The West Coast of NZ – Finally!

As you may recall, Jeff and I tried to reach the West Coast during our last campervan trip but couldn’t, since several bridges had been wiped out due to flood. This year, with Cyclone Gita moving through, it looked like we might meet the same fate, but alas, we didn’t! We finally got to visit Jeff’s beloved West Coast. Yippeeee!!!!

The West Coast will always hold a special place in Jeff’s heart, as he used to visit his grandmother here growing up, and, simply stated, he loves the solitude and small town feel of the area.

But the West Coast is also unique for others who don’t have such sentimental attachments. It’s primarily a rainforest, and is the wettest part of New Zealand, making it a very lush area of the country. But before we get to that, let’s talk about our route to get there.

Getting to the West Coast – NZ roads are different

As you know, our last stop had been Manapouri, which by car, should have been 7 hours away from our destination – Okarito.

Route from Manapouri to Okarito

It took us 11 hours. (Eeek!) This was not entirely unexpected, as it does take longer to get places on NZ roads – especially in a campervan. In fact, they remind drivers of this often throughout the country, with the below signs.

Indeed, NZ roads are different – allow extra time!

We knew this was the case, but we had decided that one long driving day was worth it, so that we could get to our destination and stay there for several days, rather than splitting the drive in two.

Despite standing by our decision, boy was that a long day!

So what do they mean by driving on NZ roads being different?

Driving on NZ roads is challenging – it’s not like going fast on a straight highway for miles and miles, as you can in the States. Rather, there are twists and turns, traffic backups due to slow vehicles on mainly 2-lane highways (campervans, large trucks, elderly drivers, tourists taking pictures out windows, you name it), many areas of construction, the occasional sheep mustering/cattle drive etc, etc. You get the gist.

Travel Tip: When doing a long drive in New Zealand, plan at least 30 to 40% extra time for expectedly unexpected delays. (You never know what they’ll be – but more often than not, they’ll be there!)

Thankfully for us, the drive was beautiful (as are all drives here, really)! So it’s worth showing you a few shots along the way, even though we didn’t spend any time in these areas.

First things first, you can always find the below vistas.

Sheep abound in NZ (as of 2016, there are ~27 million sheep overall and ratio of 6:1 sheep to people – down from 20:1 in the 1980’s, with ~30% decrease in numbers from 2006 to 2016). I haven’t been showing you many of these, but trust me, they are everywhere! Oh, and they always run away when you stop to take pictures of them. Hence the many sheep butts in this photo.

(Except for that one who is looking at us with curiosity. I’d like to sit down and have a cup of tea with him – see what makes him different from the rest.)

Sheep, sheep, and more sheep!

While Queenstown is the most popular destination in this area (think skiing, bungee jumping, jet boating, adventurer’s paradise), it holds little appeal to us (too many tourists and people in general…shocking, right?). But the area is stunning, no doubt.

Wanaka, a smaller version of Queenstown, is just up the road apiece and is getting just as crowded. We stopped there to do some grocery shopping and couldn’t get out of there fast enough! At 2pm on a Friday, the store was a madhouse. I asked the cashier if it was normally like this on a Friday afternoon. She responded that it’s always like this. Woah.

For us, the most gorgeous features of this area are the mountain-rimmed lakes. The below pic is of Devil’s Staircase by Lake Wakatipu, called such for the “staircase” type action of the road as it winds by the lake.

Devil’s Staircase at Lake Wakatipu

Lake Hawea, further north, is the most beautiful of these lakes, to me, as I simply can’t get over the color of the water.

Lake Hawea and its turquoise waters…Mamma mia!

And only a short drive from Lake Hawea is Lake Wanaka (as close as 1km to each other at their closest point, the Neck), which is a different color altogether. The reflections of the clouds in the picture below are enchanting. To see all of these lakes and mountains when they are snow capped in the winter is simply amazing.

Lake Wanaka – just a stone’s throw up the road from Lake Hawea

This area is also known for its orchards and vineyards. The number of these have skyrocketed since we have moved away with many of the hillsides covered with netted grapes.

Vineyards dotting the landscape

And as indication that we are finally getting to the West Coast, below is the Haast River. Haast is best known for Haast Pass, the lowest of the Passes to pass over the Southern Alps (~560m above sea level).

Haast River

Once through Haast Pass and then the town of Haast itself, we were well and truly on the West Coast.

Our time on the West Coast

Two things to note about our trip to the West Coast –

  1. We wanted to go here so badly that it was worth the possible miserable weather (rain was forecast for more days than not during our stay), and
  2. Our plan was to stay in each place for 3 nights, so we could start the relaxing part of this sabbatical. We had no plans to sightsee – only chill. The places we planned to stay were Okarito and Hokitika.

I’m happy to report that we only got one day of rain (yahoo!) but the threat of rain did cause us to cut our stay short…we only spent 5 days here. But that’s one of the reasons we have a campervan  – to dodge the weather when needed. Now on to the West Coast!

The lush West Coast

The glory of the West Coast, to me, is in its environment. It’s on the westward side of the Southern Alps (which form a spine down the South Island), and the copious rain allows for a lush, green atmosphere that just makes you feel like all is ok with the world. It feels vibrant, healthy, and the air you breathe just feels clean. Or so it does to me.

In addition, it’s quiet, it’s beautiful, and…it sometimes makes me feel like I’ve walked into Jurassic Park. It has that prehistoric “you wish you’ve seen what I’ve seen” feel to it. I often expect a dinosaur or prehistoric reptile of some sort to wander out from the ferns at any moment…Maybe that’s why it’s a bit magical to me. (Or maybe it’s just because Jeff loves it so much.)

Interesting note: New Zealand does have one reptile that I half expect to see wander out of the bush at any minute – the tuatara. As “the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs” – I would faint if I saw one in person, but alas they no longer live in the wild on mainland NZ (only in the islands).

I feel at peace here.

The scene below is uber-common on the West Coast, where ferns and greenery abound.

State Highway on West Coast – greenery abounds!

And more…(just to make my point)

More greenery along the State Highway

And it’s not just the lushness of the whole picture all together, but I’m also in love with the individual ferns. Tree ferns, Ponga ferns, I love them! (Though they do smell sometimes…oh wait, or was that Jeff? Sometimes it’s hard to know.)

The lushness of every fern still has me enamored. Especially after a fresh rain. Mmmmmmm.

Ferns – I love them! (Or at least in NZ – in NC, they don’t have the same effect on me)

And because the West Coast is on the “backside” of the Southern Alps, there are also glaciers to be seen and/or hiked.

Travel note: As the crow flies, it is only ~40km (~25mi) from Okarito to Mt Cook (the highest mountain in the Southern Alps), but by car the fastest route is ~500km (~310mi), which would take you 6.5 hours to get there (and don’t forget to add your 30 to 40%!).

There are 2 glaciers that can be visited from the West Coast – Fox and Franz Josef. Unfortunately, Fox Glacier was closed due to a slip after a massive rain event in early February, which took out over 200m of the road.

Fox Glacier – road closed due to recent slip

But Franz Josef was open to visitors, so we stopped to take a look. Luckily for us, we got there early enough to get a parking spot in the main lot. It filled up quickly, so people were having to walk a couple of kms up the road to just get to the main lot, before then walking another 20 to 30 minutes to see the glacier. Yikes!

Travel note: New Zealand is currently not equipped to handle all of the visitors they are receiving. Parking lots are often overcrowded. I have no recommendations for how to handle this – other than to schedule more time than you think you’ll need if there is something you really want to see.

Ok, back to Franz Josef. We walked to the first viewing point – seen below. Notice the sign. People have crossed barriers at these glaciers to take pictures and have died for their efforts. Stay aware and heed the signs!

Franz Josef glacier and associated warnings

When I first saw the glacier, I was taken aback. Instincts told me that this glacier had retreated considerably since we’d been here about 15 years ago (by half its length, at least, in my estimation?).  To me, it looks like a stump.

I can’t wait to get home to look at my old pictures and compare, but until then, I had to settle for some good ole fashioned (or new fashioned?) googling.

And sure enough, as reported in 2016, Franz Josef had among the fastest melt rates of any glacier in the world. Gulp. In fact, it is moving at such a rate that in 2015 they banned pedestrian traffic onto the glacier by hiking, due to safety hazards. Now the only way to view the glacier, other than from afar, is by helicopter.

