Bitches lookin’ at me strange but you know I don’t care,
Step up in this motherf*cker just a-swangin’ my hair — New Zealand National Anthem.
ADVENTURES IN NEW ZEALAND
After Cuba, Roam About Wife and I spent the rest of 2016 worshipping the cult of the Danish hygge. You don’t have to look this concept up, just know it’s essentially the love sandwich of flannel slippers, early bedtimes and a potty-trained puppy.
One day, as we begrudgingly slipped out of our onesies and into public clothes, I asked wife a very challenging question: “Want to like, get out of the house and maybe go to New Zealand or something?”
“How long’s the flight?” She asked.
“Just a smidgen longer than a trip to L.A.”
North Island: Four Hundred Hours Later
Peter Jackson has forgotten to pick us up from the Wellington airport. This is some Grade-A bullshit. I thought he was the official welcomer/Uber driver of the…hup! There’s giant Gandalf riding a massive eagle hanging from the airport ceiling! Rad! That’ll do! Well played, Sir P.J. Well played.
First impressions of Wellington, outside the ALL shall pass from Gandalf, garner comparisons of a quaint, breezy San Francisco. The city’s rolling green hillsides are dotted with cute, Victorian houses overlooking an overcast downtown/the vast harbor. The main hub-bub of Wellington is compact, clean, with impeccable design and aesthetic with an ever-present Māori influence.
“New Zealand is Australia’s more mature, nonvenomous cousin.”
We toss our bags in the euro-boutique hotel Gourmet Stay and take a stroll down Cuba Street, named after a settler ship named after the country. Visions of Pearl Street in Boulder, St. Marks in NYC with thrift chic shops, restaurants, bars, and buskers too cool to play anything off Dr. Dre’s 2001. Where’s the Rhymenoceros when you need him.
We make it to the waterfront for a quick, windy chat with mother ocean, loop back around to the delicious tapas joint Havana Bar, which is essentially two bright, Cuban-centric houses squished between towering high rises.
Inside is a smattering of Havana/Fidel decor. Echoes of our real trip to Cuba. There’s a Brit bartender, an Aussie server slinging tapas to a couple of clean American kids—where are all the real Kiwis?
Beers, berbere spiced chicken liver parfait with barberry jelly, halloumi and roasted pepper grilled cheese and 167 travel hours KOs us as we barely make it back to Gourmet Stay to sleep sweet sheep dreams.
Brisk morning hike up Mount Victoria. Dogs, runners, bikers — smells good up here. New Zealand has a great smell. Chicago might be the Windy City but if we’re speaking globally, Chicago’s wind (and smell) is a whispery toot compared to Wellington’s. At the top of Mount Victoria, we’re met with a stern, foot-planting wind.
According to my trusty windometer (read: my index finger) this is just a normal, easy-breezy day. This explains our sideways landing the day before.
After our hike, we finally meet with a true Kiwi in my friend Aimee, who I haven’t seen in 17 years. Without divulging how ancient we truly are, Aimee was one of our high school’s foreign exchange students pre-cellphone era. She dated one of my best friends back then, we all hit it off, and her and I have kept in contact via homing pigeon and later, Facebook.
Aimee graciously plays tour guide for the day – taking us to a yummy lunch spot overlooking the beach, right next to the airport called the Spruce Goose. After some delicious local salmon and a quick aerial show from the NZ Air Force of one (literally a passenger 747 with a ‘NZ Air Force’ sticker on it) we take a drive along the Esplanade through Houghton Bay, with veiled views of the rocky, foggy coastline and up to a misty overlook.
Back in town. Day drinking. Touring. Te Papa museum where there’s a larger-than-life exhibit around beetles that murder adversaries by squirting lava out their butts.
Drinks at the Crab Shack (not Joe’s), amazing pork belly gnocchi lunch at Ombra, more drinks at the Star Wars nerdery bar Golding’s Free Dive (where I become infatuated with a peat-smoked Golden Ale from Yeastie Boys that’s impossible to get in the US).
Hours later, full belly buzz, we say our goodbyes and promise not to wait 17 years to see each other again. Bye, Aimee. Thanks again for the touring.
The flight from Wellington to the South Island reveals a much sexier side to NZ.
Queenstown is a fascinating mix of UK, Maine, Pacific Northwest and a heaping dose of something uniquely New Zealand. We soak up the lake/mountain goodness on a slow jaunt around the Queenstown Gardens, satisfied in our decision to use this as a jumping point for South Island adventures.
The clouds open up, and we find refuge from the deluge under a little outdoor tented restaurant called Taco Medic. This place deserves the one or two click-throughs they’ll get from this blog (their fried chicken taco was the best thing I ate the entire trip). No, I haven’t been paid by Taco Medic to advertise, but if I say Taco Medic once more, I get free tacos next time I visit. Taco Medic.
