New Zealand: Queenstown

10 05 2011

After nearly two weeks of traversing New Zealand from North to South, we finally reached our last destination – beautiful  Queenstown.  Queenstown is a resort town on the southwest corner of the South Island that is known for its adventure tourism.  This beauty of a town is ideally situated on an inlet called Queenstown Bay on Lake Wakatipu that is further surrounded by majestic mountain ranges.


View of Queenstown from the top of the gondola on a cloudy day.

We arrived at around dusk and only had a few minutes to walk around the downtown area before dark.  The town has a very cozy, vacation vibe to it.  People were out and about enjoying the night.


I spy a KFC and the Queenstown gondola.

There are a number of restaurants, from casual to upscale. Many featured seafood.  We had a fantastic view of Queenstown from one of the seafood restaurants on the dock.  We lucked out and got the best table in the house!  The day we arrived, we had stopped by the restaurant before the dinner rush and happened to speak to the manager, who told us to request this table.  Everyone is so nice here!


View of Queenstown from one of our dinners.


Another lovely New Zealand sunset.

The town itself is small – there is only one stoplight and the widest part is probably about 6 blocks.  The town is oddly shaped with two long arms that hug the lake radiating from the downtown area.  Another part of the town lies on a peninsula across from downtown. In a town of this size, it is possible to buy whatever you might need, but there is probably only one store of each type.

On another day, we rode up the Queenstown gondola to see the view.  Although parts of the gondola are cheesy, the view was worth it, especially now that Deer Park Heights is no longer open to the public.


A typical Skyline gondola.


View of Lake Wakatipu from the top of Queenstown gondola.

When you get to the top, there is a cheesy luge track you can ride. It sounded very exciting to us until we got there and saw that it was mostly kids and grandmas doing the luge. Now that I have a kid, I would definitely take him on this when he gets old enough!


Queenstown gondola luge

Since it was a cloudy and dreary day, we weren’t able to get very clear views. We did find a few interesting hiking trails up at the top of the gondola though. We decided to take a short hike through the forest and it was gorgeous.

We were almost glad it was raining because of all the dry timber! The trees were so tall and thick that even during the day it was dark in the wood. We saw these bright red mushrooms everywhere. I went crazy and took 100 shots of red mushrooms because I had never seen what I term “Super Mario” mushrooms in real life before. Fortunately, I am only plaguing you with one photo.


A real life (possibly poisonous) Super Mario mushroom found in New Zealand.

As we descended back down the gondola, we saw this sheep on the steep hill. The sheep are really everywhere you look in NZ! It’s like they were following us.


Baaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Next: Glenorchy, Milford Sound, and Deer Park Heights.





New Zealand: The Outskirts of Queenstown

11 04 2011

The stunning landscape you pass as you drive toward Queenstown is the perfect subject of a picture post.  For much of the approach to Queenstown, the Gibbston Highway follows the Kawarau River as it snakes through the mountains forming a dramatic gorge.  I had heard that Peter Jackson filmed Argonath, the Pillars of the Kings, in the Lord of the Rings film from a location you could view so I set out to find it.  We turned into a gorgeous vineyard set in the mountains and I snapped this shot.


Chard Farm Vineyard

Apparently, this was the correct location because we encountered a Lord of the Rings tour van on the way down.  The road we traveled on to view this location was incredibly scary, though.  It was a one lane dirt road with no rails that was on a cliff.  We should have known the road would be precarious when we saw this sign.  This the most warning we’ve ever seen in New Zealand, where basically you do anything at your own risk.


Funny Sign


Another View of the Kawarau River

On the other side of the highway is the famous AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge, the world’s first commercial bungy operation.  From the vineyard side, we were able to see  two bridges – the first one was the highway and the second one was the bungy bridge.  Alas, the AJ Hackett was closed when we went so we did not partake.  To be honest, we had no intention of bungy jumping anyway.


Bridges over Kawarau River

We did drive over and explore the bungy jumping center.  Even though it was closed, we were still able to walk to the staging area and jumping off point on the bridge.


View from AJ Hackett’s Bungy Jump

While we were on the bridge, we saw a jetboat zoom up the river.  I believe this was the Shotover river.


Kawarau River

Before we left, we saw this very confusing and contradictory setup.  We didn’t know if we should leave immediately or stay awhile and enjoy a picnic.


