New Zealand – South Island – Part I

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One of the views from the South Islands Alpine railway

Going to New Zealand’s South Island for 4 weeks put our planning skills to the test. We had to line up or figure out airplanes, Ubers, multiple trains, a helicopter, rental cars, a ferry, buses, places and places to stay.

During this trip we saw 84 towns, used one taxi and five Ubers. We rode on four trains, had two rental cars and went on three buses. To sleep, we stayed in five hotels and four rental homes (either AirBnB or VRBO). We also stayed at an awesome vineyard. Splurging, we charted one helicopter, traveled on two planes and one ferry. We walked further than I care to count. You’ve read this next saying from me a lot in the blog; we walked until our feet hurt and then drank wine until the pain stopped.

The preparation for this massive trip was not easy. It seems each time we’d come close to finalizing a leg we’d hit a snag. For example, we got a low airfare to Christchurch but the scenic train out of there was booked solid for the next few days. Then, once we managed to get the plane and train squared away, a place to stay at the other end was impossible. And, then there is Valentine’s Day when accommodation bookings max out. Topping that off with a big sporting event in the middle of our plans, our creativity was maxed.

We also faced problems with tours or accommodations where once booked no refunds are available. We are trying to plan for a 3-4 week trip and if something goes wrong at the beginning, it just doesn’t make sense to have paid inflexible commitments for later during the trip. Any AirBnB or hotel without a reasonable cancellation policy was not considered.

The weather in New Zealand can also be a problem, especially on the south island. Even though it’s summer here, this doesn’t mean much. It can still get cold and rainy. There’s little point taking a scenic train ride if you can’t see the scenery. There were a couple of items where we struggled to push the button to buy. It was the height of the tourist season for the south island and things were getting snapped up.

An example of this is an AirBnB we were looking at in Christchurch. Cindy was in charge of accommodations and excursions. She is great at planning and organizing. I would often hear “damn it!” as she was searching. She’d find a place, have a question, write to ask the host, and in that short time the booking was snagged by somebody else. Other times it was snagged as she was putting in her reservation. It took a little while but we finally got it all sorted and off we go.

Our journey begins at our regional airport with a quick flight to Auckland to catch our connection to Christchurch. I think our house in Atlanta was bigger than this airport terminal. When booking the flight, we found that New Zealand Air, had something in their booking system we’d never run into before. We will often book the emergency row seat because of the extra leg room and the seats in front of these don’t recline. Meaning, we don’t have to fly with someone’s hair in our face.

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Our little regional airport – Two check-in counters, a lounge and a cafe.

In a row of three, we’ll book the window and the aisle. If someone books the middle seat, one of us will just slide over and offer either the window or aisle to the 3rd party. Most times, the middle seat never sells and we get to have the entire row. In the past, you’ve heard me complain about the many rules in New Zealand. Well, here’s another one.

NZ Air doesn’t allow two people traveling together to put a seat between them during seat selection. I quickly confirmed this to be the case with our old friend Google and reading complaints from other travelers experiencing the same thing. When trying to book, I felt this to be very odd that an airline would not allow people to sit as they pleased. But then, I remembered this is New Zealand. The country with a lot of rules.

We got around this by booking our flights separately. With Cindy on her computer and me on mine simultaneously, we purchased the tickets and booked the seats we wanted. We were careful to be on the same page of the booking at the same time. Can you imagine if we made a mistake and one of us was on the wrong day or flight? How funny would that be!

Our taxi driver turns into the airport terminal to drop us off. This felt really weird. Since they drive on the left here, things like approaching a terminal or going through a drive-thru all happen in the opposite direction and the terminal is on the left side of the car as we approach. In, all of our years of traveling, this is the first time we’ve experienced this. I guess it’s like going through a drive-thru counterclockwise. It’s just weird.

Inside the terminal, we approached the lady at the check-in counter to check our bags (we previously each checked into the flight online). She pulled up my name and immediately said, “Two people and a separate booking for each”. Her tone seemed stern and terse. I was waiting for the chastising to begin and was even prepared to have the conversation that I had a problem as their customer being told where I could and could not sit. Thankfully, that conversation did not happen. Perhaps it was the frown on my face as she said that. But, she did make a point of treating us as individual customers not flying together. This is when another strange thing happened.

