With about one week until Christmas, we were finding it hard to remember that it actually was Christmas time. The sun was coming up just after five am and not setting until after around ten pm and despite seeing Christmas decorations and hearing Christmas music, we were constantly having to remind each other. After saying goodbye to Bob and LeeAnn, the four of us drove into TeAnau for lunch and a sweet treat at the Sandfly café, another favorite for Paul and I. Then to burn off a few of the calories we’d consumed we went to Rainbow reach to show Dan and Julie the bridge on the famous Kepler track.
We only walked a short way in, waved to the jet boat zooming down the river and marveled at the foliage along the track. Next we parked at the Kepler track access point near the control gates for lake TeAnau where we decided to walk the track to Dock bay. Again, I was amazed to see the difference in the trail and the plants compared to when Paul and I walked it in June.
It is such a treat to get to see the seasonal changes here. We enjoyed a couple hours simply sitting on the lake shore and soaking up the sunshine because from that point on our itinerary remained just as busy for the four of us as it had been over the last two weeks. The Gardiners, our friends who own the cottages where we were staying, joined us for dinner and we shared a cup of coffee with them before we called it a night. It was lovely to slow down for a few hours. Saturday morning started with another brunch at Sandfly café and a walk around the bird sanctuary in TeAnau. Then we left Zed at Blue Thistle cottages and walked down the driveway to wait for the bus to Milford Sound. The sun that bathed us as we waited soon disappeared behind a thick layer of fog. The views that Paul and I were so eager to show Dan and Julie were shrouded in clouds. We couldn’t help but be disappointed, though it ultimately didn’t dampen the enjoyment of the trip. The bus pulled over for a stop after we’d gone through the Homer tunnel and just as we hopped off the bus, we looked up to see a tiny patch of clearing sky surrounding one of the high peaks. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, like a big giant eraser came in and wiped away the clouds in just in that certain area to spotlight the mountain peak.
I marveled at the unlimited variety of scenes that nature has to offer, even when you think you’ve seen the place before. As we stood there, trying to absorb the vastness of our surroundings, we were distracted by several birds, (Keas) walking, hopping and flying around all the cars. Several flew directly over to the doors on our bus and began chewing on the rubber seals. Then Paul and I noticed one on the roof of a car that was pulling out on to the road. As the car gained speed it was like the Kea was just surfing, having a blast feeling the wind and not using his wings. We watched as the car went faster and faster and then the bird just opened his wings and lifted off the car. The whole scene was hilarious.
Clouds still covered the landscape when we arrived at Milford sound. Only the base of the mountains and the famous Mitre peak were visible. We still managed to find material for photographs as we wandered about waiting to board the Wanderer for our overnight cruise.
Soon we made our way on the vessel and began settling in to our little cabin. Right away the crew began serving up some delicious potato leek soup and we departed. As the crew was preparing dinner, the four of us along with the other passengers boarded a smaller boat and went ashore for a walk along the Milford track. It was a treat to have a guide along to point out some of the historical remnants of the telegraph line and give us commentary on the foliage and flowers along the way. Once back on board the Wanderer, dinner was served and it was so delicious. A novelty for us was yorkshire pudding which provided the perfect lead in to a conversation with an English couple on board. The rest of the evening was laid back and in between cups of hot coffee and tea we were outside soaking up the sights. The water on the sounds was so smooth and calm and we all slept well. The four of us were up before everyone else on the boat just as the sun was highlighting a few puffy clouds and spreading light over the glasslike water. Mitre peak stood majestically bathed in the early morning glow, a small rainbow hovering in front of it, and then as the rest of the passengers and crew began stirring, the clouds slowly began settling in over the peak.
The blanket wasn’t quite a thick as the previous day, but we were all grateful for the view we’d be privileged to see that morning. Breakfast on board the vessel was just as awesome as dinner. As we devoured the smorgasbord of delightful food choices, our cruise got underway. Traveling out to the open sea and then back in to Milford sound to see a couple waterfalls, we arrived at the boat terminal around 9am. Then we were back on the bus, hoping for the chance to see more of the landscape that we’d seen the previous day.
