Trip Report - hope it helps someone

Old Mar 29th, 2008, 09:46 PM
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Trip Report - hope it helps someone

We are home from our 19 day vacation in New Zealand (February 21 through March 10, 2008) and it’s time to give back for all the help this forum provided during the year of planning for the trip. (I’m a lurking looky-lou who has finally registered!) “We” are a group of four adults celebrating the year we reached Medicare. My husband and the couple we were traveling with met when they started 7th grade; I met my husband the first week of our freshman year in college and I met the other couple three month’s later. Therefore we knew each other for a long time! This was the first joint vacation for the two couples however. The focus of the trip was the South Island with an emphasis on nature and we decided to forego a focus on museums and shopping. I will summarize our activities, accommodations, eateries, and the guides and tours we used.

Air Travel: We flew from Los Angeles to Auckland round trip on Air New Zealand. Both trans-Pacific flights were on 747-400; they were totally full flights and were basically on time. We had purchased our tickets in early 2007 so we avoided any fuel surcharges. Seats were not spacious but they were better than our recent domestic US flights. We also flew from Auckland to Christchurch, from Dunedin to Rotorua for us and Dunedin to Auckland for our traveling buddies; these flights were also on Air New Zealand and they were not at full capacity. Airport facilities and eating options in the New Zealand airports we encountered were fine but if you are changing from the international terminal to the domestic one in Auckland, do take advantage of the free shuttle bus between the terminals. We did not and got caught in some heavy rain and wind during the hike. We used taxis and shuttles for transfers to/from airports and hotels when we did not have access to rental cars. The fares were reasonable considering the four of us had a total of six pieces of checked baggage and four carryon items.

Accommodations: We reserved hotel rooms almost a year in advance so we had reservations at all of our first choice options. This forum and Trip Advisor were very helpful in selecting hotels. We generally chose the equivalent of four star hotels but some may differ in our assessments. All of the hotels met or exceeded our expectations. All of the stays were for two nights except for our final night in Auckland. It might have been better to have some three night stays but we were limited in how long we could be away from home. The luxury of having kitchen facilities and the free milk were added bonuses. I will simply list the hotels with minimal notes. (We did carry a wireless laptop so Internet access was desirable.)

Christchurch – Millennium Hotel in Cathedral Square (Great location; no kitchen facilities and expensive Internet access that we did not use at all)

Glaciers – Westhaven Motel in Fox (Great location; kitchen facilities and inexpensive Internat access)

Queenstown – Villa Del Lago (Great location; a full two bedroom apartment with laundry; Internet was free for a couple of hours since they were installing wireless during our stay.)

TeAnau – Campbell’s AutoLodge (Good location; Each couple had a one bedroom apartment with full kitchens and free wireless Internet access)

Invercargill – Balmoral Lodge (Good location; Each couple had a one bedroom apartment with free Internet access I think – can’t quite remember!)

Dunedin – Scenic Circle City Hotel (Great location; conventional hotel room with expensive Internet access that we used sparingly)

Rotorua – Lakeside Novotel Hotel (Great location; conventional hotel room with expensive Internet access that we used sparingly)

Auckland – Crowne Plaza Hotel (Great location; conventional hotel room with expensive Internet access that we used sparingly)

Eateries: Every meal except for one was excellent. We were surprised by the consistent quality of each meal. Maybe we are not particular but all four of us enjoy good food and we know when a meal does not meet our standards. In general we had breakfast in our hotel rooms/apartments. We bought groceries for breakfast, some wine and beer and a few snacks in Fox, Queenstown, and Te Anau for a total cost of less than $100 USD. In general lunches ranged from $20 to $40 USD per couple including beer and sodas. Dinners ranged from $40 to $70 USD per couple. The higher cost dinners included wine and desserts. None of the meals seemed over-priced compared to restaurants at home. I will list those restaurants where I can remember where we ate each lunch and dinner.

Christchurch – Lunches at Café Stir on New Regent Street and Canterbury Museum Café; Dinners at Viaduct and The Tap Room on Oxford Terrace

Glaciers – Brunch at the Lake Matheson Café; Lunch at Beeches in Franz Josef; both dinners at Café Neve – we really liked it and the motel was within walking distance.

