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  • Elaine Philbrick

New Zealand





Incredible scenery used as the setting of the Lord of the Rings movies, unique and exciting activities, adventurous but safe, English-speaking, uncrowded, easy to get around, and has public restrooms and laundry facilities everywhere.



New Zealand is an incredible country with so many varied landscapes and activities that it isn’t possible to do everything in two weeks. We decided to skip the South Island’s Alps as it takes significant transit time and is an area of high precipitation, and we couldn’t afford to risk losing days to rain and fog as has happened to so many people who’ve gone there and seen nothing. The glaciers and mountain views are also similar to Europe’s Alps, so we decided on our first trip to stick to places unique to this country. New Zealand is definitely a destination you’ll want to return to, so like us you may want to save it for another trip!



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New Zealand is full of unique activities like kayaking at night through a narrow channel between two cliffs covered in the bright lights of glow worms. The brightness of their lights will astound you!


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Dig in the sand at Hot Water Beach to make your own hot tub. You can even choose the temperature of your “hot tub” from cool to warm to hot to scalding!


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Blokarts are fast!

Invented in New Zealand, blokarts are go-karts that use a sail to race around the track, and given the steady strong wind the island gets it’s guaranteed good fun. At the location in Christchurch they also have driftkarts, which are electric go-carts that slide around a concrete track. Both need no prior experience and will have you flying around their tracks immediately!





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For the best and most authentic show demonstrating Maori dancing and singing (including the famous haka war dance), go to Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua. You can watch them cook the delicious “hangi” dinner the traditional way in the ground, and they even reproduce a Maori village and have a demonstration of Maori warriors paddling a heavy wood war canoe. It will entertain all ages in your group!


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Outdoor activities in New Zealand tend to be more intense and exciting than almost anywhere else, so allow for that when you plan your hikes, biking trips, etc. The ATVing we did here was the same, and we and our kids (allowed to drive their own at ages 14 and 16) won’t soon forget the monster water hazards we went through and the long rugged course in general in Hanmer Springs!






MONDAY

Arriving at the airport, pick up your rental car and check into your Auckland hotel. We highly recommend the Four Points Sheraton which gives you a super view from your room of the bungee jumpers off the Auckland Sky Tower (and floor-to-ceiling windows that make you feel like one of them!), is centrally located, has a good restaurant with an excellent breakfast, a deep bathtub, and very importantly onsite parking in busy downtown. www.sheraton.com For dinner head to trendy Azabu, only a 15-minute walk away, for really superb Peruvian-Japanese food.


TUESDAY


Megalodon jaws at Kelly Tarlton's

Enjoy breakfast at the hotel and check out around 9:30 am. Drive 10 minutes to Sea Life/Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium & Antarctic Adventure which has free parking. They have a small café offering coffee and pastries if you missed breakfast at the hotel. Highlights include underwater viewing tunnels of some spectacular fish, a large exhibit of many penguin species that you can even go inside if you buy a special ticket, a touch tank, multiple Insta-worthy backgrounds like real megalodon jaws, and even shark cage diving for an extra charge.






Sydney could get THAT CLOSE to a Tasmanian Devil at the Auckland Zoo

When finished drive 10 minutes to the Auckland Zoo which also has free parking. Have lunch at one of their two restaurants and take around 2 hours to see and enjoy all. The zoo is among the best in the world, and its highlights include a kiwi exhibit that is in the twilight in order to see the rare nocturnal birds in action, Tasmanian devils in an open-air exhibit with short glass walls (on the day we were there we watched them viciously fight and make hair-raising screams), orangutans, giraffes, and lions. After the zoo, drive 2.5 hours to Whitianga. We highly recommend Dragonfly Cottage on Dragonfly Farm which offers your own small house on a working farm. You will be very amused to be visited by ducks and chickens every morning looking at you through your glass sliding doors, find the eggs they laid in your hedges, and freely wander to visit with the other farm animals. For dinner we highly recommend the Coroglen Tavern which is popular with locals, has lots of early rustic local memorabilia decorating its walls, and is attached to the Rocking Horse which is an outdoor music venue and beer garden.



