We love traveling and especially love traveling with friends and family. Our niece regularly joins us on trips, and there is another couple that we enjoy traveling with very much. A few years ago we all put our heads together to come up with a group destination none of us had yet been to and all of us wanted to see. With five avid travelers that’s actually a challenging list to put together; eventually New Zealand made it to the top of our list.
New Zealand is a beautiful and varied country, and we agreed if we were about to endure the 17 hour flight to get there we were going to see it all, exploring both the north and the south islands. My original idea was to rent a car for a road trip. We quickly dismissed that when we imagined 5 people rammed into the car with my husband Dennis forced to do all of the driving. While the islands may look small, with the mountainous terrain the driving times can be very long, especially on the South Island. In the end, we booked a bus tour with Grand Pacific, opting for their 14 day Panorama journey.
We flew in to Sydney to spend a couple of days before hopping over to NZ to join the tour. We’d been to Sydney once before and it remains one of my favorite cities in the world. With perfect weather, friendly people and lots to do, we weren’t able to even crack the surface in two days. Still, we had a great time, opting to buy a two day HOHO bus pass with Big Bus Tours. If you have a limited time in a large city I find the HOHO bus a great way to get a good overview while jumping off to see a few key sites. We jumped off for photos ops at the Opera House and Darling Harbor. Only able to glimpse Bondi Beach through the bus windows and wanting more beach time, we took a ferry ride over to Manly Beach. First, I love the name Manly Beach! It has a wonderful stretch of sand and also has a nice little central area with great shopping. With the fantastic views of Sydney from the ferry, there’s also no need to take an expensive harbor cruise!
The highlight of our time in Sydney however had to be the Bridgeclimb. Being a couple of older gentlemen, Dennis and I were a little hesitant to tackle this, but our niece talked us into it. I’m so glad she did! We booked the shortest option, only 1,002 steps, since I was particularly nervous about how my bad knee would hold out. When we arrived my fears were heightened by the extensive questionnaire and comprehensive safety briefing. Dennis didn’t help, asking everyone he met how many people have died doing this (at least they all answered “none”). Once on the bridge however my fears disappeared. Our guide was fantastic, setting a very comfortable pace up the stairs. He stopped a lot along the way to point out sights and tell stories about the building of the bridge, which gave my knees (and lungs) some time to recuperate. The scariest part was having to cross over the bridge on a narrow catwalk, traffic zooming below (there’s no real danger though, you are securely latched in at all times). The views from the bridge are spectacular and I would recommend everyone that visits Sydney make this attraction a priority.
Day 1 – Christchurch
We flew from Sydney to Christchurch to meet up with our tour. Since there were no planned activities that day we decided on a visit to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, the four of us overruling Dennis’s objection to spending an afternoon looking at plants. The gardens are huge, sprawling over 50+ acres. There’s a wonderful rose garden, a fascinating collection of native NZ plants, and several conservatories. I thoroughly enjoyed our hours-long stroll and was ready to return to our home that night, the Heartland Hotel Cotswold. It was a serviceable property, a little worn out and in need of remodeling, and a ways outside of town. We did book the “affordable” tour option so I resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t expect luxury.
Day 2 – Christchurch to Omarama
In the morning we had a city tour, and seeing all of the still devastated buildings from the bus window made me understand how bad the 2011 earthquake had been. Then we left Christchurch to travel to Lake Tekapo with its brilliant turquoise water, a product of the snow melt from the glacial silt in the Southern Alps. The snow capped peaks of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park makes for a perfect backdrop and the whole area is renowned as the worlds largest dark sky reserve. Since we were there on a brilliant, sunny day we didn’t experience that but we did get to the see the famed seasonal display of lupin blooming along the shore. We spent some time in the Church of the Good Shepherd and said hello to the Sheep Dog Statue, then said goodbye to Lake Tekapo. Back on the bus, we made our way to Omarama, stopping along the way to marvel at Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. It was a very long day on the bus, so we were happy to be able to stretch our legs before settling into the Heritage Gateway Hotel in Omarama for some sleep. It was a bit nicer than our Christchurch hotel, set in some pretty gardens with nice views.
