Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Westward bound...

Checking in after our first week in New Zealand.

Brian covered our entry into Christchurch quite nicely in the last entry. Since then, we have developed into a nice pattern of spending days hiking, driving a little bit, exploring little towns, and cooking dinner alongside travelers from all over in backpackers kitchens. It's been a pretty nice life, actually.

Some general thoughts/observations from driving down along the the south island's west coast:

-- The quality level of the BBH Backpackers places in New Zealand has really, really impressed us. They far outclass any hostels we stayed at in Europe or Asia. (Well, with the exception of the other-worldly Mountain Hostel in Gimmelwald, of course). They're in general cleaner, they have nicer additional facilities (like hot tubs, pool tables, dart boards, free bikes, etc.), the beds are real beds instead of feeling like army cots, and, at least at the smaller places, the owners are super friendly and nice and a great source of information. For anyone travelling more than 2 weeks or so in NZ (and wanting to stay at Backpacker accommodations), we highly recommend investing in the BBH card. Though a little spendy, you make it back quickly with room discounts, tourist discounts, and phone minutes.

-- Kiwis are just incredibly friendly. I know that that's the stereotype anyway, but it's just been born out again and again and again. Any one we've asked for info or directions or anything, even at gas stations and the like has done their utmost to make sure we've got what we need.

-- One of our favorite tourist stops so far was Monteiths Brewery in Greymouth. Some version of the brewery has been going since the 1800's and they produce a selection of six beers. The brewery in Greymouth only produces two of them still (evidently their parent company tried to move all the production away but a nationwide three day boycott put an end to that)but the staff of ten does everything (the office staff goes to the bottling line when needed). Just a family atmosphere. Plus they let you pour your own samples while providing you food recommendations with each. Just a really fun enjoyable experience.

-- This whole driving on the left thing is just for the birds. Not only is there the constant tension of remembering where you are supposed to be (especially at intersections in town), but we must have the cleanest windshield in the county (as the windshield wipers inevitably get triggered whenever we are looking for the turn signal). Thank goodness that the roundabouts eliminate the stress of most potential four way stops.

-- The New Zealand Department of Conservation has got its act seriously together. We have never been in a more efficient and well-maintained Parks and Rec environment. At every little town there is an office with every map you could possibly want, a helpful person to answer questions, and the trails categorized by location, time, difficulty, etc. And when you are on them, they are well built and maintained and very well signed. It makes the whole travelling down the coast doing random hikes strategy just a breeze. We just roll in to the DOC and ask them "so what hike are we doing today?" and they have an answer for any situation. Just amazing.

-- The west coast is comprised of all these very small towns (many of which used to be big gold mining centers in their glory days) with Greymouth being the largest at 13,500 people. As Brian mentioned before, many have a distinctly small town American 1950's feel to them. It's been great to just park the car and wander the blocks, enjoying the view from the docks (most of these towns are on the coast) and looking in the shop windows.

-- The scenery itself has been fantastic. Actually, in many ways (except for the snow-covered southern alps that we are approaching), it feels a heck of a lot like driving down the Oregon or northern CA coast....the same sort of rugged coast line with big rocks out in the water, and a windy highway weaving down and around forest-covered hills. (Of course, the hills in the Pacific NW aren't covered with rain forest with big palm trees and ferns sticking out of them!)

Most of all, we've just really enjoyed the laid back pace of the last week. With a car at our disposal, we just make up our itinerary as we go, stopping at scenic lookout points or hikes as we see them. We pull into town, pick up some groceries, and find the highest rated BBH place in the area, check in, cook, eat, maybe play scrabble or darts or cards or pool, and then have a good night's sleep. It's not a bad life. :-)

More soon, as we will hit the southern Alps with the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers!


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