I wrote this last night but the internet was too slow to load so some parts may be out of context now.
After our morning white water rafting on Saturday, we picked up our rental car in Queenstown and hit the road. Mike was a little nervous to drive
on the left side of the road and probably more nervous to SIT on the right side of the car, but he did a great job of navigating the crazy traffic in Queenstown to get us out of the city. It was definitely an adjustment for me as well to sit on the left side of the car, but clearly nothing like it would be to drive on the “wrong” side of the road.
Our friend James from our Milford Trek tour let us in on a great secret – instead of purchasing the navigation system from the car rental company, we simply purchased a New Zealand SIM card and a prepaid plan so that we would have access to the internet and local phone calls while on the road. This meant that not only could we easily get directions from anywhere, if something were to happen, we’d also have access to a phone to call for help. Definitely a relief.
The 3 hour drive to Mt. Cook took us about 4 hours, as we took our time, stopping about 4 times. We stopped at two scenic lookouts, 1 fruit stand (to purchase avocados, oranges and chocolate covered almonds!) and the grocery store to pick up supplies to cook at our hostel. After eating every meal out (although on the trek we made sandwiches and overall the meals were really healthy so it didn’t necessarily feel like we were always eating out), we were looking forward to cooking something of our own. Most hostels have a kitchen but I’ve actually never cooked my own dinner on the road (in Asia it was way too cheap to eat out to think to cook your own meal so they didn’t have kitchens).
Once we arrived in Mt. Cook village, which the guidebook promised overlooked the tallest mountain in New Zealand, which also happens to be a glacier, were a little disappointed that the view wasn’t as epic as we hoped. Later, we learned it was definitely due to the fact that it was raining and overcast. We had a beer (a New Zealand IPA -the best beer we’ve had here yet) at the hostel’s cafe which overlooked the glaciers, did our first batch of laundry of the trip, and then cooked our dinner in the very crowded hostel kitchen where the other tourists battled us for pots, pans, silverware and counter space while eyeing each other’s food like we were all contestants on Top Chef. It was not the relaxing situation we had imagined but we survived.
The next day everything changed in Mt. Cook. The sun was trying to break through and although we still couldn’t see the peak of Mt. Cook itself, the surrounding glaciers and mountains beauty shone through. We decided to run the Hooker Trail (plus the 2.5 miles or so from our hostel to the start of the path), the most well known hike in the area and also the longest, as our first run back after CIM, as it had been nearly 2 weeks since the race and we were itching for a run. It was seriously the most beautiful run of my life. Although we did have to slow and walk some sections due to other people on the path and stairways, we ran the majority of the approximately 8 mile trail. We did stop and take photos of course, ran slow and took our time, savoring every moment. We were out there for nearly 2.5 hours and it was an absolutely great start to the day. At first my legs felt a bit heavy but at some point early on, I started to feel good. It just felt amazing to be running again.
We headed to a late lunch and then explored the Hermitage hotel, one of the most well known hotels in New Zealand for it’s epic view of Mt. Cook (our hostel had the same view for 1/4 the price…but, let’s keep that our secret). We made a dinner reservation for that night at the fine dining restaurant at the hotel and then went back and relaxed during the afternoon. That evening the clouds disappeared just in time for our romantic dinner with a view and we finally saw the peak of Mt. Cook.
The next morning we were due to drive to our next destination, but first we headed to another valley near Mt. Cook for about an hour hike, with the best part being the amazing view of a glacial lake with Mt. Cook (again, unshielded) in the background. Then we made the 6 hour drive to Kaikoura, a small beach town on the East coast known for epic whale and dolphin watching. The 6 hour drive turned into 9 thanks to our various stops in small towns as well as Christchurch for lunch. The views were spectacular for nearly the entire drive and the countless cows, sheep, horses and deer (they farm deer here) kept us company. We explored Kaikoura when we arrived in our favorite way – by taking a walk and then ending up at a local pub where we shared a beer sampler and dined on the catch of the day and fish and chips (Kaikoura is known for great seafood).
Because we didn’t book in advance, we weren’t able to do the dolphin swim that was recommended (apparently you can swim with up to 200 dolphins). In the end, we had a wonderful day and didn’t regret missing it. Our only full day in Kaikoura was spent first with a short run (50 minutes or so including stopping for pictures) on a path near the beach in the morning, coffee at a cafe near the beach (I actually haven’t been drinking coffee since Auckland so this was a treat!), a walk, lunch on an outdoor patio at a cafe serving amazing vegetarian food, and then a drive down the coast to find a beach which apparently didn’t exist.
The greatest surprise was after we returned from our beach hunt, we ended up at the end of the peninsula which was supposed to have seals. We saw a path and headed up it, thinking it was just to a look out, and ended up on this amazingly beautiful cliffside trail that wound around the peninsula, often cutting deep through wheat colored fields (we did see the seals from afar) We kept walking for nearly an hour before deciding to turn around – nearly pinching ourselves the whole way. It was simply stunning.
Now we’re just about to make ourselves dinner at the hostel (this hostel has 3 kitchens and about 1/4 of the occupants so it’s much more peaceful to cook here) and then get an early night before heading to Nelson for Christmas. We have some bikes booked tomorrow (which is Christmas Eve) to ride around New Zealand’s most famous wine region for tastings and a family style Christmas dinner reserved for Christmas Day. We’ll be sad to be away from family on my birthday and Christmas (we miss you all and wish you were here!), but we know there will be many more holidays spent together.
Merry Christmas everyone!