New Zealand Highlights
Expedition: The Great Escape: 2014-15
Adventure Time: 8 Weeks
From Fiji we flew to New Zealand and visited Seamus’ hometown of Palmerston North in the North Island where we spent a few weeks meeting family and friends. We then took a ferry from Wellington to Picton and travelled around the South Island in the family van.
Below I’ve listed highlights of everywhere we visited in the North and South Island including:
Wellington & Weta Workshop
Kaponga – eating a Hangi & hiking Mount Taranaki
Waitomo – Glow worm caves
Matamata – Hobbiton movie set
Arrowtown (instead of Queenstown – passed by in surprise and decided to stop here instead)
Marlborough (didn’t stay – would definitely go back to)
Quirky New Zealand
When you first pull out your map of New Zealand and plan your road trip, make a point of noting the locations of 22 GIANT sculptures dotted around the two Islands. It definitely makes for a more interesting road trip! Click here for a full list and locations:
I loved Wellington. A small, beautiful city nestled at the bottom of the Cook Strait, encompassing a waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, surf, and a working harbour. It has that industrial-meets-art-meets-nature feel to it, and I was so impressed at how the city had managed to fuse into its natural surroundings so beautifully and creatively.
Hands down my favourite city promenade. Plenty of places to eat and drink and the artwork is fantastic. I recommend eating at Wagamama, especially on a weekday when people are at work. Yes, yes – it’s a chain but the views are spectacular, it’s very peaceful and the food is gorgeous. Stop off for drinks on the terrace at the Foxglove or grab a beanbag outside the Crab shack.
Weta Workshop is a special effects and props company based in Miramar producing effects for television and film including titles such as The Lord of the Rings, Hellboy, King Kong and Mad Max: Fury Road (to name but a few).
You can visit the workshop garden and shop where you’ll see a few models and props exhibited, free of charge. However, I would recommend taking a tour of the workshop itself. You’ll meet some of the artists and learn about the workmanship behind 20 years of award winning film-making. You’ll even have the opportunity to handle some of the models and props! Check the website for available tours, prices and details of how to book. When we went it was about $25 NZD.
Surf Watch (and celebrity spot) and Dine at Spruce Goose
Sitting by the window watching surfers and tucking into some great food. It was our first celebrity sighting as well – All Black Rugby Player Ma’a Nonu had just had his lunch when we arrived. Also look out for Wellingtons very own windy 'Wellywood' sign nearby. Great spot.
Mount Victoria Lookout
Get your city bearings and some of Wellington’s best views at the Mount Victoria Lookout. Though sunny and mild most of the year, strong winter winds through the Cook Strait give Wellington the nickname “Windy Wellington.” You’ll definitely feel the breeze up here.
Museum of New Zealand (Te Papa Tongarewa)
Always an interesting exhibition on at this museum. We had arrived during the 100th Anniversary of Anzac Day so we got to see WETA Workshop’s The Scale Of Our War – Gallipoli Exhibition.
Cuba Street District
Cuba Street is the liveliest street in Wellington where you’ll find most of your bars, restaurants and entertainment.
We are headed to New Zealand for Christmas 2016 where I’ll report back on new places to eat, drink and be merry!
Exploring the North Island
We travelled the North Island for 6 nights in a van. We didn't get past Rotorua due to time/cost but I would definitely recommend venturing to the top of the North Island if you're keen to see a bit of beauty. It's on my wish list
Day 1-3: Palmerston North to Kaponga (Mount Taranaki)
We travelled from Seamus’ hometown to Kaponga, just south of Mount Taranaki (2.5 hours 190km)
DON’T MISS: The giant loaf – Manaia
We stayed on the family farm and I experienced my first Hangi, a traditional New Zealand Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. If you get the opportunity to eat a Hangi meal – take it. This method of cooking is also popular on surrounding islands such as Fiji. There are some great surf spots in this area, if surfing’s your bag. Treat yourself to a decent leg stretch across Egmont National Park. The trails are quite easy, well marked and the scenery is beautiful.
Day 4: Kaponga to New Plymouth
(1.25 hours 90 km from Kaponga)
New Plymouth is another great surfing location. The New Plymouth Coastal Walkway is a 13 km promenade with stunning views!
Day 5: New Plymouth to Rotorua
(6 hours, 453 km from New Plymouth)
Waitomo caves (2.5 hrs drive – 181 km from New Plymouth)
Waitomo is known for its extensive underground cave systems where thousands of glow-worm light up the inside.
