My original idea for my 2nd big 2018 trip was to venture to Botswana and Victoria Falls. But, for reasons too complicated to explain, those plans quickly proved to be too complicated to organize. I already had an Africa trip planned for spring, anyway, so it's just as well. While brainstorming other possible destinations, my mind stumbled upon New Zealand and the idea stuck. The more I thought about it, the more perfect it seemed to visit a country that was so rich with beautiful and interesting regions. Plus, it would be an opportunity to visit a region of the world I hadn't seen in 7 years.
In October 2017, I started seriously working on crafting an itinerary with the idea of leaving on the day after Thanksgiving, which is when I'd departed for Australia in 2011. After much research, I worked out what seemed like a solid and exciting plan… only to discover that I'd miscalculated the dates and I'd either have to leave on Thanksgiving itself or else I'd have to cut a day somewhere. I talked it out with my family and I was so grateful that they were amenable to holding our 2018 Thanksgiving gathering on Wednesday night instead of Thursday just this one time. As the holiday approached, I nonetheless had some regrets that we wouldn't be together on the traditional day for family gatherings. I'd glad we could agree on alternate plans this year but I don't want to make a habit of being out of town on future Thanksgivings.
While in the midst of planning, I realized that I would be paying off my student loans several months before my trip. I can't emphasize enough how absolutely huge a deal this was! I never thought I'd actually pay off those damn things. I began to think of my New Zealand trip as a celebration of a milestone. As such, I decided to splurge even more than usual. I was glad I'd waited to go to New Zealand until I could afford a bit of indulging because I found so many opportunities to engage in "once in a lifetime" experiences. I also decided to challenge myself to a few experiences outside my comfort zone that I'd never imagined myself doing; if I could succeed at paying off my loans, surely I could succeed at other activities that had seemed impossible for me. As the trip drew closer, I wondered how those challenges would go- they'd either be a series of epic successes or a colossal failure!
In the months leading up to my trip, I joined a gym and worked up to attending an average of 3 times a week. Most people go to gyms to lose weight; my main goal was to increase my fitness and stamina so I could get the most enjoyment out of my travels. (Secondarily, I also wanted to improve my overall health.) Though I still was not a paragon of athleticism by any means, my increased level of fitness gave me the confidence for signing up for some more active adventures.
As my trip approached, I'd finally been starting to feel more at peace with myself after a summer filled with depression and anxiety. I was excited both to see some of the legendary beautiful landscapes the country offers as well as to engage in the variety of activities I had planned. I was glad I was traveling solo so that I could be totally in control of where I went and what I did; it had been almost a year since I'd done a trip like that. Tours are great, especially for regions where I might not feel safe as a solo woman, but there is nothing like crafting a trip myself and having complete freedom and control over my days. Since I'm not keen to drive (even at home), there were some scheduling compromises that I needed to make but I still felt empowered to be making the decisions about my plans for each day. I was a bit worried that the forecast showed rain every single day, but I packed my Gore-Tex waterproof jacket and hoped to make the best of whatever nature had planned.
My day started by turning on the TV to see Broadway's Head Over Heels cast performing "We Got the Beat" on the Thanksgiving day parade which seemed as good an omen as any. I actually woke up a bit before my alarm which was amazing considering the previous night I'd gone out to the movies to see the 9pm of Wreck it Ralph 2 and then been up late showering and putting the final touches on my packing.
My niece, Julia, came over a bit after 9 and we left at 9:30. With no traffic, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to calmly deal with the United agent straightening out my reservation. (It was somehow out of sync due to the flight numbers having changed-- despite the fact that I'd been required to phone Air New Zealand whenever something changed on the United side of the reservation...) After I started to walk away from the desk, she ran after me to give me a printout of my updated itinerary (which, ummm, was identical to what I'd already printed out...)
Thanksgiving weekend may be huge for travel but it would seem that Turkey Day itself is rather quiet. Cheek in and security were both a breeze.
As I was waiting at the gate, United staff asked passengers with boarding passes saying "see gate agent" or without seats to come to the desk. Of course, I had selected a seat long ago and had continued to check periodically that it was still assigned. So I was surpised when I suddenly heard a badly mispronounced version of my last name over the P.A. system. I went to the front desk and hardly had a chance to express my confusion when the agent told me that I was being upgraded to 1st class for my flight to Houston. Wow! I was even ok with being given an aisle seat instead of my usual window. I have zero status with United and wonder if perhaps I'd received some good karma from wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to the agent who had helped me at checkin.
I'd placed a One Up bid for my flight to Auckland, with the hopes that I might be able to enjoy the long flight in a row of 3 seats that converted into what they called a SkyCouch. A few days earlier, I'd received an email that my bid was still under review and I hoped the upgrade would be a good omen for that bid. As soon as I boarded the plane to Houston, I received an email with the results of my bid. For one brief, beautiful moment I read the word "successful" instead of "unsuccessful." Sigh. I'd have to sit in a normal seat after all. I'd known it was a longshot and probably not the most wise use of my money- but it would have been oh, so amazing to have 3 seats to myself on a long haul flight.
Even though it was just for a relatively short flight, I enjoyed being fancy in first class for all it was worth. I wasn't really hungry but I still ordered a roast beef wrap because they have meal service in first class and I was going to take advantage of it. Not only did they offer food, but the flight attendant wrote down our orders instead of just swinging by with a cart. The meal was worth it if only for the scrumptious triple chocolate cookie. It was also lovely to be offered a hot, nice smelling towel. I missed having a window, but not nearly enough to have any regrets about my upgrade.
After landing, I explored Houston airport a bit. There didn't seem to be obvious signs to walk from terminal B to D/E so I took the monorail which was cool because monorails are cool. Knowing that I had 2 generously times layovers in Houston, I'd signed up for a United credit card because it comes with 2 coupons a year to access United Club lounges. So after walking around terminal E, I settled into the lounge for awhile. I felt swanky presenting my coupon and then taking the escalator upstairs. I grabbed a seat by the windows to the sunny outside which also happened to be near the food. Of most interest to me were the yummy cream of tomato soup (which was so good that I got seconds later) and the cookies/brownies. I noticed a cute hot chocolate bar which would have been more tempting in cooler weather.
It was very relaxing to linger in the lounge, away from the hectic gates. I was impressed at how often the staff replenished the food and cleared away plates. I'd only ever been in an airline lounge once before- when I'd flown Cathay Pacific business class (using points) in Taipei in 2010. I enjoyed my experience, but not enough that I'd want to pay money for the privilege.
Eventually, I headed down to the gate to board my Air New Zealand flight. There weren't enough seats in the area so I just camped out on the floor- quite the difference from the relative luxury of the lounge, but I was fine with it. I was excited to finally board- it's always amazing to me to walk through the jet bridge onto an airplane, knowing that when I leave the vehicle I'd be in an entirely different part of the world.
I may not have won the privilege to pay to have a row of 3 seats to myself, but at least there was an empty middle seat in my row. One of the neat things about the Air New Zealand seatback video system was that it would display pop-ups with useful information such as the meal choices or warnings that they'd be dimming the cabin lights. One time I saw an alert that a belt had been left in the bathroom. Speaking of the bathrooms, they had really neat black and white wallpaper with a design like a bookshelf. Alas I never took my phone with me so I wasn't able to capture a photo.
The seatback video system also had a Food and Drink option that I'd been eager to try as I'd read that you could use it to select a snack or beverage to be delivered to your seat. Disappointingly, this menu option always displayed an "Unavailable" message whenever I checked on both this flight as well as the flight home.
During the flight, I watched the movie "Mamma Mia 2" which was a lot of fun. I chose the pasta with beef sauce as my meal, and continued to watch as I ate. After the movie was done, they dimmed the cabin lights, I took an anti-anxiety pill (because it makes me drowsy), and donned my mask and ear plugs. At that point, there were 11-12 hours left in the flight. The next time I checked, there were 4 hours left. When I finally awoke and the cabin lights were back on, there were only 2 hours left. Yeah, I cope pretty well with super long flights.
Soon after I got up, breakfast was served and I selected the cheese omelet. I was dying of thirst and it seemed to take forever for the beverage cart to catch up. Once it finally arrived, I asked for 2 waters... and immediately downed one of them.
I put on the cast recording of "Come From Away" and thought of my recent, wonderful trip to Gander. It was comforting to think of my friends as well as the fabulous time I'd had. I hadn't planned much for my arrival day but figured I'd work in a quick nap eventually so I wouldn't fall over at the theatre. I savored the possibilities that lied ahead and the feeling of freedom to craft my adventures. I was ready to turn my dreams into reality.
As we landed, I looked outside the window, eager for my first sight of New Zealand. I wanted it to look amazing and welcoming. Instead, once we descended below the clouds, I just saw a miserable, dreary rainy day that could have been anywhere in the world.
Before you even go through customs at Auckland International Airport, you need to pass through a huge duty free store. According to my research, you could buy a SIM card for your phone here without having to pay tax. They were having a special on the 10 Gig card which was on sale for NZD 51 (US $35) instead of NZD 86. It was too good a deal to resist. Making the purchase was a quick, easy process- and I was glad that I'd have more than enough connectivity for the trip at a much cheaper rate than using my US provider's international coverage.
Customs was almost a joke. All I needed to do was scan my passport and I was officially in New Zealand! Actually, I almost got in a line that was meant for countries without a scannable passport because upon entering any foreign country, my reflex is to follow the sign for "All other countries."
By the time I arrived at the baggage carousel, my bag was waiting for me. I exited to the main hall, pausing to take a photo of a statue that had intrigued me- turns out it's from Lord of the Rings although I didn't realize it. I was relieved to have no problems using the ATM to withdraw the equivalent of US $136. Still a bit thirsty, I stopped at a kiosk to buy a Berry Powerade Zero. I also picked up a Kinder Egg because I could- these are great little chocolate eggs with toys inside; the ones in other countries are much better than the ones they have in the US.
To get to my hotel, I'd reserved a Super Shuttle, which is a service offering shared rides. It was really easy to find where to pick it up. The van was full but fortunately I was sitting in the front. There were a few stops before my hotel but I was in no hurry. I was really glad I'd booked a door-to-door service so I wouldn't need to walk in the rain from a bus stop.
Not surprisingly, since it was around 7am, my hotel room wasn't ready. My original plan had been to wander around the nearby Auckland waterfront. However, it was raining steadily so it wasn't ideal to be outdoors. Since it was still too early for any stores or attractions to be open, I asked the man at the front desk for suggestions and he said I could sit upstairs by the restaurant. I was drawn to a bright red sofa, where I made myself comfortable as I watched the rain drip down on the clear atrium ceiling.
The room was colorful and quirky and I would surely have appreciated it more if I hadn't felt so frustrated and depressed at having to spend my first moments in New Zealand there by myself instead of out exploring. To make matters worse, I was eventually (politely) evicted from my sofa because it was needed for a large party. The group who had usurped my sofa appeared to be some kind of photography tour and I yearned to be a part of them.
But instead, I continued to watch the rain and I wondered if my whole trip would be that wet. I'd held so many hopes for enjoying the beautiful scenery, and I worried that my dreams would all be for naught. While some of my outdoor plans would be miserable in this kind of weather, others could probably be canceled altogether. Everyone I knew who'd been to New Zealand had posted such fabulous photos of the landscape- how cruel would it be to spend so much money and travel so far not to have an opportunity to do likewise. I wished I was back home snuggling with my furricanes. I posted on social media and my friends were empathetic and encouraging. But I still felt quite disheartened.
At about 10am, after almost 3 hours alone with my thoughts of doom, I noticed that the rain was finally letting up. It seemed safe to venture out and at least check out some of the nearby stores. I was staying just off Queen Street, one of the main streets downtown and it turned out that many of its sidewalks were under cover. My first stop was the Sanrio store which was only a couple blocks away. I didn't buy anything, but it really cheered me up to see all the cute Hello Kitty merchandise.
To further improve my mood, I went to a nearby cat cafe. Felines are sure to fill my heart with joy, and these were no exception. Even though they didn't provide any of the purrs or snuggles that I most craved, I absolutely adored being around them. This was the first cat cafe I'd been to which provided complimentary laser pointers and I had a lot of fun using one to play with one of the calicos. I wish I'd been in town on a Monday evening because they offer cat yoga then- that would be so much fun!
As a bonus to my experience in the cat cafe, I ordered an Oreo Marshmallow cookie that was out-of-this-world delicious. Chocolate and cats are both things that are guaranteed to make any day better. It still might rain and ruin all of my fun plans- but now that I was able to actually do things, I just wanted to take each moment as it came. I left the cat cafe after around an hour feeling much better than when I'd entered.
I walked around the waterfront a bit and made a point to get my bearings for where I'd need to go to catch a ferry the next morning. The rain started to intensify again, so I popped back to my hotel at about noon to check if my room was ready yet. When they told me it was indeed ready, I asked why they hadn't emailed me a notification like they'd promised. They said that it had only been ready for about 15 minutes. I'm glad I checked instead of walking around killing time in the soggy weather.
I'd chosen this hotel as much for its colorful decor as for its excellent location. I felt immediately comfortable in the room and particularly enjoyed the elegance and whimsy of the black polka dotted bathroom. I'd splurged a bit for the first stop of my trip, and I was pleased with my choice.
After settling in and taking the obligatory hotel room photos, I took about a 2 hour nap which felt fabulous- and was yet another means by which my initial crankiness was soothed. When I woke up, I wasn't quite sure where I was… it took a few moments for me to remember that I was in New Zealand. You'd think that sensation would happen to me quite often in my travels but it's pretty rare, at least to the extent it lasted that afternoon. Usually I'm confident in my surroundings by the time I'm cognizant enough to realize that I'm awake.
Taking a shower helped me feel refreshed. After blow drying my hair a bit, I used Google maps to scope out a grocery store where I went to buy some basic supplies such as bottled water, Coke Zero, and some all-important local candy bars that you can't find around here. In addition to local Cadbury brands such as Pinky and Crunchie, I couldn't resist the Chunky Choc Fudge Sundae Kit Kat! My jaw dropped at the sight of extra large 100g Kinder eggs but I didn't buy any because there's no way they'd pack well.
After dropping my grocery haul off in the hotel room, I headed out to explore. Miraculously, the sun was shining which made the city seem so much more appealing. I walked up Queen Street, enjoying discovering details such as Christmas displays. I was particularly taken with a giant purple ornament which I'd caught sight of earlier; it was so me.
Realizing that I hadn't had a proper meal since about 4am local time, which had been over 12 hours earlier, I had to resist the temptation to wander so I could focus on getting some nourishment. I was in the mood for Italian food and, thanks to Google maps, I found a cute little restaurant which had red checkered tablecloths. It was really quiet there since it was quite early for dinner, and it was a delightful place to eat my first New Zealand meal. I ordered my standard go-to meal of Spaghetti Bolognese and couldn't resist adding a bowl of Pumpkin Soup. Both of my selections were very tasty. I also had a Diet Coke for a burst of caffeine.
Feeling much more energetic after my dinner, I wandered around a little and lingered a bit at the nearby Aotea Square. I marveled at the Waharoa Arch, a whimsical and colorful sculpture by a Maori artist. Nearby was a theatre where the lavish Disney musical, Aladdin, would soon be opening. And just a bit further off was the Q Theater where I picked up my ticket for that evening's performance of "Here Lies Love."
Next to the theatre was Daiso, a Japanese version of the dollar store which had provided Julia and me with much amusement during our 2015 trip to Japan. I had to go in and roam around for old time's sake. I noted with bittersweet regret that there were some items which would make for fun gag gifts… if only that was still a thing that we did.
As I still had an hour and a half before the performance, I decided to visit nearby Albert Park. I didn't want to exert myself too much lest I crash during the show, but I enjoyed a nice stroll. I got a huge kick out of seeing flowers blooming in the Southern Hemisphere spring… a welcome change from the winter storm a week prior to my trip that had rudely signaled the start of winter back home. There was even a floral clock, which had apparently been created in 1953 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II's first visit to New Zealand. It wasn't functioning when I was there and I'm not sure if the clock hands were removed permanently or if they were just under restoration. But it was still nice to see.
At several points during my walk, I caught sight of the Sky Tower in the distance and I'd invariably stop to take a photo. My attempts to take a selfie with it in the backdrop were not the most successful, but it was fun to try.
On my way back to the theatre, I passed by a Burger King that had a sign advertising molten lava cake. I never actually tried it but I was impressed that Kiwi Burger Kings seemed to be at least more ambitious than the ones back home; and certainly that particular branch would have been more pleasant than the Last Resort Burger King that a friend and I regretfully visited because it was the only place open in downtown Hartford, CT on a Sunday.
Before the show, I couldn't resist trying a cake pop at the concession stand. Again, a more sophisticated dessert option than what I'm used to seeing at home. Apparently my American accent made "cake pop" sound like "dessert shot" to the gentleman at the stand but we got it sorted out with a laugh. I obviously chose a purple cake pop which was quite yummy.
Whenever I travel, I try to see shows if at all possible. Often there are few, if any, options and so I'll see whatever is playing even if it's not very interesting to me (reference "Love Never Dies" from my Australia 2011 trip). But this time I was excited to have the opportunity to see "Here Lies Love", a disco musical about Imelda Marcos which had an off Broadway run that had sounded exciting. My only hesitation about purchasing a ticket was wondering whether it would be a wise idea to be out late on my first day abroad. Ultimately, I decided that I should be fine as long as I managed to take a bit of a mid-afternoon nap.
The show was really… not what I had expected or hoped for. They had taken out all of the fun, interactive touches that I'd heard about in the NY production. They'd also removed any concept of plot; instead, it was performed as a song cycle with the numbers divided among 5 different women. It was entertaining but ultimately rather forgettable.
I was glad that the show was only 90 minutes, including intermission, so I wouldn't be out terribly late. I'd originally thought that I'd take a cab back to my hotel but I looked around and thought that it seemed fine to walk the 0.5 miles down Queen Street to my hotel. It felt nice to be out in the spring night air on a Saturday night, and I never felt a bit unsafe.
After getting ready for bed, I went to sleep at around 10:30. I looked forward to my first real full night's slumber in quite some time. Despite my disappointment with the show, my day had definitely ended up far more brightly than its rainy start. I felt cautiously hopeful that my journey would continue its upward trend.
My alarm was set for 8am but I woke up for good sometime after 7. Since I'd gone to sleep before 11, I felt very well rested. I looked outside bracing for the worst- it was overcast, but at least it wasn't raining. I was hopeful that I'd be able to proceed with my planned outdoor activities.
One of the nicest and unique touches in my hotel room was that the bathroom floor was heated- not as in "yikes, I'm walking on coals!" but just warm enough that my feet were happy on a cool-ish morning. I imagine that the floors would seem even more welcoming in winter. It's the little things that impress me.
For breakfast, I went down to the restaurant where I'd spent too much time the previous morning since the meal was included with my room. If I'd wanted to splurge, there were a la carte options available. But I'm not a big breakfast eater so I was satisfied with the complimentary breads, yogurt, and fruit.
I enjoyed spending a lazy morning in my room writing up some notes about the previous day, since I'd been too tired to do so before going to bed. This was one of the few opportunities I'd have to spend a morning idling so I wanted to take advantage of it. I'd intentionally not made plans too early on my first morning in New Zealand so that I'd have some time to relax and recover from the long journey. It was raining lightly so I didn't feel bad staying inside.
