It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but last week, my mum and I spent just over 24 hours in the Garden City. I thought there might be delays to the flight due to the weather in Wellington, but we managed to miss the thunder storm and touched down in Christchurch around 9:30am.
We head straight to the city on the airport bus (a cheap and convenient way to get into town) and start making our way to the city tram. This is the one activity I really wanted to do last time we were here, but ran out of time for. So it’s the first thing on the agenda for today.
My sense of direction (or lack off) meant we were wandering around for quite some time trying to find the tram depot. We then stumble across the tram tracks so followed them for a while and eventually find what we were looking for.
The tram is beautiful. I think there were about 4 in circulation that day, but our one seemed to be the oldest. They have all been restored and it’s a unique way to see the city. The tram interior is all wooden with intricate detailing and big glass windows for viewing. The loop takes about 50 minutes and includes onboard commentary. Unfortunately there is quite a lot of talking going on between the other passengers, so at times it was quite hard to hear what the driver was saying. But it’s a great way to get your bearings, have a quick overview of some of the attractions around and get a feel for what you want to see. It’s a hop on hop off ticket, meaning it’s valid for the day and is a convenient way to get around.
After disembarking the tram, I know exactly where we are heading. New Regent Street. It’s a pedestrian only shopping street which was developed in the early 1930s in Spanish architectural style. The facades are in pretty pastel colours with lots of window detailing. What is also interesting is the buildings on each side of the street mirror each other exactly in both colour and design. There are some cute little shops and well worth a wander down.
I’ll confess, I am here for Rollickin which is a gelato company. It’s a funky place with tantalizing gelato, and some interesting names. I choose ‘Stacy’s Mum’ A blueberry cheesecake gelato with lemon curd and a sprinkling of vanilla crust crumbs. It was fantastic, the texture of the crumb in it was delightful and the curd added a bit of zing. All combined, it was a flavour sensation.
We then take a bit of a wander through the city, heading towards the Riverside Market where we intend to get some lunch. Along the way, we pass lots of street art on the side of buildings. It’s one of the things I love about Christchurch. There are some really interesting pieces that are very well done and they add so much colour to the place. There is one in particular that has me intrigued. It plays tricks on your eyes. It’s painted like some old market shop fronts and looks completely 3D but all done on a flat wall. As you walk towards it and then past it, it changes from looking like 3D shop fronts, to disappearing into a flat wall. It’s hard to explain, but’s it’s an incredible illusion. You will have to check it out for yourself. This crazy street art is on the back of the Riverside markets so we head inside to grab some lunch.
I had been hoping for a delicious leek, cheese and (I think) potato cornish pastie, from The Great Pastry Shop but they had just sold out. This forces me to try something different and I end up with a Vietnamese Tofu Sandwich. It was pretty yum and although I would have preferred the pastie, it was actually great to try something new. I can be a creature of habit! There are so many options here to try, you are really spoilt for choice.
After a little wander around the shops I find myself at Ben & Jerry’s, ready for another gelato. This time I get one called ‘Half Baked’. A chocolate ice cream with cookie dough and fudge. This was very sweet and the flavour felt less refined to ‘Stacy’s Mum’, but it was still excellent. I had this idea that I would go to as many gelato places as I could on this trip. I thought it would be a fun thing to blog about, but I will tell you now, it was such a cold day, that I only managed these 2 gelatos. I actually had several strangers comment as I was walking past them on the street about how I was a bit mad for eating ice cream on such a cold day. I think this is a challenge I will need to repeat in the Summer!
After heading to an appointment and having another look around the shops, it’s late afternoon. We decide it’s the perfect time to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. And we know exactly where to go for that. She Chocolaterie. Another place we loved so much last time and just had to come back. You know when you have really good quality artisan chocolate you can taste the different flavours of the beans. Some are nutty, some are fruity, just like coffee beans. It’s the same with hot chocolate. You can taste the fruity notes coming through. This is another must try if you are in the Garden City.
Our last activity for the day is a movie at Lumiere Cinema It’s located in the Arts Center in such a beautiful old building. You can purchase cheese boards and wine to enjoy during the film and the seats are incredibly comfy. (Unfortunately I was way too full of gelato and hot chocolate to purchase anymore food.) I much prefer the more boutique cinemas to the large, mainstream ones. This was a relaxing way to finish off our evening.
We stay the night at Hotel Give which I highly recommend. Not only was it great value for money, it has been recently refurbished, has super comfy beds and is really big on sustainability. They also put all profits from your stay back into the programs and services that the YMCA offers vulnerable members of the community. How great is that? It is also across the road from Lumiere Cinema. Win win.
We have a beautiful day for our flight home that ends our 25 hours in Christchurch. There are some great views from the plane and for the first time I really notice how much of our land hasn’t been built on. There are so many forests and mountains and lakes to explore. Aotearoa is stunning and I am so grateful that I get to experience so much of it.
It started with a birthday wish. Daniel’s grandma was celebrating her 80th birthday and wanted to do a nature cruise in Akaroa. In the weeks leading up to it, we weren’t sure it would go ahead. Omicron had raised its ugly head and case numbers were skyrocketing. But we made it there, and I have to say, it was a pretty amazing trip.
We arrive in Christchurch and while Daniel’s parents are sorting out the rental car, Daniel, his sister and I take a seat nearby. We are chatting but then Daniel hears the word ‘upgrade’ come from the rental car guy and he is off, planting himself right between his parents ready to start negotiating the upgrade and get a ‘fancier car’. A few $$$ later and a hilarious incident of window wipers going flat out instead of the indicator (a European car where the levers are opposite to what we are used to) we are on the road making our way to what I hope will be sunny Akaroa.
