As we made our way up New Zealand's North Island, we couldn't help taking a detour to explore the Coromandel Peninsula, an idyllic strip of lush land extending out toward the South Pacific, parallel to Auckland.
We were lucky to catch a day with perfect weather, which meant beautiful blue skies and an occasional breeze offering relief from the intense sunshine.
One of the most popular things to do while in Coromandel is to see the picturesque Cathedral Cove, either by foot or boat.
We weren't organized enough to book a boat tour, so Mike did the hike while I got some work done and caught up with my family from the comfort of a nearby cafe. (Stupid stress fracture...)
PS: After leaving the Coromandel, we spent time in the Bay of Islands, where we were not lucky with the weather. It rained the whole time. We then moved on to Auckland, which was a mostly relaxing stop for us. Although we had fun in both places, we didn't take photos, so the next gallery will be coming to you from... drumroll... the land down undah!
Driving up to the coast and seeing the water for the first time always provides a sense of calm. Whether it's the sea or ocean, whether it has been months or only a few days, I just love that feeling.
Mike shares my love and, as a surfer, the feeling only intensifies for him if he sees waves in the water.
After parting ways with Joyce and Arthur, we finally made it to Raglan, a town that was high on our list. Not only are the beaches and bays insanely beautiful, but Raglan is home to one of the longest left in the world. (And in case you're not dating a goofy-footed surfer, that is a very good thing.)
A swell was coming in and the waves were head high to double overhead. Mike crammed three surf sessions into our two night, one day stay, and for one of them I tagged along. Laying outside, watching the surfers in the water, listening to the fluid repetition of waves breaking... it was bliss. I took off my moon boot and soaked in as much vitamin D as I could, finally feeling less like an invalid and more like myself.
When we weren't at the beach, we were moseying around the chill surf town, enjoying coffees at a sidewalk table on the main street or eating pies in between shopping. It only takes about 20 minutes of walking to see the whole "downtown." But it's cool. Raglan's size matches its vibe.
I have to mention the fantastic hostel where we stayed. Raglan Waterfront Backpackers is everything our dream hostel should be. It was honestly perfect. Warm and inviting, charged with energy, an adventurous spirit floating in the air, yet relaxed and understated (and not in that trying-to-be, hipster way). Hammocks lined the small courtyard in the middle of one building. Nearby, a retro hot tub bubbled, with a "skinny dipping allowed" sign hanging in the background.
Oh, and those sunsets?! Come on. If we didn't have the rest of our days in New Zealand planned and booked, we would have stayed in Raglan for a long, long time.
Update: after limping around for two weeks, I finally faced the facts and admitted that something may be seriously wrong with my foot. As soon as the ferry docked in Wellington, Mike and I got into our new rental car and drove straight to an orthotics clinic. The doctor there examined my foot and said I likely have a stress fracture. And then, she gave me a super awesome, knee-high moon boot to wear for 4-6 weeks. So, my Google MD diagnosis of Turf Toe was a fail and I will be rocking a boot well into Australia. Look out, world. #trendy
Now, back to our regularly scheduled blogging...
One of the luxuries about traveling long term is that you lose track of what day of the week it is. Sometimes, you are totally unaware that major holidays are coming up. This was the case this month, when Easter week snuck up on us and caused some minor travel delays and headaches.
Easter is apparently a big deal in New Zealand. Good Friday is a national holiday, so nearly all shops and restaurants were closed. As we drove from Okahune to Taupo, every motel and B&B we passed had the same sign out front: NO VACANCY. Luckily, we had made reservations in advance.
On Friday, Mike and Arthur tackled the Tongariro Crossing... along with approximately 10,000 other people hoping to get a photo of LOTR's Mount Doom. They sadly reported that it was the most crowded hike (or "forced pilgrimage, as Arthur would say) they'd ever seen. Meanwhile, Joyce and I had enjoyed a leisurely stroll around downtown Lake Taupo and a delicious lunch on the water, so we weren't too sad about missing it.
We stayed in the town of Taupo, which, as I mentioned, was bustling. Unfortunately, the weather was on and off, playing a few moments of sunshine followed by downpour on replay.
On Sunday morning, Mike and I drove an hour north to Rotorua. Popular with tourists for Maori history and geothermal features, Rotorua has a unique vibe. Because so many locals were out and about celebrating Easter Sunday, we also felt more of a local presence than in Taupo, which seemed like a holiday destination.