I didn't have to be anywhere until my 11am ferry to Waiheke Island, which is approximately a 45 minute trip from Auckland. This island first came on my radar when I saw some gorgeous social media posts by a former Les Mis actor who was traveling to New Zealand. My research revealed that it's known for its beaches and wineries but what really got my attention was a ziplining tour. I'd never been interested in doing a zipline in the past but I improbably found it an intriguing option to add to a trip that was all about challenging myself. I remember distinctly fighting through a tough workout while repeating "zip line" silently to myself, knowing I could reward my hard work by booking the excursion later that night.
While it seemed like a great idea in theory, as the designated time approached, I was growing quite nervous. I couldn't quite decide whether it would be a bad thing if the rain prevented me from trying this challenge; I thought that it might be a relief not to have the opportunity to chicken out. But, ultimately, some crazy part of me actually wanted to do the thing- so I hoped the weather would hold out.
I left plenty of time to pick up my ferry tickets which was good because apparently the zipline company had given me a bad reference number for the ferry. I'm not exactly sure how the issue got resolved because the ferry staff kept making calls from behind the ticket window as I stood outside awkwardly wondering what was going on. I felt calm because I had plenty of time, but I was also a bit anxious. Eventually, someone came out to tell me that everything was sorted out, much to my relief, and I queued up for the ferry.
There ended up being quite a long queue but, in spite of my delay, I was toward the front of the line. But there was plenty of room on the craft for everyone. After the ship pulled away from the pier, I realized that I'd have a great opportunity to photograph the Auckland skyline so I headed out on the deck. Another woman was also out there and after she asked me to take her photo, I naturally asked her to reciprocate. I was surprised that we were the only 2 people on deck. It was a little cool and windy out- but it was also a wonderful photo opportunity!
As we arrived at Waiheke Island, I eagerly looked outside. While it wasn't sunny out, the skies didn't indicate an imminent threat and the water was a nice shade of turquoise. As I walked off the pier, I immediately spotted someone with a sign indicating they were from the zipline company. So this whole ziplining thing was really going to happen.
I got in the van and met a nice young couple from India. En route to the site, we stopped in town and picked up a family of 4 who had their suitcases with them. The website says that they have groups of up to 12 on a session, but it was only the 7 of us for my group.
Once we arrived, we went into a room where 7 sets of gear were laid out on the floor- helmets and harnesses. That was when shit got real; Ziplining was no longer a fantasy to get me through a tough workout- it was actually going to happen. I donned my gear and listened carefully to instructions… with some definite trepidation. I debated taking my DSLR with me but I'm glad I ended up leaving it in my locker and just taking my cell phone which easily fit in my pocket. That way, I could focus more on the activity without worrying about my expensive equipment.
The setting was beautiful and lush with a body of water visible it the distance; it surely must be even more spectacular on clear, sunny days. I followed the group to the first of 3 ziplines- I'd read in reviews that they got increasingly long and the first was a way to ease people into it. Being able to start with a shorter option was one reason the tour had appealed to me. But actually looking at the lines dangling ahead of me, it didn't look as easy as it had sounded. The exact thought going through my head was "What the HELL did I get myself into?!?" Sure, I tried to maintain a confident swagger- but inside I was definitely questioning my life choices. I also knew that I had a lot riding on this activity- if my anxieties were greater than I'd anticipated, it might cause a domino effect of potential disappointments in the other challenges that lied ahead.
After taking a couple group photos, we took turns riding the zip lines. There were 2 parallel lines so we always went in pairs, after the first of the 2 instructors got to the other side and prepared to receive us. The 2 children from the family always wanted to go first, and the rest of us had absolutely no problems with that but the parents wanted to teach them that they needed to take turns so it varied. On the other hand, I always went last so I could be paired with the second of the two instructors since I was solo.
One group went across, then another... and another... and suddenly it was my turn. It seemed absolutely unreal that I was going to do this thing. It was insane to look out into the vista with the knowledge that I was going to willingly fling myself onto a line that would launch me through the air to a platform that seemed endlessly far away. Part of me wanted to turn back- and even a few years earlier, I think I might have panicked so much that I wouldn't have been able to do it. But somehow I convinced myself to sit down and learn forward…. and wow, I was dangling from a wire, drifting across a gorgeous vista… with my hair flying back in the wind…. and a big smile on my face. It was amazing! OK, I did feel just a tad motion sick… and I never managed to feel comfortable letting go of my arms (mostly because the one time I tried, I got twisted around and didn't like zooming backwards). But I mostly surrendered to the scenery and had FUN. After enjoying the first ride, the next two were much less nerve wracking.
Afterwards, we had a nice little nature walk through some of the bush that we'd seen from overhead. The guides discussed the flora and fauna, and we were able to try an edible leaf that was similar to basil. I felt like I was lagging behind the group a bit on the first section, which was downhill. But I was proud that I was able to keep up much better on the uphill stretches. However, I was getting super thirsty… and I felt like my clothes were really sticky due to the humidity. As soon as we got to the end of the walk, I bought a bottle of water as well as 2 of the souvenir photos: one of the group being silly (there was also a serious photo that was less fun), and another of myself just before the first zipline. I wished they offered photos or videos of the actual ziplining experience.
I felt that the zipline tour was well worth doing. It was a fun little adrenaline rush, and it felt good to succeed at venturing a bit outside my comfort zone. Relieved that my first challenge was behind me, I looked forward to spending the rest of the day wandering and enjoying my time as I hadn't made any other concrete plans.
I didn't take the van all the way back to the ferry terminal; instead, I asked to be dropped off in the center of Oneroa so I could explore the island a bit and also get something to eat. It was about 2pm by the time I was done with my experience and I was quite hungry. After allowing myself to get distracted by the serene shores of Oneroa Beach, while looked quite appealing during that brief period of sun, I set upon walking along the main street checking menus. I wasn't looking for anything in particular- just something that felt right.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a cute little organic crepe place that was perfect; it even had a cute name, "Little frog", which reminded me of one of my friends. It had a friendly and slightly artsy vibe that made me feel immediately comfortable walking up to the counter to place my order. The ham, egg and cheese crepe that I was served looked different than what I expected but it was very tasty. I also enjoyed a berry smoothie with bananas that was wonderfully refreshing despite not being as sweet as I was used to.
Rain started to come down in buckets so I lingered for well over an hour and a half. I was quite glad that I'd wandered down to the beach during the brief moment in the day when it had actually been sunny. Once the rain settled down, I finally left and walked back to the ferry. I would have liked to have had time to explore the island more and perhaps tried some hiking trails but the weather felt too unpredictable. In fact, it started to rain lightly during my one mile walk to the terminal. The walk was easy and mostly downhill, but- except for a detour I made through a park- it wasn't that interesting once I got beyond the small stretch of town; the most intriguing sight was a sign that said "Slow down you're here".
I made it to the small terminal in time for the 5:30 ferry. I started off sitting outside under a slight cover next to a guy with a dog. But once we started moving, it felt more prudent to venture inside because the the rain seemed to be coming down harder.
I'd seen a man playing bagpipes near the Auckland ferry terminal the previous day. He was there again. And if it wasn't surreal enough to be listening to a bagpipe player in the middle of New Zealand, this time he was playing the theme from Star Wars. That was definitely something you don't experience every day!
Once I was back in town, the rain had abated and I headed straight to a highly rated ice cream shop near my hotel that I'd been dying to try. I was not at all disappointed. It wasn't just the sweet treat that made the stop memorable; it was the fact that this shop treated ice cream like high art. You waited in line and then "consulted" with someone at the counter over your purchase. Some of the options were quite extra- you could even top your cone with chocolate in the shape of the Sky Tower! I just chose a boring waffle cone with "NZ Hokey Pokey" ice cream. For those unfamiliar with that flavor, which is a traditional offering in that part of the world, it's basically ice cream with honeycomb bites in it; I frequently order it both because I am amused by the name as well as liking the flavor...that's what it's all about! In this particular case, the ice cream was covered in a layer of chocolate and then with a single swirling line of honeycomb bits. I sat outside in front of the store to savor my beautiful and delicious ice cream cone.
When I was done with my treat, I headed back to the hotel for an evening of writing and getting stuff together. I had a very early morning the next day so I definitely wanted to get to bed early. There were certainly more things to do in the city, but most of them wouldn't have been open at 7pm on a Sunday and I felt satisfied that I'd covered my top priorities. After a very depressing start, my time in Auckland had been a great start to my journey- I'd dabbled in both adventure and culture while also enjoying some leisurely exploration.
My 4:50am alarm wasn't as painful as it might have ordinarily been thanks to the fact that I'd been very disciplined in getting to bed early the previous evening. I got ready, ate some bread that I'd bought at the supermarket on my arrival day and then proceeded downstairs to check out. I sat in the lobby for a few minutes because I was shockingly running a bit early.
When planning my trip, I'd jumped at the chance to combine 2 activities on my "must do" list with transportation from Auckland to Rotorua, the city on the Northern Island which was my next destination. It would be a long 12 hour day of travel but I felt it would be a good use of my time to be combining activities. Especially since these were group activities which would be the same whether I participated through a tour or if I'd arranged my own transport.
The tour company had offered a choice of bus stops, and I was able to find one on Queen Street that was only a short walk from my hotel. I arrived at the designated spot about 10 minutes before the 6:10 pickup time and enjoyed the quiet early Auckland morning. I began to get a little nervous when the bus hadn't arrived on time and I mentally tried to work out what my backup plan might be. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about alternate arrangements since the mini bus finally arrived, only a few minutes late.
After boarding, I found out that only a couple of the others would be joining me on the black water rafting adventure I'd booked; the rest had chosen a more mellow exploration of the Waitomo glow worm caves by boat. The way this tour company worked, transit was shared between multiple activities that could be combined in several different ways.
It was about a 2.5 hour drive to Waitomo. Some of the scenery was interesting but, despite getting enough rest, I managed to doze through much of the journey. I'm quite talented at sleeping on transit!
As I got off the bus, I felt like I was about to confront another adventure beyond my comfort zone that made me question my life choices. We had a half hour before our tour started, so I relaxed in the lobby cafe with the 2 other women who had booked the same tour. There was an awkward comedic moment when one of the women said her name was November; I wasn't sure why she was felt the need to tell me the current month, but apparently that was actually her name. She wasn't really sure what the tour was about but it was the only one she could find for the day. The other woman had a more usual name, Renee, and also more knowledgeable expectations for the excursions.
At 9:30am, we joined our group which consisted of 9 other guests plus 2 guides- an overly energetic man and a woman who was named Pippin after the Lord of the Rings character. We were led to a changing area and my arms were soon filled with heavy, damp, slightly mildewy smelling gear that I'd need to put on for my adventure. I'd worn a swimsuit underneath my clothes, and I had to top it with a slightly too big jumpsuit, a zip up jacket, and booties. After stashing my carry on bag in a huge locker that was shared by the entire group, my outfit was completed with a yellow helmet and white boots. I was sure I was styling- not! At least the logo on my jacket was purplish.
After everyone got their attire together, we posed for a group photo and then were led to a pile of tubes. We each picked out one, which would be our transport through the cave. I'm not sure if there were any subtle differences between the array of options; I just picked one randomly off the pile.
We took a short van ride to the end of the lake where we were to take turns practicing our jumps. You see, at several points during the tour, we had to hold our tube to our butts and then jump backwards into a body of water below. I'd done tons of research so this came as no surprise to me. I'd hesitated to book the tour because I worried I'd tense up and freeze- because the idea of jumping backwards into the water seemed at least slightly insane. I was definitely on the verge of freaking out because, wow, the platform looked high! But fortunately the guides told us we'd be jumping from a much lower pier than the one that had looked so intimidating.
I waited in line while those in front of me took turns jumping in... and then invariably exclaiming loudly how ungodly cold the water was! It felt a little surreal when I finally reached the front of the line- like, was I really going to jump butt first into the water? But I did it with no hesitation in spite of my my nerves. It was fine, even a bit fun... except the others had been spot on about the frigidity of the water temperature! And also I felt water go up my nose and mouth which was not a pleasant sensation. I guess the test jump serves 2 purposes: training the tour members on what lies ahead and also helping the guides figure out right away if the tour might be too much for anyone. Everyone in my group managed to complete the jump without issue. We also practiced our "human eel" formation in which we sat in our tubes in a single file row, holding onto the legs of the person behind us- we'd need to do this in the cave at one point to ensure that the group stayed together while floating gently through the water.
We got back in the van in our now more-damp attire for another short drive to the actual cave. Once there, we all slish-sloshed down a path to get to the entrance. After standing in a single file line, I descended not-so-gracefully down a stairway of rocks, and- with the help of the guides- entered the cave where I'd spend the next hour-or-so wading through water and floating in my tube. At one point, we glided in our tubes through a confining narrow corridor which fortunately didn't freak me out like I'd thought it might. At another point when we paused, the guides passed out chocolate fish- but at first they pretended they were something gross just to mess with us.
There were 2 waterfall jumps which required using our skills we practiced in jumping backwards. The first wasn't any more scary than the practice pier, but the 2nd one seemed rather high. We were told that we didn't technically have to do that jump although I'm not clear what the alternative would have been. I just summoned all my inner fortitude to take advantage of this unique opportunity, reminding myself that I'd never again have this chance. I jumped and pushed back off the ledge... and felt like I was in the air for quite a bit before finally splashing down into the water. I was so proud that I'd faced my fears (although, technically, since I'd been leaping backwards, I hadn't been literally facing them)
The most magical part of the tour was when we floated gently in the human eel formation with our headlamps shut off. The channel we passed through was illuminated by thousands of tiny glow worms. The mood was heightened by our guide, Pippin, singing a lovely song. At the very end, we glided calmly in our tubs again without our headlamps; this time we didn't hold onto each other so it felt a bit like we were drifting amok as you'd hear an occasional person questioning whether they were touching a rock or a person. At this time, Pippin sang another song- this one from Lord of the Rings. We were extremely lucky to be guided by someone with vocal talent; that is not a standard part of the tour.
All too soon, some light started to pierce through the dark cave and I knew it was about time to emerge back into the real world. I was so glad I'd signed up for the Black Labyrinth tour instead of giving into my nerves and taking the safer option. It was such a unique experience which combined the beauty of the cave and glow worms with just enough of a dash of adventure to add some excitement without being too scary. The tour required a decent level of fitness and good agility, but it wasn't too taxing.
When we got out of the cave, it was raining which wasn't a huge deal since we were already wet. I hadn't noticed until the previous day that my reservation said I should bring a towel; I hadn't packed one and obviously couldn't just take one from my Auckland hotel since I wouldn't be returning there. Fortunately, when we got back to the main building after a short van ride, I was able to borrow an extra towel from the guides. There were again separate changing areas for men and women, with showers that had a curtain for privacy. I just went into the shower briefly with my swimsuit on so I could get rid of any obvious dirt; the hot water felt great! I changed into street clothes and put my bathing suit into a large ziploc baggie so it wouldn't get the rest of my luggage wet.
The tour experience concluded with us lining up to feast on tomato soup and bagels. I started to get overwhelmed with people so I didn't bother to toast my bagel; it was fine as it was. The warm soup really hit the spot, even though the cave water apparently wasn't as cold as usual (or as the body of water in which we'd practiced). Of course, I had to buy the photo package- they weren't the best photos but they're the only visual souvenirs I could have of the experience. On the way to make my purchase, I noticed an adorable and inexpensive plush animal in a tube which I absolutely had to take home with me as a cute reminder of a wonderful adventure.
We got back in the minibus along with most, if not all, of the people who had gone on the boat ride through the caves. I didn't really talk with any of them so I don't know what they thought of their excursion.
It continued to rain during most of the hour and a half ride to Hobbiton, and my spirits darkened like the skies in anticipation of a soggy outdoor tour with less than ideal conditions for once-in-a-lifetime photographs. I kept hoping for a clearing, but there seemed to be no end in sight. I just reconciled myself to the fact that I can't control the weather.
The definition of "miraculous timing" might be the fact that the rain suddenly stopped just around the time when we pulled into the Hobbiton parking lot and did not resume again until we were finished with the walking tour. Dry buy grey skies alone would have been a most welcome condition. But nature took matters one level further by allowing the sun to shine down on the beautiful green pastures of Hobbiton for most of the tour. I still can't believe my incredible luck!
When they were scouting locations for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film makers discovered a farm with green rolling hills that seemed to be the ideal location to shoot the Shire scenes. But after those movies were completed, all the sets were destroyed. When it came time to film The Hobbit trilogy about 10 years later, the farm owners insisted on erecting permanent sets this time. Having observed the number of tours that moved like clockwork, I believe this worked out to be quite a sound financial decision for them.
An excursion to Hobbiton is very high on the list of "things to do" on a trip to New Zealand. I'm not remotely a Tolkien fan- I've never read the books and I only recently saw a couple of the Lord of the Rings movies before my trip- and 'm sure the experience would be more meaningful to a fan in the sense that it would feel like a dream come true. But I feel the attraction is well worth visiting even if you don't have a sentimental attachment to the movies.
From the main area, full size tour buses leave every 10-20 minutes for the very short drive to the start of the walking tour. Then you spend about an hour and a half exploring the charming world of the Hobbits, walking up and down paths along the hills as you pause to look at quaint little hobbit holes. I was quite impressed with the level of whimsical detail- things like laundry hanging on a line, a scarecrow, or a table set up like someone was preparing a lakeside lunch. The landscape itself was gorgeous beyond words with bountiful displays of colorful flowers. We could scarcely have had better weather for enjoying the idyllic setting.
At the end of the tour, we stopped at The Green Dragon bar where we were able to enjoy a complimentary mug of one of several beverages. I elected to try the (alcoholic) cider which was quite good. There were additional food and beverage options available for purchase, although we only had about 15 minutes to enjoy them. I sat and chatted with one of the ladies who had also been on the cave tour with me. The other woman inexplicably stayed behind at the coffee shop by the entrance; I don't understand why someone would pay for a tour and not participate when there were seemingly no physical reasons for skipping it.
The Hobbiton tour was very well organized and enjoyable. However, each group consisted of a full busload of people so it was hard to hear explanations if you were standing toward the back of the group, as I often did after lingering for a photo at the previous stopping point. You're required to join a tour even if you're traveling independently, although it's possible to book a private tour (up to 4 people for about $500 USD; the standard tour is about $57 USD). It's nonetheless a great experience, and the tours are well managed so that the area doesn't feel overcrowded.
After we took the bus back to the main area, we had a very short time to use the restroom and peruse the gift shop. While I could certainly have used a rest stop, it was more of a priority for me to buy some things for people back home like my nieces who are huge Hobbit fans. And of course I am horribly indecisive. The end result was that I came back with a lot of cool souvenirs to dole out... and fortunately my bladder never exploded. I was probably the last one to leave which made me a little self conscious but it was worth it.
At this point, I was transferred with my bags to another minibus that was headed to Rotorua. All the other occupants had started there as well; I don't know if anyone had started in Rotorua and then transferred to my bus to Auckland but that was an option that had been available.
