Day 7: Heading back to Christchurch

8 September, 2016

I woke up early to prepare snacks for the long drive back to Christchurch. I took a peek out of the window. The scene outside was simply enchanting – the snowfall had got heavier overnight and some had remained on the ground and on the roofs. The Remarkables, not far away, were totally covered in snow. August is the best time to experience snow here but you can expect it to continue falling throughout Spring in September and maybe early October.

We were reluctant to leave Queenstown for so many reasons – it was snowing, the hotel was fantastic (I’ll give it a 9/10), we hadn’t had the chance to visit the fjords down south and I hadn’t done a complete tour of the centre.

It was going to be a long drive to Christchurch. The unfavourable weather would add more time to the journey. Not only would we expect snow, but strong winds and heavy rain were also forecasted. We left the hotel at 9.30 am and had planned to reach Lake Tekapo (a halfway point) for lunch before 2 pm. As we turned out of the hotel driveway to join the main road, what I saw lying ahead was both captivating and intimidating. I prayed for a safe journey. The driver, though, was not the least perturbed. Sensing my anxiety, he kept assuring us that we would be fine and then he chuckled at my unfounded fear, “Worry-wart lah you!”

As we passed by the airport, the sight of a cherry blossom tree standing on snow-covered ground distracted me for a while. I grinned at the irony of it all. I was expecting snow and cherry blossoms in Japan early this year but got little of both and then when I least expected it, I got them here. God has a great sense of humour.

As we left the towns and gained elevation, the landscapes got more dramatic. It was snowing up on Lindis Pass. Be very careful on this highway. A car had overturned on the other lane. I suspected the driver might have driven too fast while turning a sharp bend.

Lindis Pass
The driver stopped for a stretch.

We reached Lake Tekapo just in time for lunch at Kohan. They stopped taking orders at 2 pm and we were lucky that they let us dine in even though we reached there just 2 minutes before they closed. It was snowing here too.

GPS calculated that we would take 4 hours plus to get to Christchurch, an hour longer that we had expected, because of the impending inclement weather and expected slower speed of driving. The wind was blowing strongly and then rain came pouring down after half an hour of leaving Tekapo.

Since we were only going to stay just for the night and leaving early for the morning flight back home, I had booked a motel, Arthur’s Court, near the airport. It was comfortable and convenient for sure but I wouldn’t stay here for more than a night. The pillows and robes had stains on them! 😦

All in all, we have had an amazing trip. Would I come back again? Definitely! NZ exceeded my expectations. But if I were to do this trip all over again, I would have done the following:

  1. Fly to Auckland and then take a flight to Queenstown. Or stay for a day in Auckland then fly to Queenstown.
  2. Stay for 4 nights in Queenstown.
  3. Drive to Lake Tekapo and stay for a night or two.
  4. Drive to Christchurch and stay for a night.
  5. Fly back home from Christchurch.

Day 6: Queenstown

7 September, 2016

Hubby took the kids to do ziplining with Ziptrek Ecotours. The company offers a few tours and hubby opted for the MOA one which is about 2 hours long. Browse the tours offered here. Ziptrek Ecotours gets my thumbs-up because it’s a company with strong environmental ethics. Hubby shared with me later that the guides would educate the guests on environmental matters whenever they had the opportunity to do so.

Hubby and kids took the gondola up to the peak. They were looking forward to getting a magnificent view of the town below but unfortunately the clouds were low (so no nice pictures to show you here).

I was watching the news before leaving the hotel and found out that a polar blast was coming our way and we could expect snow later that evening and the day after. It had already started to rain outside and the wind was blowing strongly and I wondered if the tour that hubby had booked for would be cancelled. It wasn’t. They were still able to zipline despite the trees swaying. I asked the kids later if it was scary. They said it wasn’t because each line was short (watch Sarah’s vlog on Queenstown). The only complaint they had was that it was freezing up there but luckily there’s a cafe at the upper station where they could grab a hot drink to warm themselves up.

Ziplining between the trees

The boys decided to do the Luge after ziplining while Sarah took the gondola down to the town centre to meet me.

