TIO NZ: Tekapo & Points South
Our planned departure out of Christchurch to Lake Tekapo got delayed until the beginning of Christchurch rush hour, so it was a bit late when we reached our lodging. Late enough that our host-owner Steve Hunter, at the rustic but very comfortable Lake Tekapo Cottages, had nearly given up on us. When we (finally) met, Steve was tricked out in camouflage about to go hunting wallabies, one of many of New Zealand invasive species (and pests) the country is trying to eliminate.
The skies in Lake Tekapo were clear at sunset, boding well for our highly-anticipated flight over Mt. Cook the next morning.
But the morning of November 21st came in cloudy. Uh, oh!
Called Air Safaris about our reservations and their answer was this: Mt. Cook and the high country are above the clouds, but we do not have clear weather to get to altitude. Call back about 0930.
So we did.
Our scheduled 1000 flight would take off at 1100.
We got airborne with 10 other adventurers around the rescheduled time. Our pilot, Leon, had to maneuver a bit around clouds to get up, but we had good views of the glacial blue waters of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding brownish hills on departure. Very soon the muscular, higher, snow-covered peaks were in view.
The air was a bit bumpy as we flew over and around the highest mountains, around Mt. Cook, but no one seemed to mind. It was hard to take my eyes off the beauty around me long enough to take a few photos.
Way too soon it was time to return to Air Safaris’ home strip. About an hour after we took off, the plane was on short final, landing to the east. Leon greased it on, stopped well short of the end of the short runway and returned his happy passengers to the ramp.
Except for the Air Safaris trip, most of our time in Lake Tekapo was spent regrouping. The previous two weeks had been a bit of a whirlwind, and we were way behind in the details of our non-vacation lives.
One of the standout moments of our two days in the area was receiving a call from the Police Department in Christchurch: the wallet I had misplaced in Christchurch had been turned in by a cab driver; credit cards, driver’s license and cash all there. They would send the package to the police in Queenstown to await our arrival.
Good news to say the least.
Back in Tekapo we let Steve know we had a few days not fully booked in Queenstown, so he suggested we fly to Milford Sound and further, that the weather had been good recently in that coastal area which generally receives huge amounts of rain throughout the year – like up to 11 feet of precipitation.
We enjoyed a nice short hike along the lake before dinner. Later, as night deepened, we drove back up to the airport. Our new friend Hélène from the Hotel Montreal in Christchurch, who had once lived in the area, had suggested taking advantage of the dark, very clear skies around Tekapo for high-impact stargazing. The darkest place around was the airport at night.
We watched in awe the unfamiliar stars of the Southern Hemisphere. Also, except for a very occasional car, there was almost no sound – just a soft breeze. What an end to a perfect day.
(We would have stayed longer in Tekapo if Steve Hunter had been free to show us around as he said he would have liked to do. But also told us to do that he would need a long lead time to make arrangements for coverage at his cottages. Should your plans be taking you to Lake Tekapo, we suggest letting Steve know well in advance.)
Wednesday morning was clear, so the drive to Lake Wanaka was a road-tripper’s dream: 180 degrees of snow-covered peaks, including Mt. Cook, as we meandered through dry-land farm country, from time to time accented by irrigated fields. We didn’t feel we had the time to drive to the town of Mt. Cook and take the hike toward the glacier as Steve also recommended, but we did take yet another piece of his good advice to stop for lunch at the Lake Ohau Lodge.
Think Telluride is off the beaten path? The lodge is situated on the shores of a smaller glacial lake about 12.5 miles up a twisty road that makes Colorado 145 look like a superhighway. Lunch was a large plate of charcuterie, cheese and fruit, a great spread, which we enjoyed all alone on a deck overlooking the views. Alex, our server-host, mentioned a pilot friend who worked for Air Milford. He also reinforced Steve’s suggestion that we fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound – and we should request Jimmy for the trip.
OK, that adds up to two votes for flying to Milford: Steve and Alex.
I’m getting the message.
On to Lake Wanaka and a great, two-night (too short) stay at the Wanaka Alpine Lodge.
When we arrived we had a long conversation with our hosts, Sarah and Ged, who have been in the B & B game for only a few months. New to the game though they may be, they are warm and knowledgeable as individuals and locals and great as a team.
Sarah and Ged helped us make dinner plans, turned us on to a few great hikes in the area, including on Mt. Iron, which was just out the door of our suite.
