Fourteen Day New Zealand Grand Tour…in a Bus (part two)

At the end of my earlier post, we were saying goodbye to Queenstown. After two days of freedom we’re ready to brave the confines of the bus once again.

Day 7 – Queenstown to Fox Glacier

Winding our way up the mountain to Arrowtown, an old gold mining village, we were very surprised when it started snowing! None of us were prepared for snow, so we were happy to head directly into the warm Lakes District Museum. The small collection consists mainly of historical artifacts from the area’s old mining days. After we finished with the exhibits many of us lingered inside, browsing in the small gift shop or grabbing a coffee rather than braving the cold wintry mix outside. Normally reluctant to get back on the bus, we happily climbed into the heated coach for our trip over the Haast Pass.

Arrowhead in the snow

Our next scheduled adventure was a ride on the Haast River Jet Boat. We were reluctant to leave the bus, worrying about the comfort of a jet boat ride in the icy weather. Luckily by the time we got to the launch site the weather had cleared, the sun turning the glacier fed river a beautiful turquoise blue. The jet boat ride was exhilarating, although the boat’s wild turns made a few of us quite queasy. Back on the bus, we ended up on the West Coast, an area of stunning beauty. Arriving in Fox Glacier, our overnight was at the Heartland Hotel, a nice little alpine motel backing up to amazing views of the mountains.

View from the Heartland Hotel

Day 8 – Fox Glacier to Christchurch

The next morning we traveled to Arthur’s Pass to board the TranzAlpine Train, one of the world’s great rail journeys. This five hour train ride crosses the Southern Alps and winds through the Waimakariri Basin before finally arriving in Christchurch. I love train rides and this one was beautiful, though the views were diminished a bit by the rain and misty weather. We spent the day looking out the windows at the passing streams and meadows, many opting for a nice long nap.

View from our train

Day 9 – Christchurch to Wellington

Back on the East Coast, we enjoyed the spectacular scenery of Marlborough Country as we drove north to Picton. There we said goodbye to our southern island bus and boarded the Interislander ferry for our journey through the Marlborough Sounds. The crossing over to Wellington was beautiful, with green clad hills rising above the dark waters of the sound. As an added bonus a cart came around at tea time, selling scones with clotted cream. After my last enjoyable encounter with clotted cream I couldn’t resist! Back on dry land, we settled in for our two night stay at the Ibis Wellington Hotel.

Scenery on our bus ride north
Marlborough Sound

Day 10 – Wellington

The following morning we saw the Gallipoli exhibit at Te Papa, New Zealand’s National Museum. Created by Peter Jackson, it’s an amazing sensory experience, using cutting edge technology to bring the horrors of war to life. I was awed by the realistic, larger than life figures of the soldiers in battle. I also enjoyed the museum’s outstanding Maori cultural exhibits.

Amazing larger than life figures at the Gallipoli exhibit

After leaving the museum we had some free time, which we chose to spend taking the Weta Workshop tour. Founded by Peter Jackson, Weta did the special effects work for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, as well as Avatar, King Kong and others. Being a huge Tolkien fan I greatly enjoyed seeing the props and models of all of the creatures on display.

A troll outside Weta Workshop

Day 10 was also Thanksgiving, at least for those of us from the U.S. We were the only Americans on the tour, with most of the other travelers coming from Australia. I was able to find one place in Wellington that was serving a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner that night, Sweet Mother’s Kitchen. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings. Dennis brought along some “color your own” Thanksgiving themed placemats so we asked for crayons, which endeared us to the waitstaff. As we left they asked if they could put one of our completed works of art up on the restaurant wall, and other diners started asking for placemats of their own. All in all an excellent holiday celebration.

Day 11 – Wellington to Rotorua

We left Wellington for the start of another very long day on the bus, viewing the snow-capped peaks of Tongariro National Park as we rode north to Lake Taupo. For the Lord of the Rings fans out there one of those peaks, Mount Ngauruhoe, portrayed Mount Doom in the movies. We made a quick stop at the spectacular Huka Falls, more turquoise water cascading down a narrow valley. Then on to the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua for our two night stay at the Sudima Hotel, a nice three star hotel right on the shores of Lake Rotorua. We took a walk along the lake, keeping it short due to the overwhelming smell of sulfur bubbling up from the volcanic waters.

At one point during the day’s drive, our tour guide announced that we needed to elect someone to be Chief of our tribe as part of the Maori Hangi ceremony the next evening. Surprise, surprise, Dennis was unanimously and enthusiastically voted our Chief. He has an uncanny way of accumulating popularity everywhere he goes.

Day 12 – Rotorua

We started out the day with a gondola ride up to Skyline Rotorua for breakfast with a spectacular view. The weather was again cold and rainy but that didn’t stop the braver members of our party riding the luge down the hill. Then on to the Agrodome for an action packed hour of farming entertainment and education. The guy running our demonstration was a hilarious and informative showman; I never thought I’d laugh so much being introduced to 19 different kinds of sheep!

We spent the afternoon at Te Puia, one of Rotorua’s top attractions. The site includes a geothermal valley, the Maori Cultural Experience, and the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. The Maori woodcarvings and meeting houses are spectacular, and we saw the steam vents and geysers that made Rotorua famous. Some of the geothermal features were difficult to see since the rain turned the entire valley into a giant steam bath. That night we enjoyed an entertaining Maori Hangi and concert, with Dennis doing an excellent job representing us as Chief. After dinner we all got a chance to learn the Haka, making great fools of ourselves trying to look ferocious as we danced.

Te Puia steam vents

Day 13 – Rotorua to Auckland

This morning we departed Rotorua and traveled north to Auckland. We enjoyed seeing the city from the Auckland Explorer, because we hadn’t had enough time on a bus already. We hopped off to explore the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park and the Auckland Domain, with the first having amazing views across the water and the second beautiful botanic gardens. We ended the day walking around the waterfront, then called it an early evening. We all had bags to pack for our early flight out the following day.

Aukland from the park

The next morning we said goodbye to New Zealand and flew home. It was a wonderful trip, and while there were some very long days where I wanted nothing more than to get off the bus, I’m glad we were able to see so much of this varied and beautiful country. Fourteen days is a long time to be stuck on a bus but I’m not sure we would have been able to pack everything in any other way. For a small country New Zealand has a lot to offer.


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