The ride to Rototua was less than an hour and a half. I was supposed to be dropped off at a central part of town, but the driver was kind enough to drop everyone off at their accomodations instead. I'd booked an apartment style hotel which would make it easier to do some laundry during my stay since there was a washer/dryer right in my room. As a bonus, the room also came with an outdoor hot tub which, alas, I was not able to make use of as much as I'd have liked due to how crazy packed my days were as well as the fact that a sign advised not using it after 10:30pm so as not to disturb others with the noise.
After getting settled, I decided to take a little walk around the town to get my bearings. It was 6:30pm but the sun didn't set until around 8pm so there was still an abundance of light and the skies were fortunately once again dry. Rotorua is a very small town (at least the main area) and it's very walkable. The streets seemed very quiet on a Monday night, with many stores already closed for the day. I made my way to Lake Rotorua since I am always drawn to bodies of water. But I was really hungry so I didn't spend much time lingering there.
Near the lake was an area called "Eat Streat" which my hotel had recommended since it contained a high concentration of good restaurants. I was perusing menu after menu in my notoriously indecisive way... until I came to one that listed a dessert called "CBK's Famous Skillet Cookie" Oh, yes- I immediately realized I'd found the perfect spot to have dinner!
For my main course, I ended up choosing the Skillet Mac 'n' Cheese with bacon which meant that my meal had quite the skillet theme. Both my entrée and my dessert were fabulous! I was very happy with my decision to dine there. One of the things that was hardest to get used to about New Zealand was that in most restaurants, you don't get a check- you just go up to someone at the register who will have it.
I was too tired to hit the grocery store to stock up the fridge, so I walked straight back to my hotel. I took a brief dip in the hot tub and enjoyed its massaging bubbles before taking a proper shower to get rid of any residual cave gunk. I was exhausted after such a long day, but it had been well worth it. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the 2 amazing activities I'd participated in and was glad I'd been able to combine them with transport between cities.
Since I'd collapsed into bed at around 10:30pm the night before, I ended up awakening well before my 8am alarm. By the time I was ready, I had over a half hour before my 8:50am pickup so I decided to try getting breakfast at the French cafe a couple doors down which my hotel had recommended. I wasted a bunch of time because when they told me to sit and look at the menu, I thought it meant that someone would eventually come by to take my order. I was just about ready to leave in a huff because I was sick of waiting when they informed me that you actually order from the counter. Well, if I'd known that, there would have been no need waste time perusing the menu at all because one of my (very few) immutable Life Rules is that if there are Nutella crepes on the menu, there is never a need to look further.
I managed to get my food with just barely enough time to eat before I needed to leave. The crepe was fabulous. The café itself was also quite cute, and I enjoyed its French styled wall decorations which included a Les Mis logo printed on the flag of France and several cat themed pictures with French writing. My breakfast had gotten off to a rocky start, but it was worth the minor misunderstanding.
My morning tour, which I'd booked with the same company as the previous day's tours, was to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. Rotorua is known for is for its geysers, mud pools, and hot thermal springs. My destination was a bit of a commercialized compilation of highlights of some of these features. I most wanted to go there because some of their hot springs had some bright and unusual colors…. and of course I love all things that are colorful.
The driver who took us there seemed a bit affected and overly cheery but she was otherwise fine. After dropping a few people off at Waimangu (another geothermal site which I didn't have a chance to explore), we made a brief initial stop to see a couple mud pools that were just outside the park. It was fun watching them bubble up, as if they were alive. I felt a little rushed there, as I would have liked to have walked up to an overlook but I didn't feel like I had enough time for that.
One person had some apparent difficulty understanding that we were meant to get back into the bus so we were a little late leaving to our next destination, the Lady Knox Geyser, which was only a few minutes drive away. We had to hurry into the arena as the demonstration was already starting. I somehow managed to find a tiny bit of space to stand atop the last row of bench seats; the area was already quite packed with spectators. It was indeed impressive to see the water shoot up but honestly this was one of the least thrilling parts of the day both because it was so crowded and also because the eruption had to be manually triggered by adding soap (which I'd known in advance). There are lots of explanations of why adding soap doesn't take away from the authenticity, but all I can say is that it felt forced to me.
Finally, we were taken to our last stop where we had about an hour and a half to explore the main pathways within the park. After experiencing the crowds at the geyser, I was afraid that the viewing areas of the geothermal pools would be congested but I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the further sections felt downright empty which was quite nice. The tourists seemed to disperse nicely so that I never felt claustrophobic or like I had a hard time seeing the pools; occasionally, I had to wait a few seconds to eke out a good vantage point but it was never too crazy.
I'd been worried that I wouldn't have enough time at the park but I was able to see everything. ! It might have been nice to have been able to maintain a more leisurely pace, but I didn't have a rental car and the park was far enough out of town that a taxi would have been prohibitively expensive. And even if I'd had all the time in the world, I would still have felt like I was in a race with the weather as I made my way around the park. The sky seemed threatening and I wanted to see as much as possible before it started raining. Once again, nature bestowed some awesome luck on me as it didn't start to rain (gently) until I was just about ready to leave.
For visitors who are slower or less mobile, the walk is broken into 3 parts and you could complete the first loop of 1.5km and still see the most famous highlights. Of course, I wanted to see everything so I followed all 3 trails. The park was great, and I the colorful springs were just as beautiful and wondrous as I'd hoped. In addition to the sights, I enjoyed the overall experience of walking around and exploring the approximately 3km (1.9 miles) of paths. At one point, the trail included a mini bush walk which was quite peaceful as I encountered very few others there. Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland was a beautiful place to walk around and gaze at unique geothermal formations that were like nothing I've ever seen back home.
While taking the van back to town, I did some online research into Japanese restaurants in town. It was after 1pm when we got back so I was quite hungry! I ended up ordering Katsu-don at a really cute little place that was just a couple blocks from my hotel. It was delicious.
I'd originally thought would make an excellent activity for inclement weather, but I headed there after lunch even though it wasn't raining. They didn't seem to time me… nor do I think they mentioned time in the pricing but I only stayed a little over an hour. I ordered a "capurrccino" since a beverage was included, and was slightly disappointed that my drink wasn't adorned with a cat face in the cream as per the menu drawings. Oh, well.
There were some really fluffy cats at this café- including a huge guy named Volcano who seemed to adore being petted. I also saw a mischievous cat try to drink someone else's beverage; I'm not sure if it was the same one as was depicted in a "Wanted" sign on one of the walls. Speaking of walls, I loved that one was a lovely shade of light purple. Anyway, I delighted in all the cute cats and it was a great way to spend some time, especially since I always miss my kitties when I'm away. On my way out, I bought a cute little puffy purple kitty key ring to send to a friend.
I hadn't actually booked any activities for the next day although I'd had some ideas in mind, so I stopped in the I-Site visitor information center to firm up my plans. It was a smart move as they were able to offer me some discounts and deals that I wouldn't have gotten on my own. I also asked them about some other options that I could do on my own, including the Redwoods tree walk. Because there was a taxi waiting right outside, I decided to head straight for the Redwoods. (note: Uber did not operate in Rotorua)
As the name implies, the Redwoods is a forest of Redwood trees. You can hike the trails for free- which I didn't do because of lack of time as well as the fact that I don't feel safe hiking alone. I went on the walk that is a series of elevated platforms which incurred a small fee. The area is illuminated at night with colored lanterns hanging from the trees which I imagined would be quite beautiful but unfortunately I wouldn't have a chance to be there in the evening.
I've long been a little terrified of hanging bridges and staircases you can look through… which is exactly why I was intrigued by the treewalk. I mean, it had been well over 24 hours since I'd last challenged myself to do anything that had even remotely terrified me! It actually wasn't as scary as I'd expected; the walk was pretty empty so there was no one else around whose walking would shake the hanging bridges which obviously made them easier to cross. (on the other hand, it was freaky thinking that there would be no one around to notice in the off chance that I got injured) At one point, there was a newly added option to climb even higher and walk on see-through grates instead of planks. I took that challenge even though the grates were much more intimidating for me. I was nervous I might drop something, so I was relieved when it came time to walk down to rejoin the regular elevated path.
The lady at I-site had shown me on the map that it was possible to walk back to town so I decided to do that rather than call a cab. I'd clearly misunderstood her as I think she only mentioned that part of the walk was 30 minutes- not the entire journey. At any rate, I somehow missed the scenic way I'd intended to take and instead ended up on a very touristy street that was lined with motels. By the time I'd realized I wasn't on my desired route, I didn't want to waste time backtracking. I'd already had to turn around once when I'd dropped my camera lens cover; fortunately, I was able to retrieve it from the ground just a short bit back from where I noticed it was gone.
I was thankful when I could tell that I was finally getting near the center of town, and I stopped at a supermarket a few blocks from my hotel. I wasn't really thrilled with their options so I decided to try another one a block away. However, all the exits were blocked by shopping carts. Rather than trying to move them- which I thought might seem suspicious- I got in a short queue and then explained to the cashier that I was an idiot tourist who had changed her mind about buying anything. And then I was liberated!
The second supermarket also didn't quite have what I was looking for but I had to get something because by then I didn't really have sufficient time to go out for dinner. So I picked up a bag of instant tortellini. I also wanted to get some yogurt for the mornings but the single serve options were limited so I ended up with a pouch of drinkable Moogurt, a brand marketed at children. At least they had some Coke Zero.
When I got back to my room, it took me forever to heat up the tortellini on the electric stove... even after I realized that a switch needed to be flipped on for the stove to exude any heat. I finally got so impatient that I dumped everything on a plate and stuck it in the microwave. It still wasn't that hot but I was hungry and time was running out so I ate it anyway. That was surely the worst meal of the trip… even if you count the meals that I skipped. But at least my stomach wasn't empty.
At 8pm, I was picked up to go on a night hike through the Okataina Reserve, an off-the-beaten path location just a little outside the city. In addition to our guide, the group consisted of 2 young German guys and a middle-aged couple from Toronto who were the victims of some "Come From Away" babble from me. We drove out of town just as the sun was setting over the lake. Much to my chagrin, I wasn't able to take a satisfactory photo of the beautiful setting from our moving vehicle. I did, however, manage to take a mediocre photo of the new Kmart that was apparently exciting for the town; I found it ironic that New Zealand was getting new Kmarts at the same time they were disappearing from the US.
Once we got to the reserve, we were given headlamps, handheld flashlights, and reflective vests. Many times we kept our lights illuminated to red because it would allow us to see without scaring the animals to whom that color light was not visible. In that manner we were able to spot a few adorable little wallabies on our way into (and later out of) the forest.
The hike was wicked cool, although at times it was a bit challenging due to the darkness and the wet ground, combined with my general clumsiness. But the guide was terrific and the small group size was perfect for peaceful exploration. Our guide was as enthusiastic as he was knowledgeable and he told us a lot about the trees we were passing. I remember virtually none of the information he'd shared, of course. But it was interesting at the time.
At one point, the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps temporarily so that we could turn them on again for a dramatic reveal of a waterfall- which of course we could hear before we could see it. At another point, we turned off our headlamps in order to reveal a myriad of thousands of tiny glow worms illuminating like stars in the bush. It was just as magical a moment as when I'd seen the glow worms in the cave the previous day.
The guide was also keen to experiment with shadow photography which resulted in some really cool shots that he later sent to us. He was a passionate geek (in the best sense) about everything related to the hike which made it extremely enjoyable. At the end of the trip before returning to town, he served us hot chocolate and shortbread which we enjoyed together by the van. I'm so glad that I came across the hike on Tripadvisor because it was a fabulous and unique way to spend an evening. The hike felt authentic and not at all mainstream touristy.
I probably got back to the hotel well after 11 and I was exhausted. I'd walked nearly 11 miles over the course of a day that had included colorful geothermal hot springs, a cat café, a tree walk, and a night hike. It had been a pretty damn amazing jam-packed day.
Once again, I got up before my alarm which this time was set for 7:30am. I didn't need to take a shower because my morning activity was white water rafting in the Kaituna river over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world (7m or 23 feet)! Yep, it was time for another challenge! I'd white water rafted once before, ages ago in the Austrian Alps. But we hadn't gone over any waterfalls or anything. And I could barely remember anything except that I'd enjoyed it… and that this one abrasive woman in our group had ripped her suit which caused the rest of us to snicker. Good times.
When I'd booked the previous day at the I-Site, I'd received a fabulous discount which that only available for the earliest time in the morning which suited me perfectly. The deal included free photos which fabulous since I always buy the photo package. I'd originally planned to book with a different company but I couldn't resist this deal and I'm quite pleased with my experience; there are several companies offering similar experiences and I think they are all good.
At 8:15, I was met at my hotel by a really cool, outgoing young guy who did a great job of getting me excited for the experience. En route, we picked up a couple of young Germans. When we arrived at the facility, I was pleasantly surprised to be reunited with the friendly Indian couple who had been on my zipline tour in Waiheke! We exchanged happy greetings and when the group had to split up into 2 rafts, I joined them which worked out well because the others (including the 2 Germans from the van) were a bit more daring than we were.
I thought I did a wonderful job gearing up in a waterproof jumpsuit and booties. Until I was corrected that the booties went over the jumpsuit. And, umm, I had them on the wrong feet. Ooops. Since it was relatively cool out, I opted for a long sleeve jacket over my jumpsuit as did most others. My attire was completed with a life jacket and helmet. Just another stylin' morning of travel!
Once everyone was ready, we hopped in the van… and essentially rode across the street to the river. Then the staff brought the rafts to the water and we got inside. Before doing anything, they imparted safety information and basic instructions. Near the start, they had us repeat a few words in Maori for luck… though for all I know they could have been gibberish. But it was a nice touch. I'm ridiculously uncoordinated so it often took me more than a trivial effort to try to follow the very simple instructions which were really just "paddle", "back paddle", or "hold on". Obviously I survived so my awkwardness did not have an overall detrimental effect on the voyage. It just made me feel a bit silly at times.
We went over 2 small waterfalls before getting to the big one. The pictures of the raft going over the 7m waterfall seem to look rather scary, especially the ones where the raft almost disappears into the pounding waters. But honestly, it was one of the least intimidating challenges of my trip. Even when we were sitting at the top of the waterfall looking down, it didn't feel that crazy. I was a little concerned that we might flip over, which they said happens to about 10% of the rafts. That would have been freaky. But fortunately, I didn't have to figure out how I'd react in that scenario.
The drop itself happened so quickly that I didn't even have time to realize that we'd practically disappeared under the intense flow of the water for a brief moment. There was a bit of an adrenaline rush to be sure, but the dropping sensation was probably less than on a theme park flume ride. It was the perfect combination of fun and adventure. We were all smiles when we posed for photos at the bottom.
I was almost disappointed when we were done with the big drop because it had happened too quickly. But we still had at least 20 minutes where we continued to raft through the really beautiful area. During that time, we got to do some cool things like ride a rapid outside of the raft- I sorta regret holding on but that's what the other couple did. (the occupants of the other raft did not) We also stood up during another rapid, holding our oars as though we were rock stars holding guitars, and another time we "surfed". I had such a great time laughing and enjoying being out on the water on such a lovely day! (well except for occasionally getting water up my nose or on my eyes) I mean, if you look at my face in some of the photos, all you see is pure joy. When we were done, part of me wanted to go again… right then and there. I think that out of all the amazing activities I tried in New Zealand, white water rafting has to get the award for "Most Fun".
It was only around 11am when I got back to my hotel, so I still had plenty of time left in the day. The first thing I did was to stop at the front desk so I could make arrangements for my early departure the next morning before the office opens. The process proved to be much harder than it needed to be because the woman at the desk was really new. But she was sweet, and I eventually managed to acquire a Super Shuttle reservation for 6am.
Since one reason for choosing this hotel was to have access to a laundry machine in my room, I did my laundry. While it was running, I watched "Crazy Rich Asians" which was one of the free movies offered by hotel's TV system. The timing was excellent- my clothes were all clean and dry just about 5 minutes before the end of the movie. After some jam packed days, it felt nice to spend a bit of time indulging in laziness. (although I was also productive) I'd been wanting to see the movie for awhile and I enjoyed it, but I felt a bit let down from all the hype.
I ate the leftovers of the previous night's mediocre tortellini for lunch because I hate wasting food. And then it was time for me to figure out what I wanted to do for the afternoon. It was about 1:30, so I had about 4 hours to play around with. I'd really wanted to go zorbing during my time in Rotorua because it's such a unique activity that looks like fun. But I couldn't justify to myself the overhead in time and money that would be required for a quick (but exhilarating) roll down a hill in a huge clear ball. If I'd had a rental car, it would have been much easier, but getting there would require either buses or a taxi as the place was not in walking distance of the center of town. I also felt that zorbing would likely be a letdown after having such an absolutely amazing time earlier rafting. I wish I could have fit zorbing into my itinerary, but after weighing the pros and cons, I decided with a tinge of regret that it wouldn't be the best use of my limited remaining time in Rotorua.
Instead, I spent a lovely afternoon strolling around Rotorua. The city was very walkable and a plethora of roundabouts made it easy to cross the streets, although there was usually little traffic. I'm glad I had a chance to explore it at my leisure.
My first stop was at an ice cream place at the end of Eat Streat. I ended up with a cone of Gold Digger ice cream which was described as "Honeycomb flavoured ice cream with pieces of honeycomb wrapped in chocolate." It was very similar to Hokey Pokey, and quite delicious. I always love trying local ice cream shops and this was no exception.
I then proceeded to walk along a path by Lake Rotorua. It was a quiet walk, in which I encountered very few people. I'm sure I saw more birds than humans. The walk extends quite far and I would have seen a different section of it had I taken the correct scenic route home from the Redwoods. The waterway along the path morphs into Sulphur Bay, where it is on top of an active geothermal field. The water in this area had an interesting whitish tinge. It was quite peaceful gazing out at the water and the gentle rolling green hills in the background. The scenery was especially dramatic because it was clear that a storm was coming through- winds were picking up and I started to notice grey clouds.
But I still persisted on enjoying and photographing the view. That is, until I felt some rain drops… which quickly turned into heavy rain. I ran in the direction of town, hoping to find some shelter; of course this was the one time I didn't have a rain coat with me. As luck would have it, I quickly stumbled across the Rotorua Energy Events Center, a venue that is used for events ranging from theatre and sports to conventions. For my purposes, all that mattered was that its entrance was covered by a generous awning which I could stand under to avoid getting drenched.
Fortunately, the storm passed swiftly- from the times on my photos, it looks like it spanned less than 5 minutes. When it cleared, I wandered through the Government Gardens with its fanciful floral displays. I love how you can see droplets of water from the recent precipitation lingering on some of the flowers I photographed. Just by the gardens was the Rotorua Museum whose unique Elizabethan architecture I admired. Unfortunately, I couldn't enter because the building had been closed after it was determined it fell well below earthquake safety standards.
And then I stumbled upon the Sulphur Lake Sculpture Trail which consisted of 18 sculptures that had been placed on display around a geothermal lake. It was the perfect setting for a leisurely walk. In an artsy mood, I also peeked inside the nearby Arts Village. I was hoping to find earrings to buy but none of the ones on display really struck me.
Walking back to my hotel, I decided to continue on and take a look at Kuirau Park which was a couple blocks on the other side of town from my previous wanderings. I didn't really have time to look around in much depth but I did indulge in a brief soak in the thermal foot baths. On the way back, I saw a plaque honoring Jean Batten who was born in a nearby house. An aviation pioneer, she made quite a few notable flights in the 1930's. I naturally was reminded of Captain Beverley Bass (from "Come From Away") and hummed a bit of "Me and the Sky" to myself.
