Seeing New Zealand in a bit less than a week?
August 12, 2009 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Five days in New Zealand, starting from Christchurch and visiting Wellington somewhere in the middle. How can I narrow down my options for fabulous things to see and do?

Very shortly, I will be leaving for New Zealand. I'm flying into and out of Christchurch, and I'll have five days to travel around in between. I've read the previous AskMe threads on things to see in New Zealand, and each one just leaves me more overwhelmed than before with all the possibilities. How can I choose? Is there one place, or a few, that exemplify New Zealand's best qualities? How should I calculate the tradeoffs between travel time and amazingness?

The one definite point on my itinerary is that I'll be visiting friends in Wellington. Currently I'm planning to get there from Christchurch by taking the train up the coast, but I'm open to other suggestions (should I fly instead?) I'd like to see and hike around on some of New Zealand's famously spectacular scenery. I wouldn't mind spotting some interesting wildlife. I'm not sure of the best ways to get from place to place, so advice on that point is particularly helpful. Please help me develop a do-able itinerary!

(Bonus question: where can I get some really good coffee on my travels?)
posted by fermion to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The train up the coast is beautiful - well worth doing. Not sure if it's the right season, but there are whale watching trips from Kaikoura, halfway between Christchurch and the top of the South Island.
posted by jontyjago at 12:54 PM on August 12, 2009

New Zealanders take coffee pretty seriously, you should be good in most places. In Christchurch, try C1 espresso on High Street, in Wellington, try Midnight Espresso (or pretty much anywhere else on Cuba street).

5 days is pretty short. If I was you I'd probably hire a car and drive up the coast, from memory it is 5 hours with no stops (the train is cool, but you can't stop and visit places), drop the car in Picton and Ferry across to Wellington. It will likely cost about as much to get on the ferry as the flight the whole way.

Abel Tasman national park is close to picton, and probably my favourite national park, but to walk the track will take longer than you have. Look into day walks maybe? To get back to Christchurch, you could fly or ferry then drive again, the inland route is a bit longer, but you get to see more of NZs inland stuff and could stop at Hamner Springs for hot pools.
posted by scodger at 1:22 PM on August 12, 2009

Wildlife in Wellington: go to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, aka "Zealandia", and if you like seals, organise an outing to Red Rocks and say hi to a seal (they are like big furry slugs that smell of rotting fish).

Wellington coffee: any of the half-dozen Mojo cafes, People's on Garrett St are safe bets, but frankly your odds of any random cafe being very acceptable indeed are quite good.

Transport: your train trip is going to consume the better part of a day. Cf a plane flight Chch-Wellington will take an hour and a half from check-in to baggage pickup. Driving can be an option for you if you can handle driving on the left and (by international standards) poor quality, twisty-turny, badly-surfaced roads.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:25 PM on August 12, 2009

I had one of the earlier posts about NZ. In the end, I had two weeks or so to enter Wellington, get to the South Island, take a nice multi-day hike from Cook's Landing back to Picton (where the Interislander gets into the South Island) and then make a South Island Loop. I think that was too much, and Wellington wasn't really worth it (but Te Papa is a truly fantastic museum--you MUST GO THERE).

Actual Kiwis will surely have more to add than I. But given how little time you have, I would say that you should 1) arrive in Christchurch and rent a car; 2) drive through the Victoria Forest Park--stopping at the charming Japanese spa en route (stay for the night, the food's yummy); 3) go to Paparoa on the West Coast; up to Abel Tasman National Park; 4) back over to Picton (if you can do a one-way car rental--if not, drive back to Christchurch); 5) fly to Wellington; 6) visit friends and see Te Papa because I told you to; 7) fly back to Christchurch and change planes to fly home (or change your flight so you are leaving from Wellington--though do flights actually go non-stop from Wellington? When I went, I ended up having to fly to Auckland and then connect to Wellington).

However, I should note, of course, that I am not a travel agent, and this may not make sense. I did not go to Abel Tasman myself--though I did everything else I recommended--and you are going in the winter, so YMMV.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:27 PM on August 12, 2009

do flights actually go non-stop from Wellington?

Nope, the runway's too short for the really big planes. If you leave via Wellington you'd have to stop over in Australia.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:31 PM on August 12, 2009

On further consideration, what I meant was, do the flights actually go non-stop from Christchurch--the gist being, if his last non-travel day in NZ is in Wellington and he starts his odyssey home from there, would his plane leaving from Christchurch actually stop in Auckland first? No sense in going Welly-->Christchurch-->Auckland-->(Seattle?), if he can just go Welly-->Auckland-->(Seattle?).

