Important Note: We were on New Zealand’s South Island February 11 through February 25, way before the Coronavirus was declared a pandemic. Since then, we have arrived back in the United States and are sheltering in place, as are millions of others.
We started our time in New Zealand’s South Island by flying to Christchurch. I have to admit, though, we missed an opportunity to tour what I’m sure is an interesting city because the next morning, we set off to take the famous New Zealand TranzAlpine train, traversing the island from Christchurch to Greymouth by way of beautiful scenery, including Arthur’s Pass, home of Arthur’s Pass National Park. After reaching Greymouth, we headed straight on to Hokitika, a lovely seaside town where we stopped for one night before heading down to Fox Glacier, then Wanaka, Queenstown, and Te Anau, the stretch of New Zealand with spectacular scenery.
We arrived in Fox Glacier and were disappointed to realize that the low fog obscured what should have been a spectacular mountain view. In the couple of days were were there, however, we enjoyed a nice hike around Lake Matheson, a well-known “mirror lake” and also a hike up to the Fox Glacier viewpoint. Lots of people take a helicopter up to see the glacier. We weren’t planning to do that anyway, but the helicopters were grounded due to the fog.
On our way down from viewing Fox Glacier, we took a detour through the moraine, which turned out to be the highlight of the day, this magical little Tolkein-esque forest
On to Wanaka
The drive down to Wanaka (pronounced like Monica) is nothing short of spectacular – there are several beautiful waterfalls a short walk off of the road, beautiful mountains, and then, the turquoise Lake Wanaka comes into view. We stopped at a crowded and small parking lot just off the main road to visit Fantail Falls when it happened. That thing that anyone who has ever driven a rental car dreads: while we watched, a large, rented RV clipped our car. Fortunately, no one was hurt – we weren’t even in the car – and all parties had full insurance (whew!). The folks who hit us are from Oregon and were driving a large RV for the first time and also adjusting to driving on the left side of the road. Given the small and crowded parking lot, this was a recipe for an accident.
On to Wanaka
Wanaka was abuzz the weekend we were arrived, hosting a triathlon on Saturday morning. Bungee jumping was invented in this part of New Zealand and endurance and adrenaline sports are the area’s sweet spot. Fortunately, we were staying a few miles out of town, and out of the hubbub in a little burg by the name of Luggate that is little more than a gold rush era hotel, turned pub, and a general store of the same vintage. Our accommodation was Fran and Frankie’s B&B, a single-guest accommodation run by the charming Kiwi couple, Fran and Frankie. They built their place in Luggate five years ago with the intention of running a B&B, buying the property first, then living in a yurt on the land for two summers and wintering as innkeepers for another B&B in between. Frankie is a very talented and dedicated gardener, growing all manner of fruits and vegetables on the property. Breakfast at Fran and Frankie’s included freshly picked strawberries, blueberries, and delicious local plums. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay with Fran and Frankie and were sorry to leave such a lovely spot.
Queenstown and Te Anau
Our next stops put us closer to the magnificent Fjiordlands National Park and in the epicenter of adrenaline sports. Our first morning in Queenstown, we enjoyed the moderately strenuous, but beautiful Queenstown Hill Hike, where we enjoyed watching paragliders floating down from the hilltop above. I asked John if he would consider paragliding and he surprised me when he said “yes.” The next morning, we took the ride up on the gondola for our flight. We were delayed at the top for nearly an hour, waiting for morning mist to evaporate and then, suddenly, the skies cleared. We were hooked up in our harnesses and in the blink of an eye, my guide had us running for the edge of the hill and off we went! I’ve wanted to paraglide for years now and this was, truly an unbelievably lovely and fun thing to do. Interestingly, we landed in a children’s schoolyard, and the kids are so accustomed to seeing people land, they pay not the slightest attention to people dropping out of the sky and into their schoolyard. My guide told me that he has a daughter in the preschool next door and he often calls to her and waves on his way down.
On to Te Anau, a little hamlet that is south of Queenstown. Most of Fjiordlands National Park is so remote and mountainous, it is only possible to see by taking a cruise through a fjiord. The most popular cruise on offer is the Milford Sound cruise, however, it was just opening up after storms washed the roads there out a few weeks ago. We opted, instead, to take the Doubtful Sound cruise. Doubtful is larger than Milford and more difficult to get to and, in addition, offers scenery that is beautiful but less dramatic than Milford, hence the lower popularity. We enjoyed the cruise in Doubtful and had a wonderful day. On the way back, our driver told us that the Doubtful Sound cruises had started in the 1950s and, in the early days required cruisers to take a one day hike to and from the harbor to take the cruise. Since then, tourism in general, and popularity of these cruises has made them a staple of activities on the South Island.
Near the end of our time in Te Anau, we went to the local movie theatre to see Ata Whenua Fjiordland on Film, which is a 35-minute documentary on Fjiordlands National Park that runs about ten times every day in Te Anau. The film has lots of aerial photography that allows much of the park to be seen that can only be seen in a helicopter ride or through this film. As we walked into the darkened theater, I heard a voice say, “Sallie?” I looked up and saw our friends Kim and Scott a row behind us! We had seen them in Sydney and had known that they would be moving on to New Zealand, but had thought that they we would be gone by the time we arrived. What a treat to see them and have dinner together.