December 15, 2016 - January 4, 2017
New Zealand. It’s obvious, right? Mountains and ocean, Lord of the Rings. And, now that Jack and I both have grown-up hiking boots in the closet, we both are consistently itching to wear them! In nature! Hiking! So we put a price alert on flights and once a flight dipped before $1,500, the deal was sealed.
Anyone can go to New Zealand, but I would argue that people who don’t mind a certain element of physical activity will get more out of traveling there. One doesn’t NEED to be fit or LOVE hiking, but having a confidence in your ability to walk and climb means you’ll experience the country more than someone who sees it from a tour bus.
New Zealand demands as much time as you can give it to properly explore, an understanding that it is not cheap (in-country costs were comparable to the United States) and a sense of adventure. Also a shit ton of storage space on your phone or camera – you are going to want to take PHO-TOS. If you can spare it, I would recommend two to four weeks. We were there twenty days, starting out in the south and heading north, and that felt even a little slight. To properly explore the country, you’ll need to do a good amount of driving (and maybe even an in-country flight) and, since New Zealand is about the size of California, you just need that much time. I think it would be a shame to fly ALL the way to New Zealand and only dip in and dip out of the country, especially when the terrain is so spectacular. You’re going to want to see mountains, beaches, glaciers, trees, etc. etc. until you can yell Bingo.
New Zealand, on the whole, is "easy" - plenty of grocery stores, gas stations, etc. You can get the necessities with no problems, and you'll find Starbucks in the big cities. While a place like VIetnam is incredibly different - the food, the language, the culture - New Zealand feels familiar.
That being said, there are a few tips that will make easy a little easier. You'll need a car, and if you are traveling both islands, you'll have to turn in your rental car before you take the Interislander between South and North. Don't forget: they drive on the opposite side of the road in NZ. Keep your wits about you and follow the road signs, for pete's sake.
If you plan on "free camping" in NZ (i.e. pitching a tent in a non-camping designated area) or you plan on camping, recognize that it is a whole different kind of trip (we stayed in Airbnbs and hotels). If you plan on doing day hikes like we did, know that you will be in a world of hurt if you do not have: proper hiking boots, plenty of water, layers and sunscreen. See more in the packing list below.
There are loads of grocery stores, so there is no real need to pack a bunch of granola bars. On our first grocery trip we got wine, granola bars, big jugs of water and towels that we threw away at the end of the trip.
GO THERE, DO THAT
1. Start things off in Queenstown.
Queenstown was a cool introduction to the country. It oozes “adventure travel” – most of the stores are hiking/skiing outfitters, the town is nestled at the bottom of mountains and trees and there are endless opportunities to bungee jump, skydive, zipline, etc. We stayed at an Airbnb. If you are into Airbnb, give that area a search, we found a lovely little house right on the water (about ten minutes away from Queenstown proper) that was cozy and perfect. If you aren’t, there are loads of hotels.
- Go on, get the Fergberger. If you have a travel book for QT, they will suggest Fergberger, if you know someone who has been there, they will suggest Fergberger, and so on. I’ll concur. It’s big, messy burgers served up fast and friendly. Fergberger was the first thing we ate in New Zealand – we waited in line and then ordered whatever the girl at the counter told us to get. We lucked out and got a bench inside (very little seating) and people watched while we stuffed our faces like gremlins. Lots of young people, tourists and french fries.
- Walk off the Ferg with a hike in Glenorchy. One of our best hikes was about a 45 minutes drive away in Glenorchy. We did the Lake Sylvan track (1.5 hour loop) on our first full day, it was lovely AND it was a terrific starter hike (it was more of a walk). The air was crisp, the ground was flat and it was just sort of…gentle, for lack of a better word. Jack even took his hiking boots off and walked on the soft forest bed barefoot. Stop in at the Glenorchy café and grab (if they have it) a fruit crumble cake to enjoy after the walk. Skip the scone – it needs to be warmed and buttered to truly be good.
- Get breakfast at Vudu Café & Larder. We ate a lot of good, hearty breakfasts in New Zealand, and this one stands out. Great avocado toast, sweet and pulpy juices, good coffee and a self-service cake full of tempting cakes and baked goods. We loaded up on breakfast before our Lake Sylvan hike.
