Trip Date – December 2014
| 🇳🇿| In New Zealand, around each bend is another postcard. It is the most naturally beautiful place in the world and unquestionably worth every second of traveling required to get to its corner of the earth. The Southern Pacific nation geographically consists of two main islands (North and South) and, with a total population of only 4.5 million, is one of the least densely-populated countries in the world. I get the ‘what’s the best trip you’ve ever taken’ question a lot and, although I tend to avoid labeling one as the best, New Zealand is always on the tip of my tongue. Whether you want to play in the stunning Southern Alps or watch the world-renowned All Blacks dance the Haka, visiting New Zealand tops the bucket list of travelers from around the globe.
To the dismay of my mother, I decided to forego spending Christmas at home and met three friends – Rob, Shauna, Isso – in Christchurch on December 22. We were gearing up for a 10-day road trip across the country, the majority of which on the South Island. My Kiwi friend Lisa provided us with a hand-written guide outlining top attractions along with dozens of insider notes, the kind only a local could provide. This document became our bible and remains one of the best travel planning resources I’ve encountered.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and Canterbury’s principal hub. We spent three nights based there at a local Airbnb. Our first day trip was to Hanmer Springs, a small town two hours north of the city known for its hot springs and hiking trails. We had fantastic weather and particularly enjoyed the crisp New Zealand air – one of the first things I always notice when leaving the hot and sticky Singapore climate.
We also spent a day exploring Castle Hill and Arthurs Pass, the two of which are near to each other and lie northwest of Christchurch. The Castle Hill name is rooted in its collection of limestone boulders that rest on the mountainside. Some are as large as 30 meters (100 feet) high making this rock garden a playground for climbers and photographers alike.
Established in 1929, Arthurs Pass National Park is the oldest National Park on the South Island. The surrounding mountains are considered relatively dangerous due to challenging and unpredictable terrain. Despite the warnings, we enjoyed the Devil’s Punchbowl hiking trail and waterfall, a gorgeous trek that can be completed in a couple hours.
Following both of these day trips, we returned to Christchurch for dinner at Brewers Arms, a cozy pub in the Merivale district of the city and best known for its Stonegrill dining experience. It’s hard to top New Zealand meat, and coupling that with an authentic Kiwi atmosphere led us to returning for a second night. We also encountered a minor earthquake while sitting at the restaurant. Having never experienced one before, it was a shock to the system as chandeliers began swinging and a brief sense of weightlessness shot through the building. It was also fascinating to see the locals barely acknowledge the episode. Christchurch sits at the crossroads of several fault lines and is frequently hit by earthquakes, most notoriously in February 2011 when the area fell victim to an enormous 6.2 magnitude quake that killed 185 people. The locals have become accustomed to dealing with Mother Nature’s temper. In nearby Lyttleton, remains of the disaster are still clearly visible.
Heading inland, we made our way toward Mount Cook. With a summit of 3,724 meters (12,218 feet), it is New Zealand’s tallest mountain and a popular tourist attraction. En route, we stopped at Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, both of which provide stunning foreground to the distant Southern Alps.
After dropping our things at the Twizel Mountain Chalets, we drove the length of Lake Pukaki to the Hooker Valley Track, a short, well-marked hiking trail through the foothills of Mount Cook. It leads up the Hooker Valley and along the Hooker River. This was arguably the most accessible and enjoyable walk we took on our trip. I found myself reaching for my camera every ten steps.
Continuing south, we made the mandatory stop at Cardrona Hotel, one of the country’s oldest and most iconic landmarks. Dating back to the Otago goldrush, the building represents the now dormant town of Cardrona and is an important piece of New Zealand’s history. We visited at lunch time and gobbled up some routine but delicious bar food from a picnic table behind the in-house restaurant. If you’re in the area, this gem should not be missed.
We spent the next four nights at an Airbnb near the center of Queenstown. As the self-proclaimed adventure tourism capital of the world, I describe Queenstown as a blend of Banff (Canada), Interlaken (Switzerland) and Harbor Springs (Michigan, USA), all of which are individually among my favorite places in the world to visit.
We took advantage of the perfect summer weather in a number of ways, most notably with a paragliding trip over the area. We booked through Everything Travel Group for NZ$209/person, which included the paragliding experience plus a one-way gondola trip. As if the surrounding landscape wasn’t gorgeous enough, we had to view it from a free-flying glider high above Lake Wakatipu. What a memory.
A trip to New Zealand would be incomplete without a visit to the world-famous Milford Sound. As the crow flies, the Fjordland spectacle is only about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Queenstown. However, traveling by land requires a circuitous route via Kingston and Te Anau. The four-hour drive each way makes for a relatively aggressive day trip but is doable and allows for maintaining an accommodation in Queenstown. Milford Sound’s razor-sharp cliffs are the work of over 100 million years of ruthless glacial erosion. When cruising the bay, the fjord walls dwarf everything in sight leaving visitors with an unparalleled feeling of insignificance. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the clearest weather, but that made for a different type of beauty. In Maori, the name for New Zealand is ‘Aotearoa,’ which means ‘land of the long white cloud.’ I’m happy to report that we experienced this cloud for several hours that day. Despite the rain, it’s obvious why many of the most well-traveled and credible adventurers routinely rank Milford Sound as the world’s most beautiful destination.
Our remaining time in Queenstown consisted of several trips up the gondola, most memorably at sunset, and at least one visit per day to Fergburger, one of the most beloved and delicious burger joints in the world (their never-ending stream of patient guests is proof). Damn those things are good.
Flying up to Auckland the following day brought our road trip to an end. It was December 31, which meant big plans were in place for being among the first people on earth to ring in 2015. I celebrated in a unique way, something I documented in my New Years 2015 post. It also includes a visit to Karekare black sand beach. Have a look!
Over the past few years I’ve come to love road trips and have been fortunate do several, the best including Morocco, Iceland, the French Riviera, Great Ocean Road and of course, this one. I would recommend renting a car (or van, etc) and exploring at your own speed, although, any way you slice it, a trip to New Zealand is sure to be nothing short of epic. I can’t wait to be back in this corner of the earth!
Have you been to New Zealand? What is your best memory?