For a few years I’d been badgering Alan with pleas of “We need to go to New Zealand! If I don’t go back to New Zealand I will die!” Then when we decided that it might be time to start having kids soon, we got serious about taking a real trip, one last big hurrah before our lives changed forever. We toyed around with a few places, like there was a really good Groupon deal to Iceland! Also, what about warm and exotic Italy? I wanted to go there for our Honeymoon but we did Hawaii instead. But New Zealand made the most sense, if we were really to go big or go home – it takes roughly 16 hours in the air to get there from Minneapolis. It’s also kinda pricey. While we’re young, childless, time and money rich, this was the right time and place to go. And of course I’d been itching to go back ever since I left there 11 years ago. We decided if we were going to go big on a trip, we should go with a travel agent. I found Alicia Saba through the New Zealand tourism site, and what I liked about her was that she was young. Seems like a lot of travel agents are older. She was so helpful and quick with emails and helped us to devise a dream vacation. If you’re planning a trip to Australia or New Zealand, look her up!
There is a slight worry I have when I go somewhere I’ve already been. Like, I’m wasting good vacation time not seeing something new. But just about everything we saw was new to me. There’s also an aspect of revisiting a place – at least for me – that had consequences I’d never considered. I’ll talk about that further down.
We began in Auckland, early morning on Saturday, May 21. Fresh off a trans-Pacific flight which was fine, if extremely cramped. We upgraded to the Skycouch with Air New Zealand, which I was mega-stoked about, but found the experience disillusioning. Alan and I are too tall to really get the benefits of such a feature, and I ended up sleeping sitting up with my legs spread across the seat, and my head bowed at an uncomfortable angle. Luckily though, Air NZ has all the movies, which saved me from having to choose what precious little space I had on my iPad to load some videos. Anyhoo, we got into Auckland and left the airport just as the sun was rising. We were driven to our accommodations, a cute little modern boutique hotel called Hotel DeBrett. Then Alan and I had our first argument of the trip. It was whether being in airplane mode really actually does stop your phone from using data. Marrieds, am I right? Instead of napping, which in retrospect it was something I could’ve really used, BEING PREGNANT AND ALL, and having just barely slept for over 24 hours, we went out to see Auckland because this was going to be our only day. We decided to go with some touristy stuff and check out the Sky Tower. That was fine, except that Auckland isn’t much to look at from up high. The most exciting part was this beautiful little cafe inside where we got our first flat whites of the trip – oh scratch that, we’d gotten flat whites earlier at the hotel.
We got a ton of flat whites throughout the trip. Tell you the truth, I was sick of flat whites – and all cafes – by the end. Obviously the best title I could’ve given this post was There and Back Again, as I have been to New Zealand (there), and now I’ve been back again. The Hobbiton is also the only repeat attraction I took part in. But it’s 1000x different. It may as well be on a different planet than the Hobbiton I visited in 2005. The owners of the farm decided to capitalize on the success of the franchise the second time around and had the set rebuilt with permanent materials. They also built a gift store and cafe in its own autonomous region, instead of operating out of Matamata, the nearest town. And they take several groups of 20+ people every half hour, which is quite different from my solitary tour group of 4. In those times, we could walk anywhere we wanted. Now they have rules! But cynical as I felt revisiting this place, I couldn’t deny that it was really magical. We then drove to Rotorua – the city of farts – where we’d stay for 2 nights. We had such terrible jet lag that I couldn’t stay awake past 7 o clock. It at least gave us opportunity to look at some sunrises. As Rotorua is a geothermal area, which is why it smells so farty, there were lots of thermal-themed activities. Our second day we went to the Polynesian Spa and got a couples massage as well as some time in some hot pools. Very romance! We also went and looked at the geothermal valleys.We were promised the geyser went off every day at 10:15, completely naturally. This turned out to be a lie. It’s actually activated by a someone with a bag of soap. The rest of the area was cool!
The next day we drove out of Rotorua – I drove out, my first time on the left side of the road, which could’ve gone worse. It was a 6+ hour drive to Wellington, where we’d stay for a hot minute before boarding the ferry early the next morning to head to the south island. The drive was at times stark and brutal, and other times peaceful and awe-inspiring. Very few photos from this time, as I was driving. All in all, it clocked in to be about 8 hours of driving. Luckily we made it to the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel, which was probably the swankiest hotel we stayed in. It’s just a shame we weren’t able to spend more time in the city. It seemed to have a lot on offer. The ferry across the channel was about 3 hours, and we had a little private area with free breakfast and wifi (the wifi was eh). We arrived in Picton, got a new car and drove to Kaikoura, and along the way stopped at a beautiful little cafe called The Store, right on the ocean shore. We then drove to Kaikoura (where I wrote this blog!) which is such a lovely little beach town. We stayed in an apartment right by the shore with amazing views of the mountains, the ocean, and trees. A beautiful place to reset yourself after driving 8 hours in gloom and rain the day before.
