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Travel

Travel Down Under to New Zealand

Surf in the morning, snowboard in the afternoon. Take a dip in a glacial lake and warm up in a geothermal pool. Within an area roughly the size of California, New Zealand packs a punch you aren’t likely to find anywhere else on earth.

By Joan Whitaker

Jan 2018

Dive into beautiful scenery, rich culture and daring adventures in New Zealand. Mount Cook, the country’s tallest peak, and Hooker Valley are just a few breaktaking views that await you.

If you only have two weeks, don’t even fool with going to Australia. That’s the advice Gary and I got from people in the know. It’s too big, they said—like trying to see all of the United States in two weeks. Instead, they advised spending those two weeks in New Zealand. 

We like to mix it up when we travel. Sometimes we go with friends, sometimes we call on our friends at Adelman Travel. Sometimes we take a motor coach tour, book a cruise or hang out at a resort. But sometimes we like to hit the open road, and that’s what we elected to do in New Zealand. We organized our trip through Self Drive New Zealand. We told them our interests, likes and dislikes, and they offered suggested itineraries. Once we finalized our itineraries, the staff handled every little detail of our trip, including rental cars, hotel reservations and excursions. They did a fantastic job and made our trip even more enjoyable.

Here are a few things to note before you go: New Zealanders are nice. Maybe even more so than Midwesterners, and that’s saying a lot. They also know everything about us. They know more about how our government works than 90 percent of Americans do. Our popular culture is their popular culture. If they didn’t have an accent and drove on the right side of the road, you’d almost believe you’d never left home.

New Zealand is beautiful, pristine and innocent. The lack of security shocked us. We are so used to being examined and inspected that it’s become routine. They haven’t experienced anything close to our 9/11. Earthquakes, yes. Terrorist attacks, no.

If you think the weather is changeable in 417-land, think again. In New Zealand, it is common to experience at least three—and possibly four—seasons all in the same day, and maybe in the same hour.

New Zealand is quickly moving away from the kiwi bird being its national symbol. A flightless bird can’t survive forever in the wild. The few remaining kiwis live in captivity. No one we spoke to had even seen one in the wild. So, they’ve moved on to rugby. When the All Blacks play, the country virtually shuts down. The All Blacks’ logo, a silver fern leaf, is slowly becoming the national symbol. I must say, it is more attractive than the odd-looking kiwi. The fern leaves come from the huge fern trees that are native to NZ. 

There’s a reason Peter Jackson chose to film the Lord of the Rings movies in his home country. There is simply no other place that has such a range of flora, fauna and terrain in such a small area. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s get started. Follow along our two-week itinerary, or craft your own with these must-visit spots.
 

Days 1 & 2: Arriving in Auckland

travel to new zealand auckland ziplineAuckland is New Zealand’s largest city. Built along the harbor, modern skyscrapers juxtapose against historic buildings. It’s a perfect blend of old and new. 

We stayed at the Heritage Hotel Auckland (35 Hobson St., Auckland, (64-09) 379-8553, heritagehotels.co.nz). Its great central location means you can walk to many of the major sites and restaurants. Ask for a room with a balcony and a view of the harbor and Auckland Bridge.

There is great shopping along Queen Street in the CBD (Central Business District), including Auckland’s premier department store, Smith & Caughey’s.

The half-day tour with Bush and Beach Wilderness Experience ((64-09) 837-4130, bushandbeach.co.nz) offers a great overview of the city, cultural background and history of the area. You can also take a couple of tramps through the bush (think Jurassic Park–type scenery), by raging waterfalls and on beautiful beaches. 

Sky Tower (West Victoria Street and Federal Street, Auckland, skycityauckland.co.nz) is right around the corner from the Heritage Hotel. At 1,076 feet high, it dwarfs everything around it. Go in time for sunset to see the city light up. But before you head to your sunset-viewing spot, position yourself by the window in front of the base jump area to watch brave-hearted souls seemingly fall from the sky. Or fall from the sky yourself for a mere $225. For the truly brave—or some might say crazy—bungee jump off the Auckland Harbour Bridge, or just climb it for the view.

