Wanaka's Blue Pools

Long before we arrived in Wanaka, the South Island, or even New Zealand in general, we knew we wanted to take a day trip to visit the blue pools. These pools are off shoots of the larger river around them and get their icy blue color and temperature from their source: glacial melt from the mountains towering above them.

The Blue Pools carpark is off the Haast Highway, and the drive from Wanaka is unbelievable even if you don’t stop at the pools. The road cuts its way across lakes, mountains, open valleys and forrest. By the time you’ve arrived, between 45 minutes to an hour or so, you’ve already seen enough to make the dent in your gas tank worth while. 

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BUT, when you DO stop at the blue pools (because why on earth wouldn’t you), you’ll be treated to a stunning and mercifully short walk through the woods, two bridges crossing over the river and, of course, the pools. 

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Many people choose to observe the pools from above while some, like us, ventured down to see if the water really is as cold as it looks. It is. After getting up to my waist in the water I was shaking all over and tapping out. If you want a taste of what I’m saying, just look at the pictures; my shoulders do not normally reach my ears. 

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Now, there is a third option for the brave and foolish: you can jump from the 40-50ft bridge into a deeper part of the pools. After sincerely deciding we didn’t want to do it and then jealously watching a group of 10 brave the jump, we decided we were definitely brave and foolish enough to jump ourselves.

It was high up, something we thought about but didn’t really think about until we had a crowd of about 20 people waiting for us to climb over the bridge barrier and take the polar plunge. We handed off our cameras and counted down from three. 

I told myself that I wouldn’t scream on the way down, but I did.

 

If you’re anywhere near Wanaka, seriously consider taking this drive, especially on a perfect day like the one we had. For the brave and foolish, we definitely recommend the plunge, if only for the story.

Going Out in Queenstown

Our explorations in New Zealand took us up and down mountains, into the ocean, and down some of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. It also took us to a lot of bars. Let’s be real, we’re exploring the world with the young, fun, and single and we’ve been living it up. Drinks are reasonably priced throughout New Zealand (or free, LADIES) and in general the atmosphere is always fun and accessible. We took full advantage. 

From whiskey slaps in the Coromandel to a beer pong competition in Wellington to bar hopping with two brothers dressed as Luigi in Wanaka, we’ve picked up a story or two. Many won’t be shared here (sorry, I bet you were really curious), but one thing we decided to share is our experience going out in Queenstown. 

Other than Wanaka, Queenstown is the place where we’ve spent the most amount of time in one place. We came here ready to party and that’s exactly what we did. Yes, yes, we hiked and explored and did many fun nature things as well. MJ’s got you covered on those posts. I’m going to take you through the messier side of the story. 

We spent our time in Queenstown at a hostel called Base Queenstown. Base and Nomads are hostels that operate under the same umbrella and you can find them all over New Zealand and Australia. They’re typically one of if not the cheapest option, tend to have awesome locations, and always have a bar underneath or next door. 

We stayed at Base in Auckland, Wanaka, and Queenstown. Auckland we didn’t love, but we had a blast at both Wanaka and Queenstown. 

These are hostels I’d recommend for people who are looking for somewhere easy to base (haha) themselves out of when they know they’re looking to meet people and party. The bar is loud and you can definitely hear every word until 3 a.m. on the first floor, but the easy solution is to go join in. If you’re looking to relax and enjoy the more natural side of Queenstown, this isn’t your place.

Without further wait, here is the list of all of the bars we went to while we were in Queenstown and what we thought of them:

Loco: this bar is right underneath Base Queenstown. It’s themed every night of the week and if you’re staying at Base you can get a free drink voucher for each night. They have live music in the evenings and switch it up to greatest hits style music later in the evenings. We typically started or ended our nights here, it tended to get kind of crowded in the middle. They seem to pull some bigger names music-wise too, so if you’re in town see who’s playing.

Rhinos: this smaller bar was one of MJ’s favorites (duh) because it’s a ski bar. All the TVs feature slope victories and fails and the walls are covered with decals from some of the greatest places too shred around the world. Drinks were reasonable and music was great. It wasn’t really crowded when we went so we left on the early side, but our two friends who were with us and went on another night said it could really pick up. A bit of this is always luck of the draw.

Cowboys: We really digged this place. It’s western themed (obviously) and may have one of the few, if not the only, mechanical bull in New Zealand. It was out of order when we went so, no, we did not get the chance to make America proud of something again. The bar is huge and each time we went it was packed. They have FREE table top shuffle board and FREE pool. Needless to say we were there for a while. Music is oldies but goodies. 