Day 3 – Omarama to Dunedin
Our second day on this bus we were introduced to a unique aspect of this tour (maybe others do this, it was a first for me). Every day we all rotated to new seats. The idea behind it, a good one, is that everyone gets some time in the front of the bus, stymieing those front seat bus hogs you see on every tour. However with 5 of us, even though seat pairs were kept together, we ended up spread willy nilly all over the bus. We had to text each other across the bus whenever we wanted to make plans about what to do at our next stop, and since the bus was full and we were an odd number, one of us always got the sit next to a stranger. She wasn’t a stranger for very long however, we took turns getting to know our seat mate Betty pretty well over the course of our trip.
That morning we left Omarama, following the Waitaki River through Oamaru and south to Dunedin where we enjoyed a city tour. Dunedin (pronounced Dun Eideann, which I learned was the Gaelic name for Edinburgh) was founded by Scots in 1848, and the city still retains a distinct Scottish flavor. After seeing the city, we booked a separate tour out to the Otago Peninsula to see the penguins. The Otago peninsula is home to some very rare wildlife, including the adorable yellow eyed penguin. We were very lucky to see the penguins nesting, and also got a chance to visit the conservation area. The penguins are cute but the smell of all of those nests together wasn’t so pleasant. I thought the numerous sea lions we also saw along the beaches were just as cute and not nearly as smelly!
That night we were entertained with a Scottish evening complete with bagpipes, a Burns poem, and haggis. None of us had eaten haggis before and weren’t sure about it, however I actually liked the taste (I think it was an entry level haggis made with minced lamb, and so it wasn’t all that offal). Our home overnight was the Heritage Dunedin Leisure Lodge, a very nice hotel. Night by night it seemed our accommodations were improving.
Day 4 – Dunedin to Te Anau
Next morning started with a drive along the beautiful Otago Peninsula to Larnach Castle. We had a tour of the luxurious 19th c house, and enjoyed time wandering around the gardens (one of the four “Gardens of International Significance” in NZ). We were served a delicious Devonshire Tea, including scones with clotted cream. I’d never had clotted cream before and from the name I was as trepidatious as I had been with the haggis. However it was wonderful, now I wish we had scones and clotted cream available at our local Starbucks! We left Dunedin and traveled to Te Anau, where we visited the amazing Te Anau Glow-Worm Caves. I was mesmerized by the mysterious descent into the cave, the hike along the underground stream with its roaring waterfall, and the boat ride into the hidden grotto with only the light of the glow-worms above you. The worms can only be found in Australia and New Zealand so it’s a truly unique experience. I dreamed of glow-worms on the ceiling during the night’s stay at the Distinction Luxmore Hotel. Google’s blurb “modest rooms…in an unassuming hotel” is an accurate description.
Day 5 – Te Anu to Queenstown
This was my favorite day of the trip, we got to take a cruise on Milford Sound, a magnificent fiord that Rudyard Kipling aptly described as the eighth wonder of the world. Even the bus ride from Te Anau to the Sound was a wonderful adventure through dense rain forest. The sights from the boat are breathtaking, with waterfalls cascading down the rock face and steep forest-clad cliffs all around. After our cruise, we rode to Queenstown for our two night stay at the Copthorne Hotel and Resort, a very nice property right on the lakefront.
Day 6 – Queenstown
We had a free day in Queenstown, and I was very happy to not be climbing back into the bus for another long ride! We decided to spend it taking a trip up to Skyline Queenstown. You start by taking an aerial gondola up the mountain, ending at an observation deck with spectacular views over magical Lake Wakatipu. That evening we boarded the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw for a cruise to Walter Peak High Country Farm, a working sheep farm. We had a delicious barbecue dinner at the Colonel’s Homestead, buffet style with a great selection. You’d think some of our fellow travelers hadn’t eaten for days; I saw people coming back from the buffet with full dinner plates piled high with as many peel and shrimp as they could hold. We all cruised back to Queenstown happy and full.
Halfway through our trip, we were refreshed and ready to get back on board our bus. In part two I’ll cover the rest of our journey, from Queenstown up to Aukland.