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Category Archives: New Zealand

It’s hard to compare countries. I love Italy. I love Laos. I love New Zealand. The three countries are totally different as are the reasons that earned them a special place in my heart. More than any place I’ve ever been, New Zealand reminds me of Hawai’i (minus the whole freezing cold thing). The similarities are great, both culturally and geographically. I spent just 5 weeks in New Zealand, 3 weeks in the north and 2 weeks in the south, during winter, and had an incredible time.

New Zealand is known for its natural beauty and, although I only scratched the surface, I was blown away by the scenery. The diversity, degree of unspoilt land, and accessibility was astounding. From beautiful beaches and bays, to snow covered peaks and everything in between, New Zealand has it all.

There wasn’t a single place in New Zealand that I didn’t care for. Auckland didn’t really “wow” me, but I still enjoyed myself. In terms of outdoorsy stuff, BAY OF ISLANDS, ROTORUA, ABEL TASMAN, ARTHUR’S PASS, and MILFORD SOUND were all off-the-charts awesome. Wellington had a great vibe to it, as did Queenstown. Although host to a recent tragedy of an almost unimaginable scale, CHRISTCHURCH was a place of hope, a testament to resiliency, and a great place to visit. Levin and its surrounding beach communities of Waitarere and Waikanae were great even in winter. Visiting summer destinations in the offseason provided a true glimpse of Kiwiana and I loved what I saw.

It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The people truly make the place and New Zealand was no exception. I am extremely fortunate to have a friend in Gary Maunakea-Forth, who’s originally from Levin. Gary put me in contact with his family and friends who welcomed me into their homes with open arms. Kev and Jo, a wonderful Kiwi couple I spent a few days with in Laos last year, took me in to their home and gave me a week that felt more like being at home than on the road. CouchSurfing and HelpX allowed me to meet amazing people who made my experiences with them ones I will cherish forever.

While I can’t pick a favorite country to visit, New Zealand is the first place that I’ve ever said, “I’m coming back.” Thanks to everyone that made my time in New Zealand so special.

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Where is the most beautiful place in the world? I’m not a fan of superlatives, but I’ve certainly been to a few contenders. Milford Sound ranks right up there with the best of them. Technically, it’s not a sound at all, but a fiord, formed by glacial movement over several ice ages. There are a variety of options to take in this natural wonder in the world, including a variety of hikes, kayaking, cruises, and flights. The time of the year eliminated walks from my list of possibilities and flights are way out of my budget range. Although I swore off organized tours after Daintree, I ended up booking a Milford Sound day trip through Jucy Travel.

This was a much different experience than I had out of Cairns. Getting from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes about 4 hours each way, so transport accounts for a large part of the day. Fortunately, you drive through incredibly beautiful country. Once in the Fiordlands National Park, we made several stops to (briefly) take in the scenery and snap a few photos. My favorite stop was definitely Mirror Ponds. We also stopped at a big plain that is used to shoot battle scenes in Lord of The Rings and Hobbit films, at a stream that had some amazingly pure and delicious water, and a few other sites with views of mountains.

Just about every cruise company offers a 1 hour 45 minute tour around the Sound and stops at the same places. The weather was absolutely perfect without a cloud in the sky, but Milford Sound is just as beautiful in the pouring rain when thousands of waterfalls adorn the steep cliffs. I positioned myself on the front of the top deck and throughly enjoyed the cruise. In addition to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever witnessed, I also got to see a multitude of seabirds, several young male fur seals, and even a penguin! Penguin breeding season hasn’t quite started, so we were very lucky to get to see one.

The tour cost $119NZD and was worth every penny. I was picked up from my accommodation at 7:45 am and dropped back off at 8:15 pm. The driver/guide, Ian, was terrific and highly knowledgable. I was extremely pleased with the entire experience and highly recommend getting to Milford Sound if you’re in the bottom of the South Island. I look forward to coming back in a different season and doing some of the breathtaking walks in Fiordlands National Park.

