Boarding Pass Stories: Christchurch, New Zealand

Boarding pass, Air New Zealand, Christchurch, NZ, travel, flight, airline

The destination, the when(s), and the reason(s)

After spending two weeks there, I flew from Melbourne, Australia to New Zealand.  My entry point:  the very livable and lovely town of Christchurch.  This was in 2009, so before the large earthquake that did so much damage to this beautiful town.  I got to see it before it suffered such destruction.

The airline

Air New Zealand.  The carrier that I chose to fly me from Los Angeles to Australia/New Zealand.  I landed in Auckland where I connected with a flight to Sydney.  After spending two weeks in Australia, I returned to NZ to explore it.

What fascinated me about this experience

Christchurch was a place I could actually live in.  The neighborhoods, the city center – it all fit my likes.  I found good restaurants and a charming bed and breakfast.  It was a great launching point too to explore the south island of New Zealand and I sure hope to return some day!

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Indoors at the main cathedral that, unfortunately, had to be condemned after the damage it suffered during the earthquake

I sure hope to return to Christchurch and explore it and the area more!

A Very Southern City – Dunedin

Well, by southern I mean “geographically”.  It was the southernmost city I visited in New Zealand and I was expecting it to be frigid but, mercifully, it was not. In fact, we had some really beautiful days though one morning we had minor rain.

Dunedin with about 130,000 inhabitants is quite a pleasant town to explore.  Not far from Christchurch, it does feel very different.  Dunedin has Scottish roots but, never having been to Scotland, they were not as easy for me to identify (Christchurch is said to be more English).  However, I enjoyed the town as it was quite walkable – except for the steep hills!  Dunedin sits by the water but it is surrounded by hills.  The city’s area includes the slopes of these hills where many neighborhoods are located.  It is a nice drive to go up to higher ground and see the old houses as the road curves along, while looking down on the city.

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Typical architecture in the area in Dunedin, New Zealand

But having walked a few of these streets, I can certify they are steep!  In fact, Dunedin does lay claim to the steepest street in the world and I am not surprised.

A residential street in a steep street in Dunedin, New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

A steep street but FAR from the steepest!

Steepest street, Guiness, world, Dunedin, New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

Yep. This is the steepest street in the world.

During my visit, I explored the Otago Museum right by the university.  It is a very nice museum (and free to boot!).  It is an excellent place to take the kids.

I also took tours of the Cadbury factory (also good for the kids) where they kept giving us different chocolate bars along the way (not all were to my liking as they were mainly milk chocolate based and I am a dark chocolate fan) as they showed us how chocolate is made (very interesting) and of the Speight’s brewery (where, of course, we sampled their beer – very nice!  sure, why not, also good for the kids! lol ).

Dunedin’s railway station is a piece of art onto itself, both the exterior and the interior, and a must-see if you visit.  The style is such that its architect, named George, became better known as “Gingerbread” George!

Railway station Dunedin New Zealand Gingerbread George, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

The beautiful railway station built in the early 20th century

Mosaic, architectural details, railway station, Dunedin, New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel, travel

Details of the booking hall in the railway station

Finally, the main street itself has a good number of places to eat as well as places to shop so walking it up and down a couple of time is certainly worth it.

Main street in Dunedin, New Zealand, architecture, Canon EOS Rebel

Main street in Dunedin, New Zealand

I found Dunedin to be quite charming and the people friendly.  I got there after crossing the Southern Alps and exploring majestic fjordland I am not sure how cold it gets in the winter being so far south but I counted my blessings of not finding out in person!

Criss-crossing the southern island of New Zealand

Besides flying into and out of the country and riding the TranzAlpine train, buses (or coaches) were my main mode of travel. I was surprised that trains were not talked about much in my readings about how to move about the country but it seems buses are the main way to get around (outside of driving).

