sights uncovered
Travel with Tessa

New Zealand – South Island

After a three-and-a-half-hour smooth crossing from Wellington to Picton – South Island, we headed for Kaikoura, a small coastal town. Like most small towns in New Zealand, the wide main street is home to a variety of inns.
We checked into the cozy, tastefully furnished, comfortable Kaikoura Peaks Boutique eMotel. It has four Deluxe Studios and one Family Suite. All the Studios have kitchenettes and balconies with mountain views facing the parking area.
We spent two nights and one full day in Kaikoura, which is known for its giant sperm whales, orcas (killer whales), huge pods of dolphins, blue-eyed penguins, and delectable fresh crayfish, available at restaurants and at crayfish vans along the coastline where one can enjoy the rustic sea-view setting while enjoying freshly prepared crayfish dishes.

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We booked a whale watching tour ahead of time (they are very popular) at Whale Watch. The week we visited Kaikoura, no sperm whales were sighted, but they had spotted a family of orcas. With the help of technology, a tracking boat, and a ‘spotter’ airplane, our crew was able to find them again. My photos were unimpressive. As a guide once said to us: “You take the best photos with your eyes and memory.” On our return to Kaikoura, we were welcomed by a pod of dolphins, leaping into the air, diving, and escorting our boat.

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Reefton: When traveling in the countryside of New Zealand, one may not come across any coffee shops or restaurants for hours on end. We would prepare a flask of coffee and breakfast sandwiches and find scenic spots along our route where we could stop and have breakfast in the car if necessary. We also learned that at lunchtime, if one is not at an eatery by 1:00 pm at the latest, the chances of getting anything to eat (except at a supermarket) are very slim. The restaurants run out of food by 2:00 pm. The upside is that you can be sure the food is always fresh and not a leftover from the prior day. This also applies to bakeries.
From Kaikoura, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive to the little town of Reefton, choc full of charm and welcoming, friendly folks.
In the late 19th century, it was the first town in New Zealand to have electricity and was also a thriving gold mining town.
On the main street, we came across a tiny restaurant where we shared two delicious burgers – one beef and one fish. A stop in the small towns of New Zealand gives one the unique opportunity to mingle and chat with the locals.

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The Oak Lodge is an eighty-mile drive from Reefton and two miles from the town center of Greymouth. The lodge, which consists of several cottages encased in floor-to-ceiling glass windows, blends into a bucolic setting where wooly sheep graze peacefully on soft carpets of bright green grass. The town of Greymouth has little of interest to offer other than a pleasant stroll along the oceanfront boardwalk and a visit to Shanty Town – a recreation of a 19th-century mining town. However, it’s only a fifty-five-minute drive to the Hokitika Gorge. The gorge is a brilliant shade of turquoise blue, created by the glacial grinding of rocks, which creates a silk-like sediment. A two-kilometer loop trail is an easy forty-five-minute hike.
Coal Creek Waterfalls are also within an hour’s drive of Greymouth. In warm weather, the pool below the falls is an ideal way to cool off immersed in idyllic surroundings. (Be aware of underwater rocks.)

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Aoraki – Mount Cook
It’s a six-hour drive from Greymouth to Mount Cook, up and down mountain passes, through stunning undulating landscapes. We were grateful for a four-wheel drive as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains where snow was falling and dusting the tree tops in a coating of ‘powdered sugar.’

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The only accommodation at Mt. Cook is the Hermitage Hotel, which boasts unobstructed mountain views. [There are several restaurants and hotels an hour’s drive from Mt. Cook.] While the Hermitage Hotel has lovely common areas, the rooms are tiny compared to all the wonderful inns in the small towns of New Zealand and don’t offer half as much comfort. However, their buffet dinner in the Alpine Restaurant is impressive. [It must be reserved ahead of time. It’s the only dinner choice].
The Sir Edmund Hillary Cafe and Bar has an outdoor patio where one can linger over breakfast or lunch while soaking up the spectacular views.

