31 December 2008

Hong Kong and New Zealand

December 2008


An independent family trip, organised with the assistance of Austravel, Air New Zealand, and son Kevin.


Day 1


An 11 hour flight from Heathrow on Air New Zealand brought us to the splendid Chek Lap Kop airport, 15 miles west of Hong Kong city. Shunning the Rolls Royce service, at a mere HK$1080 for a one way journey, we took the Airport Express train, a quiet and fast service taking just 18 minutes to Kowloon.
Quickly installed in the famous Peninsula Hotel, in a room overlooking Hong Kong Island, we were able to relax for a while before heading out to see the ‘Symphony of Lights’, officially the largest permanent sound and light show on the planet. At 8 p.m. every day, 33 buildings around Victoria Harbour glow with a wide range of architectural lights, supplemented by lasers from the tallest of buildings.

'Symphony of Light' over Hong Kong Island, from Kowloon
It was entertaining, but hunger quickly got the better of us, and, on a colleague’s recommendation we headed for Aqua Tokyo, a stylish restaurant and cocktail bar on the 29th floor of One Peking Place, a few minutes from our hotel. We had a bit of luck and landed a great table overlooking Victoria Harbour and a good Japanese meal, requiring a small mortgage to pay for it, was consumed in earnest.


Day 2


An expensive buffet breakfast in the Peninsula (now I know how they pay for this grand building!) and then a short walk to the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui to Pier 7 just north of the Central district of Hong Kong Island. A short crossing, with haze affecting the views across Victoria Harbour.
A quick bus ride took us to the Peak Tram Terminus and we took this amazing tram up to Peak Tower, just short of Victoria Peak itself, for expansive views over central Hong Kong, Kowloon to the north, and towards the south coast of the island, near Aberdeen. The venue was busy, crammed as usual with opportunities to buy food or local tat. The haze diminished whilst we were up there, but with the sun came the humidity, especially noticeable when we took the steep descent in the tram back to the city.
We walked through the main business district, the dizzying towers of the HSBC Building and the Bank of China soaring above us, but interspersed with some fine old buildings like St. John’s Cathedral and the Legislative Council Building.

The Peninsula, Kowloon 
Hong Kong
Central Hong Kong

Back across the harbour on the ferry, then off to Sha Tin in the New Territories to visit the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple, known locally as Man Fat Sze Temple. The East rail line was fast, efficient and inexpensive. Of course, things don’t always go to plan, and after climbing several hundred steps found myself, erroneously, in the Po Fook Ancestral Worship Halls…this turned out to be a temple complex, with dozens of shrines, each containing memorial plaques and the ashes of different families, all shrouded in clouds of incense. Interesting, but where were the Buddhas? Ah ha…spotted at a higher level on a different part of the hill!

Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Sha Tin, Hong Kong New Territories
So, a steep descent down the steps followed by a repeat performance up the 431 steps to the temple complex. There are, apparently, 13,000 Buddhas here, and they line the steps in many different manifestations. Founded by Yuet Kai and created between 1949 and 1957, his embalmed, gilded remains are worshipped by local people in the main temple, one of five in the complex. Good views over the modern city of Sha Tin and frequent entertainment as families of macaque monkeys passed through the adjacent bamboo forest.
Dinner back at the Peninsula, another ruinously expensive meal…Hong Kong is certainly not cheap!


Days 3/4


A lazy day really, as the jet lag caught up with both of us. Popped out for breakfast and explored the shops around Nathan Road in Kowloon, but departed for the airport to get some dim sum there before our flight to Auckland.
Another long flight, just over 10 hours overnight, which arrived a little earlier than schedule despite some bumpy weather over Northern Australia which disturbed sleep somewhat. Not much to see as mostly in darkness all the way, with sunrise as we passed over the Norfolk Islands. Arrival in Auckland was uneventful, with a good layer of cloud creating an almost UK environment!
Our connection to Christchurch was OK, although the weather forecast, heavy rain and temperatures of 14 degrees was ominous. This proved to be somewhat pessimistic and we drove into this pleasant city in brightening skies and warm breeze.
Enjoyed a quick canter around the city centre after settling into our hotel, The George on Park Terrace, just to the west of the centre. The city is very compact, but beautifully kept and quite charming. Dinner at Dux de Lux, a brew pub and restaurant was enlightening: quite old fashioned in style (as were most of the customers), but decent value food, either fish or vegetarian. The beers, Hereford Ale and the standard lager, were typical micro brewery product, competent but with the lack of finesse in the malt/hop balance that you find in more mainstream brews.


