I’m sorry to report that Sheri and I didn’t see any kiwis in the wild…at least not of the bird variety. What we did see was gorgeous landscapes, much of which is quite unique to this part of the world. Throw in some movie sets, a few good hikes, a great road trip, and it’s easy to see why people want to live here. In retrospect, we should have spent more time here, but New Zealand is expensive and more time meant higher overall costs. The time we did spend here was already budget busting, but I think we saw and did quite a lot for what it cost us. I foresee another trip in the future to see all that we missed this time around.
Our New Zealand adventure was only 7 full days when you factor in the travel days. We only spent 2 full days on the North Island and 5 full days on the South Island. To see and do as much as possible, we decided to rent a car instead of relying on public transportation; more about driving later. Here’s what we did with the limited time we had.
If I had to do it over again, I’m not sure if I would stay in Rotorua. It smells. Badly. The hot springs have high amounts of sulphur and the entire town smelled like rotten eggs. The smell was so strong at times that it would wake us in the middle of the night. We noticed the town was quite dead even thought it was the height of the summer tourist season. Maybe it was because of the malodorous air quality, or it’s location in the middle of nowhere, but there were a lot of vacant buildings in the CBT and almost no traffic to speak of. Rotorua did seem to cater to backpackers. There were as many backpacker accommodations as regular hotels in the area, and the Rock Solid backpacker hostel, where we stayed, was centrally located, very clean and well kept. What I didn’t factor in was that the hostel’s reception closed at 9 p.m. and we didn’t get on the road from Auckland airport until about 6 p.m. Racing to get to Rotorua while driving on the opposite side of unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar car as dusk approached wasn’t in the plans, but we made it with a few minutes to spare. After checking in, the remainder of the evening was spent in search of a working ATM, adjusting to our shared lodging, and taking advantage of the free WiFi.
Let’s talk about that driving part again. Driving in New Zealand is truly a challenge and not an undertaking for the uninitiated in right-hand drive cars on the left side of the road. Roads are extremely narrow with little to no shoulder, long one lane bridges, and winding mountainous hairpin turns. Add to the mix, the large semi-trucks with tandem trailers barreling along at top speed, other drivers with little road experience, and you have a recipe for disaster. Luckily, I have driven right-hand drive cars before in Bali and South Africa, both with manual transmissions, so I’m not a total newbie. However, Sheri still had to constantly remind me to “look right” any time we came to a stop sign or roundabout.
From Rotorua, we drove about about two hours each way to the places we visited. On our first full day, we drove to the resort beach town of Tauranga to climb to the top of Mt. Maunganui. It’s a short but steep little walk to the top of the 761 ft. summit, where we were rewarded with spectacular 360° views of the town below, coastline on either side and the Kaimai Range. We found a nice shady spot with a picnic table on the east side of the summit (the only shaded picnic table) and ate our lunch. On the way down from the summit, we noticed some evidence of the mountain’s undersea origins. Bleached white mussel shells that were buried in layers on the side of the mountain. Aside from the mountain, the rest of the town is extremely touristy and mostly the beach crowd with equally touristy food options. Not something we enjoy. So we made our way back to Rotorua to find other options.
Despite some recommendations from friends and locals, we didn’t find New Zealand catered much to foodies. You would think on an island surrounded by abundant oceans, there would be fantastic seafood. No. The closest to seafood was fish and chips, or a local thing called, whitebait, a small smelt-like white fish that is battered or cooked with eggs and served as a sandwich. Neither dish was particularly memorable and really quite bland. Perhaps there were more options in Auckland, but we didn’t get to visit there. Of everything we ate, the one thing that I enjoyed several times were the meat pies. What’s not to love about them. Meat AND pie, together! They were available everywhere and came in enough varieties to keep it interesting.
The next day we drove about two hours to a sheep farm just outside of Matamata to see the Hobbiton Movie Set used in the movies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Even though I don’t consider myself a huge fan, I really appreciate the work involved in creating this iconic fictional location. Some of the attention to detail is astounding. After the tour, we got a tasty beverage—we had the Southfarthing Ale—at the Green Dragon Inn. Tours are about 90 minutes and there’s plenty of time to take pictures and pose in the sets for selfies, but they obviously keep to a tight schedule to keep the hordes of people moving through and still maintain the magic of the place. The tour is a bit pricey at NZ$75 per person, but if you’re a fan, it’s a small price to pay for this unique experience. And with the currently favorable exchange rate for the US$, it wasn’t too bad.
