** The following is the second of a two part guest blog series written after Wild Lens board member Karen May returned from a 3-week trip to New Zealand **
Janine and I booked our flight to New Zealand in October 2011 and by the time December rolled around, we had only a rental car and a general sense of the track we were going to take on our 16-night journey across both the North and South Islands. While Janine was armed with a bird book and bird sighting aspirations, my goals for the trip were more geared towards seeing the picturesque New Zealand landscapes, embarking on some adventure trips, and enjoying the friendly culture of the New Zealanders. Well deliver, New Zealand did.
In just over two weeks, we logged some serious miles (correction, kilometers!) in our Toyota Camry. We landed in Auckland after an unexpected nearly day-long layover in Fiji. Bypassing the largest city of New Zealand completely, we spent our 4 days in the North Island in Lake Taupo, Hawkes Bay, and Wellington (the capital). After ferrying across to Marlborough Sounds in the South Island (where we spent the majority of our time), we spent time in quaint Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park, drove south through the rugged West Coast towards Queenstown, over to Te Anau/Milford Sound, and finally, drove up the east coast from Dunedin to the earthquake-damaged city of Christchurch. And along the way, we ate more than our fair share of greasy fish & chips, learned the difference between a flat white and long black coffee, camped for several nights in both private ‘holiday parks’ (bonus: showers!) and at more-secluded and picturesque D.O.C. campsites, and even mastered the art of driving on the left side of the road (I know Janine is somewhere out there smirking at our complete inability to learn what side our turn signal was on: our windshield wipers got plenty of use, with or without actual rain).
New Zealand, particularly the South Island, is well known as a mecca for adventure sports & adrenaline rushes. While Janine & I could not muster much desire to bungee jump off a bridge or repel down a tall building, we were able to find plenty of adventures that showcased New Zealand’s stunning beauty. One highlight was a two-day kayaking tour of Abel Tasman National Park. Abel Tasman is the stuff of postcards – white sand beaches & clear blue-green water. During our relaxed paddle, we saw New Zealand’s largest colony of fur seals and plenty of birds (including a wood pigeon that nearly took off my head!), and camped near a beach on a portion of the Abel Tasman Track/Great Walk. (There are several ‘tracks’ or ‘great walks’ throughout the country that allow you to escape the tourists for about 3 to 5 days, hiking through and camping out in otherwise inaccessible spots. Had Janine and I started our trip planning early & had more time to travel, this would have been high on our list). Other notable adventures included hiking on Fox Glacier, jetboating through a river canyon in Queenstown, a boat tour through breathtaking Milford Sound, jumping in various degrees of cold water, and finding various day hikes – Fox River Cave was particular rewarding. Unfortunately, incessant rain caused us to miss the not-to-miss Tongariro Alpine day hike, but it will be top on our list for the next trip!
As a foodie and wine and beer drinker, I often travel in search of great cuisine. I knew that New Zealand was not a country to visit for the great food. British fare – fish and chips, Indian take-outs, as well as pizza – were predominant. However, we happened upon some wonderful Mediterranean-inspired meals in Wellington, discovered the remarkably delicious & simple breakfast of eggs, bacon (more like ham), roasted tomato & foccacia bread, enjoyed New Zealand’s famous lamb in the form of lamb shank pizza, and in Havelock, devoured two large bowls of green-lipped mussels. Obviously, as a bit of a wine-o, I planned to taste plenty of New Zealand’s famous Sauvignon Blanc wine. In the Marlborogh region, Janine allowed me to indulge my fantasy of bicycling to several wineries – and finally on a day of sun! I was also pleased with the wine in Hawkes Bay – Pinot Noirs and sweet whites, most notably. Hawkes Bay reminded me a lot of Sonoma, with its rolling hills and smaller wineries. We even tasted at a cidery – and were pleased to discover that 10:30 am is not too early for a cider buzz, thank you very much; nearly every bar & restaurant had an apple cider on tap. New Zealand is definitely a country of beer drinkers, and the local brews were also fantastic.
I find that when I travel, the one thing that can really make or break a visit to a new country are the people that you meet along the way. While we met several nice travelers –from US, Israel, England, Germany, and more – it was the Kiwis themselves (on the road themselves or at home) that made us fall in love with this friendly, laid-back country. By the end of the trip we had a collection of handwritten notes on napkins, from waiter, winery workers, and more – helping us to find scenic shortcuts, campsites not listed in our guidebooks, and the best places for fresh seafood. Service was always coupled with a smile. A family of famers in the Otago Peninsula, near Dunedin, were gracious enough to put Janine & I up for a night, take us on a tour of some amazing wildlife on their large parcel of land/private beach – yellow eyed penguins, fur seals, and sea lions, oh my – and even get us a little drunk on gin & tonics. New Zealanders are clearly proud of their country and are equally proud to share it with tourists, and as a traveler, this attitude was very much noticed and appreciated. And from friendly small-town farmers to cosmopolitan city-dwellers, one thing that remained true for every New Zealander we met – was their complete devotion to their World Cup winning rugby team, the All Blacks!
Throughout our exciting adventure, Janine & I experienced plenty of travel mishaps, usual ones – flat tires and long flights delays – and New Zealand-specific ones – an earthquake in Christchurch and several bites from the all too friendly South Island sand flies. But the trip was a winning one and the only regret I have is that we were not able to spend more time to see everything New Zealand had to offer. Janine & I are already planning a 10 year reunion trip – this time, no shorter than a month (per island!) and we will plan in time enough to reserve our spot on a Great Walk. Cheers!