- Drink at Perky’s. We were hunting around for the “right” place to have a drink and stumbled upon Perky’s – a docked boat right in the heart of Queenstown. You can sit on the deck or up top and enjoy a beer as the sun goes down. The night we were there it happened to be T-Box (a bar crawl of people dressed up like Santa Claus) so good people watching. One Santa must have known himself well and said “Nah. No boat for me, man. Too up-and-down-y”. Know thyself.
Play mini-golf inside at CaddyShack City. The day we arrived was pretty rainy, and we were determined to stay awake until at least 10PM so we didn’t screw up our sleep schedule right out the gate, so we went to CaddyShack and had a surprising amount of fun.
Make sure to go up the gondola (I insta cried because it goes up so high and I am NOT a height seeker, but I composed myself quickly) – you’ll be treated with gorgeous views of the Remarkables and of the city. If you can, ride the luge (a few times) and then walk back down the mountain via the Tiki Trail. It takes a minute but it’s a lovely, easy walk through the woods and every once in awhile a mountain biker will whiz past you.
2. Get into it in Wanaka.
We headed on to Wanaka, which was billed as a sort of mini-Queenstown. We found that to be semi-true. It is absolutely sleepier, with less people and less hustle and bustle on the main drag, and it felt like people actually live there (all the people you pass on the sidewalk in QT seemed like tourists, in Wanaka they seemed like residents). Again we Airbnb’d, but there are tons of hotel options in Wanaka.
- Hike to Damper Bay (or if you are feeling really bold, Roy’s Peak). We hiked to Damper Bay – arguably our hardest hike - Jack would say so, my “Everest” comes later in the trip. The tricky thing about this hike is, it isn’t a loop – if you hike to Damper Bay, you gotta walk back the same way, which I think suuuuucks. I like to walk knowing I’ll never have to retrace my steps. Damper was also difficult because there is a LOT of ups and downs (and all the downs are ups on the way back). That all being said, it was a terrific walk – we had wonderful, sunny sky weather, there are sheep and birds and bunnies along the way and you’ve got a breathtaking view of Lake Wanaka the entire time (first on your right, then your left, and you'll pass the famous "Wanaka Tree"). The Bay itself isn’t that much to write home about, but it provides you with a goal and, once you get there, a chance to dip your feet and have a snack before you head back. Jack and I sang Christmas songs on the way back when we were loopy/tired and I got a funny little patch of sunburn on my temple where I missed a spot. Bring lots of water!
- Get drinks at La La Land. What a weird little hole-in-the-wall. You climb some stairs to the bar, which is chock full of recliners and big couches. Get a beer and relax your tired feet (beer is better after hiking, a universal truth that was proven time and time again on this trip) while listening to the good music played by the bartender. I have a feeling this place gets hopping in the late hours, but when we were there the sun was just going down and it was just a barfly and us. No matter: Jack had “the best Manhattan of his life” at La La Land.
- Eat at Kika. The bartender at La La Land suggested Kika – literally across the street, and it was one of the best meals we had in New Zealand. I’d recommend eating a little less than they recommend (we had a lot of food on our plate by the end, AND no room for dessert, which pained me), but the chicken we had there was like, the most perfectly cooked chicken in the Southern Hemisphere. Nice vibe, good wine and our waiter charmingly appeared to be about fifteen years old. We asked him if we thought the hike to Damper Bay was a respectable physical challenge (after the La La Land bartender sort of shrugged at us when we were hoping he’d high five us) and the waiter said, “Well…I guess. I mean, it would be my activity for the day.” I’ll take it.
- Yeah, do Puzzling World. Jack was SO JAZZED to go to Puzzling World, and it WAS fun. There is a challenging maze, some very cool optical illusion rooms and a “tilted” world that was so physically disorienting that I instantly felt drunk and Jack started laughing so hard he almost had to sit down and cry. You’ll know what I mean when you experience it.
3. Have the best fish and chips of your DAMN LIFE at the Cray Pot in Jackson Bay.
We moved on to Haast after Wanaka, getting us closer to Fox Josef and Fox Josef Glacier, which we were hiking the next day, so I really only recommend staying in Haast (which is a tiny, tiny little hamlet) if it is a pitstop, and/or if you want to eat the best fish and chips in the world, which are at the Cray Pot in Jackson Bay, about 45 minute beyond Haast.
