Wednesday, October 30, 2013

8 Things You MUST Do on New Zealand's South Island

When we were getting prepared for our 3 week campervan trip in New Zealand last year, I did a lot of internet searching. I looked at more itineraries, travel reviews (, and blogs than I knew was possible. Some were more helpful than others. I like lists. I find lists easy to read. Lists force the writer to be concise and prioritize. So I decided to create a "Top 5" list of my favorite things on the South Island (I suppose I could make a list for the North Island too, but we were only there for 5 of our 22 days in New Zealand.)

Well, this list proved to be much more difficult to come up with than I anticipated. I came up with my list and then went to Allyson to hear what her list would be. In doing so, we both realized we missed a few key experiences that could not be left off the list.

Allyson suggested that instead of naming specific activities you must do or places you must go, I could group them. For example, you must kayak the waters, hike to a high peak with 360 views, drive a particularly scenic road (e.g., Haast Pass, Crown Range Road), eat fish and chips somewhere (everywhere), experience hot pools (the best pools and massage ever are on the North Island at Polynesian Spa). Ok, well there you go. If that's what you are looking for, you got it!

After much thought, here's what I've decided to do. I'm going to share my "Top 8" list. These were my (our) most amazing eight activities/experiences while we were on the South Island. Eight things that I highly recommend you do on your trip to New Zealand. But if you can't do all eight of these activities, go back to my more general list above and make sure you accomplish one of each while you are there.

I'm going to try to put them in order from "you really ought to do this" to "do this, or you might as well not go to New Zealand!"

1. Bike the wineries of Marlborough. 

I read some blog when we were getting ready for the trip that said essentially "don't do things that you can do at home." Well, since we lived a good portion of our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, we've done a lot of excellent wine tasting in beautiful Sonoma and Napa Counties. However, I am still so, so glad we went wine tasting in Blenheim (Marlborough). It just seemed like a fun activity for our honeymoon and it more than lived up to our expectations.

Rent bikes from Nigel at Wine Tours by Bike. He's wonderful and he'll help you map out a route. All bikes come with carriers for the wine you will most certainly buy and he gives you a couple bottles of water for your tour.

My favorite thing about this activity: we literally had most of the wineries to ourselves! We had lots of undivided attention from the people working at the wineries and learned a lot about the area and the wines. Compared to Napa and much of Sonoma, this was surreal. We had an absolute blast doing this. Wine tasting gets a "you ought to do this" rating rather than a "do it" because you can do it somewhere else, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it here!

 More details about our wine tasting adventure here

 Fave winery: Cloudy Bay

2. Wake up at Nelson Lakes National Park. 

Unlike most of the activities I suggest doing on my blog, this one doesn't take much effort on your part. All you have to do is wake up and be quiet. Well, I guess the effort required depends on whether you are a morning person or not. Me, I wake up with the birds right before dawn, especially when I'm camping. And this particular morning, I will never forget. I cannot describe for you the incredible music I heard this morning and I didn't think to record it. It was the most incredible thing I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of incredible things. I'm a musician. I love music. I've been to more concerts than most. This chorus of birds echoed louder than anything I've ever heard. I believe they were Bell Birds, mostly because they sounded like church bells (hundreds of them, echoing each other, over and over). There could have been some Tuis, because it's my understanding they imitate other birds. Whatever they were, they are worth hearing.

Spend the night at Kerr Bay Campground. Wake up early to the choir of birds and then experience the sunrise over Lake Rotoiti (I didn't get much of one this particular morning, but if you are lucky I bet it's amazing). If you have time, hike Mt. Robert (9.7km loop) for great views of the Nelson Lakes area. I want to go back and spend days backpacking here!

 Who can sleep when a choir of Bell Birds is sharing their song?! I guess everyone but me and a few ducks. 

 On our Mt. Robert hike

The water is cold, but do it! So refreshing to jump off the end of this dock after our hike!

3. Abel Tasman (kayak, hike, or both)

Abel Tasman is beautiful. We should've spent more time there than we did. And because we didn't, we felt rushed. Don't do that to yourself. Give yourself at least 3 days here. I highly recommend a guided kayaking trip if you plan to go from Marahau to Anchorage, unless someone can guarantee you that the waters in the Mad Mile are calm and will stay calm. We got stuck in some crazy swells and waves and were super scared, but basically had to get the boat to Anchorage by a certain time.

I still recommend kayaking here and also hiking. It was really cool to kayak all that way and then walk back out and look out over all the water we had just paddled on. I provide more details about the trip on my original post about our kayaking/hiking Abel Tasman adventure.