Fox Glacier is suffering a similar fate, as reported in 2017, with alarming before and after pictures presented for 2006 and 2015. While periods of advancement have been observed in past decades, the overall result has been rapid decline for these glaciers since 2011. Double gulp.

We’d learned of similar issues in Glacier National Park (whose glaciers could be gone by 2030) and Iceland.

Note to self: Jennifer – keep your thoughts on climate change to yourself and get back to the story, pronto!

Rightyo, then, back to the story. For now, New Zealand is one of those unique places where you can see a glacier and a rainforest waterfall in the same panorama. Stunning.

Franz Josef panorama

When we stopped at this viewpoint to see the glacier, there was another option – to walk another hour or so to see the glacier closer up (~750m away), but we chose not to take this route. From previous experience, I know that you typically see the dirty gravel riverbed where it meets the ice, rather than the pristine ice view you might be hoping for. Wasn’t worth it for us.

For that reason, my favorite way to see the glaciers (at least 15 years ago) was by heli-hike. This is when they take you up in a helicopter and drop you off with a guide to walk around the ice, with boots, crampons, pick axe and all.

This option was much more fulfilling, as you are surrounded by the white and blue ice, can traverse the crevasses (where safe to do so), and really feel like you are experiencing the glaciers instead of just “seeing” them. (Not to mention that I recall feeling like I’d conquered the world while I was up there. I’m not adventurous enough to be a climber, so this was close as I would get!)

This option is still available now, but I can only imagine how many people are heli-hiking, now that it is essentially the only option to see the glacier up close. What effect must this be having on the glaciers? Those thoughts never entered my head 15 years ago. Now, I choose to appreciate that the glaciers exist at all.

This visit simultaneously opened my eyes and saddened me.


Up the road about 20 minutes was our camping destination – Okarito.

Okarito is a small town of about 30 people, with approximately 30,000 tourists visiting each year. We chose to stay in Okarito since there was a campsite near the beach, plain and simple. (And since it wasn’t as far as Hokitika, which would have added to our 11-hour driving day…)

Okarito is best known for its kiwi population, including nighttime tours to see them (they are nocturnal), as well as for the lagoon, with its associated kayak and boat tours. We did none of these. Instead, we read in the hammock, fished, blogged, napped, you know the drill. We chilled out.

We did see multiple signs for kiwi, though, reminding us of their presence in the area.

Kiwi sign

They allow dogs everywhere else (or so it seems) – but no dogs here!

And Jeff had some luck with fishing this time, though only the small one allowed his pic to be taken as the big one was camera shy. And Jeff is a catch and release kinda guy, so no evidence to share.

Small fish in Okarito

And, of course, we watched the sunset over the ocean, which we can’t do on the east coast of the US. Nothing spectacular, but special nonetheless. Notably, the beaches here are gray and pebbly, unlike the sandy beaches seen in Southland.

Okarito Beach

Our time in Okarito was wonderfully unhurried. We stayed at a campground, which was quaint and looked like it was still stuck in the 60’s (in a good way).

In fact, in addition to their clothesline and recycling bins (both are common in NZ), there was also an old-fashioned clothes wringer! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one, and I’ve still never used one. But it did add to the old campground atmosphere – along with the goodhearted and always chatty campground hosts.

Okarito Campground

Okarito clothes wringer – yes, I had to include a picture!!!

On Day 2, the forecast was 100% rain all day. After having a lazy morning that included our morning-time favorites – jam or Marmite-smeared crumpets with copious amounts of coffee – we migrated to the “common area” so we could charge the laptop and phones as a productive way to pass the time.

Our German camping comrades had other ideas, as they made a mad dash to get what they needed to survive the rain… (pic posted with verbal permission)

Must have beer!

Fortunately for us, it cleared up for 4 to 5 hours in the afternoon, allowing for more fishing and whatnot. We were pleasantly surprised at that turn of events.


From Okarito, we headed to Hokitika, a small town of about 3,000 people, where Jeff’s grandmother once lived. He has fond memories of visiting there as a child and a young adult, when he went camping with friends.

His memories were of driftwood on the beach, and he desperately wanted to freedom camp on the beach somewhere in Hokitika with hopes of doing some nighttime photography. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen exactly as he had hoped. But we still had a great time.

First things first, Hokitika is quite different than when we were last there, which is over a decade ago now. Not unexpectedly, things change in that amount of time, but it took us a bit to reconcile the current Hokitika with that of our memories.

When we knew it, Hokitika, and many of the small towns on the West Coast, were more humble, sometimes run down, and more homely, if you will. But now, clearly money has been infused into the area as many buildings have been updated and tourism is thriving.

That said, Hokitika has kept its charm, with the old clock on the main street in town…

Hokitika Clock Tower

…as well as the Hokitika sign made out of sticks on the beach…

Hokitika beach sign

But the beach has changed quite a bit, as there is now a beach wall made of stone, with little to no driftwood to be seen at the town beach.

Say what?!?!?!

We don’t know if Cyclone Gita cleared it all off the beach, or if someone is doing it purposefully (honestly the beach looks too clean to have been cleared by a cyclone).

Hokitika beach…where is the driftwood?!?!?! Aaaack!

Which left Jeff not wanting to camp in Hokitika after all. Bummer!

That said, we did enjoy some of their finer foods…we shared some fish and chips (authentically wrapped in newspaper, of course). They were the first of our trip and were delish!

The menu at a local takeaway shop

Fish and chips in Hokitika

(See Dolly photobombing in the background? We like to keep an eye on her when we can, since people have warned us that breaking into cars/vans is possible. We never experienced any trouble, though.)

And later we had a nice coffee on the beach. While in the cafe, we just had to photograph this selection of “pies” – quite a variety, eh? From Moroccan, to Indian, to Mexitarian (?), to kiwi classics…they have it all!

Pies at a cafe in Hokitika – what a variety!

So now it was time to figure out what to do, since we were no longer staying in Hokitika. Fortunately for us, we had stopped into a nearby small town called Ross, to check out their beaches. They were just as Jeff had remembered the Hokitika beaches…strewn with driftwood. Superb!


No freedom camping for us!

Lucky for us, a new campground had just opened up nearby (which wasn’t even in our handy travel directory yet!) so we stopped in. It was pricey by our estimation ($40/nt for a non-powered site) but it was PERFECT.

We got a front row spot where we could see and hear the beach from our van…

View from Dolly at Ross

…with all of its glorious driftwood available to photograph at will.

Driftwood in Ross

Some of the pieces brought up on the beach were huge – evidence of the strength of the rivers that carry them out to sea as well as the strong currents that hit the West Coast and bring them ashore.

Remains of a sizable tree beached on shore

And, similar to Slope Point in the Catlins, the strong winds shaped the trees in the area…

Windswept trees on the West Coast

During our stay at Ross, we visited nearby Lake Kaniere (another of Jeff’s favorites), only to find that the road to his favorite local photographic site (Dorothy Falls) was closed. Phooey. So we stopped trying to see what we thought we’d see around Hokitika and just embraced Ross.

The universe applauded our efforts with the most perfect night of our trip thus far.

Jeff showed off his firestarting skills by successfully lighting the best bonfire on the beach (no one else could get one started due to the winds, I guess) with a brilliant sunset as the backdrop. The colors of this sunset evolved for what seemed like hours. Simply breathtaking.

And for the first and only night of the trip, we had company. A NZ couple from Blenheim joined us and we talked and photographed late into the evening. We had a blast.

Sentimental note: As it turned out, the couple we spoke to were woodturners – so we’re going to order something they make [maybe a cutting board?] as a remembrance of this perfect night, and this awesome trip overall. We had tried to look for something genuine and unique in Hokitika, but found that lots of it was now produced in bulk and geared for tourists. So yet again, Ross saved the day! You gotta love it!

Bonfire at sunset – PERFECTION!

Jeff went out for some nighttime shots too…(indeed, they really are nighttime shots, lit by moonlight).

Ross Beach at night

More night photography – with interesting circle of sticks Jeff found on the beach

The campsite was eccentric in that it had self-described “quirky” cottages that you could rent if you didn’t want to camp. These were made out of shipping containers. If you know us, you know we’re enamored by the tiny house movement, so we loved this unique twist on a campground!

