NZ Winter 2013 (July) Trip Report - 20 days SI & NI

Old Jul 31st, 2013, 02:47 PM
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NZ Winter 2013 (July) Trip Report - 20 days SI & NI

We went to NZ starting on June 30th (left the US on June 28th), for 20 days. This is part of a larger, seven week trip, including Australia (posting this from Darwin, NT right now). We're two adults, a fourteen year old girl, and a six year old boy. We flew to Auckland, connected on to Queenstown, rented a car, and drove slowly back up to Auckland. This will probably be a fairly long trip report, as I'm taking it from my journal. Will post in sections.

Day 1 - Travel

Overnight flight from SF was pretty good, a nice 747 (Air New Zealand). Arrived at Auckland at six am. Immigration line was quite long and slow as it was understaffed.

There's quite a walk from Intl terminal to the domestic one. Could have taken the shuttle bus, but it was nice out and we had the time. Got sim cards for the phones (about NZ$30 each for a month's calling and texts, plus 1GB data) and cash and coffee. Domestic terminal is quite small. Security check is quite lenient and rational compared to the US.

Gorgeous views of the mountains on the flight down to QT. QT airport is quite small, but with spectacular mountain views. Renting car at Apex took quite a while, although they were very nice. (Apex was in general great, good car, good prices, free child booster seat, no hassles on return at all.) Checked into our apartment (Spinnaker Bay) which is very nice; good sized two bedroom/two bath; it was probably the largest place we had in NZ, and a great way to start the trip. The garages are a bit tight, and took some careful maneuvering to get the Camry in. We had fabulous views of the lake and mountains. The only downside is that it's a 25+ minute walk into central QT, although most of the walk is on a path along the lake. Given the winter weather we mostly drove into town, although parking 'downtown' was sometimes challenging.

After getting organized for a bit, we went into QT and got some late lunch at Devilburger, which was quite good. It was the last day of the Winter Festival, so there were bands and various booths set up. Not a huge festival, but still fun. Kids tried out balancing on some webbing that some local kids had strung between two trees. Everyone was worn out from traveling, and so we crashed fairly early.

Day 2 - Dart River

Cold, on and off rain, at times heavy. It rained at least a bit every day for the first nine days of our trip. It was cold in QT - in high thirties / low forties Fahrenheit. We went to Glenorchy and did Dart River Wilderness trip. 30 min hike in forest was OK, but the jetboating was awesome! The jet boat really turns on a dime, and must not draw barely any water at all. Amazing stuff. Scenery spectacular although a fair amount of clouds and rain. Highly recommended - we had a blast even though the weather was pretty bad.

Lunch at Foxys Cafe - Irish stew, quiche - ok. Popped into a shop making things out of possum fur - really soft fur. But surprisingly expensive, so we didn't get anything. If the NZ govt is serious about getting rid of possums, they should subsidize it more.

Drove to Kawaru bungy jump to spectate. DD pleaded to be allowed to jump, but to no avail - DW told here to do some research and present her with safety statistics! Looks like a well run gig. Drove back to QT to do Skyline gondola and luge, but they stopped selling family pass 5 mins before we got there - weird. Went back to condo. Kids chilled out while DW and I went to QT Gardens for a nice walk since the weather was ok.

Dinner at @thai, which was good, with attentive service. They mold the rice into teddy bear shapes. Pricier than Devilburger. Then went to grocery store to load up on snacks and breakfast stuff.

Day 3 - Queenstown

Heavy rain until about 11 am. Drizzle after that and a bit cold. Hung out at the apt until 11 then we went to the Kiwi Birdlife Park. It was OK. Saw some kiwis and a bunch of other birds. Also saw some tuatara lizards which are cool. Was still raining a bit, and it was a bit expensive. On a nice day it would be ok, but one could definitely miss this one. Got a parking ticket; turns out those little yellow lines along the side of the road mean 'no parking'!

Went into town and got lunch at Devilburger again - everyone really liked it. Then we went up the gondola and did the luge. Everyone had lots of fun. Huge line to do the luge for your first time. After that you go in a different line that moves much more quickly. Funny to see people crash - one guy went completely off the track. It's a bit harder than it looks in the curves. DS did OK, and DD was loving it. Takeout dinner from Winnie's Pizza - yum. Everyone in bed by 9:30 - still jet-lagged.

Day 4 - Arrowtown, Te Anau

Went to Arrowtown, which has a really great historical museum. Walked around town a bit, which is a nice little old town that tourism has discovered but not totally ruined, but it was raining like crazy. Saw the old Chinese Settlement there, or what's left of it. Had a great lunch at creperie Bonjour. Did some shopping at the center in Frankton near the airport which has a supermarket, the Warehouse variety goods store (think smaller Walmart or Target), pharmacy, etc.

