Catching an American accent, I turned to take in an attractive woman about my age dropping into the seat next to me. We were on the ferry from Wellington to New Zealand’s South Island and it was packed. She had snagged the very last seat on the upper deck, but that left her husband stranded at the railing. The two of them were working out how they would share the seat when Michael decided he was ready to go in search of a Diet Coke. He offered his seat to the gentleman, and they had a laugh while deciding they would do the sharing.
So now I was wedged between two fellow Americans and all I really wanted to do was take in the scenery and finish my book. Michael is the better conversation starter in our duo. He happily strikes up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. And yes, he is that person that banters with restaurant staff and makes your teenage children want to disappear under the table. But he also is responsible for many of the encounters we've had had with strangers that have given us insight from locals and new acquaintances.
Left on my own, a little polite interaction was necessary. So I asked where they were from and what they had done on their trip so far. And then of course where they were headed on the South Island. I have to say, at first they didn’t seem too eager to chat either. But they politely asked me reciprocal questions. This is where it gets tricky. How much to share about what we are doing. The more we reveal, the longer the conversation is likely to be, and I was really enjoying my book. But I did say we were retired and traveling full-time.
“Us too!” they exclaimed. Now that was a game changer.
Meet Mel and Joan, two delightful travelers who have also sold their home, their cars, put stuff in storage and have been seeing the world just about as long as we have! And also avoid other Americans. In almost five years we have never, ever met another pair of Senior Nomads. Book? What book? This was going to be an afternoon spent comparing notes! Michael returned and more formal introductions were made. Soon after, probably for the reasons mentioned earlier, the man next to Michael packed up and moved to another part of the boat. So now the Nomad Convention could really began. It was so enjoyable to share stories and trade tips and nod like bobbleheads as we listened to each other.
They love SE Asia often stay in Bangkok for three or four months and travel from there. They also bought a small furnished apartment in Phoenix as a home base but may rethink that. Their most harrowing tale was of Joan becoming desperately ill in Dehli and how good her care was and how compassionate the staff at the hospital and at their hotel were. Our travels were different enough that we were able to give and take tips for future adventures.
Even with our intense conversation, we were able to pause and take in the beautiful coastline as we sailed into Picton, the gateway to New Zealand’s rugged southern island. It just confirmed how blessed we all were to live this lifestyle. We said goodbyes that felt like we were leaving old friends and pledged to stay in touch.
Now it was time to catch our bus for the two-hour drive to Nelson, our first destination. The bus took a very scenic route but we were so tired, we kept nodding off. Luckily (?) we had a very chatty bus driver who pointed out almost every point of interest along with his version of history over the speaker system. He also added his personal thoughts on traffic, slow drivers, “kids today” and local politics. I'm not sure we could have slept anyway.
We arrived in Nelson with just one last push - to get from the bus station to our Airbnb. It was just two miles away, but it seemed like getting to the moon. It was too far to walk, Uber had not yet come to Nelson and cabs were scarce. Michael took charge and went off to find a way. I love that man. And, as often happens, a stranger jumped in to help. We were guided to a mini-bus stop where one kind driver flagged down an even kinder driver going in our direction. That driver had already left the parking lot with a bus full of passengers, but he turned around and invited us (and our luggage) onto his tiny bus and no one on the bus seemed to mind at all.
He dropped us as near to our Airbnb as he could, but shook his head as we hauled our bags to the curb. “Good luck with that hill Mate. Ta!” We turned to see a road that curved before we could grasp just how high, and how far the climb would be - but up there somewhere was our next home. This is where Michael often say something like “inch by inch, anything's a cinch!”. I no longer love that man.
The walk up the hill was not that bad and the Airbnb was well worth the climb. It was liking living in a tree house with views from the deck across a bay one direction and towards town in the other. It was clean, stylish, and well stocked. Within a very few minutes of arriving we collapsed on the very comfortable bed.
We had plans to stay in Nelson for three nights but loved our place so much we tacked on an extra night. And the town itself was also easy to love, too. It was full of parks and gardens and hosted a weekend market that made all the guidebooks. There were pubs and public squares and even a croquet pitch for all to enjoy. And it was the kind of place where you could leave your purse in a cab at night (like I did) and have a laugh with the police officers at the station in the morning where it had been handed in by the driver within minutes of his finding it.
Based on so many recommendations to see the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park, we picked up our rental car a day early because the park was in a different direction than our planned route.
Quite early on in the drive we felt the need for a bakery stop so we pulled in the seaside village of Mapua where we found an outstanding purveyor of pastries, cakes, pies and, Mr. Campbell's all-time favorite food.......cookies.
