Queenstown, New Zealand
Everyone that has been to New Zealand has raved about it. Everything. The backdrop. The people. The fun. Most of the Aussies I know said that I'd love New Zealand more than Australia itself. Even Senor had been telling me for more than a decade that it's one of the most beautiful places he has ever traveled. I had never been before and like the majority of you, the only experiences I had with New Zealand was watching it in the background during the Lord of the Ring trilogy. Peter Jackson picked his home country as the primary location to film the epic series and after spending a few days here, it all makes sense because everything that I have seen is amazingly beautiful and mysterious at the same time.
We woke up early in Auckland for our Air New Zealand flight to the south island. The airport is very small and the only thing open for breakfast was McDonald's. I was starving and punked out by wandering up to the counter. I'm not much of a fast food person and try to avoid it at all costs, with the exception of In & Out and Subway with the occasional trip to Wendy's for their spicy chicken sandwich. I also know that I spend a lot of time on the road and there are instances where you have limited choices... and are sometimes forced to eat fast food. I was confronted with one of those instances and had no qualms about it. The funny thing was that my previous meal was at Hungry Jack's (Aussie's version of Burger King) in Sydney airport. I can't recall the last time I ate back-to-back meals at fast food joints.
The last time I had breakfast at McDonald's was when I lived in Las Vegas with Grubby. We hit up the drive thru one night (er, early morning) after a long session of gambling. We feasted on the 2 for $2 special on some sort of biscuits. In the Auckland Airport, I could not find any biscuits and went for the good old fashioned Sausage McMuffin with Cheese. I ate it all in less than 90 seconds.
Nicky and I wandered through the airport bookstore. I didn't see any books to my liking. I picked up the Australian edition of Rolling Stone and bought a map of Queenstown. We played Chinese Poker while we waited for our flight. I heard positive things about Air New Zealand. The planes were new and clean with leather seats. Nicky and I were not seated together. She passed out in the row behind me and I read a bit. During the drink service, I ordered a water. I took three sips and spilled the rest of it all over me. It looked as if I peed my pants. The flight attendant handed me a wad of napkins and I spent the rest of the flight trying to dry off myself.
The last twenty minutes of the flight was spectacular. I gazed out the window and saw mountains and hills and more mountains and valleys. Amazing. But it still looked like I pissed myself.
We picked up our rental car and drove less than ten minutes to our hotel, which was about a five minute walk from the center of Queenstown. The ski town not very large and sits on majestic Lake Wakatipu surrounded by mountains. It reminded me a little bit of Colorado mixed in with parts of British Columbia just outside of Vancouver. Since we're in the middle of summer, there was no snow and mostly everyone was doing something outdoorsy.
We found the local Flight Centre and booked a sightseeing tour of Milford Sound. Graham told us we can take a plane and/or helicopter there and even though it was expensive... it was well worth it. There are all sorts of different tours lined up for Queenstown. The most popular one was the Lord of the Rings tours of the locations where the films were shot. The prices were exorbitant and the tours were kinda lame according to what I read about on the intertubes. Basically, Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world with white water rafting, hiking, mountain climbing, bungee jumping, etc... And the Lord of the Rings ours were set up to cash in on the popularity of the film and suck money of the pocket of the geeky fans who had no intentions of spending their money on other parts of the tourism economy.
"Rape the geeks!" I screamed every time we passed the Lord of the Rings tour shop.
I was a fan of Tolkien's books and enjoyed the films. But I don't know every detail of the film to really get off on a Lord of the Rings tour. There's only one film where I'd like to tour the shooting locations... and that's Dazed and Confused.
"Oh my god, this is where Mitchy Kramer bought a six-pack for Mel!"
FYI, he's the token black guy in the film with the afro and by far the most under-rated character in Dazed and Confused.
Anyway, we avoided the rape the geek tours and opted for the Milford Sound package. It included a scenic flight from Queenstown to Milford Sound, a two hour cruise on the sound in a boat, and then a helicopter ride with an alpine landing on a glacier before we returned to Queenstown. Planes. Boats. Helicopters. Sounded like fun. It was super pricey for both Nicky and myself, but you only live once, right? I don't know if I'll ever be back to New Zealand, so I decided to pull the trigger. I also told Nicky that this was an early Valentine's Day present for her. So now I'm covered and can totally forget about the day without any scorn.
We booked the tour for the next day. That meant we had a full day to kill so we explored Queenstown. There's something called Bob's Peak and the only way to get up their is a Sky Gondola. There's a fancy restaurant that overlooks all of downtown Queenstown. It's an amazing view. But the main reason we were there was for the luge! When we told Ozzie and Angelica (a couple of weeks ago in Melbourne) that we were headed to Queenstown, they insisted that we had to do the luge. It's sort of like go-carts meets the Alpine Slide (from Action Park in New Jersey). It's so far up on the mountain that you need to take an additional ski lift after the Sky Gondola took you up to the main complex.
The luge track
They made you wear a helmet and had two tracks... the scenic track and the faster advanced track. They make you ride the scenic track first to get used to it. Then we got to ride the fast track. I spun out once on the scenic track trying to take a turn too fast. They have random yellow signs that say, "Slow Down!" Of course when I see those, that's when I speed up.