Queenstown – Lunches at Tangos in Wanaka and The 19th on the Queenstown wharf which was really yummy; Dinners at India Gate and Avanti on the pedestrian mall

Te Anua – Lunches at Five Rivers Café on the road from Queenstown which was also very good; the Café at Milford Sound which was convenient and there was no other option, and The Olive Tree after our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise; Dinners at Ming Garden which was an excellent value and La Dolca Vita which was not so great a value

Invercargill: Lunch on Stewart Island at Kai Kart which was wonderful fish ‘n chips and mussel chowder; Dinners at Waxy’s Irish Pub and the Sopranos both of which served very good food

Dunedin – Lunches at The Lumberjack (no electricity so they only could serve soup) in Owaka and Croque-O-Dile near The Octogan (good food but overwhelmed wait staff); Dinners at The Reef which was excellent but perhaps a bit pricy and the hotel lounge since we returned from the Otago Peninsula utterly exhausted

Rotorua – Dinners at The Pig and Whistle and Indian Star which was excellent and better than the Indian food in Queenstown

Auckland – Lunches at Harborside in the Ferry Building and The Occidental which served the biggest mussels on the planet; Dinner at Dragon Boat on Elliott Street which was very good and quite authentic

Rental Cars: We reserved a minivan from Hertz for our journey through the South Island. We picked it up in Greymouth after the TranzAlpine train trip from Christchurch. We returned the van at the Dunedin Airport which is more than 20 miles from town. We also rented a car at the Rotorua Airport which we returned two days later at the downtown Rotorua location. The vehicles were perfect and my husband handled the left-side driving without much difficulty but he had three backseat drivers who constantly reminded him to “look right, stay left” at every intersection or roundabout. We had no difficulty finding gas stations when needed except on the Southern Scenic Route between Curio Bay and Nugget Point – things were a little tense as the needle hovered close to empty.

Trains: We all thoroughly enjoyed the TranzAlpine train even though the weather was overcast; it was comfortable and better than driving. We qualified for senior rates so the fare was not too extreme. Note: Senior fares cannot be purchased through the web site; you must order them via email from the helpful staff at TranzAlpine. We also liked the Tramway in Christchurch since we were a bit jetlagged and our energy was sapped.

Buses: We took an InterCity bus from Rotorua to Auckland which was one of our smarter decisions. The tickets were ordered online and the price was a real bargain. There was no reason to drive the rental car to Auckland, pay a dropoff surcharge, and cope with either driving in Auckland or getting into the city from the airport. Furthermore the driver told us about points of interest along the way. It was not a very interesting ride and we were even more delighted when we realized the bus terminal was a couple of blocks from the hotel.

We used the Explorer Bus on Dunedin and found the driver/guide to be exceptionally well informed and interesting.

In Auckland the free City Circuit busses were terrific. Note: Not all of the busses on this route are red; they also use regular city busses sometimes.

The Link bus at $1.60 NZD per ride was also a great way to get to more outlying areas of Auckland such as the Auckland Museum in the Domain. The drivers were helpful by telling where we should get off the bus and where the bus for the return trip could be boarded.

Boats: Punting on the Avon is a must do in Christchurch; it was a beautiful day and such a tranquil ride.

The Shotover Jet Boat was sensational and should not be missed if you are able to do it. The entire operation was perfectly orchestrated and the memories and mementos of our adventure are worth every dollar.

We did both the Milford Sound Scenic Cruise and the Doubtful Sound Overnight cruise – more about them later but suffice it to say, they were both highlights of our trip.

We took the ferry across the Foveaux Straits from Bluff (south of Invercargill) to Stewart Island. The gods were looking out for us and both crossing were smooth without any of the rough waters the “Roaring Forties” are known for. Each way was about an hour, the seating was comfortable and there were periodic announcements about the wildlife and islands we encountered.

During our short stay in Auckland we took the Fuller’s ferry to Devonport. The ride was smooth and the views were great. This was another well-run operation that carried many people back and forth very efficiently.

Souvenirs and Shopping: We were not focused on shopping but we did browse from time to time. The Museum at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch was excellent. We were not impressed with the greenstone, or jade, in Hokitika and the prices seemed over the top to us. However, we did like some of the hand blown glass art we saw in several locations and the wood turned bowls at the Art Center in Christchurch were wonderful. In Queenstown the lamb shearing jackets at Bonz were amazing and very much out of our price range. We bought a few gifts at The Fernery on Stewart Island. We came home with a few trinkets: Rimu wood trivets and a clever necklace I bought at the Five Rivers Café near Te Anau.

