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theway02 Mar 16th, 2009 07:45 PM

Melinq help please!! Catlins on a first trip to NZ?
Hi! I'm planning my first trip to NZ in November this year. We fly into Queenstown and fly out of Christchurch but that part I can change. We ultimately fly from Auckland home.

Our main activities around QT are Routeburn Track and O/N Doubtful Sound cruise. We'll also spend 2 days/3 nights in Mount Cook/Lake Tekapo area. Here are the three options I have:

1) Queenstown (Te Anau 1 night, Doutful sound 1 night, Routeburn trail 3 nights and full day in Queenstown) -Wanaka (1 -2 nights)- Fox Glacier (2 nights) - Punakaiki (2 nights) - Wilderness Lodge at Arthur's Pass (2 nights) - Christchurch

2) Queenstown-Catlins (3 nights) - Mount Cook (3 nights) - Wilderness Lodge at Arthur's Pass (2 nights) - Christchurch

3) Queenstown - Mount Cook (3) - ON Christchurch - train to Picton and either do Queen Charlotte track or Abel Tasman Track (4-5 nights)

My original plan was the west coast option #1 but I later read that November is smack in the middle of west coast rain season and confirmed this with 2-3 BB owners in the region who said sometimes it rains nonstop for days in November. Also I have seen glaciers in patagonia so it's really the heli hike I'm interested in and that's even less predictable weather wise.

I have to say from looking through all the pictures on the internet Abel Tasman was not on my list of must see but everyone seems to rave about it. I'm just not quite sure how it's special compared to hiking in hawaii or costa rica or even parts of california. I figured it might be the kayaking and the variety of activities that make the tracks so appealing which my 60 year old mom is not that fond of. But I am keeping it as an option because it's such a popular place.

I'm leaning towards going to the Catlins and I really don't want to rush through it since it's 5 hours from QT to Northern Catlins and then another 5 hours from Catlins to Mount Cook. I think it's one of those places that's not handed to you on a silver platter and you really need to spend some time to discover the gems. However I've read such bland reviews of Catlins, especially on Lonelyplanet forum and it made me question if this part of NZ belongs on a first trip. Many have said the area is pretty but not overwhelmingly beautiful like the west coast. So I keep second guessing myself and thinking maybe I should just take a gamble on spring weather on the west coast.

Sorry this is such a long post...thanks for all your help! Looking forward to hearing back from everyone!!

Saltuarius Mar 16th, 2009 11:16 PM

I really enjoyed this part of NZ and want to go back. However it is hard to speak for someone else. I enjoyed the wildlife and the native vegetation which is mostly absent from NZ. I enjoyed being able to be out in the forest for hours without anyone coming across our path.

Melnq8 Mar 16th, 2009 11:42 PM

Hi theway02 -

NZ itineraries are always a challenge.

First off, is there a reason you plan to spend three nights in Mt Cook? I ask because I once spent two nights there and got a bit bored, due in part to poor weather, which it's quite possible you'll have in November. Mt Cook village is tiny and you might feel a bit captive there for three nights. Then again you might not, it all depends on what you plan to do while there and what kind of weather you get. Mt Cook also gets a lot of rain.

Comparing the West Coast to the Catlins is like comparing apples to oranges. The West Coast is definitely one of the prettiest parts of the SI. It's very green, wild, rugged and gorgeous and ringed with snow capped mountains. It's green for a reason, as it gets about 200 inches of rain a year. It's a region I've spent a lot of time in, and found plenty to do, rain or shine.

When I think of the Catlins, the word windswept comes to mind. It's usually windy down that way, and in the cooler months those winds can turn to angry gales. The weather in the Catlins can be just as unpredictible as the West Coast.

The Catlins is completely unspoiled. Many visitors never make it down there, or they just pass through on their way elsewhere. It's an area full of walks and gorgeous coastal scenery.

I'm torn on what to tell you. My first inclination is to suggest itinerary #1, as it's a good mix of some of the SI's top spots. But then I have to wonder if maybe after your Routeburn trek, you might want something entirely different, such as the coastal areas of the Catlins.

