Steve and I finished work for Christmas break on the Friday before Christmas. We had an early flight on the Saturday morning and after a brief 3 or so hours or so we were on New Zealand ground.
We picked up a hire car and it was only a short drive to our first stop which was a suburb known as Hillsborough and the home of Steve's long time friend from university (so many years ago) and our host the first time we visited NZ ten years ago; James and his wife Christine and two rambunctious kiddies, Charlotte and Andrew.
We didn't feel the need to have to go out and see Auckland and preferred the company of the family over a home cooked meal. Little Andrew was a charmer and picked some daisies and buttercups from the garden for me! Charlotte was a bundle of fun and asked Steve to dry her after her bath and claimed that Daddy always held her by her ankles upside down to do the job. We found out later, Daddy never does that! But Steve obliged!
The next morning after a good feed, we made plans to visit a local market so Steve and I could pick up some supplies and head to our next stop; an estimated 3 hr drive North of Auckland.
Unfortunately plans were scuppered when we discovered the hire car had a leak so we returned it to the airport and picked up another one. Given we had to be at our next stop by mid afternoon to catch a boat that wouldn't wait for us we were under a little time pressure so no market for us and just a quick supermarket scramble.
We arrived in Paihia and found our accommodation which was a spacious studio style apartment and the owners kindly let us park there for the night in spite of us not staying there that night as we were booked on an overnight boat cruise. It was about a 20 minute walk away from the wharf and town centre and the owners kindly offered us a lift as time was ticking.
So the next 22 hours were spent aboard The Rock on an overnight cruise. The Rock is a converted former car ferry and there were about 20 passengers mixing from young backpackers to families with teenagers and younger kids. It was a great blend of folks and Steve had been a bit nervous beforehand that it would have been a bit of a backpacker booze cruise.
The crew were young but reassuringly the skipper was now. Undoubtedly the crew worked hard from hosting games, manning the bar to cleaning the toilets. Whilst it might have seemed to have been a fun job, I also saw that it wasn't all glamour and giggles so credit to them.
The first icebreaker activity was target practice at a floating duck tied to the back of the boat with a paintball gun. Flukily I made it to the womens' final (I hit the duck with one of my shots) and had a shoot off with a young Singaporean but couldn't sustain my performance so lost. I think Steve was super surprised I even hit the thing and I was even more surprised than that!
Because the Rock was a former car ferry, the back of the boat was completely open which was interesting. On the main deck there was a bar, bathrooms, woodburning stove, lots of tables and chairs and a mini pool table. There was a very sociable vibe as people enjoyed each others company. The bedrooms were upstairs and there are a blend of dorms, family rooms and double rooms. Steve and I had booked a double but were allocated a slightly bigger family room so there was also a set of bunk beds. Very little time was spent in the cabin but it was comfy enough. Yep, no en suite facilities and although there was a shower for anyone to use, we were encouraged not to unless we really needed or wanted to. For the sake of 22 hours and the promise of a lovely apartment post cruise meant I could go without!
We tried a bit of fishing - no luck and there was also some night kayaking once it was dark and we anchored. Steve gave the kayaking a go and fell right in! Apparently something to do with trying to reposition himself. The crew were baffled and didn't really know what to do as apparently it's quite hard to fall in and it had never happened before! I just laughed through the whole episode. And the water wasn't too cold Steve says.
After a night's sleep we spent more time on the water and also headed to a pretty island where I lay on the beach and Steve took an ascending walk to the top of a hill for beautiful Bay of Island views. There was some snorkelling but there wasn't that much to see before we headed back to Paihia.
In all it was a fun 22 hours with lots of fun little activities packed into that time.
After a drive to the tip and a walk through the town with a drink at the Duke of Marlborough, NZ's first licenced premises we found ourselves at Omata Winery. Why how did we find our way there?! En route we passed by a little oyster farm and called in where we gorged on huge, creamy specimens with a few of the oyster leases.
Omata is perched high on a hill with beautiful bay views and we whiled away a couple of hours with an antipasto plate, plenty of sunshine and a spot of reading. Russell is accessible by passenger boats from Paihia wharf or by the car ferry. The bonus of taking the car ferry is that there are possibilities to explore the wider areas such as the winery and beaches outside of town.