WEDNESDAY

After a casual breakfast (of cereal if you’re our kids), drive 20 minutes to the town’s beachfront to join a 10:30 am glass bottom boat tour of Cathedral Cove (featured in a Narnia movie). www.glassbottomboatwhitianga.co.nz For 2 hours it will take you around the beautiful coastline with its limestone arches and into sea caves with natural skylights. You’ll finish in time for a 1:00 pm lunch at Hahei Beach Café overlooking the water.



Lost Springs is a unique experience.

Next, drive 30 minutes to The Lost Springs which is a geothermal spa that looks like it’s part of Orlando’s Discovery Cove. Make sure to book any massages you want ahead of time as they are a popular venue with bridal parties and are often sold out. Enjoy exploring and hanging out in the natural hot spring pools with its movie-like setting for a few hours, and have a smoothie and snack in their good restaurant. We enjoyed dinner at Smitty’s Sports Bar which has a lively atmosphere and is a favorite with locals. It’s only a 20-minute drive to return to your Dragonfly Cottage where you can check in with the farm animals and see what they are up to!


THURSDAY


Hot Water Beach diggers at dawn

One of the most notable and unique stops on your trip is only 20 minutes away at Hot Water Beach. You’ll need to visit within 2 hours of low tide though, so organize your activity accordingly. Parking is easy, and if you don’t have a shovel (Dragonfly Cottage provides one) you can rent them from the surf shops next to the parking lot. If you’re in time for breakfast we recommend the convenient and good Hot Water Café. Try to feel where the sand is warmer as you walk along the beach in order to find the best spot to dig your personal geothermal spa. The fastest way to spot a good place though is to watch where other people have good spas and dig yours about a yard away! It’s a fascinating place, and you’ll enjoy experimenting

with digging on this expansive beach and finding different temperatures from cool to too hot! Drive about 1.5 hours to Rapaura Watergardens and have lunch in their charming and quality Koru Café. Touring the pleasant gardens and feeding their ducks will take about 2 hours and is almost all in cool shade, and that time includes a 45-minute hike to waterfalls. Drive 1.5 hours back to Whitianga and have a fun dinner at Stoked on the Esplanade which is the road along the beach. You’ll enjoy looking out onto a green lawn lined with royal palm trees and people playing at the beach.


FRIDAY

Enjoy your morning at your beautiful Dragonfly Cottage, which can include walking their trail to the charming river across the street, or just using their washing machines to do laundry! Then drive 2 hours to Hobbiton in Matamata. As you get closer to the destination you can just follow the line of tour buses! Have an easy and surprisingly higher quality than-you-expect buffet lunch in the Party Marquee tent, which is charmingly decorated for a hobbit wedding. Then be lucky enough to go on your private pre-booked tour at 2:00 pm.


We highly recommend paying the relatively modest extra for a private tour as group tours are very large, and the private tours are not only much faster and more efficient, but you’ll have much better photo opportunities, can visit places not available to groups, and take as much time as you want in certain photogenic areas (the tour guide will invite you to take a video of yourself recreating the scene where Bilbo leaves through the same corridor of hobbit houses).

So many cute hobbit holes

Visiting Bilbo Baggins

Hobbiton is such an idyllic spot and full of well-crafted details that you won’t want to leave this magical place! After a glass of ale or cider at the Green Dragon Tavern, drive 45 minutes to Waimarino in Tauranga for a 7:30 pm kayak trip in a river through narrow cliffs covered in glow worms. They serve heavy appetizers prior to the paddle which can serve as your dinner. Be prepared to be blown away by the brightness of the glow worms – it will be hard for you to believe it’s a natural phenomenon as they are just as bright as lightbulbs! As your group paddles in the dark with only glow necklaces to light the way, the moment the group turns a corner and sees the cliffs of glow worms for the first time everyone will be audibly gasping! The sight is incredible – the kayaks are in a narrow channel with high cliffs on either side whose walls are sparkling from eye height to high overhead as if decorated by twinkle lights. The glow worms only exist in New Zealand and Australia. It’s fascinating that they are not related to other bioluminescent creatures and have a unique source for their bright blue/green/white light. Your group will be in high spirits after the experience, so the van ride back along bumpy park roads will continue the fun. Once back in your car, it’s a little less than an hour to your next destination, Rotorua. You will smell its sulfur before you see it! We were happy with the Aura Hotel, which in addition to having a good location, free parking, outdoor pool, and laundry facilities, has a steam box cooking facility next to their BBQ grills that will cook your meal by geothermal heat for free!


