I didn't run into Dwight on his connecting flight to Mordor, but I did make it to the Shire, so fair warning, I tried to restrain myself but there are definitely too many photos of Hobbit holes below.
But I went on an adventure! And it was one of the most beautiful trips of my life, so, sorry not sorry for the photo spam here. I mean, do you see all those fluffy white dots scattered across the perfectly green grassy hills in that photo above? Do you see them? Yes, those are sheep, and as perfect as it looks in a photo, imagine driving past that for 2 hours. Just gorgeous, even when I stop to remember that's the source of all that lamb I buy at home. So, so, pretty pre-slaughter, aren't they? Stunningly scenic is the word I'd use to describe most of New Zealand. And then there was Christchurch, but I'll get to that later.
Our first stop in New Zealand was the North Island, specifically Auckland, and we accidentally timed it so that we arrived the very evening of the HUGEST, MOST IMPORTANT RUGBY MATCH EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Or so that's what I came to believe based on the number of drunk, red-clad, singing British men hanging out in Auckland, matched only by their black-clad Kiwi counterparts.
There was really nothing for it but to join the party for half the game, before we gave up trying to understand anything and called it a night. Those rugby fans, though, they do enjoy themselves some American classic rock and country music. Respect.
Other than lamb and Lord of the Rings, the only other New Zealand export I really knew of was wine, so of course that's what we did first. We hopped on the ferry (with more rugby fans, of course) to Waiheke Island (rhymes with Waikiki) to do some tasting at a few of the vineyards. We had a lovely, sunny walk across a corner of the island to the first vineyard, where we decided to start with lunch but then were "forced" to shelter through a winter storm, eating the most impressive antipasti platter I've ever seen and drinking delicious wine for three hours while the skies opened up overhead. I may never recover from such a terrible afternoon. To make things worse, I was only able to fit ONE bottle of wine in my suitcase.
In the end, I barely felt like I saw any of Auckland, but it was a fun couple of days in the rain, eating breakfast at our Airbnb and watching crazy people launch themselves off the Sky Tower.
AND THEN I WENT TO MIDDLE EARTH. Really, I am sorry for all the caps here but I went to the freaking Shire!!! The nerd in me was blissed out from the whole experience, posing in front of Bilbo's house and having an ale at the Green Dragon, and I think I squealed at every Hobbit hole and the cute pretend bread and cheese and miniature woodworking tools. It was like walking through a slightly sized up doll house (doll village?) and the cuteness factor was on overload. Plus, you know, that whole Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit thing. I'd apologize to our fellow tour members, but they were worse than me, honestly.
The tour we took to Hobbiton also took us to the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, which if you don't know, is basically just a string of caverns above an underground river where little fly larvae hang out and trap bugs in their mucus. Disgusting, but see, they are bioluminescent and so they glow, and if you forget about the larvae part it's just like taking a boat ride under a starry sky. Well, don't ask my mother. She'll tell you it was just like taking a pitch black boat ride under a dripping ceiling of fluorescent fly larvae. Some people.
Soul Some of the places we tried in Auckland were either just convenient or interesting-sounding spots that ended up having weirdly instagram-baiting menus, but we treated ourselves to a decadent first night dinner in Auckland, choosing a place that seemed to have the least amount of boisterous rugby fans, and it.was.delicious. Nothing we ate was bad and I forced us to order two desserts. I found out later this is where Beyonce and Jay Z eat in Auckland, so yeah, I'm so cool now.
Mudbrick Vineyard This was the first vineyard we walked to on Waiheke and where we got stranded, but the bistro menu was delicious and the wine was crazy good. The grounds are beautiful too, and they even encourage pedestrian visitors to walk to the main buildings through the vines. We tried that for about two feet until it got a little less "scenic walk" and a little more "muddy slog". Actually, my mom made it five feet, and I think she might have determinedly gone all the way if I hadn't stopped her.
Silo Park Like every other city, Auckland is also turning former industrial wastelands into scenic, walkable parks. Silo park takes you from the edge of Viaduct Harbor to where the really big yachts get parked, in front of great views of the Harbour Bridge.
Viaduct Harbour Really the only part of Auckland we explored in our limited time in the city, but it's got with sailboats scenically parked among trendy bars and bistros, and it's not a bad place to spend your time.
Sky Tower Unless you are dining at the top or jumping off the top, I'm not sure I'd put this on a must-do list, but it's probably Auckland's most famous tourist site so I guess, if you have the time, go just to say you did? Our Airbnb host had free tickets, so we went, but it was a misty night and I can't say I was wowed by the view.
Waiheke Island An entire island full of rolling hills of vineyards, beautiful coves, and what I assume are lovely hiking trails and beaches when the weather is nice. It's almost an hour's ferry ride from Auckland but if you love wine and pretty places, don't miss it.
After Auckland we headed to the South Island and Queenstown, which, all gushing about Hobbit holes aside, was truly my favorite part of the trip. It was freezing cold, of course, and we missed what I assume would have been a wonderful wine tasting trip in Otago due to a frozen-over runway, but what we did manage to do was to have so, so, much fun.
We arrived in Queenstown about three hours later than planned, because when planning the trip I forgot about things like winter weather delays in July (hello, California girl). But we didn't let our late arrival deter us, and we immediately headed out into a snowy gale ready to hit up the Ugg store and find some wine. We found lots, and I'm already in serious withdrawal from those New Zealand pinots.
And then we got as extreme as you can get in Queenstown while not actually bungee jumping, which is what EVERYONE goes there to do, apparently, unless they are there to ski. We were there to do neither, but we did wrap ourselves up to go on a high speed jetboat ride on the Shotover River at 9:30 am. Yes, you are right if you think that is entirely too early when it is freezing outside, but I can feel my face again so it all worked out ok! My mom even enjoyed herself after the initial shock and fear of finding out this was not the gentle sail down the river she had somehow convinced herself it was (I knew she was way too calm about it).
She had enough fun jetboating that I was able to convince her to get really wild and ride the gondola up the mountain to go luging on the concrete track, and as long as she shut her eyes and sat completely still and I didn't talk to her on the chair lift up to the start, she seemed to enjoy it! After every run I waited at the bottom for her to coast to the finish and refuse to go again, but then she kind of shocked me by 1) loving it! and 2) enjoying so much she got mad at the little kids she claimed were "cramping her style." I think her post-Irish coffee recap of her last run was the highlight of the whole trip for me.
The rest of our time in Queenstown was blur of early mornings, burgers the size of my head, old mining towns and a canceled flight to Christchurch. And then there was Milford Sound. Oh my God is all I can say, really. I've never felt so tiny and insignificant. It sounds cheesy to say it was awe-inspiring, but that's exactly what it was. And even from the boat it felt still and silent and majestic. It's worth every minute of a 10-hour snowy drive through the mountains.
Fergburger Literally every single person I know who had been to Queenstown and every cab driver or tour guide told us to go here. They are world famous for their burgers, apparently, and with good reason. They have a massive menu of burgers the size of small plates, and they lived up to the hype. I went classic and devoured the whole thing, much to my mother's shock.
Ivy & Lolas This was the first place we ate in Queenstown, and it was lovely. Those New Zealand Green Lipped mussels are delicious!
The Winery Our cab driver tipped us off to this place after we missed our wine tour, and if I had known about it in advance I probably wouldn't have even booked a wine tour. You can open a tab and try endless varieties of New Zealand wine, and even whiskeys if you want. There are no vineyard views, but in the middle of winter in the mountains I doubt that really matters.
Good Sights and Good Fun
Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound This might be the one thing everyone tells you to do in New Zealand, but with good reason. It's stunningly beautiful in the park (with a few LOTR locations to boot) and Milford Sound is a natural wonder. The drive there through the mountains deserves its own shout out, and even though the winter weather made it dicey, I have a hard time believing it's as ruggedly beautiful in the summer.
Arrowtown An old gold rush camp just north of Queenstown, you can take the city bus there and spend half a day walking through the quaint downtown and the old, crumbling miners' shacks. Bonus points if you can find the place (I can't remember the name) that served us a killer smoked hot chocolate. I have real plans to recreate at home.
Shotover Jet If all you know of jetboating are those giant speedboats that take you out to a city harbor or river and spin you around a few times, you know nothing. This boat speeds you through a narrow river canyon and spits you out for 360s, cutting close enough to the canyon walls you lose your heart somewhere around where your feet are desperately pressing into the floor. They run year-round, except when it's too snowy or too cold, but they have heated handrails so you'll never let go, Jack.
Skyline Queenstown The luge at the top of Queenstown. You ride a gondola to get up there, and you can buy passes combining the gondola ride with your choses number of luge runs. Be ready for clueless kids and a stiff climb in or out if you are over 30, but the views alone are worth the trip to the top and I haven't found a more fun way of sliding down a mountain on my butt.
When I told almost anyone that we were going to Christchurch as part of our trip, even a few people in New Zealand, the most common response was often "why?"
And I kind of get, that, I do, because even though Christchurch is New Zealand's oldest city and is full of history, it has had a rough decade of natural disasters, and there literally isn't a lot of "there" there. Originally, we were only going to spend half a day in the city itself, and use it as a base for exploring nearby hot springs. But a 24-hour delay in our arrival to Christchurch meant no thermal pools for us, and instead 24 hours in the city. And now I want to tell everyone to go to Christchurch!
It's fascinating! A good chunk of the CBD essentially collapsed in 2011, and if you want to explore the center city you are going to be confronted by that fact on every block. Construction is everywhere, vacant lots abound, and old buildings are missing entire facades. Even the foggy weather gave the whole place an aura Cormac McCarthy would approve of.
But the people of Christchurch aren't giving up on the city, nor are they content to let it be ugly. Street art is everywhere, from massive murals to moving memorials. Locals have installed a fun sound garden and a coin-operated washing machine that blares music onto an outdoor dance floor. There is an entire mall full of shops and restaurants operating out of shipping containers and a cathedral constructed partly of cardboard. All my urban planning friends should go and geek out.
C1 Espresso This cafe is housed in the Old High Street Post Office where it relocated after the earthquakes. It has fun with the location, serving curly fries and kids meals straight to your table via the old pneumatic tubes. The whimsy extends to even the bathroom, which you get to via a hidden entry located behind a bookshelf, and where you can pee listening to Harry Potter audiobooks. Oh yeah, the food and caffeine were pretty good too!
Cardboard Cathedral The old Cathedral was decimated in the earthquake, but it's replacement, the temporary(ish) Cardboard Cathedral, is a marvel of plastic, cardboard tubes, and shipping containers. It's stunning inside, and you should let one of the guides walk you around and tell you its story, but please bring tissues because unless you are dead inside, you will get emotional.
Dance-o-Mat Literally an old washing machine was converted to play music from your iphone or music device when you put money in it. There wasn't anyone using it and it definitely seemed to be meant for slightly older phone models (you need a headphone jack), but it's a little wild to see a outdoor dance floor complete with disco ball in the middle of downtown.
Re:Start An entire shopping mall made from shipping containers! It's colorful and fun to poke around, with great coffee shops and food trucks. The website says it closed in April but it still seemed to be a popular place for families on a cold Saturday morning.
Christchurch Cathedral The old cathedral may look like it survived the blitz, but it's still worth walking by to peek at what remains.