Last week I regaled you with my whirlwind tour of New Zealand’s northern island. I had an emotional experience at Hobbiton, marvelled at the geothermic wonders of Rotorua, lost myself on a country road on our way to New Plymouth, and spent much of my time trekking up the insanely steep hills of Wellington.
After an uneventful three-hour ferry trip to the South Island (I recommend shelling out the additional $45 to sit in the VIP Lounge area – the food is much better and you can’t do much else on the ferry besides eat), my boyfriend and I found ourselves in Picton.
Things went a little bit wrong after we docked. Originally, we had booked another rental car as our transport from Picton to Blenheim and then to Christchurch the following day. Due to miscommunication between ourselves and the rental company, we found ourselves without a car and quite stranded. I won’t say we were calm and cool about it, because we definitely weren’t. Travelling without a basic plan isn’t my cup of tea, so when we didn’t have any way to get to Blenheim, I’ll admit I panicked. We had missed the coach bus and there weren’t any seats left on the noon train. We were stuck.
And what do a Canadian and Australian do when they’re panicking and marooned in Picton? They drink, of course! While we sorted ourselves out, we nipped into the nearest pub and grabbed a couple of beers. After about twenty minutes, it occurred to my boyfriend that we could ring a shuttle company. Shuttles come to airports, why wouldn’t they come to the ferry as well?
“But how will we get to Christchurch from Blenheim tomorrow? We have that tour to make for the day after,” I asked.
The alcohol must have given him sudden clarity, because he had an answer for that as well. “Go book the train from Blenheim to Christchurch while I ring shuttle companies.”
So the moral of the story here, guys: when you find yourself stranded in a foreign country with no hope of transportation, you should grab a beer. Beer helps.
An hour later we were packed into a shuttle van with train tickets for the following afternoon. Our driver was a doll. We totally fluked out with Lynn. She was efficient, kind, and sympathetic to our situation. For the price of $50, she drove us directly to our motel in Blenheim and provided us with commentary on the Marlborough region. We also learned her company gave wine tours, and since we had little to do the next morning, we booked her to run us to Cloudy Bay Winery for a tasting.
The Marlborough region is known for its fantastic wine, and Cloudy Bay Winery is one of the best in New Zealand. Although it was always on my list, our fiasco at Picton had me doubting whether I’d get to visit the winery. I’m so grateful I did! In my opinion, Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blanc is the best white I’ve ever tasted. It’s quite fruity, so if you’re a fan of dry whites, this isn’t the blend for you. However, their 2012 Chardonnay is quite dry and I was smitten with it. If reds are more your thing, you cannot go wrong with their 2011 Te Wahi Pinot Noir. The tasting menu at Cloudy Bay is very affordable. We tasted several wines (reasonable amounts, too) for the low price of $10 each per tasting!
In the end, the beginning of our southern island journey, although quite stressful at times, was enjoyable. Blenheim is a small, friendly, picturesque town, and I’d love to visit them again and partake in more winery tours.
CHRISTCHURCH & A TRAIN
After Cloudy Bay, we hopped back on the shuttle and were dropped off at the Blenheim Train Station. Unfortunately, there we received more bothersome news: the train had been delayed two hours due to an earthquake the night before. Although we longed to reach our next destination without another hiccup, we were stuck again. Two hours passed in a whirl of tea, gelato, and dragging our massive suitcase to and fro. Finally, we boarded the train. We were relieved, believing this was to be the last roadblock in our journey. Oh, how naïve of us!
The train itself – KiwiRail – was clean, comfortable, and well stocked with a variety of meals, novelties, and snacks. We had a lot of space, and the wide expanse of windows provided us with magnificent views of the passing country side:
About a third of the way through our journey, the train was stopped at a station. My boyfriend and I overheard one of the stewardesses speaking with a man about an aftershock on the tracks. We were being held until a service train could lead us the rest of the distance. The remainder of the journey took us nearly six hours, since we had to follow this service train at the super high speed of 40km/hour. By the time we arrived in Christchurch, it was quarter to midnight; we were cold, hungry (the café car had run out of food about four hours ago), and the poor stewardesses had been on the train for sixteen hours.
I think we spent eight hours in Christchurch in the end. The city has been under construction for some time since two massive quakes rocked them in 2010 and 2011. At magnitudes of 7.1 and 6.3, the devastation they caused to the people and city was immense. Roads are torn up, many buildings are under reconstruction, and rebuilding costs are nearing the $15 billion mark. The little I saw of Christchurch as we walked to our bus tour the following morning reminded me of the ruins of Italy and Greece I studied in university. Although significantly more modern, the same desolation can be felt witnessing Christchurch’s cracked sidewalks and shambled apartment blocks as you feel seeing the broken columns and ravaged artifacts of a Classical temple. You mourn a city that has seen their share of disaster, heartbreak, and death, and hope they are strong enough to recover with time.