There is no airport security. After checking our bags we waited in the lounge area. The 48-person prop-job plane arrives. People get off and then we get on. That’s it. People were greeted at the gate by friends. It was reminiscent of air travel in the old days before being strip-searched and x-rayed prior to getting on a plane became standard.

As we sat on the plane, we both can’t quite get our arms around the fact we are about to take a commercial flight and are sitting on a plane without security. This makes me think that when we get to Auckland, we will have to go through security before our connection, as it is a larger jet. And, this turned out to be the case.

Landing in Auckland, there is a real lack of signage to explain the connection process to passengers. We arrive and look for signs directing us to gate 32. Being past lunchtime, we also wished to grab a bite to eat. We saw signs to lots of gates, but none for our gate. Our only other choice is to exit into the baggage claim area. As people who have traveled by airplane extensively and know our way around an airport, I am concerned about going to baggage claim or the exit. Once out of the airport departure area, getting back in can be problematic. We make the decision to exit based on the fact we are 100% certain there is no gate with our number in the area we are in.

As we exit, we find ourselves in baggage claim. I am sure we do not need to collect bags as I watched the lady place the tag on my bag with CHC on the tag. Something a frequent traveler learns to do when making connecting flights. A good portion of lost bags are from being mis-tagged. As we look about the baggage claim area, we finally see our first sign with directions to our gate.

It occurs to me the signage is only in two languages, English and Japanese. I can only assume it’s Japanese. It might be Chinese Mandarin. I can’t tell because I can’t read either. I wonder how people from other countries manage to navigate what we just did and it reminds me of the Atlanta airport in the USA.

Prior to Atlanta hosting the Olympics, all the signage was only in English. I traveled almost weekly in and out of Atlanta as part of my job. The Atlanta airport is the busiest airport in the world and is an international hub. I would often stop to help people who were obviously lost and needed to find something. A French couple comes to mind who were among some of the many I helped find the underground train and their gate. They were so far from being anywhere close. They complained they couldn’t understand the signs and made several comments about how the signs in France’s airports were multi-lingual. Fortunately for the visitors to the games, the city updated all the signs.

I once read if signs are in English, Spanish, French and Cantonese, something like 90% of the world’s population can read them. You’d think an airport hosting international travelers would know this.

Anyway,  we found how to get to our gate. We needed to clear through airport security to reach it. This begins another dilemma. The food places are located on the same side of security as us. Do we go through security and risk there might not be food on the other side? That way we are on the best side of security to get to our gate quickly. Or, do we eat here and risk the line for security is not very long keeping in mind we will need time after eating to make the flight? We decided to eat. Then, we almost missed the plane.

It wasn’t because of the line at security. That went very quickly. It was a lot more lax than the invasive US procedures but thorough nonetheless. We were allowed to keep our shoes on. Also, liquids didn’t have to be in small containers inserted into plastic bags to be x-rayed separately. You get my point.

We almost missed the plane because we were at the wrong gate. At some point, our departure gate changed. We were chatting to a couple we met from Minnesota, USA. The conversations started when I was admiring the map she had of the south island with scenic drives marked in it. They had just found it at a kiosk and the man took the time to walk me there and pointed out the location. I picked up a couple of items including their fancy map. It turned out to be the map we used most and was a tremendous asset in making sure we took in as much as we could during the trip.

Back at the gate, we kept chatting. Cindy looks at her watch as says something is wrong and ask if the plane is late. They tell us this is the gate for the 3pm flight. We are on the 1pm flight. It’s almost one o’clock now. We take a minute to check our boarding passes again. Yep, gate 32. Then, we check the monitors. During the time we were in the airport, the gate was changed to gate 30. While this might seem like it would be in the same proximity, it wasn’t. Oh shit!

I would like to point out here, that just about every airport I have traveled to in the world would have a sign at a gate if the departing gate changed. This would alert people like us when arriving at the gate. But alas, we are in an airport that seems to think people can find their way about without signs.

We arrive at gate 30. We are just in time. Thankfully, the flight was late leaving. I’m guessing here; this might be because the passengers couldn’t find it. We are the last people on. As we are making our way to our seats, I see other people whom I recognize as being at gate 32 just a few minutes ago. They all look out of breath and frustrated. We reach the exit row and I see the middle seat is occupied.

