New Zealand is a relatively short flight across the Tasman Sea from Australia; it is also a former British colony. These two countries are pretty isolated from the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, they are very similar in many ways.
Both countries speak English exclusively, complete with similar accents. New Zealand TV is mostly Australian TV Channels. Cars drive on the “wrong” side of the road in both countries. The people are all very friendly and approachable. Cuisines largely seemed similar. New Zealand has even been proposed to be added as the 7th Australian state several times.
Still, the countries are different in many ways. Australia is mostly desert – or “outback” – and much larger. New Zealand seemed very green top to bottom, with lots of scenic mountains and lakes. Look up a list of the deadliest/most venomous creatures, and Australia will be home to most of them. New Zealand on the other hand has produced defenseless, flightless birds. Australia’s population (22.3 Mil.) is a little more than 5 times New Zealand’s (4.4 Mil.); in fact, Sydney alone has a larger population than all of New Zealand.
New Zealand is mostly rural; Auckland is the capital and its largest city with a Metro Population of 1.5 Million (slightly larger than New Orleans). As a result, pretty much the only way to get around is by renting a car and driving. You could probably do just fine in Auckland without a car, but otherwise it would be tough.
Driving was really not bad if you can get over the whole wrong side of the road/car thing. Going from place to place was all highways, and you didn’t have many options – so it wasn’t easy to get lost. A lot of the drives were over/through hilly and mountainous terrain, which might be a problem if you get easily car sick.
New Zealand weather was described by the kiwis as very unpredictable. The common saying was that you could encounter all four seasons in a single day any time of the year. Fortunately, we mostly got their summer weather, which was a nice cool to slightly warm. We also only had rain one day—the morning we left Auckland.
We were very excited to get to New Zealand and drive the country. Before the trip turned to the monstrosity that it ended up being, we planned on just going to New Zealand and Australia. Also, I really liked planning New Zealand and was excited about it because I knew we would be doing lots of fun and unique things. Needless to say, New Zealand exceeded our high expectations.
Day 1 (Auckland)
We had to get up very early (and miss breakfast) to catch our flight to Auckland….and today we would be flying regular old economy class. No lounge, no priority boarding/check in, regular seat, etc. The horrors! But – as everyone probably figured out since I’m typing this today – we survived. And it was actually a pretty nice flight.
We flew Emirates from SYD to AKL. Emirates is the national airline of Dubai and is a very highly regarded airline. The plane we flew was the Airbus A380, the flagship of the Emirates fleet complete with a bar/lounge area and a shower for first class passengers. I tried hard to come up with some way to get us in First Class, but it just wasn’t doable without spending a ridiculous amount of miles (or dollars).
Still, the economy seats were nice. Each had an entertainment on demand setup in the headrest of the seat in front of you, and everyone was served a meal on the flight. I’ll still maintain that the biggest benefits of business class on short flights are the ground services and easy access to the bathroom from your seat…And being first off the plane for customs/immigration.
That was not the case here. We were in the middle to rear of the pack getting off the biggest passenger plane in the world. Not surprisingly, we had a long line at immigration. It took us about an hour to get through, which was the second longest of the trip behind New York (welcome home…).
New Zealand takes its customs very seriously. Being isolated for so long, it has developed a very unique ecosystem and any small thing can disrupt it tremendously.
After clearing customs, we easily found a cab. The cab ride took about 50 minutes to get to our hotel and was the most expensive cab ride of the trip, which I was not expecting. Our hotel was conveniently located for everything else fortunately.
Speaking of which, we stayed at the Hilton Auckland. It is located in a good spot in downtown Auckland. We really liked the Hilton and were treated extremely well (cf. Park Hyatt Sydney). As a result of my Hilton Gold status (which is very easy to obtiain), we were given a welcome bottle of wine, free internet, free full buffet breakfast, two drink coupons per day to the hotel bar, and upgraded to a room with a balcony and nice view. All on a points stay.
