Two weeks in New Zealand was the first big bucket list trip Chris and I took together. We gave each other tickets for our one year wedding anniversary (the paper anniversary) but saved the trip itself for the end of November (2012) when we were most likely to see penguins.
I did a ton of research and we had an amazing trip. My goal was to find a great balance between relaxation and adventure and I think we nailed it! I would make very very few changes to our itinerary if we did it all again and I’ll mention those slight changes below. So without further ado, our 2 weeks in New Zealand!
We rented a car from Auckland to Wellington and then again from Christchurch to Queenstown. I cannot recommend this option enough. New Zealand is an incredible country with miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers) of stunning countryside. I’m not a big road trip person but I loved every minute of our time in the car this trip. It also allowed us to customize our trip and visit some more out-of-the-way spots. Adjusting to driving on the left wasn’t a big deal either and our rental car was plastered with reminder signs “STAY LEFT!!!”.
We took the 3 hour ferry from Wellington to Picton and enjoyed this. We found the highest seats we could and spent the ride reading and enjoying the scenery.
From Picton to Christchurch we took the 5 hour train since it was hailed as an incredibly picturesque ride and there weren’t any stops we were looking to make in this part of the country. We saw a colony of fur seals, a beached whale, and some incredible beaches. We also go to listen in on a group of elderly women (I would peg the youngest as 75, they all had walkers) joke about the raunchy thing that were going to happen this trip since they left their husbands at home. I love the conversations you hear on trains!
Auckland (1 day)
We flew in and out of Auckland and most tourists can expect to do the same.
Auckland is the “City of Sails” and we had one item on our itinerary in Auckland: sailing. We chose to sail on one of the America’s Cup racing yachts and took a harbor tour. We both love sailing and this was a lot of fun, but it was definitely chilly the day I went. Next time I might delay booking this until I actually arrive and can gage the weather. To me sailing and sunshine go hand in hand! Our guide said people often saw dolphins on this tour but we didn’t have that luck.
In addition to sailing we also wandered around Auckland and checked out a couple restaurants and parks. I bet this would be a great city to live in, but it didn’t make it high on our list of places we wanted to spend time. We flew in early AM and got on the road headed for Matamata early afternoon.
Matamata (1 day)
Matamata has become a must-see on many traveler’s lists thanks to the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings movies. The original Shire that was built here was actually mostly removed after the Lord of the Rings and rebuilt for the Hobbit. The land owners negotiated to keep the set and now maintain it for tourists. This is absolutely worth the visit and the $79NZ per person. The tour was super interesting and the set and gardens were very beautiful. Our tour guide seemed super bored the whole time and clearly regarded us all as a bunch of nerds, but kept up an interesting commentary the whole tour so we had no complaints.
There were multiple gardeners working during our visit and we were told they keep a whole team working daily to keep the shire abloom.
Other then the Shire, we also spent the early morning jet lagged hours walking through neighborhoods and parks. Gardening must be important to New Zealanders because we saw some beautiful flowers. Overall it was a pleasant way to pass some time.
Next visit we will be adding a hike to Wairere Falls to our itinerary. It’s only a 20 minute drive from Matamata (although not particularly on the way to anywhere) and a 5k hike. The pictures look beautiful.
Rotorua (2 days)
We visited Rainbow Springs Nature Park in the morning. This was educational and relaxed and we got to see a baby kiwi as part of the behind-the-scenes tour. If we were more pressed for time, this would not make the cut, but since we were trying to balance relaxation with adventure this was a nice leisurely morning.
In the afternoon we checked out Hell’s Gate geothermal park including a guided tour and a mud bath. I had previously visited Yellowstone and this was nothing like that. At Yellowstone the hot springs and surrounding areas are full of vibrant colors. Hell’s Gate was almost entirely on the white-to-gray spectrum. You can really see in the pictures how striking the blue sky is in contrast. Of course that makes it sound incredible unappealing, but it really was beautiful and unique. The pictures don’t do it justice. There was also a path through the woods and we passed a little waterfall and some beautiful trees.
