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Our experiences and insights gained to share with others
Our approach was to visit the greater part of both islands with the intent of returning in the future. We rented a car in Auckland and returned it in Queenstown before flying back to Auckland. We very comfortably drove 2100 miles or 3,500 kilometers.
Warning: For a country that has say 2 highways, its road signs are a little suspect! It seems that the road will change its name almost at every intersection. This is especially true when you are on a highway going through a town and the road name will change again and again. We printed our driving directions using Google maps and discovered our first day there is a new driving instruction (street name) on the directions but you stay on the same highway. Also, If you drive from Waitomo Caves to Rotorua, then make sure to have a very specific exacting map on where to turn to cross over to the highway. This was our only miscue while driving.
Google maps is very good for estimating driving distances:
Google Map of Drive (paste into browser):
Set to terrain mode and explore route. It is informative!
If we moved to New Zealand we would definitely chose to live in a 50 KPH speed limit town as opposed to an 80 KPH!
The notes below give insights we gained that had we known about in advance we would of moderated our itinerary.
Also, golf is important to me. Therefore our itinerary was created with playing two rounds on the best courses I could determine.
In planning the trip, we enjoy splurging a few nights on accommodations. However, our American dollar is really beat up (in the sewer!) so we could not even come close to booking into one of the real fancy lodges ($800 to $1200 US per night). Without international airfare we spent $8,000 US (excludes souvenirs) on this trip. Even knowing about the dollar weakness before we left, this was a surprise. My estimate before we left was $6,500. Also we used a VISA card with 1.5% cash back. The spread between ATM cash withdrawal conversions is 2.5% lower than VISA foreign transactions. Due to the cash back we used VISA except for one cash withdrawal of $300 US.
Due to time constraints, we missed the west coast of South Island, Bay of Islands and north North Island and Dunedin, home of the giant albatross, which I really wanted to see! Next Time!
The one thing that came through 24/7 is the New Zealander's are some of the greatest, nicest people you will meet anywhere!
Minimize your stay in Auckland. This gateway port city does not have any real charming sites. The port area is very industrial with sea containers stacked up on the loading piers. Sky Tower gives a nice view but they really charge an excessive entrance fee for the experience.
If you like wine tasting, then Waiheke Island is a must visit.
We short changed ourselves at the end of our trip in Queenstown. We thought Auckland would be better so we budgeted a day in Auckland prior to our flight leaving. Based on local recommendations we redirected to Waiheke Island.
We flew in from Queenstown, checked our baggage at the airport, except for overnight bags, then took the bus to the ferry terminal and went to Waiheke Island for the night. We stayed at the Winemaker's Loft (paid a premium for one night which is the penalty for not having a solid itinerary) and rented a car there for half the next day.
Next door to Winemakers Loft, we had a terrific dinner at Cable Bay winery/restaurant (same owner). The view across the bay and the city lights of Auckland were splendid. We visited four wineries but missed having lunch at Mudbrick which looked fantastic.
If we had a redo! Although baggage could be a big issue. We would upon 6AM arrival from the US, board the airport bus and go directly to the ferry terminal. Then acclimate from the flight by staying 2 nights on Waiheke. Find a downtown car rental agency in Auckland for the third day, tour downtown, sky tower, etc and then leave around 1 to head south.
We would have booked our return flight from Queenstown to coincide with our return flight to the US.
Here we were lucky. Due to booking schedules, we had a private tour of the Ruakuri Cave. Well worth it, very fascinating!
From my reading, I was afraid of the sulphur smell being ruinous for a stay in town. So we booked at the Braeside Motor Lodge on the outskirts. I would book in town, if I had a redo.
We attended the Mitai Maori Village show and hangi (feast). For whatever reason we are not luau or mass show type people. However, we found the evening entertaining and the hangi (feast) to be very much like a Thanksgiving meal! (sans turkey). I was chosen (did not volunteer) to be chief. This required that I be part of the show and give a speech representing our 15 tribes. (number of nationalities in our group) It was a fun experience!
