South Island Road Trip (Part 1 of 2): Picton to Wanaka

From Wellington it is very easy to take a ferry to the South Island of New Zealand. The cost was about $500 for our little compact car and us two, and the journey was 3.5 hours long. We docked in a town called Picton and drove to Blenheim, where we stayed for two nights.

These next ten days of our trip were quite fast paced. The early morning ferry ride, drive and ‘life-admin’ took all my energy on our first night, but on the second day we celebrated New Year’s Eve by riding around on bicycles drinking wine in the Marlborough wine region, New Zealand’s largest. This is quite a way to visit wineries and sample the wine. We found one of several bike rental companies, parked our car and donned a couple of helmets. The owner of the bike rental place gave us an extensive map to follow with lots of tips about which wineries to try and which ones had food. We got pedaling and instantly felt relaxed, happy to be using our legs, and excited to try some wines. We tasted wine at No. 1 Family Estate, Whitehaven (where we bought the cleanest Pinot Grigio I’ve ever tasted), Nautilus Estate, and Forrest. We’re lightweights, so four wineries were plenty. We also had some gin somewhere along the way, and for lunch we stopped at a beer garden for wood-fired pizza. All this cycling, drinking, and eating smashed us so we went to bed early and slept while the world welcomed the new year.

The next day we drove to Havelock, a tiny little town famed for its giant green mussels. We are not sure staying in the town was necessary, and if any changes to our itinerary were to be made, it would be to eliminate a night’s stay here. However, we did enjoy our lunch (I had a vegan burger that was mouth-wateringly delicious), and our accommodation was unique. I had to climb a ladder to get to my bed. Not my favourite, but certainly memorable.

Next, we made the trip to Nelson, my favourite spot in all New Zealand. It’s just a city, but I really liked it. It had every sort of shop or restaurant you could ever want, our accommodation was at the home of an antique dealer and was so, so, cool. And, it was close to the Abel Tasman National Park, which I thought was beautiful. While in Nelson we went to the art gallery, did some shopping, and walked up to see the ‘center of New Zealand’ atop Botanical Hill. It was a short and steep climb which had me panting and sweating more than I had planned. I was rewarded with great views and plenty of tui sightings, my new favourite bird.

The next day we got to see and experience Abel Tasman National Park in full. We did a boat and hike combo along the coast. There are several options of how you can spend your time, but we opted to spend the morning on a boat, one of my favourite past times, and then use the afternoon to do a hike, one of Callum’s. The day dawned grey and gloomy. We drove from Nelson to Kaiteriteri, about an hour away. We parked and found our ferry check-in. There were heaps of people standing in line waiting to check in or hopeful of an available booking. This is the sort of thing that needs to be booked in advance during the summer months, as we noticed some people being turned away from each company.

We boarded our boat and were tickled pink by the rough seas and roller-coaster bumps and dips. We’re both fortunate not to be sea-sick, so I’m not being facetious when I say we enjoyed ourselves. Not so for other sea-faring guests, however, as they were offered to be let off the vessel before their planned departure since the ride was so rough. We didn’t mind. We rode up the coast as far as Totaranui, then were taken back down the same route and got off at Medlands Beach, which took about 2 hours. From Medlands, we walked backwards to see Bark Bay, then forwards again to Anchorage Bay, about 7kms and in total 9 kms. It was very fortunate that our day dried out and brightened up so that we could fully enjoy the walk along this beautiful coastline. Once back at Anchorage Bay, we had time for a rest and a dip in the water, I did a little painting, and then we were picked up by the last boat of the day to take us back to Kaiteriteri. It was a splendid day enjoying nature and one of my favourite activities we did. The walk was at times hot and sweaty, but I enjoyed the exercise because we were mostly in the shade, and we had plenty of viewpoints where we got to appreciate the view. I highly recommend spending a full day in this area of New Zealand.  Some people do multi-day hikes and camp at the available campgrounds along the way. This is something we would definitely do if we lived in Nelson.