I’m not kidding about these fish and chips – I almost wept when I ate them. The Cray Pot is a little trailer home (affixed) with about six seats. It is no nonsense – the menu is written on a blackboard wall (and probably never changes outside of what the daily catch is) and it is truly at the end of the line: the road stops shortly after the restaurant. The proprietor swiftly and expertly served up fish that was so meaty and so delicately fried that when I put it in my mouth, I let out a little giggle. You eat with the sea outside the window, and on this day the water was raging. The Cray Pot was, without a doubt, the best food we ate the entire trip and the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in my life. Note that the Cray Pot is only open until 4PM, and I could see her randomly closing it as needed, so you might want to give them a ring to be sure.
In Haast we stayed at the Haast River Top 10 Park. There are lots of “Top 10 Park” hotels/hostel/backpacker lodges in New Zealand, and if they are all consistent with our singular experience, you’ll be met with clean but simple rooms, a few decent television channels and warm, good pressure showers.
4. Helihike the Fox Josef Glacier.
There are TWO big glaciers in the South Island – Fox and Franz; we did Fox because we heard it was less touristy than Franz but just as magnificent. We had glacier hiked before on our trip to Iceland, ultimately we would have skipped this (it was also hella expensive, something like $400 per person) BUT in order to hike them, you have to helicopter which was very, very fun. We enjoyed the whole experience but were kind of like “yeah, once you’ve hiked one glacier, you’ve sort of hiked them all.” So, this excursion really depends on your budget and your previous experience.
Make sure to layer, layer, layer. The weather on the glacier changed every five minutes – from spitting cold rain to warm sun. I wore my long underwear, hiking pants and boots, thick socks, my thermal top and two jackets – my Helly Hansen (Helly for Helihike!) under my Marmot rain jacket. I was happy to have them all AND I didn’t have to wear the boots or coats they provided, which made me feel kind of like a smugly prepared Girl Scout.
We stayed at the Fox Glacier Lodge, where the rooms and proprietor were delightful. The hotel is positioned near restaurants and the main drag and was clean and cozy.
5. Walk the Hari Hari Coastal walk.
Do this walk. Just do it. Find a way. It was our favorite walk. We didn’t have this walk on our original itinerary, but we knew that from Fox Glacier we had a three-hour drive to Arthur’s Pass, so we looked at the hikes that were along the way to break up the drive, and chose the Hari Hari Coastal Walk (a 2.45 hour loop) based on…I don’t even know what but it was a perfect choice.
The walk itself is a little tricky to find, and before you head out on the road to find it, make sure to check the tide times – there is a calendar at the Pukeko Store. The hike provides you with a diverse and unique mix of terrain: bogs (we both sunk up to our ankles in a few of them – ew), huge ferns, heavy tree cover and delightful bridges over creeks and water. The best part: about 2/3 of the way through the trail opens up to the ocean. Sandy beaches with literally no one on them (we didn’t see a single soul on our hike), huge rocks you get to scramble over and nothing but the sound of the waves. Jack and I had a blast hopping over the tide and then taking our shoes off and putting our feet in the water. We straddled a huge, felled and petrified tree and ate the sandwiches we packed and then finished up the hike, which was flat and easy.
6. Keep moving in Arthurs Pass.
If you aren’t interested in hiking or are feeling hiked out, Arthur’s Pass might not be for you. It’s a national park and choked with hiking trails, from challenging multi-day to shorter day hikes. We stayed at the Bealey Hotel, one of the few accommodations in the region. The rooms are pretty basic, but the spot is fun – we happily got off the grid (no reliable Wi-Fi) and there is a restaurant at the top of a little hill from the rooms. The night we arrived Jack made – I’m not kidding – the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had. Paired with some wine and chips, we ate like kings and passed out, ready to gear up for a big hike the next day.
The next morning, we warmed up our legs by checking out the Devil's Punchbowl Falls, and then we leaned in by doing the Bealey Spur hike. This hike was challenging, no doubt about it. It's about three hours to the Bealey Spur hut, which was our goal - though you can go further on to a higher summit - and then three hours back (no loop). It's a slow and steady incline to the hut and the terrain is varied: dusty rocks, wet forrest, windy peaks. Pack snacks, water and your layers because there is truly nothing along the way. That all makes it sound kind of miserable, but there we felt very satisfied later that night, digging into a huge hamburger and big beer after a six hour hike. Do it for the beer!
