New Zealand essentials?
December 23, 2012 9:03 PM   Subscribe

So this is happening: my wife and I are taking a last-minute trip to New Zealand for the new year. We'll be away for 12/29-01/18, driving a few hours every few days, starting in Queenstown and heading north. Where should we stay? What should we see? What should we experience?

We're particularly interested in seeing a rugby match and going on a Lord of the Rings-related tour/hike. Any recommendations?

posted by ronv to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Just so you know, many NZ roads are narrow and twisty and require attentive driving at moderate speeds. That gives you more opportunity to see the phenomenal landscape but you may cover less ground than you expect. BTW, when you take the ferry between the north and south islands, you don't take your rental car. Instead you turn it in before embarking and pick up another after disembarking. Have fun! It's a wonderful country.
posted by carmicha at 9:14 PM on December 23, 2012

Bungie jump ;)
posted by Autumn89 at 10:14 PM on December 23, 2012

Hobbiton- they've built it in 'real' instead of in film set poly-styrene.
posted by titanium_geek at 10:20 PM on December 23, 2012

Oh, oh eff you.

Starting in Queensland was my first trip. And then, I moved there.

Look to the DOC for hiking reservations. All you will need bring are cooking implements and sleeping bags - there are huts. There is fresh water. If you are a wilderness camper like me - you will be AMAZED.

Highlights from Queenstown are:

Rent a car.

The map I just referenced tells me we stayed in Wanaka at The Purple Cow Hostile. Great times.

Canyoning is a sport you have not experienced - look it up. Wanaka!

There was horseback riding near Wanaka that was much better than anywhere else. Damn. Don't remember the name of it - on the way to Wanaka from Queenstown. Only one road there, so you can't miss it.

Kayak the Doubtful Sound.

Take a glacier hiking course at Franz Josef Glacier.

My favorite hike totally escapes me now, but it is within drive of Queenstown. Damn. Memail.

Make your way up to the North Island.

Skip Te Anau. It was not memorable.

Kayak camp the Abel Tasman.

Out of Picton on the Queen Charlotte Sound there are two really memorable hostiles to stay at - stay at the one with Parrot in the name - I think. The other was Lochmara lodge. Perhaps stay there? Both are good. Don't remember which I did.

Wellington - don't miss Te Papa - the national museum. Cry like I did at the Maori creation story exhibit.

Make thee way up to Hot Water Beach. You are welcome!!

I hiked some volcanoes and such on the interior of the North Island. Memail.

DO THE COROMNDANDEL PENISULA. Specifically, there is a farmstay at the tip of the penisula - stay there. Bring snorkeling equipment. Eat sea urchins and other sea offerings you self-harvest. The road out is scary in the rain - use caution. You won't die on the way out or anything, just use caution. Kiwis are awful drivers. God bless them!

Auckland. Take a coffee cruise for cheap that drops you at a little island, which is actually a volcano hike. Wear sunscreen!

Don't be afraid to venture up towards Whangarei. Totally beautiful, great snorkeling.

I missed lots of spots. Sorry.

It's a fucking Wonderland. Don't be afraid to leave it open and follow your nose or other travellers suggestions!

My two tips?

- Be prepared and dress for FOUR seasons in a day. Wear appropriate gear.. My Helly Hansen sailor jacket worked well, kept me warm, dried fast. Ditto my SmartWool socks.

- Plan to have a few days in the bush roughing it, then a day or two off at a lush resort, of which there are many and exceedingly affordable. It's a NZ thing. It's what you do.

Lastly, the food is always exceptional. Expect a salad with edible flowers plus omelet for breakfast at the shittiest of roadside diners - it is the norm. Fish and Chip shops will always serve crap that is delicious. But really, food in NZ can not be beat.


Glacier climbing, kayaking, kayak camping, volcano hikes (of which there are many) snorkeling, horse back riding, wine tasting (Hello, Marlborough Sound!) and hot tubbing and sleeping overnight on Hot Water Beach (one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world) are among my BEST memories.


Have a good time. You bastard.

