New Zealand: A world of its own

This is the most intimidated I’ve been writing a post since I started this blog because a) this is the longest holiday I’ve taken since I moved to Asia, b) I have more photos to sort through from this trip than you can imagine, and c) it’s freakin’ NEW ZEALAND. There’s so much to capture: special moments I can never express through words, natural beauty I could never show in photos. But I’ll do my best!

Although my biggest pet peeve as an expatriate is when I tell people I am traveling to a place for a period of time and they tell me it’s not enough (of course you could always spend more time in a place!), but with New Zealand…I really don’t think any amount of time is enough. There’s so much to explore! Two main islands, both marked by volcanoes, glaciation, glassy lakes, steep cliffs, dense forests, and all kinds of other majestic landscapes that were a glorious treat to our eyes and our souls.

Let me start with some general information about this wonderful nation:

  • The Māori are the aboriginal people of New Zealand that make up 14% of the country’s current population. The Māori culture is central to Kiwis (the people of New Zealand) as its traditions, history and language are at the heart of the Kiwis’ identity, and experiencing this deeply entrenched culture made for a unique and exciting experience for us.
  • New Zealand is the place for adrenaline junkies, as New Zealand offers boundless adrenaline-charged activities such as bungee jumping, skiing, kayaking and river rafting. In fact, organized commercial bungee jumping first began in New Zealand.

Other fun/epic facts I found while writing this post that make me love it even more:

  • In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote (yes, yes, yes!)
  • Only 5% of New Zealand’s population is human: the rest are animals
  • No part of the country is more than 128km (79 miles) from the sea
  • The longest place name in the world is Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu, a hill in Hawkes Bay (a region on the east coast)

Now, let’s get to this trip. Where do we begin? Day One! After the craziest flight route I have ever taken (New York to Guangzhou to Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to Auckland), I arrived at the airport at midnight and was greeted with open arms by my second half, a Mr. Viana Baptista. Even though I had seen him recently in New York before Christmas, the feeling was just as special as if I hadn’t seen him in months. Hugs everywhere!

We were both exhausted that first night, as each of us had flown an insane number of miles to be together (49,300 km or 30,634 miles for me, and 48,800 km or 30,323 miles for him). So we stayed at a hotel near the airport, primarily as a transition hotel, but it ended up being our favorite accommodation of the entire trip! Super trendy place, and a breakfast spread that was so tasty it is worth getting a shoutout on this blog (with lots of veggie options, too!). We needed to fuel up for what was to be one of the most important stops of our trip: HOBBITON! A significant location used for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit film series, Hobbiton is situated on a family-run farm in Waikato that offers daily guided tours of the set. We spent about two hours touring the set, complete with hobbit holes, gardens, bridge, Mill and The Green Dragon Inn—the perfect place for nerds like us! Please pay close attention to the expressions of glee on our faces in the photos below.

Running on a high from our tour of the set and refreshments at the Shires Rest Cafe, it was time to continue our first-day drive across the North Island. Our next stop was Huka Falls, a set of waterfalls on the Waikato River that drains Lake Taupo in New Zealand. I was stunned by the colors of the waterfalls—there is no photo taken by even the most professional camera that can do justice to the shades of blue running through that water. Pure, natural beauty. We moved on quickly (as we had tons to see and do), and I must say, between the lush pastures, stunning coastlines and spectacular mountains, the drive was as beautiful as the sites we stopped along the road to see. Our beautiful drive left us about two hours south of where we started the day, in Rotorua.

So what is Rotorua?  It’s a town known for its geothermal activity, and that’s exactly what we were after during our day on Sunday. We headed to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, just a short drive away. There, we were able to check out a landscape with unique volcanic features, and roiling, bubbling geothermal sights. Very cool. Again, it is hard for me to express in words how magnificent these sites were, so you’ll have to check out the photos below to really believe me. One of the coolest spots in the park was Devil’s Bath, this electric green sulphur lake that is also a radioactive dump site. Our eyes were definitely stimulated by all the colors around us, especially at Devil’s Bath, and so were our noses, as the sulphur caves and pools left our nostrils stinging. If you can imagine what 10 dozen rotten eggs smell like after being left out in a dumpster in the slums of New York City for several months, you can imagine what Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland smelled like, too.