I had planned to take a stroll around the town centre but since it was raining, I took refuge at a cafe along the marine parade. The cafe was called Patagonia’s Ice Creamery & Chocolaterie. I ordered a hot chocolate and a slice of brownie (at $1 off, because I ordered a drink) and headed to the upstairs lounge. It is a lovely area with a huge window and you’ll get an unobstructed view of the lake. I am very fussy when it comes to hot chocolate but the one I had was perfect. I made a mental note to compliment the staff later. The delicious drink coupled with a spectacular view of the lake brought a much needed warmth to my overall well-being.

Sarah met me outside Patagonia cafe before we headed down to Vudu Cafe. We both have been following this vegan Japanese dude on youtube (Peaceful Cuisines) and just a week before we arrived, he was here too and Sarah saw what he had at this cafe.  The cafe was almost full though it was already after 2 pm. We had initially planned to have lunch here but the hot chocolate I had earlier kept me full and Sarah didn’t feel like having lunch either. Besides, we had a heavy buffet breakfast at Hilton (which was complimentary, btw). The buffet spread at Hilton was a standard one but they provided something that I had not seen at any other hotels – a fruit juicer for the customers to use. I was grateful for this as I didn’t like packed fruit juices and I liked being able to concoct my own fresh fruit juice.

Sarah had this vegan snickers bar which I thought was just okay.

We walked around the town in the cold rain and came across Rehab. Rehab offers healthy salads, breakfast bowls (think acai), raw desserts and the likes of it. Sarah got a vegan cheesecake to take away. If you wonder what goes into a vegan cheesecake since it’s non-dairy, it is raw ground cashew nuts. I’ve tried making it once and it turned out surprisingly delicious though it tasted nothing like the usual tangy cheesecake.

As we carried on walking, I spotted a few cherry blossom trees from across the Four Square supermarket. Never mind that it was raining; I just had to get close to them. I wondered if I would ever tire of it.

We popped into the supermarket to seek shelter from the rain which had got heavier. I got a few bars of Whittakers’ artisinal chocolate range to bring home to share with my sisters and their families. They have interesting flavours like ‘Plum and Roasted Almonds’, ‘Oolong Tea’, ‘Pear and Manukah’ , ‘Apple and Vanilla White Chocolate’ and some others. They make good souvenirs, in my opinion, because they are not only unique (in taste) but come in attractive packaging. You can get them at most supermarkets in NZ.

In the evening, as forecasted, it snowed. It wasn’t the first time we had seen snow but still it got us all excited. We braved the cold and stepped out onto the balcony to enjoy a phenomena we don’t get back home.

Day 5: Heading to Queenstown

6 September, 2016

Simply breathtaking.

That’s how I would describe the route, via State Highway 8, we took to get to our next destination – Queenstown. The most memorable sight along that stretch of highway was that of Lake Pukaki. The turquoise hues of the glacial lake and the craggy alpine landforms that bordered the lake made a picture that you would remember for a long time (or not, depending on when dementia will kick in). As you gazed at the scene before you, you’d forget the world for a while, even when a tour bus came and threatened to unload a horde of noisy tourists. This area was the setting for ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

We couldn’t possibly drive by without stopping to take pictures or just take in this sight. You’ll reach this point after driving for about half an hour from Tekapo. There are directions to this pitstop and here you’ll find a visitor centre that sells a small range of NZ-made products, one of them being salmon sashimi that comes from the nearby farm. It claimed to the best salmon sashimi you would have ever tasted and boy, did it live up to its claim! Don’t leave this place without trying some!

Another spectacular part of the route is the Lindis Pass which links the Mackenzie Basin with Central Otago. At an altitude of 971 m above sea level, it snows for many months of the year. We were lucky to be able to see the contrasting faces of the mountains during this trip. The picture below shows how the tussock-covered mountains look in fair weather.

Before we reached Hilton, where we had booked for the stay in Queenstown, we dropped by the Remarkables Park Town Centre, an outdoor mall, to grab some more groceries. I got some salmon fillet at the supermarket and the boys got some snacks. The salmon, which I baked after marinating it in soya sauce and thai chili sauce, was AMAZING! Never had I had salmon that succulent. The boys heaped praises and I gave some of my share to them.