Bungalow: This was probably the most club-esque place we checked out. It’s open until 4 a.m. and features darker decor and a more deep housey playlist. It’s a fun place, but felt a little out of place in Queenstown, at least for us. 

Barmuda: This bar was definitely playing to a more upscale crowd than what we were looking for. The bar is beautiful, backlit and packed with every kind of liquor you could want, and they have an outdoor area as well as a lounge-type section. We didn’t stay long here because it was a little more low key than we were at the time, but it would be a nice place for a “let’s go get a drink” date or to start off the night.

Surreal: This three story bar is really cool. They play different music on each floor, the first two each have their own bar, and the upstairs is a rooftop, which I’ve sorely been missing since my Miami days area over (for now). Once the upstairs closes the downstairs gets pretty packed and it gets almost rave-like. This was the scene of my first margarita since leaving home and while I definitely got a weird look from the bartender it was a great drink.

1864: Similar to Barmuda, this is somewhere I’d definitely say is more date night/drinks after work than “the first three bars were great but now I’m ready to really turn up the night,” but maybe that was just the time of day/day of the week I went. They have a beautiful outdoor area that’s lit with string lights and the drink menu is great. 

Disclaimer: we obviously didn’t make it to every bar in Queenstown, we were rocking with a limited time frame and we did the best we could. 

Tip: if you’re looking to party in Queenstown, stay at Base or Nomads and then ask one of the lovely humans that works there for recommendations. They served us well.

CHEERS!

Doubtful Sound: The Most Remote Corner of New Zealand's Wilderness

An absolute must if you’re exploring the Southern Island of New Zealand is stopping for a cruise in the Fiordland National Park. This park is enormous, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and most of its wilderness isn’t accessible by anything other than a helicopter. Cruises are the exception.

The most popular cruise is the famous Milford Sound, which can be done in a day or an overnight trip and is the most accessible of the fiords. Following Milford is Doubtful Sound, which is slightly more remote and nearly double the size. 

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This is the cruise we opted for after some gentle peer pressuring from the travel desk at Base Queenstown. Despite a substantial price difference, we figured doing a longer, more secluded cruise might give us a chance to both wind down and really experience the fiordlands in a more intimate way. MJ had already cruised through Milford and after a couple of nights out in Queenstown we decided the quiet overnight cruise sounded like exactly what we wanted. 

We booked our overnight through a company called Real Journeys. Fun fact about them is that they’re the first tourism company to begin operating in Fiordland National Park. Safe to say, we were in good hands for our journey. We debated Queenstown on a sunny Monday morning for the 2+ hour bus ride that would take us deep into the national park. 

Getting to Doubtful Sound is no piece of cake. After our length bus ride, we hopped on a smaller ferry to cruise across Lake Manapouri, which separates Doubtful Sound from the town of Manapouri. We then boarded a second bus that took us over the Wilmot Pass, an incredible stretch of rain forest that is so dense you can barely see through all the trees. 

What’s amazing about the Fiordland National Park is that there isn’t very strong or deep soil for trees and other vegetation to grow, but it’s absolutely covered in flora. The reason for this is because it rains in the National Park over two thirds of the days in the year. This makes for a seriously outstanding landscape covered in trees, moss, undergrowth, and waterfalls that can last all year or only for a few hours before it rains again. 

So after making our way through this intense forest, we finally arrived in Deep Cove and boarded our home for the night: an old school sailboat called The Navigator. After claiming our two bottom bunks in our otherwise empty room and raiding the brownie tray in the saloon (yeah, they call it a saloon), we set off.  

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Doubtful Sound is enormous. One of the reasons we decided to do the overnight, and why it’s the primary choice for those trying to see this particular area, is because you get to see all of it. 

During our first day, we cruised down Doubtful Sound, down into Crooked Arm, and out into the open sea. We managed to catch a glimpse of at least three Fiordland Crested Penguins and visit the New Zealand Fur Seal colony. Thanks to incredible weather, we were also able to take two of the boats 20+ kayaks out for a paddle on the sound to get up close and personal with the shoreline. It was absolutely fantastic. 

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Dinner was served buffet style in the Main Saloon and it was delicious. We’d been told by our friends over at the Queenstown hostel that it would be but even we were surprised and impressed with the quality. MJ even broke her vegetarian rule to sample some lamb (seconds, please and thank you). We even got our hands on a bottle of wine from Framingham’s, which was one of the wineries we had visited when we were staying in the Marlborough region. 