Drove from QT to Te Anau, about a two hour drive. Great views of the lake and mountains on the way. Passed many deer farms. And went through some 'red tussock' land, which is scenic. Occasional views of very scenic mountains.

In Te Anau, we saw the movie about Fiordland, which was very pretty (but a bit pricey) - nice that you can take a beer in, and probably the most comfortable movie theater seats I've ever sat in. We wanted to do the glow worm gave tour, but the caves were flooded from all the rain. Bummer.

Stayed at Radford's Lakeside motel in Te Anau, which fairly nice. Two bedroom apt again. Shower was a bit small and showerhead too low. Not as big as Spinnaker Bay apt, but decent. Dinner at Toscana which was just OK, service was lackluster.
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Old Jul 31st, 2013, 04:21 PM
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I'm thoroughly enjoying your report kbob88 and so glad to hear you enjoyed the Dart River Safari. I'll be on the SI later this month. I'm making note of your café/restaurant recommendations as I'll be traveling with my brother for a portion of the trip. Spouse and I usually seek out Indian food in NZ, but brother hates it, so your recommendations will come in handy, thanks.

What side of the plane were you on during the Auckland-QT flight? My brother will be taking that flight and I purposely got him seats on the right side of the plane thinking they'd have the best views, but it'd be good to get confirmation of that.

Anxiously awaiting the next installment.
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Old Aug 2nd, 2013, 10:04 AM
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Hi Kbob,

I'm joining too as we're planning a 17 day trip to NZ in Nov/Dec. i know that the weather will be different [well, i hope so] but your accommodation and other recs will be very useful I'm sure.

keep it coming!
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Old Aug 2nd, 2013, 01:45 PM
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I'm enjoying your report. Thanks for sharing with us.

Lee Ann
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Old Aug 3rd, 2013, 04:52 AM
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Terrible Internet today, so won't post next segment until tomorrow night at the earliest. Sorry about the delay.

Melnq8 - thanks for all your advice when I was putting this trip together. We sat on the left side of the plane from AKL to ZQN. And don't worry, we hit a fair number of Indian restaurants in NZ too!

Annhig -- our accommodations in NZ were in general very good. No serious complaints at all.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2013, 05:12 AM
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Day 5 - Milford Sound

Cruise on Milford Sound, on a boat run by Mitre Peak. Nice small boat; commentary was pretty good. Weather started out ok, but gradually started to rain. The fjord is amazing. Lots of waterfalls. Saw a pod of dolphins that rode the bow wave of the ship for quite a while. The drive to and fro is pretty amazing too.

On the way to the sound, we stopped at several spots including the Homer Tunnel entrance and the Chasm; definitely some good photo opps. Due to weather and time, we did not do any of the supposedly excellent walks on the way to the sound.

On return, we did some letterboxing (see www.letterboxing.org) near the control gates just south of Te Anau; the weather was terrible at this point. Had dinner at the Fat Duck -- was pretty good although a bit expensive. I had the venison medallions with kumara, mushrooms, berries, and cabbage, which was all quite good, except that DS stole most of my venison, and left me to eat his fish and chips. That kid has expensive tastes!

Day 6 - Te Anau to Wanaka

A bit of a late start today. Drizzly in Te Anau. Drove back towards Frankton. Some good views, some rain. Views of Lake Wakatipu not as good as on the way down. DD had convinced DW by now, and did the bungy jump at Kawarau gorge bridge. She didn't really hesitate at all, and really enjoyed it. Weather at Kawarau was fine. We then found a letterbox right near there.

Drove down to Cromwell. Had lunch at a cute little cafe; sorry can't remember the name, but there's not much there. Good pumpkin soup. Cromwell has a small historic old town that they are clearly trying to get some tourist interest, without much success in the winter. Weather was decent down here. Then we hiked up (really up!) to their old reservoir where we found another letterbox.

Drove on to Wanaka, arriving about five. Clearbrook Accommodation was very nice - 2 br, one of which was a loft. Had one of our best meals in NZ at Relishes Cafe. Seafood chowder was excellent. Wanaka looks like a very nice little town, and I think we shortchanged it a bit as we were only staying there one quick night.

Day 7 - Wanaka to Franz Josef

Went to Puzzling World in Wanaka. Lots of fun was had by all in the large maze. DD and I did the maze in the 'difficult' order in about 40 mins. As it normally takes 60 to 90 mins, we were quite proud of ourselves. We were intrigued by the great optical illusion at the bathrooms. The illusion rooms were fun also, especially the one that makes one person look tiny and one huge. But it felt like they needed another room or two to flesh out the exhibit.