In any event, I think inter-island travel should be minimized on a trip this short. It would be best if his flight home to the U.S. left from the North Island, if he can swing that.

OP, why, in the name of the Mighty Cheeky Kea are you going for just FIVE DAYS!?! This is madness. The South Island is the most beautiful place on Earth.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:52 PM on August 12, 2009

Response by poster: I know, it's too short. The time in New Zealand is sort of tacked on to some fieldwork I'm doing--hence the requirement to fly into and out of Christchurch. It occurs to me that I might be able to add on a couple of days at the other end of the fieldwork, too, and maybe see a little more of the South Island, but I don't know how feasible that will end up being.

Sounds like driving is the way to go for a lot of places--is it difficult to get the hang of left-side driving? Is insurance very expensive?
posted by fermion at 2:02 PM on August 12, 2009

If you are going to drive to picton you could take a day walk on the Queen Charlotte Walkway. There are little boats from Picton that will take you to some point on the walkway (the boat ride is generally less than an hour) drop you off and then you can walk for the day and get another boat back.

This might fit in with your other plans and give you an 'instant tramping experience' (tramping=hiking). The walkway provides magnificent views of the Malborough Sounds which are quite beautiful.

Although it's still winter it's well worth having a decent sun hat and to have some sun cream to hand.

Once you're in Wellington you may find the national museum, Te Papa ('tay-papa') interesting - it's much more than a museum and is particularly good if Wellington's having one of its 'bad days' !

A bus/walk up Mount Victoria provides easily accessible good views over the city. Equally catching the cable car up to the Botanical Gardens is another pretty quick way of getting a very good overview of the city.

Coffee ? I love the diminuitive De Luxe.
posted by southof40 at 3:30 PM on August 12, 2009

Driving on the left isn't so bad. NZ roads are quiet, generally, so that should help. They're also single lane for the most part which makes things easier. Can't remember what insurance cost but in general the car rental didn't seem outrageous.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:43 PM on August 12, 2009

If you do end up renting a car I can recommend Omega Rental Cars. They'll let you rent in Christchurch, drop off in Picton and then pick up another car in Wellington if you want one there. We've used them three times now and have been very happy. They'll pick you up and drop you off from the airport and ferry terminals. They're also pretty cheap.

I do recommend the trip up the coast from Christchurch to Picton; it's a beautiful drive, between the sea and the mountains a lot of the way, and that's one of the most amazing things about NZ, that most of it is so beautiful and there's always some wonderful piece of scenery. Kaikoura, which is on the way, is famous for its marine life. Picton itself seems to be getting more built up, but there are some lovely places around there; we did a really interesting bird-watching boat trip in the Sounds while there. We found NZ drivers generally fairly polite, and many will move over for you if you want to overtake them on a single lane highway in the rural areas.

Wellington is full of good coffee. Just about anywhere you can sit down to drink it will do it well. If you're into lots of coffee ask for a bowl.
posted by andraste at 3:58 PM on August 12, 2009

Hot tip about driving on the "wrong" side on quiet roads -- it's easy to drift into the middle or even to the illegal side, and then when confronted with oncoming traffic, be panicked into going further to your natural side, in an involuntary game of chicken.

We lose a few tourists and locals to this problem every year.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:05 PM on August 12, 2009

I'd spend as much time as possible on the South Island. Go to Wellington if you really want to, but your time might be better spent heading to the Otago Pennisula, and south to Dunedin and the Caitlins. I liked Omaru, too, but that was largely because of the penguins. Not sure where they're at this time of year. Renting a car is a good idea for the amount of time you have, but you may want to check on the conditions of the roads since it's winter and all. After driving on the left-hand side for an hour, you'll be fine. I had more of a problem with the roundabouts, actually. If you do decide to fly back to Christchurch from Wellington, look for good deals via grabaseat. The specials change every day.

