The Toughest Summer

Introducing Baby A (yes, he’s wearing his sister’s pastel onesie)

This holiday season, I want to give thanks for my healthy Baby A, who is almost four months old (I can’t believe it!).

This past summer was one of the toughest of my life. Some days I think I’m being a little melodramatic, but other days I just accept it: I have a little PTSD from the events of this summer. (Yesterday I took Baby A to the pediatrician’s office, and the too familiar smell of hospital hand sanitizer made my stomach churn.) I thank God every day that I have a healthy Baby A, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have “Why did this have to happen to me?” moments, and moments where I think of what could have happened, of the pain and sorrow that could have resulted from this near tragedy.

My water broke when I was less than 23 weeks pregnant. In the state of Idaho, 24 weeks is when a fetus is considered “viable.” After finally going to the hospital to be checked out (honestly, I thought I was just being cautious — I mean, whose water breaks at 22 weeks?!) and having the triage nurse confirm that I was indeed leaking amniotic fluid, Alex and I decided to have me admitted to the hospital, to start a round of antibiotics, steroid shots, and hospital bedrest. (Apparently some patients decide to take a more “natural” approach by going home to “see what happens.”)

Thus began my first summer in Idaho — within the confines of a hospital room. It was my first time away from Baby M for more than three hours — that was really tough on both Baby M and me. (I will NEVER forget that on the day I was hospitalized, Baby M was crying, sprawled across my chest, as a tech performed an ultrasound on my belly.) Three months after coming home, we are finally getting our relationship back to the way it was. (It makes sense, and yet hurts me at the same time, that she was closer to Daddy than to me, since I was gone for three months — even if Alex did bring her to see me almost every day.)

When the neonatologist came to talk about our baby’s very definite NICU stay, and what to expect if he was born at 23 weeks, 24 weeks, etc., I sobbed. At 24 weeks, there was a 44% survival rate, and an 85% chance of severe disability (which would require a lifetime caregiver). Alex and I had just started house hunting in Boise. Now we had to think about a new criterion: did we need a single story home, or to at least have one bedroom on the first floor?

I didn’t even pay attention to the survival rates the neonatologist gave us for 28 weeks. Five (long) weeks into the future just seemed too far away. So impossibly far away.

And then there were the “smaller” every day issues I had to deal with. Having a sore back/behind from all the lying down/sitting. Eating almost all of my meals alone. Suddenly sleeping alone — on a very uncomfortable hospital bed. Going stir-crazy from staying inside my room. Trusting Alex to buy a house, without being able to see it for myself (he did pretty well… and thank goodness for Facetime!). Not having a chance to make any friends in Boise. Not being around to set up our new house and not being there when our shipment finally arrived from Korea. But the very worst was that I missed Baby M’s birthday. Yes, Alex brought her to my hospital room on her birthday, and we celebrated with cake. But, it was only for a few hours, and understandably, she got bored and cranky in my hospital room. I didn’t get to throw her a birthday party… and even if I could have, I hadn’t met anyone to invite!

Every day, I had this overwhelming sense of guilt. What kind of mother was I, being away from Baby M for so long? What kind of wife, to make Alex be Mr. Mom (and he was even more than that — he had to be both the sole breadwinner and both mom and dad)? What kind of woman’s water broke so early, when life outside the womb isn’t even viable? I wasn’t even good at being pregnant. And a bunch of “what ifs” ran through my head. What if I had rested more? What if I hadn’t let the stress of our move from Korea get to me? What if I had taken more vitamin C/eaten more protein/done something to make my membrane walls thicker, more robust?

My friend Janna recently sent me this article (88 Days Trapped in Bed to Save a Pregnancy), saying that it reminded her of me (and jokingly asked, “Too soon?”). As I read the article, I shuddered and cringed, remembering my days on bedrest in the hospital, the loneliness, the immense fear that I could give birth to a very premature baby, or worse yet, lose my baby.

If you want to try and understand the summer I went through, please read through the entire article. I can relate to so much of the article, I feel like I could have written it myself (although unlike the author, the doctor on call immediately confirmed that I was leaking amniotic fluid; I did not have to use a bedpan — thank God!; my broke again a few weeks after I was released from the hospital; and, I already had a baby at home to worry about/be separated from). But here are all the similarities: the incessant stress and worry, the constant non-stress test (NST) monitoring, the sequential compression devices (SCDs) pumping my lower legs to prevent blood clots, the antibiotics, the steroid shots to accelerate baby’s lung development (the lungs are the last organs to develop — because, why waste energy on something you don’t need in utero?), being prodded every four hours, and thinking that this was definitely NOT what I had in mind when I had sometimes relished the idea of “staying in bed and reading and watching tv all day.”

