New Zealand

New Zealand | South Island


Our trip took us south. To New Zealand's south island.

We flew from Wellington to Dunedin on New Zealand's south island. Dunedin is located on the southern coast and an easy two-hour flight. We first thought we'd take the ferry from the North Island to the South Island, but after looking at costs and the time it would take to drive, we felt it was easier, albeit a little more costly, to fly.

Our first stop in Dunedin was at Lanarch Castle, New Zealand’s only Castle. It was built 1871 by William Larnach, a merchant baron and politician, for his first wife Eliza. It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent another 12 years embellishing the interior. Larnach spared no expense on his dream home, which features the finest materials from around the world.

When it comes to other castles around the world, this one is a mere baby, but it's still quite impressive. We stayed on site in one of the Lodge Rooms and the view from our window of the bay was stunning. The cost to tour the castle was included in our rate and it's well worth a full day exploring the castle and the grounds. The grounds and the gardens are nothing short of exquisite. If you're into garden and flora of all varieties, Lanarch Castle is a must see.

If you have the opportunity to dine in the castle for dinner, I do recommend it. The dinner was good, but not over-the-top great. I had the duck and Mike had the lamb. You're seated family-style in the formal dining room. We spent most of our evening talking with a lovely couple from Bath, UK. Our other dinner companions were three young couples from another country who were too lazy and rude to bother joining in the conversation. They brought their iPhones and barely looked up during dinner.

How typical.

Otago Peninsula

Overall, I can say with honesty, that our time in Dunedin was my favorite. Something about the region really spoke to me. I found it to be a quaint region filled with a lot of glorious scenic spots. My favorite was Sandfly Bay.

I told Mike that I wanted to go to the beach. We didn't think there were any decent beach spots in this area of the south island. We looked on the complimentary visitor info map found in our room at Lanarch Castle and I saw a marker for Sandfly Bay. I wasn't quite sure what to expect as we drove down Seal Point Road to the lookout point. But when we crested the top and saw the view above, I just stood there in awe. It looked more like something you'd find on an tropical island. Of course we were on an island, but I didn't expect this.

We had the beach to ourselves. The only other living thing around was the seal who was napping. See photo below, second row center. Every so often it would kick sand up on itself. We were advised not to get too close to the wildlife so we gave the seal a wide berth. Another couple on holiday from Belgium arrived and walked the beach as well. Then a few crazy 20-somethings came with the body boards and when straight into the water. Way too cold for me, I thought. If you keep going straight out from this point, you'd hit Antarctica.

You could feel the chill in the air from the southerly winds blowing up from Antarctica. We were told this region gets a few nice snowfalls a year.

As I walked quietly on the beach, the water was very cold and sharp against my feet. And well worth it.

The Moeraki Boulders

Visiting the Moeraki Boulders was a fun afternoon trip. The Moeraki Boulders are large and spherical boulders found along a stretch of beach on the Otago coastbetween Moeraki and Hampden. The boulders are composed of mud, fine silt and clay, and held together by calcite. The erosion by waves often exposes embedded isolated boulders from the bedrock and eventually they fall onto the beach.

The more interesting explanation comes from local Māori legends saying the boulders are the remnants of eel baskets, calabashes, and kumara (sweet potato) that were washed ashore from the wreck of Arai-te-uru, a large sailing canoe.

Some of the boulders are perfectly round and quite hard, while others have broken part to expose their insides. You can only access these at low tide. When high tide occurs, many are covered or partly covered. As we were checking them out, you could slowly see the tide starting to come back in.

If you're in the region, an afternoon trip here is well worth your time, but make sure you known when low tide is otherwise you're heading out in the water.

Sheep Shearing - Not what you'd expect

When in New Zealand, you must shear sheep....right?

My friend Jennifer, and former client from several years ago lives on the south island with her husband (who is from NZ) and their son. We had planned to meet up during our trip, but due to an unexpected illness, those plans were scrapped. Jennifer instead arranged for us to meet up with her sister-in-law Kim who lived on the way to our next destination, The Catlins. Kim and her husband own and sheep and cattle farm and we were invited to "experience the real New Zealand" shear a few sheep.

Hell yes! I thought.

