Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Zealand Itinerary

Here's a map that shows all the places we visited on our trip.

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Auckland (A) from SFO. Flew immediately to Wellington (B).
  • Checked out the Cuba St., the wharf area, the Historic Cable Car, Mt. Victoria
  • Stayed at Travelodge, booked through
Day 2:
  • Went wine tasting in the Martinborough district (C), an hour's drive from Wellington
  • Took the 3 hour ferry (Interislander) ride to South Island (Port Picton)
  • Drove 2.5 hours from Picton to Kaiteriteri (D)
  • Stayed at the beautiful Kimi Ora Resort
Day 3:
  • Our Split Apple Rock (pictured on the right) kayaking trip was cancelled due to bad weather. So we hiked in Abel Tasman National Park instead.
  • We also went to Te Waikoropupu Springs, the world's clearest fresh water spring (E), which was a 2 hour drive away in Golden Bay
  • Drove 3.5 hours to Punakaiki (F). Reached there too late due to road closures (because of the bad weather), so couldn't check out the pancake rocks during sunset, which happens around 9pm during late December
  • Stayed at the clean and neat Punakaiki Beach Hostel
Day 4:
  • Checked out Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes (pictured on the left)
  • Drove 3 hours to Franz Josef Glacier (G). Had we one more day to spare, I would have liked to fit in a guided glacier walk on Franz Josef Glacier and walked around Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, enjoying views of Mt. Cook. You can take helicopter tours of the entire glacier valley too. Contact me for a list of various options/operators we were looking at. We had just enough time to sneak in a self-guided walk to the terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier, which was pretty cool.
  • Drove 5 hours to Queenstown (H) and stayed at the Gold Ridge Resort, booked through
Day 5:
  • Hang gliding (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Wine tasting in Otago valley, specifically Gibbonston Valley, Amsfield, and Aurum Wineries (I, J) - an hour's drive away
  • Canyon Swinging (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Jet Boating in Shotover Canyon (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Drove 2.5 hours to Te Anau (K) after dinner in Queenstown
  • Stayed at the very friendly and clean Bob & Maxine's Backpacker Hostel. Highly recommend this place!
Day 6:
  • Drove to Milford Sound (drive is 2 hours each way)
  • Took the Milford Sound cruise for 2 hours
  • Drove 2.5 hours back to Queenstown (H)
  • Went up the Skyline Gondola and rode the Luge track
  • New Year's Eve at Queenstown (pictured on the right)
  • Stayed at Coronet Peak Hotel, via This was the only place that had any rooms on New Year's Eve. I would suggest not staying here as everything looked and operated like it was from 1950s!
Day 7:
  • Drove 3 hours from Queenstown to Manapouri (L) for the Doubtful Sound cruise through Real Journeys, including a tour of the Manapouri Power Plant (the entire Doubtful Sound trip was 8 hours long)
  • Stayed at Bob & Maxine's again, in Te Anau (K)
Day 8:
  • Drove 8 hours through the Southern Scenic Route (one of the vistas pictured on the left) from Te Anau to Dunedin (M), via Invercargill and Catlins National Forest, stopping at Nugget Point
  • Wanted to check out The Penguin Place and Moeraki Boulder Beach (both 1 hour away from Dunedin), but couldn't due to schedule constraints
  • Flew to Auckland (A) and stayed at the fully serviced apartment building Bianco Off Queen, with minimalistic and contemporary decor.