Campsite with shipping containers for the registration office, kitchen, toilets, laundry, as well as rooms for rent

In the end, this modern day, shipping container laden campsite by the beach full of driftwood and nighttime photography opportunities was meant to be. It was simply perfect for us. Thank you, Ross!!!

Travel tip: Ross is a speed trap. I had gotten my only speeding ticket there, when I lived in New Zealand, so we cracked up when we saw some poor sucker pulled over by a cop as soon as we pulled out of the campsite. Reassuredly, some things don’t change!

After a couple of decadent days in Ross, the impending rain sent us on our way.

Moving on from the West Coast

Leaving the West Coast meant traveling down about 4 to 5 hours of the same way we came, before stopping for the night in Cromwell and then heading inland the next day and driving across Central Otago to Dunedin where we would see our family and friends. (We’d learned our lesson about 11-hour drives, so we split it over 2 days!)

The drive down allowed for some new sites, including the below cattle drive…(A sheep muster and a cattle drive on the same trip?!?!?! So cool!!!!) And to be clear, these drives aren’t on side roads – we’ve seen them on the main state highway. Yet another thing that makes NZ roads different and why you should allow extra time.

Industry note: Dairy and beef cattle farming are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the NZ economy – and particularly dairy farming. As of 2016, the ratio of dairy cows to people were ~1.6:1. I can’t find specific numbers on the percentage increase over time, but we can tell you that we are passing more cattle farms on the road now than even just 5 years ago. Will be interesting to see if the number of sheep fall as the number of cows rise. NZ is already having issues with the increased stock effluent polluting local rivers – so this is another issue they are dealing with (besides increased tourism).

Hokitika and Westland have always been big dairy areas, due to the moist climate. In fact, Jeff remembers walking from his grandmother’s house to the dairy manufacturing plant up the road to buy fresh milk and cream in glass bottles. This is something I have never experienced, so it fascinates me! (It also kills me that we are now old enough to say, “back in our day…”. Yowzers, when did that happen!?!?!?!?!? Oh my.)

Cattle drive on State Highway

Along the drive, we also spotted another of NZ’s native birds, the pukeko. They seemed to like foraging in the fields along the highway, as we saw many of them.

New Zealand’s colorful pukeko

We had thought about stopping in at some of the walks and sights along the way, but decided against it, since parking was already overloaded.

No parking for sights along the road…

We reached our final destination in the early afternoon. We stayed at Aurum Wines near Lake Dunstan overnight.

Aurum Wines – an Okay2stay member

When we were back home planning our trip, Jeff had found this site called that had entrepreneurs all over the North and South islands such as cheesemakers, brewers, winemakers, artists, etc, who would allow you to park at their establishment overnight (for free, in a self-contained campervan) as long as you tried some of their goods.

For a small fee ($45NZ/yr) we joined the site. This was the first and only night we used it on our trip, but we recommend it as a way to get a quieter camping experience and more access to locals.

So, of course, we bought a bottle of wine from them as per the site agreement. It’s a hard life, right? (In fact it was so delicious that we bought a second!)

Thanks to Okay2Stay, we got to spend the night at Aurum Wines, an organic vineyard that included olive trees (for olive oil) as well as an English garden. Again – given our love of organic gardening (and wine) this was perfect for us. It was an absolutely splendid afternoon and we enjoyed supporting the local economy.

And with that, we come to the end of our relaxing time on the West Coast. We hope you enjoyed the journey – we certainly did! Cheers!

Cheers from Aurum Winery!

Categories: New Zealand, Photos | Leave a comment

Cruising Fiordland

From Southland, we drove the rest of the Southern Scenic Route until we reached Fiordland. Both Jeff and I have been here before in our past lives, but never together, so this was very exciting for us.

We monitored the weather and booked day cruises in the 2 of the fjords – Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. But more on that in a minute…

Introducing Fiordland

To orient you, Fiordland National Park is just under 5000 square miles (~12000 sq km) in the southwest portion of the South Island (see map below). It is the largest national park in New Zealand and over 95% of it has never seen people. Woah.

It is mainly undeveloped due to the rugged terrain as well as the large amount of rainfall the area gets each year. To give an idea of distance, it is about a 10- to 12-hour drive from Christchurch.

There are over 12 major fjords in Fiordland, of which Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are the most traversed.

Dusky is the largest and can be reached by boat, Doubtful is second largest and can be reached by boat then car, and Milford is the most accessible and most popular perhaps because it can be reached by car alone. All can be reached by air. Scenic flights are very popular in this area.

Fiordland National Park – Southwest portion of South Island of New Zealand

Spelling and nomenclature

Ok, for those of you who are grammar geeks (I can say that, since I am one!), let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. Fiordland is spelled as a variant of the Scandinavian word fjord. Not sure why, but anywho.

As one might expect, Fiordland is made up of fjords, meaning they are carved by past glacial activity. But they were originally named Sounds and the name has stuck. So Milford and Doubtful Sounds are actually fjords. New Zealand “righted” this naming wrong by calling the national park Fiordland.

Ok, enough of that – let’s get to the pix!

Road to Milford Sound

As mentioned, Milford Sound is the only sound in Fiordland that can be reached by road. It is about a 2-hour drive from the closest town – Te Anau (~75 miles or 120km away). So not a fast drive.

The feats of engineering required to build this road are incredible. It is a notably scenic and sometimes challenging drive. The road to get there is almost as impressive as the actual sound itself. Well, almost.

All that said, the first part of the drive was rather uneventful…well, or so we thought until we ran into our first sheep mustering! And sadly, I mean this almost literally. As we rounded a bend, we came face to face with this flock of sheep headed directly at us. Thank goodness Dolly has good brakes!

Travel tip: Now we understand what that sheep sign temporarily propped up against a post meant…how were we to know, since there are signs for sheep everywhere here?!?!?!? Others, be forewarned.

In all seriousness, it was fascinating to watch the muster. And particularly how good the sheep dogs are at herding them.

Sheep heading to the right at first…

…until a renegade group decided to go left…so Dolly (our van) was surrounded by sheep! So cool!!!

So for us, the trip to Milford was already a success…before we even really got started! But now let’s go to the rest of the story…

We drove into Milford on a rainy, dreary early evening. Since it rains over 250 days of the year in Milford Sound, seeing it like this seemed very fitting!

Eglinton Valley – one of the first stops on the road to Milford Sound

We were not only mesmerized by the gorgeous scenery but also by the hoards of buses that were leaving the area. This area is hugely popular for day trippers, mostly coming from Queenstown and Wanaka. We were happy to see them go.


Road to Milford Sound on a typically rainy day


Panorama on the road to Milford Sound

One of the most impressive feats of engineering, besides the fact that the road was carved into the sides of rugged mountains (!), is the creation of the Homer Tunnel.

The Homer Tunnel is ~1.2km long and took 18 years to build (from 1935 to 1953), with delays along the way including a depression and world war. It travels through a mountain at a 1:10 gradient (~6% decline). The inside of the tunnel is still raw granite, making it look as though it were only blown out yesterday.

The view once you get through the tunnel (below) tells the tale of what’s to come on the drive. There are many switchbacks until you descend down to the sound.

Coming out of the Homer Tunnel

We stopped on the side of the road just outside of the tunnel (to cool Dolly’s brakes), and a kea came to greet us. Kea are New Zealand mountain parrots that are currently an endangered species. They are quite cheeky, as they love anything that sparkles or shines, and have been known to eat the windshield wipers off cars, etc.

I couldn’t take a great picture of this one, as every time I tried to put my camera out the rain-splattered window to take a pic, he looked at it greedily as if he were going to fly up and take it from me! Can’t have that!

Cheeky kea outside of Homer Tunnel


Another sight was Falls Creek, where torrents of water were flowing through. It’s always best to see Milford (the road and the sound) after or during a rain, when the waterfalls are at their best.

When I looked through our pictures, I found these 2 interesting. Can you tell which one Jeff took?!?!? Clearly, I’m not the photographer in the family.

Falls Creek waterfall

Falls Creek waterfall

There were also beautiful streams running alongside the road full of crisp, blue, glacial waters.

