Magical Mountains and Lakes in Southern New Zealand
"They are stunning."
"Wow, it's beautiful here."
Those words escaped my mouth at least twice a day while we were in the mountains and lakes region of New Zealand's South Island.
The mountains in New Zealand are spectacular and surprisingly accessible given their grandeur. In two separate mountain towns we only had to walk or drive a short distance to start climbing high above the towns below. In the late autumn and early winter months the mountains give off a mysterious glow as you catch their snow capped peaks through rainstorms, snowstorms and low hanging clouds.
Our road trip through the South Island eventually led us to the world-renowned adventure capital of the world, Queenstown, as well as its sister lake town, Wanaka. They each are chock full of activities. You can bungee jump, heli-ski, ride on a slow or fast boat, zipline, mountain bike - the list goes on and on. You also pay a pretty penny to do all of those things. When asking our holiday park host if he could recommend something at a budget of $100, we were offered a trip up a mountainside gondola and a few rides on the luge at the top. That was about it. Other than a round of mini-golf.
So, we did what we do best and laced up our trail shoes and had our own adventures for free. Including a walk to the top of the gondola. Take that Queenstown!
After our manic trip down the East Coast to get to the Bluff Oyster Festival in time, we were ready to relax for a few days so Queenstown became that stop. It became an even better spot to relax when a snowstorm hit the town on our last day. It seemed normal to us - it's supposed to snow in ski towns, right? Come to find out, snow only falls at that low of altitude a few times a year. I count ourselves lucky we were there for it (even if it meant camper vanning in a snowstorm - don't worry Mom, we were cozy and warm with our heater).
Snowstorm and high priced activities aside, the lakes region in the South Island is magical. It is as if someone decided to merge Lake Tahoe with the Patagonia lakes region of Argentina, the glaciers in Alaska and the Alps in Western Europe. While hiking, each viewpoint becomes even more incredible than the last as new mountains come into view or the clouds change to reveal something else high in the sky.
While I enjoyed Queenstown, I fell in love with Wanaka. A lake town about an hour north of Queenstown, Wanaka has small town charm that reeled me in. A sunset walk along the lake, a fluorescent pink sunrise and a Belgian brewery won my heart.
The highlight of our stop in Wanaka was a hike to the top of Mt. Iron. It is one of those hikes where you come upon an even more spectacular view whenever you turn a corner. Then, we got to the top and a 360-degree view of the area greeted us and was unreal. Well worth the steep hike up.
Typical, for us, we found a brewery soon afterwards. Wanaka Beerworks is an interesting place to enjoy fantastic beer. It's either the only, or one of the only, Belgian-beer breweries in New Zealand and that presents both pros and cons for the brewery. For hard-core beer drinkers like ourselves, we haven't had many beers with such flavor or alcohol above the 5% mark which is common in New Zealand beers. The cons are that the brewery sits on the outskirts of town and that New Zealand isn't ready for the flavors (and alcohol) that Wanaka Beerworks provides. The brewery is for sale so the brewer can head back to Europe so the beer could change once a new owner takes the helm.
Great beer, mountains, lakes and vistas. What's not to like? Even in chilly winter. We were both incredibly happy.
About the only thing missing -- and the thing I miss the most from our sojourn in Asia -- are the heated toilet seats from Japan. Cold weather environments need to get with the program!