All that glitters is good.....

All that glitters is good.....

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Iceland Part 2: Randomness in Reykjavik

After covering a good part of Iceland's south short, we spent the second half of our week in Reykjavik, a delightful city that captures the quirkiness of the Icelandic spirit. For context, even though over half of the Icelandic population lives in Reykjavik, this only means approximately 200,000 in the greater capital area. So don't expect a bustling metropolis but more appreciate it for it's pockets of character.

We rolled into the city in the early evening and went to our Airbnb in the downtown area. This apartment was great.
A classic blend of simplicity and IKEA decorations
It was super cute, in a neighborhood with lots of parking that was super close to the areas that are fun to go out in. And it wasn't too close to the main area where all the hotels are. We walked into the closest restaurant nearby (that we only spotted because it had a green bean on the sign), which turned out to be Kryddlegin Hjortu, a place that won a certificate of excellence from Trip Advisor in 2015. They have an unlimited soup and salad bar, which is just what you want on a cold day when you're starving but still trying to stay healthy. After being pleasantly surprised by the meal, we walked around a bit, then went back to the AirBnb to get situated. We started getting ready for a late dinner because it's not really vacation unless you are eating an immense amount of food at all times. Pro tip: Before walking outside on a winter evening in Iceland, be sure to have a couple glasses of that wine you picked up in duty free to make sure your "wine coat" is securely snug. 

We hit the nearby Lebowski Bar, tailor made for American tourists (there's also a Chuck Norris bar down the street and something literally called "American Bar" which sounds like a red solo cup nightmare). They have a selection of about 20 different flavors of white russians and a good 10+ types of burgers. The drinks were strong, they were showing soccer matches, and the food was nothing special. So exactly what we expected it to be.

The dude abides in Iceland.
The next morning we woke up and were of course hungry, so we went to brunch (do non-Americans "brunch" or do they just breakfast) at The Laundromat Cafe, which came recommended. It's in the main tourist area where most of the hotels and hostels are, so there's usually a bit of a weight but the ambiance is cozy and the food is good. We had pancakes with sides of bacon that came in coffee cups and met a guy who's trying to become an Instagram influencer.

Pancakes and cups of bacon for the most important meal of the day
It was nice to be in Reykjavik around the holidays because all the streets are decorated and it felt super quaint, even on a gloomy and rainy day.

Cute, right?
Then it started to really rain, so we ran over to the Harpa, a concert hall and conference center with multiple gifts shops where you can get Icelandic gifts. The building is on the water's edge and is one of the more modern architectural highlights of the city.

The outside looks like fish scales
The architecture inside is really cool, almost trippy. Walking up the stairs is almost like being in M.C. Escher print. The texture on the outside of the building carries through to the inside in a more metallic version.

Like a never-ending spiral of staircases
But let me get to the main reason we were in this beautiful building and one of the reasons I love the randomness of Icelanders. We were there to appreciate their local celebrity hero, by participating in a Bjork VR experience!

Basically you would go from room to room and be given an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and watch 2-3x Bjork music videos in 360 and basically "dance inside Bjork" if you weren't careful. It was one of the coolest, trippiest, exhibits I've ever been to and I have to say, she makes the best music videos.

Space aged "dancing"
After avoiding total VR vertigo, we went to try the culinary dish Iceland is most know for... the hot dog. True story. One of the best places to get it is this 80 year old outdoor stand, Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. I've seen photos were the line for this place is a block long but since we were willing to eat under drizzly weather conditions we had minimal wait.

Spot the Jessica!
In order to truly experience it, we went with the classic "one with everything," which means ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, crisp fried onion and raw onion.

Yes, it looks disgusting. It's not bad. If you like hot dogs
After that we walked along the main streets of Laugavegur, Skolavordustigur, and Hverfisgata (don't ask me to pronounce any of these) to do some window shopping while we made our way to the Icelandic Phallological Museum aka "the penis museum." It's the largest collection of penises from animals all over the world, plus penile paraphernalia, stories, and famous molds. It's... interesting.