Backtracking a little, I did not sign up for a standard guided tour but instead bought a package of transportation and accommodations based on the places I wanted to visit. The agency that helped me basically ensured the places were sequenced in a logical manner and handled the synchronization of schedules when connections were required or when special linkages to other events were needed. The package also included a couple of main attractions (like the ferry ride through Milford Sound). I really liked the idea of an independent tour, as they are called, since I wasn’t looking forward to the “confines” of a guided tour nor of driving around solo.

The “Bus/Coach Experience”

I was not sure what to expect from taking a bus around and in between towns. I was not expecting a regular public transportation bus (as I know them in the U.S. and Europe) but also was not expecting a major tour bus type. These inter city type of buses (InterCity seems to be the largest bus company around but there are others affiliated with tour companies) pretty much go everywhere and are fairly comfortable. Many will have a restroom (or “toilet”) on board and, if not, they will make frequent stops every couple of hours or so for nature breaks, food breaks, and even some photo opps. The drivers for these buses will even do some narration of what you are looking at or going through which was a very nice surprise so that you could understand better the land you are observing. Some of these drivers were a veritable fountain of facts and knowledge! The buses were also on time and some even picked you up/dropped you off at your hotel. In researching the options, there were buses that seemed to be focusing on college-aged tourists – I sensed as much and stayed away from those as I am well past that age. Make sure you understand the focus of any bus company you choose!

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Early morning view of the Tasman Sea from the southern island coastal road

Following a circuit around the south island of New Zealand

Another curious thing about doing an independent tour and using the bus system to get around in the south island is that, more likely than not, you are really following a circuit that goes something like this with variations possible: Christchurch, Greymouth, glaciers, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Te Anau, Dunedin, and back to Christchurch. Some of the variations include the Catlins, Invercargill, Stewart Island and a few other places at the very south and very north of the island. (I didn’t do the same type of travel in the north island so I am not as familiar with what a good circuit might be there.)

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Nice roads on New Zealand’s southern island

The neat thing for me was that I began to run into the same people at different stages of the circuit (people who were going counterclockwise on that circuit; the opposite direction is also possible!). Sometimes we would be in the same bus 2 or 3 places in a row. Sometimes we broke the sequence only to reconnect later in the trip. It took at least a couple of times of coinciding before really chatting them up. And I actually enjoyed running into the same people later in the trip. Grace from NJ, Chris from London, the Lees from Hong Kong, a couple from Delhi, etc. were some of those folks I ran into a few times. I also did meet other folks whom I only saw at one spot but got to chat or hang out (Ben from Tamworth and Ryan from Melbourne).

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One of the most majestic segments of the circuit – I wish I could have sat there for a few hours!

Finally, because of the various stops the buses make, you get to see a couple of smaller towns even if for a short 30 minute walk. We are talking small towns (the largest I reckon was about 4,000 people) so 30 minutes gets you at least a peek at the town center which is better than a drive-by. If you like seeing small towns, clearly driving around would be better as you can decide how long to stay somewhere but I enjoyed seeing places like Wanaka (on the shore of Lake Hawea and somewhere I would stay instead of Queenstown if I ever return!), and Hokitika near Greymouth.

Wanaka southern island New Zealand lake mountains travel nature outdoors explore Canon EOS Rebel

The town of Wanaka by the lake of the same name was peaceful and in an incredible setting

So, among the various good ways to travel the country, the bus system gets a thumbs up. And you will never be a total stranger to everyone while going around NZ!

Experiencing Majestic Fiordland

A Question

For some reason, fjords here in New Zealand are fiords.  No time to google it.  Just sharing…  In any event, I left Queenstown early in the morning to see the wonderful site that is Milford Sound in the southwest corner of the south island of New Zealand.  As the bird flies, this should have taken, I don’t know, an hour or two.  However, there is no direct route so we had to drive all around the lake by Queenstown – a VERY long lake – and backtrack to get to Milford Sound.  This took about 5 hrs or so (I am guesstimating, my memory begins to confuse the segments’ durations…).  I wondered why they would not just build a more direct route since Queenstown is such a popular destination in NZ for skiing and adventure (the adventure capital of the world, or is it of the southern hemisphere??), and Milford Sound is high on the list of must-sees in NZ.