Attractions: We researched and planned the attractions we wanted to experience in each locale and we were not disappointed. The following list highlights what we accomplished in each location but the extra special tours and guides we used will be covered separately.

Christchurch – On Sunday morning we took the 10:00 am guided tour of the Botanic Gardens. Our guide was well versed with the flora of New Zealand and laid a good foundation for all of the foliage we would see throughout our journey. Reservations were not needed and the fee was small. We were there during the Festival of Flowers and I believe the tour was part of those festivities and it may not be available at other times. We walked through the Art Center shops and galleries, the modern Art Gallery where the building was more impressive to us than the art collection, and the Canterbury Museum’s Antarctic exhibit. Both days in Christchurch were warm and sunny.

Glaciers – On our first morning we woke early and went directly to Lake Matheson to catch the early morning reflection of Mt Tasman and Mt Cook in the lake; we were amply rewarded for our effort and the clear blue skies were there as requested. We did the “easy walks” at Franz Josef: The Glacier View, Sentinel Rock and Peters Pools – each one was lovely and not too strenuous. At Fox we did the Glacier View walk as well. We were able to see both glaciers in four hours total time including the drive to each. In addition we saw the Flowing West film at the Alpine Center in Franz Josef since we were not taking a helicopter rider.

Queenstown – The Skyline Gondola was our first order of business and the views were magnificent. The gondola ride was smooth. We drove to the AJ Hackett Bungy Center to watch those braver than us jump off the bridge. The viewing platform afforded us great views of the action and the building itself was an architectural gem. It was worth the time to drive out to the site. I will reiterate our enthusiasm for the Shotover Jet Boat ride – wow! It was wonderful! We arrived early for our 10:00 am reservation and we were in our boat by 9:30 am. The light rain stung our faces but it was well worth the slight discomfort.

Te Anau – The drive to Milford Sound defies words. It was raining during the drive but we feel the rain enhanced the experience even though we could not see the mountain tops due to the low clouds. But we saw countless waterfalls. More about the Milford Sound cruise later. We stopped at the Wildlife Center in Te Anau but there was nothing of interest to see when we were there. We did go to the FIordland film at the Fiordland Cinema which was excellent and the theater seats there were so comfy.

Invercargill – We drove around the city and thought it looked better than comments I had read previously. Queens Park was very nice; we had no time to explore the park or the Southland Museum and arrived too late to see Henry. On Stewart Island we climbed the hills and walked around for about two hours. Beautiful setting and the little local museum had some artifacts from the early settlements. Our reason for being there was a visit to Ulva Island but more on that later.

Dunedin – The Explorer Bus gave us a good overview of the city and its exceptional architecture and stone buildings. We got off the bus at the Railway Station so we could enjoy the mosaic and stained glass details. We also walked through the cathedral and the Presbyterian Church. The absolute high point for the entire trip was our private tour with Elm Wildlife but more on that later.

Rotorua – We walked around the touristy downtown area – many, many shops and restaurants. We also walked to the city park with the thermal areas. We stumbled upon information about Kiwi Encounter and were delighted with the tour and the exhibit presentations. It was a commercial enterprise that did valuable conservation work. They gather and hatch Kiwi eggs and return the young birds back into the wild. Our next stop was Waimangu Volcanic Valley where we spent nearly two hours walking and viewing the well documented geothermal features. We were happy to ride the shuttle bus back to the entrance since it was much easier riding the bus back up the hill. We then took the short drive to our final destination, Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. Waiotapu was more compact and we walked the trails for about 90 minutes. We did not see everything here since we were geothermaled out by about 5:00pm. The staff at Waimangu told us to be sure to stop at the mud pots on the way to Waiotapu. We were not disappointed. Of all the geothermal features we saw the mud pots were the only one that were more impressive here than the geothermal features we saw at Yellowstone National Park. The mud pots covered a very large area and some of the burps were pretty impressive.

Auckland – Our first activity was a visit to the Sky Tower. Since we are avid photographers it was fun to take photos all around the observation deck. We marveled at the courage of those who did the Sky Jump and the Sky Screamer that was next to the hotel. When we were in Devonport we walked up to the top of Mt Victoria for another opportunity to see the glorious views of the Auckland area. The final attraction we visited was the Auckland Museum in the Domain where were focused on the war memorials and the displays on New Zealand at war since we knew so little about the role New Zealand played in both World War I and II. Every city and town we visited or drove through had memorials to the “Great War” and we needed to learn the background.

