• Max

Traveling the South Island, COVID-19, & Self-Isolation

We've spent the past few weeks traveling the South Island, but we're ready to settle in for some self-isolation amidst this virus mayhem.

Safari(?) Natalie on the prowl in the rainforest on a Fiordland National Park hike

We’ve spent the last few weeks traveling around the South Island and have been fortunate to see stunning natural beauty in the form of mountains rising directly out of beautiful blue lakes and mountain-ey hills covered in rainforests, largely untouched by human impact.

After our time in Queenstown, we headed to Te Anau to see if we’d be able to enjoy Milford Sound in all of its glory. Sadly, due the recent flooding we were only able to witness a portion of the spectacular views but we were thrilled to explore around it nonetheless. We took a trip briefly into Fiordland National Park and hiked among the moss-covered rainforest floor (see the pic above!) and fauna of that region.

From Bob's Peak in Queenstown after a gondola ride up

After a quick pitstop back in Queenstown with just enough time to ride the main gondola attraction and the iconic luge (in a gravity-powered go kart) down the side of a mountain, we had our sights set on Wanaka. We had heard from locals that there were some similarities between Wanaka and Queenstown but that it is less hectic and with fewer tourists. We were delighted to discover that they were right! Wanaka was picturesque, charming and just the right amount of busy. We spent our days taking it easy by the lake, hiking, and eating an embarrassing amount of burritos from a fabulous food truck called Burrito Craft.

Soaking in the rays and waves in Queenstown

Then we embarked on our journey of traveling up the South Island, making our way from Wanaka to Fairlie, Christchurch, Kaikoura, Picton, Wellington, Napier and finally back up to Auckland.

Since we had covered a good chunk of this route previously, we were able to travel a bit quicker than we had previously, but here are some of the highlights:

Fairlie is renowned for its delicious meat and veggie pies at the local buzzing bakery. Even before the coronavirus, Fairlie’s main grocery store closed at 7pm on weekdays, so I can’t imagine when they close it now. A quiet rural town, our Airbnb host in Fairlie was excessively kind and generous, stocking the mini fridge of her lovely ornate Victorian home with some snacks. With the weather being a bit dreary, we spent a bit of the next day enjoying the hot springs near beautiful Lake Tekapo rather than lacing up our hiking boots at Mt. Cook again as we had on our way south.

We stopped in Christchurch again on our way back north for one night, and we actually stayed with one of the hosts that we had previously stayed with. It was really neat to be greeted by an old friend and catching up with her on what she had been up to the past couple weeks. Of course, stopping in Christchurch meant another trip to our favorite eatery, and Little High did not disappoint.

We’re “slow” travelers, and as such, we rarely splurge on expensive day trips or experiences. Thus, we weren’t able to get as much from the lovely Kaikoura region as some other travelers are since the area offers excellent whale-watching expeditions and dolphin swimming encounters. We took a break from driving to walk along the beach and enjoy some of the scenery generated by ages of the coastal waves chiseling away at the rock formations.

Along our hike in Picton

Picton -- the main point of departure for the South Island for ferry service to Wellington on the North Island – ended up being a lovely bit of a surprise. For some untenable reason, we had believed that being a main port and thoroughfare, the city would not offer anything of immense interest, but we were happily mistaken. Picton possesses beautiful, tree-covered mountains and small islands that extend along the peninsula as you journey through the Marlborough Sound. We enjoyed an awe-striking hike through some of the terrain and our jaws hit the floor.

Bay overlooking the Marlborough Sounds

We departed from Picton on the Interislander ferry service. It was a three hour trip (nefarious types might call it “a three hour tour”, just to set your ears on fire), traveling through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. It felt a little bit like we’d traveled back in time to a peaceful, undisturbed era, where only a few homes were scattered along the otherwise-deserted island beaches.

Picton is connected by ferry service to Wellington -- the nation's capital -- on the bottom tip of the North Island. We enjoyed the vibrance of Wellington's downtown and port area which was a welcome change of scenery after driving through the mostly small and scattered towns of the South Island. There was a boat racing competition going on along the waterfront with long, skinny boats filled with about 20 people each. One of the teams was comprised by some of the local university's professors, and it was fun to see people out and about and having a good time. Wellington is about the population of Madison but its downtown feels like Chicago's, bursting with retail, skyscrapers and trendy, artsy eateries.

The last stop before heading to the Auckland area was in Napier. After suffering a major earthquake in 1931, Napier was rebuilt in an art deco style which has been very well preserved over time. We spent four nights in the Napier area since driving and moving somewhere new each day was taking a toll on us. One day, we explored the mostly vacant though beautiful art deco retail area and parks along the beach. The next day, a cruise ship was docked and the place was overrun with tourists. We were a bit bummed that we had missed the city's big Art Deco Festival, with photos depicting people dressed up like they're on the set of a Gatsby movie.

We traversed back to Auckland in a bit of a hectic way as Natalie had an opportunity to work on a film project as a stand-in that she won't be able to share any more details about for a while. While she was busy with some full days of that, I enjoyed getting to know our Airbnb hosts that had fairly recently returned from a 400-day trip around the world. They said that with their kids now out of the house and with their parents still in good health, they saw it as a perfect opportunity to get away, and they pet-sat their way through Europe, the States and Canada. They were generous to a flaw and even made us a delicious big breakfast on Sunday morning (a weekly tradition for them) that we all enjoyed on their pool deck.

After Nat's project was put on hold with COVID-19, we made our way a little north of Auckland to the beach town of Whangaparaoa, where we had booked a month stay in a treehouse on the beach, a lifelong dream for both of us (living on the ocean, that is -- not necessarily the treehouse). Almost instantly upon arrival, COVID starting getting very serious in New Zealand and restrictions were being put in place rapidly.

As of today, we've been here for one week. New Zealand is at its highest alert level and is fully in lockdown for at least the next four weeks. Even takeaway restaurants are closed up, and individuals aren't supposed to leave their homes except to walk around their local area or to go to the supermarket or pharmacy. Fortunately, we have a balcony overlooking the beautiful bay and plenty of walking room on the beach at low tide.

Here's the view from our balcony at low tide

We had seriously contemplated trying to fly home to be near family during this uncertain time, but we ultimately decided that the risk of flying home and traveling outweighed any benefit that we could offer by being there. We've decided the best thing that we can do is to enjoy at least the next couple weeks at our beach house and then reevaluate the situation. We're perfectly safe here as we have no exposure to anyone and we can enjoy the occasional walk along the beach.

We're impressed by New Zealand's handling of the COVID situation so far. Their Prime Minister has a very calming way about her, and despite the fact that she's often delivering unwelcome news, we really feel like the government here is acting in the best interest of Kiwis and stranded tourists. They decided to lockdown the country early even though we're now at just over 200 cases.

We're thinking constantly of all of our family members and friends during this time, and we look forward to seeing you all again on the other side of this pandemic.

With love,

Max and Nat

We miss everyone back home. Let us know how you are doing!