Hikes and Puzzles and Dolphins, oh my!

Monday we were northward-bound.  After an early lunch in Te Anau, I successfully drove us from to Arrowtown, just north of Queenstown.  The astute reader will notice we seem to be backtracking, and there is quite a bit of that here in New Zealand—there just aren’t that many roads!  Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town, and many of the little mining cottages have been preserved and turned into shops.  A fun place to browse for an hour; Penelope found her much anticipated tiny bottle of Paua shells and I purchased a pair of earrings (always one of my favorite souvenirs!). 

We switched drivers in Arrowtown and soon discovered that the drive from Arrowtown to Wanaka involved crossing what seemed like quite a mountain.  The views were tremendous, as you can see.  But you’ll have to imagine me squeaking in terror as we approached hairpin turn after hairpin turn—while Penelope was simultaneously saying “Go faster, Daddy!” and laughing with delight.

We arrived in Wanaka in late afternoon, and I have to agree with our guidebooks that the town feels exactly like Queenstown’s little sister.  Smaller, but still the ski-town vibe, filled with backpackers and tourists.  We settled in at our cabin, which is no longer a Top10 property and has subsequently been renamed Mt Aspiring Holiday Park.  But still a fine place for two nights’ stay.  Penelope was particularly pleased to hear that this park has a pool, especially since it will be in the 80s during our visit.   Dinner that night was at the Red Star Burger Bar and was so tasty we’re considering returning for round two…   The evening ended with pool and playground time, and some of the penultimate chapters of The Hobbit.

Although my folks (who have been to New Zealand three times, each trip lasting several months) recommended the Rob Roy track to us as “one of the best day hikes” they’ve ever been on—which is really saying something—we decided it was too ambitious for certain members of our family….  So on Tuesday morning we opted for two shorter hikes instead: the Mt Iron track and the Waterfall Creek Trail.  The first had terrific views of the whole valley and Lake Wanaka, while the second headed around the lake and allowed us to see That Wanaka Tree.  Yes, it’s really called that.  And #thatwanakatree on Instagram has over 37K posts (so far). 

Home to our cabin for lunch, then we headed to Puzzling World for the afternoon.  I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see attraction, but it was certainly a fun way to spend a few hours.  We liked the inside optical Illusion Rooms best, especially the Tilted House rooms and the Roman Latrine entrance to the bathrooms.  The Great Maze outside was tough, though, and we bailed via an emergency exit after about half an hour.  Just before we left, we visited the gift shop—where Penelope was tickled to realize that the attraction’s initials were her own as well.

We headed back to Red Star Burger Bar for dinner, and then an early evening at home—schoolwork and blogging and a family game of Uno before bedtime. 

Wednesday was our longest day of driving of the entire NZ trip—from Wanaka to Kaikoura—and we were on the road for more than nine hours.  Fortunately, we had lots of beautiful country to see on the way.  We also knew just where to stop for our breaks: the fabulous playground (with ziplines big enough for parents!) next to the grocery store in Lake Tekapo, the enormous i-Site and gift store in Geraldine, and an amazing Indian dinner at Maharaja, an Indian restaurant in Christchurch.  And as a bonus, I finished reading aloud The Hobbit to Penelope (and Jeremy) as the long driving day came to an end.  We arrived at the Top 10 Holiday Park in Kaikoura around 8:30pm, and Penelope managed to squeeze in some playtime at the jumping pillow before bedtime rolled around.

Thursday morning we got up early for our Dolphin Encounter cruise.  Kaikoura is famous for its oceanic wildlife, from whales to dolphins to seabirds.  The dusky dolphins are among the inhabitants of this gorgeous area, and they are famous for their friendly, inquisitive, and acrobatic nature.  There’s just one company here that takes folks out to swim with the dolphins, and it’s a wetsuit, snorkeling kind of adventure.  The dolphins are not fed or enticed to come over toward the boat and the swimmers, but they generally do—and in the process, put on an amazing performance.  Needless to say, we were pretty excited for the morning!

Penelope and I opted for the role of spectators aboard the vessel; Jeremy, less keen to sail, decided to stay home.  After a brief wait while the swimmers donned their wetsuits and heard safety instructions, we were all bussed over to the South Bay, about ten minutes away from the tiny downtown.  We boarded our boat: three spectators and sixteen swimmers along with one skipper and two guides. We sailed for about 25 minutes until we spotted our first pod of dolphins—they tend to roam in pods of a hundred to nearly a thousand.  We had a “smaller” group of a hundred or so, and their constant activity made for a non-stop show for the next two hours.  While the swimmers came in and out of the water, surrounded by the curious dolphins, one of the guides showed us the best place to stand.  And so Penelope and I spent the rest of the voyage at the bow of the boat, where the dolphins liked to “surf” the pressure waves when the boat was moving… and play when we were floating along.

I took dozens of photos and videos, but I also managed to put the camera away from time to time, just to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us.  In addition to the dusky dolphins, we saw common dolphins racing by, a few New Zealand fur seals swimming, and several albatross bobbing along on the surface of the sea.

But one short video is definitely worth sharing… I actually caught one of the many dolphin somersaults! 

Later that afternoon Penelope and Jeremy spent some time at the holiday park pool while I explored Kaikoura’s shops solo.  Always willing to do my part for the local economy.  😉

After dinner at home, we capped the day with a walk down near the peninsula trail, where we hopped off the trail and wandered out on the rocks of low tide.  A bit of tidepooling, but mostly just appreciating the amazing sunset unfolding before us.

Just another wonderful day in New Zealand.

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