New Zealand diaries (Part II) – South Island.
Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud! Driving through New Zealand is like living a dream, like being in heaven. Breathtaking paysages, always changing, always beautiful. Omnipresent nature, chilled and friendly people, relaxed atmosphere…
You drive, you spot a sign for a wine tasting and you stop. You drink wine, talk to the people and they indicate to you a cheese farm nearby, then you drive there, taste and buy cheeses, talk to the cheese-people, who then tell you about the guy with the olives, who then tells you about the guy with the honey…and so on…
That’s how we spent 3 beautiful weeks driving around New Zealand’s South Island (and 3 more when we returned a year later for the wedding of my now-ex-sister-in-law).
Both times it was March & April, basically European September. End of summer, nice, mild weather. Depending on the elevation, t-shirt & jumper combo was just fine. A perfect ‘Indian Summer’ in a perfect scenery! With green colors in bushes and yellow leaves along the roads. Tasteful pumpkin decoration, white fences, fluffy sheep and happy-looking cows. Even if we were not in the middle of a natural spectacle, just driving on a ‘normal’ road was like driving through a countryside scene out of a romantic book. Beautiful. Everything there was beautiful (as already described in my article about North Island).
Road trip in chilled style
At this stage of our lives we took a break from our careers and hit the road. We were in love, we had time and the road was our friend. We just went with the flow.
Having a rough plan in our heads, with specific stops along the way (tourist attractions, recommended places, towns to visit friends) but being pretty much free to plan as we went. Best traveling style ever. In this concept lay the true magic of this trip!
We just drove, studied the map and watched the signs along the road and when we thought something was worth stopping (everything was), we did. Super chilled ! We met charismatic people, old hippies, musicians, artists. Everyone seemed to be our ‘mate’, everyone was happy to chat. I loved the vibe!
I watched people bungee jump from breathtaking spots (I was tempted to jump myself but then the control freak in me took upper hand). We were paragliding in Queenstown, dipped our bums in hot springs and natural spas, watched penguins and baby seals in their natural habitat. I visited my first (old) goldmine villages with western-movie charm, saw massive mystic boulders on the beach of Moeraki and magical Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki.
The food was great, we drank good wine, slept like kings and had tons and tons of magical moments watching sunsets over the best possible landscapes in the world!
Food and accommodation – no need for five stars
There was no need for Michelin restaurants and 5 star hotels. Everything in New Zealand had my 5 star rating! The food is fresh and authentic and the accommodations are situated in heavenly sceneries at the feet of Mother Nature!
We stopped at vineyards for lunch or wine tasting and we visited farmers markets. I absolutely loved chatting with locals about their products, tasting them and buying tons of cheeses, olives, hams and pies for our picnics at the most beautiful spots on earth. We ate in cute outdoor cafés with all kinds of animals running freely and happily around. On a sheep farm I once befriended a black sheep, LOL.
I remember eating a lot of fish, seafood, lamb and blue cheese. And drinking a lot of local wine. Marlborough wines I liked the most. Powerful Reds and fruity, light Whites. With good cheese – Bea’s personal heaven!
To sleep we chose beautiful lodges or tiny hotels with charm. Every accommodation in New Zealand is basically a kind of agroturismo. Small towns with small private bed & breakfasts. All in beautiful scenery, with a private beach or mountain range as a backyard. Often with an outdoor whirlpool. Outside of the season, the rooms were a bargain and we had it all to ourselves (except for that one time where, in an empty lodge, on a low populated Westcoast I met the father of a friend from my German hometown! Crazy!).
The stages of our South Island road trip
East coast (driving down)
Our Interislander coming from North Island boarded in Picton. From there we took the east coast road diving south. Our first overnight stop was Kaikoura. The town is well known for whale watching. Which we didn’t do, due to weather conditions. But we ate crayfish – another thing to do in town. The area is famous for its eco-friendly activities, marine wildlife and seafood.
Then we went inland to visit Hanmer Springs – a cute small town with a thermal & spa aspect. We pampered ourselves in a luxurious day spa with pools, sauna, steam rooms and massages. There are 22 outdoor thermal pools in Hanmer Springs, all with cascades, relaxing rock pools and soothing sulphur pools. All with different ranges of healing characteristics and temperatures (and odours). I loved this town with its cute cafés and restaurants. Here I discovered Fudge (The Fudge Shop) and ate my best lamb in New Zealand (No. 31).
Christchurch – Third biggest city after Auckland and Wellington. I liked the hipster feeling of the ‘container-city’ – a part of the city center built from shipping containers: shops, cafés, restaurants, offices. The idea of the projects had more pragmatic aspects rather than artsy. Christchurch suffered a series of earthquakes between 2010 and 2012, with the major one in 2011, killing 185 people and demolishing the city. Thousands of buildings across the city collapsed or suffered severe damage. On my trip in 2015 there were still ongoing recovery and rebuilding projects. I felt compassion and sympathy walking through this demolished city and I liked the creativity and determination that usually comes after a disaster. Like Phoenix from the ashes arose this cool shopping project called ‘ReStart’ which was trendy and popular among locals and tourists. I heard it was closed in 2018. Shame.
Further down the South
Moeraki Boulders – lying along a stretch of Koekohe Beach on the wave-cut Otago, there are large and spherical mystic boulders, exhumed by coastal erosion. Fennomenal nature spectacle! A must-see!
Food tip in the area: Fleur’s Place. The seafood restaurant that UK celebrity chef Rick Stein flew to the other side of the world for! A beautifully located, rustic restaurant serving yummy local fish in a waterside setting. You can chat with charismatic chef Fleur Sullivan and watch fishermen at work, outside of the restaurant. I loved it!
