Continuing our trip in New Zealand after going rapidly across the North Island, we took the night ferry from Wellington to Picton. We decided to pay ourselves a little treat and hired a private cabin on the ferry so we could have a couple hours of good sleep during the night. This was especially important because we had big plans for our first day on the South island...
Day 9: Marlborough wine route on two wheels
We arrived in Picton at 6AM and a quick 45 minutes drive from Picton led us to Blenheim, which would be our base for exploring Marlborough's wine region. We struggled to find a spot outside to have breakfast (by that time we still hadn't found) but after a bit of going around the city we found a nice spot and had our usual "gourmet" camping breakfast: an order of pan-heated New Zealand peanut butter toasts served with a generous portion of brown sugar coated porridge accompanied by a freshly stirred instant coffee.
We rented bicycles from the campground we were staying in Blenheim and took off to pay a (much anticipated) visit to a few wineries in the area. We biked around for 25km and visited 5-6 wineries during that day. It was interesting to be able to compare wines from the region and get input from the vineyard staff. Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are signature grapes grown in the region but we were also able to taste some Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, etc.
We learned that all wines from the Marlborough region are now screwcapped since the region's winemakers decided to adopt the sealing method a few years ago. Screwcaps have been slowly gaining popularity in NZ since the early 2000s and now more than 70% of bottles are screwcapped instead of corked. They supposedly offer a much better performance than corks in keeping the wines fresh and not altering taste. Unfortunately, despite the shortage and problems associated with corks, most people still associate screw caps with cheaper / lower quality wines, whereas that isn't the case at all!
All that wine tastings opened up our appetite and we went to Wairau River winery to enjoy a wonderful lunch accompanied by, obviously, wine. We were also able to taste our first meat pies which is one of New Zealand's classic snacks.
The 12km return to Blenheim - this time facing the wind - was harder and longer than we thought. The wind played against us, but I'm pretty sure all the wine we got that day also didn't help much! We arrived exhausted but with a small reserve of locally bought wines to enjoy for the next days... :)
Day 10: Green Lipped Mussels and New Years Eve
The next day we headed all the way North to reach a small town near Abel Tasman National Park to settle for the night.
On the way, we stopped at The Mussel Pot in the small town of Havelock to taste their local specialty (a New Zealand exclusivity!): Green Lipped Mussels. These were the largest mussels we had eaten, and they were delicious! A must-try when in the region.
We setup camp in a campground just beside the water in Tasman Bay. This is where we would be amongst the first in the world to break into 2016 at midnight local time!
Day 11: Abel Tasman National Park
We spent New Years Day hiking in Abel Tasman National Park, with its numerous bays with nearly transparent water that makes boats seem to float in the air. Wonderful! It was a long 14km hike but was pretty much flat so overall very easy. Stunning views, nice weather, good company, can't ask for more!
Days 12-13: Going South
Over the next 2 days, we drove all the way South via the West Coast of the island. The road was quite long and the first day we got rain and clouds for the first time in our New Zealand adventure. It was a good thing in a sense since we had to do a lot of driving, but unfortunately we could not see much of the Southern Alps which is the main 'attraction' of the region.
The road on the West coast passed alongside Fox Glacier and we were able to see just a bit of the bottom of the glacier from a far distance, but nothing spectacular.
We set up camp that night in the town of Haast, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There, nothing more than a convenience store and one or two restaurants. But the campground featured an open air area where we had a full view of the Southern Alps surrounding us. One of the most beautiful views we had in our trip!
The next day weather cleared up so we really started to see all the snow capped mountain tops covering the region on our way to Wanaka, traversing Mount Aspiring National Park. Wanaka is a touristy town sitting on the side of the appropriately named Lake Wanaka. The area is known to feature skies coloured of a deeper blue than usual, which made up for some quite good views, especially because we were fortunate enough to have a fully clear sky.
Day 14: Roys Peak
That day we took on the ascension of Mount Roys a few kilometers away from our campground. The ascension was a strenuous 7.5km, 3 hours hike going uphill on a pretty steep slope that brought us 1000m higher in elevation. Fortunately the weather was exceptionally good and the view at the summit presented a rewarding 360 degrees view of the region which can hardly be described...
Day 15: Puzzling World and Queenstown
One of Wanaka's main attractions is Puzzling World, a sort of museum of the weird and puzzling. Weird and puzzling; we had to go take a visit! The place showcased holograms, many optical illusions, impossible metal works, a Wall of the Following Faces - a wall with hundreds of faces that seem to follow your every moves because of an optical illusion. It is also possible to do a large human-scale maze that was quite a challenge to complete and get out of. Overall it was a lot of fun!
After all that weirdness, we took off in direction of Queenstown, one of the main cities of the South island. With a population of just over 13,000, it is a rather small town. But it is very touristy and in high summer season (which we are right now in early January) the number of people in town can increase that number significantly. Thus, the town is packed with restaurants, shops and tourist activities.
Days 16-18: From West coast to East coast
As our trip was ending soon and we had to be in Christchurch (our departure city) in a few days, we slowly drove to the East cost for the next 3 days. Each of these days, we drove for a few hours then settled in a camping, progressing slowly towards our final destination for this trip. Along the way we were able to get stunning views of Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo with its water of a light clear blue.
Days 19-20: Christchurch
We spent our last 2 days in Christchurch, the largest city of the South Island. One of our objectives in Christchurch was to get rid of the camping gear we had acquired at the beginning of our New Zealand adventure. We posted a few ads and searched on local classified websites before our arrival in Christchurch but couldn't find much.
Oddly enough, on the day before we arrived in Christchurch we found an ad of 2 people looking for camping gear on a small local classifieds website so we contacted them. It turns out they were a couple from Quebec (!) who had been traveling and working in Australia for the last year looking for some used camping gear for their trip in New Zealand. What are the odds??
We met with Vincent and Florence upon our arrival in the city, showed them our gear and they bought everything right away! They looked like pretty cool people so we invited them to share dinner that night. We had a wonderful night sharing our adventures and just having a good time around good beer and good food.
Christchurch has been devastated by an earthquake in 2011 and it unfortunately shows. Many houses, buildings, churches and city infrastructure still show the destruction caused by the earthquake. Everywhere you still see cracked concrete and fallen debris. Although the city seems to be slowly getting in better shape (we see many, many new constructions and orange cones everywhere), the ambiance still unfortunately feels a bit sad.
We hadn't experienced the 'brunch' culture of New Zealand yet (we haven't been much in restaurants because of the prohibitive costs for our budget) so we figured it was now or never. We headed to Black Betty Cafe and enjoyed a great breakfast with some truly amazing coffee. That was a refreshing change from the 'gourmet' breakfasts we've had during our days camping around :)
Away we go...
There it is! The tale of our New Zealand adventure! We are now spending our last few hours (and our last sips of New Zealand wine!) in the land of kiwis and preparing for our next adventure: a few weeks in Bali (Indonesia) with its heavenly beaches, dramatic volcanic landscapes, laid back atmosphere and supposedly amazing food... as usual, stay tuned!