On to Queenstown

Monday morning we headed south on the motorway, bound for Queenstown. We stopped at an overlook of unbelievably-blue Lake Pukaki for a picnic lunch and a bit of running around, then continued south. I’m proud to report that I drove for about two hours of the trip and without a single incident… though Jeremy did remark from time to time on my inability to stay off of the left shoulder. I contended that the shoulder is safer than the middle of the road, where the other cars are whizzing by.

We settled into the Queenstown Lakeview holiday park, then set out to explore the CBD (central business district) and grab some dinner. After a delicious meal at Flame, we meandered around town for a bit, window shopping and picking up planning brochures at the tourist information centre. The evening ended with time split between the playground and the laundry room.

Since we aren’t planning to bungee jump or other insanity, the lure of Queenstown for us is mostly its gorgeous views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu and its proximity to Glenorchy and the Routeburn Track.

Tuesday we decided to hike around part of the lake, along the path in Queenstown Gardens. Gorgeous weather was with us all day, despite the prediction of rain in the forecast.

At the beginning of the Gardens path, the local Rotary Club had set up a small stand selling duck food (dried peas and seeds). Penelope was quite charmed by the way the ducklings ate right out of her hand.

After lunch in town, Penelope and I headed for the Skyline Gondola. Jeremy, alas, is not a fan of heights, so he opted for an afternoon at the holiday park instead. We purchased our tickets and headed for the top.

After checking out the views and reading about the history of the Skyline Gondola, we decided it was now or never. Helmets on, we boarded the chairlift for the next level: the Luge track.

After a brief training on how to steer and, more importantly, how to brake, we were off.  And it was FABULOUS!   Four thumbs up.  Amazing views, speedy turns… and Penelope screamed with joy all the way down.

We went on the track three times and could have gone three more.  Before leaving the top of the mountain, we paused to watch a bungee jump, which Penelope said looked like “the most fun ever.”  I quickly assured her that you have to be 18 to jump (I’m not actually sure this is a NZ law, but I think it should be our family policy).  We rode the gondola back down, taking in the spectacular views, and headed home to the holiday park.  

Wednesday the promised rain finally fell, so we spent the day browsing the Queenstown shops, doing another load of laundry, and heading to the local cinema to see Mary Poppins Returns.  In the early evening, we were surprised by a sudden hailstorm and later found out that several trees had come down, blocking a main road in town.  These NZ summer storms are no joke!  But we were delighted to see the light dusting of snow on the mountains out of our window.

Thursday morning we got up bright and early to head out for our first big hike of the trip, the first part of the Routeburn Track.  The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and hikers who do the whole trek usually take three or four days.  For thru-hikers, there are several “huts” along the way: gorgeously maintained accommodations with flush toilets and gas ranges, bunkbeds and campsites.

We spent more time than expected getting there, as part of the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy was closed due to tree and power line damage from the storm the day before.  But soon enough we were on our way again, and we ate our picnic lunch in the carpark before setting out.

We noted on the sign that our destination, the first Hut on the Track, was 1.5 hours away. Since we would head back on the same path, it would be a lovely 3 hour walk in the woods.  I should perhaps add here that the sign failed to mention that the Flats Hut was 7.5km away.  So off we went, happily oblivious to the length of the almost 10 mile hike we’d just begun.

And what a hike it was!  Within the first half an hour, we’d spotted Eyvind Earle trees (Jeremy), a fairy grotto (Rebecca), and enormous mushrooms (Penelope).

But, alas, about an hour into the hike, Penelope had completely exhausted her stores of enthusiasm, patience, and fortitude.  (I hope, gentle Reader, you appreciate my use of euphemisms here.  Travel with a seven year old is not always sunshine and rainbows.)  Jeremy, realizing that my long-awaited hike through Lothlorien was in jeopardy, generously volunteered to return with Penelope to the carpark and allow me to carry on solo.

And so on I climbed, through fern-filled forests and sunlit glades, over thundering cataracts, and finally onto a wide alluvial plain and the long-awaited Routeburn Flats Hut.

It was, quite simply, the best day hike I’ve ever been on.  I can see why so many scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed here—it really is a magical place…. Hopefully by the time my next sabbatical rolls around, Penelope will be ready to do the full three-day tramp. 🙂  I can’t wait to come back, though my knees were an eensy bit sore that evening.  My FitBit reported that I climbed the equivalent of 122 staircases, so I can see why.

On our drive back to Glenorchy, we stopped to snap a pic of this most quintessential Kiwi view.  Mountains, lake, sheep. 

And then from Glenorchy to Queenstown, all along Lake Wakatipu, with stops along the way to enjoy the stunning views—and to capture a few family selfies.

Friday morning we packed up once again and drove out to Te Anau. The sun is shining and we have an eagerly-anticipated cruise on Milford Sound ahead of us!

First Days in New Zealand

Our whirlwind of packing and planning completed at last, we headed to SFO on January 15th for our evening flight. Excitement was definitely in the air as we boarded the plane bound for Fiji!

After our layover in Fiji, we landed in Christchurch on January 17th, beginning our six weeks of travels in the Antipodes. Penelope paused to pose with one of the painted poles at the Christchurch airport, and then we headed to our hotel and a delicious steakhouse dinner at Bloody Mary’s. That evening she told everyone we encountered (from the customs agent to to the waitress), “You have a New Zealand accent!” You’ll have to imagine her tones of surprise with each encounter. 🙂

Friday morning we started the day with brunch at a local cafe (where Penelope discovered bacon is a term used rather loosely in New Zealand), then headed to the Botanic Garden. A wonderful reminder that we’re in the middle of summer here! The hydrangeas were especially beautiful….

Afterwards we headed to the Margaret Mahy Park, which is the largest children’s playground south of the equator. Penelope gives it two thumbs up! We ended the day with a round of mini-golf and a delicious dinner at Thai Kitchen.

Saturday morning we repacked our bags and went to pick up our car, eager to head out of town to see more of New Zealand. As we left the garage on the left side of the street, Jeremy drove with unaccustomed caution (for which I was QUITE grateful). Before leaving the city, however, we stopped at the local grocery store to lay in supplies for our travels. We’ll mostly be staying in holiday parks and doing our own cooking, so we needed to stock up! And to be honest, browsing grocery stores is one of my absolute favorite things to do when traveling. There are so many kind of condiments here that should be available at home.

My new favorite road trip snack:

En route, Penelope read the book we bought for her that afternoon…

…all 489 pages of it. Fortunately, one of Penelope’s new travel toys is her very own Kindle. Otherwise we’d be in real trouble…

After a little over three hours of driving through lovely cow- and sheep-spotted countryside, we arrived at Lake Tekapo. It was absolutely pouring rain on the drive in, but just after dinner Penelope spotted a rainbow out our cabin window, and sure enough the sun had come out and the turquoise lake water was shimmering. Absolutely lovely!

Sunday morning we explored Lake Tekapo and environs, visiting the Church of the Good Shepherd and heading to the top of Mount John to see the views. A beautiful day, but very windy!

So in the afternoon we decided to spend a few hours at the Tekapo Hot Springs. Then we stayed up way past Penelope’s bedtime to see the night sky, since Lake Tekapo is an International Dark Sky Reserve. Alas, the almost-full moon and cloudy sky obscured most of the stars, but it was still a gorgeous view.

On Monday morning we bid a fond farewell to our first holiday park cabin– especially our “outdoor” toilet–and hit the road again, this time heading south to Queenstown. Stay tuned to see whether or not we are brave enough to ride the Skyline Luge!!