So Much to Do, So Much to See in New Zealand
As I was standing on the deck of the cruise ship that was taking me around Milford Sound, I overheard one of the passengers saying: “God must have been in a really good mood when he created New Zealand.”
Although this may sound corny at first, there is undeniably some truth to it — anyone who has had the privilege to visit New Zealand and been overwhelmed by its beauty can attest to that.
Milford Sound, a fjord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island, is one of the obvious destinations tourists flock to, but that doesn’t diminish its appeal.
On the contrary, there is so much space in New Zealand, that even when traveling with a busload of tourists, a strong sense of serenity will fill you from head to toe against the backdrop of such wonderful nature.
I headed to Milford Sound from Queenstown by a coach that took me to the fjord via the scenic Milford Road.
It is a long trip that lasts several hours, but there is much to see along the way. The bus stopped several times, and we were more than thankful for the many photo opportunities and short walks through the area, taking in the view of the majestic mountains that surrounded us.
We then switched from coach to ship and cruised the waters, passing by rocks and cliffs, stunning waterfalls and snow-capped mountain peaks.
The wind blew heavily as I held on to the railing on deck. I don’t think I have ever felt this peaceful and free, and at the same time so humbled by my surroundings. If ever there was a time I was silenced by the sheer power of breathtaking nature, this was it.
Little did I know, the best was still to come.
Instead of taking the coach back to Queenstown, I boarded a small, eight-seater plane for the alpine fly-over. I was in luck that day: the weather was holding, and none of the flights was canceled — a regular occurrence, as the pilot explained.
Those who have a fear of flying might feel queasy about the many bumps and air holes — but the expansive aerial view of the region as we passed over the Southern Alps, glacial lakes and forested valleys, was definitely worth the 45-minute trip. It was a satisfying end to a perfect day, and took us back to Queenstown.
Queenstown itself is a resort town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It is surrounded by mountains and is often called New Zealand’s adventure capital.
Fans of extreme sports and the great outdoors have endless possibilities such as mountain biking, bungee jumping, paragliding and skiing, regardless the season.
But not all activities necessarily include a rush of adrenalin, and those looking for a compromise should embark on a jet boat ride. The KJet company, the oldest jet boat operator in the country, offers fast and thrilling rides through the waterways of Queenstown, complete with exciting 360 degree spins that even after the 20th time don’t lose their fun factor.
Queenstown also boasts a rich culinary scene that spoils visitors with a wide range of restaurants to choose from.
I opted for the award-winning Japanese restaurant Minami Jujisei on my first night, and Fishbone Bar & Grill on the next. I didn’t regret dining at either, as both restaurants served delicious food, mostly thanks to the benefit of having an ocean full of fresh seafood on any given day.
The international flair of Queenstown is everywhere to be seen. It is not only tourists who flock to the resort city; many young people come here as seasonal workers and find it hard to leave.
A German cashier at a candy store said she can’t see herself returning to her home country any time soon, while the girl behind the counter in a gift shop was from Malaysia and had recently married a Kiwi and settled down in Queenstown.
The waiter in our restaurant was on the way from his native Hawaii to Indonesia but decided to stay in Queenstown for the tourism peak season to earn extra money. “I have done this many times,” he said, “and it’s always nice to come back here, especially during the peak season when there are many tourists.”
Karen Henry, the owner of the Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel where I stayed for two nights, said that this was a big part of Queenstown’s charm.
“I think you’ll have trouble finding anybody who originally comes from here,” she said, adding that many of her staff come from foreign nations, including Brazil and China.
The Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel is a jewel within walking distance of the center of town. Its rooms radiate a modern yet romantic flair and the service is highly personalized.
Each night, wine and canapes are served at the hotel lounge where guests meet for a little small talk, and while joining these informal gatherings is not obligatory, it is almost impossible to resist Henry’s remarkable ability to make her guests feel at home by engaging them in light conversation.
A 20-minute drive from Queenstown lies Arrowtown, which is also worth a visit. This former gold mining town boasts a rich history still visible in every corner.
Last year, Arrowtown celebrated the 150th anniversary of discovery of gold there, an event that triggered a gold rush that led many people who were in search for fortune to settle down in the area.
With the gold rush long gone, the people of Arrowtown today survive from farming and tourism. When increasing numbers of tourists came to the area for holidays, beginning in the 1950s, historic cottages and buildings were restored.
Many of the buildings and houses in the main road, Buckingham Street, were constructed during the gold mining days, and are still used today.
The old pharmacy still houses a drug store, while the post office has retained its original function.
The former residency of the postmaster is now a picturesque restaurant and the old bank is home to the Lakes District Museum, which is a good starting point for a tour of the town.
Whether enjoying a glass of wine or a cooling ice cream on a hot sunny day, it is as if in Arrowtown time had stood still.
It is a feeling that is not particularly reserved to a visit in Arrowtown, but New Zealand as a country: it is a whole other world, and a marvelous one at that.
This article was first published on May 7, 2013 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.