How to Spend 7 Amazing Days in New Zealand
What does one do when one’s children travel? Visit them, of course! Remember the irony of being an empty nester? They leave, so you have no one at home to take care of, which means you are free to go visit them!
A few years ago, my daughter was studying at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand as an exchange student from Elon University (Go Phoenix!). My youngest and I were free for the week of Thanksgiving, so it made perfect sense to travel to the other side of the universe for a 13 day trip! This cup of decaf is about our adventures. I hope it inspires you to visit the wonderful world of Kiwis. (Not the fruit, but the birds and the people!) It is truly a spectacular place, with magnificent sites, a rich culture, delicious food, and VERY friendly Kiwis! I am going to share some basics first, before I get into the details of our funventures!
When to go
My first bit of advice has to do with airline ticket prices and time of year. New Zealand is very far away from California, 6525 miles far away. Closer than if you are flying from Boston, but still a pretty long flight. 12 -14 hours. The tickets were a lot less expensive than I anticipated. That is because we flew just BEFORE the New Zealand summer. Ticket prices in December double! We were able to get tickets from San Francisco (through LA) to Auckland, a $1100 value, on Air New Zealand. Luckily Air New Zealand is a partner of United, so I was able to use frequent flyer miles! If we had purchased tickets for December, it would have been $2200 per ticket! I think November was a perfect time to go. While it was still a bit damp and chilly some of the time, we had plenty of nice weather and no place felt too crowded. Think Spring weather in New England. I would love to experience the New Zealand beaches in the summer, but for half the price, I think the November weather was worth it.
Look into the prices of things. As a traveler, it is best to be prepared! New Zealand is relatively inexpensive when it comes to food, lodging, and domestic transportation. However, the pricy parts of the trip were the activities. Of course, there are plenty of free things to do, but New Zealand is all about adventure. And adventures can cost money. Most of what we did, I had reserved and paid for online in the months and weeks before we went, so it lessened the blow when the credit card bill arrived!
Exercise leggings, hiking shoes, layers for random temperature changes. A bathing suit. One nice outfit, just in case.
No, on public transportation. Rent cheapo cars from Jucy or the standard cars from Hertz, etc. Fly between the islands, unless you have a month to take your time and drive everywhere.
Gluten Free and vegetarian options everywhere!
Delicious decaf coffee and almond milk everywhere! Lots of meat if you want it, but easy to avoid. Many Indian and Asian cuisine choices, as well. Reasonably priced and overall excellent quality.
Able Tasman Reserve. We just didn’t have enough time to do this properly, so we didn’t go. Hopefully, next time. Try to make it happen for you, if you can.
We landed in Auckland in the morning, after a decent night’s sleep on the plane. Jet lag was not really an issue, because it was just four hours earlier than it would have been in California. Sure, it was a whole day later, but it basically felt like the same time of day! We just needed a shower and some food and we were good to go! We met my daughter and friend at a hotel to drop off our luggage and we ventured out to explore the city of Auckland and the lovely islands just off shore.
Stayed Hotel Parnell. It was suitable to our needs. They scheduled a taxi to pick us up at the airport for $40.00.
Ferry ride from Auckland Ferry Terminal to Waiheke Island. A 40 minute ride to a beautiful small island with a lovely beach, walking trails, shops, and restaurants. Easy to stroll, wander, and not feel pressured or too busy, in case you do get a wave of jet lag or exhaustion! Dine at the Devonport Bayside Village area with loads of cafes and pubs.
Mt. Eden Volcano site. Auckland’s highest volcano spot with stunning views of the whole city and harbor. Inactive, of course, the volcano area is filled with grass and looks like a big abandoned crater.
The following day we put Zaria’s friend on a plane back to the South Island and we picked up our rental car in downtown Auckland at the local Hertz. Yes, they drive on the other side of the road, but Zaria had been doing that for months and was quite confident! (Side Note…I had been obsessing for months about the driving. Literally, up nights worried about it. I was extremely nervous about me driving, about me being a passenger with Zaria driving, and continuously tried to talk her into buses, planes, trains, anything but cars. She continued to reassure me that she knew what she was doing and that the rental cars were the way to go. And, as usual, she was right! She was VERY good at driving on the other side of the road. The roads were simple and practically abandoned. Really, there is NO traffic there! And I even drove some of the time! Once you get the hang of where the blinkers are vs the windshield wipers, you are good to go! A lesson in “trust your children, they are smarter than you think they are.”)
We drove the 2.5 hours on a sunny Saturday to the Waitomo Caves. The landscape is exquisite. Green rolling hills, sheep everywhere, and blue skies. Our tour of the caves was at 2:30. (I had reserved the combination tour of the Ruakuri Cave and the Glowworm Cave. A 2 hour tour for $267 for the three of us. Not cheap, but worth it!) We had plenty of time for me to buy a rain shell that folds up into its own pocket and has the Waitomo Caves logo on it! Best purchase of the trip because I used it on many days.
