Aotearoa: I have 5 weeks in NZ to spend and don't actually have a plan.
November 5, 2022 7:22 AM   Subscribe

We'll be in New Zealand this summer, have arranged lodgings in various places over the course of the visit, but don't have any plans around doing anything while there. It's getting on about time to figure that out but of course I have all these constraints to deal with...

So I'm taking my 5 week sabbatical in NZ and I could not be happier about it. We arrive in Auckland on Christmas Eve and the whole thing is just storybook perfect and amazing and, okay fine, I have no idea what I'm doing. Let me lay out the current situation:

I have an existing agenda with really nice lodgings booked, in sequence, Auckland, a few nights outside of Waipapa in a cool tent cabin, Queenstown, Christchurch, Wellington, then a couple of nights in Taupō right on the lake. Each of these really nice lodgings is connected by a quick, already booked domestic flight (apart from that run up to Waipapa, we'll just drive up from AUK real quick and drive back). We're gonna jet-set!

This is great, right? I've got roughly a week in each major population center, a bit more in Auckland because for personal reasons I'm going to land in NZ and be totally and completely not ready to do anything that consumes energy for a few days. Actually, that kind of leads into

The actual constraints bit:
  • I've got all these places we'll be, all places I want to be, but I don't really have a particularly good idea of what to do when we are in those places.
  • The dates are kind of fixed in sequence. I had this vague idea of oh, okay, we'll set up a base of operations in each city and venture around as needed. The venture around part is now a bit too undefined.
  • It's getting a bit late to start actually reserving things that are hard to book if you don't book them in advance
  • I am going to be very mildly mobility limited throughout the entire visit: ambulatory but inclines, terrain, and really much more exertion than "not totally sedentary" is kind of not in the cards
  • The world is still, you know, in the midst of something of a pandemic and we're in the Have Been Taking Things Very Seriously demographic with all that entails
  • The limited (summer?) train schedule straight up just doesn't work out. We spent like two days on it. It doesn't line up with the way I booked the lodgings. Can't make it work at all. Not even a day trip thing. We tried. I swear.
  • Moderately intimidated by the driving on the wrong side of the road thing; actual anxiety is a safety/happiness factor here so let's just say Driving OK But Not Lots of It
  • Not into sports/athletics for the most part, although have been known to kill a day or two sitting on obscure beaches just hanging out with surfer families or spending an evening at derby.

    Our Interests!
  • Very very much not packing the agenda but on the other hand
  • Very very much not blowing half the day sitting in a hotel glaring intensely at options on the internet going "wtf are we even doing today?" because that happens EVERY TIME like most of every trip and FIXING THIS IS THE ACTUAL POINT OF THE ASK.
  • Being in pretty places.
  • Adjacency to water and green things.
  • Funky beach towns, although, you know, mobbed in summer probably.
  • Being around and interacting with weird people doing weird or creative or interesting shit.
  • Sitting in public places "people watching" (i.e. privately talking shit or making up stories about passers-by. Oh come on, you do it, too.)
  • Food. Doesn't have to be fancy, although fine dining's fun.
  • Enjoying both modern and historical expressions of cultures.
  • Contemporary and contemporary-ish art, music, spaces, weirdness.
  • Going somewhere and just kind of hanging out.
  • I am interested in contemporary and historic Māori culture and am very ignorant.
  • Do a WETA thing? Probably a Hobbiton thing but it'll be mobbed in summer right? Glow worms, I guess? Come on, people, help me break a mold here.

    Not constraints:
  • I really don't mind double booking lodgings if a day trip turns into an overnight. If someone comes back and is like "you should have spent the night in Milford Sound" I will just book a place in Milford Sound and not come home that night. The existing lodgings and locations are kinda set in stone-ish but small overlaps are fine.
  • Budget is not unlimited but I'm not going to pinch pennies over this. Apart from visiting a very "in the bubble" Mexican resort a few times, I have never left the United States in all my half century of life. This is a very big deal confluence of multiple life milestones thing for me. If I come home and have to call my broker, okay, well, I sort of expected that.
  • Upmarket/downmarket class status hierarchy stuff. Comfortable and have lived experience across more of that spectrum than you think. Currently doing things a little bougie by default but that's very flex.
  • posted by majick to Travel & Transportation around New Zealand (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
    OK, well, here's one thing near Christchurch that you might like to do: visit the Giant's House in Akaroa. Akaroa itself is a charming, arty beach town, and the Giant's House is the artiest thing in it, with sculptures and mosaics scattered through the garden and a contemporary art gallery indoors.

    My visit to Akaroa was on a one-day coach trip from Christchurch, but it was also fifteen years ago and not in a pandemic, so the specifics probably aren't helpful. However, the road from the town centre to the Giant's House goes up a hill, so with inclines being an issue, you might be better off driving anyway.