A Contradictory Message

A few miles down the road, we took the turn off for Arrowtown.  Arrowtown is a small, historic gold mining town located right outside of Queenstown.  We had heard that it was a well preserved and picturesque frontier town that was also a former Chinese mining settlement so we stopped to take a look.  Although I am aware that the Chinese have a long history of migrating overseas, the waves before the 20th century have always interested me.  Being an immigrant is not a piece of cake so I am always amazed at the Chinese pioneers from before the modern age and globalization.

After gold was discovered on the Arrow River in 1861, Arrowtown sprung into being to accommodate the flood of speculators.  By 1865, however, the population dipped when gold extraction slowed and richer gold fields elsewhere in New Zealand lured many miners away.  To remedy this economic recession, the Otago government invited Chinese miners to the area and they established a separate settlement in Arrowtown.  These miners remained in the area until 1928.

Modern day Arrowtown was as quaint as we imagined it.  The historic main street is called Buckingham Street and features well maintained buildings, equipment, and other objects.  According to the official website, Arrowtown has over 70 buildings, features, and monuments remaining from the gold rush era.


Post and Telegraph, Arrowtown


Buckingham Street

At the end of Buckingham Street is the site of the old Chinese settlement.  A path leads through a series of stone huts where the Chinese miners worked, socialized, and lived.  We only had time to enter one of the buildings, but it was very interesting.  The first thing I noticed was how dark everything was, even when it was bright sunlight outside.  We really take electric lights for granted.  The second thing I noticed was how low the ceilings and doorways were.  Even though I’m Chinese and not tall, I had to duck through some of these doors.


Stone house in the Chinese settlement at Arrowtown.

After seeing the Chinese settlement, we decided to explore the area around the Arrow River.  The riverbank is just behind the town.  We passed by a hiker’s sign, where I saw this incomprehensible request.  We assumed didymo meant trash until we looked it up.  Apparently, didymo (commonly known as rock snot) is an invasive species of algae.  This is why I love travel.  You learn something new every day!


Yo, No Didymo!

You didn’t think you could escape this post without another Lord of the Rings reference, could you?  One of the *ahem* main reasons I dragged my husband to see the river is because according to my LOTR location guidebook, this is where they filmed the scene where Arwen escapes the Nazguls on horseback by flooding the river (Ford of Bruinen).  And yep, we found it.


Site of Arwen’s Stand, Ford of Bruinen

The area around the Arrow River was really lovely, though.  How can a view of a shallow river threading through soft green woods against a backdrop of gorgeous mountains ever be bad?


Arrow River

As the sun set, we returned to the road for the last few miles to Queenstown, where we would stay for the next three nights.  Just before we reached the town, we saw a glorious view of the aptly named Remarkables mountain range.  The Remarkables surround Queenstown and is one of its most famous features.


The Remarkables

Next: Queenstown





New Zealand: Scenic Drive along the Southern Alps

27 03 2011

The drive from Christchurch to Queenstown is arguably one of the most scenic drives in New Zealand.  It certainly is the best looking drive on a major roadway, in my opinion.  On this approximately six hour drive, the landscape transforms from green hilly pastures and meadows dotted with wildflowers to vast plains and glacial lakes and finally to mountainous wilderness, all nestled against the backdrop of the magnificent Southern Alps.

View Larger Map

We began in the Canterbury grasslands outside of Christchurch, where pastures full of cows and sheep abounded.  This area still had the feel of cultivated countryside to it.

As we turned the car towards the Southern Alps, we were rewarded with a view of the large mountain range.  From this distance, it’s hard to gauge the size of these mountains because they are still very far away.  The vastness of the sky and the flat lands leading up to the mountains form an optimal illusion.

Once you reach Lake Tekapo, the scenery changes dramatically. From here on, the road hugs the Southern Alps, the ground becomes more hilly, and impossibly blue glacial lakes loom invitingly.

We thought the view of Lake Tekapo from the road was beautiful until we saw Lake Pukaki. There was no question we were stopping the car to take a look, and our curiosity was rewarded. This is some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen in my life.  My photos simply cannot do the scenery justice.

From Lake Pukaki, you can catch a glimpse of Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand at 12,316 feet. We were literally bowled over by the natural beauty.

A view of Mt Cook from Lake Pukaki.

A short distance later, we came upon Twizel, an area that served as the backdrop for Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.  It certainly was not hard to imagine Gandalf riding towards Minas Tirith when faced with this scenery.  I was a dork and kept telling my husband that we were in Gondor.

There were mountains surrounding us everywhere we looked now.

