Thursday, January 4, 2018

New Zealand, Days 9 & 10 - Queenstown

Queenstown--our major goal on the South Island. We pushed ourselves hard in order to have plenty of time to explore this well-known destination for thrill-seekers and the adorable mountain town did not disappoint!

We woke up on our 9th morning to frost on the windshield and ice on the roads. The motorway was so sketchy that we passed an overturned campervan that had slid on an icy patch. So we were very careful to take it easy and enjoy the views, because of course--the drive was gorgeous.

It got super foggy as we were driving into the Cromwell area. We decided to make a pit stop at Wild Earth for coffee and a peek at the canyon. There we spotted a jet boat zooming over the river. We already had plans to try this at our destination so it was fun to get a glimpse of our upcoming adventure.

We continued on our route through Arrowtown and stopped over at the Shotover Jet--a thrill ride that had come highly recommended by our friends. Originally, the plan was for just Jon and the boys to ride but (while wearing rain boots and her monkey hat) Joci just barely made the height requirement. So we made a snap decision to include the whole family.

I'm so glad we did because (a) it was super-duper fun, in fact, all the kids will tell you this was the absolute highlight of their vacation and (b) this ended up being our Christmas family photo.

I had no idea what we were getting into. Fast boat. Cold river. It sounded pretty straightforward to me. I didn't know what the big fuss was about. But it's actually a really crazy fast boat (up to 90km/h) that can travel over incredibly shallow water (5-6 cm.) And then you have the additional thrill of skimming past jagged rocks and roaring through narrow canyons, with a few 360s thrown in for good measure. It was rrrreeeeeaaallllyyy cold (for us Hawaiians), like 40 degrees, plus you have the wind and water spray to contend with. But Joci's smile through it all was just the very best--even if it was completely frozen on her face!

We hung out in the gift shop for a few extra minutes to get warmed up and then it was back in the campervan to continue on into Queenstown--a quaint little town built on the side of the mountains overlooking a lake. And the views? Well, they were remarkable. I mean, they were of "The Remarkables," a seriously impressive chain of snow-capped mountains. Queenstown was bustling, thanks in part to its plethora of ski resorts and winter activities. It was the busiest area we had visited outside of Auckland.

There's a second luge here that the kids had requested we visit but we couldn't find a place to park. Thankfully, there is a holiday park called Lakeview Park just down the road. We got a camping spot for the night that overlooked the lake and was a short walk to both downtown or the gondola up the mountain.

This luge was much busier than the last one and for some reason the kids had a harder time. It was still fun though and it wasn't raining so we got some great photos at the top! And of course, we all enjoyed warming up with hot beverages at the mountaintop coffee shop.

That evening we walked downtown to the waterfront to book our tickets for an activity the next day. There we listened to a man playing guitar and singing a duet with his dog before heading over to the famous Fergburger for dinner. Unfortunately, the line was way too long for a hungry family of 6. So we stepped in to London Pizza next door instead. And we actually really enjoyed it! Jude said it was his favorite meal of the trip!

The next morning we had a scheduled cruise onboard the TSS Earnslaw to Walter Peak Station--a working sheep farm. As much as we wanted to attempt Milford Sound, it was a very cloudy day and it would have meant more traveling and less time to get back to the airport later that week. So we cut off that portion of our trip. It may be one of our biggest regrets, but we have no way of knowing if we could have made it work!

The Earnslaw is an old steamboat that cruises the lake. It's very large with lots of areas to explore. There's also a full-service bar and coffee shop area as well as a piano with live entertainment! It was a clear yet cold day on the lake as we traveled to Walter Peak. Once we disembarked, we visited the barn where we watched sheep shearing and herding. We even got to take home some wool! (Although I have no idea what to do with it.)

Afterwards was morning tea, which I (no surprise here) thoroughly enjoyed. The scones were amazing! I asked for the recipe, but it turns out it's in metric measurement and meant to feed a very large crowd. Someday I'll attempt to replicate! The tea room was darling and our family got prime seats overlooking the garden.

