On the final day, art

Christchurch, New Zealand

Our room rate included a continental breakfast, which was mediocre at best. The croissants were stale and the brewed coffee would not have won any awards. Given the accolades that the George has received, it was a bit disappointing.

On this, the final day of our two-week trip through New Zealand, we focused on art, starting at the Christchurch Art Gallery, a beautifully designed yet completely bizarre place. The gigantic inflatable finger in the lobby might have been our first sign that this museum would have us questioning the definition of “art.” (Similar to my experience at MUMOK in Vienna.)

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The Arts Center was much more up our alley. Formerly University of Canterbury, the gothic building has been transformed into a cooperative, with independent artists setting up small studios within. We purchased some gifts from a local potter before heading back to the hotel.

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High Street and SOL Square is the fashionable part of Christchurch, so we headed there next to look at the terribly unfashionable clothing boutiques and small art galleries. Nood, a furniture store specializing in mid-century modern furnishings, was selling a really cool George Nelson clock at a great price. It was too good to pass up.

Now, I’ve just got to figure out how the heck to haul it home.

Returning to the George, we walked through central Cathedral Square, where alongside the namesake Christchurch, a modern conical sculpture had been built to commemorate the millennium. Inside, a choir practiced and intricate stained-glass windows lined the walls.

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The saleswoman at Global Culture (cool t-shirts) recommended an Italian place on Columbo Street for dinner. Café Valentino had a hearty seafood chowder (“It’s yummmmmy,” the store clerk had said earlier in the day. We now agreed.). The thin-crust pizza, however, which we had heard was baked in a wood-burning oven, was a little soggy.

As we finished up our Mac’s Gold beers, we reflected on this remarkable island nation. The Kiwis are some of the most friendly, outgoing people that we have ever met. They are trusting and clearly place a strong emphasis on community and family. Their isolation here has bred within them a perpetual need for adventure. It has also instilled a sense of sustainable building practices and contemporary architecture — although their fashion sense is far from that of Paris.

Having driven about 2,000 miles of it, we can say that this is a beautiful country, one with 4 million residents and 40 million sheep. It is raw and, at times, desolate. But it is these very characteristics that makes New Zealand one of the most spectacular places that I’ve ever visited.

My hellish trip home, about 13,000 miles and 30 hours, commences at 9 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll fly from Christchurch to Auckland to Los Angeles to Memphis to Raleigh. Remarkably, if all goes as planned, I’ll be back in Chapel Hill at 8 p.m. — on the same day.

Nothing like ending a trip like this with a bit of time travel.

Horticulture in the “Garden City”

Christchurch, New Zealand

After so many early wake-up calls, it was nice to sleep in this morning.

On the recommendation of Lonely Planet — confirmed by our hotel concierge — we walked into town for breakfast at Vudu Café. It was easily the best of our entire trip. The flat whites were creamy, rich and sweet. But it was the lemon butter pancakes, topped with fresh black and blueberries and maple syrup, that were just delicious.

We packed our bags and dropped off the rental Toyota at the airport. Avis then proved it is the world’s best agency by eliminating our one-way drop-off fee and reducing the bill by about $200. We’re still not sure why — but we certainly didn’t question their offer.

Our luck was different checking in with Jetstar, a discount subsidiary of Qantas. Like Ryanair, the airline offers obscenely cheap ticket prices but then charges like crazy for extras. Our bags were 9 kilos over the weight limit, which cost us an additional $90. Still, even with that charge, the one-way direct tickets to Christchurch, about an hour northeast, cost less than $70 a piece.

Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island and populated by about 300,000, was founded by the Church of England in the mid-19th century. The city’s architecture, gardens and culture remain eerily reminiscent of its founders’ home country. Our hotel, appropriately enough, was The George, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels and consistently rated one of the best in the city and the country. Needless to say, we had high expectations.

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Our premium executive twin room had recently been renovated, with views across the street to Hagley Park, planted by the first provincial government in 1855. The bathroom had the usual products — but we had never seen customized hotel soap, engraved with the George logo. Baller.

