Autumn Adventures on New Zealand’s South Island

From Nelson on the northern tip to Queenstown in the south, my 10-day tour of the island took me through some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.

West Coast: Nelson to Karamea

Exploring Abel Tasman with THE Park Experts

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

I know the exact moment when my first day of hiking at Abel Tasman National Park became an only-in-New-Zealand adventure: when my Wilsons guide, Whitey, made us try to catch a weka. If you’ve never seen a weka, it’s a flightless bird with about the same build as a turkey; when we came across one with a broken leg, Whitey became determined to bring it to the Department of Conservation for medical attention. And so began the great weka flap.

We didn’t catch the poor, injured bird, but I did learn a lot about wekas—and about the park’s other fascinating plants and wildlife. Two days of hiking and kayaking Abel Tasman’s stunning coast with Whitey was also two days of a thoroughly enjoyable outdoor education. I can now spot a spoonbill or fantail from a trail, find a ray from a kayak, and point to a rata tree from a mile away.

I also learned that if ever you find yourself on the north end of New Zealand’s South Island, there’s just one thing to do: call Wilsons Abel Tasman and arrange a visit to the country’s second-smallest national park. Whether you have a few hours or five days, Wilsons will make sure you see the best of Abel Tasman’s seaside wonderland. The Wilson family first settled on the park’s land eight generations ago, and this history is proudly woven into each of their trips; the effect is a very personal encounter with the outdoors that I’ve not experienced anywhere else.

But back to the trail adventure for my own personal favorite moment: after the weka got away, we hiked on toward our accommodation at Wilsons Meadowbank Homestead, which included a 30-minute crossing of the estuary on which the lodge sits. I’ve never seen so many seashells in my life; I had a horrible, klepto instinct to pocket as many as I could, in fact, but I restrained myself and just enjoyed the sensation of standing in the middle of a giant bowl of shells, surrounded by the hills of Abel Tasman and the dipping sun. The great outdoors doesn’t get much better than that.

Onward we went on this crunchy carpet of shells, toward the shore of the now-filling estuary and the welcoming glow of Meadowbank Homestead. There was a cozy room and a delicious meal waiting, and the playground of Abel Tasman to continue exploring the next day.

Wilsons runs fantastically organized and environmentally sustainable operations throughout the park, and while they can show you around for a few hours, I’d recommend taking several days to explore their seaside slice of nirvana and to take in the best kind of family secrets there are.
Wilsons Abel Tasman
265 High St.
Motueka, New Zealand
+64 3 528 2027

More Home Than Hotel

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Have I ever felt as at home anywhere as I did after two nights at the Meadowbank Homestead? Not likely.

I was thrilled with my room, the Laura bedroom, and its connection to the daughter who once lived at Awaroa (books with tales of each of the rooms’ namesakes sit in the common area). The room’s twin beds were made up to be comfortable and warm, and the en-suite bathroom was modern and stocked with fresh towels and toiletries.

Downstairs, the common area encourages conversation or relaxation with its overstuffed couches, gas fireplace, board games, and books. Pre-dinner snacks—delicious breads and spreads—are set out here for guests each day at 5:30pm, followed by dinner in the spacious open kitchen.

It’s a kitchen straight out of a food magazine, with a master cook to match. While I was there, Chef Craig Wilson presided over the stove and served delectable meal after delectable meal with locally grown ingredients. The first night, our small group enjoyed perfectly spiced lentil soup, lamb rump with caramelized sweet potatoes, salad, roasted red peppers and zucchini. For dessert, we lapped up sweet manuka-honey ice cream with tart but sugary feijoa fruit.

The next night brought a chicken dish with the best salad greens I’ve ever tasted, another excellent soup, more top-notch bread, pesto pasta, rice, and ice cream with grilled pineapple. Breakfasts were just as decadent (with lighter options also available), and a coffee, tea, and cookie bar was available to guests at all times.

One of the best parts of the second half of my stay at Meadowbrook was that it coincided with an end-of-season "locals lodge" deal that brought a handful of locals and their friends to Abel Tasman for a night. Sitting down to meals with a lively group of Nelson-area residents only added to the warm, familial vibe of the homestead.

It wouldn’t feel like your own family home if you couldn’t run around the grounds, of course, and the surroundings of the homestead are another highlight; outside, benches and porches beckon guests to sit above the estuary and reflect. One night all of the guests, hosts, and guides gathered outside to enjoy a vibrant sunset of oranges and blues.

Yes, the welcoming and eco-friendly Meadowbrook Homestead feels like home, indeed, albeit in one of the world’s most faraway, and most perfect, locations.
Wilsons Meadowbank Homestead
Awaroa Estuary
Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand
+64 3 528 2027

Heli-Hiking the Heaphy Track with Simply Wild

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

A half-day heli-hiking trip on the Heaphy Track with Rob Douglas of Simply Wild was, well, simply...wild. Our chartered chopper soared over green mountain ridges and swooped into Kahurangi National Park, where we landed and hiked a stretch of the Heaphy that took us from bush to beach in less than an hour.

If you’re looking to walk diverse but well-maintained—and strikingly beautiful—terrain, the Heaphy Track delivers an incredible experience. This last stretch of the 50-mile seaside trail is shrouded in native palms and ferns until it opens onto a wide beach and the rowdy Tasman Sea. We walked on the beach for a bit but, facing strong winds and flying foam, headed back onto the sheltered track after about 30 minutes. No official entry back onto the track? No problem! Rob confidently led the way through the bush and we left the wind behind in no time.

I couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable or enthusiastic guide than Mr. Douglas, who started Simply Wild several years ago with a group of fellow ex-corporate adventurers. He injects his passion for adrenaline travel into every Simply Wild tour, and the company’s unique Journeys at the Edge product is a direct descendent of Rob’s experiences as a participant in New Zealand’s grueling Coast to Coast adventure race. Simply Wild’s other tailored trips include kayaking, sailing (the company has two luxury yachts moored in Nelson), heli-hiking, and—new to me—heli-biking and heli-rafting. Spoiled for choice, spoiled for scenery—Simply Wild does a wonderful job of embracing the beauty of the Nelson region and sharing it with their guests in a stylish but authentic way.

As for me, to say that I hope to return to do the entire 5-day Heaphy hike soon is an understatement: I’ll be counting the days until then. But a trip with Simply Wild is worth the wait.
Simply Wild

Nelson, New Zealand
+64 3 548 8500

Friendliest Hotel & Restaurant in the West

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

There is a place on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island where everybody knows your name. At least, that’s how it feels within five minutes of arriving at the Last Resort, which just may be the friendliest place in the West. As the gateway to Kahurangi National Park and the Heaphy Track, Karamea attracts its share of tourists but is, at its heart, a small town, and the Last Resort is a hub.

The resort’s centerpiece café and bar are lively and inviting, with its owners fostering a sense of community—besides hosting gatherings of local friends, they participate in a program that brings famous entertainers to perform in small towns. When I was there people were raving about two comedians who played the restaurant the year before, and the resort was preparing to host a singer-songwriter in a few days.

Even without "world-famous in New Zealand" entertainment (as the saying goes), I thoroughly enjoyed the Last Resort’s restaurant. It’s where I had my first taste of the local delicacy whitebait, prepared in an airy but filling soufflé. I also had an excellent pasta dish with mussels and shrimp, paired with a fabulous New Zealand white wine selected by the Last Resort’s owner.

My stand-alone cottage was as warm and welcoming as the resort’s common areas. With two bedrooms, an extra twin bed, and a pullout couch, it could sleep seven comfortably and affordably. Someone made great use of its space and included a kitchen table with four chairs, a sofa and chair in a sitting area, and a patio with a picnic table. The kitchen had a fridge, toaster, microwave, two burners, and plenty of plates and silverware for a family to use. Even better, it had everything needed to make a quick pot of coffee or tea.

The bathroom, too, was well stocked with plenty of towels and toiletries and a hairdryer. It featured a bathtub and a shower as well as a towel warmer.

The Last Resort is homey and laidback and comfortable; it’s not a five-star hotel, and it’s not trying to be. It is instead a home away from home, and it’s highly recommended.
The Last Resort
71 Waverley St.
Karamea, New Zealand
+64 3 782 6617

A World of Wonder in the Honeycomb Hill Caves

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

As phenomenally beautiful as Karamea and Kahurangi National Park are, there’s an even more otherworldly landscape hiding beneath: the cave system of the Oparara.

The Oparara Trust runs these guided tours to the area in cooperation with the Department of Conservation, granting visitors access to unique features that can only be seen with a guide. I donned a hard hat and joined a group of three others for an afternoon tour through the Honeycomb Hill Caves—into the woods, down a padlocked trail, and into the slippery underworld of Oparara.

We started with an easy 30- to 45-minute hike through brilliant green forest, and Bill, our fantastic guide, made sure we enjoyed this part of the tour as much as the caves. As a caver and diver, Bill is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about the outdoors, and in no time, he had me chewing on horopito (a cinnamon- or peppery-tasting plant) and feeling the undersides of fern fronds for spores.

One of the most notable views on the hike was the Oparara River, which runs a red-brown color said to look like tea on a calm day and frothy beer on a storm-tossed day; Willy Wonka himself couldn’t have manufactured a more fantastical river, tinted by tannins. We kept an eye out for rapid-surfing blue ducks, but none were out that day.

The caves, on the other hand, were full of wildlife—or at least, the remains of some fascinating creatures that fell in or washed up, most notably the now-extinct moa. Bill pointed out a whole skeleton of a bush moa, as well as bones of deer and kiwis. As we carefully stepped and ducked further into the caves, we explored the stalagmites, stalactites, and other limestone formations. The caves are slippery, so good shoes are essential, and it’s very important to follow your guide’s instructions.

At two points on the cave tour, Bill had our group gather and turn off our headlamps; glowworm colonies glittered turquoise in the darkness. Seeing the phenomenon up close, in the quiet darkness of a cave where our small group was the only movement, was amazing, and definitely the highlight of the tour.

After emerging from the caves and hiking back to the car, we enjoyed a coffee and tea break with some of the most delicious homemade brownies and cookies from a local baker.

The Oparara Trust runs the Honeycomb Hill Cave tours all year, and also leads extended tours that include a visit to the Oparara Arch. Summer options include a kayak tour and a full-day eco-walk. Visiting the caves is a unique experience and a must-do in the Karamea area.
Oparara Guided Tours
Market Cross
Karamea, New Zealand
+64 3 782 6652

West Coast: Westport to Haast

Barking and Breeding on the Tasman Sea

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

One of the most wonderful things about New Zealand is the accessibility of its natural riches, and the Tauranga Seal Colony is a perfect example. The Cape Foulwind walkway begins at a car park just south of Westport, and from there it’s a 10-minute stroll on a paved trail to the seal colony, a thriving breeding group of the kekeno, or New Zealand fur seal.