Day 5


Suitably fortified by a good breakfast at The George, we headed south of the city for Mt. Cavendish, a local viewpoint at about 500m, and enjoyed a very pleasant drive along the Summit Road, with extensive views north over Christchurch and the hills beyond. To the south there were great vistas to Lyttelton Harbour in bright but breezy weather.
Venturing further south, we enjoyed empty roads that took us ‘up hill and down dale’ into the Banks Peninsula, an area created by volcanic activity and quite like the English Lake District in places, albeit with more volcanic features (volcanic plugs and slopes of loess deposited from the Canterbury Plains) and superb lake and sea views. We took lunch overlooking Akaroa Harbour, and then enjoyed a short walk in Akaroa itself, a small town of colourful clapperboard houses and street names in French, reflecting the fact that the town was originally established by French colonists in 1838. About 200 kms travelled today.

Banks Peninsular, the south towards Lyttelton


Today, we had experienced our first real taste of New Zealand: deserted roads, fabulous scenery in all directions, with the distinctive bird song, which is so obviously Antipodean, breaking the profound silence of this wonderful island. Sorry, got a bit poetic there, but the first day really produced a great sense of anticipation for what the rest of our journey will bring.
Dinner at The George was another experience. Although one cannot fault the quality, this was one of the most pretentious restaurants we have ever eaten in. From the foam that was presented on arrival in the futuristic entrance foyer to their Pescatore Restaurant, to the minimalist interior with no place settings on the white tables, to the over-the-top presentation of tiny morsels of food, including the delivery of the bread in a branded brown paper bag…it goes on…But, the food was enjoyable, albeit somewhat out of place in this most traditional of cities.


Day 6


A dull start following overnight rain, and a two hour drive into the rolling hills and forests of North Canterbury, en route to Hanmer Springs, a thermal spa resort set amongst the mountains at the northernmost point of the Southern Alps. Not much to see on the way due to low cloud, but an hour or so luxuriating in the hot spring water soothed away the ills. And, the clouds did roll back a little on our return journey to reveal Mt Tekoa, rising above the Waiau river valley. Much of the land here is given over to grazing, although the brown grass revealed the present water crisis afflicting this part of New Zealand just now.

Great driving on empty roads
A good lunch followed, with some fine pinot noir, at the Pegasus Bay Winery, just south of Waipara, before returning to Christchurch for some light retail therapy.


Day 7


The day dawned bright and sunny, and once again energised by gym followed by hearty breakfast, we set off to the north west of Christchurch heading for Arthur’s Pass in the northern part of the Southern Alps. We were quickly into the mountains, with long empty stretches of road and expansive views in all directions. We eventually reached the dramatic Waimakariri Valley, a wide boulder strewn expanse, embroidered in many places with vast stands of purple/blue and pink lupin, and bordered by mountains rising above 2000m, many with glaciers pouring from their summits. A great spot.


Arthur's Pass region

Kea...they'll eat anything!
We paid a quick visit to the Arthur’s Pass Visitor’s Centre, before heading to our destination for the night, backtracking 16km east to the Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge, a superb eco-lodge, set in a 6000 acre nature reserve and sheep station.

