Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New Zealand trip report: an adventure like no other

"I'm the king of the world!" -- me on the deck of the TSS Earnslaw

Summer ended on a high note as we went on an amazing trip to New Zealand. This was no ordinary trip as we traveled with my uncle Yeh-Wei and aunt Yu-Hua, and my cousins Anne's and Tom's families. Yeh-Wei was a tour guide for over 10 years and knows every square inch of the South Island, so we were lucky to have him show us around. New Zealand is easily one of the most special places in the world.


It was a busy Labor Day weekend as we spent most of the time preparing for the trip. Because we would be gone for almost 10 days, there were many things that needed to be done, such as harvesting the vegetables from our garden, unplugging appliances and securing the home. However, our efforts paid off as everything went without a hitch.

Days 1 and 2: kia ora

The trip began on the 7th with an evening flight to Auckland. We packed up and had a quick bite before our family friends Jeff and Sheila picked us up and drove us to SFO. The 13-hour flight was enjoyable despite its length. For starters, the safety video was hilarious. The in-flight entertainment was good too. There was also a feature that allowed passengers to message each other. That's one way to hook up and join the mile high club. *Lenny face*

The movies were a great time killer. I watched Terminator Genisys and Avengers: Age of Ultron before dinner was served. The food was delicious, especially the raspberry and white chocolate mousse. I also saw Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies afterwards. The latter was appropriate given that the entire Lord of the Rings series was filmed in New Zealand.

The plane landed in Auckland around 9 a.m. Though it took a while to clear customs due to the stringent biosecurity measures, the process wasn't as bad as we had imagined. The three of us then boarded our connecting flight to Christchurch. There wasn't much on TV as this flight was much shorter, but Dad and I had a great time guessing the answers to the trivia questions.

The flight was soon over, after which we made our way to the baggage claim area. To our surprise, Yeh-Wei and Yu-Hua were already there waiting for us. It was wonderful to see Yeh-Wei again after all those years. He and Yu-Hua brought us to their house, located just a few minutes from the airport. We unpacked our stuff and had some rest before the Hus took us to local attractions.

First up was Mona Vale - a nice park with lovely gardens. Yeh-Wei then gave us a tour of a prison-turned-hostel called Jailhouse Accommodation. Staying here for a night would be an interesting experience, although I can't say the same for actually going to jail.

The five of us had lunch at a Chinese restaurant before heading to Hagley Park for a stroll. The place was so big that my uncle says we had only seen a fraction of what it had to offer. The next stop was a temporary mall called Re:START that was built from shipping containers following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. It was a very unique place.

Yeh-Wei then brought us to Tom's house. This was our first time seeing him and his wife Sarah in over eight years. Following their arrival, Mom gave them some of my old clothes to give to their kids. The clothes actually once belonged to Tom, who gave them to us when I was a toddler. Talk about a full circle moment.

Anne came over in the afternoon. This was super exciting as our last time seeing her was almost 18 years ago. It was nice to finally meet her daughter Valerie and Tom's sons Jerry and Ryan. The family reunion was something we had been eagerly looking forward to. The downer is that Anne's husband Lawrence is working in Taiwan and couldn't join us. I guess we'll have to wait until another time to meet him.

Everyone then split up for dinner. I stayed with Tom's and Anne's families while my parents went to Yeh-Wei's house. Sarah turned out to be a great cook just like my mother - no doubt Tom is a lucky man. He and Anne took me back to my uncle's place a few hours later. I was completely exhausted at this point and went to bed shortly afterwards. That was pretty nice, considering that I hadn't slept in about 42 hours!

Day 3: hitting the road

The real adventure was about to begin. Yeh-Wei rented a minibus with 12 seats so we could all fit in. The first stop was a retail and restaurant complex called Farmers Corner. Though nothing was cheap, my uncle had access to a 30% discount through his connections and got me a box of chocolates. We then had lunch at a Japanese restaurant before going to the nearby Lake Tekapo for pictures. Its aquamarine waters were beautiful. The same could be said for the blue waters of the picturesque Lake Pukaki.

Yeh-Wei took us to a few more stops, including the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. The view of Aoraki / Mt. Cook was incredible. The museum was closed when we arrived, but the café was still open. The lounge was the perfect spot for a coffee break and to enjoy the atmosphere.