As we neared Arrowtown and Queenstown, we joined up with the Kawarau River, which served as the River Anduin in the LOTR movies.  We didn’t think it was possible, but the scenery became even more dramatic and picturesque.

Next: Arrowtown, Queenstown, and more gorgeous scenery.





And… I’m back!

27 03 2011

After an almost two year hiatus with this blog, I’m back!  I know it’s been a while, and for that I apologize.  It’s hard to maintain a travel blog when you stop traveling, both for the obvious reason and psychologically.  But I had a great reason for stopping my travel – I had a baby!  Now that he is 9 months old, I have time to post again.  We also have a few trips planned that will hopefully be blog worthy.

In the meantime, I am planning to finish writing about our trip to New Zealand.  It has been a long time since the trip, so these posts will mostly be for the pictures rather than for specific tips.

So welcome back and stay tuned for more installments of Travels with Sandy – now with Baby!





Finding Middle Earth in Erehwon, New Zealand

2 09 2009

Although I like to think of myself as an adventurous, independent traveler, sometimes I just want to be a tourist.  I am not afraid to admit it.  One of the reasons that I wanted to fly across the world to New Zealand was to go to Middle Earth.  It is widely known that Peter Jackson’s Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings movies (LOTR) were filmed all over New Zealand.    Thus, one of my stipulations in coming to New Zealand was that I would go on a full-on Lord of the Rings tour.


Visiting Edoras on top of Mt. Sunday.  New Zealand is Middle Earth.

While growing up in New Zealand, Peter Jackson imagined the landscapes of his home to be part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  As a result, bringing Tolkien’s literary works to life through his films in his native NZ was a particularly special experience for Jackson, although it was no easy feat.  Many of the film locations were in remote areas that are hard to access.  This, along with the plan to make all three movies in the trilogy at once, made things particularly challenging.  However, Jackson has remarked that these challenges also had the positive effect of making the actors more able to empathize with their characters.

Since there was so much to see in New Zealand outside of LOTR, Charles and I decided we would only take one guided LOTR tour.  We ultimately went with a tour of Edoras, the capital of Rohan (the horse people), because it was one of the most spectacular natural locations in the movie and you can only visit it on a tour since it’s on private property.  We wanted to fully immerse ourselves in Middle Earth, and I can say with absolute confidence that we achieved this goal.  Edoras was filmed on Mt. Sunday, near Mt. Potts sheep station, which is located about 2 hours southwest of Christchurch. Ironically, the land of Rohan was filmed in the area known as Erehwon, New Zealand. Erehwon was the name of a fictitious country in a book by Samuel Butler, and is also Nowhere spelled backwards. How fitting.

When we arrived at the edge of Mt. Potts, it was clear that we had entered Middle Earth. Peering over the edge of a hill, we saw Edoras on a rocky plateau in the middle of flat plains surrounded by mountains with a silver stream running through. It is just as Tolkien described Edoras in Lord of the Rings.


The kingdom of Rohan spread out before us in Erehwon, NZ.

You can see Mt. Sunday/Edoras in this photo if you look closely. It is the big rock about halfway up and to the right in this photo.

As our four wheel drive vehicle drove towards the rocky plateau on which Edoras once stood in the filming, I was filled with anticipation.  The kingdom of Rohan was the most stunning part of the movie, in my opinion, so my expectations were high.  I need not have worried.  Seeing it in real life was even better.


Mt. Sunday, home of Edoras.


Photo of Edoras from the filming of the movie (from Hassle Free Tours).

My photos have not captured a fraction of the scale of this setting. Imagine seeing this while being surrounded by miles of flat, grassy lands that are surrounded by mountains. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever set my eyes on.

To get to Mt. Sunday, our SUV had to traverse a beautiful river and then drive up a steep gravel road, which only went halfway up. From then on, we walked right into Edoras.


The most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Mt. Sunday.

Once we got to the top, we had a 360 degree view of Rohan. It was simply breathtaking.  From Edoras, we could see the Misty Mountains and Helm’s Deep.  It was also very very very windy.  Click on any of these photos for a closer view.


Panoramic view from the top of Mt. Sunday.


View of the Misty Mountains from Edoras.


View of Helm’s Deep (top left quadrant of photo).

At this point, the tour participants were allowed to indulge their LOTR fantasies.  Our tourguide showed us pictures from the movie so that we could better picture the set.  The movie set took months to construct, but they only filmed for about a week.  After filming ended, per their contract, the film company had to restore everything, including the exact location of every tussolk (bush), back to its original condition and location.