Waimakariri Valley below Arthur's Pass
We were to be the only guests this night (24 luxury rooms available), and there was a splendid lounge area with big picture windows to enjoy views across the valley to Dome 1940m.
I took a walk up through the beech forest on the Mount Bruce Lagoon Saddle Track, rising from 680m at the lodge to around 1250m before the saddle, finally attaining clear views through red tussock grass along the valley to Mount Murchison 2408m and Mount Rolleston 2275m.
Dinner at the lodge was excellent, with the best table in the house (!), a good bottle of Grenache and Buddha Bar music as well. Bliss.


Day 8


What a difference a day makes! Overnight the clouds came down and deposited snow on the immediate mountain ranges as low as 1600m, so we awoke to a cold damp morning, with low cloud obscuring many of the views we had enjoyed the day before.
It was to be an early start, however, as we had agreed to do a nature walk at 0730 (yes, 0730!) with the lodge owner and botanist Dr Gerry McSweeney. We ventured on to the 3km Rainbow Valley Nature Walk, with particular focus on the rare red and yellow mistletoe flowering within the dense mountain beech forest hereabouts. A surprisingly pleasant start to the day, with Gerry’s boundless enthusiasm for all things botanical quite infectious.


Red Mistletoe, Arthur's Pass
The drive out from Arthur’s Pass in heavy rain was uneventful, with roads almost totally deserted. We reached our next destination, Terrace Downs Golf Resort, near Methven, by lunchtime, and managed to get nine holes in before the heavens opened again.


Terrace Downs Golf Resort
This is a ‘high country’ resort, set in the rolling grasslands just below Mt Hutt, a big skiing area for the Christchurch crowd. Nice villa accommodation, impressively set clubhouse and, thankfully, unpretentious food with friendly service. Just a shame about the weather!


Day 9


Bad weather in the Mt. Hutt region
Golf plans abandoned due to rain, but a family day with son Kevin and girlfriend Virginia, who had driven up from Queenstown to join us for the night.


Day 10


The clouds were still down over nearby Mt Hutt when we left Terrace Downs, but we had been encouraged by the prospect of clearer weather to the south west, our direction of travel for the day. Our destination was Lake Tekapo, a 150km drive through the high pastures of Canterbury, intersected by the huge braided river valleys which tumble south eastwards from the Southern Alps to the west. After Geraldine, the skies started to improve, with patches of blue sky peeping through, and with it the road passed through very attractive hill country before revealing the immensity of the Southern Alps from the viewpoint above Burkes Pass.
Our objective for the day was to take a 70 minute helicopter trip from the shores of the stunningly beautiful Lake Pukaki, across to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers which run westwards from the Mt Cook massif.
A 20 minute drive to the salmon farm beyond touristy Lake Tekapo brought us to the helipad and we were soon whisked into the air, doing 110 knots over some of the most attractive alpine scenery I have seen so far. We tracked north across Lake Pukaki, which had a stunning blue colour because of the high level of glacial sediment in the water that reflects the colour in the sky.
We traversed the slopes of the Gamack Range with Mt Blackburn 2416m to our right and the mighty bulk of Mt Cook 3750m ahead. We landed on the snow on the Liebig Dome, directly opposite Mt Cook, for some fine views, before taking off again to over-fly the Tasman Glacier and the Copeland Pass to reach the western side of the range to look at the giant Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These tumble down through the temperate rainforests of the west coast bounding the Tasman Sea. Superb views of Mt Tasman 3498m, Mt Sefton 3157m and the west face of Mt Cook were enjoyed, with a small avalanche on the latter also seen as we passed by. Back towards Lake Pukaki, we saw Aoraki Mount Cook Village to our right, and were able to view the impressive geology of this area, with glaciers, moraine, alluvial fans and fold mountains in abundance. Superb.


Preparing for take off
On Liebig Dome
Mount Cook and the Tasman Glacier
Hooker Valley, with the Hermitage to the left
East Face of Aoraki, Mount Cook, 3754m
Mount Sefton, 3157m
View down the Franz Josef Glacier
Tasman Glacier
Hochstetter Glacier, Mount Cook
We walked around Lake Tekapo to enjoy the lakeside views in this relatively busy village, again with the fabulous blue colouration of the water, bounded by swathes of lupin on the shoreline and snow capped mountains in the middle distance.