Stream running alongside road to Milford Sound

Finally, at the end of the road we hit the head of Milford Sound. To give you a peek, here is what it looked like on that overcast, drizzly evening. Quite dramatic. Rudyard Kipling called this the 8th wonder of the world.

The pièce de résistance- Milford Sound in cloud; the foreground is a tidal estuary.

Milford Sound

Ok! So you’ve stuck with me on the road to Milford. Now, once at the sound, we stayed overnight at a powered campsite in the Milford Sound Lodge before taking a 10:45am cruise with Cruise Milford.

The only notable part of this overnight stay was that it cost $20 for sufficient internet for me to post that previous blog post. Ouch! While it’s a bit understandable in this remote area, lack of wifi throughout parts of New Zealand is something they need to deal with in order to accommodate the increasing number of tourists with their ever increasing expectations of connectedness.

Travel tip: Do not count on having wifi during your travels through parts of the South Island. 

Oh, and perhaps the second notable part was Jeff spotting these cute weka – one of New Zealand’s flightless birds.

Weka at Milford

We specifically chose Cruise Milford since it has smaller boats that touted having more room to move around the cabin and take pictures. We were thrilled with our cruise and would highly recommend them.

Cruise Milford

While still overcast at the start, we had a non-rainy day for our cruise. Yay!!

Travel Tip: The main parking lot fills up quickly, so the park and ride is likely your best option. Buuuut….the park and ride doesn’t have signs indicating how often they come (it’s about every 15 minutes, as we learned later), so we ended up hoofing it to the cruise terminal, making it just in time to catch our cruise. Hello, adrenaline rush!

Now, on to the sound. Below is the iconic view of Milford Sound, with Mitre Peak in the center.

Mitre Peak rises 5,560 feet (1,692m), ie, approximately 1 mile out of the water. Below water, it does much the same, going straight down for over 200m, making it the second highest mountain to rise out of the sea. To prove that the peak continues to go straight down, the skipper drove us right under a couple of the waterfalls, soaking those who chose to stay out on deck. Ummmm, no thanks, I think I’ll pass on the glacial shower!

Mitre Peak (centre) in Milford Sound

The rest of these pix will give you an idea of what we saw on the ~2-hour cruise, which went from the head of Milford Sound out to the Tasman Sea and back. Milford Sound is approximately 16 km long and 3 km wide.

Let me emphasize that NO picture can do this experience justice. You truly have to be there and soak in the atmosphere, the grandeur, and the majesty of the mountains that drop straight into the water.

Go, if you get the chance.

As the cruise began, we learned there are 2 permanent falls in the sound – Bowen Falls, immediately at the start of the sound, and Stirling Falls, more towards the Tasman Sea. All other waterfalls (>95%) appear as the result of rainfall in the area.

Here are the Bowen Falls, looking back from the start of our cruise…

Bowen Falls

And the Stirling Falls are below…the most notable here being the size of the quite large boat relative to the falls. WOAH!

Stirling Falls

But even more impressive, below is the larger view, to provide context of how that very same boat and Stirling Falls fit into the bigger picture of Milford Sound…(see the weeeeee boat to the far left? That’s the same big boat!) Are you starting to understand now while Milford is such a popular place to visit? It is humbling, indeed.

Stirling Falls with boat as context for size

Perhaps the most telling vista is the one below. It says the whole story, really, since everywhere you turn for the full 2 hours you see vistas like this. Amazing!

Panorama of Milford Sound

In and amongst the beauty was the occasional fur seal.

Fur seals chilling on the rocks

And while there wasn’t much wildlife to be seen above water, there is stuff to see underwater. For that reason, they have built a floating underwater observatory.

While Jeff and I didn’t visit it, the intent is that you can go down into this “observatory” and watch the wildlife and black coral in their natural habitat. Or who knows, maybe you are the one on display, and the wildlife is looking at you! A reverse aquarium, if you will.

You can see the observatory to the far left of the below picture.

Milford Underwater Observatory (to far left)

From the observatory, it was back to port at the end of the cruise.

The glory of Milford is that while the Sound is clearly the main tourist draw for the area, there are other options as well, including the 4-day Milford Track walk (which I did with friends in a past life). This is an excellent way to really experience the area. It is so popular that you have to book months in advance.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned before, you can see this area by scenic flight from Queenstown or Wanaka (I can recommend these as stunningly gorgeous) or you can take a bus trip from either of those places (no thanks, I would rather be shot).

The vast majority of people visiting Milford Sound are daytrippers, or so it seemed to us, since the evening at the campsite, while full, was much quieter than we expected.

Travel tip: If you have time, stay overnight in Milford Sound. It gives you the unique experience of seeing the sound by sunset and sunrise, but more importantly, to experience the area when there are considerably fewer visitors and you can actually find some quiet time. During the day, the area is abuzz with the cacophony of tourists of all nationalities.

Now from Milford Sound, it’s on to Manapouri for some fishing before the next day’s cruise of Doubtful Sound.


Manapouri is a small town of less than 1000 people, situated on Lake Manapouri, the starting point for the trip to Doubtful Sound. It is about 2.5 hours south of Milford Sound by car.

Jeff booked us a campsite (at Possum Lodge) that was within walking distance of the lake as well as the boat dock (brilliant!), so we parked up for a couple of nights. We had begun to realize that we (and by we, I mean Jeff), had been driving every day, so it was nice not to drive for a change.

The weather was gorgeous and we had a really tough time of it here, clearly, as Jeff fished…

Fishing at Lake Manapouri

…while I read in our hammock. It’s a hard life…

(But if you are starting to curse us…never fear…there was the occasional bumblebee and the 8-minute burn time that we had to contend with. Even paradise exists in reality.)

Jen enjoying the hammock and a good book!

Since we were in Manapouri for my birthday, we had tried to splurge and book an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound, so we could kayak and fish and other such fun stuff, in addition to the cruise, but alas they were all booked.

Travel tip: Book the overnight cruise in advance, if you want to take one. In our case, they were booked solid for at least the next 6 weeks, so we’d recommend booking at least 2 months in advance. That doesn’t work well with our unplanned campervan adventure, but is necessary for those with a planned itinerary.

Instead, we took a day cruise which involved a 1-hour boat trip across Lake Manapouri, a ~45-minute bus ride across Wilmot Pass to meet the cruise ship in Deep Cove for a 3-hour cruise of Doubtful Sound. We went with Real Journeys and would recommend them.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is larger than Milford Sound and is more isolated and harder to get to, making it a bit less desirable for much of the tourist population. (Which if you know us, you know we like to shed tourist crowds when we can. Who doesn’t, right?!?!?)

The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea – meaning place of silence. It is the perfect name for a very serene place. While Milford Sound is dramatic in its beauty, Doubtful Sound is understated.

But both are equally beautiful.

To begin our trip, we took the boat ride across Lake Manapouri (pictured below). It was stunning in its own right, especially as the clouds lifted by the afternoon.

Lake Manapouri

The most notable thing about Lake Manapouri is the hydroelectric power station located at one end of the lake (below). It is the largest hydroelectric power station in New Zealand and the second largest power station in New Zealand.

Since it is over 200m above Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, they built a power station to harness the power of this drop. They dug out over 1 million tons of rock to build the underground power station as well as the 10km tailrace tunnel. I have to ask — who thinks of this stuff?!?!?!? I am completely amazed.

The power station wasn’t open at this time, so we could only view it from outside.

Hydroelectric power at Manapouri Station

Once we docked, it was now on to a bus to travel the 22-km Wilmot Pass to get to Deep Cove. Along the way, there was more of the same as we’d seen in Milford, beautiful streams…

Stream on the Wilmot Pass drive

…as well as waterfalls finding their way down the rock faces. In addition, the road was strewn with ferns, mosses, lichens, and native NZ trees, making it a beautiful, lush drive.

Falls on Wilmot Pass

But the most impressive stop, hands down, was at the lookout where we could see Doubtful Sound for the first time. And better still, the clouds had lifted and we got a bright blue sky. Oh glorious day!