If you didn’t know about the caves, you are no longer in the dark! (See what I did there?) Glow worms live in these vast caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Just as billed. Folding shawls of limestone formations and crystal tapestries. The guide leads you through narrow passages and giant hallways. It is quite magical. A highlight moment: when our young and very unassuming, tour guide took us to the special “cathedral” cave where weddings are performed, because it is so spiritual and magnificent. Literally, it feels like a giant Gaudi church dripping with limestone. He told us some people like to sing in there because the acoustics are so good. He opened his mouth and was suddenly the premier choir boy of all of New Zealand! He sang an ancient Mãori folk song and brought the house down! Not a dry eye in the cave! Were we actually in a musical and didn’t know it?
The second part of the tour is in an adjacent cave with water pathways. You climb into a little boat in the pitch-black bottom of the cave. The guide, a Mãori descendent of the chief who originally explored the caves, stands in the boat and pushes off the sides of the cave to keep the boat moving through. You are surrounded by ceilings and walls of glowworms. Honestly, breathtaking. It is quiet, peaceful, and quite magical. I really wished my husband had been with us to share it all together. This is a MUST DO.
I had reserved us a room in a local and famous hotel up the hill from the caves. This was one of the classic, OH. MY. GAWD. MOM! moments of the trip. I sometimes do things that I want to do, regardless of what my girls think, because:
1. I think it will be hilariously fun.
2. I am planning the whole damn trip.
3. I am paying for the whole damn trip.
The hotel is called the Waitomo Cave Hotel. Look it up. Early 19th Century. Victorian wing. Art Deco wing. All the charm of that era. Comfortable beds, fireplaces, chandeliers, decadent spas, sweeping staircases, and what? It’s haunted???!!! So, suffice it to say that it didn’t look exactly as it did in the pictures. It looked as though it had been very neglected, was pretty musty, definitely haunted, and truly funky. But for $98, who cares! So much potential. So, so, so much potential! Screaming, “Someone buy me and renovate me!” The spa area was once the most elegant thing in the world, I’m sure, but when we were there, it had some odd scum floating in the water that we didn’t notice until we climbed in! There were gorgeous antiques everywhere and Māori artwork on the walls climbing the stairs. The staff were very nice, but the girls were super happy to leave first thing the next morning!
Along the way, we stopped at the Otorohanga Kiwi House. We saw signs along the road side and took the time to stop in and try to catch a glimpse of the famous Kiwi Bird. The reserve is lovely. A bit run down, but very nice. There were no other visitors, so we roamed the outdoor spaces by ourselves and saw some birds and exhibits of natural wildlife. The bird in this photo promptly pooped on my daughter’s head! I shared with her my experiences as a young woman when a lion peed on me at the Philadelphia Zoo and a pigeon pooped on me at The Tower of London! Needless to say, we had very little sympathy for her and laughed at her expense!
The main event, was a bit of a letdown! Kiwi are nocturnal, so their habitat is indoors and in the dark. We looked and looked and, for a brief second, saw one Kiwi moving in the dark enclosure before it hid again behind a tree. No real sense of what it looked like, no pictures, just enough to say, “We saw a Kiwi!”
Then, off we drove to Hobbiton! Only one hour and 15 minutes. This tour was also not cheap, ($84 per person) but also totally worth it. The story behind the owners of the land and the perfectly picturesque setting is just as you imagine it is. Truly, Tolkienesque. They take very good care of you as the bus rides into the movie set and you become a member of The Shire. Our lovely tour guide was a 20 something girl from Ireland who had tattooed a Tolkien phrase on her arm, and lived for the day she when she would be a tour guide in Hobbiton. You have time to run on the paths, enter a Hobbit Hole, take photos by the party tree, drink beer at the Green Dragon, and hear all the marvelous stories of how the films were made. A total tourist trap and one we are really happy we enjoyed!
We stayed at the Chestnut Lane Cottage that evening, which turns out was the home of a lovely couple. Not far from Hobbiton, but awkwardly far from any town or restaurants. The other awkward part was that we were in their home, and so were they! We had a part of the house just to us, but it was odd. The home was beautiful and very clean and a huge step up from the Cave Hotel, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want more privacy. They fed us a terrific breakfast and off we drove just one hour to Rotorua.
En route, we went Zorbing at the original Zorb site. OK, a ridiculous amount of money for such a silly thing. ($35 per person for a single ride.) I have not laughed that hard before, or since. The three of us, in bathing suits, jumped into a giant ball. Together. There is a small amount of water splashing around and then the ball is given a little push. And off we roll down the hill, spinning and tossing around, while laughing and screaming! And then it is over and you have to try to climb out of the ball! We sat in a hot tub to warm up. And Bam. The whole adventure lasted about 30 minutes. Super silly. Highly memorable. And very glad we did it!