Still being on a wonky sleep schedule, I woke up the next day just as first light was peaking up over the ocean. We went down to the rocky shore to see the show. It’s extra cool when you think about that you’re one of the first people in the whole world to see the sunrise that day. I wish I could go back there.We spent all our early mornings drinking coffee and catching up with social media feeds. While we slept, all our friends and family had already been up and doing stuff for half a day. Kaikoura was an especially beautiful place to practice this ritual, as we had our own little balcony, and our own little kitchen to make coffee in our own little French Press (they call it Plunger Coffee down there, and like, why?). Then as I’d said before, we went on a little boat and saw some little whales, seals and dolphins. It was great to have so much sunshine when up until that point the weather on our trip had been iffy at best. Somehow I’m not as interested in my own photos of whales and dolphins as I am in photos of landscapes and sunrises. That is a problem with my priorities, maybe even my skills. Wildlife photography should theoretically be more challenging and rewarding than landscape photography. Although what it could be, is that I know I got the best shot of that whale right up there. With the sunrise photos, so many of them are similar – similarly stunning – that it’s a case of too much sameness, too many choices between so much same. Food for thought. Speaking of FOOD, New Zealand has the best Fish & Chips, except you have to get them from places that serve them in bundles of paper. If you get it served on a plate in a restaurant, I find it’s not nearly as satisfying. A little seaside town like Kaikoura had to have good fish right? That is correct. We feasted on our bundles of fried food on a sunny afternoon by the ocean. What could be better than that?One thing I love about New Zealand is how much Lord of the Rings shit there is. It’s heavenly for someone who is not and will never be over her obsession with the Lord of the Rings movies.
Our next stop was Christchurch, which was the center of some devastating earthquakes 5 years back, and is a city still in recovery. It also feels like a very English town, with old buildings. We didn’t have much time there, so we took a gander around the botanical gardens, down the street from our hotel. The gardens had a beautifully sunlit shop and cafe. We bought a book for the baby (OUR baby!), which is not only in my own personal tastes (being all black and white and patterned), but that kind of stuff is good for infants’ eye development. It was a win-win.
The next day was to be promising; we were going deep into the mountains to stay at The Hermitage, which I’ve been obsessed with ever since years ago I saw a random photo on Pinterest of their panoramic dining room, looking out at Aoraki-Mt.Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. I was so excited to finally be at this place! Then we hit some bad, bad weather on the drive in. Total white out. The first big snow in the country, actually! We were promised that during this drive we would want to get out a lot and take photos, but no such opportunity presented itself as it was all we could do to just see the road in front of us. Major, major bummer. Our Mt. Cook-view room on the top floor didn’t offer much better, and it looked like our stargazing tour that evening would have to be postponed, and we crossed our fingers that the glacier tour didn’t get called off the next day. When we dined in the panorama room, obviously there were no views to be had, also because it’s winter there, and the sun goes down at 5 o’clock, well before dinner time. I felt a wave of disappointment and disillusionment. It sounds silly and trivial; I’m in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I can’t stop feeling sad. My expectations got the better of me; this wasn’t how it was supposed to be, I thought. This was our big trip, our last hurrah. We only get so much time to spend here and it’s been ruined by stupid weather, the biggest thing in this universe we can’t control, and the thing that undoes me so often and so easily. I chalked my depression up to the fact that I was travel-weary and pregnant. I felt bad for poor Alan though; he’s always so able to brush stuff off and go with the flow, and I felt like my poor attitude was ruining his trip too. I just wanted to feel something besides sadness and I just couldn’t.