Travel Tip: The weather on one side of a pass can be completely different than on the other side of a pass (Wilmot or otherwise), so we always held our breaths going over passes…since we never knew what we would find on the other side! So, don’t always believe the weather predictions…

First view of Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

Doubtful Sound is the deepest fjord in Fiordland, at over 400m deep, and is 40km long from Deep Cove to the Tasman Sea. It has 3 arms. There is no such iconic image of Doubtful as for Milford. Rather, it is a fjord full of natural, untouched beauty. Everywhere you look is breathtaking. I felt very at peace here.

Here is one such image.

Doubtful Sound

Again, here is a picture for context of size…see the large boat at the bottom that looks tiny? Again, it’s not tiny…

Doubtful Sound – with boat for scale

Looking into the sun, the silhouette is also impressive…

Doubtful Sound in silhouette

And the wildlife put on quite a show for us. Jeff got this action shot of 3 bottlenose dolphins doing all kinds of flips and tricks for us. (The 2 just out of the water are easy to spot, but see the third one above them, doing a flip? Very cool.)

Frolicking bottle-nose dolphins

This small rock island stood out among all the green…

Small island in Doubtful Sound

And, of course, there were fur seals as well, though we saw little other wildlife, besides the dolphins.

Doubtful Sound fur seals

The picture below gives you an idea of the tree avalanches that occur in this area. Since this is all rock, there is a particular order that leads to successful growth. Lichens and mosses start to take hold on rocks, followed by ferns, then allowing trees to take hold with their roots among them, forming an intertwined matrix.

But sometimes, wind or an event will cause the trees to slide, causing a “tree avalanche.” Once the trees fall, they tear the moss, lichens, and ferns away with them, leaving the bare rock face.

Of the 3 “scars” you see in the picture below, the far left and far right are tree avalanches and the one in the middle is actually a waterfall that starts at the top of the mountain and works its way to the bottom. 

Nature truly is an amazing thing.

Tree avalanches in Doubtful Sound

For a better idea of the vastness and solitude of the area, see the panorama below…

Doubtful Sound panorama

…as well as the view once you get out to the Tasman Sea. Luckily for us, the swells were minimal, but on windy days the ride can be quite rough.

Doubtful Sound where it meets the Tasman Sea

And from there, we turned back to return to Deep Cove. On our way back, we turned into the Crooked Arm of the sound (below) to experience a moment of silence. Since Doubtful Sound is the “place of silence”, the skipper turned off all the engines and implored all passengers to turn off all phones, stop talking and taking pictures, for a minute of silence.

Jeff was on the top deck, where everyone obliged and had their peaceful moment. I was on the lower back deck where morons insisted on using their cameras and people walked around completely oblivious to the skipper’s request. Errrrrrgh! See why I hate tourists?!?!?!? (And yes, it’s not lost on me that I am one, but at least I try to be a respectful one!)

I tried very hard to get lost in my own moment of silence, but it was harder than it should have been. But the place does feel rejuvenating – an overnight cruise would be good for the soul, no doubt.

Looking into the crooked arm of Doubtful Sound

Overall, the ride was wonderfully serene and peaceful, with awe-inspiring views at every turn. Again, clearly pictures cannot do this place justice…you must go visit yourself. We highly recommend it!

After our bus ride back over the Wilmot Pass and boat ride across Lake Manapouri, it was time to resume our fishing and reading positions by the side of the lake.

What a magnificently wonderful way to spend a birthday. I’m a lucky girl.

And as a post-note, 3 days after we cruised Doubtful Sound, over 330 people were stranded by a 25m long slip of Wilmot Pass that blocked day tours getting back to the Manapouri boat dock. Approximately half of these were evacuated by helicopter, while the others were bussed out once the slip had been cleared. Tours resumed as normal the next day. I’m glad we missed that bit of excitement!

Hope you guys enjoyed cruising Fiordland with us!!!

Categories: New Zealand, Photos | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Exploring the Catlins

Hello again! We have now started our second campervan adventure through the South Island of New Zealand, approximately 5 years after our first. If you recall, we had a bright yellow wee Mercedes Sprinter van last time – named Sunshine.

Well this year, we’ve moved up a bit to a larger van (we’re too old and high maintenance to cram into a small one these days!). And with that, I will introduce this years campervan…Hello, Dolly!!!

Introducing our campervan, Dolly! (Alongside some of the beauty of NZ)

She’s a glaringly white beast – so we had to name her after a famous sheep (we are in NZ after all), hence Dolly, after the first cloned sheep.

Inside, there is a double bed, dinette, 4 burner stove, microwave, dorm fridge, sink, TV, and bathroom/shower. All we could ever need!

Bedroom and kitchen

Dining room (with bathroom directly across from it)

So once we met Dolly, we packed her up and set on our way. Before we start with our stories, I’ll let you know why we chose campervaning (again) since I know some of our friends back home think we’re nuts to spend Jeff’s month-long sabbatical in a van.

Why explore NZ in a campervan?

We chose to campervan because we wanted freedom to choose where we wanted to go, when, and for how long. It was important to us that we be able to shorten or extend our stay in any given place at will. That’s the simple answer.

Another reason is that the weather in New Zealand is unpredictable at best. It is an island country after all. As we learned on our last trip (where we never got to see Jeff’s beloved West Coast due to flooding), planning our route before we get here is a waste of time and energy – so we learned to live in the moment and go wherever the (warm) winds take us.

This year, our hope was to head to the West Coast first, since we missed it last time. But Cyclone Gita had different ideas. Heaps of rain fell in the central and west of the South Island due to the remnants of Gita…so what did we do? We went south.

To chase the sun (or avoid the rain, whichever you prefer).

So that’s how we ended up in the Catlins.

Introducing the Catlins

I hate to admit it, but I had never heard of (much less visited) the Catlins before. Yikes! I’m not sure why, but I guess I never really got to Southland during my time here or in previous visits.

In fact, all I’d really heard about Southland (aptly named, since it represents the southern area of the South Island) was that life was slower here, people had a strong, distinct accent, and folks were more apt to like country music. Those of you from the southern US, sound familiar?!?!?!?

The Catlins is not a place you’d visit on a typical 1-2 week NZ vacation (unless you had a real reason to), so the people who visit here are those traveling for longer spans of time (think months to a year) or even locals.

And honestly, the absence of tourists everywhere was one reason that I came to love it so much. It was uncrowded and unhurried, not to mention stunningly beautiful. Mmmm, a perfect way to start a sabbatical. Bliss.

To orient you, the Catlins are an area in the Southeast portion of the South Island (see map below as a reminder).

From Dunedin, we took two and a half days to explore the Southern Scenic Route, through the Catlins and eventually over to Fiordland. We used a helpful google map that led us to points (or walks) of interest – it can be downloaded here.

We took in several sights but certainly not all! We tried to do as many of the 20-30 minute walks as we could, mostly to waterfalls.

Things to see and do on the Southern Scenic Route

Nugget Point

Our first stop at Nugget Point was my favorite. If you recall, I’m a huge fan of lighthouses, so to see a lighthouse on our first stop was a sign of great things to come for me.

The lighthouse was built in 1869/70 and was kept by a lightkeeper until it became fully automated in 1989. It is now managed from Wellington, in the North Island.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Fur seals waddled along the shore, though we could not get close enough to see them well.

The “Nuggets” as seen from the lighthouse are pictured below.

The “Nuggets” are the rocky outcroppings that resemble coastal nuggets of gold, especially in the right light.

This area reminded me a bit of Maine and Nova Scotia. The rugged coastline and stunning turquoise waters soothed my soul. The view below is looking back from the lighthouse.

The turquoise blue waters take my breath away!

Around the corner from Nugget Point was Roaring Bay, best known for its yellow-eyed penguin colony and viewing hide (double click for panorama). We were there in the middle of the day, so we didn’t see any penguins (since they were out to sea fishing)…

Roaring Bay – home to yellow-eyed penguin colony

…but we did see tourists doing exactly what the signs said not to do. Boy, that gets my goat! (I know, I know, I’m such a rule follower! Sheesh!) The intent of the viewing hide is to watch the penguins from inside the hide (as the sign states), not from outside it or above it, so as not to disturb the penguins. Sometimes self-centered (or oblivious) tourists burn me up!

Rule breaker caught in action (wink, wink)

Purakaunui Falls and Bay

Our next stop was the Purakaunui Falls (I dare you to say [or spell] that 3 times fast!). These are apparently the most photographed falls in New Zealand, and the most iconic of the Catlins. A short 20-minute walk from the road, these 3-tiered falls (20 meters high) are worth the walk.