I’d like to return to Christchurch one day. I’d love to see the hustle and bustle of the second most populated city in New Zealand as it was in their heyday five years ago. My heart goes out to the populace of Christchurch and the 185 families grieving the loss of loved ones.
At 6.30am, we sleepily made our way to the bus that would tour us around Mount Cook and to our final destination on the South Island: Queenstown.
When my boyfriend and I were booking our New Zealand trip, there came a moment when we thought we might cancel our Mount Cook tour to save a bit of cash. The tour is quite expensive, about $280 per person. However, we decided against cancelling and I’m forever thankful we did. The tour was spectacular. Yes, it did take us all day to reach Queenstown – a trip we could have drove straight in about five hours – but very little compares to the sights you see on this tour.
We drove around the shores of Lake Tekapo, a crystal blue body of water fed by the glaciers of the Southern Alps, and we stopped for a photograph break at the Church of the Good Shepherd, a quaint little hut on the edge of the lake. We took another break at a helicopter tour venue where a few of our fellow riders got a special bird’s eye view of Mount Cook. The rest of us plebeians were able to take stunning pictures of the mountain from inside the national park.
The Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook Village was our next stop. The hotel sits in a valley and hosts stunning views of the mountain and its surrounding glaciers. I was blown away by the beauty of this natural site.
The second half of our trip brought us past Lake Pukaki, through the farm lands of Mackenzie Country, and after a brief stop at Mrs Jones’ Orchard Fruit Stall (where we experienced the best plums, cherries, and nectarines of our lives) we arrived in Queenstown.
I highly recommend this tour. It’s the best way to experience this area of New Zealand without missing a thing. I feel if we had drove ourselves, we wouldn’t have seen half of the things we did and it was 100% worth the hefty price tag.
QUEENSTOWN & LORD OF THE RINGS
When we first arrived in Queenstown, we were silenced. We were in awe of the mountainous lakefront town and words couldn’t express the wonder of seeing it for the first time. Huge peaks of evergreens towered above Lake Wakatipu, giving the waters a green-blue hue. The town itself is nestled comfortably below these mountains right on the edge of the lake. Every morning we saw paragliders sailing around the summits and a massive cable car continuously ferrying tourists up and down the mountain. We saw advertisements for bungy jumping, sky diving, and white water rafting. Queenstown is Adventuretown; it is the place to go if you’re an adrenaline junkie and want to experience various activities that will stop your heart in its tracks.
I am not that person.
I cringe at the thought of falling 43 metres with nothing below me but a few inches of water, and I’m certainly not crazy enough to jump out of a moving plane. What I did do in Queenstown, however, was much mellower but just as shock-inducing and heart-stopping. I went on a Lord of the Rings Movie Location Tour.
My guide was incredible, and I don’t think he’d be offended if I told you he was an enormous LOTR nerd. The man knew everything there was to know about the movies, the actors, the sets, the special effects, the books, and even a few things we probably didn’t need to know. By the end of the day, my head was spinning from new information, but I loved every minute of it.
The tour brought us to five different outdoor locations used during the filming of the three movies. I was one of only six other movie buffs, so the tour was a rather intimate one. I found this beneficial, since the guide could get to know us individually and we could get to know and trust him. I don’t think the tour would have worked as well with a larger group. Some of the locations were so small the seven of us could barely fit as it was.
What I found a lot of fun was how the guide made us guess the location each time we happened upon a new one. Some were more difficult than others. Admittedly, I only got two correct. Can you guess them?
Plus, I got to play with swords! How cool is that?!
This was definitely the highlight of our Queenstown stop for me. Although we were there for four days (the longest time we spent in one place), I knew this tour couldn’t be topped. We also strolled around this gorgeous town and took a peaceful 19th century steamship ride across the lake:
Our journey around the southern island started out rough, but by the end we had forgotten all about our stint in Picton and aboard the turtle train. We relished in the delicious wine of the Marlborough region, remembered the spectacular sights we saw on our Mount Cook tour, and felt utter relaxation and calm in beautiful Queenstown.
It was hard to leave the South Island, but my boyfriend had a conference to get to in Auckland, and I had some exploring to do and a kiwi to find.
Bella Vista Motel, Blenheim: 4/5
Ibis Christchurch, Christchurch: 2.5/5
Copthorne Hotel and Apartments, Queenstown: 4/5