Following our adventures in Rotorua and Waitomo my travel partners and I headed back to Auckland to catch an early morning (and very bumpy) flight to Queenstown in the South Island.
Queenstown and the surrounding areas are home to scenic mountain ranges (including the Southern Alps), fiords, and beautiful blue bodies of water. It is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Upon arriving in Queenstown we picked up a rental car and headed to Mt. Cook National Park to attempt a hike on the Hooker Valley Track. The drive to Mt. Cook is around two and a half hours, and proved to be worth every single minute. The drive took us past lavender fields, sparkling blue lake views, and even some sheep crossings.
Unfortunately the Southern Alps often trap storms, so while your drive there may look clear, once you make it to the mountains it may be very rainy. Our arrival to Mt. Cook proved just that. We checked out the information center but decided to head to our AirBnB in Twizel and try the hike the following morning hoping for better weather.
The AirBnB in Twizel was our best BnB location on the trip, sitting on a beautiful piece of land that reminded me of lush areas of the Pacific Northwest. Our friendly hosts lived nearby on the property and recommended that we try Poppies Café for dinner.
At Poppies, although hesitant, I decided to give lamb a try. The lamb dish, which was comprised of locally sourced mustard encrusted lamb, beetroot, and potato cake, was excellent. It was easy to see why the dish had won so many local awards. If I could sum up the flavors of the region into a locally sourced dish it would be this one. The lamb was tender and flavorful and a must try for anyone that visits the area. Thank you Philipa and Blair for the recommendation!
The next morning we headed for Mt. Cook in order to tackle the Hooker Valley Track once more. On arrival we were caught in a shower storm but decided to wait it out and hope for a break. Within 30 minutes the showers ended and gave us just enough time to make a decent dent in the track. The Hooker Valley Track sits at the base of Mt. Cook in the Southern Alps and takes around three hours to the end and back to the parking area. It gives views to the incredible snow capped mountains and includes bridges suspended over rushing glacier waters. We were able to do about two of the three hours of the track before more rain clouds came rolling in. I am still trying to find an accurate description for the type of beauty the scenery displayed, but I am not so sure it can be put into words that would do it any justice. This hike was the highlight of my time in New Zealand. I think the pictures speak for themselves.
After exploring the incredible Mt. Cook National Park we hopped in the car back to Queenstown for the evening and following day. It should also be noted that all throughout this region adventure seekers are able to find great places for bungee jumping and skydiving. For me, the walk over the two suspension bridges was plenty of adrenaline for the day.
We again stayed at an AirBnB in Queenstown that overlooked the beautiful water and was a short five-minute drive to the cute wharf area in the middle of the downtown. This area is great to park and walk around and has a wide variety of dinner options to choose from. We settled for Coalfire, an upscale barbecue restaurant. I ordered the brisket, which was accompanied by the mac and cheese, house pickled veggies, and slaw. The brisket and slaw were a little dry for my taste, but the rich mac and cheese was creamy and full of a decadent three-cheese blend. It goes on my list for best mac and cheese I have ever had, which is pretty competitive. It was so rich in fact, that it could probably be its own meal.
As if the mac and cheese was not enough, we stopped at a local gelato shop for a dessert. Let’s just say the gelato was so good we went back again the next night. They had several great flavor options and the shop was conveniently located next to a grassy area near the water where we sat to eat the gelato. One of the many things I love about New Zealand is that the days in the summer are very long and allow you to soak in the great views well into the evening.
The next morning we headed back to the airport to catch a small eight-passenger plane to Milford Sound where we then took a scenic boat ride. This is another attraction that needs to be booked in advance since it is very popular with tourists. If you are staying in Queenstown there are two main ways to get to Milford Sound: bus or small plane. If you take the bus it is about 12 hours round-trip including the two-hour boat tour. If you fly over the mountains it is about four hours. Both are scenic, but I highly suggest flying as I found the flight better than the actual Milford Sound boat tour. The plane takes you over scenic snow capped mountains ranges and really gives you a gorgeous aerial view of the Fiordland National Park. The flight also allows you to view glaciers, waterfalls, and mountain top lakes.
The boat tour of Milford Sound was very beautiful, but compared to what we had previously seen hiking Mt. Cook and flying over the beautiful mountains it did not really stand out. A note about Milford Sound – it rains almost 200 days of the year in that area so tours can be very hit or miss. Make sure to plan accordingly and allow extra time in case your tour needs to be rescheduled or have a back up plan in place. Luckily, for the most part weather was on our side during this trip and we were able to fly and tour the sound.
The next morning we headed to Sydney, Australia. More on that later…