Welcome to part 2 of our South Island travels: While we were in Nelson we began planning our drive down New Zealand's rugged western coastline. We plotted the suggested routes and "must see" landmarks from guidebooks and the internet on our old fashioned paper map - and of course took in the many recommendations from our hosts and new friends we'd made so far.
Okay, now it was time to book our Airbnbs. Or not! It was difficult to find any listings, even private rooms in homes for our dates and in our price range. There were many entire houses (our usual booking) priced well over $500 a night! How about hotels or motels? Nope. We were traveling at the tail end of summer in this part of the world so we should have anticipated this situation, but even so, we didn’t expect to come up empty-handed.
We kept our heads down and finally found some interesting places to stay, although we had to change our plans a bit. We left Nelson with a goal to reach Christchurch ten days later. And in the end, the places we stayed all proved to be fun and allowed us to meet very interesting people and experience places slightly off the tourist track.
Our first stay after leaving Nelson was in the fantastic house on the beach near Fox River that I wrote about in the Ups and Downs on the South Island blog. I know that doesn’t match up with what I said earlier about not finding great places, but with that one we got lucky. It was a brand new listing that came on just as we were giving up on staying anywhere near the water.
From there we headed south along The Great Coast Road and made our first "must see" stop at Pancake Rocks, aptly named for the thin limestone formations that look just like their namesake. It started out as a beautiful, sunny day and different views of the sparkling sea could be seen around every twist in the road. But as we wound our way along the coast you could see rain squalls forming. Our four-hour drive took us through a constant change of scenery, elevation, and weather.
Our planned destination for this evening was the Franz Josef Glacier. We couldn’t even get close so we booked one night further down the road in Whataroa at The White Heron Sanctuary Motel. The proprietor called us along the way to say there really wasn’t much in the way of dining nearby so we should stop and have dinner before we arrived. That didn't bode well. We were tired and had leftovers with us from the beach house so we decided we'd just picnic when we got to our first ever motel.
Keeping our expectations low, we pulled in to the parking lot. We found a well-kept courtyard with a manicured lawn in front of a tidy sage green building. Six units at the front and there were two whicker chairs and a table along with a pot of sunny flowers at each front door. So far, so good! There was no reception office in the front so we went around back where there were more units. Still no office, but we met a couple who had just checked and they directed us down the road a few minutes to another motel where the office took care of both properties.
Our room turned out to be just perfect. It was small, but had everything we needed including plates and cutlery for two, tea and coffee and a kettle, and a tiny fridge with two bottles of cold water inside. The shower was great and so was the bed. And it was so clean! I can’t wait to write a five star review on Trip Advisor, because this place was a gem. We had our dinner on the porch as the sun went down over the mountains and were thankful for this lovely place to stay.
We left early the next morning because is was going to be a long day of driving between Whataroa and our next home on the road near Queenstown. Well, not really that near. We searched high and wide around Queenstown for a place because so many people told us we just had to stay there. And if not there, then Arrowtown.
This time, the closest we could get was about an hour away beyond the small town of Cromwell, through the sleepy little gold rush town of Clyde and finally to a wide spot between wineries called Earnsclough.
The terrain changed several times during the drive as we headed away from the coast and into the hills. Between Haast and Wanaka we stopped for a stretch and took the half hour walk (that included a swing bridge) through a forest of ferns to the Blue Pools, named for the deep blue-green glacier water that filled them.
We often came across one-lane bridges .Traffic flow was managed by a sign showing the lane with the bold black arrow had the right away, otherwise drivers followed the “he who is furthest along the path” rule. That and remembering to stay on the left were the only real challenges we had on the road.
The drive that day was one of the most beautiful of our trip. We wound through green pastures and forests up into mountain passes with glaciers in the near distance. Then it was down through craggy hills dotted with waterfalls, and over narrow bridges crossing wide riverbeds. Further along we passed miles of orchards, with trees barely able to hold their abundance, and then came vineyards stretching in military formation on both sides of the road.
All along we spotted “honor” stands where you could pick up a bags of sheep poop and pine cones for $5. (not sure if the contents were together or separate), jars of honey, bunches of flowers, fresh eggs, boxes of apples and all sorts of fresh vegetables - just leave the money in a wooden box.
We stopped at the grocery store in Cromwell for salad ingredients and something for the barbecue we’d seen in the photos of our Airbnb. Fingers crossed it was still there and working, because we knew we had a very small kitchen.
Thyme Lane Historic Cottage was perfect for a two-night stay. Definitely cozy and romantic, and our host Denise was the perfect example of what true hospitality looks like. She keeps the tiny larder filled with breakfast essentials including freshly ground coffee and local fruit, and welcomed us with crackers and cheese and a chilled bottle of local Rose.
The next morning we ventured into Queenstown to see what it was all about. Unfortunately, we got stuck in road-works that added an hour to our journey, so we were hot and tired when we got there. And hungry. We had a quick, expensive lunch and headed into the center of town where we lasted about a half an hour. Maybe Queenstown itself isn’t the draw, but instead, it was the many beautiful places nearby and unique experiences you can book from there. Since we had no desire to rush down a river, jump off a cliff, dangle from a bridge, skydive (more jumping), zip-line, hike into the wilderness, meditate on a mountain or over-spend on wine-tasting, we decided to head to Arrowtown where things might be less frenetic. That was a good idea. We enjoyed a leisurely afternoon in the Victorian era town center that included ice cream and reading in the park.