We got up to the room and caught up on e-mails/internet for a little bit, then I set out to buy some SIM cards and walk around while Alyce took a nap. Downtown Auckland was nice and pretty modern; it felt like it could have been anyplace in the US. There were plenty of shops, including places to get SIM cards.
After walking around for a couple hours, I got back to the hotel room and a refreshed Alyce. We were planning on eating dinner at the hotel restaurant “Fish” but decided on something simpler/more casual.
I had passed by a place nearby the hotel called MexiCal Fresh that was a Mexican/burrito place similar to Izzo’s or Qdoba, and we decided to give it a shot. It was decent and kind of pricey, but it was different from what we had been eating, which we liked. We took a leisurely stroll back to the hotel after dinner, watched some TV shows, and called it an early night.
Day 2 (Auckland)
Finally, our first day of wine tastings for the trip! So we woke up ready to get at it. The breakfast at the Hilton was a full buffet and was very good with many options. They also gave you a full urn of coffee for the table, which was very nice after struggling to get any coffee delivered at the Park Hyatt Sydney.
The plan for the day was to take the ferry to nearby Waiheke Island, where I had rented a car for the day to check out some of the vineyards. The ferry was a quick walk from the hotel and was a nice scenic ride over—though it paled in comparison to what was to come in New Zealand.
Waiheke is known for its red wines and is one of the few places in New Zealand where it gets warm enough to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. The island is producing some world renowned reds despite being a relatively new wine producing region.
We met Bob from Fun Rentals at the ferry dock and got our car – a red Miata convertible. Bob was a nice guy who had retired to New Zealand from the US and was now renting cars. I had no complaints renting a car from him. He also gave us some friendly local advice for Waiheke.
Our first stop of the day was at Destiny Bay Vineyards, which is open only by appointments and a little more off the beaten path. But, it produces some very good wine. It was also easily our favorite experience of the day.
We met Brett at Destiny Bay, he drove us around the property (which was beautiful) and took us out in the middle of the vineyards to try some grapes. He told us the story of the vineyard and all about their wine production. Then it was time to try some wine.
Destiny Bay has 3 wines, and we tasted all of them-including their top of the line wine that costs $180 a bottle to ship to the US…and it was all very good. We bought one bottle for the road and headed off to our next stop.
From Destiny Bay, we would work our way back throughout the day closer to the ferry. Next up was Te Whau. Te Whau also had some very good wine and was incredibly scenic, but it set the tone for what to expect for the rest of the day (as opposed to the experience at Destiny Bay).
We walked into the tasting area and saw that a tasting was $15 a person—pretty expensive anywhere outside of Napa Valley. That didn’t bother me as long as it was waived with purchase…But no such luck; the tasting fee was non-refundable no matter how much money you spent on wine (an unforgiveable sin in my book).
So we split a flight of wines. The girl poured 4 glasses behind the bar and set them up with no explanation or anything and walked off. She had set the bottles behind the glasses, so at least we did know what we were tasting. The wine was very good and not overly priced, but I’ll pass on wine no matter how good when they treat you poor or don’t waive fees. They did both here, so we left empty handed.
Next up was Stonyridge, whose Bordeaux blend “Larose” is very highly regarded. Stonyridge was yet another very nice spot to taste wine, and they were much more friendly here than Te Whau. But the a tasting was very expensive at $25 and not waived with a purchase. So we again split a flight, which was brought to us on the outdoor patio area overlooking their vineyards.
The wine was very good again, and the guy who served us followed up with us to chat about the wine to see what we liked and tell us a little bit more about it. That was nice, and I’m pretty sure that he was the owner’s son. After finishing the wine, we relaxed for a little bit before heading to our next stop, Goldie.
Goldie Vineyards was the first vineyard on the island and is now run by a wine school (I believe). Goldie was a little smaller/more off the beaten path than Te Whau and Stonyridge, which was nice…or maybe we just lucked out and caught it the right time.
The lady pouring the tastings was very friendly and offered us 2nds on any wine we wanted to try again. Plus the tasting was only $5, which – although not waived with purchase – is not a problem to me. The wines here were good too, and the lady told us to go check out the view at the top of the hill on the property after we had tasted. We obliged and it was well worth it. After relaxing up there for a little while, we made our way down and bought a bottle of Syrah to take with us.