7. Stop for pie at the Famous Sheffield Pie Shop and then go for a soak in Hanmer Springs.
After some epic hikes and some serious driving, we loved our stop in Hanmer Springs, essentially a little resort town. On the way there, we stopped at the Famous Sheffield Pie Shop, which is NON NEGOTIABLE. Savory and sweet pies served by the friendliest ladies in the South Island, this is a great spot for breakfast or lunch. We over ordered and then sat on the picnic tables outside while we stuffed our faces.
The main Hanmer Springs attraction is the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. Jack and I each got massages (so good for hike weary muscles) and then spent about two hours in the pool area - cycling between hot sulphur baths and mineral tubs to the lazy river. The facility is busy but very clean and organized. We sleepily made it through dinner at No. 31, a pricer but worth it restaurant that we amazingly got a table at with no reservation. If you are looking for romance, No. 31 is a good option with its small dining room and refined, local foods.
8. Return to civilization in Wellington.
After days of hiking and reeking of sunscreen and Deet, we moved on from the South Island to the North and spent a few days in Wellington. We stayed at the Bolton Hotel - a nice business-y hotel (there was a pool!) that was comfortable for the two nights we were there.
We were in Wellington on Christmas (so weird to be somewhere warm and not home) and had Christmas dinner at Logan Brown, which is $$$ but pretty much perfection. If you are a foodie, this is your spot in Wellington. We also had a DELISH meal at Whitebait and got a little sloppy at The Library - anyone who loves inventive cocktails should give it a try. We also went to a movie at The Embassy, a great old movie theater that was made spectacular by Peter Jackson for the Lord of the Rings premiere way back when.
Wellington has a lovely Botanical Garden - take the cable car to the top and then wander down, literally stopping to smell the roses and set aside at least a few hours for Te Papa, Wellington's awesome, immersive national museum. Oh, and keep that bangin' fish and chips habit going with a stop at The Chipery for lunch.
9. Get soak river rafting with River Valley.
We headed from Wellington to the River Valley lodge, which is like an outdoorsy hipster oasis - the main lodge where dinner is served (and the bar is located) is the definition of "lodge": wooden rafters, big communal tables, a bookshelf of "take one, leave one" books. We chose the lodge package that included dinner, our own guest room (clean and tidy) and our rafting excursion. Dinner was great - freshly prepared, very farm-to-table and generous portions. We arrived just a few hours before dinner and then turned in because of our early start to raft the category 5 rapids.
There were a lot of people rafting that day and we were assigned into boats 4-5 each, plus our guide. There was *one* boat that was the "easy ride" boat and included a younger girl and a terrified woman. They didn't have to work as hard or worry as much. The rest of us, however, were busting our ass during those rapids. They were INTENSE - lots of drop offs and rocks, and I spent the whole ride scream-laughing. All 30+ people that rafting that day came back smiling and invigorated, and OF COURSE we all paid for the thumb drive of the hilarious photos taken of us on the trip. My face might say "skip it" but I promise I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
10. If you can bear another hike, hike the Tongariro Apline Crossing.
Listen to your knees, and if they don't object entirely, conquer this hike. It's long: 19.4km (over 12 miles) and it is high (3,670 ft) and it will take you about six hours to complete but the views and terrain are your reward. You'll pass Mt Ngauruhoe, better known as Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings, you'll see a number of hot springs, solidified volcanic lava bombs and FUMAROLES (how often does that happen?). The first half of the hike is up, up, up and the second half is down, including a challenging loose rock portion that you kind of slowly slide down.
Unlike most of our hikes, where we'd see maybe a handful of people pass us by, the Tongariro Crossing is PACKED with hikers - it is one of the most popular New Zealand day hikes and there were moments when we were climbing single file. You might find that obnoxious, but it was kind of a blast to be tackling this epic challenge with people from all over the world - we heard no less than ten different languages.
