Wine, whales and a warm coastal Canterbury welcome capture Megan Singleton's affection.
Driving from the airport into Christchurch CBD, it would be easy to forget that anything was awry. Autumn leaves were floating to the ground, Hagley Park sprawled in the sun and there was no sign of the road cones and temporary fences that were everywhere two years ago.
But - there's always a but - throw out your GPS because once you hit the CBD it's still like driving through a bomb site. It's hard to imagine how dreadful it has been over the past few years, the locals watching as their city is pulled down.
Today, there are empty sections where office blocks and shops once stood. Our GPS tried its best to get us to the Ibis Hotel, right behind the very cool Re:START mall made of colourful shipping containers. After two laps around the largely fenced-off CBD, I had to phone them.
The shock wears off when you talk to locals. They don't even see the chaos anymore. The hotel receptionists were surprised that we were surprised. It's life, just not as we Aucklanders know it.
The next morning, we headed off via Hanmer Springs on a roadie to Blenheim. It's the hot springs people travel from far and wide for and, with several pools, all at different temperatures, it's perfect no matter what time of year. (I'd suggest bringing jandals to hop around in in the winter.) But the new cocktail menu in their spa is worth writing home about - I was slathered in the lime and mint scent of a mojito sugar scrub.
Within cooee of Hanmer are several wineries and we visited Marble Point, which is building a stunning restaurant on the edge of the Waiau River with sweeping views of the mountains.
The next stop was Kaikoura for a night, where our home was in luxury treetop cottages at Hapuku Lodge, about 12km from Kaikoura town and very close to the iconic Nins Bin for fresh, albeit pricey, crayfish cooked by Miriama in the caravan.
Former Masterchef New Zealand contestant Fiona Read and her husband are managing Hapuku so, as you can imagine, food is important. She wasn't cooking the night we visited, but a guest chef from San Francisco was. After a delicious dinner we walked back to our treehouse to light the fire in our cosy, open-plan room.
The next morning, sperm whales were obliging so we joined Whale Watch Kaikoura and held on to our breakfast as we zoomed around catching precious moments with these amazing mammals that eat great white sharks for lunch.
Three hours north, we left the car in Picton and took a water taxi to Lochmara Lodge in Queen Charlotte Sound.
I now know why hikers do what they do. The views are breathtaking. Lush forest draped over rugged, rolling hills of green down to the sea and who knows how many pairs of boots on the tracks exploring this gem of Marlborough.
The writer was assisted by Jucy Car Rental.