I didn’t know a lot about Akaroa other than this; it is located in the South Island of Aotearoa, and a bit over an hour’s drive from Christchurch. Oh, and it was settled by the French and the street names are all in le français. Fortunately, this is an English speaking area (like the rest of New Zealand) as the extent of my French is Bonjour.
I have been there once before, about 9 years ago when Daniel and I spent 3 weeks exploring the South Island on our motorbike. But we only spent about an hour there so I was really looking forward to getting to know this place better.
It’s a rather winding road that goes up and over a hill to get there, but we finally get our first glimpse of Akaroa and it is beautiful. Made even better by the fact that it is basking in sunshine.
We arrive and head straight out to lunch, making our way to The Brasserie Kitchen & Wine Bar which has a lovely outdoor setting. I order the most French thing I can find on the menu, a crepe filled with cheese and roasted vegetables then followed by a macaron. They were both outstanding, one of the nicest macaron’s I have ever had and an excellent start to the trip. I am now wondering why I never went back to buy more macarons. A tip for next time.
Lunch is followed by a stroll along the promenade, stopping to browse in shops and take in the lovely sea views. The ocean is such a gorgeous colour. We head further round the bay to check out the lighthouse and then up a few steps to the Akaroa Lookout Point. It is probably the lowest lookout I have ever been to. Honestly, it was only about 10 steps up, but still a nice view point. The walk through the forest is noticeably cool, so nice in the midday heat. The cicadas are singing their happy tunes.
After checking in at our accommodation, we head over to the Beer Garden at the Madeira Hotel to enjoy the last of the afternoon sun, share stories over drinks and snacks and wait for the birthday girl and rest of the family to arrive. It’s a very relaxed afternoon and evening with lots of laughs.
One of my goals for the year is to watch some sunrises. I decide that Akaroa is the first place I am going to try this. It is on the east coast, but surrounded by hills. I know I won’t get to see the sun come up over the horizon, but I still think it will be worth watching.
Daniel enjoyed a lot of beverages the night before, so, being the good wife that I am, I leave him sleeping and head out about 6:30am. There is a wharf nearby so I walk along that and take a seat at the end to enjoy the show. It is so still and no one is around. It is quiet and peaceful. No car engines, no boat engines, just stillness. It’s a sleepy town and I get to watch it wake up. The sky is blushed with pink and gold tones. This moment is beautiful. It feels like a secret gift, just for me.
After about an hour of watching Akaroa come to life, I am called to breakfast by my rather loud rumbling tummy. It leads me to Rona’s cafe, where I find an almond croissant to eat at the waterfront. Gosh, I love having pastries for breakfast. It’s certainly not an everyday breakfast food (unless you are in Europe, then the rule doesn’t apply!) but it’s a lovely holiday treat.
The rest of the morning is slow and leisurely and at lunchtime we head down to the wharf for the main event of the weekend. A nature cruise with Akaroa Dolphins. I was delighted to discover that this is the company that has a 4 legged crew member. Albie the Spaniel was on board greeting all the guests as they arrived. Already kitted out in his life jacket, Albie is ready to spot some dolphins. Apparently dogs can hear dolphins talking to each other so Albie will be able to let guests know when they are near.
We head out into the harbour and our skipper shares some of the history of the area. It was here I learn that Akaroa was actually settled by the French and the English and that half the street names are French and half are English. We also learnt that Akaroa used to be a volcano that erupted millions of years ago. The eruption was so big that it created the harbour and a channel out to the Pacific Ocean. If you look at a terrain or satellite image of Akaroa, you can quite clearly see the mountain range forming a ring where the volcano would have been. We also learn about some of the Maori history of the area. It is super interesting. The captain is knowledgeable for sure, but also delivered it in an interesting and entertaining way.
It doesn’t take long before we spot our first dolphin. Their round, black ‘mickey mouse’ fin is very distinctive and their silver bodies flash in the water when near the surface. Hector’s dolphins are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They grow to only 1.5 meters in length and are normally found in pods of 2-5. Our first sighting is a single dolphin that comes right up to the boat. It swims all around the boat giving spectators from all sides a great view. It hangs around for a while so the captain starts moving the boat going forward to see if it wants to play. It does! It zooms through the water at the bow at incredible speed, it has no issues keeping up with the boat. We watch it, darting along, popping up through the water and back under.
One of the crew then comes around offering complimentary drinks, including wine and beer. Ah, yes please, I will have a wine!
We carry on further, wine in hand, checking out the coastline and looking for more dolphins. It doesn’t take long before we find our next pod, and another, and another. There were so many dolphins, flashes of black and silver in every direction, putting on a spectacular show. I almost didn’t know where to look.
Some were in the distance jumping out of the water, some swimming at the boat in groups from different directions and others swimming alongside the boat. It was incredible. We stay with the dolphins for quite some time, totally in awe at the experience. It is such a privilege to not only see them, but to encounter so many.
After we have all had our dolphin fix, we head out further to see more dramatic coastline, a seal colony and head out to the Pacific Ocean. It gets pretty wild, the boat going up, up and then crashing down in the swells, it’s like an amusement ride at a theme park and I am loving it. If you are not great out at sea, this bit didn’t last very long at all. Some members of our group struggle with sea/motion sickness but said they were OK because it was over quickly and there was plenty of fresh air.
We then head back to the wharf buzzing. This has been an outstanding tour. I have loved every minute of it and cannot recommend it enough. Hector’s dolphins are beautiful creatures, fun and playful. This is an experience not to be missed.
The afternoon is spent with more drinks in the sun, enjoying the company of family. We then have pre dinner drinks followed by dinner at Ma Maison. It has beautiful views out across the harbour and the perfect setting for a birthday celebration dinner. Unfortunately our meals do take an incredibly long time to come out. They were quite understaffed, as were most of the places we visited on this trip. I believe this is an area that would normally rely on filling vacancies with backpackers and visitors who are working and exploring their way around our great country. Covid has certainly had an impact there.