SATURDAY

Leaving at around 9:00 am in the morning, drive 30 minutes to Skyline Rotorua which has luge/alpine sled racing, chairlift and gondola rides, an impressive downhill mountain biking course, a unique and scarily intense (very New Zealand!) bungee ride called the SkySwing, and a restaurant with a big view. The SkySwing pulls up a 3-person chair 150 feet high, and then it swings out as well as down in freefall up to 93 mph! For strong stomachs only!


The Skyline Luge is amazing – its route is higher, faster, and longer than you expect, and all with stunning long views. It’s fun and a thrill even for teenagers to navigate its winding wide steep roads, and our family definitely had friendly racing competitions passing each other on the road. It’s also easy and efficient to take the chairlift back to the top with minimal waiting lines to do the luge run again, as long as it’s before the afternoon crowds arrive.

SkyAdventure's luge ride
Mom & Dad chasing Adrian











Riding back for more luge rides at SkyAdventure


Serene walk amongst the giants

It’s best to have lunch in the convenient and quality cafeteria here, and then drive 15 minutes to The Redwoods forest in Whakarewarewa. It’s another fantastic activity, but instead of the adrenaline from man-made rides you’ll be peacefully walking high up in the canopy through a sequoia forest that was transplanted from California. After enjoying the timeless serenity of these giants, drive 5 minutes back to your hotel to relax in the pool and nap, before heading out to the big Maori feast and dinner show at Mitai Maori in Rotorua at 6:30 pm. The show is owned and run by a local Maori family who are clearly passionate about their culture, and the authentically cooked food, Maori village exhibit, show, and talent of the performers is top notch. It’s won awards and is considered by many to be the best and most authentic Maori show in New Zealand.


SUNDAY

Gannets galore!

After checking out around 9:00 pm, drive an hour to Huka Falls and hike there for about an hour. Then drive 3 hours to Te Awanga to the largest accessible mainland gannet colony in the world. It’s located on a Tiger Management hedge fund billionaire’s 6,000-acre property. The Farm at Cape Kidnappers with its own golf course is rated one of the two best hotels in New Zealand, and he allows the Gannet Safari Company to drive through the private and exclusive area. It’s surreal to see so many of these large seafaring birds together on land, and funny that the fuzzy white chicks are much bigger than their parents! As you sit on some of the benches it’s like being on an airport runway, as the birds coast in just over your head! It’s mind-boggling to think that the gannet chicks take their first flight by jumping off the tremendously high cliff, and don’t land again until Australia over 2,500 miles away. If they land in the sea they can’t fly for several days until they lose weight, and only a third survive their first trip. Bring water and your own snack as the excursion takes over 2 hours. It will be only a 20-minute drive to your hotel in Napier. We recommend Pebble Beach Motor Inn as it has an excellent location opposite the beach, free parking, A/C, wifi, big windows, looks new, and is much nicer than a ‘Motor Inn’. To work up an appetite for dinner you’ll want to cross the street and walk along Napier’s beautiful long beach. For dinner, we recommend the Mission Estate Winery, which is the oldest vineyard in New Zealand. You’ll enjoy its gardens and gracious manor, and either dining in its elegant interior or outdoors under its vine-covered pergolas.