From there we weren’t sure where the road might take us. I suggested we take the first Scenic Route sign we saw and follow it to it’s end. It took us down a winding road and then along the sea - but also directly back into the center of Mapau. Oops. With a little more attention paid to the GPS we found equally pleasant roads that took us further along the coast. This part of the island is the launching point for vast numbers of adventures so the tourist towns were crowded with kayakers, backpackers, divers and sunbathers. But we also found it was filled with tranquil dips in the road and beautiful vistas. We had a delicious lunch and a walk on an uncrowded beach and affirmed this the country with the most stunning natural beauty we've visited so far.
From Nelson our plan was to take two weeks to drive down the west coast and then across to Dunedin. From there we would bus to Christchurch for our flight to Melbourne. The unexpected challenge became finding Airbnbs, or any other accommodation along the way. We soon realized “high season” meant just that. Finally, after several hours, and more than a little friction between the two of us, we cobbled together an itinerary. Once we were on the road and passed one neon NO Vacancy sign after another we were glad, once again, we hadn't gotten all “romantic” and attempted to find undiscovered little beach hide-a-ways along the way.
The first Airbnb we booked was a late-in-the-game score! It was a stunning beach house that came online just as we were about to give up finding a place somewhere near the ocean. The only downside was we would the first guests to stay in the house. But the host was very responsive and had other Airbnb properties so we snagged it.
The house was on an isolated stretch of beach and the instructions said to be sure and provision before you arrived because the nearest town was a good half hour drive away. Add to that, Cyclone Gita was building and there was a chance she would hit landfall directly on our deck the next day. To be honest, we were sort of looking forward to a storm! We bought enough extra water, candles, treats and non-perishable food to last three days.
Carefully following our host's directions to the turnoff from the main road, we found ourselves unhooking a rope “gate” that allowed us to access the narrow lane that led to the house. The previous week another very powerful storm had ripped through this same area. We could see the ravaged vegetation on the water side of the track as well as large pieces of driftwood that had been tossed ashore like sticks.
We found the house and just looked at each other with a grin on our faces. With all the challenges of finding a place to stay, we'd ended up with a 5-Star GEM.
It was starting to get a little dark and stormy so before I’d even put the groceries away I was out the door to explore our stretch of beach while I could. Maybe I'd see the cute little penguins living in the rushes! The stairs mentioned in the listing had been torn away by the earlier storm but I managed to clamber down the rocks onto the pebble beach. I took some great pictures and enjoyed the salt spray from the pounding waves while Michael played the role of vigilant lifeguard from our deck.
Once I was home and dry I started to make dinner and that’s when the insane itching around my ankles kicked in. If I’d read the house manual before I ran to the beach I would have been more careful and worn high socks, long sleeves and lathered-on insect repellent. Instead, I let an army of nasty little sand flies provision for themselves using my ankles! Within a half an hour I was itching so badly I was willing to have both my feet and my hands removed. Luckily, I had some Benadryl and anti-itch cream leftover from our African adventure so I had some (but not much) relief. The itching and achy pain lasted a full two weeks! Lesson learned.
On to more pleasant things. Our host Daniel was very attentive (read worried as the cyclone was approaching) and called several times from far away Auckland to check on us. He had another property also in the direct path of the storm, so he was biting his nails. And as I mentioned, we were his first guests in this house, but luckily we are veterans and not much could phase us. Daniels other house was more remote than ours and even more exposed to the weather, but those tenants were also up for an adventure!
Daniel suggested we move the car up the road in case it was blocked by fallen trees and driftwood like it was in the earlier storm. We also went over how to handle a power outage. And of course we both watched the weather reports. The surf was building and the clouds were becoming an ominous rhino shade of grey, but it hadn’t rained much, and the wind hadn’t kicked up. We went to bed with full power and the feeling all would be well.
The sound of the pounding ocean waves kept us drowsing until almost noon the next day! Soon after, however it began pouring rain and the wind gusts became more intense. I decided to make the chicken soup I'd planned on and make a crostata with fresh peaches while I still could! The lights flickered all afternoon and we finally lost power just before dark. Perfect timing since the soup was still hot and the pie was out of the oven. We lit a dozen candles and played cribbage and dominoes by candlelight and enjoyed our feast.
Cyclone Gina came knocking but not as intensely as predicted so I can’t say we sat out a major storm. But it was still wet and wild enough to be memorable. And considering this part of the island including Nelson had just been whacked a few weeks earlier by a truly powerful storm it was a blessing for all concerned.
The power hadn't come back on by the time we needed to leave, so we emptied the fridge and pulled the door shut on what turned out to be on of the most delightful homes we’ve stayed in yet.
We continued winding (literally) our way south along the coastline with stops planned in Whataroa, Earnscleugh (near Queenstown), Dunedin and our a final destinatination of Christchurch. I’ll share the second half of our South Island adventures shortly.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senor Nomads