Left Wanaka with pretty good weather, driving most of the way up Lake Hawea in the sun. Great views of mountains to the right. Had a few small showers as we crossed back over to Lake Wanaka, but that made for a great rainbow over the lake. Wonderful views of the Aspiring mountains as we drove up to Makarora, which has a beautiful setting in a valley, but seems very much the middle of nowhere.

Driving over Haast Pass was not nearly as high or difficult as I had thought. In California, no one would have even called it a 'pass' probably. Stopped at Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls, the latter of which is quite spectacular. Lots of other equally impressive waterfalls on the mountainsides as we drove down the Haast Valley. We should have stopped quickly at Bruce Bay which had tons driftwood and stumps on the beach, and a forest of pretty tall trees, but whizzed on by.

We did the Monro Beach walk, in spite of the sign warning us that the penguins don't show up until September. I'm glad we did, as the walk through the temperate rainforest was amazing. We hadn't really seen that kind of scenery before.

Drove on to Franz Josef, arriving just before sunset. Had dinner at The Alice May in FJ. It was decent. Cute inside with lots of antique tools and stuff. Food was OK but nothing special; there are better places in town.

We stayed at the Glenfern Villas in Franz Josef which are very nice. Two bedrooms, one of which is in a loft; fairly big, nicely done. Big storm that night: lots of hail, rain, wind, and lightning and thunder.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2013, 02:40 PM
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Hi kbob,

it seems that we'll be doing your itinerary in reverse, so thanks for all the detail in your most interesting TR.

one question I'm grappling with is whether to spend one night in Wanaka or two? like you we'll be using it as a stopping off point between Franz Joesph and Te Anau; i wonder what it was that you thought you'd missed?

you say that the alice May in FJ was ok but there are better places to eat - care to name them? we'll be there for 2 nights so we'd like somewhere decent to eat while we're there!

looking forward to finding out what you did in FJ!
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Old Aug 3rd, 2013, 03:21 PM
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Glad you liked Clearbrook - we're booked there for two nights next month.

annhig -

The Landing in Franz Josef is quite popular, although we thought it felt more like a bar than a restaurant. Our favorite FJ eatery is The Blue Ice.

The Saddle in Fox is pretty good too.
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Old Aug 7th, 2013, 04:29 AM
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Day 8 - Franz Josef and Fox

Lots of rain and hail. A bit of a late start waiting for the weather to improve. Wind last night was really blowing, so there were lots of small branches all over the roads. The drive from FJ to Fox took quite a while as there was an inch or two of hail all over the road in some places! Had to drive very carefully.

Had a wonderful lunch at the Matheson Cafe. I think it was the highlight of the day. Unfortunately the clouds did not cooperate, and we never got views of Mts Cook and Tasman. Walked out to the lake (Lake Matheson) to search for a letterbox but did not find it. Would be a very nice walk if the weather was OK.

Then we to see Fox Glacier. As we hiked in to the glacier face (and they really don't let you get close enough), the wind blew like mad, and the rain pelted down. It was really miserable, so we snapped a few quick pics and beat a hasty retreat.

Dinner at the Blue Ice in Franz, which was fairly good. Seems to have a good bar upstairs.

Day 9 - Franz Josef to Punakaiki

Woke up to a sunny, crystal-clear morning. We went and hiked to the Franz Josef glacier face. What a difference a day makes. Beautiful weather. Of course they don't let you get very close to the face at all. Wonder if this is mostly to drive up revenue for the guided walks. Found a letterbox on the Sentinel Rock hike.

Then we took a helicopter ride up over and onto the glacier. Really fantastic. Absolutely amazing and worth every penny. We went with The Helicopter Line; asked for and freceived a small discount. Flew up the Franz Josef glacier. Landed up on a snowfield on top of Fox Glacier and puttered about in the snow for ten minutes. Then flew down Fox and back to FJ.

Drove up to Hokitika, through mostly deserted wilderness with some farms. Went to see Hokitika Gorge, which is not very deep, but still quite nice due to the water's turquoise color and the nicely shaped rocks. Meant to see Hokitika town, but didn't have enough time. No time for Greymouth either.

Stayed at the Hydrangea Cottages in Punakaiki. Lots of charm, very well decorated with Cook Islander art, views of the ocean, nice owners, etc.

Lunch at Kiwi Kai in FJ - takeaway fast food. I had a mussel pattie which was quite good. Dinner at the Punakaiki Tavern, the local pub. Very local, decent food, friendly service.
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Old Aug 7th, 2013, 11:08 AM
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kbob - enjoying this very much and i'm following your accommodation and eating reports with interest.

