When the chance to fulfil a bucket list destination of mine arose, of course I jumped at the opportunity! Along with some other lucky travellers, I took part in an 8-day itinerary, which has since been enhanced by Kirra to what is now the 10 Day TranzAlpine Panorama.
Now if you’ve read my profile you’ll know I’m a real movie buff, and when seeing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently The Hobbit saga, I fell in love with New Zealand and the picturesque landscape of Aotearoa, ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.
I wish I could share every photo with you all, but here are a few highlights.
Since the earthquakes rocked the South Island, tourism in Christchurch has suffered. However, it’s such an interesting and beautiful place, worthy of at least a 2 day stay. The city still bears the scars of devastation, but the Re:Start Mall has popped up, a temporary mall built with shipping containers located in the heart of the city. Food and shopping galore, and friendly vendors too. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens were lovely in their autumn colours, and the Canterbury Museum was a bit of fun too for those interested in history. Quite spectacular is the Cardboard Cathedral, designed by architect Shigeru Ban and built using a mix of cardboard tubes, timber and steel. This is a transitional cathedral, erected for parishioners in the absence of the historic ChristChurch Cathedral, now left in ruins from the quake.
Leaving the city, we drove through Canterbury’s grassy plains and braided rivers toward the serene Lake Tekapo. The Church of the Good Shepherd is perched upon the lakeshore and offers spectacular views over the water and rolling hills. I was just beginning to taste all the wonders the South Island has to offer, but onward we drove toward the Mount Cook National Park, passing glacial lakes and yellow grasses, until reaching the national park. The mountain speaks for itself, but to have the opportunity to stay here was unreal (only offered on Kirra’s Platinum Collection tours).
After an overnight stay in Te Anau and a visit to the glow worm caves (picture floating in a galaxy of stars), we were up bright and early for an amazing day to come. Heading for Milford Sound we made a short photo stop at the Mirror Lakes, before journeying onward to the Fiordland National Park. This was one of my favourite days. The ancient forests are just incredible, and the coach captain skilfully winds his way down the mountain pass. My face was glued to the coach window as can be expected, and before long we reached the port. It was the perfect morning aboard the Milford Mariner, and we sailed out of port as the sunlight broke over the mountains. Every minute was breathtaking, with countless waterfalls, seal sightings and dolphins playing in the whitewash of our vessel. I cannot recommend this experience enough, it was truly magical.
Queenstown was a blast. There are so many fantastic restaurants to choose from, but on-tour you will be treated to a ride on the steamship TSS Earnslaw before enjoying a BBQ dinner at Walter Peak Station. On the way home, you’ll enjoy a sing-a-long of old timey tunes accompanied by the steamship pianist, so get into it because it’s a lot of fun. I loved the array of thrilling experiences on offer in Queenstown. There is something for everyone! I especially enjoyed the Shotover Jet (that’s me on the left in the white hood and peace sign), Nomad Safari’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ Location Tour (of course!), and the Skyline Gondola & Luge.
Departing Queenstown we settled in for our drive to Franz Josef. Once again, the scenery awed and driving through the Mount Aspiring National Park was just amazing. The forests are ancient and lush green, and we drove many a winding road navigated by our skilful coach captain David. Arriving in Franz Josef village, a beautiful little town surrounded by rainforest and snow-capped mountains, we dropped our bags and headed for the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools for a soak. This was such a relaxing way to wind down after a long day on the road.
The following morning, I was up early as my helicopter was waiting. This was my first helicopter experience and I can’t recommend it highly enough. We flew above Franz Josef Glacier, taking in the spectacular views of the ice, and rounding the peak of the mountain our pilot circled and landed effortlessly on the ice.
Stepping out of the helicopter and onto the ice, high above the world, left me speechless. I never thought I would have an experience like this and I am so lucky I did.
Our next stop was Hokitika, a beachside town on the west coast. We were treated to a visit to a Pounamu (Jade) factory and learned about this treasured Maori stone. We then had free time to explore Hokitika for lunch, and I loved being back on the coast - a Noosa girl through and through - and taking in the coastline stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions. We then made our way to Greymouth to board the TranzAlpine Train. We spent the afternoon gliding back to Christchurch in our beautiful carriage. The train is decked out with large windows and skylights to take in the stunning scenery, as well as a breezy viewing carriage for some crisp South Island air. You will laugh, dine and drink with new found friends until you reach the station that evening.
New Zealand is an incredible place, with the South Island being a treasure-trove of diverse, picturesque scenery. Kirra Tours made this trip effortless, using comfortable, well-located hotels, balancing inclusions and free-time, and the Coach Captain’s skill on the road and conversational commentary made for an amazing touring experience. I couldn’t recommend it enough.