MONDAY

Today will be a long drive of over 4 hours to get to Wellington where you will drop off your luggage at the hotel, return the car, and have lunch in the city. Take the tram to the impressive Botanic Gardens where you will need a map to be able to follow its paved paths to all the different sections. We recommend dinner at the modern high-ceilinged Avida Tapas which is a short walk away on the waterfront. We enjoyed our stay at the Intercontinental Wellington hotel which is in the heart of downtown and near the water. However, there are no laundry facilities though there is a public laundromat down the street.


TUESDAY


Dave vs. Azog
Dave vs. Azog

After breakfast, take a short walk to wait opposite the Amora Hotel for your 10:30 am bus to the Weta Cave Workshop Tour. Weta Workshop produced all of the costumes, props, weapons, and molds for the fantastical creatures of Lord Of The Rings, Narnia, and many other Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, Weta doesn’t allow photographs inside its building, so you’ll just be able to take them in its gift shop (look for the life-size Azog the Defiler, the White Orc!) and with the lifesize troll statue outside. Have lunch at one of the little cafes around the Weta Workshop where its many employees go, like The Larder. Back in Wellington, stop at the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Museum which should take about 2 hours. For dinner, we

recommend Charley Noble, which is an upscale pub and steakhouse conveniently located a short walk away on the waterfront.


WEDNESDAY

Get excited for your transit to New Zealand’s beautiful South Island! Check out of the hotel and take a taxi to the 8:45 am ferry which has you arriving on the South Island at noon. https://www.interislander.co.nz/ The ferry has plenty of comfortable seating inside as well as a good café, and plenty of room on the top deck to take in the ocean views. While underway the top deck is very windy so you’ll probably prefer to sit inside, but be sure to go topside when it pulls into Marlborough Sound. It’s one of the most beautiful sights in the world, so you will definitely be glad you did! You can pick up your rental car conveniently at the ferry terminal, and then drive a scenic 45 minutes to have lunch in the pretty outdoor seating area under trees at the Mussel Pot in Havelock.



The Mussel Pot Restaurant

You can’t miss the famous restaurant specializing in the unique local green mussels – it has giant mussels and a cooking pot on its roof! They serve them 6 different ways, but fair warning - green mussels are BIG, so you may find it more interesting than delicious. It’s an easy drive back to Picton, where you can finally check into your hotel and enjoy dinner. Café Cortado is an excellent choice due to its exquisite food and central location. For a hotel we highly recommend the Beachcomber Inn which has an ideal location next to the ferry and cute downtown, a beautiful view of the Sound and pedestrian bridge, nice pool you will definitely need!, laundry facilities (with free paperback books), A/C, and free parking.


THURSDAY

View from the magnificent Queen Charlotte Track

You’ll have an early morning and long day today! First take a short walk to Picton Village Bakery which opens at 6:00 am and buy breakfast pastries, sandwiches and LOTS of water to put into your backpack for the long adventurous hike. Then take a short walk to the Wilderness Guides office and report in about 7:15 am. We rented bikes for the famous Queen Charlotte Track (Torea Bay to Anakiwa), and you should NOT do that! Learn from our mistake! As our daughter described it, you will be “hiking with bikes.” Unless you are a professional mountain biker, you will be walking more than riding, and due to the steep rocky track even riding it won’t be any faster than walking. You have 6 hours to make the ferry pick-up at Anakiwa or if you miss it you have to pay $$ to call for help and get a special boat to pick you up. The timer is ticking! If you do run out of water, you can refill from the many clear streams and waterfalls you will be passing, as the water’s safe to drink despite some warning signs that only apply in summer. You will find several outlooks with dramatic views and picnic tables to take breaks, and while you should take several breaks it will take you 5 to 5.5 hours to do the route with short breaks so you can’t linger too long at them. It’s tempting to linger because of the stunningly beautiful and dramatic scenery, but you have a ferry to catch! Look for “bush chickens” (flightless weka) along the path who seem tame as they have never had to be afraid of people or predators. Arriving at Anakiwa, buy a well-earned ice cream and cold drink from the Green Caravan Café food truck and wait for the ferry to take you home. It’s only a few minutes walk back to your hotel, and you’ll want to take a refreshing dip in the pool before immediately taking a nap! Treat yourself to dinner at Oxley’s Bar & Kitchen with its fun combination of dignified turn-of-the-century décor and whimsy.