We stayed at the Shining-esque Chateau Tongariro Hotel, which was deliciously old-school (there is a weird basement swimming pool and screening room - visit both - and a pianist plays jazz standards in the lobby around dinner time) and scheduled (through the hotel) a shuttle from the hotel to the start of the Tongariro hike. The shuttle then does pick ups back to the hotel from the end of the trail at various times later in the day. I'd recommend connecting with a shuttle because parking at the start of the Crossing was a madhouse. You'd probably add at least 1km just getting from your car to the start of the hike! We grabbed dinner after our hike - big juicy burgers - at the Tussock Bar & Restaurant across from the hotel.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing tips:
- There is a bathroom at the start of the hike and one about 2/3 of the way through, and they all had long lines.
- Drink water. Bathrooms be damned, you need to keep hydrated.
- Bring layers - I went from dripping sweat to chattering teeth.
- Bring food - there are NO food trucks on this puppy. B
- Slather on sunscreen, and consider a hat.
- Be conscious of the time. Don't rush beyond what you are capable of, but if you are catching the shuttle back, keep an eye on the clock.
- After the hike, take care of yourself. Stretch, take a hot shower, etc. Doing that kind of hike isn't like a walk around the block.
- Have good hiking boots, obviously.
11. Do a lot in a day in Rotorua.
You could spend a good amount of time in Rotorua, but we were on our way to Hobbiton (!!) so we did it quick and dirty. I wasn't super impressed with the "vibe" of Rotorua (very touristy) but I we had an awesome day seeing the top sights. We started at Te Puia to catch a Māori performance. You could easily spend way more time here - there is a thermal park and plenty of cultural exhibits and performances, but we were focused on the performance, which was wonderful. Check the schedule in advance and purchase tickets online so you don't have to wait.
Then we hit up Kerosene Creek which is a must see. A little tricky to find, Kerosene Creek is a natural hot spring tucked in the middle of nowhere. Throw on a swimsuit and walk the short path to the Creek. Don't bring anything valuable - you'll just toss your shoes off at the water's edge and slide into the water. It's warm to hot and, as Jack said, "it's nature's Jacuzzi!" - but no Jacuzzi holds a candle to what nature offers.
We shimmied out of our swimsuits by the car (props to Jack for holding up the towel in the name of modesty) and then headed to the Redwoods. We didn't commit to a big hike through the trees, but the area offers a number of short, easy walks. We packed sandwiches and ate on a little bench amongst the trees and then leisurely walked a short loop. We also did the TreeWalk, which was fine but not necessary at all to appreciate the trees (also, the TreeWalk cost money, walking on your own is free!).
12. Go to Hobbiton. COME ON DO IT.
We actually didn't have Hobbiton on our itinerary, state-side while we were planning it didn't seam critical. But the moment we arrived in NZ, and saw so many Middle-Earth-y horizons and sunsets, we shifted our schedule a little and squeezed in a trip to Hobbiton. If you truly aren't a Lord of the Rings fan, you can probably skip it, but if you enjoyed the franchise even a little, give in to the touristy, delightful tour and enjoy. The tour includes a short bus ride from the gift shop to Hobbiton, a guided tour and lots of photo opportunities. You end the tour at the Green Dragon for a beer and then head back to the bus (and the gift shop, obviously). We bought elf ears for everyone back home (and ourselves).
13. Gaze at glowworms in Waitomo (assuming you aren't claustrophobic).
Glowworms are a thing in New Zealand - there a number of different caves to tour and check them out. You can choose from riding in a boat (and being dry) to tubing through the caves (and getting wet). We chose to get wet, so into the already damp wet suits with Black Water Rafting for the Black Labyrinth Tour. After a quick tutorial from our two guides, our small group headed into the caves. For about 30 seconds, I was terrified - the entry to the cave is VERY slim and the ceilings are very low. I had visions of The Descent and almost started hyperventaling but the the cave quickly opened up and I relaxed. The cave tour was fun - we got the opportunity to backwards jump off a few ledges and then paddle around while we stared up at the ceiling and the thousands of glowworms. A few moments our group got very quiet as we looked up, and if it weren't for the wet suit, you'd think you were floating in space.
14. GO TO THE BEACH.
We spent various moments of the trip wet - thermal pools, river rafting, sweating our butts off on hikes, but we hadn't actually gone to the beach, so we began our trip wrap up with two nights near Piha Beach - famous for its beauty and danger (there is a whole reality show around it).
