Archive for April, 2010

Fair Weather in Wanaka

Friday, April 16th, 2010

27 – 29 March 2010, New Zealand

Traveling down the west coast, we logged a lot of kilometers in a short amount of time.  We were tired of driving and needed a place to kick back for a few days.  Wanaka, situated at the southern end of Lake Wanaka and surrounded by the Southern Alps,  proved to be a perfect place to do just that.

We arrived at our hostel in Wanaka after another day of driving through gorgeous scenery in the Haast Pass.  Joining us on our road trip were two French hitchhikers that we picked up just outside of Fox Glacier.  Standing in the pouring rain for three hours, they were thrilled that we stopped for them.  It was fun to share their excitement as we stopped at a number of roadside waterfalls and one random roadside attraction that felt like a tribute to the travelers that had come before us.  As we rounded a bend in the road, markers made of rocks and sticks began to appear out of the mist.  We stepped out of the car to take a closer look and saw that visitors from all over the globe had written their names, hometown and date of their visit on these markers that seemed to go on for miles.  It was ironic to see that someone from Madison had passed by earlier that same day.

Arriving in Wanaka, we cooked some food and settled in for a comfortable night at one of the nicest hostels we had stayed at thus far.  We felt particularly spoiled since our room had its own attached bathroom.  Backpacker luxury = private bathroom.  Looking out over the lake from the common area, we patted ourselves on the back for deciding to temporarily put the road trip on hold and spend three nights in this idyllic location.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we loaded up our daypacks with lunch, rain jackets and plenty of water before paying a visit to the local Department of Conservation (DOC) office.  Similar to National Park Visitor Centers in the United States, rangers at the DOC have a wealth of information about nearby hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis say).  After speaking with them, we decided to hike the Rob Roy Valley Track known for its stunning scenery, glacier views and many waterfalls.

Like many popular, accessible hikes in New Zealand, this one had its fair share of people on the trail but it wasn’t crowded enough to take away from the tranquility of the experience.  The first part of the hike took us across a swing bridge and upward through beech forest and alpine vegetation.  After reaching the top, we were rewarded with views of the Rob Roy Glacier.  We tried to photograph this stunning landscape but it was difficult to capture due to the sun’s position and the expansiveness of the views.  After giving up, we absorbed our surroundings over a picnic lunch and then headed back down to the trailhead.

Although the sun was shining the next morning, we still opted to spend the day indoors at a couple of Wanaka’s unique attractions.  Our first stop was Puzzling World, famous for its 3D maze and numerous optical illusion rooms.  Happy to have an excuse to act like kids, we raced through the maze, finishing it in about 40 minutes.  We then visited the optical illusion rooms, one of which left us feeling a bit motion sick so we headed into the puzzle room for some challenging entertainment.

Once our brains no longer ached, we visited the Toy and Transport Museum.  After a few minutes exploring we decided that a more apt moniker might be the “Stuff that Guys Like Museum”.  We browsed through hundreds of display cases of vintage toys then headed outside to find 4 hangars packed absolutely full of cars, trucks, motorcycles, fire trucks, airplanes and construction equipment.  This was not the type of museum that most people imagine when they think of museums.  Most of the items on display were not labeled, many were covered in dust and the vast majority looked like they had simply been parked haphazardly throughout the space.  One of the museum’s two employees informed us that everything on display had come from someone’s personal collection.  Apparently, the owner has a bit of an obsession for things with engines and he purchased most of the items at auctions.   As you can imagine, Jason was in heaven.  He probably could’ve spent hours wandering through the crowded hangars but someone must have been watching over me that day; we only had 90 minutes to wander around before the museum shut its doors for the day.

Our last night in Wanaka passed by too quickly as we mapped out our route for the rest of New Zealand and began to discuss plans for our next destination, the Philippines.  The next morning we woke early so that I would have time for a quick run around the lake before heading further south and back towards the coast to the region known as Fiordland.

Wet Weather on the West Coast

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

24 – 26 March 2010, New Zealand

Leaving behind the sunny climate of the wine region, we headed towards the west coast, one of the wettest places on earth…literally.  Annual rainfall on the coast averages 5 meters (that’s about 15 feet!) and while the rain can make traveling a challenge, it is also one reason why the scenery is so spectacular.  Once we hit the coast, we headed north to Hector, a tiny town about 40 kilometers from where the highway ends.  Having never been on a highway that actually ends, this was a first for us.  After checking into our hostel, I was anxious to explore the surrounding bush or take a walk on the beach but it had been raining all day and there was no indication that it was going to let up.  After settling into a comfy couch by the fire, hot beverage in hand, my restlessness soon subsided.  The evening ended up passing quickly as we had plenty of good reading material and a chance to swap stories with other travelers.

The following morning, we decided to do some hiking.  The trail we used was once a railroad line used to carry coal down the mountain.  Unfortunately, the rain started to pour just as we got to the trailhead.  Refusing to let the weather slow us down, we decided to do the walk anyway.  Although we were completely soaked by the end of the two hour hike, the great views along the trail more than made up for it.

