Holiday Decoration Fun in Korea and New Zealand

Holidays Seoul Christmas trees lighted

From a decoration standpoint, Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I adore the gorgeous lights that adorn the cities. It makes everything so beautiful. I had time to enjoy holiday decorations in Seoul before I went to New Zealand for the actual holidays. One evening was spent touring the downtown area and got quite an eyeful. Many parts of the city, particularly major department stores, had a wide variety of holiday decorations and illuminations, plus there were the Christmas street stores at local markets, like Namdaemun.

Holidays Seoul Christmas market

Holidays Seoul Christmas tree closeup

The department stores were bright with exterior illumination and both real and fake trees were lit up.

Holidays Seoul Christmas tree lights

Holidays Seoul Shinsegae lights

The nearby Hilton Hotel also had plenty of beautiful interior decorations of trees and one of the biggest holiday train sets I’ve seen.

Holidays Seoul Hilton Hotel Christmas tree

Holidays Seoul Hilton Christmas train 2

Holidays Seoul Hilton Christmas train 1

I got to New Zealand a little over a week before Christmas. While I was out on the hiking trail for actual Christmas day, the decorations were still up for everyone to enjoy later in the month.

Holidays Auckland department store decorations

Holidays Christchurch Re Start mall

The storefront decorations at the Christchurch department store, Ballantynes, were particularly interesting. It was like a cross between Candyland and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory. They were kind of odd in a pleasing way. It was nice to see decorations that were sort of fantasical, with a hint of creepy, instead of gooey sweet decorations.

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 4

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 3

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 2

Holidays Christchurch Ballantynes 1

I spent New Year’s Eve in Christchurch. I had hoped to do it in Queenstown, because I heard their NYE celebrations were insane (though some of that insanity was mitigated by the ban on alcohol in public places), but my vacation schedule didn’t really work out that way. I arrived back in Christchurch from Arthur’s Pass in the early evening and enjoyed my final meal of 2013 at a local Korean restaurant (though the Korean food seemed a bit New Zealandized).

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 3

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 2

Holidays Christchurch NYE fireworks 1

If you want to have a crazy New Years celebration, Christchurch isn’t the best place to do it. The public celebration in Hanley Park was specifically designated alcohol free, and there was a city-wide liquor ban on walking around with booze outside. So I hung out in my hostel room enjoying my bottle of sparkling wine until shortly before midnight. I didn’t really care to sit in a park listening to bands I didn’t know. But I was interested in the fireworks display (fireworks pretty!), so I showed up shortly before midnight. Fireworks went off, people scattered and I went back to my hostel. It was very sedate NYE, and once again, it was a NYE on my own in a foreign country.

Fear, Ice and Wine- Fun in Queenstown and Auckland

Auckland Freddie's Ice House

There are all kinds of fun to be had in New Zealand. Some of it is crazy (which I’ve written about in a previous blog), but other stuff is tamer but still fun. The first fun activity was Fear Factory in Queenstown.

Queenstown Fear Factory sign

Queenstown Fear Factory entry photo

I adore Halloween activities, and when I live in the States, I fill up my September and October weekends with all kinds of fall and Halloween fun. I missed all the Halloween haunted houses this past autumn, because I currently live in Korea. However, I had a chance to rectify that a bit in Queenstown. I didn’t even know about this until I arrived in town, but Queenstown has a year-round haunted house called Fear Factory. It is setup conveniently in the city center, and it is open from 1100 until “late.” Once I saw that, I knew I had to visit. I know haunted houses are supposed to be more fun with friends, but I was traveling alone (like usual). Like so many other things in my life, I had to make a choice of doing something alone, or not doing it at all. That was an easy one for me. Plus I’m used to going to haunted houses alone, because I never had anyone to go with me in the States. I decided to wait until after dark to go, because it just seemed off to emerge from a dark, scary haunted house into bright, shining daylight. Since it was summer down there, that meant waiting until after 2100. But so I entered. Not surprisingly, I got a few “You’re so brave for doing this alone” comments, but soon I was off to get my ass scared off.

Queenstown Fear Factory scared photo

This haunted house is set up a bit differently than others I’ve visited. Most of the ones in the States I’ve been to, have a series of macabre scenes interspersed with occasional “jump out” scares. This haunted house is almost entirely in pitch dark. I made my way through the maze by feeling the walls and following a small red light. Most of the scares were psychological through a combination of occasional lights, creepy voices designed to unsettle me, loud noises and creepy touches. That is also another difference from the haunted houses in the States. The actors are allowed to touch you at Fear Factory. Like I said, it’s more creepy touching than anything truly dangerous, like fingers brushing along my arm, the back of my neck, or my lower leg. It’s definitely unsettling, because I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear them taunting me with my name. The tension was ramped up for me, just because I KNEW something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what or when. Based on the sheer amount of screaming I did (I scare and unsettle easily in these type of scenarios), I definitely got my money’s worth. At $29 NZ per adult, it is not a cheap thrill. But if you love haunted houses and aren’t paralyzed by fear of the dark, I suggest you experience it. Since it is all in complete darkness, your own fears and imagination amplify whatever you experience in the house for creepy, good fun.

Queenstown Wine Experience

A different sort of fun was to be had at the Queenstown Wine Experience. This was my final evening in Queenstown, and I decided to end it in a semi-classy way. This is like the best, most comprehensive winery tour wrapped up into one location. It’s in the city center, and it’s a great activity for the entire evening or just a precursor to dinner or a nightcap. This place gives you the opportunity to try over 80 wines from nearby wine regions. The available wines to try were pretty much every variety offered in New Zealand. The setup at Queenstown Wine Experience is pretty cool. I arrived and received a wine card. From there, I could try as many wines as I wanted. The choices were to try a taste, a half glass, or a full glass of any available wine. All I had to do was stick the wine card into the machine, select which wine and size to try, and it magically filled my glass. I tried a wide variety of wines, like pinot noir, sauvingon blanc, pinot gris, Riesling, Guwurtztraminer, and a couple dessert wines. I ordered a very tasty smorgasbord of local meats, cheeses, bread and olive oil to accompany the taste parade. I had the opportunity to order wines for delivery home, but I elected not to, since I would have had to send the wine home to the States and not have it for available enjoyment back in Korea. If you love wine, and want to try a wide variety of wines, in the comfort of a big soft chair, this is the place for you.

Auckland Freddie's Ice House 2

My last bit of tame fun was a visit to Freddy’s Ice House at my last night in Auckland. It used to be called Minus 5 during my last trip to Auckland (I guess they’re under new management). There is a bar by the same name of Minus 5 in Queenstown, and I did visit there during my first trip to Queenstown eight years ago. This bar is pretty much the way it is described. It is a small bar in a large freezer where everything is made out of ice, including the glasses. I received a big, warm parka and some gloves and it was go time. The bar reminded me of the White Witch of Narnia’s palace where everything was frozen solid in ice. Price of admission ($25 NZ) buys you one mixed cocktail of your choice and all the time you want to stay in the bar to relax and play. I was there on my own, so I didn’t spend the entire evening there. This is probably more of a fun group activity, but it is enjoyable on your own.

This pretty much ended my month long New Zealand adventure, and it was good.

Kepler Track Day Three- Iris Burn Hut to Rainbow Reach Swing Bridge

Kepler Track Day Three-3

Success! It was the last day of my last tramp. All that stood between me and a bus ride to Queenstown was 22.2 kilometers of mostly easy walking. I spent the night at Iris Burn Hut, deep in the forest. During the middle of the night, I heard bird calls from both male and female kiwi birds outside, since they are nocturnal birds. That was pretty cool, because kiwis are adorable, fat, little birds and they are endangered in New Zealand.

Kepler Track Day Three-1

Kepler Track Day Three-2

Since I had about seven-eight hours of walking ahead of me, I started really early. I noticed the weather seemed to be much more pleasant today, with no rain or wind. After mentally shaking my fist at the weather gods and goddesses for giving other people a pleasant and beautiful alpine crossing (though you never know, since alpine weather is so protean), I set out on my journey.

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Kepler Track Day Three-5

I set off for my first stop at Motorua Hut, my planned lunch spot. The walk was fairly easy through beech forest, though there were some steep ascents and descents that weren’t mentioned in the brochure. I spotted some natural waterfalls, and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and hanging valleys.

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Kepler Track Day Three-7

Five hours later, my tired body found its way to the shores of Lake Manapouri and Motorua Hut. It was a beautiful and peaceful stop for my final track meal. I was able to enjoy a leisurely break, but I had to put on the pack for the last two hour push to the Rainbow Reach carpark, and sweet, wonderful transport.

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Kepler Track Day Three-10

The final leg of the walk was pretty much flat and easy through more forests. There were a couple brief stopovers at local wetlands (some of which represented the Dead Marshes in the Fellowship of the Ring movie), but for the most part, it was just straight tramping. Shockingly enough, I even passed a couple of persons hiking, which was a first for me on this tramp.

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Kepler Track Day Three-12

Soon enough, I saw the Gates of Paradise, or in this case, the Rainbow Reach Swing Bridge spanning the Waiau River that lead to the carpark. I was done! My body was tired. My clothes from the previous day were still soaked, and I sort of smelled like a wild animal. But it was all worth it for the exercise and beautiful views.

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Kepler Track Day Three-15

Kepler Track Day Two- Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut

Kepler Track Day Two-1

There aren’t many pictures for this day of hiking, and it wasn’t an accident. The weather just did not cooperate enough for me to take many pictures after I left Luxmore Hut. And the few times the view would open up, I was too wet, cold and unmotivated to dig my camera from my bag.

For my second full day of hiking, I had hoped for sunny skies and minimal wind for this trek, since it was an alpine crossing. Alas, it was not to be. Instead of being treated with panoramic and gorgeous mountain vistas, I was treated to lashing wind, freezing rain and low clouds. I had envisioned my alpine crossing would be as majestic as the opening scenes of Lord of the Rings: Two Towers when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were chasing the orcs. Instead my day looked more like the scene in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring when the fellowship tried to cross the Pass of Caradhras and were beset by howling wind and stinging snow. Of course I had no big strong man like Boromir to shelter me from the storm, so I was on my own to deal with the weather.

Sometimes the clouds would clear enough to get a hint of the majesty they covered, but for the most part, all I could see much of was the trail in front of me (thankfully for that, because who wants to get lost and stranded in an alpine environment). Most of the hike sidled mountains and crawled along ridge lines. There were brief moments, I got a glimpse of the awe-inspiring view around me, obscured by the thick, low clouds, and could see what this hike is like in very good weather. Alas those moments didn’t come often enough or last long enough. I can honestly say that I have not been this wet and cold, for such a sustained period of time, ever. For a brief period, I envisioned succumbing to hypothermia, but thankfully it never got THAT bad. I had my thermal and rain gear on, though I should have worn my rain pants. But still, I got soaked. By the time I finished the day’s hike, my socks were drenched, my shirt was wet, and my pants were soaked through, and I was cold.

Kepler Track Day Two-2

Most of the alpine trek was not TOO difficult physically for most of the way. There were some significant ascents, but they were mirrored by descents and flat spots. However, by the time I hit Hanging Valley Shelter (over three hours into the hike), I was officially over it. By that point, I was really starting to feel the rain and cold, and the path got rockier, muddier, and more uneven (a recipe for me falling on my cold ass). I was never so happy to reach the bush line. Yes, it was still raining, but at least the water fell directly on my head, rather than lashing harshly against me.

The frigid wind died down, and the temperature went up a few degrees. So I was able to go from miserable to just uncomfortable. The trail dropped, seemingly endlessly through the bush. The beech tree forest was lovely to behold as were the natural waterfalls cascading down from all the recent rain, and the raging river.The walk seemed interminable and I was passed left and right by tall Middle Earth elves, and I trudged along on my short hobbit legs. At this point, I just wanted it to be over for the day and kept wondering when the hut would come into sight.

Eventually the forest opened up, the birds and the angels started singing, and a halo of light shone down on the hut. At last! I had warmth and dryness and semi-comfort. It was practically heaven-sent. I actually wasn’t in a lot of physical pain from the trek, because it wasn’t that difficult (except for a few, steep, rocky ascents), but mentally I was done and just wanted to snuggle up something (or preferably someone) warm, soft and dry.

Kepler Track Day One- Te Anau to Luxmore Hut

Kepler Track Day One-7

Once again, I was up early. Not at dawn, because that was shortly after 0500 this time of year, but early enough. Today was my first day of hiking the Kepler Track, the last of my multi-day tramps in New Zealand. This hikes starts and ends in the town of Te Anau, a small town on the edge of Lake Te Anau and Fiordland National Park. The park is the largest national park in New Zealand that takes up a decent chunk of the South Island. I knew I wanted to do a Fiordland-based hike, and was drawn to the Kepler Track for a variety of reasons. First, it is not as popular, nor as regulated as the Milford Track, which is both (and apparently part of the Milford Track was closed during this period due to heavy rains, so extra bonus). I did want to do a hike that involved some alpine hiking, and the Kepler Track is well-setup as a loop track, and came highly recommended for its scenic beauty.

Kepler Track Day One-1

Kepler Track is designed to be a 61 kilometer, four day hike. However, you can combine the third day of the hike and half of the fourth day’s hike (like I did) and leave the track at Rainbow Swing Bridge. This track, unlike the other two I did, has about a day’s worth of walking in an alpine environment, and the first night’s stay at Luxmore Hut is well above the bush line with panoramic views of Lake Te Anau, the Te Anau basin, and the surrounding mountains.

Kepler Track Day One-2

I started the trek at the Department of Conservation Visitor’s Center right on the shores of Lake Te Anau. The first four kilometers of the walk was right along the lake, and in fact, you can get transport to the Kepler carpark where the trail officially starts. But since I was cutting out the last 9.5 kilometers of the fourth day of the track, I figured I would make up a little of that distance by walking to the track start point.

Kepler Track Day One-3

The first two and a half hours of the day’s hike to Brod Bay campsite is flat and well-benched through a beech and fern-laden forest. The walk was easy, gentle and peaceful, since I pretty much had the trail to myself. From Brod Bay, the track started to ascend. What I liked about the track is that most of the ascent was not super steep, but gradual. Make no mistake though, it was not a stroll in the park, because I gained 800 meters of altitude in around three hours of walking time.

Kepler Track Day One-4

All the tall, thin and fit trampers (think of them as the Elves of Middle Earth) passed me early and I was left to myself and the quiet of the forest. In my head, I looked like a fat little Hobbit waddling up the track with my big pack on my back and two walking sticks. At least I did go faster than the suggested journey time, so that felt good. For this part of the journey, the trail was mostly well-maintained, though there were some definite muddy spots.

Kepler Track Day One-5

After about two hours of hiking slowly, but steadily uphill, I hit the limestone bluffs, which are ancient remnants when this part of the track was under the sea millions of years ago.

Kepler Track Day One-6

Less than an hour after passing the bluffs, I hit the bush line and was rewarded with spectacular views of the Te Anau basin, Lake Manapouri and surrounding mountains. Since I was ahead of schedule, and had less than 45 minutes of walking left, I figured this was a great spot for a lunch break.

Kepler Track Day One-8

Kepler Track Day One-12

The rest of the hike was along a windswept ridge line out in the open. Here, the wind gusts were rather rough and chilly at times. Taking in all the scenery, I occasionally felt like I was in Lord of the Rings, hiking to Mordor with the Fellowship. Overall, the hike was a bit easier than I thought it would be, considering the altitude gain was the greatest of the hikes I’ve done in New Zealand. Maybe I was a bit fitter after a couple weeks in country. Maybe it was the steady but generally not TOO steep track. In either case, I made it, and I had all afternoon to relax, read a book, take in the gorgeous view and listen to the wind rattling outside.

Kepler Track Day One-9

Kepler Track Day One-13

I could feel the alpine chill and had to put on my thermals. The hut was buzzing with activity of the 50 people staying there that night. All around me, I saw groups of people making food to enjoy, talking, playing cards. I either watched them from a dispassionate distance or listened in to select conversations for the hell of it, when I wasn’t engrossed in my book. When the only activity planned for the day was a walk, that left hours and hours of daylight to contemplate. There was no beach like at Abel Tasman, and the sharp alpine wind and occasional rain discouraged wandering about outside. It was just too much of a production to put all my clothes and boots on, only to be harassed by the cold, rain and wind, when I had a perfectly fine view from the large windows in the common area. I already finished one book and decided to save the next book for the next day’s afternoon at the hut. There was no Internet, and not much else to do after dark, but take a well-earned deep sleep. I had hoped for clear skies to enjoy the stars in that isolated environment, but it was not to be. I just hoped that the weather held out for the next day’s hike during the exposed alpine crossing.

Kepler Track Day One-10

Arthur’s Pass and the TranzAlpine Train Ride- One of the Most Beautiful in the World

Arthur's Pass-18

Every travel book I read mentioned how beautiful Arthur’s Pass is, and how the TranzAlpine train ride was one of the best in the world. Arthur’s Pass is in the Southern Alps with the tiny village resting between the eastern and western sides of the Southern Alps. The train ride is approximately two hours from Christchurch and a gorgeous, slow journey across the Canterbury Plains, through beech forests, river gorges and up to the pass itself. It’s certainly the most beautiful and relaxing way to get to Arthur’s Pass.

Arthur's Pass-1

Arthur's Pass-7

I didn’t have my seat of choice for the train ride, since it was an aisle seat and a stranger was next to me, because the train was so full. However, this train had a very awesome viewing car. It was a normal train car, but there weren’t any windows so I had an open air view of the gorgeous scenery rolling past me.

Arthur's Pass-2

The weather was gorgeous on the way up to the pass, but once I reached Arthur’s Pass Village which resides at 737 meters (2418 feet) above sea level, the weather took a turn. It was pretty typical weather for the area, that often creates weather that is cooler, rainier and windier than areas around Arthur’s Pass. It rains about half of the year, and many days it can pour many millimeters. In fact, even with all the rain on the first day, it was still less than the rain that fell a month prior.

Arthur's Pass-3

After lunch, the rain did slow down a bit, so I headed out with the intent on hiking the entire Arthur’s Pass Walking Track, which was 3.4 kilometers one way north of the village. From the walking track are numerous side tracks that lead to other scenic viewpoints.

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Arthur's Pass-8

My first side trip was on the Devil’s Punchbowl Walking Track. It was only a one kilometer track to the 131 meters waterfall. I could see the waterfall from the turnoff from the main track on the bridge over Devil’s Punchbowl Creek. Most of the track consists of a series of steps  that climb 150 meters up to a viewing platform where I could view the base of the waterfall.

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After returning from the waterfall, I walked a bit farther north to the Bridal Veil Falls lookout and more of the trail. It started to rain again, so I elected to turn around and walk back to the village with the intention of finishing the hike the next day.

Arthur's Pass-11

The next morning I headed out for some more hiking. My original intent before I got to Arthur’s Pass was to climb to the bush line of Avalanche Peak via the Scott’s Trail, but I could not find the trailhead even with a map, and the weather wasn’t THAT great, so I decided to walk the rest of the Arthur’s Pass walking trail. Thankfully the weather today was clear and as sunny as this area typically gets.

After the trail crossed the main highway, it broke off on a side trail called the Bealey Valley Track. The entire side trail was 1.2 kilometers and was quite scenic. I first reached Bealey Chasm, which was only a five minute walk from the trail turnoff. The bridge across the chasm is over a channel of rapidly running water cascading over huge boulders.

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Arthur's Pass-12

The path continued, climbing a hill and emerging into a snowgrass clearing with very beautiful views of Mt. Rolleston/Kaimatau. The trail reentered a beech forest for a short stretch to Bealey River. The trail ended here, and it is a great place for a rest stop or lunch break to admire the scenery around you.

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After backtracking to the main trail, it was a short walk up to the Dobson Nature Walk. The trail ascended a bit through a series of switchbacks, and there were many sign points describing the alpine plants and the history of the pass.

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The trail then turned into the Lake Misery Track, which is a one kilometer stretch connecting the Dobson Nature Walk to the Otira Valley Track. The trail was actually through Lake Misery when the water level is low. Part of the track was boardwalked, but other parts were through narrow trails of tall grass and mud. Once the mud became too much of a nuisance for me to deal with, I turned around and returned to the village.

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After a leisurely lunch, it was time for the return train trip. This time I was able to snag a window seat on the most scenic side of the train car.

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In all honesty, if I had known what the weather situation was going to be in advance, I might have just elected to do Arthur’s Pass in a day trip. If you don’t want to hike Avalanche Peak or any of the other long tracks, you can easily see the main sights of Arthur’s Pass in a day. There are five hours between the morning train arrival at Arthur’s Pass and the afternoon return train to Christchurch. That is enough time to walk the entire Arthur’s Pass trail up and back, and enjoy all the side trips, and still make it back for lunch.

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But if you can swing it, I definitely recommend at least a full day’s trip to Arthur Pass. Between the gorgeous train ride and the gorgeous scenery of Arthur’s Pass village and the walking track, the alpine setting is worth your time.

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Christchurch Street Art

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I’ll be honest and say that I don’t often pay attention to street art when I visit cities. It’s not that I have an aversion to it or anything; it’s just that I don’t notice it very often.

Christchurch street art-1

But for some reason it stood out for me very much when I visited Christchurch. It’s not that I think that Christchurch is more of a street art haven than places like New York City or London. Maybe because Christchurch is so small that it was all easy to notice. Maybe my eyes were just more open to noticing it all. Maybe it is because wild, colorful street art is such a contrast to Christchurch’s staid, conservative reputation.

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In any case, I very much enjoyed looking at all the art that provided color and interest to the city.

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Some of the art was more of deliberate, planned outdoor art installations.

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These installations were particularly prominent around Cathedral Square, which reopened in June 2013 and is kind of of the hub of Christchurch’s regeneration. The installations were titled “A Vast, Changing Canvas” and its purpose was to show that “in the city’s altered centre, art, storytelling and the realm of the imagination claim a vital role. Artists Chris Heaphy and Sara Hughes have unleashed colour, pattern and energy to communicate an active sense of possibility.”

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All the street art in Christchurch (both the deliberate and more spontaneous) really did serve to brighten up the city and showcase the possibility of art.

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