I kicked off February with one of my favourite New Zealand experiences to date.
Winery-hopping in Marlborough.
It was so much fun! Simply turn up, rent a bike, grab a map, and hit the vines. On the Marlborough wine trail, you’ll find 30-odd wineries within a few kilometres of Renwick, and it makes everything all so wonderfully accessible.
We spent several days out there, cycling out to vineyards, signing up for tastings, buying bottles of our favourites, and marvelling at the mountains in the distance. And because you’re on bikes, you don’t have to worry about being too tipsy to drive!
It’s the perfect way to get your wine on, and I’m already planning on returning next month to pick up another few bottles!
Saint Arnauld was a brand new New Zealand destination for both me and Dave! Set in Nelson Lakes National Park, this is a part of the country that, like most parts of the country, is all about getting outdoors.
Whether it’s walking, biking, swimming, or camping, no matter what you’re doing, you’re likely doing it with
sandflies fantastic views surrounding you.
Hanmer Springs was up next! And once more, we spent a week in town, walking through the forests, bathing in hot springs, and catching up with Dave’s family. Same old, same old, but it’s been enjoyable to have a rare constant in this newly-untethered life.
We also got to meet Dave’s new nephew for the first time! That was a highlight, even though I spent most of the time worrying I was going to put a finger through the soft spot in his head. Yeah, fontanelles freak me out.
Tekapo has always been a place I’ve regularly passed through on the way to somewhere else, so I rarely spend more than ten minutes there. It’s always a place to pause, use the toilets, grab a snack, take a photo of the lake, then move on.
This time around, we decided spend a night in town to get to know it a little better. And so, we spent a sunny afternoon walking beside the lake, taking photos of its famous church, then, as night fell, stargazing up at a perfect clear sky.
Te Anau is one of those places that feels like paradise when you’re there on a sunny day, but unfortunately, those only seem to come around about once a month. Yes, we were now in Fiordland, in the southwest of the South Island, which is known for its wet, dramatic weather.
So Te Anau is normally all about the rainfall, but somehow, we managed to time our visit with a period of settled weather, and it made for the most glorious couple of days beside the water.
We didn’t do much while we were in town, though, primarily because we were mentally preparing ourselves for one of the most challenging hikes we’d ever signed up for.
Then, it was time to walk.
I don’t even know where to begin with my hike on the Kepler Track. This four day-trek had some of the most mind-blowing scenery I’ve seen in New Zealand, which is saying a lot because, well, it’s New Zealand.
There were lush forests, snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes, cheeky kea (alpine parrots), beachside lodges, and some seriously epic views to contend with, and even though I managed to fall in a hole, I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way round.
The hike was challenging, though, and dangerous in parts, with newspaper clippings on the walls of the huts, chronicling how hikers have died out here on this track. But it was hard to picture avalanches and gales on days like these.
As the hut wardens repeatedly told us: it’s so rarely like this!
We didn’t plan on spending a week in Queenstown, but when gales (we couldn’t escape the bad weather for long!) began to sweep across Fiordland, causing us to cancel one of our planned hikes, we found ourselves with a surplus of days and no idea what to do with them.
And so, we opted for a stint in Queenstown, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made on this New Zealand trip to date.
In more regular times, I tend to avoid this overly-touristy town like the, uh, plague.
In the past, it’s always been packed full of tour groups, eye-wateringly expensive, and offered up a bunch of adventure activities I didn’t care about, and so I came away believing it was overrated as hell.
Back then, there was a whopping 36 tourists for every local in town, so it was always… well… a lot.
But as a sort-of-tourist in New Zealand right now — as a visitor to Queenstown at this time — it’s kind of incredible to be here. It’s the Queenstown of Dave’s childhood; how it was when he spent family holidays here, back when it was still a small, seasonal, domestic tourism destination. And he’s been thrilled to be able to re-experience a place that he’d believed had long disappeared.
If Queenstown was like this all the time, I’d move here in a heartbeat; no question. I think Dave would, too.
And also, I’m sorry, because this statement makes me feel like the worst person ever.
Because Queenstown is hurting. This town relies on tourism, and if businesses aren’t currently struggling, it’s because they’ve already closed down. Even Fergburger — the town’s famous burger joint that regularly has hour-long queues throughout the day — has offered up zero wait times whenever I’ve stopped by.
And as much as Kiwis have been keen to pick up the tourism mantle and help save local businesses in New Zealand, the prices are simply so high here that many can’t afford them.