“Fifty per cent of women with pPROM go into labour within 48 hours, and 95% deliver within one week of rupture. Four of the remaining 5% deliver within two weeks. One percent of women with pPROM experience spontaneous resealment of the membranes and go on to carry the baby to term. One per cent.”

Like the author of the article, I was a(n almost) one percent-er. My OB and the antepartum nurses were surprised — they hadn’t met anyone who resealed. I spent three weeks limping around (it hurt to walk!) and during that time, we moved twice — from our extended stay to a hotel to our house. Just when I was beginning to have hope that I might actually make it to 37 weeks (term), if not 40 weeks (or even go past my due date!!), my water broke again. This time, it was “it.” Gushes and gushes of amniotic fluid. Alex took me back to triage, and we went through the entire process again. “Oh, you’re back!” said all the nurses, surprised to see me again.

One thing I did get out of the whole experience is a new perspective. When I was pregnant with Baby M, at my 34 week checkup, my OB at the natural birthing center wanted to induce me because my amniotic fluid level was low. At the time, I felt like my heart dropped down into my stomach. It seemed like the end of the world. Deliver at 34 weeks? We weren’t ready! She wasn’t ready! What about her lung development; how long would she have to stay in the NICU? Luckily, we made it until almost my due date. But I remember thinking how early 34 weeks was. And here I was this summer, hospitalized, wishing and praying to make it to 34 weeks. At the time, it had seemed impossible. All of us thought 34 weeks would be a miracle (I did make it, and it was a miracle). It’s funny how your perspective changes, though, based on the situation.

Anyway, I am incredibly thankful that Baby A was born healthy, and had a relatively short stint in the NICU. I’m thankful for Alex’s support and love. I’m thankful that both grandmas flew out several times to take care of Baby M and relieve Alex. And, I’m very thankful for my own mother’s optimism. She had said, from the moment I was hospitalized, “I believe we are going to have a good baby.” And, we did.

The last paragraph of the article sums it up perfectly (down to the plastic water pitcher, that I asked the nurses to refill frequently — if I was leaking fluid, I was going to take in even more fluid!): “One day, when Angus was about three years old, I cleaned out a closet and unexpectedly found the plastic water pitcher that had been by my hospital bed. In an instant, the lighthouse in my head revolved, and everything went white and cold. I was certain that the baby was in danger – so certain that I had to run to the bathroom and vomit. I don’t know why this surprised me, or why I thought I would be different, immune to the after-effects of my ordeal. All survivors have scars.”

I definitely have invisible scars. And I will always remember my very first summer in Boise, stuck inside a hospital room. Praying. Hoping. Waiting.


Playing with her brother


Baby M and Baby A


Toddler Activity Board

I finally completed the toddler activity board I’d been wanting to make for Baby M. (It was supposed to be my summer project, but between our move to Boise, my hospitalization, and the early arrival of Baby A — that’s for another post!, well, I ran out of time!)


Baby M’s activity board

What is a toddler activity board? Google toddler+activity board, or sensory board, and you’ll find sooooooo many websites with do-it-yourself boards, as well as thousands of hits on Pinterest. There are even ready-made boards you can buy off Amazon (I like these two Melissa & Doug boards: Latches Wooden Activity Board and Basic Skills Board). I wanted to make my own, so that I could a). put things on that I knew Baby M would love, b). save some money (ha! All in, I probably spent $40 or so…).

Baby M’s activity board has had: 1). velcro, 2). magnets, 3). buttons, 4). zipper, 5). snaps, 6). buckles, 7). a hinge, 8). a chain door lock, 9). ribbon to tie, 10). twist tops (these she promptly ripped off…)

Here’s how I made/attached each one to the 2’x2’x0.75″ MDF board (from Home Depot).

1). Attached one side of velcro to the board, and other side to felt animals from Michaels.


Cute felt monkeys and frogs with velcro

2). Gorilla-glued a baking tray (from the dollar store), and purchased these Melissa & Doug wooden animal magnets (Baby M loves pulling out an animal, saying the name — in Chinese!, and putting it on the board).