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The hiking trails in front of the lodge lead to the Hooker Valley, the lakes, and Mueller Glacier.
As we only had time for one hike, we chose the Kea Point hike, where the trail meanders through an avenue of trees forming overhead umbrellas, then crosses the wide-open valley surrounded by mountains and the Mueller Glacier before winding uphill along a rocky path up to Mueller Lake. As we began our upward climb, we heard the thundering of ice falling from the glacier, and a cloud of ice shot into the air.

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The sight of the turquoise lake under clear blue skies, the snow-capped mountains, and the silence broken only by falling ice is mesmerizing.

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At lunchtime, we headed for Lake Tekapo, an hour and thirteen-minute drive from Mount Cook. The Village Center on the banks of the lake has a variety of restaurants, stores, and a supermarket. Once again, we had a slim choice as most restaurants were closed. We stumbled across a winner: The Greedy Cow Cafe, which has a charming atmosphere and serves creative sandwich combos, crunchy croissants, and excellent flat white coffees.

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Lake Tekapo is pristine. It shimmers under the clear blue sky and autumn sunshine. A walk around it leads to a footbridge and a minuscule stone church, The Church of the Good Shepherd, which sits on a hillock on land jutting into the water. Lake Tekapo is also known for being the finest location on the South Island for star gazing. In winter, the night sky glitters with the Southern Lights. It is one of three lakes that run parallel to each other along the northern edge of what is known as Mackenzie Basin. The others are Lake Pukaki and Lake Ōhau.

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Wanaka – We arrived in Wanaka expecting another small town where everything shuts down early, and we’d have to settle for a supermarket lunch sandwich.
Surprise! Surprise! The downtown area was alive, with people sitting at outdoor restaurants and enjoying the crisp fresh air while others strolled along the lakefront, meeting and greeting friends.

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Lake Wanaka is punctuated by bays and coves and surrounded by mountains, the highest being 6,600 feet/2000 meters. While the lake is ideal for kayaking, jet skiing, and jet boating, the surrounding mountains cater to all levels of skiers, from beginners to pros. Wanaka also offers a wide variety of hiking trails, from gentle to challenging.
We had booked the much spoken of intriguing tour: “A Lake on an Island Within a Lake” on Wanaka’s Mou Waho Island. Unfortunately, rain was falling in buckets, and we had to forego this wonderful experience.
Next time!

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We stayed at Golf Course Chalets in a light-filled chalet leading onto a garden patio with a full-on view of the ski slopes and a five-minute drive to Wanaka Center and the lake.

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Queenstown: The steep, narrow road down to Queenstown winds around hairpin bends with breathtaking views of the town resting on Lake Wakatipu, a finger lake, also known as a trough lake, that fills a deep valley created by ancient glaciers. Queenstown hugs the shoreline below two towering mountain ranges – The Remarkables and the Tapuae-Uenuku/Hector Mountains.

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New Zealanders are outdoor adventurers who make the most of all that nature has gifted them.
From hiking to every imaginable watersport, to paragliding, bungee jumping, trout fishing, snow skiing, and more.
Queenstown is an international favorite for snow skiing – the season lasts from June to October – while July and August are the most desirable months. (Book at least a year in advance if you would like accommodations during these two months.)
It’s a five-minute walk from the town center to 53 Beacon Street, where a ski gondola will take you for a ride that glides above the town to Bob’s Peak, where dazzling views of Queenstown, the lakes, and surrounding mountain peaks await you.
We reached Queenstown on a Saturday afternoon when the downtown area was reveling in the glorious autumn sunshine. People strolled along the pedestrian walkways, enjoying the abundance of restaurants, cafés, bars, ice cream shops, clothing stores, and art and craft galleries.

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The hot spot on a Saturday afternoon is the lakefront, crammed with locals and visitors. A craft market with interesting stalls adds to the hustle and bustle, and finding an outdoor table at one of the many restaurants is akin to winning the lottery.