So being here right now means being able to sample some of the South Island’s best restaurants without needing to make a reservation. It means being able to rock up to the cool floating bar on the lake on a Friday night and find a spot overlooking the water. It means hiking up to the town’s best viewpoints and having them all to yourself. It means chill vibes when you want to hang out on the beach, quiet strolls through the streets without having to skirt around multiple 30-person tour groups.
So, things are bad in Queenstown. But they’re also kind of good if you’re a selfish asshole who doesn’t own a business here.
I would have told you that Queenstown was never going to be a place where I’d spend a lot of time, but I’m already planning my return for March! I want to soak up as much of it as possible before New Zealand’s borders start to open up.
Onwards to the Catlins!
The Catlins is a small, remote region in the southeastern corner of the South Island, known for its waterfalls, forests, rolling hills, and rugged coastline. To my delight, the beaches are home to wild sea lions and penguins.
The advantage of the Catlins’ compact size is that you can see all that’s worth seeing in a single day. We gave ourselves three, though — y’know, just to ensure we got really tired of hiking to waterfalls.
Our bedroom window here was overlooking a beach full of duelling sea lions, which was particularly exciting to experience from behind a pane of glass.
Less exciting and more terrifying when you needed to walk past them.
And that was just about the end of February!
After a quick stint in Invercargill — one of the southernmost cities in the world — where we mostly got blown down the streets, it was then time to head to Stewart Island.
Highlights of the Month
Vaccine news! More and more, I’m witnessing friends and family get the jab, and I’m so happy for them all!
Here in New Zealand, the vaccine rollout is going to be slow and steady, but when there’s no virus to contend with, there’s little need to rush. We started vaccinating the border workers in Managed Isolation facilities this month, as that’s where most of our sporadic community cases crop up from, and then we’ll start working our way through the rest of the population.
It’s expected to take 12-18 months to vaccinate the entire country, so Dave and I probably won’t receive ours until a year from now. It’s funny: as I type this, we have so much freedom in comparison to the rest of the planet, but six months from now? Maybe all of my travel blogging buddies will be vaccinated and freely travelling the world while I’ll be stuck behind New Zealand’s closed borders!
It’ll be interesting, too, to see what the vaccine uptake will be like here, as every person I’ve spoken to about it so far is super-apprehensive about being jabbed. Even the most pro-science, pro-vaccine people in my life are a bit like… eh… I don’t know if I want it… It’s been very rushed… Can’t we just keep the borders closed instead? And with a poll out today saying that only 51% of New Zealanders are willing to take the vaccine? Well, let’s see what happens.
WorldNomads coming through: You guys know I’ve been singing the praises of WorldNomads travel insurance for the better part of a decade, and I’m excited to share that they saved the day once more this month!
You may remember that back in December, Dave and I managed to scrape up the bumper of our rental car while we were in Mount Maunganui, and our car needed a full replacement. It ended up costing us a whopping $1,500 in damages!
We put in a claim with WorldNomads and they paid out this month with zero hassle! $1,500 in our bank account; no excess or fees to pay.
There’s a reason why I’m always recommending them for travel insurance; they’ve always been delightful to deal with.
Lowlights of the Month
A cancelled hike: I knew that there was a chance of bad weather when I booked a series of multi-day hikes in Fiordland, but I was still disappointed to have to cancel my Routeburn hike!
But there was a forecast for something like an inch of rain every three hours, plus 60 mph winds, and we were like, uh… no. Hikers die in Fiordland and even if we could safely complete the hike, it wasn’t going to be enjoyable.
Maybe next year!
Motion sickness galore! New Zealand is one of those countries where the geography means that every single road is winding. I swear, sometimes it feels like you don’t get a stretch of straight road for more than a mile here.
And it’s made my motion sickness unbearable. Every single travel day results in queasiness and I just can’t seem to shake it. It kind of sucks to end up feeling sick to your stomach every three or four days for months on end.
My Next Steps
Hey, Lauren! Aren’t you tired of moving yet?
But I am going to be slowing down in March.
With a full week in Stewart Island, I’ll have more than enough time to see everything, from the Rakiura Track to Ulva Island to hopefully a handful of kiwis in the wild.
And as I mentioned above, I was blown away by Queenstown-without-the-crowds in February, so much so that I want to spend as much time there as possible. I’ll therefore be holing up there for a week to write as much as is humanly possible.
And with that, I’ll have officially spent three months zig-zagging my way across the South Island. The time has flown by! And that can only mean one thing: it’s time to head north.
I’m so excited to venture back to the North Island and start visiting some new spots!