    You might want to stop on the way at Birdling Flats beach to look for agates.
    posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:13 AM on November 5, 2022

    They still make guidebooks (I'm not being a smartass here, I swear) and you might enjoy browsing Fodor's NZ or similar. It's much less overwhelming than an internet search and then anything you find you want to learn more about, you can Google.
    posted by DarlingBri at 8:20 AM on November 5, 2022 [5 favorites]

    Of the places you booked, I stayed in Queenstown and Christchurch and found both underwhelming although Christchurch more so—I regretted booking as many days as we had there. So if you’re open to a little double booking I’d try to get away from Christchurch.

    One of my favorite things was taking the train across the southern Alps from Christchurch to Greymouth and then going on a black water rafting trip—incredible, you carry inner tubes down through a multi level cave and then float on a slow stream through a pitch black underground cavern filled with glow worms. I think this is the place we used:

    Also strongly recommend Milford Sound and spending the night on a boat there! The natural beauty is incredible. But have a good bug spray—I was miserable from the sandflies.
    posted by music for skeletons at 8:41 AM on November 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

    Response by poster: look for agates

    Oh, swoon, I grew up agate-hunting on the Oregon coast, this sounds so lovely. I don't think I could take anything from a land I visited, though.

    And, uh, it totally breaks my heart as someone who loves, loves, loves the whole walking along a waterline and going omg is that a water agate thing: sand is almost exactly the kind of "terrain" that I am only going to be able to do bits and pieces of at most.

    Thank you, though, because I had no idea that agate beaches were even going to be a thing and that is definitely going to be something I'm paying attention to whether on the way to funky beach towns to walk along "cute street" or elsewhere during the summer!
    posted by majick at 8:45 AM on November 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

    I went for two weeks in March, pre-pandemic, wish we had more time. Five weeks sounds lovely.

    Weta Workshop, Hobbiton, all the LOTR things
    Hamilton Gardens
    Maungawhau/Mt. Eden in Auckland, especially at night for views over the city
    Tongariro National Park (there is a day hike that takes you right up to the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe but we just drove around the perimeter)
    The Te Papa museum in Wellington
    Lake Wanaka

    Food-wise: meat pies! So good!
    posted by basalganglia at 9:42 AM on November 5, 2022

    Best answer: In your situation, I would ring up/email the local iSites for the places you're going and ask them. NZ's iSites are incredible resources for up-to-date information on info you really need to make the most of the regional attractions, and full of ideas for hyperlocal activities and destinations that don't make it into guidebooks - think amazing cheesemaking places in the middle of nowhere, a local historical site that just got a new interpretive centre, a popular cycling trail, etc. (I have called one to check the weather on a particular pretty road on a particular day - there was no local weather info I could find online - and was recommended a different route with better weather that was even prettier.)

    You'll also want this excellent national PDF map featuring things to see and do from - page 2 is incredibly detailed and features attractions in even the smallest towns ("Te Araroa: Oldest pohutukawa tree"). You can get them to post you a paper one here.
    posted by mdonley at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: I have lived in three of the towns you mentioned, and am currently living in one of them and even I am like "damn what do I tell this person to do".

    If you come back with the type of food you like, I can probably give some more specific recommendations.

    Unfortunately, a lot of what Aotearoa has to offer is on an incline so that probably means stuff like Rangitoto or Tiritiri Matangi in Auckland is out.

    Urban List and Concrete Playground are good for knowing some of what's happening in the major centres.

    I'm going to group my thoughts via city but I apologise for the random nature of what is about to occur. Also I can expand on any of these points if you want. Also, a lot of this isn't groundbreaking or secret but it's stuff that local people do so it can't be too terrible.

    Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland

    - Waiheke Island might be nice if you like wineries
    - Viaduct/Silo Park/Port area is nice for a wander in downtown Auckland on a warm day. Get an ice cream from somewhere like Giapo or Little Lato at the fish market and enjoy some people-watching.
    - Art Gallery! It's lovely
    - Auckland Zoo is pretty fucking good too (I would not bother with MOTAT personally but if you like planes maybe yes?). They're just finishing up a tonne of renos and it's looking good. Western Springs can also be nice for a wander, not sure if they still have the aggressive birds tho (yikes).
    - You could also do a picnic in the Domain and have a wander around the Wintergardens.
    - Pakuranga night market for street vendor food is nice if you're out that way.
    - That period between Christmas and just after New Year can be difficult for finding somewhere to eat because a lot of hospo folk go on holiday. You'll be fine but you might not always get your first pick. Always google a place before going.
    - Raglan would count as a funky beach town but the drive is a bit wild at times.
    - A lot of people like The Coromandel as a 'get out of town for a couple days' place. I myself have never been but there is a lot to do on the peninsula.
    - Dominion Road in Mt. Eden/Balmoral has a shit tonne of Asian restaurants and bubble tea places and is close to town.

