To the South Island of New Zealand on the Interislander Ferry!
In order to get to the South Island of New Zealand, you can either fly or take a cruise on one the world’s great ferry rides from Wellington to Picton. This three hour journey across Cook Strait has something for everyone including food and beverage facilities, children play areas, WiFi, and, of course, spectacular sight seeing. Aratere is one of three ships that carries up to 600 people, 31 staff, 32 train cars, and 1000 vehicles. Fortunately, it was a sunny, calm day for the crossing as it can become quite rough when windy and stormy!
Friends in both Wellington and Rotorua advised me where to visit while in the South Island, and the city of Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park nearby were high on their lists. I had made arrangements to spend the night in Picton and then possibly rent a car to get to Nelson, but there wasn’t a car to be had upon arriving in Picton. I know I wanted to stay in Nelson for a few days and visit Abel Tasman National Park, so I booked an interesting accommodation called the INNBetween Lodge and Backpackers. After visiting the i Site center and setting up a combination boat cruise and day hike to Tasman and a car rental for after my stay in Nelson, it was back on the bus.
Nelson’s population runs about 60,000 and is known as an artsy kind of place attracting creative people who work with glass, stone, metal, wood, clay, paint, fabric, and paper. The city center has a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly Trafalgar Street lined with cafes, restaurants, shops, galleries, and boasts the shop of the gold and silversmith, Jens Hanson, creator of THE ring for the Lord of the Rings movies. At the end of the street is the imposing Nelson Christ Church Cathedral.
I was happy to find that the INNBetween Lodge was right around the corner from the cathedral close to everything. Wayne and his wife Ann own the lodge and take pride in what they’ve created. Having under gone a big renovation recently and decorated by Ann, I was shown my small but beautifully appointed single room with shared bath for the night. My remaining nights would be a bunk bed( I made sure I got the bottom bunk) in a six bed dorm room aptly entitled the “Audrey Hepburn” room done in shades of turquoise and lavender. Sharing a hostel dorm room was a first for me, and my lucky day, as I got to meet two young women solo travelers, Nina from Iceland and Emily from France. Later in the week there were two women my age who joined us late in the night, so hostel dorms are not just for the young.
At one point I decided I wanted a single room to myself for a night and booked another small motel operated by a woman with ties to Maine and whose family had owned the French and Brawn store in Camden. Small world. She also happened to be a blessing in disguise as the next morning while trying to open a plastic shampoo packet with my teeth, I chipped a front tooth! She knew to call the hospital emergency room to locate the dentist on call for Saturday–yes the weekend! I had a sinking feeling this might be expensive, but imagine my amazement when I got an appointment early that very afternoon and my front tooth expertly repaired to the tune of $100! That’s $67.00 USD.
Nelson really is a lovely place. Only a short walk from the city center is the Queen’s Gardens, opened in 1891 to commemorate the 50th jubilee of Queen Victoria’s coronation. This Victorian styled garden with paths that meander through a combination of native tall trees and formal plantings of annuals and perennials that edge the serpentine Eel Pond, once considered an ugly mud hole, is a refuge for many city dwellers. On the other side of the pond is the Suter Gallery, closed for renovation, but there is a temporary location in the city center. Just beyond the Gardens is what’s called the Center of New Zealand, a short hike up to a fabulous look-out of the city and beyond and considered the geographical center of the country.
Nelson claims having the sunniest weather in the country (Whakatane and Napier in the North Island claim this also!), and that was certainly the case when I visited. It was another perfect day of sunshine to visit Abel Tasman National Park. The Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle picked me and another guest up at the lodge to take us to Kaiteriteri to catch our boat for a full day combination cruise up the park, and a four hour hike to the South Head lookout, over the magical Falls River Swing Bridge, and to Cleopatra’s Pool before being picked up at Anchorage Beach. Many hiking enthusiasts do a five day hike of the park with overnights at huts or camping out along the way. I think I’ve discovered where Gilligan, Skipper, Maryann and crew were ship wrecked all those years long ago!
Nelson also has a great movie theater, so I decided to see The Revenant, touted as being “violence porn” by some critics ( a Game of Thrones fan… not deterred). But I loved it because the cinematography was so visually stunning and rivaled its human counter parts for the leading role. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been exposed to such dramatic vistas everyday here in NZ. I feel my senses are more acute since being on the road. I’m in my head less and in my heart more.
Since I needed to plan the remainder of my South Island visit, I was back at the ubiquitous i Site center for some help. I was hoping to continue west and then head south to Franz Joseph Glacier and Queenstown but quickly found out that lodging was booked in these popular areas. Still the high summer season, there was some big triathlon going on, and it was Chinese New Year to boot. I had read recently in a local paper that holiday arrivals in NZ were up 16.2 percent this year bringing in 220,000 extra visitors. The South Island demographic has also changed with Chinese tourism up 50 percent! With the helpful agent’s assistance and what we could find for lodging, I planned to head down the east coast to Kaikoura for two nights at the Lady Shagg hostel (the name should have been a warning), on past the city of Christchurch for a night in Akaroa (a great find!). I would then drive across the South Island over the famous Arthur’s Pass to the west coast and spend two nights at Fox Glacier before heading north to Greymouth and taking the TranzAlpine Train back east to Christchurch.
Due to limited accommodations in the south, I happily spent another night in Nelson and was able to attend The Nelson Opera in the Park event. Camped out in the early evening with about 7,000 others, I got to experience a real family- friendly show that not only featured six opera numbers accompanied by the Wellington Symphony Orchestra, but also showcased the popular Modern Maori Quartet, the Wellington Choir, and several contemporary numbers that included the Beach Boys and the Moody Blues. All this under the lights with a grand finale fireworks show.
It was finally time to say goodby to Nelson and the INNBetween Lodge (where a number of young guests were staying on) but not before Wayne advised me to go to the WOW (World of WearableaArt) & Classic Cars Museum. This unique museum has on display the winning entries from the annual international design competition and exhibition extravaganza held in Wellington each year. Artists from around the world compete for over $165,000 in prize money and internships with leading creative companies like Weta Workshop, and will likely become costume and set designers of the future. Check out the WOW video of a spectacular exhibition. An exhibition tour this year includes a stop at the EMP Museum in Seattle in July 2016! ( Oh, the collection of classic cars was impressive too.)
It was great to be at the helm of a rented car again, taking my time with only check -in and check-out times to consider. But it wasn’t long before I was reminded of the white-knuckle driving in store as I headed across the country on a narrow, two lane highway through Arthur’s Pass….in the pouring rain…with monster trucks as company. I’m not a gamer, but this was like PlayStation Driver trying to avoid sudden hazards ahead all the while being distracted by the panoramic views. Take your eyes off the road for a few seconds, and it’s GAME OVER!
I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”
It’s good advice. I met the challenge that day.