The Hilton at Kawarau Village sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. I had booked the 2-bedroom apartment with lake view. The apartment turned out better than I had expected (sorry the photos are rubbish!). I loved it so much that I’d rather stay in than explore the town! 😛

The firm mattress promised a good night’s sleep.

The view from the balcony was nothing short of stunning, be it on a clear or snowy day.

The service at Hilton was top-notch. The staff is made up of an international group of well-trained people. The only complaint I had about this hotel was that the floor heating in the bathroom was not working. Because they could not fix the problem immediately, they offered us a bottle of champagne as an apology. Unfortunately, we do not take alcohol.

We drove to the town centre in the evening after our early dinner in the room. Hilton provides a shuttle service to the town centre but you have to make reservations so that you don’t have to fight for seats. The town centre was bustling. Parking is expensive here and can be hard to find during the day so you might want to consider leaving your car at the hotel and take the shuttle service. If you prefer to live in the centre of the town, there are several hotels you can choose from. We didn’t spend much time walking around the town centre. We were tired and it was getting too cold – the temperature had dipped below 5 degrees. On top of that, we were not too keen on shopping. We bumped into Brian Richmond and his family here. Hubby noticed him first and waved at him and he waved back though he had no idea who we were. 🙂

The main attraction in Queenstown is Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables, a mountain range and ski field. The mountain range is visible from the city. During the winter months, The Remarkables is a popular spot for skiing and other winter activities. We weren’t keen on doing snow-related activities, at least not on this trip as we only had 2 days here. If you aren’t keen on those too, there are many other activities to do here – bungy jumping, jet boating, skydiving and etc. Queenstown is not only for adrenaline junkies; there are ‘gentle’ activities you can do such as cruises, a walk or hike, museum visits and etc. There’s something for everyone to do here.

Day 4: Lake Tekapo

5 September, 2016

The whole good experience here was probably marred by this. The water from the taps took a long time to warm up. I don’t know if this problem was peculiar to the suite or this resort or the whole of this area. Even after warming up, it would turn cold, really,really cold, soon after. Taking a shower and doing any kinds of washing were quite a pain.

To counter the problem of having to use icy cold water from the tap every time I needed to wash my hands (constantly when I prepared meals for the family), I heated (not boiled) a pot of water and used it as and when. Even after it had cooled down, it was still warmer than the water that was coming out of the tap.

Apart from preparing breakfast for the family, I was looking forward to watching those morning shows that cover news, weather reports, interviews and entertainment this morning. I think they are called breakfast television? I find them both informative and entertaining. Just surf the channels and you’ll most likely come across one between 6 am and 9 am or between 7 am and 10 am. Or you could google the TV guide and find out the time and channel. It’s a good way to pass the time while you’re waiting for the rest of the party to wake up. 🙂

After breakfast, we drove up to Mt. John Observatory.  It is only 6 km away from the resort. We were blessed with good weather this morning. Please note that there’s a road access fee of $5 to drive up to the summit and the road is closed at 5 pm. If you’re up for a challenge, you can walk up to the summit. The mountain walkway is a 3-hour loop track up the summit and then down around the mountain. Get a more detailed description of the walkway here.

View from the summit – check out the colour of the water!
From another viewpoint
Some parts of the road are narrow but fret not, it’s only a short one.

You can join a tour with Earth and Sky to view the stars at night. Depending on your luck, you might even get to see the Aurora Australis from here!

Have breakfast or lunch at the Astro Cafe located on the summit. Lonely Planet has voted it as the best place on the planet for a cafe and it’s not hard to see why! Last order is at 3 pm but you can still have cakes and drinks after that. I had a chai latte with soy milk. Next time I would ask for it to be less sweet.

There are seats outside the cafe too.
The cafe may look small in this picture but there are plenty of seats inside.
She may not look it but she was thrilled to be here! 🙂

We had lunch at Kohan, a legit Japanese restaurant, near the lakeshore. The chefs were all Japanese and so were the service staff. Check out the menu and the price list at the link I’ve provided. Everything we had here (mainly the vegetarian and seafood items) was ‘Oiishi’! I was surprised to see so many Japanese tourists when we arrived at Lake Tekapo. Curious, I asked the friendly Japanese staff at the souvenir store what had attracted so many of her countrymen here. According to her, many had come to look at the stars. The region has one of the best star gazing sites in the world and in fact, the Aoraki-Mackenzie dark sky reserve is the biggest in the world and the first ‘gold-rated’ reserve.

The souvenir store, Aotea, is next door to Kohan and carries a huge range of merchandise. The toilets, in between the Japanese restaurant and the souvenir store, were very clean and almost to Japanese standards except that there wasn’t any bidet, much to my disappointment.

Hubby took the kids out in the evening to look at the stars. The sky was clearer than the night before and the kids came back telling me they had never seen stars like they had seen that night. According to hubby, he could point out to them the Southern Cross. I wished I had gone out with them but I was too tired from the lack of quality sleep the night before.

Sarah has made a lovely video of Lake Tekapo, which is now probably one of her favourite places on earth.

Day 3: Lake Tekapo

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Lake Tekapo, where we would be heading to today, is halfway between Christchurch and Queenstown so anyone who wishes to break the long journey between the two cities will most likely stay for at least a night here.

I had already planned to cook while in Tekapo and Queenstown (where we would be staying for 2 nights each) to cut down on costs and also to provide more options for both the vegan (Sarah only) and non-vegans (the rest of us). So before we left the city for Tekapo, we got our groceries from the Countdown Supermarket and the halal meat from Maihan. Maihan is not just a halal butchery; they stock a wide variety of sweet and savoury foods, both cooked and uncooked but mostly Middle Eastern. Groceries outside the city are costlier so do buy what you need while you are still in Christchurch. Apparently, Pak’n Save priced their items lower than the other supermarkets. Plan your meals well so that you don’t need to buy too many items and end up with too much leftovers at the end of the trip. Bring condiments like salt, pepper and soya sauce (save those packets you get from sushi restaurants when you buy takeaways!) from home. If you’re a fan of Thai Chili Sauce, you can get them easily here in NZ. It’s a versatile item – not only do we have it as a dipping sauce, I also used to marinade, make dressing and other sauces! Tips on what to buy and cook will be up in another post. 🙂

We left Christchurch for Lake Tekapo before 10 am knowing that it was going to be a long drive (about 3 hours) and we wanted to enjoy as much daylight as possible when we got there. Here’s a great thing about driving in NZ (at least in the South Island) – the roads are well-maintained and there aren’t that many other road-users. Be patient – it’s not going to be scenic at first as you’ll be passing by a lot of flatland before they give way to jaw-dropping scenes of the rolling hills, mountains and lakes.

Yup, cherry blossoms!

Hubby made a stop just to take pictures of the alpacas!

I wished I had taken more pictures of the dramatic landscapes to show you how scenic the route was but at that time I didn’t think that I would be writing this blog.

Peppers Bluewater Resorts was an obvious choice when it came to choosing the accommodation for our two-night stay here. Not only did it look gorgeous (on websites), it’s a short walk to the lakeshore and the town centre where you can find a supermarket, a huge souvenir shop and several eateries. We booked a two-bedroom suite with mountain view. Because our suite was not ready by 2 pm, we were offered a better data plan than we were originally entitled to.The suite was bigger than I had expected but I was disappointed that there was only one bathroom. The accommodation here ranges from hotel rooms to 3-bedroom villas.

View from the reception
Living room and the balcony
Dining room and kitchen (which I found to be lacking in some essential tools like a spatula!)
Another living room with a sofa bed
One of the bedrooms. The other one does not have a window like this.

The bedrooms, bathroom and the laundry room are on the ground floor while the living and kitchen areas are on the floor above. The balcony is such a nice spot to just enjoy the view of the lake and the mountains. Sarah and I would grab the duvet and make ourselves hot cups of beverage to chill here. The temperature in spring ranges from 5 to 12 degrees Celsius but it could dip further as night falls.

Sarah studying overseas 🙂

Lake Tekapo is worth at least a night’s stay. There is nothing much to do but to just take in the sight of the beautiful lake and the range of mountains bordering the lake that provides such a spectacular backdrop.

