#MiviDownUnder – New Zealand Days 5 & 6 – Ferry from Wellington to Picton and Exploring Punakaiki and Hokitika

On day five of our trip I discovered that I am susceptible to motion sickness. I had trouble with airplane travel when I was younger but hadn’t experienced any real motion sickness for quite a while.

We woke up early, drove down that wretched Lower Hutt hill in our big Toyota Highlander one last time (see previous entry for explanation of wretched hill), dropped the car at the ferry terminal and then after an hour wait or so, boarded the Interislander Ferry which took us from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island.


We boarded and found ourselves a small table by a window at the back of the boat. About half an hour into the three hour journey I realized that I was feeling nauseous. I tried eating which helped for a bit but then I found myself in the bathroom not too long afterwards. Heh. With about an hour left, we decided to go outside on the deck and get some fresh air. It was cold and windy, but as we closed in on the small barrier islands of the south island, it wasn’t so rough anymore. The ferry proceeded down a channel-like waterway and the scenery was beautiful. We even saw dolphins!


The first parts of the south island coming off the Cook Straight

The three-hour trip went by quite quickly but when we arrived there was a delay in getting the bags off the boat. So we sat in baggage claim for a good 45 minutes before we could leave. While we waited, we struck up conversation with a man who knew the area. He asked us where we were headed and we told him Punakaiki. He suggested we take the scenic route to Highway 6, via Queen Charlotte Drive, but warned us that it was quite a windy and twisty road. The car we got on the other side was another Toyota Highlander, just a different color. Michael took over his copiloting duties and set the GPS for our destination in Punakaiki. The drive was stunning, but it was already afternoon and we were in a race against the winter sunlight hours. The roads were as winding as promised. Note to self, if a Kiwi tells you the road is winding and twisty, that’s saying something!

We pulled through a town call Havelock and the sign entering the village said it was the “Greenlip Mussel Capital of the World.” We were hungry and it was lunch time. We obviously stopped. We parked on the side of the road and walked over to a local tavern that had mussels on the menu.

The menu offered an assortment of steamed mussel pots, each with a different flavor profile in the broth. Mike went with an Asian garlic and ginger flavored broth and I went for the dill and white wine pot. Sopping up the delicious broth with crusty bread and eating those gigantic mussels was exactly what I needed after my bought of motion/sea sickness earlier in the day. If you are driving around the Marlborough Sounds on the northern tip of the south island, we can recommend a pit stop here.


One of the many types of views we saw on our drive from Picton to Punakaiki.

From Havelock we had another 4+ hours to drive and the roads were no less twisty. Driving in New Zealand requires alertness and focus and it can be incredibly exhausting. We were headed to the Punakaiki Resort where we would be staying for two nights before heading further down the west coast. The drive seemed endless. The landscapes changed extremely quickly, from open fields to rain forest and back again. The sun was setting and we were in the middle of nowhere. We eventually hit the coast and turned south, driving in the darkness along extremely curvy and narrow roads. We could hear and smell the ocean. We knew it was there. But it was dark by 5:30 and it felt like we might never reach Punakaiki. We were on the outskirts of Paparoa National Park and it was absolutely isolated. I could probably count the number of other cars we encountered on two hands. More than once I just blurted out, “Where the hell are we?!”

Finally, we reached Punakaki. It is a small village on the coast, along no more than a 2 mile stretch of Highway 6 from one end to the other. We ended up having to stop at the local tavern to ask for directions when we couldn’t seem to find the hotel using the directions we’d gotten in our confirmation email. When we eventually found the Punakaiki Beach Resort and it was well worth the long drive! What a phenomenal location! We checked in and booked ourselves in for dinner (mind you it was pitch black but only 7pm) at the hotel restaurant. We changed in our room and then had a delicious, gourmet meal before turning in for the night.

Day six was a jam-packed day! We woke up at a reasonable hour and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant again. This time, we could see out the floor to ceiling windows out across the pebble beach and onto the ocean. While eating the hearty English-inspired breakfast, we chatted briefly with the man at the table next to us. He was a Kiwi and on a multi-week motorcycle tour of the south island. What a life, eh?