Watching the seals is a lot of fun—listening to their shockingly loud barks is especially entertaining—but they do their best to blend into the rocks, so taking a good photograph is challenging. What is photogenic here is the Tasman Sea; Cape Foulwind’s lookout points afford wonderful views up and down the coast.

Viewing the seal colony is free, and the trip can be extended with a hike to the Cape Foulwind Lighthouse, about an hour’s walk away.
Tauranga Bay Seal Colony
Tauranga Bay Road
Westport, New Zealand

An Outdoor Show That’s Even Better in the Rain

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Paparoa National Park’s Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are worth a stop when driving down the West Coast. Accessed from Punakaiki, where there’s also an information center and a few eateries, the famous rocks and blowholes line a 20-minute loop through a small section of the park. The paved route is lined with native flora and informative signs, but the stars of the area are the stacked limestone formations and the steamy show they put on as the sea shoots up through their "blowholes."

The formations are aesthetically fascinating even if you know nothing about how they got there, but the fact that they were formed 30 million years ago is even more impressive. Drizzly weather and strong winds ended up being the perfect conditions in which to see the blowholes in action, but even in calm weather, the pancake rocks and surge pools would be well worth a stop.

The walk is free with boxes for donations at the beginning and end.
Pancake Rocks
Paparoa National Park
Punakaiki, New Zealand

Total Peace and Relaxation at a Boutique B&B￿

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

After several days of hiking capped with a day of nervous left-side driving, my plush room at the Breakers delivered all the Zen-filled comfort I didn’t know I needed. Filled with soothing colors and natural touches, overlooking green hills reaching to the pebble beaches of the Tasman Sea, it delivered comfort, style, and relaxation, perfectly.

The Breakers offers boutique accommodations in four bedrooms: two in the main house and two in a garden annex. My room, Breakwater, is one of the two rooms on the second floor of the main house. I grabbed one of the homemade ginger cookies waiting for me and settled right onto the fluffy bed. And then the other bed. And then the leather chairs. And then the deck. It’s a room made for relaxing and listening to the sound of the surf outside.

Sea views through floor-to-ceiling windows are the main focal point of the room, but there’s also a flat-screen TV and incredibly fast, free Wi-Fi. Even the bathroom—the sleek, modern, beautifully appointed bathroom—offers a wide view of the sea.

I tore myself away from the cozy room to make the 10-minute walk to a quiet expanse of beach, where I sat on a piece of driftwood and enjoyed views of the breakers in front of me, and the Breakers behind me, in total peace. I may have stumbled across one of the best places for quiet contemplation in the world.

The rooms in the main house share a hallway service area stocked with tea and coffee, and all guests can add dinner to the bed-and-breakfast service. I ate at the house with the other two guests—a fruit grower from Australia and his wife—and enjoyed a fantastic roast-chicken lasagna. We met again over a breakfast of cereals, yogurt, fruit, spreads (including delicious manuka honey and handmade jams), and eggs.

Guests have access to more than meals, with books, DVDs, and board games scattered around the main floor.

The final thing that puts the Breakers above and ahead of most bed-and-breakfasts is its dedication to environmentally friendly hospitality policies. There are low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads, low-energy lights with motion-sensor technology, composting, recycling bins, eco-friendly cleaning products, filtered rainwater, and local produce and toiletries. The owners are also involved in the local blue penguin trust and stoat-control program.

When you want to get away from it all in comfort and style, the Breakers offers a perfect stay on New Zealand’s beautiful West Coast.
Nine Mile Creek, State Highway 6
Greymouth, New Zealand
+64 3 762 7743

Better Landscape Than a Trip to the Moon

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Any apprehension I had about taking a heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier melted away the moment a staff member led my group into the "boot room" and outfitted us with a waterproof jacket, heavy socks, boots, and a fanny pack stuffed with crampons. First, Franz Josef Glacier Guides were obviously running a safe, well-oiled operation. Second, there’s nothing like strapping on a fanny pack to take your mind off any other task at hand.

After the wardrobe change and a quick safety briefing, my group of six piled into a helicopter for a quick but thrilling ride to a makeshift, ice-packed helipad on Franz Josef. As the helicopter climbed, turned, and dipped, ice was everywhere around us; formations rushed at us; a few tiny figures appeared on the white canvas. We landed next to the figures and met Cliff, our aptly named guide, who instructed us in putting on our crampons.

We set off tramping around, through caves, over crevasses, and down stairs carved by Cliff’s ice axe; we learned the "French shuffle" technique of climbing in crampons and how to step wide for balance.

The weird thing about glacier hiking, I think, is that it’s all ambling around, with no trails involved. At first I felt weird not heading toward a designated Point B or walking in a loop back to Point A, but after a while I realized that following Cliff’s willy-nilly lead was closer to a true exploration of our staggeringly beautiful surroundings.

There were more surprises on the glacier. For one thing, there was water everywhere. Ponds, rivers, puddles, wells; they looked and sounded beautiful, and Cliff assured us that there isn’t any risk of falling through ice into the water below. There’s no deceivingly thin ice that would give way when stepped on; if you fall into a crevasse here, you basically saw it and walked right into it. Awareness, obviously, is paramount.