Day 9:
  • Drove 3 hours from Auckland up to Paihia, Bay of Islands (N; pictured on the right)
  • Took a 4 hour cruise to Cape Brett at the Bay of Islands, booked via the i-SITE center in Paihia
  • Drove back to Auckland (A), stopping at Whangarei Falls (O) along the way (which you can easily skip if you don't have time)
  • Stayed at Bianco Off Queen again
Day 10:
  • Drove 2 hours from Auckland to Matamata (P) to check out the movie set of The Hobbit (the set is called Hobbiton) - allow 2.5 hours for the tour. Tours are only conducted till February 2011, which is when filming is supposed to commence on the sets. However, nobody knows if the sets will allowed to be preserved after filming. Send happy thoughts to Peter Jackson so he'll allow the Alexander family (who's farm the set is on) to keep the Hobbiton set even after filming!
  • Continued driving for an hour from Matamata to Rotorua (Q). Had an awesome time Zorbing!
  • Went white water rafting on Kaituna River
  • Stayed at Cactus Jack Backpackers in Rotorua. I would recommend finding some other lodging. This place was very small, and the bathrooms were not that clean. We were spoilt by Bob & Maxine's and the Punakaiki Beach Hostel!
Day 11:
  • Did the amazing 4 hour Lost World tour with Waitomo Adventures, which included rappelling/abseiling, caving, ladder climbing and glowworm spotting in Waitomo (R; pictured on the right) - 2 hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo
  • Drove 2 hours back to Auckland (A) and flew back to SFO!

I have a lot more details on various choices for activities as well as hotels/hostels. Leave a comment and we'll get back to you! Join our Facebook group, also called The Roving Mind, to peruse through other destinations and add tips and suggestions from your travels too!

New Zealand

Travel dates: Dec '10-Jan '11

Oftentimes New Zealand is combined with Australia or one of the Pacific Islands in a vacation itinerary, but we found that even 11 days aren't enough to do justice to the greenest country ever. It is definitely an outdoor traveler's paradise. We covered about 3/4 of the South Island and went to a few spots on the North Island during our stay.

Highlights: Queenstown, adrenaline pumping activities, Milford and Doubtful Sounds, Bay of Islands, Waitomo Caves and driving through the NZ flora

What we would do differently: Our experience with Wellington was very dissatisfactory. Perhaps it was because we went during the holidays? Anyway, if we were to do this itinerary over, we would have shortened our visit to this city by a day and flown to the South Island rather than taking the 3 hour long ferry. This would also have allowed us to check out the award winning wineries in Marlborough. We would also also have done some sort of glacial walking activity at Franz Josef Glacier. Another day could have been easily spent in Queenstown just to take in more of its quaintness. The Southern Scenic Route that we took from Te Anau to Dunedin wasn't any more scenic than other roads we had driven through already. The unique selling proposition of this scenic route is the scenic stops along the way, like McLean Falls, Purakanui Falls and Cathedral Caves (which are only accessible during low tides). You'll be able to enjoy those better if you rented an RV and drove at leisure, stopping to wait out the high tide if necessary. So I think we would rather have driven directly to Dunedin through the inland route, or even flown if it was economical. This would have given us more time to check out Dunedin, Penguin Place - a conservation reserve dedicated to saving the elusive yellow eyed Otago Penguins, and Moeraki Boulder Beach (pictured on the right).

We would also have booked a scuba diving excursion in the Bay of Islands or Tutukaka in advance had we known we couldn't do walk-ins on the day of, since most of them are day-long activities starting at 8am or 11am. In Waitomo, we would also have done the 7 hour long Lost World excursion instead of the 4 hour one that we did, because I strongly believe it would have enhanced our experience that much more (especially since I could see the cave's ceiling filled with glowworms in the next section - that was the path for the 7 hr tour. We had to turn back around since we were on the 4 hr one).

If we had more time: Another way to think of this is which places would we check out on our next visit to New Zealand. Starting from the North Island, I'd love to check out Cape Reinga where the waters from the Tasman Sea meet the Pacific Ocean, forming the starting point for the famous 90 mile beach. I'd also love to check out the Coromandel Peninsula and some of the awesome beaches around there. Tongariro National Park, where Mordor (Mount Doom) was shot, would be a great place to drive through. I would also want to spend a day near Lake Taupo, kayaking the waters of the lake and immersing myself in the Maori rock carvings (pictured on the left). The drive from Manukau to Napier is supposed to be very scenic too, highlights of which include the mural art in Katikati and New Zealand's longest wharf in Tolaga Bay.