Endless jars of mammal penises
After that we headed back to the apartment and got some serious "wine coats" on because it was quite cold out. Since it was Thanksgiving in America, we decided to treat ourselves to the tasting menu at Dill, which we heard was one of the best places in town. Usually you need a reservation but since we were there in the off season we put our names in, then went around the corner to grab drinks at Mikkeller & Friends. For context of how pricey drinks can get in Iceland, two irish coffees (albeit the strong irish coffees I've ever had), came to $50. Back at Dill, we have one of the most delightful tastings I've ever had. I won't go through everything in painstaking detail, as I feel that this photo montage speaks for itself.

Amuse bouches, and bread nuggets, and fish dishes, oh my!
For brunch the next morning we traipsed a little further across town to this area that felt like a shipyard to eat at the Coocoo's Nest. Looks for the robin egg blue door, that looks like a cute entrance to a concrete bunker. Once you're inside, the ambiance is super warm and cozy. I got a chai and eggs florentine with homemade rye bread. It was totally worth a quick trek in the cold.

It's like you're in a super cold surf shack
For the next adventure of our day, I need you to bare through some very Icelandic words. We started walking to see the famous church, Hallgrimskirkja. To get there, we walked down the main road, Skólavörðustígur (how anyone navigates around with these road names is beyond me). On these street we were window shopping and stumbled across this really cool photography shop, Fótógrafí. I highly recommend making a stop here for any gift needs. Amazing photography in any size and it's affordable.

Perfect for hipsters
We then continued onto the church, which is the main architectural attraction outside of the Harpa. We heard that the unique structure is made to resemble a waterfall but on Wikipedia it says it's supposed to looks like a lava flow, so take your pick. It's a Lutheran church built in 1986 and one of the tallest buildings in Iceland (there's not a ton of competition). The statue guarding the outside is Viking explorer OG, Leifur Eiríksson. You won't find any nods to Christopher Columbus here.

Don't go chasing (cement) waterfalls.
The inside felt very cathedral-like. Sadly we didn't have time to wait in the elevator line to go up and get views from the top, but we did get a good look at the impressive organ in the interior. There are 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes and it wasn't finished until 1992!

I bet the sound quality in here is EPIC!
We had places to get to... it was time to get our diplomas at Elf School! I hear about this on John Oliver and it seemed like a must-do for the perfect work desk decoration. Additionally, as we started to travel around Iceland we noticed tons of elf "shrines" and that many rationale people we met legitimately believed in elves. So we hopped in our car and headed to what I would equate to a strip mall in the suburbs.

But I've never seen this in any American suburb...
You walk into what should be an office space but instead resembles the house of a hoarder. If that hoarder was obsessed only with elf paraphernalia. I want Elf School to be a surprise and joy to everyone so here's what I'll say: prepare yourself for 4 hours of rambling elf, hidden people, and mer-people stories from around the world told by the most jovial old man.

He will seriously keep you interested for 4 hours
His husband will keep you continually fed with decision snacks. We even had a guest appearance from a psychic who also rents space in the building (they're both members of the Iceland Paranormal Society). And at the end you get to take home a 70 page study guide and you get an official diploma without actually having to take any tests!

For our last dinner, we went to test our luck again by trying to get into Fiskmarkaðurinn (I kid you not, I can't make up these words), one of the fancier fish restaurants in town that does tasting menus and sushi. The only way we were getting in without a reservation was the last two seats at the sushi bar, but that was fine with us. Our sushi chef was an awesome guy who grew up in Vic, and yes, legitimately believes in elves. He taught us all about their many Christmas elves while making some of the most beautiful sushi platters I have ever seen.

