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 my family went to the South Island of New Zealand. It's easily one of the most special places in the world. We left on the evening of the 7th and came back a couple of hours ago. The trip was absolutely amazing.

This was no ordinary trip as we traveled with my uncle Yeh-Wei and aunt Yu-Hua, my cousins Anne and Tom, and three second cousins. Yeh-Wei was a tour guide for over 10 years and knows every square inch of the South Island, so we were incredibly lucky to have him show us around. I hope you enjoy reading my trip report as much as I did writing it.


The Labor Day weekend was pretty busy as we spent most of the time preparing for the trip. As our home would be unattended for almost 10 days, there was lots of stuff that needed to be done, such as harvesting the vegetables from our garden and shutting off non-essential electronics. However, all that effort paid off because everything went without a hitch.

Days 1 and 2: kia ora

The first day was mostly packing up as the flight to Auckland was in the evening. We had a quick bite before our family friends Jeff and Sheila picked us up and drove us to SFO. The flight was fairly enjoyable aside from being almost 13 hours long. For starters, the in-flight safety video was hilarious. The food was also delicious, especially the raspberry and white chocolate mousse that came with dinner.

The in-flight entertainment included movies, games and music. I watched Terminator Genisys, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on the plane. The latter was quite fitting, given that the entire Lord of the Rings series was filmed in New Zealand. There was also a feature that allowed passengers to message each other. I wouldn't be surprised if people are using it to hook up and join the mile high club. *insert Lenny face*

The plane landed in Auckland in the morning. Clearing customs took some time due to the stringent biosecurity measures but wasn't anywhere as bad as we had imagined. The three of us then boarded our connecting flight to Christchurch. The in-flight entertainment was limited due to this flight being much shorter, but my parents and I nonetheless had a great time guessing the answers to the trivia questions.

We arrived at CHC and 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 drove us to their house, located just a few minutes from the airport. I helped with the unpacking and had some rest before the Hus took us to some local attractions.

First up was Mona Vale. The park wasn't that big but had 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 going to a real slammer.

The five of us had lunch at a Chinese restaurant before heading to Hagley Park for a stroll. The place was huge; my uncle says we only explored about 10% of it despite spending an hour there. The next stop was a temporary mall called Re:START that was built from shipping containers following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. It was no doubt a cool sight.

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

Anne arrived later in the afternoon; this was beyond exciting as our last time seeing her was almost 18 years ago. I also met Tom's sons Jerry and Ryan, and Anne's daughter Valerie, for the first time ever. The family reunion was something we had been eagerly looking forward to. Anne's husband Lawrence sadly couldn't join us as he is working in Taiwan, so that will have to wait until another time.

I had dinner with Tom's and Anne's families while my parents ate at Yeh-Wei's house. Sarah turned out to be a great cook just like my mother; Tom is no doubt a lucky man. I hung out at Tom's house for a bit before he and Anne took me back to my uncle's place. Being completely exhausted at this point, I went to bed shortly afterwards. This was pretty nice, considering that I hadn't gotten any sleep in about 42 hours!

Day 3: hitting the road

It was time for the big road trip. 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. Like at most tourist spots, the items weren't cheap. However, my uncle had access to a 30% discount through his connections and got me a box of local chocolates. Our group then had lunch at a Japanese restaurant before taking pictures at the nearby Lake Tekapo. The aquamarine waters were beautiful. Also along the way was the picturesque Lake Pukaki - its blue waters were equally stunning.

Yeh-Wei took us to a couple of other stops later in the afternoon, the most notable of which was the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. The view of Aoraki / Mt. Cook was amazing. Though the museum was closed when we arrived, the café was still open. The lounge was the perfect spot to have a coffee break and enjoy the atmosphere.

The final destination of the day was Omarama. Our families had dinner at the hotel's restaurant, and this was my first real taste of New Zealand cuisine. The other adults and I went to the recreation room after the meal for foosball and table tennis. This made for some wonderful family time. I then logged into RuneScape to collect my daily rewards before calling it a night.

Day 4: all kinds of everything

The first stop in the morning was Puzzling World in Wanaka. As its name suggests, the attraction features all sorts of puzzles and optical illusions. This was one of my favorite places; I could spend the entire day here.

Speaking of which, our biggest regret is that we didn't get to explore 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, not to mention our schedule was a little tight. Puzzling World is definitely a place I'd like to revisit on a future trip to New Zealand.

The Kawarau Bungy Centre awaited us next. 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 jumping if you offered me a million dollars. :-)

Another point of interest was the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. This was where many Chinese people lived while mining for gold. Some of the housing was extremely small and resembled over-sized doghouses rather than homes for humans. One could imagine the hardships that people went through to make a living.

Our destination for the next two nights was Queenstown. The 11 of us had dinner at a Chinese restaurant after checking into the hotel. This was my first time trying venison; the meat had a similar texture to beef but a somewhat different taste. We then bought some food at a grocery store before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

Day 5: sheep jokes, anyone?

Yeh-Wei and Yu-Hua got us tickets for the Walter Peak farm tour. The five of us had to take a boat as the farm is on the other side of Lake Wakapitu. A cool thing about the TSS Earnslaw is that you could enter the engine room to see the inner workings of the steamship. The deck provided a nice view of the lake. I couldn't resist reenacting that famous scene from Titanic while there. xD

The tour group disembarked at the Walter Peak High Country Farm. Our guide Hamish introduced us to the animals and even let us feed them. Up next was a demonstration of the Border Collies herding the sheep. The guests were then treated to some afternoon tea and snacks before Hamish showed us how sheep were sheared. This was one of the most memorable things about the trip.