From there, we got to feed and pet the shop, alpaca, cows, and deer. As well as score a few photos for the memory book. We made a quick stop at the gift shop for some junky souvenirs for the kids--Joci got a plastic toy that moos (and continues to moo to this day) and Jack got a splat ball that he promptly through against the steamboat window that he immediately discovered was not actually closed. So he got to enjoy his gift for all of 5 minutes. :(

On the way back they passed out music and all of us on the lower deck had a sing-a-long with the pianist. It was getting late in Queenstown and the sun sets early. Although our original plan was to spend two days there, we decided that since we were no longer planning to travel any further south, we might as well get a hard start on our trip back north.

So we drove to Cromwell, the next town over, and booked a campsite at the Top 10 there. Unfortunately, we discovered too late that their spa was closed. (Because as you know by this point, hot tubs are a driving force in our decision making.) We found out about a "aquatic center" in town--picture something like a YMCA that doesn't requirement a membership. So we ended up getting unlimited pool and hot tub time for $15 for the entire family. It was a nice break but awkwardly local. I'm quite certain we were the only non-Cromwell residents there, let alone the only non-New Zealand residents. The kids didn't mind and the hot tub was certainly a welcoming sight after 10 days of traveling.

There wasn't much to do or see in Cromwell other than vineyards and fruit farms. Oh, and bungee jumping! But that wasn't something we were looking to attempt this trip. So we called it a night after dinner and a movie--pre-made tortellini and another beloved En Zed cucumber before watching "Big Hero 6."

The next morning we'd start our long trek back to Christchurch. We were all getting a little worn out by this point in our adventure but there was still plenty to see and do before we could return to our tropical home!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New Zealand, Day 8 - Lake Tekapo and Clay Cliffs

It was raining when we woke up in Christchurch (notice a theme here?). I promise you it did not rain the entire time we were in New Zealand, or even most of the time. But it certainly seemed to rain a lot. We had an ambitious day of driving before us. We were trying to keep our agenda flexible, but with the plan to drive as far as possible so we could spend the bulk of our final week in Queenstown. So we left the campground first thing in the morning and drove straight through until lunch.

I didn't know what to expect. No, actually, I did know what to expect. I had read (and re-read several times) Tsh Oxenreider's blog post on the South Island, as well as the NZ chapter in her book At Home in the World. I thought I knew what we'd see, but instead, it was just straight roads through farmland and pastures as far as the eye could see. Granted, that wasn't very far since it was rainy and foggy for the first hour of our travels .

After driving well out of the city and any form of civilization in general, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and THERE THEY WERE! The mountains. The superbly majestic, perfectly snow-capped, mountains of New Zealand. That's what we were looking for!

It was crazy. They were all around us. Just when I thought we had surely taken a wrong turn and would be driving straight into snowy peaks, the road would bend and the mountains would suddenly be beside us, then behind us, and new mountains would rise up in front. Needless to say, I have countless blurry photos of snow-capped mountains from the campervan windshield.

This was to be our longest day of driving on this trip and the kids did great. I'm sure it helped that it was the first day we figured out how to use the DVD player. We also pre-empted the winding roads with some Dramamine. Jude was on his second day of a fever (I think I forgot to mention this in my last post??), but thankfully, I had packed Tylenol for our trip knowing that he tends to get run down when we're traveling or doing a lot in a short span of time. Normally, I'd let a fever run its course, but if there's one time I'm okay with utilizing the miracle of Tylenol--it's on our "family vacation of a lifetime" on the other side of the world.

We made it to Lake Tekapo and pulled into a scenic overlook for a potty break and to make some sandwiches. Lake Tekapo is fairly well known in the tourist world and I'd read a few blogs on visiting it. We had our eye on a campground along the lake but since it was still early in the day and we were feeling good, we decided to push on through.

