They say there is no such thing as a perfect vacation. There is always some bump in the road—figuratively and sometimes literally. You lose your favorite sunglasses, you have the perfect day planned and the rain clouds roll in, your flight inevitably gets delayed or, god forbid, cancelled. It could be the smallest thing and perfection is lost. Well, I don’t know who “they” are and I certainly don’t know where any of the “their” information comes from. What I do know is that they are wrong. I have had that perfect trip.
I must first point out that I am the queen of travel gone wrong. A fractured vertebrae in Italy can pretty much sum up my luck, or lack there of. It seems that with all that bad luck, there just has to be a little break in those perfect-day-ruining clouds. A little glimpse of that mythical perfection. And there it was—New Zealand.
My sister and I started off our vacation much like any other. A short jaunt across the US and then a slightly longer jaunt across the Pacific. An overall uneventful 31 hours. Upon our decent and final landing into Auckland, New Zealand, we were welcomed by a vivid and spectacular rainbow. If that doesn’t say that we have luck on our side, then I don’t know what does.
At some point, one might ask, why New Zealand? Of all places in the world, what is special about New Zealand? For us it was family. That is why we decided to take this trip in the first place. Sure there are impressive mountain ranges, a movie set built for Hobbits, and activities that even the most adventurous of adventure-enthusiasts would think twice about. But it is family that brought us to these two beautifully unique islands where the south is cold and summer is winter.
Now as much as I would like to write in full detail about every little moment of our trip (mostly for my own selfish reasons for a desire to relive every one of those little moments), I will refrain from the latter and give you only the key highlights that made this trip truly perfect. Everything else will be explained with everyone’s favorite form of communication, pictures! After all, it would probably take a 300-page book to cover everything!
I hate to say that Auckland looks just like every other city, but it looks like every other city. Its major redeeming—and somewhat scary—quality is that it sits atop about 53 volcanoes. This makes for some interesting terrain that is quite unlike other cities. Right outside of the city there are beautiful beaches such as Muriwai beach with its black sands and huge waves on the Tasman Sea. For calmer waters, you need not look further than the other side of Auckland on the Pacific coast!
The best views of the city can be seen from Mount Victoria. Without our lovely guides that were our relatives, I don’t think that we would have found this gem. It may take a bit of driving around, but once you get up there, it makes it all worth it.
Speaking of the best views of the city, to get a different view, visit the Orbit restaurant in the Sky Tower. The entire restaurant spins at a rate of one rotation per hour. To the average person this wouldn’t be a bother, but to someone that gets motion sickness at the drop of a hat such as myself, maybe just stick to the observation deck. Orbit does serve phenomenal steak, but proceed with caution.
If you want to get a taste of the indigenous Maori people of New Zealand, be sure to visit the National Museum. The Maori culture is very important to New Zealanders so it is vital to experience that culture for all it has to offer. There are Maori performances everyday that will give you a look into their colorful and eccentric way of life.
Ah the coveted tourist traps. Ideally a good activity, actually a waste of money. That is the definition of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun. It just isn’t quite as spectacular as they would have you think. After just a short 2-hour ride from Auckland, you arrive at the caves. Basically you walk through these caves with your guide and then are taken on a short 5-minute boat ride to seeing these glowing worms. The whole ceiling of the cave is lit up like the night sky with thousands of these glowing worms. Spoiler alert: it’s actually their waste that glows to attract other bugs that they can eat and they aren’t worms at all… they are maggots! There are also two other caves to tour with less glowworms and more stalagmites. If you are going to go, try the Black Water Rafting Company, where you raft down the inner-cave rapids. You might even get lucky and meet their house pet, Cecil the eel!
What would a trip to New Zealand be without visiting the little town of Hobbiton? This, of course, is not a real town, but is the movie set for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Even if you aren’t a diehard LOTR fan (such as myself) you will still enjoy frolicking through the little Hobbit holes. Not to mention, each entrance ticket comes with a free pint of beer! Doesn’t get much better than that!
If you want a glimpse of New Zealander’s laid back nature, you will get it in full force in Christchurch. In 2011 and 2012, the city was hit with massive earthquakes that brought it into ruins. And ruins it stays. The entire city is one big construction project and will most likely continue to be so for the next 5 years or more. They are working on rebuilding, but the extremely slow process has made many of the businesses pack up and leave. There is a very unique shopping mall where each store is located in its own freight crate. And the botanical gardens are supposed to be quite beautiful in the summer. We only spent one night in Christchurch and that was more than enough for us.
Considered to be one of the best train rides in the world, the TranzAlpine Train goes right across the middle of the South Island, through Arthur’s Pass, from Christchurch to Greymouth on the Tasman Sea. The spectacular views and seemingly quick 4-hour ride make for a truly enjoyable time. Not to mention, there is also a commentary great for an informative history lesson.
This easily-missed treasure is just a half-hour coastal drive from Greymouth. The drive alone is worth it, as it is the first glimpse of the South Island Tasman Sea. The views are truly indescribable. Punakaiki is a very small town that boasts an interesting natural wonder, the Pancake Rocks. These rock formations quite literally look like huge stacks of pancakes, hence the clever name. A well-established walking path will give you a chance to really experience the rocks and coastline. A tip: go during high-tide. Some areas of the Pancake Rocks are arranged just so, and the incoming waves create huge blowholes for the water!
Be sure to also stay overnight here. Their sunsets are some of the best in the world and not to be missed!