Allow 45 minutes for your tour and check the website for details. Tours run daily, usually every half hour between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. There is no ‘best time’ to see the glow-worm, you're guaranteed to see thousands. However, if you want to avoid queues get there early or as things are winding down. The tour includes a boat trip through the caves. It's an absolutely stunning sight and the guides are wonderful.
Hobbiton Movie set, Matamata (1.5 hrs drive 90 km from Waitomo)
This was an amazing tour – well worth the money and if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan you’d be a fool to miss this. At the time we paid $75 NZD. Allow 2 hours for the tour plus a little extra for the bar and gift shop.
Aim for booking a tour towards the end of the day or at the beginning. It’ll be less busy. You must book in advance.
Rotorua (1 hr drive 69 km from Matamata)
We arrived in Rotorua a little late and tired so finding so many bars and restaurants around was a welcome relief! Also goes to show how touristy this part of the North Island really is – and for good reason.
Unfortunately we had just a day the next day and it was absolutely tipping down with rain, so knowing that we would one day return, decided to take our soggy selves back to Palmerston North.
What we missed:
Wai-O-Tapu Champagne Pool
Hotpools and natural spas
Luging – apparently if you want to luge, this is the best place in the country according to locals!
Tauranga beach town
DON’T MISS: The BIG Apple statue in Waitomo, where you can also stop off for some BIG AZZ ice cream and the Otorohanga kiwi statues
Day 6 - Rotorua to Palmerston North
Huka falls on way to Lake Taupo
DON’T MISS: The Ohakune Carrot
Ohakune is a popular base in winter for skiers using the ski fields (particularly Turoa) of nearby Mount Ruapehu and in summer for trampers hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It’s a very small village (1 road) – if you’re just passing through, stop off for a leg stretch, cup of tea and a picture with the giant carrot.
Taihape is the gumboot capital of the world! Gumboot Day is a native celebration of Taihape. It occurs the Tuesday after Easter and has been a regular event since 1985. It is a celebration of all things to do with gumboots, and includes the famous gumboot throwing contest.
The top of the North Island – Auckland and around is very much on the to do list for future trips.
The Interislander was better – Bluebridge smelt of toilets and was a lot smaller.
You get no discounts for booking early, the prices are fixed but it pays to book at least a week or 2 ahead during peak times (especially if you are travelling to a schedule) as the ferries can book out very quickly.
Day 1: Picton to Christchurch
The coastal drive from Picton to Christchurch is just beautiful. Rugged, wild, vast, ocean swept views. I think the coast was my favourite part of New Zealand – well, it’s hard to choose a favourite but I did find myself lost in that scene. Beautiful.
En Route to Kaikoura top off for a bite to eat at The Store. Good food. Terrific views.
See the Seals in Ohau and take the Ohau Waterfall Walk
Kaikoura is the perfect place for marine life encounters and coastal walks. This is one of the places for spotting whales, dolphins and so on. We’d seen our whales in Mexico so we just stopped off for some seafood at the giant crayfish cafe which is located on the main road. The crayfish here are prizewinning (but for that very reason they are hugely expensive.
We got affordable clams!
Day 2 - 6: Christchurch
In 2011 after a 6.3-magnitude quake struck Christchurch, the city is still in a state of recovery. The disaster triggered a massive US$30 billion rebuild programme – the biggest public works project in New Zealand’s history. But when we visited in 2015 it was still pretty post-apocalyptic. Piles of rubble and empty lots have left a hole in what was once the central business district.
But it is so worth a visit as there’s still so much going on in the city. The residents have done an outstanding job at keeping the community alive and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
185 Empty White Chairs – Earthquake Memorial
Peter Majendie’s poignant installation opposite the Transitional Cathedral on the corner of Cashel and Madras streets has been the city’s unofficial earthquake memorial since February 2012. Where a church once proudly stood, the 185 white chairs each represent one of the 185 lives lost in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Each chair, just like its owner, has its own distinct personality. The 185 square metres of grass that the chairs sit on represents new growth and regeneration.
Great place – always an interesting exhibition going on.
The Historic Port Town of Lyttelton & Sumner Bay
Stop in Lyttelton for cafes, bars, quaint bohemian shops and picturesque views. Head down to Akaroa from Lyttelton for views over the surrounding bays and on the way back stop off at Governors bay for walks.
Sumner Bay is a beautiful little seaside suburb of Christchurch. Stop here for surf and fish n chips.
A beautiful day trip out from Christchurch - an easy hike. Pack a picnic!
Days 7-8: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it the perfect spot for stargazing. BIG TIP! Plan to travel here when there is no moon. One big full moon = no stars. If you happen to be here during the full moon and that cannot be helped, then don’t worry too much about it. It’s still pretty bloody beautiful and you can go for long serene hikes around the lake edge.
