Trip Report: New Zealand 2011

New Zealand featured copyOne of the delightful things about living in Asia is that you are close to New Zealand.  And by close,  I mean, of course, only a 20 hour plane ride instead of a 36 hour plane ride.  But hey, that 16 hour advantage is not to be sneezed at, so during the Chinese New Year holiday our third year in Beijing, off we flew to New Zealand’s South Island.

After talking with friends who had already done the NZ trip, we decided that the best way to tour the island was by renting an RV.  This was a brilliant decision, and played a key role in what turned out to be one of our most relaxing and spontaneous vacations.

Day One: Christchurch

After arriving late at night in Christchurch and heading to a hotel for the night, we picked up our home for the week, and headed straight for our first destination, the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.  Because Christchurch is one of the South-est locations on earth, it is one of two main jumping-off points for expeditions to Antarctica.  NASA has a large presence here, as scientists prepare for their missions to Antarctica and as support staff works to maximize the impact of all they learn there.  Because of that, there is lots to do at the Centre, which is part aquarium, part museum and part adventure ride.

Watch blue penguins swim and dive in the indoor habitat, pretend you are on an early expedition to Antarctica in the many interactive exhibits full of gear, snowmobiles and all kinds of props to play with, and best of all, play in the snow in summer!  You can even experience a “real Antarctic blizzard” in the snow room, with winds reaching 80 miles an hour and temps dropping to subzero temperatures.  The kids were in heaven, and we loved it too.

How to Discover the Pole

How to Discover the Pole

But the highlight of the day we definitely the Haagland Vehicle ride.   These tank-like vehicles are used by most of the current expeditions to Antarctica, and it’s easy to see why.  After strapping into safety harnesses and being advised to hang on tight, you quickly discover that these vehicles can take on almost anything.  Near-vertical climbs are quickly followed by death-defying drops over cliffs and ravines, and when you see your car dangling helplessly (but somehow safely) over the edge of a steep dropoff dozens of feet in the air, it’s hard not to stop breathing.  It was a terrifying and exhilarating, and a must-do for older kids and teens.  Younger kids might want to have a parent ride first to decide whether it’s too scary.  (You can ride as many times as you’d like with your pass to the Centre.)  In the words of our then-very-young Leafy Isaac, “The tractor goes UP!  and the tractor goes DOWN!  and I is excited, and I is scared!

The kids also loved the 4D movie, which features a simulated cruise to Antarctica, complete with splashing waves and bumping icebergs.  It was a great way to spend our first day in NZ before we set off to explore the rest of what the island had to offer.

After we had had our fill of the Antarctic Centre, we set off to find our campground for the night.  On advice of our friends, we sought out the Top Ten Holiday Parks, a series of campgrounds that span the whole country and always feature showers, kitchens, playgrounds and sometimes, pools, trampolines and other kid-friendly additions.  We bought a “membership” our first night, which paid for itself by the third, and were so happy with our choice to RV instead of book hotels.

Traveling by RV gave us the flexibility and freedom that was the best part of the trip.   Instead of being locked in to an itinerary, we could change our plans day by day.  Instead of having a meticulously planned list of places to go and things to see, we could decide each morning what we felt like doing that day.  If we had planned on spending several days somewhere and decided it wasn’t worth that much time, we just woke up and drove on the next day.  If we had planned a stop of a few hours somewhere and fell in love with it, a few hours could become a few days.  Brilliant.

Another unexpected benefit of this kind of travel was all the people we met on the way.  We aren’t usually the kind of people who make a lot of friends on vacation (early nights with kids tend to prevent a lot of fraternizing in hotels or restaurants) but the camaraderie among the RVers was remarkable.  Tourists from all over the world gathered together in the communal kitchens, sharing information (and sometimes, condiments) and watching our kids play together.  It was the best kind of community–informal, laid back and friendly without being intrusive.

Day Two: Oamaru and Yellow Eyed Penguins

New Zealand Days 1-3 107

Waiting for the Penguins

Actually, that should read, Penguin.  Because, despite advice to the contrary, we set off the next day to make the considerable drive to Oamaru, on the south coast.  Oamaru is famous for the flocks of yellow-eyed penguins who come home each evening to roost on the beaches.  We drove most of the day to arrive in time to hike up to the lookout to watch for the penguins’ homecoming.  We waited, and waited, and waited . . .  Finally, after two freezing hours in the cold and the wind, the kids had had enough.  Had we driven hundreds of kilometers for nothing?  Was our trip to be a yellow-eyed penguin-less one?  Finally, at 8:14, a penguin!  One precious penguin.  “Hooray!” they shouted.  “Now let’s go eat.”

Day Three and Four:  Milford Sound

After driving to Te Anau, a gorgeous little lake town near the glaciers, we decided to take a bus tour to see Milford Sound, the most famous beauty spot in the Fjordland area of NZ’s south island.  Big M was tired of driving, and since we’d heard the drive was supposed to be a beautiful (and treacherous) one, we wanted to make sure he got to look at scenery instead of white-knuckling the windy roads through the mountains.  Another bonus of the bus idea was learning that our bus driver was in The Lord of the Rings!  Of course, as he assured us, everyone on the South Island who could ride a horse was in The Lord of the Rings.  Still.  Cletus was suitably star-struck.

The Milford Road is incredibly scenic, and was our first taste of something we were to experience over and over again in New Zealand.  You know how sometimes, on a vacation somewhere really beautiful, there comes a moment where you turn a corner on the road and gasp, “We have to stop!  We have to get a picture of that!”   That happens every single day in New Zealand.  No, not every single day.  Every single turn in the road.  It’s like a big made-up Platonic Ideal of a country.  It’s what the world looked like before humans messed it up.  It’s astonishingly, confoundingly, impossibly beautiful.

