new zealand

milford sound

The narrow, winding road from Queenstown, to Te Anau, to Milford Sound (MS) is a stunner. If you’re car-less like yours truly, the bus is a great way to experience it. Your bus driver is a built-in tour guide, and you’ll get the chance to hop off and take some pictures at a few points along the way. #tourist

I chose to stay at the Milford Sound Lodge for the weekend – the only accommodation in the remote area – where you can bring a campervan, stay in the bunks or book private rooms. Being the backpacker on a budget that I am, I chose the bunks. The lodge has a total summer camp kind of vibe – wooden, creaky bunk beds and shower stalls in the bathrooms – I highly recommend a pair of flip-flops.

I arrived at about 2pm on Friday and it was raining – which I would soon learn is pretty classic for MS – so I spent the afternoon reading in the lounge and planning yoga classes. There is no cell service in the area and the Wi-Fi does not come cheap – I paid $50 for 250 MB. Mhmmm. #citygirlproblems

After a couple hours, I called it an early night to rest up for the next day’s activities – or at least I tried to. Let me tell you, when you’re in a room with 11 other people, the odds of you having a snorer are much higher than the odds of not having one – that's the most important thing hostel living has taught me. Naturally, the guy in the bunk directly above me was sawing logs like he was on a mission to tear down every tree from New Zealand to Canada, my lord. I think it took me 4 hours to fall asleep. Noted: invest in a pair of earplugs. Stat. Side note: there were 2 outlets (4 plugins) for a room of 12 people. You do the math. Luckily, the odds were ever in my favor and I got there first and was able to lay claim on one of the plugins. Chyeah.

When Saturday morning rolled around, it was still raining. I woke up early to go and cancel my kayak adventure, but the guy at the reception desk somehow convinced me to go. It rained the entire 3 hours. Can you picture ME paddling around in the rain for hours? I’m sure it was a sight to see. The rain had two gears that day: raining heavily and pouring. Admittedly I was pretty miserable, but I had a special friend’s voice on repeat in my head, “You’ve just got to look on the positive side of things.” So look on the positive side I did – I was in freaking Milford Sound, in New Zealand, kayaking. I’m a pretty lucky lady. In the end, I was really glad I did it - what an experience.

(The next three photos were taken with my phone/it was raining so they're not the best quality.)

After getting back to the lodge, I spent another couple of hours in the common room reading, writing and chatting with other travelers. I met a few Canadians, some Germans, and even another girl from Minnesota. After dinner, the sun finally decided to come out to play – the perfect way to wrap up a rainy weekend. Thank you sweet baby Jesus! So I grabbed my camera, slipped on my sneakers and went for a walk around town before the sun set.

If you’re in New Zealand, make sure that Milford Sound is on your list. It’s pretty extraordinary. And make sure you take a couple days to stay at the lodge and hopefully catch one day of sun – it’s beautiful in the rain with all of the shadows, waterfalls and whatnot, but there’s nothing like the fiords in the sun with the backdrop of bright, blue skies. This way you can explore MS on your own terms, not just on the deck of a cruise ship like most people tend to do.

Based on my personal experience, here are some tips for traveling Milford Sound:

  • Like I said, no cellphone service. So grab your Sudoku, a deck of cards, and a big fat book.
  • Book a night or two at the Milford Lodge – the only accommodation in the area – and book early because it fills up quite quickly, at least in the warmer months
    1. If you’re on a budget, buy groceries in Te Anau or elsewhere before heading down. There are no grocery or convenient stores. There is however a café that is open all day that serves snacks, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffee and bevies.
    2.  Wi-Fi costs $50 NZD per 250 MB – you can buy a smaller amount if you so choose. Sorry, but Netflix won’t be tucking you in during your stay.
    3. Don’t forget your flip-flops (for the shower) and earplugs (if you're bunking it).
    4. If you choose kayaking and it’s pouring rain (which it tends to do about 200 days out of the year), suck it up and paddle. You’ll be happy you did it – if not during, you will be after once you’ve had a hot shower and dried off. Pinky promise.
  • Weather permitting, get the F outside! Cruises and tours aren’t the only way to experience Milford Sound. You don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it. There are trails within walking distance of the lodge and plenty more within a short drive. Nature is calling, so answer.
  • Be prepared for any kind of weather – bring layers, and stay open-minded. Enjoy the chance to unplug and experience such a wondrous place. You could have bright blue skies, but you might also get dumped on from dawn until dusk. Either way, it’s well worth the trip.

whitianga + the coromandel

After a wonderful weekend spent Wanderlust-ing in Taupo, we headed north for Whitianga and to explore the treasures of The Coromandel Peninsula. Here's what we managed to squeeze in during our short time there.

