We gave up our car in Wellington and hopped on the fast ferry which took us across the beautiful Cook Strait into Picton. Here we picked up another car and headed off to Nelson. We didn't include time to go into Abel Tasman Park, but Nelson is the perfect base for those who want to explore the park and boutique wineries in the area.
From Nelson we made our way over to the west coast, and started south on the Great Coast Road to Punakaiki, best known for the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The sites between Punakaiki and Hokitika are quite scenic, with the Tasman Sea on one side and mountains and pastures on the other. Lot's of sheep too! This road thankfully didn't have a lot of traffic, which allowed us to make picture stops without too much trouble. We stopped for the night in Hokitika, a quaint and historic town, now home to a large number of art and craft galleries. Just north of Hokitika is Greymouth, the turnaround point of the TranzAlpine scenic rail journey that starts in Christchurch.
The biggest draw to this area is of course glaciers! Both Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are fairly easily to get to from the main road, and the views are amazing. The more adventurous can take ice-hiking tours or sightsee via helicopter. Lake Matheson, one of New Zealand's most picturesque and photographed, can be found just outside of the town of Fox Glacier. We got close to seeing it but unfortunately got a flat tire on the way and had to turn back. We were blessed however with beautiful views of Mt. Cook from our hotel.
En route to Wanaka, the coast roads turns inland at Haast and takes you over Haast Pass. This is another area where thankfully there is little traffic. The scenery is spectacular - something around every corner. This entire region offers many outdoor activities, from fishing to hiking and climbing. The area is most popular in the winter, known for its spectacular skiing and snowboarding. We were in the area in the fall, so no snow on the peaks yet, but still a beautiful stop.
Queenstown is one of New Zealand's top destinations, and for good reason. It is known as the home of the ultimate adventure bucket list, from bungy jumping and sky diving, to caving, jet boating and so much more. A must is the Skyline Gondola that carries you high above Queenstown for amazing views of the city, Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range. I saw my first bungy jumper at the top - no thanks!
We chose to stay in Te Anau to be closer to Milford Sound. This is a great base for exploring Fiordland, and a welcome short drive back after a long day exploring. Te Anau is also the starting point for the Milford Trek. I hope to be back some day in good enough shape to complete this awesome hike. We took a coach bus to Milford Sound so we could truly enjoy the scenery and take a break from driving. We explored Milford Sound on a small tour boat ( accompanied by several schools of dolphins playing in the wake) that was able to get up close to sheer cliffs. Milford Sound is spectacular rain or shine, however a bit of rain brings out all the waterfalls you otherwise would never see.
Last stop before Christchurch was Lake Pukaki for lunch and then on to Lake Tekapo. Lake Pukaki is a beautiful blue-green alpine lake that is fed by glacial waters from Mount Cook. The state highway to Lake Tekapo hugs the southern end of the lake and is quite scenic with views of Mount Cook in the distance. Lake Tekapo, also an alpine lake, is part of the UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it a popular place to star gaze. The Church of the Good Shepherd (above) was built in 1935 for pioneer families in the Mackenzie district, and is still used as a place of worship. The church is a popular photo stop for visitors. We thoroughly enjoyed the stunning views and the beautiful quiet.
New Zealand's largest city on the South Island, Christchurch had a very English feel to it, especially the architecture, the gardens and a walk along the Avon River. It's a lovely city, and a good base to explore the South Island from. Christchurch was at the end of our itinerary, but there are no rules against starting here.
Christchurch marked the end of our trip. We flew back to Auckland then on to the US. A trip of a lifetime - one that will remain in my memories for a very long time.
However I will be back. My memories need refreshing, and there is so much more to experience. Napier and Hawke's Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, Mount Cook, Dunedin, Waitomo, Bay of Islands... shall I go on?