The beach was, in fact, beautiful, and we swam and jumped in the surf, but even memorable was our AMAZING Airbnb. This house looks out over the water and is super remote - there are a few neighbors but you'll feel like you're the only people on the planet. There are a number of good trails for hiking (and a guide book in the house to assist you) and the house is absolutely divine. Fill up on groceries (the closest grocery store is probably 30 minutes away), cook dinner, drink wine in the hot tub, sun on the deck and maybe dance around the house like an idiot. Piha Cafe
15. Wander the city of Auckland.
We finished our trip with two days in Auckland - it was a bit of a ghost town because it was right after New Years, but the city was still very walkable and full of good food, shopping and sites. We stayed in an Airbnb - there are loads of hotels and Airbnbs. The Ponsonby area or city center (off Queens Street is a good option). Treat yourself to high tea at the Langham Hotel and then teeter around Ponsonby browsing the many boutique shops. If you're still hungry, wander through Ponsonby Central, a cool food market that offers everything from high end ice cream to rotisserie chicken.
If it is rainy or you like the thrill of it, do a little gambling at SkyCity (you can also go to the top for the view). When we're pooped from travel, we like to spend $50 or an hour (whichever happens first) in the local casino. Not far from SkyCity is Lord of the Fries on Queens Street, a great spot to eat truly great fries and people watch. If you are exhausted and just want to sit down for a hot second, visit Academy Cinemas - located in Auckland's Public Library. We couldn't afford to stay there, but we could afford to drink a bunch of champagne and play gin rummy at the Corner Bar in Hotel DeBrett and then stumbled home to start packing up and saying goodbye to the land of Kiwis.
1. Hiking boots. Unless you are spending the majority of your trip on a tour bus (don't do that!), you'll need some really good hiking boots, and my Lowa Renegades are still unmatched wonders. I wish I keep a hiking log - I've probably tramped over 100 miles in these.
2. Basic t-shirts. While we were never "roughing it" we did enough hiking and driving that comfort was critical, and temperatures can change in an instant, so my base layer was almost always a t-shirt. These from Madewell can also, unless they are pitted out, look cute with jeans.
3. I packed some multi-purpose button downs: a crisp white shirt (always a good choice) and a plaid number. These looked good in the cities and worked as a layer when we hiked.
4. I also packed my gross but beloved Tommy Hilfiger denim jacket - I wore it a lot, it was nice to throw on over a t-shirt or to use as a layer on the chillier evenings.
5. Layers, layers. More than just some sweaters, you'll want some actual thermal layers. My Terramar men's layering shirt was great - I wore it on hikes (usually stripped it off eventually once I got warm, but I was thrilled to have it) and to bed when the temp dipped.
6. Bring an extra backpack. We shoved two packable backpacks in our suitcases and used them EVERY day. This one from Patagonia is perfection and this option from Katmandu we actually bought in Wellington because we wanted to share the load. For any and all hiking, these are necessary.
7. A multi-purpose dress is worth the room in your suitcase. We didn't do much fine dining, but we did a nice meal on Christmas Day, and I was happy to be able to get a little dressy. After wearing hiking boots and thermals, the change of pace is welcome.
8. Sunnies, obvs. I got these special from Warby Parker because I didn't want anything to "fashion-y" and wanted instead something a little sportier. These are the best - they have become my everyday shades.
9. A hat! You don't have to pack anything as nerdy as my Hyannis Whale Watching tourist hat, but bring a hat. Though our hikes were often shaded by tree cover, there were also times we were walking in the sun for a LONG time. I was happy to have something to shield my face (on top of my sunscreen).
10. A lightweight shell jacket. The weather truly does constantly change - there was one day I started freezing, with sweaters and a hat on my head, and by midday I had changed into shorts. There is also a decent chance of rain at any time in NZ, so a lightweight shell like this one from Marmot is great - it takes almost no suitcase room but keeps you dry.
11. A bandana! Currently very stylish, a bandana offers both form and function. I loved wearing mine when we were being adventurous because I looked cool and because it truly kept the sweat off my neck, shielded my neck from the heat and was a great thing to soak and then put on my head when I was hot. Get one!