Lake Tekapo
Overnight at the Lake Tekapo Luxury Lodge, with nice rooms providing slightly elevated views over the lake and the quaint Church of the Good Shepherd, situated on a small promontory just east of the town. A good spot for a one night stay.


Day 11


Clear blue skies greeted us this morning, a big relief after the changeable weather we had seen over the last week. A quick visit to the famous Church of the Good Shepherd overlooking Lake Tekapo, then a drive to Lake Pukaki with great views to Mt Cook, some 60km to the north, unfolding as we drove to Aoraki Mount Cook Village. We were guests of The Hermitage, one of New Zealand’s most famous of hotels, established in 1884 as a haven for adventurous travellers. Now a contemporary hotel, but styled to blend into the terrain, we had an 8th floor room with views to Mt Cook and Mt Sefton from our large picture windows. The hotel houses the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, a small but effective museum covering Ed Hillary’s life and his achievements on Everest and in the Antarctic. It also has a 3D cinema and I would heartily recommend you go see the 16 minute ‘Mount Cook Magic’ film, which is nothing short of brilliant.


Alpine Monument at The Hermitage
View to Mount Sefton and Mount Cook from the Hermitage
Aoraki (Mt Cook) from the Kea Point overlook on the Mueller Glacier
Last light on Mount Cook, seen from the Hermitage
I took a walk for a couple of hours to Kea Point, a viewpoint on the southern lateral moraine of the Mueller Glacier, with great views up to Mt Sefton 3141m and its many hanging glaciers, and the south west face of Mt Cook above the Hooker Glacier.
A very photogenic day!
We enjoyed a very convivial dinner with the GM of the hotel, Denis Callesen, a keen shooter and mountaineer. Overall, an excellent day at The Hermitage. Recommended.


Day 12


An early start to explore the Hooker Valley before breakfast. A popular 4 hour return trek from The Hermitage can be shortened to 2.5 hours by driving up to the camp ground, and can be shortened even further if you jog up and down it! Time didn’t permit the full distance, but I got beyond the second swing bridge and up the valley by a few more hundred metres to get closer views of Mt Cook in its early morning splendour.


Early morning light on Mount Cook, view from the Hooker Valley
Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary at Mount Cook Village
After breakfast we headed south and then south west towards Wanaka, a fairly sustained drive across high upland pastures and gently rolling mountains, with the snow covered Cook range fading fast into the distance. Crossing the Lindis Pass took us from quite desolate landscapes to the lusher farming landscapes of the Clutha Valley, with the snow covered mountains of the Mount Aspiring National Park appearing in view to the west.
We checked into our next hotel, the Edgewater Resort on the west side of town in Roys Bay, with splendid views across the nicely manicured lawns to Lake Wanaka. Lunch was quickly despatched before a mountain bike ride around the bays of Wanaka, Roys and Bremner Bays before reaching the relative solitude of Beacon Point and a narrower track which followed the Clutha River away from the lake up to a suburb called Albert Town. The ride was momentarily enlivened when a naked woman emerged out of the bushes heading to the river for a swim. Great views today!



Wanaka
Edgewater Resort, Wanaka
Back to the hotel for a few beers in hot sunshine, enjoying the locally produced Brewski from the Wanaka Brewhouse, an excellent hoppy pilsner at 4.8% abv…the best beer tasted so far in NZ.
Dinner in a good value Thai restaurant in town. Bed!


Day 12
A scenic drive over the Crown Range brought us to the Queenstown area. It was a beautiful road to drive, especially with the abundance of roadside yellow lupins on the way south out of Wanaka. We had time to drive through the quaint suburb of Arrowtown and sneak a look at the Millbrook Golf Club we were to play later in the trip. Our next adventure was a long helicopter trip with Helicopter Line from Queenstown over to the famous Milford Sound. An altogether more professional experience than the helicopter from Tekapo, with much more comfortable seats and headphone system.
The flight was truly spectacular, into high mountains within minutes of leaving the airport, affording views to Mt Aspiring 3027m to the north and buzzing close to lofty ridges. Ultimately we landed on the glacier below Mt Tutoko (2749m) to the north west of Milford Sound, with views across to the Tasman Sea. A fun take off diving steeply over a vast rock wall below us, and we were soon into the distinctive landscapes of Fiordland, with sightings to Lake McKerrow and Lake Alabaster to the north.


