The South Island of New Zealand
Story and photos by Wendy Koro
all watched little kids at the park. Racing from the swings to the
slide to the monkey bars, shouting, laughing, squealing with delight.
Theyve been there, what...a hundred times before? But it doesnt
matter, theyre in play mode and they are seriously all in
to have fun.
Im no kid anymore
but I still
love that feeling
the invigorating rush that comes from playing
hard outside. Whether Im walking, biking, hiking, climbing,
falling, paddling or just savoring my surroundings in between, theres
nothing more energizing than exercise and fresh air.
To me, the South
Island of New Zealand is Natures Playground for Adults
absolute favorite place to play outdoors. Famous for its breathtaking
scenery (Lord of the Rings) and offering a crazy hodgepodge
of diverse environments
the South Island is uniquely, amazingly
compact, easy to traverse and chock full of all kinds of outdoor athletic
fun with a capital F. I get a happy warm glow just thinking about
The South Island boasts breathtaking and diverse
Best of all, my favorite time for Kiwi
adventuresright nowis also one of the most reasonable
times to travel. Late October to mid-November is late Spring in New
Zealandthe weather is temperate, rain is spotty, crowds are
lightand flights can still be found from Los Angeles for around
$1,000 round trip.
New Zealanders on the South Island are
a friendly, hospitable lot, with enormous respect for the earth. Sustainable
and organic farming methods are the norm. Everywhere you look, you
see happy cows, happy sheep, roaming freely over impossibly green
pastures. Cold water lakes abound, the ocean surrounds, and vineyards
are prevalent. So it stands to reason and comes as no surprise that
the food and drink here is quite good. Accommodations are generally
modest, straight forward and easy to make on-line.
Suggested 10-Day Itinerary
When it rains in New Zealand,
waterfalls pop up everywhere.
Although you will undoubtedly fly in
and out of Christchurch internationally in order to obtain a good
fare, I recommend booking a same day, one-way connecting flight (one
hour, $120-$160 US) Christchurch to Queenstown in order to start your
trip with a bang. Following your 5-6 day stay in Queenstown, with
a side trip to Milford Sound, drive a rental car to depart and head
up to Franz Josef (or Fox) Glacier. Take a full day to make the beautiful
5-6 hour ride. Spend a night or two in Franz Josef scoping out the
icy hot opportunities, then prepare to experience the full effect
of the crazy, extreme variety of climates and landscapes of the South
Island as you cross over from Hokitika/Greymouth to Christchurch.
Whether you choose to keep the rental car and make the easy, gorgeous
half-day drive yourself
or take the historic but considerably
more expensive Trans
Alpine train across, the ride from coast to coast is unforgettable.
I did it by car in the pouring rain and never saw so many waterfalls
in my life. Youll travel from lush beech rainforests into the
stunning-capped Southern Alps, then along spectacular gorges and valleys
by the Waimakariri River and finally through the rolling fields and
farmlands of Canterbury Plains, ending your trip with a few relaxing
days in Christchurch. There are many more destinations on the South
Island well-worth visiting if you have additional time, but this is
a great first trip.
The undeniable hub of the South Island
playground is Queenstown,
anonymously dubbed the "Adventure Capital of the World."
Located about three-quarters of the way down the island in the Southern
Alps, Queenstown started out as a goldmining camp in the 1860s and
still feels rugged and real, despite periodic swells of visitors which
quadruple its ranks. Surrounded by the majestic Remarkables
mountain range and situated on the banks of beautiful Lake
Wakatipu, Queenstown is actually a small village, picturesque
and very compact. You can walk the length of the town proper in 20
minutes and easily obtain shuttle service to surrounding recreational
businesses. "Downtown" is all of a four blocks square, a
lively mix of shops, bars, sophisticated dining and simple outdoor
cafes. It feels like a college town; there's a youthful energy and
excitement underscoring the laid back informality of the Alpine setting.
There's even a small casino.
Of the 160-odd licensed bars and restaurants,
I've sampled quite a few. One of my favorite places is Fishbone
Bar & Grill, a lively joint with fun, "fishy" artifacts
all over the wall. They have a nice selection of fresh locally caught
seafood, yummy Marlborough Green-lip mussels, and a damn good daily
chowder, all skillfully executed. There are a few "not so fishy"
options, but mostly the food and energy at Fishbone is just swimmingly
good. Another spot worth a visit is The
Cow, a most curious little stone restaurant originally built in
1860 as a milking shed. Nothing about the place fits the Italian menu
(the food included)... but the cozy ambiance, teeny bar and ancient
fireplace make this a unique step back in time. Get thee to The Cow
for homemade soup, bread and a glass of ale or fine wine. The locals
which offers crazily named uniquely New Zealand fast food. For icy
sophistication and a pricey drink, bring your own party to the themed
Minus 5 Ice Bar on the wharf for a unique 30 minutes, where you guessed
it, everything.the walls, furniture, even your glass.is made from
Lake Wakatipu & Queenstown from Heritage Heights
I like to stay at the very top of the
hill at Heritage Heights
Apartments, which has a magnificent unobstructed view of the lake
and town below (and doesnt appear on the published Queenstown
list of hotels). Its a short (5 minute) quad workout to walk
the seriously steep hill up from town, but itll help balance
out the great meals, keep your calves stretched and offer a few moments
of comedy for sure. Dont try it in winter or while intoxicated.
We literally had to pile out of our loaded cab so our luggage
could make it up the driveway for check-in on a dry, clear day
the views are incredible, so its well worth the exercise, and
you wont find a better deal per person if you are traveling
enfamily or with a group. Three bedroom units at Heritage Heights
are spacious with full kitchen and washer/dryer combo and the personable
owners go out of their way to please.
Lake Wakatipu is New Zealands longest
lake, 52 miles end to end, and the third largest at 180 square miles.
1,240 feet at its deepest point, Wakatipus lake floor is actually
below sea level and the water rises and falls with its own tide up
to four and a half inches every 5 minutes. The first known inhabitants
of the region, the Maori, passed down a legend explaining the rhythmic
movement of the water. A local ogre named Matau abducted a tribal
chiefs daughter and when found, was burnt to death in his sleep.
The intense heat of the tremendous fire melted the snow on the mountains
around him, which ran into the huge S-shaped hole created by the unlucky
giants incineration. However, Mataus resilient heart never
stopped beating, hence the eternal rise and fall of the water with
Right in downtown Queenstown, you can
arrange for a dizzying array of activities to satisfy every age and
any level of physical adventure. Ill try not to leave anything
(or anyone) out. While you dont have to book everything in advance
this time of year unless youre a larger party, this info will
help you plan and budget:
Tramping: By far the
most economical activity, there are literally dozens of walking
trails in and around Queenstown and along the shores of Lake Wakatipu,
ranging from 15 minute easy to 8 hour high fitness level. The world
famous Routeburn Track, a 32 km, three day walk along Mount Aspiring
and Fiordland National Park is also close by. You can walk the track
independently or as part of a guided group, but reserved shelters
fill up fast. Ultimate
Hikes holds a DOC approved concession for overnight guided walks
on the Routeburn Track and also offers specially designed guided
"day walks" that it calls Encounters for people with limited
time who still want the Great Walk experience.
Choose from the spectacular Middle Earth feel of the Kawarau River
or serious white water rapids (i.e., Jaws, the Toilet) along the
Shotover River in Skipper Canyon. Many competent companies are in
Queenstown. If you're experienced and have rented a car, equipment
alone is available, otherwise take the safe route. Ages 13+up.
Shotover River Gorge & Edith Cavell Bridge
Jumping: Take a death defying runway leap off of The Ledge,
a platform 400 meters literally straight up above Queenstown, accessible
only via the gondola... it's a wowzer! Or opt for an extensive 43
meter jump menu (wet, dry, front, back, solo, tandem) off the pretty
Kawarau Bridge. Ages 10+up. AJ
Walter Peak High Country Dining
Earnslaw Steamship to Walter Peak High Country Farm: Take
a totally passive but immensely pleasurable trip across Lake Wakatipu
on the vintage 1912 coal-fired steamship TSS Earnslaw. The vessel,
its stoic, throaty tour gent and the throwback sing-along piano
bar all contribute to a timeless, authentic voyage. Once at Walter
Peak, the Farm and buildings are a little too beautiful
the sheepherding/shearing demonstrations are mesmerizing and an
absolute delight. The brilliant dogs are a crack up and steal the
showwho knew sheep were so stupid!?
Who U calling stupid?
Skydiving: Terminal velocity is not my thing... but
if you're looking to step out at 15,000 feet into thin air,
you probably couldn't pick a more spectacular vista to enjoy
on your way down.
Boat Rides: Amusement park style thrills but for a
much longer duration (35-40 minutes) and in shallow (less
than 10cm.) water on the Shotover River. One company couples
an hour long wild 4x4 ride on the edge of old mining roads
just to access the upper river in rugged Skipper Canyon, which
makes it a stand-out from the rest. But if you want a quick
simple bus ride to and from, try Shotover
Tasting & Garden Tours: Daily wine tours of two, three
or four wineries in small groups of about 20 or as private tour.
Leaves from The Station building downtown. Mix and match with
spa experience, jet boat, helicopter, etc. etc. They also offer
several private home garden tours which is a nice intimate way
to meet some locals.
Sound Coach/Cruise/Fly: The scenery driving down into the
sound is impressive and offers many famous photo ops such as the
Homer Tunnel and Mirror Lakes.
Mirror Lakes, enroute to Milford Sound
But the aerial view between Queenstown
and Milford offers such an awe-inspiring perspective that I say absolutely,
you must fly one-way, preferably back. Unfortunately this means taking
a comfortable but impersonal coach ride down with a few herd-like
pit stops enroute, as theres no practical way to rent/drive
a car only one way. I found the incomparable views from the air even
more satisfying than from the water in the sound
Aerial views with Milford Sightseeing are magnificent
throughout the ride back to Queenstown.
Franz Josef Glacier Valley
The main attraction here obviously is
Josef Glacier Valley, the most spectacular glacier environment
open to the public anywhere. See it your way (one or two nights max)
and move on. Depending on the weather and your comfort level at negotiating
the trails, there are ways to get in close on your own two feet. For
guided tours visit Franz
Josef Glacier Guides and for helicopter packages, there's Glacier
Helicopters. I stayed in Franz Josef at the Punga Grove Motel
which is satisfactory; the location is smack dab in the town "center"
and around the corner from The Landing, a busy, warm, happening Speight's
pub with some of the best food in town.
To get to the Glacier from Franz Josef
township, drive south over the Waiho River bridge. Turn left after
the bridge onto the Franz Josef Glacier Access Road (unpaved). Most
of the walking tracks are accessed from the car-park at the end of
this 4km road. Be sure to dress sensibly, wear sturdy footwear and
prepare for sudden weather changes. A cold down-draft off the glacier
is normal in the valley, and rainstorms can catch you by surprise.
River levels and water channels change rapidly. Ice collapse and rock
falls can occur at any time. Barriers and warning signs limiting access
are there for your safety; respect them. There are good flush toilets
provided at the car-park entrance but there are none further up... and
no rubbish bins... so plan ahead!
Tracks and Walks
There are a number of short and longer
walks within the glacier valley. As mentioned earlier, commercial
guides are available who are happy to share further invaluable information.
Beginners beware if you go it alone, as the basic trail descriptions
are hardly a complete or accurate portrayal of the level of difficulty
hikers may encounter at some point on a route. For instance, one section
of Robert's Track is an intimidating sheer drop on both sides
but "requiring good fitness" hardly speaks to this challenge.