Purakaunui Falls

There were also small falls along the way that were beautiful in their own right. The below pic also gives you an idea of the rainforest atmosphere of this area.

Small falls on the walk to Purakaunui Falls

Aside from visiting the falls, we were looking for a beautiful place to stop and eat our lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches and Jeff’s favorite chicken-flavored potato chips in Dolly), so we thought we’d try Purakaunui Bay. Not knowing anything about it, we were taking a chance here. And boy did it pay off!

After a bit of a bumpy and windy ride down a small road, we arrived at a gorgeous beach that turned out to be a surfer’s haven (double click for panorama). As we lunched, many surfers took advantage of the big swells and surfed ’til their hearts were content. We lunched and did absolutely nothing else. It was perfect!

Purakaunui Bay – lunch spot extraordinaire!

Matai Falls

Up the road a piece were Matai Falls (10 meters high), beautifully simple falls. Not unexpectedly, had this been a rainy day, these falls would have been more substantial. I like them in their simplicity – almost like fairy falls.

Matai Falls

The walk to Matai Falls was also beautiful, again through rainforest. I continue to be mesmerized by the size and variety of the ferns in New Zealand.

This also gives you a preview of what Jeff loves so much about the West Coast, which is primarily rainforest.

Rainforest walk to Matai Falls

Tautuku Bay

From Matai Falls, our next goal was to find a place to camp for the night. Using the trusty travel directory that Viv lent us (thank you!), we found a free campground right next to the beach. There was no power or water, but in our self-contained campervan – we didn’t need any.

Tautuku Bay from the Florence Hill lookout. We camped about where you can first see the beginning of the lightest sand (behind the hill)…

We had most of this beach all to ourselves and there were only 2 other campervans at the campground (containing people we never actually saw). Awesome!

We had no cell or internet service, which we are getting used to, so we just enjoyed our evening by having some wine and cheese on the beach, then taking a walk before eating dinner in Dolly. More bliss.

McLean Falls

The next day, we set out for McLean Falls (22 meters high), which ended up being my favorite of them all.

It was hard to get a good picture of these falls since the sun was so bright that the pix were quite glaring. So we just sat and enjoyed them, waiting for a cloud to float by so we could try to get a good shot.

McLean Falls

Again, the walk to these falls revealed some interesting forestry, particularly this tree that had 3 trunks growing sideways (looking for light, perhaps?)…fascinating.

Forest at McLean Falls

Cathedral Cave

From McLean Falls, we visited Cathedral Cave. We hadn’t planned to, since you can only visit at low tide and we had no internet access (nor desire) to consult tide charts. But as it turned out, it was low tide when we were passing by, so we visited the Cave.

This cave is 30 meters high and 200 meters long, formed entirely by the sea. It is located at the end of Waipiti Beach. This was one of the only places where we had to pay to visit ($10NZ pp; to help maintain the road and trail) but we were happy to do so.

In the below pic, squint to see the man at the entrance of the caves, for context of size.

Entrance to Cathedral Cave

Once in the cave, it got dark and a bit narrow and spooky…

Inside Cathedral Cave

…before coming out the other end, where the cave opened up dramatically (again using people for scale).

Cathedral Cave Exit

As we left the cave, a HUGE wind came up and we had to lean into it for the 200m walk back to the track. Bizarre! Jeff almost lost his hat in the process, but a kind man behind us ran it down and gave it back.

After we hiked the 1km back up to the carpark, it was on to our next stop.

Curio Bay

From there, we headed to Curio Bay. We had heard from a fellow British camper, back at one of the falls lookouts, that this was a nice area, so we were excited to see it.

The view of the Bay is below.

Curio Bay

But what you can’t really see from this view are the two things that make this area interesting: (1) a yellow-eyed penguin colony and (2) a fossilised forest.

As per normal, it was mid-day, so we didn’t see the penguins. But we did see the fossilised forest, preserved in the beach, as shown below. It is estimated that this petrified forest is 180 million years old.

Curio Bay fossilised forest

Again, this area was best viewed at low tide. We chuckled as a couple of guys got caught out too far as the tide came in, stranding them momentarily on a rock (don’t worry, they got back safely). Another man got his whole camera bag soaked as an unexpected wave hit him. Ugh, that hurts.

Moral of the story – never turn your back on the sea.

From Curio Bay, we had to make the decision of whether we wanted to press on and finish the Catlins today or if we wanted to stay another night and see the rest tomorrow. We liked the area so much we went ahead and stayed another night.

Weir Beach Reserve

Again, we found a free campground near the beach (Weir Beach Reserve, to be exact), but this time, there were more campers. By the time the campground filled up, there were maybe a total of 35 to 40 cars and campervans.

While we were slightly indignant by this at the start (remember – we’d been spoiled by only 3 campervans, and never seeing another person the previous night), we decided to put on our big girl panties and deal with it. (Ha! This is hysterical to me, since most other places there would be MANY more campers! Yes, we are spoiled indeed.)

What this did provide, though, was an insight into the current state of camping in NZ.

While there are quite a few tourists and locals in campervans, there are also MANY who camp in cars, or old regular vans that have been converted into “campervans”. On one side of us we had 2 girls sleeping in a station wagon and on the other, we had 2 girls sleeping in the equivalent of an old Honda Odyssey. Neither of which had bathroom facilities, and both of which had a modified dorm fridge/sink retrofitted inside.

So this brings to light an issue that NZ is having with camping vehicles that aren’t self contained (ie, contain water and toilet facilities). In previous years/decades, NZ was more open to “freedom camping” ie, camping where you like, assuming it’s not on someone else’s property.

But more recently, now that many vehicles don’t have toilet facilities, these folks took advantage and were polluting NZ with their waste. As a result, there are now more regulations about where you can and can’t camp, especially if you aren’t self contained.  (Another reason we chose a self-contained vehicle, besides the fact that we’re old and earn enough money to rent a moving toilet for ourselves.)

In Weir Beach Reserve, there is a toilet available so these car campers can set up shop legally.

Below is  a pic of the campground, with a gorgeous sunset as the back drop. Tough stuff.

Weir Beach Reserve campground at sunset

The next morning, we got up early to go see the last few parts of the Catlins that we wanted to see, before making our way to Fiordland.

Slope Point

Only a few km up the road from our camping spot was Slope Point, the southernmost point in the South Island of New Zealand.

Slope Point

As you’d expect, this was a rocky, wind-swept point. The winds coming up from Antarctica batter this area.

(Please also note the lack of safety barriers of any sort. Visiting many places in NZ is at your own risk – they encourage you to use common sense!)

Slope Point coastline

The effect of these winds can perhaps best be seen by the look of the trees. They have permanently grown in a wind-swept formation. (Doesn’t that picture make you cold just looking at it??? I feel for those cows!!!)

Slope Point wind-swept trees

From Slope Point, it was off to Waipapa Point, our last viewing point in the Catlins.

Waipapa Point

Since we started with a lighthouse, it seemed only fitting that we end with a lighthouse as well – the Waipapa Point Lighthouse in this case…

This area is known for its shallow waters, which contributed to the worst civilian shipwreck in NZ’s history. In 1881, the SS Tararua ran aground, killing 131 of the 151 people on board. This lighthouse was built after that disaster, and continues to be a reminder of that fatal shipwreck.

The Tararua Acre (cemetery for many of those lost in the wreck) is a short walk from the lighthouse.

Waipapa Point Lighthouse

Here we were also able to see some sea lions lazing in the sun. We captured this photo only as the young pup stretched and yawned before curling back up to his mom and returning to his morning nap.

Sea lions at Waipapa Point

As I continued walking around the point (on walking trails), I inadvertently came way too close to a sea lion sleeping among the brush. Fortunately for me, he didn’t wake up when I passed. I was only made aware that he was there by the tourists above me waving their hands and pointing, warning me to step back. Otherwise, I would have never noticed him. Yowzers!

After our stop at Waipapa Point, our tour of the Catlins was concluded. What an unexpectedly wonderful way to start this year’s campervan adventure! In the end, I suppose I should thank Gita for steering us in this direction.

