Below are all the towns we stayed in during our stint in the South Island as well as our favorite, and least favorite, memories of each.
As our plane neared the Queenstown airport, snowcapped mountains engulfed the windows of our airplane as if clouds were pierced with ornamented drink umbrellas in the form of mountain tops. For those of you who have been to the airport in Jackson Hole, this place is a distant cousin of an image. The silver and white mountains fit nicely into the majestic pink sky as we walked the tarmac. A welcomed briskness of legitimate cold weather smothered our faces, too. Once we collected our bags our next task was to find out how we were getting to our hotel in the most economical way possible. Thinking we’d take the city bus we were sorely mistaken as the best way to get to the city was by van transport. All negotiation tactics were muted by this local driver’s know-how of the town, its bus routes, transfers and costs. We soon realized that these Kiwis are very much a take-it-or-leave type of folk.
Okay so just imagine the most picturesque ski resort town lined with those famous jagged wintery mountains, clear blue waters pristinely dotted with a vintage 103 year old steam boat and perfectly flanked by grey pebble beaches. To top of it all off, Queenstown is home to the adventure seeker. If there is a rope to dangle from, a cliff to jump off or a speed boat to cling to, it will be done in this optimally named ‘The Adventure Capital of The World.” It seemed everyone was looking to stare death in the face, so we decided to buy a local Sauv Blanc and sit on the beach and watch the beauty of Queenstown unfold.
We closed our short stay and started the beginning of our RV adventure with one heck of a meal. Everyone we asked highly recommended The Flame and we were gladly filled to the brim with the finest New Zealand ribs and steak. It was time to leave this story book dream park and hit the road. We had no idea what was ahead but were ready for some serious exploring of the Kiwi backyard.
In Australia and New Zealand, it’s commonplace to rent an RV and explore the wide-open roads. And in some cases, you can get lucky and take advantage of what’s called a ‘vehicle relocation’ where the daily fee is a fraction of the normal cost as long as the origin and destination coincide with what the RV company is looking for, and in a set amount of time. We took advantage of the relocation opportunity and happily volunteered to transport a 2 berth, self-contained campervan from Queenstown to Christchurch. By self-contained, we have our own shower and toilet, and in our van they are one in the same. The drive was captivating. We felt like we were in the misty mountain hop. The drizzling showers couldn't put a damper on the sky high snow-covered mountains striped with equally high waterfalls cascading downward. The beauty we passed through was insane. Much of Lord of the Rings was filmed through the mossy dense forests and gorgeous backdrop we drove through. We pulled into the only and last lodge near Milford Sound and took one of their last two available spaces. Despite the relentless drizzle, Leah's camping ingenuity hooked us up with power, running water and a hot meal as if she had a gourmet kitchen. Then we fell asleep to the sound of raindrops and our awesome little heater humming warmth.
Bright and early the next morning, we got on the Lady Bowen to cruise the famous Milford Sound. Every bit of it lived up to the hype in terms of beauty and amazement. And to top it off, the captain pulled our boat up a gushing waterfall so we could fill our glasses with New Zealand’s fresh mountain spring water.
Cromwell…. Well, we managed to roll in there after a drive that took most of the day to their finest RV Holiday Park establishment, that we think was their only one. And maybe Leah pretended she was asleep so we didn’t have to pay the extra fee. Hey, budgets get tight at times, which is when you have to exercise that cleverness. Gassed from being on the road most of the day, we were happy to have a place to post up at, plus we couldn’t manage the dimly (not) lit roads any longer. Also, one of the best aspects of this location was it was a nine iron away from some of the South Island’s best wineries, a field trip we were starting to be accustom with. The standout winery was Northburn Station that had the most spectacular grounds including mountains, a lake with a little wooden boat and a beautiful stone building. But the wine was even better than the view, and the most ironic part was we visited on the last day this place would be in business. Bought out by one of those large champagne factories, this ‘lil mom and pop was closing its doors. If you ever see a bottle, grab it!
