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(2012 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Although my husband and I had visited this two-island nation on several occasions, we had never toured the southern half of the South Island. This time we would.

Over-the-Moon Service

Months of planning didn't seem real until we found ourselves on board Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy class comfortably cocooned in revolutionary spaceseats, which slid out like armchairs. We were especially thankful for the spacious legroom. It was going to be a long overnight flight from Los Angeles to Auckland so comfort was paramount.

Settled in my seat, I reviewed our itinerary. It would be another 22 hours before we reached Wanaka, our first South Island destination. Until then, we kept busy watching programs on our personal touch-screen TV monitors, enjoying personalized in-flight service and tasty meals accompanied by fine New Zealand wines, and relaxing.

A Living Museum

Once the small Beech 1900D aircraft touched down in Wanaka, we only had time for a short, refreshing shower at the Tiritiri Lodge and a quick lunch before boarding a small boat operated by Eco Wanaka Adventures.

Wanaka is a laid-back community, surrounded by majestic mountains and overlooking a clear freshwater turquoise lake, which was created by receding glaciers millions of years ago. The area is popular with hikers and bikers during the summer months and with skiers in the winter.

As we headed off for predator-free Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve where a flightless bird called the Buff Weka has been saved from extinction, it became very clear that our captain, Chris Riley, was passionate about Wanaka and the weka: “Stoats had preyed on the bird on another island where they were protected before the remaining wekas were transferred to this island located 16 kilometres from shore—far enough away to discourage stoats from swimming to it in search of their favourite sport—killing wekas, sometimes just for the fun of it. Today, more than 100 birds thrive on the island.”

Once on the island, Chris introduced us to each weka we encountered by name as we hiked toward Tyrwhitt Peak for about an hour before reaching Arethusa Pool, a small lake with small islands in it. This phenomenon amazed Chris. “By all accounts, what we see here is impossible. The glaciers should have wiped all this out, yet here we stand overlooking an island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island on the sea. Amazing!” And with that, he dove into the water fully clothed.

Back at Tiritiri Lodge, we shared our afternoon adventure with owners, Denis and Stephanie, and other guests over a delicious four-course meal prepared by Stephanie’s daughter and paired with fine New Zealand wines. What a lovely way to end our 40-hour day!

The next morning, Mark Orbell from Ridgeline Adventures picked us up in a four-wheel drive for the second part of our Nature Encounter adventure across the Matukituki River to a working farm that covers 202 square kilometres. From here, we zigzagged our way up the mountain, spotting deer and admiring the alpine gentian flowers along the way. At the summit, we stood frozen in silence: the scenery was quintessential New Zealand.

On our return, we stopped at a deserted beach where Mark shared a little history about the place: “Henry Thompson, age 27, was the original farm owner in the 1800s. He built his home over here near the shores of Lake Wanaka where he remained for 20 years until he was run off by rabbits, which ate everything before his sheep could. He left a broken man and went on to work for the Rabbit Board killing rabbits.” Kiwis have a knack for telling humorous tales about their storied land.

Life on the Edge

Our next stop was Queenstown—a place about which we had heard so much. Surrounded by towering mountain peaks, its streets bustle with shops, restaurants, street performers and tourists from around the world.

At the sophisticated Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel, we were impressed with the personal attention we received and our generous quarters, which featured a kitchenette providing the opportunity to enjoy breakfast in our own private courtyard. The best part: we were just 300 metres from town centre.

Within minutes, we were off on an adventure with Shotover Jet, for a breathtaking ride, interspersed with exhilarating full 360-degree spins, through dramatic, narrow canyons along the shallow Shotover River.

Another equally enjoyable experience organized by Jim Ashe of Pinot Thyme Wine Tours was at Goldfields Jet near Old Cromwell Town. Jim offers a variety of intimate, niche-market options through the Central Otago region renowned for its Pinot Noir. One highlight of our tour was a wonderful lunch barbecue at the Goldfields Jet restaurant, which included wine tastings, all for the tasty sum of $30 per person.

Eventually, it was time to test our courage at Kawarau Bridge, home of the world’s first and most famous leaps—the bungy jump. I had promised myself I would not make up my mind until I got there. The idea of willingly jumping off a ledge was not something my mind could fathom, so oddly enough, pre-jump jitters were not a factor. As we prepared for our daredevil experience, I protested that the straps around my legs were too tight. “Can you loosen them a bit?” I asked. “Sure,” our attendant said, “but you may not like the consequences.” I acquiesced to his expertise.

So, there I stood, strapped to my husband on the edge of a wooden platform 43 metres above the Kawarau River. On a count of three, we leaned forward and plummeted downward. The pain in my legs distracted me from the fact that we were freefalling. Down, down, down, then up, and down again, we swayed wildly above the water line until attendants in a raft beneath lowered us and released me from the painful grips of the harness around my legs. It was over and I had survived to tell the tale. My chest was pounding, my shins were bruised and I had the pictures to prove I’d done it. Would I do it again? Once in this lifetime was enough for me.