No trip to New Zealand would be complete without the Maori experience. Just outside of Rotorua is one of their cultural centers where you can meet them and participate in some of their customary greetings, warrior training, games, crafts, and, of course, their haka. We had plenty of opportunity for photos and questions. There’s also a demonstration of their pit-style cooking, followed by some singing and traditional dance performance, after which, we were treated to an unlimited buffet of both Maori and contemporary New Zealand foods. At NZ$95 per person through our backpacker hostel, it was a little expensive, but definitely an unforgettable evening.
From Rotorua, we had hoped to meet and say, “Hi”, to some friends, but our schedule was too tight and we drove back to the airport in Auckland. We didn’t even pass by downtown or see much of anything else on the North Island. Next time, some time in Auckland, Wellington and parts between will be in the schedule.
Blenheim & Marlborough
A short flight from Auckland took us to Blenheim and the South Island. We picked up another rental car and I realized I had booked a manual transmission because it was cheaper. It had been nearly 6 years since I last drove a stick shift, so I was a bit apprehensive. Luckily, it all comes back quickly. Our first stop after leaving the airport in the middle of wine country was too obvious—a winery. We visited Clos Henri, Hans Herzog, and Villa Maria; a mixture of smaller, high-priced producers and larger, mass-produced, inexpensive wines. Being on a budget, we bought only two bottles: a Viognier from Hans Herzog and an estate Pinot Noir from Villa Maria.
We met a guy from France working at Clos Henri and we asked him what he thought of the area. He summed it up quite succinctly: great scenery, horrible food, no cultural activities or night life. With the exception of the Napa Valley, that’s usually the case in most farm towns, and grape growing is definitely farming.
Hokitika and the West Coast
I must have been reading the map wrong or I mistook it for another mountain, but I thought Mt. Cook was on the West Coast. I was disappointed to find out that it was actually closer to Christchurch. Of course, I only realized this after we already booked rooms in towns along the West Coast. The mountains were still impressive, but lacked the snow cap and large glacial flows that defined New Zealand mountains to me.
Our first stop after leaving Blenheim was Nelson Lakes National Park. Like so many places, it reminded me of the Pacific Northwest with lush greenery and glacial fed lakes. We took a short walk part way around the lake and then came back along the shore, walking at times in the water to cool our feet and wash our sandals.
Our next stop was at Paparoa National Park to see the pancake rocks. These were sedimentary formations that resemble stacks of pancakes. The layers are held together by softer sandstone that erodes away creating the unique shapes. Despite the rain, which seemed more frequent on this side of the island, the overcast skies made the pancake formations easier to photograph. The weather made it a short visit. Again, we were on the road.
The longer days fooled us into thinking it was earlier than it was. We rolled into Hokitika around 8 p.m. thinking we still had plenty of time to take a look around. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of the area. We did, however, pass a sign coming into town that said, “Glow Worm Dell”, so we waited until it was plenty dark outside and drove back to the sign.
Of everything we had seen that day, this was by far the most memorable. A short walk from the road brought us into an area much like a cavern, only it was a canopy of trees and brush filled with hundreds of faint tiny blue-green lights. The lights came from the larvae of the fungus gnat that use their unique phosphorescence to attract prey to sticky silk threads that dangle like fishing lines. The worm itself lives inside a tube made of silk and mucus just above the dangling thread. When something is caught, they just reel in the thread for their meal. Quite fascinating.
The next day we continued our journey south along the coast, stopping at the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. Like many of the glaciers in North America, these glaciers once extended much further down the valley, but, like my hairline, have receded over the years. Now they are barely visible unless we hiked several hours up the valley.
Since Sheri and I both have been on glaciers before, we decided not to use our limited time on an unusually hot day for such a strenuous walk and only ventured as far as the swinging cable bridge. As we continued driving south through temperate rain forests, we eventually crossed over some narrow mountain passes meandering around large glacial lakes and arrived in Wanaka around 7 p.m.
Wanaka and the Otago area
Wanaka was much more crowded than I expected. By the time we checked in to our timeshare and drove back into town, it was already 8 o’clock and prime dinner time. Although the restaurants still had seats, they all seemed short staffed and the estimated time it would take to get food was nearly an hour. We were hungry, so we settled for a trip to the local market where we picked up a couple of ready-made salads, cheese and wine. Faster, cheaper and easier.
Weather in Wanaka was not bad. It rained a lot and was cloudy the rest of the time. That kept it cooler for our hike up Mount Iron to get a panoramic view of the entire area. The trailhead for the track was just a couple of kilometers outside of town and the hike takes a couple of hours. It’s also popular with the trail running crowd so we certainly didn’t have the place all to ourselves.