In the South Island, I would spend a day in Nelson, kayaking through the waters of the Picton and Marlborough Sounds. I would also like to kayak in Abel Tasman National Park, as we didn't get to do it this time due to bad weather. Arthur's Pass National Park and Mt. Cook National Park seem to have great vistas of the surrounding areas "NZ Alps". I would also like to explore the Otago peninsula a little more (areas around Dunedin). Stewart Island, which is the southernmost point of New Zealand, has tours through Rakiura National Park where you can spot kiwis in the wild. I would also love to hike one of the tracks in Milford or Doubtful Sound, and if possible, check out Dusky Sound, which is the least accessible and the largest of the fjords in New Zealand. I would also love to do a Lord of the Rings Tour (LOTR) around Glenorchy, Wanaka and Queenstown. There are plenty of organizations that offer many different kinds of LOTR tours! I think it would take a good couple of months to thoroughly explore all of New Zealand!

Prices: The New Zealand dollar is not very cost effective, but is not as expensive as the Euro either when it comes to exchange rates with the US dollar (when we visited). Meals were not cheap, and the activities were a lot more expensive than if you were to do them elsewhere in the US (sky diving, scuba diving, white water rafting, etc.). I guess that's the price you pay for the view!

Transportation: It is very easy to get around in New Zealand. A US driver's license can allow you to rent a car that can take you everywhere in the country. You can even bring the car on the ferry from the North Island to the South, or better yet, just drop it off at the rental company center at the ferry terminal and pick one up at your destination ferry terminal, all allowed within the same contract (you will have to pay extra if you pick up from airports or ferry terminals though). Directions are very simple in this country - you can either get a GPS to help guide you, or go purely by the maps you find at the i-SITE centers (the ubiquitous informational visitor centers at every tourist city). I printed out directions from Google Maps for every leg of our journey before we left for New Zealand. Armed with those and the local maps, it was a piece of cake navigating.

You can also have the i-SITE representatives book a seat on coaches/buses to take you from one city to the other, or scenic train rides as well. If you're planning on taking the ferry between North and South Islands, be sure to buy your tickets in advance, especially if you're traveling during the peak summer season. There are two carriers: Interislander and Bluebridge. You can either buy from them directly, or from the many online travel agents who provide tickets at discounted prices.

Another popular mode of transportation is a camper van/recreation vehicle. These can be rented, and parked at the many holiday parks available all over the country, often times right inside the tourist spots. There are very clean showers, bathrooms and kitchens at these holiday parks which make this mode of transportation ideal, especially since you will be cutting down commute time from town centers to the tourist spot you're trying to get to.

Best time to visit/weather: You will have plenty to do any time you visit this country. Spring and Fall in New Zealand (which is Fall and Spring in the northern hemisphere respectively) will give you fewer tourists (although we found very few people in the South Island even during the peak Christmas and New Year holiday season) and lower prices everywhere, with a very moderate climate. Summer in NZ (winter in the northern hemisphere) is of course a great time to visit the beaches of North Island. The South Island was still slightly chilly in December when we went (temperature was in the 60s). Winter in NZ (summer in northern hemisphere) will allow you to enjoy great powder in Queenstown, which is known for its world class skiing.

Doubtful and Milford Sounds are known to get rain constantly through the year. So expect sudden thunder storms when you visit them, and go prepared for one of the windiest cruise rides ever in Doubtful Sound.

