New Zealand in August (difficulty level: sports)
October 26, 2022 9:13 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I just bought tickets to the 2023 Women's World Cup (yay!). Now we're starting to think about planning our trip and we're super overwhelmed. I'd love some help thinking through a rough itinerary!

We will likely be in New Zealand from Aug. 4-18 (ish), with the following soccer-related constraints:

Game in Auckland on Sat. Aug. 5
Game in Wellington on Fri. Aug. 11
Game in Auckland on Tues. Aug 15
Game in Sydney on Sun. Aug 20 (we are only going to Australia to see the final and then flying home, but I wanted to include it because we do have to leave NZ in time to get there)

Some info about us:
- We're in our 30s and physically in good shape (we're both runners).
- We like: hiking, nature (especially animals/wildlife), water-related activities, good food/wine, museums (both art and history), beaches, walking around interesting cities.
- We don't like: extreme adventure sports, skiing/snowboarding, camping, big crowds, nightlife. And we don't care at all about Lord of the Rings stuff (sorry!!).
- We're not luxury travelers or anything, but we've been saving for this trip for years and aren't afraid to spend money if something is worth it.
- Despite being in great shape, my husband has a chronic health condition that tends to flare up if he gets overtired (in a sleep deprivation/stress sense, physical exertion is typically fine). So while we want to have fun and do cool stuff, we also don't want to cram too much in and run ourselves into the ground.

Our strong preference is to do most of our travel by air, and to pick a few different cities/towns we can use as a base for interesting day trips. We don't want to stay in a different place every night, and we don't want to burn a ton of our limited time driving from place to place. (I have a tendency to try to do too much when I travel, but I'm always happier when I resist that impulse!)

So far we're thinking of seeing the first game in Auckland and then getting right out of there. Spend Aug. 6-10 on the South Island, and then fly to Wellington for the game on the 11th. Then hang out in/around Wellington until we have to fly back to Auckland for the game on the 15th. Then we thought we'd spend the rest of our time (Aug. 15-18/19) exploring the northernmost part of the North Island, which I gather has some really cool outdoor stuff and is likely to be warmer. Then off to Sydney for the final!

So one big question: is there a single city or town on the South Island that would be a good home base for five-ish days? Queenstown is unappealing but otherwise I'm unsure. And like, I'm very entranced by Doubtful Sound, but that looks like it's not close to anything at all (except maybe Invercargill). And Christchurch looks cool, but it's all the way over THERE. Etc etc. Or is this all a dumb idea and we should plan to stay in multiple places even though we don't have a ton of time? Or something else I'm not thinking of?

Also, what should we totally rule out given we'll be there in the middle of winter? It seems like a lot of the most famous hiking might not be doable, for example. Google has only been marginally helpful on this point. (Side note: we live in New England and are not scared of the cold, but I understand that NZ winter weather can be pretty wacky in terms of wind/rain/snow.)

And one more: once we're back up on the north North Island, is there a place that would be a good home base that isn't Auckland? Nobody seems to like Auckland!

I realize this is a pretty scattered question, but we're really just trying to get our bearings. I'm sure I'll be back with more focused questions as we get more into our planning. Thanks all!

P. S. If anybody else is going to the World Cup, MeMail me! We'd love to connect with other fans.
posted by catoclock to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend familiarizing yourself with the Great Walks, and picking a couple to do and focus your itinerary around those. I'd suggest Routeburn and Milford in particular if you're set on South Island, though your jumping off point for Routeburn is Queenstown which you said was unappealing (I would disagree with that assessment, it's an incredibly beautiful city). Tongiriro is also a good one if you're open to North Island, and nearby cities of Taupo and Rotorua are both very interesting.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:46 AM on October 26, 2022

I would reconsider Queenstown as a base. Like, if Christchurch is too far away, there's nowhere else really to choose in the South Island (or postage stamp size). The Queenstown airport is speedy and well connected, everything is right there for setting off for any adventures (plus all the outdoor shops are there too), and the food is decent... Anywhere else is a long drive.

I am originally from Auckland so I'm biased but I love it. The Hauraki Gulf/sailing, tramping right in the city (what we call hiking), all built on top of 53 volcanoes. Museums and art are all there. Northland tries, bless it's provincial socks but mostly has nature going for it. And you can do the Bay of Islands in a day or two (only 3.5 hours from Auckland).

