I’m sitting at the edge of a lake, with a deep blue sky and deeper blue water. The air is crisp but not chilly. There’s a steam ship taking passengers across the water, para-sailers dot the sky and bungee jumpers can be heard faintly screaming from the rope way above. Hidden from view and about 20 kms away, the lake snakes its way across the mountains, ending up near the base of white capped peaks, all misted with froth and merging with foreground. This may be Lord of the Rings country but I doubt Peter Jackson ever shot a single scene where I sit and absorb this near-painted landscape. No, I don’t think Queenstown Saturday flea market was listed in the credits.
That’s how accessible the magnificent scenery is in New Zealand, even from the road. Unlike most places in the world, where you have day trips, national park fees or organized tours to visit nature’s hidden gems, here almost everything can be easily seen and photographed just sitting in a passenger seat of a car. As such, it’s one of the most popular ways to see this little Oceanic country. That, and the fact that Peter Jackson really helped things. The Lord of the Rings movies brought out the country’s magnificent landscapes and most of them can be visited without much effort.
My itinerary was as follows – Auckland – Rotorua – Napier – Wellington – (across the Cook strait with the rental car) – Nelson – Kaikoura – Christchurch – Mt cook – Dunedin – Queenstown – back to Auckland by air.
The rental car was hired the day after arrival from Apex, near the airport, and I took the managers’ advice and fitted the GPS system to it. I can’t stress the importance of this enough – every hotel we stayed at, every speed camera and every bylane is loaded onto it. That might surprise some, but given the size of the country itself, it made the journey so much more enjoyable. More so because New Zealand is most fun when you leave the main highways and travel on narrow roads to villages by the sea, or small viewpoints located above ridges which you won’t find on maps and routes, with gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. Cases on point – Crompton, near Queenstown, which we detoured to have lunch, was a hidden gem. Then, Glenorchy and Arrowtown, again discovered by innocently driving around. The GPS makes sure that you find your way back.
Used mostly as a transit point for people going either to the Bay of Islands, or driving south through North island, this city has much to offer.
One of the best ways to see most of the city’s highlights is to take the Explorer bus, which is a hop-on hop-off service with two routes. A two-day pass is also available if you want more comprehensive sightseeing, as well as a family pass. The red route stops at Kelly Tarlton, Sky Tower, Parnell rose garden, Auckland museum amongst others.
Mount Eden is a dormant volcanic crater and a good climb to the top, with the best (free) views over the city. The sunset is a good time to go, as the colours of the city change. It’s a short 5 km walk to the center of Auckland.
The Viaduct harbor, the home for New Zealand’s successful Americas cup challenge, is a bustling place with great restaurants, bars and nightclubs. It’s a little expensive, but you can always go down here just for a walk in the evening. It’s near the Britomart station and the CBD of Auckland.
Sky tower, one of the main attractions of Auckland, is the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere at 300 meters. Even thought the entry is NZD 25, its well worth it. The observation deck with glass floor cutouts has probably the best view of Auckland. For the more adventurous, the open air observation deck cum viewing platform is a must. They tie you with safety cord and you walk around the glass floored deck, 200 meters above the city. For the real adrenaline junkies there’s the Sky jump, a bungee where you jump 192 meter to street level! If you can get the reservations and have money to spare, the high-end Orbit 360 degree restaurant towers over Central Auckland and is an exceptional way to have dinner.
Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life aquarium is an aquatic exhibit with lots of marine life, even an enclosure for yellow eyed penguins and a huge tank crossed through in a glass tunnel with sharks swimming overhead. Try to visit the Sting-ray tank when they feed them. A great place for the kids.
The Glass floor at the Sky Tower
Rotorua ia about 3 hours from Auckland and you smell it before you see it. The strong sulphurous odour takes some time getting used to. The town is along the edges of a lake and is famous for its geothermal activities and geysers that spew out steam at regular intervals, and the thriving Maori culture.
The Polynesian spa is the first activity I would recommend here. They have big common spa pools as well as smaller private ones. The private rock pools have a beautiful view of the lake right where you immerse yourself and have your own enclosed space.
