We arrived in Picton, the main port on the South Island, and it’s safe to say there’s really nothing much to do in the town itself. The highlight included homemade scones for breakfast in our hostel which, not to take anything away from the scones, should say it all. Before leaving, we did a small trek of Marlborough Sounds, walking down “The Snout” to Charlotte’s View Lookout, but an ill-judged heavy rucksack and slippery shoes on the muddy tracks made for a grumpy Steve. Hat enjoyed it much more!
If Marlborough sounds familiar to you, it’s because it’s the famous wine region in New Zealand – especially known for it’s Sauvignon Blanc (our favourite wine)! After waving goodbye to boring Picton, we headed on to Renwick, in the Marlborough wine district. It’s a pretty small town but it was the perfect base to explore the surrounding vineyards by bike. Map-in-hand, and after marking a selection of wineries we were interested in (we guessed by how good their names sounded mostly…) we left the town and only after 10 minutes we had reached our first destination – Cloudy Bay.
This place was really set up for wine touring – for just $5 we got to try two of their wines (one red, one white) and relax in their stunning garden. Hat actually doesn’t really like red wine, and after letting the bar know, she ended up on a bit of a taste test of a further 3 white wines! She failed miserably (we really don’t know about wines, we were just opportunists here) but we got to try loads of wine for free 🙂
The next two wineries we went to were Forrest and Whitehaven, and these ones were completely free! We got to try between 2-4 wines at each place, mostly Sauvignon Blanc but also some Reisling which we’d never had before. We found out we absolutely loved the Doctors Reisling at Forrest, and although we didn’t buy any at the time, we will definitely try and find some back in the UK! We also bought some homemade fudge from the Whitehaven winery, which to this day (4 months after leaving NZ) we have no idea where it is (I’m not looking forward to finding it now…). Our last stop, after a noticeably more wobbly ride, was the No1 Family Estate, where they specialised in sparkling wine. Surely thinking it couldn’t be free, we approached knowing we were slightly out of our comfort zone going in to such a nice winery, but were completely surprised when we were presented with 3 free full glasses of lovely expensive bubbles! The woman there just wanted to chat, so we were happy to offer very slightly inebriated discussions in exchange. I should probably mention that this whole wine experience was one of the best things we’ve done throughout travelling – cycling through the beautiful vineyards on wide open roads and stopping for chats and wine cannot really be beaten.
Next stop – Kaikoura. This was on our list from the start of our trip because of the huge variety of wildlife; most notably, SEALS! I absolutely fell in love with these playful, fat, furry fish. I didn’t know what to expect when we were heading towards our first seal colony (Kean Seal Colony); maybe that they’d be quite far in the distance, and pretty static, but as we approached I noticed something on the walkway right in front of us. Dismissing it as a dog at first, we got right up to it before realising that it was in fact a seal blocking our path and one of us was going to have to move! It was the first of many seals we saw just chilling out – one more playful seal obliged us by posing for a photo 🙂
Still beaming from our experience up close with the seals, we walked along the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway which was stunning. Apparently there was a fairly big earthquake while we were up walking on the headlands (it made Sky News) but we didn’t feel it.
On our second day in Kaikoura, we booked on to an early morning whale watching tour, which was a bit of an experience. Realising that we actually do get affected by sea sickness (who knew?), we ended up seeing no whales and feeling really very grim! It wasn’t all bad though – we saw dusky dolphins (we had only seen bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands), 2 sharks, seals and albatross, and we got 80% of our money back for not seeing whales!
Before leaving town, we headed to Ohau waterfall as we had got a tip off that we could see loads of seal pups. We weren’t disappointed – they were everywhere and incredibly playful!
Leaving Kaikoura, next we headed inland to Hamner Springs, famous for a complex of 36 to 42 degree thermal pools and some sulphur pools. By the evening we were completely relaxed, but in the evening the devastating news of the Nepal earthquake started coming in, which kept us up most of the night.
Making our way further south, we ventured on to Christchurch, which used to be one of the busiest cities in the South Island, but hasn’t recovered after two big earthquakes. Lots of the city was still boarded up and there was a noticeable lack of people (a lot of the population have moved out to the suburbs since the earthquake). Maybe the city was particularly quiet because it was Anzac weekend, but it felt very odd to us walking around in what felt like a ghost town.
On to the Victorian Precinct of Oamaru, which was actually very Victorian with cobbled streets lined with arty factories and a random penny farthing in the street.