Me on Edoras/Mt. Sunday pretending to be Eowyn.


Eowyn in front of Meduseld, Edoras.

Note: Image copyrighted by New Line Cinema.  The use of the above image is for informational purposes only and qualifies as fair use.  The inclusion of this photo in this post adds significantly to the post because it shows Edoras in its full glory.  Source: Google Images.


Our wonderful tourguide kindly indulged us and put up the flag of Rohan.

Following our hike up to Edoras, we reluctantly left and had lunch (provided by the tour company).  On the car ride back, the tourguide played the behind the scenes shows from the LOTR DVD box set, which was a perfect way to end our tour of Middle Earth.

Even if you are not a LOTR fan, Erehwon is a place worth visiting.  The scenery was epic and truly stunning.  It was… dare I say it…LEGENDARY.   It is one of those places where when you go, you figure a place this beautiful is sure to be easy to photograph.  But after taking some shots, you get depressed because the photos just cannot capture a fraction of what it really looks like.  I will remember this day and this beauty the rest of my life.

TIPS:  If you are at all interested in seeing any of the LOTR movie locations in New Zealand, I recommend purchasing “The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook” by Ian Brodie.  It lists all of the movie locations by region and includes GPS coordinates and photos.  While I found it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the locations much of the time, it is the only source out there for this subject matter.  There are two versions of this book – the small compact version and the huge coffee table version.  I bought the small version so it would be easy to carry with me.  Although this book is difficult to obtain outside of NZ, rest assured that it is available in every bookstore in NZ.

DETAILS on the TOUR:

We toured Edoras with Hassle Free Tours.  We were picked up in Christchurch at around 9 AM from our B&B and dropped off around 6 PM.  We had a fantastic experience with this company from booking to the tour itself.  They provide a well informed tourguide/driver, lunch, interesting commentary, and of course access to Mt. Sunday, which is on private property.  On the way to Mt. Sunday, the tour provides a rest stop, including rest rooms.  There are also rest rooms where you eat lunch.  Overall, we were completely satisfied with this tour.  Great service and stunning scenery!

For more information, see Hassle Free Tours’ website:

http://www.hasslefree.co.nz/pages/18/lord-of-the-rings-tour.htm





New Zealand: Kaikoura and Dolphins

2 07 2009

If you have read my posts on Hawaii, you know about my love of dolphins.  One of the many reasons I wanted to go to New Zealand was to swim with dolphins in their native habitat.  In Hawaii, we were able to witness dolphins swimming beside our boat, but to be actually in the water with them has been a lifelong dream.  Kaikoura, a small seaside community in the east coast of the South Island, is the perfect place to experience sea life and dolphins in particular because of its unique location.  The town of Kaikoura sits on the edge of a peninsula that juts into the ocean in an area where ocean upswells bring up an abundance of marine life from the Hikurangi Trench.  Rich marine life and nutrients are pushed up near the surface, which then attracts whales, dolphins, seals, albatross and other sea life.


On the Kaikoura Penninsula, looking towards the town.


Beautiful seaweed on the beach in Kaikoura.

We arrived in Kaikoura in the late afternoon, just in time to race to dinner before it closed.  Since we were in Kaikoura, which literally means “meal of crayfish,” we of course wanted some crayfish (what Kiwis call lobster) for dinner.  Despite the abundance of crayfish in Kaikoura, however, this luxury food item is still quite expensive when eaten in a restaurant because of its popularity.  Luckily, we learned through speaking with several Kiwis that there is a way to get cheaper and fresher crayfish in Kaikoura.

Here are the exact instructions paraphrased from our motel owner on how to find crayfish in Kaikoura:  “You need to drive down the Esplanade, past the town, and almost to the end of the penninsula.  You will see a crayfish stand on the left.”  Miraculously, we were able to find this stand because it appears there is only one such stand, at least the day we were there.  The stand closes at 6 pm, though, so make sure you get there in time!

I have included a picture of the crayfish stand below so you know what it looks like.  We were able to pick our own live lobster from the cooler and have it cooked up in front of us.  The stand has a couple of tables with umbrellas where you can eat your food.  The crayfish stand is actually very gourmet and offers quite a menu.  We were skeptical when we first heard about this stand because it is on the side of the road in the middle of a virtually uninhabited place.  But we are so glad we went and were able to taste the bounty of Kaikoura.  We highly recommend it!