NB the Tongariro crossing might be a bit snowy in August, quite often the desert and surrounding roads in the national park get closed. Wouldn't recommend.
posted by teststrip at 10:10 AM on October 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Noted re: Queenstown! I read a bunch of the older NZ questions on here and it seemed like a lot of people didn’t recommend staying there unless you were seeking out the more extreme adventure sports. But the point about access to other things is well taken, and we certainly shouldn’t rule anything out at this stage. Thanks!
posted by catoclock at 10:35 AM on October 26, 2022

This is really hard for the south island because there are a lot of worthwhile places to go and experiences to have, but everything is juuuuuust far enough away from everything else and takes juuuuust long enough to do that it can be very difficult to work in multiple high-value experiences in a 4 day visit. You're going to have to make some hard choices.

My recommendations would depend on whether you prioritize an urban experience with some possibility for scenic daytrips, or spectacular scenery, wildlife and hiking.

I'm going to have to go with Queenstown, with a trip to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound (or both!) as my base recommendation. Queenstown is a tourist town and a ski town, so in August it might be a bit busy and crowded especially if there's a good snowpack. And if there's lots of snow, the roads to the sounds might be closed. If that ends up being the case, you're kind of stuck in a tourist town with a lot of competition for seats at the pizza place and long lines for the legendary burger joint, but it's a beautiful area and if you rent a car you can head to the surrounding area and taste some great wines. Make sure to take the gondola up the hill, the views are epic.

If that sounds like tourist hell, consider Christchurch. It's definitely not a tourist town, which is a plus. It's an interesting city with a unique history that sharply defines its current identity. There's a great earthquake museum (Quake City) and other museums (I think the natural history museum will be closed for renovations while you're there). There's a Rutherford museum at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora if you're into science history, and there is also an arts gallery and other cultural attractions there. There's a nice river to stroll along winding through town. You can go to a bunch of different scenic areas like Arthur's Pass, or my favorite Castle Hill which is otherworldly and fascinating especially if you get some nice weather. The Banks Peninsula has Lyttleton, a small town in a caldera (there's a good microbrewery there) as well as Godley Head. You can get to a couple different wine areas easily and taste to your heart's content. The only thing really lacking would be some kind of wildlife experience, but with a trip that short you're going to have to be OK with not getting everything in one trip. You will have opportunities for visiting bird sanctuaries on the north island anyway. You will be able to see lots of ducks, black swans, shags and eels along the river if that helps.

If you were really set on a wildlife experience I'd recommend Rakiura/Stewart Island with an excursion to Ulva Island, a native bird sanctuary that is just wonderful. To do it right you'd want to spend a night on Rakiura, and you'd probably need to spend the night before or the night after in Invercargill. You could make a trip over to Dunedin and visit the botanical gardens and visit the albatross center if it's open that time of year. I don't know if there would be any albatrosses there then. The sourthernmost point on the south island that isn't Rakiura is on the way from Invercargill to Dunedin if that interests you. There are some small hikes you could do along the way as well. I don't know anything about air travel into and out of Dunedin and Invercargill, we took a puddlejumper to Rakiura from Invercargill so I know there's an airport, but I don't know where you can really go from there.

If you commit to a base city/town/volcanic crater I can give more specific recommendations. My partner and I were visiting NZ when the 2020 lockdowns happened and we spent 15 months there, on both the north and south islands. A lot of it was spent making 5- to 7-day trips between cat-sitting engagements. We logged over 10,000 kilometers by car. It was always challenging to plan our itineraries, it required a lot of iteration.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 5:37 PM on October 26, 2022 [2 favorites]

We’re the exact opposite of extreme sports and we love Queenstown. It’s a great location for South Island activities.
posted by billsaysthis at 9:34 PM on October 26, 2022

(Also, jealous on the WWC tix!)
posted by billsaysthis at 9:35 PM on October 26, 2022

Another vote for Queenstown as your South Island base. We were there at the height of tourist season and it was not that crowded, certainly not compared to similar spots in Europe. We also had zero interest in extreme sports stuff. I'd recommend checking out nearby Arrowtown for some local history, and heading to Lake Wanaka for stunning scenery. The Otago Goldfields Heritage Trail combines both! And the area is known for its wineries.
posted by guessthis at 5:31 AM on October 27, 2022

a single city or town on the South Island that would be a good home base for five-ish days?

That's not much time. If you're not keen on Queenstown [I sympathise], you can possibly find somewhere to stay in the vicinity [e.g Arrowtown is very nice].

I'm very entranced by Doubtful Sound, but that looks like it's not close to anything at all

You will absolutely not regret doing a Doubtful Sound trip. Depending which trip you do, you'll probably need to overnight at either Te Anau or Manapouri at one or both ends of the trip.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:39 PM on October 27, 2022

I don't think the Great Walks are a particularly good idea at that time of year. Most of them will be out of season with reduced facilities, and with recommendations that people don't do them. The Abel Tasman would be OK, but you'd have to decide whether it would be worth the travel time.

You could scratch some of the hiking itch in Christchurch or Wellington by getting into the hills around the city - in Christchurch look at the Port Hills, in Wellington you are never more than a mile or so from a trail, some of which feel quite isolated and remote even though they aren't [if this appeals in Wellington, hit me up, I know most of them]. At a better time of year, there's good long-distance hiking nearby, but at this time of year it's probably best left to the experts.

I'm not sure if I'd spend too long in Wellington. There's the national museum (Te Papa) and a pretty cool bird sanctuary (Zealandia), some decent food, and the hiking as I mentioned. Likewise, I'm not sure there's anything really compelling nearby. You could spend a couple of days here around the game, then head to somewhere like Taupo or Rotorua maybe (flying or maybe driving via Waitomo glowworm caves or something?).

South Island, definitely accept you won't see anything. I like Queenstown with the options of places like Wanaka. Christchurch could work, or even Dunedin. Queenstown and Christchurch will be easier to get to (more flights).

Noting also: air travel capacity is currently down on pre-COVID times, as far as I can tell. Also, NZ roads are a lot worse than what you're used to - often the main road between towns will be single lane, and often winding through hills. So even if something looks close, you're not going to be covering the distance like you would on a US interstate highway.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:26 PM on October 28, 2022

Hello from NZ, great to hear you’re excited to be visiting our beautiful country :) I signed up so I could answer your question!

Weather over here is very variable in August, tending to be wet and grey in the North Island (NI) but often stunning in the South Island (SI) - cold, clear, sunny days.

I live in Auckland and yeah, there are other places I’d probably prioritise. Having said that, if you stay down by the waterfront it’ll be buzzing during the WRWC. Plus it’s close to the train to the stadium. Oh, our public transport isn’t the greatest but the city is likely to put on more for the tournament. There’s also Waiheke Island just a short ferry ride away. Great for a day trip or longer. We recently enjoyed a wonderful long weekend on Waiheke Island.

My 2c would be to do a mix of flying and driving. Driving is much nicer in the SI.

We had a great time doing an easy and lovely 3 night road trip between Wellington and Auckland, stopping in the Wairarapa (quaint wine country), Napier and Taupo.

We spent two weeks doing a SI road trip in August just gone and we only had 1 wet day. My puffer coat hardly got any wear (merino layers are great). Queenstown was a zoo and while the scenery is spectacular, one day was enough and we were glad to escape back to our base in Gibbston Valley (at the wonderful Gibbston Valley Lodge - pricey by NZ standards, but may be a bargain with the exchange rates). This was a great base for trips to Wanaka (highly recommend a visit, including the short (10mins?) drive up to Rippon Winery - nice wines and the most breathtaking view of Wanaka lake and the Alps), Cardrona (this is a ski town and we just stopped for an interesting tour and tasting at the Cardrona Distillery), Arrowtown and Cromwell (historic precinct). You can easily do both Cromwell and Arrowtown in one day, they are little!). If you do visit Queenstown, many friends have recommended Onsen hot pools (google to see the views from the private hot tubs). They are popular so it pays to book way in advance (we missed out).

One of my absolute favourite stretches of road was the scenic route from Dunedin to Invercargill through the Catlins, stopping for a walk out to Nugget Point lighthouse, another stop to see the petrified forest. We didn’t have time to see the numerous waterfalls and would love to go back and spend a few days exploring the region more. Te Anau is a couple of hours drive from Invercargill (stop at gemstone beach!) and a day trip from there to Milford Sounds is much shorter than from Queenstown, which I’m told is exhausting, and allows you to go with a small tour operator rather than a big coach, as they can make way more stops for lovely walks along the way.

I like Christchurch and Akaroa is a nice day or overnight trip from there.

Another idea is to fly to Christchurch after the first game and do a road trip over Arthur’s Pass, up the west coast to Nelson (Mapua and surrounds are lovely rather than the city itself), around to Blenheim/Marlborough (more wine country, cycle tours and the scenery on that particular stretch is wonderful, with lots of short walk options) and then the ferry from Picton to Wellington.

I could make a gazillion recommendations for restaurants, accommodation, sightseeing!

I’d love to hear what you end up choosing to do. And hope you have the most wonderful time here!
posted by MissyMonster at 9:48 PM on October 28, 2022

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