Snippets of New Zealand

By Philip Wagenaar

In this issue, I am continuing my travelogue of the South Island, which we visited in January 2007 as part of a 4-week Elderhostel (Boston, MA; 800/454-5768, program in New Zealand.

Te Anau

Our group’s next overnight was in Te Anau, located on the shores of the lake by the same name.

On one of our previous trips, my wife, Flory, and I had taken Air New Zealand’s flight 1515, a large jet from Auckland on the North Island to Christchurch on the South Island. Unbeknownst to us, our connecting flight to Te Anau was a 6-seater prop plane.

Before the captain, dressed in his ornate Air New Zealand uniform, took off, he intoned, “This is the continuation of flight 1515 to Te Anau.” We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Our prop plane landed in a grassy field.

If you have a car, you may consider taking the 4-day-long Southern Scenic Route, which starts in Dunedin and ends in Te Anau. It passes the rocky southern coast, takes you through quaint fishing villages and presents vistas of the majestic beauty of the Fiordland Mountains. The route is detailed at www.southern

Alternatively, pick up a free pamphlet from any visitors’ center.

The town of Te Anau is the gateway to spectacular Fjiordland National Park, a large, remote wilderness that is one of the wettest places in the world. It occupies much of the southern part of the South Island’s west coast and ends at the Tasman Sea in a plethora of fjords. In the park, which is part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, you will find the internationally famous Milford and Routeburn walking tracks.

The glowworm caves

Te Anau is also one of the places to see the glowworm caves, which you can reach only by crossing the lake.

After climbing out of the boat, we trudged through a dank and unlit passageway, occasionally stumbling on one of the wet metal ramps. The noise was deafening as we passed a roaring waterfall and a raging river. At the end, we gingerly transferred in complete darkness to a small skiff which, pulled by a chain, slowly traveled at the bottom of the grotto on a, now, still part of the river.

As our eyes slowly adapted to the dark, the magic display of the twinkling lights emitted by the thousands of glowworms attached to the cave wall was incredible.

We had been forewarned to be absolutely quiet, as the worms switch off their lights, which they use to attract insects, in response to noise.

Doubtful Sound

While staying in Te Anau, we took a superb cruise on 25-mile-long Doubtful Sound, a fjord ending in the Tasman Sea. Sailing through a magnificent wilderness area of jagged mountains and impenetrable forests, we encountered innumerable thundering cascades, caused by the frequent and usually incessant rain squalls.

We passed dolphins frolicking in the water and fur seals stretched out on rock outcrops. To make us appreciate our surroundings, the captain, toward the end of the trip, stopped the engines and requested that everybody be quiet. Complying, we all sat motionless and silent, in wonderment of the magic of Doubtful Sound.

To book the cruise, contact Real Journeys (P.O. Box 1, Lakefront Dr., Te Anau, New Zealand; phone +64 3 249 7416 or, toll free within N.Z., 0800 65 65 01, fax 249 7022 or visit

Finally, don’t miss the fabulous 3-D, IMAX-like film at the Te Anau movie theater, which takes you for a breathtaking helicopter ride through the Fiordland glaciers. While we normally don’t buy anything on a trip, the picture was so outstanding that we purchased the DVD showing the video. Unfortunately, we couldn’t duplicate the theater’s 3-D effect at home.

The Milford Track

As my eyes imbibed the gorgeous landscape of the lower part of the South Island, I reminisced about the time 23 years ago when we had taken a guided group hike along the Milford Track. It was a 53.5-kilometer, 5-day/4-night ramble through incredible scenery, with plunging streams and thundering waterfalls, mountains towering overhead and tall trees standing guard next to us.

Frequent rains necessitated the involuntary and somewhat scary wading through a river, with the water just clearing the wallet in my back pocket. Fortunately, drying rooms at every overnight accommodation provided circulating warm air, which invariably dried our clothes within a few hours.

