Wednesday, May 12, 2010

New Zealand - South Island

Leaving on big trips always makes me a little nervous. There's just some feeling in the pit of my stomach and even though I consider myself a pro traveler, ready to absorb whatever differences are ahead, the anticipation gets to me just a little. The Friday that I left was a bit of a crazy day: office in the morning to eke out a bit more work before taking vacation for a week, scramble to get a hair cut, finish laundry and packing, and have one more shower before heading to the airport and spending 16 hours in a plane over 3 flights. But wouldn't you know, once I land, I'm just present like I've always been there. It's comfortable, no matter where I am. Forget being across the world's largest ocean, opposite hemisphere/season, and 19 hours ahead of my normal time zone. Bring it on, New Zealand!

I was one of only three people in my upper deck section of the plane on the flight from LAX to AKL. Lucky me, in business class. I know I'm spoiled. What would I have for dinner? Why, lamb, of course! And after seeing all the sheep in NZ, I'm glad I'm able to separate their cuteness and still enjoy their tastiness. Apologies to any vegetarians.

Upon landing in Auckland, and walking outside, I could smell the ocean air and feel the instant humidity. Had a little walk over to the domestic terminal for a short connecting flight down to Christchurch, which I promptly slept through. I had hoped to maybe catch a bus to downtown near the hotel, but I was tired and it was Easter Sunday. Very sleepy town, indeed, so I went for the cab.

A little shower + nap = time to explore.
Christchurch is set on a river that flows through most of the downtown area. Lots of greenery, a welcome change from the desert.

Since it was Easter Sunday, and I was in Christchurch, surely I should visit the cathedral. It was difficult to find anything open for nourishment needs, and a little Irish pub near the cathedral was about as good as it got, which wasn't good at all.

For a mere few dollars you can climb the stairwell to the top of the cathedral tower for a few of the city. Why not?

Christchurch itself doesn't feel all that New Zealand. I'm glad I stopped by, but don't necessarily feel the need to return here.

Kinda bummed the art museum wasn't open. It looked pretty great from the outside.
There was a flea market going on that afternoon and I found my perfect NZ souvenir, first day in! Sadly I don't have a photo, but it'll soon be hanging in my room.

Up next, botanical gardens. I stood inside a huge tree.

All the architecture in this town reminded me a lot of Georgetown campus. I kinda miss that place.

After Sunday Easter dinner from an Asian grocery store (chocolate, canned microwaveable soup, it was about the only thing open), it was time to rest up and prepare for driving on the other side of the road.....ack!
Monday morning we headed down to pick up the rental car. I think the idea of driving on the opposite side causes more anxiety than actually doing it. Once you're in the car and start to follow traffic, it's not too bad. Making right turns though, start saying out loud - "left lane, left lane." C-squared drove most of the way; just because I CAN drive on the other side of the road, doesn't mean I like it.

Before departing the Christchurch area on Monday morning, I wanted to visit a beach outside the town. GPS took us to a lovely place; too bad it was pretty cold and very windy. 5 minutes later, we were on the road again.

We started the drive north. Hotel reservations were in Kaikoura that night, but we had time for some exploration on the way.

The main highways in NZ are really just 2 lane roads, sometimes with a 3rd passing lane that alternates sides. Lots and lots of sheep. 4 million people in the country, 40+ million sheep.
Fall colors were starting to set in on the South Island. I looooved being able to pull out fall clothes and boots again, especially since temps had been creeping up to the 80s in Phoenix. Too early for summer to arrive.

Next stop - Hanmer Springs, to soak in hot tubs with lots of other people. It was Easter Monday, so most people were off work and what else is there to do but visit the springs? It was crowded, and I tried not to think about germs while changing clothes and walking around without my flipflops that I had forgotten. I was a tad disappointed; for those of us used to hot tubs, the water wasn't nearly as hot, more like a lukewarm bath. There were several pools spread out, with varying heat sources and temperatures indicated on a map, but even the higher temp sulfur pools weren't hot. Plus, they smelled horrible and were filled with lots of old Asian ladies who didn't share space very well.
Half an hour later, we were done with our soaking expedition. Time to walk through the small town and find some lunch. The scenic drive into the town was great, at least.

Time to cut back to the coast line after driving inwards a bit. The GPS took us through some tiny, hilly roads. Beautiful country, and maybe we passed 2 cars during the hour drive until we reached the main highway again.