But, despite the long wait, the food was really good, and the staff really friendly. It was certainly a place I would be happy to visit again.
Our last day in Akaroa starts with another treat from Rona’s cafe, eaten down on the waterfront. On the drive back to Christchurch, we stop at The Hilltop Tavern which has spectacular views out over Akaroa and the surrounding bays. It’s a perfect way to end the trip, looking out across the place we have spent the weekend exploring.
We have one more night of our holiday but instead of spending it in Geraldine, we pick up Daniel’s Grandmother and head to Lake Tekapo. Tekapo is one of Aotearoa’s Dark Sky Reserves. I am hoping that tonight I will be witnessing a twinkling starry sky and a dazzling milky way.
It is grey clouds and rain as we head towards our destination. Not a good start! Our tour isn’t until 8pm though so there is plenty of time for the sky to clear. I am feeling hopeful.
We make a stop in Fairlie. You have to stop in Fairlie, the Bake House is famous for their pies. Everyone else on the road seems to have had the same idea, the queue is out the door. Fortunately it moves quickly. I am delighted to see that this time, they have vegetarian pies. Oh yum! It was so delicious. Chunks of vegetables in a creamy sauce and loaded with cheese. Perfect for a cold, stormy day.
We continue on with our journey. There is fresh snow on the hills. No wonder it is feeling so cold. We arrive in Tekapo and are greeted by the sight of the vibrant, turquoise lake. It is the most stunning colour. It gets it’s colour from what is called ‘rock flour’, a fine powder made from the heavy glaciers moving down the mountains and grinding rocks on the way. The powder remains in the lake, giving it the most vivid colour. It is quite the sight to see.
We stop down at the lakefront and get a photo of the famous sheep dog statue. My grandmother gave me some old travel guides from the 80’s. I was flicking through them a while back and was interested to learn that the statue is there to pay tribute to the sheepdogs that made grazing sheep in the mountainous region possible. They were known as Boundary Dogs. Reading about them was quite sad, they had such a hard life. They are the unsung heroes of the High Country.
I then head to The Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s probably the most photographed church in all of New Zealand. It’s only small but has beautiful, grey stone walls. It is perched on the shores of Lake Tekapo and framed by the snowy mountains. It’s a real place of beauty. I was hoping the surrounding lands would be covered in lupins, like in the photos I have seen, but apparently they don’t bloom until December. This will have to wait for another time.
We still have a few hours before our star gazing tour so Daniel and I head out for a walk around the lake. I take photos of the brilliant blue waters and marvel at their beauty. Daniel stops to take photos of the power station.
Dinner is at The Dark Sky Diner. The restaurant has huge windows that look out at the lake, it’s the perfect place to watch the moody sky and the day fade into night. The food was excellent too. A cocktail and buttery, rich empanadas for me, Daniel manages to select a meal so big they bring it out on 2 plates. We had such a lovely time with Grandma, talking over food and wine with stunning views as our backdrop, sharing travel stories and enjoying each other’s company.
At 8pm we check in with Dark Sky Project for our Mt. John Observatory tour. The sky is still looking pretty ominous as we wait for our guide to give us an update. We are informed that there is snow on Mt. John and the peak is engulfed in clouds so the tour won’t be running.
We are given the option of doing an alternate indoor experience which we decide to do. It’s pretty scientific, but certainly interesting. In the first room we see a huge Victorian telescope. It’s the only one in the world that is in a dark sky reserve. It is massive and really impressive.
In the next room we are show images of the night sky in moving images on the floor. I learnt that 70% of people have never seen the milky way. That is so sad. I remember seeing it at Waipatiki Beach last year and it took my breath away. It was absolutely mesmerizing.
The 3rd room was about the planets and sun with models set out about the room. The last part of the tour was from the comfort of beanbags, looking up at a screen giving us a little bit more history.
On the way home, a few stars appear so I grab my camera and head out to try and get some photos. They are quickly covered up by clouds though and the best photo I get is one where I accidentally pointed my camera at a street light.
While it was disappointing not to see the starry night in a dark sky reserve, any experience when nature is involved isn’t guaranteed. But it’s the unpredictability and mystery of it that makes it so rewarding when it does happen. There will be another opportunity I’m sure!
It’s perfect weather for flying and I am excited to be heading away on this trip with the extended family. My in-laws, sister in-laws, brother in-laws and nieces and nephews. All 13 of us on the same flight. We are heading to Geraldine in South Canterbury for a wedding.
We weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to attend the wedding, but fortunately the Covid restrictions were lifted to gathering of 100 people allowed only 3 days before the wedding.
Wellington and the South Island have put on a spectacular day, the views from the plane are outstanding. Snow on the distant ranges and not a cloud in sight.
We land in Timaru and after a few dramas with the rental car we are on our way. (our booking had mysteriously been canceled the day before, not by us and the car we booked was no longer available) The company was really good though and upgraded us to a beast of a car, a huge truck-like Ute that was so much bigger than we needed, but will be fun for the next couple of days.
Driving through Timaru, I fall in love with all the blossoms. It’s lovely to travel in the Springtime. We have a family lunch before making our way to Geraldine. I am keen to get a walk in, so Daniel and I head off to Peel Forest. It is such a clear day that Daniel is able to point out Small Mount Peel, Medium Mount Peel and Big Mount Peel as we head towards the park. Apparently the climb to the top of Small Mount Peel is a day walk, the walk to the summit of Medium and Big Mount Peel requires a much higher level of fitness and a good sense of direction (that rules me out) as a lot of that track is unmarked.
