Sunday, November 20, 2016

New Zealand (South Island)

We usually never travel during Thanksgiving, but this time it was different. I couldn't travel during Christmas and New year holidays due to work, so we had to pick someplace for Thanksgiving.
Now ever since we got back from Iceland, every one just compared Iceland to New Zealand and I had to see it with my own eyes to figure out how much similar or dissimilar it was. Plus, the tickets turned out to be surprisingly cheap and we didn't think twice before we booked them. So, we were off to New Zealand for Thanksgiving!

Our route in New Zealand South Island

Brief Itinerary

Day 1: Fly in to Queenstown. Drive to Fox Glacier
Day 2: Fox Glacier -> Franz Joseph Glacier -> Punakaiki -> Stay at Greymouth
Day 3: Greymouth -> Christchurch
Day 4: Christchurch -> Mount Cook -> Stay at Twizel
Day 5: Twizel -> Queenstown -> Te Anau
Day 6: Te Anau -> Milford Sound -> Queenstown
Day 7: Spend the day in Queenstown. Bungee Jump. Drive to Glenorchy.
Day 8: Fly out.
Maps link

Where to fly?

There are two major airports in South Island. Christchurch and Queenstown. Depending on what route you prefer to take, you can pick either of the two. For us, we flew Air New Zealand flying directly from San Francisco(SFO) to Auckland(AKL). We had a connecting flight to Queenstown(ZQN). The flight is short and pretty. Landing at Queenstown airport, which is a very small airport, is like landing in a small valley surrounded by beautiful mountains.
Some folks fly in to Christchurch and fly out of Queenstown or vice versa.

When to go?

Of course the seasons are reversed in southern hemisphere, so summer months are September- March. And since the tourist rush increases in December, we felt November would be ideal. A couple of days during our stay were very warm and pleasant, and other days were cool and breezy, but not unbearably cold. It was also a bit rainy, but very few quick showers.

Where to go?

South Island carries the reputation of being the prettier of the two islands, so I guess if you have less time on hand, you may want to first pick the south island. This island has the glaciers, the Mt. Cook and the famous Milford Sound. So, we decided to do a road trip around the South Island on this trip. North Island has the famous Tongariro National Park, Rotorua for the famous Hobbiton set and the Waitomo gloworm caves. But I guess we will see those the next time.

What we did?

Day 1

View of Queenstown from Crowne Range Pass
We landed at the Queenstown airport at around 10
am in the morning. We had been in a long long flight and definitely needed to freshen up before starting our long road trip. We were staying at Fox Glacier lodge for the night, so we inquired regarding some recreational/gym facilities around and just next to the airport was the Queenstown event center. So, we bought a day pass and were off to locker rooms for a refreshing hot shower. This was, well the first country we were travelling to, outside of India, where cricket has an ardent fan following. So, it was exciting to see the jerseys of various teams hanging around in the event center. After we were all fresh and ready to go, we saw a narrow passage with a sign "Cricket Ground"! It was a no brainer to check it out and we discovered this is the same Queenstown cricket ground that we have seen so many times on TV. A couple of pictures and poses later we headed out for lunch.
There are two very famous burger joints in Queenstown. First, Ferg burger and second, Devil's Burger. Ferg has long long queues, so we skipped this one and headed to Devil's burger. Awesome veggie burgers and fries. Must try! We then headed out to Fox Glacier and had many stop planned on our. First we drove through Arrowtown through Crown Range Pass. This a windy road which takes you a bit of uphill and is a perfect place for bird's eye view of Queenstown.
Emerald Pools
Further, we drove to Lake Wanaka and stopped by puzzles world. Trust me, I could spend an entire day here. I just love puzzles, but we only had a few hours :( So, after letting me fiddle around a bit with free puzzles lying on their tables, Sumit decided it was time to drive to Lake Wanaka. One of the many beautiful lakes in New Zealand. No pictures can do justice to this place. Perfect for an evening stroll, a jog, a swim or just sitting down and quietly taking in the sunset. After wandering about and a few pictures later, we stopped at a nearby coffee shop to grab some coffee and a grocery store for some munchy stuff.  
Driving further towards Haast Pass, we stopped at the Fantail falls, Thunderbird falls and the emerald blue pools. Blue pools were my favorite and involved a short hike. Weather was a bit cloudy and we did have a few quick showers, but the drive from Queenstown until Haast Pass was beautiful. We then drove from Haast Pass towards Fox Glacier. An average drive, I'd say, I find Pacific Coast highway, much prettier. Just Sayin! Anyhow, we reached Fox Glacier Lodge well in time to grab dinner at a nearby restaurant, Last Kitchen. Good food, big portions.
Our hotel manager recommended we go for the glow worm walk very close to the lodge. It was pitch dark and the walk was only about a quarter mile long, but it was scary as you had absolutely no clue what could be next to you. The glow worms were pretty, yes sure, but after seeing a few huge patches of glow worms, we figured it would be best to briskly walk out of there.

Day 2

Fox Glacier
Today we had to visit both the glaciers and then drive up to Greymouth which wasn't very far away. All the hotels and lodges have a printout of things to do/see with touristy map of both the Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph glacier townships. You can see them online here. These were super helpful. Today was the day of hikes. So we started off with a short drive to the Lake Matheson. There were a few glacier lookouts mentioned on the touristy map. We stopped there and took a few pictures. It was bright and sunny so we were lucky and got some good views. Then we drove up to Lake Matheson. There are various 2-4 mile hike options around the lake. At the other end of the lake, you get a full reflection of Mount Cook. It makes for a beautiful picture. Even though it was sunny, it was windy and the lake water had enough ripples to spoil the reflection.
Punakaiki rocks
From Lake Matheson, we headed straight to the base of Fox Glacier. It is a short mile long hike to the mouth of the glacier. Was rocky, so good sturdy shoes are a must. Lovely valley views up to the glacier and slight uphill closer to the glacier. Once we got back, we were super hungry and wanted to grab something to eat. We drove straight to the Franz Joseph Glacier township, which is much bigger and more populated than the Fox Glacier township. Here we ordered some spicy Thai food at SnakeBite cafe. Then we headed to the base of Franz Joseph glacier. This was comparatively a longer hike, about 3-4 miles. Since it was also quite an uneven surface, I opted to stay out and take care of my ankle and Sumit hikes all by himself up to the glacier. It is a much bigger glacier compared to Fox Glacier. Most of the touristy activities, like guided glacier hikes, glacier landings, happen here at the Franz Joseph, but we opted out of these as we had already done these in Alask and Iceland and were here mostly for the views. We also skipped the glacier water pools here.
Next up, was drive to Punakaiki. There are several smaller townships on your drive from Franz Joseph to Punakaiki, for instance, Shantytown has some activities for kinds and Hokataiki has a very famous glass factory. But, we skipped those and drove straight to Punakaiki. At Punakaiki, it is a short walk around the strange rock structure. But you see the force of water that has carved some blow holes in these rocks. Very pretty formations along the coast! Then we drove back to Greymouth. Views of this coastal drive were pretty and it was around sunset, so watching the sunset over Tasman sea was a surreal experience. I guess the coastal drive is pretty going North to South.
Once in Greymouth, the Indian tastebuds opted for dinner at Priya, an Indian cuisine restaurant. Then we were off for the night, staying at Gables.

Day 3

Arthur Pass National Park
Our goal today was to drive from Greymouth to Chrustchurch. It isn't a very long drive but is very very pretty. There is a famous Trans Alpine railroad that connects Christchurch and Greymouth. It takes about similar time as a car, but promises to offer better views and is decently expensive. Well, for the most part, the railway tracks were next to the highway, so I hope we got in most of the views on our drive.
Somewhere on our way to Christchurch
Starting from Greymouth, we walked around the market area, looking for breakfast and settled for tomato cheese sandwiches at Maggie's Kitchen,which, by the way are awesome everywhere in NZ. Next, we started our drive and it got a little foggy and misty. In the parts where it cleared up, we could see valleys and mountains, and imagine that had had it been clear, it would have been quite pretty. But, oh well, we kept going. Next, we stopped for a short hike at one of the places. Now I don't remember the name, but it was an impromptu decision and the trail heads were just by the roadside. It was about a 1 mile long walk in the woods, which took us to a bridge over the river and had clear views of the mountains around it.

