Visited NZ in March and April 2007. Hope this report will help others traveling there.
Auckland airport opens only at 0500 so if your plane comes early, you're stuck waiting for a while. The luggage transfer from international to domestic is poorly marked and rarely staffed so plan on dragging your own bags to domestic if you're traveling to Christchurch or elsewhere in New Zealand. Bus to domestic every 20 minutes and quick but starts only at 0530. Domestic terminal under construction so toilets at a premium and none near the Qantas gates, so go early. Use ASB bank for your foreign exchange as they charge no commission for any kind of cash to Kiwi dollars anywhere in NZ.
The luggage storage is at a tourist board office behind City of Sails, easy to find but very long lines especially if you get behind some idiot booking a month's accommodation as I did. The storage itself is very secure, hidden away from the public. Probably no need for a locker except possibility of theft by airport personnel. Secure luggage lockers were quite large, easy to put a large carryon and a briefcase, probably another few small bags in the small locker. Cost only $10 NZ dollars a day, as compared to $7.50 for general storage, but the very bad part that no one tells you about is that to get the locker started you have to put in ten $1 coins (only) and then at the end of the time you have to put in the number of coins needed for the whole time period (110 in my case). You cannot get the coins at the tourist board so get them before you come. When you return, you have to have your receipt and enter a long locker code on a keypad so if you lose that receipt, you're out of luck. They take only cash for general luggage storage, no credit cards and no EFTPOS.
Expect food and lodging prices to be high in New Zealand, probably averaging double US prices. Paid more for each than in Tokyo. It was rare to find a decent lunch for under $20 NZD except pre-made stuff at takeaways and that usually ran $10 or more. Same for the average cooked breakfast (eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, etc) $15 to $20 NZ dollars. Prices in markets not too bad so we usually bought at stores and made our own dinners.
We arrived on March 26 and stayed for two days at the Scenic Circle Russley Hotel in Christchurch, conveniently located a few minutes from the airport and right down the street from Apex rental car. Quick ride from the airport by Apex staff after calling the toll free number and they actually charged us less than the estimated price plus gave us some excellent maps, better than the purchased ones for Christchurch. The hotel room was quite nice with a small fridge, laundry next door in the hotel, $2 coins only, but only one required for a wash and another for drying. Public internet for $1 per 10 minutes, no wireless. Four stars.
March 27 started with a drive down to Akaroa, stopping at Lake Ellesmere to see the thousands of Australian black swans and geese on the lake. Difficult to get near the lake from the Akaroa Road except down one very muddy track from Greenland Huts past a gate you could open, 4WD definitely recommended. Quite a variety of flora along the road to Akaroa including a lot of lycoris squamigera and agapanthus, as well as wild lupines and Queen's Anne lace. Stopped at the pepple strewn beach at Birdlings Flat to view the ocean. An eeling village but didn't see any eels there. Does have public toilets. Road from there to Akaroa was as twisty and hilly as advertised but really nice views of the countryside. Took the scenic tourist road above Akaroa for a few kilometers to get some really good views of the harbor, then stopped at Barry's Bay Cheese Factory for some excellent local cheese. The Akaroa mellow was first rate. Had to have some if it's named for you. Overall rating for trip to Akaroa: 5 of 10, nice but not unique.
Returned to Christchurch to visit the International Antarctic Center next to the airport. The scientific stuff was interesting enough but we passed up the blizzard experience, having experienced one in real life and the Haaglund snow cat ride as it's not great if you have a bad back. Kids seem to like it though. The best part was the little blue penguin exhibit, which is fairly new. Great viewing from above and underwater as the penguins would be mere inches from you. Three feedings a day when they swim for their dinner so you can get a good view of them diving and swimming, last one at 1530. Worth the admission price just to see the penguins that close. Photos and videos allowed but no flash, good lighting. Overall rating 8 of 10 for the penguins alone.