The Hus dropped us off at the Skyline Gondola after we returned to Queenstown. The gondola ride was quite worthwhile. The top of Bob's Peak had several attractions, including a a luge track and another bungee jumping platform. Anne and Tom went on the luge ride with their kids, although we didn't run into them. Yeh-Wei then took us to a few more photo stops afterwards. It was an exhausting day for sure.

Day 6: alien worlds

We left for Te Anau and got there in the early afternoon. Yeh-Wei dropped me and my parents off at the Real Journeys visitor center after buying us tickets for the glowworm cave tour. The entrance to the caves is on a remote shore of Lake Te Anau, meaning we were in for another boat ride. The tiny specks of blue light in the dark were an otherworldly sight. The tour itself wasn't that long but was nothing short of amazing. The guides then led us back to the visitor center for drinks and a presentation.

This excursion was by far the best part of the trip. 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. Considering that my brain isn't compatible with any PC interfaces, I guess a scan of the postcard we bought will have to do. :P

Yeh-Wei picked us up at the docks and took us on a drive to Fiordland. He brought us as far as Homer Tunnel; the views were spectacular and reminiscent of the Arctic Circle tour during our 2004 Alaska trip. One fascinating sight was the mirror-like lake surfaces in the absence of wind. I definitely wish we could have spent more time here.

Back in Te Anau, all of us had a nice seafood dinner at a Chinese restaurant before returning to the hotel for some well-deserved rest. The lobster was easily the best part of the meal.

Day 7: a historical perspective

The highlight of the day was Dunedin. Unlike the other cities we visited, Dunedin had more of a historical feel. There was a Chinese couple that was doing a photo shoot for their wedding, and Tom's sons insisted on taking pictures with the bride. She was more than happy to oblige; Kiwis really are friendly people. The whole thing was rather hilarious. 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 of the trip 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. With a 19° slope, the street is the steepest in New Zealand. Getting to the top was an intense workout!

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 opted to return to Christchurch as soon as possible so he could get some rest. Though he was tired, my uncle still made sure we didn't miss out on seeing the famous Moeraki Boulders. They were among the strangest things on Earth.

It was almost midnight when got back to my uncle's house. He was nagging me about staying up so late; not wanting to disturb his sleep, I went to bed shortly afterwards.

Day 8: back to nature

Having traveled so much in the past several days, my parents and I didn't do a lot in the morning other than relax and check our e-mails. Yeh-Wei took us to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens after lunch. The gardens featured all kinds of 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 some 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. :-)

Our party then stopped at a Coupland's Bakeries store for bread and snacks. The variety of food was enormous. The plan was to visit more supermarkets after dinner, but the fatigue made us change our minds. After all, my family had lots of packing up to do for our journey home.

Days 9 and 10: all good things...

It was sad to realize this was our last day in New Zealand. Seeing that our flight to Auckland was in the afternoon, my aunt and uncle used the opportunity to take us to New Brighton after breakfast. The weather was just right; the cool ocean breeze made for a nice stroll on the pier. 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 to join us for lunch, and Anne also showed up a bit later. It was just us adults as Jerry and Ryan were at school and Valerie was sleeping. Yeh-Wei prepared lots of delicious food; my parents and I made sure to fill ourselves up as it would be a while until dinner.

We bid farewell to Anne and her parents before Tom and his wife gave us a ride to CHC and helped us check in. Parting with our relatives was the saddest moment of our trip; I'd be lying if I said we weren't close to tears. As much as we hated to leave, it was time to go through security and catch the plane.

The flight to Auckland was shorter than anticipated, leaving more than enough time to browse the airport shops. Mom and I ended up buying all sorts of local snacks. While I haven't tried them yet, they look damn good. The flight back to SFO wasn't too bad either; I saw San Andreas, Interstellar and Tomorrowland before getting some sleep.

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. It was nice to be back in our cozy little house after all that time overseas, although I'm not exactly looking forward to the jet lag and post-vacation blues. Good thing the weekend is almost here!

The not-so-fun part is that Yeh-Wei got a cold two days ago. I also have a sore throat myself at the moment. It seems whatever we caught was quite contagious. Being sick while traveling is no fun, but at least the germs had the decency to wait until our trip was almost over. Haha.


To say the vacation was awesome would be an understatement. This was our first international trip in over six years and first ever foray into the Southern Hemisphere. It was something we had greatly looked forward to. While the highlight of the trip was the Te Anau glowworm cave tour, the Walter Peak farm excursion comes a close second. The food in New Zealand was unforgettable too. I'm also happy that I got to touch base with Anne and Tom for the first time in ages.

One of our regrets is that we didn't get to try the Great Maze at Puzzling World. Although computer-generated mazes can be equally challenging, they just don't offer the same thrill. The other annoying thing is that Internet access was spotty at times. Of course, 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 covered the costs of almost the entire trip. There are no words to express our gratitude. Though our next trip to New Zealand will likely be years from now, the memories from this one will undoubtedly 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. Yu-Hua says there will be more chances to visit New Zealand if we work hard - which is exactly what I'm going to do!

Last but not least, no trip report is complete without pictures. I've also posted two videos on YouTube. We took a total of around 3,000 photos - and I spent hours uploading the good ones - so you better enjoy them. :-)

September 19 update: Pictures are up. This probably doesn't come as a surprise, but I have a bad case of the post-vacation blues right now. It feels like I left my heart in New Zealand...

Currently watching: Interstellar