One of our favorite trips last year was to the South Island of New Zealand. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world and contains an amazing variety of landscapes in quite a small area. On our trip last year we started in Christchurch, a city with a strong English heritage. We stayed at the historic Hermitage Lodge in Mt. Cook National Park and hiked among the highest peaks of the Southern Alps. We visited Lake Wanaka, the tourist destination for Kiwis and hiked in nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park. And we explored Queenstown, the adventure sports capital of New Zealand and of course did even more hikes. It was a wonderful trip but with everything we had done there were still things that we hadn't been able to fit into the two weeks that we had available. We really wanted to visit the remote fjord country in the far south of the island that has some of the most spectacular fjords in the world. We never made it to the west coast, an area with a reputation for being very beautiful but also known for its terrible weather. And finally we hadn't been to Marlborough, the most famous wine producing region in New Zealand - a major oversight for us. So even before we left last year we had resolved that we would come back again in 2009.
Although living in the US you may think of New Zealand as close to Singapore, it is actually a ten hour flight to Christchurch (the same as flying from San Francisco to London). The SingAir flight leaves Singapore in the evening and flies through the night. Last year we stayed in Christchurch to recuperate from the overnight flight. While Christchurch is nice, we had seen it before so we decided to be bold and drive directly to the city of Dunedin when we arrived. I was a little tired but with frequent stops I did the five hour drive without too much trouble.
While Christchurch resembles an English city, Dunedin was settled by Scottish emmigrants. In fact its name is taken from the old Gaelic name for Edinburgh. It is a city of about 125 thousand people located on Otago Harbor, a narrow body of water enclosed by the Otago Peninsula. It was the largest city in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century. While it has been overtaken in population by several other cities in New Zealand, it is still considered one of the leading urban areas in the country. It is home to the University of Otago, the oldest and one of the best universities in New Zealand, and is considered a center for arts and culture. It is also famous for its parks and beautiful old buildings.
At the very center of the city is the Octagon, a public square that is surrounded on one side by public buildings and a church, and on the other by restaurants and pubs (usually the same thing in New Zealand). It was part of the original layout for the first settlement done in the 1840's. Our first evening we walked down to the Octagon and found a table at one of the pubs there. It was a great spot for people watching and for enjoying the nice summer weather - warm but not hot and definitely not humid. We enjoyed some fish and chips for dinner and got to sample Speights Ale, "The Pride of the South", which is brewed right in Dunedin only a few blocks away from where we were eating.
The next day we decided to drive out along the Otago Peninsula. It is famous for unusual wildlife such as seals, yellow-eyed penguins and many varieties of rare seabirds. There is a scenic drive near the crest of the hills on the peninsula that gives a nice view of the harbor. There is a tourist attraction known as Larnach Castle, which of course is not a real castle but just a huge mansion that was built in the nineteenth century. We drove to it but decided to pass when we learned that it cost $25NZ per person to even drive into the grounds. We did have better luck at the main "wildlife" attraction on Sandy's list, the studio for Happy Hens in the village of Portobello. One of Sandy's quilting friends, Laura, is a collector of hen arts and crafts. She would have been in heaven at Happy Hens. When we left Sandy had her arms full of packages of gifts she had bought for various friends and family. On the way back to we drove along the shore of Otago Harbor.
We were back to Dunedin in time for lunch. Sandy had found a pizza place up on one of the hills above downtown that looked promising. But driving there turned out to be a real mess as a road we needed to take was closed for construction. Dunedin has a reputation for curving, confusing streets because of its unusual original city layout and its hilly terrain which follows the outline of the harbor. We found the reputation to be well deserved. But eventually we found an alternative route to our pizza place only to find out that it wasn't open for lunch anyway. But a block away we happened on a restaurant that had a beautiful view. This made up for the fact that we had to struggle with a really yuppie menu. But we each managed to find something and the wine we had with lunch was good. I noticed that our waitress spoke with a "funny accent". When we asked it turned out that she was from Colorado and had been touring SE Asia for six months and now was living in New Zealand.
That afternoon we went for a long walk through the city. We were really enjoying the weather. We walked through the campus of the University of Otago. We went to the Cadbury factory in Dunedin. You weren't supposed to go into their shop without taking the tour but Sandy managed to sneak in and buy some dark chocolate. We found a good outdoor shop downtown and Sandy bought a nice pair of hiking pants, some cool merino tops and a fleece jacket on sale. It all came in handy on the rest of the trip. She also found a jewelry store where she bought a pretty, unique (and I suppose pretty unique) pendant that had a stone that was polished differently on each side so that it is "reversible". When she wears it one way it is a pretty white stone. When she wears it another way it has black and brown and other color swirls. Two pieces of jewelry for the price of one. You can't beat that. We went by the Speights Brewery but their tours were fully booked for the day. So instead it was back to the Octagon and a nice table in the sun for a Speights. That worked just as well. Finally we went back to the University of Otago where we had finally found a pizza restaurant that was open. The pizza was really good although Sandy wasn't too crazy about the fact that they were playing the new Metallica album the whole time that we were there. I thought it was great. What do you expect from a pizza place on a college campus anyway?