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Queenstown reminded me a lot of Lake Tahoe. They are both beautiful, charming little towns located on large lakes, surrounded by mountains. Like Tahoe, Queenstown is a mecca for winter sports and this was peak season. In addition to snowboarding and skiing, Queenstown gives you the opportunity to live out a Mountain Dew commercial. They have every extremely extreme activity imaginable including bungie jumping, sky diving, power boating, and loads of other things I’ve never even heard of. None of these activities are cheap and my budget limited me from partaking.

Eating in Queenstown wasn’t bad. There are a host of restaurants, many of which offer lunch specials in the $10-$15 range. The quality of the food certainly wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible either. It was better than many other places I’ve encountered this trip, most notably Cairns.

The jewel of Queenstown’s food scene is Fergburger. They are open 22 hours a day and there is almost always a line. I tried them twice. The first time I had Sweet Bambi, a local venison burger with a Thai plum chutney. It was phenomenal. I tried the Southern Swine (burger with bacon, cheddar, and pineapple) on my second visit and wasn’t blown away. The venison was cooked to a respectable medium while the beef was cooked through and the Swine was drowned in tomato sauce (ketchup).

Located next door to Fergburger is Fergbaker. They make great pastries and the best pies I had in New Zealand. The pork belly pie and lamb shank pie were game changers. I also tried another little pie joint, Humble Pie. Despite the cool name and nice owner, the pies themselves didn’t get it done. I had their best seller, the steak and blue cheese pie. It was average except for the pieces of gristle and chewy steak.

Couchsurfing hosts were few and far between and I ended up staying at a Backpackers, The Flaming Kiwi. Prior to booking, I had to do a bit of research and make sure that the name didn’t indicate catering to a certain cliental (it didn’t). The price was great for Queenstown and the hostel was extremely clean. The owner, Kent, was great. I really wanted to try whitebait before leaving New Zealand and it turns out that Kent is a whitebait fisherman and brought me some of the coveted baby fish.

While price prohibited me from experiencing the vast array of extreme activity offerings in Queenstown, I did make a day trip to Milford Sound and it was incredible. Frisbee golf is free and very big in Queenstown. The town is home to the oldest official frisbee golf course in New Zealand.

The population is largely transient with young people from all over the world temporarily living there and working at restaurants and other tourism dependent businesses. The guy to girl ratio must be at least 20-1 and, although lively, the nightlife certainly reflects this disproportionality.

Queenstown is a great place to do some extreme sports, ski/snowboard, or just relax and enjoy a beautiful part of New Zealand like I did. The weather kept me from doing any real walks or hikes and I’d like to go back and give them a go when it’s warmer. Queenstown is supposed to be a totally different place in different seasons and I’d like to check it out again when it’s warm. Overall, Queenstown has charm and identity and is worth a visit.

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One of the few things I really wanted to do in New Zealand was visit a glacier. I hoped to check out the Franz Josef Glacier after Christchurch and before Queenstown. Outdoor activities in New Zealand are weather dependent, especially in the winter, and, this time, the weather did not cooperate. I was forced to choose between Milford Sound and Franz Josef and went for the later for a variety of reasons. This allowed me to stay in ChCh a few extra days, one of which I used for a trip to Arthur’s Pass.

Arthur’s Pass is one of three passes through the Southern Alps and is loaded with scenic walking tracks. The weather was absolutely perfect for July; it was cold, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Due to relying on the bus for transportation, I only had about 6 hours at the Pass. That was enough time to hike to the top of Avalanche Peak, a very steep and demanding 1833m mountain, as well as check out Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall, a respectable 131m drop.

It was great having ABEL TASMAN nearly all to myself a week earlier, but on this day Avalanche Peak was all mine! While was cool, there was a slight cause for concern to be going on such a walk alone. Having a cold and not feeling so hot didn’t help matters, but I made it to the top and had a great time.

As I said, it’s a very steep walk. You’re also climbing up and over a lot of rock. Until you hit the alpine layer, the walk takes you through beautiful native beech forest. You pass by a few decent sized waterfalls and may see some kea, the largest mountain parrots in the world. I was lucky enough to have one drop in and hang out with me for a few minutes.