Aftermath of 2010 earthquake - Christchurch
We drove further to Arthur Pass village and the weather started clearing up a bit. Here grabbed whatever veggie food options we could find the cafeteria and drove further to the Arthur pass. Now the views were exquisite with clear, sunny skies and mountains all around. This is why this drive is so famous! the views continued for about an hour before we entered some township close to Christchurch. Once we reached Christchurch, we head straight to King of Snakes Thai restaurant for some snacks and then to our AirBnB. 
After some rest, we headed back into the town. The famous church was in a real bad shape, after the 2010 Christchurch earthquake and was under repair. But you could clearly see the damage. Then we went to the famous cardboard church and couldn't figure out why it was famous. Then, after walking around a bit, we had dinner at MumbaiWala Cafe. Good Indian food, but little too much on the wallet. It was still day light and we realized that the NZ-Pakistan test had just ended the previous day in Christchurch. So, we decided to explore that option. It was interesting to see that the cricket ground was just next to a park, we no security and not gated entrance. We just walked around the ground and it was exciting to see the same ground you had seen on the TV so many times!
That was a day well spent.

Day 4

Drive to Mount Cook from lake Pukaki
We were up bright and early on Day 4 and were looking forward to our drive to Mount Cook. Our first stop was Lake Tekapo. I bright blue lake surrounded by mountains. The drive is exquisite with vast plains surrounded by snow capped mountains. The drive is beautiful and it only gets better as you get closer to Mt. Cook. At Lake Tekapo, we took our lunch break, found some cheese sandwiches as veggie options in the menu and a couple of pictures later, we headed out to Mount Cook.
The drive from Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook is about an hour or so long. As soon as the  Lake Pukaki becomes visible, the scenery just gets mind blowing. I have seen such turquoise blue lakes ever before. We actually went up and down the drive along Lake Pukaki a couple of times to take in the view. And to our benefit, it was bright and sunny and Mount Cook was so clearly visible, there was no chance you could miss it.

Hooker Valley Track
Our plan to reach the Mount Cook National Park and then hike the Hooker Valley track which takes you to a Hooker glacier lake just at the base of Mount Cook. It is a very popular track and provides great views at sunset. You can find more information on tracks in this park here. We started the hike and after about an hour, we could clearly see Mount Cook, but my ankle gave up and I decided to stop and take in the views till Sumit completed the rest of the hike and returned. There was a picnic bench right there, so was a good place for me to sit, relax and take pictures. Plus, I had full five bars on my phone, perfect time to take pictures and instantly share!
By the time we were done with the hike, it was getting dark, so we looked for some place to grab dinner, and settled for Poppies in Twizel. Good food. Then we headed straight ot our lodge for the night.

Day 5

Clay cliffs
Todays' goal was to drive to Te Anau via Lindis Valley. First we stopped for breakfast at a nearby restuarant and grabbed our daily meal of cheese sandwiches. Then we went to clay cliffs close by. Pretty, multi colored, multi layered cliffs just next to the main freeway. A few pictures later, we started driving towards Queenstown trhough Lindis Valley. This a beautiful vast valley, but to be able to appreciate the view, you must stop by at one of the view points and take in the view.
From here, we carried on to Queenstown for lunch. Today, we wanted to go to Ferg Burger, no matter how long the queues got. And so we did. And the burgers and big and delicious. After we stuffed ourselves, we wanted to pick up some fruits and yogurt and go meet our friend Balu, who incidentally was also in Queenstown and staying at a Youth Hostel. But he was sick and suffering from regular bouts of vomit and had fever. He later discovered her got dengue in Fiji. So, we met Balu, who looked weak and we were glad he was flying back to India the next day so as to recover well at home. Then, while crossing the road, I heard someone shout out, "Neha", and to my astonishment, it was school friend Mrinal. What are the odds! It was a quick meet up as she was on her way to the airport to get back to India. But it was so cool to run into someone in a foreign location.
Lindis Pass
Well now, we were headed straight to Te Anau. This was our stop over before heading to Milford Sound the next day. We reached our AirBnB well in time to rest, change and head out for dinner at Radcliffe before our gloworm cave tour. Well, in New Zealand, the Waitomo caves in the north island are much more popular, but if you are in south island and don't plan to go to the north, you make do with Te Anau. The tour was well planned and organized. We left on a boat to get to the mouth of caves. The guides were nice and sweet and the hike within the cave was well paved. It was cold and dark inside. The whole water system inside the cave was quite impressive. I had never imagined that water could flow within the caves like that.
Once we got back, we were tired enough to doze off almost immediately. South of Queenstown gets all cold and wet.