And yes, even by Seattle standards, the coffee in New Zealand is fantastic. Even the tiny towns often have great cafes with excellent coffee and pastries and such. And by coffee, I mean espresso drinks. They don't do drip. You might be able to find french press, but you mainly have the extremes of espresso and instant coffee. Be sure to learn about flat whites and long blacks before you go.
posted by lunalaguna at 4:11 PM on August 12, 2009

Sorry, I missed the part about you visiting friends in Wellington. In that case, you could spend a whole day cafe hopping. De Lux, Fidel's, Plum, Espressoholic, Mango, and Midnight Espresso were favs.
posted by lunalaguna at 4:28 PM on August 12, 2009

If you're going between Christchurch and Wellington, only have five days, and want to see some cool wildlife, swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura. I did it around Easter and loved it. I would also see about spending a day in Abel Tasman - taking a water taxi in the morning and then hiking back along the trail, but you should check to make sure the weather at this time of year is not too bad for that.
posted by Dasein at 5:53 PM on August 12, 2009

Wellington wise:
- Te Papa (Yeah it's alright - I prefer the Auckland museum - check out the Colossal Squid)
- Cafes! Coffee! (Recommend Cubita and Plum)
- Check out the city/harbour view from the Botanic Gardens / top of the Cable Car
posted by Enki at 6:59 PM on August 12, 2009

Travelling to Wellington via train/car & ferry is going to eat an entire day [2 if you return the same way], plus the time in Wellington itself, so you need to decide if you want to make that journey part of your sight-seeing, or just fly there and back. You can easily catch a morning flight, spend the day in Wellington, and take an evening flight back.

Whatever you do, DO NOT fail to visit the West Coast of the South Island.

Coffee pretty much anywhere will beat what is normally served in the U.S. [as long as you avoid Starbucks].

Driving on the side you're not used to is not too difficult, but if you've never done it before, a day-long trip on a lightly traveled road might not be the best idea. A too-often repeated scenario is "Drive along country road, stop to admire scenery, no other traffic around - drive off on the wrong side of the road. Oncoming traffic on a bend - wham!".
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:05 PM on August 12, 2009

I've spent three months traveling around New Zealand, mid summer to early autumn. I left towards the end of May and it was pretty cold by then on the South Island, I bet it's really cold now.

Driving in New Zealand takes about twice as much as it does anywhere else, but flying is really convenient - hardly no airport security, show up 30 minutes before your flight. If you're into visiting Wellington, flying there might be easier than driving, taking the ferry, etc.

In the Christchurch area - visit Akaroa. It's a beautiful French settlement on a pastoral peninsula. Go on a dolphin watching cruise. (Akaroa is a good example of driving times in New Zealand - 75kms - takes about 2 hours to get there including two panorama stops). It's a full day trip. They have a daily dolphin cruise at 1.30pm. The bus to Akaroa is synced with the cruise.

Another option is to take a train or an Atomic Shuttle [don't bother with the buses for long trips, they're really slow] to the West Coast via Arthur's Pass - the West Coast is very dramatic - cold rain forest and beach. Visit the glaciers and take a day tour on a glacier. Book the day you arrive, because trips leaves early the next day, and take as long a trip as you can afford.

You can see kiwis in the small aquarium on the main Christchurch square, or go to airport area and visit the Antarctic center and the little zoo next door.
posted by ye#ara at 7:21 AM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: So! Back in Christchurch. Here's what I got up to:

- swam with the dolphins in Kaikoura, per Dasein's suggestion. A very cool experience, somewhat marred by the bad weather and my poor snorkeling skills. Perhaps better done in summer, and armed with seasickness tablets.

- ended up flying to Wellington instead of driving and taking the ferry. Flying with Pacific Blue is surprisingly cheap between major population centers, even at the last minute.

- visited Te Papa, which was as awesome as promised. Got my picture taken with the preserved Colossal Squid.

- had coffee at Deluxe in Wellington. Charming, tasty, esoteric.

- took the bus from Nelson to Greymouth. A highly recommended drive. The Intercity bus stops for half an hour at Punakaiki so you can go see the pancake rocks, but it would have been nice to spend longer. I opted not to drive this trip, because I was worried about road conditions and my own right-side reflexes, but I think that in general it would be better to have one's own transit for the West Coast. Bus schedules restricted me quite a bit.

- went on a glow-worm cave trip in Greymouth. Overpriced but amusing.

- took the Tranz Alpine train back to Christchurch. Gorgeous. Make sure your camera doesn't run out of batteries mid-trip like mine did.

Definitely going to try for Abel Tasman next trip, and will do a day trip to Akaroa if my flight to McMurdo is delayed. Thanks for all the great advice!
posted by fermion at 2:01 AM on August 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

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