Travel dates: Dec '10-Jan '11
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.