DON’T MISS: The Rakaia Salmon en route
We stayed at Lake Tekapo Holiday Park – it was bliss, situated right by the lakeside. We got ourselves a parking spot and slept in the van which we’d kitted out with a mattress. The facilities at this park are outstanding! Hot showers, large kitchen area with individual units, internet rooms and heated lounges.
Day 9: Lake Tekapo to Mount Cook
This is when the drive turns from beautiful to stunning!
We stayed at the White Horse Hill campsite. Perfect. We arrived in the afternoon and hiked to Mount Cook for a few hours before sunset. The hike is flat, very easy as it's marked and the trail begins from the campsite.
Tip: Beware of sand flies and take something to eat with you to enjoy when you reach the end. We made some sandwiches and took some wine and snacks. It was a beautiful way to spend the afternoon.
Following our hike, we did a bit of ‘camp cheating’ and had drinks and sat by the fire in nearby Hermitage Hotel by the visitor centre. Gorgeous wine, cosy sofas and views to die for!
In the evening from our campsite the mountains glowed under the moon and stars.
Days 10-11: Mount Cook to Queenstown (via Arrowtown)
Whatever your plans are in Queenstown, don’t miss the gem that is Arrowtown. If you happen to be here in Autumn you are in for a treat. The colours of the trees are like nothing I have ever seen in my life!
We were totally enchanted with this fairytale town and decided to stay for a few nights and skip touristy Queenstown altogether!
Walk through the beautiful forests, try your hand at gold mining and explore the quaint little shops and restaurants that are trapped in a wonderful time warp!
Day 12 - 13: Wanaka to Hokitika
We stopped at lake Wanaka for views, drives and a cool little retro cinema, Cinema Paradiso, with sofas and cars as seats! Follow State Highway 6 for INCREDIBLE VIEWS and stop off at Ship Creek Walk for close encounters with the beautiful Fantails (beware of sand flies here – they are buggers!)
The weather was not ideal – we were lucky to get a break in the rain and took the short (hour or so loop) walk around the lake. Unfortunately no mountain views due to cloud coverage but that’s nature for you!
Day 14 - 15: Hokitika
We stayed at Hokitika Holiday Park. Bit of an odd place with odd owners – not surprisingly the place has shut down. There are plenty of options in town. You can take a Jade tour in town in one of the Jade shops – it is actually quite boring but you get to see the people sculpting in the workshop which was pretty cool.
The National Kiwi Centre
This was actually well worth going to. You get to touch and feed the eels and fish for crayfish. They even have resident Kiwi birds you can see during feeding time (just barely as the room is dark). It’s a fun few hours!
The draw card however, is Hokitika’s beach famous for its driftwood and driftwood sculptures. Unless you're stumbling into a time of year where they hold driftwood sculpting competitions, don’t hold your breath for anything mind blowing.
However, I fell in love with these wild waters. A beautiful stretch of beach.
Day 16: Hokitika to Nelson
The Punakaiki Rocks and Blowholes
This place is hands down awesome! You have to time the blowholes with the surf and high tide. We arrived at about 2:00 pm but it does depend on the time of year you visit. You can stay in Punakaiki. The walks are supposedly quite beautiful and it is the base from which to explore Paparoa National Park.
Such a breathtaking coastline.
Situated at the top north-west of the South Island, Nelson is the sunniest region in New Zealand. The beach is very beautiful and there is plenty to do if you plan on staying for longer. We just stayed the night and set off the next day after a walk.
Day 17: Nelson to Picton
Ngakuta Bay, Marlborough
OK, so this is somewhere I would definitely come back to and spend at least a week. We didn’t stop off anywhere but driving through it was mesmerizing. Just anywhere around here really – for scenery, wine and more!
New Zealand is beautiful and the scenery is magnificent. To top it off, I got to meet my extended family for the first time and got to explore the country with the best man in the world!
The only stickler about New Zealand is that going for a night out can be a challenge. Not many people go out often as going out relies on driving (and obviously you can’t drink and drive) and as a result a lot of places close early. Not all places though, especially in cities but your options for going out and staying out are narrowed significantly if you’re travelling. You do have to be a bit creative with your time and make your own adventures, but that’s just how it is and the scenery is worth it.
Next stop on The Great Escape: Australia
Check out my highlights and travel tips for everywhere else I travelled to as part of this expedition: Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands, Argentina, LA, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.
For highlights and travel tips for all countries I've travelled to click here.