The Answer?  (Or My Theory of It)

Well, the question answered itself along the way.  The trek to get to Milford Sound is the most beautiful of all the road scenery I had seen in the trip.  You are, the last part of the way, driving on a road flanked on either side by a mountain range with snow-capped peaks.  But I am not talking about far in the distance you see some mountains.  No, they are right next to you!

The drive, needless to say, was spectacular.  We passed a few mountains (Mt. Christina which in my mind was spelled Mt. Cristina as it made me think of my cousins named Cristina, all 3 of them; and Mt. Talbott where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for his eventual climb to Mt. Everest).  Right by Mt. Talbott we entered a tunnel where ice stalactites had formed due to water seepage and some of these would fall on the roof of the bus as we passed – quite loud and it took us all by surprise!

The well-named Mirror Lake

The well-named Mirror Lake

The zone was beginning to show the effects of the arrival of winter.  The contrast between how the zone looks in winter vs. how it looks in summer must be incredible to see.  (Mental note:  I need to go back in late spring or summer.)

Winter begins

Winter begins

During this drive, we passed the divide of the south island and the vegetation clearly became more rainforest-like as we went west over the divide.  It was neat to see the contrast.

One interesting note is that, in this area, tree avalanches are possible.  The trees along these mountains can’t develop a root system (if I recall correctly) that goes deep enough onto the mountain sides so the trees’ roots intermingle not only underground but above ground.  If a tree dies, the overall root system weakens.  With enough of this and high winds and entire group of trees can fall and it becomes a cascade of trees all the way down from wherever the avalanche started.  We saw a couple of such avalanche sites and basically you can see, just like with a mudslide, the entire section where the trees rolled down.  We were told one time it took 2 weeks to re-open the road below!

The Sound

Milford Sound is a fiord that takes about 45 minutes to traverse in one direction until it hits the open seas (this would depend on boat speed).  One can go in one of the boats that take tourists or kayak some of the way.  The former was the way I did it and I enjoyed taking in the views, seeing the waterfalls that dot the very vertical faces of the mountains along the fiord (I still want to spell it fjord; Norway on my mind?).  The Mitre mountain is the one typically shown on pictures of Milford Sound.  It is called “Mitre” because it resembles the hat of the same name worn by bishops/cardinals.  Unlike some fiords elsewhere, these are part of a national park and there is no development or habitants in the fiord.

Heading out on the boat

Heading out on the boat

Along the cruise we took, we saw seals and dolphins, the latter quite playful, following the boat, turning on the side as they swam with us, etc.  The place had a peacefulness to it that made me want to kayak it on my own, just looking around and enjoying this wonderful corner of earth called Fiordland.

The playful dolphins of the sound

The playful dolphins of the sound

Milford Sound, as far as I understand, is just one corner of the Fiordland region.  Now I want to come back and spend the same amount of time I spent in the south island in the Fiorland region!  So much to see and do, so little time…



The Adventure Capital of the World – Queenstown

Queenstown’s claim to fame, perhaps among others, is that bungy jumping was invented not far from the town.  By now, taller and scarier jumps have been created in Queenstown and elsewhere but that original bungy jump exists in the same bridge.

Now, I am not sure if Queenstown is indeed the adventure capital of the world.  For instance, I thought me eating guinea pig in Lima would make Lima the adventure capital of the world, for me at least.  But there is definitely plenty of adrenaline-pumping activities all around town as well as the more traditional and sensible activities of skiing and snowboarding.  I heard people talking about the different things they did while there an dhow much they paid and I concluded (not rocket science!) that the reputation of the city as adventure capital certainly helps the city with revenues as these adventures are not cheap!

I arrived in Queenstown at the start of the winter season after crossing a good but of the west coast of the south island from Franz Josef.  It was a beautiful drive with the only issues being some black ice once we left the coastline and headed inland – it was cold!!!  The west coast is less populated than the east coast of the south island and it showed.  Very few towns, very small if they existed.

