It’s impossible to describe the South Island of New Zealand without gushing superlatives. Provided it’s not too wet and misty – the countryside didn’t get that green from sunshine alone – every sight is a picture postcard. Here are three separate experiences of this magical land.
I had never seen water this colour. Standing on the shores of Tiffany-blue Lake Tekapi, with its backdrop of snowy mountains and one of New Zealand’s distinctive long, white clouds, we were glad we had decided to drive instead of fly from Christchurch to Queenstown.
The 614-kilometre distance is somewhat deceptive. Traversing the Canterbury Plains is a doddle, but once you get into the mountains, winding roads slow you down – and it’s a single-lane road all the way.
Closer to our destination, Lake Pukaki was just as beautiful as when we first saw it two years ago. Its strip of coffee shops and eateries was popular with families on a Sunday outing, gobbling ice creams to celebrate the onset of spring.In late October, all was verdant green and masses of blossoms shook in the light breeze. But recent snows had not quite melted, and at a frigid 8°C there was a definite nip in the air.
Known as the adventure capital of the world – you can do anything from mountain-climbing, skiing and tobogganing to bungy-jumping, hang-gliding, and kayaking – Queenstown has plenty to offer the more laid-back or just plain lazy.
Hugging the shore of Lake Wakatipu, the main town is pretty to look at, and its upmarket bars, restaurants and shops indicate its huge popularity with wealthy tourists. Glossy hotels and housing developments creep up the mountain backdrop and spread for miles along the shoreline.
From our apartment, a morning walk took us along Franklin Walkway, through Queenstown Gardens and its Memorial Gate to Steamer’s Wharf, where the sunny alfresco seating at Pier 19 made us think of coffee. As we watched the arrival and departure of tourists on the historical steamer, the TSS Earnslaw – its cruises are well worth doing, by the way – coffee morphed into a drink, which blended into lunch. The food, service and ambience were all outstanding.
Daylight savings time meant it was light until 8pm, and a forecast of freezing weather was, happily, completely wrong. Don’t listen to anyone who compares New Zealand’s weather to England’s. It may rain a lot, but when it’s dry, it is spectacularly bright and beautiful (not pallid and grey).
You can drive all the way around Lake Wakatipu. A gentle drive all the way up its eastern shore takes you to the village of Glenorchy, from where multi-day walks start, according to the signboard. (My husband, who is a delicate soul, blanched at the sight.)
Every rise reveals another breathtaking view over the lake, streaked with every shade of blue imaginable and ruffled into wavelets by a light wind. Rising above the far shore are The Remarkables, a mountain range whose snowy mantles visibly diminished each day as warmer weather took hold.
Glenorchy has a handful of accommodation options, all low-key, and Foxy’s Café serves excellent coffee, teas and lunches.
It’s a forty-minute drive back along the main highway to Gibbston Valley Wineries, and if you fall in love with the pinot noir that made it and Central Otago famous, you can buy it in Singapore from Wine Network. The winery serves a good lunch, too.
A hotel apartment is the way to go, and means you aren’t forced to eat in an expensive restaurant every time you’re hungry. We stayed in a splendid three-bedroom unit at the Oaks Club Resort. Within easy walking distance from the town, and directly on the lake, it has sweeping lake views from its enormous patio and access to a waterside pathway that makes a great running track (but don’t tell my husband that).
You can stock your fridge with breakfast goodies, snacks and wine from the Frankton New World Supermarket, just seven kilometres away. And when the evening draws in, you can cuddle up together in front of the romantic fireplace with a bottle of one of Central Otago’s finest reds.
The ten-hour SIA flight left Singapore in the evening and arrived at Christchurch at a civilised 10.30am. You can take a domestic flight to Queenstown, but we picked up a comfy Nissan Maxima 3.5L, which we had pre-booked online, and drove for six-and-a-half hours to get there well before sunset.
• Botswana Butchery (restaurant)
• Eichardt’s Hotel and Bar
• Foxy’s Café, Glenorchy
• Oaks Club Resort, www.theoaksgroup.com.au
• Pier 19
It’s one of only 145 sunny days in this part of Fiordland when we set off towards Milford Sound, the most northerly and celebrated of Fiordland’s fourteen fiords – only to stop, for the 120-kilometre road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a photographer’s dream come true.
Hundreds of lupins grow wild in fields, open flats of red tussocks shimmer in the sunlight in Eglinton Valley, the perfect reflection of the Earl Mountains can be spotted at the magical Mirror Lakes, and inquisitive keas alight on your car as you wait to enter the one-way Home Tunnel. And then, when the journey is about to end, you stop at The Chasm. Here is a wondrous sculpture fashioned out of rock by the rapids of the Cleddau River – a work of art created by nature.