We enjoyed some time at 90 Mile Beach and there was even a bit of sandboarding down some vast dunes. It was a long day so we were glad that someone else took the strain of driving. The weather wasn't quite as glorious as the days before but the rain held off and there were glimpses of sunshine here and there.
We managed to find a winery for lunch, of course we did before returning to Paihia where we spent an hour by the wharf singing Christmas carols with the local community. The grey clouds dissipated and it turned into a balmy evening perfect for carol singing and so Christmassy!
Christmas Day dawned and it was time for us to hit the road for leg 2 of the trip. We escaped the greyness that had rolled into the Bay of Islands and headed South and as we journeyed, we could see the sky become bluer and much more appealing. We were very lucky this holiday as we seemed to leave places just as the bad weather rumbled in and certainly the Bay of Islands experienced heavy downpours after we left.
We called into Auckland (which was kind of en route) and enjoyed a lovely Christmas lunch with James and his family complete with festive present unwrapping and lots of excited children. It was the perfect halfway point for us and following that, we continued the drive Southwards to the Coromandel Peninsula. Part of my Christmas gift to Steve was that he could have a drink with lunch and I drove this part of the journey. It was a pleasant drive but as we neared the peninsula the roads sure got winding with hairpin bends and ascending heights. But my expert precision driving got us to our destination which was a boutique B&B perched high up a hill in Whitianga with panoramic breathtaking views of Mercury Bay and lush green fields.
We loved staying at Bayview at 91. Our suite was gorgeous with a fully equipped kitchen, outdoor terrace with amazing view of Mercury Bay, luxury bathroom and amazingly comfortable bedroom. Cleanliness was like godliness there and we were so well looked after. There would be drinks on the wrap round verandah from 6pm and we would come together with the other guests to talk about the day's adventures and then David or Dmitri would drive us down to town in time for a dinner reservation they'd made for us. Just perfect hosting!
Boxing Day was spent at the Lost Spring lounging in the hand sculpted pools that were filled with natural thermal spring waters and indulging in spa treatments. What with drinks and food served poolside, it was easy to spend a day there! All blissed out, we were too lazy to go out to dinner and David was so obliging and picked up a Thai takeaway for us and he joined us too at the dinner table. Such a relaxing day.
The remainder of our evenings in Whitianga, which were two were spent at dinner at the same restaurant, Salt. It wasn't easy to secure bookings as it was holiday season and one of our other choices wasn't open! Salt is located on the waterfront and we didn't mind going there twice. The first night we actually shared a table with a lovely German couple also staying at Bayview who were on a 3 month, once in a lifetime trip around Australia and NZ and this was their last stop. She ran a riding stable and he was contemplating retirement after a career in environmental engineering. We really enjoyed their company and in spite of it being the end of their trip, they also found out that they had become grandparents so were happy to head home to meet him.
With two days free to explore the area, we chose to head Northwards on the first one and Southwards the next. The Northern route meant that we headed to the town of Coromandel. We tried to go on the narrow guage railway there but it was all booked out so we reviewed the map and figured we'd continue north on the West coast to another town called Colville and make a loop and return via the East coast. Little did we know that the road to Colville is less road and more gravel track so it was white knuckle and hair raising to say the least. Steve's comment was that it was his first experience of feeling car sick whilst driving. My reaction was to close my eyes to steady the stomach and let sleep take over!
At least we made it to the East coast and to recover from the perils of the journey we called into Whangapoua Beach with the intention to make our way from there to New Chum Beach, often featured and voted as one of the world's top 10 beaches. It is one of the last sizable underdeveloped beaches in the area and only accessible only boat or via a 30 minute strenuous walk on a partly unformed track along the coast from the estuary at the northern end of Whangapoua Beach.
We embraced this walk where we followed the Whangapoua shore and then crossed the river inlet before scrambling across boulders and rocks keeping an eye out for the native bush path which was really a mud track that went up and down with the odd tree stump thrown in for good measure as well as tree trunks to climb over. It may have only been a 30 minute walk but it was an adventurous one so we felt no guilt laying out and spending the rest of the afternoon recovering!