Firstly, let me say that I LOVE Rotorua! I have anosmia, (I know it looks like insomnia, and I sometimes have that too, but this is not that). It means I cannot smell…anything…not a thing. Those who have noses that work, however, may find this city a little offensive. Sulfur is the odor that permeates the entire city because it is built on bubbling mud pools, geothermal activity, and steeped deeply in ancient and current Mãori culture. It is beautiful and fascinating. We did so many MUST DO activities, it is hard to leave out all the details. Such a highlight of the trip! We walked a lot through parks and shops. Everywhere you go, is another little bubbling spot, emerging from the earth, just to remind you that the land is important, active, and alive.
We stayed at the Sudima Hotel, on the banks of Lake Rotorua. A steaming lake, difficult to describe because of the activity, color, and atmosphere create a bizarre and haunting, while also calming and serene, experience. That evening, across the street from our hotel, we had reservations at the Polynesian Spa. We soaked in a private outdoor tub of natural hot springs, in the dark, sipping water, and relaxing in the quiet, overlooking the lake. The 30 minute soak costs $35 per person. Just as billed in the brochure! Both healing and decadent. Now I know why people have flocked to these waters since the 1800’s!
Next day’s highlights were Whakarewarewa, a living Mãori Village, and the Agrodome Farm. The village tour is an absolute MUST SEE. The Tuhourangi-Ngati Wahiao people have lived and worked in this village for centuries. While the culture and city around them has changed and grown, they have been able to preserve their homes and traditions and share them with tourists from around the world, like us! The town is built surrounding the mud pools and boiling mineral springs, right next to the erupting geyser. The people were kind, proud, and clearly work very hard to keep their lifestyle alive in today’s world. It is not easy to raise children in that village, send them to school in the city, and inspire them to keep their native traditions relevant. As part of the tour and all that we learned, we were able to eat corn that had just been cooked in the geothermal community cooking pool and watch a performance with traditional dance, singing, and of course, the “almighty HAKA.” BIG highlight of the trip. I had never before watched a HAKA, and as a dancer and dance therapist, I found it so inspiring and exciting!
As you can see, I was able to participate in some of the dances! Throughout the day, we had some other tourists following us around with sun screen. They were very worried about my girls and their fair hair skin. Yes, it was sunny and beautiful that day. We were able to view the Pohutu and Prince of Wales Geysers, two of New Zealand’s most famous and active geysers!
The Agrodome Farm is where I bought my sisters some yarn made from New Zealand sheep and possum! There are sheep performances, (they jump over each other and do tricks) alpacas and cows, and of course, a café! Zaria bought a cute little stuffed sheep named Kiwi.
Kiwi enjoyed many adventures throughout the rest of the trip. Stay tuned for the “Kiwi’s Big Adventure” book, AKA, “Just Because You Are a Sheep, Doesn’t Mean You Are Sheepish!”
The following morning, we dropped the car off at the Rotorua airport and flew to Queenstown on the South Island. We arrived by 1:30 and had to pick up a rental car from Jucy. It was POURING rain. The walk with all the luggage to the car rental was confusing, irritating, and almost got us run over by buses in airport traffic.
Stayed After that misadventure, we arrived at our really nice hotel, Rydges Lakeland Resort. Right on the bank of the lake, with a balcony in the room and free parking! Time for lunch in the very charming town. Think Colorado. A little wild west, meets outdoor activity hub. Energetic, filled with young people from around the world, and stellar views everywhere you look.
By 5PM, we were at the Shotover Jet that has “thrilled over 3 million people since 1965!” These are speed boats, driven for thrill rides in the Shotover river canyons. They speed up to 85kph in as little as 10cm of water. They do 360 degree turns, nearly crash into cliff sides, and completely take your breath away! Everyone in the boat is screaming with delight and excitement, all the while getting splashed and soaked. I would absolutely do this again, and I don’t like scary rides. This was no Disney ride but an authentic New Zealand adventure! Our driver’s name was Niam and his profile states that he is the Hugh Heffner of the boat driving team, his favorite food is chocolate mousse cake, and when asked “boxers or briefs?” he said “none.”
