Travel Dates: January 2-15, 2017
Amit is a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (I love the movies too!). Naturally we were both eager to explore the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand. After spending a week in Sydney for NYE, we decided to hop on a short 3 hr flight to New Zealand (located east of Australia) to explore the island nation before jetting back to Sydney and making our way north up the Gold Coast.
Accommodations: The Hilton
Our entry point into New Zealand was the city of Auckland located on the North Island. Here we spent a couple days orienting ourselves with the city before loading up the rental car and driving across the (north) island. Since we had arrived right after the New Year, most Kiwis were still on holiday so the city was pretty quiet and many restaurants were temporarily closed. Despite being the most populous urban city in New Zealand and the country’s central financial center, you’ll find that there’s not much to do in the big city so we hopped on a 35 minute ferry from downtown Auckland to Waiheke Island to visit some breathtaking vineyards and to taste some delicious local wines.
As we travelled the world, we found that one of the best ways to get the lay of the land is by jumping on the city tour buses (A.K.A The Explorer in New Zealand). To avoid renting a car for the day, we opted to board the double decker Explorer Bus which takes you on a 1½ hour scenic tour of the island. There are 8 designated stops where you can “hop on hop off” at your leisure to explore. We hopped off at the first stop in Oneroa Village to grab lunch at The Oyster Inn. My favorite dish was the local Te Matuku oysters. Amit’s not a big fan of oysters (despite my many feeble attempts to get him to like them) so I had to enjoy half a dozen fresh oysters all to myself! After a lovely lunch, we hopped back on the bus to complete the remaining tour of the island before hopping off near the end of the route to check out Mudbrick and Cable Bay Vineyards that have the best views on the island. Unfortunately Mudbrick was closed for a private event that afternoon but the views at Cable Bay from our bean bag chairs on the vineyard grounds definitely made up for it.
RUSSELL, BAY OF ISLANDS
Accommodations: Flagstaff Lodge
Before heading to New Zealand, Amit reached out to a friend to get some tips on what to do while in New Zealand. Mickie was kind enough to practically provide us with our entire itinerary! After a couple days in Auckland, we rented a car and made the 3½ scenic drive north of Auckland to the Bay of Islands where we drove directly onto the Opua Passenger Ferry and was transported to Russell, a beautiful little sleepy town that once was briefly the capital of New Zealand.
It was in Auckland that we found our accommodations for Russell via Booking.Com. “Book as we go” that’s been our motto and although it can be stressful not knowing where you will sleep the next couple days, it’s worked for us thus far. Flagstaff Lodge is a charming four bedroom B&B located in the heart of Russell, a couple blocks from the the boardwalk. Jessie and Ruth, the lodge owners, were fantastic hosts and helped us setup our itinerary for the next couple days.
One day we did an easy hike to Flagstaff Hill where we were met with expansive views of the Bay. Then we made our way to Long Beach where we found a nice spot in the sand to soak up the sun. Be sure to lather up the sunscreen because the sun is much stronger in the southern hemisphere! Another day we decided to discover the bay, taking a half day cruise around the 144 islands and even spotted a small pod of dolphins. We visited Piercy Island, more famously known as the “Hole in the Rock.”
Afterwards we disembarked at Otehei Bay where we hiked up to the highest point of the island and took in 360 degree views of the bay and beaches. We even went rogue and hopped over a wooden fence off the hiking trail, wandered downhill through tall grass and bushes and discovered a private little wild beach that we had all to ourselves for an hour before heading back.
Accommodations: Tauhara Sunrise Lodge
After a couple relaxing days in Russell, we loaded up the rental car once again and threw on our audio book (BTW, A Man called Ove is excellent) and set out on a 7 hour drive to Taupo where we would be staying at another quaint B&B. Taupo became our home base for the next couple days. Everything we wanted to do was basically a 2 hour drive from Taupo. We wanted to go spelunking in the Waitomo Caves, hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (A.K.A Mordor) and visit Hobbiton where we could check out hobbit holes and key sets from L.O.T.R and The Hobbit. In hindsight, we may have been a little too ambitious for our short 3 day stay.
My introduction to spelunking was in Belize, almost 4 years ago! We had such an amazing experience exploring the ATM caves, there was no way we could pass up the opportunity to go cave tubing underneath glow worms in New Zealand. Becky, our lodge host, recommended Black Abyss tours that would take us on a 5 hour expedition through the Waitomo Caves. We were provided wetsuits, footwear and helmets and after a brief tutorial on abseiling, we descended down 105 foot dark cave. We abseiled, climbed, ziplined, and tubed down the cave under the soft florescent light of the glow worms and when we emerged from the cave I had managed to lose not only both my boots but also a third boot that our guide had lent me off her own foot. I completed the balance of the expedition in my socks on the rocky terrain. Despite the boot fiasco and the freezing cold water, we had blast.
After our 9 hour excursion (including drive time) to the Waitomo Caves, we were spent (not to mention my feet were badly bruised and sore) we ended up skipping the best hike in New Zealand and Hobbiton to relax in Lake Taupo. This just gives us another reason to come back soon!
Accommodations: The Spire Hotel
After spending a week driving around the North Island, it was time to explore the South Island. We hopped on a flight to Queenstown via Auckland and arrived in the late afternoon. We checked into The Spire, a super cozy, contemporary boutique hotel located in the heart of Queenstown, steps away from all the shops, restaurants and oddly enough the town strip club.
Queenstown is a small picturesque resort town bustling with backpackers. If you love extreme sports then this is the place to be. There are countless visitor centers where you can book any kind of adrenaline pumping activity known to mankind. In fact, the world’s first commercial bungy jump was in Queenstown! Although I’ve skydived and parasailed before, the one thing I cannot bring myself to do is bungy jump. The thought of jumping headfirst (with no professional attached to me) off a tall structure or high ground only to be jerked back up by an elastic rope like a yoyo freaks me out. After Amit researched all the possible eye, neck, and spinal injuries that could result from bungy jumping, he quickly decided it was pass for him too. Instead we opted to have a more leisurely (less extreme) time in Queenstown.
One of the must-dos while in Queenstown is visiting the Milford Sound. You can either take a day trip which requires a 10 hour drive round trip or if you can swing it, take a helicopter tour, it’s worth it. FYI, weather is a huge component for heli tours, so if you ever go to Queenstown with the intent of getting airborne then allow yourselves a few days contingency plan. Our hotel recommended Over The Top, heli company. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating and we couldn’t fly into Milford Sound due to low visibility. However we were still able to go up and see some stunning aerial views of alpine lakes, snow capped mountains and even did a couple waterfall and glacier landings. The best part of the day was hitting a couple biodegradable golf balls off a mountain glacier.
Another great activity to do when in Queenstown is taking the Skyline Gondola to the top and racing back downhill in your luge cart. Pay for at least 3 luge rides, you won’t regret it!
Our time in New Zealand was just what we had imagined it to be, fun, adventurous, and full of breathtaking landscapes. The biggest surprise was the food — we had no idea how delicious it would be. Now we’re heading back to Australia to see some Koalas and Roos!