I ask the lady sitting in the middle if she’d like to trade for either a window or an aisle since we are traveling together. She jumps at the opportunity to have the window. She is from Philadelphia (USA) and is on vacation in New Zealand. She wants to see the view as we travel south. We chat with her the entire flight. Her name is Marylou. During the flight, we exchange some thoughts about what to see and do in Auckland. We haven’t spent much time there and she was asking about Hobbiton and towns to the north.

Upon arrival in Christchurch, we call an Uber. We are caught in a Catch-22 situation. As new travelers arriving at the airport, we have no idea where the designated pickup is without ordering the car. Once we order, the app tells us to go to the ride-share pick-up. This is not easily found and once again, signs are desperately lacking. Luckily, a really nice lady stopped to offer help. We must have looked absolutely lost. I like to think this was Karma from all the people I helped in Atlanta.

She pointed us in the right direction but before we could get there, our Uber driver canceled because we were not at the pickup point. I am not sure how we are supposed to know the pickup point without ordering the car. Oh well. We ordered another one. It really was the first driver’s loss as we had a long ride to our hotel for the night. Even our next Uber driver (Paul) said he jumped on the fare when it became available. He also said that most people unfamiliar with the airport have trouble getting to the designated rideshare pickup site. He made us laugh when he said he’d even rescued people from inside the parking tower. Paul got 5-Stars and a nice tip (not customary in New Zealand).

After spending the night in an awesome little hotel, our day the next day started with a quick 15-minute walk to the train station. We are booked on the 8am scenic train that travels between Christchurch and Greymouth.

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We were located at the rear of the train and would catch a glimpse of the locomotive on the turns

The train traverses the South Island of New Zealand, connecting Christchurch on the east coast to Greymouth on the west coast. The route covers a distance of approximately 223 kilometers (138 miles) across the Canterbury Plains, through the Southern Alps, and into the lush rainforests of the West Coast. The journey typically takes around 4.5 hours in each direction, with one train departing from Christchurch in the morning and returning from Greymouth in the afternoon.

This is a huge tourist attraction and now I understand why. The journey offers stunning views of the Southern Alps, including snow-capped peaks, deep gorges, and pristine rivers. As the train climbs into the mountains, passengers can admire the rugged beauty of Arthur’s Pass National Park, with its native beech forests and alpine landscapes. The train also passes through several tunnels and over viaducts, including the famous Staircase Viaduct.

There is comfortable seating, large panoramic windows, and open-air viewing carriages, allowing passengers to fully appreciate the scenery. Onboard amenities include a cafe carriage serving snacks and beverages, as well as commentary providing insights into the history, geography, and points of interest along the route. As nice as the train is, we decided to splurge here and upgraded our trip to the first class section.

Cindy waiting for breakfast. She had a fruit plate and I had eggs bene – yum.

There is a significant difference with what is called Scenic Plus service. It is limited to three cars on the train. One car is staff only and nothing but catering where all our meals, drinks, and snacks are made (everything is included in the price). The second car is a passenger car with tables covered with starched white linens. Efforts are made to ensure guests face in the forward direction so seating is limited. The third car is a private open-air viewing car. This latter item was the decisive factor encouraging us to upgrade.

We intended to take pictures along the journey and the regular section of the train only had one other open-air car for all the passengers. We did not want to find ourselves fighting for a spot at the rail in the open-air car as the train passed through the beautiful south island landscape or miss the photo op completely. So as you view these pictures, you should know we paid dearly for them [smile].

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This was a big advantage to the Scenic Plus package. The open observation car wasn’t crowded even during peak photo ops.

Photo ops like this!

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Looking ahead I see a bridge over a gorge – I think there is a photo op coming up – get ready.

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Yep! Another “wow” moment

Another nice thing about the Scenic Plus car is the staff. Besides the meal and drink service, they take time to chat with the passengers. The main host will offer tidbits of information in addition to the information being provided through the train’s commentary. The commentary is via the complementary headsets (provided throughout the entire train). The lead attendant, Carla, knew we were interested in taking pictures. She would alert us to get ready at certain points along the trip.

This worked both ways. When I was in the observation car, Carla found me and took my lunch order. The food and drink flowed freely. They even featured local New Zealand wines from the regions we were passing through. With a bit of commentary about each wine. We had to drive at the other end so drinking a lot of wine was off-limits this trip. We reserved this for the return trip in a few days.