After arriving in Omarama - the final destination of the day - we checked into the Countrytime Hotel and headed to the on-site restaurant for dinner. The food wasn't bad at all. The adults went to the recreation room afterwards for foosball and table tennis. This made for wonderful family time. I then logged into RuneScape to collect my daily rewards before going to bed.

Day 4: all kinds of everything

The first stop in the morning was Puzzling World in Wanaka. As the name suggests, the place features many puzzles and optical illusions. It was one of my favorite attractions. I could spend the entire day here.

Speaking of which, my biggest regret is not exploring the Great Maze. Tom went in but ended up having to bail out through the emergency exits. I was up for the challenge, but the tickets were expensive and we were short on time. Puzzling World is definitely a place I'd like to revisit on a future trip to New Zealand.

Up next was the Kawarau Bungy Centre, located at the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. Bungee jumping is too extreme for me - you couldn't pay me enough to do it - but we enjoyed watching other people take the plunge. Well, maybe I'd consider it if you offered me a million dollars. :-)

Another point of interest was the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement - a former mining town that was once home to Chinese miners during the Otago Gold Rush. Some of the huts were so small that they looked like they were for dogs rather than humans. One could imagine the hardships people went through.

The destination for the next two nights was Queenstown. Our party checked into the hotel and went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. This was my first time trying venison. The meat was similar to beef aside from its taste. We then went to a supermarket for food before returning to the hotel.

Day 5: sheep jokes, anyone?

Yeh-Wei and Yu-Hua got us tickets for the Walter Peak farm tour. The five of us boarded the TSS Earnslaw as the farm is across Lake Wakapitu. Passengers were allowed to enter the engine room to see its inner workings. The deck provided a nice view of the lake. I couldn't resist reenacting that scene from Titanic while there. ^_^

The steamship arrived at the Walter Peak High Country Farm about 40 minutes later. Our guide Hamish introduced us to the animals and even let us feed them. He then did a demonstration of the Border Collies herding the sheep. The guests were treated to tea and snacks before Hamish showed us how sheep were sheared. This was one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

The Hus dropped us off at the Skyline Gondola after the Earnslaw brought us back to Queenstown. The ride to Bob's Peak was worthwhile. At the top were several attractions, including a luge track and a bungee jumping platform. Anne and Tom went luging with their kids while we checked out the visitor center. I'm surprised we didn't run into them. Yeh-Wei then took us to more stops so we could get pictures. It was a busy day for sure.

Day 6: alien worlds

We left for Te Anau and got there in the early afternoon. Yeh-Wei bought us tickets for the glow-worm cave tour and drove us to the Real Journeys visitor center. This was followed by another boat ride as the entrance to the caves is located across Lake Te Anau. The tiny lights of the glow-worms were surreal. It was a magical experience and my favorite part of the trip. The guides then led us back to the visitor center for drinks and a presentation.

Photography was unfortunately not allowed in the caves as the worms are sensitive to light. For what it's worth, getting decent pictures would have been impossible anyway in the near-total darkness. I guess a postcard will have to do.

Yeh-Wei picked us up at the docks and took us to Fiordland. He went as far as Homer Tunnel before turning around. The views were spectacular and reminiscent of the Arctic Circle tour during our trip to Alaska 11 years ago. One cool sight was the mirror-like lake surfaces in the absence of wind. New Zealand is truly an amazing place.

Back in Te Anau, the day ended with nice seafood dinner at a Chinese restaurant not far from our hotel. Yeh-Wei had asked the owner to prepare a lobster for us. That was easily the best part of the meal.

Day 7: a historical perspective

The highlight of the day was Dunedin. I saw a Chinese couple doing a wedding photo shoot as we arrived. There was a funny moment when Tom's sons insisted on taking pictures with the bride. It was a little awkward, but she was more than happy to oblige. Kiwis really are friendly people. We congratulated the couple and chatted with them for a bit before going separate ways.

Yeh-Wei then took us to Anne's alma mater, the University of Otago. He let Anne be the guide for this part because she got her bachelor's degree here - despite her protests that she doesn't remember much. The campus was full of students as school has started. Our other major stop in Dunedin was Baldwin Street - listed in the Guinness World Records the steepest street in the world. According to my calculations, the street has a 19° slope. It's a good workout for sure.