It was a lovely afternoon. I was in my element exploring and taking photos… and just generally reveling in feeling completely free to go and do whatever I wanted, in whatever time it took. The sensation of being liberated of boundaries or rules was totally the opposite of what an organized activity like zorbing would entail… and it was precisely what I needed at that moment in time. While I like to experience as much as possible of the noted sights wherever I go, I don't want my travels to be organized like a strict "To Do" list where I check off each item. I need to also work in time to just be, preferably by myself. It's an awesome feeling when I can discover gems like the sculpture trail that are unexpected delights. Sometimes, allowing the time to roam means I can't make it to an attraction I'd hoped to see- and that's completely ok. I am glad I trusted my wanderlust instincts that afternoon even if it meant that I didn't get to go zorbing.
I took a very short break in the hotel room during which time I tossed my bathing suit into the dryer so that it wouldn't be wet for the plane ride the next morning. Then I walked a half a block for my 5:30 pickup for the cultural performance at Mitai Maori Village. I'd really wanted to see something representing traditional native Maori culture during my time in New Zealand and I'd chosen this dinner show with some trepidation that it might be a little too cheesy-touristy for my liking. There is no denying that the evening is touristy as evidenced by the fact that the audience was filled with people from all over the world (and few, if any locals), but it was a lot of fun and presented in a way that seemed to honor the culture.
When we arrived at the village, everyone from our minibus checked in and was given a table number for the dining room. A lot of them were at the same table. I, on the other hand, was seated at a large table all by myself for what seemed like a super long time which felt unbelievably awkward. I was so glad when the other people from my table eventually trickled in. I ended up being seated with a good mix of friendly, well-traveled people, and I enjoyed their company.
A couple ladies in Maori dress came around serving hors d'oeuvres and I went up to the bar to get a glass of Chardonnay wine since the deal I got for booking at the I-Site included a beverage. Once everyone had arrived, a guy who functioned as the master of ceremonies gathered a count of the countries represented in the audience. And then he asked for a volunteer to act as the tribal chief during the show. No one raised their hands at first and I would have been all about relishing a chance to bask in the spotlight. But, alas, the chief had to be male. They eventually gave some bullshit reasons about how men had to be chiefs because the chief has a chance of dying in war, and women's lives were too precious because killing them would also be killing future generations. But it was 2018 and no one was going to get killed in a tourist show, so I am still a bit bitter that they wouldn't allow women to play the role of the chief.
At any rate, one of the guys from my table ended up being our representative. Once that business was settled, we went outside to waterway to watch Maori arrive by paddling on a traditional water craft. It was obviously hokey and staged, but it was nonetheless kinda cool to see. After that, the chief helped present trays of food that would (supposedly) be our dinner. And then we filed into the theatre for the cultural show. Since I hate photos with heads in the way, I managed to sit in the front row next to our chief.
The show was a lot of fun, and of course it included a haka war dance as well as other demonstrations of traditional games, instruments, and dances. It felt more like the performers were sharing their culture and traditions rather than some shows I've seen in my travels which feel like they are just presenting stereotypes of what tourists want to see. Over the course of the evening, I learned a bit about Maori culture including information about their distinctive facial tattoos. Part of the performance had our chief and one from a 2nd dining room going up to the chief onstage to make peace with him.
After the performance, we returned to the dining room for a buffet dinner. Everything was delicious but I particularly enjoyed the seafood chowder and sweet potatoes. The final part of the evening was a walk outside in the dark to see more glow worms. This was by far my least favorite of my 3 glow worm experiences; it felt annoying to be herded out amongst huge crowds and the reveal was not nearly as magical the ones on my previous days in the region. Finally, it was time to take the bus back to my hotel.
I couldn't believe that it was already time to pack up to be saying farewell to the North Island. I was really glad I'd challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis during the early days of the trip. I still had to decide about one future challenge that was a bit up in the air, but I was leaning towards going for it. I went to bed feeling very at peace both with myself and my surroundings.
As was becoming usual, I woke up before my alarm- although this time it was only a minute early. I quickly got myself together, ate a protein bar, drank my last moogurt and then headed downstairs where I slipped the room key under the door to the reception which was still closed. My Super Shuttle came promptly at 6am and I was the only passenger.
I arrived at the airport at 6:15 for my 7:15 am flight which normally wouldn't seem like enough time. But not only is Rotorua Regional Airport really small… it also had absolutely no security screening. Zero. None. I was a little bummed that I'd left some bottled water in my room since it turned out that there was no reason I couldn't have carried it with me. The airport was cozy and comfortable, and it was cool to see a statue honoring aviator Jean Batten after having first learned about her from a plaque in town.
I'd been quite pleased that I'd been able to reserve a seat at the front of the aircraft since usually that's the most convenient location. However, we boarded (and later disembarked) our small plane from the back so… it wasn't as good a location as I'd expected. I always hope for an empty seat next to me so I was obviously disappointed when a guy sat in the aisle seat. He took up a lot of space and my nose felt like he hadn't showered very recently. As he crowded me rubbing off lottery ticket after lottery ticket, I was quite annoyed. But it turned out that he was a really nice guy who offered me one of his snacks later in the flight. There's probably a lesson there about not judging people by their smell.
New Zealand is known for its beautiful landscapes, and they were highlighted quite nicely on my flight. I was so glad that I always book window seats as I greedily looked out on sunny unobstructed views of Rotorua, Taupo, and other magnificent vistas on the North Island. As we approached Wellington and then crossed toward the South Island, the landscape became obstructed by white fluffy clouds. But snow capped mountains occasionally poked through the cloud cover and made for quite a dramatic vision. This might have been the most scenic flight I've ever taken on a major airline carrier. (I'm not counting the sea plane in the Maldives which was crazy amazing)
It was quite a short flight- under 2 hours. Even so, the flight attendants passed around cookies. I was quite amused that the character on the Cookie Time label bore quite a resemblance to Gritty, the relatively new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team. It was also quite a tasty snack, albeit a bit spicier than I'd expected.
While small, Christchurch airport serves international flights and therefore has some more sophisticated facilities than Rotorua. And yet, we retrieved checked bags right near our gate rather than from one of the baggage carousels. There were excellent signs and I quickly figured out where to go for my shuttle, but I decided to linger just a bit to take a look at the airport and its Christmas decorations since this would be my only time there. I was enjoying my wander when a worker stopped me because he said I looked lost. Apparently I quite often look lost which is really annoying to me when I'm not. Ugh. Anyway, he was a nice guy and he jokingly asked if Donald Trump was in my bag; he said that all the Americans he'd met cringed just like I did upon being asked this question. It's not the President's poltical ideology (if he has one) that sickens me as much as the fact that he acts like a spoiled bully toward anyone who disagrees with him.
The Super Shuttle was rather crowded and I felt a bit motion sick during the ride, so I was quite relieved to arrive at my hotel at around 10am. My room wasn't ready yet but I was able to leave my bags and they took my email address to let me know when it would be available. I took a few minutes to sit in the lobby as I still felt a bit tired and motion sick. I was excited to realize that the theatre where I'd be seeing a show that night was clearly visible when looking outside from the lobby. I hadn't intentionally chosen the hotel for its proximity to the theater; that was just a stroke of luck. I'd had the hardest time deciding where to stay in Christchurch until I saw a listing for a new moderately priced hotel with colorful rooms and a central location. I then discovered that there was a show I'd like to see, and was quite pleased that it happened to be playing a theatre that was so near. (it seemed even closer in person than it had on a map)
Once I was ready to head out, my first destination was cathedral square and the Christchurch Cathedral which were literally just steps away. It was sobering to see the cathdedral standing in ruins, still severely damaged from the devastating earthquake on Feb 22, 2011. And yet, the adjacent square was vibrant with a giant chess board, a large chalice sculpture and a tram stop where city tour vehicles stopped to collect passengers. It felt like an encapsulation of the city itself, still physically and emotionally reeling from the tragedy but yet alive with street art and energy.
From there, I walked to the Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, a triangular edifice opened in 2013 and built out of materials including reinforced cardboard tubes. (it's also known as The Cardboard Cathedral) The exterior is dramatic, with unique triangular shaped colored glass windows. But the interior is much more humble. As I entered, a group of children were practicing singing for a Christmas event. Despite not being religious, I was charmed by the beautiful moment and started to get ready to capture it on film when I was severely chided by a man not to photograph the children.
After putting my camera down, I was approached by a woman who felt bad about how harsh the man had been with me. It turned out that she was an expat from Michigan and we had a lovely conversation. Meanwhile, I saw plenty of other people taking cell phone photos that included the kids so I eventually did as well. Frankly, there was no good way to photograph the interior without also including children in the shot. Hopefully the 5-or-so people who look at my photos will not do anything improper with them.
On my way out, I saw a beautiful poem for peace on a table by purple, pink and white flowers. Combined with the pure voices of the children, it brought to mind the moving song "Prayer" from "Come From Away." The text of the poem is as follows:
God of many names, Lover of all peoples;
we pray for peace in our nations and in our world.
We pray for all who have the awesome responsibility of power
We pray for the innocent victims of violence and war.
Lead us and all the peoples of the world from death to life,
from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace with justice fill our hearts, our world, our universe.
After leaving the cathedral, I checked my notes to find the location of an earthquake memorial that I knew was very close which I couldn't find listed on Google Maps. A year after the earthquake, an artist had erected a display entitled "185 Empty Chairs" which consisted of one white chair to represent each of the 185 individuals who had perished in the disaster. It was originally intended to be temporary, but it's obviously still there. The display consists of neat rows of chairs of all shapes and sizes- ranging from a baby seat and high chair to a wheelchair- on a modest patch of grass between parking lots. I found it to be a breathtakingly moving reminder of those lives that were tragically cut short. A list was posted with all the names and ages of the victims; I hadn't realized that about a third of the casualties were citizens of Asian countries.
I intended to visit the Christchurch Botanic Gardens next since it was so gorgeous out; it was one of the few days on my trip where there was absolutely no rain, and the high temperature was around 60 degrees though it felt warmer in the sun. But a funny thing happened on my way there. I was lured into a shopping center by an intriguing sign for a milkshake place. So I took a break to savor a Cookies and Cream milkshake with cookie crumbles. After relaxing and enjoying my refreshing treat, I perused a New Zealand souvenir store where I bought a Manuka honey hand cream in a cute limited edition new years container.
While I was spending some time at the shopping center, I received an email that my hotel room was ready. Since I was only a couple blocks away, I went there to get the key. The modern room was very comfortable, and I absolutely adored the luggage cubby by the bed. I took a bit of a nap which was punctuated by the sounds of construction outside. I didn't mind the noise since it kept me from sleeping longer than my brief intent.
At about 2, I was ready to head out and see some more of the city. After stopping to pick up my theatre ticket for that night, I visited the official Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial which had been erected in 2017 along the bank of the Avon River. Overall, I didn't find that this display had as big an emotional impact as the 185 chairs. However, I was deeply moved by some small tributes to a few of the victims that I presume were left by family members. I was particularly struck by a page showing smiling face of a 27 year old woman along with the lyrics of the Beatles' song "Blackbird." I recently did a little research and discovered that she was the lone American victim. She'd been scheduled to start her journey back to the US that night but she'd perished after exiting a tattoo parlour with a friend. I'm sure hers is just one of many similarly tragic stories.
I swear I heard someone puzzling over the memorial with their friend and uttering a dismissive comment like "oh it's probably people that died." Aside from the fact that the memorial's intent is clearly spelled out on the wall, I can't fathom how one could travel to Christchurch and be unaware of the 2011 earthquake. Ruins and massive amounts of rebuilding are literally just about everywhere. That fateful day still seems to be part of the city's very heartbeat and soul.
Finally, I made it the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. But by the time I got there, I was getting hungry and I didn't want to push myself too hard so I only allowed myself to get a glimpse of the area. What I saw was lovely- especially the elaborate peacock fountain. I'd hoped there might be somewhere nearby where I could grab a quick bite to eat but I didn't see anything promising. If I am ever back in the city, I would definitely want to spend more time exploring the gardens.
I had read about some shops in an Arts Center across the way but first I went into the wrong building. It was cool since I saw some interesting artsy stuff like a lawn decorated with a bunch of yellow orbs. I soon found the place I'd intended. I hoped it might have somewhere for lunch or some artsy stores, but there really wasn't too much of interest there except for the fudge store where I bought a friend some candy that was packaged in a cute little container that was decorated with the image of a cat.
I had a lot of issues finding a place to eat some lunch. I was in one of those moods where nothing really appealed to me. Plus, it was an off hour (around 3/3:30) and some places were closed until 5. I was craving pizza and I remembered passing a quick serve place that could suffice to satisfy that craving. So I tried to go to Hell (the name of the pizza place). But, apparently Hell didn't want me. After standing and waiting for plenty long enough time that someone should have attended to me (there were no other customers), I just gave up and went back to the hotel room where I ate a chocolate bar to tide myself over and then took a pre-show shower.
At around 5:20, I headed to an Italian restaurant right by the theatre. I was surprised that they were booked solid on a Thursday night but fortunately they were able to accommodate me on a high table with stools by the window. All I cared about was getting some pizza, and the view of the street outside was quite nice. I was so hungry that I practically devoured the entire Margherita pizza. I felt much better after having a proper meal.
I stolled along nearby New Regent street for a bit. I'd passed there earlier, so I was bummed when I saw a cookie shop that had closed at 5pm; I could totally have gotten one earlier when I'd been so hungry if only I'd walked down the little street with its charming pastel buildings. The gelato place I'd read about was fortunately still open so I stopped there for some dessert- a cone of mint chocolate. It was a rare time when I passed up the chance to order Hokey Pokey but I was in the mood for something a bit more refreshing. The shop was really quirky in a fun way, and I'm glad I had a chance to stop there.
That night, I saw the show "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" which was created by the same people who were responsible for the ridiculously funny "The Play That Goes Wrong" which I'd enjoyed on Broadway. I often see shows when I travel just because they happen to be in the city I'm visiting but this time I was excited because I had the chance to see a show that hadn't yet been presented in NY which I was pretty sure I'd genuinely enjoy.
I got to the theatre very early which gave me plenty of time to go to the restroom and pose for selfies. I didn't buy a program because they were $20 NZD (about $14 USD) and I expected that I'd be able to get some kind of free cast list as they had at "Here Lies Love." Well, they didn't have any such free (or lower cost) playbills. I was reluctantly going to buy a program after the show so I'd have a permanent record of who I'd seen in the cast but they no longer had vendors selling them. So I've got nothing but a ticket stub… and my memories. (for the record, the cast I saw was advertised as including Jay Laga’aia as Francis, Darcy Brown as Jonathan, Francine Cain as Sandra, Adam Dunn as Trevor, Luke Joslin as Robert, George Kemp as Dennis, Jordan Prosser as Max, Tammy Weller as Annie, Connor Crawford as Chris and Teagan Wouters as Lucy with Max Whitty and Jessie Yates as understudies)
I was thrilled that, just like the Broadway show, this production included silly pre-show antics that completely distracted me from writing notes about the day. These included an announcement for the opening night of "Jehovah's Witness the musical", people looking for a hammer, and a cast member cutting through a row of seats asking people for a lift home. But my absolute favorite was when the cast passed a "wire" back through the middle of the audience to power the stage. Since my seat was dead center of my row, I actively participated in holding the wire as it was passed back. Needless to say, I had a huge grin on my face before the show even officially started.
A lot of the jokes in "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" were very similar to those in "The Play That Goes Wrong" so one's opinion of the 2 shows should be pretty similar. I had a grand old time laughing at the madcap antics onstage throughout the evening. It was a joy to watch, and one of the absolute highlights in a stellar trip.
I marveled that it still was not completely dark when I walked to my hotel at around 9:30pm when the show let out. I stopped at the front desk to ask about the best way to get to the train station the next morning. At first they recommended a cab but then they mentioned Uber would be cheaper. I was looking forward to a day of enjoying the scenery while transiting to Franz Josef; it would be a nice break in all the walking I'd been doing. I may have had some even more profound thoughts but I ended that night's notes in mid-sentence so we'll never know what they were.
* * *
When I was just starting to piece together my thoughts and photos for this blog entry, the news broke that 50 people died in a terrorist attack at a Christchurch mosque on March 15, 2019. While this event would have been equally tragic anywhere, my first thought was that it was doubly sad that it happened in a city that was still trying to heal from the 2011 earthquake... one whose temporary cathedral offered such a moving poem for peace. My heart is with the Christchurch community as it tries to recover from another painful event.
It was another early day of getting ready to move to another city: quick wake up at around 6:30, get dressed, do some last minute packing, and check out of the hotel. Thanks to the tip from the front desk the previous night, I called an uber which came almost immediately. The driver was really friendly, and it was a pleasant ride to the train station.
En route, I was excited to pass by an Orangetheory Fitness (OTF) location. I started going to a local OTF back in March 2018 with a goal of improving my overall health and fitness so I could get more out of my travels and life in general. It's been hard work, but I slowly started improving. I don't necessarily advocate OTF for everyone, but if you want to continue enjoying traveling (or any kind of active lifestyle) as you get older, it's probably a good idea to adhere to some kind of fitness routine. In addition to my recent foray into high intensity interval training at OTF, I've been attending yoga classes for years. I firmly believe that the best exercise program is whatever one you will stick to.... and what works for you may evolve over the years.
I'd hoped that I'd be able to pick up something to eat at the train station, but it was extremely tiny as it only serves 2 train departures a day; I'm so accustomed to traveling via larger train stations with frequent departures that I take some things for granted. After checking in super early (at 7:15 for an 8:15am train), there wasn't much to do but sit and wait. At around 7:35, we were able to line up at the front of the train to check bags and then enter the passenger compartments. All seats are assigned and I was pleased that mine was at a window. I chatted a bit with a fellow American solo traveler who was next to me. As soon as I heard an announcement that the cafe car was open, I headed there and purchased an egg, ham and cheese sandwich, a bottle of a commercial brand of berry smoothie, and a chocolate chip cookie.
The train I was taking was the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth, a 5 hour journey which is famed for the scenic views it provides along the way. It would get me to within a 4.5 hour bus ride to my next destination. While researching my trip, I discovered that the railway offered some discount fares that weren't displayed on the train's website unless you connected from a New Zealand IP address, even though foreigners were eligible to purchase them. After a quick search for a free VPN plugin, I managed to book one of these tickets for a fare of $130 NZD ($88 USD for my entire journey including a connecting bus) instead of something like $257 NZD. (at least that's the price I'm seeing now; I definitely paid $88). It was a significant savings; my meticulous research definitely paid off!