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After dinner we were treated to a nature presentation from the boat’s resident nature guide. New Zealand’s only native species are birds, and before the Maori arrived there were many more than there are today. Now, conservationists work year round to try and eradicate pests introduced to New Zealand, such as the possum and the rat, in an effort to preserve their amazing bird species, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. 

To learn more about New Zealand’s native species and what’s being done to protect them, check out this link.

The boat anchored in Bradshaw Sound for the night, which is a little off to the right of Doubtful Sound, and we were woken up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at 7 in order to explore Hall Arm, the “jewel” of Doubtful Sound, before making it back to Deep Cove by 10 a.m. 

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Hall Arm is everything that it’s talked up to be. We had a fairly misty and rainy morning, which we ended up loving because it gave us a chance to see many of the temporary waterfalls the Fiordland is known for as well as see the park in its most natural state. 

We cruised as far into the arm as we could and finally came to a stop in the final bend. The crew silenced the boat and allowed us ten minutes of complete silence to enjoy the sounds of the waterfalls and the few birds we could hear throughout the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking. 

After a quick break to go in to a waterfall (like actually in the waterfall) to capture some of that fresh mountain dew (all rights reserved), we headed back to Deep Cove to make our way home to Queenstown. 

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Despite our best efforts, it’s truly impossible to explain with words or pictures the beauty of the Fiordland National Park. It’s something that must be experienced. If you get the chance to visit this area of the world, taking a day or overnight cruise to see this park cannot be missed.

A Day in Paradise

Literally, Paradise Road in Glenorchy.

 

I had to ask him to repeat himself, because I just didn’t understand what he meant by, “want to go to Paradise today?” Turns out, there’s actually a place on the South Island called Paradise - given, it’s actually Paradise Road, but it’s aptly named for it’s idyllic views. I made a new friend in Queenstown, and he suggested spending Sunday exploring an area just 45 minutes away from Queenstown - a place called Glenorchy on the north tip of Lake Wakatipu.

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The town of Glenorchy is slow and sweet, at least in the off-season. There are plenty of coffee shops, all with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. But if you continue past Glenorchy, you’ll find Paradise.

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The road winds through the valley and across a few rivers, showcasing the best landscapes around Lake Wakatipu. 

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On our way out of Paradise, we stopped at a secret spot upon Henry’s guidance. The sweet little homestead, home of the Paradise Trust, had charming pink buildings and a treehouse out front.

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There’s a small walking look called the Paradise Loop Track, marked by a tree with a pretty straightforward sign. Make sure to check out the welcome board for info about the Paradise Trust and an opportunity to make a donation!

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The path wanders through the forest for a bit, and eventually spits you out in rolling fields smack in between the surrounding mountains. 

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Everywhere direction you look could be a postcard. There’s even a wedding set-up for an even more enchanting vibe.

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Our little adventure was quite unplanned, but a great secret to uncover - thank you Henry for the perfect Sunday in Paradise.

Key Summit Trail

Quality hiking in the Fiordlands.

 

Fiordland National Park is arguably one of the most untouched, wild places left on this earth. With more land than both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined, the Fiordlands encompass rugged mountains, winding fiords, and mystical forests all across the southernmost lands of the South Island. The best way to see these magical landscapes is with a tour company on a cruise through one of the fiords. You can choose from Milford, Doubtful, or Dusky Sound. I previously took a trip to Milford Sound a few years ago, so this time we opted for Doubtful. Either way, any of the fiords is a life-changing experience.

A cruise only peaked our curiosity, so we chose to head back into the park for one more adventure - but this time, it would be on land. There are so many options for hiking in the Fiordlands, from multi-day Great Walks (Kepler, Routeburn, and Milford tracks), boardwalk picnic loops, or half/full day peak baggers. On our way in, we stopped at one of the boardwalk tracks called Mirror Lake. It’s right off SH 94 and it only takes about 10 minutes, but the scenery is spectacular. 

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We continued into the park to find our main adventure for the day. While we wanted to do one of the Great Walks while we’re in New Zealand, the technical details didn’t quite fit into our itinerary. Lucky for us, there’s an award-winning day hike on the first part of the Routeburn Track called the Key Summit Trail. The entire trail, to the top and back, only takes about three hours. Most people agree that if you only have a limited amount of time, this day hike is the only way to see the best of the Fiordlands. We even got lucky and saw the endemic alpine parrot in the parking lot, the mischievous Kea.

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The hike starts by climbing through the mossy forest and past a few trickling waterfalls. If you’re quiet, you can hear tons of birds on your way up.