Waiotapu Thermal Park is very much worth the price of admission.
Fish On! We spent two nights at the Cascades Motor Lodge, which I do recommend. It is next to the water. Our back patio was very nice. The 3 units at the end do view the lake. So you might request them in your booking.
Lake Taupo claims to be the trout fishing capital of the world. Since I caught a keeper for dinner, I must say that it probably is the capital. We chartered a boat with White Striker for a couple of hours on a beautiful evening. Bill our skipper took us out for a little "chardonnay" fishing, meaning the great bwana (me) does nothing except reel in the fish when the pole is handed over. We really enjoyed riding on the lake and certainly catching a fish for dinner. We BBQ'd our catch by the pool back at Cascades. However, I do like to do something besides pay the luxury freight! Still great fun.
There are wooden adirondack style chairs at the end of the Cascades property facing the sunset and lake. We enjoyed a nice bottle of wine to salute the end of the day.
This tramp of 17 kilometers or 10 miles took us 6 hours. It requires booking a shuttle transport to take you to the trackhead and pick you up at the end.(one way track) Given our ages (early 50's), we were certainly part of the outlier statistical group doing the crossing. Truth be known, both my wife and I could hardly walk without major soreness for the next 3 days!
The crossing is very scenic. The first half is by far the most beautiful. Although the "devil's staircase" portion is appropriately named! The second half is unbelievably downhill for 5 miles. You can see all of Lake Taupo but the track scenery and vegetation is not particularly nice. The final leg along the river through a dense forested area is pretty.
We recommend this crossing but be aware of the residuals!
Golf is my vice! Maybe wine too!
Spare no expense. $400 NZD plus $100 for my caddy who I really liked. I am an 6 handicap and have played several courses around the world. Therefore, I could not pass up an opportunity to play one of New Zealand's highest ranked courses! Note: New Zealand has more golf courses per capita than any other country in the world. They are everywhere. I think every sheep farmer loves golf and puts in a course on their land.
The course is truly a destination. Located at a remote point overlooking Hawkes Bay. You drive 10 kilometers down the private road after entering the gate. There was nobody there and it was a stunning day. We drove up to the clubhouse and my caddy, Tom, was there to greet us. I hit balls and proceeded to the first tee. My wife joined us for the walk. The course record was not in jeopardy.
The views of turquoise watered Hawke's Bay were fabulous. The course is very challenging with pretty wide fairways. The greens have a lot of grain and very fair mounding. All in all, it was a great day for me. My wife may think otherwise!
After golf, we toured Napier and had lunch. The town's art deco style buildings, dating post earthquake from the early 1930's, are certainly worth a stroll around town.
"Palmsie" is a university town. We stopped here as a resting point on our way to Wellington. The drive from Hawkes Bay through the valley's heading to "Palmsie" contained by far the richest green landscape we have ever seen. And yes we have been to Ireland!
We stayed at Hotel Coachman which was fine for an overnight. The bonus was the concierge recommended Spostato Restaurant which turned out to be excellent. You can bring you own wine. But the second floor restaurant doesn't even have a sign outside. (At least we didn't see one). Our server, an Aussie studying Japanese!, was fantastic. She had a special salad made for us US salad eaters and even brought us some samples of red wines to try. The food was great. Certainly the server added to the experience but we highly recommend this restaurant.
This capital city is very picturesque. We stayed at the Booklover's B&B, which we recommend. It has a bus stop right in front. Our hostess, Jane, was a delight. We ate at Theo's Greek restaurant just down the street which is very good. The steak dish was exceptional.
Jane gave us a walking tour route from her place over the hill and down the terrace to a nice cafe along the waterfront. The Te Papa museum is wonderful and surprisingly free. We walked along the pier area, took the cable car up to the botanical gardens and sculpture art area for a very nice stroll down the hill to the Prime Minister's street with a stop at the Shepard's Arms for a delicious tap beer.