Highlight of Christchurch was a later visit to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. The reserve is off Hussey Road, not too far from the airport off Gardiner, and not well signposted as the road in looks like an entrance to tract houses and is marked only by a small yellow arrow on a post. But if you want to see most of the endangered native wildlife, this is the place to go. The guided tour is the best way to see them. Our guide, Sam, showed us keas, kiwis, and tuatara lizards as well as some other rare reptiles and birds and explained their lifestyles and conservation efforts in good detail.
The keas would actually come and sit on your shoulder and eat honey from a spoon. Lots of kiwis walking about and digging for insects in the kiwi enclosure. No glass between you and the kiwis so you could see them very close, just a half meter fence to keep the kiwis in. Fascinating. Photos and videos allowed but no flash and it was quite dark as they are nocturnal birds, but the guide kept them lit with a flashlight. We went at dusk, 1730 tour, as we expected them to be active then and they were. They have a variety of other habitats including an eel feeding area and some Bennett's wallabies, geese, chimps, monkees and some other birds plus farm animals. You can get pretty close to the wallabies, but when you have your own wallabies at home, that's not a highlight. There is also a lemur experience where you can hand feed a lemur. Also has a roast dinner buffet and a cultural show, but the kiwis are why you go. Reserve breeds endangered animals for release to the wild so a good cause besides. Overall rating 9 of 10 for the keas and kiwis.
Went on March 28 to the TranzAlpine train trip to Greymouth. Train loads about 0745 and leaves at 0815, reserved seats and usually packed so plan ahead. About 4.5 hours each way. The window seats are A and D. Be sure to get on the C-D side on the way to Greymouth and the A-B side on the way to Christchurch as most of the best views are on that side through the mountains. Or get A-B or C-D both ways. Train staff very reluctant to let you switch seats enroute. All your luggage and backpacks go in a luggage car. You can only bring into your car what you can put under the seat, smaller than on airplanes. Small car park at train station but construction on streets nearby so watch closely for way in, no signs for the station until you are almost there. Located near junction of Blenheim and Clarence. Station sits inside a shopping area called Tower Junction, not visible from roads around it. The train is nonsmoking and has a dining car with a limited menu, all pre-made, and an open observation car. Diesel engines.
On the way across the Canterbury Plains, we saw ostriches and a number of types of antelope-like creatures, but mainly cattle and sheep. Train proceeds through the dry brown foothills and gorges to Arthur's Pass (5 minute stop) with some good views of the mountains but nothing much for flora or fauna to be seen. Lot of tunnels including a very long one, longest in southern hemisphere. A few viaducts on curves for photos of train. Rivers almost dry when we came so no waterfalls and no snow on the peaks. Views of mountains are fairly interesting with a lot of greenery on the mountainsides nearer Greymouth, but generally inferior to any train I've taken through Austria, Germany, Italy or Switzerland that has gone through the Alps and nothing to compare with the Colorado or Canadian Rockies or Copper Canyon at least in March. Views may be more interesting in the winter or the wet season. The engineering is a feat so it's a good bet for train buffs and those who want a leisurely trip through the mountains.
Stop at Greymouth is short, under an hour, so you don't have time for more than fast food if you take the return train to Christchurch at 1345. Subway sandwiches and a food market to the right of the station as you get off the train but you have to walk 100 meters or so to get past the fence and cross the tracks. Several cafes down the street to the left of the station, lots of banks at the first main cross street with ATMs. McDonald's about one block left at the main intersection, wireless hot spot and email machines inside, get prepaid cards at counter with your meal. Overall rating 5 of 10 for the train trip, interesting but not that unique for scenery.
Drove to Kaikoura after the train to be ready for whale watch trip in the morning of March 29. Easy trip for most of the way but the last 30 kilometers is nasty at night in the fog and rain, a lot of tight turns, a single lane bridge, and some one way tunnels. If the curve sign says 25 km, believe it. No one dims their brights and they tailgate incessantly. Almost 3 hours from Christchurch.
