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Adventures on the south island!

Well I’m obviously a bit biased but based on these past two weeks I have come to the conclusion that New Zealand’s south island is one of the most geographically unique, beautiful, and impressive places on earth.

1000 pictures, 2000 kilometers, and countless memories and unbelievable experiences later, I have returned from my adventure on the south island and I could not be more exhausted or happy. It was an amazing trip in which we managed to cover the majority of the island in our short, two-week school break (yes, while the entire northern hemisphere finishes up exams I am only halfway done my studies for the semester). 

The problem with having so many amazing experiences and not blogging for two weeks is that now I’m stuck with the gigantic and daunting task of somehow relaying my experiences to you. Ugh, such a burden. But I shall do my best :) 

Picton and Punakaiki :

Since Wellington is the southernmost city on the north island, it is also (luckily) the connecting city to the south island via ferry. We rose bright and early to catch a 9 AM ferry from Wellington to Picton. The ferry ride was a short three hours and was beautiful. We even saw some dolphins swimming alongside us. We arrived in Picton, a small town located on the northeast of the south island. From Picton we drove straight to Punakaiki, our first stop on the west coast. Punakaiki is known for a unique rock formation in which the rocks on the beach are stacked and thin as if to look like pancakes. My rock knowledge is pretty pathetic so I’m not really sure what’s going on geologically here, but I’m starting to think Mother Nature likes New Zealand more than the rest of the world since she blessed it with so many unique, natural phenomenons. 

Franz Josef Glacier:

Originally we planned and booked an all day hike on Fox Glacier (located just south of Franz) but unfortunately due to an immense amount of rain our hike was cancelled :( Don’t worry, we were refunded and like the happy, easy-going travellers that we are we bounced back and didn’t let it get us down too much (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed though. I definitely want to go back someday and do the hike). Instead, we opted for a free, hour and a half walk to the face of the glacier. We were able to get within 500 meters of Franz Joseph which is the larger of the two glaciers. What was really amazing about the glacier was how quickly it was moving. Only 3-4 years ago the glacier had been in the exact location from the photo spot 500 meters from the glacier face. Apparently it can move 1-2 meters a day! That’s NUTS. Again, my knowledge is so unbelievably limited but this country is a geologist’s DREAM. If you like rocks, come to New Zealand. If you don’t like rocks, still come to New Zealand.

Wanaka:

Wanaka is a large town located about an hour north of Queenstown. Situated on a beautiful lake, as most New Zealand towns are, Wanaka is surrounded by picturesque mountains and gorgeous views. When we arrived in Wanaka we strolled around town until we found a small hike that brought us to see stunning 360 degree views of the town and surrounding area. Wanaka was the first place we travelled to where I really felt autumn had arrived. The foliage was stunning– it actually reminded me quite a bit of being back home in Vermont. Sadly we left Wanaka the same day that we arrived, but I plan to return!

Milford Sound:

Milford Sound was a must-see for this trip. A four hour drive outside of Queenstown, this stunning natural area is part of Fijordland National Park. We spent the day on a tour bus (it was so nice not to drive the narrow, harrowing road by ourselves for the day), leaving Queenstown around 8 AM and arriving for a 2 PM Milford boat cruise. We made many scenic stops along the way as the national park is unbelievably beautiful. Mirror Lakes (pictured above) was one of my favorite stops, as well as a crystal clear stream where everyone filled up their waterbottles with fresh water. We were told that Milford Sound experiences rain 300/365 days a year, so we were extremely excited when we saw the forecast for our Milford tour day. We had a beautiful sunny day, which was a pleasant change from the wet weather we had been experiencing throughout our drive down the west coast. 

Queenstown:

We spent the next three nights in Queenstown exploring and meeting up with friends from Wellington and Auckland. Queenstown is not a large city like I was expecting it to be, rather it was more of a very large village. Many people said it reminded them of Whistler in Colorado (I’ve never been so I’m not really sure!) But it was one of the most tourist dominated places I’ve been since arriving to New Zealand. My Milford tourguide even told me that it’s rare to hear a Kiwi accent in Queenstown as nearly everyone (workers and tourists) is international. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time in Queenstown. One highlight was the Below Zero Ice Bar (pictured below) where everything (even your cups) are made of ice. 

Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula:

Dunedin was one stop that we weren’t sure if we should put on the agenda, but I’m so glad we did! We drove from Queenstown to the southernmost point on the south island and followed the “southern scenic route” to Dunedin (I dare you to find me a route in New Zealand that isn’t scenic). I was keen to see Dunedin since my sister had studied at the University of Otago but we also had the chance to check out the Otago Peninsula and the surrounding area (including the steepest street in the world!) Overall I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked Dunedin. We found a cute farmers market in town to pick up some fresh produce and had a picnic next to some seals and penguins. We ended the day with a drive north of Dunedin to see the Moeraki boulders: another puzzling natural phenomenon involving super cool looking rocks on a beautiful beach. Overall, a great day. 

Akaroa:

Akaroa was another unexpected stop on the trip. We had heard from fellow travellers that Christchurch wasn’t too exciting and to check out this cute, French town located about an hour outside of Christchurch. So we drove the extra hour and we were pleasantly surprised with what we found! After checking into the cutest hostel to date (Chez la Mer– a quaint, pink cottage in the middle of town) we explored the town. It was a bit rainy and dreary but we loved it nonetheless. I highly recommend anyone travelling to Christchurch checks out Akaroa if they have the chance. It was pretty quiet which makes me think it is mostly a summer hotspot, but it was exactly what we needed for a night. We made dinner, drank wine, and cozied up to a fireplace. Definitely one of my favorite spots. 

Christchurch:

Christchurch. Where to begin? I almost feel bad for not liking this poor city. After the devastating earthquake of 2011, the city is still in shambles nearly three years later. It was raining when we arrived. I credit my initial dislike for Christchurch to the bad weather, but overall it was just extremely depressing and all of us were eager to leave as soon as possible. The majority of the city is empty lots, broken down buildings, lots of construction sites, and abandoned store-fronts. The church in the center of town (pictured above) is now an iconic image of the city’s struggle. Luckily we gave Christchurch a second chance the following day and the sun came out which improved our overall impressions of this dilapidated city. We found the outdoor container mall which originally popped up after the earthquake but is now a cool, contemporary take on outdoor shopping and food carts. We strolled around the area and enjoyed our day for the most part. I feel as if Christchurch will eventually rebuild and get itself back on New Zealand’s map of “must-do” destinations, but it definitely has a long way to go.  

Kaikoura:

The final (and arguably my favorite) stop on our trip was Kaikoura! Kaikoura is a small town located north of Christchurch and is known for it’s amazing sealife. Kaikoura is the place to go for dolphin swimming, whale watching, and seal-sightings. Lucky for me we got to be here on my 20th birthday!
My birthday began at midnight on May 1st when new hostel friends all sang me happy birthday in 5-6 different languages. After staying up too late I woke up at the crack of dawn and was driven to the beach for a birthday surprise from my friends. Here we drank mimosas and watched the sunrise. We then hopped across the street to a cafe where we all proceeded to eat cake for breakfast. A solid start to the day.
And then we swam with dolphins!

Kaikoura is known for the Dusky Dolphins which look similar to bottlenose dolphins but are slightly smaller and darker in color. Our boat drove us 30 minutes offshore to find these wild animals and then simply told us to hop in the water. Suddenly 200+ dolphins are swimming around us in every direction. The first time I was in the water with them was pretty intimidating, as they are incredibly fast and agile. But once I realized they weren’t going to run into me or attack me or anything I was able to enjoy the entire experience. It was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I recommend it to anyone visiting Kaikoura. Again, we had a beautiful day and we were so lucky to encounter as many dophins as we did. 

After the dolphin swim, we had a picnic on the beach and somehow we all ended up falling asleep. After a nice nap we headed off to see the seals of Kaikoura! There is a large colony that just hangs out next to nature reserve on the outskirts of the town. We saw a dozen or so seals and were able to get dangerously close to these seemingly harmless animals. Another very cool experience. 

After Kaikoura we drove back to Picton and then boarded the ferry home for Wellington!

All in all, the trip was fantastic. New Zealand’s south island is much more geographically impressive than the north island. I wish we had more than two weeks to see everything but I think we did a great job seeing as much as we possibly could. While the weather didn’t always cooperate, we made the most of each and every day and saw some pretty unbelievable things.

So yup, I still love New Zealand. Sadly now I have to get back to school work for a bit :( 

More adventures to come!

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