Our last planned stop was Cable Bay for a tasting and dinner, but we were at this point earlier than I planned. I knew there were a couple other wineries that nearby Cable Bay that we could try, so we first attempted to stop in Mudbrick…It was closed for a private event. Oh well, I saw another vineyard we could try on the way there – Jurassic Ridge…Closed too. At that point we quit pushing our luck and just went to Cable Bay.
We each did a tasting, and the wine here was ok…definitely not our favorite of the day. Still, we bought two bottles because they waived the tasting fee with purchase. After the tasting, we had about an hour and half to kill before we could eat dinner. Fortunately, they had a nice wine bar with a really great view that we relaxed at for an hour.
There was get some extra entertainment present in the form of a honeymooning couple. The girl was pretty toasted and talking loudly about a large variety of topics, most of them entertaining.
When it was time for our reservation, we made our way in to the restaurant for dinner. The setting was nice, but it was not as impressive as it would have been since we has just spent an hour and a half looking at the same setting outside.
The food was good, but nothing special—at least not at the fine dining prices being charged. We finished our meal and drove back to the ferry dock and said good bye to our convertible. I wanted to ride outside on the way back, but it was pretty cool and Alyce was having none of it.
Overall, I was really looking forward to our day on Waiheke Island. The scenery looked incredible (it was) and the wine was supposed to be good (it mostly was too). That said, I was underwhelmed with the experience. It felt very commercialized—more of a money making scheme than a way to introduce your wine to someone. Some places were friendly, others were not.
At this point, I was nervous that maybe all wine tasting in Australia/New Zealand would be like that and that I had planned too much wine tasting for our tour of those two countries. Fortunately, everywhere else was great and more of what I expected from Aussie/New Zealand wineries.
Back to the trip…We walked back to the hotel from the ferry and remembered that we had 4 drink coupons to use before we left the next morning. So, we made our way down to the bar to toss back a couple….cappucinos. They were pretty good and came with some biscotti cookies, which we may have had a bite of.
Following our coffees, we went back to the room to get some sleep.
Day 3 (Rotorua)
We got up and gathered our things – it was so nice to not have to pack for a plane – and went and ate breakfast downstairs. I then left to walk to get our car. Supposedly, there was a zero percent chance of rain for the day, but I somehow got rained on while walking over. Fortunately, this would be the last rain we’d see until Bali.
I settled on Apex for our car rental. It is a local New Zealand company that has offices all over the country and very good reviews. Also, it was one of the few rental companies that let you take your car on the Interislander ferry.
We had a relatively new Corolla, and it was perfect for our trek across New Zealand. I was very happy with our experience with Apex Rentals. They even gave us 5 free lagniappe hours at the end of our trip to keep us from having to pay for an extra rental day.
I drove the car back to the hotel, and we loaded up our stuff and then took off. Driving in New Zealand was not bad; Auckland was the only spot that had a highway that resembled a US Interstate. Wellington too…maybe.
Outside of Auckland, the roads turned to what could be compared to single lane rural highways. They pass right through small towns (as the main street), and you also traverse mountains on these highways. It is very different than driving from city to city in the US.
The ride to Rotorua took about three hours. Sidebar: I found both the directions and estimated travel times on google maps to be very accurate. Sometimes the travel times may seem long for the distance, but you have to remember that the roads go through towns and mountains.
We went straight to the Wingspan Bird of Prey Center upon arriving; they do one “show” a day and we got there with minutes to spare. The show was pretty neat. We learned a lot about falcons and other birds of prey. We even got to hold the falcons, and I use the term hold loosely…
The show lasted about an hour, and we walked around the Center and saw all the other birds of prey after the show. We then set off to find our apartment, which was located in Ngongotaha – a little town about 5 minutes away from Rotorua proper.