Made it to the Top Ten Kaikoura Holiday Park a few minutes before they closed the office for the night at 2130. Cold and wet that night and the heater did not work, not the next night either. But they did give us a small space heater second night. Still had my back tighten up badly on me from cold and damp. The cabins sit just a few meters from the main road on one side and not too much more to the main rail line on the other side and it is incredibly loud, worse than hotels at the end of airport runways and by far the noisiest place I have ever stayed in any country. Cabins 11 to 23 are literally a hedgerow away from the main road and lorry traffic is unceasing, day and night. Would have left immediately if we had the chance. Qualmark 4 stars but I gave it 1 for the noise. Self-contained units with shower/bath were large and did have microwave and fridge. Wireless internet available at $2 for 15 minutes, but it cut you off early every time. Has a laundry but we didn't use. Walking distance to the main attractions including whale watch. Banks and ATMs in town, fair number of eateries but limited fast food except a Subway and prices generally high. Several Internet cafes.
Bad weather coming in when we did the whale watch the morning of the 29th and the boat was delayed going out but first three tours of the morning went out, the rest were cancelled. Rough seas but I've been through hurricanes on a boat only slightly larger so no problem for me. Saw two large sperm whales only about 30 meters off the side of the boat. You don't see much of the whale, only the top, until he dives when the tail fluke goes up. Not like humpbacks where they dive in and around your boat for hours. Sperm whales are only topside 10-15 minutes then dive for an hour so there's a lot of waiting time involved. When the whales dove, we went to watch a large pod of a few hundred dusky dolphins. They played around the boat for a while with one making 15 leaps in a row if you didn't catch his photo the first time and a second making four 360 degree backflips in a row. Headed back after only two hours due to the rough seas. Boat was comfortable and nonsmoking but no food on board. Staff informative and helpful. Overall rating 8 out of 10 for whales and dolphins.
Went over to the New Zealand fur seal colony after that, just a five minute drive or slightly longer walk from city center. Lots of seals sleeping on the rocks or in the grass around the car park but only a few up and about. Didn't like the rough seas either, I guess. Nice new walkway has been built to the top of the cliff at the seal colony at the end of Kaikoura peninsula and it has good views of the surrounding seas, the mountains on the mainland, and theoretically on a clear day, the North Island. You can walk around the whole peninsula, great views. Then visited the Lavendyl Lavender Farm just north of town for the wife to get a few gifts for the ladies back home. They had lavender ice cream but I didn't give it a try, having just had an ice cream in town. Overall rating for Kaikoura area 6 out of 10 for the views and the seals.
Took off on March 30 early in the morning to drive to Hokitika across the mountains. Ride easier than expected with very nice views of the Southern Alps. Took about 7 hours with a short break in Hamner Springs and another in Greymouth for a bite and a half hour stop for road construction. Slowed only once by large sheep flock on road but otherwise drove speed limit or less. Hamner hot springs were basically heated swimming pools so we didn't jump in. Mostly good roads with a few twisty sections but lots of one lane bridges. Be careful there because they are no signals for the bridges. If you have a big white arrow on the left side of the small warning sign pointing at the bridge and a small red arrow pointing toward you on the right side, you have the right of way. A small red arrow pointing at the bridge on the left and a black arrow pointing towards you on the right and the other direction has the right of way. But no one ever uses these, they just race for the bridge and first one wins. Overall rating 5 of 10 for the road trip, good views but not a lot of variety.
Stayed at the Hokitika Kiwi Holiday Park in a self-contained unit, not quite as big as Kaikoura but same amenities, fridge, microwave, TV, bath and shower at about $50 less per night and quiet as a churchyard. Staff very helpful. Don't stay in anything less than that level of accommodation though. The cabins were one lumpy mattress in a small room, no amenities of any kind, no sink, no shower, no room to open your luggage. No internet at park but a cafe every few meters in town. Had an interesting Brit staying at the park who was circling the world on one of the 1800s style bicycles with the giant front wheel and tiny back one. He'd been traveling for over 11 months and was on his way to China after New Zealand to do the Great Wall and then cross the Himalayas to India as he headed back towards Britain. Two stars.