The Tamaki Maori village is another must-do here. It’s an amazing experience where they take you to one of the Maori villages and put up a great show illustrating the living conditions, hunting methods and village life of the original inhabitants of New Zealand, before the Europeans. The experience includes a great dinner feast, where the mutton is cooked in Hangis (earthen ovens) in front of you. They display the skills used by early Maori folk as well as their warfare methods. You get to participate in everything, including the physical tests that young warriors had to do. The bus driver/guide is always hilarious and has a great sense of humour. Bring some woolens as it gets cold as the evening wears on.
A little further from Rotorua is the town of Waitomo, famous for its underground caves. It’s a full day’s trip (about 145 kms) along a beautiful countryside. The three caves are all different, but the best are the glow worm caves where they take you through a boat in an underground cave with the hanging glow worms illuminated above like star lights. Just remember – no photographs.
A beautiful Art Deco town on the east coast of North island. The route from Rotorua passes through Lake Taupo, a great place to experience para-sailing, water skiing etc.
The lake is also one the best places in the world for brown trout fishing. Small weekend fishing cottages can be hired along with boats on the edges of the lake. Napier itself is famous for its vineyards and a wine tasting tour is a good way to sample some of the local produce.
The Art Deco theme of the town implores you to take the walking tours that are available and the iSite centre will have details. The harbor area has some good sea food restaurants.
The political capital of the country (it houses the seat of parliament) Wellington is at the edge of north island and is filled with narrow streets with lots of one way traffic, making it quite confusing for first-timers.
The Te Papa museum, the biggest in New Zealand, has just reopened with a major facelift and a tour here is highly recommended.
The Botanical garden, which is a cable-car ride high above the town, is a great place for some fantastic views of the city. I’ll recommend walking on the way down, just to enjoy the scenery, the streets (quaint and a little like San Francisco) and the evening light, before heading up to Cuba street where the best watering holes can be found. Though most people that you’ll see here are varsity students and backpackers, some nice restaurants and bars can be found for a quiet evening.
The Mt Victoria lookout is also a good idea for the evening to get a panoramic view of the town.
The ferry to South Island across the Cook Strait is found right at mouth of the harbor, but go a little early if you have a vehicle with you. You also have a choice of returning your rental car here in Wellington and hiring a new one at Picton. Remember, the Cook Strait is notoriously unpredictable and if the sea is rough some motion-sickness pills might be in order.
A seaside town on the northern tip of South Island, this is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. I chose this as the base to explore the Abel Tasman national park. There are great kayaking tours as well as small hikes through the coast, all overlooking the sea.
Both the coastal walks as well as the kayaking tours start at a place called Kaiteriteri, an hour and a half drive from Nelson. The boats then take you to Sandy bay where you start your tour.
The Abel Tasman walkway is a beautiful and quite easy 6 km hike over a well maintained track. It has some excellent views of the Tasman Sea on route and a long suspension bridge which has to be crossed one at a time.
The walk ends at Torrent bay, where you can have a welcoming dip on the beach (it’ll have to be quick – the water is still chilled in summers) to relieve you of all the sweat. The kayak tour takes you to Split-Apple Rock, a seal colony and under numerous sea caves.
Just make sure that the weather is suitable, as rain can ruin your little sea fun.
You will also visit the Tonga Island seal colony, witnessing their lazy demeanor and their constant territorial fights.
Nelson is also home to a very unique site. If you follow the trail from downtown, across a little stream stands a board stating that this is the geographic centre of the country. If you have time don’t miss the Smuggler’s Inn for a relaxed evening with a couple of drinks.
This tiny town is nothing much to look at, but has some of the best whale watching activities in New Zealand.
The deep ocean volcanic chasm which heats up the water off the coast allows plankton to feed here on a large scale. After them the entire food chain follows, all the way up to the Sperm whale, which is what the boats go to find. Whale Watching is the main operator and have state-of-the-art sonar to track the whales. Along the way you’ll see Albatrosses skimming the surface, without once flapping their wings (sometimes for months). The sperm whales dive for about 45 minutes at a time and once they reach the surface they re-oxygenate their blood by deep breathing. If you can get close, or the wind is favorable, you’ll smell the dead-fish odour much before you see them. When they dive back in, they plunge their tails at the end with a powerful thrust, and are gone forever. Even if you don’t manage to see whales, the company offers 80% of the amount back.