There were more patches of blue sky and we even had the opportunity to take a short walk at the Homer tunnel to stretch our legs. Wow, the wind! It was extremely strong. The sustained wind so strong that high up on the mountain you could see water that should be falling, was actually blowing upwards.
The sight was surreal. We picked up Zed once we reached TeAnau, and grabbed a quick bite at Subway before driving to Queenstown to wrap up our adventure filled tour with Dan and Julie. Staying at an apartment on the shore of lake Wakatipu was enhanced by more sunshine and blue skies, just more to make it harder to remember Christmas was coming quickly. We settled in and headed downtown to check in at the gondola. We had late dinner reservations at the restaurant on top but we wanted to ride up early so we could enjoy time wandering around and snapping photos.
Dinner was worth the wait and the selection of food astounding. From salad and sushi, pasta and an olive bar to lamb, beef and venison and side dishes galore we had a ball trying all kinds of new and different flavors. Then there was the dessert selection which was in a world of its own.
Adventure came early the next morning with a bus ride along an arm of lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. Paul and I were excited to see this area for the first time. I’d read so much about it on other blogs, and seen stunning pictures. Just as so many other places here, the scenery was jaw-dropping and only made more spectacular by sunshine and blue skies. One stop on the journey was in a valley our guide referred to as “our version of Hollywood.” He rattled of numerous movie titles, a sampling of some that has scenes filmed at this location, perhaps two of the most well known were of course Lord of the Rings and Avatar.
From there we drove a short way up to the end of the lake where we took a short walk through the woods, visiting another filming location for Lord of the Rings each taking turns sitting in the “hobbit” chair.
Our knowledgeable guide filled us in on some fascinating features of the surrounding landscape. The mountains are formed of such hard stone that when it rains nearly all of the water immediately sheds off the mountainside into the Dart river. As a result the river basin is extraordinarily wide. Within a few minutes you’d never be able to tell it’d rained by looking at the forest floor. Once we’d finished our walk we assembled at the river’s edge and boarded the jet boat for an exciting and scenic ride up the Dart river and back to lake Wakitipu. Due to the recent rainfall, the river was full, wide and cloudy gray instead of the turquoise blue I’d seen in online pictures. After whizzing and swerving our way up the river, with a few “Hamilton’s” (sharp 360 degree spins) for an added adrenaline rush, we jetted under the bridge into the lake. There we saw the dramatic line of the cloudy river colliding with the brilliant blue of the lake, very beautiful. Overall, the tour provided a wonderful mix of education, excitement and even more exceptional panoramic feasts for our eyes.
We enjoyed dinner on the deck at our apartment looking out over the lake and mountains. On our last full day in Queenstown, we did a wine tasting tour. The van picked us up from the apartment about 10am and chauffeured us to our first stop where our guide gave us a wonderfully comprehensive introduction to wine making. From the vineyard we walked to where the grapes are pressed and finally into the area where the wine is aged he was extremely knowledgeable about the entire process. After tasting there we took in some awesome views from a lookout on the river in the Gibston valley.
Then we arrived at “The Nose” to enjoy lunch and an aroma room experience. In the aroma room, we tasted a couple wines and tried to identify some of the key aromas, using the various samples for comparison. It was fun to try our hand at being a sommelier, quite a unique experience. The afternoon allowed for wine tasting at three more wineries before finishing our tour at a cheesery for tasting of something more solid.
We all had a lovely day, and returned to the apartment to reluctantly pack for our trip to much, much colder temperatures. We checked our luggage in the next day and spent the hours before our flight outside, wishing we could bring this weather home with us for Christmas. Then we boarded the longest two hour flight ever. We departed Queenstown at about four pm and arrived in Denver at six the same day, weird.