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One can’t miss experiencing lunch at the famous Fergburger at 42 Shotover Street, where a wide variety of burgers: Beef, lamb, wild deer, chicken, blue codfish, and tofu as well as buns and sauces are freshly prepared daily. Customers wait patiently for thirty-plus minutes to place their orders. Ferburgers has three adjoining stores: a mouthwatering ice cream parlor, a bakery, and a restaurant/bar.

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A ninety-minute ride around the lake on the restored TSS Earnslaw Steamship is an idyllic way to immerse oneself in the surrounding scenery. Tickets can be purchased at the Visitor Center on Steamer Wharf.

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On the opposite side of the lake from the harbor, a long trail leads one past gardens, parks, and the Novotel Hotel and continues hugging the lake past a never-ending forest of soaring pine trees. It’s a memorable must-do walk.

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Te Anau and The Doubtful Sound
Te Anau is two hours from Milford Sound and a two-hour boat and bus ride to Doubtful Sound.

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The town of Te Anau hosts most tourists on their way to the Sounds. It has numerous inns and restaurants and a large, well-stocked supermarket. We stayed at Asure Explorer Motel and Apartments, owned and run by a delightful couple who pay attention to every detail of their sun-filled, garden–facing motel.

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It’s a seventeen-minute drive from Te Anau to Manapouri. From Manapouri, you travel by boat across the Lake to West Arm, where you board a tour bus and travel through a dense tropical forest over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove on Doubtful Sound, where the overnight boat is anchored.

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Doubtful Sound – (Real NZ tour company)
Cabins on the Fiordland Navigator are small but spotless and comfortable. We had a queen-sized bed and a tiny, adequate private bathroom.
Once we were well on our way down The Sound, a traditional New Zealand/British afternoon tea was served in the lounge on the middle deck. The Chef put out freshly baked hot scones with a selection of jams, a big brick of creamy New Zealand butter, and a massive bowl of whipped cream. He won my heart!
Tea over, it was time for kayaking. Safety vests were handed out, kayaks were lowered into the water, and guests lined up for a few hours of kayaking on the calm water beneath the lofty peaks. After kayaking, several brave souls who wanted to find out exactly how cold the water was, dived off a lowered platform for a minute of swimming in the ice-cold water.

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The staff were friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. The oceanographer/marine biologist was superb! He was constantly spotting and pointing out birds and marine life. Predominantly schools of bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and penguins.

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The scenery is majestic. The boat glides along the Sound, hugged by towering mountains that catch the snow and the last rays of daylight. Scarves of wooly grey clouds hover below the peaks. The peace and tranquility is palpable. The grandeur of the Sound inspired us to whisper while standing transfixed on deck, entranced by our surroundings. It’s no wonder that the Doubtful Sound is often referred to as The Sound of Silence.

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At 6:30 pm, little platters of mixed hors d’oeuvres were served, followed by a delectable buffet dinner.
Our Captain anchored the boat in a sheltered cove, and we slept like babies, unaware that it poured with rain throughout the night.
The following day, we were surrounded by waterfalls cascading from mountaintops like threads of white silk. The boat stopped beside two massive waterfalls. The Captain shut down the engines, and the only sounds came from cascading waterfalls and the morning songs of birds. Talk about a spiritual experience!

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The Glow Worm Caves – (Real NZ tour company.)
Back to Te Anau for lunch – and a tour of the Glow Worm Caves on the Western shore of Lake Te Anau. The caves are beyond description. Unfortunately, to preserve the glow worms and their natural habitat, no photography is allowed.
The guided tour begins where a rushing river has carved the rocks into nature’s pieces of sculpture. The path creeps below ceilings of stone so low that we had to almost walk on all fours; then leads to a soaring cathedral-like ceiling where a waterfall shoots out through a bowl-shaped hole in the stone with unbelievable force, thundering and spraying as it hits the swirling pool below.
In the pitch dark, we groped forward as the guides led us onto pontoons. Each one accommodates eight people. Talking is forbidden. Hands have to be kept still in one’s lap. The pontoon drifts in total silence, in pitch-black darkness, through this mesmerizing underworld below a ceiling of sparkling, twinkling glow worms. Their delicate “fishing rods” that capture flies and fly ants resemble the most delicate drop earrings covered in tiny diamonds.

*I highly recommend a visit to the Glow Worm Caves.

The Milford Sound
We drove through scenic, tropical terrain to Milford Sound.
Unfortunately, after visiting Doubtful Sound, we felt that the Milford Sound paled in comparison, perhaps because the Doubtful fiord has no road access, which enhances its magical beauty.
People rave about the magnificence of the Milford Sound waterfalls as one exits the mountain tunnel. After the Doubtful Sound, with its soaring mountains streaked with white ribbons of water rushing into the river, the Milford’s trickles of water were disappointing.
However, the Milford Sound does offer endless, gorgeous hiking trails that pass through ever-changing breathtaking terrain, which are certainly worthwhile.

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Stewart Island
We drove out of Te Anau before dawn to reach Invercargill Airport in time for our flight to Stewart Island. To our surprise, the airport was substantial, modern, and efficient. We checked our heavy luggage into their storage facility and boarded an eight-seater propeller plane for Stewart Island.

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As promised, Bill, the owner of Anchorstone Cottages, was waiting to greet us upon arrival. He drove us through the village, past tranquil coves with turquoise waters and pristine beaches, to the trailheads of several hikes to familiarize us with this idyllic island.

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Anchorstone has three cottages, surrounded by sub-tropical foliage and a forest of trees where giant Miro and Rimu trees thrive. All the cottages have patios with views of sparkling Horseshoe Bay in the distance.
The interior walls and ceilings are cloaked in rich, light-colored wood while floor-to-ceiling windows flood the cottages with light and forest views.

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For the equivalent of fifteen U.S. dollars, we were given the use of a car for the duration of our stay.

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We spent our mornings hiking, had lunch in the village, explored the coves, and relaxed in the late afternoon on our patio, reading and enjoying hot cups of tea and biscuits – called “cookies” in the U.S.A.
Stewart Island is a gem!

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We spent a night in Dunedin, the second largest city on the South Island after Christchurch.
It lies on the coast of the Otago Peninsula, is dotted with Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and is ten kilometers from Larnach Castle and Gardens, the only castle in New Zealand. It was built in 1874 by a wealthy merchant banker and politician. It took fifteen years to construct the castle and complete the embellished interior.
We had booked a two-hour horse ride at Hare Hill Horse Treks, located on a sixty-acre farm in Deborah Bay in Point Chalmers.
Once again, a downpour canceled that wonderful experience. No wonder New Zealand has miles and miles of bright-green grass carpets dotted with white wooly sheep. It’s a sheep’s paradise!

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We did, however, enjoy an excellent lunch at the iconic Carey’s Bay Historical Hotel, located on the banks of the Otago Harbor facing a fishing port where fishing boats unload their catches. The “hotel” no longer operates as a hotel but has a charming Victorian Pub – and serves delicious fresh seafood.
*Reservations are recommended.

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Oamaru – has an interesting history. From 1858 to 1880, it grew to become one of the most wealthy and dynamic towns in New Zealand. The development of the harbor, which welcomed ships to anchor in sheltered waters, enabled growth in the exportation of wool, grains, and frozen meat. Locally quarried white limestone was used to build majestic buildings, each one trying to surpass another in size, décor, and grandeur. In 1890, the town’s glory days began to wane as new harbors were built elsewhere, and the town became financially bankrupt. The local youth abandoned Oamaru and moved on to greener pastures.