The Otago area is well-known for their wines. A winery close to Wanaka is Rippon Vineyard. It not only has some pleasant, easy-drinking wines, their tasting room has some spectacular views and is often booked for weddings during the summer months. A bit further away in Bannockburn is Mt. Difficulty Wines. Their wines were introduced to me by friends in Sonoma and they continue to produce some of my favorite Pinot Noir. The winery is up on a hillside outside of Bannockburn, and as the name suggests, it was a little difficult to find, but well worth the trip.
Also in the Otago area are distilleries, including one worth a visit, if for nothing else but its unique “cups”, in all shapes and sizes. Cardrona Distillery has a fence filled with bras, dubbed, BRAdrona. There must be a lot of women in New Zealand and beyond who are lacking in mammary support. But it’s all for a good cause in support of the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.
Queenstown and Milford Sound
With time running out before we had to catch a flight out, we decided our final “must-see” destination was Milford Sound. Unfortunately, Milford Sound is literally out in the middle of nowhere. There are no inexpensive hostels nearby, only super-expensive lodges, leaving only a few options for travel to this area: camper van, stay in the closest town, Te Anau, or take a tour package day trip. We opted for the tour option with a company called, Jucy, but in retrospect, a camper van would have been the best ways to see everything and not be constrained by time and accessibility.
Since our tour bus would pick us up in Queenstown at 5:45 a.m., we had to find a room in town for the evening. AirBNB to the rescue. We found a room. It was a small flat, and it was cheap. That’s about all I can say for the room where we stayed in Queenstown, and since it was just a crash pad for about 5 hours, it didn’t really matter. To kill time so we didn’t have to stay in our room, we ventured into Queenstown with a food destination recommended by our AirBNB host: Devil Burger, and not Ferg Burger, where the line to order goes out the door. It wasn’t bad, however, it wasn’t good enough that I could recommend it to others. At least the french fries were good.
The next morning, we saw the sunrise from our tour bus as we left Queenstown and headed toward Milford Sound. Our bus driver was a wealth of information about New Zealand history, landmarks, plant, animals, and many other topics. Unfortunately, Sheri and I were so dead tired after only a few hours of sleep, that I’m sure we slept through much of his soliloquy. Along the way, I saw many lost photo opportunities that I would have taken, had we been driving ourselves. I just kept reminding myself that I couldn’t have possibly made that drive myself with as little sleep as I had the previous night.
After a brief stop in Te Anau for breakfast, we were delayed by a large flock of sheep being herded along the road. Of course, our driver told us lots of information about sheep and that sheep outnumber people in New Zealand 10 to 1. We arrived in Milford Sound just in time to catch our cruise boat. The southwest coast of New Zealand has hundreds of fiords (sound is a misnomer given by early explorers; yet another tidbit of knowledge passed on by our bus driver) and our boat only sailed out to the end of this fiord and back. It was a short 90 minute cruise where I was so busy taking photos, we both forgot to get something to eat for lunch. It was that impressive.
Nothing I can say about Milford Sound could describe how picturesque and enormous the area and its features truly are. Waterfalls that look so minuscule in the distance were actually towering columns of water and mist when we approached them. The shear cliffs rising out of the water only had scale when another ship sailed next to them. It was so awe inspiring, that the boat was actually quiet at times despite the mass of people on board.
Not much of note happened after our cruise. We returned to Queenstown, where we grabbed a quick bite to eat, hopped in our car and drove an hour back to Wanaka. The next day we drove back to Queenstown airport and left for Sydney via Christchurch. Our travel days were so uneventful, that I have a three-day gap in photos during that time.
Every hotel, no matter the price range, always had an electric hot pot, tea, hot chocolate, coffee and milk. Granted, In most cases, it was instant coffee, but it was a nice touch nonetheless.
WiFi was hard to find. Getting unlimited free WiFi was nearly impossible. What was most frustrating was that high-end places like our Wyndham timeshare charged extra for WiFi and cheap places like our backpacker hostel gave each of us 2Gb for free. The most reliable connection we found for free WiFi was Starbucks, but it was limited to 30 minutes or 300Mb.
I found that writing and posting to the blog regularly while on the road can be difficult. I’m often driving for several hours daily to get to our next destination and by the time we arrive, I’m too tired to even think about writing. The few down days we get in our schedule have been the only time I can write but they are simply too few and far between..
We read there’s a water shortage and the lack of any snow in the mountains was evidence enough. However, so many places didn’t have low-flow faucets or showers like California. This was especially true in public toilets, where the lavatory faucet comes on with such force that I often ended up with an involuntary shower. However, I did notice they had the two-button toilets that allowed half-flushes, so I guess that’s a step in the right direction.
Visit my New Zealand photo gallery on my photography site.