While we stayed mostly in simple guest houses with separate dormitories for men and women, that hike culminated with a cruise on Milford Sound and a stay at the fancy Mitre Peak Lodge (a more-than-superior upgrade from the guest house accommodations) near the edge of the water.

As we always sleep with windows open, Flory, in one inn, had opened the dormitory’s windows, which forthwith were closed by other hikers who didn’t like the cold air. Flory, not to be crossed, approached the person in charge, who told her to go to the library to sleep.

Unbeknownst to my wife, I had the same experience in my dormitory. I don’t know who was more surprised when I opened the library’s door, Flory or I. To have private accommodations on the Milford Track was certainly unusual.

The “Milford Track Guided Walk” is still offered. It is a 5-day/4-night, Queenstown-to-Queenstown, all-inclusive, guided walk through the heart of the Fiordland National Park to Milford Sound. Contact Ultimate Hikes (P.O. Box 259, Queenstown, New Zealand; phone +64 3 441-1138 or, toll-free within N.Z., 0800 659 255, fax 441-1124 or visit


Cosmopolitan Queenstown is located on the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu. The most outstanding sight is The Remarkables, a saw-toothed range of mountains on the opposite side of the lake from the town.

Queenstown is a prime New Zealand destination for international visitors and offers four world-class ski fields in winter and adventure tourism in summer. However, its big crowds of young people may persuade you to look elsewhere for more quiet surroundings.

The most alluring part of the town is its lakefront, where condos are being snatched up at prices from NZ$800,000 to $1 million (about US$555,000 to $694,000). Since there are only a few places of flat land left on which to build, the costs of homes have gone through the roof, making Queenstown unaffordable for people in the service industry.

In addition to homes, simple items for daily use fetch a high price tag. My plain veggie burger plus tea for lunch set us back NZ$23 (US$16), and a paperback cost us NZ$24.

The next day, the TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 vintage twin-screw steamer, ferried us across the lake to the Walter Peak Station, a high-country sheep farm.

Despite the bone-chilling torrential rain, we enjoyed the quick-as-lightning sheepshearing presentation followed by a sheepdog performance. I was amazed by the uncanny intelligence of the canine, which, following the whistled commands of his master, was able to control a large flock of sheep. The show ended with a top-notch barbecue lunch.

For information, contact Real Journeys (P.O. Box 1, Lakefront Dr., Te Anau, New Zealand; phone +64 3 249 7416 or, toll-free within N.Z., 0800 65 65 01, fax 249 7022 or visit

After the morning’s bad weather, we were fortunate that the sun came out in the late afternoon when we went up to Bob’s Peak on the Skyline Gondola. Reputed to be the steepest lift in the Southern Hemisphere, it carried us to the Skyline Restaurant, where a sumptuous buffet dinner together with an unequaled view of Queenstown was a worthwhile conclusion to a glorious day.


A scenic drive via Cromwell, offering superb vistas of colossal glaciers, transported us through verdant valleys to the small, lakeside town of Wanaka. Only 100 kilometers northeast, it is a quiet alternative to busy Queenstown. We overnighted at the peaceful and comfortable Mt. Aspiring Hotel, about two kilometers north of town.

While Wanaka offers many activities (such as hiking in nearby Mt. Aspiring National Park; rafting and jet boating on the lake; canyoning and kayaking in the gorges; skydiving; rock climbing; mountain biking, and fishing), for us, the leisurely and quiet walk along the lovely, shady lakeside trail up north, away from the town, was the highlight of our free afternoon.

Fox and Franz Josef glaciers

Next, our coach took us north on highway 6 over the Haast Pass to Fox Glacier Village.

Alighting from our bus at the huge Fox Glacier Trailhead parking area, we were almost blown away by the gusts of wind laden with rain. Unfortunately, this limited our planned hike to a short walk to the glacier viewpoint, which happened to show the mountain in all its grandeur.

Both the Fox and the nearby Franz Josef (named after the Austrian Emperor) glaciers lie in the so-called Southern Alps, which extend 340 miles in a somewhat northeast to southwest orientation across the greatest length of the South Island.