This fish is fresh AF
The next morning was our last day in Iceland. Our only activity of the day was to hit the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. Since it's so close to the airport, everyone recommended either going directly there upon landing or when you leave. I would recommend making it your very first Icelandic activity, because once you've been to places like the Secret Lagoon (with only 20 other people and a legit geyser erupting next to you) this place seems super touristy. It's pricey, there's a ton of people, tour buses roll up on a regular basis. Pay a little more for the express pass, you also get an additional facial mask throw in and two drink tickets (can be alcoholic, green juices, or yogurt smoothies). The restaurant there feels almost like you're in an overpriced American spa, but that all food options are heavy on the cream and not so healthy.

Spa fish. It doesn't look creamy but it's there...
But it's cool to look at and actually blue. Plus there's lots of sauna and steam room options. I'm just saying make it your first stop so you really appreciate it before you experience all the other wonders Iceland has to offer!

But how is it blue?? Oh the molecules...

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Iceland Part I: Off the Grid Winter Wonderland

My friend Jess and I decided to use our holiday vacation wisely, and planned a trip to Iceland over Thanksgiving break. We traveled Saturday to Saturday, which seemed like a good duration for covering just the south shore and Reykjavik. It you plan to drive around the full island, it sounds like closer to 2 weeks is recommended. We felt like we had a good pace and only missed doing 2 things on our bucket list (dog sledding and volcanoes). 

We flew Wow Airlines direct from San Francisco to Reykjavik (which I hope to be able to automatically spell by the end of this post) because they were offering a great deal. Even though we had to pay approximately $60 to carry our luggage on, it still beat Icelandair. I would describe WoW as "minimalistic." Your seat won't recline, there's no WiFi, the food is bad and expensive (bring on your own), but it's a direct flight on a normal plane that seems just as safe as any other place so it was worth saving a couple hundred dollars.

Nonsensical Viking wisdom
Landing in Reykjavik at 3:30am met nothing was open but we picked up our rental car at 5am. Pro tip: wine and booze in Iceland are extremely expensive to stock up for your trip in duty free. After getting provisions, even though we had to wait around a bit, we used Iceland Car Rental. Jess had done her research on this and discovered it was the top recommendation via TripAdvisor and had good deals on SUVs (which you definitely want for winter). From the airport, we drove out to Hotel Ranga, a four star hotel near the south coast that specializes in seeing the Northern Lights without any light pollution. 

Icelandic rustic

Keep in mind that the population of Iceland is only 400,000 and 3/4th of them live in Reykjavik, so anything outside of the city is pretty remote. Ranga is one of the only options around so you will also be eating all of your meals there. It also looks eerily like a lodge-version of the hotel in 'The Shining.'

Red rum
 My one qualm with them is that even though we called to let them know we'd be arriving extremely early in the morning and confirming early check-in, they were unable to accommodate us when we arrived. We had to wait until the breakfast buffet was open to eat (and they almost wouldn't let us since we weren't officially guests yet) and then napped on couches in the upstairs lounge until our room was ready. Needless to say, we then spent most of the day napping. Leaving the hotel around 4pm, the sun was already starting to set. At this time of the year, the sun rises between 9-10am and sets starting at 4pm and both are the most beautiful evolution of colors ever seen. We began to refer to these times as "cotton candy skies." 

Alone on the road

We decided to make the hour drive to Fontana, an Icelandic spa with geothermal baths. We ate a lunch lunch of unlimited soup and bread. The rye bread tasted amazing and was actually cooked in the geothermal pools earlier in the day. Then we went out to the pools, which overlook a lake. There was one major mineral pool, a couple hot tubs that were more chlorine based, multiple steam rooms, and a sauna that you could alternate between.

Ahhhhh.... sulfite soaking
After a couple hours of needed post-flight soaking and discovering what we didn't know yet would be the trend of foreigners wanting to talk about Trump in sauna, we headed back to Ranga. There we ate a massive late dinner, which was probably not needed but hey, it's vacation! As a head's up to anyone who's lactose intolerant* and traveling to Iceland, beware. Cream comes in everything, cream is the base for everything, cream stretches their use of vegetable longer, cream will be on your plate whether the description includes it or not. I had a seafood soup (based in cream), with bread and Icelandic butter (which the Island is know for and rightfully so), and a salmon entree with creamed kale. Dinner is pretty pricey at Ranga, but it's also a four star meal and the only thing around.