But it was our trip to Milford Sound that had us spellbound. En route, our 45-minute flight to The Divide took us over secluded alpine lakes, lush rainforests and past the rugged peaks of the Southern Alps. In Milford, we boarded a Mitre Peak Cruise, an exploratory nature cruise that brought us past cascading waterfalls, sheer rock faces, unique wildlife, and out beyond St. Anne’s lighthouse to the Tasman Sea. Truly spectacular!

Taking it Easy

It was an easy drive from Queenstown to Clyde where Dunstan House, owned by Maree and John Davidson, would be our home for the next two nights. Popular with those wanting to indulge in a bit of gold-mining history, quiet time and cycling trails, this historic town is perfect for the older crowd who prefer to avoid the more hectic environment Queenstown offers, for families with children and for avid mountain bikers.

Following a hearty buffet breakfast the next morning, we met up with photographer Sue Noble-Adams in Alexandra to pick up our mountain bikes and helmets from Henderson Cycles. A 17.5-kilometre biking excursion along the Otago Central Rail Trail promised to be a gentle downhill trip through three tunnels and across a few bridges. What a relaxing way to experience the landscape and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of Central Otago, the most southerly wine region in the world. It is estimated more than 50,000 bikers from around the world pass through Clyde or Alexandra to ride this trail, which is open year-round.
Each season puts its own unique stamp on the trail, but, I’m told, fall (our spring) with its colourful foliage and winter (our summer) with its snow-capped mountain ranges and hoarfrost scenes are particularly picturesque.

Birders’ Paradise

A 3.5-hour drive to Bluff and a one-hour ferry ride to Oban brought us to Stewart Island and a warm welcome from Wendy Hallett, owner of the immaculate Greenvale B&B where our suite overlooked the picturesque harbour.

With a population of less than 400, life is simple on Stewart Island. So what’s the big draw? Birds!

At 8:30 p.m., we headed off to the dock for a kiwi-spotting excursion with Phil Smith of Bravo Adventure Cruises, which included a twilight boat cruise on board the Wildfire to a remote area of Stewart Island where we walked through native bush in the hopes of spotting the elusive kiwi on a sandy beach as they fed amongst the kelp. Success! Much to the delight of avid birders in our group, two were spotted.

It was early morning when Wendy transferred us to Golden Bay Wharf for a full-day birding bonanza tour with Matt Jones, birdwatching and nature guide and wildlife photographer. It all began with a water taxi trip from Stewart Island to the Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary to discover rare and endangered birds and plants at close quarters. A Norwegian couple and a young veterinarian from Washington, D.C., (the same enthusiastic birders from the night before) squealed at each sighting as their cameras whirred to record all. Fearless and virtually flightless Stewart Island robins rummaged for grubs at our feet while musical bellbirds serenaded us from the treetops with their lovely melodies. Other sightings included variable oystercatchers, the New Zealand wood pigeon, the South Island kaka (parrot), the miniscule rifleman, yellowheads, brown creepers and rare South Island saddlebacks. Our time with Matt was well spent as he has travelled the world and logged sightings of more than 5,300 bird species—an amazing count by birding standards.

Later, we boarded Aurora Charters for a four-hour Pelagic Bird Tour to the rarely visited South Cape of Stewart Island. On the way, we cruised past the Traps to view mottled petrels, Antarctic terns, royal albatross, seals, yellow-eyed penguins, weka (ironically considered pests here) and more.

Back in Oban, Wendy was waiting to take our exhausted bodies home to Greenvale. It had been a long day and a warm shower and the promise of a comfortable bed had never sounded so good.

Travel Planner

Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) offers non-stop service to Auckland from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Honolulu as well as domestic service throughout New Zealand. Stewart Island can be reached by passenger ferry from Bluff or by flight from Invercargill.

Tip: At Auckland airport, we purchased an inexpensive cell phone with a $25 SIM card for a total cost of $65NZ. The SIM card gave us 100 minutes of talk time plus unlimited texting and incoming calls were free.

For more information, visit:

Tourism New Zealand: newzealand.com/ca

Lake Wanaka Tourism: lakewanaka.co.nz

Destination Queenstown: queenstownnz.co.nz

Tourism Central Otago: centralotagonz.com

Venture Southland Tourism: southlandnz.com

Eco Wanaka Adventures: ecowanaka.co.nz

Ridgeline Adventures:

Shotover Jet: shotoverjet.com

Goldfields Jet: goldfieldsjet.co.nz

AJ Hackett Bungy, Queenstown: bungy.co.nz

Milford Sound Scenic Flights: milfordflights.co.nz

Mitre Peak Cruises: mitrepeak.com

Pinot Thyme Wine Tours: pinotthymetours.co.nz

Otago Central Rail Trail: otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz

Bravo Adventure Cruises: kiwispotting.co.nz

Aurora Charters: auroracharters.co.nz

Recommended lodgings: Tiritiri Lodge, Wanaka: tiritirilodge.com

Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel: queenstownparkhotel.co.nz

Dunstan House, Clyde: dunstanhouse.co.nz

Greenvale Boutique B&B, Stewart Island: greenvalestewartisland.co.nz

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