There are also dolphin swimming tours, where you’ll get a chance to swim with wild dusky dolphins. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime activity and I will strongly recommend it.
There are sheep shearing farms where you can get to manually shear their wool with electric razors. As in all New Zealand towns, the iSite centre will have every detail you want.
The Fyffe house is an old whaler’s house whose foundations are made up of whale bones! Well, you’ll expect a whaler to have plenty of those lying around. They have a tour organized which explains some of the history behind the house and the early whalers that made New Zealand their home.
Kaikoura is also known for its crayfish (lobster) and almost every fish and chips joint will have it. It’s quite expensive though.
This beautiful city is home to great gardens and the International Antarctic program. However, I managed to see just a couple of things.
The Botanical garden is a great place to take a stroll and visit some of the immaculately kept landscape, with a huge rose garden and every known New Zealandic tree. Small streams cross the gardens and benches provide a perfect setting to watch the evening sun turn everything orange.
The International Antarctic Center is an amazing experience and if you have only one day, this is my first recommendation. It has a great 4d show showing the unique landscape of this continent with wind chill effects and (cold!) water sprays. Definitely a must do for the kids.
They have blue penguin enclosures showing you a-day-in-the-life sort of thing. You’ll get to see all the emotions they display, some remarkably human – jealousy, revenge, flirtatiousness etc. The Hagglund ride on the tracked vehicle will put you in a position to see the way the early visitors traveled across this arguable toughest landscape on earth. Again, it’s a joy for the kids.
You can experience an Antarctic storm, where they give you snow smocks and put you in a sealed chamber where the temperatures drop to -20 c. And then they increase the wind speed to about 120 kph. If this doesn’t stiffen every part of your body, you might want to consider migrating north during winter. It took me about 20 minutes to start talking again.
The highest peak in New Zealand, it’s a beautiful drive through empty roads leading to Lake Tekapo and then onwards banking Lake Pukaki all the way to the Mt Cook village. Within a couple of hours you’re in a completely different setting. White peaks, mirror lakes, alpine roads, wooden chalets with pine fireplaces and high ceilings, and air that just begs you to take long walks in the evening.
Take a stroll down to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre which has 3d movies and details of the alpine regions, along with a gift shop. Have a coffee here or at the Hermitage complex, the best accommodation in Mt Cook.
In the evening catch a show at the planetarium, which is one of the few dark-sky reserves in the world. The night sky here is so dark that astronomical observations are almost unmatched, unique to the Southern Hemisphere.
You can take an introductory climbing course in mountaineering on the southern slopes; maybe combine it with skiing on the way down. For the well-heeled, glacial walks are organized with helicopter drop-off that take you to the nearby ice fields and make you explore the unique landscape.
Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre
A small city on the east coast of South Island, this town at one point of time was famous for the migration of the Southern Right whale, which was very recently saved from extinction. It was a favourite of whalers as the oil in its body made it float to the surface after being killed, thus could easily be dragged behind the boat. The Otago peninsula is also home to the rarest penguin in the world – the Yellow-eyed, as well as being one of the finest examples of eco-tourism anywhere. A lot of wildlife tours are on offer.
You can go for the Albatross boat tours to a point just at the mouth of the peninsula where the birds make their nest, an extremely rare sight. The entire hill is dotted with the females while the males circle up above. Such is the importance of this area that a special warden is employed by the New Zealand government just to oversee their breeding ground.
This is only time in their lives that albatrosses actually touch land after being born. Don’t miss the small Fur seal colony below the hill.
The Penguin Place is a novel concept where the colony can be viewed through a system of hides and trenches, providing an opportunity to see the living areas and breeding grounds of this shy species. It’s a good walk of about a kilometer and you get real close to the penguins for an unmatched photo opportunity.
When you call New Zealand the adventure capital of the world, this is the town that comes to mind. Set around the Lake Wakatipu, this picturesque city is home to every adventure sport activity imaginable (and even some you can’t). The summers host para-sailing, bungee jumping, water skiing, zorbing, tandem gliding, 4wd safaris etc, the list is endless. The winters will see skiing on the slopes above the town.