After seeing pictures of a vivacious lake of a crisp minty-teal, we were sold on our first crack at what they call ‘Freedom Camping.’ Since New Zealand is fairly used to the campervan mode of transportation, they’ve created specific guidelines for those who feel like their campervan should be docked anywhere in nature’s beauty. After searching for the best place we could be amongst nothing but the soil and stars, we decided this heavenly lake would be more than adequate. After some wrong turns and unexpected stop-offs for their fresh catch salmon sashimi, melting in your mouth more than an M&M ever could, we found our spot. We had to navigate a Flinstone-esque bedrock to creep towards the waters’ edge, but it was well worth our pseudo-4x4’ing to get to our private slice of land. There we watched one of the more gripping sunsets until a sky full of luminous stars was the only thing we saw. Sure we parked the car uphill so we could let the greywater we didn’t know how to empty drain out (thanks again Britz campervan rentals), but the angle we slept at it was overpowered by the wide angle of our grins for such a romantic evening with nature.
Our destination from the moment we grabbed the keys to our camper in Queenstown, we were told tales of how this once bustling town was devastated by an earthquake, which still has left it’s aftershock in the form of the disbelief and slow reclamation of the locals. Seeing as this area was much more populated than most of our South Island travels, it was quite the adventure finding a parking spot appropriate enough for this miniature home-on-wheels of ours. Sadly, that was one of the highlights of our experience there, unless you count the vending machine that dispensed french fries with a shaker of salt (salt! … salt!) chained to it at our holiday park. Our curiosity never materialized to actual purchase power for one of our favorite foods, but we sense a future business opportunity on the horizon. This more than small town has the DNA of a cool spot, but needs some TLC to get there…
After we scored a sensational deal with our relocation campervan we thought our transportation luck had run out, but in fact, it had just begun. The main car rental companies had stacked the deck with expensive options except for our friends at Omega. Fingers crossed, we found our way to their location and met a spunky gal who wanted nothing more than to help us. There, we secured another relocation for $1 a day for the four days we’d need the vehicle. We kid you not. The credit card fee matched the price we paid to take out one of their Mazda joyrides. Playing with house money at this point, we were in good spirits even when we lost out on any and all lodging deals aside from the Top 10 holiday park, which featured nothing more than four walls and the steady sounds of locomotives trading off with the nearby highway.
Nothing mattered for we were still paying 100 Australian cents for our car and it peddled us to the Marlborough wine region, which was sinfully delicious. Nautilus took our hearts with such fine precision in their craft so much that even the uppity woman pouring our experience couldn’t divert our attention away from their fine wines. If you do find yourself in the Blenheim area, and you should, take a peek at Giesen and Johanneshof Cellars as well. But don’t expect much from the reds, as the whites dominate this region and for that matter, all of Kiwi-nation.
Located in the actual center of all of New Zealand, we, and an elementary school field trip, took in the impressive compactly sprawled town. Tucked away between Abel Tasman National Park and Picton, the gateway to the North Island, Nelson emits a feeling of incredible balance. Its hills upon hills of rolling green that only end to make way for the translucent blue ocean. But this rad little hippie-woodsman-charming town has a special place in both of our hearts and it all starts and ends with the local hostel and hang out bar, The Prince Albert. Owned by a couple world travelers and California lovers, Mike (and his wife, who we didn’t get the pleasure to meet) made our stay there truly special. He told us to make it back in time after sight-seeing for the trivia night. After some debating on our New Zealand knowledge, we rolled in and joined up with a pub regular (local legend, “Chris”) and having more game than Parker Bros., we took home THE WIN and a free dinner plus bar tab. Basking in the glory we decided to cancel our plans the next day and stay just one more night.
All of a sudden the earth is shaking. Hard. It stops, we’re confused then the shaking comes back, but its way stronger this time. The youth hostel we just arrived at is rattling, the roof and deck is shifting and we’re perched upon a steep hill above the ocean. Yep, it’s an earthquake. A little freaked out, we gather with the owner and others and wait out the 6.2 jarring we just endured. But as astounding as this was, what rivaled that experience was the batch of mussels, broth and seriously transcendent bread we ate in this port town. This place was only supposed to be a stop-over for us, but we were pleasantly surprised with the stunning views and great seafood. Knowing our stint in the South Island was quickly approaching, we longed for our boat ride to Wellington to start our journey to the North!