many historic buildings with 2 main streets, and is a day-tripper’s delight from QT. It sprang up in the 1860s following the discovery of gold in the Arrow River and retains about 60 of its original buildings on the main street (Buckingham Street) with stores looking like a scene out of an old Wild West Saloon Town.

We visit the site of the old Chinese Community Settlement established here from 1860 to 1880 as part of the Gold Rush though it looks like the Chinese never left; they seem to own many of the businesses here.

After wandering around we go for a light lunch at Patagonia – Cheesecake, Coffee & awesome Ice cream all for $8!

The drive to Queenstown is lovely and the scenery gets better as we approach our destination. The area is surrounded by ‘The Remarkables’ Mountains Range and Coronet Peak is the high point just above the city and can be accessed via a Funicular.

We are booked into the YHA by the Lakeside Hostel which has good rooms and amenities, but crap Internet (which you can’t get in your room) and they are the only hostel we’ve come across that charge for T bags! The room is tight but comfortable with view over the lake.

The city itself is built along the edge of Lake Wakatipu. It’s considered to be the ‘Global Adventure Capital’ - lake sports, para and hang-gliding, white water rafting and kayaking, bungy jumping & fox wires etc; no one can ever say ‘I’m bored’ here. We did think about going Paragliding from the Peak where the Gondola is but it seemed a bit pricey. The place has grown a lot since we were last here and some of the developments are pretty tacky & plasticky - al la Disney!

Our initial impression is that QT is like some sort of ‘Chinatown’ as it’s heaving with Chinese tourists, shops targeting Chinese visitors and even Chinese Tour operators. There also seem to be quite a few Indian visitors as well and there are lots of young British folk working here.

For dinner one night we try Fergburger (so renowned it always has very long queues – which can be avoided if you call ahead and order a take out!). We’d been here before, so we’re looking forward to the Venison & Belly Pork burgers, but we found them quite disappointing. Either we’ve changed or they have lowered their quality. The fries and Wasabi mayo were much better and we have all this as a picnic with a bottle of wine on the waterfront green (like many locals), listening to live music from one of the bars – a pretty nice way to end the day. We take the same approach another evening with a pizza take out – much better.

We try the Vudu Café by the lake for breakfast. They do great coffee & lovely poached egg, halloumi, dukkha, and beetroot hummus on sourdough – yumm! The next day we try Halo (alfresco) a couple of streets back from the lake where the avocado mash with feta and salsa with poached eggs on sourdough was fantastic, as was the Zinger juice – orange, lime & passion fruit smoothie. Both these establishments are very popular so come early for a table, or you’ll have to wait.

They have a Craft Market by the Lake on a couple of days – some creative arts & crafts by local folk where we buy some Fridge Magnets (best we’ve seen so far).

The weather is warm & improving thankfully as we go White Water Rafting down the Shotover River (grade 3 – 5), which we did last time we were here and really enjoyed; quite exhilarating. This time the trip feels longer but the water is shallower and so whilst our Japanese guide tell us it is more technically difficult, we find it less exciting as we keep getting stuck on rocks (resulting in M breaking his oar at one point). We pass remnants of the gold rush days (equipment & homes) and get into the water for a float/swim along the river a few times and down through some grade 1 rapids (in full wet suit as the water’s really cold). It’s a fun thing to do and we meet some nice fellow travellers.

We discover the hostel has a BBQ so eat in a couple of times. No one else seems to use it so it’s much easer than in the busy kitchen.

Last time we were here (with our friend Penni), we visited a small Chinese mining settlement en route so we go in search of it as it was more complete than the Arrowtown settlement. We can’t find it! Despite an hour’s round trip towards Wanaka on highway 6, it’s disappeared. So we visit some of the vineyards instead. The area (Central Otago) is one of NZ’s premier wine growing regions and the Pinot Noir is considered to be the best from the area. They are pretty pricey though and largely geared to Tour Buses it appears.

Glenorchy – a pretty bit of Scotland in the South Island

As we are in QT for a few days, we decide to drive along the lake side up to Glenorchy. The township described as postage – stamp size (and that it is), lies at the head of Lake Wakatipu, about 44kms away from Queenstown and is set in beautiful surroundings. The drive there is pretty winding and undulating, however, about 2/3rds the way there is a ‘Look Out’ point from where the views of the snow covered mountains behind Glenorchy are spectacular.