Another surprise: rockslides. About every 30 minutes, we would hear a rumble high up in the cloud cover and then watch as rocks slid down the face of the glacier. I became more nervous each time, but Cliff explained that the rock activity was much further away than it seemed and continued to lead us around unfazed. (In this case, then, try not to be aware.)

Before I knew it, it was time to return to the helipad and head back to the office. All in all, the experience lasted about three hours—incredible considering we’d seen a landscape so foreign, we might as well have flown to the moon and back.

A final tip for glacier hiking that may help lighten your suitcase: don’t fret if you didn’t pack proper clothing. Franz Josef Glacier Guides will provide you with waterproof layers and footwear; I quickly swapped my hiking boots and waterproof shell for theirs. And my other layers—down jacket, long johns, hat, and gloves—were overkill. Even under a cloud cover, it wasn’t that cold on the glacier; in fact, some guides wore shorts and short sleeves. More important than packing the proper gear? Bring sunglasses and water.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides
State Highway 6
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
+64 3 752 0763

Perfect Post-Hike Non-Activity

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Fed by the waters of Franz Josef Glacier and nestled in a native, temperate rainforest, the three main pools and three private pools at Glacier Hot Pools offer the perfect post-hike activity (or anti-activity) on the West Coast.

The setting is lush and completely unique. The pools were built elsewhere and then installed here so as not to destroy the flora, and the result is amazing: plants are not only surviving, but thriving, and they provide a wonderful natural backdrop that enhances a feeling of relaxation.

I settled in with only a few other guests at about 4:30pm; it seems that the pools fill up later (they’re open until 10pm, with last entry at 9pm) for soaks under the stars. I zoned out to the songs of birds high up in the trees, staying just alert enough to switch pools every once in a while. The three main pools each have a different temperature—36, 38, and 40 degrees Celsius—and all are beyond comfortable: I became so relaxed that I forgot the code to my locker and had to ask a staff member to open it for me so I could change when I was done.

Adult entry to the pools is NZ$22.50, or NZ$40 for a hidden private pool with cabana and bathroom. Massages and spa products are also available.
Glacier Hot Pools
Cron St.
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
0800 044 044

Warm and Welcoming Haven on the West Coast

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

If there’s a room that’s more comfortable, more romantic, or more beautiful than the Wallace room at Franz Josef Country Retreat, I would like to book it indefinitely.

Owners Marie and Glenn Coburn have truly succeeded in creating luxurious accommodations that make guests feel as though they’re staying at a friend’s well-appointed country plantation amid green hills and mirror lakes.

Wallace—all 12 guest rooms are named after Franz Josef pioneer families—welcomed me with open arms and every modern amenity I could need. A perfect place to unwind after a day of outdoor activities, the room’s centerpiece is a four-poster queen bed adorned with red-feather pillows and red organza draperies. And the bed is far from the only comfortable place to rest: two plush chairs overlook the fields of cows; a leather couch sits across from a large TV; and a giant, red, claw-foot tub beckons from its own alcove.

The room is replete with a bar area—fridge, sink, coffee, and tea—and robes, hairdryer, alarm clock, DVD player, and desk. The big, modern bathroom features a stainless-stell shower stall, towel warmer, and lovely toiletries.

One of the best parts of the retreat is its history. The owners’ ancestors were among the first to arrive in the area in the 1860s gold rush, and though the inn is a new building, the land it sits on is still used to graze and breed cows on some of its 200 acres. (Guests can even feed pet cow Dexter.) The building was inspired by the historic Graham Glacier Hotel, which burned down in 1953, and photos of that hotel, and of the town’s early settlers, line the walls.

Franz Josef Country Retreat also has a gorgeous dining room serving dinner and breakfast; a bar area; and bikes, books, and DVDs to loan guests.

For a quiet retreat near the fun of Franz Josef Glacier or for a romantic getaway, it would be hard to beat the warm, welcoming Franz Josef Country Retreat.
Franz Josef Country Retreat
State Highway 6 at Lake Mapourika
Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
+64 3 752 0012

A Thrilling Ride Through Spectacular Scenery

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Looking for a hidden gem on New Zealand’s South Island tourist route? The crystal-clear Haast River is overlooked by many visitors, and not only is it worth a stop for its beauty, it’s worth a stop for a fantastic jet-boat trip into one of the loveliest landscapes on the West Coast.

Haast River Safari runs one-way and round-trip outings on its fleet of four enclosed jet boats, which are suitable for all ages and all weather conditions. I joined a tour group, donned a life jacket, and embarked on a 1.5-hour, round-trip adventure with ultra-personable driver and guide Vicki at the helm.

Right away, I was completely surprised by both the stunning valley views and the extreme 360-degree turns that had the group of seniors on the boat hooting and hollering and yelling, "Again! Again!" Again, indeed: we did four or five, each one requiring a grasp of steel. As a quintessentially New Zealand thrill ride, this jet boat delivers!

Haast River Safari delivers, too, as a wonderful introduction to the area’s natural jewels. The braided river itself is turquoise, clear, and drinkable. We entered a valley surrounded by green hills and soaring mountains, 2,000-foot waterfalls, and the occasional mid-river cow paddock. Even on a cloudy day, I was completely enthralled.

