While Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island may be best known for the devastating earthquakes it has suffered in recent years, this city is certainly worth the visit – especially for its breathtaking surrounds. After spending an afternoon exploring the downtown, we had one day to try and see just what Canterbury was all about before hopping on the TranzAlpine to the West Coast.
The day began with a brief drive through downtown Christchurch, before ascending the hills on the way to Akaroa. Stops were made to view the incredible scenery. We also stopped for tea down by the water before heading into town. Once in Akaroa, we meandered through some local shops before heading to Black Cat Cruises for our adventure.
After receiving a safety briefing and getting fitted for wet suits, it was time to hit the water. A short 20-minute cruise to the edge of the harbour was all it took to spot the first Hectors Dolphins. We were advised to never reach out and try to touch one of the dolphins. We were to respect their rights as wild animals. After assessing the wild dolphins, the brave jumped right into the freezing ocean for a closer view. After treading water and seeing dolphins in the distance, it was time to move locations for a better view.
For the next hour or so we were hopping in and out of the boat, cruising through the harbour and swimming alongside of the dolphins. It was an incredible experience, and one that I’ll never forget. Once back on dry land, it was time for a hot shower and some fish and chips for lunch before heading back to Christchurch.
The TranzAlpine Train is the preferred method of travel from the East to the West side of the South Island. This five-hour train ride seemed more like five minutes. You pass through breathtaking scenery of rolling hills and planes, gorges, and snow-capped mountains. We were just a few weeks early for wild flower season, but the colors of the countryside did not disappoint. Each traveler on the train has assigned seats, and there is a full café on-board. The highlight of the train is the open viewing carriage. There are no seats, and the windows are wide open with no glass to obstruct the view.
After taking the TranzAlpine and driving a few hours down the coast, Franz Josef is the perfect place to spend a few nights. Its remote location is emphasized by a few restaurants and handful of shops, but the beauty of the West Coast is stunning. The biggest feature of Franz Josef is its proximity to the glaciers, most notably Franz Josef Glacier.
Flying Over Franz Josef
We lucked out with the weather, and were able to take the only trip they were running the entire week. After safety briefings and handing out gear, the excitement begins with a five-minute helicopter flight from town to the glacier. Due to recession, the only access to the glacier is by helicopter – and you don’t hear anyone complaining about that! After getting a bird’s eye view, we touched down on the glacier and were instructed on how to properly put on our crampons. Then we were off! We weaved our way in and out of ice tunnels and across the face of a gigantic slab of ice. After what seemed like no time at all, it was time to head back to the helicopter and back to reality. I think most of us would have camped up there if given the chance!