Ah....coastline! The scheduled trip was up the east coast of the South Island. I really wanted to get to the west coast and travel up that way, but time was short. That route meant driving over the Southern Alps from Christchurch, and doing that on Day 1 of driving before getting used to it was pretty scary in my mind, especially since the drive through the mountain pass is a bit harrowing. Kaikoura was the destination instead, where I had booked a whale watching tour. Kaikoura is on the path for whale migration routes, and apparently has whales around nearly every day of the year.

I had booked a tour in advance, since I'd heard they fill up. And with only one day in town, I didn't want to take any chances. Of course the perfect 10am timeslot was full, which left 1pm or 7am. I chose 7am so we could get the tour finished with time to drive to the next spot before dark.

Bright and early on Tuesday, 45 minutes before departure was the required check-in time. I sorta struggled to get out of bed before 6am, but when your body is confused and doesn't know what time it is, it's actually not too bad. I dressed warm and was ready to see some whales (even had my Dramamine and other motion sickness drugs ready, just in case)!

Except once I entered the building and saw the big line of people, I started hearing that the morning tour was cancelled due to bad winds. What....? I got up that early for nothing? No whales? Sure refund later, I was out the door was a suggestion to go see the seal colony. Not quite the same, but at least I had some $ back in my pocket. Thankfully I hadn't yet popped that motion sickness medications, or I would've been a goner for several hours.

The light was really great that early in the morning for photographs, and I took dozens on the shoreline. Then we drove through town and out to a little peninsula to see the seals. Except there was only one old seal. Eh......

It really is such a beautiful place. I'd love to go back in spring/summer and try another search for ocean life.

Nothing much left to explore in Kaikoura (I think there was a small Maori museum or something, but we were ready to head out of town). Next nightly stop - Picton, where we'd catch the ferry to the North Island. Quick nap, pack bags, load car, start driving. The hotel staff mentioned a quick stop on the highway just outside of town, Ohau Point. We pulled over, hiked 5 minutes through a little forest, and found the baby seal colony!

No big seals were around, just the little ones, playing in the stream, barking at each other while a handful of people took their photos. I'm not sure how they got so far inland, it's a bit of a hike out to the ocean where their food supply probably sits.

Best place to stop for food is The Store in Kekerengu, and it was delicious. Fresh seafood chowder in a bread bowl - perfect for a slightly cold and windy day. There's really nothing else around, so it was quite packed for lunch. We met a group of travelers from the US/Australia who were motorcycling around the South Island. How fun would that be? Or maybe not, since that might not be the most comfortable ride.

The Store is set right on the water with some beautiful courtyards. Summer party, anyone?
The next leg of the trip took us through the famous wine region of Marlborough. If I were a drinking lady, I would've stopped at many of the wineries to explore. However, I guess seeing the grapes from the road was enough. A tour probably would've been interesting, but it gets weird when you don't taste anything at the end and no one can comprehend why you'd visit a vineyard and not actually try their famous wines. Made a quick stop in Blenheim, but didn't find too much to see or do. Hard when you're on a 7 day race through 2 islands. I'd need 6 months to properly explore.

We eventually reached Picton, the small harbor town where we'd take the ferry across the Cook Strait to the North Island. I had booked Bayview Backpackers, a hostel-type place, which I definitely recommend. I was looking forward to having some other social interactions after being with the same person for several days. Maybe I'm getting too far beyond my European backpacking adventures, and for some reason I didn't end up conversing with the few other guests that were around. Oh well. The place was still great and cheap!

The weather was pretty chilly, bit rainy, and definitely cloudy. Dinner was good at Oxley's hotel, but like many places, it's more of a do-it-yourself service. They had a great music video jukebox and pool tables, so we killed as much time there as we could. Our ferry wasn't scheduled until the next afternoon, late in the day, and I was sort of at a loss as to what to do.

Maybe I should've gone to the bead store that was advertised above.....a little freaky, no?

We did a little hike in the morning around some of the peninsulas that jut out into the Sound. Sadly we'd arrived too late during the previous day to catch the mail boat that makes deliveries around all the little islands. I'd have to settle for a short hike with dead jellyfish remains on the rocks. Gross.

By noon we were done with Picton. Our ferry wasn't scheduled to leave until 330 or so, but thankfully there was an earlier one we could take. We dropped off our rental car on one side and made arrangements to pick up another on the other side.

C-squared suggested we upgrade to the first-class lounge, and I am glad we did. This is a serious ferry ride - 4 hours! We had free food, drinks, internet and comfy couches for the trip. They have 2 movie theaters, shopping, and various look-out decks. I braved the wind for a few pictures, but it was pretty freezing. Finally, we rounded a bend and Wellington appeared!

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