Whitianga is a beautiful, quiet (at least while we were there) little town on the eastern coast of the peninsula. It's very walk-able once you've gotten there. The wharf offers a peek at the ___ ocean and it's fun to fantasize about the beautiful, big yachts parked in the bay. There's a 2-screen cinema where you can catch a flick at night or a rainy day (we saw Spotlight, it was phenomenal) and there's a video store as well - yes, you heard me. No RedBox, sorry friends. There are tons of touristy-type activities to do in the area if that floats your boat, otherwise there are plenty of hot spots that you can drive to within 30 minutes to an hour, depending on what you're up for.

Good to know: Wi-Fi is hard to come by in town, especially for free. The local library is the place to be if you're looking to connect; you can sign in and sit inside for two hours or you can lay on the lawn and skim some there - they even suggested it!

Food recommendations:

Breakfast: Cafe Nina. A charming little spot that's easy to miss if you're not looking forward to it.

Lunch: Blue Ginger, a great little Thai fusion restaurant. BYOB if you so prefer, they're not licensed to sell.

Dinner: Salt. They've got a great selection of meats and fresh fish. Warning: the mussels are HUGE! Unlike anything I've ever seen, anyways. I'll be honest, they were so big I got freaked out and couldn't eat them.

cathedral cove

Albeit a bit of tourist trap (we did go on Waitangi day during the holiday weekend, silly us) the views of Cathedral Cove are truly breathtaking and not to be missed. If you can and if you have a car, avoid the park-and-ride and take BLANK to the car park at the end of the road. I'd also recommend wearing a pair of sneakers and bringing sandals along - there's about a 45 minute trek to get to the beach - not terribly hard, but you're sure to break a bit of a sweat. The walk is well worth it, as the beach offers stunning views of the ocean and the cove is quite a site to see, just exquisite.

the 309 road

The 309 is a "gravel road" (gravel in parenthesis because there are some parts gravel, some parts dirt, some parts paved) that connects Whitianga and the Coromandel town. It's about 22 kilometers, and there are tons of great spots to stop at along the way. It's a narrow, windy little devil of a road so hug those corners baby and hold on tight. We stopped at three of the destinations along the road, although there are a few more things to enjoy.

The Honey Shop

This adorable little stand is self serve - truly only in New Zealand. I'm not much of a honey guru, but I know I love me some Manuka honey. A great present to bring back home to loved ones - make sure to put it in your checked bag rather than your carry-on, or it will get confiscated. Unfortunately, my mom knows this first hand.

Kauri Grove

I've never seen the Redwood trees of California, but I would imagine their magnificence is matched by that of the New Zealand native Kauri trees. Take a walk through the shaded grove (it could take you anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple hours, depending on how long you'd like to linger) and bask in the beauty of the giant trees and all that grows around them.

Waiau Falls

Though she be little, she be mighty. The falls were a tad smaller (and by that I mean a lot) than expected, but still a sight to see. The water was much too cold for my liking, but there was one brave soul wading into the icy pool for a photo opp. Oh, the things we do for a good picture (myself included, but freezing cold water tends to be where I draw the line).

hot water beach

Grab some spades (or as Americans would say, shovel) and get ready to dig. About a 30-40 minute drive from Whitianga, the Hot Water Beach is a must - and that's coming from a girl who generally does anything to avoid beaches. It's quite fascinating to be able to feel the temperature of the sand and water beneath your feet as you make your way toward the hottest spot, where the water is scorching hot. Either dig your own hole to relax in, or enjoy the fruits of someone else's labor and commandeer an abandoned hole. I preferred the latter, but I felt I needed to break a little sweat to enjoy the full experience.

Good to know: check for low tide and plan your trip within a couple hours of that time.