Question - have you verified that the Routeburn will be fully functional in November? Tracks in NZ don't 'close' for the season but they do remove bridges for the winter months, which makes some tracks inaccessible. There's always the possibility of track damage following the winter too - I was in NZ once when the Routeburn was actually closed due to track damage.

For what it's worth, I didn't visit the Catlins indepth until my 9th visit to the SI. The fact that you're referring to this as 'your first visit to NZ' makes me believe there will be more.

If you do decide to visit the Catlins, by all means, give it a few good days. All the attractions might not be readily apparent, but they're definitely there.

It's a tough one, good luck with your decision.

theway02 Mar 17th, 2009 02:51 PM

Thank you very much guys for your input - I appreciate it.

And Melnq8 thank you for such a detailed note. We're doing Routeburn with Ultimate and they begin their tour on November 1st. We'll be in NZ Nov 12-29.

Your comments on Cook are well taken - I might end up staying 3 nights at Lake Tekapo instead of Mount Cook. In Mount Cook, I want to do the scenic ski plane ride (weather permitting), rafting trip among the glaciers and possibly Hooker Valley hike. In Lake Tekapo, we will probably go on short walks, maybe rent a bike and go to Mount John in daytime and night. It will only be 2 full days since we have to leave early to drive to Arthur's Pass on the 3rd day.

I am still not entirely sure which route to choose. I feel like Lake Tekapo is as sure a guarantee on fine weather in November as any so I kind of like that in combination with Catlins. Since we're not flying out of QT, seeing both west coast and Mount Cook / Tekapo would include too much backtracking.

If we went to west coast, would you recommend 2 night Wanaka, 2 night Fox Glacier, 2 night Punakaiki (allows us to drive up to Westport and back)? Instead of Wanaka which seems so similar to QT, we could stay in Makarora (Jumboland wilderness adventure) or Haast (to go to Jackson Bay for the sunset). Was there anything you particularly enjoyed on the west coast besides the usual Lake Matheson, glaciers?

kerikeri Mar 17th, 2009 04:33 PM

i just wanted to chime in on abel tasman as i just did that one for the first time this summer.
i think the appeal is the convenience of taking a boat to and from any starting point and then seeing the tidal estuaries fill up quite quickly.
the water and beaches are lovely, the track is perfectly groomed and there was a (terrifying) swing bridge and cold plunge pool and heaps of ferns and streams. in the water, along the way it does look very much like places in hawaii but not so much the way i recall costa rica. but you can see sea lions (easy) and manta rays (if you know where to look). i personally fall into the category of someone who had "always wanted" to do this hike, but on a limited stay on a first visit im not sure i'd put it top of list for someone who is not that into it to begin with.
and yes, for novice kayakers this would be ideal. i made up my own hiking/boating route and as a result got my lift back with kayakers and they were all high from their big day out adventure. i thought it was a pleasant day.

were i to go back, i would base at marahau and make it a true wildnerness trip and hike other portions of the trail.

i think a lot of the raving also comes from the brilliantly origanized boat companies that sort of sweep you up and offer tons of options and make it a very accessible lovely place to spend a couple of days.

kerikeri :)

Melnq8 Mar 17th, 2009 08:36 PM

I completely forgot to comment on Abel Tasman. Personally, I prefer the Queen Charlotte Track to the Abel Tasman, which like the Milford has gotten almost too popular for its own good. I've walked most of the Abel Tasman over the years, and my favorite section is between Totaranui and Whariwharangi. You may be aware that Totaranui is the final stop on the track for boat and bus service so many walkers never make it past Totaranui, yet the track continues on around the headland to Whariwharangi and Wainui.

I think the attraction of the Queen Charlotte Track for me is that it's less visited than the Abel Tasman, and has some gorgeous views of the Marlborough Sounds that you just can't find anywhere else. It's also diverse to the point that certain sections feel entirely different from one another.

Having said that, I will most likely return to walk more of the Abel Tasman someday, but only during low season.

kerikeri makes a good point about Abel Tasman not being something the average first time visitor with limited time would normally see. I didn't make it to Abel Tasman until my second or third visit.

Also, as you're visiting so late in November, you probably don't need to worry about the weather quite so much. We've had beautiful clear days on the West Coast in the middle of winter, and we've also had some absolute crap days during the season.