After the rush of the luge, we headed back down to town on the Sky Gondola and I took some more pictures. At the base of the mountain, there's an outdoor miniature golf course for $10 a round. Nicky was interested in playing so off we went. We figured out how we could have fun and gamble on it at the same time. I gave her a 18 stroke handicap. It ended up being too much. I won by seven strokes, but after the first few holes I started coaching her on how to hold the club and how to putt. She picked up quick and managed to keep pace.
The course was basic and not in the best shape. Lots of odd curves and worn out greens. But we had fun. Nicky had two holes in one including on the 18th hole, which meant she got a free round. We had so much fun, we told the old lady behind the counter that we'd be back for sure.
We grabbed a beer at the Buffalo Club and I drank Tui, which is a local beer that tasted delicious. It was sort of like a Sam Adams meets Sierra Nevada. After a couple of drinks, we headed over to Fredburger. I read about it in my Lonely Planet guide and we decided to check it out. They had all these hot hippie girls working there... including one chick with pink hair and a black girl who could be a model. I went for a bleu cheese burger which tasted weird with the beet-root spread they put on their burgers here. After dinner, we drank at and Irish pub and played Chinese Poker. We crashed early because we had a big day ahead of us.
I ordered room service for breakfast, something I only do if my clients are picking up the tab. It was expensive, but we didn't have to trek into town and could wake up later. It was a ton of food and we still had a bowl of fruit left over. Our tour of Milford Sound was scheduled at 10am and we had to call in at 9:05 to get a weather update. They said it didn't look good, but we should come out to the airport anyway.
We were picked up by a van which had three elderly couples on it. They were all retired and obviously had some money because those tours were not cheap. I have lived my life very hard and never expected to see 30, let alone 35 or even 65. I always said that I wanted to see the world when I was young instead of waiting until I was 65 to retire and shuffle around with those bus tours filled with old people. I had a semblance of inner content knowing that I'm finally doing the things I always wanted to do... and doing them now, instead of postponing them to a later date where most likely... they'll never occur. Of course, the elderly couples with us were the super adventurous types. Otherwise they would be on the bus to Milford Sound instead of take a walk on the wild side.
Our original 10am tour got canceled due to bad weather in Milford Sound. We got bumped to the noon tour. And then that was not complete... they had to cancel the helicopter ride back, which meant that we had a scenic flight, a cruise, then a scenic flight. We got a partial refund and Nicky felt relieved since she's a bad flyer and she was worried that the helicopter would make her sick.
At noon, we were ready for our flight. The plane was a seven-seater Cessna. Our pilot was a cute Kiwi chick named Becca. Nicky and I were with two other couples. Becca told us that we needed to balance the weight of the plane. Since I was the tallest, I had to sit up front next to her in the co-pilot's seat. I was excited and sang Peggy Sue as I slid into the front seat and fasten my seat belt. I also have a recurring dream where I die in a plane crash, and every time I step onto a plane, my heart sinks for about four seconds as I think... this could be it.
The plane took off and we were flying just above the surreal mountain tops. Sometimes we got so close you could almost touch them. I took tons of pics and videos (which I'll upload when we get back to Hollyweird). The flight was about 40-45 minutes and we got to see some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever laid eyes upon.
Nicky seemed calm considering she hates flying. We had a few rough patches when we passed through some clouds. When we reached Milford Sound, Becca executed a wing-to-wing turn. It was freakin' cool and I got a slight rush. Nicky reacted differently. She blew chunks into the small puke bag. I didn't realzie it happened until we landed and she carried the bag off the plane.
"Is that the lamb sausage?" I asked since that's what we ate for breakfast.
She was not amused looked like she was ready to die. One of the women on our flight (she was a sweet lady from the UK) gave Nicky some motion-sickness pills. Becca got work from home base and said that there was a slight problem with the cruise and the weather. We could take the cruise, but we would have to take a bus back which takes four and a half hours. We'd get refunded for the missing part of the flight if we chose that option. Since the weather was turning for the worse, she needed to fly the plane back to Queenstown as soon as possible and couldn't wait for the cruise to complete to take us back. One couple went for the cruise and bus. The UK couple decided to fly back and skip the cruise.
Nicky didn't want to fly back. But she also didn't wanted to go on a boat and then get stuck on a bus filled with old people and Japanese tourists on a four hour ride through the mountains back to Queenstown. That would have killed the rest of our day. I didn't want to take the bus back either because I'd be bored senseless without my iPod or a book to read. I gave Nicky the option. Fly and possibly puke or take the boat ride and bus back. She sucked it up and picked the flight back. I was psyched because I wanted to fly some more. Becca told us that we'd get refunded for the cruise as well as the missing helicopter glacier landing. In the end, we managed just a round trip scenic flight which was half the price of the original... flight-cruise-helicopter ride. But that's the weather for you...
I rode shotgun again on the way back to Queenstown. Half-way through the flight, Nicky got sick again when we flew through a rough bit of wind. She lost her mud for the second time and that's how she got the nickname... Puke Girl.