Admittedly I thought I was going to hold and shear a few cute and cuddly baby lambs. Nope...not even close.

While I did get my fill of shearing full grown, adult sheep, I wasn't expecting to shear the dirty-ass, poop-crusted, business end. Someone's gotta do it. I didn't regret for one second.

As I was shearing away, I noticed that my left hand (see photo below) felt oily and greasy. I asked Kim what was up and she told me it was from the lanolin. I knew all about lanolin and that it was used in all sorts of skin care products, but I had NO CLUE where it came from.

Very little of this animal goes to waste. After the sheep are shorn professionally (twice a year), the wool is cleaned, the lanolin is extracted and the wool goes to its various destinations. Kim said the wool here would end up as carpet fibers. Then the sheep goes to market and eventually on someone's dinner plate. Even sheep placenta is not wasted. In New Zealand and other parts of the world, sheep placenta is said to be nutrient-rich and have age reversing properties in skin care products. I did buy a few sheep placenta skin care products but I haven't braved up enough to slather it on my skin.

The Catlins

The Catlins were another unexpected and hidden gem in New Zealand. We only spent two days here and I wish we could have stayed longer. The area is very diverse ranging from scenic beaches to tropical forests filled was amazing waterfalls. 

The walk to Purakaunui Falls (above) is just a 10 minute easy walk off the Purakaunui Falls Road which is right off the main road. You'd think the hike to such a gorgeous spot would take forever. We visited this spot twice. We knew we wanted to take photos. Our first trip was in the middle of the afternoon and too much of the falls was in direct sun and with too many harsh shadows. So we came back after we knew the sun had set behind the tree line (thanks SunSeeker iPhone app!).

I wanted walk on the beach again so we made another short drive down to Tautuku Beach. Prior to our trip, I had one of the busiest and most successful years of my career. 2015 year flew by. I was busy-non stop. I was emotionally exhausted. I needed the break. I made a few silent promises to myself while sitting on this beach. So far, I've kept them.

We stayed at the Whistling Frog in one of their private cabins and this was a lovely little spot. We were there right before the start of their summer season and it was practically empty. Our hosts told us that in a week or so, they'd be full every weekend. Dinner at their cafe was pretty outstanding too.

On a side note, camper vans are a very popular way to see New Zealand. For the brave souls who aren't easily offended, you can rent from Wicked Campers. Warning...their website contains nudity. You never know what your van will say.

Kayaking in Doubtful Sound

Sharks? Did you say something about sharks?

Well he did say it...he said it twice.

A really cool named Cloudi, originally from Wales, was our guide for our day spend kayaking Doubtful Sound. We booked a trip through Adventure Kayak and Cruise. This was another segment of the trip that we had really looked forward to. More on that later.

We had a small group: myself, Mike, a trio of 20-something girls from France who barely spoke a word of English and Cloudi, our guide. Cloudi's plan for us was to kayak Doubtful Sound itself, but due to very strong winds, we kayaked an offshoot, Hall Arm. Blow up the map link to see exactly where this is. Doubtful Sound is only accessible by boat, located in Fiordland National Park.

Doubtful Sound is remote...I mean really remote. Click the link if you don't believe me. Some claim that areas of Fiordland National Park have yet to be explored. You can't just drive here. You're likely boating in and IF you can find a place to dock, you can explore the mountainous terrain.

It was a two hour trek just to get to Doubtful Sound. We boarded a boat in Manapouri and crossed Lake Manapouri for nearly an hour. From there, we hopped on a rickety van and made another 45 minute trek through the mountains until we finally reached the Sound. From there, we boated out into the middle Doubtful Sound and got into our two-person sea kayak.

The winds were strong and the rain was nearly non-stop. And it was cold. At least cold for me. Temps were in the high-40s. We dressed in several layers: A swimsuit as a base layer, then a full body wet-suit that was nearly impossible to get on. After that we wore a woolen type of sweater and on top of that our rain jackets. Then a life vest. I felt like the Michelin man. Cloudi gave us fleece hats with ear flaps to keep out the sandflies which were abundant, and annoying, as you paddled too close to the cliffs. These were very warm and very welcome.