Drove from Hokitika to Franz Josef in the morning in the rain, about a two hour trip. Lots of rainforest scenery along the way with rushing torrents of water in all the streams and rivers. Many waterfalls emerging along the road from huge walls of ferns of many types growing up the cliffs beside the roadway. The one lane bridges added another dimension, they now included trains crossing the same bridges. The weather cleared as we reached Franz Josef, but unfortunately the clouds remained over the mountains.
Although we waited all afternoon, no helicopters went up so we drove to each glacier. Each car park was about 4 kilometers off the main road. First road was just past the end of the village. We could only get about a kilometer from Franz Josef glacier on the walking track because the remainder of the way was closed due to flooding but there were good views of the glacier and its river. Nice walk through the rainforest which closes completely over the top like a canopy for the first half of the walk. Saw a few native birds and interesting trees and plants.
We then drove about 20 kilometers down route 6 to view the Fox Glacier. The glacier was much nearer the car park and the track there was mostly clear, just a few small streams to ford on the way to the face. Floodwaters kept us from reaching the glacier but we got to 100 meters from the face with a good view of the ice and the river. Tall basalt cliffs lining the far side of the river made it the better of the two to view. Took about 10-15 minutes to walk in the wet. We then drove up the second road to view the glacier from the other side of the river, about 100 meters from the first road off route 6. You can walk up to the glacier from there when dry but too wet when we were there. Better views of the glacier as a whole from that side, but no closeups. While we were looking, a land slip happened on the side where we had been at first sending tons of rock sliding down the hill after a loud crack like a rifle shot. Overall rating 9 out of 10 for the glaciers. We'd have given it a 10 if we could have flown over them or touched one. Cool to see a glacier in a rainforest. No sign of Mt. Cook in the clouds which was disappointing.
Drove back up the coast after that to Punakaiki. Very nice views along the coastline north of Greymouth. Hoped to catch Pancake Rocks at sunset but too many clouds so we decided to stop at the first place we saw -- Paparoa Park Motel on route 6 (email@example.com). This was the only place we did not pre-book and what a find. Paid less than every other night except the holiday parks. Gorgeous wood paneled extra large room with fridge, microwave, TV, etc. but no wireless. Wild Coast Caf in the village did have internet at $3 per hour, cheapest I saw in NZ. Motel had a variety of packaged foods you could buy and cook yourself. A family of tame wekas wandered around our feet outside and best of all, a glowworm cavern on site. We just walked down into a grotto a few meters from our room and saw hundreds of them on the walls, torches provided by our hosts. Nice view of the beach across the street and a good view of the Pancake Rocks. Several walking trails from the hotel into the bush. Hosts gave us all the information on when to see the nearby wildlife and when to go to the Pancake Rocks for best views. Definitely worth 5 stars.
Heavy rain again early morning of April 1 but fair at the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. Nice scenery but no blowholes blowing. Drove north along the very scenic coastline, lot of rocky cliffs, rocky outcrops in the water and waterfalls down the slopes. Saw two rainbows over the coast. Lots of wekas along the road. Stopped at Cape Foulwinds to see the New Zealand fur seal colony. Can't get close to them but great viewing from the coastal walkway above them. Lots of seals and playful seal pups. Fun to watch. Overall rating 7 out of 10 for the coastal drive and seals.
Drove across the Lewis Pass to Blenheim and then to Picton for the ferry to North Island. Not much to see on that road, very repetitive scenery, just thick rainforest at start along the Buller River, switching to open rangeland, then to vineyards near Blenheim, but pretty boring after the first five minutes of each type. Only spot of interest the whole way was the Buller River swing bridge. Overall rating 2 out of 10 for the trip. Useful only to get from coast to coast.
Stayed at Americano Motor Inn in downtown Picton on the high street, everything within walking distance including the ferry. Motel has free shuttle to ferry if needed. Full kitchenette but no internet. Comfortable room but nothing special. Three stars.
Not much to do in Picton except wait for the ferry. We did visit the Seahorse Aquarium beside the ferry docks to view their tanks of live seahorses, all sizes. Not too much else in the aquarium of great interest although they did have a preserved giant squid, one of seven in the world. Overall rating for Picton 2 of 10.