Having worked up an appetite, we stopped for a lunch of pies, a staple in every New Zealander’s diet.  While the standard pie is filled with red meat, some places sell more interesting flavors and I was able to score a chicken and apricot pie from the local café.  Washed down with a ginger beer, it was much more satisfying than the peanut butter sandwiches we had been eating for most of our lunches.

The next few days were somewhat consistent; get up each morning, peel back the curtains to discover that it was in fact still raining, pack up our stuff and drive south, oohing and aahing at the amazing scenery along the way.  Around nearly every bend in the road was a national park or scenic reserve, all  free of charge.  We took advantage of this by doing plenty of hikes.  As we reached each trailhead or scenic overlook, we would throw on our most water-resistant clothing, step out of the car and into the rain.  Fortunately, the views made it all worthwhile.

One indoor activity that we managed to squeeze into our ambitious itinerary was a stop at Monteith’s, New Zealand’s oldest brewery.  Having sampled more than our share of New Zealand’s finest wines, we felt compelled to taste some of the local beer as well.  Our stop included a tour of the brewery and a chance to sample eight varieties in the brewery bar.  After the taste testing was done, we were able to step behind the bar and pour ourselves a pint of our favorite beer.  I found it difficult to keep up with the eight other people on the tour, so we soon found ourselves alone in the bar while I finished my pint.  Jason took advantage of this time to pour himself a few more.  We then did as our tour guide suggested and wandered down the street to order whitebait sandwiches for lunch.  Whitebait is a delicacy in New Zealand and, for some of the locals, a bit of an obsession.  Unfortunately, the sandwiches did not live up to our expectations but we were happy to try something that we had heard so much about.

Pancake Rocks was one of our favorite stops along the way and it provided us with at least a couple of hours of entertainment.  We were lucky enough to visit during high tide and, as an added bonus, the rain stopped while we were there.  The Pancake Rocks are columns of limestone that resemble thick piles of pancakes.  While certainly an attraction in and of themselves, the real highlight for us was the blowholes located at the same site.  We couldn’t take our eyes off the water as it came rushing in, spraying dramatically towards the sky through the blowholes.

Another compulsory stop on our road trip was Franz Josef Glacier.  In order to walk on the glacier, you need to be part of a guided hike.  Having already done this when I was here nearly ten years ago, we decided our money was better spent elsewhere.  Instead, we chose the self-guided option which only allowed us to walk to the face of the glacier.  Jason was not particularly impressed.  According to him, the face of the glacier just looked like a bunch of dirty ice.  The pouring rain during the entire 40 minute hike may have contributed to his negativity.

The west coast’s stunning scenery was certainly a highlight for us but the relentless rain finally started to take its toll.  Having heard from other travelers that sunshine and dry weather could be found just over the Haast Mountain Pass, we decided that it was time to say farewell to the west coast and drive inland.

Would You Like to Smell the Cap, Sir?

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

22 – 23 March 2010, New Zealand

On March 22nd, a three hour ferry crossing took us from Wellington, on New Zealand’s north island, to Picton on the south island.  After disembarking from the ferry, we made the thirty minute drive to  Renwick, a small town in the center of the Marlborough wine region. In the stressful year preceding our departure I developed an appreciation for a not-so-infrequent glass of wine, and was thus looking forward to sampling some of New Zealand’s offerings. While I typically drank red wine at home, I was excited to try some of the whites for which the Marlborough region is particularly known.

As we drove toward Renwick, the clouds that had followed us from Wellington started to part, revealing clear blue sky.  Eager to begin exploring and thrilled to leave the gloomy weather behind, we parked the car and took a self-guided tour through the fields.  There was no shortage of vineyards to explore as the Marlborough region is New Zealand’s largest wine-producing area.

Once the sun set and the temperature dropped, we drove to our hostel, made some dinner and used the handy map of the wine country provided by our hostel to develop a plan of action for the next day.  About 60 wineries are located in the region, so there were plenty of options.  Most wineries offer free tastings, and having serious doubts about our driving abilities after a day of sampling, we wisely chose to rent bikes for our wine country tour.  Plus, as I pointed out to Jason, it would be a good way to get some exercise.  This is a phrase that Jason will be hearing way too much over the course of the next year and I’m sure that he’s already begun to tire of my never-ending quest to incorporate physical activity into each day.

The next morning we woke to clear skies and, after eating breakfast, set off on our bikes.  Our wine country tour took us to five different wineries.  Although this may not sound like much, it took most of the day.  This is likely because each winery that we visited offered between seven and 11 different wines to taste.  We enjoyed many of the wines and Jason’s seemingly endless stream of questions made each tasting an educational experience.

At one winery we learned that several years ago most New Zealand wineries began closing their bottles with caps rather than corks. While considered inferior in some wine regions, New Zealand wine producers believe caps seal the bottle more tightly and consistently, ensuring the wine does not change over time.  After sampling upwards of 40 wines and enjoying most of them, who were we to question their logic?

Somewhere between the second and third sample at winery number five, we both started to tire of the tastings.  Recognizing this as a sign to call it quits, we steered our bikes back towards the hostel, managing to keep them upright for the entire trip.