In December of this past year, JH and I left all my crappy feelings behind at home, and embarked on an exciting trip to Australia and New Zealand for 18 days. This was hardly enough time to actually explore both countries, but I am at least glad to stay that we finally finished our continents (and flew comfortably on Business Class on the way through points). And the fun fact is that I actually finished touching most of the continents after I graduated university. Sadly, I do not think I actually travelled at all between the ages of 14 to 22 (except for maybe Hong Kong and the States, my memory is fuzzy). JH loves to say that he was responsible for my travel bug, but the truth is, once I travelled to Peru with my dad in 2008, saw Machu Picchu and hiked the Andes, it was over. I just wanted to give up on everything else and travel the rest of the world, no matter how hard or scary the experience. I just wanted to do it.
Every time we travel we seem to meet couples who just “pick up and leave”, and travel for months, even years; and I am SO JEALOUS of them. Alas, I am also a realist, and decided instead to work and get married (for the point that sometimes when you are single, it’s easier to just get up and leave everything behind, NOT because I do not love being married to JH – he is the best husband ever); so every year, I count down the days wistfully until I can leave Toronto with JH again.
- Mood – Wistful.
- Focus – Reminiscing about New Zealand, but focused nightly on planning our next trips…to Iran (curse US politics) NORWAY (in June) & TAJIKISTAN & KRGYZSTAN (in September).
- Craving – Slow roasted lamb shoulder and lamb pies.
- Feedback from the husband – We both equally loved and hated this trip for many reasons. I think, for the 5th 80th time, I planned a trip that was not really relaxing at all, so JH often complained that he was tired and ‘over-worked’ from the packed schedule especially with all the long-distance driving. Once again, he returned home needing a vacation from ‘my vacations’. All in all however, he loved the landscapes, the sheep everywhere, and the most delicious New Zealand food. Being it was our very last continent to cover in the world, I think we both came home really happy with how the trip turned out; and by the time we came home, it was Christmas to top it all off.
New Zealand is an easy country for travelling, especially for self-travel (in this case, a road-trip). The major benefit of doing a road trip is that you see much more at your own schedule and flexibility. We spent a few days on the way in Australia visiting Sydney (for eating) and Cairns (for diving), an equally easy country to travel through. If I had any interest in travelling across Canada, I assume it would be very much the same as travelling in these two countries. There was not much of any culture, cuisine or sticker shock. It almost felt like we were at home, but with summer & spring weather in December versus snow, and beautiful, rhythmic accents. JH and I casually agreed that we would very much like to return to Australia and New Zealand one day when we have kids; at the very least, Australia, because we barely touched it; and South Island because we fell hopelessly in love with its 360 degrees of snowy-capped mountains, glaciers, rolling hills and seemingly better weather (versus the North). The intention is that once our kids pass the ages of 7 (maybe 6), they will start hiking and learn to love it, and demand dad (and his wallet) for more travels in order to find harder, adventurous trails. Mom will say yes to anything; more so even if the location is not pinned on her push-pin travel map.
Getting back to the road trip, JH had to do all the driving because I am a grandma driver with major anxiety. In the first few drives, JH barely remembered to switch his focus from ‘left side’ to ‘right side’, so we could only imagine how difficult that would have been with me sweating profusely and screaming profanities. Did I want to pick up the skill and try something out of the box? Yes, but we didn’t want to waste time having me figure out how to properly drive in a parking lot, and breaking into unnecessary anxiety for no reason.
Our route drives us from South Island to North Island. As one can see, we barely maximized the coverage of the island, but 18 days (minus time in Australia) is hard enough to work with. All in all, we got enough of a taste to know that we love the island, and will be back again one day to finish some more of it off.
We flew into Queenstown from Cairns after three days of sweltering (but BEAUTIFUL) 30-plus degrees of heat, and some joyous snorkeling & scuba diving experiences down in the Reef. The Queenstown airport is not that big, and usually travelers whiz through smaller airports like this one. However, to protect the island, the airport makes travelers go through an extensive screening process to ensure that they are not tracking in anything that can disturb the natural environment. They inspected everything from our dirty hiking boots and camping food, to all the snacks in JH’s backpack. It actually went pretty quickly though, and the inspection officers were really friendly. It almost reminded of us of the airport in Ushuaia, Argentina, where we had to give up all our fruit for screening (even stuff we bought in other parts of the same country).
