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Touring New Zealand

Posted by Mark Gallo on


Touring New Zealand

It feels unnatural to travel to the Southern Hemisphere for Christmas and New Year’s if only because you’re dropped into full on summer. The sunlight is intense, the days are long and warm, and yet Christmas decorations, lights, and festivities abound.

Turning 60 last year was motivation to start addressing our travel bucket list, so we flew LAX to Auckland, New Zealand last December for a 16 day self-guided tour from north to south and back again.

Auckland

Our arrival on Christmas Eve coincided with a violent rain and wind storm, an inauspicious way to start our travels considering it was midsummer. Christmas day we took the 40 minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island for a fabulous multi-course holiday dinner at Poderi Crisci Winery. The next day brought clear skies so we were able to walk from our hotel (The Pullman) in the central business district to the gardens in Albert Park and the adjacent University of Auckland campus.

Auckland central business district                                   Albert Park                                                               Midsummer is Christmastime!

Another day we walked the short distance to the lovely Auckland Domain (park) followed by a tour at the Auckland War Memorial Museum located on a prominent hill in the Domain.

I highly recommend strolling along the bustling Auckland harborfront around the various marinas and piers. If you have any interest in things nautical the New Zealand Maritime Museum is among the finest examples we’ve toured on any continent. The Kiwis are very proud of their America’s Cup victories, beginning in 1995, and the championship boat - NZL 32 - is on full display inside the building. Don’t miss the moving film tribute to Sir Peter Blake either.

        New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland

Also recommend the 2 hour free walking tour that meets at the Ferry building. You’ll learn a lot about past and present in this informative small group setting.

Wellington

We flew to the country’s capital at the southern tip of the North Island for a visit to the striking Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand) on the waterfront. Beyond that it turns out that the historic botanic gardens located a steep climb above the city center are well worth an afternoon visit.

      View from Te Papa Tongarewa of Wellington harbor

A four hour ferry ride brought us to Picton on the South Island, where we rented a car for touring the South Island over the next 10 days. We were eager to drive the scenic West coast to Franz Josef glacier and then on to our Airbnb in Queenstown, but the route is so squiggly that speeds are limited and time in the car feels interminable.

Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki are unique and worth the short walk around. We overnighted further down the coast in Hokitika, an isolated and gritty coastal town that reminded me of Eureka, CA - a mix of historic and more modern but shabby buildings. Unfortunately, the rainy weather prevented our side trip to Franz Josef glacier so we drove on to Queenstown through endless stretches of ranchland, rainforested gorges, and high altitude meadows. We found ourselves repeating the question “what do people do for work around here?” as there are simply no towns along the 250 mile stretch of Route 6 from Hokitika to Wanaka, just place names on the map.

                  Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki                                               Typical view along Route 6 on West coast

Queenstown

Queenstown is the epicenter of adventure for the Otago region where tour storefronts advertise everything from bungee jumps to jetboats, alpine treks to scenic flights to Milford sound. The city is located on the spectacular s-shaped Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by craggy ridges and modest mountain ranges.

We opted not to stay in the city proper but 10 miles west along the lake at Punatapu, an Airbnb farm compound. This gave us easy access to trails on the bluffs along the lake as well as hiking routes up the hills such as Ben Lomond.

 

Punatapu Airbnb outside Queenstown                                                             Lake Wakatipu                                               Whitebait fritters             

There were few unfamiliar foods on the menus with the exception of whitebait. Our Airbnb host was kind enough to share some whitebait patties so we could experience this national treasure. These fish are caught as juveniles (before forming a skeleton) and cooked and consumed en masse in fritter form. The treasured dish is wasted on me, especially at $50 a pound!

Side trips to Mt. Nicholson sheep station (source for IceBreaker merino wool) via ferry service and a wonderful cycling route from historic Arrowtown to Gibbston were good half day excursions when we didn’t feel like staying put.

         Mt. Nicholson Sheep Station

And despite the lengthy 4.5 hour bus ride (one way) from Queenstown, the drive to Milford Sound is well worth the effort. The 2 hour cruise in the Sound is an endless spectacle of gushing waterfalls and high cliffs. Make sure you wear insulating layers and waterproof rain gear!

          Before the tunnel to Milford Sound                         Looking back toward the Sound                                     Countless waterfalls

Final Thoughts

I’ve traveled to four continents and never have I experienced people so universally friendly and cheery. Everything you’ve heard positive about Kiwis is true. If exceptional congeniality is not enough to lure you there, the absence of tipping pressure (for the most part) is an added bonus. In only the finer restaurants would one be expected to tip a modest amount for great food and service. The minimum wage (nearly $18/hr), national health care, and nearly free university education make for a high standard of living.

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