Rotorua's geothermal activity sends plumes of steam rising out from between houses, along rivers and even in the middle of city parks. It's a cool, other-worldly effect.
One of the most noticeable differences between the country's south and north islands is the Maori presence on the north island. You see the cultural influence in the faces of people on the street as well as reflected in artwork, architecture and design.
On our drive back to Rotorua, we pulled off the road and happened to catch a scheduled dam release. If not for the small crowd that had gathered on a bridge, we may have driven right by it. After an alarm sounded a few times, the dam door slowly opened and we watched as a calm, see-through pool flooded and whitewater began rushing down the rocky straight, empty a moment earlier.
After a few nights in the area, we were moving on toward Raglan, hoping to finally see the sun and some surfable waves.
More stunning nature! This time it's arches, caves, and fern forests. All seen along the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s nine great walks.
We stayed at Rough and Tumble, a charming - and quite frankly fancier-than-expected - rustic retreat along the Old Ghost Road. The native North Carolinian caretaker, Weasel (srsly), even cooked us a big BBQ dinner one night. It was just the kind of taste of home we didn't know we'd been craving.
While Grace relaxed in the lodge, the rest of the group checked out the highlights of the Oparara Valley area:
Uproar Arch: we followed the 1km track along the Oparara River to the larger of the limestone arches.
Crazy Paving & Box Canyon Caves: A short walk through the rainforest brought us to the Crazy Paving Cave, which was chock full of cave spiders. In the Box Canyon Cave, we went down steep stairs to the cave floor. We were all thankful we'd brought headlamps along!
Moria Gate/Mirror Tarn Loop Track: we checked out another arch before walking over the top of Moria Gate.
New Zealand is so pretty that even its highways are worth flying halfway across the world.
From Wanaka, we drove over Haast Pass toward the south island's west coast. Unlike the passes we're used to in Colorado, Haast doesn't climb thousands of feet in elevation. In fact, the highest point is only 564m. But what it lacks in elevation gain, it makes up for in lush, forest-y beauty. We stopped a few times as we made our way up and over to enjoy short bushwalks to waterfalls and bridges over crystal-clear blue pools.
Side note: the following is an actual conversation we had this week:
"I need to come up with better ways to describe the water than 'crystal clear' and 'turquoise'"
"It looks just like that light blue gatorade"
"You're totally right! What's the name of that one?"
*Googles "light blue gatorade flavor"*
We continued toward the west coast via the Great Coast Road. Our favorite stretch was the Glacier Highway, named for the end of the section, Glacier Country. The roads hugs the coastline as your car winds through a range of vegetation, ranging from coastal scrub to rainforest, all thriving off that delicious glacier freeze.
This is only a sampling of the amazing scenery to be found throughout New Zealand's South Island.
Can you believe we're still on the first of two islands? Neither can we.
PS. Grace is still injured so Joyce and Arthur took over as our obligatory couples pics stand-ins.
While in Wanaka, we spent one day jumping, rappelling, sliding and swimming in Robinson Creek Canyon.
We knew it was something we wanted to try in New Zealand, so on our first full day in town, Rick, Mike and I signed up for the adventure with a local canyoning company. Laura, from Germany, joined our group and the four of us, plus one skilled guide, set off for the canyon one morning.
We were suited up in canyoning shoes, helmets, and layers of thick neoprene, although the frigid water still snuck in and gave us goosebumps. Only adrenaline kept us warm and moving as we maneuvered through the obstacle course that is Robinson Creek Canyon.
We shimmied down huge fallen tree trunks and jumped from large boulders into small pools. All of the features we tackled built up to a 100 ft. rappel alongside one of the largest waterfalls in the canyon.
I half hopped, half limped through the day, and likely set myself back a few days in recovery, but was still glad that I experienced one of the most popular sports in New Zealand.
We arrived in Wanaka and were thrilled to discover that Arthur had rented a gorgeous home where we'd be staying for six (yes, six!) nights. That's the longest we've stayed anywhere since leaving Breckenridge back in July 2015. The house had an open kitchen, living room and large deck, with 360 degree views of the lake and surrounding mountains. It was a very comfortable place and we wish we had taken photos of it!
Early on in the Wanaka week, Joyce and Arthur's son Rick and his friend Dennis joined us. So we'd be six people for the next few weeks until our group dissolved somewhere in the middle of NZ's north island.
Wanaka is a cool town surrounded by epic nature. We had tons of outdoor adventure activities planned for the week.
