We returned at the end of June from a 21-day tour of Australia and New Zealand with GoAhead Tours. I know most people who look at Trip Advisor forums are independent travelers, who take much longer trips. However, I have seen posts by other travelers inquiring about group tours and I, myself, looked for information on Trip Advisor when planning this trip, so I thought my experience might be useful for some folks. I am posting this on both the Australia and New Zealand forums. The report has 5 sections: 1/ The Travelers, 2/ The Tour Package, 3/Pros and Cons of Our Tour, 4/ A Cautionary Note on Timing and Weather, and 5/The 12 Highlights of Our Trip (we limit the highlights to 12 in order to use one highlight per month in a calendar of photos from our trip).
My husband and I (ages 61 and 65) made travel plans with 2 other couples (all in their 50’s). We are all healthy, active people, but had both budget and time constraints – getting 3 weeks of vacation from our jobs is not easy! The 6 of us had travelled together once before to the U.K. and Ireland on our own (no tour group), but we all agreed that driving on the left and driving ourselves in general was too stressful for a vacation. So a tour that provided the transportation was our preference for this trip. However, we didn’t want to be restricted to traveling with a group all of the time.
The Tour Package:
The GoAhead tour seemed to offer a nice compromise at a very reasonable price, compared to the other packaged tours we saw. The tour package included all transportation – 10 separate airline flights, 2 long-distance bus trips, and transfers between airports and hotels. The package included 19 nights in hotels (the other nights were on trans-Pacific flights) and a full breakfast buffet every morning as well as 2 evening meals and 2 lunches during the tour. The itinerary included the places on our “must see” list:
1 night in Ayers Rock, AU with included tour of Uluru
2 nights in Alice Springs, AU with included 1/2 day tour of Alice Springs
3 nights in Melbourne, AU with included ½ day tour of Melbourne
1 night in Christchurch, NZ with included dinner with a local family
4 nights in Queenstown, NZ with included Bob’s Peak gondola, ½ day trip to Arrowtown and winery (full day trip to Milford Sound was included but not possible because of winter road conditions – day trip to Lake Wanaka was substituted).
1 night in Rotorua, NZ with included hangi dinner
1 night in Auckland, NZ with brief city tour
Obviously with this itinerary, we merely skimmed the surface, but we certainly saw a lot (and have over 3000 photos to prove it!).
There were a total of 31 members of the tour and 1 tour leader who stayed with the group the whole time. There were optional excursions in every stop, but we were free to go our own way at least one day in most locations – which we frequently did. I did a lot of research in guide books and on Trip Advisor to help us decide what to do with our “free” time in every location.
Pros and Cons of our Tour:
1/ The price was right! I tried pricing the separate pieces of the tour and there was no way I could come close to matching the tour price.
2/ The hotels were very nice with good locations – much better than I anticipated. I would say 3-star, which was very comfortable for us.
3/ We had time to go our own way in almost every location and the tour director was very willing to accommodate individual tastes and preferences. She offered useful suggestions for our independent expeditions.
4/ Someone else drove and took care of the logistics!! This was particularly nice when our plane out of Queenstown was cancelled due to weather (heavy snow). The tour director got us rerouted and arranged alternate transportation.
1/ There were occasions when we would have preferred alternate activities than the included tour activity – for example, I would have preferred to stay on the golf course and play 9 more holes in Alice Springs, rather take the “city tour” of Alice and I would have preferred to see the thermal mud and volcanic activity in Rotorua rather than watching some tour members OGO (roll down a hill in a big plastic ball filled with water).