Magnets, snaps, button snaps, and buckles (also decorated with pompoms!)

3). I sewed large buttons (from Michaels) to a strip of fabric (my old pajama shorts, hehe), and cut/sewed corresponding button holes. Baby M has gotten really good with doing these buttons.


Buttons and zipper (and also some pompoms to hide the Gorilla glue that came through)

4). I originally Gorilla-glued a zipper directly onto the board, but it didn’t provide enough slack, so that it was nearly impossible to unzip. I pulled off that zipper, and sewed both sides of a new zipper to fabric, which I then hot-glued onto the board.

5). I sewed one end of the snaps onto a strip of fabric, which I then Gorilla-glued to the board. I sewed the other end of the snaps to large, colorful buttons, and then reinforced with some hot glue (I want to make sure these are NOT a choking hazard). I then realized there were three snaps from my pajama shorts, so I cut those out and also attached to the board.


Button snaps + peekaboo ribbon

6). I purchased a pack of plastic buckles (from Michaels), and attached each end to some elastic (but any fabric would work), and then Gorilla-glued those to the board. (Be careful to provide enough slack so that your toddler doesn’t end up pulling off the buckles!)

7). I screwed on a hinge I purchased from the Home Depot. (You can make it fancier by putting something on the hinge… but I got lazy!)

8). I screwed on a chain door lock (also from the Home Depot).

9). I had a small gift box that closed with a pink ribbon tie, so I cut down the box, scored both pieces, and then glued them to the board. To make it cuter, I cut a picture of a pasture and put some stickers of sheep (Baby M loves sheep) on it, so that when you untie the ribbons and “open” the flaps, you’ll see the image.

Baby M playing with her new activity board

10). I saw this on someone else’s website — a woman made a board with a bunch of baby food pouch tops, since her kiddo loved unscrewing and screwing the tops of these pouches. I’m not sure how she got hers to stay, because even though I cut and flanged the pouch before I Gorilla-glued the pouch onto the board (and it seemed pretty solid), Baby M took off the cap and ripped off both pouches. She then proceeded to try and suck from the pouch (even though she hated those pouches by the end of our New Zealand trip…).

After writing it all down, it really doesn’t seem like it should have taken that much time to make this board… but, I’m not good at sewing and there was a bit of sewing involved with the buttons and snaps. All in all, I’m happy with the way this activity board came out. I have it against a wall (I’ve seen some people mount theirs to the wall, but it seems too permanent to me). I can only hope I did a good enough job securing everything, so that once Baby M is done with this board, Baby A can have a go at it (in a year or so!).

Other Highlights from Our New Zealand Trip

We loved our family trip to New Zealand’s South Island. We wish we could have spent more time (two and a half weeks was NOT enough!) and have had enough time to visit the North Island as well. If you’re traveling with young kids (or in a group), I highly recommend renting a car. It gives you so much more flexibility!

Here are some of the other highlights from our trip (not in order of popularity, just in the order we saw them):

1). Abel Tasman Coastal Track: We did a short hike because of Baby M, but if you’re there without kids (or with kids who are a little older), you can go tramping (yes, that’s a word) or camping.


Abel Tasman Coastal Track, at low tide


Baby M walking with Alex

2). Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes (and the west coast of the South Island, in general): Besides scenic Queenstown/Fiordland, we thought the west coast was the most beautiful. The coastline is very dramatic, with steep cliffs and crashing waves.


Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

3). Wanaka and the Lakes Region: We unfortunately only had time to drive through Wanaka (we stopped for lunch), but the entire region is gorgeous!


Lakes around Wanaka

4). Hooker Valley Track at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park: This is a fairly easy trail — it took us about three and a half hours roundtrip, because we let Baby M walk for quite a bit, and we had a picnic lunch.


While a lot of the trail is like this, there are still steps and dirt paths (so, don’t bring a stroller)


The end of the track leads to a glacier lake

5). Queenstown: This town has so much natural beauty, it’s ridiculous. Oh, and there’s lots of good food to be had.


It’s never too cold for ice cream


Cookie Muncher Cookie Bar

Cookie Muncher Cookie Bar in Queenstown — maybe not the best cookies I’ve had, but it’s certainly a fun place! Milk (in three flavors) comes on tap! (Baby M chugged a glass of cold milk in just a few minutes!)