Then there is the Milford Sound tour, where you cruise through the southern fjords up till the tip of the Tasman sea. This area of the country is largely untouched by human activity. The scenery here is breathtaking, especially when they pull up right against the Stirling Falls. If there is only one thing you can do in Queenstown, let this be it. It’s a full day journey from Queenstown and back, but well worth it.
The Skyline Gondola ride will take you up the hill from the town where you can get a great view of the Remarkables range across the lake, and a great panorama of Queenstown itself.
Visit the old gold mining town of Arrowtown, or better yet drive down along the lake to Glenorchy. The LOTR scenery here is what you mostly find in postcards. It’s a one hour drive guaranteed to fill up your memory card.
Take a cruise on the 100 year old TSS Earnslaw, an old steamship. The 90 minute journey takes you around the alpine scenery of the lake, and gives you a chance to see the innards of a steam engine. The inboard cafe and bar serve a good lunch.
If all this sightseeing isn’t enough then do what 90% of all people do here – the adventure activities that have made the town famous. Regardless of age each person will have something that tickles his/her fancy. The more adrenaline inclined will surely go for bungee and sky diving.
Kids will love the steamship cruise and the small beach on one side of town. If nothing works for you, just spend the day with a glass of beer in one of the restaurants, or enjoy the sunshine near the lakeside.
Still not finding something to your taste? Well, hire a Lamborghini for half a day and then see the surrounding sights. Some people say money doesn’t matter, but believe me, the scenery looks much better from the inside of a 640 bhp Italian super car. The list of activities is really endless. This is a DIY town.
All major car rental companies are in Auckland including Budget, Avis, Jucy and Thrifty. Most have a system of prebooking and check-in where they simply handover the keys to you when your flight lands at the airport.
Car choice is very important. The advantages of a big boot are not only space but the fact that you don’t have to carefully re-squeeze everything in your bags every morning; some things you can just leave unpacked and just throw them in. It’s a great time-saver in the morning, especially when you know that it has to be unpacked in the evening again. SUVs are great in this regard; you can just heave your camera bag, snacks for the road, warm jackets etc at the back in the morning before leaving and they are accessible throughout the day. Even a clothes change for the kids can be done on the road without stopping. However, they do come at a premium price. A good mid-size sedan will also do nicely if travelling as a family. For groups I’ll recommend a family station wagon, inexpensive and can carry large amounts of luggage. Like with everything else, budget plays a major role.
The other thing I’d advise will be GPS, as mentioned earlier. The GPS is a no-brainer – a road trip means visiting places which are sometimes not on major routes. The GPS will make sure you find your way back to the highway. It also knows where all the speed traps are. Besides this, many sights and attractions which you may not know about will show up on your way, and you can just swing around and take a look.
You’ll also have to decide whether you want cross the Cook strait to South Island with or without the car. I personally feel that it takes much less effort to ferry your vehicle across rather than hire a new one in Picton, for the reason that all the formalities, unpacking etc will have to be done again. It takes an hour at least. Besides, the ferry that you take to South Island is already a vehicle-ferry and the process is very simple. You just have to go about half an hour early.
The other thing to keep in mind is that New Zealand roads are not always 8 lane highways. For the most part they are double lane roads with a shoulder. So don’t expect to travel at 160 kmph for hours at an end. Traffic is minuscule as compared to other countries, except of course in big cities like Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown.
I chose Apex car rental at Auckland as they have relatively new cars (only 3-4 years old) as well as low rates. The pickup point was at the airport and the drop off at Queenstown. The ferry crossing was also booked through them; it made things much easier when the time came.
And please remember Kiwis drive on the left side of the road, just in case you only see head on traffic in your lane and are wondering what the hell.
Auckland – Rotorua (241 kms) – Napier (220kms) – Wellington (320kms) – across to South Island by ferry – Picton –Nelson (107 kms) – Kaikoura (243kms) – Christchurch (181kms) – Mt cook (332 kms) – Dunedin (321 kms) – Queenstown (282kms)
Close to the airport – Auckland Airport Kiwi Hotel
Downtown Auckland – Kiwi International Hotel