There are a lot of walks you can do in this park, I pick out one called Dennistoun Bush Track. It is meant to be a flat, easy walking loop track that takes about an hour. Flat – yes, easy – yes, an hour – not even. We did this walk in about 20 minutes and I was quite disappointed it was over so quickly. The track was a bit overgrown / branches over the track in places, perhaps from a recent storm. Despite the length of this walk, it was still great to be outdoors in the fresh air, amongst the trees. It’s a perfect, still day for a walk and I admire the large old trees with twisted branches, supporting so much life.
Located in Peel Forest is The Church of the Holy Innocents. It was built in 1869 and is a gorgeous little stone church. It was damaged a few yeas back in an earthquake, but has been restored and open once again. If you like old churches, it is well worth a look.
We make our way back into Geraldine town center, encountering a typical New Zealand country road along the way.
Even though I have never lived here, visiting this place I always feel a little bit like I am coming home. With Daniel having grown up here, several visits and family in the area, the place is familiar with great memories. So it does in a way, feel like home.
We check into our accommodation, a B&B called Hewling’s Manor. It’s such a delightful place in a beautiful garden setting and sun drenched porch. There are lots of interesting antiques and details around the place, and the host, Julie, is so attentive, friendly and accommodating. She even left us some afternoon tea for our arrival. Julie also has a gorgeous rescue greyhound who we get to give lots of pats and cuddles. I am only disappointed that we didn’t get to spend more time here. The rest of the day is spent with family.
My morning begins with the yummy breakfast Julie provided, enjoyed on the sun soaked porch. It’s wedding day, Daniel is busy setting up the sound system so I spend some time at the park with my nieces and nephews. It’s funny to think this is where Daniel would have played when he was a child. After making myself feel ill from spinning on some of the playground equipment (just can’t handle it like I used to when I was a kid) I trade in the playground for the local shops. It’s nice to spend some time wandering around and doing a bit of window shopping.
My mother-in-law and I head over to Verde Cafe. I really like this place, it has great food and a good selection of Vegetarian / Vegan / Gluten free options, but what I like most is the pretty outdoor garden setting. It’s even better in the Spring when all the blossoms are out.
Next door, a local band is paying in the park so we head over and watch them for a while. Then it’s time to get ready for the Wedding. I really like Geraldine and it’s small town country vibes and slower paced lifestyle. It speaks to my soul a lot more than living in the city. I think someday, I would love to live in a place where everybody knows your name.
It’s still dark when we depart Christchurch. I will be able to watch the sun come up.
We take our seats in the front carriage next to the big glass windows. I expect we will see some pretty awesome views on this journey.
The rain is glistening on the windows as we pass through residential areas, the street lights twinkling as a burnt orange horizon mixes into a deep inky blue sky. The bare winter trees silhouette against the dawn. Morning has broken.
I head down to the open carriage to get some photos (I hate taking photos through glass.) Jeepers creepers, it’s fresh out here, but so beautiful. The golden hues spilling out across the land as we pass a river that reflects the colours back.
We pass through frosty farmland, blanketed in white. The air is crisp and cold. Actually freezing. I’m the only one mad enough to be out here. Even though the cold air is numbing my face and hands, the beauty that I am seeing keeps me out here for sometime.
As I make my way back to our carriage, I pass row after row of people engrossed with their phones, their ipads and reading books. It’s so sad. They are missing the beauty right in front of them.
I take a seat and appreciate the soft pink and blue hues of the sky. We then hear an announcement over the speakers. The viewing cart is now closed due to safety reasons. The floor is very icy and slippery. I agree, it was, but I am also disappointed that I wont be able to take glass free photos and feel the wind in my face, despite how cold it was.
I settle into my seat and look out the window. There is a dusting of snow on the distant mountains. We pass through the Waipara vineyards and the rolling green hills that look like a Colin McCahon painting. The colours soft and delicate.
The hills are becoming sun kissed, slowly defrosting from the cold night. The sun is just about to peak out from behind a hill. I can see the golden rays. We come around the corner, I expect to see the sun, I have my camera ready, but instead, we are greeted by a thick blanket of fog. Mist is twisting through the bare winter trees. It’s magical, but also a little eerie. I half expect to see Harry Potter dementors coming out from the woods.
After quite some time, we exit the fog. My eyes settle on a beautiful sage green river. The surrounding landscape is rich and warm in colour. Day is here. The sun is very bright now, it is here to stay. We pass braided rivers and snow dusted mountains.
And then we get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. A brilliant ocean of glorious blue, stretching as far as the eye can see. Fortunately the viewing carriage is re opened. This time, I am not the only one.
There is 100Km of coastline. It is home to lots of wildlife. Apparently sometime passengers will spot dolphins or sperm whales. I see a lot of sea birds and even some seals out on the rocks, soaking up the sun.
On one side we have the mighty Pacific Ocean. On the other, the Kaikoura Ranges, dusted in snow. Snow always makes everything look so magical. What a glorious day for travelling.
We then pass though some salt flats. I am amazed at the range of colours; bright turquoise, grey and pink tones. As we approach Marlborough the vineyards become more prominent. We finally reach our destination. Blenheim. The train actually goes right through to Picton. A lot of passengers will get off here and take the ferry across to Wellington. We are also Wellington bound, but my mum gets bad sea sickness so we have decided to enjoy a night in Blenheim and take a short flight home the next day. I love that this is also an option.
There are 3 ‘Great Journeys’ Trains in New Zealand. The Northern Explorer running between Auckland and Wellington. The TranzAlpine that connects Christchurch to Greymouth and the Coastal Pacific traveling between Christchurch and Picton. This was my first time doing any of them and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is such a relaxing way to travel and I loved watching the changing landscape.
It’s a cool, crisp morning as we head out across the road to an art memorial.
It’s known as 185 Empty Chairs.
185 different chairs, spread out across what used to be the floor of St. Luke’s Church. Now, all that remains is the bell tower and the installed empty white chairs. One chair for every person who lost their life in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake.