But we weren’t really Oamaru for the town – we’d heard this was a good place to spot penguins! In the evening, we tried to see Yellow-Eyed Penguins on Bushy Beach but had no luck. Knowing we would at least be more successful, we then went to see the Blue Penguin Colony, in an auditorium-type complex set up on the beach. It was a bit of a weird and manufactured experience, but we got to see tiny blue penguins make their way home in groups (rafts) from the sea. Seeing them run and fall over was incredibly cute, and the added atmosphere of Chinese people being told off every other second for trying to take photos (which weren’t allowed) added to the amusement of the whole experience. On the way to Dunedin, our next stop, we stopped to see the Moeraki Boulders, which were pretty cool rocks in the sea. But they were just rocks in the sea, mind.
Dunedin promised more penguins (the Yellow-Eyed variety we missed in the last place), so we spent most of the day exploring the Otago Penisula.
The highlight was Penguin Place – a series of hides and walkways were we could observe the penguins come home from the sea. Unlike the Blue Penguins, the Yellow-Eyed Penguins are fairly solitary so they arrived home in ones or twos. We saw about 6-8 Penguins arrive home either alone or in pairs from the sea, and then one walked in front of the hide we were looking from! It took a while but it was the best moment!
We also saw a penguin walking down the road earlier, but loads of cameras almost got rudely in my way of the perfect shot.
Next on the itinerary was Wanaka, which we were only really going to for Stuart Landsdowns Puzzling World (recommended by a friend as the “most fun in one day”). We loved this place though – we walked around it’s lovely huge lake while the sun was shining for a good 2 hours. Puzzling World itself was great, and we got lost in the ‘supermaze’ for a good hour and a half. Hat won’t admit it but she loved it too I’m sure. The evening was indulgent, with a homemade pasta cheese sauce (Hat was beaming) and we went to Paradiso Cinema to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – along with freshly baked cookies at the half-time intermission.
The next day was all about getting to Te Anau, to base ourselves for Milford Sound the following day. On our way, we stopped off in Queenstown briefly – mainly for lunch at the ‘world famous’ Fergburger (which was huge, messy and delicious). In Te Anau for the night, we were staying in a remote hostel on a hill, which could have been a scene for a horror movie (weird cow sounds all night, walking from the main house to our lodge in the pitch black, etc).
We got up early and bid our creepy hostel farewell to begin the drive to Milford Sound. The drive was absolutely amazing! So many cool things to see on the way, including the Mirror Lake which, as the name suggests, mirrored the beautiful scenery in the water.
Kea Parrots kept harrassing us at stops, and they nearly got into the car at one point to steal our stuff. They held Hat hostage at one point, which was more than amusing.
When we arrived at the Sound (Ffiord, really), we went on a cruise, which although beautiful, didn’t really match the amazing drive we’d just done (I think I enjoyed the driving more than Hats…).
We drove back to Queenstown the same day to enjoy the evening – I ended up getting two HUGE chinese-inspired pizzas as they mixed up my first order (they thought Hat and I were both vegetarian) and I took Hat out on the town for a few drinks. It was lovely to unwind 🙂
It was now time to really accelerate up the west coast, as we had little time before we needed to be back in Auckland for our flight to Australia. We had a few sights to get to on the way though, including two glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef. We drove to Fox Glacier through the Haast Pass which was beautiful, and as we were approaching Fox, we got amazing views of Mt. Cook (tallest peak in Australasia as we found out later). We did the Fox Glacier walk which unfortunately we were a little underwhelmed by (probably should have done the helicopter ride but it was so expensive!). The next day though, after a tip from our hostel (and a notable omission by the Lonely Planet – our trust in it declined after this point…) we went to Lake Matheson and we’re so glad we did as the views were amazing! Mt. Cook and Fox Glacier were perfectly reflected in the lake and the day was so clear and sunny that it was probably one of the best collection of views we saw all throughout New Zealand (and that’s saying a lot).
We were much more impressed with the second glacier, Franz Josef, than Fox when we did the walk to the glacier face – it seemed larger, but maybe because we had better weather conditions.
We decided to stop for the night at Punakaiki because (1) it was on the way, and (2) it had pancake rocks (in that order of priority really).
Our last notable stop on the way up the coast was Abel Tasmin, but by the time we arrived we missed taking out kayaks (which I really wanted to do!). Instead we took a taxi boat service from Marahau to Anchorage and then we did the 13km walk back (3 hours!). The walk was exhausting and I think we were a little run down by this point. For the evening, we stopped in Nelson, where we had a delicious Indian meal (our first since India).
After doing the ferry crossing from Picton back to Wellington in the North Island, we then drove to Whanganui where we stayed the night. The next day we drove all the way back to Auckland, and after quite a panic about our flight the next day which turned out to be much earlier than we had remembered, and returning our car out of hours, we got a Domino’s pizza and everything worked out fine. We were sad to leave New Zealand, but excited to be Melbourne bound!