It takes us an hour to get there. We go to the waterside and after some pictures and stop off at ‘The General Store’ we drive back. It would be great if they did a boat trip up there and we’re quite surprised that they don’t.

Wanaka – the quieter alternative to Queenstown

We drive to Wanaka via the ‘Scenic Alpine route’, which is shorter but uphill for quite a while with many hairpin bends and then eventually downhill passing Cardrona – strange small town/village, which has a hotel out of a ‘wild west movie’ with an old Model T type car out the front by the entrance – sort of America Route 66! There are also lots of lupins along the roadside here (which we always associate with NZ from our last trip) - possibly as it’s a bit cooler as it’s higher.

Wanaka is a lovely, laid back, lakeside town and a relaxed alternative to Queenstown. It also appeals to ‘alternative life style’ folk. It has beautiful scenery, surrounded by mountains – it’s the gateway to the Mt Aspiring National Park and is an all year round destination which caters for skiing in winter.

We stay at Mountain View Backpackers near the center of the town, and just next to the offices of Adventure Consultants who are the mountaineering adventure operators in the film Everest that C saw on the plane over here.

It’s a really hot day so we lunch by the lake with some Old Mout Scrumpy Cider and amazing fresh Dory Fish & Wedges, then spend the afternoon sunbathing, swimming, and paddle boarding (at least C does; M tries but can’t get his balance, keeps falling off, so decides to call it quits).

It’s Saturday and the evening is busy by the lake front eateries – mainly Kiwis - but we go for a lakeside late evening picnic with burgers from Red Star (not bad) washed down with some wine.

We breakfast at Alchemy who do good coffee then visit the local crafts market – some of the same folk from QT and get some great local cherries at discount rate if you don’t mind picking through the bucket yourself. C gets stuck in!

Franz Josef – Base Camp for Heliflight & Helihikes to the Glaciers

It’s Valentine’s Day – so it’s ‘cards at dawn’ then a quick dash to Franz Josef where we will be based for 1 night.

It’s a 3hour drive, the first hour along the Wanaka and Hauwea Lakes so very scenic. We’re surprised to see no real development on Lake Hauwea though in some ways its more attractive than Wanaka as it has more mountains around it. Then we cut across to Haast Pass going through the Divide to the west coast. The weather is much nicer than last time we were here so we get great views instead of mist and rain. Then the drive is through rainforest so we see different trees and plants along the roadside and the rivers are glacial so cloudy blue - very beautiful scenery.

The original purpose for coming here was to redo the hike on the Fox Glacier we did 8 years ago – however, as the glacier has receded a lot and the trail is now dangerous the only options available are ½ or whole day Helihike flights which cost $400 per person. Having done it before we changed our plans but decided to stop over here to break up the drive anyhow. When we stop at nearby Fox Village for a coffee all the Heliflights are fully booked and the place is packed with Chinese tourists.

FJ (the early Maori knew FJ as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere - Tears of the Avalanche Girl) is much bigger than Fox Village with more eateries etc. and the glacier is about 5kms from the village. You can drive to a parking area then walk to the edge of the glacier where there are lots of notices warning you not to go on – though some f****wits usually do!

We check in at the Sir Cedrics Glowworm Hostel in FJ. We stayed here on our last trip. It’s a great place with good facilities. And as it’s Valentines Day we ‘cook in’ - venison medallions and fillet steak (we bought in ‘The Mediterranean Market’ in Wanaka) done on the BBQ with Kumara and spinach and a bottle of Alan Scott Pinot Noir (discovery from our last trip and really good). Happiness!

It’s also John’s birthday in Brighton (UK), so we FT with him & Romi (M’s sister), they are dressed in winter woolies and we show them what a blue sky & sunshine looks like.

Next morning, we pack a picnic lunch (egg sarnies and salad) then head off on the 1.45 hr drive to Hokitika.

Hokitika – ‘A Cool Little Town’ on the West Coast – Jade center of NZ

Hokitika grew up during the gold rush years but is now famous for Green Stone (aka NZ Jade or Pounamu), and C is on the hunt!!!