Now it’s time to make our way to Fiordland where we have 2 day cruises set up. Stay tuned for more on those trips, to come!

Categories: New Zealand, Photos | 6 Comments

Hello again, Christchurch!!

It’s been our longest time between trips to New Zealand ever – over 5 years (aaaack!!). We are now here for Jeff’s month-long “sabbatical,” where we’ve decided to take a 3-week campervan trip in the South Island, bookended by 3-4 days in Christchurch to see family and friends.

To remind you – Jeff and I met, fell in love, and got married in Christchurch – about 15 years ago. It will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Since then, Christchurch has changed – the normal, sometimes subtle, evolution you’d expect over 15 years, but also, and most obviously, due to the multiple earthquakes it has sustained during that time. The most destructive of which was on February 22, 2011.

The 7th anniversary is rapidly approaching and the city is still recovering.

This is the second time we’ve returned to Christchurch since the earthquakes. We blogged about our first trip back, in late 2012, when there was little to do but peer through a chain link fence that surrounded the centre city – to view the destruction from afar.

At that point, it was natural to begin to process the shock, and remember what the city used to look like. I dug through my memories and remembered the city as I knew it before.

This trip is in some ways similar and some ways completely different. Christchurch is still recovering, and is successfully rebuilding the city, piece by piece. You can see how it’s evolving and becoming a new and different version of itself.

Below are some of the changes we noted during our initial 3-day reintroduction to the city.

Post-earthquake Christchurch

The earthquake on Feb 22, 2011 measured 6.5 on the Richter scale and damaged the city’s centre, along with outlying areas.

The city’s most iconic landmark and the “heart” of the city – the Cathedral in Cathedral Square – was badly damaged, blocks of the city centre were weakened and/or had to be demolished, and tragically 185 people died on that fateful day.

Some of the most obvious changes in the last 5 years are the new memorials – a wall erected to commemorate the people who died…

Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial

Tribute to earthquake victims, survivors, and those who helped during and after the quake

…and an art installation of 185 empty chairs – one for each person lost.

185 Empty Chairs temporary art installation to honor victims of the earthquake


185 empty chairs

And then there is the heartfelt, handmade tribute to those lost in the CTV building, the building where the most lives were lost. They are currently landscaping that area as a memorial. (Christchurch is “the Garden City”, remember, so their gardens and landscaping are a beautiful tribute.)

Tribute to people lost in CTV building

Additionally, to temporarily “replace” the iconic Cathedral, a cardboard “transitional” Cathedral has been erected.

Apparently, temporary structures such as this have been created in other earthquake-damaged cities (eg, Kobe, Japan), so the same architect designed one for Christchurch.

It is the only Cathedral in the world made substantially of cardboard (mainly the tubes, with some local wood, steel, a concrete floor, and a polycarbonate roof added for good measure).

Cardboard “Transitional” Cathedral


Inside of Cardboard Cathedral

I’m still not sure what I think about this. I can’t tell if it’s a tourism ploy, or a sincere effort to revive a community. Regardless, it is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Once the real Cathedral is restored, this one will become a parish church for the neighborhood where it is located.

It is not clear when that will happen, though, as the iconic Cathedral is still in a state of disrepair that is disheartening. It will be a joyous, joyous day when the life and energy fully return to Cathedral Square.

The Cathedral in 2018

To perhaps alleviate the somber tone of the Cathedral, they have tried to bring some personality back to the area already, with some graphic artwork and fun in the square…

Child having fun playing chess in the Square

Despite this effort, the most notable change for me was the silence. As we walked through the city centre on a Monday afternoon, the openness and quiet were striking.

Regardless of whether you’ve visited Christchurch before or not, we all know what cities sound and feel like. Loud, animated, hurried, atwitter, not to mention tall, narrow, and closed in.

This was not.

Rather, it was eerie in its quietness, with blocks that used to have bustling stores now either empty, blocked off with construction fences, or replaced with parks and gardens.

Walkways/park where buildings once stood

The sound made by people walking the city dissipated quickly in the open spaces rather than bouncing off building walls and contributing to the energetic feeling cities normally have.

The below scene is where I noticed it the most (double click on the image to see the full panorama). The area to the right of the picture used to have tall buildings that were filled with activity. Now you can see so, so far instead. It gave me pause, for sure.

The silence due to the missing buildings is palpable

With the openness comes less of the feeling of a city to me. Yet at the very same time, the new buildings that have been erected, and the gradual return of stores to the city centre, is reassuring and wonderfully hopeful.

And then there is the engaging artwork that embodies the city’s spirit (picture above) and openly points to the bright future to come (picture below). (Notably this future is beside a building that is still being reconstructed and among orange construction cones that are mainstays around Christchurch since the earthquakes.)

Final sign in a series of artwork depicting the city’s transition

And then there is the praise for the local “superheroes” (ie, all city citizens) who are contributing to that future.

The superheroes of Christchurch – ordinary people who did extraordinary things during times of need

Honestly, I had trouble coming to terms with the two feelings that were stirred inside me – grief and anticipation. While I grieve for the Christchurch of my memories, I’m eager to meet the new Christchurch that emerges.

I can’t wait to meet it, in whatever form it may take.

The more subtle changes

Ok, so the changes as a result of the earthquake are obvious to spot. But there are more subtle ones that I’d also like to point out, if for no one else but myself…(wink, wink).

For example, the coffee and café culture in Christchurch is booming. The suburbs are thriving, the café’s seem new and cosmopolitan, and you can’t go two steps without running into a coffee shop. Seriously.

And, hallelujah, during our 3 days there, I never saw a Starbucks. Yay, Christchurch!!!

The coffee culture is booming…and the salads and slices are delicious as always!

I must say, though, that the quality of the coffee hasn’t changed, nor has its creative presentation. It was always delicious and beautiful and still is. I think it’s due to the fresh water and milk, but that’s just me.

Creative and delicious coffee!


In addition, Mexican restaurants now abound in Christchurch. When I moved there in 2000 – there was no Mexican food to be had. Indian, Thai, Lebanese, and other nationalities, but never Mexican.

And with this new trend, say hello to Old El Paso taco mixes in grocery stores (great for those of us going on 3-week campervan tours…!!)

Heck, when I was here, it didn’t seem like there was much packaged food at all – everything was made from scratch…ask me about some of my adventures trying to cook back then. They are hysterical! (But looking back, I wish it had remained that way!)

Similarly, there is now gluten free, vegetarian, and organic food and produce, as well as whole food shops.

Whole food store


Vegan, gluten free food at local cafe

Subtle differences, but differences nonetheless. Those are but a few things I noticed in my first several days back.

To me, it seems like Christchurch has been quite globalized in the past 15 years. With the influx of tourists brought in by the Lord of the Rings fame, New Zealand as a whole has become a tourist destination (and rightly so). But with more tourism comes more outside influence. As long as they don’t lose themselves in the process, I’m good with it.

That’s just my two cents.

Final thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this re-introduction to Christchurch as it stands in 2018. I can only imagine how it will evolve in years to come.

Also, I can’t end this post without saying a HUGE THANKS to Viv, Lindsay, Rosey, and Simon for letting us stay with them during our time in Christchurch (in their awesome caravan!). And for providing us with heaps of tips for our trip, not to mention camp chairs, an incredibly helpful campervan travel directory, games, and other such helpful travel gear. Thanks guys!

And stay tuned for posts on our upcoming campervan adventure. I have no doubt there will be great pictures and stories to share!

Cheers, Jennifer and Jeff

Categories: New Zealand, Photos | 6 Comments

Murano, Burano, Torcello, and more!

In addition to the main island of Venice, we knew we wanted to explore the outer islands, the most famous of which are Murano, Burano, and Torcello. For that, we decided to get a 3-day vaporetto (watertaxi) pass so that we could explore the islands as well as the canals of Venice.

Each of these islands is known for something: Murano is home to the world famous and gorgeous Murano glass; Burano is famed for its lace production as well as its colorful buildings; and Torcello is known for the church on this small island.

What we didn’t realize is that that there are many other islands in the lagoon – some of which have vaporetto stops. So, naturally, we decided to explore some of those as well.

Here is our story.