Queenstown seemed like a metropolis after my passing through Greymouth, staying at Franz Josef, and seeing the small towns along the west coast.  We did pass some inland towns that were a little more substantial with Wanaka being one of the nicest ones (on the shores of Lake Wanaka).  It seems to attract similar type of tourists as Queenstown for skiing and other activities but it is smaller and retains a smaller town feel to it.  I would not have minded staying there and exploring…  Anyhow, back to telling you about Queenstown.  It was littered with skiers and snowboarders and all the types of businesses that cater to this crowd (average age must have been 20!).  I could have been anywhere in ski country USA – the town had that type of feel to it.  My motel was a walk away from the center of town but was very adequate and the staff was great.  As far as places to eat, I was surprised at how good a semi-hidden joint on The Mall was.  Its name was Chico’s Bar and Grille and the beef and venison pie was simlpy outstanding!  The Peregrine Saddleback pinot noir was a nice wine to drink with it.

A view from a square by the lake

A view from a square by the lake

My “Adventure” 🙂

So what adventurous activity did I undertake?  Well, all the hiking in Tasmania and at the glacier ruined my left knee to the point that days later even walking hurt.  So I had to drop my plans to ski at one of the two main sites (Coronet Peak or The Remarkables).  I was bummed.  I considered white water rafting but even with a wet suit, I could not stomach the thought of the frigid waters.  It was frigid just walking around – I had not appetite for trying the waters!   I could not just sit around all afternoon so I opted for a float and a massage.  Not adventurous?  Well, the float thing was new to me and it required getting into this sort of enclosed tank and laying there on very salty water floating in the dark for 30 mins.  That was adventurous to me!

I also got to go up the mountain right above town using a gondola for some excellent views of the town, of The Remarkables, and mountains beyond.  I do not know if the skiing is worth the trip down under but certainly viewing The Remarkables made me want to come back and get a shot at their slopes!

The Remarkables range (and the adventurer; I'm very proud of this pic!)

The Remarkables range (and an adventurer; I’m very proud of this pic!)

Flying onto and Hiking a Glacier in New Zealand!

The village of Franz Josef on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand (whew, that’s a long “address” to give for a village) exists to share the Franz Josef glacier with those who want to see it.  This glacier and neighboring Fox glacier are 2 out of 3 glaciers in the world that end in a rainforest and miss getting directly to the ocean by not much!

Now, there are numerous ways to explore the glacier:  short walks, half-day or full day hikes, heli-hikes, flyovers and perhaps more that I do not know about.  I decided that due to sore knees from earlier hikes that I should not do the full day hike. But then the helicopter ride tempted me as we would start further up the glacier plus we would do all the hiking on the glacier instead of part of it being on normal ground to get to the glacier.  I am always up for such a shortcut when the tradeoff is like this!

The helicopter flight up took less than 10 mins.  I could not tell you how long it took as I was to busy looking out and snapping pictures.  He did fly us to the top before coming back down a bit to drop us off.  In that last segment, the pilot did a nice maneuver where we were almost on our side.  Nice surprise…

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Approaching the glacier on the helicopter – a thrill!

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With our transport after arriving at the glacier

The amount of ice is unbelievable and we didn’t really get to see the top field of the glacier which must be quite expansive (and deep!).  We landed – it seems – like 2/3 of the way up the face of the glacier.  A guide had been dropped off earlier to scout the terrain that day (since the glacier moves, etc. they cannot just assume the same area will work from one day to the next) and set up the landing spot for the copter.  Once we landed, he quickly explained a few things to us (like how to use the crampons on our boots to better get a grip on the ice as we walked).  We quickly got the groove of it and began exploring.  The guide would check out the area he wanted to take us through and then we would follow.

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About to enter a cave

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Fun place!

Like this, we explored crevasses, mini-caves and open spaces.  The most exhilarating thing was getting deep into a crevasse or mini-cave and be surrounded by beautiful blue ice.  Of course, you always had to be mindful of the floor of crevasses and mini-caves as they could be at any moment just a thin layer of ice and your foot would just go right through to freezing water underneath!  That happened to a couple of folks in the group.

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Oh, oh, how do I get out of this??

glacier hike, blue ice, outdoors, adventure


Another solo traveler and I quickly clued in that it would be best if we traded cameras during the hike to snap pix of each other instead of constantly having to ask each other or others “can you take my picture?”  He did a great job of snapping pix away of me with my camera so I have a nice set of pix of me in all sorts of tight spots, etc.!

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The guide leading the pack

Franz Josef, glacier hike, New Zealand, blue ice, crampons, adventure, outdoors

About to enter a very small “cave” at the glacier

Franz Josef, glacier hike, New Zealand, blue ice, crampons, adventure, outdoors

Going through one of the most vertically challenged “caves” that we went through

After 2 hours, the helicopter came back for us and took a more direct route down than he took up.  A fellow traveler and I went to grab lunch and celebrate with a beer.  Later that evening, New Zealand was going to be playing a match of rubgy against France so we met up again at one of the few pubs/restaurants in the village to watch with the rest of the visitors.   The place was The Landing and we enjoyed the setup and the friendliness of the wait staff.

I was told that during summer, during peak tourist season, the village can get up to 3,000 visitors in one day.  In winter, the numbers are much lower but I was surprised still at the amount of visitors.  I think that the place is likely just as beautiful in the winter (though colder).  It was not really terribly cold, in fact, we had lunch outdoors that day with no heaters (but still wearing our jackets).  In the evening, it definitely got cold!

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The group

There are lots of options when visiting this glacier, or Fox glacier, on what to do.  Cost can be a key factor in choosing the activity but, if you can afford it, by all means do the heli-hike!  You will not regret this way of experiencing nature and the beauty of glacier country in New Zealand!

New Zealand – Traveling from Christchurch to Franz Josef

In order to get to the village near the Franz Josef glacier on the west coast of NZ, I had to take a train across the mountains in the center of island (which are called unofficially the southern Alps, hence the train is called the Tranz Alpine train).

This train cuts through the plains of Canterbury where Christchurch is on the eastern side of the southern island and then climbs up to Arthur’s Pass before beginning the descent towards Greymouth, a small town on the western coast where I connected to a bus that would then drive me south to Franz Josef village.

Canterbury mountain landscape in New Zealand's Southern Alps

View of the Canterbury terrain

The views were spectacular along the route.  The train had a viewing platform from which one could take pictures without the glare of the train window – but only if one was willing to freeze in the cold wind that hit the platform.

Western side of the island from the train (after crossing the southern Alps of New Zealand)

Western side of the island from the train (after crossing the Southern Alps)

The train ride was very comfortable and made a stop or two where we were allowed to get out and stretch our legs.  The train ride took about 4.5 hours.

The bus ride was also very interesting.  Bus rides here include the driver providing commentary that is quite good for a tourist.  The bus also makes several stops along the way not just to pick passengers but at some scenic spots for pictures or to take in the view.  It also makes one or two stops depending on the route and duration for people to eat something or go to the local supermarket.  This made the trip quite comfortable as one always had access to food and restrooms!  These, I learned on my next trip in the southern island, were typical of bus rides not just the one from Greymouth to Franz Josef.

View of road in New Zealand's southern island

I may become redundant at some point but the beauty of the land is incredible.  I have been to many places I have liked and it continues to amaze me how many types of natural beauty there are around the world.  What strikes me about New Zealand’s west coast is how close the different types of terrain are.  The alpine mountains and glaciers almost touch the ocean where rainforests dominate.  It is like Switzerland by the ocean, sort of (the statement probably doesn’t do justice to NZ or Switzerland but it is the best I have come up with so far!).

Arriving in the Southern Island of Middle Earth: Christchurch, New Zealand

There are so many awesome places in New Zealand but I feel Christchurch, though not one of the top 2 cities in NZ, may be the best place to hit first on a trip over (Dunedin is not far behind!).