Following the geothermal park (one of my favorite spots of our trip!), we kept up the nature activities with a visit to a park in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Here, we got to check out Frying Pan Lake, one of the world’s largest hot pools! Its temperature remains constant at about 50–60 °C (122–140 °F). Hot stuff! I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention that New Zealand is the home of epic town/region names—this park was located in the Bay of Plenty. Other fantastical names include Shag Point, Hooker Valley, Cape Foulwind. Sounds like they need a naming expert on the case…..

After a day of exploration, it was time to head back to Auckland for New Year’s Eve! Let’s the festivities begin. We were lucky enough to find a nice table on the rooftop terrace at the Glass Goose, a casual spot located perfectly under Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand and, more importantly, the spot where fireworks are launched at midnight. Perfect! Multiple bottles of white wine later, the clock finally struck midnight and it was 2018!! I texted all of my family and friends, who, to my somewhat naive surprise, were still sleeping back in the United States. We were officially the first in the world to celebrate the New Year…pretty cool! After the fireworks we did a bit of bar hopping in downtown Auckland, checking out the bar/club scene on the harbour and drinking into the early morning hours, like a good New Years should be done.

The next morning was a bit, ahem, rough, but we had to force ourselves awake, as we had an early morning flight to catch down to the South Island of New Zealand. But, first thing’s first…breakfast! We found a beautiful cafe on the water at Takapuna Beach, where we each enjoy avocado toast and yummy coffees to get our blood flowing again. It was a delicious but efficient breakfast, and we said our goodbyes to the North Island as we headed to the airport (I was very excited to be there because, as a brand nerd, we were flying Air New Zealand, one of my favorite brands of all time! Please see this safety video, as well as this one, and you’ll understand why).

We were especially excited to visit the South Island. Of all the research we did and people we spoke with, everyone said the South Island was the more interesting and beautiful of the two. And the drive to Mount Cook, where we would spend our first night, certainly did not disappoint. We stopped off at Lake Tekapo, a small town about three hours south of Christchurch. There, we ate some yummy pumpkin soup (big shoutout to Mackenzie’s Cafe!!), and saw what was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever laid eyes on. Not only were the colors in the sky vibrant like anything I’ve seen before, but the remarkable, turquoise-colored lake (the milky color is intensified from the fine rock-flour ground by the glaciers around it) in the center of town is backed by the dramatic mountains of the Southern Alps. Breathtaking, to say the least. The drive that followed, between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, was a three-hour show of the sun setting into the darkness, with intense colors and 360-views for our viewing pleasure. Thank goodness I was not driving, as my eyes were most certainly not on the road. (Thanks for the assist, JVB) We had also been wondering how and why the moon was so bright that evening, shining its light over everything underneath it. The next morning when I video chatted with Mom and Dad, they told me it was a Super Moon, which made all the sense in the world. Not a bad start to 2018!

I was video chatting with them from the patio of our hotel, Mount Hermitage, overlooking Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. A classic stop on any New Zealand road trip (which is essentially what we did), Mount Cook is alpine in the purest sense of the word, with skyscraping peaks and glaciers and permanent snow fields, all set under a star-studded sky. All that is skirted by Lake Pukaki, which turns the color of blue Powerade when the sun hits it. It was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. And, fun fact, Mount Cook is the mountain that helped Sir Edmund Hillary develop his climbing skills in preparation for the conquest of Everest (first ever person to do so!).

After a yummy, late breakfast overlooking the majestic mountain (José was understandably quite tired from the long drive the day before, so I let him sleep in a bit), we did a short but stunning hike up the mountain to Blue Crater Lake, where we go to see that Powerade-colored water we had heard so much about. A few snapshots and some deep breaths in later (the air is SO fresh!), we drove back into the town of Lake Tekapo to see the Church of the Good Shepard, a small, picturesque stone church overlooking Lake Tekap. When I say small, I mean SMALL. I don’t imagine the space could fit more than 30 people comfortably! We were set to drive to Wanaka that day, and along the way we stumbled upon a very beautiful lavender farm in the Mackenzie Region, nestled under the majestic Ben Ohau mountain range. I just did some research about the farm to learn where exactly it was located (all I could remember was State Route 8, whoops), and just learned it is also the largest certified organic lavender farm in the Southern Hemisphere! So many “biggest” and “best” in New Zealand! The farm had a small shop selling cute goods like organic lavender oil, lavender-scented hand-made soaps, lotions, lavender chocolate, and lip balms, but I had my eye on one thing and one thing only: ice cream (shocking). The lavender ice cream was super tasty, and unlike anything I had tried before. Please see my face filled with glee below.