We did make some time to stop at The Church of the Good Shepherd. This is probably one of the top tourist stops on the South Island, but fortunately, we unintentionally timed our visit in between two tour buses. So we were able to capture some unobscured photos of the chapel as well as meander along the shoreline and teach the kids how to skip rocks. It was crisp and still, and with the mountains reflecting off the lake, it made for a stunning view. There's not a lot to do at Lake Tekapo, but there was plenty to see.

Reinvigorated from our rest stop, we continued our drive southwest--stopping every few miles for the occasional photo-op. While preparing for our trip, one of my friends' gave us the book NZ Frenzy for the South Island. There's also a volume for the North Island. These are your "off the beaten path" guides for both islands and, while they're nothing fancy to look at, I love the author's enthusiasm for adventure and appreciate his reviews and "obscuremeter" for each attraction. We didn't use the book as much as I'd have liked, since we were limited on time and easily filled our itinerary with all the "big" tourist attractions. But I did find one of his recommendations right on our way to Queenstown.

Not exactly campervan friendly but this gravel road just screams "adventure awaits!"
I assumed it was right off the main road, but what I didn't realize was you had to drive a few miles off the highway, then turn onto a gravel road and travel another 10km. It's private property, but they allow visitors and just ask that you drop a $5 donation in the box before opening the gate to drive the final stretch. Once you reach the end of the road there's a bit of walking involved as well. Jude wasn't feeling too well at this point and I think Jon wasn't as enthusiastic about the Clay Cliffs as I was, so just Jack and I made the trek.

We had a little mommy-son adventure and were both impressed by the Clay Cliffs jutting into the sky. We squeezed through a thin passage and entered "the cathedral" which was a beautiful and surreal open space surrounded by the cliffs. The sun was close to setting so we didn't stay too long (and also why my photos didn't turn out quite as dramatic as it looks in real life.) I thought it was worth the $5 and the short detour, but the experience would have been improved if Jon and the other kids had joined us and we had set aside more time for exploring.

"The Cathedral" (I feel like that word is used a lot in NZ.

There were some gorgeous views looking out from the cliffs too!
View of the Clay Cliffs from the motorway. If only you could drive straight across that pasture ...
As it was, we wanted to get to the nearest campground by dark. This was right down the road in Omarama. (I mistakenly kept pronouncing it OMA-rama--rhymes with that event in Virginia called "Homearama," but it's actually O-mara-ma.) It was another Top 10, but sadly I must admit, it was my LEAST favorite of the resorts we stayed in. There was no pool, and only one tiny playground. The kitchen and bathrooms were frigid and the lights would randomly go off if you were still for too long (or in the shower??) I also don't think it helped that the entire campground was basically empty. There was one other man staying there. I think he may have lived in a camper there. He was the epitome of "creepy guy that lives at a campground." In fact, if any of you are making a movie with a character of that description, may I recommend the man that lives at Omarama Top 10? He comes complete with long, gray beard and shifty eyes. But I digress.

One other campervan rolled in after we arrived so it wasn't TOO desolate.

Not quite what we had become accustomed to at other campgrounds.
The one thing this resort had going for it were the fabulous mountain views. Unfortunately, those same mountains also blocked the sun, which made it seem to get darker even earlier. And this may have been the coldest night during our visit to En Zed. It got down into the 20s (fahrenheit!!) For dinner, I attempted to bake a frozen lasagna in our tiny oven but after 45 minutes gave up and decided to microwave each portion individually. It actually wasn't too bad, especially with a side of garlic bread and cucumbers.

Speaking of which, we loved the cucumbers in New Zealand. Now that I'm thinking about it, we enjoyed most of the produce. After living over a year on an island where so much of our favorite produce has to be shipped in, it was nice to eat some local vegetables again! It was good we ate our fill, because our next stop was Queenstown--a region known as "the adventure capital of the world." And adventure is something our family just can't say no to!
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