A Cautionary Note on Timing and Weather:
Given limitations imposed by our employment, we could only travel in June, July, or early August. This is winter in Australia and New Zealand. We were in Australia from June 5-17 and on the south island of New Zealand from June 17-22 and the north island of New Zealand from June 22-24. Weather makes a difference. It was very comfortable in Cairns, Ayers Rock, and Alice Springs. It was cold, windy, and rainy in Melbourne all 3 days we were there, and absolutely beautiful (in the 70’s) in Sydney for the 3 days we were there. Given our brief visits to both cities, it is no wonder we have much better impressions of Sydney than of Melbourne. It was not worth the bus ride to Phillip Island from Melbourne to see the penguin parade in the cold, rainy weather, but I imagine it would have been fun on a nice summer evening. It was raining, but not too cold in Christchurch, but it was cold and snowing in Queenstown with road closures and plane cancellations. The weather was nice and mild on the north island. I really feel like we didn’t get a good look at the south island of New Zealand because of snowy, overcast weather. Our trip to Milford Sound – a trip I really wanted to make -- was cancelled because of the road closures. If I could go again, I would go to the south island during the southern hemisphere summer.
The 12 Highlights of Our Trip:
Every evening before dinner, the 3 couples in our group met for cocktails in our hotel rooms and discussed our highlights of the day. On the last evening we voted for the top 12. Here are our top 12 highlights (from least to most preferred):
#12 – The Hangi feast at the Tamaki Maori Village (Rotorua,NZ). This was included in our tour package. The evening was well choreographed with a dramatic greeting at the village gate, followed by 5 village activity areas with audience participation – for games, warrior training, weaving, etc., the unearthing of the food cooking in the ground, a show with Maori singing and dancing, then a large communal dinner. It reminded me a lot of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, but on a much smaller scale.
#11 – Tour of the Sydney Opera House (Sydney, AU). This was included in our tour package. Each person on the tour had headphones so we could easily hear the tour guide. We were able to see inside both concert halls and learn a lot about the architecture of the Opera House – no gutters, special French glass, etc. Looking at the Opera House from outside was much more meaningful after taking the tour of the interior.
#10 –Camel Sightings and Camel Riding in the Outback (Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, AU). The tour included a bus ride from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs. A herd of camels crossed the road and ran alongside the road on one part of this trip. We stopped at a camel farm where several of our group paid $7 a piece for a camel ride (double) around a fenced track. Seeing the wild camels and the emptiness of the outback was amazing.
#9 The Great Ocean Road (Melbourne, AZ). Two days before we arrived in Melbourne I contacted A Tour With A Difference (based on reviews in Trip Advisor) and arranged for an all-day Great Ocean Road Tour for the 6 of us traveling together for our “free day” in Melbourne. James, our driver, arrived with an 8-passenger Mercedes van at 7 a.m. and off we went in the pouring rain. Despite the weather we saw Bells Beach - the famous surf beach, the Twelve Apostles, koalas in the trees by the side of the road, a walking tour through the rain forest at Maits Rest, and more. This was a really well choreographed trip, with spectacular sights. A tea break, lunch stop, and dinner stop were included as well as numerous stops for photos and short walks. And best of all – James did the driving in the rain! I highly recommend this for travelers who have limited time.
#8 Riding a Luge down Bob’s Peak (Queenstown, NZ). It was snowing – what better time to ride a luge! After you take the gondola to the buildings on Bob’s Peak, you then take a chair lift up to the beginning of the luge tracks. It cost NZ$10 a run. You can go as slow or as fast as you want. I went very slowly and took 5 minutes to get down, while others went significantly faster (2-3 minutes). I was really glad I had gloves and rain pants (helmets are provided). The first trip down you must use the beginners track, but after that you can go on the advanced track.
#7 Sunset at Ayers Rock (Ayers Rock, AU). The tour companies have a special parking area with a viewing area of Uluru. Our tour arranged for cheese and crackers, chips and dip, and orange juice and champagne while we watched the sunset and the colors change on Uluru. Uluru is just a big rock (and we have lots of big, beautiful rocks in the western U.S. –especially in Utah), but this sunset was a time to contemplate our place on the planet – in the interior of another continent.