Pedro’s House of Lamb in Queenstown: Some of the best lamb Alex and I have had. It’s fall-off-the-bone good!! For $45 NZD, you get a whole shoulder of lamb, and scalloped potatoes (definitely enough for two very hungry adults).


Delicious lamb… my mouth is watering just looking at this picture!

6). Amisfield Bistro: This winery has a really good (and reasonably priced!) tasting menu. ‘Lunch at Amisfield Bistro’ was highly recommended across all of the TripAdvisor forums I came across. I made reservations well in advance (a must!!) for the ‘Trust the Chef’ lunch set. The chef uses locally sourced, in-season produce. Alex and I normally don’t do this kind of thing (we’re all about quantity, not so much about quality and presentation, haha) but we actually really enjoyed our lunch. (Even though we didn’t know whether we should eat the leaves in some of the dishes — seriously, look at the pictures — or not…)

Added bonus: There’s a bocce ball court right next to the outdoor patio, and a large lawn for kids to play. Baby M enjoyed running around while Alex and I enjoyed our lunch and wine!


Trust the Chef tasting menu; Baby M on a tractor

7). Wineries in Cromwell: The town of Cromwell in the Central Otago region of New Zealand has wineries everywhere you look! Besides Amisfield, we visited Mt Difficulty Wines (for afternoon wine) and Wooing Tree Vineyard (for lunch). The view at Mt Difficulty was spectacular! Lunch at Wooing Tree was nice and relaxing AND there’s a playground and sandpit for the kiddies.

There’s also a cheesery (I LOVE this noun!) at Gibbston Valley Cheese (next to their winery). It was nice to sit outside and enjoy a cheese plate with wine.


View from Mt Difficulty Wines


Lunch at Wooing Tree Vineyard & cheese plate at Gibbston Valley Cheese

8). Arrowtown: A quaint town, just outside of Queenstown, that used to be a gold mining village. The downtown has lots of little shops and cafes and there are a few golf courses in town. We had dinner one night at the Millbrook Resort (I think we ate at the Clubhouse) — great food and a great setting! (Yes, Alex was upset he didn’t have a chance to play golf…)


Top: downtown Arrowtown; Bottom: Millbrook Resort and golf course

To read our New Zealand South Island trip summary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island
To read about our whale watching flight: Wings over Whales, Kaikoura
To read about our farm stay experience: Pete’s Farm Stay
To read about our glacier helicopter tour: Glacier Helicopter Tour & Snow Landing
To read about our stargazing observatory tour: Earth & Sky Experience, Lake Tekapo
To read about our Milford Sound tour: Milford Sound: New Zealand’s Top Attraction

Milford Sound: New Zealand’s Top Attraction


View from Queenstown to Milford Sound

Anyone who has travelled to Queenstown, South Island and surrounding area will tell you that Milford Sound is worth the journey, despite the four to five hour (one-way) drive from Queenstown. (And, we’ve been told, if you can make it to the even more remote Doubtful Sound, do it. It’s just as beautiful as Milford Sound but more quiet, with fewer tourists.) Although we heard the drive is absolutely beautiful, there was just no way we could subject Baby M to nine to 10 hours in a carseat (or, holding her on our laps on a tourbus)! Another option would have been to spend a night at Te Anau (a small town about halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound). We opted for the more adventurous flight to Milford Sound.


Taking off from Queenstown Airport

We booked a flight/cruise/flight tour with Milford Sound Scenic Flights for the day after we arrived in Queenstown, and the day before my mom had to leave New Zealand. Full disclosure: There are several companies that offer tours of Milford Sound, with the flight-cruise-flight option. We chose Milford Sound Scenic Flights because (besides their stellar reviews) at the top of their “Our Pilots & Planes” page, is Norman McTabby II (the second!!), who is in charge of passenger meet and greet, and who is also a… cat. It’s hilarious! 😀 😀 😀 (Unfortunately, we did NOT get to meet Mr. McTabby the second.)


Can you see the blue lake on top of the mountain?

The morning of our flight, we were all ready to go. As instructed, an hour before departure, I called the number for the weather hotline. Our flight to Milford Sound was cancelled due to inclement weather at Milford Sound; would I like to re-book on a scenic flight around Queenstown? As we were discussing what we wanted to do, I called back and all flights were canceled; would I like to re-book for tomorrow? It was a bummer that my mom couldn’t join us on our Milford Sound tour, but, having flown the next day, Alex and I agreed that it was probably for the best my mom didn’t go… the flight was scary. Beautiful, yes. Amazing, yes. Thrilling, yes. And, scary.