Our Southern day out itinerary included a stop at the famous Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach but as we reached Cathedral Cove, we saw so many people and cars that we decided to give up and find ourselves something more secluded. David had told us about Lonely Bay as "locals' secret" and also a popular place for beautiful wedding photographs. Dmitri is a professional photographer and after seeing some of his works we thought it would be nice to see the actual beach. We drove to Shakespeare Cliff and took advantage of the look out there down onto Cooks Beach and Lonely Bay before taking the steps down to Lonely Bay. Indeed it was a gorgeous little beach with rocks and cliffs on either side. I think I preferred it to New Chum so Lonely has my vote!
After some beach time, we found ourselves at Mercury Bay Winery for a spot of lunch. We do manage to sniff out wineries!
And so our time in the Coromandel came to an end and it was time to return to Auckland. Both the Bay of Islands and the Coromandel are breathtakingly beautiful places and so accessible from Auckland. I think Coromandel was our slight preference. We just enjoyed the beaches and the views a smidgen more.
We stayed just outside the city near Hagley Park as we understood the CBD was still under mass construction so was a bit quiet in the evenings. It was about a twenty minute walk from our motel to the CBD and there was a strip of bars and restaurants in between so it was a great location.
We arrived late afternoon and decided to just take it easy and had dinner at an Asian restaurant close by called King of Snake which apparently had some great reviews. It's tucked away off the main street and is all glam interior, cool and dark and it looked like it wouldn't be out of place in Melbourne. We were seated at a communal table, how Melbourne and were served efficiently and quickly.
The food was nice enough, good produce, well cooked but the flavours just weren't quite as on point or well balanced as Melbourne. I guess we are spoilt now! But it was enjoyable neverthless and we were grateful for the quick service so we could head back and relax.
The next day we took a walk to the CBD following an "arts trail". There are some really thought provoking sites including the Transitional Cathedral also known as Cardboard Cathedral which stands in place of the badly damaged original 500m away. It is the world’s only cathedral made substantially of cardboard.
There were various art installations along the way and where there was none, we could see the Canterbury hills in the distance. The storage container mall was a happening place with food outlets and boutiques and hive of activity going on.
We enjoyed a few minutes at the Dance-O-Mat which is a square dance floor complete with suspended glitter ball amidst a concrete building site. The music comes from a configured old washing machine with a phone jack and for $2 it will play 30 mins of music! Such creativity and dancing brings joy which is what is needed after the devastation of the earthquakes. I felt that this installation really brought to life the fact that the only reason such creativity was as a result of the destruction. Irony.
Seeing the destroyed cathedral, the flattened sites and cordoned off buildings and the 385 White Chairs art installation, representing lives lost was haunting. The majority of new buildings in the CBD are international hotels as they can afford the rebuild whilst others are still grappling with insurance companies or trying to raise funds. Christchurch is completely different to what it was. But there is a sense of rebirth and there is creativity and resilience in the air. And Christchurch retains her beauty in spite of the tragedy.
There were some reminders of our previous trip though as we walked along the river and found the willow tree that we had take a photo under last time round. And we prolonged the nostalgia by stopping off for an icecream from Vanilla Ices which has been serving from a truck in the same spot since 1926 bar a 4 year hiatus post earthquake. It's an interesting combination of milky ice cream, pouring cream, chocolate chips and raspberry cordial. I don't like overly creamy or rich ice cream so this was right up my street. An unusual sight was a very fit lady in her sports gear buying two and eating one herself and feeding her little dog the other! Lucky dog!
The next day we had brunch with my former boss and work colleague Kathi and her family. Kathi spends every Christmas and New Year in Christchurch which is her husband's home town and we were able to make arrangements to catch up. It was a bit of a coincidence really because our messages via mobile phone didn't get through and it was actually when I was waiting for Steve on the street the day before, that she and Murray drove past and saw me and we were able to make plans! Meant to be!