FRIDAY

Check out of the hotel and drive an hour to Cable Bay Adventures Park, where you’ll ride on the Skywire, which is a chairlift on steroids! The start is the most exciting as you suddenly swing out and accelerate, and you’ll be amazed at how far the cable extends to the next tower.


Kids admiring the Queen Charlotte Track scenery!

Once you reach it you then ride speedily backwards! We also did a horseback ride there, but one of our horses refused to move for 20 minutes and even the guide couldn’t get him to go! The ride is mostly along the road and is pleasant but not memorable. Stop for lunch on the 2-hour drive to Murchison Lodge B&B, so you’ll be ready to check in when you get there. We had dinner at The Cow Shed Restaurant which has kid-friendly hamburgers and pizza, and then stayed at the Murchison Lodge B&B which we highly recommend.


SATURDAY

About 10 minutes by car from Murchinson is the longest swing bridge in New Zealand across Buller Gorge at 360 feet. It’s a stunning sight, and an incredible feeling to feel suspended in the air looking down. Go early in the morning to have the place to yourselves.



Kids crossing Buller Gorge
Kids crossing Buller Gorge


Jetboating was thrilling!

After walking the suspension bridge, take a jet boat ride in Buller Gorge which we consider one of the highlights of the whole trip. It’s extremely fast and exciting, and the river is beautiful. It was the setting of the barrel escape scene in The Hobbit. The guide told us interesting facts about the history of the area, and you’ll have fun doing 360s at speed and waving to people on the bridge! On the other side of the swing bridge is an easy pleasant trail walk to small beaches along the river. We recommend Rivers Café for lunch (Facebook) and either The Vault Café or The Commercial Café for dinner in a landmark building downtown.




SUNDAY

Your next stop will be Hanmer Springs, a 2-hour drive away. We did clay shooting (which we were terrible at!), but the big reason to go aside from enjoying more dramatically beautiful scenery, is the absolutely fantastic ATV tour ride offered here. Their quad bike tour was the most exciting we’ve ever done, and we try to do ATV rides when we travel as a way to see a lot more scenery in nature.


Our son loved it!

This ride was the very New Zealander version – much more intense and exciting than usual. When they offer you boots and full overalls – take them up on it or you’ll be a muddy mess! Our 14-year-old was thrilled to be able to drive his own ATV and drove it through shallow lakes, rivers, tight turns, and all faster than his mum!





Lunch at the nearby Powerhouse Café will be just what you need. After those thrills, with big smiles, drive 2 hours to your Christchurch hotel and return your rental car. We highly recommend DoubleTree on the Park, which has a pool set in stunning gardens, free parking, and a super location on Hagley Park. There were always electric scooters to rent by the hotel, so it was quick and convenient to speed through the park and along wide sidewalks to get to any destination in the city easily. We can also highly recommend Dux Dine for dinner, which is a charming light blue painted Victorian home with pretty and pleasant outdoor seating and excellent food. It’s a very Christchurch-style restaurant, though it was funny to us that its unusual name is the same as the nickname for our hometown!


MONDAY

While we ran out of time to punt a boat on the Avon River, it looked like a great activity and something we’ll try to do on our next trip. Instead, we visited the Botanic Gardens which had some incredible tree specimens that were much larger than those we’re used to in New England.


Enormous Alpine Ash in Christchurch Botanical Gardens!

Enjoy a nice lunch at the Curator’s House, which is a gracious Tudor-style manor in the middle of the Gardens. For our kids, the highlight of Christchurch was the International Antarctic Centre Museum. This is at the actual working base for the many countries that share the Antarctic, and you can see the military-grade planes that regularly fly between Christchurch and Antarctica’s McMurdo Station.