The mud bath was definitely a great experience but also quite awkward. The mud baths were partitioned into private rooms and the mud was piped in. For some reason the attempt at privacy (equivalent to stalls in a bathroom) made me more uncomfortable then just rolling in the mud with a bunch of strangers. I kept thinking, what are we supposed to be doing that we need privacy? It was probably just me…
In the evening we attended one of the Maori cultural shows. They took us on a bush walk to see their war canoe and we saw another pool with geothermal activity. This one was my favorite since the pool was crystal clear but the mud at the bottom was bubbling up. I have no idea how the bottom could churn so much but not muddy the water but it was amazingly clear. So much so that it took a little while to determine where the water line was exactly.
The dinner was cooked underground in the traditional haggai fashion but that’s about where the tradition in the food ended. We had lamb, beef, chicken, and stuffing. I would say this is the closest we got to Thanksgiving dinner this year.
My pro-tip would be to try to get seats a couple rows back from the dancing. The war dances were loud and terrifying and we were shaking in our front row seats!
We stayed a the Victorian Lodge and they booked the Maori Cultural experience for us, there were several to choose from and we just went on their recommendation. I don’t even remember which one we did!
The second day in Rotorua we went mountain biking in the Whakarewarewa Red Woods Mountain Bike Park. We parked and rented bikes at Planet Bike and then road into the park. Chris is a fairly regular and experienced biker and I learned to ride a bike as a child. I was in no way prepared for even the easy Level 2 trails. They were super fast, super scary, and super fun. The best comparison I could make would be to roller coasters.
They had some practice bridges set up at the bike shop and gave us some tips for crossing. I only fell once (thankfully not off a bridge!) and was fortunate to fall to my right when a fall to the left would have meant a 100 ft drop.
One of my favorite moments of the ride was when we crossed from a pine forest into a redwood glade and we both went temporarily blind while our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Those trees are really amazing and the ecosystem under the redwoods is entirely different from the surrounding forest.
Waitomo Caves (1 day)
The most unique thing that happened on our trip happened on the drive to Waitomo Caves. We saw a volcano erupting! Mt. Tongariro blew its top for the second time in 2012 during our trip and we saw it from a distance. We had been catching snippits about the eruption and were keen to know whether it was going to affect our route, well we looked out the window and there it was! Even from a distance there was no denying what we saw, and it’s definitely a very cool thing to have seen from a safe distance.
We joined the Legendary Black Water Company’s tubing tour of the Waitomo Caves which was awesome and very very cold. They outfitted us in wetsuits and we tubed and crawled down the underwater river past thousands of glow maggots. There is a series of underwater waterfalls that they teach you how to jump off backwards in your tube so you get a fair dose of adrenaline during the trip.
Napier (1 day)
We didn’t spend much time in Napier but we took a half day tour of some local wineries, a lavender farm, and a chocolate factory and museum. We rented a tandem bicycle from Bike D’Vine and biked to each location while thoroughly testing our marriage. The low point was when Chris thought I was kidding when I told him to slow down, but overall it was a very nice way to tour the area. We did the half-day bike rental, but if we were to go back I’d want to stretch this to a full day to see all the wineries and the monastery on the map.
Christchurch (1 day)
We spent a quick overnight in Wellington at an airbnb before catching the ferry in the morning. Adding a day in Wellington is definitely something we would do on a return trip.
We arrived in Christchurch after a full travel day by ferry and train and checked into our first hostel of the trip. This one was an old jailhouse with each cell converted to individual rooms! I definitely couldn’t turn that down!
We spent the next day taking a redbus tour of Christchurch. This took us behind the army lines into the still live demolition sight which has following the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. In total we were told that they would have to demolish 900 buildings, 300 of which have already been taken down. This was a fascinating and eye opening tour, but not exactly fun. I found it especially sobering because I remember the earthquakes but I really had no idea the extent of the devastation. I think it says something about how long these disasters stay in the news versus how long the disaster continues to affect the area in question.