On day 2 we woke up and once again indulged in the Ranga breakfast buffet (nutella waffles!). After that, we hoped in our SUV and headed out to the Golden Circle, which is a popular drive where you can see a lot of Iceland's natural wonders.

Get ready for more gratuitous sky pics
There are a ton of tour buses you can take from Reykjavik but we were so happy we drove it ourselves. We determined our own pace and rolled out when groups of tour buses rolled in. We hit the three main sights, but tacked on two more unknown stops at the end (which were actually our favorites). Starting out, we went to Gullfoss, a massive waterfall in a long canyon.

The only thing not frozen
It was beautiful, but the wind was so strong we were freezing our faces off after viewing it from a variety of vantage points. After checking out the gift shop, we were ready to head to the next stop. 10-15 minutes from the waterfall is Strokkur Geyser, surrounded by a bunch of little geysers.

The main geyser, notice how close the tourists are
The main guy goes off every 6-10 minutes, with other ones erupting every 3-4 minutes. And while it may be dangerous, they really let you get pretty close. I remember being at Yellowstone where they told horrific stories about getting scalded to death by geysers and roped tourists off a safe distance away. Here you can basically walk right up.

I also really enjoyed this little fatty explosion
We were so close we could walk the geothermal pool boil like a cauldron and then all the sudden get sucked into the earth before erupting. It was pretty cool.

Ridiculously close to ridiculously hot water
On the drive from there to Thingvellir National Park you could see geysers eruptions all over the horizon, appearing to be suspended in air like they froze there. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the tectonic plates are slowly continuing to move away, under a giant glacier lake so there's some cool lookout spots.

"Frozen" geysers in the distance if you look closely
We though there'd be places to eat lunch but sadly there were only gas station-quality sandwiches at the Information Center. I made the risky choice of salmon and regretted it. After that we started driving down the southeast side of the lake to see Kerid Crater, near Selfoss. It's so neat because it's this perfectly circular lake at the bottom of a deep crater hole. You can walk around the top ridge and down to the bottom. There are lots of rock fragments and it makes you think about how hard this meteorite propelled down from space.

Space + Iceland = mindblowing
It was our favorite natural wonder of the day on not on the major Golden Circle tours, so it was bus free with minimal crowds. For our last stop of the road trip, we went to Gamla Laugin, the "secret lagoon." It was our favorite because it felt so authentic. There wasn't a crowd, everyone is chill, and it's a natural lake. Part of it was even blocked off because it's gotten so hot that it has become and erupting geyser.
The not so secret, secret lagoon
After a solid soak, we headed back for another expensive dinner at Hotel Ranga, filled with Icelandic butter and strange creamed vegetable foams. While eating dinner, they announced that the Northern Lights were up and peaking, so everyone ran out of the dining room, through on these amazing wool snowsuits they provide, and ran outside.

Magic suits, wish we could have worn these the whole trip!
The Northern Lights are so beautifully unexplainable. It's like what I imagine the skies in Harry Potter to be like, when Voldermort appears. But way less eerie and nobody dies. We went to Ranga's open roof observatory, where they have space quality telescopes to look at the stars and the Northern Lights with. We talked to one of the guys they had stationed out there and it sounds like the green color comes from excited oxygen. Ionized nitrogen makes more of the blue and purple hues you see in other parts of the world. Don't ever say you didn't learn anything from Green Eggs & Glam!

On day three we work up early, stuffed giant to-go boxes with breakfast buffet items, and hit the road for a 3.5 hour drive out to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, where we were meeting up with our ice cave trekking group. After a morning of driving through cotton candy skies, apocalyptic terrain, through cute sea towns like Vik, and past mountain ranges with massive glaciers we made it to this super cool lagoon/lake filled with massive icebergs of all the blue hues on the spectrum. 