Our sojourn in Wanaka was about hiking, visiting with our hosts and two fine dinners, the first at Relishes Cafe, right on the lake in Wanaka, where our server was a young man from Glenwood Springs, CO; the second at Bistro Gentil, where the modern French food matched the service and the views. All perfect. And the latter, the Bistro, arguably the best meal of our New Zealand adventure.
On November 24, we got a mid-morning start for Queenstown, which is about an hour drive – that is after a brief detour to visit Puzzling World on the outskirts of Wanaka, with it’s puzzles, mazes and optical illusions.
Fun for kids.
And kids at heart.
Then it was on to Queenstown to check in for our 2:00 pm departure to, you guessed it, Milford Sound. Suffice to say, the flight experience was so dramatic, even for a pilot used to flying in the mountains of Colorado, that it warrants a separate post, which I am writing.
Once back in Queenstown, we rushed to check in to The Dairy Hotel before our hostess left for the day. Our room has a view out over Queenstown’s Lake Wakapitu and the surrounding mountains. The boutique hotel is very private, understated and simply elegant; its owners and staff, very helpful and knowledgeable. That adds up to a haven in the bustling tourist scene that is Queenstown all year ’round.
Like Sharon and John at Accent House B & B in Mapua and the aforementioned Sarah and Ged in Wanaka, Richard and Charlotte who took over The Dairy about two years ago, are relative newcomers to the inn-keeping game. But like the others, they have entrepreneurial spirits, business backgrounds and an abiding interest in sharing experiences with the (hopefully) interesting people who cross their thresholds.
And doing it in style.
Dinner the first night was at a place recommended by our friends at Air Milford, a local watering hole called Britannia. The place has a pub feel, and inside it was quiet as opposed to the hubbub of the street audible from the second floor outside dining space. And we had the opportunity to chat with Brian, the owner, who make a special effort to find me a very special whiskey.
A pleasant evening.
On our first full day in Queenstown, we got a slow start, but drove an hour to Glenorchy, had a simple lunch at Mrs. Woolley’s General Store, then did a 2-hour hike (or tramped in localspeak) on the Invincible Gold Mine Track. At the top of our walk we had a nice conversation with two young British women, now working in Melbourne, vacationing in New Zealand. The subject was politics: Brexit and, well, suffice to say I was wearing my “Make Telluride Weird Again” hat.
That night, we dressed up a bit for a very nice dinner at Jervois Steak House, a place Charlotte recommended highly. The restaurant was just a few steps from our hotel door. A bit pricy, but a wonderful meal with elegant service.
On Sunday, we drove out to Arrowtown, about a 20-minute drive from Queenstown.
Arrowtown was a gold rush boomtown in the 19th century, now trading on its past for the tourist trade. There is a fine history museum, some good restaurants, a lot of shops to sell stuff to sightseers, also some really nice hikes.
On the recommendation of several locals, we decided to do the Sawpit Gully hike – which is not another reference to Telluride. The trail wound up the side of the mountain, then up the gully, across the top and down a different drainage back to town. The walk was some exercise and also a nice break from the hoards of tourists on Arrowtown’s Main Street.
Following Sawpit Gully, we enjoyed a late, leisurely (and thankfully quiet) lunch at Fan-Tan, a new eatery recommended by locals whom we met at the start of the trail. The Asian fusion menu is imaginative and lunch on sticky pork ribs and stir-fried mixed greens was great. I enjoyed more than one cold IPA from Queenstown, then it was on to the local museum and a tour through the town’s history, from Maoris to the colonists and up to now.
Yet another full day.
On our last day in Queenstown, we were out the door to ride the gondola up to a vantage point above the town, where we took a short walk, primarily for the views.
In the evening we went on a dinner cruise on Lake Wakatipu (Maori for “The hollow of the giant.” The legend here.) aboard the historic Earnslaw with Real Journeys.
Traveling on the Earnslaw, an Edwardian vintage twin screw steamer and one of the oldest tourist attractions in Central Otago, was an interesting experience as the mountainous terrain surrounding the city is spectacular, even for the jaded eyes of this Telluride dweller. The boat trip culminates with a major BBQ spread at Walter Peak Farm, also a working sheep property and the site of restoration project that involved clearing non-native trees and weeds.
Carpe diem: Because the Earnslaw experience is a major tourist attraction, if you go, you will have to be willing to tolerate lots of people on board more interested in taking selfies then in the history or the views.
We flew to Auckland this morning. Auckland and the Bay of Islands are the last legs of our New Zealand odyssey.
Note: All photos except the interior shot of Wanaka Alpine Lodge are courtesy Clint Viebrock.