Milford Valley view from the bus

Milford Valley view from the bus

It’s also on a scale that boggles the mind.  Over and over again, we found ourselves having to reality-check things we were seeing.  “Oh, look, another little waterfall,” we’d say, not realizing till we were home looking at pictures just how huge the waterfall was.  “Ooh, that’s a nice shot,” I’d mutter as I held my arm out of the car window.  The resulting pictures would prompt gasps of admiration  when friends looked through our photo albums months later.  “Where IS this place?”  “Ummmmm, you know, I can’t remember.  The side of the freeway somewhere?”

Milford Sound 037

The Side of the Freeway Somewhere

Once we arrived at Milford Sound, we boarded a cruise of the fjord with Southern Discoveries.  The cruise was fantastic, making a full tour of the Sound and all its beauty.  Because it had been raining most of the night, thousands of small waterfalls could be seen cascading down the cliffs of the mountains and the views were amazing.  We also saw seals sunning themselves on boulders, and the captain made sure to pull as close as possible to them so the passengers could get a good look.



The cruise also included a good buffet lunch and a trip to the underwater observatory to see coral reef.  This was the only disappointing part of the day–the heavy rain had muddied the water so much that we were unable to see much of anything through the windows.  But the kids’ favorite part, by far, was sailing under a waterfall.  The captain announced that anyone who didn’t want to get wet should move off of the front decks, so the boys, of course, dashed straight up there.  With amazing precision, the captain steered the boat so close to the cliffs that a large waterfall was pouring straight onto the ship.  They were thrilled, and soaked, and the people inside got a great laugh watching us through the glass.

Here comes the water!

Here comes the water!

Day Five and Six: Wanaka

We spent the next day in Wanaka, playing in the lake and hiking through the amazing scenery.  Wanaka, like Queenstown, is known for extreme sports like bungee jumping, sky diving and para sailing.  We did none of those things.  We just rested, read books, played in the sand and enjoyed a lovely, laid-back couple of days.

Even lakes have waves when its windy, as these guys learned.

Even lakes have waves when it’s windy, as these guys learned.

Near Wanaka are some gorgeous walks, including the one to Peter’s Pool.  Perfect for a slow stroll at the speed of three-year-old legs, it was an incredibly beautiful forest that felt ancient.  As Lemmy observed, “I think the dinosaurs could have lived here.”  Gigantic ferns, incredibly tall trees and gorgeous lakes scattered all around the landscape made it feel like a fairy tale.  This is the heart of “Lord of the Rings” territory.

Day Seven and Eight: Franz Joseph Glacier

Some "little waterfalls" at Franz Josef. Can you find the people?

Another little waterfall at Franz Josef.  Can you spot the tiny, tiny humans?

The next day we made our way up to Franz Josef, home of the famous  Franz Josef Glacier.  The hike to the Glacier starts as a walk through gorgeous, verdant forest and ends, as Cletus declared, “on the Road to Mordor.”    Dry, rocky riverbeds lead you within a few yards of the unearthly blue of the glacier, which is so strange looking you’d swear it was fake.

The Road to Mordor . . . er . . . Franz Josef Glacier

The Road to Mordor . . . er . . . Franz Josef Glacier

Day 9 and 10: Christchurch

We spent our last few days in New Zealand exploring Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island.   There’s a reason this city in on most lists of Top Destinations.  It has all the beauty and charm of a British university town, but also all the friendly cheerfulness of Hawaii–the perfect mix of Gothic architecture and New Zealand hospitality.

(And I am seriously not kidding about the friendliness.  It became a running joke throughout the trip.  Any time I would run in to pay for gas, buy food or ask for directions, Matthew would ask, “So, nicest person you ever met in your life?”  “Yep.”  Every time.  I can honestly say that we did not encounter one grouchy person the entire trip, and most of the people we met were so genuinely nice they made us feel like the rudest, brusquest, in-a-hurry-est people in history.  Best.  People.  Ever.)

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Christchurch Cathedral, as it was.

Our favorite location is now, tragically, no more.  The earthquake in 2011 (only weeks after we returned to Beijing) completely destroyed the tower and a major part of the body of Christchurch Cathedral.  This was especially shocking to us, of course, since we had just been there and had really enjoyed (except for claustrophobic mom) our trip to the top of the spiral staircase that runs up the Cathedral Spire.  Negotiations are still ongoing to decide the fate of the remaining section of the Cathedral (demolish? rebuild?  adapt?) but the new temporary Cathedral, nicknamed the Cardboard Cathedral, will serve the Anglican community until the final decision is made.

Even with the loss of Christchurch Cathedral, the city still holds many wonderful sights to be seen.  We enjoyed feeding ducks on the banks of the Avon river, viewing statues of Lemmy’s newest hero (after the Antarctic Centre) Robert Scott, watching extremely talented street buskers and wandering the grounds of Christ’s College, a historic boys school that looks “just like Hogwarts!”

Christ's College campus

Christ’s College campus

Our last day in Christchurch was spent getting in one more day at the beach.  Cold, cloudy weather cannot deter our boys when there are sandcastles to be made, so we spent several hours at the magnificently deserted Sumner Beach before heading off the the airport for the (sigh) 22 hour flight home.


Need to Know Before You Go

Visas needed? (US Passport holders) no
Best time to visit Nov-Feb
 Want more? Read our other trip reports here!



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