Dunedin – the city is called ‘Edinburgh of New Zealand’ and it’s known for its rich Scottish and Maori heritage. It’s a student city with a quirky character. I liked the atmosphere and the Victorian and Edwardian architecture. After visiting friends in town, we set off to discover the surroundings, known for its wildlife. There are lovely hiking trails along the Otago Peninsula, home to colonies of albatross, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins.
West Coast (driving up)
After Dunedin we started crossing over to the West Coast. Passing trough Gibbson Valley, known for its many vineyards, of course we stoppend at the Gibbson Valley Winery for a lovely lunch. But because we arrived too early for a (wine) lunch, we started exploring the area. Going for a walk, we discovered an amazing place with people jumping from an old bridge.
Kawaru Gorge & Suspension Bridge: If you are a bungee jumping adrenaline seeker, this is the place to be! We passed accidentally by this epic spot. We saw a café and people jumping, so we stopped to watch. This place was so breathtaking that for a brief moment I was tempted to jump myself (there are not many things in life to which I say ‘never’ but bungee is definitely one of them), because I thought IF I would ever do it, this is the time and place… And it’s only now, six years later, that I am realizing – while writing this article and doing research – that this historic 10-story bridge built in 1880 is the actual birthplace of bungee jumping! And it was the only one in my life that I saw. Purely by coincidence! OMG !!!!
Queenstown: A lovely, touristy yet not crowded lake town, surrounded by mountains. I liked it very much. We did paragliding, ate great burgers and walked around the lake. Great atmosphere. You should plan two days here.
Driving up north via Cardrona Valley (with the charismatic old Cardrona Hotel, established in 1863 during the gold rush era) we spent some time at the Wanaka Lake. Passing then through Haast to Franz Josef Glacier. Here we took a nice cabin at a lovely nature campsite and spent our time hiking around the area. Then driving further north via Ross and Hokitika – cute, small gold-mining towns.
The Beacon – ‘our Lodge’
Around the Westport & Greymouth area, we visited the beautifully nature formed Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, befriended a sea lions colony, took amazing shots of the rough and dramatic coastline and stayed in a magical place – an eco lodge (The Beacon) in the middle of nowhere, run by a lovely edler couple. We loved it there! There was magic in the air and… the couple told us, they aim to sell the lodge in order to travel the world. We got so excited that if we had the money, we would have bought it straight away. It was truly magic. An overwhelming feeling, like coming home.
We came back a year later (it was my birthday) to see if that magical place has the same effect on us. The nice couple was traveling, but they left us the keys to the lodge and their house. We spent two days there. The magic still worked. A year later our relationship was over and we never bought the place BUT it’s going to stay in my heart forever. One day I will return to this lodge! In my head it’s mine : )
The North of the South
We finished our South Island experience in Nelson – the oldest city in South Island. Again, for me it had a bit of a San Francisco feeling. Nelson is known for its local arts and crafts scene and for the annual Nelson Arts Festival. It has lovely parks, cute cafés and the famous Jens Hansen jewelry shop (just next door to our hotel). Hansen was the creator of the famous ring from ‘Lord of the Rings’. I met his grandson and ordered a pair of rings from him. I found it a lovely anniversary present (and I’m not even a Tolkien fan). My ring is now sleeping at the bottom of my jewelry box, just like Sleeping Beauty… Em Golom’s ring, I mean ; )
Tasman Abel National Park
We returned a year later to Kiwi-land and of course we traveled more. We revisited some of the places and discovered a few new areas, like the Tasman Abel National Park.
Tucked in between Tasman Bay and Golden Bay lies New Zealand’s smallest national park and a beautiful wilderness reserve – Abel Tasman. My three words for this area are: Amazing, amazing and amazing.
It’s world famous for its coastal walking track – the Abel Tasman Coast Track – a long trail winding over golden sandy beaches and across ridges. From Marahau in the south and Wainui in the north we enjoyed amazing views, reaching our highlight at Separation Point, home to New Zealand seal colonies. It was breathtaking, standing at one of the most beautiful beaches, watching the sunset and observing seal babies taking a bath just a few meters from you. Magical!
The whole area offers so many beautiful spots: Gibbs Hill, Whariwharangi, Taupo Bay, Wainui Bay & Falls, The Grove Scenic Reserve, Pupu Hydro Walk & Waikoropupu Springs just to name a few. At the Tonga Island Marine Reserve you can ‘meet’ little blue penguins and bottlenose dolphins. There are lovely inland trails, ridge- and wood tracks.
Wrapping up – final words on my New Zealand trip(s)
I’m a well traveled person. I visited half of the globe. Working in the tourism industry I enjoyed luxury hotels, stayed on beautiful beaches and saw all kind of ‘wonders’. Being European I’m used to historical landmarks and rich cultural heritage. But the New Zealand experience was like a cherry on a cake. Like the icing. It topped my expectations. It left me impressed, overwhelmed, happy and grateful. This country’s natural spectacle offered me unforgettable impressions that will stay with me forever !
I never went further south of Queensland. We didn’t manage to go down to the Fiordland. Now, years later, it all seems like a distant, beautiful dream. One day I’ll return to discover the rest of South Island, best place on earth. Especially the West Coast. So mystic and dominated by nature. Not many people live there and it seems that everyone knows each other.
To finish this article, a small story: John, our rafting guide told us one day to go for a pie from this particular place. At about 100 km drive we entered the indicated shop. A warmhearted Maori lady with emblematic tattoos served us heavenly smelling, hot, juicy pies. When we passed on the guy’s greetings, she knowingly replied ‘ah Joh, what a sweetheart’. Seriously?! 100 km down the road John is ‘the guy from next door’!? Super cool! That’s New Zealand !