The weather last time we were here was really blustery and cool. Today – beautiful sunshine and hot, so we go straight to beach for a walk. They recently had a driftwood sculpture competition here so the beach isn’t as wild as last time but some interesting artwork has been left in place until the weather destroys it! (The winner was a guy with a scarf skiing off the edge of the stony beach edge, but we also liked the hand reaching out of the sea – when the tide was in).

We’re staying again at the YHA Birdsong (which has really good facilities), about 3kms out of town and are happy that we get the same room with a balcony overlooking the beach so plan to eat in with a pizza take out.

After a picnic on the beach we wander around town looking at all the jade shops and its mission accomplished for C who gets some earrings to match her necklace.

There’s a lot to do around the area but we haven’t allowed much time here which is a shame but we planned based on our last experience. You could easily spend 2 or 3 days in the area and use H as a base.

Nelson – (The Nelson Region), aka ‘NZ’s most liveable city’

Next morning, we set off on our long drive to Nelson on the north of the South Island via Reefton and Murchison – where we stop for coffee/cake and some light lunch (a great lamb shank pie) respectively.

Reefton has an old US style wild west town feel and seems locked in a time zone, with the feeling supported in part by a local tourist feature – the Old Bearded Men mining “museum” which we visit for a few pics.

Murchison was the same in part but is a growing place and the base for activities on the Buller River (Rafting etc. but we think the water looked better in Queenstown).

Nelson is dotted with beautiful Victorian houses but with an Art Deco town center. It has an alternative lifestyle feel and has a Buddhist Centre, Naturopaths, yoga studios and galleries.

It’s also one of the main gateways to The Abel Tasman National Park, the most visited park in NZ. What’s somewhat of a mystery is why this beautiful area is named after someone who never ever set foot on the Island. Though his ship docked nearby 100 years before Cook arrived, Tasman and his crew were scared off by a Maori ‘Welcoming Party’ who went out to greet them. Hey ho!

The AT track is a 3 to 5day trek along the most beautiful coastline. There’s a day hike which we are keen to do again and one of the reasons we are back in Nelson.

Eventually (after about 6 hours on the road) we get to Nelson and Toi Toi where we are staying with Paul (a Kiwi), Karolina (a Polish woman) - friends we met trekking in Nepal in 2008 (they were on their honeymoon) and their 4-year-old daughter Mila who was conceived while they were in Canada working for 9 months. They also have a dog Ellie and both dog and Mila seem very excited by our visit. It’s lovely catching up with them again and incredibly kind of them to put us up for our stay in Nelson. Paul works for an IT firm in town and Karolina is doing a variety of work with theatre and creative arts groups, and both are warm and generous and great company.

They have a lovely plot on a hill over 4 levels with great views and no one overlooking them, which they are gradually adding to and planting out. K cooks a fab meal for our first night there and we spend hours chatting.

Next day, the heavens open and it rains all day so instead of hitting AT National Park we just mooch around getting wet with our water proofs on and M in flip flops – best thing he decides.

We also meet Andrew G – C’s friend from Dartmoor who she hasn’t seen for about 15 years - at DeVille Café for coffee. He still has a home in Dartmoor and his brother lives near us in Chiswick. He’s an interesting guy and into Environmental Conservation in a big way – though with a dry and overcharged sense of cynicism. He relocated to Nelson a few years ago from Christchurch after being hit by the earthquakes twice and is quite scathing about the (lack of) progress and approach taken in rebuilding the city. We call in at his house when we leave Nelson and he has a great place on a hill with lovely views and a friendly Waka (bird a bit like a kiwi) that wonders into the house during our visit. Hopefully this time, we’ll be better at keeping in touch.

We discover a great place for lunch thanks to K’s recommendation - the lovely East Street Vegetarian Café – which does great food, terrific beer and has a lovely vibe and very quirky décor. We also visit a great Mexican place for a night out with P&K to say thank you, followed by some of Paul’s finest distillery products (he has a ‘still’ in the basement and produces fine stuff based on the advice of K’s father) which we enjoy on a couple of nights – wodka, nalewka, and sliwowica (vodka made of plums), all fantastic and potent!! Na zdrowie! (cheers)

On our final day the weather has improved so we can see views of the bay from the hill top in Nelson, we take a drive along the road towards AT stopping at Jester House Cafe in Tasman for coffee (voted best café in NZ last year – nice gardens and composting loo’s but we prefer L’Arte in Taupo), then on to Motueka for lunch at The Garden Path café – ace food. This is a base for accessing Abel Tasman NP and Golden Bay (highly recommended by Andrew and P&K) but visits we will have to add to the list for future.