From there, we picked up our rental car from Jucy – the cutest little Suzuki Swift that won my heart (I literally cried when we said goodbye on the last day), and went on our way to Queenstown.
Without writing a 32-page novel on our experience, here were some of our details from Queenstown, including what we loved and hated (which was hardly anything):
|· We stayed at Lomond Lodge (33 Man Street).
· We had the cutest room with views facing the lake.
|· We were only in Queenstown for a day so we did not get to try out too many restaurants, though there are so many options (especially cute brunch places) right by the lake.|
|· A room with a queen bed is $144 / night through Expedia (as of 2016 when we booked).
· There is parking outside the lodge; we got the last spot.
|· Fergburger looked really popular, I had read good things about it, and by the time we got there (4PM), the line was not too bad. By the time we finished, the line had actually doubled.|
|· It is located right near the steps to the centre part of town, so within great walking distance of everything.
· The girl at the front desk was really nice. She helped point us to the Tiki Trail for our mini-hike.
|· We definitely can understand why New Zealanders love Fergburger so much. The burgers were amazing, and we even got a seat outside with natural light for photos.
· Try to politely hover for a seat outside after you make your order. JH ordered while I hovered.
|· Wi-fi was great; no issues there.
· It looks like you can stay there long term because there is a shared kitchen.
· We had the cutest room with views facing the lake.
· We loved this hotel.
|· The next day we ate at their sister restaurant next door – Fergbaker. Fergbaker does not have the long lines, but it has an abundance of equally delicious pastries and meat pies.
· We ordered lamb and pork belly pies, and ate them by the lake under the sun. It was a perfect lunch.
- City Viewpoint Hike
- We took the Tiki-Trail located right near our hotel (there are visible signs pointing to the trail, so not too hard to find) leading up the Skyline gondola path to the panoramic viewpoint overlooking Queenstown.
- The trail zig-zags up a forest for about an hour (or less if you walk quickly) until you reach an activity center with panoramic views. It crosses with some mountain biking trails, so be very careful and watch the bicycle signage.
- The hike is not hard. We wore runners and did not need walking poles. Our only advice is to layer up. Naturally you get sweaty from the hike, but the top is very windy, and the day we went up, it was also drizzling.
- The panoramic photography areas are beautiful in their own right, but the day we went, it was packed with Asian tourists. I hate large packs of Asian tourists. Needless to say, we moved through that area relatively quickly.
- We arrived at the top relatively late (though the gondola does stay open for people who want to do star-gazing), so we missed being able to luge. There is a restaurant beside the gondola which was packed with tourists hiding from the rain.
- From this point, you can continue the trail to the Ben Lomond Summit (which looks absolutely amazing and is less touristy). I wanted to do this hike, but we did not have enough time in Queenstown.
- We rode the gondola back down. We assume we had to pay for the ride, but there was no one operating the site when we got there, so we just jumped in and went down.
- Canyon Swing
- New Zealand is an adventurous country, and Queenstown is basically the hub for adrenaline junkies looking to hurl themselves off of pretty much anything.
- JH has done most of the well-known adrenaline activities – sky-diving, bungee-jumping, zorbing, paragliding, hang-gliding, cliff-diving, canyoning, white-water rafting, mountain climbing, the list goes on. I can almost match his list except I have not done sky-diving (we almost came close during this trip, but that’s a story for another time). Both of us have not tried kite-surfing either.
- After looking at all our options, we decided to go for a canyon swing – essentially a bungee jump with a swinging component across a canyon (versus just the bounce-up-and-down when you reach the bottom).
- We had a fun experience with Shotover Canyon Swing & Fox on a pretty sunny day.
- The experience starts in the morning. You check-in to their office (a few doors down from Fergburger), fill out a few administrative forms, and watch some videos to get an idea of what you want to do.
- They weigh you, and mark up your wrist with some symbol that they say does not really mean anything. I assume it gives some indication to the team on the cliff of what size your harness should be. From there, they drive a short distance from the office to a beautiful canyon located outside of town.