And after that catch up, we had another catch up with Toni and Peter, Kirstie and Marty where we went to Roots restaurant for dinner. It's an inspiring story. Owners Giulio and Christy met in the States; she is American and he is Chilean but couldn't organise work visas etc. and so ended up in NZ with little money but big dreams. They set up a small place literally serving food on the street in Lyttelton, Christchurch and in 2015 was crowned NZ's restaurant of the year!
It was a wonderful evening of cocktails, wine, creative and beautifully presented food, cheese, sweet treats and just lots of chatter.
And then it was the last day of 2015! We spent New Year's Eve at a local restaurant, Strawberry Fayre and another coincidence; Steve bumped into some colleagues of his dining at the same place! After dinner we took a walk to Hagley Park where there was some live music but the lack of preparation in terms of jackets for the cool evening climate and something to sit on meant we didn't stay for very long.
2016 started off gloriously - all bright blue skies and sparkling sunshine. We decided to drive the 90 minutes to Akaroa which is a small harbour town which had both a French and English settlement. Waterside views are superb with gift shops, tearooms and cafes a plenty. And we bumped into Kirstie whilst we explored the town!
When we returned to Christchurch we headed to Kirstie and Marty's home where they'd invited us for a BBQ dinner along with Toni and Peter and Marty's girls Phoebe and Jessie. It was lovely to see their home and enjoy some warm hospitality.
Wanaka was busy and it was good to see the day turn from grey and drizzly to blue skies and sunshine. We enjoyed a lakeside wander and dinner and drinks. The next day we decided to see more of the lake and enjoyed a sunny walk along the Waterfall Creek Track along the lake's Western shores. Steve watered a couple of native trees along the way and that's not a euphemism. There were barrels of water and buckets along with instructions to do so!
After the walk, Steve suggested we brave the Queenstown traffic and actually call in for lunch. It was quite a wintry looking drive with low cloud and mist and when we pulled over at the Crown Range Lookout it was pretty cold.
Now the reason why Steve wanted to do this little detour was because whilst on The Rock we met a British girl called Kate who used to be pretty much vegetarian until she came to NZ. And when I asked her why, her answer was simply, "I had a Fergburger." So naturally if this burger can turn a vegetarian, well Steve wanted to sample this life changer!
A quick Google search shows that many have debated whether Fergburger is the best burger in the World and Lonely Planet named it among the world's "best and bizarre" burger experiences.
According to the STA Travel website: "Fergburger is a Queenstown institution, having served huge, juicy burgers since 2001. It’s pretty much a rite of passage for anyone heading to Queenstown, and many claim that they’d swim back to New Zealand for a bite of the burgery goodness."
And as foodies will know, such goodness means long wait times. Steve dropped me off and the queue was down the street. Note to future punters - I joined the queue just after the North Face shop and it took me an hour before a burger was in my hand.
So was it the best burger experience? I don't know about best but it was darn good and I would happily do it again. The hour wait was pretty painless in spite of being underdressed for the unseasonably cold weather combined with Steve's frustration when he returned after grappling to find a car park.
The queue is well managed and controlled and there are free mini cookies given out. Everyone who works there is super cheery but not in a fake way but they're not overwhelmed by all the orders or the people and there was even a guy in the kitchen singing so he was definitely not feeling the pressure. I think that combined with a good burger equals a positive experience. It was a painless hour - we found a little table so could take a seat whilst waiting for our burgery feed. The onion rings are amazing. The burger is well constructed and juicy and even down to the last bite stays together. I've spent much much worse hours.
After so many meals out and the burger, we decided to cook and picked up some groceries from the supermarket. It was so nice to sit down to a bottle of wine and a bowl of spicy tomato pasta. The simple things!
The next day was something we'd been looking forward to and that was an overnight cruise to Doubtful Sound with Fiordland Expeditions. The day started at Lake Manapouri where we boarded a big boat across the lake to West Arm and there everyone split off into their respective tour groups some day trips others overnight.
Unlike The Rock where there was 20 of us this was a much more intimate cruise of 10 on a much smaller vessel. But before we boarded the boat we had a minibus journey across the Wilmot Pass which is NZ's most expensive road and for all the money spent it's still an unsealed road! We jumped out at the highest point for our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound.