The landscape just out of Christchurch was nice enough, but not very special. When I overheard a guide tell his group that they ought to head to a viewing car soon before it got crowded, I heeded the advice. The train included 2 viewing carriages which had open air windows that allowed for optimal photography without glare. If you know anything about me, you won't be surprised that I made one of these cars my home... except, reluctantly, for the periods when passengers weren't allowed there such as a long tunnel during the latter part of the journey. There were no seats.... it was chilly and breezy... and it got jam packed during the peak time when we passed through the most dramatic scenery... but yet it was my paradise. I loved standing, feeling the wind blowing through my hair (although I eventually put my hair back in a ponytail for convenience) as I shot photo after photo. When space permitted, I'd flit back and forth, trying to capture the best views from both the left and right sides of the train. Unfortunately, I don't think I used the best camera settings early in the train ride, but my photos improved when I switched to manual later on. (I'd started using shutter speed priority, but I was getting too wide an aperture which resulted in photos that were a little too bright and not as sharp as I'd like)
While researching this blog, I discovered that the open air viewing cars have been temporarily closed as of March 2019 due to safety concerns. Apparently people have been leaning out of the car to take photos. I admit that my camera stretched outside the train once or twice, mainly to try to get around people who had large iPads obstructing my view, but I don't think I actually leaned myself out of the windows. In any case, the closure is most unfortunate for passengers currently booked on the train.
5 hours may seem like an eternally long length for a train ride, but it didn't seem nearly that long since I was enjoying the views. The landscapes we traveled through were full of contrasts between turquoise waters below and snow capped mountains in the distance. There were occasional bucolic scenes of cows dotting the green grass. We stopped for a few minutes at Arthur's Pass; most people walked outside for a bit but I used that time to sit in my seat and partake of some of my remaining food. Toward the end of the trip, the train briefly stopped at a station called Moana which obviously gave me some Disney feels.
While the train ride was quite pleasant and a most welcome break from days spent running all around, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as more than a means to an end. There are excursions offered where the train is a destination in itself and I didn't feel it was quite worth all that. But it was absolutely a fabulous method of transportation to transverse the South island between Christchurch and the terminus of Greymouth, on the west coast.
Once we reached Greymouth, I disembarked and collected my checked luggage and was easily able to find the queue for the bus I needed to Franz Josef which was conveniently just across the small platform. My bus driver wasn't there yet so a bunch of us just congregated and waited for him to arrive with passengers from the town of Nelson. He had a German accent, which I greatly enjoyed while he provided commentary during the 3.5 hour journey. Among the facts he shared was that it rains approximately 277 days a year on the West Coast of New Zealand.
En route, we made a 45 minute stop at a cute little town named Hokitika. Our driver recommended a few places to eat. I considered stopping at a kiwi center to view some of New Zealand's famous birds until I saw a sign that no photography was allowed; while I was hoping to see the birds, I didn't feel it would be the best use of my very limited time. It should surprise no one that I ending up exploring and taking photos. The end of town near where we parked contained a blissful beach which was absolutely empty on this slightly overcast not-very-warm day. Another corner offered a view of distant snow capped mountains, beckoning me onward. It started to drizzle on my way back to the bus and I ducked into a convenience store to buy a bottle of water to quench my extreme thirst.
The remainder of the bus ride took us through some scenic areas; the bus driver would often slow down to help facilitate photography. Some of the villages we passed were so remote that the bus was delivering medicines to them. At least that's what the driver said. For all I know, he could have been the ringleader of a drug cartel.
There are 2 glaciers in nearly adjacent towns on the western coast of New Zealand: Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. Naturally, I chose to visit the one that was named for an Austrian emperor who is also a character in one of my favorite musicals, "Elisabeth." And yes, it was indeed named for the emperor by a German explorer named Haast whose name is all over the region. Most everyone who visits this region does so to see one of the glaciers which is what I had planned for the next day. When we arrived in Franz Josef, the driver dropped everyone off by their accommodations although the town is so small that nowhere would have been a far walk from the official bus stop. Backed by snow capped mountains, the center of town consists of 2 parallel main streets that each extend a few blocks... and that's about it.
Inspired by the gratitude I'd felt staying in some basic accommodations in The Gambia, I've decided to try to make it a point moving forward to include a stay in a more modest option in future trips if it made sense. I ideally don't want to give up a private room or bath, but there are often budget places that offer these amenities at a higher price point than their shared rooms. Because the motels in Franz Josef seemed to be quite expensive for what they provided, I decided to stay in one such private hostel. It was a very good value- excellent location, friendly personnel, and they even offered gummy worms at the front desk! While comfortable, it obviously wasn't as posh as some other places I'd stayed. The walls were thin and there was no counter area on the bathroom sink. But it served my needs well and also saved me some money which made me feel better about some of my hotel splurges in other locations.
The decor of the somewhat colorful room was oddly amusing. The pale yellow walls were peppered with antique photos of the town and a saddle had been placed in an alcove above the entrance to the bathroom. Even though the room did not offer any cooking options beyond a simple microwave and refrigerator, I saw an inexplicable array of knives on the counter.
After settling in, I researched local restaurants online and decided to head to one that was called Blue Ice which seemed to have good reviews and a varied menu. It turned out to be a cute little place on the main road that seemed to be family run. I was excited to find out that their soup of the day was pumpkin- it was so good! For my main course, I had Tricolour Fettuccine with smoked salmon and spinach. I couldn't finish the rich pasta but I had no regrets about that because I'd loved the soup.
When I was finished eating at around 7, it was still very light outside so I walked around a little. Not that there were many places to go; I'd seen most of the tiny town en route to dinner. But I stopped at a souvenir store and perused their offerings before picking up a few things at the local supermarket (more drinkable kids' yogurt, a box of cereal, and Coke Zero).
When I got back to my room, it was pretty early but I didn't feel much like writing. So I just relaxed and surfed the internet a bit before going to bed at around 10... hoping that the weather the next day would be conducive to seeing the glacier.
I woke up to my alarm after a night of fitful sleep in which I'd drifted in and out of slumber. No doubt my mind had been racing in anticipation of the glacier heli hike that I'd booked. I was both excited and terrified at the prospect of taking my first helicopter ride- not to mention hiking on the glacier! I was also anxious that weather would force my excursion to be canceled as a decent percentage of scheduled departures seem to be. I heard the distinct sound of rain pulsing down on the roof as I took my shower, and my heart sunk. I reminded myself that I'd booked the earliest departure I could manage with the thought that I could try to reschedule for later in the afternoon if the morning weather was not promising. As already evidenced in my travels, weather in New Zealand can be quite variable throughout the day.
After I got dressed, I looked outside and the precipitation seemed to have ended so my hopes were lifted... even as I thought it was absolutely insane that I was feeling happy at the prospect of taking a helicopter ride, an activity that had honestly never been anywhere near my bucket list for most of my life. Years ago, I'd been in Toronto with my parents who asked me to join them on a helicopter ride to Niagara Falls; I'd said "no way" and headed off to Canada's Wonderland on my own instead. But I'd come all this way to see a town famous for its glacier and the best way to experience it required a helicopter ride. So there we were.
My hostel offered a breakfast that was included in the price but, after checking it out, I decided I'd prefer to eat the cereal and yogurt that I'd purchased from the supermarket the previous night. While retrieving my yogurt, I realized that the refrigerator outlet in my room hadn't actually been turned on. Ooops. I rectified that mistake and fortunately my yogurt didn't seem off.
The meeting venue for my helicopter hike was just down the road... although that's not saying much since pretty much anything in the town would have been in close walking distance. After making my way there, I nervously approached the front desk to check in... bracing myself to hear that my tour was canceled. When they started running through a normal procedure, I was excited. The tour was going to run! I was going to hike on a freaking glacier! My mind was boggled and adrenaline started to kick into high gear.
Before I could get too excited, the person checking me in chided me for not wearing enough layers of clothes even though I was wearing a short sleeve shirt, long sleeve button down and a light gore-tex jacket. I didn't want to walk back to my hotel to grab anything else so they finally suggested that I might be able to borrow an additional layer. Spoiler alert: I never ended up borrowing anything and probably didn't even need all the layers I had. And that's coming from someone who is always cold so I'm not sure what they were thinking.
As I was finding typical for the adventurous excursions I'd signed up for, I was kitted up with gear- but this time, everything was worn on top of my own street clothes. I also kept on my jacket... which I probably could have done without but I'd been really worried about not having enough layers. We were given waterproof over-pants, a jacket and shoes. It was tricky finding the correct fit for my footwear and I actually had to go down a size. We were also loaned a small shoulder bag to hold any gear we brought, and we were given red beanie hats which we were allowed to keep. I had my DSLR with me but I decided to just bring my waterproof point and shoot along with my phone, so I paid $2 for a locker for the stuff I was leaving behind; if I hadn't had my expensive camera with me, I might have left my things in a free unlocked area. (I don't recall if I had my wallet with me, but it would have fit in a pocket or the shoulder bag) I'm glad I made the decision to focus more on my experience by leaving the larger camera behind.
There were only 4 other people booked for my 8:45am hike which was an unusually small number that worked out quite nicely. I was joined by an Australian couple on their honeymoon, a woman from Germany and a man from Brazil; it's always cool to be part of a diverse group where everyone is friendly. Our intrepid guide was wonderfully enthusiastic. Also I must note that he was wearing a short sleeve shirt without any kind of jacket... so any concern about my lack of layers was really ill founded!
Once we were all dressed in our gear, we walked for a few minutes through a rain forest to get to the helipad. We'd been weighed earlier for weight distribution and I think because I was the smallest, I was one of the 2 people who were designated to sit in the front of the helicopter... much to my shock. I would not have chosen that position since I was more-than-slightly terrified. But I figured it would give me the best views for photography so there would be a positive.
After waiting our group's turn, we all boarded the helicopter, got strapped in and put on our headphones. Well, damn, this was really going to happen. I began to feel the vehicle hover over the ground and, despite my hellacious nerves, I tried to relax as much as possible and go with the flow. I also tried to focus on the lovely scenery as we ascended from the town through the mountains and ultimately to the glacier. I felt a bit ill at ease at the lack of steadiness, but the ride wasn't as scary as I'd feared it might be and I was relieved not to feel any panic. Still, I was glad that the trip was very short (about 5 minutes).
After we disembarked onto the glacier, we had to strap crampons over our boots according to the instructions we'd been given. I got mine... almost right. Crampons are like metallic spikes that will give you traction walking on ice. We were also given poles that we could leverage for balance. It took awhile for me to trust in these tools, but they were wonderful aids in stability during our hike. Our guide would walk ahead of us and use his ice pick to help fashion a better track for us. There were some places where makeshift stairs had already been carved out of the ice. So there were a lot of things that had been done to aide inexperienced tourists taking perhaps their first hike on an icy terrain. They really had it down to a science, with new groups arriving at a steady interval.
While the path had been cleared and maintained as much as possible, it was in no way a piece of cake even with our equipment. There were a couple especially tricky parts where we had to climb up or down narrow passageways. I am one of the least coordinated people ever and, even though I'd been exercising regularly, I still had some doubts about my fitness level. The walk was a bit challenging at times, often due to my short legs, but it never felt like it was something I couldn't handle. I'd feared that I'd be the dottering old lady who required lots of assistance from everyone else, and I was quite relieved that I could reasonably keep up with the group. I did focus pretty intently when I walked, taking care so that I wouldn't be injured.
Looking through my photos, I find it's hard for them to convey the majesty and scale of the Franz Josef glacier. It's only the pictures which happen to have people in them that seem to do justice to the size, which is ironic since usually I try to avoid shots with random people in them. Even in person, it was sometimes hard to judge the scale of the glacier. Occasionally, we'd hear the sound of ice coming down from the top and it sounded impossibly further away than it looked.
It was quite surreal and amazing to be stomping around on the glacier ice. I'd seen some glaciers in Patagonia but I'd never tread on one before. Not having to worry about my big camera or whether I was going to fall behind gave me the freedom to savor the experience and the nature around me. At times, we would pause and just soak in the amazing views. At one point I marveled to myself at how anxious and depressed I'd felt only a few months earlier. Moments like those spent challenging myself to enjoy an amazing experience atop a glacier make me feel for a brief moment in time like anything is possible, including living a life free of mental struggles. The hike wasn't cheap but it was worth every dollar to feel so alive and vibrant.
I was bummed when it came time to take the helicopter back down to the town. However, I was quite glad to take off the crampons since my toes and heels were starting to ache. Our guide stayed back to lead another group so I had the front passenger area to myself this time. For whatever reason, going down felt less nerve wracking than ascending, and I shot a short video of the first part of our journey.
Once we got back to town, it was a little disorganized returning our gear. The guy from Brazil had said he'd send photos of all of us from his camera but everyone dispersed before we could exchange info so I was glad I'd mostly had people take some with mine. It was obviously anticlimactic to come down from such a literal and figurative high.
By the time I was done with my hike, it was after 1pm and I was quite hungry. There was a cafe in the main building where we'd checked in but it didn't look promising. So I searched around town. Some restaurants were closed but I found a lively place with outdoor seating that appealed to me. I ordered the chicken schnitzel, happy to find something vaguely Austrian/German in this town named for an Austrian emperor. As I ate and drank some coke zero, I chilled out and mentally processed my epic morning adventure.
As I alluded to earlier, I'd left the remainder of my day free to give me the flexibility to reschedule my glacier hike if it had been canceled. Obviously, I hadn't ended up needing a contingency plan so that left me with a nice block of time on my hands. I'd seen a sign the previous night for a Lake Matheson walk and after researching further, it had seemed like it would be a great addition to my time in town- some more immersion in nature that would be more mellow than my glacier hike. I went over to the building where I'd seen the sign and was pleased that I was able to book the excursion for a little later that night.
The hike was scheduled to last from 5:30 to about 9pm and I figured that I wouldn't want to fuss with eating out after I got back so I went back to the grocery store and purchased a ham and honey mustard sandwich to eat later. I also got a cookie and some cereal for the next morning.
When I got back to my room, I could tell that someone had serviced it since the bath mat was hanging up and... well... that's not something I'd ever bother doing. However, the bed was not made and the trash was not emptied. So I'm not really sure what that's about. I have no issues with rooms not getting serviced in a hostel. But I feel like if you're going to offer some kind of service, you shouldn't do a half assed job of it.
I needed some more down time to process my amazing morning, so I relaxed in my room eating an Ice Cream Sundae flavor Kit Kat and jotting down my thoughts. I noticed that there was a constant buzz of helicopters flying overhead. Between the tourists who went hiking like me and those who just wanted to get a visual glimpse of the glaciers, there were probably more helicopters per capita in Franz Josef that perhaps any other city I've visited. At night and early in the morning when they weren't flying, the silence felt almost eerie.
The Lake Matheson hike was another small group. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it included the guy from Brazil who'd hiked the glacier with me- although we still didn't exchange contact info so I hope he didn't get any great photos of me on the glacier. We were joined by another couple and our guide who was quite a character. I mean, he talked about how he goes on Tinder when he travels so he can get local girls to take him out on dates to local sights. I feel like that's a much safer hobby for males to engage in than females.
The journey to the lake took us through the town by Fox Glacier, the second of the 2 glaciers in the area, by way of a winding road that was making me feel slightly motion sick in the van. That town was even smaller than Franz Josef, so I felt validated in my choice of which area to stay in. One of the couple asked about seeing Fox glacier so our guide actually turned the van around so we could stop at the side of the road. It was quite cool to see, although the lighting wasn't great for photos. There is such an overabundance of beauty in New Zealand, it's insane.
The hike ended up being a little longer than I expected; we didn't even leave to return back to town until around 9:30pm. At the start, the guide enthused about trees and plants which was cool but I was impatient to actually see the lake. Especially when he had us briefly walking off the trail and into the bush. I'm a city girl so I was inclined to linger behind but I ultimately succumbed to the urging to join the rest of group. At around this time, it rained a bit. Fortunately, the skies cleared quickly. And the precipitation may have offered an added bonus in clearing out visitors; the guide was surprised at how few other people we encountered.
Eventually we got to the lake which is famed for its clear reflections of the mountains including Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. Our guide said it was the best reflection he'd seen in awhile, so I guess we caught it on a good day. After climbing the stairs to a particularly scenice viewpoint, I was moved by a sign with the following poem by Brian Turner entitled "Place":
Once in a while
you may come across a place
seems as close to perfection
as you will ever need.
And striving to be faultless
the air on its knees
holds the trees apart,
yet nothing is categorically
thus, or that, and before the dusk
mellows and fails
the light is like honey
on the stems of tussock grass,
and the shadows are mauve birthmarks
on the hills.
It was a really lovely and relaxed walk. I was amused at how some of the bush had whimsically been trimmed to resemble animals, something the guide suggested was done by visitors not by design. We stopped to try to catch the 9:03pm sunset as our guide served us hot chocolate (or tea) and cookies. Unfortunately, some clouds prevented us from having the best view of the setting sun, although we did at least get to see some color in the sky. It was a nice way to cap off the day. Have I mentioned yet how wonderful those late sunsets were? It made it easier to pack more into each day... and served as a welcome contrast to the depressingly early winter sunsets back home.
On the way back to the van, I stopped to use a bathroom. I was quite surprised when I couldn't find a light. But thanks to modern technology, I was able to hang my purse on the wall and use it to hold my cell phone with its flashlight turned on. Yet another moment of travel glamour.
Once I got back to town, I walked to my hotel and took a quick shower because I felt sweaty and gross. Then I finally ate the sandwich I'd bought earlier- it was a late dinner but thank goodness I'd had the foresight to plan it since I definitely wasn't up to going back out even if I could have found somewhere open that late.
Before going to sleep, I reflected on my day and my trip overall, which I couldn't believe was over halfway over. I felt extraordinarily blessed by the weather; it hadn't been perfect by far but I'd had some fabulous timing. I was thrilled with how much I'd enjoyed the challenging activities I'd planned for myself. Mostly, I marveled about how free and calm I felt during my travels. I attributed some of that to the fact that I didn't need to worry about driving and pondered whether I might do better to move to a city so I could engage in more activities without worrying about transportation. There are obviously many reasons that such a more might not be the best- but it seemed like a wonderful idea late at night as an amazing day of adventures drew to an end.
I got up well before my 6:30am alarm which gave me plenty of time to get ready for my 8am bus. The walk to the bus stop was just a couple of easy blocks. I took a few cell photos while I waited, wanting to remember every detail of this quaint town for which I was already feeling nostalgic. While Franz Josef itself is rather ordinary, it was the gateway for some extraordinary experiences. And I'd just plain enjoyed my visit.
I recognized some people on my bus from being on the same train as me out of Christchurch two days earlier. One of these was a lady who took photos out the window with her iPad; aside from the fact that her choice of camera gear would not lead to results that met my quality standards, she seemed to be taking pictures at the most perplexing of times. Well, as long as it makes her happy… and doesn't block me… I guess it's all good.
The bus ride to my next destination, Wanaka, was a little over 6 hours but it included a couple stops as well as a few times the driver slowed down so we could take pictures out the window. The view was generally quite scenic so I forced myself to stay awake even though I was rather tired. One thing I found interesting was that several times, we came upon single lane bridges; the traffic from each side would just take turns using them.
After about an hour and a half into the drive, we stopped for about a half hour at a salmon farm that included a small café. I wasn't very hungry, but I succumbed to the temptation of a chocolate chip cookie nonetheless. There was ample time to walk around and stretch my legs a bit, but not much to see other than a few large tubs of fish swimming around outside.
A couple hours after getting back on the road, we paused briefly at Thunder Creek falls, spending just enough time for us all to walk down to the falls for some quick photos. Then we made another extended stop in Makarora about 40 minutes later for lunch. The place where we stopped had a fun, quirky vibe as it was decorated with a myriad of license plates, flags, and even a money tree featuring currency around the world. I didn't eat anything but I did buy a cute pair of small earrings; I knew they would be great to wear at home in the winter when I have a tendency to lose hanging earrings due to being bundled up with my coat. Mostly I just walked around, both inside the shop as well as in the small area outside.