Drives: Glaciers to Queenstown – We drove nearly the entire length of the Haast Pass road and the Crown Range Road which we recommend if you have the time and the driving skills. Many of the viewpoints and short hikes were exceptional: Thunder Creek Falls, Fantail Falls, Knights Point (the sandflies were vicious) and more. The printed guides available at the Haast DOC were excellent.

Te Anau to Dunedin – We drove nearly the entire length of the Southern Scenic Route, stopping at numerous scenic points: Clifden Suspension Bridge, Riverton’s Mores Reserve Lookout, Curio Bay, Porpoise Bay, Nugget Point and more. The printed guides and booklets available at the Te Anau DOC were also helpful.

Special Tours and Guides: Some of the most helpful information obtained for this forum, and to a lesser extent the Cruise Critic one, was helpful information about individual guides and/or tours. Our decisions proved to be excellent and we were thrilled with our experiences with these memorable aspects of the vacation. These truly are the highpoints of our time in New Zealand.

Queenstown – About nine months before our departure we made reservations with Real Journeys for three special excursions in addition to the ferry reservations to Stewart Island. Real Journeys provided us with excellent service and very well executed excursions, I cannot speak highly enough of each of them. Our first experience was the Earnslaw steamship ride and the Walter Peak High Country Farm tour. The boat ride was beautiful since the weather was again very cooperative. My husband liked the tour of the nearly 100 year old engine room where coal was still shoveled into the furnaces. The tour of the farm was a great lesson on the process and history of sheep raising. Our guide was passionate about his work with sheep and he demonstrated how the sheep dogs do their work and how he did sheep shearing. We left the steamship four hours later with a far better understanding of the history of sheep in New Zealand. The cost for the boat ride and farm tour was about $60 per person USD and we felt it was well worth the cost.

Te Anau Milford Sound Cruise– I had read advice to take the last cruise of the day offered by Real Journeys on Milford Sound. We watched as our ship docked and about 400 people disembarked. When we boarded the next cruise there were only about 50 passengers so the ambience of the cruise matched the quiet beauty of Milford Sound. The cruise went from the interior end of Milford Sound out to the opening at the Tasman Sea. The gloomy and rainy weather worked in our favor to give a magical and mysterious feel to the sights we were seeing. The waterfalls were magnificent. We saw no blue skies but we were delighted with the alternative, clouds and rain. The cost for the 1.75 hour scenic cruise was also about $60 per person USD; in fact the last cruise of the day was less expensive than an earlier cruise.

Te Anau Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise – Since we thought we would travel only once to New Zealand we indulged ourselves with the overnight cruise. It is an expensive excursion but, once again, well worth the cost. The trip begins at 12:30 pm with an hour long boat ride from the Real Journeys terminal on Lake Manapouri to the opposite end of the lake at West Arm. We then transferred to a bus for the 45 minute trip over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. The road was constructed to bring supplies and materials to the underground power plant at West Arm when it was under construction. At Deep Cove we boarded the Fiordland Navigator where we were assigned an ensuite cabin for two. Warm muffins were waiting for us in the dining room as the cruise began. The ride through the fiord was impressive and the weather gods were with us since the sun was breaking through the clouds. We sailed out to the Tasman Sea where the water became much rougher. We headed back into the Sound, soup was served in the dining room, followed by optional kayak or tender rides for up close views of the walls of the fiord. A plentiful buffet dinner was served at 7:30 pm which we enjoyed as the sun was setting. Our berths were comfortable. Breakfast was served early as the cruise continued to explore Doubtful Sound. As the last hour on board was coming to an end we experienced the wonderful Sounds of Silence ritual that was a fitting conclusion to a beautiful experience. After disembarking we repeated the steps in reverse and returned to the Manapouri terminal by noon. Even though the cruise is about $420 per person USD we were so happy we spent the money. Needless to say the photography was superb.

Stewart Island – The only reason we traveled to Invercargill and Stewart Island was to have a private tour with Ulva Goodwillie on Ulva Island which is a bird sanctuary in Paterson Inlet off Stewart Island. We were fortunate that Ulva decided to conduct our tour herself since it was an unforgettable experience. She knew we had an interest in birding and her narrative and what we saw exceeded our expectations. We saw birds that are virtually extinct in other parts of New Zealand but because Ulva Island is predator-free the species can thrive. We also found her enthusiasm to be infectious and after nearly four hours exploring the island we knew more than we could have imagined about bird life and trees in this far corner of the world. We cannot recommend Ulva Goodwillie enough if you enjoy birding or if you want to learn more about the conservation efforts underway there. The benefit and value far surpassed the $160 per couple USD cost of the tour including the water taxi from Stewart to Ulva Island. The round trip ferry from Invercargill to Stewart was about $85 per person USD each way so the trip was costly but absolutely worth the expense.