It’s early morning. The birds are waking. The air is still. This is a place of rest. A place for remembering.
As I stand there in the silence, looking around me, I notice a couple of tiny chairs. And it hits me. I knew young children and babies also lost their lives, but to see it displayed like this, it stopped me in my tracks. Each chair in fact tells it’s own story, of a person, of a life, one that ended too soon. It’s a very powerful memorial. I take a moment to be grateful for the life I have.
From here we head to Hagley Park for a walk along the river. I love how the Avon River runs right through the city. The park is full of deciduous trees. The last of the Autumn leaves are scattered on the ground, leaving the tall elegant, leafless trees to creating silhouettes against a bright blue sky. There is something very magical about Winter, when the day is dry and clear, the air is cool and there isn’t a Wellington gale force wind blowing.
The water in the Avon is surprisingly clear. I am so used to seeing dirty polluted streams. I hope this becomes a more common sight. The ducks are enjoying the water too and from a bridge, I watch a couple of piwakawaka (fantail) darting about, skimming the water, presumably trying to catch their breakfast.
We reach the Botanical Gardens and come across a hot house which we take a stroll through. The warmth is a welcomed change. Inside is a lush oasis of green. There are several rooms and each seems to get a little warmer. There is one with cacti, another with orchids. The last room is the most impressive though. It has a high ceiling and is filled with plants. There is the sound of running water and climbing plants growing right up to the top. I feel like I am in a jungle.
And I don’t want to leave.
Partly because I am enjoying all the plants, but if I am honest, it’s mostly because I know how cold it will feel outside. But we can’t stay here forever and we have 1 more stop to make.
We brave the outdoors and follow the river down to the Antigua Boat Sheds. I don’t want to leave Christchurch without going for a punt on the Avon River. It’s just the 2 of us on the boat with our guide. We are given a blanket and hot water bottle to keep us cosy and warm before we set off. Our guide shares the local history of the area and all about punting, as we glide ever so gracefully down the river. The boat moves so smoothly through the water. We had just walked the this way alongside the river, but seeing it from this level gives another perspective.
After half an hour of soothing punting it’s time for us to leave the warmth of the hot water bottle and blanket behind. What a great way to experience The Garden City.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Christchurch. It’s an exciting, re-emerging city that is colourful and vibrant, filled with an amazing selection of cafes, restaurants and bars. It has done an incredible job of moving forward and looking to the future, without forgetting it’s past. Christchurch has seen some pretty dark days but it has risen up and is claiming it’s place on the tourist map once again.
The engine begins whirring and the propellors spring into life. It’s a rather noisy plane, we are on a little ATR 72-600 on our way to Christchurch.
It’s a morning departure, 8am. It’s a beautiful time to fly. The colours in the sky are soft and peachy, the clouds have golden highlights. It was a dreary, grey, Wellington day, but above the clouds it is always sunny.
I take a look through the inflight magazine, Kia Ora. A picture of Aitutaki, Cook Islands, is on the cover. It looks so inviting with it’s turquoise blue waters. Its white sandy beach is so alluring. However, the majority of the content in this edition is about Aotearoa. It takes me on a photo journey of food festivals, dark sky reserves and glacier hiking. I am quickly reminded again just how extraordinary New Zealand is. There is so much to see and do here. So much beauty to behold. I think I could happily spend a lifetime discovering my homeland.
We touch down in Christchurch. ‘The Garden City’ has put on a stunning winter’s day for us. A bright blue sky and a windless day.
After leading my mum in the wrong direction for about 10 minutes, she takes over map reading and we finally arrive at our Airbnb to drop off our bags. (Never trust me with maps or directions!) We are staying in a modern town house on the edge of the city. A perfect location for exploring.
The last time I was in Christchurch was about 18 months after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. A lot of the city was damaged and 185 lives were lost. Even 18 months later I remember experiencing aftershocks. The place was in ruins, buildings destroyed, homes destroyed and rubble around the place. So much of the city would need to be replaced.
10 years on the city is flourishing. It is funky and vibrant. There are enticing restaurants and bars, pop up shops, parks and lots of trees. There is a really interesting juxtaposition of old and new buildings. All around the city is vibrant, quirky, colourful street art painted on the sides of buildings. Even the last remaining ruined buildings have a certain beauty to them. There is no lack of things to see here. The heart of the city has started beating again.
Our first stop is Riverside Market. The lane way into the market is filled with boutique shops. We walk past a Chocolaterie claiming to make the best hot chocolates. I tuck that one away in the back of my mind to try later. Inside the market is an exciting range of eateries, international foods, sweets, pastries and more. I spot a truffle stand and spend some time talking to one of the staff. I haven’t had fresh truffles since Italy, (where I may have over indulged.) They are so decadent and delicious. I love talking to local food artisans and produce suppliers, they are always so passionate about what they do. I walk away from the stall with a business card – The Sassy Salt Lady can forage for truffles for you and send them anywhere in the country. This could get expensive!
Inside, the market is fun, funky and bustling. It’s midday and this seems to be the place to grab lunch. So that’s what we do. It does take us a couple of trips around the market looking at everything before we can decide what to order. There are so many scrumptious looking things. We settle on a Cornish pastie from The Great Pastry Shop and head outside to eat in the sun. The pastry is creamy, buttery and oh so good. Sparrows start appearing in numbers, patiently waiting for the crumbs to drop. They rustle about in the leaves and flitter through the nearby trees. They don’t have to wait long though, I am sure Mum must have fed them half her pastry!
With our tummies full, we take a short walk to the Wall of Remembrance. The names of the 185 people who lost their lives in the earthquake are etched into the stone. Friends and family have left photos, poems and flowers at the base of the wall. There is stillness here. A place to stop and reflect. To remember. May they rest in peace.