Our final stop was at Lake Hawea lookout, not far from my destination. This was an absolutely breathtaking area overlooking a clear lake against the background of mountains. The crystalline waters reflected the sky and scenery. It's great that New Zealand offers bus routes geared to tourists that make stops like this rather than just blazing past.
Wanaka had been one of the most anticipated stops on my trip- it pretty much exemplified all that I wanted to see of New Zealand. I loved the idea of the small town that was rich in natural beauty and a bit less obviously touristy than nearby Queeenstown (which would be my final destination). I'd probably built it up so much in my mind that it wasn't hard for my arrival to be a bit of a letdown. I think this was due both to the weather and my choice of hotel.
At around 2:30, I disembarked at the small bus stop slightly out of the center of town and for the first time this trip, I felt uncomfortably warm. After getting my bearings, I walked a few blocks in the opposite direction of the central area to get to my accommodations. In truth, I wasn't far from anything since it's a small town (albeit not as tiny as Franz Josef). But I had a perception of being outside the central area and it felt a bit further out than it had looked on a map.
My chalet was amazingly large, with a kitchen and a separate bedroom area. I had a view out my window of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains, although the lakefront was a few blocks away. The big downside to my room was the lack of air conditioning. Now, it really wasn't that hot that A/C would be absolutely essential and nights were fine. But during the day, the room attracted the sun and felt like an oven. If a room is warm enough that chocolate bars melt when on a table, it's too hot. (I have no idea why I didn't just put my chocolate in the fridge, other than that I hadn't expected it to be quite so hot) If I was inside and kept the windows open, there was usually a pleasant enough breeze.
I'd chosen this motel on the strength of its reviews as well as the fact that I was sure I'd be able to do laundry during my stay. Other than the temperature, the motel was quite lovely and the lady at the front desk was as friendly as the reviews. I'm just not sure it was the ideal hotel for me and, if I had to plan the trip again, this is probably the only place I'd change. (OK I might also change my Queenstown hotel but that's only because the staff were annoyingly inflexible to a special request) I'm just more comfortable staying as close to the middle of everything as possible.
Once I got settled, my first stop was an outdoor gear store that I'd been instructed to visit to rent hiking boots for one of my excursions the next day. After giving the lady my size, she brought out 2 pairs of boots: one was a boring brown color and the other was a cute shade of deep cerulean blue. I definitely wanted the latter ones to fit but I was skeptical since they were 1-2 sizes larger than what I usually wear; the lady bought them out because she said they ran small. The brown ones were definitely not comfortable. Although I could have tried a different size, I really wanted to make the bluish ones work. I walked all around the store, including up and down a small incline that simulated trekking on hills. They didn't feel bad… but something seemed off. I thought they might work better with a higher quality wool hiking sock than any I'd packed with me (I'd signed up for this excursion after I was already in New Zealand). So I tried a pair of socks she recommended… although I was bummed the cuter color combo didn't come in my size. To my relief, that combination seemed do-able. The socks were rather expensive but I felt they were necessary. I wore my new footwear out of the store to get used to them.
Once that business was taken care of, I was much in need of some nourishment since I hadn't eaten lunch when the bus had stopped earlier. Walking toward the lake (since I always tend to gravitate toward bodies of water), I came upon a small shop that had a wide selection of meat pies. I hadn't had a chance to try one of these traditional New Zealand dishes yet, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I chose one that was steak and bacon and then sat outside to eat it. It was really good!
Feeling like my hunger was satiated, I set out to walk along the lake. The warm spring weather brought a lot of people out to enjoy the day from its small beach, some even wading in the waters or riding small water craft. I headed in the direction of a tree that's so famous it has its own hashtag, #thatwanakatree. It's a cute little willow tree that stands alone in the water just off from the lakefront a very short distance from the center of town. Of course I took way too many photos of it… a fact that I regretted when it came time to edit them. It was a lovely walk and I regret that I never had the opportunity to journey further along the lakefront. But it was already 4:45 when I got there and it felt awkward carrying the bag with my sneakers the entire time.
Walking back towards town, I happened upon a pathway with bricks denoting world history events of various years in chronological order. These included blocks commemorating such diverse events as the founding of a French trading post in Senegal in 1659 and the 1692 Salem Witchcraft trials. Some research shows that these tiles were hand painted and funded by donations of $100 NZ each as part of efforts to usher in the millennium. As of this writing, there has been some desire to remove the tiles although it has been met with opposition. I found them charming and I'm very glad I had a chance to see them.
Before returning to my hotel, I stopped at a supermarket I'd spotted near the outdoor gear store. I bought my usual breakfast foods as well as some beverages. I'm slightly ashamed to say that I also bought canned pasta as an expedient dinner since I didn't feel like having a restaurant meal. It was as mediocre as you'd expect- although still a shade better than the instant pasta in Rotorua.
I was back in my room pretty early. If I'd felt closer to the hub of activity, I probably would have ventured out for a proper dinner or at least a stroll but I just wasn't feeling it. I also wanted to conserve my energy because I had big plans for the next day. I'd received an email from the tour company that my afternoon excursion still might be canceled due to weather but I was hoping that wouldn't be the case, especially since I'd invested in both rental boots and expensive socks.
While gazing outside from my room, I could see the weather turn so hazy that the mountains which had dominated the view became barely visible. There was a brief random rain shower- so this was yet another day where there was precipitation but it hadn't affected my plans.
I'd set my alarm for 6:10am so that I'd have plenty of time to wander on my way to the Marina for my boat ride to the Mou Waho Island nature reserve. Taking my leisure to get ready and eat some breakfast, I left my motel with about a half hour to complete the walk that Google maps said should take about 17 minutes.
It was a beautiful, sunny morning in Wanaka and my quiet walk along the lakefront made me feel better about the town than I had upon my immediate arrival. The early morning was a very pleasant temperature- not too warm- and everything seemed closer than it had the day before. Along my route, I saw such quirky sights as a giant hand sculpture, a children's slide that looked like a dinosaur, and a few more tiles of the Wanaka Millenium walkway. I was also thrilled to see a few patches of purple and pink lupin flowers. Although they are rather controversial since they are not native to the island and have spread greatly such as to disturb some of the natural balance, I'd been hoping to see some on my trip since I knew they were in season.
Finally, it was time to board a small boat for the short (about 30 minute) ride through Lake Wanaka to tiny Mou Waho island. I didn't write down a list of participants in the small tour but I recall a mother and her college age daughter who had been studying abroad, a slightly older couple, and 2 sisters who were roughly around my age. It was a congenial group, most of whom seemed relatively close to my fitness level.
The island was a lovely little gem which offered gorgeous views of the lake and mountains as we climbed its hills. I didn't see anyone other than our little group on the island so it was obviously quite peaceful. The terrain felt a little more challenging and steep than I'd expected from the description but we took plenty of stops.
At the end of our walk, we sat by a small lake… that was on an island in the middle of a lake on an island in the middle of the ocean. How's that for a mind boggling factoid?! The guide served some cookies and it was nice to enjoy a little snack in such a quiet, scenic area. I wish I'd had a chance to climb to an overlook that is even higher because I'm sure it would have provided some awesome photo ops looking down on both lakes (from our vantage point, we could not see Lake Wanaka), but no one in our group- including me- were keen for more climbing. I think the guides probably take into account the fitness level of the group and how long it takes to climb to the lake before deciding whether to recommend going further up.
As we relaxed, we were treated to the appearance of Wally, one of the resident buff weka flightless birds. Pretty much the only rule we had was not to let him eat any of our biscuits… so of course someone accidentally let him grab hers and we kept mocking her for it. It was all in good fun. I felt really grateful and fortunate to be able to get so close to an adorable native bird in its own natural environment. Unfortunately, we did not catch sight of the female weka or their baby which I'm sure was absolutely adorable.
On the way back down to our starting point, we stopped to plant a tree which was a nice touch to feel like we were giving back to the island. We also stopped for a few minutes to walk along the beach and take some photos. I'd initially overlooked this excursion because it didn't sound very exciting but I'm glad I researched further and took a chance on it. The guide was very knowledgeable, pointing out various factoids of interest. And it was a nice, challenging walk through a gorgeous, uninhabited island that was kinda off the beaten track. I had been so looking most to the gorgeous scenery Wanaka had to offer and this excursion had been a solid opportunity to enjoy it.
When we got back to the marina at around noon, it was time for the moment of truth. Would my afternoon hike get the green light to proceed or would I have wasted money on the expensive wool socks? (the rental boots were less expensive and had served me well on the island) And if it went on- which 2 of the others on my morning trip were the ones who would be joining me? I was so nervous- it would be disheartening to have finally achieved enough confidence to sign up for that tour only to have the opportunity taken away from me due to bad luck with weather.
Much to my relief, it was ON! I'd be joined by the 2 sisters who proved to be the most awesome of companions for the rest of my day. Intelligent and well traveled (one had worked in Antarctica), they were very friendly and open to including me as part of their group for the afternoon. After being driven back to town (probably about a 3 minute drive; it was easily walkable), they decided to eat at the place the representative from the touring company had dubbed "quite nice" instead of merely "nice." I didn't want to intrude but I also didn't want to eat alone, and they were fortunately amenable to having me join them.
We ate outside and had such a lively conversation that I barely thought to take any photos other than the obligatory one of my meal. I'd chosen the veggie lasagna which was absolutely delicious! Throughout lunch, I was so excited for my upcoming excursion.
When I was looking for activities to do to best take advantage of Wanaka's beautiful scenery, I came across the morning island hike which I'd enjoyed. The same company also offered helicopter hikes into the mountains around Wanaka; as a lark, I inquired about them even though I saw that they required a 2 person minimum. I was shocked when they responded saying that they had a Misty Mountains hike scheduled for one of my days in Wanaka and that I could join it and rent hiking boots from a shop in town. But I had to spend weeks debating internally whether the mountain hike would be an exciting challenge or if whether it might instead turn into a nightmare of feeling like I'd gotten myself in over my head. During my travels, I have to be conscious of my anxiety; while I want to grow and try new things, I also don't feel like it would be fair to others if I put myself into a situation where my issues could mar their enjoyment. It was also quite an expensive excursion so I worried that I might be wasting my money on something I wouldn't appreciate. It wasn't until I was in Rotorua and feeling confident in how I'd handled my early trip activities that I decided to go for it.
Due to the fact that there was still snow on the mountains, the hike was changed from the Misty Mountains hike to the Alpine Lakes hike which was probably the one I would have chosen since I'm drawn to water. The company also said it was a slightly easier hike which was a bit of a comfort to me. This was apparently the first helicopter hike the company had run for the spring season and it's amazing the number of things that had to come together in order for me to be a part of it.
We had a short ride (though not as crazy brief as the one from the marina) to get to the helicopter place. We were going to fly up with our guide, Petrina, plus the company owner who was going to be checking on traps they'd left before winter. I immediately liked her- and not just because she has the same first name as one of the original Come From Away Broadway cast members.
I was no rookie at helicopter rides… although only by 2 days. I sat up front during the first leg but we rotated so that we each got to sit up front for one leg. I felt unstable again as we took off, but found myself pleasantly distracted by the purple gleen of lupins that were taking over the hill outside the base.
We stopped for about 15 minutes at an overlook at an altitude of nearly 6000 feet with a spectacular view of Lake Wanaka and the distant town. It was incredible to feel like I was on top of a magical world of natural beauty! And unlike some other popular hikes in the vicinity, we were the only ones there, with no hordes of tourists to crowd us or interrupt our joy. There were still traces of snow upon the small ledge where we walked which only added to the charm. One of my favorite photos of myself ever is one where I am sitting down on a rock, gazing out at the incredible view through the lens of my camera; not only is that pose kinda artsy but it also avoids any squinting in my eyes. If this had been the only stop, the tour might have already been worth it for me.
After we were done taking photos, we were whisked up again and then dropped off in a small valley atop nearby mountain at an altitude of about 4600 feet. We were right by a greenish lake and the peaks around us were flecked with snow. After the helicopter flew off and the owner quickly set off on his own to check traps, I felt like a quiet calm enveloped my group of women. It would be just the 4 of us together on a mountain for 2 hours, and our setting conveyed the illusion that we were miles away from civilization. I'd thought that the helicopter hike on Franz Josef glacier had been wonderful- but during that excursion, I'd always been conscious that I was part of a well oiled tourist machine as helicopters continually whizzed by overhead to ferry tourists to and fro. The serenity of the alpine lake hike was a whole new level of off-the-charts amazing.
But when I first landed, I still had to get over myself and to fully believe that I belonged. That didn't happen immediately although I managed without difficulty to climb up a hill by helping myself with a walking stick in one hand and clutching at strong grass in the other. At the top, we spotted a Kea bird in the wild. It was another amazing up-close encounter; that bird hadn't encountered many people and didn't know to be scared of us. At a couple points, the Kea swooped overhead, treating us to the full splendour of its colorful feathers.
Then our guide, Petrina, asked how we felt about walking on the ridge line. My brain alarmingly screamed "What?!? Ummm…. No way I can do that!" But I vocalized a more timidly agreeable reply, while also saying that I didn't want to ruin things for the group. And that's when something beautiful happened- the others emphatically stated that the walk should be about girl power more than anything. So we remained watching the Kea bird from the edge of the ridge. And, honestly, it was quite fascinating.
But eventually, Petrina started walking along the ridge, gently letting me know that I could say that I was uncomfortable at any time. By then, I was a bit more accustomed to the height and definitely more trusting of the 3 other women in the group. I was also quite frankly ready to move on a bit and continue exploring. So I… just did it. I followed along, taking my journey one step at a time. Shockingly, I didn't even feel like my pace was too slow. Each movement gave me more confidence to trust my fitness and to believe that I was capable of hiking on the ridge of a mountain. In retrospect, I feel that the island hike in the morning had been more physically taxing but the afternoon hike had been much more of a mental challenge.
Walking high up on the mountain along with 3 other strong women was an experience that I hope to remember and treasure for the rest of my life. For at least a few moments, everything seemed right and the world seemed like a wondrous marvel. As much as possible, I tried to clear my mind of anything beyond the immediacy of my experience; there was no room or need for self doubt as I walked along with my head held high, my hair flowing lightly in the breeze. When I'd first caught sight of the beauty of Wanaka's lake and mountains in online photos, this was just the type of experience I'd been hoping to find- one in which a city girl like me could feel a part of the awe inspiring nature. With every breath of fresh air, I embraced the joy of an off-the-charts once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I expected it to be cool on the mountain, given the altitude, but it was unexpectedly warm. Still, I preferred to keep wearing my light long sleeve shirt so as to prevent sunburn. At one point, there was a burst of light rain but it passed very quickly. For the most part, the weather was quite ideal for an afternoon out in the mountains- we were certainly lucky for that.
After walking for awhile, we sat down and Petrina offered refreshments. I have no notes on what I ate but it looks like it was a yummy savory sandwich along with a cup of tea (possibly mint). We relaxed, gazing down at one of the greenish lakes. I could barely believe that I'd been plucked from real life into this secluded world of infinite beauty of mountains topped with small lakes.
Eventually, we got up and walked with Petrina to check one of the traps in which we found a well preserved dead stoat which was both eerie and interesting to see. Mammals similar to weasels and ferrets, stoats were not native to New Zealand and they've become a threat to native birds. In addition to offering tours, the company I went with was committed to preserving the environment.
All too soon we heard the distinct sound of the helicopter coming back to fetch us to return to earth. I could have stayed up in the enchanted mountains for hours. As you might expect, this excursion was quite pricy- but as far as I was concerned, it was worth every cent. It was an experience that was so amazing it defied words… one of the most fabulous signature excursions I've been lucky enough to enjoy during all my years of traveling. My only slight regret was that I would have liked to have been able to stay in touch with the 2 fabulous sisters without whom my experience would not have been possible (due to the minimum of 2 required) At least I had the presence of mind to get a group photo.
Back at the helicopter base, we saw a couple who was posing for wedding shots; I think they had also flown up into the mountains while we were on our hike. Later, I saw a different couple walking around the shore of Lake Wanaka later. Both couples happened to be Asian. I guess that was a thing to do.
Not long after getting back into town, I set off for dinner. I decided to try a place called The Cow which I had a bit of a tricky time finding. I ordered my usual standby, spaghetti bolognese, and was surprised when the pasta was brought out to me almost instantly after ordering. It totally hit the spot. After eating, I headed to the local movie theatre to get a ticket for the following night. It was quaint how I just needed to give them my name while waiting to pay until the next day.
I headed back to my hotel for a bit, since it was just a few blocks from the movie theatre on the same road. But I was still so pumped up from my hike and I didn't want the evening to end so I soon headed out for gelato at a place in the center of town by the waterfront. As usual, I got a scoop of Hokey Pokey. It was a lovely treat.
I ended my day by strolling around the lakefront just before sunset. Clouds had moved in but I could nonetheless glimpse some pink tones peeking through in the sky. While I'd initially felt a bit uneasy upon arrival in Wanaka, I now embraced the town. My day could not have gone any better, and it definitely was everything I'd dreamt of during my months of research- and then some. Not least importantly, the serenity of nature left me feeling at peace with myself.
For a change, I had not set an alarm. This was a rare vacation day during which I hadn't made any plans whatsoever that required me to be anywhere at any specific time in the morning. I mean, there was no shortage of activities that interested me to choose from; I just allowed myself the leisure to decide which ones I'd do and when I'd do them depending on my mood. I woke up a few times in the morning but had the freedom to roll over and go back to sleep. At one point, I heard rain and was glad I hadn't made any concrete outdoor plans.
I finally stumbled out of bed at around 8:30am. After indulging in the opportunity to take my time getting ready, I was finally ready to head out around an hour later. Fortunately, by then the rain had ceased. My first stop was to return the hiking boots I'd rented- they'd worked out so well that I figured I might try to get a pair when I got home. Had I known how hard it would be to find boots of that brand from the US, I might have tried to negotiate buying the pair I'd rented! (Eventually, after some stumbles, I finally managed to buy a similar pair after my trip- but they weren't cheap.)
I'd been intrigued to check out Puzzling World which was located 1.5 miles from town. Wanaka didn't have uber, nor did I see any taxi stands, and I didn't much feel like making a phone call for a cab. So I decided to just walk there. It was a pleasant enough walk, although much of it wasn't especially scenic.
Puzzling World was full of wonderful little quirks, although there were a bunch of photo ops that I couldn't readily take advantage of as a solo traveler. Before you even enter the building, you can see a staircase to nowhere as well as a leaning tower, both of which would have lent themselves to some fun, if cheesy, poses. Inside, I admired details such as the bathroom which had the illusion of being in a room lined with old Roman toilet benches.
Upon my arrival I decided to start with the outdoor maze. The goal of the maze was to navigate through corridors and overpasses to make it to each of 4 colored towers located in the corners. You could choose the "hard" version which required finding them in a specified order or the "easy" version in which you could find them in any order. I was very confident in my cleverness and aptitude for puzzles so I figured I'd go for the more challenging version. That is, until I kept running into dead ends trying to get to the elusive yellow tower and I said to myself "F-- this" and decided it was time to take a break and seek a different color. The literature says that the maze should take between 30 - 60 minutes. Including the time it took me to find the exit after the last tower, it took me about 75 minutes. I was very humbled.