The arrival

I arrived in Christchurch on the eastern coast of the southern island of New Zealand (where Lord of the Rings was filmed; the lands in the movie were called “Middle Earth” for those who may not be familiar with the movie!).  From the plane we flew over the southern Alps, as they are unofficially called.   In this picture, we pass over the highest peaks and you can even see a glacier coming down.  This is the view you want to see ahead of coming to NZ!

Southern Alps, New Zealand, Christchurch, glacier, nature

Glacier flowing to lower right corner of pic as I fly over the Southern Alps in New Zealand

It was around 230 PM and we were delayed getting off the plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms.  Nice.  The health person from the airport had to board the plane and do some kind of test on the passenger before any of us could get off.  I could not see exactly what he was doing but after a few minutes of whatever, we were allowed to get off the plane.  The airport claims to be the “top carbon neutral airport company in the southern hemisphere” which I found amusing for a couple of reasons, one of which is the recurrent theme in Australia and NZ of claims about a place being the “—-est” (tallest, biggest, cleanest, etc.) in the “southern hemisphere”.  Considering how little of the world is in the southern hemisphere, these claims almost seem too easy 🙂  but, heck, someone’s got to make the claim!

Besides being carbon neutral, the airport is nice and small and it was very easy to just go to the bus stop and catch bus 29 intown.  It dropped me off very close to my bed and breakfast but apparently I signaled “stop” one street too early so I walked an extra block.  No worries, extra exercise.  The streets were very pleasant and had the air of a place where people knew each other, where people felt safe, and where the pace was not too fast and not too slow – a great place to get to know NZ and, especially, the south island.

A great place to stay in Christchurch

The Orari Bed and Breakfast was in an old house and was very nice.  At 6 PM they cracked open some wine for the guests so I knew I had ample time to walk around before sunset (around 430 PM) and be back to shower, unpack and get some wine.  The room was frigid when I got there though they had turned on the standing heating unit probably just before I arrived.  I thought I would freeze that night but the standing units (there was another one) and the heating blanket worked really well.  In fact, all too well, I was burning up in the middle of the night and had to turn off the heating blanket!  It was the first time I had used one…  I was very glad with my choice of place to stay due to a great location next to an art museum but otherwise not in the middle of things, yet a short walk away from places to eat, the city center, etc.  Oh, and the staff is great!  It definitely made me feel Christchurch and NZ was putting its best foot forward to welcome me.

The Garden City

The town of Christchurch is called the Garden City and I would agree with that although it was the beginning of winter.  The “suburbs” were very nice but also the areas closer to the city center.  The city center itself was manageable and with some key sights to check out.

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The ill-fated cathedral, fatally damaged in the earthquake and now being rebuilt in Christchurch

Christchurch cathedral New Zealand earthquake southern island

Interior of the cathedral of Christchurch before it was destroyed

Christchurch square plaza chess New Zealand

A friendly game of chess in Christchurch’s main square

architecture center of Christchurch New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel

Beautiful architecture in the center of Christchurch

New Regent street in Christchurch before earthquake New Zealand Canon EOS Rebel

New Regent St. in Christchurch – seriously damaged during the earthquake

I strolled down Oxford Terrace by the small river that cuts through the town as there were a lot of restaurants/cafes/pubs along the street and I wanted to scope out where I would have dinner later that night.  I settled for a place called Sticky Fingers where I later got to enjoy a very nice Sauvignon Blanc wine from Marlborough called Cloudy Bay.  The place has a nice smart and modern ambiance.  The seating areas was very comfy and next to but separate enough from the bar area.  The food was good but I would not say stellar.  Other restaurants in the strip that caught my attention were Ferment and Liquidity.

My visit in Christchurch was short and I am going back at the end of my tour of the southern island so I should get to sample another restaurant and sip on the wine at Orari.  The tempo of the city and its charm served as a great welcome mat for this first time visitor to the magical place that is New Zealand.

(Pictures taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

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