That is all.
posted by jbenben at 10:25 PM on December 23, 2012 [8 favorites]

Nthing visiting wineries & tramping. I also recommend the Tasman district at this time of year. Abel Tasman National Park in particular is fantastic with excellent beaches. You can day trip into the park on boats from Kaiteriteri.

If you go through Wellington, a nice place to do wineries is over the hill in the Wairarapa. I'd recommend an afternoon of food and wine at Vynfields...
posted by dydecker at 2:11 AM on December 24, 2012

You're there at the wrong time for rugby, unfortunately. The preseason games don't start until early February. You might be able to catch a soccer game in Wellington, and there will certainly be cricket matches, but that's it.

Wellington will be very quiet for the first week or so of January. The attractions should be open, but it will feel a bit like a ghost town. In Wellington, as well as Te Papa you might also want to visit Zealandia, a bird/wildlife sanctuary. It's a shortish bus ride from downtown.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:37 AM on December 24, 2012

Milford Sound is south of Queenstown, but worth visiting.

Jbenben and MoonOrb covered my other recommendations. I didn't do any overnight hikes, because I wasn't prepared for them, but I definitely will next time.

It's an amazing place.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:31 AM on December 24, 2012

I loved Wanaka, good food and local beer, and good vibe to the town. (granted I'm a skier).

I found Lake Tekapo to be pretty, but a bit of a let down.

Milford sound is definitely worth a day trip.

Bring rain gear.

Glacier hiking is fun and worth it. do a guided tour.
posted by larthegreat at 7:57 AM on December 24, 2012

Best answer: I MeMailed you with specifics, but here are the points I would make to comment on the postings above:

- Definitely go to Fiordland National Park (you can kayak on the Sound or you can take a ferryboat ride in the Sound). You can take the bus down from Queenstown that will tour you through it. There is a reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is shockingly beautiful. Google image search Fiordland NP and you will see in about 0.2 seconds why you cannot miss it. The incredible hikes down there are the Routeburn Track or the Milford Track. Generally any of the Great Walks, you can't go wrong with. You can't really do one of the guided hikes (plus they take a few days) because they need to be booked in advance, but you can get on the track for a day hike.

- See a bird sanctuary. Doesn't matter too much which one, but Mount Bruce, just north of Wellington, is probably a good bet (or Zealandia mentioned above, but that one is new and I haven't seen it yet)

- Get the "NZ Frenzy" books for North and South Islands. They're the best travel books we've found for New Zealand.

- There is a bunch of horseback riding around the Queenstown area, but the one jbenben might be talking about, that I used, was the stables in Glenorchy. They do a LOTR ride that I heard good things about, although we did a different ride where we did some fording of rivers and things and it was totally fun and they definitely told us LOTR factoids anyway.

- jbenben gives some great advice and I agree with most of it, except two things - one is going to Fiordland (not clear if "Te Anau" in her answer refers to Fiordland or just the town of Te Anau), and the other thing is this:

Your time is limited. You have essentially 2 weeks to work with. You cannot see the sights in NZ from Fiordland to Whangarei in that period of time unless you want to spend most of your time driving. You can't even see all the great sights from just Queenstown to Auckland in that amount of time. You need to plan your itinerary carefully so you can see the things you want to see without feeling rushed. My personal advice would be to go south to Fiordlands for sure, it's not a long bus ride from Queenstown, but then when you go north, drive pretty much straight thru from Wellington to Rotorua (with stops possibly at Mount Bruce and definitely at Tongariro).

One potential path could be Rotorua -> Mount Maunganui (White Island tour is an incredible day trip if you like volcano/mud pool stuff) -> Coromandel -> Auckland.

For those who don't think much of Auckland (I am not one of them, I think the volcanic parks and city beaches are charming and wonderful), I think one major value of Auckland is that it can be used as a home base to visit a number of REALLY cool day trips. Specifically, Piha and the Waitakeres, the bird sanctuary island Tiritiri Matangi, the winery island Waiheke, and the iconic volcanic island Rangitoto.