We wander back home through the city, taking time to look in shops and soak in the atmosphere. And yes, we head back to try the ‘Best Hot Chocolate’ from She Chocolaterie. We enter the shop and are greeted by the warm, rich smell of chocolate. Decadent, but not overly sweet. We get offered a sample and then we are hooked. It’s so good, we have to get one. We stay in the shop for some time, people watching, resting out feet and enjoying the rich warm chocolaty goodness of our drinks.
Initially I thought I would write a post called something like ‘The Ultimate 1 week West Coast Itinerary’. Certainly I have come across many similarly titled blogs. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that the components that make it the ‘ultimate Itinerary’ for me, won’t necessarily be the ultimate for you.
I was in Italy 2 years ago and while I liked Italy, I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. This has nothing to do with Italy, it’s an incredible place, but more to do with the activities I planned. We did all the art galleries and historical sites, you know, all the things that you do when you go to Italy, but the truth is, art galleries are not really my thing (although seeing the statue of David was quite an experience). I like a bit of history, but I’m not a history buff.
Then we got to Slovenia and we fell in love. The crystal clear waters, snow capped mountains, rolling hills. That’s my thing. If we had spent our time in Italy in the Lake District and Dolomites Mountains, I am almost certain that I would have also fallen in love with Italy.
So I wanted to share our West Coast itinerary with you, but also leave you this piece of advice, this is by no means the only things you should see and do, pick and choose from it, the parts that get you excited and give you wonderlust. Craft your own epic adventure.
Here is the route we took.
Day 1: Wellington to Picton by ferry, then onto Punakaiki via Nelson
Day 2: Short day trip up to Charlestown with a side trip to Westport
Day 3: Punakaiki to Frans Josef
Day 4: Day in Franz Josef
Day 5: Franz Josef to Hokitika via Okarito
Day 6: Day in Hokitika
Day 7: Hokitika to Mt Lyford via Lewis Pass
Day 8: Mt Lyford Lodge to Wellington via Kaikoura and Picton
Wellington to Punakaiki
Ferry Crossing: The first part of our journey involved crossing the Cook Straight. As we had a vehicle (our motorbike) we had 2 options, Bluebridge or The Interislander. If you are a foot passenger, Bluebridge may be a better option for you as it is located across the road from the train station so is really convenient. I have also found that Bluebridge tends to be a little cheaper. The reason we have used The Interlslander the last couple of times is because of the Plus Lounge, a fully catered, adults only lounge with guaranteed seating. It’s a really relaxing way to start or end your journey and your meal, drinks (and snacks) are taken care of.
The Route: We didn’t take the most direct route to Punakaiki. Being on the motorbike we always look for the scenic coastal routes and twisty roads, trying to stay of big main highways. I would highly recommend Queen Charlotte’s Drive that starts in Picton, taking you around some gorgeous coastline with stunning views, taking you all the way to Havlock.
Food: We carried on to Nelson and stopped for a bite to eat at Burger Culture. Simply scrumptious food. If you’re in the mood for a sugar overload, they have a delicious selection of donuts. And milkshakes, topped with donuts!
Accommodation: We stayed at Te Niaku Lodge which was gorgeous. Our lodge was nestled into the forest, our windows looked out across the canopy. You feel like your in a tree house here. There is also easy access down to the beach where you can watch the setting sun.
Tip: Check your map for directions. We didn’t, we just assumed we were on the right track and ended up taking a rather large detour that added on a fair amount of time.
Charlestown & Westport
The Route: After a long riding day the day before, I had scheduled in a late start. I spent the morning down on the beach, breathing in the fresh ocean air before we made our way to Charlestown for our activity. It’s only a 30 minute drive but the road is sensational. We pretty much had it to ourselves, twisting and turning along the coast enjoying the incredible views. After our activity, we headed another 20 minutes north to Westport to get some petrol before enjoying the great drive back.
Activities: We headed to Charleston for a caving, tubing and glow worm experience with Underworld Adventures. This was a 4 hour tour that was super fun. Caving is such a unique experience and this cave was particularly special, being very much in it’s natural state (no built walkways, hand rails, lighting etc) It also has the most incredible glow worm colony I have ever seen. Honestly, words can’t do it justice, it was out of this world mesmerising!
Food: We loved The Punakaiki Tavern, we had breakfast and lunch there. The hosts were really friendly. The food is what I would describe as simple, hearty, home cooked meals and the outside garden is the perfect place to enjoy the last bit of warmth from the sun before it says goodnight. In Westport we popped into Jimmy’s Restaurant and Bar expecting to grab a quick bite to eat but ended up staying for a couple of hours chatting to a local over some good food and drinks.
Tip: Be sure to keep an eye on your petrol. There’s a station in Westport and Greymouth but nothing in between. They are an hour and a half apart. If you aren’t careful, you might find yourself out of gas!
Punakaiki to Franz Josef
The Route: We headed from Punakaiki to Franz Josef, initially along the stunning coast and then through some beautiful rainforst. We made stops in Punakaiki and Hokitika for some activities.
Activities: We didn’t have any planned activities for the day as it was a riding day, but it was a leisurely ride so we were able to make some spontaneous stops along the way. The first being a walk at Pancake Rocks. The rock formations are quite unique as well as the blow holes. We also stopped at Hokitika Tree Top Walk and experienced the forest from birds eye view. In Franz Josef I also managed a short walk along Terrace Walk track which is through some lush, green glacier rainforest.
Food: We had a rather nice dinner at Monsoon Restaurant & Bar located on site at our accommodation. The buffalo cauliflower was delicious and even my carnivorous husband loved these.
Accommodation: Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef has been on my bucket list for a long time so I was really pleased to finally stay here. They have a range of accommodation options to suit every budget. They are in some beautiful grounds – lush rainforest, and centrally located. We also were given a room upgrade when we arrived which was a lovely surprise.