We had a blissful 22 hours aboard the Tutoko cruising Doubtful Sound. We cruised out to the sea where it became a lot more choppier and saw NZ fur seals basking on rocks before turning around and enjoying more tranquil waters alongside abundant sunshine.
We enjoyed meeting a family from the North East with adult children who were travelling together and funnily enough, the daughter and I went to the same school! So she and I enjoyed exchanging school experiences. There was also an American couple who were a lot of fun and on a delayed honeymoon and another British young couple who were on a short career break. Even our chef / host / minibus driver commented that we were a group who bonded extremely well.
And how could we not bond over some special experiences. The first was lobster mac and cheese for lunch followed by a spot of fishing. It started off slow and I thought it was going to be another empty exercise much like our time on The Rock but then things got frantic. There were a few small catches of pretty Wrasses and then the big guys rocked up included a stripey Wrasse that Steve caught and some Blue Cod. And then a sand shark rocked up! Wow that took some hauling in. And if one wasn't enough, another was caught but we let that one go as we had plenty.
Following the excitement of fishing, our chef also is a diver and he went and caught us some lobster. He came back with about half a dozen and a few of them were HUGE! Naturally they were on the dinner menu and the American couple and I agreed that getting our chops round those paid for the trip in themselves! It was a BYO cruise and Steve and I had underestimated so were on rations but luckily the generosity of this American couple helped us out in our time of need! No wonder we liked them!
Post catch excitement led to some kayaking adventure and Steve enjoyed some time on the water whilst I enjoyed some cheese and downtime. The male half of the American couple along with our chef / diver / host and driver dived into the water but it was heartstoppingly cold so the rest of us enjoyed the show.
The evening was all about lobster dinner and we stayed up for a bit and did some stargazing on the top deck before retiring.
Breakfast was lobster scrambled egg plus other things. Three straight meals in a row of lobster! What a high life! The rest of the morning was spent enjoying the sound and we even spotted a trio of penguins in the water which apparently is very rare.
Incidentally in spite of the fact it's called Doubtful Sound, it actually isn't a sound but a fiord. A sound is created due to glacial erosion and a sound is a sea or ocean inlet. Same applies to Milford Sound hence the area is correctly known as Fiordland but the name Sound has stuck.
We were back in Te Anau for lunch and enjoyed the rest of the sunshine in the outdoor area with our books and we enjoyed another hostel cooked dinner.
I particularly enjoyed a short stop at Mirror Lakes which was enchanting and also at The Chasm where we were able to walk across two footbridges over the Cleddau River offering views downwards to a series of waterfalls. Thousands of years of swirling water have sculptured round shapes and basins in the rock.
Lunch was naturally a BBQ hence known as the BBQ bus and we parked by a lake where some beautiful lavender, violet and pink lupins were growing. So pretty.
We joined a 3pm cruise on one of the smaller boats and Steve and I sat up front on the outside deck. This proved to be a mistake as we got drenched and had to go inside to dry off. Thank Heavens for the complimentary hot tea. It was pretty grey and having had a soaking we were feeling a bit drab and damp. At this stage compared to Doubtful Sound, Milford was not looking good.
When we turned round we were encouraged to go outside once more as we wouldn't get wet and it was warming up. This saved our Milford Sound experience and it really was awesome to see the heights of the cliffs and the waterfalls. As we were a smaller boat we were able to get under Stirling Falls (Wolverine jumped off this) and also underneath some overhanging rock faces which was fun. Stirling Falls is three times the height of Niagara which is hard to believe but I guess part of the impact of Niagara is its breadth.
It's definitely worthwhile to see both Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound if you can as they are very different. Doubtful is greener, smaller and more intimate whereas Milford is more awesome. There are more boats on Milford so it does feel more touristy but it's still a great experience. I liked that fact that we chose to spend more time on Doubtful in a small group and just do the the day trip on Milford.
It was a wonderful 19 day trip that felt much longer. We packed in plenty of activity but didn't feel too rushed but at the same time enjoyed a long weekend back in Melbourne before gearing up to work.