All this exploring is sure to work up an appetite. Dine at Clooney (33 Sale St., Auckland, (64-09) 358-1702, Clooney.co.nz). It has some of the chicest decor you will ever see, and food is elevated to an art form.

Also check out Sidart (Three Lamps Plaza, Level 1, Auckland, 283 Ponsonby Road, (64-09) 360-2122, sidart.co.nz). Food is art here, too. Enjoy the chef’s tasting menu and nice views of the city. Sidart is located in a neat neighborhood with a good shopping area. You might want to arrive early to take a look around.

The Hobbiton Movie Set is also a must-see for Lord of the Rings fans on your way to Rotorua.

Days 3 & 4: The Road to Rotorua

Collect your rental car and prepare yourself to drive on the wrong side of the road. Hopefully it won’t be raining. Otherwise you’ll keep turning on your blinker when you mean to turn on your wipers! Take a deep breath and go with the flow.  

Head south, keeping Rotorua as your final destination. Along the way there are two detours to consider. One is to the Hobbiton Movie Set (hobbitontours.com), which is a must for Lord of the Rings junkies. The second is to Waitomo Caves (waitomocaves.com) to see the world-famous glowworms. This other-worldly experience is totally worth the effort. 

You’ll know you’ve arrived in Rotorua by rolling down your windows. Smell sulphur? You’ve arrived. On the banks of its namesake lake, Rotorua literally has thousands of geothermal springs, geysers and boiling mud pools spewing from the ground. What looks to be smoke off in the distance is really steam. Just driving around the beautiful lakeside town you’ll see steam rising from people’s backyards, sidewalks, cracks in the street—everywhere. In addition to all the geothermal activity, Rotorua is steeped in Maori culture and history. The Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

travel to new zealand maoiriThe town of Rotorua is picture-perfect Disneyesque with its beautiful landscaping, black swans floating in the lake and beautifully kept historic buildings. To take advantage of the scenery, we stayed at Novotel Lakeside (at the corner of Whakaue Street and Tutanekai Street, Rotorua, (64-09) 346-3888, accorhotels.com). While in town, we took in the Te Puia daytime experience (Mitai Maori Village, Hemo Road, Rotorua, (64-07) 348-9047, tepuia.com/experiences). See weavers and carvers in action along with huge geysers and geothermal and boiling mud springs. At the Te Puia nightime experience (Mitai Maori Village, 196 Fairy Springs Road, Rotorua, (64-07) 343-9132, tepuia.com/experiences), get a great dinner, see more glowworms and a whole lot more. Soak in a geothermal mud bath. Take a walk in the redwood forest. Stroll around Lake Rotorua and take a boat ride. There are numerous tour operators offering services. 

While in Rotorua, eat at Sabrosa (1184 Haupapa St., Rotorua, (64-07) 349-0591, info@sabroso.co.nz). Sabrosa is a tiny place tucked into a side street in Rotorua. It’s a little Caribbean and a little bit Latin combined to offer a big flavor. Reservations are a must, and don’t even think about emailing for a same-day reservation. Warning: the margaritas pack a punch. Also try Lovely India (1123 Tutanekai St., Rotorua, (64-07) 348-4088, lovelyindia.co.nz). When you see a restaurant packed with locals, it’s a good bet the food is good. Solid and well-priced.

New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, sits on the southern tip of North Island and shares many similarities with San Francisco such as hillside properties and a bustling harbor.

Day 5: When in Wellington

Today is a bit of a long drive with Wellington as your destination. But don’t fear. Settle in and enjoy the scenery. You’ll see beautiful lakes, volcanos, snowcapped mountains, the Tasman Sea and so much more. You’ll likely experience at least three seasons of weather on this drive. It’s hard to make good time because every turn is a photo-op, but press on to the little village of Raumati for a seaside lunch at the cleverly named Waterfront Bar & Grill (3 Garden Road, Raumati Beach, Kapiti Coast, (64-04) 902-6263, waterfrontbar.co.nz).