Picton - (The Marlborough Region) – gateway to The Marlborough Sounds and Queen Charlotte Track

We are up at 7.15am to say our thanks – again, and good byes to Paul who’s off to work, then Karolina takes Mila to her Nan’s as they are going away in their camper van – her first camper experience, returning to say good bye and present us with some local olive oil – which tastes delish we find out later. Thanks Karolina!

The weather is a bit better and we drive along to Havelock – The Mussel Capital of NZ – and stop off at the Mussel Pot for lunch to try the famous green lip mussels in cream, garlic and basil sauce – which was fine at $18.

We go to the harbourside and come across our old favourite ‘The Slip Inn’. The sea is looking pretty murky after all the rain over the past few days – last time it was azure. The number of boats in dock has certainly increased since we were last here – we book to come back the next day. However, change our minds, the next day, as it’s a long way back and going away from our direction of travel. Besides the Mussels seem to have lost some of their ‘expected taste & dazzle’

We get to Picton after a slow drive via The Queen Charlotte Drive – which has many cute bays along the way at around 3 pm. However, as the weather is a bit hit and miss with the sun, the temptation to stop is effected by this and we consider coming back the next day but later decide against it. There are only so many pictures you can take of lovely blue water Bays before getting bored with it all.

It takes an hour from Havelock to get to Picton where we are booked into The Villa Hostel just by the town center – a lovely place (English village cottage), great room, our only criticism was the lack of enough cutlery, plates etc. – even though we ate out.

We liked Picton and could have chilled out for another day here. The bay area has Rays in the harbour, which also has a section for fishing boats and the harbour hosts lots of fancy gin palaces.

We enjoy Havana Coffee at Le Café, which also has a section of bean bags and deckchairs in front, and dinner at Oxley’s Hotel which feels like a local with many local folks dropping in for a drink or dinner. It’s ciders for us with Seafood Chowder, Calamari (both awesome) and Venison hot pot (not bad).

We take the ‘slow down’ in sight seeing time to discuss future plans: CP’s work, 2 months in France & Spain, 2 new grandchildren, moving house, upgrading the car, buying a base in Spain, getting fit regime, possible trip to Cornwall & winters away in warmer climes – wow. We need to slow down!!

Kaikoura – Seafood, Sea Lions & Whales

After FT with Louise & Sarah, back in the UK, we leave Picton after breakfast at the excellent Le Café (garlic mushrooms on toast & poached eggs) outside enjoying the views across the bay. It’s hot (27/28 degrees). We’re heading for Kaikoura (K) on the east coast.

About an hour before the ‘Township’ as they call themselves, we hit the scenic road along the sea front all the way to K. For most part we travel alongside the train line to Christchurch.

We pass the Ohua Lookout point, which is by the Seal Sanctuary, which we visit during our 3night stay, and also Waipapa Bay – apparently a Crayfish café which is colourful but lacks any meaningful food or people to serve. So next stop is Nins Bin – a converted caravan that does only Fresh Crayfish and Mussels. It’s an awesome location and the food is gorgeous (even if a bit pricey). A definite must as a treat if nothing else.

The Kaikoura is a picture perfect peninsular town backed by the snow covered peaks of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. This is the place to come to see whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, shearwaters and albatross. Its history is in whaling, then sheep farming & agriculture.

We are booked into The Sunrise Lodge/Backpackers – a great hostel about 1.4km out of the center. It’s walkable, along a path that goes from the back garden, across the train tracks & along the sea. This family run place is pretty good and has great amenities. We have a lovely room and a comfortable stay. Later we enjoy a BBQ for dinner after a shop at the NW Supermarket.

Although we considered it, we decide against any Fishing trip or Whale watching either by boat, which is mostly booked up and the weather conditions suggest rough seas – not much fun really. Helicopter tours are very expensive $395 each for ½ hour, and there are no guarantees of seeing anything. All Fishing Trips were booked up - $85 for 2 hours, which would have been fun.