I hope that in December we'll be having better weather!
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Old Aug 7th, 2013, 03:11 PM
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Yea! A pretty day on the West Coast!

<Wonder if this is mostly to drive up revenue for the guided walks.>

Maybe, but I think it's more about safety and keeping reckless tourists from killing themselves.
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Old Aug 8th, 2013, 12:18 AM
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It was a gorgeous day, but we did get a bit of rain while driving up the coast. I was bummed about missing Hokitika, but after being rained out totally on the glacier the day before, we had to grab the opportunity to do the heli flights. BTW, we would have done the heli hike, but they don't take six year olds.

> Maybe, but I think it's more about safety and keeping reckless tourists from killing themselves.

Yes, I suppose so, but they stop you a really, really long way from the glacier terminal face. There's not much chance of anything happening to you at a third of the distance.

The Landing at FJ definitely looked like a happening bar.

By the way, anyone traveling outside the dead of winter will be able to get a lot more done per day than we did. When we started in Queenstown, the sun wasn't coming up until a bit after 8am and was setting at 5pm, so our daylight was very limited. We were also limited by the inability of the 14 yro DD to get ready in the morning in less than 2 hours...
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Old Aug 10th, 2013, 03:16 AM
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Day 10 - Punakaiki to Nelson and Motueka

Rain for most of the day. Cold too. Went and got coffee at the local cafe until the rain stopped. Then went to see Punakaiki's Pancake Rocks, which were very cool. The blowholes were really spouting as it was high tide and surf was pounding.

Started to rain a lot while we were at the rocks so blew off the (planned) Truman Track and the Porairi River Track and we drove to Nelson. The Buller River valley is fairly scenic, although hard to see in the rain. Once at Nelson, we visited the World of Wearable Art museum (and its sister classic car museum). Very cool stuff at both. They could probably could use another dozen or so outfits to improve the WOWA collection however -- it seemed a bit short.

We stayed at the Equestrian Lodge in Motueka, which was pretty nice, although maybe not quite as good as some of the others we've stayed at. Nice grounds, although that didn't count for much in the winter. Not as much character as the Hydrangea Cottages, but more spacious. Very nice and helpful owners. The hotel appears to heat its hot water using coal, which I thought was unusual, as you very rarely see coal heat in the US. But you can definitely smell it in NZ, and not just in Motueka.

We washed clothes at the hotel's shared laundry in the evening. Terribly slow dryer! I mean, really, really slow.

Dinner at Chokdree Thai food; pretty good.

Day 11 - Abel Tasman Natl Park

First day since day #1 that it hasn't rained at all! Mostly cloudy all day, except some brief periods of sunshine. Pretty cold, but not so bad that we couldn't be out bad.

Took the Sea Shuttle water taxi from Kaiteriteri all the way into Abel Tasman as far as it goes, and then were dropped off on the way back at Torrent Bay. Hiked from there to Medlands Beach, where the water taxi picked us up again. Great hike, about three hours long including lunch and several spur trails (Sandfly Bay and South Head lookout). AB is very pretty - lots of interesting rocks along the shore, tons of little bays and coves, beautiful golden yellow sand. The rich color of the sand is quite unusual; it kind of looks like polenta. The foliage alternated depending on which side of each hill one was on. On the south sides, it was dense temperate rainforest with tree ferns, vines, etc. On the north sides, more exposed to the sun and perhaps seabreezes, it was more open, and dominated by tea tree looking trees. There are lots of private houses in the park. Most are only accessible by water, and use solar for electricity.

Dinner at Simply Indian, which was quite good. We tried to go to The Gothic, but it and most of the other restaurants in town were closed for some reason. Maybe because it's winter?

Day 12 - Nelson to Wellington

Took the Queen Charlotte Drive to Picton, which takes about two and a half hours (from Motueka). Very scenic as it winds along the sounds, but extremely curvy too. Interesting to note some serious timber clear-cutting in the mountains just east of Nelson; with all the rain they get, it's got to be a serious erosion risk (and not very eco-friendly either). In the Marlborough Sounds, there are some little waterside settlements that could definitely bear more exploration in summer. Looks like a good place for sailing.

Checked in for the ferry at noon. Didn't actually load the car onto the ferry until after 1pm. Not sure what the delay was. Perhaps it took forever to load the trucks, but there didn't seem to be that many of them. Ferry is quite large. Hung out in the cafe for most of the trip as it was quite cold and windy outside. Out in the Cook Strait the wind was really howling. Good scenery on the trip over however. Must be really nice on a pleasant day.

Our hotel, the Copthorne, is pretty nice. Good location, right on Oriental Parade with a view of the harbor, not too far from Courtenay Place. Fairly modern inside, although rooms are a bit small, but that's to be expected for a city center hotel.