Beautiful sunny and calm day for the ferry from Picton to Wellington. Dropped off the Apex car at the ferry terminal. Only one ferry on Monday as the other was in for servicing so wasted a lot of the day waiting for it. Did have a nice computer desk with full electrical power on the ferry. Apex car waiting on the other side, got going quickly. Couldn't do much after we got off the ferry except drive to Waitomo. That was an unexciting drive, congested roadway, a lot of construction and nothing interesting to see. Stayed at the Siena Motor Lodge in Waitomo, very nice place with all amenities including fridge, microwave, toaster. Wireless was most expensive for an hour ($7.50 and one-time log in) but least expensive for the length of the stay ($15 unlimited until 1000 next morning). Free morning paper and a variety of free snacks in the room. Morrie, the owner, sent us quite a bit of information on the area to the States well before we left. McDonald's and markets across the street. Five stars.
Drove the next day to Whakapapa Village in the Tongariro National Park. Slow drive up from Waitomo as there were many road washouts and landslips being repaired. Had good views of the three volcanoes (Mts. Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro) from the road and inside the park. Hiked to Tawhai Falls, a little over half an hour round trip, and then the two-hour round trip hike to Taranaki Falls and a second waterfall on the Wairere Stream. The Taranaki walk crosses the moors one way and goes through a forest the other direction. A lot of interesting vegetation, with many mosses, ferns, and lichens on the trees. All the falls were flowing well. Track well maintained, a few steep sections. Overall rating 7 of 10 for the park and waterfalls.
Stayed at the Skotel Alpine Resort, again most amenities but no microwave or toaster and no wireless. Internet in lobby for $2 per 20 minutes, good laundry on site but charged $1.50 per load for soap as well as the usual $2 for washer and $2 for dryer. Soap was 50 cents everywhere else. Free spa and sauna. Restaurant meals unimpressive and reservations required well in advance for dinner, no walk-ins. Not much else in village for food either. Spa could be reserved in 30 minute blocks. Three stars.
Went to the other side of the park the next day via Ohakune. The route is not marked at all in Ohakune but if you turn left off of route 49 across from the modernistic information center in the middle of town, you've got the right road. Drove to the road end, about 1600 meters up the mountain, and well into the clouds. Then came back and walked to the Mangawhero Falls (10 minutes roundtrip) and the Waitonga Falls, the park's highest. The Waitonga hike was about an hour and a half roundtrip and on a well maintained track but near the falls, the trail drops quickly into the valley with a lot of steep steps. The falls were only trickling but look like they'd be impressive with a bit of water. Hard to get a photo without climbing down to the streambed and fording to the other side. Saw several types of native birds and heard both the kaka and the cuckoo, but couldn't spot them. Fairly dense rainforest with quite different plants than the other side of the park and an interesting alpine bog. Never saw another soul on the trek. Gave it a 5 of 10 since the falls weren't flowing but the walk was far better than to Taranaki.
Drove up to Waitomo, lots of pastoral scenery and hills, nothing spectacular. Went to the Waitomo Caves for the cave tour. All tours guided, about every half hour or so. Not much to Waitomo Caves, only white rocks, no colors in them, not too many odd formations, and no photos allowed. Mammoth and Carlsbad in USA and Jenolean in Australia are far superior. The glowworm display was quite good though. Had one place you could see the sticky lines they drop to catch their prey and the boat tour on the water showed thousands on the ceiling of the cave but overall a disappointment. Overall, I gave the caves 1 of 10 and the glowworms 5 of 10.
Took the drive out towards Te Anga to view the Marokopa Falls, about 40 minutes from Waitomo. About a 45 minute round trip hike from the car park through rainforest (again different from Tongariro with a lot of ferns and mosses but some quite large trees). The falls were impressive. Biggest we saw with a lot of water dropping about 40 meters down and more than 15 meters wide. Well maintained track with not too many steps. Stopped about 10 minutes before we drove to the falls on the way from Waitomo to see the natural limestone bridge at Mangapohue, a 15-20 minute roundtrip walk from the carpark. Very wide high arch over the stream below it. Easy walk. Overall 9 out of 10, best examples of each that we saw.