Writing this post in 2017, the same behind-the-scenes Rebuild Tour is still being offered! I’m sure it is a very different tour then the one we took in 2011, and I would definitely take it again if I had the opportunity.
Arthur’s Pass (1 day)
This was a scenic driving day that ended with a short overnight at Arthur’s Chalet. We picked up our first and only hitchhiker of the trip (an 18 year old German fellow) and spent the day relaxing and taking our time.
Heading down Arthur’s Pass the next day we stopped in a little town called Hokitika to tour a jade factory and do some tourist type shopping.
We also made multiple stops to walk along the beach and we took a side road to get an eensy-weensy view of Fox Glacier. Hiking up to the glacier was definitely on my list of things to do when we go back, but they closed the glacier to tourists in 2016 due to the ice melting.
Lake Moeraki (1 day)
This was one of the stops of our trip and we planned the timing for the entire trip around this stop! Lake Moeraki is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot penguins! Our one real splurge of the trip was staying at the Wilderness Lodge so we could stay as close to the penguins as possible. From the hotel it was a short and beautiful 1.5 mile hike down to the beach to try to spot penguins. We only saw 1 penguin on two different occasions, but a guided tour led by the hotel saw a whole colony of them a few hours before our arrival. We really enjoyed our time at this hotel and seriously considered extending our trip an extra day to take the tour the following day, but ultimately didn’t want to rearrange our accommodations in Christchurch or spend the extra $700 to stay another night.
They offer 2 free tours per day and we were able to take a short walking tour of Lake Moeraki and a kayak tour. We didn’t participate in any paid tours because we thought they were obscenely expensive, but we regretted it because the other patrons raved so much about the tours and the wildlife they saw.
Even though the single night in this hotel took our 14 day trip’s average-hotel-per-night from $70/night to $100/night, we would reach into our pockets to stay here an extra day next trip. It really was a beautiful hotel and the tours were wonderful.
If I had a large fortune and visited New Zealand every couple years, I would probably even stay here a week. Breakfast and dinner were included with our stay and we met some fascinating people. I got the impression we were the only ones who had to stretch our budget to be there and we were a good 20-30 years younger then the other patrons.
Please note: you do not have to stay at this hotel to take the hike to the beach and penguin watch.
Queenstown (3 days)
On the drive to we stopped in Lake Wanaka for ice cream and a little walk around the town. Lake Wanaka has the reputation for being quieter and less touristy then Queenstown, but it was significantly smaller and I think I would only stay here if I was looking for a very quiet and relaxing stay and had time on my side (which I hope to have one day!).
In Queenstown we made an airbnb or home base and travelled from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound, Arrowtown, and around the Queenstown area.
One big bucket list item for me was hang-gliding. We even built a free day into our time in Queenstown in case the weather didn’t allow us to go up as scheduled. The weather was beautiful though and we had spectacular rides. The whole Queenstown area seemed to just float beneath us. I would definitely do this again!
We also took a mountain biking tour of the area that was very scenic and beautiful and very much designed for people in better shape then me.
Queenstown was a wonderful wrap of our trip and we had loads of time to just walk around the area, try out different restaurants, and soak up this beautiful town.
Doubtful Sound (1 day)
We did a full day tour of Doubtful Sound and it was absolutely awe inspiring! The very best part was we got to see a few more penguins! They have overnight cruises of this area and I would be tempted to do one of those next time, but the day trip was perfectly lovely!
So there you have our incredible, inspirational 2 week trip to New Zealand! All in all we spent just under $10k including everything and had a good balance of budget friendly hostels and airbnbs and nicer accommodations. If we were to do it again I’d try to stick in airbnb as much as possible (as opposed to 50% on this trip) since we met such wonderful people and it really added some NZ charm staying in people’s homes.
I was able to add this New Zealand magnet to our collection and I cannot wait to go back! What do you think of our trip? What would you do differently?
You can also check out my post, 5 Fun and Free things to do in New Zealand.