We met up with my cousin (who lives in Wellie) went to dinner at Dragon Chinese restaurant. It was OK, about on par with decent (but not great) Chinese restaurants in SF.
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Old Aug 10th, 2013, 03:33 AM
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>Dinner at Simply Indian, which was quite good. We tried to go to The Gothic, but it and most of the other restaurants in town were closed for some reason. Maybe because it's winter?>

Was this in Motueka?
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Old Aug 12th, 2013, 01:56 AM
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Yes, in Motueka
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Old Aug 18th, 2013, 01:17 AM
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The word for New Zealand in Maori means "long white cloud"

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/aotearoa

It does rain a lot in New Zealand. I see you noticed the problem of limited daylight in winter tourism down under. I had the same trouble on my 2 trips to NZ because they were both in the NZ winter (part of home exchange trips that also included Australia). So, I went back to Australia in summer and then had extreme heat in Sydney. You can't win.
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Old Aug 19th, 2013, 11:34 PM
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Day 13 - Wellington

Raining again. Rained or drizzled all morning and half the afternoon, on and off in the evening. Ugh.

We were not terribly motivated to go out into the rain, so we slept in and took our time and didn't leave the hotel until about noon. Had lunch at Sweet Mother's Cafe on Courtenay Place, which was fairly good, New Orleans style breakfast. Cozy. Then went to the Te Papa museum and spent the rest of the day there. Very well done museum, and quite big too. Lots of cool Maori stuff - including a maere and storehouses, lots of weapons, a sailing vessel, etc. Saw a bit of the non-Maori stuff too, but ran out of time before we'd seen it all.

My cousin met us there after his work let out, and once the museum closed, we wandered around Cuba St a bit doing some window shopping; picked up a few souvenirs and gifts. Nice to be back in civilization after a week on the west coast. We went to dinner at Istanbul, which was quite good, and reasonably priced. We had the table where you sit on big cushions on the floor, which was perfect for the kids.

Day 14 - Wellington

Drove up to my cousin's house for brunch. It was a twisty drive up into the hills on some really narrow roads. He's way up at the top of the hills, with an amazing view east out over the city and the harbor. Really reminds me of San Francisco.

The we headed over to Karori Wildlife Sanctuary / Zealandia, which is fairly near his house. Weather was marginal - spitting a bit on and off, not too cold. Karori is a wildlife sanctuary in the hills which has a large fence around it, keeping invasive species out. The museum at Karori is quite good and informative, although a bit small. In the wildlife reserve, we saw lots of birds, including some pretty rare stuff. Of course, it helps having your own ornithologist (my cousin) along.

Weather was getting fairly lousy, so we went down to the hotel and swam in the pool. The indoor pool is up on the 7th floor or something, so it has a great view of the harbor. However, it's not heated very well, so it was a bit cold. And it's not ventilated properly, so the pool room has lots of condensation. Then we had dinner at Hazel down in the city. I think this was our best meal in NZ. Really good food, and very good service.

Day 15 - Wellington to Taupo

We drove from Wellington to Taupo, so this was a big driving day. There was rain and howling wind until well into the Kapiti Coast. The freeway gives out pretty quickly, and after Palmerston North, the road is just like any other small country road in NZ, running through lots of small towns. Hard to believe this is one of the major north-south routes in the country. Even so, we made good time, getting to Taupo in about 4.5 hours, including stopping for gas.

No views of Mt Tongariro at all due to cloud cover and fog, but lots of snow on the ground on Desert Road. They closed the road about two hours after we drove through, but it was clear when we went through. We finally got some sun at the southern edge of Lake Taupo!

We drove up to the Craters of the Moon geothermal park just north of Taupo. This is a nice, inexpensive (and in retrospect, small) geothermal area, filled mostly with craters and fumaroles. There are a few mud pots also. It's fairly scenic and was a good introduction to the geothermal heartland between Taupo and Rotorua. I don't think we would have been impressed with it had we already seen Wai-o-Tapu or Orakei Korako. Then we went to see Huka Falls nearby. It's not the tallest falls, but there's a lot of water going over it, and it's pretty.

Taupo looks like a nice town, and certainly has a great location right on the lake, and in the winter is not nearly as touristy as Rotorua. We had dinner at Master of India, which had very good food and service. We stayed at the Comfort Inn, which was really nice. We had a big 2BR apartment with a loft, right on the lake with gorgeous views.

