Chris L. Doyle / Special to Stars and Stripes
A Sopwith Camel at the Warbirds Museum, also known as the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum, houses older planes that fly. The museum is near Lake Wanaka. Every other Easter weekend the planes fly again in a very popular “Warbirds of Wanaka” airshow.
Chris L. Doyle / Special to Stars and Stripes The Leaning Tower of Wanaka is at the Puzzling World.
Chris L. Doyle / Special to Stars and Stripes A reflection in Lake Wanaka almost appears as if there is ice on the lake, the water is so clear and still.
Chris L. Doyle / Special to Stars and Stripes Scenery along the road to Milford Sound is breathtaking.
“It feels like winter,” the Kiwis all told us. “It’s never like this in February. February’s always our warmest month. Haven’t had cold weather like this in 30 years.”
We heard those statements quite a bit on our trip to New Zealand’s South Island. The mere fact that the early settlers were Scots should have told us something. No doubt folks from the earliest ships said, “It’s cold, windy, and rainy here — break out the bagpipes, we’re home!”
Instead of the expected warm, sunny days with temperatures in the 70s, we had rainy, windy days in the 50s. We spent as much time outside as we could, but then took the opportunity to explore some of the South Island’s indoor attractions.
One of our first discoveries was the Antarctic Center near the Christchurch airport. Drop your bags off early and take the eight-minute walk to this attraction. It may be the closest to the Antarctic that you’ll really want to get.
It begins with a brief introduction to the various research stations and how they’re supplied, with 70 percent of the flights originating from the Christchurch airport. One of the newest features is an indoor storm room, where every 45 minutes or so they whip up the wind and cool down the temps to give you a feel for that continent’s weather. I entered it when the winds were calm and the temperature a balmy 25 degrees, and that was plenty for me. The rest of the exhibits feature the history of Antarctic exploration, and what the lifestyle and jobs are like at the research stations now.
For an extra fee, you can take a ride in a Hägglund, a special type of all-terrain vehicle they use in the Antarctic. The driver straps you in nice and tight in the back section, then drives over a special course so you can experience going over a ravine, then over ice, and then over an icy ravine, and finally into and out of a nine-foot deep pool. It’s an experience that makes you appreciate smooth pavement.
Another indoor gem near Christchurch is the Air Force Museum. It contains not only exhibits about New Zealand’s early aviators and planes, but also restoration hangars, where you can see planes being restored for exhibition. Their goal here is to restore each part of the plane they can find, down to cleaning and re-threading each bolt. They aim to keep the plane around for the next 200 years, not to make it fly again.
If you want to see older planes that do fly, you can find those near Lake Wanaka, in the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum, also known as the “Warbirds.” Every other Easter weekend the planes fly again in a very popular “Warbirds of Wanaka” airshow. We saw a yellow biplane happily circling the sky while we were there. Some of the exhibits are similar, but each museum has a different angle on the stories it tells.
Also near Wanaka is the Puzzling World, which contains several rooms with optical illusions, the Leaning Tower of Wanaka, and a large outdoor maze. After testing our sense of balance in the rooms, we tried the maze. The object is to reach all four towers in the corners, then find your way out. We reached one tower in an hour and decided it was time for lunch.
Lake Wanaka is on the west side of the island, near Queenstown, which is known as the adventure capital of the world and the home of bungee jumping. We took a one-hour jet boat ride there, with our guide grinning as he kept the boat spinning in 360-degree turns. When the weather turned, cutting out the chance to try tandem paragliding, we took a wine tour instead.
We visited two wineries, tasting a white, a rosè and their pinot noir, a local specialty. New Zealand’s wines from this area have won several international awards in the past few years. One of the wineries also had a cheesery, and the tour included lunch, so it was a lovely way to pass a day full of wind and rain.
Another attraction we tried in Queenstown was their indoor miniature golf course, Caddyshack City. It’s full of models that move and smoke as volcanoes erupt and rockets take off. Each hole has a theme, and the last hole is a candy factory. After you take your last shot, you get a lollipop. I won the game and received the orange-flavored Chupa-Chup.
Milford Sound is known as one of the must-see places for New Zealand, and the road there and the Sound itself lived up to the billing. However, one of the most unexpectedly interesting parts of the Sound was our visit to the Underwater Observatory. This is a floating platform that hangs down about 30 feet into the sound. Once you descend the spiral staircase, you can view the fish that swim in this area.
Because the sound has very cold and very still water at this depth with little sediment, you see fish that are more commonly found in water that’s 90 feet deep in the ocean. You never know what might swim by; it’s not unusual to see dolphins or seals taking a peek at the tourists. Our guide explained in detail all the unusual life we saw outside the windows, including black coral, anemones, sponges, starfish and many unusual fish. It was like being in a reverse aquarium, where we were the curiosity on view.
No question that New Zealand is worth a visit, any time of year. The mountains and valleys are indeed stunning. But if you do happen to hit a stretch of bad weather, you’ll find plenty to do out of the wind and rain.
This article is provided courtesy of Stars & Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East. Stars & Stripes Website