I'm actually pleased to see someone spending some time in Lake Tekapo, as there really is quite a bit to do for those of us who enjoy walks, etc. We took the hike to Mt John one year and had no trouble filling two full days at Lake Tekapo. I think you can also take the scenic plane ride to Mt Cook from Lake Tekapo, which would save you having to drive to Mt Cook, unless you just want to. Once you leave the highway and head back to Mt Cook, it becomes really scenic.

I'm not sure I understand this question -

"If we went to west coast, would you recommend 2 night Wanaka, 2 night Fox Glacier, 2 night Punakaiki (allows us to drive up to Westport and back)? Instead of Wanaka...."

I really enjoyed our three nights in Punakaiki, but once again, most first time visitors just blow through. There are some very nice walks in the area, but some of them are weather dependant (creek crossings, etc). Westport isn't all that exciting, but the drive is pretty and it's easy enough to reach from Punakaiki if you want to check it out. There's also a seal colony nearby.

I always suggest two nights at the glaciers if people want to take a hike or helihike as flights are often cancelled due to poor weather. For me, the West Coast is all about the scenery and the great walking opportunities. The glaciers aren't terribly attractive from the ground, but they are spectacular from up top on a clear day. There are a huge number of walks along the West Coast, Lake Matheson just happens to be a popular choice because it's short, level and easily accessible. There are countless others. Many are off the beaten path - such as the walks that originate from Jackson Bay. There are also some nice walks around Okarito, which is close to Franz Josef.

Just the fact that you've mentioned Jackson Bay and Makarora show me that you've really done your homework. Makarora is a bit of a mystery to me. I've been through there many times and have stopped there for gas and ice cream, but I don't recall anything more than a few buildings off the main road.
Perhaps I've just missed something?

I'm not a huge fan of the town of Wanaka, as to me it's just a wannabe Queenstown with another gorgeous lake. BUT there are some fabulous walks within an hour's drive of Wanaka, so for that alone, Wanaka makes a good option. In other words, if I were going to hike, I'd stay there. If I were just going to see the lake and the town, I'd only spend a few hours, but that's just me.

I've been writing steadily, yet I don't feel like I've done much more than ramble and I'd probably made your decision even harder.

Simply put, you really can't go wrong in NZ. Just go with your gut. Second guessing yourself will only make you crazy.

And remember, this is just the first visit...

Melnq8 Mar 17th, 2009 08:44 PM

Just in case you want to see some photos to whet your appetite:

kiwi_rob Mar 17th, 2009 10:52 PM

A couple of additional comments on the above:

October/November is the Nor'Wester season here in Christchurch. That is a warm, dry wind that blows across the Canterbury Plains. When the Nor'Wester is blowing, you can be sure that it will be pouring on the West Coast. At that time of year, we can get the Nor'Wester blowing for days on end and, hence, the reported days of nonstop rain on the Coast. Interspersed with this, though, the Coast can have some fabulous days. You just have to take your chances, one way or the other.

If you do drive up to Westport from Punakaiki, as Mel says, there is not a lot to do or look at in the town itself. If it is a fine day, I recommend that you drive a bit further up the coast road and visit the old mining settlement of Denniston, perched at the top of the hill. It is about a half hour drive from Westport and the view along the coast is fantastic. As well, the static display at the top showing the history of the Denniston Incline, an early engineering marvel for the transport of coal from the hilltop mine down to the coast, is fascinating.

Melnq8 Mar 17th, 2009 11:02 PM

Bummer about the November rain kiwi_rob, I'd assumed that being closer to summer maybe the weather wouldn't be as problematic.

I can't find Dennison on my map - is it towards Karamea? And incidently, how come no one ever asks about Karamea? I sort of liked it.

I'm always looking for new places in NZ to explore, so if you have any more secrets, I'd love to hear about them for next time.

Melnq8 Mar 17th, 2009 11:10 PM

And kiwi_rob, could you please enlighten me aboout Makarora?

mlgb Mar 18th, 2009 01:59 PM

I've made a few trips in November and early December and I can confirm what kiwi rob says about the weather at that time of year. Down south (eg Catlins) it can be very windy with the storms from Antartica. Is there any reason why you have to pin your entire itinerary down? It's best if you can be flexible and keep an eye on the Met service reports. It really isn't worth going to the west coast if there are no views and rain days on end.