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After breakfast we put on our hiking boots and set out for the day. First stop, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. This place was on my list of must-see items in New Zealand. It is a geological wonder and a heaven for photographers and Instagramers alike. The main car park is along Highway 6 and the walk from the car to the rocks and back is roughly a 30-minute loop. If you’re lucky, you might spy a Kiwi bird in the lush brush along the way.


The path/track is well maintained and there are various nooks and crannies to explore along the route. As we were walking around I decided we needed to come back at sunset. The track was just a 3-minute car ride from the hotel and I knew this place was going to be glowing in the hour before sunset. Mike agreed that if we weren’t too tired at the end of the day, we would come back.

Our second stop was just a bit further down the road: the Pororari River Track, which follows the river from the mouth at the coast deep into Paparoa National Park. There are several different routes and loops that you can follow here. We opted to hike an hour to the bridge and then double back the same way we came. It was a wonderful walk. It started out flat as we moved from the mouth of the river into the ravine-like portion surrounded by high walls of rock. The flora was beautiful, full of the lush ferns I had grown to appreciate about New Zealand. Paparoa National Park is essentially a rain forest. There was even a small mini cavern we had to climb through which Mike especially liked. We munched on granola bars and enjoyed the scenery.


On the suspension bridge before we turned around and walked back to the car.

When we got back to the car just over two hours later we set the GPS for our final stop of the day: Hokitika Gorge. It was a two hour drive from Punakaiki, but that day was our only chance to see it and I had read too many blogs and seen too many Instagram photos of it to pass up the opportunity. We headed south on Highway Six, stopped in Greymouth for gas and then continued on. Highway 6, which was our road for the majority of our time on the south island, runs the stretch of the west coast and affords everyone some of the most stunning views. After about an hour and a half, we turned inland toward the mountains. We were cruising along past acres and acres of farmland on dirt roads and eventually arrived at the Hokitika Gorge car park. It was, not surprisingly, fairly busy. Just search #Hokitika on Instagram and you’ll understand what I mean. It’s a popular place to visit!


Dirt road leading to Hokitika Gorge


We parked the car, grabbed our cameras and headed out. The walk down to the gorge is only about 15 minutes. We were there in June, so early Winter, but the sand flies were still very pesky! The walk takes you down from the car park and across a bridge where you’ll see the most brilliantly blue water. On the other side of the bridge you can walk further down and eventually climb down onto the rocks themselves. In the summer, people go swimming here. Even in the chilly weather, the water looks so inviting! I hope one day we can visit New Zealand again in but in their summer months, to take advantage of all their amazing swimming locations.

We climbed down on the rocks, took a lot of photos and then headed back when the flies got too annoying. It’s a fairly small outlook area, so be prepared to wait a few minutes for your photo op. Even though it took two hours to get there, it was worth the drive. I’ve never seen water that blue before. No photo Mike or I took does it justice. You just have to see it in person.

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From there we headed back to Punakaiki to make it back to the Pancake Rocks by sunset. We did and the second visit was a great decision! The place had a completely different feel, bathed in the beginnings of golden hour light.

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We stayed for about another half hour, got some great photos and then headed back to the hotel. We dropped our things in our room and headed out onto the pebble beach to watch the sun set. This video I posted on my Instagram is not filtered in anyway. The sky really was filled with those amazing shades of pink, peach and orange. Set against the black, white and gray of the rocks and pebbles of the beach, it was a breathtakingly beautiful sight.

Once the sun was completely gone we changed for dinner. The restaurant at the hotel was remarkably good, both at dinner and for breakfast. Our stay in Punakaiki was one of our splurges on the trip, so we spent a little extra on dinner. Here are some photos of the food. As you can see, it was high end, gourmet food, served quite literally in the middle of nowhere on the west coast of the south island. But that’s New Zealand for you. You find amazing things, especially when it comes to food, where you least expect it. I explain our meal in more detail here in my review on Yelp.

The rest of our trip would be spent working our way down the west coast, through Glacier Country and eventually into Queenstown and Fjordland. Our first two days on the south island were filled with beautiful places… but we were just scratching the surface.

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