Saturday, February 26, 2011

Soaking in Hanmer Springs & Whale-Watching in Kaikoura

After an excellent day cruising around vineyards and chocolate factories, we set out for Hanmer Springs, an inland mountain retreat known for it's natural spa. The GPS told me that it would take about 3 hours.

Road to Christchurch. All the beaches are deserted.
I know I sound like a broken record, but once again the scenery was breathtaking. The road initially followed the pacific coast and then turned inland into the Southern Alps.

Crayfish stand in the middle of nowhere
Not lobsters - crayfish (no front claws)

Alpaca Farm beside the highway
 After 5 hours careening around U-turn after U-turn on narrow roads on the edge of a cliff and with a ... dissatisfied and car sick wife, we finally arrived in Hanmer Springs. The error the GPS made was in assuming that I could take hairpin turns in a 2000 Honda Odyssey at 100 km/hr even though it was signposted at 25 km/hr.

View from our apartment balcony over the golf course
Our accommodations were awesome. To date, the Alpine Springs Motel has been our best accommodation thus far in New Zealand. The owner, Robert Sluggett, has put the lion's share of his profits from selling 20 pubs in the UK to restore this once derelict property into beautifully decorated self-contained apartments overlooking a golf course. Every room had a flat screen TV and there were plenty of cool electronic gadgets scattered around the apartment. And it was a leisurely 6 minute walk across the golf course to get to the town's star attraction, the hot springs.

All smiles in a 38C hot spring pool
The hot springs were divine. There were 8 or 9 different pools, three with sulfur and the rest without, all between 34C and 41C. What a great way to relax after a 5 hour drive! We topped the evening off with a bottle of Hawke's Bay Syrah and stone-grilled steak at Saint's Restaurant.

The next day I woke up to a request for a family meeting. A mutiny was underway.

"Dad, we can't stand being in the car anymore! We're not having fun and you promised we'd have fun."

Bored in the car
Alright, time to regroup. I had initially envisioned driving the entire circumference of the South Island during our 9 day trip. The kids opened my eyes that if this was possible, we would be spending most of the daylight hours driving. The distances are very large and the roads are very slow, so I had to replan our trip.

I decided that the most southern part of the South Island, consisting of most of the top tourist destinations (Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mt. Cook, Franz-Josef Glacier) was inaccessible to us by car in a 9 day trip and we would have to go back at another time. [In fact, we're flying to Queenstown on March 18 for 5 days.]

So our trip was now going to be covering only the northern part of the South Island. We would go as far south as Christchurch and then head back to Nelson, the area renowned for having the best weather in New Zealand, for a little beach time before heading back to Palmerston North to start work and school.

After the family pow-wow, we packed up and left Hanmer Springs in time to catch a whale-watching cruise out of Kaikoura.

In the summer of 2007, our summer vacation was summarily canceled at the last minute, so we decided to see a little bit of Quebec for a change. We drove as far north as Tadoussac to stay at the fabulous Hotel Tadoussac and go whale watching in the St. Lawrence Estuary. We apparently got lucky as we saw over 40 whales that day. Most were the smaller Minke whales but we saw a pod of belugas and even one of the 4 blue whales that live in the St. Lawrence, although it was so far away that it was hard to be convinced that we were actually seeing the earth's largest living creature.

So it was with some disappointment that I learned that the goal of the Kaikoura Whale Watch cruise was to sight ONE whale. Our cruise left at 2:30pm and a young woman gave a fantastic presentation about the sperm whales that we were trying to find. We heard that there were two in the immediate vicinity of Kaikoura, although one was sleeping. The passion and excitement of the crew was infectious as the young woman described how we were searching for a solitary animal that lives 3 km below the ocean and surfaces for 10 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. When their radar detected a whale on the surface half a kilometer away, she virtually shouted "Whale on the surface" as the boat did a tight U-turn and bolted at full speed towards the whale. Here are some shots of what we saw.

It was pretty cool. The kids got really excited. However the highlight for me was coming up.

After the whale had disappeared back into the depths, we got back into our seats and started heading over to check out a seal colony when the ocean all around the boat boiled over with dusky dolphins (a separate species from the bottlenose dolphins you see at Marine Land). They were everywhere - over a hundred of them!

The massive pod of dolphins frolicked around the boat for about 15 minutes. When they had swum away, we continued towards the seal colony only to stumble (as much as boats can stumble) 5 minutes later onto another pod of the apparently much shyer and rarer Hector's dolphin who also were content to swim and jump right next to our boat. This species of dolphin is apparently only found in the south Pacific Ocean off the coast of Kaikoura.

The captain of the boat announced that we had already exceeded our time and that we wouldn't be able to see the seals. I didn't mind; I was no longer disappointed and Trish and the kids had loved the cruise out onto the ocean.

Besides, as we headed south down the highway towards Christchurch, we pulled over at a widening in the road to find these lazy guys posing for us.

Seals lounging beside the highway enjoying the late afternoon sun
Next post: magnificent Christchurch

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