Later we drive to the View Point for K – it’s high on a small hilly area, which provides good views of the South Bay. On the way back we stop off by the Park & one of only a few beach areas (black sand though). Even though it’s the weekend there are not many folks out swimming. Apparently the currents are strong and there is too much sea weed being washed ashore.

We make for the famous Seafood BBQ place for lunch, and boy it’s a good call. We enjoy scallops, mussels and fish served with rice, salad and all for $24!! We even go back the next day for crayfish (a treat) plus scallops and a paua pattie (a local specialty). It’s all absolutely fabulous, eating al fresco on the few tables and chairs the guys provide. The BBQ place is essentially a food truck but has been going strong for years and most days has long queues of locals and tourists pilling in. Yummmmm! We ‘d recommend the Reserve Hutt as our café of choice for coffee. For our final night we enjoy BBQ lamb at the hostel.

The weather has been variable but we had some good chilling out time. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Penni, who lives and works here due to her new work commitments, she couldn’t meet up with us.

Back to Christchurch via Hanmer Springs (HS)

It’s an early drive via the inland road from K to HS, which is a thermal pools and spa resort we have decided to drop in to see & experience as we have no plans for our last day in Christchurch other than meeting Lynley & Zac for dinner.

It’s a bit dull and cloudy most of the way but brightens up a when we get there. Though surprisingly, the drive there is pretty winding most of the way. This is apparently part of the Alpine Pacific Triangle. Nearer HS, we are greeted by lovey rolling hills – a bit like Yorkshire or Wales in the UK!

HS as a village is the main thermal resort in the South Island and is pretty busy and we only have 2 hours to spare as we have to get the car back by 4pm in Christchurch. So after our entry tickets, we focus on the Sulphur Pools at 42c and the Hydrotherapy Pools & Jacuzzi at The Thermal Reserve. It was pretty enjoyable and we can see why it’s so popular.

The drive to C is through the Waipara wine region and we arrive at the YMCA at 3pm to check in before returning car. Damn! It appears that we screwed up the hostel booking date so we aren’t expected until tomorrow and nowhere else has any vacancies. Fortunately, the YMCA have a couple of dorm beds free (in a small room for 4 people) which we take, then rush to the airport to drop off the car and get bus back to town (It’s the No. 29, $8 each. Great value.). We then rush to the hostel with 45 minutes to spare, before we meet Lynley (& Zac) for dinner. Matt is away in Japan.

We enjoy some Pinot Noir & L picks us up to go to Spice Paragon – a Thai restaurant for dinner, which is very good – even Zac enjoys it despite the spice! The cow’s cheeks in red curry is awesome.

After dinner and farewell to L & Z, we mooch around the city, and are even more amazed at the extent of the earthquake devastation. So many buildings are still cordoned off and awaiting demolition or redevelopment. It was the 5th anniversary of the quake the day before and the local news gave full coverage of a Memorial Service, held here.

One note of disappointment (and sadness), whilst reading about the quake and its aftermath, was following the heroic coming together of the local community to help each other, was the fact that many people poured into the city to charge exorbitant rates for basic jobs and to profit at everyone’s expense – even conning elderly residents into getting jobs done that the Insurance companies should have paid for or to undertake ‘works’ that were either not needed or left undone. The depths to which the human race sink to sometimes!

Trip back to the North Island via Picton

Next morning, we are up very early (5.30am) to catch the 7am Intercity Bus to Picton – which retraces it’s way back via Kaikoura (and this time we see hundreds of dolphins in the South Bay area which we didn’t go to when we were there – stupid of us).

There’s also a bit of drama this time as a passenger who missed the bus in C and was picked up later at another stop, went on a bit of a crime spree when we got to K. He was a young lad (already on probation apparently) and he goes and nicks some money from a hostel while the bus has a break stop - so we’re delayed another 30 minutes from leaving while the police track him down, which means we only have 15 mins in Picton, before we have to go for the ferry.

Once we arrive in Picton, C dashes to buy a couple of multi-seeded bars (which we had last time) then it’s on the shuttle bus to the ferry and good-bye South Island.

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