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, and if for a minute you forget where you are, you can believe you’re actually in San Francisco instead of halfway around the world. Houses built on hillsides, steep streets filled with pedestrians and a lovely harbor is what you’ll find. Wellington sits at the very southern tip of the north island, which offers beautiful views but also allows the wind to blow mercilessly a lot of the time. 

In addition to being the seat of government, Wellington is home to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa (55 Cable St., Wellington, (64-04) 381-7000, tepapa.govt.nz), and it’s worth a visit. While in Wellington, we stayed at Bolton Hotel Wellington (12 Bolton St., Wellington, (64-04) 472-9966), boltonhotel.co.nz) to rest our weary heads. As for the food, I can’t recommend any restaurants because we met a couple from Wellington at LAX while waiting for our departing flight. They insisted that when we came to Wellington, we come to their home for dinner. They picked us up at our hotel and whisked us to their house with fabulous views of Wellington, the bay and beyond. It was a wonderful evening and the highlight of our trip.

Try a glass of sauvignon blanc while in Blenheim, a region world-renowned for the wine.

Day 6: Seaward to South Island

Wellington is where you’ll drop your rental car and board the ferry to the South Island. Pray for a smooth crossing; it can get seriously rough. Board early and go directly to the front lounge to snag a seat at the front window. This crossing of the Cook Strait is often referred to as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world.

Arriving in Picton, pick up your new rental car and drive to Blenheim. Don’t tarry. You have a wine tour to catch at Sounds Connection half-day wine tasting tour ((64-03) 573-8843, soundsconnection.com). This is the world-famous wine region for Sauvignon Blanc, and you don’t want to miss it. After all the wine you’ve consumed, you’ll want to stay in Blenheim. We enjoyed our stay at Chateau Marlborough Blenheim (95-11 High St., Blenheim, (64-03) 578-0064, marlborough.nz). Fortunately, food isn’t far from reach at Chateau Marlborough. Grab a bite at Raupo Café (6 Symons St., Blenheim, (64-03) 577-8822, raupocafe.co.nz). It’s an easy walk from the hotel and located alongside the Taylor River. For something a little lighter, try Ritual Café (10 Maxwell Road, Blenheim, (64-03) 578-6939, ritualcoffee.co.nz). It’s the locals’ hangout for coffee and breakfast.
 

Day 7: Kayaking in Kaikoura

travel to new zealand gary and joan kayakingContinue south to Kaikoura (road repairs from the 2016 earthquake should be complete, but check nzta.govt.nz for updates). This route takes you down the east coast as the highway plays hide and seek with the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Watch for fur seals chilling on the rocks. Arriving in Kaikoura, grab a quick lunch and prepare for ocean kayaking with those fur seals with Kaikoura Kayaks (19 Killarney St., Kaikoura, (64-02) 146-2889, kaikourakayaks.co.nz). I absolutely was convinced they were going to jump in the kayak with us. Or go whale watching. Or swim with dolphins. Marine activities abound.

Kaikoura got whacked by the November 2016 earthquake. The coast road was completely destroyed north and south of town, so the city was totally inaccessible except by water. We escaped this devastation by 48 hours and are so thankful. 

While in Kaikoura, stay at the White Morph Inn (92 Esplanade, Kaikoura, (64-03) 319-5014, whitemorph.co.nz). You’ll be thankful for a cozy place to recover from a day full of paddling. By this time you’ll likely be tired of eating out, and the restaurants in Kaikoura aren’t that highly recommended. Instead, eat in. The White Morph has fairly well equipped kitchens in the rooms, so we went to the grocery store and got a rotisserie chicken, fresh pasta, some pesto, bagged salad and, of course, wine. We enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal on our patio overlooking the ocean.