#6 9 Holes of Golf (Alice Springs, AU). Three of us skipped out on an optional morning Aboriginal Dreamtime tour and played 9 holes of golf at the Alice Springs Golf Club, which was located adjacent to our hotel the Doubletree by Hilton (my favorite hotel on the tour). We had beautiful, sunny weather with very comfortable temperatures in the 70’s. We rented clubs and a “buggy” – very reasonable rates ($70 per person for 9 holes, clubs and cart). The club pro was very welcoming. The course was like a public course in the western U.S. (not a manicured resort course). We wished we had stayed to play 18 instead of taking the included afternoon tour of Alice Springs (Flying Doctors Museum, School of the Air, and Old Telegraph Station). Interestingly, the steering wheel of the golf buggy was on the left (as in the U.S.), but the “yardage” was in meters! Yes, you can play golf anywhere, but it is great to say we played in Australia.
#5 Manley Ferry (Sydney, AU). Many postings on Trip Advisor mentioned the Manley Ferry as the way to see Sydney Harbor. This was our activity for a “free day” in Sydney. What a great ride on a beautiful Sunday morning! It was very easy to find the correct part of Circular Quay to purchase the tickets –everything was very clearly marked. The bay was full of sailboats with colorful masts as the ferry moved quickly through the water traffic. We enjoyed seeing the surfing at Manley Beach and the interesting crowds of people walking along the beach and the Corso. There were fantastic photo opportunities of the Sydney skyline, Opera House, and Harbor Bridge from the Manley Ferry.
#4 Great Barrier Reef Excursion (Cairns, AU). The tour package included a day trip on Sunlover Cruises to Moore Reef where the boat tied up to a fixed platform for snorkeling, diving, glass bottom boat rides, helicopter rides, and included a buffet lunch. The sea was choppy going out to the reef past Fitzroy Island and several people became sea sick, but the crew was very prepared with paper bags to accommodate the ill passengers. Snorkeling equipment was included in the package. I paid $10 extra for a wet suit. The water was warm, but a little choppy and murky. It was raining off and on, but a worthwhile trip. I wish I had brought an underwater camera. The coral and fish were abundant (but I think the snorkeling in Tahiti was more colorful).
#3 Bungy Jumping (Queenstown,NZ). Four of the tour group members actually jumped (NZ$180 each) at the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge location. I admit I was very skeptical about this stop on our tour, but it was fascinating. From the parking lot, the entrance to the facility looks like a little shed, but the interior is a multi-story atrium. It seemed like a set in a James Bond film where the evil villain intent on taking over the world would live. It was fun to watch the jumpers from the outside deck and on the huge TV screens inside. There was a nice snack bar and gift shop. I particularly liked the signs on the restrooms – featuring bungy jumping men, women, and those in wheel chairs!
#2 Evening Hotel Room Cocktail Parties (AU & NZ). Both Australia and New Zealand offered a great selection of beers and wines to sample and we were able to pick up cheeses and other snack foods along the way. We encountered lots of local color and pleasant sales clerks in the liquor stores we found in both countries – although the prices were outrageous compared to the U.S. We enjoyed playing with talking toy koalas and kangaroos we purchased along the way.
#1 The View from Mrs. Macquaries Point (Sydney, AU). Comments in Trip Advisor forums frequently mention this location for great photos of Sydney with both the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge as a back drop. Fortunately we had a beautiful sunny, “free” morning before our Opera House Tour so we walked from our Darling Harbor Hotel, through Hyde Park, past the Art Museum in The Domain and on to Mrs. Macquaries Point – since we were more mobile than some other members of the tour group. We took lots of photos at this iconic Sydney location and then further enjoyed our walk along the water by the Botanic Gardens to the Opera House. This was the moment when we knew we had truly been to Australia.
This was a once in a lifetime trip for me. I still have 2 more continents to reach (Africa and Antarctica). The group tour worked well for us given our time and budget constraints. In looking through my photos and the photos shared by others on the same tour, I note that everyone had different experiences even though we were travelling together. Compared to our travels in Asia, this was easy travel– everyone spoke English, obeyed traffic signals, and was very friendly and helpful. I thank the Travel Advisor forum participants for their words of wisdom which helped make our trip a very enjoyable experience.