At one point, Vicky let us all off the boat on a rocky area in the middle of the river to take photos—and let one enthusiastic fisherman try his hand at Haast River fishing with her fishing rod.

No catch, other than a lot of great photos and a huge appreciation for the Haast River.

A final tip for Haast: while you’re in town, the huge Haast Visitor Center is worth a stop, as is the nearby Frontier Bar & Café for lunch.
Haast River Safari
State Highway 6
New Zealand, South Pacific
+64 3 750 0101

Queenstown and Central Otago

Chic Retreat with a Perfect Location

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

There are many reasons I like Sofitel—its always-chic furnishings, luxury spas, and eco-friendly policies being chief among them—but the Sofitel Queenstown offers at least three more: location, location, location. It’s in the heart of downtown, so anywhere you could want to go is within a few minutes’ walk, and there are stunning views of the city and its postcard-perfect surrounds from nearly every window.

The best part of my room, which was located on the sixth floor (the highest), was its small balcony overlooking downtown and Lake Wakatipu. I found myself slipping out there morning, noon, and night to see how the light was hitting the mountains at each moment.

Inside, there was more appeal: a Bose stereo system in the bedroom and bathroom (playing soothing music upon my arrival); a plasma TV; an espresso machine with individual pods; Roger & Gallett toiletries; a very comfortable bed with extra pillows and blankets; an exquisitely stocked minibar.

The Sofitel’s other offerings are equally pleasing. I twice enjoyed a lovely buffet breakfast at the hotel’s Vie Brasserie, and I visited LeSpa for a heavenly hot-greenstone massage. I highly recommend this treatment for a spot of New Zealand indulgence.

And I recommend checking into the Sofitel Queenstown for a more extended spot of indulgence.
Sofitel Queenstown
8 Duke St.
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 450 0045

RD Tours Helps Travelers Fall for Queenstown

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

A perfect day in Queenstown might include a drive to view the Southern Alps from Coronet Peak; a tour of historic Arrowtown, ablaze with autumn colors; a close-up view of bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge; a jaunt through wine country to sample cheese at the Gibbston Valley Cheesery; and a stop at lookout points over Lake Hayes and Queenstown.

You might even fit this perfect day into a morning if you call RD Tours.

The company specializes in showing visitors unique, rural South Island sights (RD stands for Rural Discovery), and in four hours, RD’s director showed me the best of the Queenstown region on the company’s half-day local area tour—and the best of Central Otago is quite enough to make you fall in love with the place.

Charles picked me up at 8:30am in one of RD Tours’ comfortable SUVs, and we set off for Coronet, the closest ski area to Queenstown and a wonderful spot for vantage points of the mountains, rock formations, and Lord of the Rings sites. As Charles expertly maneuvered along Coronet’s winding roads, he told me all about the history of the area, both of its geology and settlement, and even shared books on the subjects.

Our next stop was Arrowtown, where, I’d just learned, there is a historic Chinese settlement that was inhabited by Chinese gold miners who were allowed to move in only after the European gold seekers had mined to their hearts’ content. We toured the settlement’s tiny buildings, situated just a minute’s walk from the heart of Arrowtown, and stopped in nearby Joe’s Garage for a perfect flat white. Joe’s is tucked away in a second-floor space on the main street, but it’s bustling with locals and has a fantastic deck for outdoor coffee.

On to AJ Hackett Bungy, where we were able to walk right onto the bridge where jumpers were taking off; after watching a jump from there, we caught a few more jumps from a viewing platform just to the side of the bridge. The atmosphere was festive, with rock music pumping up jumpers and spectators cheering them on. There’s also a small bungy museum that’s definitely worth a look. In fact, even if you (like me) have no interest in (i.e. are terrified of) bungy jumping, taking part in the experience in some way is fantastic—and Charles’ enthusiasm for it all was infectious.

We ended our morning with a stop at the Gibbston Valley Cheesery for some sampling—they also offer cave tours at their adjacent winery—and a few more stops at viewpoints around and above Queenstown.

I got so much more than some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen; with Charles’ incredible knowledge of the area, and particularly of the outdoors, I got an education in Queenstown and Central Otago that enhanced the rest of my time there.

RD Tours offers a variety of small-group tours, and will even tailor one to your interests; I can’t recommend them highly enough.
RD Tours

Queenstown, New Zealand
0800 73 86 87

The Thinking Traveler’s Thrill Ride: Wet, Wild & Educational

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

I arrived at the Queenstown pier ready for a boat ride. I only started suspecting a thrill ride when I was handed a giant, waterproof coat fit for a Dark Lord’s wardrobe. Sure enough, as my jet boat flew over Lake Wakatipu toward the Kawarau and Shotover rivers, I found myself using all of my might to stay in the boat. And just like that, I was off on a genuine Queenstown adventure.

The jet boat is a Kiwi invention, and once it gets going, it needs only three inches of water to operate—perfect for the shallow, braided rivers of Queenstown. Our white-knuckle brushes with mid-river rocks, hanging tree limbs, and bridge piles were thrilling—until our first 360-degree turn, which dwarfed all speeding and zig-zagging that went before. Before each 360, our fantastic driver, George, gave us a warning so that we could hang on tighter (if that was even possible).

Between boat tricks, George slowed down so we could dig out our cameras and photograph the sparkling yellow leaves lining the river, and so he could share commentary about the area. The hour-long ride was, in fact, a perfect mix of adventure, scenery, and information.