Of course, no visit to the Mount Cook area would be complete with a stop at Lake Pukaki, so that’s just what we did next. (Insane) José was feeling quite warm and decided to take a dip in the freezing cold water—even the memory makes me shiver. But, the water is so pure and so blue and so icy cold that you can drink it straight from the lake! Nature!!

Our drive landed us in Wanaka, one of our favorite stops of the whole trip. Wanaka is a super cute resort town set on the southern end of Lake Wanaka, with views of snowcapped mountains at every moment of the day. We arrived feeling quite hungry, and made our way to the White House Cafe and Bar. Suuuuch a tasty dinner! White House is a small,family-run restaurant set in a 1930s Art Deco building. They have an ever-changing blackboard menu of food, as well as a huge, all-New Zealand local wine list. The food is a blend of Mediteranean, Middle Eastern and New Zealand fare, which made for some very interesting dishes. I got the ginger tofu salad and José the lamb, and we were both happy and filled with delicious food by the end. Highly recommend for anyone traveling through Wanaka! We ended the night at Lake Bar, a casual, local bar overlooking the lake, with an after-dinner drink.

Our accommodation in Wanaka was Maple Lodge, a squat B&B set on a maple tree plantation just five minutes from town. The woman that runs the lodge is a wonderful cook, and hooked us up with some delicious eggs, cereal and toast that morning to fuel us up. We then took our coffee to go, sipping our java on the patio of our room and overlooking the gorgeous plantation in front of us for nearly an hour. We truly felt on holiday.

After getting ready for the day and driving around the area surrounding the town a bit, we stopped at Rippon Winery, a lakeside vineyard with a tasting room that I had really been looking forward to. We tried five wines (mainly Pinot Noirs and Reislings), but surprisingly, were not impressed at all! Many of them had a signature grainy, graphite-like tannin taste, and it was a bit too much for our palettes. Instead of the day we were planning, which was cheese plates and bottles under the sun at the vineyard, we headed to a nearby shop to pick up our own cheese and bottles, and set up an impromptu picnic at nearby Lake Hawea. It wasn’t the day we were planning, but it was certainly one of the best days we had, lounging under the warm sky and cooling ourselves in the clean blue lake with only each other’s company.

Where to next on our epic road trip? Queenstown! We arrived around 5PM, exhausted from both the drive and the day under the sun (hey, the lounge life can be tough!). We had plans to meet up with Delphine and Jo (friends from Singapore) that evening, but what started as a “quick power nap” turned into a three-hour snooze that made us miss our dinner reservation! We felt so bad for not making it, but Delphine and Jo were luckily understanding. Evidently enough, we really needed the sleep, as we passed back out right away and didn’t wake up until the next morning.

Queenstown is a very cool town that sits on the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu, set against the dramatic Southern Alps. It is renowned for adventure sports, vineyards, mining towns, and a cute downtown area with lots of nice bars and (vegetarian-friendly!) cafes. We had breakfast at Vudu Cafe, a very cute brunch location with yummy coffee and creative sandwiches and sweets (and luckily, most of them featured avocado). Powered up with food fuel, we hopped in the car and started our trek to UNESCO World Heritage site Milford Sound, a fiord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island with waterfalls, a rainforest, and seal colonies, penguins and dolphins, too (!!). We were lucky enough to make the afternoon tour that brought us deep into Fiordland National Park. The next two hours brought us from Milford Sound Wharf, past the tallest point of Milford Sound, the iconic Mitre Peak, along the length of the 16-kilometer (10-mile) fiord, out past St Anne’s Point Lighthouse, and back. On the route back, we stopped under Stirling Falls, a waterfall three times the height of Niagara Falls, and those who stayed outside on the viewing deck got soaked (not us)! The skipper also pointed out a group of seals basking in the sun, super cute!! We were very happy to have seen Milford Sound, and could truly understand why it’s considered one of New Zealand’s most spectacular natural attractions.

