WHILE THE WHOLE OF NEW ZEALAND IS A BIT OF A BLUR - a sensory overload of weaving two-lane highways cutting through ever-more-beautiful scenery - there are parts that cannot be confused. Rocky coastlines that vibrate under a colony of seals, lush rain forests cropping up suddenly, or pebbly beaches so far and wide you cannot see their end.
Jeff did some truly exemplary driving on this trip. With the traffic and cars flip-flopped, he adjusted quickly, only hopping in the wrong side of the car and meandering onto the wrong side of the road a handful of times. When I barked at him to Stop! when passing something gorgeous, he did, even on treacherous curves or inexplicably guardrailless mountain roads. We covered a lot of territory.
You might be wondering why certain places. All along the way we've had friendly/proud/excited recommendations from all over this beautiful country, though our plans were already in motion. But I use the term loosely.
A secret: We basically threw a dart at the map. We knew how much time we'd have and where our trip would start and finish. From there we just plotted out a route that would divide driving time in a civilized manner, leaving us in cute places along the way. We based most of our stops on the AirBnb's we'd fallen in love with and worked backwards to see how much time we could spend in each. That's it. Nothing more than that. We had no specific things to see, no "excursions" booked or planned - You see, whale watching is great, but we can't throw hundreds of dollars at stuff like that. As I've said before, the adventure for us is being here, discovering places and things on our own. There's something special about driving blindly through a new place, hopping off the main drag to find a perfect place to picnic. And, after all is said and done, I'm so happy we did it this way. Nobody has seen New Zealand exactly as we did, and I like that.
Just four of the varying landscapes between Picton and Kaikoura on the first leg of our South Island drive.
Some highlights of the trip, particularly Castle Hill, an outcropping of natural limestone formations in the middle of the country. Remarkable.
Arthur's Pass is one of only three roads cutting through the Southern Alps between the West Coast and Canterbury. Snow-capped mountains in the distance and beautiful plains, rain forests, and ranges. The landscape changed every 15 minutes. Truly incredible.
On the South Island we zigzagged from Picton (where the ferry dropped us) through Marlborough wine country, a quick 90 minutes to Kaikoura. Then we trekked west, inland, to the quaintest mountain town you can conjure to laze at the Hanmer Hot Springs. Then further west, across the Lewis Pass, to Hokitika, a town which appeared a bit downtrodden, like everything I've ever seen about Canada's maritime towns. Plucky, but worn out. We wandered out to Sunset Point where we crossed a few inches of icy-cold water to a notorious sand bar. During the gold rush, Hokitika was a popular port and many ships were wrecked there. Now this pebbly peninsula is the go-to for fishermen; in just a few minutes we watched half a dozen people pull 10 fifteen pound quinnat salmon from the water, oisy poizy. They gutted and cleaned them right there, before tossing their innards back to sea.
Sunset Point, the mouth of Hokitika River, where it meets the Tasman Sea. Above we chat with a gentleman who said the 6 quinnet salmon he'd caught was nothing. A slow hour.
For me, a favourite stop on the South Island was Kaikoura. On New Zealand's east coast, it's a charming town on a peninsula surrounded by mountains and water. Like towns on the North Island, it has that Truman Show aesthetic, well-manicured and lovely, safe and old-timey. From stumbling upon a colony of Southern Fur Seals to feeding horses in a field, we had a quiet couple of days in this lovely place. With a full-size house and a fridge full of great wine, we made this town our home, if only for a day or two.
A view of town from the top of the Kaikoura Peninsula. The Kaikoura Ranges beyond, which divide the Canterbury Region from the Marlborough.
Again, please follow me on Instagram for daily tidbits. I'm treating it like a mini-blog, so more stories and specifics can be read there. Stay tuned for (almost) a month in beautiful Australia.
LOCATION: Surfer's Paradise, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
DATE AND TIME: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 9:30AM Australian Eastern Standard Time/Tuesday, February 19, 2013 6:30PM EST
Some of you might be wondering what happened to the campervan idea. While planning, we discovered renting one would be quite expensive. It seemed we'd be able to rent a car and sleep in proper beds, have a kitchen, and enjoy not camping for the same price as a van. So that idea went out the window. And every time we saw a haggard couple climbing out of the back of a camper, schlepping a bucket of water, we knew we'd dodged a bullet. Because we would. have. killed each other.
Location: Kaikoura, Canterbury, New Zealand
Accommodation: The Blue Heron Bungalows ★★★★+
Incredible. Lovely, bright, with views of the ocean. A 45-second walk to the shore, where there's also a heated public pool facility on the water's edge. Suzy, a terrific lady from Oregon, runs it beautifully and was a pleasant surprise - It's not so often you stumble upon North Americans in these parts. A quick wander or a drive to the town's centre, to the seal colonies or the hills where you can view the town (and feed horses) See photos above.
Food: We ate each and every meal in the well-appointed kitchen. It was nicer than our own. Another exercise in making ourselves at home in a strange place. A large grocery store in town.
Location: Hanmer Springs, Canterbury, New Zealand
Accommodation: The Chalets ★★★★
A super-cute stand-alone one-bedroom cabin on beautiful grounds. Pat and Jock are sweet and very hands-off - There if you need them for anything at all, but very committed to giving you privacy. Extremely clean with everything we needed for our two-night stay.
Food: Again, we prepared all meals at "home" in the great little kitchen. This trip is making me reevaluate the plethora of kitchen tools I have in Toronto - When given only a few options, you make them work, carving into a can or hacking up a chicken with whatever is on-hand. Grocery store nearby in the town's centre with everything you'll need. Wine, too.
Location: Hokitika, West Coast Region, New Zealand
Accommodation: The Beachfront Hotel ★★★
One of the very few traditional hotels we'll stay at on this trip. A really nice room which wouldn't be out of place in Toronto or New York. Incredible views of the Tasman Sea. Disappointed by cold water and grey skies, but a great hotel. Wifi limited and expensive.
Food: Because this was a more-traditional hotel, we ate our meals out and about. Surprisingly tasty Indian food at Priya on the main street. Great, polite service, cheap wine and really good food.
While we would've liked to get further south (particularly Queenstown) we ended our trip in Christchurch, where we spent less than 24 hours. I was surprised by how devastated the city still was, after the massive earthquake two years ago. With progress delayed by aftershocks (and insurance claims) much of the central business district remains cordoned off and in shambles. The hotel there was serviceable, but not worth mentioning.
Thank you for reading!