    Te Whanganui-a-Tara (also sometimes Pōneke) / Wellington

    - Wellington definitely shuts down a bit over the Christmas period because it's a town built around Government but there is still lots to do. Just don't be surprised if cafes and restaurants are just not open - again, do a wee google before you get your heart set on anything.
    - Bats is the local indie theatre so check them out for very affordable shows
    - Wellington waterfront is definitely nice for a wander. I'd combine it with a trip to Te Papa. There's a place that does pāua fritters which is a very kiwi type of thing I guess - I hate them but many don't so give it a go! On Sunday mornings they have the harbourside market which is basically a bunch of veggies sitting in the hot sun, but is also the place many downtown Wellingtonians do their green shop for the week and they have little food vendor carts.
    - May as well go have a look at Parliament grounds while you're in town. You won't be able to watch any politicians in action because it'll be summer holidays but you can get a tour if you book with the Parliament Visitor Centre.
    - I would highly advise a trip to the National Library of NZ to see He Tohu and just generally have a look around. I am not sure how it would hit for someone not from here but I found it really emotional. They also do tours I think, which might be better if you aren't super familiar with Aotearoa history.
    - Zealandia is wonderful, but might be a bit much walking. The night tours are great - you often get to see a kiwi or a tuatara (and yes, glow worms).
    - Bolton Street Cemetery is in town and contains a surprising amount of history about Wellington
    - Yeah, a Weta Workshop tour is pretty neat. I've been a couple of times and enjoyed it.

    Ōtautahi / Christchurch

    - A lovely place to live, possibly not a super exciting place to be an international tourist? A great place to take day trips from though.
    - I would recommend one day just wandering around the CBD. Since the earthquakes, there's been a lot of work in the city centre and it's just a very pleasant place to walk and eat and just soak up the vibe.
    - Super street arcade
    - Dance-o-mat
    - TransAlpine day excursion to Arthurs Pass or Greytown; Can also get the Coastal Pacific up to Kaikoura
    - Lake Tekapo area is gorgeous but a bit of a drive from Chch

    I am running out of steam. I hope some of this was helpful?
    posted by BeeJiddy at 3:05 PM on November 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

    We did our honeymoon in New Zealand - oh, 5 years ago... Anyway.

    Hobbiton- yes it will be busy but they control it so you get on a bus, go to the spot, walk along the path, have a drink at the Green Dragon and get back on the bus. I enjoyed it, but it's definitely not wander around. There's also some inclines as you walk around.

    Glow worms are definitely worth it.

    Coromandel Peninsula is lovely. There's the beach where you rent a shovel and dig your own hot tub. Or other hot springs places.
    posted by freethefeet at 3:59 PM on November 5, 2022

    What a great trip! I understand your problem of "but what do I do?" and always have it myself. On a long trip I've found mostly I'm happy if I have enough sightseeing to fill a few hours a day. Then a few hours a day of rest, work back at home, Internet stuff, whatever. 5 weeks is a long time to be on vacation.

    If you're at all interested in anthropology and cultural history, plan a few hours to see the Pacific Islands collection. They have one of the world's best collections of objects from Oceania. Amazing treasures from so many different world cultures, all largely unfamiliar if you're coming from the US or Europe. This experience is something that doing some reading ahead of time will augment.

    Te Papa in Wellington is the country's premier musuem and well worth your time. It does a particularly good job explaining the political situation of Māori in New Zealand. Again, some background reading would make this more meaningful.

    Finally, seconding the visit to Parliament in Wellington. It sounded cheesy but I found it surprisingly informative and moving. Turns out a democracy of 5M people has an interesting government!
    posted by Nelson at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2022

    One of my favourite (unexpected) detours was a couple days in Kaikoura. It was over a decade that I was there, but at that time, it wasn't overly touristy. I will never forget swimming with the dusky dolphins – highly recommend you try it out. Responsible outfit.

    Have some planned highlights but leave lots of room for detours and recommendations from local folks you meet. You really can't go wrong if you get off the beaten track.
    posted by Pademelon at 8:39 AM on November 6, 2022

    I'm Wellington-born and live here, and will defend my city against the calumnies that the rest of NZ throws at us. But I wouldn't recommend spending a week here as a tourist. 2-3 days would let you see Zealandia, Te Papa, WETA. Maybe do a day trip over to the Wairarapa and check out vineyards, cafes etc. Also, as mentioned Wellington will be mostly closed around this time. I quite like it, but it means there might not be much of interest happening. might be a good place to look.

    The other thing is that if you're interested in Maori culture, Rotorua would be an ideal site to visit. Plus you've got the mud pools and general weirdness of the environment. It's between Taupo and Auckland.

    Waitomo Glowworm Caves probably also worth a trip if you can squeeze them in.

    In terms of "funky beach towns": you're travelling at the worst time so you probably want to book your accommodation about six months ago. Later in January might be better than immediately around Christmas/New Year (Also around NY they will be filled with drunken teens which probably isn't attractive from your point of view).

    Finally on travel: the trains are mostly useless at the moment. They're targeted at tourists, but don't run often enough for actual travel, more for 'have the experience of being on a train and see the scenery'. Buses are an acceptable option and go more places ( but can be slow.

    And yeah, don't neglect guidebooks. Lonely Planet typically does 'suggested itineraries' for different countries - you probably wouldn't follow one slavishly, but it might give you some ideas.
    posted by Pink Frost at 3:54 PM on November 6, 2022

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