After this lovely day we drove to a new location which I could never pronounce properly: Punakaiki (POO-nah-KIY-kee). This was also a favourite of mine. This tiny little seaside village has fewer than 100 permanent residents. Our Airbnb host said it was just he and his wife and one neighbour on their street. The plethora of information from him in the 20-minute conversation we had attested to this fact. We settled in for a bit and then went out to see the main attraction: the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. This is a section of coastline which is made up of a natural phenomenon of layers of rock that look like stacked pancakes. These layers occur when fossils are deposited on the seabed and covered in weaker layers of mud. Pressure is put on these layers and over 30 million years later, we see the pancake rocks. I loved the landscape and couldn’t stop snapping my shutter. We also spotted a New Zealand pigeon (Kererū), a giant and beautiful bird, and white-fronted terns which gathered on the beach in large flocks. We witnessed the adults fishing and bringing their chicks their catch.

After Punakaiki we went to spend a night in Hokitika, the point being to stay at an accommodation with laundry facilities. We attempted walking the Hokitika Gorge, but it was rainy and cloudy, and we couldn’t see much. We also stayed in Franz Joseph to see the glacier, and were a bit disappointed by the rainy weather. However, the following day we drove to Fox Glacier and did a 6km hike to see it as close up as we could, which wasn’t that close, but since the sun was shining, we didn’t mind.

We then made the long journey to Wanaka. We didn’t stay in Wanaka itself and regretted it, because this was another little town that we fell in love with. We stayed in the nearby Albert Town and drove into Wanaka to shop, sight-see, and dine. Our accommodation was lovely, but it had the teensiest ‘kitchenette’…more like a kitchenette-ette, it was so small, cooking in it was most unpleasant. We ended up eating out a couple of times while there. Wanaka is on the lake of the same name, and is where we spent many hours soaking up the sun, cooling in the shade, swimming in the lake with the Canada geese (I like to call them ‘Canadian Geese’), and taking pictures at the famous Wanaka Tree.

Also while in Wanaka we ran into Callum’s work friend Ben and his wife Rosie and we had dinner with them. They were on their own New Zealand adventure and it worked out to meet up with them on the one day our itineraries lined up. It was neat to see other people and compare notes with each other.

One of our days in Wanaka we drove out to do the Rob Roy Glacier Walk. The trail head was about an hour’s drive away from our Airbnb and included 30 kms of gravel road and several river crossings. In the summer it is completely doable to drive this yourself, as our little Toyota Vitz managed beautifully. The gravel slows people down, but we did 70-80km/hr comfortably, and the rivers were deep puddles that our little rental was more than able to cope with. Some people read up on this drive and get spooked and opt for the pricey shuttle services on offer. Thankfully, Callum is very good at researching things and figured we’d be fine. He was right.

The trail was easy at first, following the river along and crossing a bridge. Then, it gets steep quite quickly and though we were shaded in the forest, the warmth of the day had me hot and out of breath quickly. We stopped a lot for breaks and got up to what I thought was the top. I stopped and we had lunch near the water, enjoying the sun and the view of the glacier. Callum decided to walk the ten extra minutes and didn’t come back for nearly an hour. He came back down and told me I obviously hadn’t read his mind, which was to quit being a sissy and just walk up. He told me I would regret it if I didn’t do it. I walked up with him, and the view was certainly beautiful. I am glad I made it all the way but I was also pretty tired.

My shoes weren’t working out for me, and I was starting to get worried. We had done a few smaller hikes up until then and I was starting to suspect I would not cope on the longer hikes that were coming up soon on our itinerary. Halfway down the mountain I took out my inserts and was instantly able to go twice as fast. The thing with plantar fasciitis is that sometimes you need inserts and sometimes they make it worse.

After our 11kms hike that took us from 9:30am-3pm, we chilled out by the lake, ate the best burgers in all of New Zealand (from a food truck!) and got some groceries before heading ‘home’. The next day Callum went for a morning hike to see Diamond Lake and came home for lunch. Then, we went shoe shopping. I tried on a zillion pairs of shoes and finally bought a pair that were kind of expensive. The shop worker told me she and all her colleagues had the same exact ones, saying they were the best. I wished she had told me from the start, but, on the other hand I might have wondered if some for half the price would be good enough. Having tried on literally every hiking boot they had (about twenty pairs) I knew the ones I chose were the best. It was a real gamble buying brand new hiking boots the day before an epic hike. It was a gamble I am glad I took.

Highlights for RachelHighlights for Callum
Nelson & Abel TasmanAbel Tasman
Pancake Rocks at PunakaikiRob Roy Glacier
Lake WanakaWanaka in general

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