“Did you like Milford Sound?”
That’s the first question you’ll be asked when you tell people you were on the South Island of New Zealand for three weeks.
When Magellan and I answer meekly, “We didn’t go there,” we’re met with the same dumbfounded expression you’d give to people visiting the Rockies and admitting they didn’t go to Lake Louise.
Carved by glaciers and surrounded by majestic peaks, like Lake Louise, Milford Sound is her country’s poster girl. Although located in the remote southwest corner of Fiordland, Milford Sound is one of NZ’s most-visited and most-photographed tourist destinations. Rudyard Kipling called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
On our bucket list, Magellan and I had the Milford Track, the legendary 53 kilometre tramp through alpine passes and temperate rainforest, declared “The Finest Walk in the World.” But that was 30 years ago.
Inclined now toward roads less travelled and beds more comfortable, we intended to see the Milford Sound Chasm, walk a little loop trail and check out the world’s only breeding colony of royal albatross. Instead of the Milford Track we planned to take a day and hike the nearby Key Summit Track to Routeburn Falls, returning to our warm and dry nest, Kohanga, the motorhome we rented to travel around the South Island.
It was mid April, autumn in New Zealand. After a daylong cruise of Doubtful Sound, we turned up the heat in Kohanga as we settled in for a cozy Sunday evening before our trip to Milford Sound the next day.
Surprise—a fierce Antarctic front blasted in on Monday morning followed by severe weather warnings for Fiordland. Authorities closed the spectacular but treacherous Milford Sound Road, unless you had chains—and it remained closed for several days. Not only was Kohanga without chains, she had neither four-wheel drive nor snow tires. (Logical, because during the six months between June and November, there are only 20 days, on average, when you need chains in Fiordland—and this was April!) A “weather bomb” locals called it. “I’ve lived here for 17 years and never saw snow in April,” a young woman in a shop in Queenstown told us.
Yes, we made it safely to Queenstown, 170 kilometres north and inland. But it took us six hours!
Magellan felt that Kohanga, with her front-wheel drive on a Fiat Ducato chassis, was pretty tenacious in the snow. “I cautiously passed one car crawling along forever at 30 k per hour, only to have her glued to our tail as she sped up to 60 k. I learned later that the driver was from Minnesota and wasn’t sure how fast she could drive safely in her rental car. Later on, we joined a long string of vehicles and were surprised to see a car attempting to pass us all. Nobody stopped a few kilometres later to help them out of the ditch!”
And yet the procession of traffic sloshing alongside the snowy fields had an order and a minimalist beauty about it: the taciturn fields, cool and white like a Robert Ryman painting, the distant frosty sheep like strokes of impasto on a monochromatic canvas. An alluring silence of white.
How could Milford Sound possibly have been more memorable?
On sparkling Lake Wakatipu encircled by the dramatic Southern Alps, Queenstown (which recorded a new low temperature that day), reminded us of the juxtapositions of Banff, where the pleasures of local speciality shops (The Winery, Untouched World) and good restaurants (Fishbone and Fergburger) can, on a good day, outweigh the jostle of too many tourists and ticky-tacky commercialism. As it was for us. Possum sweaters for Magellan and Lynn, Bluff oysters and crayfish with tarragon butter for our dinner, lamb potpies for Kohanga’s freezer, wine for Ward.
If you’re planning a trip to NZ, to your bucket list we recommend adding Queenstown—gateway to Paradise—there really is a town with that name. Spelled in lower case, it pretty much describes all of the South Island, in rain, shine, or snow.
Best Burger joint in New Zealand? Or the planet? reads a CNN story. “The Little Lamby” is pretty tasty. But then so are the almond croissants at their bakery next door. And the pot pies—hands down the best we’ve ever devoured.
One of the top 100 restaurants in NZ, Fishbone has been serves seafood fresh off the boats and veggies straight form Fishbone Farm for 25 years.
The Winery in Queenstown; now why hasn’t someone copied this idea for Okanagan wines in Canada?