The question has constantly plagued me for the last several weeks, incessantly tugging at the corners of my mind, echoing the well-known dangers of maintaining big expectations: ‘Can New Zealand really keep getting better’? The diminutive island nation has responded with hasty, thunderous affirmation: You’re damn right it can.
If you’re hoping for anything from this post other than paragraphs of incessant gushing and photos that elicit both a bit of disdain and a bit of salivary release – you can go ahead and stop reading. I’ll do my best to keep my hyperbole to a minimum, but WOAH – let’s just say this place has rocketed to the top of my ‘Favorite countries in the world’ list with reckless abandon.
Let's talk Wellington.
‘Windy Welly’, as locals love to dub it, is one hell of a town – and I called it home for 3.5 days. Nestled between mountains at the doorstep of a sapphiric harbor, it’s a city that’s no stranger to a stiff breeze (nor a stiff drink). Its inhabitants, however, are anything but stiff – like all of NZ, it’s a remarkably laid-back place. Doubly so here, as Wellington is both the country’s political capital and its cultural capital – a trendy haven of music venues, buzzy bars, street art, and a real penchant for caffeine. Be still my bearded, tattooed heart.
It’s a well-known ‘secret’ that Wellington is one of the best coffee cities in the world – and while my café inclinations usually skew squarely towards the delightfully spicy chai latte, I jumped on the opportunity to sample some world-class java and quaffed more than a few flat whites and mochas during my time ’round town. Fortunately or unfortunately, I think it may have spearheaded a quiet conversion, or at least allowed the coffee bean and tea bag to co-occupy my morning orbit. Unsurprisingly, I also sampled the city’s more nocturnal beverages – the bus did a big pub crawl, and the cheap drinks flowed all night.
I passed my time in town with quite a variety of activities. Early on, I hiked nearby Mount Victoria with a big group of awesome friends – there were great views to soak in. I spent a lot of time strolling down Cuba Street, Wellington’s bohemian epicenter and home to many a bar, shop, and even a night market where I feasted on some particularly tasty street food fare. It also hosts the city’s bucket fountain, a colorful and well-known landmark.
During summer evenings – literally EVERY evening – the city throws a big free concert in their idyllic botanic gardens, where you’re welcome to BYO beer and wine and relax on the grass, the gardens illuminated in colorful lights and immersed in sound. The gardens are served by Wellington’s Cable Car, which culminates at the top of the gardens and plays host to a fantastic skyline view.
My last day in town was reserved to explore Te Papa, New Zealand’s bold and innovative National Museum and Art Gallery that’s widely held as one of the world’s best. (Oh, and like all of Wellington’s MANY museums and galleries, it’s FREE)! There were several awesome exhibits, but the real show-stopper and crown jewel was their Gallipoli exhibit, which highlights New Zealand’s involvement in World War I’s bloody Gallipoli campaign in modern-day Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
This exhibit is particularly impactful due to the involvement of Wellington-based Weta Workshop, best known as the VFX wizards behind the Lord of the Rings films amongst other Hollywood magic. You see, the masters at Weta Worshop created several absolutely MASSIVE sculptures depicting soldiers and important figures in the war, each at 2.4x actual size, that required over 24,000 hours to build and create. When you see them, it’s clear where that time went: the detail is absolutely MIND-BOGGLING. Individual goosebumps, ear hairs, raised taste buds, scabbed wounds, and beads of sweat are recreated in absolutely uncanny detail to the degree that it’s a little unsettling. Check out my photos, and a quick YouTube video below.
Clearly, Wellington’s known for a lot of things – but another facet of its reputation stems from its position as the gateway to the south island. I took an evening ferry to Picton, the south island’s northernmost city, and waved goodbye to what was easily my favorite city of the trip thus far. The ferry was no less spectacular, providing a gorgeous canvas upon which the sun spilled its guts and exploded with purple and orange hues – and came back for an encore once we stepped foot onto Picton’s sleepy streets. The next morning provided some equally ‘pinch-me’ views when I took a quick morning hike up the nearby Tirohanga Trail.
Departing Picton, the bus ambled along through increasingly beautiful roadways and made our way to the impossibly-beautiful-to-be-real Abel Tasman National Park — or at least we tried to. Our bus broke a fan belt (and in turn, our air conditioning unit) and was down for the count for about 3 hours. Now, ordinarily this would be a real bummer – but the travel gods were smiling today. Our breakdown occurred HERE. I kid you not.
As much of a blessing as this serendipitous ‘hiccup’ proved, we couldn’t have known how much better things were bound to get – Abel Tasman is an absolute paradise. While many in our crew elected to tackle one of the countries officially sanctioned ‘Great Walks’, others took off on kayaking expeditions, horseback adventures, or lounged on the park’s beautiful beaches – but I had a different adventure in mind. It’s something I’ve been itching to try for a long time, indeed: canyoning (or canyoneering, as it’s known back in the States).
Canyoning is a mixed sport comprised of hiking, climbing, swimming, jumping, zip lining, sliding, and rappelling (or abseiling). Basically, the idea is that you hike to the top of a canyon (1.5 hours in our case), where you don wetsuits and slowly work your way down to the bottom again, scaling waterfalls, 25-foot jumps, natural slides carved over thousands of years, and generally trying not to die. In that regard, I succeeded – and had an absolute blast. It’s the best thing I’ve done in this amazing country so far.
To wrap up the evening, several of us basked under the Southern Hemisphere’s awe-inspiring nightly light show: the night sky below the equator absolutely explodes with stars, witness to the Milky Way spilling it’s gorgeous guts across the dark above. With no light pollution to muck things up, the view is nearly tear-inducing. Luckily, there was more where that came from – the next day’s journey (yesterday!) took us to the sleepy West Coast town of Westport, home to a brewery (which I of course visited) and not much else but a big stretch of beach that’s perfect for building bonfires. Naturally, we took a crack at that – and built one hell of a blaze.
The drive itself wasn’t bad either, nor was today’s – similar in every way. Massive cliffs and mountains erupt suddenly from the ocean floor, piercing the sky and demanding your respect and attention. You’d be hard-pressed to find better scenery to soak in from out the bus windows along the way (or to observe on one of the many seaside stops we made along the way).
The best is yet to come*
Clearly, this last week has been incredible – but it’s all been an appetizer, because today onward is when the REALLY GOOD stuff starts. Or, at least it’s meant to. This morning, I was supposed to take a helicopter to the Franz Josef Glacier, where I’d have a 3 hour guided hike on the glacier and through its many caves and features, where I’d be privy to the visual feast below. Sadly, however, Franz Josef has notoriously moody weather, and our departure was nixed at the literal last minute due to cloud cover. (Womp womp).
But hey – these things happen, and there’s still a LOT of amazing stuff on the radar in the very near future. Including another particularly famous New Zealand bucket list activity scheduled for this evening – again, weather dependent. I won’t say too much for now, but with a bit of meteorological luck, my next post will really amplify things to ’11’, as I get into the heart of the South Island and start to take on New Zealand’s most stunning – and most heartrate-escalating attractions. (Sorry mom)!