4. Hike to a glacier (or on a glacier). 

We planned on taking a helicopter to Franz Josef Glacier and walking on the glacier, but weather prevented this from happening. If this wasn't our honeymoon, there is no way we could have justified the cost of the helicopter trip anyway. We spent some of our day at Glacier Hot Pools, hoping the rain would give us a break long enough to at least hike to a glacier.

We lucked out! Instead of Franz Josef, we hiked to Fox Glacier. What an awesome valley! After it had been raining all day, there were little waterfalls everywhere and the mountains were so lush and green. Yes, there were quite a few people on the trail, but it didn't take away from the experience. If you've never seen a glacier, you have to see one of these on the West Coast of New Zealand. We had seen glaciers before, but never this close. I imagine it would be really awesome to be right up on top of one, but still really cool to hike to the face of one.

More details about our Glacier day can be found here

Fox River Valley 

 70 meter long suspension bridge built in 1929 across the Fox River 

5. Raft the Rangitata.

This one doesn't show up in all the travel guides, but it is so worth the money and the time it takes to get to it. I love whitewater rafting and have done it several times. Northern California has some great rafting opportunities. However, this trip will be a highlight of my life for sure. I couldn't bring my camera on the river, but trust me. So awesome! See my original post for more details about the trip, Rangitata Rafting, and camping afterward.

6. Hike/Camp in Wanaka. 

Don't just hike here. Live here if you can. Seriously, this is where I want to live. I love Wanaka. The drives to and from Wanaka (we came in on Haast Pass from the West Coast and continued out of Wanaka on Crown Range Road toward Arrowtown) were some of the most beautiful we were on in New Zealand.

The hike we did, Isthmus Peak, had 360 degree views. Please see my original post about Isthmus Peak before you do it. This hike was very strenuous. It was long and steep. We went to the Mt. Aspiring Visitor Centre to ask about hiking. They suggested this one, but I also remember the woman saying that the trail is sometimes closed because it is through private farm property. And after you hike in the beating sun for hours and hours, make sure you take an ice cold dip in Lake Hawea. So refreshing!

From the top of Isthmus Peak

 Swimming in Lake Hawea

If you are going the campervan route in New Zealand, I highly recommend Lake Outlet Holiday Park. It isn't right in Wanaka, but it's right on the lake. We went for a (freezing) swim the evening we got there. It has great facilities and good staff.

Lupines on Cardrona Valley/Crown Range Road

 Crown Range Road from Wanaka to Arrowtown

7. Do something "crazy" in Queenstown. 

Bungee jump. Paraglide. Go on a jet boat ride. Do something that gets the adrenaline going, because this is what Queenstown is about. Honestly, I will never paraglide again. I get motion sick and was the whole time we were paragliding. However, I am so glad I can say I did it. And in one of the coolest places ever! See more about Queenstown and paragliding at my original post.

8. Kayak Milford Sound.

Do this, or you might as well not go to New Zealand. I'm serious. This is it.

Going to Milford Sound is not enough. If you have ever been kayaking, please do yourself a favor and book the Morning Glory trip with Rosco's. They are super professional. Their boats are amazing. And kayaking the whole length of Milford Sound gives you enough time (if you are lucky) to watch the sunrise, paddle with a pod of Southern Bottlenose dolphins (They were seriously right next to us and under us. I could've touched them.), paddle under a waterfall, say hello to some seals, learn a bunch of neat facts about the area's geology and animal life, and jump off the top of the water taxi into the Tasman Sea. All before noon!

 See more details and pictures at my original post about our Christmas Day on Milford Sound. 


This dolphin was right next to us, about the size of our boat, 30 seconds before I took this picture. I couldn't justify taking the camera out then because the whole thing was just so amazing. I still have a vivid picture in my head though. 

I am sure you'll make your own "top 8" experiences while you are in New Zealand, but I hope this list helps steer you in the right direction for a couple of "must do" adventures.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kayaking the San Juan Islands

In Summer 2011, right after I finished graduate school, it was Allyson's turn to lose herself in graduate school. Before diving in, we wanted (desperately needed) an adventure. Several months before, I had entered a lottery to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington and we got the permit! We were so excited! And then a week before we were planning on going (with two of our friends), we discovered that much of the trail was still under several feet of snow. Our bucket list adventure was not going to happen in 2011. But of course, we were not going to give up on adventuring and we already had our tickets up to Washington (plus we had to be on Orcas Island a couple weeks later to find a caterer for our wedding in 2012). 