On the way back to Queenstown, we stopped off in Te Anau, located in the center between Queenstown and Fiordland National Park. Te Anau is also where Delphine and Jo were staying that night, and we met them there for dinner to make up for our party foul the night before. We ate at Kepler Restaurant, a Chilean-inspired spot (go figure) where we ate fresh and yummy seafood and delicious New Zealand wine (finally!). We were super happy to see our friends, but had to cut the night a bit short as we still had a 90-minute drive back to Queenstown.

The next morning we spent walking around Queenstown, exploring the shops and the waterfront a bit, and stopping for brunch at Halo. It was the first day the weather was not so nice, so we began our drive to Franz Josef Glacier earlier than expected (but hey, time in the car is still time spent together!). The drive was quite long (about five hours), so we made several stops along the way: Mount Aspiring National Park, located in the Southern Alps of the South Island, Fantail Falls, a nice waterfall along the drive with lots of stones built into small cairns in the foreground, a very random salmon farm that we didn’t stay at for long but had to check out for its randomness, and Knights Point Lookout, a scenic spot on the Haast shoreline. We finally reached Franz Josef Glacier around 7PM, just in time to get a seat at Monsoon, a very cool bar and restaurant with epic views of the sky to boot. We were able to get some drinks to suit our thirst, but our dinner order got mixed up and only ended up coming over an hour later. It made for some very hungry people! As we had quite a bit of exploring to do the next day, we enjoyed the sunset, the cheese plate we had ordered, and headed back to our hotel to get some rest.

Franz Josef is is a small town in the West Coast region of the South Island, and serves as the home of a glacier of the same name. It also contains the township of Fox Glacier to the southwest, and that’s what we explored first the next morning. The hike up Fox Glacier was quite steep, and we really had to catch our breath when we made it to the top! But, after all the eating of cheese and drinking of wine in the preceding days, I was happy to get a bit of exercise in. Really got the muscles moving. And the views from the top were, not surprisingly, amazing. Feast your eyes below!

We had wanted to do some kind of adventure sport, like paragliding, bungee jumping or kayaking, but the weather on the West Coast of the island changes so quickly, so we couldn’t quite find a time that worked where it was also nice out. Luckily, as we left the glaciers and drove through Arthur’s Pass (a beautiful national park containing a beautiful, windswept coastline and unsurpassed views of the Southern Alps) and on to Okarito Lagoon, the skies opened up and we made a quick decision to jump into some kayaks. Hooray! This estuarine lagoon was perfect for our kayaking adventure, as it has a huge area of shallow open water and tidal flats. We explored in our shared kayak (nicknamed “S.S. Divorce” by the “funny” guy that got us set up with our gear, luckily we made it through the trip) for two hours, soaking up the sun and the gorgeous views of the mountains. The lagoon is surrounded by lush native rainforest, which rise up to the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, so it made for the perfect place to drift around and explore.

After our kayak, we started our cruise back to Christchurch, where the airport is located, and the sad knowledge that we’d be departing in the morning started to set in. I pushed it out of my mind so I could enjoy our last dinner together in town, at Twenty Seven Steps. I had been requesting a cosy, sit-down meal for our last dinner, and that’s exactly what we got with our warm bistro serving modern European fare. So many good veggie options, too, plus nice wine, lovely service and wonderful conversation! Nothing more I could have asked for.

The next morning was our day of departing, so I was basically sad from the moment I woke up, because it meant not only leaving New Zealand but leaving José, as well. I was (am) comforted by the fact that we’ll see each other again in February, but it’s never easy to say goodbye! I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to take this trip, one that many only dream about, and I am especially thankful to have been able to take it with someone that offers such fantastic company: making me laugh, challenging my opinions, inspiring me to learn and grow, and agreeing to take photos of me in my quest to become an Instagram celebrity. We realised much of our time on the trip was spent in the car, and we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, as it offered us time to catch up, reconnect, and remember why we are together. We now have this fantastic set of memories to share, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience, which was truly the trip of a lifetime.

Some photos from our road trip in New Zealand: