The coach journey from Franz Josef to Queenstown took us through the same strikingly beautiful country we’d experienced the previous day. Of the many stops the coach made , two are worth mentioning . The first , an hour into the journey , was at a very ordinary town where we had some great clam chowder and the best meat pies and sausage rolls yet. The other was at a roadside inn which boasted about the salmon dishes on its menu. To one side of the restaurant were three circular pools where salmon were being raised. No wonder salmon was on the menu 365 days a year. We had a giggle about the toilet facilities here . The Mens and Womens toilets were right next to each other and the Mens was uncrowded because the men were able to go in and out ; meanwhile , there were 20 impatient ladies waiting to have a go. Finally , they took matters into their own hands and commandeered both toilets !
Queenstown(pop. 11,000) , which we reached in mid-afternoon , began as a gold mining town in the 1860’s but its beautiful setting and ambience have made it the most visited destination in NZ. A compact little town ,it is on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains . It was easily the most beautiful town we’d seen on our travels.No wonder that , one of the early gold miners, smitten by its beauty, exclaimed that it ” was fit for Queen Victoria “, thus giving it its name.With its many lakes and green covered mountains, it reminded me of England’s Lake district , though the climate here is not as rainy and the ambience is decidedly more touristy.
Some of the streets are very steep , rivalling any in San Francisco , and our hotel , the Copthorne, was a multi-level construct with the main lobby located on the third floor. From our hotel window , we had a panoramic view of the crystal clear waters of the lake , the surrounding mountains and , to one side , the town itself. In addition to its natural beauty and the salubrious air , Queenstown boasts a lively cultural scene , with jazz spots , bars and restaurants dominating its center.We walked the cobblestone streets of the central district deciding on which restaurant to go to for dinner.There certainly was a lot of choice and we finally settled on the Prime Steakhouse which looked out upon the lake.
First though , we had our evening sit down . Since this was almost our last evening together , we broke out the bubbly and the festivities lasted a little longer than usual what with the speeches and all.By the time we got to the Prime , the shades of night were falling . Through the restaurant’s large windows, we caught a glimpse of the Edwardian-era steamer Earnslaw, festooned with strings of lights, as it took its passengers on a dinner cruise of Lake Wakatipu. The food at the Prime was very good and the green -lipped mussels , a speciality of New Zealand , were excellent .
Next morning , we took the coach to Milford Sound . The 180 -mile drive through Central Otago afforded us breathtaking views of the scenery, much more settled and tamed than what we’d encountered the previous day. Sheep were to be seen grazing in their thousands in the green meadows and here and there we began to see vineyards.
Milford Sound is a narrow body of water, 13 miles long, leading to the Tasman Sea. Properly speaking it is a fjord and not a sound. A fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides, created in a valley carved by glacial activity whereas a sound (or seaway) is a large sea or ocean inlet or a channel between two bodies of land. By any name , Milford Sound is a very scenic natural wonder that attracts almost 800,000 visitors a year. It is hemmed in on either side by sheer rock faces almost 4,000 feet high down which cascade dozens of waterfalls. Most of these are wispy and some are only temporary but one of them , the Lady Bowen ( almost 500 ft, high) is substantial.
We boarded the Milford Sovereign , a very large catamaran, for the two-hour cruise of the sound. It was almost lunch time so , after the cat had left the dock and we’d taken our photos , we repaired to the dining room and partook of an pan-Asian excellent buffet . Then we quickly went topside to marvel at the scenery as the cat went all the way to the mouth of the sound before turning around and stopping for a few minutes at the foot of one of the waterfalls. The waterfall was quite a substantial one and it was refreshing , if a little cold , to feel the spray from the cascading water as it dashed on the rock faces on its way down. We were also able to observe the scars on the sheer rock faces gouged by ancient glaciers as they formed the fjord.On the way back , we passed by several flat rocks where seals were basking in the sun ; they are so used to the boatloads of tourists that they did not even move when they saw the Sovereign .
Rather than take the bus back to Queenstown , we flew back in a 10 -seater biplane and it was really a unique experience, quite different from a regular airplane flight. When you strap yourself in and the little plane is vibrating like crazy , when it is launching itself into the air there are some disquieting moments . One knows that the pilot has done this hundreds , even thousands, of times but it is still a little nervousmaking. Even after take-off , as the plane clears the towering sides of the fjord and settles into its journey , one is all too conscious of how small , how fragile the plane is. But in minutes the unease disappears as one drinks in the beauty of the panorama beneath one’s feet. There are breathtaking views of the entire fjord , the cruise boats which look like little toys , jagged peaks and deep blue glacial lakes in depressions in the mountains. When the plane is over the water it seems not to be moving at all. It is only when one skims over the mountains that one becomes aware of how fast it is really moving. Outstanding !
In half an hour we had passed over the last of the three lakes( Lake Havea, Lake Wakatipu , Lake Wanaka) and were approaching Queenstown . To my surprise , the plane approached at right angles to the airstrip and I was reminded of a Polish joke . ( A Polish pilot coming in for a landing exclaims ” This is really a short landing strip! ” to which his co-pilot replies ” Yes , but look how wide it is !!”). Not to worry. The plane cut across the concrete , landed on a grassy field and taxied to a halt before the hanger. The concrete strip , it turned out, was meant for larger aircraft.
That evening , our last in Queenstown , we dined at a French restaurant whose name I forget . All I remember is that it was upstairs , had a cosy, narrow dining room and the food and service were both excellent.
Next morning , we took the coach for the day- long ride to Christchurch. We stopped for lunch at the Hermitage, a fancy hotel/resort which offered magnificent views of Mt. Cook , New Zealand’s tallest mountain ( 3,750 meters: 11,600 ft) . Still full from breakfast, we opted for tea/ coffee and pastries at the Snowline Lounge as we admired the fabulous view of Mt. Cook. Through binoculars we could clearly see the glaciers near the snow-capped peak.
Close by , we came across a statue of a dog and learned the legend the sheep stealing James ( Jock ) Mckenzie. A Scotsman by birth , Mckenzie was a tough customer, an explorer who discovered several passes and a basin that are named after him . He was also a freebooter who was not above stealing sheep with the help of his faithful dog. Eventually he was caught , convicted and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. He showed no emotion at his sentencing but became teary eyed when his dog was sentenced to be banished . He served but a few months of his sentence before being released and departed shortly afterwards for Australia. Reports about his dog are sketchy but it is said to have lived to a ripe old age with a sheriff in a nearby district though it never again worked as a sheepdog ; it was too accustomed to being given its commands in Gaelic.
At a road house on the way to Christchurch,we came to know of the story of Shrek , the runaway sheep. A Merino breed , the sheep apparently wandered away from John Merriam’s flock and lived for six years in the wild . Somehow it survived the cold winters when snow can be up to 7 feet deep and grass is difficult to find. When it finally returned to the flock in 2004, it looked like a giant wool ball. It was shorn with much fanfare on TV and the amount of wool collected was 27.5 kg( 60 lbs), enough for 20 mens suits. For comparison , the amount of wool shorn each year from a sheep is about 4.5 kg ( 10 lbs). The story caught the public’s imagination , a little girl named the sheep Shrek and it began to be used for fundraising purposes. To date , it is estimated Shrek has raised over $ 100 million dollars . At 15 years of age , Shrek is still going strong and behaves more like a pet dog rather than a sheep , following its owner around while disdaining the company of its own kind.
We were lucky to get accommodations in Christchurch , many of the motels/ hotels having been badly damaged in the earthquake. Unfortunately , the Camelot was fully booked or we would have loved to stay there again. We ate that evening at the Coriander restaurant and the food and service there were outstanding . Highly recommended.
Next day , we left for Sydney and the long trip back to the U.S. The Air New Zealand flight was fine but one thing rankled . They charged us NZ$ 3.50 for coffee and a like amount for a pint bottle of water. Charging for coffee I could perhaps live with… but for water ? And $ 3.50 ?Chintzy , to say the least.
Next ; Final thoughts on the trip .