The train rolls into Arthur’s Pass Station

A chance to stretch the legs outside where it is cold and windy

At Arthur’s Pass village, the train stops and is prepared for the next leg, The Otira tunnel. Arthur’s Pass elevation is 740 meters (2,428 feet) above sea level meaning the train has climbed this far uphill on the trip. This is the highest point of the rail line. It’s time to start going downhill. During this tunnel, the gradient of the track is pretty much at its maximum. Dropping 1 meter for every 33 meters of track (or rising depending on your direction). Extra locomotive engines are added to the rear of the train.

The tunnel is over 8.5 kilometres (5.3 mi) and takes about 15 minutes to pass through. This is the only time on the journey were services stop and people are asked to remain seated. At the other end of the tunnel in Otira, the train stops again and the extra engines are removed.

So far on the journey the streams and rivers we’ve observed have been flowing backwards in an easterly direction to the Pacific Ocean. After we exit the tunnel, we have crossed the Main Divide. The water now flows in the same direction as the train. “Main Divide” describes the central mountain range that runs the length of the South Island. It separates the east and west coasts and determines the direction of water flow into either the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean.

For the next few miles, we are treated to spectacular views of the Southern Alps. As we go down in elevation, the temperature also starts to warm. It was darn chilly at Arthur’s Pass. We are chatting with some people on the train who are making the journey to Greymouth with us and returning on the same train that afternoon. We plan to spend a few days on this coast to explore a little bit and have a car reserved.

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Lake Brunner

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An inlet to Lake Brunner – awesome reflections

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Taking it all in

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Greymouth Railway Station

Sometimes in travel, you just get lucky. When we exited the train in Greymouth, the hired car agency had a person with our name on a sign. Unlike the Avis and other car rental companies, RandD didn’t have an office on site. They just brought the car to us. We didn’t realize it’d be so easy. Normally, companies will pick people up and take them to the office for the paperwork. The car was parked just outside the station and all we had to do was sign the papers and go.

I asked the representative about where we should park the car when we return to take the train back. She laughed and said to leave it anywhere near the station on the street. She gave us a general idea. We were told to leave the car unlocked with the keys in the glove box. As we drove away from the train station, we could see the long lines of people still waiting for service at the other car company’s sites.

A hug rock of jade in Greymouth – The area is known for jade jewelry

I thought this was cool. The print press of the Evening Star newspaper is located in the front of the building so passersby can see the press run

Walking through Greymouth’s older part of town

Even though our train arrived in Greymouth, we didn’t stay in this town. Our original plan was to use Greymouth as a base and drive up and down the west coast. However, we had such a hard time finding accommodations for our time there, we just gave up looking. On the week that we arrived, a big sporting event was happening. The coast-to-coast race.

The coast-to-coast race on the South Island of New Zealand is called the “Kathmandu Coast to Coast.” It is a multisport event that involves various disciplines such as running, cycling, and kayaking. Participants traverse the South Island from the west coast (Tasman Sea) to the east coast (Pacific Ocean), covering a distance of approximately 243 kilometers (151 miles). The race is considered one of the most iconic multisport events in the world.

Cindy booked an AirBnB south of Greymouth in a town called Hokitika. This turned out to be the best place to stay. Hokitika is a beachside town and is charming with an artsy flare. There are a ton of murals. It has all sorts of boutique hotels and eateries. Nothing is too far away and the entire town is walkable. It is also home to one of the best Fish ‘n Chip shops we’ve found so far in New Zealand.

Townchip Fish and Chips shop even served the meals wrapped in newspaper (the traditional British way), with optional malt vinegar, tomato sauce, and tartar sauce. Any Brit will tell you, there are fish ‘n chips and then there are OMG fish ‘n chips. This was definitely the latter.

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Hokitika beach walkway access is lined with artwork

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The old firehouse is converted into a boutique hotel

Before we started this journey, I had no idea there were so many Carnegie libraries outside of the USA


Next time in Part II, more of our explorations of the west coast of the south island and we charter a helicopter so we can walk on a glacier. Plus some really awesome pics of the beauty of the South Island.





Categories: New Zealand, Sailing Blog, Side Trips, South Pacific Ocean

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