Franz Josef Glacier
New Zealand prides itself on maintaining their best tourist destinations and the walk up to the Franz Josef Glacier is no exception. This relatively easy 1.5 hour walk takes you right into the glacial valley where Franz has recently receded. You can’t physically go right up to the glacier anymore because it is receding so rapidly into the mountains, but you can still see it! Unfortunately, this national treasure is disappearing and will soon only be able to be seen by helicopter. For now, admire it from afar and don’t be afraid to drink the glacier water that runs along the path. Trust me, it will be the best water you have ever had!
Another commonly forgotten must-see is Lake Matheson, otherwise known as the mirror lake. Without any connection to an outside source, this lakes lies completely still, save for wind and those pesky white and black New Zealand ducks. This beautiful 1-hour walk will take you around the lake and show you the best spots to snap some photos of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. Make sure to stop for some hot chocolate and carrot cake at the café after your walk. The views are just as nice and you will have earned it! We also found that the gift shop is probably one of the best in the South Island.
The drive from the Lake Matheson area to Wanaka boasts some of the best views of the country. If I could only give one tip about New Zealand, it would be this: do as the New Zealanders do and take your time. This 3-hour drive took us almost 6. Why, you ask? We couldn’t help but pull over every other kilometer to admire the changing landscape. From mountains, to valleys, to the final glimpse of coast, Haast Pass has it all. You will also drive along Lake Hawea, which I can only describe as dazzling. Take a moment or two (or three) to breath in the lake air and appreciate where you are. But keep your eyes on the road! This isn’t an easy drive, so any picture-taking should be done by the passenger or after the car has come to a complete stop. As “they” always say, safety first.
Ferg Burger in Queenstown
The BEST burgers in the southern hemisphere. Enough said.
Paragliding in Queenstown
By far the best adventure activity for those of us who don’t boast a naturally adventurous nature is paragliding. Queenstown has some of the best paragliding in the country. But don’t be suckered into taking the ride off of the cliffs above Queenstown. This will give you the best views of the town, but will also only give you about 10 minutes in the air. What most people don’t know is that there is a company that can take you off of Coronet Peak, a nearby skiing mountain. This will give you the best views of the mountains, while also giving you 20-25 minutes of airtime. After a ride up the ski lift and a walk along the “goat’s trail”, it is a quick takeoff, after which you casually glide and float with the assistance of your tandem guide. Easy riding for those that want to skip the whole jumping-out-of-a-plane bit.
Horseback Riding in Glenorchy
Glenorchy is home to the famous Dart Stables. Many of the horses are cast as extras in movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia, X-Men Wolverine, and, of course, Lord of the Rings. The informative and passionate guides will take you on tours along—and into—the braided river (one of the few of that size in the world), to movie set locations, and up some steep mountain cliffs for the best sights. If you aren’t into the whole Hollywood scene, the views will make up for that. You will walk away with a better sense of the serenity surrounding bustling Queenstown and the sore legs to prove you were on horseback for hours on end. Worth it.
One of the South Island’s most well-known attractions is Milford Sound. With bus and boat tours competing for your business, it is easy to find a ride out there from Queenstown. The summer months allow for great weather and a one-of-a-kind drive, but it is advisable to take the bus tour in the winter/spring as the avalanches and difficult driving weather can make for a less than peaceful ride. The 4-hour trip to Milford is spectacular enough, but the boat ride through the fjord is on a whole other level. With dolphins, seals, and penguins, you can’t help but get a sense of what Fiordland National Park is all about.
If you are looking to splurge, take a plane ride back to Queenstown instead of the bus. This 45-minute ride in an 8-seat plane will give you views unparalleled to anything you have ever seen, guaranteed. Riding high above the mountain peaks makes everything seem just a little smaller.
One of my favorite drives of the trip was from Queenstown to Mount Cook Village through the Mackenzie Basin. Everything just gets quieter in the lowlands and this area gives you a chance to appreciate the true expanse of what is central Otago, NZ.
Mount Cook Village is a peaceful little town that can’t even be considered a town, hence the Village part of the name. And they really do mean village! There is almost nothing here except unmatched views at the base of Mount Cook. The Hermatige Hotel offers Mountain View rooms and a lovely restaurant with a wall of windows so as not to miss the grandeur of the tallest mountain peak in New Zealand. The 4-hour walk to the Mount Cook glacier closer to the base of the mountain is quite tiring for us out of shape folk, but completely worth taking.
Only about an hour’s drive from the Mount Cook Village, this slightly larger town is home to the National Dark Sky Reserve. The town is unique in that the streetlights are turned off at night for the sole purpose of a better view of the night sky. We chose to visit Lake Tekapo specifically for this reason. On a clear night, it is unlike anything you have ever seen. There is nothing quite like a clear view of the universe to make you feel small, in a good way.
One of the most unique experiences in New Zealand are the ample opportunities to stay on a farm, specifically a sheep farm. We were lucky enough to stay on Pete’s Sheep Farm just outside of Christchurch. These farm stays give you a real glimpse into a day in the life of a true NZ farmer. Not to mention, you may be lucky enough to feed the baby lambs and sheer some sheep. It doesn’t get more pure New Zealand than that.
And so there you have it. A perfect 3-week vacation all wrapped up into a few paragraphs. In reality, it is hard to describe the experiences that we shared in New Zealand. Like I said, a 300-page book might not even cover it. Spending those three weeks there not only brought me closer to my sister, but it also brought me closer to everything the world has to offer. Travel will do that to you. We saw a little bit of everything and that was just perfect.