Three cute penguins

You’ll be greeted by a penguin statue at the front, and you’ll be excited to go inside the megaplex. The museum is fascinating and informative and has fun activities like riding in an amphibious all-terrain Antarctic vehicle (Hagglund) through a tough obstacle course that no other vehicle could manage - sorry, Jeeps and LandRovers. You won’t believe what it can go over, but be warned that it’s a very bumpy ride! Another highlight is choosing a thick red parka and entering the Storm Dome which has a temperature of -8C/18F, but every hour recreates a polar storm and turns down the lights and blows snow and wind dropping it to -18C/0F windchill. There are little blue penguins and huskies, and 4D movies to watch as well. For lunch, we recommend Zen Sushi & Dumplings on Montreal Street in the center of Christchurch, which is in a lively part of town. While we enjoyed dinner at Madam Woo’s hip Malaysian restaurant, sadly the New Zealand franchise closed during COVID due to staffing shortages. It is supposed to reopen, so it’s worth checking to see if the popular place has reopened.


TUESDAY

Our first balloon ride!

This morning drive 1 hour to Hororata, arriving at 5:00 am prior to sunrise to go ballooning over the Canterbury Plains (featured as the plains of Rohan in LOTR) near the foothills of the Southern Alps. It will take about 4 hours and you’ll be helping to inflate and deflate it, so will feel like a real ballooner! The ballooning experience is wonderful, though the views are somewhat underwhelming as it’s just over flat agricultural country. For the afternoon, drive 1.75 hours to an impressive and extensive formal garden at Flaxmere in Hawarden and enjoyed formal tea with sandwiches. It’s at a private home, so you will need to make arrangements ahead of time with the charming hostess. The drive back to Christchurch will take an hour, and for dinner, we recommend Chiwahwah Mexican Cantina which has super fun décor and is clearly a top date destination. Alternatively, if you’re up for a long day and the weather’s clear, you could join a tour that drives 2.5 hours to do a day tour to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo which are stunning.



WEDNESDAY

In search of Mickey Mouse dolphins

This day drive 1.5 hours to Akaroa to swim with “Mickey Mouse” dolphins. Hector dolphins are hands-down the cutest porpoises, as they are the smallest and have a dorsal fin that looks like Mickey Mouse’s ear! Our boat trip was from 10:15 am to 1:15 pm, and while we saw two in the distance, sadly we didn’t see any close-up. While the water was cold and cloudy (necessary for Hectors to avoid sharks), we enjoyed swimming with little penguins darting around! Enjoy lunch in Akaroa at one of the many harborside restaurants. We recommend The Trading Room, not only for its food but also for its central location and spacious and beautiful restaurant that includes outdoor seating. (on Facebook).


Who needs a Tesla?!

Driving back to Christchurch, for the afternoon activity we can’t recommend highly enough one of the most unique New Zealand activities: wind karting! Velocity Karts just outside the city center makes it easy to try their carts, and since it’s directly alongside the bay the wind was extremely strong. Having to ‘come about’ (sail switching sides) around turns was hilarious and we all were flying along their oval track and only “capsized” (tipped over) once! We stopped at the nearby McDonald’s for a drink and quick snack and were very amused at how small the “large” drinks were compared to in the U.S.


THURSDAY

Check out of your hotel and head to the airport for your flight to Auckland. Check into the same Auckland hotel and have dinner at your choice among restaurant row on Federal Street.


FRIDAY

Your flight home will probably leave in the morning, but hopefully, you’ll have time to enjoy breakfast at your hotel. If your flight stops at Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, you can store your luggage at the Islander Hotel and enjoy cocktails on the beach. If it’s a weekday you can join a glass-bottom boat tour, which in Polynesia is always worthwhile. We also highly recommend hiring a personal guide to take you on a tour around the island, especially if it’s Sunday when the whole island shuts down except for the hotels. We recommend Atupa Taxi, who showed us a great time when we were there. The Cook Islands are an appropriate stop on the way to or from New Zealand, as it was the origin of the Maoris who settled New Zealand. At both the Rarotonga and New Zealand airports you will be greeted by a “Kia Orana” (welcome) sign, and if you are lucky enough to visit New Zealand you will find there are few countries where you will feel more welcome.


Kia Orana = "Welcome"




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