I don't mind being cold. I don't mind being wet. But I DO mind being cold AND wet. This was the only part of our day which was less than fun. Most the pretty pictures on their website had happy smiling people in kayaks on a mostly sunny day. They never bothered to mention that it rains in Doubtful Sound over 250 days a year. That tidbit of information would have been welcome knowledge. 

Nonetheless, even with the cold wind and rain, it was a truly amazing day. I felt like we were the only people on the planet. We had Hall Arm to ourselves so we explored as much as we could.

Sharks? Did you say something about sharks? Cloudi told us that deep underneath, sharks occasional swim in the sound. We kayaked in 600 feet of water that was a black as ink. Cloudi explained that the first 300 feet or so was freshwater rain and snow runoff from the mountains. The remaining depths are from saltwater that flows in from the Tasman Sea. When he said the word "sharks" our friends from France who barely spoke any English understood him very clearly. "Sharks? Did you say something about sharks?" one asked with a hint of panic in her voice.

We didn't see any sharks (thankfully) but a few penguins were spotted in the water.


Milford Sound

As we wrapped up our trip to Fiordlands National Park, we diverted north for a day trip to Milford Sound which is much more popular and heavily traveled than Doubtful Sound. The two hour drive took us through gorgeous landscapes including mountain ranges, glacier-carved valleys, blue lakes and rivers and native rain forests. The drive itself was the only part of this trip that was worth it.

Once we arrived at Milford Sound, it was basically a haven for tour buses and giant boat cruises. If you're into that sort of thing, that's great. But for me, it's beyond unappealing on so many levels. There are lots of kayaking and hiking opportunities that depart from Milford, but from all of our research, it's overly crowded which was the sole reason we chose Doubtful over Milford. We had hoped to do some day hiking in Milford, but most of the hiking (tramping) are multi-day treks that required lots of gear and permits that you need to get months in advance to get. We have the gear, but we didn't want to haul both overnight hiking and camping gear, plus our regular luggage.

As we drove back en route to Queenstown, our final destination, we found a scenic spot along a river for a quiet lunch. It was just us and the ever-present sandfly.

Central Otago Wine Region

Queenstown was the only leg of our trip where we didn't have something pre-planned or pre-scheduled. Queenstown is a small city, hovering around 25,000 in population but it's a haven for hikers, backpackers and the wayward souls who are working and trekking their way through New Zealand. It's filled with your typical touristy hot spots, cheap yet really damn, good restaurants, five star hotels and dingy youth hotels.

We spent the first day doing nothing at Hotel St. Moritz. This was my fault. I was sick. Damn the spicy shrimp from dinner the previous night!

The next day, Mike arranged for an impromptu tour of the Central Otago Wine Region. For around $200 pp, this was well worth an afternoon exploring the countryside, checking out the vineyards and of course, all the free wine tastings you could stand. The shuttle picked us up at the hotel at 9 a.m. and along with two other couples, the seven of us (driver included) visited four vineyards, a lovely stop for lunch (included in the fare), and a roadside fruit and vegetable stand. We were back at the hotel for 5:30 in time to get cleaned up for our last dinner and one of our dinner splurges on our trip.

Until Next Time

We are already planning our next trip, hopefully in the next five years or so. Getting here is not easy and staying here for nearly a month is not cheap. But with a little, actually a lot of advance planning (done mostly by Mike) you can eat well, tour well and sleep well for less money than you think. We had over $3,000 left over in our budget!

There are places we want to visit again, and there are places we wished we had skipped over. I came back rested (sort of). But mostly, I had a clearer vision of what I wanted out of life and of my career going forth into 2016.

Here we are, April 7th, 2016. That vision is still crystal clear.

New Zealand | North Island

I worked up until 10 a.m. the day we left. Our flight was at 3:30.

It had been a nearly month-long marathon of very early mornings, very late nights and countless photo shoot in between. Deadlines loomed. I gave all of my clients eight weeks notice that I was going to be gone for nearly a month. And the photo shoots came pouring in. 

I was exhausted.

Mike and I had planned for this trip for nearly a year and we hadn't vacationed together since 2008. And by vacation, I mean a real vacation. Not a long weekend piggy-backed along with one of our trips to NAB in Vegas.

This was VERY overdue and very much needed.