We stayed in Tui Glen Apartment. It was a very nice two bedroom apartment located over the garage of a nice house right on Lake Rotorua. The apartment was nice and modern and had just about everything you needed. The owners were also very nice when needed, but mostly left you to yourself. They even had a very friendly Golden Retriever.
For the first time since we left, we felt like we were staying someplace more like a home than a hotel (much moreso than the apartment in Port Douglas). This was nice and needed, which may sound crazy after seeing all the unbelievable hotels we stayed in. But – trust me – it was definitely a welcome change and very common throughout New Zealand.
We scoped out the kitchen and decided that we wanted to cook dinner, so we went to Countdown (a New Zealand grocery chain) in Rotorua for supplies and general provisions for the next couple weeks. The grocery was nice; it was different to see some stuff that we consider cheap/everyday vegetables/items at home as exotic/expensive things in New Zealand…and vice versa.
When we got back, we realized that we didn’t have a pot big enough to make two days worth of spaghetti with Italian sausage and red sauce…Oops. No problem though, we just made half each night. And it really hit the spot.
While cooking/eating, we watched the movie Freaky Friday which was on New Zealand TV. Although I had tons of movies with us to watch, it was nice and gave us a feeling of normalcy to just pick something out when flipping through the channels. Afterwards, we found old episodes of Sopranos on TV (RIP Tony)…which inspired our viewing trend for the rest of the trip – Sopranos from episode 1 forward. That was a great TV show.
Day 4 (Rotorua)
We woke up pretty early to get ready for whitewater rafting and had some French Press coffee before we took off. We would soon become experts on French Press Coffee because that is all the have all over New Zealand and Australia.
I decided on the company River Rats for our rafting trip. There are several rivers in the area that can be rafted. The Kaituna is the closest to Rotorua and by far the most popular option based on its big drop. I actually preferred to do another river which was a little farther away, but was a longer and “more technical” rafting trip despite having a 4 rating instead of the 5 of Kiatuna (the higher rating the worse – or better depending on your perspective – the rapids). Unfortunately, the minimum number was not met for that trip, so we changed to the Kaituna.
Alyce had never been whitewater rafting before, so she was pretty nervous as we were getting fitted for gear. Once we had what we needed, they loaded us in a van and took us over to the launching point. We got out and were quickly in the water. They gave us a brief overview of commands and what to do/expect.
The trip was a lot of fun with some pretty high drops and exciting rapids. I think Alyce enjoyed herself – at least she says she did. Also, I recommend River Rats. They were professional and safe. They also took pictures to sell to you…You get gouged, but not as bad as some other places.
I had been on a couple whitewater trips before – not that I’m an expert by any means. But, I understood what they meant when they said that this was a less technical river. The rapids were a good bit apart and were pretty quick. At no point did you have to actually paddle through rapids; they actually gave the command to drop down into the boat and hold on through some of them. This was different than my previous trip. Also, this trip was very quick…only about 50 minutes start to finish in the water. I remember my previous trips being a couple hours.
The good thing about doing the quick/nearby trip is that we were home much earlier than expected. Alyce took advantage of the time with a nap; I watched the opening LSU baseball game on GeauxZone while working on some pictures.
After that, we still had a good bit of day left. The apartment owners had kayaks to take out on the Lake, which we decided to give a shot. It ended up being pretty relaxing and fun.
Afterwards, we finished the spaghetti, and I went to go take some pictures while Alyce watched TV. When I was done with pictures we opened up one of our bottles of wine and started off the Sopranos at episode 1.
Day 5 (Hawke’s Bay)
We weren’t in too much of a rush to get up and head out on this morning. We drank some coffee and had a relaxing morning. Eventually, we had to load up the car and hit the road.
Hawke’s Bay is the name for an area with several little towns; if you are familiar with Napa Valley, think of it like that. Napier and Hastings are the biggest towns. There is also Havelock North, which is a little smaller but right in the middle of most of the vineyards. We stayed in Havelock North.
The drive to Hawke’s bay was pretty short distance wise but contained a lot of steep climbs/descents and plenty of twists and turns. It took about 2.5 hours to get to Church Road Winery where we caught the 2:00 tour.