Day 16 - Taupo to Rotorua

Woke to a beautiful day in Taupo! Drove to Orakei Korako to see their geothermal park. It appears to be run and operated by the local Maori tribe. You have to take a little shuttle boat across a small lake or river. Then it was a pleasant 45-60 min walk through the geothermal park, with some good bushwalking. The sights are mostly terraces and hot spring pools, with a small geyser or two, one of which did a small eruption while we were there. There's also a short cave with a hot spring in it. All in all, it was a pretty nice place, and the geothermal activity was pretty good - certainly more impressive than Craters of the Moon.

Then we drove through some beautiful rolling green farmland to Wai-o-Tapu, another, larger geothermal park. This probably had the highest number of thermal sights of any of the parks we saw. Unfortunately, their electricity was out, so we had a very limited lunch in their cafe. Going to the bathrooms was an interesting experience as there was no lighting. But everyone made do.

The first section of Wai-o-Tapu has mostly craters and some mudpots, and wasn't that impressive. But then we got to the pools and terraces. These were quite good, especially some of the pools, which were huge, and had wonderful colors. Then after a bit of bushwalking, we arrived at where it all empties out via a small waterfall into a nice greenish blue lake. The walk back nicely doesn't repeat the same sights, but gives you (mostly) new ones. We ended up at one of the prettiest pools, which was a beautiful light yellowish green color.

We were making good time, so we pushed on up the road just a bit to Waimangu Valley. I didn't expect to like this geothermal site as much, as it doesn't have as many active things as Wai-o-Tapu, but it was quite good in a different way. It's a nice walk down to the bottom of the valley and then a shuttle bus takes you back up. Although there weren't as many geothermal sights, the valley backdrop is very picturesque, and the walk is quite pleasant.

Our lodgings for the night were at the Regent of Rotorua, clearly an old motel that has been seriously upgraded along trendy boutique lines. Our two bedroom apt was fairly spacious and pretty cool and modern - all in trendy black and white. Darryn the concierge was extremely helpful.

We wanted to go for sushi, for a change, but the local Japanese place was closed, so we had dinner at Indian Star, which was another very good Indian restaurant with great service.

After dinner, we went to the Polynesian Spa. It's not cheap. The family area wasn't that nice, although the kids had a great time swimming. The water is hot but not fizzy. The kids were not happy about the rotten eggs smell. We had a peek at the lakeside pools which seem much nicer, but are a lot more expensive too (no family deal). I'm not sure the whole thing is worth it, unless you go to the lakeside pools, and hang out for a long time, or get some sort of deal.
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Old Aug 20th, 2013, 12:10 AM
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Day 17 - Rotorua

First we went to the Rotorua Museum. This has a surprisingly good exhibit on the local Maori tribe's history and culture, from way back when, right up to the present day. In a way, the exhibit was better than what we saw at Te Papa. It certainly did a better job of tying it all together. There's also an exhibit on the museum's previous life as a spa and bathhouse, which was OK.

Next it was time to load up on tacky entertainment! First stop: the Skyline gondola and luge, sister to the one in Queenstown. This time we were blessed with much better weather, and not nearly as long lines. I think the luge ride is also longer, and there are three routes to choose from instead of two. It might also have been a bit cheaper. Interestingly, the luge goes through a redwood forest near the end -- apparently someone planted a ton of redwood seedlings there fifty years ago or so, and they've thrived. The staff loading people into the luge is a bit more clueless and less efficient than their QT colleagues however. Having had a good time on the QT luge, we bought a larger package and more rides this time. Everyone had a grand time.

Then it was on to the Agrodome for the sheep show! We skipped the farm tour, as the kids do an organic farm camp every summer, and I grew up on farm. While waiting for the sheep show to start, we hung out in the nursery shed, petting baby lambs, goats, and puppies. Well, you can imagine what a big hit that was. It was hard to pull everyone away from that cuteness and grab seats for the show. The sheep show totally delivered. If you go in expecting highbrow entertainment, you'll be disappointed, but it's great fun and very well done. Lots of good humor and quite informative too. And yes, he shears a sheep. And you can pet more sheep and have your pictures taken with them. Very fun and recommended.

Then back to the hotel to catch a shuttle to the Hangi at Mitai Village. When deciding which hangi to attend, we had narrowed it down to two or three, and chose Mitai because people said it seemed the most authentic and the staff were the most natural -- not just going through the motions. I think that's fairly accurate. The MC was pleasant and good humored, and seemed to enjoy his job. Having the warriors arrive paddling a canoe by torchlight is a nice touch. The show was good, informative and entertaining, and not overly show-biz, and the Maori seemed to have a good sense of humor about it all, without making too much fun of themselves. The food was pretty good, and there was a lot of it, with a good variety of selection. You're not going to get high end gourmet at one of these things I think. All in all, it was certainly better than any of the many luaus I've been to in Hawaii (and a hangi and luau are very similar).