Lake Wakatipu
Gravel braided valleys, Dart River
Glacier lake, Mount Aspiring National Park
On the Tutoko Glacier, north east of Milford Sound


The approach to Milford Sound was fabulous, the fiord dominated by Mitre Peak and huge waterfalls tumbling over the steep valley walls. We had a chance to spend a short time around the shoreline, giving enough time for the infamous sandflies to bite Gillian, who must be tastier than me ;-)


Milford Sound


On our return to Queenstown, we flew over the Humboldt Mountains, with another quick landing to view a glacial lake, and passing over the well tramped Routeburn Track before flying up the length of Lake Wakatipu and over the town itself. A very good couple of hours: recommended.


Moke Lake, on approach to Queenstown
Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu
Christmas Eve was then upon us, so family gatherings in a good fish restaurant (Fishbone – recommended) in Queenstown completed a fine day.


Christmas Day


A day off! BBQ on the lake edge in Queenstown, with son Kevin in charge of all festivities. Too much to drink, but the Van Asch pinot gris and the Gibbston Valley pinot noir were a triumph.


The BBQ King
Day 14


An early start, not particularly easy with a full scale hangover, to go on a jet boat trip up the Dart River from scenic Glenorchy. This is a big scale tourist operation, but well managed and good fun. We travelled up the Dart River at around 40-45 knots, weaving through the braided channels of this crystal clear river, for over an hour. A few close shaves with boulders and a few 360 degree turns for good measure, but this was a tame trip compared to the canyon runs like the Shotover River jet boat adventures. The boats are impressive, with a draft of just 13cms, and 400 hp engines pushing 3500 litres of water per minute to propel us across the shallow waters of the Dart River.


Jet boat on the Dart River
We were deposited up river near Chinaman’s Bluff, and we walked back to our 4WD transport for our return journey through the beauty spot of Paradise and then back to the village at Glenorchy. Great views to the river, Diamond Lake and Lake Wakatipu.
A lazy afternoon in Queenstown followed.


Day 15


A day’s sightseeing around Queenstown, led by well known local resident and son Kevin, took us up the nearby Deer Park Heights for impressive 360 degree views of the area (and some animals too). Great views of Lake Wakatipu, Kelvin Heights and the airport around Frankton.


A J Hackett Bungee near Queenstown
Kevin on Deer Heights above Queenstown
We then went for the obligatory wine tasting session at Waitiri Creek followed by lunch - a local cheese platter with some good pinot noir at the Gibbston Valley winery.
A very good dinner was enjoyed at the local casino!


Day 16


Another morning on the road, this time heading for Te Anau, some 170km to the southwest. The journey southwards along the east bank of Lake Wakatipu gave pleasant views of the lake and mountains to the west, before the landscape opened out to big station sheep farming country, and then gently rising ground with river valleys lined by huge stands of vibrant yellow gorse giving way to conservation areas dominated by red tussock grass. Mountainous country to the west started to dominate the eye…we were about to enter Fiordland, peaks rising to well over 2000m, with the rainforest covered slopes intersected by deep glacial valleys dropping down to the Tasman Sea to the west. And, of course, the ubiquitous sandfly!