Christchurch has many parks and gardens, but none outmatch the beauty of Hagley Park.

Day 8: The Coasts to Christchurch

Keep heading south to Christchurch. The coast road hugs a curvy path until it heads inland. The terrain is ever changing, one turn more spectacular than the next. The invasive weed broom covers the untilled hillsides. The yellow blooms are beautiful, even though it is the bane of sheep and cattle farmers. Speaking of sheep, they’re everywhere. And when there aren’t sheep, there are cows. And when there aren’t sheep or cows, there are red deer. New Zealand is one of the world’s largest exporters of farm-raised venison.

Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, was devastated by two earthquakes, one in September 2010 and the other in February 2011. The results are everywhere. Crumbled buildings stand starkly next to shiny, new modern structures. Old versus new. More than 10,000 homes have been or are waiting to be rebuilt. While it’s been miserable for residents to endure, one can’t help but be excited for the rebirth of this beautiful city. The rebirth also brings job opportunities. A labor shortage is bringing young people from all over the world to fill entry-level jobs in construction and hospitality. 

Take in the majesty of Christchurch from your hotel. Chateau on the Park (189 Deans Ave., Christchurch, (64-03) 348-8999, doubletree3.hilton.com) is across the street from the enormous Hagley Park. In a city known for its parks and gardens, Hagley is the crown jewel. Walk, jog or tour the gardens, or go punting on the Avon. All the cool kids do it. 

Catch a tour on one of the Hop-on Hop-off Buses (straytravel.com) parked in front of the Canterbury Museum ((64-03) 366-5000, canterburymuseum.com) on Rolleston Avenue. This is the best way to see the city—and know what you’re looking at. Take the extended tour to visit the suburbs and beach.

Within walking distance from Chateau on the Park is Trevino’s Restaurant & Bar (22 Riccarton Road, Christchurch, (64-03) 343-5378, trevinos.co.nz). It’s a local hangout for Mediterranean food, and the salmon is particularly outstanding. Or, if you work up an appetite touring the Canterbury Museum, head to Fiddlesticks (48 Worcester Blvd., Christchurch, (64-03) 365-0533, fiddlesticksbar.co.nz)

The Southern Alps offer out-of-this-world views and are home to New Zealand’s tallest peak, Mount Cook.

Day 9: Mastering Mount Cook

Off you go further inland with Mount Cook being the day’s final destination. Once again, the scenery will blow your mind. Snowcapped mountains in the distance; icy blue glacial lakes surrounded by colorful lupine up close. It’s an ocular feast.

Check in to The Hermitage at the Edmund Hillary Alpine Center (The Hermitage, Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village, (64-03) 435-1809, hermitage.co.nz). Get a premium room on a high floor for ultimate views. Immediately make a dinner reservation at the Panorama Restaurant for that evening. Snag a table by the massive windows. The next day, put on your hiking shoes and hit the trails. There are numerous hikes of all activity levels, even one to see the Hooker Glacier. Make sure to take your camera. No need to fear meeting up with anything scary. New Zealand doesn’t have bears, cougars, wolves or other ferocious animals. In fact, about the wildest thing you might see is an opossum, which New Zealanders actually farm for their fur. Those opossums are obviously not the same variety as those in 417-land.

Mount Cook, at just over 12,000 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Southern Alps range. It towers over everything if you’re lucky enough to see it. Like our fabulous Denali, Mount Cook often stays hidden in the clouds. You are way down under, so days are really long or really short, depending on the time of year.

Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge sits just outside of Queenstown and is home to the original bungee.

Days 10 & 11: Indulge in Adventure 

Retrace your path a bit and head further south to Queenstown. The landscape on this route is vast, other-worldly, totally different and huge. And beautiful. That’s the thing: New Zealand is so beautiful that, even on days on which you might drive four or more hours, it just doesn’t matter. In fact, you’ll look forward to the ride. 

As you get closer to Queenstown, watch for the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, home of the original bungee. As the website says, “If you want to be tied up and thrown off with a friend, this is the bungee site for you.” Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world, and you can test your nerves in so many ways. 

But it’s also a beautiful little touristy town lovingly built around Lake Wakatipu. A tourist town means there are lots of good restaurants, shopping and activities. A few of the better activities are a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw Steamship (TSS Earnslaw Cruise/Walter Peak High Country Farm Experience, experienceoz.com.au), a jet boat ride on the Shotover River with the Shotover Jet (shotoverjet.com) and the Appellation Central Wine Tour (appellationwinetours.nz) to calm your nerves. The Earnslaw cruises across the lake to a working farmstead where you’ll have a wonderful meal and be treated to a sheep herding (and shearing) demonstration. The dogs are amazingly smart. The jet boat ride, sans helmet, is an adrenaline rush. All you can do is hang on and hope you live to tell your kids about it. The wine tours are much slower paced. Sauvignon blanc is king in the north, but pinot noir rules the south.

Take advantage of the New Zealand scenery you saw on your drive in and stay at the Novotel Lakeside (Marine Parade, Queenstown, (64-03) 442, 7750, accorhotels.com). It’s a great place to rest up after working up an appetite—or going into a post-meal food coma. Indulge at Fergburger (42 Shotover St., Queensland, (64-03) 441-1232, fergburger.com), world-famous for hamburgers with a waiting line to prove it. At Rata (43 Ballarat St., Queensland, (64-03) 442-9393, ratadining.co.nz), New Zealand lamb is a must. 

See the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers from above on a helicopter tour with Twin Glaciers Scenic Helicopter Flight.

Days 11 & 12: Get the Cold Shoulder 

Today is the longest driving day of your NZ adventure but not to worry. Once again, New Zealand delivers spectacular scenery, raging rivers and waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. You might bring a snack along because food options are few and far between until you reach the Franz Josef Township at Franz Josef Glacier.

Cap off your alpine adventure by staying at the Aspen Court Franz Josef (76 Cron St., Franz Josef, (64-03) 752-0210, alpineglaciermotel.com). While in town, the Twin Glaciers Scenic Helicopter Flight (Glacier Helicopters Ltd., Main Road, Franz Josef Township, (64-03) 752-0755, glacierhelicopters.co.nz) is an experience of a lifetime. You’ll lift off and get a bird’s eye view of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers before you land in a snow field for a great photo-op. Beware: When you step out of the copter, you’ll likely sink to your knees in snow, so proper footwear is advised. For more adventure, expand your excursion to a heli hike, on which you actually get to walk the glacier with a guide. Talk about up-close and personal! 

For your meals, try King Tiger (70 Cron St., Franz Josef Township, (64-03) 752-0060, kingtiger.co.nz). Asian fusion is what you’ll find here in the form of Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, etc. If you don’t like spicy food, be sure to tell them to hold the spice. Even the medium spice will take your head off.
 

Day 13: Planes, Alpine Trains and Automobiles 

Say goodbye to Franz Josef and continue north up the west coast to Greymouth where you’ll catch the afternoon Tranz Alpine Scenic Train (kiwirailscenic.co.nz) to Christchurch. Drop your car at the station and walk across the street for lunch at Bealey’s Speight’s Ale House (263 Bealey Ave., Christchurch, (64-03) 366-9958, bealeysalehouse.co.nz) before boarding the train. The train journey across the Southern Alps is regarded as one of the world’s greatest train rides for the amazing scenery. It’s about four hours so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Once in Christchurch, book a stay at Heritage Hotel Christchurch (28-30 Cathedral Square, Christchurch, (64-03) 377-9722, heritagehotels.co.nz). Maddison’s inside the Heritage Hotel is actually very good, and the lobby bar, O.G.B., is a lively place for happy hour or a light dinner.
 

Day 14: Heading Home

Boo-hoo. It’s time to return to reality.