Sheer granite cliffs towering 1,200 metres into the sky greet us as we start our cruise of Milford Sound, a fiord created by massive glaciers thousands of years ago. As we sail from one plunging waterfall to another, rainbows shimmer in the mist. A family of New Zealand fur seals eye us lazily from some rocks while the parents of two baby sea gulls, nicknamed Fish and Chips by the ship’s crew, hover protectively close by. But we appreciate the sheer grandeur of Milford Sound when the huge cruise ship we’d encountered in open water appears no bigger than our own small ship, dwarfed by those massive fiords.
With one hotel, one café and one grand mountain – the triangular glaciated Mitre Peak – Milford Sound deserves at least a one-night stay before you explore the other treasures of this spectacular land.
The Milford Road offers spectacular views of alpine scenery if you step out of your car and take one of these walks.
Key Summit – 3 hours return
This track is an ideal introduction to the impressive scenery and natural features of Fiordland National Park. Bird life is abundant; tomtits, robins, wood pigeons and bellbirds are commonly seen. Key Summit provides panoramic views over the Humboldt and Darran Mountains.
Lake Marian – 3 hours return
In a hanging valley formed by glacial action, this setting is one of the most beautiful in Fiordland. The lake is above the bush line and reflects the surrounding Darran Mountains.
Lake Gunn Nature Walk – 45-minute round trip
This is an easy loop walk suited to all ages and accessible to wheelchairs. The walk provides an introduction to tall red beech forest and bird life typical of the Eglinton Valley.
An interpretive display is provided to show the effect of avalanches on the Milford Road and to inform visitors about the wildlife of the Eglinton valley.
Mirror Lakes – 5 minutes
These small lakes provide outstanding reflective views of the Earl Mountains. Waterfowl and wetland plants can be seen against a backdrop of beech forest.
The Chasm – 20 minutes return
Two foot-bridges over the Cleddau River offer spectacular views of a series of waterfalls. Thousands of years of swirling water have sculpted round shapes and basins in the rock.
Bowen Falls – 30 minutes return
A boardwalk skirts the steep rock-wall shoreline beyond the Milford Sound launch terminal. It passes through rainforest and emerges at the spray-swept base of the Bowen waterfall, particularly spectacular after rain.
We reach the former port town of Oamaru just in time to watch hundreds of tiny blue penguins return home after a day out at sea. Struggling against the waves, these little penguins – the smallest in the world, about 30 centimetres tall – skitter up the rocks as a few hundred of us in the viewing stand pray that the lone sea lion hanging about leaves without dinner.
As the sky darkens, the penguins cross the road and enter their colony, a disused quarry at the Oamaru Harbour, after a short meet and greet with other penguins and some exuberant rabbits. Oamaru is all about penguins. Penguin cries are ubiquitous, stuffed penguins abound in all the shops, and “Penguin X-ing” signs dot the roadside.
It is also distinctive for architecture from another era, well-preserved buildings made from cream-coloured Oamaru limestone. The town boomed in the 1800s as a commercial centre for quarrying, timber and farming industries. Late in the century, its economy fuelled by grain, wool and refrigerated meat exports, the future looked rosy.
But after this brief period, its fortunes had dwindled and the mercantile buildings in the centre lay virtually abandoned. Today, however, the stores that have mushroomed in these historic buildings are popular and attract a stream of tourists.
Many of the stores retain a Victorian flavour. Slightly Foxed is a second-hand book shop with a quaint sign hanging from an ornate metal signboard. Its wooden floor creaks as we move among the bookshelves, discovering a fine collection of out-of-print books and first editions. Smith’s Grain Store, with its quaint stage setting, plays host to The Great Storm, a dramatic story of life in early Oamaru. Some tourists pass by in a horse-drawn carriage while others fly past perched on penny-farthings. We stop at the machines of the bookbinder Michael O’Brien, and are enthralled to witness a process that has been virtually lost to time.
We turn a corner and find ourselves in front of what seems to be a Scottish castle but is home to the New Zealand Malt Whisky Company. Here we are surprised to find ourselves sampling 25-year-old single malt while we observe the traditional operation of an old Scottish-style distillery. With barrel upon barrel stacked before us, we settle down at the Whisky Bar & Café to take in the view of the harbour.
Oamaru and its people are not ready to fade into history just yet. With penguins and passion, Oamaru brings the past into the present – for the enjoyment of its visitors.