The lounge at the Fiordland Lodge

Fiordland Lodge, Te Anau

Lake Te Anau
Te Anau lies on the lake and is very geared to tourist traffic heading up to Milford Sound. Our abode for the next two nights was Fiordland Lodge, 5km north of the town, situated in a slightly elevated spot above the lake, giving huge views to the Murchison and Kepler Ranges. This is a beautiful hotel, constructed with pinewood and our room was a small cabin set privately away from the main hotel itself. Nicely designed and very cosy.
If you do visit Te Anau, it is worth visiting the small cinema in town to see the film Ata Whenua (Shadowland) shot by local helicopter operator Kim Hollows. It features unique footage of Fiordland shot from his helicopter over ten years, and is only shown in this cinema, especially constructed to screen it to visitors.
We enjoyed a convivial dinner with some fellow Brits, with great views to the lake.


Day 17


A long day today as conventional tourists on the Doubtful Sound cruise with a big local tour operator called Real Journeys. A fifty minute boat trip from nearby Manapouri took us to West Arm, site of a huge hydro-electric power station, and a transfer on to a coach to take over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. This was a pleasant one hour journey, through temperate rain forest (silver beech, large podocarp trees, gigantic ferns and moss ‘gardens’) with views down on to the Dusky Track, one of NZ’s more famous multi-day walking routes. 


Lake Manapouri
At Deep Cove we transferred on to a large powered catamaran for a three hour cruise along Doubtful Sound as far as its opening to the Tasman Sea. Norwegian fiord style cruising, but with temperate rain forest and unique bird life adorning the fiord sides, with many examples of ‘tree avalanches’ (normally triggered by high rainfall or snow) along the way.
Doubtful Sound is the second largest of NZ’s fiords and reaches 411m at maximum depth: it was a smooth passage until we reached the sea, where we pitched into a medium swell to view fur seals on the aptly named Shelter Islands. On our return we were fortunate enough to spot some bottlenose dolphins in Crooked Arm, as inquisitive about us as we were about them!


Doubtful Sound
Temperate Rainforest bordering Doubtful Sound
Our return journey over Wilmot’s Pass took us 200m down into the power station itself, an impressive piece of tunnelling and engineering in the local granite/gneiss rock.
A long day, over 9 hours in all, but some impressive sights all round.


Day 18


A 180km drive back up to the Queenstown area, this time for a golfing stay at the famous Millbrook course. 18 holes played in the afternoon…a draw!
Dinner in nearby Arrowtown with Kevin and Virginia. A great little restaurant called Saffron: recommended.


Mackenzie Thorpe sculptures at Millbrook
Day 19


New Year’s Eve…but our second round of golf at Millbrook was abandoned due to rain (as was the one day cricket international in Queenstown).
Dinner at a good local Japanese restaurant called Kapa with Kevin and Virginia before returning through the very lively town centre to our hotel, the well positioned Hotel St Moritz, to view the fireworks from our balcony. An excellent display, as befits one of the first nations in the world to greet the New Year.


Day 20
Golf at Kelvin Heights, about 20km from the town centre, and situated on a peninsula overlooking Lake Wakatipu. An excellent, testing hilly course with some of the best views you can imagine all the way round. I blame the distraction for my defeat in the hands of my wife and son on the day! One of the best courses I have had the privilege to play in my life: highly recommended.


Day 21/22
The long journey home, this time via Los Angeles!


Summary


A wonderful trip, enriched by meeting up with our son Kevin for the first time in 12 months and his girlfriend Virginia for the first time.
My advice on New Zealand is ‘sod the distance, get down there’. This is a fabulous, uncrowded and beautiful part of the world. Don’t try to do too much on your first visit. It took us almost three weeks to cover only a part of the South Island.
Highlights: our accommodations at Arthur’s Pass Wilderness Lodge, The Hermitage, and Fiordland Lodge. Activity highlights: the Helicopter Line flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound, walking near Mount Cook, playing golf at Kelvin Heights. Sights: Mount Cook range and Milford Sound from the helicopters, Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, the purple and yellow lupins that adorn the roadsides almost everywhere.
To hurry NZ is to miss the point: taking time to talk to the friendly, unpretentious locals, listening to the sound of silence, witnessing four seasons in a day, and enjoying dramatically different landscapes over quite short distances is what it’s all about. And, of course, sampling a little of their excellent wine :-)