The next day, we dropped my mom off at Queenstown Airport, and then Alex drove the three of us to Milford Sound Scenic Flights’ office and hangar. We were divided into smaller groups and each assigned a pilot. We then boarded our GA8 7-passenger, single engine Airvan. Once again, we were given headsets, which Baby M just played with and refused to wear.

The flight out of Queenstown was spectacular — seriously, take a look at my photos. I think the flight into/out of Queenstown has been voted one of the world’s most scenic!! Again, we were afforded views of the mountains and lakes that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten from the road. (We saw lakes on top of mountains!!) As we flew into Fiordland National Park (the largest national park in New Zealand, with Milford Sound being the most famous and visited of the fiords carved out by glaciers a long time ago), things started to get bumpy. Really bumpy. Our plane dropped in altitude several times, and we were moving a lot from side to side. Alex and I started to panic when the plane’s instrument panel started emitting loud beeps. Our pilot remained completely calm throughout the entire flight, continuing with his commentary as if what we were experiencing was a normal, everyday thing (and perhaps it was?).


The West Coast of New Zealand & Tasman Sea


Fiordland & West Coast of the South Island

We flew out to the Tasman Sea on the West Coast of New Zealand, before turning around and flying through Milford Sound. Our plane maneuvered its way over the water, between mountains. We flew past waterfalls. It seriously looked like we were flying into a “Lord of the Rings” movie. It was absolutely un-be-lie-va-ble. When we finally landed at the tiny airport at Milford Sound, Alex and I breathed a collective sigh of relief!


See the plane flying out of Milford Sound?


Gorgeous Milford Sound (there’s a plane — the white blip — flying in the valley)

After being constrained on the plane, Baby M was happy to run around on the boat and climb all over the seats. Alex and I enjoyed the views and a few cups of tea. We agreed we should eat our lunches sooner rather than later, in case our flight back to Queenstown was equally as bumpy (it wasn’t).


On our Milford Sound cruise


Double rainbow! (…what does it mean?)

Around nine in the morning, the Sound was pretty empty. We honestly only saw a couple other cruise boats out. We saw waterfalls and seals sunning themselves on rocks. I loved watching the small planes flying into Milford Sound; I was still in awe that we had just done the same thing!


(I think this was) Stirling Falls

We were assigned to a larger 13-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan for our flight back. Compared to our tiny plane going to the Sound, this plane felt like a commercial jet! Once again, we flew out to the Tasman Sea before turning around to go back to Queenstown. The jagged coastline looked completely uninhabited. Flying into Queenstown was just as breathtaking as flying out. Alex and I agreed: Queenstown really is one of the world’s most beautiful places.


Milford Sound cruise

When visiting Queenstown, make every effort to take a day trip (or longer) to Milford (or Doubtful) Sound. There really is no place on Earth quite like it!


Milford Sound was peaceful early in the morning

| Milford Sound: Fly – Cruise – Fly |

Phone: 0800 207 206 / +64 3 442 3065


One complaint everyone has about Milford Sound is how commercial it’s become, and how people show up to Milford Sound for the scenic cruises by the busload. I was worried about that when booking, so I asked when it was the least busy (since Milford Flights offers flight tours departing Queenstown at 8 AM, 10 AM, and 2 PM — October through April). The reservations agent said leaving Queenstown at 8 AM is ideal, because we’d get to the Sound before 9 AM, and by the time we finished the cruise, around 11:30 AM, and were heading back to Queenstown, the big bus tours would be arriving at Milford Sound.

While there was complimentary coffee, tea (Alex and I loved the strong tea with milk, favored by the British, etc.), and water on board, there wasn’t food available for purchase. You can either bring your own, or do what we did: reserve a picnic lunch through Milford Flights for only $16 NZD per person (it was a really good bagged lunch, too). Make sure you reserve the lunch with your trip reservation — that way you’ll be handed a bagged lunch prior to boarding the cruise. Some people on our flight wanted to order the lunch the day of, and weren’t able to.

Due to the unpredictable New Zealand weather, make sure you give yourself several days in Queenstown, and book your trip for the first day you have free. That way, you have the opportunity to go to Milford Sound on a later day if your tour is cancelled.