We said goodbye to Denise and headed to Dunedin. Know as the “Edinburgh of New Zealand” it sits near the bottom of the island on the east side. It is close enough to Antartica that many famous expeditions were launched from there. We booked two different Airbnbs here due once again to availability. But that turned out to be good fortune since as we made new friends with both of our hosts.
We also connected with a woman who lives there named Jenny Weeks. She has followed our blog for a couple of years, and once she knew we were coming to Dunedin she jumped in with all kinds of great advice on where to stop on our way. When we were in town, she and her husband Rob invited us to their home and prepared a delicious Sunday lunch - a real treat for us. And finally, the biggest reason we put Dunedin on the map was an opportunity to meet the parents of our daughter Mary’s friend and neighbor Charlotte. When we were visiting the Bourons in France last January we had coffee with Charlotte because she is from New Zealand and we were looking for travel advice. She had some great suggestions for us, but had particularly wonderful things to say about her hometown of Dunedin and thought we would enjoy meeting her parents. That clinched it.
Our first four nights were spent on the Otago Peninsula in a small town called Portobello. It is a nature lovers paradise, with green hillsides and cliffs dropping down to rugged beaches that are home to Albatross, sea lions and rare yellow-eyed penguins. We didn’t see too much of the countryside because a few very rainy days set in.
To reach our next home we had to drive along a narrow, winding road that came perilously close to the waters-edge (on the driver's side) and there were no guardrails. We learned later that a few cars do end up in the shallow waters each year, mostly ending in embarrassment for the driver and a write-off on the car. The locals treat the road like a straight-away and unfortunately have to suffer behind us first-timers.
We found our Airbnb and then found our host on a tractor mowing the back fields. After a warm welcome, Peter checked us into our home which turned out to be a converted farm shed. It was a great little space, although it didn’t have a kitchen and the bathroom was attached to the exterior of the main house and required a short walk down the path. That was interesting at night.
It sounds a bit too rustic, but in fact it a was a very well appointed “shed” with a big, comfortable bed, and every morning our host brought us coffee and just baked scones with homemade jam.
Our hosts Jeannie and Peter have taken their recently acquired acreage and beaten back the overgrowth to create a peaceful sanctuary with paths leading up into the hills behind the house. We were invited to explore the property and pick whatever we’d like from the orchards and garden and to be sure and say hello to the two doddering old sheep they inherited with the property.
It turned out our host was the well-known film producer and theatre actor Peter Hayden. He invited us to join he and Jeannie at a performance of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeve’s and Wooster at the local theatre on our first night. It was a brilliant show, full of classic Wodehouse humor, and of course, they knew all the cast. Once again, our hosts became the best part of our stay.
Our second Airbnb in Dunedin was in a mother-in-law apartment in the hillside suburb of Belleknowes. We had a beautiful view of the city and the sea beyond and woke to all types of birds singing in the big trees outside the window. Our hosts Alan and Helen are retired University librarians and are fairly new to Airbnb, but you wouldn’t know it. The apartment was spotless and Helen had thought of just about everything a guest could possibly ask for. We stayed for a week kitchen was so well equipped I baked a carrot cake and made a meatloaf! Now that felt like home.
On our second night they invited us to join them for their weekly Scottish Dance lesson! Alan plays the piano for the beginning class and Helen moves between that class and the more experienced group as a helper. We managed to avoid participating in "Strip the Willow" but observing was definitely an enjoyable “living like a local” moment. Dunedin is a really interesting city. There is rich gold mining history to discover and glorious old buildings (especially banks) to tour, but the large university crowd keeps things hip and many historic monoliths now house cafes, galleries and trendy shops.
We did indeed meet Charlotte’s parents, although separately since they are no longer married. Both encounters were memorable in different ways, and thoroughly enjoyable. And so it goes…it’s the people we meet along the way that have become the thread that keeps this whole Senior Nomad adventure stitched together!
We had one last city to visit before we said goodbye during out six weeks in this amazing country. After leaving the rental car in Dunedin we boarded a comfortable bus for the five and a half hour journey to Christchurch. We like busses. You get to skip the security hassles and weight restrictions that come with flying and you can enjoy the scenery at ground level. The trade-off is it takes longer to get to your destination, but we have the time and arrive more rested.
We booked our final Airbnb in a private room in a house for three nights. If you’ve followed us you know that is something we do when we take road trips or are just staying somewhere for a few nights. Usually, we book an entire house. Turns out this house was big enough that you might not see another person for days - however, three little chihuahuas tracked our every move! Our hosts Donna and Martin were great and helped us get the most out of our visit.
Christchurch recently suffered a one-two earthquake punch. The first one shook things up April 10, 2010 with a magnitude of 7.1, but the extensive damage to the city and the loss of life that made the headlines was a devastating 6.3 quake that hit just six months later on February 2, 2011. You can still see crushed buildings and places and large swathes of the city and suburbs that have been cleared. But you can also feel the pride of the people we met as they take charge of rebuilding their city to become even better and stronger than before.
Michael and I both feel these past weeks in New Zealand have been some of the best of our travels. Memories of the people we met, the natural beauty, Flat Whites, and delicious pies will remain with us always.
If you’d read this far, thank you! I know it was long - but I had to wrap up NZ since we are just about to finish five weeks in Australia!
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads
p.s. Did you know this blog is searchable? If you have any questions about the places we’ve been or other topics of interest, type them in the search box and see what comes up!