Milford or Doubtful? I think any tourist who is strapped for time asks this question wondering where his/her time is better spent. I have to say (like everybody else) that each of these sounds has its own personality. Milford is shorter (cruise times are around 2 hours), has more dramatic vistas and has a wonderful drive leading up to the sound (2 hour drive each way, with many gorgeous vista points along the way). Doubtful Sound is farther away and harder to reach. So you have to first get on a ferry to go across Lake Manapouri, then jump on a coach/bus that takes you through the winding roads to the Sound, and then you board the cruise boat that takes you on a tour over the Sound. I found Doubtful Sound to be extremely raw when it came to nature - it was pure wilderness. It is much deeper and longer, and I would have definitely liked to have kayaked here. Since it takes so long to get there, it makes more sense to do the overnight cruise, where you kayak the first day, stay overnight on the boat enjoying the silence and bird sounds, and then you come back the next day after exploring more nooks of the Sound. I am very glad we saw both of these during our trip. I do have to warn you that the Doubtful Sound cruise is quite expensive, especially if you want to do the overnight kayak + cruise option!

Milford Sound (top) and Doubtful Sound (bottom)

Cuisine: To our surprise, we found Indian restaurants to be a dime a dozen all over in New Zealand, right along with Italian trattorias. There were many Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants too, but it was mostly American food (burgers, sandwiches and pies) that was found everywhere. They had some really good desserts everywhere we went too. There was no problem finding vegetarian food anywhere. However on longer drives, especially in the South Island, you won't find many eateries along the way except for a few in larger towns.

Stay: New Zealand is the most eco-friendly country I've been to. You can find bed and breakfasts that take you into the heart of the woods, or clean hostels right by the beach. Or you can drive your campervan/RV right into any tourist spot and make that your cave for the night. However if you're planning to visit during the peak summer season (December-January), then you better book your accommodation at least 3 months in advance.

People: The Kiwis (people of New Zealand) are very friendly and have an amazingly quirky sense of humor! Many of our activities were enjoyable largely because of their jovial attitude!

Wine Tasting: New Zealand's climate, very similar to California's, is very suitable for growing grapes that make beautiful Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs. The two famous areas that have wineries are Marlborough (near Nelson/Blenheim), and the Otago Valley near Queenstown. There are many other pockets that grow grapes all over the country as well. We visited some wineries in Martinborough (North Island) as well as some in Otago Valley (South Island).

Visa: US citizens don't need a visa, but Indian citizens do. It's $95 per application, and a family can file together in one application. More information can be found here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

West Coast Road Trip

Travel Dates: Last 4-5 days of November 2010

The West Coast of the United States, from California up to Washington, has an amazing coastline that renders itself for a very scenic road trip. The best time to do this drive would either be in the summer, or mid-fall when the fall colors are at their peak. Make sure you take along jackets and layered clothing as well as swim suits and sunblock, for you'll encounter weather as diverse as the landscape and culture.

Here are some suggestions on routes and pit stops you can take along your journey up/down the coast.