We then walked past our very sinister looking US Embassy on our way to view the "beehive" and other New Zealand government buildings. We walked all the way back to the B&B, but a redo would have us on the bus that drops off in front of the house! Our legs were still sore from the crossing and obviously it affected our mental judgment too! We even had trouble with the steps in the museum.
After a long journey of 6 hours from Wellington, the 3 hour ferry to Picton (beautiful scenery along the way through the sound), a drive through Nelson and then finally we arrived at Abel Tasman Marahau Lodge. (See review below)
We took a short drive to Kaiteriteri beach to relax, read our books and enjoy some snacks before dinner. The setting is beautiful and the boats stuck in the mud from the tide flowing out are intriguing.
We ate our first meal at Hooked On Marahau, where we really liked its menu logo of a Maori fish hook. Later on in Queenstown we bought a similar hook symbol carved out of greenstone to commemorate our trip. Our server showed us some of the unique jewelry designed and produced by a local artist, Art's Unique, up the road. We went there the next day and bought a necklace for my wife. I get the golf!
Abel Tasman should be a cannot miss destination!
See review StrandsDanville
Best In Abel Tasman!!
Our drive to Blenheim was really enhanced by Robyn's (hostess at Marahau Lodge) suggestion to take an alternate route. The drive from Picton through Nelson is arduous compared to the straighter highway on the other side of the mountain (return route).
Blenheim did not meet our mental expectations upon arriving. We were expecting more rolling terrain and denser vegetation. The area is fairly flat and somewhat nondescript. We did enjoy our wine tastings at Highfield Estates (lunch was very good), Huia, Hunters and Cloudy Bay. Plus a stop for chocolates at Makana.
New Zealand beer is very good. The Fresh Choice in town has an unbelievable selection of bottled beers plus beer on tap to go!
We stayed at St Leonards B&B which we liked. See review below.
See review StrandsDanville
Originally we were trying to book an accommodation in Kaikoura to take advantage of the whale and dolphin excursions. However, we could not fit it in. We could have easily drove from Blenheim in the morning and have gone on the boat. But I think we were lazy that day. Or possibly my wife was more interested in swimming with the dolphins than I was! So we only had lunch in Kaikoura.
I did get a kick out of the response I got when I asked the tour company about the dolphins. They said there were 500 spotted that day. I get the impression they must punch in on a time clock to get such an accurate count!?
This is on our list during a return trip.
Note: Definitely stop in at Pegasus Bay winery on the way to Christchurch. If time permits, lunch there looks terrific.
Here comes that four letter word again --- GOLF!
We booked into Peppers Resort on the outskirts of town to play golf the next day at its location. We had a villa balcony room overlooking the lake and part of the golf course. We found this place to be a little bizarre with its decor. Also, unfortunately for me, the greens were in awful condition. The New Zealand PGA was scheduled for the course in 3 months. I would be surprised if they could get it ready. The course was challenging with quite a bit of water. I would recommend it as a strong test but check to determine if the green problem has been cured.
We had a very enjoyable late afternoon and evening in Christchurch. Our timing was fortunate because literally thousands of people were out strolling to the park for the annual Christmas free concert. We walked from the church square, along the river, through the park and visited the museum. People were formally dressed going to parties and two theaters were staging productions. Quite a festive evening to take in the environs of Christchurch.
We ate at an Indian restaurant which was quite good.
Overall, I would suggest 2/3 of a day to tour the high points of the city. For some bozo reason I thought the city was on the ocean. Even if you are on an island do not assume anything!
The picturesque town's just keep on coming and coming!
The drive from Christchurch to Wanaka was beautiful once you enter the Alps region. Before it is similar to central California (think flat and desolate) Apparently, when we passed by Lake Pukaki, we read that we were very fortunate to find Mt Cook on a scattered cloudy day. The vista of the peak was stunning, especially with the lake in the foreground. This area is another one for our return visit to spend more time in.
Wanaka was relaxing. (See review below) We did walk along the lake and drove out along the shoreline for several kilometers. As mentioned, in the review we encountered windy conditions which curtailed some of our planned activities. I know......why not switch to wind surfing!