- I psyched myself out back in Toronto watching all of the videos of their various choices and all the screaming / fear associated with each of the jumps. In the end however, I had no problem choosing a backwards jump.
- JH, being the creative man he is, decided to go off the cliff in a tricycle. He suggested to the company the idea of “Mary Poppins”, where you jump off with an umbrella, but they unfortunately said no. I hope they test the idea out – it is a good one; all I can imagine with the idea is Gilmore Girls – i.e. Rory and Logan jumping off the scaffolding with umbrellas re: Life & Death Brigade (one of my favourite moments in the series #teamlogan).
- JH also considered doing the “Osama Bin Laden”, where they throw you off the cliff completely covered in a wooden bin. That probably would not have been the best or productive experience, so I am glad he went with the trike.
- All in all, I loved the experience and felt it was too short. For some reason, even though we were the last in our group of 6 to go, I did not feel too nervous. You wait a bit, they suit you up, and then literally the timing in which you walk from the equipment area to the ledge and jump backwards off the cliff feels like only a few minutes.
- I guess I was pretty light in weight (good thing?) because I ended up doing a back flip, which was pretty cool for this combined collage action photo they develop for the photo packages. I hardly even remember the swing in the end because it just literally went by so quickly.
- The price is 225 NZD per person (as of December 2016). Additional swings are 45 NZD per person. I wanted to do another swing, actually a tandem swing with JH. However, because we were due to fly a plane in the afternoon, and that cost another few hundred dollars we decided to pass.
- JH begrudgingly bought us some photos because the set-up and range of the cliff from the viewing center was horrible for clear photos of the jump (evil money-making ploy).
- The overall experience took about 2.5 to 3 hours. We got back to town, ate lunch at Fergbaker (re: the pies), and headed on our way to beautiful Wanaka.
I loved Wanaka with all my heart, and it was probably my favourite place out of the whole trip. As much as I love large, sprawling cities, there is something about small towns that capture my heart, especially if they are surrounded by mountains and a lake. Wanaka is essentially Queenstown’s smaller, less-touristy sister – it is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown. It is also the starting point to many epic hikes, including the hike to Roy’s peak, which we tried and I cannot rave enough about.
|· We stayed at Bella Vista Motel Wanaka (2 Dunmore Street).
· A room with a queen bed was $127 / night (booked in 2016).
· This is your typical motor lodge. There was lots of parking outside each of the rooms.
|· I had a couple of possible dinner reservations booked for Wanaka, but at the last minute we cancelled them and went to this restaurant – Kika located next door to our hotel, based on its large, rustic patio (LOVE patios – especially on a breezy, summer day), and interesting looking menu.|
|· The town is small, so you can walk everywhere in very little time (including to a grocery store). Our motel was located just outside of the restaurant strip. It was quiet and perfect.
· The room was a bit small and dark, but we were barely there so that was not really an issue.
· By small, I mean there was not really enough room to walk around freely with open suitcases.
· Shower pressure was really good.
|· Thank goodness we decided to go with Kika. It ended up being our favourite meal of the whole trip.
· Key highlights of our meal included fall-off-the-bone herb-roasted lamb shoulder. This was one big hunk of delicious meat that contributed to quite a bit of a food coma.
· We also loved this charred broccoli and eggplant dish. It was plated beautiful and just had this gorgeous, smokey taste.
· I loved all of their plates (some of which looked like painted pottery), and wanted them for my kitchen back at home.
|· The man at the front desk was really friendly and helpful.
· He kept our luggage when we went for the Roy’s Peak hike early in the morning and helped us with directions to find the trail start.
|· After our hike up Roy’s Peak, we had a lake-front lunch at Kai Whakapai (on Ardmore Street). It was a little windy sitting on their picnic tables, but the food more than made up for a little chilliness. JH had a lamb pizza, and I had a colourful middle-eastern carrot and quinoa salad. Both were delicious.
· I wish we had more time in Wanaka because the food was SO good.
- JH and I each flew a plane with U-Fly, and it was a euphoric and surreal experience.
- I did a 20 minute flight in a 4-seater. JH got to go up with me and take photos.