View West Coast Road Trip in a larger map

  • Starting from San Diego, head up north along Hwy 5 through Los Angeles/Orange County to the scenic Pacific Coast Hwy 1
  • Ventura and Oxnard areas are the starting point of many kayaking + camping combo tours on the Channel Islands. It's a great experience, especially in the summer. We had a good time with South Wind Kayaks.
  • Santa Barbara area produces some great wines if you'd like to go wine tasting. The Los Olivos Prominade has 20 different tasting rooms, and more actual wineries you can drive to easily in the area. Some good places to eat in Santa Barbara are WoodStocks Pizza, Silvergreens (good salads), The Palace Grill (great cajun food, delicious whiskey breadpudding souffle) and Pascucci's (good pastas).
  • Slightly up north from Santa Barbara is the small Dutch village of Solvang. It looks and feels just like a Dutch village - quaint and nice for a short stroll.
  • Continuing north, you'll get to Pismo Beach which has huge sand dunes that you can go ATV'ing on while soaking up the view of the Pacific ocean. It's great fun for the whole family!
  • After getting a workout on the sanddunes, head to the many mineral springs in the San Luis Obispo area. Many are free or have a small fee to use the springs which will leave your skin feeling nice the next day, like Sycamore Springs or Avila Springs
  • After soaking in the rejuvenating springs, head on over to Palazzo Giusepe's for good upscale Italian food, or to Firestone's Grill for some sandwiches.
  • From there, mosey onwards on Hwy 1 towards Morro Bay and San Simeon to check out the opulence of the infamous Hearst Castle
  • Make your way north entering the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where you can find more hot springs and a serene nature reserve apt for camping and biking in Big Sur.
  • The artistic cultures of coastal towns of Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay have lots of activities going at any given time. Spend some leisurely time in these towns without the pressure of what to do next for a while
  • From the San Francisco Bay Area, take Highway 101 (North) to the Scenic Hwy 1 (you can take a small detour through the famous vineyards of Napa Valley here before joining the rest of the trip too).
  • Take Hwy 128 towards Mendocino and Fort Bragg to check out the quaint oceanside towns before joining Hwy 101 again.
  • If there is still plenty of daylight, check out Avenue of the Giants along the way as you head north towards Eureka. Else, get yourself a nice log cabin and spend the night amidst the awesome giant redwoods in Avenue of the Giants.
DETOUR: Drive through Klamath National Forest to join Hwy 5 and continue driving towards Crater Lake National Park for a night or two of camping (take OR 234 E and then OR 62 E towards Crater Lake). Rejoin Hwy 101 for the rest of the route, or continue on Hwy 5 north towards Portland, Oregon)
  • Drive through Redwood National Park (stopping to hike a few trails if you'd like)
  • Go past Crescent City (not a great town to linger around in), crossing the California-Oregon border and spend a night in Brookings. The Best Western right on the beach is a great place to stay ($119 per night). There is also a farmers' market on Saturdays in the Harbor Village if you're interested in tasting some local food.

  • Put your sunblock on and get ready for some great beaches next. First up, Pistol River Beach - a mixture of fine sand and washed up tree branches that create artistic sculptures on the very pretty beach.
  • Further north, take a lunch break at Gold Beach after you've worked up some appetite hiking some of the many trails available right off the highway
  • For some good old fun, try sand boarding or ATV'ing on the sand dunes that line up Florence's horizon. Then head east on Hwy 126 to join Hwy 5, heading north towards Portland, Oregon.
  • You can easily spend an entire weekend in Portland doing a myriad of activities. It's a very lively town with eclectic people and very diverse cuisines and culture. The farmers' market on Saturdays is a great way to sample local art, food and culture. Portland's amazing food scene will have you yearning for more days in the city just to sample dishes from the numerous food carts, the infamous Voodoo donuts, and excellent restaurants like the Farm Cafe, Apizza Scholls and Santeria. Stay at The Viewpoint Inn, where they shot "Twilight", but also a beautiful place to have lunch/dinner if you can get reservations. It overlooks part of the Columbia River Gorge and is near the Lewis & Clark historic trail. Hiking trails with amazing vistas (like around Multnomah Falls) are abundant in and around Portland, so definitely take some time to lose yourself in nature's quietness.
  • Make your way north on Hwy 5 for a relatively short drive towards Seattle. Amidst hanging out at Pike's Market Place, the waterfront wharf area, Space Needle, Snoqualmie Falls, the Troll under the bridge, Mt. Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park, you will have plenty of activities to occupy you over a long weekend!

Delicacies at Piroshky Piroshky, Pike Place, Seattle

If you're not tired from driving yet, you can choose to cross the US-Canada border from here to visit Vancouver as well, which has more sights to see and activities to do! Happy journey, drive safely and remember to buckle up!

For another perspective, here is an article on Jetsetter that talks about spending 72 hours off Highway 1, and a collection of sights crowdsourced by the travel magazine AFAR!

Many thanks to Cindy L and Kathleen M for contributing to this itinerary.