Follies, fiords and fush ‘n’ chips
It’s hard to imagine somewhere more blessed with beauty and style yet thrilling and quirky, than New Zealand’s South Island.
From still dark waters loom sheer rocky cliffs, forests cling to slopes, raging water falls everywhere, and fur seals bask on rocks, near rare-crested penguins, tiny blue penguins and bottlenose dolphins. By Helen Flanagan, almost lost for words.
Big smiles are returning to Christchurch. It may have been shaken by a series of tectonic occurrences, but the resilience of the people has not been totally stirred. The heart of the greater Canterbury region, albeit bruised and very battered after the finale, a devastating earthquake over four years ago claimed 185 lives, and the collapse or undermining of about 1000 buildings in the CBD, it continues to welcome visitors who now experience an extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit. There is a new retail heart, of sorts, with shipping containers freighted into the former city mall and assembled Lego-style into a variety of shops and bars. The once grand old bluestone cathedral however still stands untouched without a façade and spire. And stalwarts such as Kilmore Street’s Pomeroy’s Old Brewery Inn, are back with Steve and Victoria Pomeroy dispensing munificent cheer via an unsurpassed range of hand-picked beers and groaning plates.
Venture out of town along narrow roads hugging the curvaceous cliffs to Governors Bay, and give in to temptation at She Chocolat, a chocolaterie and restaurant, before passing cheeseries, dodging cyclists and joggers, going up hills and down dales, to harbourside Akaroa.
Nestled in the centre of an ancient volcano, this former home of early whalers and sealers, has morphed into myriad galleries, knick-knack shops, sidewalk cafes featuring ‘fush ‘n’ chups’ and just a stagger up the hill is Giant’s House, a folly-bizarre work-in-progress by artist Josie Martin. The house was originally built in 1880, bought by Josie nearly 20 years ago and today, what started from digging up shards of old china, mirror and glass, and mosaicing the front step area, has turned into an obsession of flamboyance, whimsical and totally eccentric, often monolithic theatrical displays.
Driving is easy especially once you hit the impressive mostly ocean-side gateway south to Dunedin. Established by the Scots in 1848, it’s the principal city of the Otago region and has the country’s oldest university. Wander through colourful gardens, ogle at shops jam-packed with antiques and fall in love with Two Chefs, where gilt-framed mirrors and fin-de-siècle light fittings decorate one wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves of wine bottles rise behind a marble-topped bar. Chef/owners Helen Mason and Grant Cockrofts’ take on the French bistro scene, with dishes such as braised duck leg with calvados, apples and dauphinoise potatoes and contemporary Asian-inspire offerings such as chargrilled quail served with Chinese pancakes and a mango salad. All are faultless as is the sleek service and wine list.
Along every kilometre there’s something to take your breath away. Ooh and aah at dinky villages, lush fields carpeted with flowers, gamboling lambs and frisky deer. Queue for Jimmy’s pies at Roxburgh, and stop for refreshments at Alexander before arriving at the tourist town of Queenstown, a magnet for ardent adventure seekers even out of ski season, also gallivanting food heads and wine aficionados, with Central Otago region, the world’s southern-most wine-land.
Along the road into town, various B&Bs and apartments are steps away from the dazzling blue 80km-long Lake Wakatipu, the snowcapped aptly-named Remarkables as the backdrop.
Stroll around Queenstown’s waterfront where the vintage steamship TSS Earnshaw docks, call into Patagonia Chocolates and dine at Fishbone Bar and Grill, where the Pacific oysters and crayfish are fresh from the tank, flounder is of course fabulous, landlubbers are well looked after and herbs, salad leaves and heirloom vegetables are grown in the garden of owners Mark and Darren.
When it comes to wineries, you’re spoilt for choice. Overlooking Lake Hayes in a beautiful schist stone building is Amisfield where pinot noir fanciers and foodies will be hard pressed to find better, ditto Mt Difficulty while Wooing Treet and Felton Road are worthy of a visit.
Walk around the historic gold town of Arrowtown and discover Glenorchy, a small settlement nestled at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, where the moss-covered forests received worldwide attention when it was used as one of the settings for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. For an unforgettable experience including the journey, Milford Sound and the 1.25 million hectare Fiordland National Park and Te Wahipounamu World Heritage area, book an overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner. From still dark waters loom sheer rocky cliffs, forests cling to slopes, raging water falls everywhere, and fur seals bask on rocks near rare-crested penguins, tiny blue penguins and bottlenose dolphins.
Excitement of a different kind can be found at Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of bungy jumping where adrenaline-junkies trust their lives to lengths of rope and elastic, diving 43 metres below. Not your thrill? How about the exhilarating Shotover jet boat ride? Try travelling at 85 kmh precariously close to walls of the narrow Skippers Canyon, twisting, spinning out and around at a full 360 degrees and often in just 10 centimetres of water.
For a change of pace, head to Mackenzie Country and the hydro-town of Lake Tekapo via the world’s highest salmon farm at Mt Cook, for a self-guided tour and a plate of sashimi fresh from the pen. Be in awe of the turquoise blue of the lake, called ‘rock flour’ and created when the glaciers in the headwaters of Tekapo grind rock into fine dust on its way to the lake.
A must-see, are the wonders of the southern night sky at the Mt John Earth & Sky Observatory. The uniquely dark sky of the Mackenzie Basin with its dramatic glacial and alpine surroundings is devoid of light pollution so the Milky Way Galaxy, Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri, Majellanic Clouds Jewel Box, Sirius and more can be seen through powerful telescopes, binoculars and even the naked eye.
A visit to New Zealand’s South Island is a true star-studded experience.