The Crayfish Stand in Kaikoura.  Astonishingly, just across the road from this stand was a bunch of sheep on a hill.  You just cannot escape the sheep in New Zealand.

After our crayfish dinner, we wandered along the beach on the Kaikoura peninsula and admired its beauty.  The sealife is so abundant here that I didn’t realize until I was standing on the beach for 15 minutes that a seal was only a few feet away from me the whole time.  We watched a breathtaking sunset until it got too cold to stay.


Another beautiful sunset in New Zealand.

We had an early night back at our motel because we had to wake up really early for the dolphin tour the next day.  Also, Kaikoura is probably the smallest town we visited in New Zealand and there isn’t much to do besides enjoy the scenery and sealife.  At this point in the night, we were constantly monitoring the weather because there was rain and wind in the forecast and we were afraid the dolphin swim would be canceled.  Incidentally, we also ended up watching the British version of “COPS,” which turned out to be highly entertaining.  Who knew in this day and age that there were still designated town drunks in small cities across England?

When we woke up the next day, the weather was ominous and we could hear raindrops on the roof.  When I called the Dolphin Encounter to check, however, I was informed that our scheduled trip was still on!  In fact, the earlier dawn trip had already gone out.  We quickly got ready and had breakfast in the Dolphin Encounter Cafe.  When our group was called, we were fitted for wetsuits, jackets, and snorkles.  I was afraid I might get seasick so I took a remedy.  We were also instructed on how to and how not to interact with the dolphins.  You are not allowed to touch the dolphins.  The company emphasized that it was a privilege to share the water with the dolphins and our goal was to entertain them and not the other way around.

We reserved our dophin tour through Dolphin Encounter, a well respected company in Kaikoura.  Now I will take another moment to talk about dolphins and eco-tourism.  The popularity of dolphins has created an entire industry out of dolphin tours.  While most operations are very conscious of the delicate nature of these graceful but wild animals and their homes, unfortunately a few exploitative companies have given a bad name to swimming with dolphins.  That’s why it’s very important to find out as much you can about the companies offering dolphin swims before supporting them through your participation.  We chose to use Dolphin Encounter because the company puts a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability, limiting contact so as not to jeapordize the resident dusky dolphin population, and spreading awareness of the plight of dolphins and their habitats.  You can read their mission statement here: Dolphin Encounter Mission Statement.

Now that I have said my piece, we can go on to the best part of our Kaikoura visit – the dolphins!  As with all tours of this kind, there is no guarantee that you will see dolphins.  Unlike tours in other countries, though, in NZ if you don’t see what you are meant to see, you get some of your money back!  Luckily we were able to sight a large dolphin pod after only a short time.


We saw this boat from our boat.

The next part of this trip was FUN.  The boat basically followed the pod of dolphins around the ocean and dropped off the swimmers into the water from time to time.  When I was in the water, I could literally see dolphins in front of me, behind me, under me, and all around me.  It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.


We also saw a seal. They are everywhere! I think this one was following me around.

Charles was smart and decided not to swim with the dolphins. Instead, he took some fantastic photos. I especially liked this series of shots.

What these pictures do not show, however, is how cold and rainy the day turned out to be.  Remember, we had to wear wetsuits in the height of summer just to swim in the water.  The weather was also rainy and windy that day, which made for cold, rough seas.  After getting in and out of the water 3 or 4 times, I started feeling seasick and very cold.  I chose not to go in the water again and the Dolphin Encounter people gave me blankets and hot chocolate to warm me up.  Unfortunately, my seasickness got the better of me and I got really sick.  When we got back to the base, I was able to take a hot shower and felt much better afterwards.

Despite my seasickness, which I think only happened because the seas were especially rough that day, I am happy that I was able to witness these magnificent mammals in their home.  I have always thought that dolphins were beautiful, but seeing them up close has made me appreciate their power and sleakness even more.  Next time, however, I hope to encounter them in warmer waters!





A Brief Interlude

2 07 2009

*Cue Elevator Music*

Sorry I have not been posting lately.  I went back to work and have not had much free time to blog.  I will be back soon though! :)

In the meantime, with all the hype around the release of Public Enemies, I thought this would be a good time to dredge up my old posts about the filming of this movie in my neighborhood.  I cannot wait to see this movie in the theater!

Filming of Public Enemies in Chicago

Public Enemies Filming at Night








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