Tip: The blow holes at Pancake Rocks is tidal. If you can time your trip with high tide you will see it in it’s most impressive form. But, even if you can only visit at low tide it would still be worth checking out. At the time of writing, Hokitika Tree Top Walk is on Book Me, so if this is something you are able to book in advance then you should be able to get it at a discounted rate.
Activities: It was a last minute booking through Book Me but we were able to spend the afternoon quad biking through some rainforest, sand dunes and across rivers. It’s a great wet day activity. We did this through Across Country Tour.
Food: The power was out for a while so we weren’t sure if we would be able to get brunch anywhere, fortunately SnakeBite was well prepared. They have a really cool atmosphere, mouth watering counter food and an extensive menu. A great place to sit and watch the world go by when it is pouring with rain (or the power has gone out)
Tips: Even if you are traveling in Summer, go prepared for rain. The West Coast is a very wet place (but it makes the rainforest smell incredible) If your looking for a deal in Franz Josef, be sure to check out Book Me. Or you could even just go for a stroll along the main street, I saw a lot of different deals being offered.
The Route: We started heading back up the island, again through the spectacular forest and later along the coast, heading for Hokitika. It’s simply stunning
Activities: Okarito Kayak has been on my bucket list for a long time so I made sure to plan in this little detour. It did not disappoint. The lagoon was mirror like, reflecting the glacier forest and mountains. It is also the breeding site of the Kotuku (White Heron) It was a privilege to get so close to these majestic birds. In Hokitika, take some time to have a wander around the town, check out the beach and take a look at the Hokitika Driftwood sign down on the beach.
Food: We were rather famished after our 3 hour kayak trip so we made a stop in Harihari, a small, rural settlement. We had lunch at the Pukeko Store and Cafe. Filled with some deliciously tempting home baking, pies and friendly service, this was a delightful little stop.
Accommodation: In Hokitika we ended up staying at Mountain Jade Backpackers. I couldn’t find any accommodation that wowed me, at a price I was happy to pay, so we went budget and central. It was a great location, clean tidy facilities and perfect for our requirements.
Tips: Take insect repellent if you go to Okarito Lagoon. They will attack you in thousands!
Activities: Of course you could buy your own greenstone souvenir, but why buy a pre made one when you can carve it yourself. At Bonz ‘n’ Stonz you create your own piece to take home. Everything you need it provided and there are excellent tutors on hand to help you every step of the way. This was a most excellent day.
Tips: Make sure you allow time to sit and watch the sunset. Hokitika is famous for its gorgeous sunsets. Even on an overcast day like we had, it was still a beautiful sight.
Link: Read more about my greenstone carving experience here.
Lewis Pass & Mt Lyford
The Route: This is where we left the West Coast. We could have gone back up country through the West Coast but it would have been a lot of back tracking. Instead we headed over to Canterbury to My Lyford, via Lewis Pass. Its a pretty well known route and a nice bit of road.
Activities: Check out Hokitika Gorge before you leave. You will be wowed by the incredible colours of the water. Its an easy walk too, suitable for all fitness levels.
Accommodation: We splashed out a bit here and stayed at Mt Lyford Lodge. Nestled into the mountains with a couple of spa pools, it was the perfect place to soak away the aches of being on a motorbike for a week, while breathing in the fresh air, watching the sun slip behind the hills and enjoying a drink or 2 at the bar.
Tip: Just be alert on Lewis Pass. It’s a popular road with tourists (along with many other South Island roads.) We drive on the left hand side. There are instances where tourists will get confused and drive on the wrong side. Or sometimes just stop on a blind corner to take photos of the beautiful scenery. A lot of our highways are not like highways you may be familiar with. Narrow, single lane and twisty. Make sure you allow a lots of time.
The Route: First you will do the inland route to Kaikoura. If your on a bike, just watch out for gravel, there was quite a bit on the road when we did this ride as well as a year ago when we were down that way. From Kaikoura to Picton you get to enjoy more coastal road, this time along the East Coast. Keep an eye out for seals which you can easily spot from the road while driving (Only do this if your a passenger! Eyes on the road driver.) You will see them on the rocks or frolicking about in the ocean.
Activities: If you are in Kaikoura and an animal lover, Kaikoura Seal Swim is outstanding. Don’t go near seals on land, they can be very aggressive. But in the water, just wow. I have heard them be described as dogs of the ocean and they really are. They are playful, curious and so much fun to watch. This experience was a real highlight.
Link: Want to know more about swimming with seals? Read my previous post here.
A few other things
There were a few activities we didn’t get to do on this trip for various reasons, but I want to still mention them here as I think they would be activities that are well worth while.
The Wild Kiwi Center in Franz Josef. We ran out of time for this one. Here you will be able to see Rowi, the worlds rarest kiwi, and tuatara, often described as the oldest living dinosaur.
Lake Matheson – a glacial mirror lake that is picture perfect. But you want to see it on a nice day to get the full impact of the lake. I have tried to get here twice now. Hopefully it will be third time lucky.
In Franz Josef we were booked in for a glacier nature tour with Glacier Valley Eco Tours. This was unfortunately cancelled due to the weather. We were prepared to get wet, but DOC had closed the walking track. We were in the West Coast back in 2012 and were able to do a tour of Fox glacier. It was such a unique experience and I am definitely keen to do something like this again. The difference being that now, if you want to walk on the glacier, you need to do it by helicopter, you can no longer walk in. The tours with Glacier Valley Eco Tours don’t go on the ice but do offer views of the glacier, along with expert knowledge of the area.
I was hoping to book in a nighttime kiwi spotting tour with Okarito Kiwi Tours. We unfortunately missed out as they closed up from 2nd Feb, but they reopen again in October so make sure you check them out.