One of our friends had some experience with kayaking, reading tide charts, etc. and we are pretty experienced kayakers (even more so now, after this adventure and our amazing kayaking trips in New Zealand), so we decided to spend several days kayaking in the San Juan Islands. Most kayak rental companies in the San Juan Islands want you to or require you to go on a guided trip, and rightfully so. Honestly, if you have money, the guided trip would be a lot simpler and require less planning on your part. We had to take care of a lot of details last minute and some of them were tricky. 

Also, the trip I'm going to outline here shouldn't be done unless you know what you are doing. At the end of this post, I will outline an easier trip that might be better for people with a little less experience and still plenty of fun! 

Views of Mt. Rainier from Seattle. See all that snow! We spent a couple days in Seattle with family and friends before heading out to the islands. 

Getting to the islands is an adventure in and of itself. You can either fly to the islands on Kenmore Air or take the ferry from Anacortes (about a 2 hour drive from Sea-Tac International Airport). I've done both and both are cool. Both have limited schedules, so it can take some planning to coordinate your flights to Seattle and your travel to the islands. It's worth the hassle, trust me! 

At the ferry dock.

Already worth the hassle. Riding the ferry is one of my favorite parts of going to the Islands. 

We rented a car and drove up to Anacortes to take the ferry to Friday Harbor (San Juan Island). We had reserved two tandem kayaks from Sea Quest Expeditions on San Juan Island before leaving for our trip. We checked in with them on the day we got there, but didn't pick the kayaks up until the following day. 

We camped the first night on the islands at San Juan County Park on the west coast of San Juan Island (this was also our launching point the following morning). This was a great place to camp and look for Orca Whales while watching the sun set. 

We did see whales way off in the distance!

The next morning we had to get the kayaks to San Juan County Park and watch a safety video required by the park in order to launch from there. We couldn't leave our car at San Juan County Park while we were gone, so our two friends drove the car into Friday Harbor, had a taxi/shuttle (they are equipped to move just costs more) take them to pick up the kayaks at Sea Quest Expeditions, and then headed back to San Juan County Park. Allyson and I watched the video, so we were basically ready to go when the other two got back to the park. 

Clearly pumped to get out on the water!

I'm not an expert kayaker, but from what I know we had incredible luck with the currents and tides for our trip. I am not sure this trip would always be as manageable as it was for us. I really appreciated the help Sea Quest gave us in planning the trip. Our trip was 5 days and 4 nights, starting at San Juan County Park and finishing up in North Bay on the east side of San Juan Island. All of our campsites were part of the Cascadia Marine Trail, a network of campsites, access points, etc. from Olympia, Washington to Canada. 

We made stops at Henry Island, Stuart Island (overnight), Point Doughty on Orcas Island (overnight), Jones Island (overnight), Deer Harbor, and Turn Island (overnight). Note: I would cut Deer Harbor out of the trip....we desperately wanted a warm breakfast but there were no restaurants, just egg and cheese biscuits at the harbor store.

Day 1 - San Juan County Park to Stuart Island

We took off from San Juan Island, and paddled for awhile before stopping for lunch on Henry Island. I would never have imagined we would see such a beautiful fox on the beach, especially right after we began! 

Henry Island

A beautiful Madrona Tree, which our friend used as an example when designing our wedding invitations.

After lunch we continued north across the Salish Sea (and the ferry route so kept our eyes open!), to the west of Spieden Island and up through the channel between Stuart and Johns Islands.

Passing by Spieden Island on our way to Stuart Island 

After the channel, we went left/west along the north side of Stuart Island, and the north side of Satellite Island, before turning into Prevost Harbor. We stayed the night in Stuart Island State Park with beautiful views (obviously!) and a campsite right on the water.

Our campsite

Day 2 - Stuart Island to Point Doughty

The next morning, the tide was coming in, so we planned on staying on Stuart Island for the morning. We took a nice hike to Turn Point Lighthouse. The trail is actually a dirt road, but there are few cars on the island. We walked by the Stuart Island school. It was really interesting to see old class pictures of the small number of students that attended the school, and they had some artwork by the children for sale as well.

In early afternoon, we took off and headed out of Prevost Harbor, back along the coast of Johns Island, and (I think) to the north of Flattop Island. This was one of the most challenging (and frankly a bit scary) sections of our trip. It took a long time to get across this fairly open stretch of water and there were pretty big waves. It was nothing like our experience on the Mad Mile at Abel Tasman in New Zealand, but it still took a lot of work and was not all that pleasant.

When we got to Orcas Island we took a short break on a beach before continuing up the west coast. I think the beach we stopped at was close to Lover's Cove, but I don't know for sure.