Mom says Dunedin was her favorite part of the trip. The plan was to book a hotel here, but because Yeh-Wei wasn't feeling well, all of us agreed to return to Christchurch early so he could get some rest. Despite his exhaustion, he made sure we didn't miss out on seeing the Moeraki Boulders. They were among the strangest things on Earth.

It was almost midnight when got back to my uncle's house. I didn't want to disturb his sleep and went to bed shortly afterwards.

Day 8: back to nature

The morning was uneventful as we didn't do much other than relax and check our e-mails. However, Yeh-Wei started feeling better and took us to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens after lunch. There were many plants native to New Zealand. This was another one of my favorite places.

The Hus also took us to their friend Sue's house. The Lins treated us to snacks and gave us a tour of their 12-acre farm. Their DIY projects were impressive, especially considering that Sue's husband did most of the work alone. Looks like Dad has competition. :-)

We then stopped at Coupland's Bakeries for bread and snacks. The store had a huge selection of items. The plan was to visit more supermarkets after dinner, but all of us were tired and decided to rest instead.

Days 9 and 10: all good things...

It was sad to realize this was our last day in New Zealand. Because our flight to Auckland was in the afternoon, my aunt and uncle took us to New Brighton after breakfast. The cool ocean breeze made for a nice stroll on the pier. The weather couldn't have been better. The five of us ordered some fried fish and oysters at a take-away restaurant before returning to Yeh-Wei's house.

Tom and Sarah came over for lunch, followed by Anne a bit later. It was just us adults as Valerie was sleeping and Tom's sons were at school. Yeh-Wei prepared a nice meal for us as we got ready for our trip home. Everything was delicious, especially the fish. It was soon time to head to the airport after filling ourselves up.

We bid farewell to Anne and her parents before Tom and his wife gave us a ride to the airport and helped us check in. The farewells were the saddest part of the trip. I'd be lying if I said we weren't close to tears. As much as we hated to leave, all good things must come to an end.

The flight to Auckland was shorter than anticipated, leaving more than enough time to browse the shops. Mom and I bought all sorts of snacks. I can't wait to try them. The flight back to SFO wasn't too bad either as I saw more movies. Interstellar was my favorite, although I enjoyed San Andreas and Tomorrowland as well. It was also nice to get some sleep on the plane.

The airport was pretty crowded when we arrived in San Francisco. Claiming our baggage and clearing customs took longer than expected due to the large number of arrivals. Jeff and Sheila then picked us up and gave us a ride home.


To say the trip was fun would be an understatement. This was our first international trip in over six years and first foray into the Southern Hemisphere. It was something we had greatly looked forward to. The highlight of the trip was the Te Anau glow-worm cave tour while the Walter Peak farm comes a close second. The local food was unforgettable too. I'm also happy to touch base with Anne and Tom for the first time in ages.

However, there's no such thing as a perfect trip. The worst part is that Yeh-Wei got sick two days ago. I happen to have a sore throat myself. It must have been a very contagious virus. At least it had the decency to wait until our trip was almost over. Haha.

Because he was sick and couldn't concentrate, Yeh-Wei hit a road sign as we were leaving Dunedin. The damage to the vehicle was minor and barely noticeable, but the rental agency still found out and charged him for repairs. Shit happens.

One of our regrets is that we didn't go into the Great Maze at Puzzling World. Computer-generated mazes just don't compare to the real deal. Another thing is that Internet access was spotty at times, although that's a relatively minor issue as we didn't come all the way to New Zealand just to surf the web.

I ought to mention that the Hus paid for our trip. There are no words to express our gratitude. Though we likely won't go to New Zealand again anytime soon, the memories from this trip will last a lifetime. One thing I've heard is that the North Island is just as awesome. The layovers in Auckland had barely scratched the surface. If only plane tickets were free...

Now that we're home, the first few days after coming back will be tough. There is probably lots of work to catch up on. I'm not exactly looking forward to the jet lag and post-vacation blues, but at least the weekend is almost here!

Of course, no trip report is complete without pictures and videos. I think we took around 3,000 photos - and it took me hours to upload the good ones - so you better enjoy them. :-)

September 19 update: Pictures are up. The bad news is that the post-vacation blues have set in. I'm going to miss New Zealand.

Currently watching: Interstellar