It wasn’t supposed to be a rally race around the island — it just worked out that way. Bookended by a Dec. 24-25 reservation at Abel Tasman Park and a family wedding after that, we had just four days to explore the south bit of New Zealand’s South Island.

We touched down in Christchurch just after midnight on December 19, and I was relieved to see the Thrifty car rental counter was still manned (womaned, really) and our chariot, a late year Toyota Corolla, was awaited us.  We didn’t have a hotel lined up, and when I asked if there were any accommodation that might be open at that late hour, the Thrifty lady looked at me like I had two heads. Eventually, she directed us to a section of the map with “heaps of motels,” ultimately none of which happened to be open. Luckily, after some needless fretting on my part — my usual reaction — we managed to secure a spacious room at the Best Western for a reasonable price.

We spent the following morning walking around Christchurch.  Obviously once (and still) a very beautiful city, Christchurch was devastated by two near back-to-back earthquakes: A 7.1-magnitude quake in September 2010 and a 6.3-magnitude “aftershock” in February 2011 that claimed 185 lives and leveled portions of the central business district (Make sure your guidebook was updated after these quakes. Ours was not).  Much of the center of town is still cordoned off as construction crews work and can only be viewed from the “green zone” outside the fences.  The area is like a war zone.  Some of the damaged businesses and restaurants are only several feet from the fence, but the contents are still as they were on the day of the 2011 earthquake with dishes, office equipment and salon styling products frozen in time. Inside a former pizza parlor, we spied a half-made pie undergoing levels of decomposition we didn’t know existed.

Among the CBD debris is the crumbles remains of Christchurch’s beloved Anglican cathedral. The neo-Gothic style structure was built in the mid-19th century, but has been reduced to a shell of its former self due to the quakes. It’s now at the center of an epic battle between church officials who want to demolish and replace it and conservationists who want it repaired. In the meanwhile, construction on a temporary cardboard cathedral is underway!

Christchurch’s Cashel Mall, a popular shopping district rebuilt post-quake with colorfully painted and assembled shipping containers, is well worth a visit, especially when there’s an open air market. The containers were meant as temporary homes for the district’s displaced shops, but the resulting vibe is so unique and funky that it seems it would be a shame to dismantle them. As we admired the shops, a number of talented street performers treated us to music, including a man belting opera, a woman playing Christmas tunes on a banjo and a trio of teen girls singing a capella.

The Canterbury Museum is an excellent (and free) museum covering the history of New Zealand from the arrival of the Maori to the arrival of Europeans to today.  Unfortunately, the exhibit detailing the city’s recent earthquakes was traveling the country when we visited, but post-quake photographs by local children on display revealed their unique and poignant perspective of the disaster.

If you have time, step into St. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church.  The building is a 19th century wood holdover that has survived multiple earthquakes. It managed to weather the last round of quakes with some stained glass breakage and damage to their prized 1872 Bevington three-manual pipe organ. For now, the congregation is borrowing a “blitz” organ — a pipe organ made from pieces of buildings damaged during the bombing of London in the 1940s.

We left Christchurch and headed south just in time to get hungry, so we stopped en route at a grocery store called New World.  This store became our new Publix (for those of you not from South Florida, Publix is the greatest grocery store on the planet).  The two major grocery chains we encountered in New Zealand were Countdown and New World. New World was almost always superior in terms of quality and price.

Driving toward Queenstown, it soon became obvious that the distances between South Island cities are deceptively large.  It wasn’t that we didn’t realize the number of kilometers we had to drive. We just underestimated how much of the landscape would inspire Lord of the Rings movie flashbacks.  Every corner we rounded revealed a new majestic mountain or pristine blue lake.  I soon took to humming — usually too loudly for Her’s enjoyment — the main LOTR theme song (or at least the 5 seconds I remembered).  The song made the scenery that much more majestic.

To make things even more difficult for uninterrupted driving ability, the side of the highway was lined with pastures of sheep and lupins, a beautiful flowering plant that produces a tall stem of bright and varying colored flowers.  In the first hour of driving, we probably spent 20 minutes on the side of the highway, Her knee-deep in lupins as she photographed sheep framed by the flowers. And, of course, there was the obligatory  inspecting, collecting, identifying and we can’t forget smelling lupins of all sizes, shapes and colors.  Each time we encountered a new, larger combination of sheep and lupins, (especially if we spotted a new lupin color) we had to stop and take about 350 new photographs to augment the photographs of the earlier, less spectacular sheep and lupins.

When I finally slammed on the brakes for something I wanted to see, we were alongside Lake Pukaki and a towering, glaciated mountain at the opposite end.  I later learned this was Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain in New Zealand. The snapshot I took on my phone (thanks to iPhone’s new Panorama feature!) is the iconic shot all the tourist shops sell on postcards at inflated prices.

We stopped for the night in the very happily named, but unfortunately pronounced, Twizel.  Much to our disappointment, the town name is pronounced  is Tw-eye-zel, with the long i, and not “Twizzle.” We located a room at a motor lodge, and I happily walked to the grocery store to procure our supper, humming the LOTR theme once more.

While making dinner in Twizel, we met a friendly young man from Arizona, George, who had just finished a year living on New Zealand’s south island, exploring and fishing his way around.  We shared our Heineken with him and lamented about spending the holidays away from family. Interestingly, George’s accent no longer sounded purely American.  Having spent so much time immersed in the New Zealand culture speaking only with Kiwis, some of his words and phrases had begun to take on a decidedly Kiwi twist. We had some laughs about it at the time, but he wasn’t the only American we encountered with a similarly altered accent.  About a week later, we encountered a man from Kansas City working in a Wellington museum. Amusingly, his accent sounded like some kind of mix of American Midwest, Irish and Scottish.

Continued in Part 2: Clay cliffs and heaps of sheeps