Day 18 - Hobbiton and Waitomo

Fairly early departure from Rotorua, to get us to Hobbiton (Matamata) for the 9:30 tour. The Hobbiton tour starts from their Shire's Rest Cafe, which is basically a corrugated farm shed converted into a ticket office and cafe. We had a good laugh about how one of the country's major tourist attractions is run out of a farm shed.

Hobbiton itself is great. The rolling green hills are beautiful. There are tons of hobbit holes, and they're very well done. The attention to detail is very high. It's all extremely picturesque. The guide, Wyatt, who's a local high school kid, was very good, and had lots of stories about the filming, especially about Peter Jackson's insistence that everything be done to incredible level of detail and authenticity. The whole experience was a lot better than we expected.

At the end of the tour, we walked over to the new Green Dragon Inn. It's quite nice inside, and I wished we had more time to hang out and have lunch, but we had to push on. On the edge of the Shire's Rest parking lot, DS spotted a little hedgehog.

Then we drove to Waitomo and did the glowworm cave tour and the Anauri cave tour. The glowworm cave was very cool, although a bit short. The light they produce is a soft blue color. It's steady, unlike fireflies. The cafe has very good burgers, albeit a bit pricey.

The Anauri cave tour is about 40 minutes. The cave is not huge, but a decent length and quite spectacular, with lots of great stalactites and stalagmites. For the extra $34 I think it's well worth it to add onto the glowworm tour. We didn't do the Ruakari cave as that's two hours we didn't have. We did take the 30 minute hike from the Anauri parking lot, on the recommendation of the cave guide. This was a great walk, with good foliage and jungle, and really fabulous views of natural tunnels and caves that the Waitomo river flows through. Highly recommended.

Drove to Auckland (unfortunately mostly in the dark); arrived at the Hotel DeBrett around 7:20. The hotel is nice, although the priciest lodgings we had in NZ. It's a boutique hotel and was certainly trendy enough to satisfy DD. Great location. Very helpful staff. We had a nice little duplex suite. By the time we got settled in and got the car emptied, it was after eight, and DS was showing signs of crashing soon. So we had dinner at the hotel's restaurant, which was very good, and had good service.

Day 19 - Auckland

Woke up fairly late, as we had a light day planned, with thankfully no real travel involved. We had a great, although pricey, breakfast at Cafe Melba around the corner. Returned the rental car with no hassles. Apex was fine, and "Carwi" the Camry served us well. I would definitely recommend them.

We walked over to the Auckland Domain, a large park near downtown. Saw an enticing path labeled "Lovers Walk" leading off into the bush. We followed it into some of the densest jungle we'd seen in NZ, right in the middle of the park. At the end of the path, we came out into an open European style park.

Then we went to Auckland Museum, which is in the park. It has good Maori exhibits, although nothing dramatically different from what we saw in Wellington and Rotorua. It does have more stuff, and a greater variety. There's also a fairly good natural history exhibit, again similar to Te Papa's. There was an exhibit recreating 1866 Auckland that looked interesting. The top floor is mostly devoted to a large exhibit on NZ's war experiences. We breezed through on our way to another exhibit, but it looked very well done and interesting. They have a full Spitfire in there, and a Japanese Zero too. Last exhibit we saw was on Sir Edmund Hillary and his Everest ascent; small but well done.

We walked back downtown, passing through Auckland University and another nice, but smaller, park. Then we walked up and down High and Queen Street and did a bit of shopping. We had dinner at Kushi Japanese restaurant on Durham St. It was pretty good. The sushi selection was fairly limited by American standards (but still OK), so we supplemented with items like salmon teriyaki. Service, after a sluggish start, was very attentive.

Then it was back to the hotel for a major packing extravaganza!

Day 20 - Auckland to Sydney

Woke up around 4:15-4:30 to get everyone showered and dressed in time for a 5:40 taxi to the airport. Ugh. There was a bit of last minute jamming stuff into luggage, and then we were off. Amazingly we got going on schedule, and with a minimum of fuss. I think that all our traveling is finally starting to get us into a groove.

We made it to the airport in about 25 minutes; not a bad ride at all (with no traffic) for about NZ$60. Smooth checkin. One hitch at security as DW had pocketed one of our buck knives that we used to cut apples as she was departing the hotel, thinking she'd put it in the checked luggage, but then forgot about it. So we had to donate that to NZ airport security. Luckily, there was a minimum of fuss about it. Hate to think of the hassles our American TSA would have given us over that incident!