If you have an (over)active toddler, make sure you bring a baby carrier. It was useful for the cruise because we were able to go outside on the deck without having to worry about Baby M falling overboard.


Cruise points of interest

Read the summary of our New Zealand South Island trip: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island

Read about our glacier helicopter tour: Glacier Helicopter Tour & Snow Landing

Read about our whale watching flight: Wings over Whales, Kaikoura

Glacier Helicopter Tour & Snow Landing


Mt. Cook from the air

My friends Bridget and Jenny both highly recommended a helicopter tour over Fox Glacier and/or Franz Joseph Glacier on the South Island. Prior to New Zealand, I’d never been on a helicopter before (Alex did a helicopter ride in Hawaii over a decade ago). I was slightly nervous, so what did I do? Google ‘helicopter’+’new zealand’+’crash’ of course. It didn’t make me feel good that there was a helicopter crash on Fox Glacier in November of 2015. But, I made sure to NOT book a tour with that company, since there are so many to choose from (it took some research to figure out which tour company was involved in the crash… because the company ‘rebranded’ itself last year with a new name). And Alex and I vowed to NOT do the tour in the case of inclement weather.


Flying over Tasman Glacial Lake

Well, we needn’t have worried. We experienced TERRIBLE weather the entire time we were staying at Fox Glacier town. Rainy and very foggy. Our helicopter tour was cancelled, rescheduled a few times, and cancelled again. The morning we left Fox Glacier (and drove 500 miles — road distance, to only really travel 20 miles — actual distance), it was still drizzling and foggy. As we drove away from the ‘Southern Alps,’ the skies began to clear and the sun finally made its appearance.


View from the ‘best’ seat on the helicopter 😀

After we arrived at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we made a reservation for a 45-minute ‘Glacier Highlights’ helicopter tour with Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters for the following day. Luckily, we had a beautiful, sunny day for our helicopter ride!


Amazing vantage point

When Alex and I arrived at Mt. Cook airport, we were told our tour was being combined with another tour. And, we lucked out!! We paid for the shorter, 45-minute tour which only tours the nearby Tasman Glacier, but we went on the 55-minute ‘Grand Circle’ tour, which also included Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier on the west side of the Southern Alps! I also lucked out because we were assigned seats based on weight/size, and I got to sit in the front row, on the left side (so I had an unobstructed view from the front and side windows)!


Franz Joseph Glacier crevasses (I think it was Franz and not Fox)

On our way out to the glaciers, we flew over the Tasman Glacier Lake (gray due to the sediment runoff from the Tasman Glacier), and close to Aoraki/Mt. Cook (the tallest mountain in New Zealand). We then flew over Fox Glacier (much better view than from our hike to the glacier terminal face!!) and Franz Joseph Glacier — the density of the packed snow and the sunlight made the snow look blue. The crevasses (deep fractures, or breaks, in a glacier’s ice sheets) looked gigantic (as you can tell from our pictures).


Coming in for our snow landing on Tasman Glacier

The pilot made a snow landing on top of Tasman Glacier. We were able to see a snow plane take off from the same glacier (really cool to watch). I expected it to be cold on the glacier, but it was just past noon on a sunny day, and it was quite warm! We walked around for a bit and chatted with the pilot. (We swear, New Zealand must have the highest number of pilots per capita!)


With our helicopter on Tasman Glacier


With snow plane in background

We then took off and headed back to Mt. Cook airport. I loved every minute of our helicopter tour. It was incredible to see the Southern Alps up close and up high! It was truly a unique experience! As when people say, “When in Rome…,” I say, “When in New Zealand, do a helicopter tour. You won’t regret it!”


On our way back to Mt. Cook airport 


We enjoyed a beautiful, sunny day

| Mount Cook Ski Planes and Helicopters |
phone: 0800 80 07 02


We did the red ‘Grand Circle’ tour

[Side note: I’m not getting into politics here, but I just found this funny. During our time in New Zealand, I kept saying “Fox and Franz,” referring to the glaciers, but I kept hearing “Fox and Friends” the morning show.]

To read about our South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island

Earth & Sky Experience, Lake Tekapo


University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory, in the afternoon

My high school had a planetarium, and I took a semester-long astronomy class. At the time, I could name a bunch of stars and constellations, and learned how to navigate based on the position of the moon and the North Star. I’ve since forgotten almost everything I learned… but, I still find astronomy very interesting.


