21 November 2020
Over the next week I am exploring the south of the South Island and Stewart Island on a Queenstown Southern Loop tour with Intrepid Travel (who I have done most of my overseas travel with).
Discover the silent Sounds, spectacular scenery and Stewart Island of the south. Explore the rugged reaches of the South Island on this six-day trip with Intrepid, beginning and ending in Queenstown. Make your way to the shores of the South Island’s biggest lake and sail the silent waters of glacier-carved Fiordland National Park with an unforgettable cruise on Milford Sound. Cross to the sometimes forgotten corner of Otago – the rugged cliffs of the Catlins – to hike to coastal caves, then span the gap to untouched Stewart Island to explore the wilderness, listening out for the call of the kiwi. Crafted to give the right amount of active adventure and time to relax, this is the perfect southern getaway. Intrepid trip notes
COVID has certainly changed everyone’s travel plans but in New Zealand we are fortunate to be keeping it (mostly) under control now. Apart from a few outbreaks from managed quarantine facilities housing people who have just come into the country, the rest of us are able to carry on our lives with not too many restrictions. We are required to wear masks on all public transport including planes and physical distancing, contact tracking and hand sanitiser are the norm. But other than that, we are being encouraged to support our local tourism industry.
I’m certainly not going to turn down a challenge like that. Whilst I have been to many of the places before, there are parts I haven’t been to (the Catlins) and places I haven’t been to for a very long time and am keen to revisit (Milford Sound and Stewart Island). The scenery is always stunning and I’m looking forward to seeing lots of wildlife and perhaps even the Southern Lights if I’m lucky. It is also a chance to catch up with a school friend who lives in Invercargill.
My trip starts with a flight to Queenstown, wearing masks, but still served a cup of tea and a biscuit!?! I have a window seat and and skies are relatively clear, giving me wonderful views of the Southern Alps, lakes and plains on the way south. Coming into Queenstown it is a surprise to see the mountains up close through the windows on either side of the plane. I had forgotten how close the plane gets to the mountains as the pilot snakes through the valley for the approach to the runway. But the pilots know what they are doing and we land safely.
I catch a shuttle bus to the Heartland Hotel where the tour starts tomorrow. For now I have some time to explore on my own although the very strong winds and squally rain mixed in with some sunshine make things a bit tricky. I walk down the hill into Queenstown township and decide that I’ll brave the weather and go for a walk in the park and gardens that are on a peninsula out into the lake. I discover that the Queenstown Marathon is on and I encounter lots of stragglers coming the other way and strategically placed photographers taking pictures of the runners with lake and mountains in the background.
The lake is really choppy with the biting wind whipping up white caps on the waves. Even the bigger boats are struggling and one determined kite surfer is having a thrilling experience. Back in the township it is difficult to walk around the waterfront without getting drenched by the waves and spray coming up over the walkway.
I decide that a cup of hot chocolate watching the lake through a window is a better idea! Then I venture a bit further and discovered the Minus 5 Ice Bar (I’d heard about this but never been in before). They have space available right then, so I get my gloves and giant parka and head on in. It really is just a large refrigerated unit (that is actually running at -8.4C at the moment) but is full of ice carvings – including the bar, all the seating and even the glasses you drink from. Dean the barman is very friendly and quickly whips up my mocktail (the Snowstorm) – and reminds me to put my glass down on the rubber mats rather than the surface of the ice tables or it will stick! I stayed warm a lot longer than I expected but I didn’t stay very long as I was by myself and once I’d drunk my drink and looked at all the sculptures there wasn’t a lot of point staying.
After exploring the township a bit more, I head back up the hill to the hotel. My room has a view of the lake (punctuated by the tips of A-frame buildings in front of me) and the sun is streaming in – perfect for a cuppa and reading my book. As the wind is still bitterly cold I decide to just have a glass of wine and a snack at the hotel Lobby Bar that evening and then retreat back to my room to indulge in a hot bath. This is a particular treat as Auckland has been in drought and we have been under strict water restrictions for most of the year.
Join me over the next few days to find out more about my adventures:
Day 1 New Zealand Southern Loop
Day 2 Queenstown to Te Anau
Day 3 Milford Sound
Day 4 Te Anau to the Catlins
Day 6 Stewart Island
Day 7 Southern Coast
Day 8 Invercargill