The next day, our glacier tour did get postponed, but things were clearing up a little, so we went to Tekapo, about an hour’s drive back the way we came, to get some food, check out some shops, and see if the views were any better. The sun peaked through the clouds a little, and being in control of our trip felt better than the powerless feeling cancellation-by-weather brought. Little by little, the clouds edged away and it looked like we would have a clear night for stargazing! We had dinner (and I was feeling much more positive), got into our warm clothes, and then endured a half hour planetarium presentation before being shuttled out to the star gazing spot. Unfortunately, a bunch of cloud cover had come in just while we were in the van for 6 minutes on the way there. I had my tripod and remote shutter ready to go for some astrophotography, and again it looked like I would be let down. In fact, they gave us so little time to actually take photos, that they’re all a bit rushed. Well, I thought, I’ve taken pictures of stars before, and there will be other opportunities in the future. At least I tried.
The next day, we were shown a bit of mercy and awoke to crystal clear skies and our first view of Mt. Cook. It looked so much smaller than I thought it would – dwarfed by the much smaller mountains that were closer to us. Things looked like they were going to align for our glacier tour – except when we got down there, they told us the lake was frozen, and it was cancelled. We had nothing more to do at The Hermitage, so we left, driving southwards towards Wanaka.
Where the Mt. Cook region was stark, barren and sort of brutal, there was a pastoral beauty we encountered in Wanaka, even if it was still kind of cloudy and gray. We stayed at Riverrun, which we became enamored with. A beautiful cozy rustic luxury lodge on sprawling farmland with evening appetizers and drinks, and home cooked breakfast in the morning (I even got my own pot of decaf french press). We had a beautiful room with mountain views and a marble-covered bathroom (with a tub I didn’t get to test out). I would’ve taken more photos of the inside, but it was sort of dark, and it wouldn’t have done the place justice anyway. Before we even left, we talked about how we wanted to come back – maybe in the summertime.
The next day – our wedding anniversary – we were booked for a photography safari, which sadly got canceled because of rain. In this instance though, being so re-energized by the new environment, I took it in stride. I wasn’t going to get down on this day with Alan. This is what the trip was really about, anyway. Not all the stuff we were supposed to do, just that we were spending this time together. Even when we were just sitting next to each other on the hotel bed, separately playing Plants vs. Zombies on our respective tablets, it was time together well spent. Since we found out we were expecting, I don’t think we’ve been closer, and this trip was a great way to reinforce that bond. Sure, we had little spats here and there, like all couples (inevitably we always have one or two when under the stress of traveling), but we’ve grown too in the way we handle and resolve them.
Then came the day of our last drive, and it was mercifully only an hour long, but by far the scariest leg of the journey. We came up over the mountains, and then had to go down through the mountains on a super high, winding road. Not being the driver, I felt super helpless and super scared. I was also very grateful not to be the driver, as I think I would’ve shat myself.We drove into Queenstown, found our hotel, parked the car, and never looked back. We had an annoying GPS Alan named “Melba” that he developed a comical odd-couple kind of relationship with. We were glad not to deal with her anymore. We had a lovely big hotel room with a fireplace and a spectacular patio with a spectacular view of The Remarkables (that’s the little mountain range). Queenstown is also on a big lake, but it’s also nestled into the mountains. It’s like a ski town and a lake town at once. Chill vibes. We were #blessed with truly gorgeous weather for the remainder of our trip, which was so needed after having a few days of shit. It was cold in Queenstown, but it was sunny and clear. It was just what we needed as we took a tiny plane to Milford Sound for a chilly morning cruise. Being up over the mountains for 45 minutes was amazing! I took a lot more photos in portrait orientation, mostly because those are better to post on Instagram. 😑 I mean, it ALSO can be a really stunning way to frame natural features. The light coming in over Milford Sound was wonderful and moody. Alan and I stood out on the observation deck while we made our way through the fiord. It was cold, but worth it!A rare picture of me. This boat had 1% Lord of the Rings-themed beer and you bet your ass I drank it. That evening we took a gondola up mountain (it was so steep and spooky!) and watched the sunset over the Southern Alps. The waning daylight over the snow-dusted mountains with fog coming off the lake.. It looked like a picture! I tried to adequately capture the mood. I love mountains in fading light. Feels.
Our final day, we took a little boat over to a merino wool farm for a tour. We saw sheeps (which we had already been seeing l i t e r a l l y e v e r y w h e r e) and got a little lunch.By that point I was totally spent. I was tired, and tired of sleeping in strange beds. I was so ready to go home and see the cat. The next day we left Queenstown in a plane around noon, and spent something like 30 hours between planes and airports. We both were sick by the time we got home, but we were so happy to be there. Here! It was an amazing trip but it made me more grateful than ever of my little house. Now we get to be excited for the next big adventure (having a kid, hope that was obvious).
Until next time, New Zealand!