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New Zealand

 

Of all the places I’ve been, my all-time favorite destination was New Zealand.  As a country mouse, I fell in love with this place as soon as I left Auckland.  Spending just enough time in the city to visit St Patrick’s Cathedral and take a walk around the top of the Sky Tower, I headed out to the countryside, which looked like a painting pretty much everywhere.  To make things even better, my trip fell during my favorite season of Fall, which brought crisp weather and changing colors.  I embarked on this trip with my younger brother.  Like many others, we were drawn to the landscapes showcased in The Lord of the Rings films along with the incredible outdoor adventure opportunities.  With careful planning, I mapped out an epic road trip for us crisscrossing through the north and south islands, beginning in Auckland and ending in Queenstown. 

We began our trip with a visit to the set of Hobbiton which I highly recommend.  Even if you’re not a LOTR fan, the family farm that laid the backdrop for Hobbiton and The Shire boasts gorgeous rolling green hills dotted with oh so many sheep.  You may also appreciate the architecture of the Hobbit homes and the beautiful artistry and detail that went into the making of the films.  Immediately after Hobbiton, we made our way to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.  I love experiences that are truly unique and can’t be found in other places.  The Waitomo caves are among them.  I owned a glowworm doll as a kid but had no idea what glowworms were until this tour.  The glowworms found here are exclusive to New Zealand and when embarking on the boat ride within the dark caves, look like stars shining above you. 

 

 

Before heading further south, we opted to visit the Coromandel Peninsula, where we hiked down to the lovely Cathedral Cove – a famous site you have likely seen on your computer screen saver.  Here scenes were shot for another popular film (Chronicles of Narnia).  The Coromandel Peninsula is also known for its Hot Water Beach, where we were able to dip our feet in a hot spring in the sand just feet away from the chilly ocean water.  We then rode the Driving Creek Railway, originally built by a pottery artist, to take in additional panoramic views.  Though the latter two sites were interesting, our favorite spot was Cathedral Cove with the spectacular views leading down to it.  Boat and kayak tours are also available there to add to your exploration of the area.

 

The next day, we were ready to start our cross-country drive, which was a big part of our adventure.  It was the first time my brother or I had driven overseas, and everything was in reverse from what we were used to – The driver’s seat was on the right side of the vehicle while we had to drive on the left side of the road and the turning signal and windshield wipers were also reversed.  My brother who was living in NYC at the time, hadn’t driven at all in quite some time, so I developed a mantra when it was his turn to drive – “Keep left, steer right” – to keep us from getting too close to the edge of the cliff-hanging roads we took.  Our journey included passing through the “Forgotten Highway”, going through narrow tunnels strategically placed to protect cars from falling rocks, stopping to let a herd of cows cross a bridge, and driving our car onto the ship to cross from the North Island to the South Island.  Of notable mention is how incredible the GPS we rented worked even in the middle of nowhere.  Equally awesome was how respectful slower moving vehicles were about pulling over to let others pass.  However, the most amazing thing about our trip was the stunning scenery at every turn.  We found ourselves pulling over often so I could take pictures of scenic sites along the way.     

 
 

 

Our first day’s drive took us to Tarangi where we got a good sleep before a full day’s hike to the Tama lakes in the Tongariro National Park (home of the mountains that portrayed Mount Doom in the LOTR films).  We intended on tackling the popular Tongoriro Apine Crossing but had to take an alternate route due to weather conditions.  Thankfully, this turned out great as hiking to the Tama Lakes proved to be quite a workout and was a beautiful alpine trek that included a view of the Taranaki Falls which was in route. 

 

Leaving Tarangi, we made our way west for one incredible night in a charming lodge right at the base of Mt. Egmont volcano (aka Mt Taranaki).  With the perfect location of the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, we were able to arrive, check-in, and hike to the base of a towering waterfall all before dinner.  The rustic lodge itself was so cozy and welcoming, complete with a piano in the lobby for guests to play.  While it is closed today for reconstruction, it is anticipated to be even greater upon reopen, slated for mid-2024.   

 

Prior to crossing to the South Island, we made a stop in Wellington to learn more about the Maori culture with a trip to the Te Papa Museum.  And of course, we couldn’t visit New Zealand without seeing a kiwi bird, which along with the silver fern is a popular symbol seen throughout the country.  We were fortunate at the time of our visit to find kiwis at the Wellington Zoo, as spotting them in the wild is nearly impossible due to their protected status and nocturnal nature. 

Our first stop on the other side of the ferry crossing was Nelson, where we based ourselves for a visit to Abel Tasman National Park.  If you’ve read my article Staying Healthy While Traveling, you may recall me mentioning having experienced full-body hives on a trip.  Sadly, this developed somewhere between Mt. Egmont and Wellington and was in full force by the time we reached Nelson.  Thankfully, our hotel host was able to direct us to an urgent care facility, where I was able to get prompt treatment for a set fee without insurance.  The next day, I was ready to embark on our next tour.  Our adventure included group sea kayaking around sunbathing seals and an awesome hike we were permitted to take on our own with swing bridges and beaches.  While it was beautiful and fun, I recommend visiting Abel Tasman in the summertime when the water is warmer.  Also, consider kayaking independently so you can take your time viewing all the wildlife.

 

Following Nelson, we headed to Kaikoura which had peaceful snowcapped mountain- over-ocean views just a short walk from our lodging.  Here we went on a whale watching tour and spotted several sperm whales while trying to keep ourselves steady on the rolling waves.  Kaikoura was a great place to get some New Zealand gear and have dinner by the ocean.  On our way out of town, we made a brief stop in Christchurch, one of the largest cities in the South Island, to check out its impressive “Cardboard Cathedral,” built after the original was lost in an earthquake.    