We had gotten our first peek of Murano when taking the watertaxi from the airport to our AirBnB. We knew that, like Venice, it was a series of islands connected by bridges and canals and that it had a Grand Canal.  What I hadn’t realized is that it had a lighthouse. If you recall, I am a bit obsessed with lighthouses – so this was a wonderfully unexpected find!

Faro Di Murano Lighthouse

Faro Di Murano Lighthouse

After disembarking, we found the canals were lined with cafes and, as expected, glass shops.

Cafe-lined canals of Murano

Cafe-lined canals of Murano

We perused the glass shops, not knowing what we wanted exactly (if anything), but more to look at the artistry. What we found were streets upon streets of glassblowers, galleries, and tourist shops galore. It was a bit overwhelming!

We went into one store which looked relatively normal (ie, neither high class nor uber-cheap). Before we knew it, we were being shown to a back room, and then upstairs, to more back rooms, all full of intricate and gorgeous handmade glass pieces – art, chandeliers, serving sets, you name it they had it.

We couldn’t take pictures in the shop (would hate to give away their artistic secrets!) so you’ll have to use your imagination. Think ornate, intricate, classic as well as streamlined, modern. They had it all. And man oh man was it pricey.

Once we realized glass purchases weren’t in our future, we took a quick look around the island before heading to Burano. Not surprisingly, glass was used in some of the art sculptures around the island.

Glass sculpture in front of tower - Murano

Glass sculpture in front of tower – Murano

Like in Venice, the history of Murano was apparent in the architecture and age of the buildings.

Sotoportego (covered walkway) in Murano

Sotoportego (covered walkway)  and shops – Murano


Next stop – Burano. Bring on the colored buildings and lace! The colored buildings were in full sight even from the vaporetto, which got us excited about the photographic prospects.

View from Vaporetto (water taxi) as entering Burano

View from vaporetto (watertaxi) as entering Burano

We had heard that Burano was the best place to eat lunch – so we had purposefully planned this island as the second on our day trip – so that we could eat like kings. It wasn’t meant to be, though…as we truly could not find an “authentic” restaurant for lunch. I am positive they must be somewhere, but they were not readily apparent to tourists. And even when we stumbled on a couple they were either closed or fully booked. Hmmph!

Regardless, after a worse than average tourist lunch, we made our way around the island looking at the colorful buildings. Had we known the eating situation – we definitely wouldn’t have chosen to visit at mid-day in the harsh sunlight. But anywho! Learn from our mistake — the best time to visit Burano for photographic purposes is definitely in the early morning or later evening when the light is more flattering.

We hope you enjoy these photos of picturesque Burano…

Lovely window box in Burano

Lovely window box in Burano

Besides the happy colors of the houses, another unique feature of Burano was the curtains they used to cover the doors. Some were closed, some were drawn to the side, but they all added an extra colorful feature. My guess is that they are used for both privacy and to block out the heat of the sun.

Colorful houses in campo (square) with clothes drying in Burano

Colorful houses in campo (square) with clothes drying in Burano

On this main thoroughfare in Burano, you can see the bright colorful houses on the left, with the more rundown, unkept colors on the right. We’re not sure the reason, but it made for an interesting contrast.

Canal panorama in Burano

Canal panorama in Burano – new on left, old on right

It was clear as we walked around that we are all visiting Burano for the same reason – to see the colors. Some folks even went so far as posing in front of the buildings for effect.

Girls modeling in front of Burano houses

Girls modeling in front of Burano houses

But the amount of laundry on the line throughout many of the streets reminded us that locals live here too, even if we couldn’t spot many on the streets.

Laundry on the line in Burano

Laundry on the line in Burano

Amongst the colored houses, there were also many shops selling lace…

Lace Stands in Burano

Lace stands in Burano

…as well as other cheap souvenirs for tourists. Overall, while the colored houses were beautiful, the full experience felt a bit too touristy. Another reason that coming early or late would likely be preferable — to avoid the crowds.

Stands selling their wares to tourists in Burano

Stands selling their wares to tourists in Burano


From Burano, we walked over the bridge to the island of Mazzorbo. We were hungry and in search of food (this is before we ended up at the cheap tourist place), so we didn’t explore the island much. But we did find a nice winery (Venissa) with a restaurant that was a bit out of our price range.

Winery in Mazzorbo

Winery in Mazzorbo

In addition to grapes, the winery also grew some of its own food for the restaurant. Most notably for me, I saw my first artichoke! I like artichokes, but had never seen one growing before, so this was exciting. This area spoke to me since I love the idea of sustainable restaurants.

While we didn’t explore Mazzorbo for long, it was clear that we were starting to see islands with more green and less stone. Quite a change from Venice!

My first ever artichoke sighting (!) - Mazzorbo

My first ever artichoke sighting (!) – Mazzorbo


Torcello was smaller than Murano and Burano and even more green than Mazzorbo. The most notable sites on Torcello were the Church of Santa Fosca (straight ahead) next to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (left).

Churches in Torcello

Churches in Torcello

There was also another winery…which I’ll admit, was a beautiful site amidst the stone and history.

Winery on Torcello

Winery on Torcello

We didn’t spend long on Torcello before getting back on the watertaxi and perusing the rest of the area.

St. Erasmo

I don’t recall ever hearing of St. Erasmo before this trip, but it is on the watertaxi line so we decided to look into it. A quick google search told us this was the island where many of the vegetables are grown for the market stands in Venice. Given our adult-onset gardening adventures, I decided I wanted to see the island.

Jeff and Laura humored me as we visited “vegetable island.” Thanks guys!

Our first clue that this island was much less frequented was the fact that we transferred from a large water taxi to a much smaller one in order to get to it. This thrilled me. What thrilled me even more was that several locals got on board and a couple of them were quite smiley.

About 5 minutes into the ride, I just couldn’t stop myself and had to ask the smiley elderly gentleman “Parlo Inglese?” Unfortunately the answer was no, but we did our best to communicate.

I learned that he was 85 years old and lived in Punta Vela (the first stop of 3 on St. Erasmo). He had worked for 42 years on Murano as a glassblower. He raised shrimp and grew peppers on St. Erasmo.

If you’ve read my posts before, you know I call these “Moments of Authenticity.” There is nothing more authentic than successfully communicating with a local – both of our eyes lit up with excitement when we would make a connection or achieve an understanding. My Italian is nonexistent, but it was fun to try!

St. Erasmo boat chat

St. Erasmo boat chat

As he was disembarking, we shook hands and he invited me to come back to his house (mi casa). In the instant it took me to (1) translate what he was offering and (2) think of Laura and Jeff as part of this proposal – he was getting off the boat. I’m not one for regret, so I don’t regret not going. But next time, I won’t hesitate. I have no doubt that going to his house and hearing about his life, meeting his wife, etc would have been an amazing experience.

After that experience, I was pumped and just generally excited about life. We got off at the next stop to see the island.

The below church looked quite different from the rest in Venice. And notably, this was the first island we’d been on that had cars! Most were mopeds or small cars/trucks, but nevertheless, it meant we couldn’t just walk in the middle of the street as with everywhere else. It only took a honk or two before we remembered…(smile)

The Church at St. Erasmo

The Church at St. Erasmo

After the church, we walked the street for 15-20 minutes until we reached the next watertaxi stop. During that time, we passed all sorts of gardens…

Gardens in St. Erasmo

Gardens in St. Erasmo

…as well as fields of artichokes, which St. Erasmo is known for.

I truly enjoyed this walk and seeing all of the gardens, not only out of my interest for gardens, but also for the need to experience nature. While Venice is lovely, it is primarily stone and water, so seeing some green things growing was a nice break from the hard lines of the city.

Field of artichokes – St. Erasmo

San Michele

Last but not least was the island of San Michele – the cemetery island. This island is easily seen from Venice, as evident from the shot below. Tourists can visit the island as long as they are respectful and do not take photographs.

Several famous people are buried here, including Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. San Michele still accepts Venice’s dead, though for some it is only a temporary placement, until they get rotated to the main island due to space limitations.

View of San Michele - Cemetery Island - from Venice

View of San Michele – Cemetery Island – from Venice

We hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-tour of several of the outer islands of Venice. These can be explored in a day – though I would have loved to have more time with each of them. Maybe next time!



Categories: Europe, Moments of Authenticity, Photos | Tags: , | 4 Comments