Traveling in New Zealand

It’s been a minute since I’ve talked about anything other than movies and television on this blog, so let’s take a break and talk about another personal passion of mine: travel. Specifically: travel to New Zealand.

A few years ago, I took a driving trip to New Zealand, which I still rate as one of the greatest experiences of my life. My Mom and a friend of hers are looking at traveling down under down under, so I put together a few notes and ideas for them on their travels. Having gone back through that all in my mind, it just made sense for me to do it again and share that with all (three) of you.

While there’s tours available, the absolute best way to see New Zealand is by driving it. It’s about 2/3 the size of California, and has plenty of roads and services for drivers. One thing about renting cars in NZ – stay away from the major international car companies. In fact, contact Ran Laughlin – he’s an American ex-pat who has lived in NZ for the last decade, and published this informative book on travel within the country. When I went, if you contacted him, he’d make your car reservation (at 1/3 the price of Hertz) and provide you with a personalized itinerary to boot.

Holiday park outside Lake Tekapo on the South Island

As travel goes, within New Zealand is pretty inexpensive. They have these things called holiday parks, which are basically like extremely clean and pristine camp grounds. We rented cabins at these when outside the city, usually for under $100 US a night. The restaurants also serve mostly organic, naturally grown food – all of which is fantastic. Even the ketchup tastes fresher and better, and with no party fo the country being more than 2 hours from the ocean, chances are if you at fish, they just caught it that morning.

The country is home to around 4.5 million people (and roughly 80 million sheep). There’s two main islands to New Zealand – aptly named the North and the South Islands. The north has less space but most of the people – 3.6 million – so it’s more urbanized. It’s also home to both the capital (Wellington) and the country’s largest city in Auckland, and that’s where I suggest you start your trip. Auckland has a major international airport, and is accessible from every major city in the world.

The city is beautiful, but traveling in New Zealand is much more about getting out of the cities than staying in them. However, getting to New Zealand ain’t exactly fast (unless you’re in Australia), and if you’re coming from the US you’re probably going to travel for 24-30 hours just to get there. So take it easy for the first full day. Stay near the beautiful harbor, take a trip on an America’s Cup winner, enjoy the food and the scenery. Before you leave Auckland, spend a day on Waiheke Island. Take the ferry out, grab a car at the docks, and just wander around. The island is home to any number of small towns, beautiful scenery and some great small vineyards. Definetely make some time for Jurassic Ridge – the owner is a really interesting guy.

Waiheke Island

Once you start making your way south from Auckland, there’s a few ways you can go, depending on your interest. You can head to the actual Shire, from the Lord of the Rings films. It’s close to Hamilton, a couple of hours south. Just past there is Rotorua, which is widely known both for its intense geothermal activity (so great spas) and as a center of the Maori culture. Though it may be touristy, make sure you do the Mitai Maori Village experience – and be prepared to sing a solo on the bus trip home. Then you can check out the beautiful Bay of Plenty, or if you’re into kayaking (and fake Maori stuff), you can’t beat Lake Taupo (where yours truly almost drowned).

Lake Taupo

Work your way down the North Island, past the real Mount Doom (otherwise known as Mount Ngauruhoe), and to the country’s capital of Wellington. Spring for a night at the Museum Hotel, and check out the country’s local art. Then head over to the Te Papa Museum, and further immerse yourself into the country’s history.

Wellington, the capital of New Zealand

Thus ends your North Island experience, and you’ll be heading to the somehow way more beautiful South Island. The South Island is larger, but has less people than even Auckland, so it’s more of an unspoiled paradise.

Take the “most beautiful ferry ride in the world” (with a side of dramamine, trust me), and land in Picton. If you’ve been in touch with Ron, stop and have a glass of wine with him before heading down to Marlborough, one of the world’s foremost wine regions. Stay a night or two, hire a local guide and have them take you to a couple of wineries for tastings (always nice to have a driver).

Wine country in Marlborough, New Zealand

Turn west, and roll out to the west coast. Stop at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and take the hike, the head down towards Mount Cook and the glaciers. You can take a helo-hike, or ski down a mountain into a rain forest or just take in the scenery. Cut back inland to the sparkling Lake Wanaka, the historic “Old West” Arrowtown, and down to Queenstown, one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a ski-mecca. Make sure you take the ride out to Glenorchy (lovely scenery, and more LOTR spots, if you’re into that), and hit up “The Winery”, which is the best city-based wine bar I’ve ever come across in my many travels.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Push on out to Central Otago, which may actually be the most beautiful place on earth. Spend a couple of days just driving around, taking in the scenery, tasting the Pinor Noir (Mount Difficulty and Carrick are a must), and head south to the seaside hamlet of Dunedin if you like. Then turn north and check out Lake Tekapo and Mount John, then the Mackenzie Country and stop for a cup of cocoa at the Farm Barn Cafe before heading into Christchurch. Check out the rebuilt town (Christchurch had a massive earthquake in 2011), and make sure to stop by the International Antarctic Center to see the penguins and experience South Pole winter before catching your flight home.

Central Otago