Mt. John Observatory & view of surrounding lakes

Alex and I signed up for the Earth & Sky Experience, an observatory tour (which our friend Tricia recommended), near Lake Tekapo on the South Island of New Zealand. When I asked a TripAdvisor forum about it, all the visitors highly recommended it but the locals said they “didn’t get what all the fuss was about” and it “wasn’t worth taking a detour to Lake Tekapo just for the tour.” But, since Alex and I are such nerds, AND we were going to be spending a few days at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park (about an hour’s drive away), AND my mom was there to stay with Baby M after we put her to bed, we decided, why not?

Having lived in a megacity like Seoul for the past almost four years, Alex and I hadn’t had a chance to see many stars (not just because of the light pollution, but actual air pollution). So, any place in New Zealand was going to be better for stargazing than Seoul, let alone the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the world’s largest dark sky reserves. What’s a dark sky reserve? It’s an area that has superb sky quality (clean, clear air) that is protected from light pollution. What exactly does this mean? Well, when we were driving at night, it was kind of scary because the roads were pitch black. No streetlights. And walking around our motel complex, there were very few street lamps. It was dark. But, then we looked up into the night sky, and were completely wowed. We’d never seen so many stars before. And the Milky Way! It was surreal.


Some world-class telescopes are housed here

First, we had to be a little careful in picking a night for our 2-hour University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory tour (Earth & Sky also offers a shorter tour of Cowan’s Observatory). The night sky is the darkest during a new moon (when the moon isn’t visible), so the stars and Milky Way are the most visible. During a full moon, the luminosity of the moon washes out the Milky Way and fainter stars. We actually planned our itinerary a little around phases of the moon in April, so that we weren’t at the dark sky reserve during the full moon! Of course, we didn’t have that much leeway, so we settled on a third quarter (half) moon.


Beautiful view of surrounding Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki

Because the time of sunset changes (slightly) each day, we were informed of our departure time the day before our tour. Alex and I helped my mom put Baby M to bed, and then drove over to Earth & Sky’s Lake Tekapo office (an hour away). We were given a quick introduction, along with red-light flashlights (red is the color that is easiest on eye strain, especially in contrast to the dark — Alex explained that’s why BMWs use red for its dashboard display, and the best to prevent light pollution), and arctic parkas (we were told to dress very warmly, as it gets really cold up at Mt. John Observatory — Alex and I were both wearing thermal underwear and puffy coats… we probably could have done without the thermal underwear, haha!).

Halfway up to Mt. John Observatory, the bus driver turned off the headlights (and of course there weren’t any streetlights). It was a very scary ride in the pitch dark, but the bus driver said he relies on his experience and the bumps in the road to guide him! We met our tour guide, a spunky grad student from Singapore. She led us (carefully) to the stargazing area, where we divided up into groups of three.


Worth it for the view, even if you don’t do the tour at night!

We enjoyed hot chocolate while learning about the Southern hemisphere’s Southern Cross (we were surprised to learn that, unlike the North Star, which shows you directly where due North is, you have to “connect the dots” by drawing two lines to find due South — trust me, it’s much easier to find due North!!). We also learned about how stars that look close to each other (by the naked eye) aren’t necessarily close to each other (I think the example used was: Alpha and Beta Centauri look to be close together, but Alpha Centauri is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri is to Beta Centauri…). Since Mt. John Observatory is actively being used for research, we were able to look through a few world-class telescopes to see far away stars, constellations, and nebula (with help from grad students — what a cool place to do research!). We had about an hour of really good stargazing, before the moon rose into the night sky, and washed out many of the stars (despite it being a half moon!). But, then we got to see the moon through a telescope, which was pretty neat!

[If you have a digital-SLR camera, make sure you bring it. One of the guides will hookup your camera to the telescopes so that you can capture some amazing photos! We only had our iPhones… And flash photography is obviously not allowed.]