Blue hues
All the tours pick up from the cafe parking lot there and we found out that ours had been cancelled due to car issues (the rough glacier terrain you have to drive across to get to the caves is hard even for ATVs). Luckily there were a ton of other companies waiting in the parking lot and we easily found another one. Our guide was great, although he didn't know the answer to one of our incessant questions, and defaults with "oh, it's the molecules." Nope, the ice is blue because the red (long wavelengths) part of white light is absorbed by ice and the blue (short wavelengths) light is transmitted and scattered. The longer the path light travels in ice, the more blue it appears. Another knowledge bomb! To get to the cave drove across what looked like rocky terrain on the surface of the moon but actually turned out to be a glacier, with the dirt and volcanic ash making the ice appear more like rocks. 
What I imagine the surface of the moon looks like
This area used to be populated back in the 1300s but then a volcano erupted, wiping out all the settlers. There were multiple tour groups once we got up there but it still wasn't too packed since we were there in off-season. 

Walking into the cave
Our guide told us the crowds have been growing, as last year Iceland saw ~300,000 tourists and by the end of 2016 the expect that number to be closer to 2MM. Once we were in the cave, you got to spend time walking around and could go pretty far in. There were so many natural shades of deep blue, it was unlike any place I'd ever been before. 

This is really what it looks like #nofilter
There's one area that was so small, Jess and I had to crawl up through a tunnel to get to an open air spot where you were surrounded by blue walls. 

Like how is this real? #themolecules
The ice caves were so amazing it reminded me that the earth is a pretty cool place. After that, we drove to the Fosshotel, which is a massive upscale hotel in the absolute middle of nowhere. Next to a waterfall.

We're all alone out here...
Unfortunately I booked the room for 2017,  but they had one of their apartment units available and it was only $100/night and so worth the upgrade. They had happy hour in the lobby, where we enjoyed artisinal San Francisco quality cocktails made by an Icelandic bartender who looked 14.

So legit they deserved a photo
We then made our way to their ritzy dining room (these hotels in the middle of nowhere must be making a killing on food). Needless to say it started with more Icelandic butter and cheese, although my salmon with polenta and cauliflower was the best I'd had on the trip so far. At night, we could see the Northern Lights again out our window as we fell asleep.

On day four, we drove almost four hours back to Thingvellir National Park. We saw the most epic sunrise I've ever possibly seen in my life. Although I would be awake for more sunrises if they were all at 10am.

Again, no filter. Just cotton candy skies forever.
Around the island there are also a ton of adorable ponies and lots of tourists pull over to take "pony selfies." I would recommend not getting too close, they might think you are trying to feed them...

The asshole pony that looks like Sia bit my finger
Our lovely Garmin, who can't pronounce Icelandic words anyway, decided to take us on the 360 which ended up being a harrowing, snowy, one way along the edge of the lake so I highly recommend staying on the 36. The beautiful, large, fresh water lake is actually covering a unique natural phenomenon on the north side, the Silfa Fissue. This is where you can actually see the continental drift taking place, as a "river" has formed over where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving away from each other. Every year they shift another 2cm apart.  

This is what it looks like when the earth splits apart
Due to the uniqueness of this area and the fact that the water is so clear, it has become one of the most popular dive spots in the world. The way it was explained to us (so don't fact check me on this) is that 20-30m clarity is considered good dive visibility and in the fissure it's 70m. Sadly I am not diving certified (still on the bucket list!) so we decided to snorkel, yes snorkel during winter in Iceland in a glacial lake. There are a bunch of companies that offer this and we went with Magmadive, who ended up being awesome. Everyone else was in big groups but with them it was just the two of us and our really nice guide Wiktor. There were some small panic attacks when the claustrophobic dry suits were put on, but we powered through it even through apparently my face was blue.

Please keep us warm enough to complete our synchronized snorkeling expedition!
There was an initial shock getting into the water but the wool layer under the dry suit was the best. And you face and hands just go numb a couple minutes in. Once in the water, it really does feel like you're in a crevice of the earth, sandwiched between two rocky plates. The clarity was amazing and we could see down pretty far, past all these different shades of blue and green.

Literally sandwiched between tectonic plates
All in, you're in the water for about 20 minutes and it was totally worth it. Afterwards Wiktor made us the best hot chocolate I've ever had. We jumped in our trusty RAV4 and headed to Reykjavik... stay tuned for Part II of Iceland adventures!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Off Season Adventures: New Zealand Pt 2

Part 2 of the “See New Zealand on a College Bus” tour picks up on Day 2 in Franz Josef, which is by far by favorite stop so far. Unfortunately, I’m there in early winter and the weather is quick rainy. The #1 thing on my bucket list for New Zealand was a heli-hike, which I had slated for this day but woke up and outside my window it was gray and gloomy.

Karl the Fog seriously stalked me here from SF
I walked to Glacier Guides, only to find out no helicopters were able to take off that day due to inclement weather. I refused to waste a day sitting inside though in this beautiful town, so a couple of us went on a hike in the forest area behind the hostel. The walk there felt like we were in a jungle, only made more green and lush from the rain.

Still chasing waterfalls
We walked up the lower part of a mountain, alongside a flowing river with mini-waterfalls that you couldn’t always see but could definitely hear. We got to these old mining tunnels, which were crazy to walk through.

Ominous or from the set of The Hobbit?
They were so long, there was no light, just a long stone pathway carved out in the mountain. We had to wade through ankle deep, freezing water the whole time but it was worth it because I did get to check something off my NZ bucket list… glowworms!  They were tinier than I thought (i.e. you can’t tell they’re worms), but they coated the ceiling of the tunnel and looked like tiny stars and glowing blue glitter. It’s impossible to get a photo unfortunately, but they were definitely worth the wet trek.

Soaked but worth it!
For lunch, I went into town with a bunch of girls from the UK, where apparently meat pies are a pretty big deal. They had found a place that had them, so I tried a steak pie and understood why they are so popular. The savory meat and gravy with a flaky crust was quite delicious. After lunch we got a shuttle bus out to the start of a hike up to near the edge of the glacier (bypassing everything I’d spent running the day before).

You walk down a trail in this giant valley and every direction you look there’s amazing waterfalls cascading down. The terrain is rocky and mossy, creating a really cool contrast.

Moss "rocks"! Sorry for the Dad joke...
The glacier is in the distance and you can tell it’s there because the ice is actually blue. The whole experience was so beautiful, it felt surreal.

Blue ice (ice baby)
That night I watched the sunset over a nearby airport/field and grabbed Chinese food at King Tiger.

Had to use a panorama to capture this sunset!

I wasn’t sure how the cuisine would be in NZ, but it was actually really tasty since Asia is one of the neighboring continents.

The next day we left Franz Josef super early and took off for the neighboring Fox Glacier. It was a crystal clear morning and as we pulled into town, the driver asked if anyone wanted to go sky diving. I thought, why not, they always say anticipation is the worst part so I might as well just go for it. Three of us walked into Skydive Fox Glacier, a super small operation but clearly professionals. They had photos all of the walls of famous extremists from the likes of Nitro Circus. Everyone who worked there was super nice and calming and before I knew it I was decked out in a purple suit (my lucky color), climbing into a small metal plane with my Argentinian tandem partner Mauro.

This is my excited yet petrified face
Up we went and I was having a nervous hysterical laughing attack. All the sudden the plane door swung open at 13,000 feet. I wrapped my legs around the edge of the plane, leaned up against Mauro.
Oh shit, this is about to happen! No going back now.
 The next thing I knew I was falling toward the mountains (apparently most people’s brains black out for the first 10-15 seconds). It’s so hard to describe the experience but it doesn’t feel like you’re falling, it almost feels like you’re snorkeling in the sky. The dead drop only lasts about 60 seconds at this height and goes by super-fast. 

Turns out I fucking love this!
Then the rip cord gets pulled, the parachute expands, you get a little jerked upward, but it’s all good because you know you’re not going to die.  Once you’re floating it doesn’t even feel high anymore compared to what you just went through. Mauro let me grab the handles and steer and we twirled around in circles above the beautiful terrain. 

This is nothing, I got this!
We could see everything from Mt. Cook to the ocean. Apparently Fox Glacier is officially the “2nd most beautiful skydive in the world.” I did some research and it appears this way on most lists, I think Interlochen must be #1. A huge thanks and so much love to Mauro, who dealt with my insane laughing and was a wonderfully calming presence. This is definitely the kind of person you want to be strapped to when falling out of a plane, plus it doesn’t hurt that he was cute! In a post-adrenaline haze I got back on the bus. The ride was a blur of winding mountain roads, but we stopped at a couple scenic places for photos. One was an epic waterfall at Mount Aspiring National Park.

I would say this is "aspiring"
Then once you get to "The Neck," there's a lot of great lake views.

It's hard to capture NZ beauty on a camera phone
Our end destination that day was the city of Wanaka. It had the same vibes as a ski town in Colorado, with lots of ski bums filling up the shops, bars, and cafes. The town was nestled in the mountains on a beautiful, clear lake. I went for a nice stroll along the lake and saw the most Instagrammed tree in the world, The Lone Tree. It’s pretty funny, because it just looks like a dead tree growing in the water but against the mountain backdrop it felt unique.

That night I got some quality Indian food an stayed at the Wanaka YHA, which was by far the nicest YHA I have ever seen.

In the morning we departed from Wanaka (I could have spent more time there) and went to the weirdest and hilarious Puzzling World, right outside of the city. It’s impossible to describe the “wonderful world of weirdness” so check out the link I included. The outside of the building is home to the world’s largest 3D maze. Depending on the challenge, you could spend anywhere from 30 minutes to well over an hour wandering around it, trying to find the colored towers in each corner.

Intense, but somehow less scary than a corn maze
After that, you can go inside and check out their 5 illusion rooms, which are pretty trippy. My favorite was where the whole room was on a tilt and you felt drunk just standing there. There’s another cool one that has an Alice in Wonderland like quality where you go from feeling very large to very small as you walk across it.

They also have trippy statues. Where does the water come from??
After spending a couple hours there we made our way to Queenstown, first stopping at the home of bungee jumping. You can watch a video on the history of bungee and watch people bungee off the bridge that’s right there. They also have shuttles that will take the more adventures out to the Nevis bungee.

By unanimous consensus, bungee is more scary than skydiving (this is not me)
Our lunch stop was in Arrowtown, which has an adorable downtown area that feels like you’re in a gold rush town from the Wild West. Our driver said the bakery there is a must stop and well-known by all the drivers. I tried a lamb and mint one that was fantastic. All the people from the UK in the group said they were some of the best meat pies they’ve ever had. After that it was under an hour to Queenstown. We were staying in Nomad, which is this massive hostel so check-in was kind of a clusterfuck. I dropped my bags off and a group of us headed up to the gondolas at the base of the mountain to go luging.

Chairlifts wihen there's not snow is confusing
Luging is basically like sledding meets go karts on a mountain side. There were different courses and were super windy, so if you took a corner too fast or hit a hill you could actually get some air (you’re not supposed to do this).

Super scenic luge track
We did the course 4 times and then went to the chalet to grab drinks and watch the sunset. At night the whole bus met up at Red Rock for dinner and a Kiwi Experience bar crawl. Again, I was way too old to be on this but it was entertaining. I stayed out late enough to make it to the Minus 5 Ice Bar, where you get to wear a big furry coat, go down into a bar that’s cooled to be under freezing so all the furniture and bar is made of only ice, and the drinks come in cups made out of ice.

Can I keep the coat?!
It’s a little pricey and the drinks are pretty sweet but it’s a cool experience to try once.

But only the bartenders get awesome hats

After a late night pub crawl, the early morning wake up for Milford Sound was pretty aggressive, but it’s a couple hours outside of the city due to the mountain terrain. Milford Sound isn’t actually a sound, it’s a fjord. So it would only make sense that it is actually located in Fiordland National Park, which is an UNESCO World Heritage site. The park makes up the whole southwest corner of the south island. Upon entry, there’s expansive fields you can stop at for photo opportunities before making it to the heart of the valley, surrounded by epic mountain peaks carved out by glaciers. 

No pano can capture the expansive nature
There’s quick little walks you can do off the main road as well. At one point you get to drive through a long tunnel that goes through the heart of a mountain and that means you are almost at Milford Sound. We boarded a Jucy Cruise that’s a 1.5 hour boat cruise. 

Not a bad place to catch a boat
There’s a lot of waterfalls along the way and the boat will even dip it’s nose under the biggest one, which means everyone on the outside of the boat is getting drenched. 

Waterfalls on waterfalls. I can't even.
There’s also lots of seals hanging out on the rocks along the way. Then it was back on the bus for a 4 hour drive back to Queenstown. Overall, Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful national parks I’ve seen, but be prepared for a lot of driving, only to go sit on a boat. 

Although from the boat you get to see things like this
If there’s options to stay closer to the park, I might recommend it to avoid an aggressive day of driving. Once we were back in the city, we waited in line to get dinner at Fergburger, a food institution in Queenstown. The burgers are delicious and decadent, I got a cheeseburger with brie to stay classic but go a little outside of the American burger offering. All of the ingredients were fresh and flavorful. It was well worth the line!

My last day in Queenstown was more chill, I just wanted to explore more of this beautiful city. There’s a lot of great walking paths along Lake Wakatipu in any direction.

I got in so many steps this trip!
The botanical gardens are on one peninsula that’s particularly scenic and has great 360 views of all the surrounding mountains, aptly named The Remarkables.

Plenty of time to sit on a bench and reflect on the Remarkables
There’s also a big Frisbee golf course in the gardens and they don’t care if you drink beers while you play. There are also some neat art installations around the outside perimeter of the park.

This was my favorite park art!
After that, I went to Nadi Wellness Centre for a yoga class, so I could slowly start to prepare my body for the long journey home. The people who work there were super warm and welcoming. The space is cozy and has a view of the lake.

One room, a fireplace, and a view of the mountains = zen
After that, I walked to the lakefront for lunch at Pier 19, an upscale restaurant featuring local ingredients that had been recommended to me. I had a venison salad that had a well-balanced flavor profile, with nuts, cauliflower, and micro greens.

All salads should be this meaty
Since this is clearly a healthy lunch option, I decided to balance it out with a visit to Cookie Bar, which is right by the Nomad hostel. They have a constant rotation of fresh baked cookies, multiple flavor options, cookie sandwiches, shakes, and a cookie happy hour deal This is a Queenstown institution that should not be missed!

I mean, it even looks fun and delicious. Now imagine the smell of a fresh baked cookie...
The next day was my last day in New Zealand, which was a sad realization (my 6am flight was less than 24 hours away). I separated from the Kiwi Bus crew, as I had mis-planned my loop and been one day short. I booked a $40 express ticked on the Naked Bus (I don't know who comes up with these names), which would take me straight from Queenstown to Christchurch. Thankfully the long midday rest stop was in Lake Tekapo, which was the last Kiwi stop I was missing.

My last taste of epic NZ scenery
I can't comment on what it's like to stay there or what there is to do there, but a long stop by the lake for lunch and photos sufficed for me. There's some historic buildings on the lake that you can go inside and check out.
Since it's so tiny in the last photo...
Pro tips for the Naked Bus 1) download everything you want to watch in offline mode, the wifi is poor and limited 2) it says there's no eating/drinking on the bus but just sit toward the back and no one cares. Otherwise there's not nearly enough stops for snacking. I stayed at the Sudima Hotel attached the airport. It was cheap but nice, with a gym and decent dining menu. If you have an early morning flight, this place is perfect. And then I was off to San Francisco. New Zealand, thank you for the epic wilderness adventure and opportunity to do extreme things I never knew I had in me.