The Garden City
Christchurch Botanical Gardens
is known as the most English city outside of England. It has beautiful
Botanical Gardens and charming European architecture. Weeping Willows
frame the duck-filled canals of the Avon River which meander through
the very center of the city. Although it is the largest city on the
South Island, it feels small and compact, yet has a sophisticated
vibrant character. Getting around Christchurch is effortless; all
the key attractions are within easy walking distance of the city center.
I stayed at the Copthorne Central, an older mid-range hotel with rather
tired but spacious rooms and an excellent location in the heart of
the city overlooking Victoria Square. Theres also a convenient
watering hole (pub) just a few doors down.
Gotta love this gigantic "Elephant's Foot."
Take your time at the impressive Botanical
Gardens; theyre larger and more comprehensive than you might
having been around since 1863! Dont miss the collection
of trees and in particular the colossus that looks exactly like an
elephants foot. Afterwards swing by the Curators
House on Rolleston Avenue, a restaurant housed in what used to
be his abode in 1920. Serving New Zealand specialties but with a Spanish
thrust, the Curator grows its own garden and teaches the use of its
produce to create cuisine. Lately its getting mixed reviews,
so check out the architecture first, menu second and let me know how
it was if you eat there.
Another must-do activity adjacent to
the Botanical Gardens is Punting
on the Avon. Start your lazy ride at the historic Antigua Boat
Sheds for the most authentic experience, then relax and enjoy.
Go punting on the gentle Avon
Yet another way to get a moving perspective
of the city is via the beautifully restored Heritage
Tram on its 2.5 km central city route. The tram stops outside
the Arts Centre and gives a good view of New Regent Street architecture;
its two-story buildings with balconies remind me of New Orleans.
Zealand Cup and Show Week is upcoming, in case November 6
13, 2010 works for you. This festival is a high energy, eclectic mix
of galloping and trotting, racing, agricultural competitions, fashion,
food & entertainment.
Centre of Contemporary Art on Gloucester, Christchurch
Art Gallery (Te Puna o Waiwhetu) at the corner of Worcester &
Montreal and The
Arts Centre on Worcester Blvd. showcase the city's superb
range of art. There are also about 60 private art galleries.
The restaurant and cafe scene in Christchurch
is one of great variety and there are small clusters of eateries
in several different areas. Here are a few locations:
The Strip, Oxford Terrace: The
Strip is the area alongside the Avon between Hereford Street and Cashel
Mall. Tables line the specially enlarged sidewalk so that the road
in front is only one lane. The restaurants form a continuous line
and you can wander past, look at their menus and decide on the one
that interests you. Most offer the option to dine outdoors. Later
in the evening many of these restaurants become nightclubs with live
Manchester Street running parallel
to Colombo St. is home to less conservative nightlife. Bars open late
and there is an excellent range of inexpensive restaurants.
Worcester Blvd. in the Arts Precinct
is an area known for Canterbury cuisine and classic New Zealand specialties.
Gloucester Street links with Cathedral
Square where there are a number of mixed ethnicity, modestly priced
New Regent Street between Armagh St.
and Gloucester St. is an attractive area of 1930's style Spanish
Mission decor with many small cafes and restaurants.
You may want to try:
del Marinaio Seafood Restaurant. It's in a strange location, upstairs
above the Shades Arcade (108 Hereford St) but the Palazzo is one of
the only Italian restaurants in Christchurch and offers a pleasantly
surprising dining experience. In addition to typical Italian specialties,
New Zealand crayfish and seafood is featured. The ambiance is comfortable
with a hint of elegance and the background music is opera and jazz.
A study in contradictions, but enjoyable just the same.
As you prepare to leave Christchurch,
plan on visiting the International
Antarctic Center, adjacent to the International Airport. Twice
voted the best visitor attraction in New Zealand (!), the Antarctic
Center includes an unforgettable interactive experience for all age-groups.
Arrive a couple hours early and check it out!
Note: Christchurch was hit by a magnitude
7.1 earthquake in early September and did suffer extensive damage
to some of its older buildings and in areas of sandy soil. However,
most of the city is fully functioning and "98%" of businesses
are back to normal. Christchurch welcomes your visit!