Sure there are things north of Auckland worth seeing, but it's a drive to get up there, and the most spectacular parts of New Zealand are on the South Island, so I suggest you will not regret spending the bulk of your time on the South Island. You could spend all 2 weeks there easily and not see nearly all the gorgeous things.

One idea you could make use of: there are several budget airlines that will fly you from one place in NZ to another for cheap (i.e. JetStar). Just a thought to try to maximize your time. You're going to love it there.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:52 AM on December 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just did this myself in September. These are my recommendations:


Clay pigeon shooting (#1 rated on trip advisor for a reason, believe me! The owner was excellent, and did a normally-group trip with just my fiancee and I).

There are a couple of neat ice bars that are generally overpriced, but are neat to check out at the discount rates from BookMe. Great deals for other places too.

I was told that concrete luging was a lot of fun, but the weather didn't cooperate. You can do this in Rotorua (North Island) also.


Wanaka jetboating - again, they did a trip with just the two of us and it was wonderful.

Puzzling world Wanaka - fun way to spend a couple hours before river boating.

South Island Miscellaneous

Oamaru blue penguin colony.

Milford Sound was very nice, although I didn't think it lived up to the wild hype I had heard in advance.

The helicopter glacier trips were closed on account of weather when I was there, but they're reputed to be good. The glacier hot pools were good.

North Island Miscellaneous

Rotorua volcanic area. Beautiful.

Waitomo glow worms. Like nothing you've ever seen.

Have a great time! I will second the warning on driving - the speed limits are more of a dare than a limit. When the sign says it's a 15 km/h turn on a 100 km/h road, it's not kidding. Slow down.
posted by sah at 10:00 AM on December 24, 2012

HTML issue there. The one link should be BookMe. Crazy deals - I used it for both NZ and Australia (landed a reef cruise in Australia for $1).
posted by sah at 10:08 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The links and advice and the maps have been fantastic. Really appreciate it.

Anyone have a specific car rental agency that they'd recommend?
posted by ronv at 1:17 PM on December 24, 2012

Luging is great fun.

If you're interested in doing Lord of the Rings things then this guide book may be of some interest. I don't know how useful it is, but I believe at one stage it was the best selling book in NZ.

One way to see the Marlborough Sounds is to do the Mailboat run. My parents have been on this when they were trying to decide where to take their boat and they loved it.

On the way up to the Sounds you could stop in at Kaikoura and do a whale watching trip. Near Kaikoura is a walkway that leads up to a waterfall where you can see baby seals playing. You can also see seals on the rocks just south of Kaikoura.

If you're not used to driving on the lefthand side of the road make sure you double check when you pull out from carparks. Some of the touristy places will have signs pointing the right way.

Have a great time.
posted by poxandplague at 2:32 PM on December 24, 2012

Lucky you! I spent several months backpacking around NZ, mostly on the south island. I'd suggest concentrating your travelling there if you're most interested in rugged LOTR type scenery.

Near Queenstown, a stay in Wanaka is definitely warranted. It's like a smaller version of Queenstown and more laid back. You'll also want to see Milford Sound, and consider walking the 3-4 day Milford Track (check ahead for bookings).

Going up the east coast of the South island: see quaint hilly Dunedin and nearby Otago Peninsula, where you can view seals and penguins. In the Oamuru and Waitaki area, there are cool coastlines and the Moeraki Boulders. Christchurch and surrounding area is also very nice, although much of the central city was destroyed in an earthquake in 2010. The areas surrounding should still be okay though (Canterbury plains, Akaroa). Kaikoura is my absolute favourite spot in New Zealand, a must see in my opinion! It's a small town flanked by ocean on one side and mountains on the other. Walk the Kaikoura peninsula and see seals, go whale/dolphin/albatross watching, go horseback riding, and eat the yummy local lobsters and seafood.

The west coast of the South Island is very rugged and not very inhabited. If you do the west coast, the main thing to see is Fox and/or Franz Josef glaciers... really cool to walk out onto the ice and see the neighbouring rainforests.