Whether you’re into astronomy or you just want a good guided stargazing and observatory tour, check out the Earth & Sky Experience!

| Earth & Sky Experience |

FYI: They cancel tours due to inclement weather and high winds, but not for cloud coverage (with the reason being you can still learn about their observatory, the telescopes and stars).

| Earth & Sky Astro-Cafe |
The day after our star gazing tour, we drove up, during the day, to the Astro-Cafe at Mt. John Observatory. The view of surrounding Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki is spectacular! And the coffee drinks were pretty good too, although I was slightly disappointed that the barista didn’t make an astronomy-related pattern on our drinks… (I’ve seen some pictures of a planet or stars, haha)

FYI: The road leading up to Mt. John Observatory is private, so you’ll have to pay 8 NZD to drive up. Alternatively, you could hike up…


Great views and drinks at the Astro-Cafe

To read about our New Zealand South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island

Wings over Whales, Kaikoura


Taking off for our Wings over Whales flight

The good thing about having friends who recently visited a place that you plan on visiting, is that it saves you a lot of time otherwise spent on researching the destination. “Wings over Whales was such a unique experience,” my friend Tricia told me. After reading TripAdvisor reviews that confirmed her experience (trust but verify?), we booked three seats aboard a whale watching flight (Wings over Whales also does scenic flights of the coast near Kaikoura). Kids 3 and under fly free with an adult, as long as they are seated on an adult’s lap.


Heading out to sea

[Side note: These ‘excursions’ (flights, helicopter tours, etc.) can quickly add up. To help us decide, Alex and I tried to think of the next time we would be able to do these things, in New Zealand, and chose which activities to do. In the end, we felt the excursions we did were well worth the money spent, and we’ll cherish these memories more than any souvenir we could have purchased.]

Like I mentioned in my previous posts, the quaint coastal town of Kaikoura was hit hard by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake from November 2016. When we were there in April, the town was still struggling (it seemed like half the shops downtown were boarded up — some closed permanently while others were in the slow process of rebuilding). In fact the tourism board’s slogan is “Yes, We’re Open.” Unfortunately, a lot of the reason why many tourists visit Kaikoura is for the scenic coastal highway running from Christchurch in the south through Kaikoura and north into wine country (Tricia, who went before the earthquake, said this stretch of road was one of her favorites). Honestly, while Kaikoura is beautiful, and we very much enjoyed our whale watching flight, I’m not sure I’d recommend the detour (especially since, at the time, the roads going north were all closed) to go to Kaikoura if the coastal roads aren’t open.

| Wings over Whales |


Wings over Whales flight

We were instructed to arrive a little earlier than our flight time, to check in (and weigh in) and watch a short informational video on safety and whales. Since the planes are small, each person is guaranteed a window seat. We were given life vests and ear muffs (Baby M was given a pair of small ear muffs, which she refused to wear after a few minutes). The ear muffs were more to hear the pilot talking rather than noise protection (the noise wasn’t that loud).


Top left: whale and whale watching boat

We flew on an 8-seater Gippsland Airvan. It was my first time on a small plane! At first we flew over Kaikoura and the coast (beautiful, crystal clear water) before heading to sea. The pilot started circling around a whale watch boat, and that’s when we spotted our first sperm whale. I’ve been on a few whale watching cruises (the last one in Maine, where halfway through, I was left clutching a bag of Alex’s puke… not fun!!) before but it was neat to see whales from a different perspective (you can see the blow hole from the air!). [You can also do a whale watching boat tour, but that’s usually three hours long, versus a 30 minute flight, and you’re more likely to get seasick! Plus, I think the minimum age for the whale watch boat tour was eight, so we couldn’t have taken Baby M.]

The pilot did some very tight circles around the first whale, before it submerged. We then went a little further and spotted our second whale. The pilot again did some tight maneuvers so that we could see that whale, but, afterwards most of us agreed that that was when we started feeling nauseous… Luckily, we headed back to land before any of us actually got sick!


In front of our Gippsland Airvan


Seal colony

Other things you can do in Kaikoura include nature trails, visiting the seal colony (you can get really close and see seal pups!), and enjoying good seafood. We visited the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk, a food caravan that sells all kinds of fresh seafood. You purchase whatever you want (we opted for a few scallop platters and a lobster/crayfish), and can either take your food to go, or sit at one of the little tables along the side of the road. (Those of you traveling with young kids, beware! You may want to take your food and eat elsewhere, in case you have a little wanderer trying to walk into the street!)


Fresh seafood from Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk

If State Highway 1 (the scenic coastal road) is open going into and out of Kaikoura, definitely consider making a trip out there. And if you’re into whale watching or scenic flights, definitely consider Wings over Whales. We enjoyed our 30 minute tour. It was one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand!


Fields and sheep galore, along drive to Kaikoura


New Zealand: beautiful everywhere you look!

To read more about our farm stay experience in New Zealand: Pete’s Farm Stay

To see our New Zealand South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island