It was wheels up at 4:15 p.m.

Our 3:30 flight was delayed a bit by wicked thunderstorms that rolled through Little Rock. We later found out that a few tornadoes were nearby so I was amazed our flight only left 45 minutes late.

We had a long, really long, flight ahead of us. With a marriage of American Express Points and Delta Skymiles, my ticket was free. Our flight took us: Little Rock > Atlanta > Los Angeles > Sydney > Auckland. 30 hours in total. We ponied up the extra money and bought most of our seats in Economy Comfort. An extra $300 each bought us extra legroom, seats that reclined back a bit more and slightly better food. If you're over 5'7" and all legs, as we both are, it's well worth it.

We had a slight hiccup in Sydney when Mike's boarding pass was declined and we discovered he was not on the manifest. After a few minutes, he was added. We had a hunch this was going to be an issue with our baggage. 

We were right.

We landed in Auckland to discover our luggage never made the connecting flight from Sydney. Thankfully we both had extra clothes in our backpacks and I had a small toiletry kit with me. No big deal. By Noon the next day, our bags were delivered to the hotel.

If you travel to Auckland, I highly recommend staying at Rydges. It was an excellent hotel with a wonderful staff. We only stayed in Auckland for two nights which was just long enough to recover from the jet lag. We headed out for a quick walk of downtown Auckland. We ended up in a tiny alleyway off the main drag and had dinner at Urchin & Amber, one of the oldest pubs in town. It was clearly a locals favorite. We were there at Happy Hour and the place was packed. We had an early dinner and it was damn near perfect. I had the Fish and Chips and it was the best I've ever had. I spent six weeks in London and these were far better. The fish was perfectly fried, light and crisp and not heavily battered. The same went for the chips. Sorry, no photos of dinner. I ate it too fast. But below is a lovely iPhone exterior.

By the next day, it was time to head out. We loaded our rental SUV and headed southeast. Destination: The Hobbiton Movie Set.


I am not a fan of Lord of the Rings. There, I said it out loud.

Visiting Hobbiton was one of things Mike really wanted to see so if it was important to him, it was important to me. The day we had planned for Hobbiton, it rained....all. day. long. Rain or shine, the tours went on. The skies were very gray and very foggy. The dreariness obscured the rolling hills that was the Alexander Family Farm, home to the Hobbiton Move Set< and the hillside along the drive to get there.

I thoroughly enjoyed touring Hobbiton, even if it was in the rain. We were soaked. The one thing that really stood out to me was the incredible attention to detail. The detail give to even the smallest thing was fascinating. Things that would likely never be on camera were crafted as if it was going to have a close-up. My favorite was the aging process they did to all the small, wooden picket fences. They look like they had been there for centuries, but they are only a few years old. The "mold" you see on some of the fences is a combination of sawdust and yogurt. They mixed up a paste and then splattered it on the fence. In time, mold would form naturally on the yogurt and you have a weathered look.

I used my iPhone for all of the photos below. The rain was too hard for me to risk dragging out my camera.


After we left Hobbiton, our destination for just one night was Rotoura. We didn't plan much for here since they next day, we were making a long drive to Tongariro National Park. More on that in the next section. We took the afternoon before we headed out to visit Hells Gate. It is New Zealand's only Maori-owned thermal park, Hells Gate has unique geothermal features.

If you don't like the smell of sulphur, you won't like Hells Gate. It's not a huge park, but it's geothermal activity was really interesting to see. As we headed into the main section of the park, we passed through a small, woodland area where much of the trees were coated in a yellow crust from the sulphur.

Some of the mud from the park is used and sold in a variety of hand creams, mud masks and packs and soaps. Sulphur has many healing and medicinal properties and has been used by the Maori people for centuries.

Tongariro National Park

This was my favorite part of our trip on the North Island. There was so much to see and do here. We were greeted our first evening in Tongariro by a lovely sunset on the face of Mt. Mount Ruapehu.

Tongariro National Park was the fourth national park established in the world. It stretches around the massif of the three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro are located in the center of the park.

Our first day in Tongariro we spent just relaxing and checking out all of the sites. Our first stop was high tea at Chateau Tongariro. Driving up to the Chateau, I thought we were headed to the Overlook Hotel. It looked eerily similar. While I was walking around, I kept waiting to see Danny Boy and his two creepy twin friends roaming the halls.