On the north end of the South Island: The Blenheim area has some good wine tours and scenery. Nelson is warm and sunny, lots of opportunity for hiking. Your last stop on the South Island should be Picton where the ferry leaves. See the Queen Charlotte islands around there via hiking and/or boat.

Taking the ferry from Picton, you'll arrive in Wellington on the North island. Wellington is probably NZ's "coolest" city, with lots of cafes, clubs, art scene etc. I won't speak much more about the North island because I found the south generally more interesting. But if you do the north island, I really enjoyed Rotorua (a city bubbling with sulphur springs). You'll definitely also want to go to Lake Taupo, and hike the 1-day Tongariro alpine crossing - the mountains here are Mount Doom from LOTR.

All of NZ's parks are gorgeous and all very different, everything from rainy forests to cliffs, fjords and mountains, ice and valleys, beaches and plains. You should research the different "Great Walks" and national parks before going, and secure your bookings ahead of time for multi-day hikes.

Memail me if you have any questions! :)
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 9:23 AM on December 25, 2012

Note: the variance in experiences at Fiordland may be in part due to the season. It is much more spectacular when there are innumerable tiny waterfalls cascading down the cliffs, but during drier months the waterfalls are limited and it can be more buggy.

Re: car rental agency, I've known folks to use the Rent A Wreck agency (really) and were happy with it. Rentals are expensive so you can save a lot this way. The folks I know who did it also rented a vehicle where you could put down the backseat, draw the curtains, and sleep in the back of it, which saved them some extra $. They had a great time CouchSurfing the rest of the trip - NZ is ground zero for CouchSurfing so there are some great hosts, and you definitely don't necessarily end up sleeping on a couch. I personally became a member of the BBH hostelling organization, which has a network of interesting and cute hostels across both islands with online ratings. They were affordable and enjoyable as places to stay, although in more remote locations, they could be a bit rustic.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:34 PM on December 28, 2012

Response by poster: Back from NZ and I wanted to quickly add to this original post with some of the highlights. It’ll probably take a few days to share links.

We went from the South Island up to the North Island, using a mix of transport over sea, air, and by road. If anyone needs recommendations beyond these updates, send me an msg. and I'd be happy to try to help as much as everyone else here did.

One general thought: take advantage of the i-SITE offices all around NZ. The free advice and the bookings they offer are invaluable.


The Bakery for breakfast, then Aggy’s Shack (right on the lakefront) for dinner. Repeat often. Both are small places that go far beyond a lot of more expensive options in town.
—Do the hike up through Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve/Forest and then take the Gondola down; watch the bungee jumpers prove their mettle (or do it yourself) at the complex at the top. This route is the best of both worlds.
—Spend a good morning with Break One Clay Target Shooting. New equipment, good drive out of town. Get Blake if you can; he’s a great teacher.

Te Anau:
—Te Anau is a small town. Real small. More like a launching point for the cruises/hikes towards Milford and Doubtful Sounds.

Great breakfast and conversation at Cosy Kiwi B&B. The Fat Duck for good drinks and food.

When we went, the rains in the Fiordland took out a lot of the bridges and routes to/on the main hiking tracks. A good number of those who were washed out joined us on the boat to the Doubtful Sound instead of heading towards Milford Sound. Usually the Doubtful sailing is less crowded and quieter methinks. The added benefit of going to Doubtful is that you get to visit the Manapouri Underground Power Station, which makes you feel like you’ve uncovered a Bond villain’s lair

Took a flight from Queenstown to Christchurch, rented a car and then a beautiful drive up to

—Stay at Kaikoura Boutique Hotel
—Best option for whale watching is Whale Watch Kaikoura. Because so much is dependent of conditions at sea, it’s best that you book the earliest boat possible and—if your travel schedule permits—also factor in a day before and after just in case the sailing is canceled.
—Do the day hike around and up the coast. The full circuit is stunning and takes you all around the peninsula though a range of terrains and views. Walk it so that you begin early and can end at The Original World Famous Kaikoura Seafood BBQ as a reward.
—Also good: The Pier Hotel and Cafe Encounter ...
posted by ronv at 2:09 PM on January 24, 2013

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