Day 6

We had our 12'o clock tour booked at Milford sound. So, we got pup and headed straight to Milford sound. It is a very pretty drive. You have tall snow capped and green hills along side the road. It was still drizzling so was wet and cold. The drive was however beautiful. It wasn't very foggy so even with the rains, the view was just worth the drive in the rains.
Milford Sound
Once we reached Milford sound, everything was very straightforward. Multiple tour operators run the cruise, but pretty much use the same route. It takes about a couple of hours on the boat. The boats get closer to the waterfalls, you spot seals and I have been told you see penguins too. But we didn't see any, and I think just for that, I might have to go back! We went with the Mitre Peak tours for our Milford sound cruise.
Te Anau to Milford Sound
Once the tour was over, we got something to eat at the cafeteria and headed back to Queenstown. As we got closer to Queenstown, the weather improved and it got sunny and bright. Once we reached Queenstown, we headed for a stroll in the main marketplace of Queenstown. Shopped for some souvenirs and decided to have Indian food for dinner at Tandoori Palace. At Tandoori Palace, the owner, looked very familiar and I kept thinking where have I met her, when it occurred to me, that she is the same lady I had seen in the Mumbaiwala restaurant in Christchurch. I happened to talk to her and she told me she often shuttles between the two cities to manage both the restaurants. What a coincidence.
Here is the video of hailstorm on our Milford sound cruise
Well, we were done for the day and it was time to doze off and prepare for our big bungee jump the next day.

Day 7

Bungy Jumping
The two of us almost couldn't sleep all night because we had looked atone the bungee jumping videos and were freaked out all night. We had booked Nevis bungee jump, which was the highest in New Zealand and if you look at one of the videos on YouTube, you will freak out too. So, the first thing I did was, call them in the morning and asked them to either cancel our booking, or to move it to Kawaru bridge jumping, which I thought being lesser height, would be less scary. Nevis is 234 ~ meters I guess and Kawaru bridge is 84~ meters. But no, they did not make any changes and spent 30 minutes conuselling me on how I would so proud once I was done. So, well, hesitatingly, we headed to their center in the downtown. From here we got on to the bus and went up to the canyon where Nevis jump happens. I was petrified, to say the least. And then, as it would happen, they announced that the winds are too strong today, so they advise to etiher wait for 4 hours or cancel the jump. My eyes lit up and I decided to downgrade to Kawaru bridge bungee jumping - where the first bungee jump happened in the world. It was as if God was listening to me. And then we were drive to the Kawaru bridge. Here even though I was freaking out again, it didn't look as scary as Nevis.

 I was on the platform before I could realise, with my feet tied, with the ropes in place and the guy said, jump before I count to three, or you go back and no jumping for you. I think I jumped on 2. I was flying, and my heart was thumping. I was just so relieved when I felt I was being pulled down to the boat. Whew. Done. Off the bucket list. Here, check out the video
Next up, grab a burger for lunch and then Sumit wanted to take a dip in the Lake Wakatipu. So, excited about our latest achievement, we headed to the lake, where Sumit took a short swim in the cold cold water and then after taking a shower we decided to drive up to Gelnorchy. A beautiful lake side drive all the way up to Gelnorchy took around an hour or so. Then, we headed back and hung out at a sports bar for a couple of hours before getting dinner at Bombay Palace. 
Our trip was over. It was time to head back to the hotel, pack up, watch some TV and then head out tomorrow. Queenstown is beeeutifullll! And so in south island. North Island, I will see you next time.

What more could we have done?

  • Abel Tasman National Park in the north is a very popular national park. You can plan a multi-day or a single day hike here. The camping sites have to be booke din advance and get filled out pretty quickly. You can also hike one way and take a boat-shuttle the other way. Nelson is the closest airport.
  • Instead of Milford Sound, you could visit Doubtful sound in the south, which is much less crowded, but takes more time to visit as it is further away from the land. People usually opt for an overnight cruise here.
  • There is a TransAlpine railroad option between Greymouth and Christchurch which is quite popular and decetly $$$. 
  • While in Christchurch, driving through Akaroa which is the coastal area, is also a popular day activity. People go for cruises and whale watching here
  • Driving from Fox Glacier to Greymouth, you have options of stopping at Shantytown and Hokataiki which is famous for its glass factory
  • Dunedin on the east dise is popular for penguins. But again this is seasonal, so  make sure you check before you go, especially if your only motivating factor to drive there is the penguins


We had to fill the visa forms online and submit our application. Then we mailed our passports to embassy in Washingtom DC. But, after we received our passports, we realised there were no stamps. So, we called the embassy and some helpline numbers only to figure out they don't put stamps on the passports anymore. They add your details to the database and all and you just have to carry a piece of paper they send over to you with all the details.