Sunday, January 20, 2013

Queenstown and Beyond

Jan. 19, 2013
We drove from Te Anau to Queenstown on Thursday, through a series of mountains with names like Eyre Mountains, Hector Mountains, and our favorite, The Remarkables.  Peaks were in the 4000-6900 foot range.  And of course, the air got colder and colder as we progressed, with the snow line getting closer and closer to where we were.

We arrived in Queenstown, located on Lake Wakatipu – Queenstown is built on the plain by the lake, but surrounded by mountains on all sides.  The town and lake are about 3000 feet above sea level – so the entire area is considered alpine, and feels like another world compared to the rest of New Zealand.  The town seems full of tourists, all there for the crazy extreme sports for which Queenstown has become famous.  Hang gliding, parasailing, bungee jumping – you name it, you can do it here.  (And, of course, the snowy winter is dedicated to skiing, ski jumping, ski boarding, and who knows what else.)  Then there are the normal activities like hiking and backpacking and camping in the insanely cold weather.

We stayed up one of the hills, at a lodge that was part hostel.  It turned out there was a large group of young Israelis who were in training to be shaliachs – to go out to areas with not a lot of Jews and share information about being Jewish (and Orthodox) and Israel.  They were also traveling with a few Jewish New Zealanders and Australians – so we had quite the large group.  Richard chatted with them in Hebrew, while I had a short conversation in Italian with a young man from Rome – we are so international, LOL!

Queenstown is in a gorgeous location.  And the lake is a remarkable turquoise color (as are the rivers feeding into it).  But the town doesn’t have much personality, as far as I could tell.  There were a few old stone buildings, but most of the buildings are new – dedicated to feeding, housing, clothing, outfitting, and amusing the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the area for the sports, or to see and be seen.   Because Queenstown was THE trendy place to go this season, when New Zealanders travel between Christmas and the end of January, and the schools and governments close.

We walked around town and part way around the lake (it's a really big lake), just exploring and people watching and soaking up the ambience.  One of my favorite things was a great statue by the lake, showing the man who is considered the founder of Queenstown (and of course I don’t remember his name).  But this man owned most of the land that became the town – it was his farm – so he sold the land for a huge sum in the late 1800s, and moved elsewhere.  Since he was a farmer, the statue shows him with a sheep.  And the sheep just has this wonderful curly wooly coat, rendered in bronze, looking for all the world like a soft fuzzy sheep with a happy and placid face.  It was a wonderful statue, with so much personality.
The other remarkable thing we found in Queenstown was Les Alpes, a fabulous French patisserie and restaurant.  We managed to eat there three times in the two days we were there.  Incredible pastry including croissants, brioche, tartes des fruites, and this thing with profiterole shells and tons of cream.  (We didn’t try it, but it looked amazing!)  I had a breakfast omelette, which was wonderful.  The baguette was fresh, crusty, soft on the inside, and just perfect.  And the coffee was rich and flavorful.  In short, this was a wonderful find and we could have absolutely stuffed ourselves silly every visit.  We do manage to find the best spots to eat at – seems to be a feature of our travels together.  

Okay, so we didn’t do much in Queenstown 
except eat and walk, with a visit to each casino – that was about it.  Neither of us were interested in hang-gliding, parasailing, bungee jumping – we walked on level ground, and enjoyed Queenstown in our own mellow way.

On Saturday (today) we headed north and west, back to the Tasman Coast.  Our route took us past Lake Wanaka, Lake Kawea, back to Lake Wanaka – through the bike race part of a triathlon much of the way – skirting between ranges that make up the Southern Alps.  The snow line got closer and closer, the air colder.  Rivers and lakes glistened in brilliant turquoise – again, we have no idea what mineral in the water creates this gorgeous color, or if it’s the alpine water running off the glaciers (pronounced glah-see-airs here), or what – but the lakes and rivers are all shades of amazing turquoise, frothing white in waterfalls and rapids.

We stopped at a random picnic area for a stretch and bathroom break – and accidentally left the headlights on.  For all of maybe ten minutes.  Tried to start the car again, and the battery was dead.  After ten minutes???  Richard stood by the road and flagged down a few cars, finally found one vehicle with jumper cables and another vehicle with an easy-access battery.  (The one with jumper cables was a camper van with the battery buried under the seat.)  A quick jump, we were back in business, thanking these nice young people for their assistance.  And off we went.

We finally arrived in Haast, after driving through Haast Pass and the Gates of Haast (an enormous gorge spanned by a narrow bridge that we drove over, dizzy from the height and holding our breath.  And here we are, back by the coast, on the Tasman Sea, in a rain forest area.  While further north there are glaciers.  Glaciers, right by the rain forest.  Amazing, huh?


We’re staying at a “holiday park” – we’re in 
 one of the cabins, basically a little hotel room with the bathroom down the hall – and there are campers and caravans scattered around.  We can hear the sea, but there’s a cattle farm on the other side of our park.  We drove down the road a bit to Jackson Head, and had a wonderful seafood dinner at The Cray Pot, the only restaurant that anyone recommends around here.  (Richard had fish and chips, which he said were outstanding – my garlic shrimp and salad was equally outstanding, and the presentation was fabulous too.)

The chef talked to us a bit about the local penguin – the Crested Fjordland penguin is a very rare penguin that is often sighted in the area, and right now they are returning to land for their molting season.   There were signs on the road warning cars to slow down, because the penguins actually walk up from the beach, across the road, and into the forest where they hide in caves or burrows under trees, while new feathers grow in and push out last year’s growth.  This takes about two weeks, and the poor penguins can’t go back to the sea until their new waterproof feathers come in – poor little guys.  So we kept an eye out, but didn’t see any molting penguins – and we were concentrating so hard on looking for penguins that we totally missed out holiday park and went down the road to the next town.  Ah well, we’re just tiki touring.

So we’re snuggled in for the night, in an area where our internet devices don’t pick up a signal, and we’re out of touch with the world.  Which is actually rather nice.  We’ll be in touch in a day or two, and we’ll see what adventures the next few days bring.

1 comment: