Celebrating Christmas in New Zealand

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Christmas Eve in Nelson

There’s been a string of entries on here lately about celebrating Christmas away from home. We’ve had Fallon from Fallon’s Healthy Life and Heather from The Kimchi Chronicles talking about their experiences in South Korea; Heather from There’s No Place Like Oz and Hannah from Hannah DeMilita talking about their plans for a Christmas in Australia; Brooke from Brooke vs. the World talking about her Christmas in the Ukraine; and we’ve still got one to come from Byron and His Backpacks about the Moroccan Christmas he had a decade ago.

This year Fallon and I found ourselves on the shaky isle for the big day, and we were lucky enough to have made some new friends in Franz Josef to ensure it was a special occasion. We arrived in Nelson late in the day after a nine hour bus ride from Franz Josef. We’d again opted to go with Naked Buses, but the budget travel company redeemed itself with a delightfully chatty bus driver who ensured we got plenty of rest stops and a bit of sight seeing time along the way. It also helped that the bus actually had suspension so we were able to get plenty of sleep on the way.

The highlights of the trip were the rest stops obviously. We snatched a moment with a drooling cat at one nameless roadside cafe and spent a good half hour exploring dour Greymouth over lunch. The real treat of the entire trip though was a chance to stop and explore the famous Pancake Rocks. I had my doubts about how interesting it would be, but walking the paths surround by high thickets of grass put me in mind of a scene out of Jurassic Park. And when we finally emerged to take in the wind-swept cliffs and churning ocean beneath, it was totally worth rousing myself from an iPod assisted nap. There’s just no shortage of stunning terrain in New Zealand.

We arrived in Nelson at around 7pm and I think it’s safe to say that none of us was really feeling the Christmas spirit at this point. Fallon and I checked into our surprisingly nice room at Paradiso Backpackers (with complimentary two minute noodles/ramen) and quickly changed for our dinner date with Jay and Jon. Christmas Eve didn’t see a great deal of cafes open, and downtown Nelson resembled a ghost town as we sought for something slightly more nutritious than Burger King. Jay insisted that we check out the Freehouse bar (a converted church) but it didn’t offer any food as far as we could see, so we instead opted for the odd combination of Mexican and Indian cuisine at Mumbai Mexico.

The proprietor was a friendly guy who not only assured us we’d not find a better burrito in Nelson, but also guaranteed us our money back if we weren’t satisfied. We couldn’t resist such promises. Fallon and I shared a plate of nachos and a plate of butter chicken – and were surprised to find that the Mexican food cooked by the restaurant’s clearly Indian staff was far better than their Indian. We all toasted the occasion with some ice cold Coronas and Lime, and I then made the step up to the deceptively potent $15 Singapore Sling. It might seem a steep price – but they cram half a bottle of wine’s worth of alcohol into a tall glass full of fruity deliciousness. It could well have spelled an early night for me – especially after I was given the enviable task of polishing off Jay’s marguerita at dinner’s end.

As far as dining goes – my Nelson recommendation would be to check out Mumbai Mexico for its Mexican food and its cocktails, but I wasn’t too impressed with its Indian fare. Fallon’s more of a Mexican conisseur than I am – and she said the nachos were the most authentic tasting she’d had in the southern hemisphere. Big call.

Fallon and I at the Nelson Carols by Candlelight. Photo by Jay Foo.

After our dinner and drinks we went off in search of a bar but were instead grabbed by the sound of caroling. Before too long we found ourselves clutching flickering candles and joining the masses on Nelson’s cathedral steps for Carols by Candlelight. We’d made plans to attend a midnight mass, but the community spirit and beautiful carols did the trick for us – and a rousing encour of Silent Night was the perfect finish to a pretty magical piece of happenstance. I even learned a Maori carol that I think I might just try and introduce into the family album next time I’m home. Very sweet tune.

With the caroling done and midnight rapidly approaching, we retired to Accents on the Park – an upmarket looking hostel where Jon and Jay were spending their time in Nelson. A rousing game of Phase 10 ensued in the hostel bar, and some beer and pretzels spelled a pretty good end to a surprisingly good day. With Fallon and I having a 7am flight in the morning it was time to say our goodbyes though, and we faced the sad reality of farewelling two pretty cool people before we made our way back to our hostel for some shut-eye.

Christmas Day in Rotorua

Not a lot needs to be said about our two Jetstar flights between Nelson and Rotorua, although I have to commend the staff on both flights for their upbeat moods and liberal application of chocolate and cookies to the sleepy passengers. It definitely brightened my morning to see those little extra Christmas touches such as tinsel on the overhead lockers and a Santa hat on the pilot.

To say I was at a zombie-like level of tiredness by the time our shuttle had arrived to whisk us to our hostel would be an understatement, but sleep wasn’t yet an option. Fallon had reserved us some much desired privacy at the Regent Flashpackers but we had a lunch date to attend before we could take advantage of the situation. While Regent Flashpackers might not be the nicest or the most equipped of the hostels we’ve stayed it, its staff have been second to none. Emma at reception is an absolute darling and has done a lot to ensure our time in Rotorua has been smooth. Her first favour to us was arranging a $10 ride out to the Rotorua Skylink station with Grumpy’s Shuttle – a cute little ‘Mom & Pop’ organization here in Rotorua that seems to have the market cornered on getting about town. Both Grumpy and his wife (affectionately known as Mrs. Grumpy about town) are cheerful and very willing to offer their advice on potential things to see and do about town.

We arrived at the Rotorua Skylink and took the leisurely ride up the side of the mountain. The Rotorua gondola doesn’t really compare to the stunning views offered in Queenstown, but it was a briliantly sunny day and the prospect of a special Christmas buffet at the top did plenty to make the trip up seem all the sweeter. Our reservation was for 12.30 but the staff were kind enough to let us in an hour early, so we snatched up our complimentary flutes of champagne and donned silly hats before digging in to the buffet. I can’t say whether the standard of food at the buffet is always as good as what we got on Christmas Day, but it was a damned fine feast. It wasn’t a patch on my mother’s punch and seafood salad, but there was plenty of scrumptious options and the wait staff were all friendly and eager to snap a photo or two for us on request.

With full bellies and heavy eye lids we wanted nothing more than to just retire to our room for some shut-eye, but we had a complimentary luge ride to do and we weren’t going to waste it. I’m glad we did it. Jay and Jon had told us that the luge rides were addictive, and I could definitely see why after my five minute jaunt through their scenic route. If my stomach hadn’t been so unsettled I’d have considered buying a second ride, but the prospect of a nap at the bottom of the hill was too strong. In true Christmas tradition, I followed a gorging lunch with a few hours of hibernation.

We woke late in the day and exchanged the stockings we’d assembled for one another in Queenstown before heading out to find something for dinner. Rotorua’s Eat Streat was right on our doorstep, but Christmas meant that very few of the trendy cafes and eateries were open. We opted for Lovely India – which boasted of having the best butter chicken in town. Feeling generous, I sprang for their banquet and Fallon and I indulged in the day’s second exercise in binge eating. I can’t comment on the other butter chicken in Rotorua, but if there’s better to be had, I’d love to try it.

The remainder of our Christmas Day was spent in bed in our hostel. Not doing anything suspect, parents – but watching Elf and A Christmas Story until we were too tired to keep our eyes open. It might not have had all of the trimmings of a Christmas at home, but good friends and good times meant that my homesickness was blessedly limited. Nelson and Rotorua had both turned out their best, and my second Christmas away from home was far better than my first.

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