I guess I've had better luck at Mt. Cook. Fantastic views when it's clear and there is also the Tasman Valley and the glacial lakes now.

I liked Karamea a lot (and the B&B I stayed at there), but it is a dead end out of the way (and fill up your gas tank before leaving civilization). Nice to walk to Scotts Beach and back.

A few places for Mel to consider, the Central Otago country the "Maniototo", and the Humpridge Track near Tuatapere.

Melnq8 Mar 18th, 2009 02:23 PM

Thanks mlgb, I'll look into those.

You're certainly right about Karamea being a dead end out of the way, but that's sort of what atracted me to it. We enjoyed walking a portion of the Heaphy Track from that end and a visit to the Honeycomb Caves.

What's your take on Makarora?

kiwi_rob Mar 18th, 2009 02:46 PM

Yes, Mel, Denniston is on the way up the coast road to Karamea. You turn off near Waimangaroa, not too far north of Westport. The road up the hill has a few twists and turns, but the views are worth it.

I agree with you about Karamea. It is a nice part of the country, but it is regarded as being a bit too quiet for many travellers. Because the road is a dead end, most people don't venture north of Westport. The scenery is similar to that to be seen along the rest of the coast road so, unless the Heaphy Track is part of the deal, there is really no reason to go as far up as Karamea.

Can't help with Makarora. I have never stopped there. The website for the Makarora Wilderness Resort looks interesting. I imagine that the walks would be similar to those in most of the high-country valleys in the South Island.

theway02 Mar 18th, 2009 05:34 PM

Thanks everyone for your reply - I really appreciate it and will take all your comments into consideration. Nothing really special about Makarora except I thought it would break up the drive between QT and the glaciers and also it's where Siberia Experience/Jumboland Experience is located. I have heard good things about this trip which combines helicopter tour, a little trampling and jetboat.

I really wish I could leave things open until we arrived in QT but most of the places we want to stay at (NZ B&B's are lovely but they have 2-5 rooms usually) are easily booked up months beforehand and if I made a reservation with credit card, there is the inevitable charge for cancellations within 30 day window.

So basically it comes down to the wind in Catlins or the rain on west coast huh? Lovely! :) I guess we'll take our chances with Catlins seeing how we'll at least have a reasonable chance of good weather in Lake Tekapo area!

kiwi_rob Mar 18th, 2009 07:56 PM

Tough choice but, although I have an affinity for the West Coast (I grew up there), Im sure that you won't be disappointed with the Catlins.

Melnq8 Mar 18th, 2009 09:05 PM

thewayo2 -

In that case, here are a few sites that might help in your planning.

As for lodging, we loved Fortrose Retreat:

theway02 Mar 19th, 2009 04:16 AM

Mel - I got fortrose retreat from your previous journal and really wanted to stay there. Unfortunately the wife has fallen ill and they may not be open this coming season. Thanks for all the links!

Melnq8 Mar 19th, 2009 03:41 PM

Sorry to hear that. The owners of Kinloch Lodge in Glenorchy also have a cottage in the Catlins (Owaka). We considered staying there, but instead chose Fortrose. You might want to take a look:

theway02 Mar 19th, 2009 08:45 PM

Thank you for that suggestion - I'll look into it. By the way, do you think we're missing out by not driving to Dunedin since it's only an hour away from Owaka where we'll likely base ourself (based again on your suggestion that North Catlins is prettier)?

My two reasons for skipping Otago Peninsula is I think we've a decent chance of seeing wildlife in the Catlins and the drive from Dunedin along the coast to Oamaru and up to Tekapo is not as pretty as the drive through Alexandria/Cromwell/Lindis Pass.

But let me know your two cents and if Otago comes highly recommended for scenery and what not, I'll shave one night off Tekapo.

Melnq8 Mar 19th, 2009 11:09 PM

I'm a little confused on your current itinerary and driving route. Would you mind posting it so I can better answer your question?

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