The start of December brought more Canadians to NZ. While overjoyed to see them, it was a little odd to finally pick Dale and Ariana up at the airport. I just couldn’t believe they were here and I couldn't help but keep staring at them. Ariana will attest to this! Thankfully, we all adjusted quickly and now it seems as though they’ve always been here.

Upon arriving, we took Dale and Ariana on the now traditional post-flight Pinnacles climb, guaranteed to keep the heart pumping, eyes open and mind alert. A sure-fire cure for jet lag. Together we toured the Mount and Rotorua with mountain biking, beaching, tramping and the natural hot pools at Kerosene Creek. Too soon, they were off with my car to explore their way down to the South Island. Luckily, by the next weekend, we were visited by Matheo, Canadian number 3, and more Mount regional touring ensued.

By the time Jack and I wrapped up our work for the holidays, the visiting Canadians had made their way almost to the bottom of the South Island. We flew down to meet them in Dunedin, on the east coast of the South Island, where Jack’s sister, Kat, and her husband, Louie, live.

Kat and Louie toured us around Dunedin complete with chocolate, beer, albatross, penguins, Otago University and the steepest street in the world. We drove out to Taiaroa Head where we couldn’t miss the Royal Albatross. These would have been more aptly named Giant Albatross. With a wingspan of 3 metres, they soared grandly next to the comparatively miniature seagulls.

At the Cadbury Factory, we were hungrily splattered as one tonne of chocolate cascaded before our eyes and the secret contents of the giant purple silo was revealed. Louie and Kat took us to the Octogan, a street of the same shape, for a sampling of NZ beer. We stopped in at Otago University and Baldwin Street. Baldwin Street is listed in the Guinness Book as the steepest street in the world. We walked the 350 metres alternating between sharing the street with the tourists’ cars and using the staired sidewalk.

Upon arriving at Sandfly Bay, we negotiated the sand dunes and traversed the beach quickly to avoid scaring the yellow-eyed penguins. We perched ourselves in a shelter disguised in the sand as we watched the penguins swim to the shore, waddle along the beach and climb steep cliffs to their nests. Sleeping seals and sea lions, barely moved from their places on the beach.

Matheo, Dale, Ariana, Jack, and I squashed into my car and drove to Fiordland on the west coast of the South Island. Words, even pictures, cannot adequately convey the majestic beauty of Fiordland. Once upon a time, glaciers carved inlets and lakes throughout Fiordland, leaving mountains up to 1700 metres rising straight up out of the sea. The region gets about seven metres of rain annually, the fourth highest in the world. This moisture causes moss and lichen to grow atop the granite rock and countless waterfalls to flow from the mountain tops to the sea below. The top 3 to 12 metres is fresh water, while the heavier salt water remains below.

On Christmas Eve, we were the only kayakers exploring Doubtful Sound. It started out raining, which helped to turn the waterfalls on, but ended up sunny and serene. The mountains and kayakers were reflected in the smooth, tannin-coloured waters. We shooed away the persistent sandflies by steering ourselves under waterfalls and finally, by taking a plunge into the cool water. We enjoyed ice cream on the beach and a mountain sunset before we nestled snugly in our beds, somehow knowing that St. Nicholas would never find us in this odd snowless Southern hemisphere Christmas.

On Christmas day, we traveled to Milford Sound with some scenic stops along the way. The Chasm was a spectacular rock gorge carved by the fast-flowing waters passing through. Cascade creek has a rainbow of lupins with a bubbly creek and mossy forest backdrop. En route to Milford, we passed through the 1270 metre granite-lined Homer Tunnel. We boarded the MV Friendship in the rain for a cruise up and down Milford Sound. The dramatic mountains rose out of the sea. Without any context or comparison, our ability to judge the size of anything was significantly impaired. One of the waterfalls we passed under was 50 stories tall, though our best estimates would have given it 20 metres at the most. A mere 50 stories was less than a third the total of the height of the 700 metre rock face. We moored in a quiet bay for dinner and then sleeping. Sea sickness did not get me this time! The weather Gods smiled on us again in the morning and the sun revealed the tops of the peaks. We kayaked in the quiet bay as Mitre Peak loomed above everything else beside the moon in the morning light. Just before docking again, we were fortunate to find some dolphins exploring the sounds, too.

In Te Anau, we were reunited with Kay and Louie and also met up with the gang from Auckland to tackle a Fiordland Great Walk, the Kepler track. In the rain, we hiked up through a series of endless switchbacks to the first hut. Thankfully, rain has taken on a whole new perspective as waterfall fuel. On a side trip from the hut, we squeezed, stooped, crawled, contorted and climbed our way through the limestone caves with snow-coloured caverns of stalactites and stalagmites and underground waterfalls. On the second day, we hiked to the peak of Mount Luxmore and along the ridge until our weaving descent into the Beech forest. From the hut, we explored the swimming hole and the Humbolt Falls and hoped to hear the nearby Kiwi birds. Our last two days of tramping through the Podocarp forest were flatter and quicker with stops for swimming in Lake Manapouri and for bird spotting.

We spent New Year's in Queenstown, which seems to be the NZ equivalent of Whistler. In winter, it’s a mecca for snow boarders and skiers. In summer, it’s a hub for touristy high-adrenaline activities. Somehow we ended up in a beautiful bach overlooking the city with a view of the Lake Wakitipu and the Remarkables mountain range. The whole gang took the gondola to the top of the mountain for luging. Luging turns out to be quite similar to bumper go-karting, substituting the motor for the mountain powered gravity. I only crashed once! Jack and I tramped up the Ben Lomand trail (top 3 day walk in NZ!) with super views of the Southern Alps while the other crazies went bungy jumping and canyoneering.