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In 1970, Oamaru’s handsome authentic buildings were rediscovered, and restoration began.
Today, these amazingly preserved and renovated buildings in the town’s Victorian Precinct from Wharf Street to Harbour Street are fully occupied by art galleries, clothing stores, homewares stores, gift shops, coffee shops, and a charming, must-see museum that recreates the atmosphere of the Victorian days in Oamaru.
The wonderful old beams, wood, stone, and textures of the buildings’ interiors add a unique charm to the 21st-century stores housed in this treasure trove of Victorian buildings.

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The Penguin Colony of Oamaru.
Little blue penguins – Kororā (in Māori) are the world’s smallest penguins. They breed along the coastline of Oamaru. Get up early in the morning to see the astonishing sight of them waddling before sunrise to go sea fishing and waddling back home after a day at work after sunset.
*To ensure you don’t miss seeing them, contact the Blue Penguin Colony on Waterfront Road – Tel#: +(64) (3) 4331195.

Christchurch – The last stop on our month-long New Zealand road trip.
The OGB Suites and Apartments occupy a historic government building that dates back to 1909. It’s fronted by a popular restaurant and bar and faces Cathedral Square, where the Christchurch Cathedral is still under construction following the massive earthquake of 2011. OGB seems to be a mixture of Airbnb units and hotel-managed suites. The location is superb. It’s within walking distance of everything. Our unit had huge, vertical windows, a spacious open-plan living room, a kitchen and dining area, and a loft bedroom ensuite.

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We frequented the River Marketplace daily. It’s always humming with activity, which is not surprising given its location just steps from the river and the smorgasbord of food stalls that it houses.
Outside the doors of the Marketplace, we caught the Hop-On-Hop-Off vintage tram, which does a fifty-minute circular route of the city. The narrated mini-tour allows one to see all the neighborhoods and places of interest, which is helpful when planning a sightseeing itinerary.

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We were charmed by Regent Street, a picturesque pedestrian street known for its boutiques, bars, restaurants, and storefronts – all built in the Spanish Mission architectural style. They are painted in a blue, green, and champagne palette and retain their original unique facades.

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Fall had arrived in New Zealand. Christchurch was a glorious tapestry of burgundy, gold, and copper-colored foliage. The park along the Otākaro/Avon River was carpeted in fallen leaves.
The Avon flows through the city’s center and out to an estuary. It provides an irresistible setting for strolling, biking, jogging, punting, kayaking, and pedal boating along the river as it meanders through the city. (Kayaks and Pedal Boats can be rented at Antigua Boatsheds.)

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Christchurch College, founded in 1850, is a stately historic building across the street from the Botanical Gardens.

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A stroll through the Botanical Gardens in the heart of Christchurch is a peaceful and beautiful diversion into nature. There is a collection of towering trees that are hundreds of years old, manicured gardens, rock gardens, rose gardens, and miniature succulent gardens that all thrive in the ideal climate. Coffee and cake or High Tea at Ilex Café or a meal at Curators House Restaurant is the best way to finish off a visit to the gardens.

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Christchurch Museum of Art – Te Puna 0 Waiwhetū is an architectural masterpiece. It has a substantial permanent art collection and also hosts temporary international exhibitions.

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The Te Pae Christchurch Convention Centre is another Christchurch architectural landmark. It was designed to meet a range of event requirements and give visitors easy access to all the city has to offer.

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The Earthquake Museum, Quake City – Kiaora, is a must-see. In September 2010, the city rattled and shook when a 7.0 earthquake hit the region. Endless aftershocks followed the quake. In February 2011, a violent earthquake caused deaths, injuries, and widespread destruction. Liquefaction produced four hundred thousand tons of silt. Survivors say that this earthquake moved vertically and horizontally simultaneously. The museum follows the stories of residents who survived the quake despite near-death experiences and gives considerable information about the known science of earthquakes.

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The Bridge of Remembrance, a First World War memorial archway, connects the banks of the Avon River with the pedestrian mall of Christchurch. Miraculously, it survived the 2011 earthquake.

FAREWELL NEW ZEALAND! You are a gracious host.