View from the balcony

Hubby took the kids out for a walk while I prepared dinner. I was actually glad to be able to do domestic stuffs like cooking and washing, haha! There’s a washing machine and a dryer in the suite. Laundry detergent is provided too. After 2 days, I could not wait to wash the dirty laundry. There’s no way I was going to wait till we came home to wash them! Having a place where you can do your laundry also means that you can pack lighter. I told the kids to pack only 4 sets of clothes (for an 8-day trip) because I had intended to wash them here and they could repeat the attire.

Here are some pictures dear hubby took while out on a walk with the kids.

The currents were pretty strong that afternoon.

Church of the Good Shepherd – probably the most iconic landmark in Lake Tekapo

We spent the evening watching sitcoms on TV while enjoying the warmth from the fireplace. Wished I had some marshmallows to toast!

Day 2, Christchurch, NZ

Saturday, 3 September

I picked out the Christchurch Farmer’s Market (at Riccarton House) from a list of 10 markets featured on a website because from whatever information was given, it sounded the most appealing to me. Also, not all of them were open on Saturdays. The market is situated on a lovely ground in a lovely neighbourhood. It is open only on Saturdays from 9 am to 1 pm. Get there early as there is limited parking space. That didn’t concern us because hubby just dropped us girls at the entrance and drove to the Air Force museum with Adam. You might want to consider doing the same arrangement if the male members of your party aren’t keen to visit the market.

We arrived slightly after 10 and the market wasn’t too crowded yet.

Sarah was delighted to see a wide variety of vegan foods she never had before. The vegan cheese made of nuts was surprisingly tasty!

The raw carrot cake reminded me of an Indian sweet.
Not all cakes were vegan. There were ‘normal’ cakes too. 😉

Have I tempted you yet?

This market runs all year round but only on Saturday mornings. The stalls, more than 80 of them, offer a wide variety ranging from fresh produce to artisinal bakes, both sweet and savoury. Please click on the link I provided above to check out what’s available in the market. Click ‘Traders Info’ and that page will provide you with links to the pictures of the goods sold at the market. There is plenty of space on the ground for you to lay out your mat and enjoy your purchase.  If there’s only one thing that I could suggest you buy from this market, it would have to be the Ashley River organic pear juice. It cost $5.50 for a 1-litre bottle. It is very cheap for an organic juice!  You can’t miss the stall because it only sells bottled juices.  Most of the vegetables sold here are organic and they are not pricey. If you have booked an apartment so that you can cook, do buy your vegetables here to support the farmers who care about sustainability and the environment.

One of the top things to do here according to trip advisor is to visit Akaroa. It is a historic French settlement about 75 km from Christchurch. There seems to be plenty of things to do here, from visiting museums to swimming with the dolphins, but we only wanted to have lunch and do an easy stroll around the bay area. We set off from the Farmer’s Market at 11.30 and arrived in Akaroa just in time for lunch.  I don’t have pictures to show how scenic the route to Akaroa was but Sarah made a video of the trip. Do check it out here!

A busker singing under the cherry blossom
We had lunch at this French restaurant. Food took quite some time to arrive.
Possibly the only person who’s fascinated with the blossoms

There’s a visitor centre, a small supermarket and a few shops selling souvenirs and housewares in this part of the town. We made a mistake of not driving around the town centre before settling for a restaurant. There were more restaurants and shops further down the road and that part of the town was more bustling. You might want to check out what else you can do at Akaroa and other side trips you can take from Christchurch here.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by Westfields at Riccarton. If you’ve never heard of Westfields, it is a huge shopping centre and you can find them everywhere in Australia. There has not been a trip down under without a visit to Westfields. 🙂 If I’m not wrong, there’s usually at least one huge store like Kmart or Target, and one huge supermarket like Coles or Woolworths (Countdown in NZ) in every Westfields. I usually do some research on what’s on sale in stores like Kmart, Target, Big W and the supermarkets before I make the trip (will give you shopping tips on a post specially dedicated to this later) but this time I didn’t because I didn’t have any intention to shop. Still, when I walked into Kmart and saw several household items like jars and serving wares that were just so pretty pretty, I was tempted. I picked up a set of a marble base with a glass dome cover that was going for only $19 (really!) but had to put it back on the rack grudgingly when my daughter said, “Mummy, do you really need that?”