I didn’t really enjoy the maze as much as I'd expected to; I found it rather tedious and frustrating at times. Especially since it was outdoors and I started to feel warm. Part of me got annoyed after awhile, feeling like the goal was futile. But I'm nothing if not stubborn. It was definitely more of a challenge than I'd expected!
Afterwards, I enjoyed the various illusion rooms which were located inside the building. There were some interesting exhibits, including a tilted room that disturbed my equilibrium enough to make me feel motion sick. Some of the displays would definitely have been more fun with others to take your photo, but I still enjoyed them.
I was rather hungry by the time I was done at around 12:15 so I perused the offerings of the café. Rather than getting something of nutritional value, I succumbed to the urge to try the cookie caramel slice- it was divine, and I had no regrets. I also bought a bottle of water since I'd left mine back at the hotel. Each table at the café was adorned with puzzles that guests could enjoy while they ate. I thought it would be fun to try the ones by me. Well, I was able to work out a relatively easy one, then I had to google the answers for another, and I gave up on the 3rd. Umm, I used to be quite clever when I was younger, really I did.
I'd planned to take things easy but it was still nice out and I knew that just about across the street was a hill you could hike to get a view of Wanaka, so I decided to give it a go. Being the complete hiking idiot I am, I kept waffling between going in a clockwise or counter clockwise direction for the Mount Iron loop. I was fortunate that I turned around and embarked in the counter-clockwise direction because that path, although more challenging, led to a dramatic reveal of the lakes once you arrived at the top, rather than seeing them gradually unfold if you were to head up in the opposite direction.
There were times hiking up when I questioned my life choices. I also tended to wonder "omg how much further can this path go?!?" It was about a 750 foot ascent, though the path looped back and forth so the incline wasn't too drastic. I took quite a few breaks going up, more than I might have ideally liked… but I always knew I could do it. The view at the top over the town I'd grown to love was pretty fabulous and I paused to take it all in. Going down was easier, although the wind had picked up which added its own challenges. The walk felt good; I felt strong. Clearly, adhering to a regular exercise program had its benefits, though I knew I still had further to go on my fitness journey. The hike took me about roughly an hour and a half, which is the suggested time.
By the time I reached the bottom, the skies were growing overcast and it was abundantly clear that rain would be coming into the area. I still decided to walk back to town, hoping I'd make it to my hotel before the precipitation began. The temperature was markedly chillier than earlier, and I was glad I'd brought my rain jacket with me.
After exerting myself on my climb of Mount Iron, I was getting hungry but I also didn't feel like going out of my way since I wanted to beat the impending storms. I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled upon a crepe truck a few short blocks from my hotel! It was almost like finding a mirage in the middle of the desert. You may recall that I have a strict travel rule that if nutella crepes are on a menu, there is no need to look further. Well I added a collorary to that rule on the spot: if a place has a crepe with nutella AND marshmallow, that's even better. It was scrumptious! So satisfying that I forgot to take a photo until it was almost gone. And yeah, this hadn't exactly been the most healthy eating day- but hey, you only live once.
When I got back to the hotel, I talked to the lady at the front desk to buy detergent ($1 NZ) and to get appropriate change for the dryer ( 2 $2 NZ coins; the washer was free). She was very friendly and seemed impressed that I was doing this trip on my own. I'd mentioned my hike on Mount Iron and she told me she'd tried it once, but hadn't really loved it; turns out that she had gone in the clockwise direction which I'd already decided would have been less optimal.
The laundry room was located in a building just next to mine, although it required going outside to get there. After my clothes were in the wash, the rain started to come down in full force... the skies were so murky that I couldn't even see the mountains by the lake. While the timing was awesome in that the precipitation had held off until I was safely in my room, I was a little worried about having to bring my dry clothes back in the rain. Fortunately my luck continued to hold and the rain had subsided drastically by the time my laundry was done. I found it absolutely amazing how easily the weather could switch from pouring rain to bright and sunny.
While my laundry was going through the washer and dryer, I just relaxed in the room and chilled out. It was nice to have some time to just sit and do whatever- write notes, check social media, etc.
At about 7:20, I left to go to the movie I'd gotten tickets for, which was the 2nd movie in the Fantastic Beasts series. I thought that would give me more than ample time to order dinner before the 8pm showing, so I was a bit startled when they said they'd have to check with the chef to see if they could do it. Fortunately, the chef was amenable to my request and about 10 minutes before the movie was due to start, my pumpkin and basil ravioli with meatballs was brought to me on a red polka dot tray that I was told I could bring into the theater.
Shortly thereafter, the doors opened for my movie. Being encumbered with a tray of food didn't allow me to beat the rush for seats. But that's ok, because the auditorium was small. The decor was wonderfully quirky, as the seats ranged in a variety of eclectic styles including several colorful sofas interspersed with a few different kinds of more traditional seats as well as some that were like sitting in a car. I was happy to claim a purple sofa that I ended up having all to myself, which allowed me to spread out in comfort. It was towards the back but, as I said, the room was tiny. Plus, an added benefit was that no one was directly in front of me. I highly recommend watching movies in a theatre while lounging on a sofa that is decked out with pillows. It was so cozy!
I scarfed down the rest of my food- which was fabulous, definitely restaurant quality- and was able to return my tray before the movie started. Instead of endless movie previews before the main feature, we only saw one (Free Solo). However, there were a bunch of ads for tourist attractions and local services, such as a place where one could get immunizations before traveling.
One of the most unique features of this theatre was the fact that every movie is paused for an intermission during which time you can purchase freshly baked cookies. As someone who loves cookies, I'd looked very much forward to this event. Unfortunately, they were only just ok. Oh well.
The movie itself was enjoyable enough, but it was almost secondary to me to the overall experience of the venue in which it played. I generally wouldn't spend vacation time seeing a movie but in this case, it was worth it. After the feature ended at around 10:35, I walked back to the hotel. Due to how late the sunsets were, this was one of the few times I was out on my own after dark, and I enjoyed the serenity as I took notice of the stars brightly shining in the dark sky.
At this point in my trips, I'm usually starting to feel run down and part of me is ready to go home. But not this time. I could already sense that New Zealand was one of those extra special places which really aligns to my interests and comfort level. Also, I'm sure that my fitness routine was paying some dividends in increasing my stamina- which had been my original goal when I'd started with it.
My bus to Queenstown wasn't scheduled to leave until 10am so I'd toyed with getting up really early for a last minute hike in Wanaka. However, when I awoke just before my 8am alarm to the sound of steady rain, I was glad I'd decided to sleep in a bit. Fortunately the weather cleared up before I had to wait at the bus stop which lacked any kind of shelter. The temperature, however, was surprisingly chilly- in the 50's- so I had to dig out one of my long sleeve shirts.
I got sick of sitting inside my hotel room so I arrived at the bus stop about 25 minutes early. I was able to board when the incoming bus arrived to drop off passengers, instead of waiting for it to turn around and pick me up, so that was cool. It was an unexpected and nice touch that bus drivers had a manifest with passenger names on it so they could address me by name. Another interesting feature of small buses and shuttles in New Zealand is that they typically have a trailer hitched behind them and that's where passenger luggage is stored.
Unlike my previous bus rides, the journey to Queenstown was short- less than 2 hours- so there were no stops on the way. I felt a tad motion sick en route because the bus went pretty fast, but at least it was over relatively soon. We were let off in a small parking lot and, as usual upon arrival in a foreign city, I took a moment to get my bearings. My hotel was a very short walk away, and as I went there I made note of stores where I might want to stop when not encumbered by luggage- in particular, I was enticed by a cookie store with a quirky mascot who reminded me a bit of Gritty.
I was thrilled when my hotel had a room available for me even though it was only around noon. Since it was my last stop, I'd decided to splurge a little and book a lake view room. There were a number of trees that obscured the view of Lake Wakatipu but it was still a pleasant view. My room was located at the end of the hotel close to the playground so it was a little louder than I'd expected during the day, but it wasn't terrible.
After getting settled, I set out to explore the local area and get some lunch. As usual, I was drawn like a magnet to the main body of water; I spent a few minutes there watching a man feeding the sea gulls. Queenstown was geographically similar to Wanaka- both cities were located in the same region and both were based at the shore of a lake surrounded by snow capped mountains. But it definitely had a different vibe to it- a little busier, trendier, and more touristy. Even the sound of the water seemed more dynamic than the calm shores of Wanaka.
Craving Japanese food, I'd checked Google maps and found a restaurant that was really close to my hotel. It was an awesome little place where the staff actually spoke Japanese. I had the katsudon which is a bowl of breaded pork with egg over rice. My meal also came with a small bowl of miso soup. It was all delicious!
After lunch, I wandered around in the light drizzle. I visited some stores, including a quaint candy store that displayed amazing varieties of fudge. I was delighted to find out that they offered free samples but it was almost impossible to choose! Unfortunately, I didn't write down what I ended up trying- it may have been the crème brulee flavor. I remember that it was really good, though.
In another store, I giggled over the display of "genuine possum nipple warmers", so naturally I had to post a photo on social media to share the fun. There are lots of possum fur items for sale all over New Zealand. Apparently, possums are a huge problem for the country because they feed on native flora and fauna. Even animal conservationists encourage the sale of possum fur items because the creatures are such a threat.
My wanderings took me to the Queenstown i-Site tourist information center where I saw a brochure that triggered me to recall a recommendation from someone on a tour I'd taken to visit the Kiwi Birdlife park. So I headed off in that direction. I went slightly out of my way trying to find the entrance, but it's all good. Part of the fun of being in a new city is winding up in the wrong place… just as long as you don't end up somewhere unsafe.
When I arrived, I went up to the person at the register of the souvenir store that also served as the entrance and breathlessly announced, "I'm here to see the kiwi!" They handed me a laminated map and an audio device, and I noticed that in only a few minutes, there was a kiwi feeding scheduled at 3pm.
Kiwi are nocturnal birds so the exhibit was located inside a dark building. If you stay inside for a few minutes, your eyes adjust to the darkness and you can see better. I'd arrived early so by the time the presentation started, my eyes were already acclimated. I was really excited to finally see a 2 or 3 of the unique native birds, who were behind a glass wall. They were adorable! The feeder shared some facts while giving them their meal. Photos weren't allowed- but due to the lack of lighting, they probably wouldn't have come out well anyway.
Afterwards, I visited the various exhibits in the park and saw a variety of other native birds. I got a kick out of the fact that I'd seen 2 of them- the Kea and the Weka- in the wild in Wanaka which had been so much more exciting than viewing them inside a cage. At 4pm, I headed to a small arena for a live bird show which was similar to the kind of thing you might see at Disney's Animal Kingdom- a couple of trainers brought out some birds and other critters and told us about them. The birds would fly from one of the presenters to the other. One of the cutest parts was when a colorful lorikeet picked up an audience member's $20 NZD bill in its beak while taking flight.
It was a bit of a chilly day as I walked back to the center of Queenstown to take in the various waterfront views as well as to stop in more souvenir stores. When I was in the mood for a treat, I knew exactly where I wanted to go: the Cookie Time store that I'd passed earlier. I just about died when I saw that they offered edible cookie dough among their fresh items for sale! They had so many interesting flavors but I just went with the classic chocolate chip, which was served in a cup and topped with an actual cookie.
I was pretty full from the cookie dough cup but I didn't want to skip dinner completely. After a short break at my hotel, I searched online for lighter options and found a place really close by that served bagels and donuts. When I got inside and saw the insanely elaborate donuts on display, I wished I hadn't been so full! I promised myself I'd return for sweets another time. This time, I was there for a bagel and I settled on a hot bagel sandwich with manuka smoked ham, swiss and cheddar cheese. It was really good. I also got a plain bagel to take back to my room for breakfast the next day.
I didn't intend to walk very much after dinner but ended up getting tempted by the Queenstown Gardens which were just outside my hotel in the opposite direction of the central town. It was quite peaceful walking there on a cool Wednesday at twilight- a definite contrast to the hubbub of the central district. I took my time enjoying the views but I didn't want to stay out too late since I had a really early morning the next day. I only scratched the surface of the gardens area walking alongside the lake. I regret that I never had a chance to return and explore further.
As I got ready for bed, I jotted down some notes and concluded with the following sentences: "Can't believe I only have a couple days left. The trip has been as epic as I'd hoped and I'm very happy with all I've done. Still going strong, feeling free and vibrant. How do I keep that feeling alive...????"
For a change, I didn't wake up before my alarm- that was probably because it was set to the super early time of 5:50am. I had no problem getting up when it sounded though because I was excited that I'd be setting off for one of the iconic experiences of New Zealand's Southern Island: a cruise in the fjords of Milford Sound.
There are quite a number of companies offering day tours from Queenstown which include Milford Sound cruises and it was confusing to decide amongst them. They all seemed to have great reviews, and I'm not one to choose strictly by price, especially when costs are relatively close. Eventually, I selected a company whose package included a buffet lunch since I figured that it would provide me with a better chance of enjoying the meal than other options which included an unspecified sandwich.
My original booking confirmation did not include information on transit to their central pickup point in Queenstown even though the website said this was included. So I emailed them and they set me up with a taxi. I had obviously never been to Queenstown before and the distance to the office at the other end of the waterfront had looked further on the map that it felt in person. Now that I'd gotten my bearings, I realized that I could easily have walked it… even at that stupid hour of the morning. But I'd had no way of knowing that in advance.
Once I checked in at the main office, I waited to board the bus which arrived at about 7am. As usual, I took a window seat as far forward as possible. Soon after that, a friendly young woman from Germany sat next to me… which would have been nicer except for the fact that the bus was barely over half full and it would have been cool to be able to spread out more during the long drive instead of feeling cramped with my backpack on my lap. But on the positive side, I enjoyed chatting with her a little.
Soon after the bus left the center of the town, I noticed a breathtaking rainbow in the sky! I'm pretty sure I was one of the first, if not the very first, to point this out. If only the windows could open, the photos would have been pretty amazing… but at least there were a few that came out without much window glare. I can say that the sun was truly shining on my trip.
At about 9:30am, we made a short stop in the town of Te Anau. It was chilly out but I power walked several blocks to the lakefront to take a photo of a statue we'd passed of a blue Takahe bird. I love whimsical colorful statues like that so I was happy I could backtrack and snap some shots that were way better than the one I'd taken from the bus. We had less than a half hour but I tried to make the most of my time exploring instead of remaining wherever we were dropped off.
I can't imagine a much more picture perfect setting than fields of pink and purple lupins punctuated by small bodies of water, with snow capped mountains looming in the background. And that is exactly the kind of scenery that abounded as we journeyed toward Milford Sound. I was a little bummed, however, because I felt most of the time the colorful scenery was on the opposite side of the bus which was not conducive to photography. But I was delighted to find a couple of halfway decent shots when going through my pictures.
En route to our destination, we made a couple of quick stops where we could get off the bus briefly to admire the scenery. One such stop was at the Mirror Lakes. I didn't notice right away that the sign above the lake displayed its name was printed upside down; you had to look at its reflection in the lake in order to see the correctly oriented letters- pretty cool.
We arrived at the Milford Sound port just before our 1pm cruise time, after about a 6 hour journey. While it had been relatively overcast in Queenstown, I was thrilled that the sun was shining through a crystal clear blue sky for our cruise. I was grateful for yet another instance of my amazing weather timing!
Once we got on the boat, I somehow managed to be the first in line for the buffet. I had a plan which was to eat quickly and then spend the rest of the trip out on deck, similar to how I'd spent the Tranz Alpine train ride as much in the open air viewing car as possible. The buffet wasn't the fanciest, but I wasn't really there for the meal and I enjoyed my selections of protein (fried chicken, fish sticks, and pork) and fries. Plus I appreciated the fact that they had dixie cups of ice cream for dessert.
I was out on the front deck by 1:15 and remained standing there outside, basking in the sea breeze, throughout the remaining hour and 45 minutes of the circular journey that took through the fjord out nearly to the Tasman Sea and then back to where we started. Even though it was windy, I had to remove the fleece layer that had served me so well walking around Te Anau because it had gotten much warmer outside.
The scenery was unbelievably gorgeous, as we made our way through waters that were colored a deep shade of azure teal. The cliffs on either side seemed to stretch well into the sky; we saw a few waterfalls running down them. One of the coolest parts of the journey was when we spotted a bunch of dolphins swimming alongside our vessel; unfortunately, I didn't think quickly enough to change my camera settings to better capture the moment. We also passed by a group of fur seals on rocks by the shore. Some from the group- such as the German who had sat next to me on the bus- disembarked about three quarters of the way into our journey to spend some time kayaking through the waters.
As amazing as the landscape was and as much as I enjoyed it… the whole excursion felt very commercialized and touristy. There were herds of buses and self-drivers arriving at the port and being loaded into boats- as masses of others headed in the opposite direction after completing their journey. Everything ran smoothly, like clockwork. I'd been spoiled by the Wanaka mountain hike in which we'd been the only people in sight when we'd had the luxury to explore at our own pace. Perhaps the experience would feel less packaged if one stayed closer to the fjords and supplemented their cruise with some hikes but, like most travelers, I didn't have time for that. I agree that Milford Sound is a "must see" attraction but it wasn't among my favorite experiences in a country in which I'd been spoiled by an unbelievable array of amazing activities.
One of the best decisions I'd made was to book a small plane for the journey back to Queenstown. The flight wasn't cheap but I definitely was not in the mood for another 5 hour bus ride! Plus, it would allow me to enjoy a little more time in Queenstown since I'd get back much earlier. Upon arriving back in the cruise terminal, the driver from my bus brought me over to the pilot. I had to sit and wait a short time until another boat came back, at which point I was joined by 6 or 7 ladies who were on a group tour together. The pilot walked us to the nearby air field and said that one of us could sit in front in the copilot seat. If you didn't imagine me immediately and enthusiastically volunteering, then you really don't know me at all.
I'm not sure if the front seat provided the best views but it was insanely cool for this transport geek to be able to look at all the flight controls. I also was able to wear headphones through which I could overhear the communications with what I presume was air traffic control, although the pilot sometimes turned off the sound. It was a little freaky taking off through the cliffs of the fjords since I felt that our position was quite precarious in relation to the peaks… and I definitely questioned my life choices when I saw a "low fuel" alert flash a couple times. But overall, the flight was glorious and I loved having a chance to view the fjords from a different angle. There were only a few clouds in the sky, which was incredibly fortunate. There was no shortage of epic scenery as we journeyed over lakes and snow capped peaks. I was riveted to the windows to take in a slowly changing array of scenes that was more wondrous than any seatback video on a commercial flight.
In accordance with the rules which had been given to me, I was extremely careful not to touch the controls or to have my camera touch the glass windows. Even so, I got chided once not to touch my lens to the glass which confused me since I felt I'd been taking care not to do so. After about a 45 hour flight, we landed at about 4:30pm so it was definitely a much quicker journey back than taking the bus.
I got a ride back to my hotel and I relaxed a bit before heading out for an early dinner. The previous day, I'd passed by a restaurant which had a board out front that displayed an adorable Lion theme inspired illustration of a monkey holding up a pizza as if it was baby Simba. I immediately knew I'd have to eat there at some point during my stay in the city and that's exactly where I headed. I was torn between 2 of the pizzas on their menu but finally decided on the Meat Feast which was described as "Salami, bacon, beef, chorizo with caramelized onions and aioli." It was great although perhaps a bit heavy on the meat for my preference.