Our overnight was at the Scenic Circle Franz Josef Hotel, just outside Franz Josef Glacier Village, which is only 14 miles from Fox Glacier Village.

Our hotel room was so miniature that I could hardly find space for our toothbrushes. While many in our group were stuck with similar rooms, others, who were more fortunate, had large accommodations. “The luck of the draw,” somebody said. Not quite, I figured, as we all had paid the same amount.

Although the average rainfall is 185 inches per year both at Fox and Franz Josef, the next day the sun shone as we walked toward the view point of the majestic Franz Josef Glacier. From there, only daredevils will continue and cross the stream, since its slippery boulders may lead to an unceremonious river soaking.

The following day we traveled farther north along the west coast to Greymouth, where we boarded the TranzAlpine train for the 4½–hour ride to Christchurch on the east coast. Flory and I would not recommend the trip. While the scenery was pleasant, it lacked the impressive, mind-boggling panorama seen when riding some of the trains in Switzerland.

Accommodations on the trip

Following are my evaluations of our accommodations on this Elderhostel trip. First those on the North Island. . .

1. Mercure Hotel Auckland, Auckland — good.

2. The Bridge Fishing Lodge, Turangi — adequate.

3. Copthorne Hotel Wellington Plimmer Towers, Wellington — good.

And on the South Island. . .

1. Abbey Lodge, Dunedin — adequate.

2. Distinction Luxmore Hotel - Lake Te Anau, Te Anau — The renovated rooms are excellent. The dining room is in a separate building, which is very inconvenient when there is a rainstorm.

3. Kingsgate Hotel Terraces, Queenstown — good.

4. Mount Aspiring Hotel, Wanaka — good.

5. Scenic Circle Franz Josef Glacier Hotels, Mueller Wing, Franz Josef Glacier Village — I cannot recommend this hotel unless you get a large room.

Miscellaneous information

1. For our 25-day trip we paid US$6,026 per person, which included internal flights but was exclusive of the international airfare to Auckland.

We found New Zealand very expensive.

2. Driving options — in addition to car hires, investigate camper rentals (obtain camping books and make a list of all the additional items you will need for a motorhome, such as bedding, towels, pots and pans, eating utensils, etc.). Also consider fly/drive options.

Keep in mind that driving is on the left side of the road.

3. Itinerary — from a scenic standpoint, the South Island wins.

I would omit a stay in Auckland from any itinerary and use the city only as a transfer point for international or internal flights.

When taking the Interislander Ferry for the 3-hour transport between the two islands across Cook Strait, it is customary to drop your car off at the rental depot at the ferry terminal in Wellington on the North Island and pick up another automobile upon arrival in Picton on the South Island (and vice versa).

If you are prone to seasickness, it is better to fly. We crossed by ship once and, I can assure you, it was not a pleasant trip.

4. For information about the country, consult the following:

• The Lonely Planet guide “New Zealand” (2004).

• “New Zealand: The Rough Guide,” fifth edition (2006).

• New Zealand Tourism ( america). There is no phone contact, but the website is immensely helpful.

• The A.A. (N.Z. Automobile Association) upon your arrival in New Zealand. It provides invaluable help in the form of maps, guidebooks, accommodation directories, etc. Many of these are free to members of its sister clubs, such as the AAA (American Automobile Association) and CAA (Canadian Automobile Association).

• “New Zealand’s Walkways” (2003), a compilation of New Zealand’s network of more than 125 walkways. Although the book is out of print, you can download and reproduce it from or from

5. Regarding money, ATMs are ubiquitous.

6. Accommodations — note that motels usually offer units consisting of a combination of separate sleeping, living room and kitchen facilities.

7. Climate — always carry wet-weather gear, since you can expect rain anywhere at any time. Therefore, even when sunny skies are anticipated, the weather forecast usually reads, “Fine, with showers.”

On this note, I leave you, dear reader, to let you prepare your journey to one of the finest travel destinations in the world.