The ferry from Wellington to Picton in itself is an experience worth it. The journey was pleasant and relaxed with a picturesque view of the Cook Strait to entertain us, with plenty of photo-ops along the way. Three hours later we hit the shores of the South Island in the tiny town of Picton. Our second rental car, a Toyota Previa, was waiting for us right outside the terminal. We couldn't spend too much time in Picton since our accommodation for the night was in the lovely port side city of Nelson, a couple of hours drive away.
We stayed at a beautiful colonial 19th century cottage just outside the main town. We had just enough time for dinner and as usual food did not disappoint as we munched away at the Styx Kitchen right alongside the Nelson harbour. Nelson has quite a pretty town center with a beautiful boulevard and quaint streets with boutique shops all along. A morning stroll was the perfect way to start our first full day in the South Island.
Target for the day was Punakaiki and the first stop on the way was a small family owned Te Mania vineyard. After some wine tasting and a conversation about cricket to an Italian lady at the shop; they kindly let us explore the grape wines that produce their wines. The Nelson area is a boutique wine producing region, supposed to be one of the finest in Oceania and is definitely worth a trip for wine lovers. Plenty of vineyards dot the landscape for you to drop in.
As we proceeded, a roadside signboard prompted us to take an unplanned serendipitous detour to the Nelson lakes campsite. The Rotoroa lake was lovely and felt almost exclusive to us, with few people around. After a generous intake of the lovely scenery and some conversations with local cyclists (who were on a month long trail across New Zealand) we were back on the road again.
Punakaiki was a small village right on the edge of the Paparoa national park. We stayed in a charming forest lodge, the Te Nikau retreat. A short trek down the lodge and you are presented with a small and picturesque beach. Unsurpringly it was almost deserted and with a view worthy of a postcard. Time just drops still with no distractions except for the soothing sound of sea kissing the shore. On the way back we took the Truman track, a short 2km trek within a subtropical forest amidst native bushes and trees.
Punakaiki is famous for a natural rock formation called the Pancake rocks, which of course looks like a stack of pancakes rising from the sea. There's a lovely restaurant (probably the only one in the area) eponymously named the Pancake Rocks Cafe right next to these rocks and that's where we had our dinner. We were treated to a earthy music session while enjoying our food. We were even invited to have a go of our own; but with none of the group having singing skills the smart thing was to politely decline.
Next stop - Franz Josef. We stayed at a charming country house surrounded by lush green farms. A lovely elderly couple were our hosts; they, their cute dogs and sheeps were the highlight of the stay. The owner was also into the dying art of handcrafted jade carvings and it was interesting listening to him about his craft.
A slightly hurried trip into the town later, our next adventure was a helicopter ride to the top of the Franz Josef glacier. It was my first time in a chopper and that added to the general excitement of soaring into the skies with pristine clear glaciers below us. Playing around on the ice on the roof of New Zealand was one more surreal experience to the list.
The beautiful picturesque country roads continued as we drove down to Tekapo. A small settlement on the side of a serene turquoise lake, Tekapo is another NZ spot with scenery to die for. This time the stay was special too. We were glamping (something like a fancy tent) on the shores of the lake. It didn't feel as remote or as cozy as we thought it would be; but the views and short walks around made up for it. A big attractions in Tekapo is the Mt.John observatory which has a lovely cafe on the top of a hill which provides a grand eagle-eye view of the plains and lakes below. Another lovely spot for postcard views is the Church of the Good Shepherd; an old school stone building with the lake in its background.
We drove further up to the small settlement of the Aoraki village, which is in the foothills of Mt.Cook the highest mountain in New Zealand. The village also features a museum dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary, with the mountain said to be his favourite. A bronze statue of him with a stoic look towards the mountain that glistens in gold with the morning light is a sight to behold.
But the real treat of it all was the night sky. Being part of a UNESCO dark sky reserve with zero light pollution, for the first time in our lives we got to see how the milky way looks like. And for once it struck me the aptness of naming our galaxy that very name. No camera could capture that sight; and if for nothing else; our trip was worth those few hours under the stars.
Next stop was Wanaka, a small town near a lake. The place has one unique artefact; a lonely little tree on the edge of the lake which is apparently New Zealand's most instagrammed frame. One visit there and we could see why - the number of photographers trying to get that special click was more interesting than the tree itself.
But even more of serendepituous incident was meeting one of my ex-colleagues from my time in Germany after a gap of almost 10 years. It was almost unbelievable that after all these years we would randomly (and unplanned) meet thousands of miles away from both our homes.
Another unforgettable moment was a chance to fly an airplane for a few minutes. Wanaka has a small airport and there's a company that offers a chance to let you fly a plane along with a certified instructor for around 20 minutes. Unplanned it was, and grateful that we stumbled on this as well. What's more, even got a certificate attesting to my 0.3 hrs of flying time to boot!
The last leg of our trip and we had finally reached Queenstown; the tourism capital of NZ. We had 3 days to spend here and there are plenty of things to do around there for much more than that. Our stay was in an airbnb again; this time a small apartment with vistas to kill for.
Queenstown city itself has a few things to offer, and an easy must-do is just relaxing on the long lakeside shore. Equip yourself with a burger from the small shop called the Ferg burger in the town center and you are all set. There is also a super fun unique adrenaline pumping downhill luge ride which I highly recommend.
The highlight though was a drive to Milford Sound; an ocean sound 4hrs away; once described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world. Remote even by NZ standards, the journey to get there itself is an experience with certified great scenery as always. We took a short cruise to explore the area and also try our luck to see some fauna. Well, lady luck was smiling that day and we got to see a lot of unique wildlife including some rare penguins. Even the cruise operators were surprised at how lucky we were to get to see more than what they advertised.
Once back; the next day we headed towards Arrowtown a historical mining community with well preserved old structures. Our initial plan was to relax in our rooms considering this was our last day before heading back to Auckland and then home. As an after thought though, we decided to hop to Glenorchy which was just about an hour away. What a wonderful decision that was! That place was simply spellbinding - with sunrays peeking from under the clouds and illuminating patches of land with glorious colors; a thin blanket of fog kissing the lake; an old pier and boathouse; a small little village with a couple of quaint cafes - this was out of the world. A fitting end to our tryst with a truly magical country!