Christchurch. Our first stop on the South Island, New Zealand's oldest city and the South Island’s "capital", Christchurch is unique for its open spaces (it has 650 parks). Its ambiance, including the punting along the Avon River and the old buildings that once housed the University of Canterbury but now form the hub of Christchurch's arts and crafts, is a reminder of the English heritage of New Zealand.
Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula, is an historic French and British settlement nestled in the heart of a volcano. The area is full of bird life and marine life such as the Hector dolphins (the world's smallest dolphins) that playfully follow boats through the harbor. We cruised the harbor, watching beautiful sail boats racing in the wind, New Zealand fur seals and dolphins following our boat.
In the evening, we had the pleasure of meeting the Penguin Lady, Shireen, who took us on a trek cross the peninsula mountains to visit Pohuta-Flea Bay, home to the largest White Flippered Blue Penguin colony on the Mainland. At dusk, we got to watch the adult parents return from their day of fishing to feed their babies hiding in their nests.
Mount Cook. At 3754 metres, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain in what is know as the Southern Alps.The Aoraki Mount Cook region has spectacular scenery, some of the best walks and hikes in the world, and is the place to take a thrilling helicopter ride through the Alps complete with a landing on the glacier. This was the day we engaged in conspicuous consumption. We stayed at NZ's most upscale (and grossly over-priced) hotel, "The Hermitage" to go with the helicopter flight. New Zealand on $1,000 / day!
Queenstown Queenstown is called the "adventure capital of the world; there are activities for all people, whatever their sense of daring. Queenstown is the home of Hackett's bungy jumping: we watched but did not participate. There is also sky diving, parasailing, mountain climbing, heliski, parapenting, and more. We were not exceptionally daring, though we did go jet boating. We toured the lake and a sheep farm, biked (Roger D), took the cable car to the top of the mountain and did some hiking, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Maybe next time we'll be tempted by the bungies!
Kaikoura If Queenstown is the adventure capital, Kaikoura is the "ecotourism" capital. This seaside settlement on the rugged east coast of the South Island is where the oceans meet the mountains and incredible wildlife abounds. Name the activity: albatross watching, whale watching, seal watching, and eating crayfish. We went out whale watching, saw ten whales and even one breach! The highlight, however, was the Albatross Watching -- amazing birds -- they fly 2000 miles from the Antarctic to eat, then turn around and fly back so they can regurgitate and feed their young. How do they do it?
Hanmer Springs Situated in the high country between Kairoura and Christchurch, Hanmer Springs is the place to kick back and relax. The main attraction in this quiet, sleepy little village is the the Hanmer Springs Thermal Reserve, an outdoor thermal pool complex where you can sit back and relax in natural thermal water, surrounded by towering trees and a mountain backdrop. Oh - and get a luxurious massage!
Marlborough. Beautiful vineyards, spectacular wine, great food. The northeast corner of the South Island is a wonderland to visit. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to take in the bush walks that cross the region, but we have the best of intentions to return -- all four of us! Trails to walk, vineyards to visit, and wines to drink!
Nelson. Notable facts. Nelson is where the first game of rugby football was played in New Zealand was played on May 14, 1870. It has the highest number of hours of sun in New Zealand (2,500 per year). The Nelson region is populated by vineyards and national parks. And Nelson is the largest fishing port in Australasia. Sunshine, art, wine and adventure! But we only stayed one night -- and had dinner with our friends Geoffrey and Margaret Palmer. Somehow, we forgot to take pictures, but if you click here you can find out more!
Wellington. Having finished our tour of the South Island (for the time being), we took the Picton ferry over the Cook Straits to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand and Roger C.'s old stomping grounds. Unfortunately, we only had a short stay in Wellington, but we got in a visit to the incredible Te Papa Art Museum and lunch with the new Chancellor of Victoria University. (If you click the Te Papa link, you'll hear a traditional Maori greeting.
Lake Taupo. En route to the north of the North Island, we stopped at the lovely Lake Taupo, a lake the size of Singapore and the largest fresh water lake in Australasia. The lake was formed from a gigantic volcanic explosion, and live volcanos still ring the area. On the way through, we dined on the banks of the lake and were treated to an amazing spectacle of the setting sun!
Rotorua. Our last stop was on the North Island -- Rotorua. You know with your eyes shut when you reach Rotorua: the distinctive smell of sulphur greets you, and when you open your eyes, you see the wisps of steam escaping from underground vents. The hissing geysers, scaling water, bubbling mud and sinter formations are only part of this thermal wonderland. Rotorua is also a center of Maori culture: we took in some Maori cultural events (including a Maori hangi or banquet) along with a tongue-in-cheek duck hunting trip in an amphibious vehicle called "The Duck."