Now, here's where I have to break some bad news: I (Grace) have been stricken with what seems to be turf toe, a ridiculous injury that's as annoying as its name. Even though only a small part of my body is affected, I'm unable to walk without limping and definitely not going to be hiking until it heals.
So, I'll have to turn over some of the upcoming gallery description duties to Mike, since he was actually there! Hopefully I get over this injury quickly and am back on the mountains in a few days. Stay tuned.
Mt Iron Hike: This hike was right around the corner from the house. It offered great views over Wanaka.
Roys Peak Hike: 4,200 ft in elevation gain was worth it for great views at the pin-point summit.
Rob Roy Glacier Hike: We (minus Grace) waited for good weather to embark on the biggest hike we had planned for the week. It was as beautiful as we had heard, with glaciers, waterfalls, blue water and lots of sheep and cows on the way in.
Oamaru is the largest town in North Otago on the east coast of New Zealand's south island. We had added a night in Oamaru on a whim, when we decided to leave the Lake Tekapo area a day early.
We spent a few hours making our way across the island, stopping to stretch our legs at picturesque farms and viewpoints. Quite hungry when we arrived, we were all thrilled to dive into massive fresh blue cod fillets, golden and glistening, atop a pile of steaming, crunchy chips. (If you're ever in Oamaru, go straight to Yogis takeaway. Just do it.)
We only had one night, which was also our only chance to see the south island's east coast. So, we went for a little scenic drive.
White Lightning (our rental car) whizzed past thousands of cows with enviable, million dollar oceanfront views. For miles, we drove with bright green and gold farm fields to our right and the ocean to our left.
Small rolling waves in shades of sea foam and jade crept up the beach toward the road. Further north, the coastline became rugged, and the road dipped inland, so that the fields and green grasses ran right up to the ocean's rocky edges.
Back in town, we relaxed for a minute, grabbed our camera and headed into Oamaru's charming downtown. We started off at the Steampunk Headquarters, a museum meets gallery meets fun house. It was mildly educational - we knew little about steampunk beforehand - but mostly sensually intriguing. Inside the old building, there's awesome art to look at, strange videos to watch, weird sounds coming out of old organs (which you're invited to play), tiny rooms to discover, and the pièce de résistance, The Portal. You step into a room covered floor to ceiling in mirrors, with small lights hanging from the ceiling, reflected infinitely across all the other mirrors. Music plays as the lights fade in and out, change colors, creating a surreal, otherworldly experience. We LOVED it so much that we went in twice and are still talking about putting on in our next home.
After that, we strolled into the older section of town, a cute area with cobblestoned streets and funky little shops.
Oamaru's town playground isn't just for kids. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most it would never fly in the US. Some of the rides aren't exactly risk-free, and I imagined angry parents sueing well-meaning playground designers.
After trying a round of beers at a local brewery, we went to Sandfly Beach to try to see the penguins. Somehow, without trying, we had once again collided with the moulting period so the penguins weren't coming up onto the shore (since they hadn't been out in the water all day).
Oh, well! With air temps dropping fast, we grabbed hearty french onion soup and seafood chowder from a local pub before calling it a night.
The four of us agreed that adding Oamaru was the right call! The next morning, we packed up and headed inland, back across the island for Wanaka.
Days full of hiking amid stunning scenery continued in the Mount Cook area.
We stayed on the Lake Tekapo side, and hiked up and around the lake and the Mt John University Observatory.
On another day, we drove around to the other side and hiked the Hooker Valley Track, as well as some of the shorter trails to Kea Point and the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View walk.
At night, we drove out into the hills, turned off the car and stared up at a sky overflowing with stars. With virtually no light pollution, the Lake Tekapo area is perfect for stargazing. The sky is so clear, and the stars so bright, that you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye. Very cool.
After hiking both areas, we decided we didn't need the fourth day we had planned for and left a day ahead of schedule, headed for a last-minute addition to our itinerary...
Queenstown: the town so nice, we stayed there twice.
I fell in love with Queenstown at first sight. Beyond the amazing nature that surrounds the quaint city, it has everything you could ever want, including restaurants, bars, coffee joints, art galleries, clothing stores, a movie theater, cute shops, spas, and even a casino. (Confession: Mike and I both squealed with delight when we saw there was a Lululemon.) Overall, Queenstown felt like a blend of a few of my favorite places, including Boulder, CO, and Mont Tremblant, Quebec.
Sadly not pictured: the epic pies at Fergbaker, equally epic (world famous) burgers at Fergburger, the lakefront promenade with chocolate shops and quirky street performers.