The most exciting part was the home stretch, when our half-empty boat (don’t worry—it started out half empty) picked up the current and soared back to the dock. With Queenstown rushing by and the wind in my now-wet hair, I couldn’t have been more thrilled with this unexpected thrill ride.
Kawarau Jet Boat
Main Town Pier, Marine Parade
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 442 6142

Get Your Kiwi Sightings Here

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

On my first trip to New Zealand, I left without seeing a kiwi bird. This time, I vowed, I was going to see one—and what better place than Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park, which features a nocturnal house and regular kiwi feedings?

I saw my kiwi. It was for about eight seconds, and it was in the dark, and the bird was behind glass—but I saw him. It was lucky timing, because I’d arrived just in time for the tail end (and that’s literally what I saw) of the day’s last kiwi feeding at 4:30pm. (Look up times before you go!) But that was just the beginning of a very pleasant wander around the bird park.

I’d learned a lot about New Zealand’s native birds in my time there, and I was excited to see all of them in person, so I opted for a NZ$37 ticket to the entire park rather than a NZ$27 ticket that would limit me to kiwi areas. It was well worth it: I followed the trail on my map and made 25 informative stops that corresponded with my audio guide. The commentary included information on the history of the park, the birds inside, and Maori culture (a portion of the park is dedicated to a replica Maori village).

My favorite animal sightings were the tui, parrots, blue ducks, and tuatara. My least favorite was the kea and weka area; as I walked into their open-air habitat, the audio guide explained how cheeky kea are, and how they’re not afraid of humans—so I hurried on out of there very quickly!

All in all, the bird park was a wonderful way to see the characters I’d heard so much about up close, and a worthwhile stop in Queenstown.
Kiwi & Birdlife Park
Brecon Street
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 (3) 442-8059

No Longer a Dive, But Lives Up to the Hype

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

I couldn’t have had my Fergburger sandwich in my hand for more than three seconds before I realized what all the buzz was about: I was holding the biggest, most delicious chicken sandwich I’ve ever tasted.

I’d strayed away from the hamburgers on a tip and ordered the Bombay Chicken (NZ$12)—an excellent choice, it turns out. It was creamy; flavorful; and very, very messy. It was so good, though, that I didn’t mind being slathered in sweet Bombay sauce at all if it meant I got the sandwich to my mouth that much more quickly. So I went wild.

I’d expected good food, but I was surprised at how much I liked the atmosphere. At first glance, the restaurant looked crowded and loud—and I did have to wait on line for a few minutes—but the service was incredibly calm and friendly, and there were plenty of seats for everyone.

The bottom line: don’t miss eating lunch at this Queenstown classic.
42 Shotover St.
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 441 1232

Perfect Place for a Solo Traveler

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Vudu Café is the type of place I’d love to have in my neighborhood—the kind of place that’s perfect for a solo traveler to relax and enjoy a good meal. It’s cozy—there are eight tables inside, plus a few extras outside—with candles, good music, and a heaving magazine rack. The vibe is casual and unrushed, and I felt like I could sit at my window table as long as I liked.

It was hard to pass up the NZ$15 spaghetti Bolognese special (which included a glass of wine), but I had my eye on a chicken-and-cashew noodle bowl for NZ$18. It was tasty, hearty, and just the right size.

Vudu serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and keeps the counter stocked with pastries if you’re on the go. The café is surrounded by both upscale shops and souvenir storefronts, and is near a candy shop and an ice cream vendor for dessert.
Vudu Cafe
23 Beach St.
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 442 5357

Great Local Favorite for Japanese Food

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

I’m thankful that Kappa Sushi was recommended to me, because I probably wouldn’t have noticed it on my own, and it is a fantastic choice for Japanese food in Queenstown. I headed up to its small, second-floor dining room for lunch and was met by a few tables of locals slurping miso. I joined them, and followed my soup with a heaping bowl of teriyaki chicken and rice—all for NZ$10. The tempura one table over looked fantastic as well.

Service was quick and friendly, and there’s an outdoor deck overlooking the street that would be lovely on a nice day.
Kappa Sushi
36 The Mall
Queenstown, New Zealand
+64 3 441 1423

Christchurch and Canterbury

Quiet Suites in the Heart of the City

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Staying at 161 The Hereford combines the best of apartment living with the best of a hotel stay, in one pretty package in the heart of Christchurch.

The property charmed me from the beginning; every employee I came across couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. Reception is open from 8am to 6pm, but the duty manager lives on site and is available 24 hours a day if needed. During overnight hours, your room key card also swipes you into the building. The building doesn’t have its own restaurant, but an in-room breakfast can be provided on request and VIP deals are available at four nearby restaurants. There’s also a casual café—Café d’Fafo—a few doors down, serving an excellent breakfast, brunch, or lunch.

My suite was as welcoming as reception, decorated with soothing neutrals, sleek lines, and comforting touches like a "dream" cut-out in the kitchen.

The bedroom featured a huge bed, desk, alarm clock, radio with iPod dock, and closet stocked with an ironing board and extra bedding; the spacious bathroom had a towel warmer, hairdryer, toiletries, and robes.

The well-stocked kitchen boasted stainless-steel appliances and a dual-burner stove—and a washer and dryer, two things I don’t even have in my apartment at home. There was even a kitchen table in addition to a sitting area with a couch, leather chair, and flat-screen TV. Two broadband Internet access points were in the suite, though I actually used the lobby computer for a quick email check. For other business needs, guests can rent a boardroom.

One last apartment-like bonus: 161 The Hereford is much quieter than a typical hotel, making it an especially great choice for an extended stay in Christchurch—and the next time I visit, that will be my goal.
161 The Hereford
161 Hereford St.
Christchurch, New Zealand
+64 3 968 9101

Day Trip: TranzAlpine Train & Arthur’s Pass National Park

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

I learned a lesson during my eight hours on Unlimited New Zealand’s TranzAlpine Train & Arthur’s Pass Guided Walk excursion: I learned the mark of a truly great hiking tour. I hope you’re spared this same lesson when you find yourself at Arthur’s Pass, but here it is, the mark of a great tour: it’s raining heavily, you’re slip-sliding atop boulders, and still you think, "Wow! This is the life!"

The quiet beauty of Arthur’s Pass National Park inspires that reaction, as does the experienced guiding of Unlimited New Zealand founder and guide Andrew Wells. So even in the rain, even with clouds contending with my views from the train and trails, I had a singularly wonderful time.

The day started early with a 7:30am pickup at my hotel and a seat on the 8:15am TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass. Andrew, meanwhile, drove to Arthur’s Pass to meet me there with his van.

There was a buzz on the TranzAlpine as train enthusiasts—some of whom had waited their entire lives to take this trip—chattered and discussed strategies for getting the best views. We crossed the Canterbury Plains, the largest flatland in New Zealand, and climbed some of the route’s 19 viaducts and tunnels, including, at 73 meters, the highest: Staircase Creek Viaduct over the Waimakariri River.

With cloud cover and crowds, ultra-reflective windows and high speeds, it was difficult to take good photographs but easy to love the scenery: sheep-station high country rising from a braided, blue river. The conductor’s humorous commentary answered any questions I might have had about the land and its history, and she gave us tips on when to head to the viewing platform and when to hop off the train for a quick photo opportunity at Springfield Station.

Two-and-a-half speedy hours later, I was meeting Andrew again to start the hiking portion of the day. First we took in a couple of viewpoints, and then we hit the trailhead of the Bealey Valley Track, where Andrew wisely lent me waterproof pants (the back of his van is a gearhead’s dream).

The track was challenging—mostly because it was so wet—but absolutely gorgeous. It began in a mountain-beech forest and went through grass wetlands—where every shade of amber and yellow swayed—before turning into boulders along the Bealey riverbed. Andrew was full of information about every piece of flora and every rock we saw, including my favorite feature, the post-bloom alpine "lilies" that Andrew described as New Zealand’s answer to edelweiss.

We took a lunch break overlooking the crystal-clear river, listening to amazing bird songs as we scarfed down a very hearty lunch from Arthur’s Pass Village café The Wobbly Kea. (Kea birds are, in fact, often seen along the Bealey Track, but not on that drizzly day.) The second half of our ascent up the riverbed was a bit more challenging than the first, but even more rewarding. (At least, I had to believe that the stunning sight of a glacier—which Andrew explained was a fake one, as it melts in summer—was reward enough for having taken a tumble in the river at one point.) Another highlight was being able to drink water straight from a small waterfall—I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, anywhere, but the handful of water was cool and clean.

From the apex of our hike, I could see straight across to Temple Basin Ski Area, where skiers have to walk an hour uphill for a run. And in that spirit, when we were about three-quarters of the way back to the van and Andrew asked me if I wanted to finish with an easier route or a harder route, I went for the more difficult—an excellent decision.

We headed into the village for two last stops: the excellent Arthur’s Pass information center and the cozy Wobbly Kea for a flat white. Both were the perfect caps to a wonderful day amid some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery, and the coffee kept me warm all the way back to Christchurch.

I highly recommend a day with Unlimited New Zealand. They guide people of all ages and customize each trip; a typical group has between 2 and 20 people, and tours can be given in English or Japanese. Andrew brings many years of experience—from both guiding and traveling—to each trip, and his passion for the area is contagious.

Follow the Unlimited New Zealand blog for a taste of their adventures.
Unlimited New Zealand: The Hiking Guys

Christchurch, New Zealand
+64 3 960 9119

One of New Zealand’s Most Interesting Museums

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Every once in a while, you duck into a museum for a few minutes and emerge hours later; that was the Canterbury Museum experience for me in a nutshell. I expected to learn a few things about the city of Christchurch, but I was amazed at the breadth of the exhibits and at how many of them completely captivated me.

The museum starts with the early history of nature and man in New Zealand: moas, glowworms, cave wetas, Maori hunters. There’s a wealth of Maori artifacts and stories I’d never heard before—for example, an account of a Maori regiment in World War II. There are also exhibits on settlers from other places and former boom industries like whaling.

And then came an unexpected sight: a paua-shell house. Fred and Myrtle’s paua-shell house, to be exact, on display at the museum for one year. I was invited in by an exceptionally friendly guide and shown a humorous four-minute film about the house; I really enjoyed the overview’s quirkiness. The story is that Fred began polishing paua shells for veterans to use in crafts during occupational therapy. When Myrtle got sick of vacuuming around them, she started tacking them on the walls—until the iridescent shells covered the entire house.