High tea wasn't just tea, it was a full on meal of various finger sandwiches of: cucumber, smoked salmon and egg salad. And there were more sweets and pastries that no human could consume in one sitting. My favorite was the Crème Brûlée served in a demitasse.

After we stuffed ourselves, we headed up to the Whakapapa Ski Field. Although the ski season was finished for the year, the ski lift ride to the top was worth the cost of a lift ticket. The ride up gave us panoramic views of the park and the nearby volcanoes. We had the option to hike back down, but I passed on that option. The next day we were tackling The Alpine Crossing and I didn't want to exhaust myself.

After the ski lift, we paused briefly to look at Wakapapanui Stream. It was a small steam that flowed under the road to the ski area, but it had a picturesque view of Mt. Ngauruhoe.

We also took a short hike Taranaki Falls.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This is why I came.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered best one-day hike in New Zealand. In most hiking circles, it is one of the top ten day-hikes in the world.

I don't want to share too much here, because I have a full story in the works which will be published in a few weeks.  I'll share just an excerpt:

My legs and feet were so swollen, I struggled to get my boots off.
I had just finished three-fourths of our 19.4 km hike with my husband, Mike McCall, and we were well into our decent. Ketetahi Hut was a brief respite of relief. We had just completed a halatious series of switchbacks descending down from the Blue Lake. I needed to rest, but it was short-lived. We were behind schedule and it was my fault. Adema had set in. Everything was swollen: My gloves were tight. My fingers looked like little sausages. I had to pry my wedding rings off. My pants were snug. My face hurt. My legs throbbed and ached. My feet were so tender I could barely walk.

More coming soon....

The Countryside

I could drive all day in the New Zealand countryside and never tire of the spectacular scenery. The drive from Auckland to Tongariro to Wellington the countryside is dotted with sheep, cattle and the most gorgeous rolling hills I have seen. The hillside of Scotland is close, but to me, this was prettier.


I'm a big city girl. I was born and raised in a big city. But when I'm on vacation, I prefer the smaller towns and what lies off the beaten path. We spent three days in Wellington and honestly, I would have been happy with just one. The weather in Wellington, at least for our three days, was awful. Storms and rain and the most God-awful wind was our forecast. I'm not talking about a gentle breeze wind, I'm talking about 50+ mph winds. Every. Single. Day. We had plans to visit the Wellington Botanical Gardens, but that plans was scrapped due to weather. We instead took an afternoon bus tour covering the entire city, hitting the highlights including a stop to Old St. Paul's Church. It was only a few hours, but we shared the bus with two other people so it was like we were on our own.

The highlight of Wellington was the Te Papa museum. Our hotel was just two blocks from the museum so it was a short, but windy walk.

We spent the entire day in Te Papa and it was well worth the whole day. The Colossal Squid Exhibit was really interesting. I remember when this was on the news so seeing it was fascinating. Truth be told, I thought it would be bigger.

Another big highlight of the museum was the exhibit on Gallipoli. Gallipoli was New Zealand's first campaign of WWI. The exhibit held several sculptures featuring men and women from the battle. These sculputurs were 3:1 in scale for most people. The detail on these was mind-blowing. When you looked up close, you could see every small detail: sweat, grime on the skin, pores, hair, dimpling on the skin, the weathered clothes. But at a 3:1 scale. You can see a photo of Mike standing next to one of the sculptures.  We later found out that all of these were created by Weta Workshop. And that was the next day's tour.

As a big Peter Jackson fan, and the owner of a Little Rock, Arkansas based production company, Mike really wanted to do the behind-the-scenes tour of the Weta Workshop. This was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than a showcase of old movie props made by the Weta Workshop team plus a behind-the-scenes video of past projects. The only thing worth seeing were two people in the workshop inserting microscopic hair into a scalp that will be used in an upcoming exhibit. This was really interesting to watch, but not worth the price of admission.


All in all, the North Island was everything I had hoped it would be. My only regret was not spending more time at Tongariro. I could have spent a full week here instead of three days.

Coming next month....Tongariro Alpine Crossing.