We stay at the Dairy Private Hotel – an English, boutique b&b style joint. It’s a warm and cozy place and we’re the youngest occupants by a long shot, but our elderly sleepanions nonchalantly swap stories of breaking vertebrae and clavicles in mountain biking accidents to add to tales of great white shark hunting and Thai knife fights.
I nod, having nothing to volley with except that I’ve just burnt the tip of my tongue on steaming hot coffee. Death by a thousand tongue tip burns, eh guys? Hahaha! Ow, that smarts…
Hike bike paddle yak give this guy some wine.
The word of New Zealand adventure is ‘undulating’.
We grab a couple of mountain bikes from Queenstown Bike Tour, which is really located in the adorable former mining village of Arrowtown. Nikki, the co-proprietor of the company, tells us the path to wine glory is “easy, with slight undulations”. For folks from the pancake state of Ohio, undulating is pretty intense at times with some difficult steeply graded cliff-skirting curves and sphincter-puckering suspension bridges.
None of it really matters. The scenery riding into this valley is just stunning and reveals a fertile swathe of land to rival the production and tastes of Napa.
We contemplate bungee jumping off the bridge that started the fad, but after witnessing a few purposeful river dunks at the end of the jump, we balk and instead move to Gibbston Winery; a bit touristy, but who cares when wine, cheese, fish stew is on menu. We RoamAbouts mount up again, continue on to Peregrine winery for more vino and to play out a couple of scenes from James Bond movies to pair with the evil lair look of the place. We start petering-out early due to the booze, intense rays and bike trails.
Some of the views in NZ are impossible to convey in words and even harder to fully capture on camera. Around every corner is another postcard. At times the surrounding beauty is all-encompassing and overwhelming. That said, this is the epic Lord of the Rings shit I had waited for and here are some of my feeble attempts at capturing:
The Mt. Cook/Aoraki Track is a fun 3.5 hour drive from Queenstown. A comparable stretch of road would be Needles Highway running through Custer, South Dakota, or the later levels of Rad Racer 2 for three hours straight.
The road ends in a parking lot. Nowhere else to go, nothing left to do but get out and hike. Not really knowing what to expect, the surprise ending of this three-mile trek is so very worth it: the Hooker Glacier terminus, feeding a milky blueish/grey lake with floating icebergs framed by Mount Cook. Pure, unmatched beauty.
Next day, we stay a bit closer to Queenstown heading an hour northwest towards Glenorchy side of the Routeburn Track along the aptly named Paradise highway. Or, it’s Māori name which roughly translates to —Don’t Look at the Really Pretty Stuff to the Left or Right Because You’ll Drive Into it and Explode.
The Routeburn Track just doesn’t seem real. It’s a 20 mile, four-day through-hike (which we did about a quarter of) but the entire experience you’re expecting to see some Jim Henson creature pop out from behind a mossy tree and break out into a song.
The best part of this hike is that you can frolic and lick everything in sight without repercussions because New Zealand is Australia’s more mature, nonvenomous cousin. Nothing is trying to kill you here and everything tastes like cotton candy dreams.
Not to be outdone by its quiet, Glenorchy tail, the Routeburn Track trail head on the Milford Sound side looks like something straight out of the movie Fern Gully.
Verdant, breathing rainforest. Deep inhales. Scrambling club mosses and wheki ferns. Meditation fantasies. Mindfulness. The grating sounds of a Chinese family scraping a push-stroller up the steep rocky path?
After a exhilarating hike, we head through a massive tunnel where kea birds glide above/through the enormity, waiting for cars to stop to peck at, well, anything (we saw a little boy sitting in an idle car get straight beaked in the forehead by one of these cheeky birds). And here we are – the last leg of the New Zealand trip in Milford, giving us a front row seat to the end of the world.
The surrounding mountains are so vast; the water so smooth, it creates this weird dwarfing effect, making everything look smaller and closer than it actually is. Take a look at the pic I snapped above and you can just make out the curvature of the Earth in the water. That’s because the mountains in the distance are five miles away! Science!
We splash, as they say, for a private river chalet at the lovely, modern Milford Sound Lodge.
The chalet has this giant window below looking directly into a dreamy landscape of fog and green and waterfalls, but is also a giant window into our room and my endlessly naked booty for viewing by the folks walking by.
Just like Routeburn, walking around in Milford just doesn’t look real. If there was a theme to the trip, it would be this: continually questioning the reality of one’s surroundings.
What the pics above don’t capture is the country’s chill, tropical island vibe. It takes a moment to calibrate with this pace—to slow down and enjoy the stunning scenery with a glass of local pinot noir, yet, if you want, you can also jump off a bridge or paraglide from a mountain for kicks. Your choice. All good.
We literally went through the Queenstown airport without having to go through security. They ticket takers curled their noses at us when we asked if we needed to take off our shoes/belts…
“You can, but please don’t.”
This laxed ‘tude combined with a sense-spoiling landscape dreamworld; New Zealand quickly ascended to the top of our favorite country list.
Until next time when we’ll be gorging on some low-country cuisine in Charleston, SC.