Being winter, the alpine zone had snow coverage. My vibrams had never seen snow before, so it was exciting for them. They held up well and my toes didn’t freeze off. The mountain seemed to get steeper as I ascended and I knew that going down would be interesting. The view from the top was incredible and it was a great feeling of accomplishment to climb a mountain. I ended up using my jacket as a sled to get down some of the tricky areas during the descent.

I usually fly back down from elevation, but the slope and rocky terrain made going down take nearly as long as the ascent. It took just over 4 hours return and I was left with enough time to check out nearby Devil’s Punchbowl Falls. The waterfall was big and beautiful and took about 45 minutes return.

Arthur’s Pass was incredible and I thoroughly enjoyed my short, but highly active, time there. There are more hikes in the area that I would have liked to have done, but was satisfied with Avalanche Peak and seeing the falls. It’s definitely worth exploring as a day trip from Christchurch or as a stopover when crossing the Southern Alps.

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Last year I met a wonderful couple from Christchurch while staying in one of my favorite places in the world, Don Khon, 4,000 Islands, Laos. Kev and Jo were great company and invited me to stay at their place if I ever visit New Zealand. I took them up on their offer and ended up spending an amazing week with them and their family.

We met while staying at a $5/night guesthouse, living the backpacker life. Due to their traveling style, I wasn’t expecting much when I visited their house and was just looking forward to seeing them and catching up. Let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised. They have a VERY nice home. I had my own giant bedroom with ensuite and Jo even placed chocolates on the pillows!

Jo shares my passion for food and I ate extremely well for my entire stay. Kev brews his own beer and kept me well hydrated for my time in Christchurch. They are both highly intelligent, funny, extremely well travelled, and very interesting. Every day and every night was filled with great conversation and plenty of laughter.

The timing of my visit couldn’t have been better. Kev had just come home from a teaching gig in the Middle East and they were having a family reunion. This was the first time the entire family got together for 8 years! Their 4 kids were around my age, very different from one another, and all great people.

On February 22, 2011 a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck near Christchurch and turned much of the city center into rubble. There have been two significant aftershocks and hundreds of smaller ones since. Eighteen months after the initial quake, it looks as if it happened yesterday. In addition to empty lots where buildings once stood, there are blocks and blocks of houses and businesses that are condemned. It will take decades to make the city right again and it will never look as it once did. Despite all of this, life still goes on. Storage containers have been transformed into shops and cafes and downtown has a pretty cool vibe.

On my last day in ChCh, I had an incredible day trip to Arthur’s Pass. That evening I went to a Rocky Horror themed party that was put on by one of Kev’s daughters. The people in attendance were REALLY into the film. It was interesting to say the least and very entertaining.

While I wanted to stay with Kev and Jo permanently, I still have a lot of places to go on this journey. There is feeling at home, then there is feeling at home. Kev, Jo, and the whole family really made me feel welcome and comfortable. It was one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had anywhere in the world.

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There are 9 “Great Walks of New Zealand” and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of them. The 54 km walk is not very difficult and takes 2-5 days. It’s extremely popular in summer, but practically desserted during the winter. Burt and Hilary, my wonderful hosts in Waikanae, told me about the Track and recommended I walk it when I arrive on the South Island, weather permitting. The weather cooperated.

I was able to make it from Wellington to Nelson via the Picton Ferry, arrange my transportation to Abel Tasman, and reserve the huts for the walk in the same day. Huts are $32 NZD per night and roundtrip transport including boat taxi was $66 NZD. The next morning I took the shuttle to Marahau, the starting point at the southern end of the Track. From there I took a water taxi to the northern end of the Track, so I could do the walk from north to south. Shortly after departing, the boat cruised by some rocks that were featured in Lord of the Rings. We also went by an island that was filled with baby seals and their moms, several beaches and bays, and dropped off other passengers before arriving at the last stop of Totaranui.

The start of the Track is 5 km to the north of Totaranui in Whariwharangi. There are a few tide dependent estuary crossings along the Walk and I had some time to kill before I would be able to make my crossing for the day. I used this opportunity to walk up to Whariwharangi and then looped back down. The estuary crossing at Awaroa was very wide and, even at low tide, not easily crossable. I spent my first night at the Awaroa Hut, where I was joined by a lovely Dutch couple who were on their honeymoon. The firewood at the hut was wet, so we weren’t able to make much of a fire. With no electricity and a 5:30 sunset, I had a very early bedtime.