Dunedin – Private Elm Wildlife Tour with Brian Templeton was our last excursion and it was probably the best experience of our trip. We were fortunate to have Brian as our driver and guide for more than 6.5 hours of wildlife wonders. He founded the company about 17 years ago and has a deep commitment to conserving the creatures of the Otago Peninsula. He drove a four wheel drive SUV that was comfortable and was durable enough to tackle driving through sheep pastures and over steep pathways. (They were too narrow to be called roads.) We saw Maori buildings, grazing sheep, gorgeous beaches, and countless waterfowl on our drive to the Royal Albatross Center which is the only mainland colony of the Royal Albatross (wingspan of nearly 10 feet.) We were guided through the center and to the viewing huts where we saw albatross chicks on the ground and albatross adults soaring overhead. We then drove to what appeared to be the end of the world where we trekked down the hillside to see a large colony of New Zealand Fur Seals which had been rescued from near extinction. We drove across the fields and walked a short distance to a beach where the rarest penguin, the Yellow Eyed Penguin gathered. Some were still molting, others were returning to shore after a day feeding at sea, and others were standing on the hillside or beach waiting for others to return from the sea. We watched them for more than 90 minutes; it was fascinating. There was also a group of Hooker Sea Lions lounging on the beach but they were too tired or lazy to move. They happen to be the rarest variety of sea lions. During all of our explorations Brian shared his wealth of knowledge about he life patterns of the rare creatures and the efforts underway to save them from extinction. Once again the photography was amazing. We had debated on the benefits of a private tour versus the minibus option. We knew we had chosen correctly since we drove closer to the various animals than the busses did. Therefore our hikes/tramps/walks through the pastures were much shorter. The private tour for the four of us cost about $120 USD more than the minibus tour where we would have been part of a group of about 15 people and we would have walked much farther through the pastures. We felt it was money well spent. BTW, the private tour which lasted about 6.5 hours was $470 USD. The tour ended with a grand finale of a beautiful sunset as we drove back to Dunedin. I cannot state how exceptional this tour was and how much we enjoyed our time with Brian on the Otago Peninsula. It was remarkable and I thank all of the previous posters who spoke so highly of their experiences with Elm Wildlife Tours. It was the best!

I guess I’ve declared nearly every aspect of this vacation as exceeding our expectations. We all agreed this was the best travel vacation any of us has had. I urge you all to start planning now for your own wonderful trip to New Zealand. I’ll try to answer any questions as they arise.
jeep61 is offline  
Old Mar 30th, 2008, 07:18 AM
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Great report. Has to be helpful for future travellers, and good memories for those of us who have been there. Thanks.
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Old Mar 30th, 2008, 12:31 PM
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It's been a long time (15 years) since my one trip to NZ. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.
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Old Mar 30th, 2008, 08:50 PM
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Thanks for coming back and posting. You did a lot in your time in NZ, and it sounds like you all had a great time!

Lee Ann
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Old Apr 1st, 2008, 05:31 PM
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Really enjoyed your report Jeep61! You've inspired me to reconsider another visit to Dunedin just for the Elm Wildlife tour.
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Old Apr 2nd, 2008, 04:49 PM
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Melnq8 - since I learned so much from your earlier posts during the planning stage of our trip to New Zealand, it's good to know that our trip might influence plans for your next trip there. Elm Wildlife and Brian Templeton were absolutely terrific, as was our walk on Ulva Island (a true hidden treasure) with Ulva Goodwillie. BTW, since you like Indian food so much I do encourage you to try Indian Star if you ever make it to Rotorua and the North Island. It really was super! Thanks for your response to my first-ever report!
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Old Apr 2nd, 2008, 05:03 PM
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I'll certainly make note of Indian Star, although I don't know when (or if) we'll make it back to the NI. The SI keeps calling us...

We enjoyed Ulva Island too, although we explored it on our own. Didn't know about the guide at the time - maybe next time?
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Old Jun 1st, 2008, 03:01 AM
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Great report jeep61. We are leaving for New Zealand in a couple of days to spend 6 weeks there as part of our year travelling around the world so this all this info and detail is really useful!
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