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The weather was summery so we made our way through the manicured park lawns and across stone bridges, as punters and kayakers boated down the Avon River, to the Botanic Gardens.

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Many of the garden’s plants, like the azaleas, were exploding with color. Roses were starting to bloom. Uniform-clad school children walked to cricket lessons. Gigantic sequoia trees — similar to those in Rotorua — soared overhead.

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We had heard and read about a Burmese restaurant, Bodhi Tree, and since neither of us had ever tried that type of ethnic cuisine before, decided to give it a go for dinner. When we arrived, the place was packed — and not only was their no room tonight, but it was also fully booked tomorrow. We made note that Burmese food was either spectacular or the restaurants in this city were terrible. Or both.

A nondescript sushi place on the Avon provided us with a decent, if unspectacular, meal.

Tomorrow, our last day, we explore Christchurch further by foot.

Cruising Milford Sound

Queenstown, New Zealand

We almost had to sleep on the street last night.

The Queenstown Park locks its front doors at night and we left our key in the room. Usually, this wouldn’t present too much of a problem. But could it really be that easy in the adventure capital of New Zealand?

There was no outside phone or emergency contact. And being the only hotel guests, there were no windows to knock on. We walked down Camp Street and saw a television on in one of the second floor rooms. With little other choice, we began pelting the window with small rocks and mulch chips. After a couple of minutes, the lights came on and the sliding door opened. And out walked the hotel owner.

“Have you had too much wine?” he yelled out. Nope, unfortunately, we just couldn’t get back inside his hotel. We all had a good laugh.

This morning we were up before the sun at around 6 a.m. Our destination was Milford Sound, acclaimed to be New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. The drive in the early dawn went faster than we thought — just about 3.5 hours, with a stop at a bakery in Te Anau.

As we entered Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest, the surroundings changed dramatically. The road carved through dramatic valleys as low hanging clouds framed the soaring, snow-capped mountains.

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With summer approaching, temperatures rising and snow melting, the park has become prone to avalanches. We passed several signs warning against stopping in particularly dangerous areas. By Homer Tunnel, a tremendous avalanche had come across the road a few days prior — emergency vehicles were still patrolling and cleaning up. Fun times.

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We arrived at the Milford Sound Wharf, which even at the early hour, resembled a busy train station. After considering our options, we decided to cruise with Real Journeys.

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The boat was only half full so we were able to grab a table beside one of the windows. Because a light rain was falling, many temporary waterfalls roared off the steep mountainside. Dramatic, beautiful and peaceful all at the same time.

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The outside deck became crowded with Japanese tourists when we spotted two humpback whales that had found their way into the fiord. After turning around in the choppy Tasman Sea, we passed a pod of dolphins, seals lounging on the shoreline and several blue penguins.

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Returning to shore, we took in one last look of this simply magic place.

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It was a long drive back, another 3.5 hours. But passing tour buses and arriving back in Queenstown at 4 p.m., we were glad to have done the trip independently. After resting up, we went for dinner at Pier 19, a restaurant with dramatic views, good food and terrible service.

Our flight to Christchurch, our final destination in this country, departs tomorrow afternoon.

Tackling the Routeburn Track

Queenstown, New Zealand

Breakfast wasn’t included in our room rate and although the coconut French toast sounded tempting, the $25 price tag was ridiculous. We opted instead for flat whites and muffins at Mediterranean Market, an organic, fake Whole Foods market just down the street.

Driving 45-minutes north from Queenstown, we arrived in Glenorchy, a small settlement nestled between Mount Aspiring National Park and the Dart River. The town is the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Paradise” but is probably best known to international audiences as the setting for several scenes in the first “Lord of the Rings.”

We’ve not seen the movie and there wasn’t much happening but the setting was tremendous.

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We continued further north, passing dried river beds and, unsurprisingly, more g(r)azing sheep at the base of these awe-inspiring mountains. In the process, we lost count of the “Wows” and “How amazing?” continually being sighed.

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Our destination was the Routeburn Track, one of the world’s greatest hikes, according to National Geographic. The track runs from outside of Glenorchy for 45-kilometers to Milford Sound, passing the alpine peaks of Mount Aspiring and rain forest choked valleys.

The track is not yet fully open for summer and there remains an avalanche threat. We opted to spend a low altitude day on the trail, starting with a long ascent, over suspension bridges and across bubbling rivers, along a remarkably well-maintained and sign-posted path.

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A few kilometers in we came upon what appeared to be a brand-new outhouse. The fact that this was placed in the middle of the wilderness just goes to show how serious Kiwis are about making outdoor activity and environmental protection a national priority.

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After seven kilometers, we emerged from the forest, the skies cleared and we entered the Routeburn Flat. We came upon the first shelter, open but abandoned.

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On a picnic table, we set out a delicious lunch (also courtesy of Mediterranean Market), which we peacefully enjoyed in the sun without another soul around.

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Then, suddenly, in the distance we heard a motor. Looking into the sky, we saw a rapidly approaching helicopter hauling a huge cargo net. As it touched down in front of us, we held our food containers. A woman, wearing ear protection and a bright yellow vest jumped out. She began racing toward us and promptly lost her footing in a ditch — causing her to face plant just feet from where we sat with surprised looks.

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Trying to maintain a semblance of dignity, she said that we had to leave. “Landing, shelter, safe,” she blurted out before grabbing our olives and moving us inside the hut. We looked at each other confused and complied. We would later learn that this chopper was resupplying the Routeburn huts in advance of the track’s official opening at month’s end. Enjoying our lunch had clearly conflicted with these plans. We had a laugh and made our way back to the car park.

A friend of mine who had visited New Zealand last year told me that while here in Queenstown, a visit to FERBURGER, a revered local institution, was a must. “The best burger EVER,” he wrote me. That type of claim would have to be validated.

On the main street, we found the joint bustling. After debating the lengthy menu, my mind was set on the Southern Swine — prime New Zealand beef, American streaky bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion, avocado, aioli & tomato relish. And just because that didn’t seem indulgent enough, edam cheese was added. The gigantic beast of a burger was served up a few minutes later in a brown bag, along with a side of fries, garlic aioli and a Mac’s Gold poured from the tap.

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Verdict on the best burger claim? After 15 kilometers on the Routeburn — a clear yes.

Extreme Kiwi ecosystems

Queenstown, New Zealand

Our hotel balcony revealed Franz Josef Glacier shrouded in low-hanging clouds this morning. We celebrated our good luck with yesterday’s weather before some French toast in the dining room. After bidding farewell to Count Hostess, we packed up the Toyota for our journey south.

After about 20 minutes, we arrived at Lake Matheson, which didn’t offer the promised spectacular reflective view of Mt. Cook. But nearby, a path of clear blue skies stood over Fox Glacier, the 13-kilometer little sibling to Franz Josef. With our stop at the terminal face, I’ve now visited the only three glaciers — Fox, Franz Josef and Perito Moreno in Argentina — that are located along a coastline, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.

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We were not up for trekking again (still aching from the day before) so we continued onward to Haast, a town hugging the Tasman Sea coastline. Between the water, sky and crashing surf, it felt like we had stumbled upon a tropical paradise.

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Over the Haast Pass, the terrain rapidly changed as we passed Mount Aspiring National Park, with its snow-capped mountains towering over cattle and sheep grazing on verdant, rolling green hills.

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Beyond sat majestic Lake Wanaka, with its shimmering blue waters and undeveloped lands.

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Just when we thought the setting could not get any more spectacular, we climbed the Cardrona Pass and entered the arid, brown desert hills.

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We completed our 400-kilometer journey in Queenstown shortly thereafter, slamming into the curb before turning into the parking lot of our hotel, the Queenstown Park. The modern exterior blended into the hillside while the lobby overlooked a nearby rugby pitch.

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The owner showed us to our spacious twin room, which was simple and warm, with cool bedside control systems for the lights and shades.

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Our room looked out on the Skyline Gondola, so we decided to take the trip as the sun started to set. From the summit were fantastic views of this city of just 9,000 residents — in a location and surrounding that could be tough to top.

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At the hotel’s suggestion, we ate at Fishbone, a casual yet delicious seafood restaurant on the downtown mall. Funny enough, we had visited all of the local sources of our dinner: Havelock (green-lipped mussels), Nelson (scallops), Greymouth (Hoki and prawns).

Sitting back afterward, we reflected on our day that had started at the base of a glacier. Five hours later, we had seen just about every extreme ecosystem New Zealand could throw at us — mountains, lakes, deserts, oceans and forests.

What an amazing country this is.

Tramping Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Village, New Zealand

This area is notorious for having some of the rainiest, most variable, weather in all of New Zealand. The “southerlies” — those winds coming from the Arctic — hit the country and the Southern Alps, trapping precipitation on the West Coast.

Yet, the Maori Gods were looking down on us this morning. Not a cloud was in the sky as Franz Josef Glacier sat majestically in the distance.

After Sarah McLaughlin serenaded our hot eggs breakfasts, we made the quick drive into the village for our full day adventure with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The trip included boots, jackets, hats and gloves. Having learned my lesson in Argentina earlier this year, however, we came fully prepared — and only needed the crampons.

It was a 10-minute ride to the car park and then a short walk to Franz Josef, which is 23 kilometers long. Flowing from the Southern Alps, it is unique in that it descends to less than 300 meters above sea level. Strangely enough, this has created a green and lush surrounding temperate rain forest that abuts the glacier.

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We walked the 2 kilometers to the glacier’s edge, stepping past the menacing warning signs and strapping the crampons to our boots.

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Earlier this year, in El Calafate, Argentina, I’d gone on a similar glacier trip on Perito Moreno. We had walked along the moraine before climbing onto the largely flat ice and spending the day exploring the surface. This New Zealand experience, we learned, would be much more extreme.

We approached the glacier directly, climbing the steep ice “waves” — literally, walls of ice — as our guide used a pick ax to cut a navigable path. Ice screws and ropes were used for support.

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We pushed deeper toward Franz Josef’s center, closely following advance groups that scouted ahead for safe routes to take.

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At one point, we followed our guide, Rob, into a steep melting glacial cave. The immense pressure had turned the ice into a dark blue color.

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While Rob was off helping another group, he put me in charge of the ax which was aimlessly and pointlessly hacked into the ice several times by yours truly.

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Walking back after 14 kilometers to reach the glacier’s mid section, it was easy to see how easily perspectives could be distorted. Glaciers are just so huge that everything around them starts to look small. But all it takes is a reference point — in this case, people — to get a better sense.

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It was an eerily silent ride back on the bus as we all rubbed our feet and tried to decompress. Two Japanese tourists sitting next to me managed to fall asleep. It was clear that we would all be paying for this day’s excursion at some point.

If not now, then soon.

Onward to the Wild West Coast

Franz Josef Village, New Zealand

The storms had cleared and the sun reemerged as we packed up the red Camry this morning. Breakfast, a toasted bagel and smoked salmon, was accompanied by show tunes blaring from the hotel’s restaurant. I’m now confident to state that I’ve got no interest in seeing Show Boat.

A little before 9 a.m., we set out for Picton, about 30 minutes north of Blenheim. The city is not only the arrival point for the Interislander, the ferry from Wellington, but also home to Queen Charlotte Sound. The sound is the easternmost of the Marlborough Sounds and is a ria, or drowned river valley. The clear turquoise waters, reflecting the blue skies, were nearly stagnant, framed by the steep, lush mountainsides.

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We hiked along the Snout Track, which offered spectacular lookouts along the way, and terminated at Queen Charlotte View, where it was almost possible to see the Cook Strait in the distance. Occasionally, boats plowed rippled across the Sound. Perched high above it all, they appeared almost miniature.

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On our way from Picton, we drove along Queen Charlotte Drive, a picturesque back-road that wound its way through the mountainside, offering one tremendous view after the next. It brought us to Havelock, where we were tempted to order more mussels.

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From Havelock, we began our 515-kilometer drive across the South Island to the West Coast. The scenery quickly changed as we left the wineries of Marlborough behind us and tackled the increasingly alpine landscape. Roads were nearly empty and the setting had us shaking our heads. Could the next turn or ridge offer something even more beautiful?

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We refueled in Murchison before passing through Greymouth and Hokitka, hugging the coastal highway that ran parallel to the Tasman Sea. As we approached Franz Josef, the iconic Southern Alps came into view, including Mt. Cook, the highest in New Zealand.

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The parking lot of our accommodation here, the Westwood Lodge, finally came into view at around 7:30 p.m. We were met by the hostess who didn’t offer the most welcoming of gestures but still, our room was comfortable. It felt like an updated log cabin; from our deck were views of the nearby glacier. A fire warmed the lodge’s main living area.

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Dinner was at Priya, an Indian restaurant in town. It was surprisingly decent, although given the spice, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. We went to bed early, keeping our fingers crossed for good weather. Tomorrow, we hike the glacier.

Toasting Sauvignon Blanc

Blenheim, New Zealand

They say that Nelson is one of the sunniest cities in all of New Zealand.

Not this morning.

The rain came down in sheets as clouds swirled menacingly over the Tasman Sea. We sat around our space heaters to stay warm while eating our host’s homemade muesli and some scrambled eggs with hearty toast for breakfast.

By 11 a.m., the rain had still not let up. We weren’t going to spend the day waiting for it to clear so we loaded the car for an hour’s drive south to Blenheim, the heart of Marlborough — this country’s wine region.

Cutting back and forth over mountain passes, in limited visibility, and from the left lane was quite the adventure. En route, we passed through the tiny village of Havelock (population 470), the self-proclaimed “Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World.” We had to give them a go so we stopped at the Mussel Pot for an order steamed in white wine, garlic and herbs.

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The gigantic mussels lived up to their reputation — we estimated them at three times the size of those typically served in the States.

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It wasn’t much further to our accommodation outside of Blenheim, the Marlborough Vintners Hotel. Our spacious twin room had lots of black-grey-white furnishings and a small kitchenette.

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But the real highlight was the views from our living room of the surrounding vineyards and snow-capped towering mountains in the distance.

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Dropping off our bags, we got to the matter at hand: tasting wine. Marlborough is New Zealand’s premier wine region and home to the acclaimed Sauvignon Blanc. Our first stop was Cloudy Bay, the vineyard that put this country’s wine on the international map. A fire roared in the contemporary tasting room as the friendly hostess walked us through the many delicious varietals.

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From there, we moved onto Villa Maria, whose wine we didn’t feel stacked up to that of Cloudy Bay. Still, it certainly wasn’t Peter Vella.

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Not far down the road was Saint Clair, Hunter’s and Herzog Estate, the only place that charged a tasting fee — which we agreed was worth it. Unfortunately, Fairhall Downs, a small, family-run vineyard we had hoped to visit, was closed. Tasting a bottle of Pinot Noir later in the day, we agreed that we had not missed much there.

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We were pretty beat from our day’s tasting so opted to pick up a freshly baked baguette, some cheese and the aforementioned wine and self-cater the evening’s meal.

Sometimes simplicity is best.

Kayaking Abel Tasman National Park

Nelson, New Zealand

Abel Tasman is this country’s most visited national park. It sits about 90 minutes north of Nelson, encompassing pine forests and marble and limestone hills extending from Kahurangi National Park. The best way to see and truly experience the park, however, is from the water.

This morning, we set out to do just that.

We drove past farmhouses billowing smoke from their chimneys and cattle lying on frosted grass as the sun slowly broke across the horizon. Our destination was Marahau, a small seaside village, where we checked in with Abel Tasman Kayaks. We met our guide, Josh, who happily informed us that we had been upgraded to their “Seals & Remote Coast” trip. With just one other guest, we anticipated a quiet day out on the water.

A tractor hauled our water taxi over the low-tide sand barges before the engines were fired up for the 25-minute ride to Onetahuti Beach — where we got hardcore geared up.

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Setting out for Tonga Island, a light wind rippled across the Tasman Sea. We were met by a colony of seals basking on the rocks as well as various sea birds.

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We continued south to Bark Bay, cruising the waters of sheltered coves, passing secluded beaches and coming upon a pod of dolphins hunting for food.

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After lunch, the wind picked up and the clouds started to roll in. Without much choice, we continued paddling on our 14-kilometer trip, holding out hope that the rain would wait.

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As we approached Anchorage and Torrent Bay, the skies opened up. Josh, our guide, jerry-rigged a sail to our kayaks that pushed us to shore — spotting a blue penguin en route — where we warmed up in a shelter with tea and shortbread cookies.

After a water taxi returned us to base camp, we drove back to Nelson, already feeling our muscles starting to stiffen. We stopped at Hot Rock and picked up two thin crust pizzas, including one topped with marinated lamb, spinach, tomato and rosemary infused olive oil. That, and getting some laundry done, was the perfect way to decompress after a day at sea.

From North to South

Nelson, New Zealand

Relish, a small café in town, served up gigantic blueberry-chocolate-nut muffins for our drive to Wai-O-Tapu this morning. It was another sunny day as we climbed rolling green hills, passing grazing sheep and cows, on the 25-minute trip outside of Rotorua.

Wai-O-Tapu is a geothermal “wonderland” that showcases many of this region’s phenomena. We started at the Champagne Pool, formed 700 years ago by a hydrothermal eruption, with its bright orange sinter ledges. The various colors are natural and caused by varying mineral deposits, like silica, sulphur, manganese oxide and iron oxide.

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From a lookout, we took in Lake Ngakoro, a rich green body of water with rising steam indicating its activity. Kaingora Forest, the largest man-made forest in the southern hemisphere, along with the cooling tower of the Ohaaki geothermal power station sat off in the distance.

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Passing glistening terraces (formed by silica deposits), we walked along a boardwalk to an empty portion of the park.

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On our way out, we stopped at the nuclear green Devil’s Bath, whose color is the result of excess water from the Champagne Pool mixing with sulphur and ferrous salts.

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Rotorua Airport was quiet when we arrived. We were surprised that the Air New Zealand service rep didn’t ask us for identification before happily printing out our boarding passes. We were even more surprised when passengers subsequently streamed onto the airplane without a single security screening — not a metal detector, not a bag search, not a pat down. Nothing. In all my travels around this world, this flying experience was, by far, the most laid back.

Our propeller plane didn’t climb high, offering views of farms and the late spring snow blanketing the countryside.

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After a short layover in Wellington, we arrived in Nelson, a seaside town of about 50,000 on the South Island. We picked up another Toyota and drove to Villa 10, a loft that we’re renting for the next few days. The apartment was more than we could ask for — with views over the sunny Tasman Bay and plenty of space to unpack and unwind. Even a washer and dryer for laundry.

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In town, we walked among bars, coffee shops, art galleries and yoga studios. Shops were closing down as local residents boarded buses home. There were Victorian houses interspersed with industrial warehouses. Nelson showed — and proudly wore — character on its sleeve.

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Given the location, we didn’t think we could go wrong with dinner at the Boat Shed, which sat on a wharf by our apartment. We were mistaken. The food was overpriced and mediocre — and the portions just not adequate. It was our first truly lousy dining experience in this country.

Guess not even New Zealand can be perfect.

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