See review StrandsDanville
Quite A Place
This town is very much worth a visit. If you are a golfer, the small course flanking the road entering the town looked terrific. A note for our future visit.
I stopped to take a video and told a golfing couple that I had a real dilemma! In the car were my clubs and my wife who would not let me play!
The town is located in a nice setting and offers a gold rush kind of theme for perusing its shops. My wife really liked the Remarkable Sweet Shop.
Te Anau is about halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound. We stayed here two nights because we were not sure of the travel conditions to Milford Sound. Typically people board tour buses in Queenstown for an all day round trip to Milford Sound. We drove to Te Anau and set out the next morning around 7:15 to hopefully get out ahead of the buses and avoid slow traffic on the narrow highway and in the long tunnel. It worked like a charm. The advised time we were told is 3 hours from Te Anau to Milford. It only took us 1 hour and 15 minutes. No I did not get any speeding tickets on the trip but I do drive at a steady, shall we say, California clip!
Our redo here would have been 1 night Te Anau and 2 nights Queenstown.
We stayed at the Distinction Te Anau which is not part of tripadvisor but was recommended in the Fodors. This place caters to bus loads of tourists. It is high volume especially in the dining room. We upgraded our room to a suite on the lake side which provided the view we wanted and the extra space. The staff was absolutely terrific except for the stuffy, unknowing manager of the evening dining room. I believe his name was Peter!
One night we did thoroughly enjoy their all you can eat outdoor BBQ. They offer all types of meats, sausages and crayfish which is very expensive ordered as a main dish in any restaurant. We recommend staying elsewhere in Te Anau and enjoying the BBQ meal at the Distinction. Ellie the BBQer was great. She brought me crayfish from the grill the next evening into the dining room because she had run out during our meal. She saved what was a really bad meal in the dining room!
Also, we recommend using tripadvisor maps of Te Anau and targeting a highly rated hotel along the initial lake strip heading into town. Definitely request a lake view room.
This is definitely a highlight not to miss. The sheer grandeur of the fiordlike Sound is awe inspiring. Yet, amazingly it is also what you do not see that is intriguing. We were told that the sound is over 2,000 feet deep and the seals during the night dive down to these depths to eat their weight in fish!
Also, the height of the glacier hewn rocks/mountains are unique in the world. We have been to the fiords in Norway, which are also majestic, but do not compare in size to the Milford Sound. We opted for the "nature" tour boat, as opposed to the scenic boat to gain more insights about the flora, fauna and geography. The skipper was very knowledgeable and his narration assistant had a degree in geology.
As referenced above, we definitely would of enjoyed two nights here. Our gain would have been to stay one night in Te Anau and book our flight from Queenstown to Auckland as an international connecting flight. However, Quantas did generously (ha ha) offer to change our flight for $700 NZ! We said maybe next time. Live and learn!
We stayed at the Heritage Queenstown in a suite overlooking the lake. We caught a stunning evening with placid waters on Lake Wakatipu and jet boats racing alongside the trademark steamer Earnslaw. We would recommend this hotel.
We had an absolutely fabulous three hour, 10-course meal at the Coronation Bathhouse. The concierge at the Heritage recommended it to us. The restaurant sits directly on the beach in Queenstown proper. We started our meal on the deck with children diving off the raft in front of us and the sun setting over the Lord of the Rings mountains! We had a table inside right at the window. Our young servers were top notch. It was very expensive. Although not as much as Cape Kidnappers golf! The place is small, so if you plan to go, then book in advance.
For adventure, we booked a 1/2 day outing on the Dart River Safari Jet Boat and Bushwalk. It included a very scenic shuttle ride to Glenorchy and an hour of fast paced boating amongst the boulders in the very shallow Dart River. The bushwalk pointed out the New Zealand alps which are featured as the logo on Coors beer! Isn't anything sacred?
What a great trip!!!!!!!!!!!!