Got everyone settled with some macchiato, mocha, hot chocolate, and long flat white, and then off on a long trek to our gate. At some point I was beginning to wonder if we were going to walk across the Tasman Sea instead of fly. Auckland Airport just didn't look that big. At least there were several "travelators" - Kiwi for what we would call a moving walkway. At the gate, we noticed an interesting sign on the trash cans: "No Spitting - Please Use Bathroom", prominently displayed in English and Chinese. We were also amused to see that the status on the departure monitors for flights that were not close to boarding time yet was listed as "Relax".

We were a bit worried about running afoul of Virgin's super-restrictive 7kg weight limit for carryons as everyone except DS was over that limit, and DW and DD were seriously over. We tried to look nonchalant and as if our bags were featherlight as we approached the agent. It probably helped that I was first, as I only had my carry-on plus a very small shoulder satchel, and was only half a kilo over. But no worries mate, they weren't even weighing bags, so we sailed through and onto the plane. Only free tea, coffee, and water on our Virgin Australia flight to Sydney. Never had an international flight without free food or sodas. Even Virgin America domestic has unlimited free soda and juice. At least the plane was new.

And that was it -- on to Sydney and the Australian leg of our trip. I'll start posting the Australian trip report soon, in a completely new thread, so as to leave this one dedicated to NZ commentary.
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Old Aug 20th, 2013, 12:22 AM
  #19  
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Kiwiana -- Here's a whole bunch of random observations about New Zealand. Some might be nothing unusual to travelers from other countries, but us Americans thought them interesting:

* There are very few stop signs in NZ, but lots of "Give Way" signs. Also lots of roundabouts, perhaps even more common than in Europe, and they seem to work well. Outside the major cities, there are very few traffic lights. We finally saw our first NZ traffic lights in Nelson. That's right -- Queenstown to Nelson, nearly the entire length of the South Island, without seeing a traffic light!
* It appears that people use coal heating stoves here. One can smell it in the air. Our hotel in Motueka used coal, probably for heating the hot water boiler. Doesn't appear to be very eco-friendly, but maybe more eco-friendly than importing oil?
* Most NZ mens' rooms have stainless large steel urinal troughs. They also mostly have electric hand dryers, not paper towels.
* Most hotel rooms have electric heaters.
* NZ is the land of the one lane bridge. We found it fairly amusing to drive up to a brand new multi-million-dollar modern visitors center in some remote park, having just driven over twenty ancient one lane bridges to get there.
* Roads outside the largest cities are of the tar-and-chip variety. This must make for great business for Kiwi windshield replacement firms.
* Every motel or cottage in NZ has an electric hotpot and a French press. When you check in they ask if you'd like some milk for your morning tea. (There is no such thing as filtered coffee in NZ.)
* Houses generally appear to be fairly small in NZ
* Passing lanes are quite generous; even indicating that it's OK to pass around fairly blind corners. However, Kiwis, in spite of being aggressive tailgaters, are not confident passers, preferring to tailgate for many kms until you pull over or a passing lane appears.
* In general, Kiwis are not speeders on the roads, driving the speed limit or maybe 5 kph over.
* We never saw cloth napkins in a restaurant in NZ, no matter how nice or expensive a restaurant.
* Between Nelson and the Marlborough Sounds, we saw several signs advertising "horse poo" for $2 per bag
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Old Aug 20th, 2013, 12:41 AM
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annhig, I don't think I ever answered your question about Wanaka. If we'd had more time, we probably would have done a hike or two (there are some short ones fairly close to town), as well as the aviation museum and the toy and transport museum, plus walked around town and along the lakefront a bit. Given how much fun we had on the Dart River jet boats, we might have sprung for the Wilkin River jet boats, or the Siberia Experience (fly/hike/jetboat, although that wasn't running in the winter). If you're there in the summer, I'll bet there's a lot more to do, like boating on the lake. It's a lot like a smaller Queenstown without all the twenty-two year old bungy jumpers...

In review, all in all, I think this was a great itinerary. We definitely missed or shortchanged some stuff (Auckland, Nelson, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Napier and much of the North Island), but given the number of days we had, and the need to spend some time in Wellington with my cousin, I'm not sure I would have changed anything. Well except perhaps flown from Nelson to Wellington instead of taking the ferry -- the weather in winter just wasn't good enough for us to get much out of the ferry ride; in summer it would have been fine. With a few more days, I would have added Napier, and maybe Kaikoura, or Bay of Islands or spent another day in Auckland.

We only really had eighteen and a third days on the ground. With twenty one full days on the ground (and no cousin in Wellie), one could see a bit more -- perhaps only one day in Wellie, add in Napier, and another day in Auckland, plus Marlborough area and Kaikoura, and another day in Wanaka.
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