I've recently returned from the land of the Kiwi's, New Zealand. I took this adventure with a dear friend and Collette Vacations. It truly was the trip of a lifetime! Having never traveled on a guided tour before, I was skeptical about how much I would really enjoy it. Would there be enough free time for me to explore on my own? Were the planned activities suited for me? Would the hotel and transportation accommodations meet my standards? We we too young for this type of guided tour? I can honestly say all of my doubts were wrong. I was blown away by the service and friendliness of our driver and tour manager and the detailed itinerary that Collette put together for the Exploring New Zealand Tour.
Collette Vacations thinks of every small detail and lets their customers truly relax knowing everything is thought of and taken care of. To begin, when you purchase a Collette Vacation your transportation to and from the airport is included if you live within 50 miles of the airport. This is such a nice touch knowing that you don't have to worry about paying for airport parking or finding a ride to the airport. The friendly driver comes to pick you up and chauffeur you to the airport with Collette's Sedan Service. Your vacation, as mine did, truly begins from the moment you step out of your home.
Upon my arrival in Auckland, I was greeted by both my tour manager and driver with a friendly 'Kia Ora'. After a short bus ride to the hotel with the tour group, we were on our own to explore the City of Sails for the day. Wanting to experience some of the adrenaline thrills New Zealand is known for, we headed to Sky City and base jumped 192m off the top of the Sky Tower! It was the biggest thrill I've had and a great way to start our Kiwi adventure. Later that afternoon we strolled down to the Viaduct Harbor which was the venue for the America's Cup in 2000 & 2003. There are a number of restaurants and cafes around the harbor and we chose to have a few beers outside a cafe that overlooked the ferry terminal and Auckland Harbor. Collette arranged for a nice group cocktail hour and dinner that evening where I met my fellow tour companions. This was a great way to get acquainted with everyone I'd be spending the next two weeks with.
The following day we enjoyed a panoramic city tour of Auckland by bus where we saw the America's Cup Village, the War Memorial, bustling Queen Street and world famous Auckland Harbor Bridge before venturing into the countryside of Matamata. This part of New Zealand is truly beautiful and awe-inspiring! The idyllic landscape of Matamata is where The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films were produced. We journeyed into Hobbiton to tour the movie set and ended the tour with drinks in The Green Dragon pub. Lord of the Rings fan or not, this place was so whimsical and magical that it was a highlight for everyone in our group. We then had the unique opportunity of experiencing a New Zealand Farm Stay for the evening. Our gracious hosts Libby and Jim invited us into their home where we spent the evening laughing, learning about Kiwi customs and life on a New Zealand Farm, and ate a traditional delicious home cooked meal. The farm stay was truly a highlight of this trip and another unique experience that Collette gives their guests!
We then ventured into the dramatic geothermal region of Rotorua. Being in this area felt like being in a completely different world! We visited Te Puai and hiked the wandering trails between the geothermal geysers and mud pools, saw the endangered Kiwi bird and were immersed in Maori culture. We learned first hand from our Maori guide about how the tribal people first came to land New Zealand, about their heritage and about their culture. Some more highlights from the morning included a visit to the National Carving School and National Weaving School where we watched the age old carving and weaving skills being taught to the Maori youth. Later that evening, we attended an authentic Hangi dinner celebration where the Haka war challenge and poi dance were demonstrated. Think Polynesian dinner show on steroids-the Maori rituals and Haka are both intimidating and powerful to watch. Very moving!
While in Rotorua, I had to check another experience off my bucket list...zorbing! What is zorbing? Well, this experience invented in New Zealand and made famous by travel shows and adrenaline junkies from all over the world, is where you climb into an inflated ball and roll down the hill side. Imagine being in a giant hamster ball. The company I did this with, OGO Rotoura, provided a go pro for some fun video and still shot photos of the experience. We purchased the cd for about $20USD but the pictures/video of us laughing hysterically the whole way down are priceless!
Although I wasn't quite ready to leave Rotorura, our journey had to continue. We drove south through the rugged country side and then along the picturesque shores of the Tazman Sea into the city of Wellington. While in Wellington, we toured historic St. Paul's Church and the Old Government Building which is the largest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere, saw school age children demonstrating at the Beehive (New Zealand's Parliament), the Wellington Botanical Gardens and took the Wellington Cable Car up the mountain side for panoramic views of the harbor. We wrapped up our North Island experience with a climb up Mt. Victoria for the 360 degree spectacular view.
The following morning we boarded the Inter-islander ferry (the row row) for a picturesque 3 hour cruise across the Cook Straight to the South Island of New Zealand. This has been dubbed "the most beautiful ferry ride in the world" and it did NOT disappoint! After arriving in Picton, we were off to the city of Christchurch where we shopped, dined and drank our way around the Re-Start area and found a quaint little bar for some shelter from the rain.
The following day we were up before the sun to catch the Trans Alpine train from Christchurch to Authors Pass. It was the most beautiful train ride I've ever taken! The pictures don't even remotely do it justice. Riding from the low country up through the mountains immersed us in a winter wonderland in the middle of August. Worth the early morning rise for sure!
Before departing Christchurch, we stopped for a tour of the International Antarctic Center. This is the place where anyone traveling to Antarctica on this side of the globe must check in. We got to take a ride in an Hagglund which is the type of vehicle people use to get around in Antarctica. Our driver took us up steep hills, over crevasses, and through some pretty deep water. it was basically a simulation of what it is like to get around on Antarctica. No pics during because it was soo bumpy but we had a blast!
On our way into the Mt. Cook region, we stopped for tea at a local farmers house. They showed us around the property and we even got to hold a baby lamb. We got to watch a "strong eye" herding dog round up the farmers heard, which was pretty cool.
I was absolutely blown away by the drive into Mt. Cook National Park. The sun was setting on the mountains and glaciers as we arrived to our stop for the night, The Hermitage Hotel. I could now see why the Maori word for Mt. Cook is Aoraki, meaning "cloud piercer". This is the view from my room. It was absolutely stunning! We ventured out into the frigid cold late that evening for an unspoiled view of the sky. The stars felt so close, and I got to see with my own eyes the Southern Cross which is only visible in the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere.There were multiple shooting stars that evening and the Milky Way galaxy appeared to be swirling in the sky. It was a life changing experience for sure!
The next day we traversed the rugged Lindis Pass en route to Queenstown, our final destination. We stopped in the Central Otago region, which is becoming world famous for it's wines, and had a private owner escorted tour of Akarua winery.
Our final destination of our New Zealand tour was the city of Queenstown. There was so much to do here, I could have stayed an entire week! Some of the highlights were cruising through the breathtakingly beautiful Milford Sound. This fjord is one of the most visited sites on the South Island and is an absolute MUST DO while here. It has rock faces that rise nearly 4,000 feet on either side and the amount of waterfalls, scenery and sea life took my breath away. I opted to splurge a little on a private small plane ride back to Queenstown. It was worth every penny! Flying over the Southern Alps with a bird's eye view of the Tasman Glacier in a small plane was both scary and exhilarating! It was such and extreme environment. This plane ride is not for the faint of heart, but oh my goodness it was so beautiful and so worth the splurge.
I struggled with writing this blog because I feel like I can't even put into words the sheer, raw beauty and amazing experiences I had on this trip. It was the trip of a lifetime for sure! If you would like to learn more about the stunningly beautiful destination of New Zealand, or are interested in planning a similar adventure let me know and we will turn your dream vacation into reality!