Monday, April 4, 2011

Queenstown, Milford Sound & the Southern Alps: Day 1

Readers of this blog may remember that on our first visit to the South Island, I had aspirations to drive around the entire circumference of the South Island, including a visit to Queenstown, New Zealand's adventure capital, and Milford Sound, New Zealand's undisputed top tourist destination. The kids revolted in Hanmer Springs, correctly pointing out that my plans involved WAY too many hours sitting in the car. I had to accept that a visit to Queenstown was impossible at that time and we would have to return on another date.

We flew down to Queenstown for a 5 day visit between March 17 and March 21 with an excursion over to Milford Sound. Triple bonus: the day we arrived was St. Patrick's Day, the day we left was a public holiday giving Otago (Queenstown's "province") a long weekend, and best of all, the weather was incredible all weekend. I shot over 1000 photos and 2 hours of video.

View from our apartment's living room across Lake Wakatipu towards the Remarkables
We left Palmerston North on the 7:00 am flight, arriving in Queenstown by mid-morning. Our gorgeous apartment #9 in Lakeridge Condos had a balcony with unobstructed views across Lake Wakatipu and a fireplace. The kids loved the 52" plasma screen TV loaded with all their favorite channels from back in Canada. It was a 5-10 minute walk along the lakeside into the center of Queenstown.

So ... beautiful day, crystalline lake surrounded by towering mountains, many people sporting grins and green clothes, wigs, hats, etc. Like moths to a flame, we made a beeline to the nearest watering hole, Pub on Wharf. We knew we had found the right place by the $14 pitchers of green beer, the umbrellas that had heaters strapped to the under-surface (beautiful and sunny but still on the 45th southern parallel) and the exterior plasma screen TV.  Transitioning to vacation mode was made very easy for us indeed while basking in the afternoon sun and enjoying a leisurely lunch.

Pog Mahones Irish Pub at 4:00pm on the nose
Queenstown seemed to be preparing itself for an epic St. Patrick's Day celebration - the bar's were filled to capacity by 4:00pm.

We spent a few hours wandering around the boutiques on the Mall (a pedestrian street in the middle of town) and surrounding streets. The shopping was actually pretty decent.

Queenstown Mall

Undoubtedly, there was a heavy presence of Asian-run Kiwi souvenir shops and hawkers of All Blacks and Super-14 rugby shirts, but there was also a good selection of merchants selling higher quality merino wool clothes and coolest of all, sports stores catering to the extreme sports enthusiast. Need a sleeping bag smaller than a bottle of beer and have $2000 to spare? What about a bungee jump head-cam or a frisbee-golf basket? The stores along Shotover Street seemed to stock all manner of accessory for the Queenstown thrill seeker.

The perfect end to the afternoon was enjoying a snack and a Central Otago Pinot Noir on the couch of our apartment watching the sunset over the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. Unfortunately, the wine, the fireplace, the 100s of digital TV channels and the early morning collaborated to produce significant inertia. Trish and the kids had no problem choosing slumber over food and I headed out for Thai food on my own. I snuck in the back of an Irish bar to join the St. Patrick's Day festivities, but was a good 5 hours late to the party and after trying in vain to get within shouting distance of the bar, I gave up and headed to a quieter venue for a scotch before calling it a night.

We were up early on Friday morning as I had booked an excursion to Milford Sound for that day. I had decided to splurge on a flight over the Southern Alps to Milford Sound, as the alternative was a 4 hour bus trip there and back.  Despite beautiful weather in Queentown, conditions at Milford Sound were awful and our trip was postponed until the next day.

TSS Earnslaw Steamship built in 1912
My parents had recommended a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw Steamship across Lake Wakatipu to the working sheep farm of Walter Peak Station, so we decided on this as an alternate activity for our free Friday morning.

Lake Wakatipu
The cruise across Lake Wakatipu took about 45 minutes. We feasted on scones & tea before venturing out on deck to take in the breeze and the morning sun.

Aboard the TSS Earnslaw

Walter Peak Station
The large building above serves mostly tourists now, but used to function as living quarters for the more than 80 employees that worked at Walter Peak Station at its peak.

Foreboding Sir Walter Peak
Walter Peak Station is still a functioning sheep & cattle farm and the main attraction was to see some of the ins & outs of the daily life on a high country station. Our guide took us first to see the various animals kept on the farm.

Cassandra feeding a stag
Mackenzie feeding a merino lamb

Highland Cattle
After the exertion of feeding animals through a fence, it was time for our second morning tea in as many hours. I felt like a hobbit. A high country tea had been set up for us in the drawing room of the old dormitory which could these days easily pass for a 4 star restaurant. We spent our time on the patio looking back across Lake Wakatipu towards Queenstown.

Our next stop was a paddock with 9 or 10 different breeds of sheep. Our guide schooled us on the pros and cons of the different breeds - for instance, merino is prized for its fine wool but are disease-prone and don't produce nice meat. Romney accounts for around 60% of NZ varieties and is valued for its hardiness as well as its fast growing wool and excellent meat.

New Zealanders are serious about their sheep. After all, sheep in New Zealand outnumber humans by a ratio of 12:1. They contribute to both the meat and wool industries. For the last decade, meat was more profitable as the clothing industry used more and more synthetic fibers, but now wool seems to be becoming more important as people are using it for insulation in houses as well as in clothing.

Harrison feeding some Suffolks
Our visit to Walter Peak Station concluded with a demonstration of a sheepdog expertly herding sheep at his master's command and the shearing of a large ram as well as a visit to the gift store. All in all, it was a fun experience and the kids loved it.

The Southern Alps
We got back to town shortly after lunch and decided to shift gears and experience some of Queenstown's edgier adventures. We headed over to the headquarters of Shotover Jet Boats to book our jet boat ride in the narrow Shotover River Canyon.

All dressed up for our jet boat ride
Jet boats are propelled by 2 jet engines submerged a few inches below the water. Our boat needed only 10" of water and could reach speeds of 100 km/h. This allows the pilot to thrill his victims by driving precariously close to the canyon walls and for the boat to travel in any direction at the turn of a dime. 360 degree spins mid-river were awesome and slides along the river surface to within a foot of the jagged canyon walls were terrifying. Harrison even got a chance to drive!

Our boat is actually skidding across the water towards the left

Check out the video!

After a very complete and fun day, we retired back to our condo for more wine and a snack, but didn't make the same mistake as the night before. We devoured a delicious Japanese meal at Kappa on The Mall and on the stroll home stumbled on Patagonia Chocolates. We didn't really want to wait in line for 15 minutes to buy something but ...

Forgive me father for I have sinned ...

This was only the first day of our trip. We still had an eye-popping flight over the Southern Alps and a cruise up and down the Milford Sound as well as other Queenstown adventures ahead of us.


  1. awesome video! and pictures!
    look like you guys are having a blast!!

    can't wait to see you guys when you are back!


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