We were joined on the tour by some odd balls from Midwest US. The tour itself was a very good tour. The guide was very friendly and knowledgeable. He covered a lot of the basics of winemaking, but he also hit on a lot of the more advanced things. So there was plenty for everyone.
After the tour we went back to the tasting room and tasted through about 6 of their wines. They were all very enjoyable and typical of the varieties of the region…Plenty of white options and mainly Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Merlot of reds. That said, some areas we’d eventually visit in Hawke’s Bay were suitable for growing more of the Bordeaux varietals (closer to our cottage).
The tour had a small and very reasonable fee for what was offered. I was glad we did it.
We then drove to Mission Estate Winery, which was nearby. Here, we just did a tasting (most places seemed to do one tour a day at 2:00). As was the norm for most places in New Zealand the tasting was free (or something nominal like $5 and waived with purchase) and featured something like 8 or 9 wines. Also, everyone was very friendly.
The wines at Mission Estate were good; we bought a bottle. The pourer was also very friendly. She tried to guess our accent and just about nailed it. Her guess was Southern US, but not “too southern/country” which I think is pretty spot on for New Orleans. Either way, I was impressed. Lots of people would try to guess our accent over the course of this portion of the trip, and many were surprisingly close.
From Mission Estate, it was a decent drive to our cottage (about 25 minutes). We stayed at Tuki Vineyard Cottage; it was a really neat one bedroom cottage located on a vineyard property run by a couple. The cottage was very nice and modern, and the location was tough to beat. It would end up being one of our favorite vacation rentals (and we stayed at plenty of really cool vacation rentals).
We wanted to cook dinner for ourselves again, so off to the town grocery to pick out some stuff we went. The lamb looked too good to pass up, so we got that along with some potatoes and some meats/cheeses to munch on.
We ate and drank some wine as the sun set. We also first watched our favorite Aussie/New Zealand show here: My Kitchen Rules. We’d end up catching several episodes of this.
Day 6 (Hawke’e Bay)
We slept in and had a lazy morning. Most of the vineyards don’t really get moving until 11:00, so there was no reason to rush. The cottage had included a really nice breakfast of fresh baked bread, homemade jams, eggs from the chickens outside, fresh milk, and some really delicious butter. It was all very good.
I had some wineries lined up for the day that were supposed to have some very good wine. We started off at Te Mata, which was right down the road from our cottage. The pourer here was friendly and poured us several good wines to taste. We wanted to buy a bottle of wine to take with us, and she (knowing that we’d have to drink it the next week or two) actually talked us in to a cheaper bottle of wine than we were going to buy. This was a winery first.
Black Barn Vineyards was located right by Te Mata, so we headed there next and tasted through their lineup. Again the pourer was very friendly and the wine was very good. They also had an art gallery at the vineyard. We bought a bottle to take with us and headed out.
We had some time to kill, so we decided to head over to the nearby honey factory/shop. This was pretty neat, and I was definitely happy we had the time to stop by. There were plenty of different types of honey to taste, we bought some Manuka honey to take with us because it was supposed to have healing powers….and it just tasted very good.
Next up was a tour at Craggy Range. Craggy Range was also in the same area of our cottage. The tour was pretty quick and was led by a guy who used to live in California. He showed us all around the property and then led us back to the tasting room where another lady poured all of their wine.
The wine at Craggy Range was very good. We bought a bottle of red and a bottle of a sweet white dessert-styled wine. Also, they had told us that there would be a tour fee, but they didn’t charge us and didn’t seem to be charging anyone else.
It was a little earlier in the day than I expected it to be at this point, so we had some time to kill. I had read that Sileni Vineyards had a nice deli in their vineyards, and we decided to head over there.
The property was very nice, but this was a much more commercialized vineyard than the others we went to. A cruise ship bus was just finishing up when we arrived. Also, the wine was ok – definitely a notch below the other places we tried. And the deli was ok too. Bottom line, I’d pass on this place if I had to do it over again.