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So I don’t know if this trail actually won an award, (in fact I’m almost certain that I made that up), but the views from the alpine zone at the top are out of this world. Everywhere you look, mosses and lichen are exploding with color. Mountaintop lakes are shimmering with reflections of the surrounding peaks. You walk on wooded boardwalks as if you’re gliding among giants.

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The Key Summit Trail is so strikingly beautiful that it feels like you’re cheating by only putting in a few hours of hiking. An absolute must-do for the Fiordlands.

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Arthur's Pass

A day of grey between the mountains.

 

Arthur’s Pass lays among the towering giants of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that trails the entire length of the South Island of New Zealand. This unique mountain pass is one of thirteen National Parks in the country, protected for its rugged landscape within the main divide of quite an idyllic mountain range. 

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On the way into the park (coming from the east), we stopped at the Castle Hill Conservation Area, otherwise known as Weathertop from Lord of the Rings. For those of you who need a reminder: the Battle of Weathertop, in the first movie, is when Frodo gets stabbed by the Morgul Blade and gets rescued by Aragorn.

You can’t quite get an idea of what the true lay of the land looks like from the dark, gloomy battle scene, but here’s the actual landscape of where they filmed it:

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It’s a fun stop on the way into the pass! There are a few walking trails through the big boulders, and you really do feel like you’re exploring Middle Earth for a bit - especially during golden hour.

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After our LOTR adventure, we kept on towards the mountains. Unfortunately, our entire time in Arthur’s Pass was a bit hampered by dreary weather. The fog settled in overnight, so we ended up taking the shorter, backup itinerary for the day. We started with the 252 stairs up to Devil’s Punchbowl, a waterfall that cascades down 131 meters from the ridges above the viewing platform. 

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The rain cloud really started to settle in by the time we got back to the car, so we decided to see a few more sites from the dryness of our Hyundai. The Otira Gorge Rock Shelter and Aqueduct are just north of the main village - you would pass it on the way out to the west coast. With the fog, the shelter felt like a magical mountainside passageway, as if we were back in Middle Earth again.

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Luckily on our way back east, we managed to sidestep the storm long enough to climb all over the park sign.

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Kaikoura

Where the mountains meet the sea.

 

Kaikoura is a small coastal town just two hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. Just about any photo can attest to the remarkable beauty of its mountains pressed up against the sea.

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Unfortunately, Kaikoura recently suffered a detrimental 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November of 2016, whose destruction has limited driving access to just SH 76. However, Kaikoura’s beauty and magnificence remains true, and is still worthy of discovery on any trip to the South Island. 

What makes Kaikoura so special not only lies in the lofty peaks on the mountain horizon, but also beneath the surface of the sea. The Hikurangi Trench lays beside the Kaikoura Peninsula, creating unique oceanic conditions immediately offshore. Warm water upwellings in the trench creates the perfect conditions for plentiful amounts of planktons year round, which in turn creates a bountiful home for large marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Peep the seals in the photo below (little brown blobs on the rocks near the left side and middle of the bottom of the frame)!

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Kaikoura has a ton of not-to-be-missed opportunities to get up close to these amazing creatures. From swimming with wild dolphins, to whale-watching cruises - even to aerial observation from planes or helicopters - there are tons of ways to explore the trench ecosystem. We opted for the third choice.

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The i-Site in town can give you loads of information on all your options, and maybe even hook you up with a deal or two. We booked with Wings Over Whales, which operates out of a small airfield just 10 minutes south of the main town center. They take you up in a 10-person propeller plane and fly over the open water for 30-50 minutes, spotting out whales or dolphins as you go. I was lucky enough to sit co-pilot, as long as I promised not to put any pressure on the pedals at my feet.

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Unfortunately, as is the case with any ecotourism excursion, there are no promises. We can’t control nature. Some days are better than others, and for us, it seemed that we flew at the wrong time. No whales were seen, but the flight was still spectacular. The mountains stood up to our teeny plane, unmoving as the sun slowly set behind their peaks. The views were worth the trip alone.

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There are plenty of other wonders in and around Kaikoura: hiking, swimming, or maybe sleuthing out the secret fur seal colony. Even just a few days in Kaikoura would be a dream.

A Wine Tour Through Marlborough

A Wine Tour Through Marlborough

Disclaimer: We are NOT wine people. We love wine, we do not know wine. This was a learning process. You probably won’t learn much about specific wines in this post. You’ll just have to go check it out for yourself ;)

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