The only other store I was interested to go to was the supermarket. They have a huge supermarket like Costco here called Pak’ n Save. Items that I spotted to be cheaper than back home were the cereals and granola bars. I didn’t spend much time here because I didn’t want to hold up everyone else with me. I usually and prefer to shop alone. So I can’t tell you what else is worth buying here except for the two items I mentioned before and some baking ingredients like flour and sugar.

Day 1: Christchurch, New Zealand

2 September, 2016

We arrived in Christchurch on a Friday morning. Hubby picked up the car while I purchased the sim cards at Vodafone for the four of us. Not sure if Vodafone offered the best plan because I didn’t shop around. Hubby rented a Toyota Highlander, an AWD 7-seater from Europcar. We needed a car that offered a lot of space for 4 suitcases and 2 big bags. Rental only cost $65 a day!

If you are feeling peckish and need some snacks before you check in to your hotel, drive to  Countdown supermarket (bearing the same logo as Woolworths) which is just about 700 m away from the airport. To be exact, the address is 530-546A Memorial Ave, Christchurch Airport, Christchurch 8053. We spotted it enroute to the hotel. Parking is free. If you’re familiar with those big supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths in Australia (Ozland I prefer to call it), this supermarket offers the same kind of fare.

If you are a big cherry blossom fan like myself, this is a good time to visit the South Island. You would be able to spot some spring/cherry blossoms along the roads as you make your way to the hotel. Read where to view the blossoms here.

I chose to book 2 rooms at Rendezvous Hotel instead of a family room so that we didn’t have to fight for one bathroom. Hotel was also preferred to a self-catering accommodation as I didn’t have the intention to cook while staying in the city. I assumed restaurants would be aplenty and it would also not be too difficult to find a halal one. The rate for one room/night was NZ$115, very reasonable for a hotel located in a good area and the rooms have a contemporary design (which was the main selling point for me). You can get your meals easily here as there are eateries below and some across the road at the New Regent Street. Parking at the hotel costs $20 overnight. You can leave your car at the porch when you arrive and they’ll provide a valet parking for you. Alternatively, you can park at the public car park just 30 m from the hotel. That will cost you $2/hr or $8 for a 12-hr parking period.

That Friday afternoon seemed to be a good time to visit the Botanical Gardens. There was hardly any other visitors so we felt like we had the park all to ourselves. Admission to the garden is free. There are parking spaces outside and you have to buy a ticket. I think parking costs about $4/hr. The visitor centre houses a cafe and a permanent exhibition which tells the story of Christchurch and Canterbury through plants and gardening. The cafe is bright and offers quite an extensive menu. We just wanted to sit and have coffee and cakes. I would have opted for something I usually don’t make, like perhaps the citrus slice, but before I could suggest that, hubby picked the banana cake with cream cheese frosting. It was delicious, nonetheless.

A riot of spring blossoms!

Tis’ the season for daffodils!
Another Sakura tree. Yes I’m obsessed with them!

Some trees are still bare though.

You can’t expect to see here the kind of spectacle the cherry blossoms in Japan create in springime. They are not grown in clusters that would result in a dramatic display like they do in Nipponland.

We headed to Nando’s (halal) for dinner. You can park at the designated lots along the road for free but it’s limited to half an hour only. If you’re a vegan like my daughter, there’s not much choice in this restaurant. She ordered a vegetarian paella which was too spicy though we had requested for ‘mild’.

I must say it was quite tricky to drive around the city because several roads were closed for repairs and the GPS wasn’t updated. Hubby used his wit and his good sense of direction to find our way back to the hotel. The city was pretty quiet. I read that many people left after the earthquake. It did look abandoned. Many buildings were being constructed/reconstructed and in varying degrees of completion. There’s not much to do in this city but I would still encourage you to come and stay for a day or two. I guessed the support it needs to rebuild the city would be boosted if more tourists come to visit. Give them your love and tourist dollars, ok. Watch Sarah’s video of Christchurch here to get a glimpse of the city.