- JH then went on his own 2-seater flight because he wanted to do an aerobatic lesson, where they teach you how to do turns and flips.
- My flight cost 199 NZD for 20 minutes; JH’s flight cost 299 NZD for the lesson (I think it took about 20-30 minutes).
- Our pilot instructor was Ben. He was SO laid-back, but friendly and encouraging. Mention Fergburger, and his face completely lights up.
- He did the take-off (and landing), and once you are in the air, you take hold of the steering wheel.
- You barely have to do anything but turn slightly left / right to turn directions, and before you know it the flight is over. But the feeling in the air is just unreal – you feel almost like you are floating. To top it off, the scenery of beautiful Wanaka – lakes, rolling hills, mountains was just out of this world. My mind flipped back and forth with being super focused and staring dreamily off into the sky.
- I did not get to go with JH for his flight because it was in the smaller 2-seater prop plane, so I cannot speak too much for his experience. I know however that he did do a couple of flips successfully, and ended up hurling because of the sheer effect of the g-force. He came back to me literally with a bag of hurl. We then smiled and took a lot of pictures with our respective planes.
- I know you can do this type of experience in Toronto, but flying over Wanaka is just something special. It is definitely an experience I would recommend if you are visiting.
- The air strip is located about a ten minute drive outside of town.
- Roy’s Peak Track
- I had researched and dreamed about this hike for almost a year, and pretty much planned our trip around this hike (and Tongariro, our hike up in North Island).
- The hike is doable in the morning. If I remember correctly, we started at 8AM (a fairly late start I thought), and got back to the parking lot at around 12PM. On our way down, we did however see a lot of people heading up, so I think it is fair to say that we went at a good time. Going up, we saw a few people who had went up for sunrise, but there were really no crowds on the slog up, or at the coveted site for views and pictures (the EPIC spot posted all over the Internet).
- JH and I debated this, but I do not think we actually did the full trail. The NZ government hiking site and other sites indicated that it would take us 10 hours / 16km approximately for a return trip (or a trip to other end of the trail), so we probably did about half the hike.
- We did not really want to leave our car behind and JH was due for a long drive in the afternoon, so getting to the epic spot was enough. This thought was validated by other hikers who said they thought that Roy’s Peak was the epic spot.
- The start of the trail begins at a parking lot just ten minutes outside of Wanaka. There are only a few spots, but we noticed that people generally parked anywhere by the time we returned. I think the first hour of the trail is actually private property (re: the lambs).
- The hike follows a switchback, and is a steady uphill climb. You kind of expect the switchback to end at some point, but it really does not until you reach the photography view point. There are a few ‘shortcuts’ where you can take tougher up-hills through make-shift paths to get to the end of a switchback more easily, but it is truly an uphill grind.
- You are however treated to amazing views of Wanaka’s rolling hills, mini-mountains and lakes, especially as you get higher up. There is also, to a point, a lot of sheep grazing on the grassy hills. For a good duration there, we heard a lot of “baas”; JH tried to communicate with the sheep, and sometimes they would respond to his calls. It was really rather adorable, except for the fact that JH would not let me take any home.
- This hike does not require hiking boots, unless it is rainy. We were lucky, and had a beautiful, sunny day. When you get higher (as expected), it does get a bit chilly and windy, so bring layers. Cold sweat is uncomfortable.
- All in all, this was one of my favourite hikes ever. I hate rock and sleet; the terrain here was easy given it was mostly grass. The views pretty much are first-class given we only hiked for a few hours.
I loved South Island like you would not believe. If this experience was any indication of how amazing South Island was, we definitely have to go back. There were so many places I wish we could have went to, but we just did not have time. I guess I will have to save these places for the next trip: Dunedin, Stewart Island, Fiordland National Park, Mount Cook, Arthur’s Pass, Franz Josef / Fox Glacier, and Milford Sound. I somehow also missed the “mysterious slanted tree in the lake” in Wanaka. Lucky for us, on our way out, we passed by the prettiest view of Mount Cook from Lake Pukaki; this was probably my favourite picture from the entire trip because of the clarity of the water.
JH and I collectively did not love North Island as much, mostly because we got slammed by the weather every which way. But, that is a long story for another time.