We then paddled the rest of the way up the west coast of Orcas Island to Point Doughty. This place was so amazing! It felt like we were at the edge of the world or something with incredible views all around. In reality, Point Doughty is not that far from Eastsound and really close to a YMCA camp, so we could hear people at night. 

The staircase up to the campsite at Point Doughty (it is located on the south side of the point) 

Love this spot 

Our campsite at Point Doughty. I think there are four primitive sites total. 

Day 3 - Point Doughty to Jones Island

The next morning we took off pretty early and it was raining and foggy. Because I'm a self-proclaimed sun worshiper, most people would think I could not enjoy a morning like this. But quite the contrary in a place like the San Juan Islands. These are their most special mornings. These mornings, the water is like glass and the seals and bald eagles and other creatures are all out enjoying the quiet morning.

We shared the beach with this regal bird for quite some time. He didn't seem to mind. 

We had heard that we needed to be careful with the seal pups this time of year, because they'll follow your kayak and lose their mamas. We were very careful not to paddle away from this little one until we knew she wasn't following us. 

We got to Jones Island on the early side, and we welcomed the easy paddle day. Jones Island had more people than anywhere else we had been so far, but not so many that it was crowded or anything. We paddled around to the west coast of the island and found some kayak only sites (on the north side of the island, motorized boats can anchor and stay the night). We did a lot of just hanging out at our campsite (which was lovely!) but also explored the island a bit. There were lots of little trails around the island, so fun to go out and explore on foot (rather than by water) for a change. 

We shared our campsite with this critter, who was just waiting for us to go to bed before he and his friends came to rummage around our campsite!

Sunset at Jones Island

Day 4 - Jones Island to Deer Harbor to Turn Island

We woke up really wanting a plate of hot food (eggs, potatoes, bacon, biscuit was what I was picturing) and decided to venture off course a bit to Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. The paddle over there was really nice but we kind of had to be sneaky about where we pulled up on shore. Then we discovered there weren't really any restaurants right at the harbor. We were super disappointed, but made the most of it and ate some egg and biscuit sandwiches and drank some coffee before heading on our way. 

This morning/afternoon was the only other sketchy moment on our trip. We had to cross another ferry route, which was a pretty wide channel, with some choppy waves, and several large eddies. I was pretty anxious for moments of the crossing, but it went fine. Again, we went around the west side of Turn Island because there were some people already camping on the north side. We had the west side of the island to ourselves all evening, and I'm now realizing why wouldn't you go with the west side? Best sunset views from there!

Day 5 - Turn Island to San Juan Island

We got up early on the fifth day because Allyson and I planned on catching a morning ferry to Victoria, Canada. This morning was one of my favorite memories of the trip. I have no pictures because it was raining pretty steadily and it was just too magical to take out the camera. The water was, again, perfect glass. We paddled around Turn Point, and along this stretch, I've never seen so many Harbor Seals and pups in my life. With the water so perfectly calm, we could see their little heads pop up really far away from us (and really close). They were everywhere!

I think we took our kayaks out at Jackson Beach Road, but I'm not positive. It was a boat launch (motorized), and the taxi came to pick us and our kayaks up there. The taxi then dropped us off in Friday Harbor and then took the kayaks back to Sea Quest Expeditions for us. (Don't quote me on this, but my notes say this shuttle service cost us $40 per kayak each way, so $160 total.)

We were soggy, smelly, and cold, but Allyson and I hopped the ferry to Victoria, where we had the most luxurious hotel room (sure felt like it after 5 days in the water). After a hot shower, we felt so satisfied with our kayaking adventure and were ready to enjoy the rest of our time in the Pacific Northwest on land!

Just a few of my other favorite pictures from our time in Victoria and on Orcas Island...

Beacon Hill Park in Victoria

Back on Orcas...

We saw Elephant Revival play in our wedding venue and it was the perfect way to experience the magic of Odd Fellows Hall. For wedding photos, see our wedding photographer's (Jonathan Steinberg) blog

Other Self-Guided Kayaking Options in the San Juan Islands

I recommend contacting Outer Island Expeditions on Orcas Island. They will rent kayaks for multiple days and can help you plan out a good trip. From here (you can put the kayaks in here at the north short of Orcas Island), you could go to Point Doughty, Jones Island, Blind Island, and Obstruction Pass State Park. When I last spoke with them, they offered to pick us up at Obstruction Pass. This is a good beginner route. You could even fit Turn Island in there between Jones and Blind, if you were comfortable crossing the big channel.