After eating, I wandered some more around the waterfront area for about an hour and a half. I mainly went into souvenir shops since I was running out of time to select gifts for my friends and family. I resisted the temptation to buy myself a plush "Hello Kiwi" which was obviously an adorable "Hello Kitty" knockoff; it was cute but I'm trying not to accumulate too much stuff aside from items which are truly meaningful to me. I stopped at the I-site tourist info center to book a couple activities for the next day, the final full day of my adventure.
I was a bit tired, both because it had been a long day as well as because I'd gotten some sun on my face during the cruise. But before heading back to my hotel, I stopped at Cookie Time which I already considered to be my hangout. This time, I picked up a fresh baked chocolate brownie cookie as well as a S'mores cookie sandwich. I devoured them both- they were so good!
Before going to sleep, I reflected on my trip. I'd now completed the last of my pre-scheduled activities and wrote the following: "I guess I'm ready to go home and see the Furricanes... mostly cause nothing will top my epic day in Wanaka. Also I'm extremely happy that everything I planned was able to proceed without weather/health/etc hitches. There have been a couple things I would have liked to have fit in (such as Zorbing, Taupo, the Rippon Winery and some more walks around Wanaka) but none were absolutely essential and, in any trip, you're never able to fit in absolutely everything."
After going to bed at around 10pm at the end of a long day, sleeping until just before my 7am alarm felt luxurious. I had plenty of time to get ready and finish the bagel I'd barely touched the previous day before heading out.
One of the classic Queenstown attractions is the Shotover Jet boat ride which I understood to be a somewhat wild ride through a narrow river just outside of town. I'd booked a morning ride so I walked to the company's central Queenstown location from where they offer shuttle buses to the river. The check-in and shuttle process was easy and smooth.
When I arrived at the river base after a short ride, I looked down at the valley of light greenish blue water and marveled at the beauty of the area. I put all my belongings in a group locker along with the others who would be on my boat. Since it was a chilly morning, the company offered us all long raincoats… which I wore on top of my own light rain jacket. And then I put on a life vest as my top article of clothing. It was one of the least styling looks I've ever had, but the extra warmth was appreciated since it got really chilly once we got going. I was also glad that the handlebars in the boat were heated for our comfort.
I was a little nervous because I knew the boats would speed nimbly through the water, often changing direction or spinning full 360 degrees. Reviews seemed to unanimously agree that the ride didn't trigger motion sickness in those prone to it but I was nonetheless skeptical. But once we got moving, I was all smiles and laughs! To my immense relief, I didn't feel at all queasy so I was able to fully enjoy myself as the boat sped along. It often left like we were going to hit into some rocks, but we always darted away at the last minute. And of course, since this was New Zealand, the scenery we zoomed past in the Shotover River Canyons was gorgeous; I could never take that for granted.
I ended up sitting on the end of a row so I caught more of the breeze and water than if I'd been sitting in the middle. At times, I felt assaulted by the cold breeze on my face. For that reason, I definitely preferred the parts where we traveled in the sun compared to when we were in the shade. I'd originally wanted to do this activity in the afternoon, and that definitely would have been better timing as far as the temperatures.
We were in the water for about 25 minutes which felt like the right amount of time to me- any much longer, the novelty might have worn off. After we were done, I retrieved my belongings and went into the gift shop to buy the obligatory package of photos and video. I also saw an adorable plush sheep wearing a plush life vest which I couldn't resist, especially since it was a bargain at $10 NZ (less than $7 US). The video, which I've posted below, is a mixture of stock footage as well as video shot from my jet boat.
After taking the bus back to the city, I headed back to the bagel and donut place I'd visited on my first day to fulfill the promise I'd made to myself to return for a sweet. I had a hard time choosing among the delectable offerings but eventually decided on the Oreo Crunch donut which included a syringe of nutella that you could inject inside the donut. It tasted as amazingly insane as it had looked! Afterwards, I picked up a few things at the convenience store including a Ham and Honey Mustard sandwich which I had for lunch. I'd had the same- or similar- sandwich in Franz Josef and had found it surprisingly tasty so I was glad to have the chance to get another one.
After a short break in my hotel room, I headed down to the lobby to await pickup for my afternoon excursion, which was a Lord of the Rings themed tour to Glenorchy and Paradise. In retrospect, it might not have been the best choice for me. I probably should have booked a photography tour I'd been eyeing from a small company, which I felt was more expensive than I wanted to pay. Part of my reason for choosing this one was because my nieces are huge Lord of the Rings fans and I guess I wanted to feel close to them. But it also sounded legitimately interesting to see locations outside Queenstown which had been involved in filming the epic movies and to learn some stories behind the making of the movie.
Our guide was a friendly woman who didn't seem as spirited or experiences as the other guide so the times spent in the car were not as interesting as I think they could have been. I probably would have had a better experience if I'd been in the van with the guide who was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the films. He was the one who would lead the talks at each stop. He was a good story teller, and the tales he enthusiastically shared were interesting to me despite not being a huge fan. At each stop, both guides flipped through binders to show us pictures from the movies that had been filmed in the vicinity. In addition to the Tolkein movies, there were some others filmed in the areas we saw such as X-Men and the Narnia films.
Every time we stopped, I loved gazing around and admiring the scenery that was well worth a look even if it hadn't been involved in any films. When we stopped for a rest stop in Glenorchy, I longed to walk back a short bit to take a photo of an iconic dark red boat shed we'd passed but I was told we didn't have time for that. I think the landscapes held more interest to me than the stories and that's why I mentioned earlier that I probably should have booked a photography tour.
The longest stop of the excursion was in a forest which had served as the location for the Forrest of Lothlorien. There, we could don capes and wield swords to get into the spirit of the movies which was particularly fun for the children on our tour. This is an activity that would have been more enjoyable with friends of family, but I managed to get some cute photos. We were also served refreshments and I chose the hot chocolate. Because I'm clearly still a kid.
It had gotten quite warm out as the tour continued. In fact, I couldn't believe the temperature felt like it was still increasing in the mid/late afternoon. It was quite a contrast from the chilly morning. After getting back to the hotel at around 6pm, I was glad to relax a bit in the air conditioning.
For dinner, I decided to return to the same pizza place where I'd eaten the previous day so I could try the option I hadn't chosen then. I really enjoyed my Bolognese pizza, which was basically pizza that used meat sauce instead of traditional tomato sauce. I think this flavor was more my style than what I'd chosen the previous night, although it was a little messy.
After dinner, I headed to Patagonia Ice Creamery and Chocolaterie for dessert. They had a branch in Wanaka that I'd regrettably not had a chance to visit, so I was glad I could rectify the issue by trying their Queenstown location. As per usual, I got a scoop of hokey pokey ice cream but I also got a 2nd scoop of dark chocolate. I mean, it would have been criminal to eat at a place that specialized in chocolate without actually trying anything chocolate. I had a lovely time sitting outside and enjoying my cone while also taking in the scenic waterfront.
As per my usual, I wandered around and perused the souvenir stores. I returned to the candy store I'd visited on my first night to get some gifts for friends and family. Unfortunately, I was way too full for another free sample of fudge.
The weather was quite pleasant at night since the sun had finally stopped beating down as strongly as it had in the afternoon. Since it was a Friday, the beach and waterfront were alive with people enjoying the start of the weekend outdoors and it was a great opportunity to practice my stealth photography skills. I also took a short walk in my hotel's small rose garden. I was hoping to see the sunset but as usual, the clouds came in and blocked me from seeing the sun fading over the horizon. Still, the sky was beautiful and it was a lovely evening to be outside, savoring the last night of my trip.
On the way back to the hotel room, I asked the front desk if I could have my 12pm checkout extended by a half hour because that was when my airport shuttle would arrive. The lady at the desk in the morning had led me to believe that this would not be a problem, so I was shocked when they said that the only way they'd allow a late checkout would be if I paid $15 NZ ($10 US). I could obviously afford the fee, but I refused to on principle. I tried to explain very politely that I had over 24 hours of travel ahead of me and it would be a huge relief if I could have a little extra time in the morning before I needed to get my stuff together. However, even the manager was strict about adhering to their rule without exception. They offered to give me space in the spa… but that would have required me to get my stuff together and organized even earlier. I've worked in a hotel and while we certainly would say "no" if people wanted to stay in their rooms for hours and hours beyond checkout time, we would always agree to 30 minutes to an hour extra even on our busiest days. I wouldn't have minded getting a negative response to my request as much if I hadn't asked for such a short amount of time, and if I hadn't had such a long journey ahead.
Unfortunately, the interaction with the front desk left me in a bit of a foul mood. Especially considering the fact that I had to come to terms with both my vacation ending as well as my impending return to a colder climate where it got dark earlier. But I vented online, showered, and decided to make the best of it. After all, in the scheme of things, I was still incredibly lucky just to be in New Zealand.
I woke up a little before my 8am alarm and felt incredulous that the final day of my trip had arrived. During the previous couple weeks, I'd been blessed with a bounty of wonderful adventures to treasure… but there was still one more chapter to be written. And I knew in my heart that the day's story had to include a final challenge, one which might have implausibly scared me more than any others.
For most people, taking a gondola up to a scenic overlook would barely be a blip of a thrill. But I've always had an aversion to heights, and I particularly find it uncomfortable to be in a small, unsteady vessel dangling from an overhead cable. I'd been procrastinating and trying to find excuses to avoid the journey during the previous days. But the opportunity to see a bird's eye view of Queenstown was enticing and I knew I'd regret it if I went home without doing it since I clearly had the time to fit it in. So I summoned up my courage and walked across the waterfront to the base of the Queenstown Skyline, which was right next to the Kiwi Birdlife Park that I'd visited on my first day in town.
I bought a ticket and was determined to overcome my irrational fear. However, I didn't feel comfortable sitting in a gondola alone and there were not a lot of people taking the ride up at 9am. I waited for a couple minutes and ended up sharing a vessel with a nice German guy who laughed kindly when I told him I didn't want to ride alone. He didn't think he'd be of any assistance but it was immensely helpful for me to distract myself with idle chatter. I also found it beneficial to look out in the direction of the mountain we were ascending rather than at the increasingly distant city that was visible in the opposite direction.
Once we reached the top of the gondola line, we said our goodbyes as he was planning to do some hiking. There were quite a number of things to do at Bob's Peak, and I found it interesting that many people came with bicycles that were fastened to the outside of the gondola for the duration of the journey. I'd kinda wanted to ride the luge attraction but I'm glad I didn't get a ticket because I really didn't have the time. Plus, you had to take a chair lift to go up even higher and that would have freaked me out. (there may have been way to walk up to the top of the luge track but I wasn't sure) Adrenaline junkies could partake in activities like bungee jumping and paragliding which were both huge NOs for me. (OK, paragliding seems like it might be fun albeit scary… but no way in hell do I have any interest in bungee jumping!)
I went for more tame pursuits which included relaxing in the cafeteria and eating a breakfast of chocolate danish and orange juice. I spent most of my time admiring the panoramic views of the city, Lake Wakatipu and the epic snowcapped mountains in the distance from various angles. I was a little nervous standing outside on the viewing decks, where I felt rather vulnerable, but I mostly did ok.
Inside, there was a small Jelly Belly store. I didn't buy anything there because it seemed like they had the same variety of flavors that are available in the US. But I spent a few moments admiring the art works made completely in jelly beans that hung on a wall outside the store. The pictures included a world map, American Gothic, and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. The intricate patterns of jelly beans that combined to make those images blew my mind as I alternated viewing them from up close and from a little further back.
A little after 10am, I decided it was time to go back down. I probably could have lingered a bit longer but I always get nervous when I have to make a flight and I wanted to leave myself an abundance of time so I could wander before returning to the hotel, where I had a hard 12pm deadline to check out. I was OK taking the gondola down by myself; somehow, those kinds of rides seem less scary when I am descending for a return to city level. I felt triumphant that I'd overcome my irrational fear of the gondola ride without freaking out, especially considering it would have been really easy to have come up with excuses to convince myself to avoid it.
On the way back to the hotel, I took one last whirl through the city, stopping in a Lord of the Rings store run by the company who had done my tour and then a final visit to Cookie Time. I purchased a final fresh baked cookie; these were soft and warm and therefore superior in my view to their packaged cookies which are hard.
Back in my hotel room, I showered and packed before heading to the front desk at noon to check out. I almost left my phone in the room but I realized it when I was halfway down the hall and ran back to retrieve it while leaving my luggage in the middle of the corridor for a brief moment. If I hadn't noticed it immediately, I'm sure I would have inevitably done so during the 20-30 minutes when I sat in the lobby waiting for the shuttle.
I had quite a special time at the small Queenstown airport. After not being able to check in for my flight online, I noticed that the boarding passes the agent handed me for my 2nd and 3rd flights had the letters "SSSS" imprinted on it. Curious to what it meant, I obviously turned to the internet where I learned that it was an acronym for "Secondary Security Screening Selectee" and the designation meant that I'd be subject to extra screening. Every resource I found said that the security agents would inspect everything in my carry on bags and require me to turn on all electronic devices to prove that they worked. Well, the first part was annoying because I'd packed everything so carefully. But the second part was much more worrisome because I realized that I hadn't used my iPad for awhile and it therefore lacked a charge. I spent most of my pre-flight time having an anxiety attack and trying unsuccessfully to find an outlet to charge my iPad. It was not an easy task. When I asked for help, I felt that I was led on a wild goose chase. I was relieved when I finally found an outlet past security. My device charged slowly, but I only needed a small charge just to get it to turn on. Let me tell you- it's horribly bad timing to have an anxiety attack when you're naturally feeling a tendency toward depression due to the ending of your trip.
The flight to Auckland was quite scenic, although I was seated directly above a wing which marred my ability to take photos. The trivia questions displayed on the overhead monitor helped pass the time on the short flight. The flight attendants served bags of corn chips as a snack which was appreciated.
When I arrived at Auckland, I decided to walk between the domestic and international terminals rather than taking a shuttle bus. My layover was scheduled to be 3 hours so I had plenty of time. The walk was clearly marked and as a bonus, it included passing by another kiwi statue.
I wasn't fully able to enjoy my time at the international terminal since I was worried about the extra security. But I did manage to get some chicken udon for dinner at a Japanese counter service place.
Then it was time to face The Dreaded SSSS Security. I headed over pretty early to give myself plenty of time. The agents were extremely friendly and they just needed to swipe some of my things to check for explosives- I think it was just electronics. They neither went through my bags nor did they make me turn on any devices. I was both surprised and relieved, thought I felt that surely in Houston they'd be more strict.
Once you are beyond security at Auckland airport, there isn't much to do. So I just waited patiently for my flight. It seemed odd that there was no boarding activity going on when it should have been happening. Eventually the gate agent made a vague announcement about a delay due to an issue at the airport which led me to search online where fortunately I found more information. About an hour and a half before my flight was due to take off, there had been a minor fire which had caused some parts of the international terminal to be evacuated. After reading about the unpleasant conditions that included crowds of people standing outside with no access to food or restrooms, I felt quite fortunate to be where I was, sitting comfortably at the gate- especially since I was in no danger of missing my connection since I had a 5+ hour layover in Houston. Also I was comforted by the thought that in an emergency I could always eat some of the chocolate I'd intended to bring home for others! (it never actually reached that point)
My flight was scheduled to depart at 7:30pm. At about 8:15, the airline staff announced that people could board if they wanted to, although the flight still had to wait for more passengers to arrive since some of them had been evacuated. It seemed like most people just wanted to get on the plane already; I know I sure did. I didn't write down what time we actually took off but I was still on the ground at 9:15pm and we ended up landing in Houston at around 4:30pm which was about 2 and a half hours after we were scheduled. I of course still had plenty of time to make my connection, but I noticed during my flight that the cabin crew seemed to be doing a great job being proactive and coming around with transfers and vouchers for those who were not as fortunate as I was.
I'd selected a seat in a row that converts to an air couch and I was very pleased because even though I couldn't spread out since it was not in the sofa configuration, I was able to raise the bottom of the seat enough to make a more comfortable foot rest than the usual seats. I checked the wifi as a matter of course and was pleasantly surprised that they were offering a free Christmas special. Once we were finally on our way, the Air New Zealand flight was pretty uneventful.
In Houston, I collected my luggage and rechecked it before heading into the security line. Since I had the mark of SSSS, I didn't qualify for TSA pre-check though I don't remember if that was even an option in the transfers area. I was nervous about my extra screening… but it turned out that they didn't even look at my boarding pass when I was being screened. I'm not entirely sure how that worked since I was pretty dazed from the long travel I'd already done. I mean surely you couldn't just go through the transfer security without having booked a connecting flight. But the bottom line is that I wasn't subject to any extra screening whatsoever and for that, I was quite thankful.
I used my second United club lounge pass to spend time in one of the lounges even though I didn't have nearly as much time to kill as I'd anticipated. I was disappointed that they didn't have the fabulous tomato soup that I'd enjoyed a couple weeks earlier. The chicken noodle soup was ok, but nothing special. I also had a couple chocolate chip cookies and a small brownie. It was again a nice quiet haven to relax a bit.
My final flight was a little delayed, landing approximately a half hour late at 12:30am. But soon enough I made it home to see my furricanes. I was glad to finally be done with the long 30+ hours of travel since I'd left my hotel. And I was grateful to have returned with a wonderful collection of memories from yet another successful trip.
When I look back on this trip, what I remember most fondly was how wonderfully vividly alive I felt throughout the journey. Whether I was setting off on an adventure, wandering through town, going to the theatre, or just enjoying some quiet time writing notes- I felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to do at that moment. Some people can't understand how or why I travel alone, but I feel like such trips provide me with a sense of joy and power that are lacking in group environments. I also feel more engaged in the places I visit because I need to choose where to go and what to do rather than following a pre-set route.
I'm very happy with the itinerary I put together although obviously I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to do in just two weeks. I think I made some good choices and also that I paced my activities well. In particular, I'm glad I spent time in Wanaka which is a jewel of a town that isn't usually included on 2 week group itineraries. Most of my other stops were among the most obvious choices, and they provided me with a great taste of what the country has to offer. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to return and take in some of the places and activities that I couldn’t get to this time. Due to the lack of a language barrier and a strong transportation infrastructure, it was very easy to travel independently.
I'll never forget sitting in the lobby of my first hotel when I was fresh off the plane and on the verge of tears as rain pounded on the roof and the forecast predicted more of the same for the entire length of my trip. Precipitation indeed fell on all but about 2 days, but it's crazy how the weather did not affect any of my many outdoor plans. I'm humbled and grateful for those blessings. Temperatures hovered in a pleasant range throughout my stay.
I feel like everywhere I've traveled has been a destination well worth the time I've spent there exploring… but some places shine with an extra special quality that vaults them to among my favorites. New Zealand is one such fabulous destination. And this trip, in particular, was exceptional to me because I took advantage of so many opportunities to slide out of my comfort zone and into adventures that showcased the country's natural beauty. From ziplining to white water rafting to glacier and mountain hikes, I challenged myself to many exciting and unique experiences that provided me with wonderful memories that I will always treasure dearly.