We were pretty hungry by this point, so a late lunch/early dinner was on order. I had read about this tapas style restaurant Deliciosa that sounded very good, which we decided to try. We had to kill a little time before it opened at 4:30, which we just spent hanging out on their patio.
The entire menu sounded very good, but we were immediately drawn to the charcuterie platter. It was said to serve 4-6, which I asked the waitress if that meant as an appetizer. She said nope; it would be way too much for two people. I said bring it anyway…and we put a hurting on it. We got a couple “I’m impressed” comments from the staff; we weren’t sure whether we should be proud or embarrassed.
Back at the cottage, we set up the tripod and took some pictures. We then polished off a bottle of wine and finished the night with some coffee/tv/internet.
Day 7 (Wellington)
Having finished all the eggs provided to us in the refrigerator the day before, it was up to me to go get us some eggs from under the hen outside in the coop. When you opened the door, the hen looked like it wanted to puck your eyes out and wouldn’t move. But, it ended up just sitting there as you reached under it for some eggs.
The scrambled egg breakfast was literally as fresh as it gets and was very good. It was then time to pack the car and hit the road. We locked up the cottage and said goodbye to the chickens, and I grabbed a couple grapes for the road.
The drive to Wellington was longer than the previous two, but not too bad at about 4 hours. It was also probably the most booring drive in New Zealand, though still much better than most drives in the US.
Finding our cottage was a little difficult; it took a circling around or two. We stayed at City Cottage, which was a nice place in a good location. There was enough time left in the day to head to the Te Papa Museum, which is frequently said to be the best in New Zealand…and is free.
We walked down Cuba Street to the museum for our cottage. Cuba Street seemed to be the main street in the town. There were shops and restaurants along either side of the street, and the street was actually permanently closed to traffic for a portion of the road.
Wellington appeared to be a very hip/artsy town. Despite being a good bit smaller than Auckland, it is the capital of New Zealand.
The museum was definitely worth the walk over, and we were only able to make it through a portion of it before it closed. It was very interesting to read about New Zealand’s unique history – being isolated from any other land mass. It was also sad to see how much the natural ecosystem has been affected by all the various things recently introduced by humans.
Many of New Zealand’s unique birds/animals/plants are in serious danger from predators introduced to New Zealand, which have no predators themselves. For example, rabbits were introduced to New Zealand at one point and were destroying all of the natural vegetation…and multiplying rapidly, as the saying goes.
The solution: introduce stoats to New Zealand to kill off the rabbit population. It worked. Too well. The stoats are also did a number on the Kiwis and Kakapo (a large flightless parrot) among other things. This is an example of why New Zealand takes it customs so seriously now.
On our way back from the museum, we stopped at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant on Cuba Street. It was ok – no one will be confusing it with Japan. But it was quick and allowed us to get back to the cottage early and get to bed early (though not before drinking some wine) because the next morning would be an early one.
North Island Concluding Thoughts
We were on the North Island for a week, but it flew by. Hopping from place to place makes things go by very quickly.
I liked our itinerary. We got to do some wine tasting, as well as some adventure stuff. If you’re not in to wine, there might be better alternatives. I know I tried to find a way to squeeze in a tour with Spellbound at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, but there was just no way to make it work without adding a day or having a ridiculously long day.
Auckland could be done with a one night stopover, but I don’t know that I’d recommend that if arriving from a long flight. Spend the extra day in Auckland to recover. I also would have like to have headed north of Auckland to do some diving (Poor Knights is supposed to be a good site), but that would have required sacrificing time elsewhere. Plus, we were already diving at several great sites on the trip.
There is plenty to do in Rotorua. I think I read somewhere that it is the Queenstown of the North Island, which I think is a very good description of it (i.e. plenty of adventure things to do).
Hawke’s Bay was very nice, and we loved the cottage there. I would have loved to have spent another day or two there just relaxing, but not at the expense of other destinations.
A night in Wellington was fine. There is plenty to do to occupy a second day, but I don’t think it’s necessary unless you have plenty time.
The North Island scenery was great and everything we did was a lot of fun, but it couldn’t compete with what the South Island has to offer.