Soon the little house in tiny Bluff was a top tourist attraction, and Fred and Myrtle were "world-famous in New Zealand," even appearing as pitchpeople in commercials for Tip Top bread. They welcomed over one million visitors into their home, seven days a week, eight hours a day, until they died in 2000 and 2001.

The house at the Canterbury Museum is a replica, but some of the items are originals, and photos also help tell the story of Fred and Myrtle. It was such a fun experience to view the film and walk through a paua-shell room.

The final area of the museum that I spent a lot of time in was the third floor: dinosaurs, mummies, and a fascinating Antarctic exhibit covering the natural history of the continent and the history of exploration there. The early clothing and equipment was amazingly rudimentary, but soon gave way to more sophisticated tools like the 4X4 vehicle now giving simulated rides in the museum. There’s a lot of wonderful information, and it’s fitting to view it in Christchurch, which sends flights to Antarctica each summer.

The museum has more treasures—decorative arts, Asian arts, birds, costumes—but at that point, I had to head out. I spent an hour and a half here, but you could easily devote two to three hours.

There is a suggested donation of NZ$5 and a few opportunities to donate throughout. Access to the Discovery kids area costs NZ$2; there are other hands-on opportunities for children throughout the museum.
Canterbury Museum
Rolleston Avenue
Christchurch, New Zealand, 8001
+64 (0)3 366 5000

A Gorgeous Gothic Discovery

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

When I first reached the Arts Centre on an early-morning walk, I was disappointed to learn that I was too early for its celebrated weekend market—until I started wandering around the Arts Centre. It makes for exciting exploring in its own right.

The gorgeous Gothic campus is unique in that everything is completely accessible. Many of the rooms have been turned into crafts shops, and there is public art and statues throughout. I loved seeing wings named Biology and Physics still in use, if not in the same way as they once were, with cafes, bars, and restaurants. There’s also the Dux de Lux microbrewery, an observation tower that opens to the public on Friday nights, an information center, and a cinema. International food stalls were opening up one by one as I walked around.

The cloisters area was especially beautiful, but between all the quads and wings, one could spend a long time wandering around in awe.
Arts Centre
Worcester Boulevard
Christchurch, New Zealand
+64 3 363 2836?

An English Brewery Charms in International Christchurch

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

As the second-largest city in New Zealand, Christchurch has a thriving nightlife scene, and you could do no better than the Twisted Hop for a beer in a festive environment crowded with locals.

Located in the trendy Lichfield Lanes district, the Twisted Hop brews English-style beer on site and has a huge selection of draught and bottled beer from around the world. Add a cozy, wood-paneled interior and a giant, artsy courtyard out front and you have the perfect place for a drink. There’s food and wine, too, and I had a boysenberry cider that was excellent.

I happened to be there on St. George’s Day, so traditionally attired Morris dancers were out in full force. (And yes, it was the first I’d heard of St. George’s Day and Morris dancers.) The merriment of Lichfield Lanes and the Twisted Hop, however, seem to play nightly.
Twisted Hop
6 Poplar St., Lichfield Lanes
Christchurch, New Zealand
+64 3 962 3688

Getting There and Around

Air New Zealand: Setting the Bar Sky-High

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by midtownmjd on May 26, 2010

Like every traveler, I have a mental list of dream destinations, dream vacations, and dream accommodations. But I’d trade them all in for my airline dream to come true: that Air New Zealand would start flying from New York to, say, Boston, or between any other US cities that I frequent.

Alas, I’m limited to flying Air New Zealand less frequently than I would like—but when I do, it’s consistently one of the best travel experiences around. Others agree: in its 2010 World Airline Awards, SKYTRAX just named the airline the best in the Australia/Pacific region and fifth-best in the world. This fresh off an Airline of the Year award from Air Transport World and, out of the UK, a Which? Award for Best Airline. I think they’re all well-deserved honors, for Air New Zealand makes flying fun again—and on time again.

I’ll admit to being easily charmed by irreverent marketing campaigns, so it’s no surprise that I smile every time I see a creative Air New Zealand offering like a matchmaking flight or a flight-safety video in which employees wear only body paint. But my affinity for the airline is much more practical than that; Air New Zealand translates its cheeky ad campaigns into smooth operations and caring customer service. With unique services like in-flight concierges and innovations like skycouches, the airline knows how to keep customers happy.

Happy I was on my latest Air New Zealand transpacific flights, and as I jetted around New Zealand on domestic flights. Every single flight was on time, every single attendant was friendly and full of personality, and every single seat and meal were superior to those on most airlines (and for sure on US airlines, I would say).

One of the highlights is the food. Flying from LA to Auckland and back, the meals were fantastic: Air New Zealand takes great pride in featuring Kiwi ingredients and chefs on their menus, and they execute well. One dinner included a bean salad, pan-roasted snapper with linguine and olives, and fantastic coconut and strawberry ice creams. Breakfast was even better, with the centerpiece being cinnamon-spiced brioche French toast with wild-berry compote and pohutakawa-honey cream. Even on short-haul domestic flights, excellent coffee and tasty cookies were a given.

The attention to detail continues with individual entertainment systems and chic overnight toiletries for all. And, of course, with that in-flight concierge, who makes sure he or she has been introduced to each passenger before boarding in case anyone has any questions or needs during the flight.

In an industry full of major delays, luggage ordeals, and other headaches, Air New Zealand stands out. Airline of the year, indeed.

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