Onetahuti Bay, the first estuary crossing of the next day, was not passable until the afternoon, so I was able to take it easy and relax. This crossing was much shorter and very easy. Onetahuti Beach was long, sandy, and beautiful, but the tide had brought in some unexpected drift. I came across a dead baby seal and a dead cormorant. A few hours later I arrived at the Bark Bay estuary crossing. It wasn’t the joke that Onetahuti was, but wasn’t the challenge that was Awaroa. The rocks in the first stream I had to cross in the estuary were covered in oysters and mussels. A few of them made their way into my belly. Bark Bay Hut is located just across the estuary and was my home for the night. This time I had the entire hut, which sleeps 34 people, to myself.

The third day was when I covered the most ground. I walked to Torrent Bay, then took the high tide route to Anchorage, checking out Cleopatra’s Pool along the way. The pool was just a short detour from the high tide route and was very pretty. From Anchorage I did the Pitt Head/Te Pukatea Bay excursion. It wasn’t that great and I would pass if you’re concerned about time. A day’s walk that was supposed to take nearly 11 hours, took just seven and I made it back to Marahau with time to spare before the shuttle back to Nelson.

People questioned why I would go to New Zealand in the winter. For the first 2.5 days of my walk, I saw 6 people. There was a couple from the UK that got off the boat with me in Totaranui, I spent the night in Awaroa with the Dutch couple, and I briefly saw a Malaysian couple on Onetahuti Beach. That was it. I pretty much had the entire Abel Tasman Coastal Track to myself. It was beautiful, peaceful, and serene. Although it certainly wasn’t hot, I was down to shorts and a t-shirt when I was on the move. July was a great time to walk Abel Tasman.

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Wellington couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. My second day – especially the morning – was much more subdued. I spent the morning retracing my steps from the day before. I returned to the gourmet food store Burt had shown me and spent more time drooling over the amazing food selection, then returned to Havana Coffee Works for another outstanding coffee. Next up was Wellington’s number one draw: Te Papa.

Museums tend to not be my thing. That being said, I LOVED Te Papa. It’s ultra-modern in design, loaded with interesting exhibits, and has a definite focus on Maori culture and the environment (admission is also free and they have free wifi). Hawai’i NEEDS a place like this. I ended up spending several hours there on back to back days and still couldn’t get enough. Seriously, it was the best museum I’ve ever been to. Sorry Vatican.

My only other touristy thing for Wellington was visiting Red Rocks and Sinclair Head Reserve Seal Colony on the south coast. The famous red rocks were just that, red rocks and didn’t really justify the hour walk it took to get to them. About 20 minutes later I arrived at Sinclair Head. I saw the signs for the seals, which even stated that this was the season, but I didn’t see any of the marine mammals. Then I saw one. Then another. Then another hundred! It was incredible. I was the only person there and spent over an hour watching and taking pictures with the biggest grin on my face. The walk was definitely worth it.

Yet again, I was able to find great CouchSurfing hosts in Wellington. Six interesting, smart, and entertaining flatmates welcomed me into their home for my last couple nights in town. They are an international bunch who love to travel and represent what CS is all about. They get along extremely well and function as a family. It was a treat to spend time with them, even if it was only a short stay.

The food in Wellington was good and I only scratched the surface of what New Zealand’s capital city has to offer. I had some seriously good spicy clay pot beef tendon from KC Cafe on Burt’s recommendation. On the walk to Red Rocks, I randomly stopped in at Blue Belle Cafe in Island Bay for a meat pie and a coffee, which were both great. One of my dining companions at the chefs’ luncheon told me to check out his place, La Boca Loca and try the carnitas. The pork was extremely good, but at $22 for 2 small tacos with rice and beans I won’t be going back again. My wonderful CS hosts cook and eat the evening meal together and fed me dinner for the two nights I was with them.

Wellington went by really quickly. It seemed like I just got there and was on the ferry to Picton to begin my South Island journey. Although brief, I truly enjoyed my time in Wellington and wouldn’t mind spending more time there on my next visit to New Zealand.

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