Stayed overnight at the Abseil Breakfast Inn in Waitomo. Close to the village but with a very narrow and near vertical driveway and tight parking at the top. Only place we got a breakfast and it was a nice one. Room was comfortable and there was a fridge and TV in lounge, but nothing in room. No internet, no microwave, and hard to find plugs to recharge. Not much in town either, had to eat at the Youth Hostel. Three stars.
Went to the second of the big caves (Aranui) in the morning, had to get a reservation the day before. This cave was far superior to Waitomo, quite a lot of different types of formations and a much larger cave overall but no glowworms because the cave is dry. Went on the first walk so we could see the cave wetas (kid of a cross between a big cricket and a big spider), interesting insects. Then took the half hour Ruakuri Bush Walk to see the natural limestone arches over the stream and other cave openings nearby. Gave Aranui and the bush walk 8 out of 10.
Then went to visit Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park. Saw a great spotted kiwi there, kakas, keas, native raptors, a tuatara close up outside glass, northern wekas and other native wildlife including an unusual green parakeet that had yellow feathers, the only bright colored bird we saw on the islands. Nice little wildlife park, probably a 5 out of 10 as it was fairly small. Drove to Rotorua via route 30, pastoral scenes again, nothing spectacular.
Stayed at the Birchwood Spa Motel, very fine place, walking distance to two of the thermal areas and just off one of the main streets. Everything we needed including free broadband wireless, a free car wash, microwave, toaster, TV with several channels (most motels got 3), and a large spa tub in the room. We enjoyed that greatly. A solid 5 stars.
Went to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland just south of Rotorua for our view of the geysers and such. Out hotel managers recommended that above the ones close to their establishment and it was quite interesting. Had a variety of steaming vents, bubbling and spitting mud pools, and craters and pools filled with different colors of water. The Lady Knox Geyser is their feature attraction and they set if off with soap about 1015 every day. If you come early, you can see most of the thermal area before the tour groups arrive then watch the geyser. It can spray on you if the wind is right but the water is cool. We went back to see a few of the hot spots after the geyser in different light as the pools change colors with the sun angle. Gave the thermal area a 6 out of 10 but we spent out last holiday in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii tramping around active volcanoes and that was pretty hard to beat.
Drove to Auckland in about three hours, avoiding route 1. But traffic in Auckland was insane with everyone driving flat out, passing to left and right even if you were in the left lane signaling a turn. Slow down to turn and they're laying on the horn. Decided to skip city attractions and went to Auckland Botanical Gardens south of town. Get off at the exit for airport near Rainbows End, go south on Great Southern Road a few kilometers, and turn right on Hill Road a bit past Hindu temple on left. Veer right at first roundabout and gardens are a short way down on left. Free. Very extensive collection of New Zealand plants and quite a few displays of plants from Africa and other countries, large rose and food plant gardens, many acres of gardens. Very calming after Auckland traffic. Overall 7 of 10 for gardens, not as much bloom in the fall.
Drove to Apex to turn in car at airport. Their map was wrong so we ended up in pay and display car park and had to take alternate route to their office in corner of industrial area and poorly marked. Got multiple surprises at the airport. First was the $25 NZ dollar per person departure tax we had to pay at Bank of New Zealand. No one told us of this on airlines or at immigration coming in. Can't leave without it. Then Emirates had failed to get my Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) for Australia which I had applied for in January and been assured by their US office was ready. Had to get out of the check-in line and go to their offices and reapply and pay them $30 to get it, then return to check-in counters. Overall $80 in unexpected airport costs. Emirates did upgrade me to business for trip to Brisbane after screwing up my ETA so overall, I did OK on that part. No line at airport luggage storage this time but it took over a half hour to run 110 $1 coins through the machine to get my luggage back. Came to airport at noon for a 1655 flight and made it to gate as they opened boarding. Lines are very slow there.