Queenstown is also a special place because it's where we met up with our second round of visitors, Joyce and Arthur. (Remember them? They've been mentioned on this blog before. Their house in Big Pine Key is a Peres family vacation favorite.)
Old family friends, Joyce & Arthur have literally known Mike since he was born.
The four of us explored the Queenstown area for a few days, including a few short hikes around charming Arrowtown and a big hike day on NZ's prominent Routeburn Track.
Originally, we wanted to do the entire track, which takes your average hiker anywhere between two and four days to complete. However, because we weren't sure what dates would work until about a month before arriving in NZ, by the time we went to book bunks in the Routeburn huts, they were sold out. Despite that setback, we knew we needed to see at least part of the track, so we set out from the Queenstown side and hiked to the falls and back in one day (about 12 miles when all was said and done).
There were sore feet all around, but the views were worth it.
From Milford Sound, we spent a night in Te Anau and then decided to take the long, long way back to Queenstown by looping down around the Catlins, the South Island's southeast coastline. Our strange little Frankenstein rental car, which we've nicknamed "white lightning," hung in there for mile after verdant mile.
The car window becomes a frame for all the beauty you pass as you drive through miles of fields, a blur of chartreuse and emerald. Green surrounds you, broken up by nothing but thousands of sheep, lackadaisically walking, grazing, standing, chewing. Above you is only the still blue sky, interrupted by the occasional grey rain cloud.
Along the way, we stopped to take photos of old bridges and walk along windy beaches. We hiked to the lighthouse on Nugget Point. At 4:30 p.m. sharp, the lowest tide point that day, we walked through knee-high surf to enter the Cathedral Caves, some of the longest sea caves in the world.
At another beach, I searched for penguins, specifically the elusive yellow-eyed, but sadly never saw them. We did spot Hector's dolphins jumping and flipping in the surf. A few brave souls even ventured chest-deep into the frigid water to swim alongside them.
We ended our day with humongous burgers in Invercargill. All in all, a day well spent.
We're in New Zealand!!!!!
It feels good. It also feels cold.
We spent night one in Queenstown but left in the morning for Milford Sound. (Don't worry, we went back to Queenstown a few days later and took some photos.)
I didn't know anything about Milford Sound before we got there but WOW was I motivated to learn once I took in some of the breathtaking scenery that made even this indoorsy girl just about burst into happy tears.
One of the facts I learned in Milford Sound is that it's actually not a sound at all; it was named incorrectly back in the 1800s. Milford Sound is a fjord (or fiord, however you want to spell it), since it was a glacier, not a river, which carved out the valley that was then filled in by the sea. Hence, Milford is part of Fiordland National Park, an area that comprises 14 unique fjords and is the largest of NZ's 14 national parks.
We stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge, which was easy to pick, since it's the only place to stay in the area. Needless to say, Milford Sound is very remote. Like, you need to plan out where you're getting gas because the closest fill station is 2+ hours away.
Thrilled* to wander around in a western grocery store again, we went shopping and brought all our food to Milford Sound with us. It was a smart move, since one place to stay means one place to eat means it was waaay overpriced. Plus, we were relieved to cook for ourselves again - even if we only made simple meals like pasta and croque monsieurs.
We chose to experience the majesty of Milford Sound in two very different ways. On our first day, we took a boat cruise on the fjord. The trip brought us all the way out to the Tasman Sea and then back to the harbor. From the boat, we were able to marvel at the overall scale of Milford Sound as well as spot seals and photograph countless waterfalls.
Possibly the best way to describe Milford Sound is that it looks like the real-life version of The Land Before Time. When you're there, it hits you that Milford Sound looks today much like it did when it was discovered centuries ago.
On our second and last morning in Milford, we went on a five hour kayaking expedition. It was a LOT of kayaking but somehow it was still worth it. This place is just that pretty.
We were glad we decided to kayak as well as cruise, since the two experiences provided such different perspectives. In a kayak, what looked huge really feels huge. You're also much closer to the rocks and wildlife. A highlight of the entire few days was holding our breath as a few beefy bottlenose dolphins glided just below the water underneath our kayak.
There's only one negative thing I can say about Milford Sound: holy moly it was FREEZING. We wore all our warmest gear and still shivered through both mornings. Thankfully it was sunny, but it would still take us a week to get used to mild temperatures again.
*Just in case you don't know us, "thrilled" is not an overstatement. We love grocery stores.