 

Our next destination, Lake Tekapo, was absolutely breathtaking.  The Church of the Good Shepherd sits on the shore, overlooking the lake as a landmark letting you know you’ve arrived.  Despite its popularity and the other tourists around, the views gave the area a very serene feel.  The color of the water is a surreal blue with the stunning backdrop of snowcapped mountains.  Lake Tekapo is also part of the Dark Sky Reserve, which makes it a prime location for star gazing and if you’re lucky, viewing the Southern Lights.  Even though we missed the lights, we had clear views of the Milky Way and left with great memories of this place.

 

Our journey only got better as we drove from Lake Tekapo toward Mount Cook with dramatic scenic views around every bend.  Although we were in what felt like winter upon arrival, the days were crisp and clear and the hiking trails in Mount Cook were incredible.  We chose the Hooker Valley track, an alpine trail with towering mountains, rugged landscape, rushing rivers, lakes with glacier ice, and an epic swing bridge.  Nights back at Mount Cook Village were ideal for continued star gazing and relaxation after our hike.  If you’re into mountains, hiking, or nature, you will love it here.    

 

We ended our trip in picturesque Queenstown where we took the Skyline gondola up to some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen.  Even looking at the pictures, some of them don’t seem real.  A treat was having lunch at the Stratosfare Restaurant so we could take our time soaking up the sights.  I honestly remember very little about the food as I was too mesmerized by the view.  I definitely recommend the gondola ride, but if you’re feeling unsure about this part, don’t worry.  Queenstown is replete with beautiful and charming vistas you can enjoy just walking around the waterfront downtown. 

On the flipside, if you’re looking for more of an adrenaline rush, Queenstown is also home to the highly rated Nevis Swing, the largest swing in the world.  I visited the Nevis playground as a spectator (someone has to take the pictures, right??) while my daring brother was strapped into a swing and dropped for the rush of his life, swinging between two mountain peaks and finally coming to a stop in mid-air over the valley in between.  Even walking out on the suspended platform to watch was nerve-wrecking as there’s nothing but open air below you.  Still, it was awesome watching all the brave participants transform from nervous to confident after they took the plunge and came out victorious on the other side. 

With mostly perfect weather the entire trip, we eventually ran into rain and fog that tainted our final day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.  As a result, our boat ride was a bit choppy (an understatement) and our views of the fiords that New Zealand is well known for did not at all resemble what we saw in the videos at the meeting center by the dock.  Alas, weather…what can you do?  Thankfully with such an amazing trip leading up to this, we really couldn’t complain.  Besides, it’s always good to save something for next time, right?  We left with amazing views from the plane of the surrounding mountains as we flew back to Auckland for our departure home. 

Top Places

If you have to choose, I recommend Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook, and Queenstown in the South Island.  In the North Island, I loved Hobbiton, Cathedral Cove, and our hike in Tongoriro National Park. 

In terms of accommodations, however, my brother and I agreed our favorite place was the lodge at Mount Egmont, as there was just a rustic charm and magic about the lodge itself and its location. 

I imagine Abel Tasman National Park and Milford Sound are also quite spectacular in better weather.  With so many amazing options, you really can’t go wrong here! 

Near Lake Tekapo

Culinary Corner

Gasoline and food prices are a bit high in New Zealand since so many things have to be imported.  Think main-street prices pretty much everywhere.  If you’re wanting fine dining and don’t mind the cost, lambchops, seafood, and wine are all high quality here. 

However, the two foods that stand out most in my memory were also coincidentally the most economical: 

At random stops, you can find inexpensive flaky meat pies with scrumptious fillings such as beef stew with melted white cheddar.  Pure deliciousness.  In case you’ve got a hankering for these in the States, there is a NZ pie shop in Colorado (https://www.tiptoppies.com). 

My second favorite food item was purchased from a grocery store at the recommendation of our tour guide to Hobbiton.  The volcanic soil in New Zealand produces rich pasture for top notch dairy products including…you guessed it, ice cream!  We went with the Hokey Pokey flavor that New Zealand is known for.  Velvety smooth ice cream with a unique crunch.  If you can’t make it all the way to New Zealand, there is a shop in Los Angeles where you can try it (https://www.hokeypokeyla.com).  I haven’t sampled this version, but will plan to make a stop next time I’m out that way 😊

 
 

 

Helpful Links

Apex Car Rentals (https://www.apexrentals.co.nz

Hobbiton & Waitomo Cave Tours (https://www.hobbitontours.com/plan-visit/transfers)

Coromandel Peninsula & Cathedral Cove (https://thecoromandel.com/destinations/cathedral-cove)

Tongariro National Park Guided Hikes (https://www.tongariroguidedwalks.nz)

Mt Egmont (https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/taranaki/places/egmont-national-park) & (https://www.dawsonfalls.co.nz)

Museum of New Zealand in Wellington (https://www.tepapa.govt.nz)

Abel Tasman National Park (https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/nelson-tasman/places/abel-tasman-national-park

Kaikoura Whale Watch (https://whalewatch.co.nz/kia-ora)

Queenstown Gondola (https://queenstown.skyline.co.nz)

Nevis Swing in Queenstown (https://www.bungy.co.nz/queenstown/nevis)

Milford Sound (https://www.milford-sound.co.nz)

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