At the top of the West Coast is a place called Karamea, home to the Oparara Basin Arches. These natural limestone arches were formed by the Oparara river and sound really impressive. The main reason this one didn’t make it onto our itinerary is because access is down 13km of gravel road. Gravel road is not fun when your on a sports bike.
So there you have it. Some suggestions on how to spend your week on the West Coast. I am sure that you will, like me, fall in love with this part of the country. The people, the forests, glaciers, wildlife, it feels pure and untouched. The glacial rainforest had me captivated. They made me swoon. The vibrant colours, the ancient feel from moss covered trees, it’s unlike any other forest I have experienced before. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Planning a West Coast itinerary? What parts will you be including in your epic adventure?
It’s the final day of our trip. Tonight we will be sleeping in our own bed again with our 2 dogs snuggled up next to us in the blankets. But it’s not over yet! We have one more activity planned that I am feeling incredibly excited about (and slightly nervous)
We pack up the bike one last time and take the inland route, heading to Kaikoura. We arrive a couple of hours early so we pass the time with coffee, lunch and a walk on the beach.
And then, it’s time for our seal swim! Last year we did a dolphin swim but unfortunately we only saw Hectors Dolphins (which was amazing) but they are protected and you’re not allowed to swim with them. That’s just how it is with wild animal encounters though. It’s never guaranteed, but when it does happen, it’s pretty special.
When I told Daniel I had booked us in to go swimming with seals, he wasn’t impressed. He said, ‘aren’t they super aggressive and don’t they bite? And I don’t want to get wet and cold. I’m not looking forward to this.’
I have grown up knowing that seals can be pretty aggressive and that you should never approach them. But that is on land. On land they pretty immobile, I have always thought they look pretty awkward. Their immobility on land makes them very vulnerable, which is why they can be so aggressive, especially if you get between them and the water.
But in the sea, you are in their world. They are fast and agile and not at all aggressive toward people (so we are told.) They could out swim us in a second if they wanted to so we are no threat.
Today we are joining Seal Swim Kaikoura for this experience. Like most of our tours on this trip, we are the only people. We have definitely witnessed the impact Covid has had on our tourism industry. I hope the industry can re-emerge stronger and even better when our boarders eventually open. New Zealand has so much to offer the world!
We have our safety briefing and get kitted up in all the gear, including a wet suit hood in thick neopreme. It’s all so snug and hard to get on but no doubt will keep us really warm. (Daniel will be pleased) We are also given a mask, snorkel and flippers. They even had prescription masks for Daniel to use which was amazing. I had never really considered his limited visibility without his glasses.
We waddle in all our gear out to the van and take a short drive down to the jetty while Vanessa shares some history of the New Zealand fur seals with us. These seals have very thick, warm fur, which means when settlers arrived, they were heavily hunted. Before being hunted, there were said to be around 1-2 million, but nearly became extinct. Fortunately they became protected in the mid 1900’s and today, the NZ population is around 100-300k. I had no idea they had been hunted so fiercely. I have seen seals in many place in Aotearoa and had never considered them an animal that had been endangered.
We get onto the boat and head out into the ocean. There is a bit of a swell and the boat bumps up and down a bit on the waves. I am the first to spot seals. Two of them. We watch them for a while to see if they are feeding or chilling. They look pretty relaxed, fins flapping about, rolling around in the water. But they are in open water so we move on. Our guide wants to try some other spots to see if we can find some that are closer to the rocks.
Seals spend a lot of their time out in deep water, fishing and feeding. They will stay out there for ages until they are completely exhausted, then they come back to the rocks to rest. Because of their thick fur, they overheat easily so will pop back in and out of the water to cool off on sunny days. Today is cool and overcast so the seals are hanging out on the rocks more than they normally would. We are told we need patience and persistence on this tour.
After visiting a few spots, we find an area that is reasonably sheltered with good visibility in the water, seals on the rocks and one in the water. Perfect. We slip into the water quickly and as quietly as we can, although in all that neoprene I still make a bit of a splash.
We swim out slowly towards the seal, I put my head under, and, AMAZING!
I am looking right at this seal in front of me. What an incredible experience. Another seal gets into the water, then another and at one point there are 4 in the water with us. We spend a lot of time watching each other, checking each other out, the seals getting comfortable with our presence. Then they begin getting curious and swim closer and closer (We are told not to swim closer than 1 meter to them, but if they swim up to you that’s fine) I have the most amazing experience, looking at a seal that is so close and we just hang out in the water, staring at each other for ages. It has such big beautiful eyes and its fur is so sleek. They are such graceful, playful, agile creatures underwater. Nothing like the awkward blobs that sit on land. The ocean is their territory and the own it!
Our guide is floating close by, watching and telling us where to look. A couple of times he calls out, ‘to your left’. I turn my head and there is a seal right there, so incredibly close. A couple of times they swim right under me. I do get slightly nervous at one stage, hoping the don’t decide to have a little nibble on me (after all, they are wild animals), but they are just curious. We spend ages in the water with them, it’s such an unreal experience.
After about an hour in the water, it’s time to head back. I have loved every minute of this, witnessing these beautiful creatures in their natural environment. I awkwardly climb back onto the boat, thinking about what a special experience this has been and then look up to see a pod of dolphins in the distance. What a fantastic trip!
And Daniel, he absolutely loved it.
We make it to Picton and board our ferry. We are in the Plus Lounge again. Now we have discovered it, it’s the only way to travel! We are on an evening ferry so I decide to pop out for a bit and watch the sunset. Even in the open water of the Cook Straight, the water is so flat. I have never seen it like this before, it’s a perfect crossing.
The South Island is a layer of silhouettes. The setting sun has blushed the sky pink with golden highlights that spill out into yellow and indigo water colours behind a dark marbled sky.
What an extraordinary sunset to end an extraordinary trip. Surely I live in the most beautiful place on earth.