After that craziness we drove by the place where Zaria had done a sky diving adventure the month before and then stopped at the famous bungy jumping spot where she had jumped from a bridge into the chasm and river bed. The Kawarua Bridge is the world’s first commercial bungy jumping site, established in 1988. The lodge is booming with people, loud music, and a ski resort vibe. I’ll spare you Zaria’s video, but suffice it to say, as a parent, it was terrifying to watch, but even more impressive to be there and realize what she had actually done. There are no waivers to sign, no high tech devices, no big fanfare, just people diving off a 141 foot bridge and bouncing up and down until they get scooped up by some husky young men in a boat below. If Zaria is ever in a room with intimidating CEO’s, she can forever remind herself that nothing is as hard as jumping out of a plane and off a bridge! I was tempted for the three of us to zip line while we were there, but, too much money for not enough pleasure, was the decision. That night, we ate at the famous Ferberger, where you wait in line for an hour to get any kind of New Zealand beef, lamb, pork, fish, chicken, or steak burger, or for me, a falafel pattie named Bun Laden on a gluten free bun!
The next morning was a glorious Thanksgiving Day! We walked to a nearby parking lot to meet our bus tour to Milford Sound. The bus ride from Queenstown took four hours, much of which is through a rain forest. The bus driver was hilarious and sassy. He stopped in a quaint town for snacks and bathroom breaks and threatened to leave passengers there. He stopped in the forest to introduce us to the rare birds, not Kiwis, but the Kea. The Kea Bird, a nationally endangered species, is of the parrot family and lives only in this alpine, rain forest, region on the South Island. Some say, it is the world’s smartest bird and rivals the intelligence of the monkey.
These birds are clowns and thieves. They even consider a group of Kea to be a circus! One bird will distract the human while the other one steals the human’s food!
Upon our arrival in Milford Sound, we boarded a boat for a cruise through the fjords. Milford Sound is a world heritage site, known for its spectacular waterfalls and breathtaking scenery. This cruise is not for the sea weary traveler. If you think you might get sea sick, take some drugs, because you probably will. Sitting inside the very large dining cabin with tables and chairs is warm and dry, but also a bit wavy. Standing outside is gorgeous, but also intense because of wind and water. We were outside most of the time, but you need a little break from the chill, and need to warm up for a few minutes with some hot cocoa. The whole experience is stimulating for all the senses. Visually remarkable, physically invigorating, and emotionally inspiring. We all slept well on the bus ride back and had a fun dinner and desert by the lake before bed.
Our black Friday was a drive to my daughter’s favorite town, Wanaka. We stayed at the charming, yet funky, Wanaka Hotel. After exploring the lake and visiting the famous Wanaka Tree, we went to the Cinema Paradiso! It is a classic and tiny old theater, filled with cozy couches and chairs, and even an antique Morris Minor car! They serve food and freshly baked cookies, drinks, and homemade ice cream. We saw Fantastic Beasts! This place is a New Zealand treasure. Definitely go if you are nearby.
The next day was our designated hiking day. After MANY hiking discussions and choices, we ventured out to the Minaret Burn Track. Not easy to find the trail head, thank goodness for GPS! Through farms and mountains, we found the spot and parked the car.
We were mostly alone on the trail, just taking in the views and serenity for a few hours. It was a fairly easy trail with very little elevation. As we descended into a valley, we saw them. Dozens of them, grazing in the grass and on the hillside. So lovely and picturesque. And then they saw us. The cows began to stare at us and come down from the hill. They gathered in a heard and began to move toward us. It got very creepy, very quickly. So that is when we decided to turn around and head back! When we returned to town, we looked for some nightlife. None to be found. It was cold and rainy, so we chose a food truck, and made it back to the room for a cozy meal and movie.
The next day, en route back to Zaria’s school, we stopped at the Wanaka Lavender Farm. Owned by a lovely Canadian woman and her Kiwi husband, is a charming farm dedicated to growing lavender and the products it makes. A sweet café serves you lavender tea and lavender cookies. We bought lavender soaps and lotions and chatted with the owner Stef Zeestraten.
Then off we drove to the Otago University in Duniden where Zaria had been living for a few months. Picture a big modern city, on the water, with hills and traffic, and the buildings of a university campus, scattered within. While Zaria had tried to clean the place up prior to our arrival, her roommates were less concerned with impressing us! Should I have rented a hotel? Probably. But we survived, sleeping all together in Zaria’s room. We did not get a terrible disease from the bathroom experience and lived to tell about it. How could she dare complain about the Waitomo Cave Hotel when she had been living in this?
The best part of Duniden was that we got to hang out with the fun roommates, meet the wonderful friends, take them out to meals, and see the city Zaria had grown so fond of. We climbed New Zealand’s version of the steepest street, wandered through the rocks and cliffs by the beach, and even went to the Otago Museum! While walking through a park, a group of very well-dressed Japanese tourists asked to take pictures with us, assuming we were New Zealanders!
And then, the next day, it was time to get back to the airport, fly to Auckland, LA, and back to San Francisco. Just like that. The trip of a lifetime. Poof!