10.02.2014 - 27.04.2014
I've been procrastinating about this blog because there's SO many factors and experiences to consider, and I've not wanted to write war and peace - no good for me, no good for you! (Phrase learnt in Asia).
So, without further ado - here's our Top 10 (in no particular order other than no 1 is definitely no 1). In case it's useful for other travellers, I've also added a link to our individual blogs for the experiences mentioned.
1. The people
We learnt a lot about Kiwis, particularly in the North Island... mainly because we didn't meet many in the South! (Just a quarter of the 4m population call the South Island home.)
Kiwis say "arh yearh" an awful lot. They're also very laid back. They finish most sentences with "ay". "Sweet as" is a Kiwi mantra... in fact replace 'sweet' with just about any other descriptive word... funny, dark, hot, cold...
They're also a talented bunch. There seemed to be an abundance of arts and crafts, and we loved seeing many of the local artists work across the North Island.
Kiwi humour is closely aligned to British humour, in fact our two cultures are much more entwined than we fully appreciated before coming here.
Kiwi tv is lighthearted, unstuffy and fun (Aussie tv is that times 10, and throw in anything un-PC too... at Christmas there was breakfast tv chat about a black Santa being extra visible in the north pole... wtf???!). We preferred Kiwi tv...
Kiwis are pretty much the nicest people on the planet and we experienced unparalleled hospitality in more locations than I care to list.
The Marlborough wine region is the most beautiful of all the wine regions we've visited on our round-the-world trip. It was something about the bright green vines against the orangey-brown Southern Alps mountain range, topped off by blue skies that made for a striking landscape. It was also so much fun hiring bikes to get around at our own leisure. If you like wine it's an absolute must-do.
I also need to throw in Hawke's Bay - not least because the wineries were very enjoyable, and they're located right next to the gorgeous art deco town (well, city really) of Napier.
Waiheke Island was more boutique, some wineries had a slightly pretentious feel (and you have to pay for tastings) but the overall experience was still very good, and the island had a very relaxed vibe to it. Catch the ferry from Auckland and let your worries melt away.
3. Heli-hiking on a glacier
Amazing! It was a splurge to do this but it was also one of the best days we had. We were so excited to get the chance to fly over and hike a glacier. A brilliant blue sky and crisp day definitely added to our experience and we were in awe of the glacier's formations and colours. A super fun morning. It's just sad to see how much the glaciers have retreated in recent years - it's phenomenally fast.
4. Tongariro Alpine Crossing
A fabulous day's walk! You don't have to be super fit to do it (clearly not everyone was when we did the walk) but a good degree of fitness helps. It took us just short of 8 hours which included various stops for lunch, breathers and photo opportunities. On a clear day the views are spectacular.
Our only advice would be to start earlier than we did. We caught the 8am shuttle bus from the Ketetahi car park and we didn't start walking until 8.45am. It was very busy and we could see a caravan of people ahead and behind us.
5. Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo
New Zealand's reputation for scenery is every bit as good as everyone says it is, and our first encounter with it was here. It was majestic, and the colour of the glacial lakes in this region need to be seen to be believed.
We were fortunate to see Mount Cook on a crystal clear day and were both blown away by the alpine skyline.
6. The Sounds - Doubtful & Milford
Fiordland is famous world-wide for towering steep peaks surrounding the deep inlets of the region's sounds. They are truly breathtaking and a boat trip down one or both is a must! Which is better? It's really hard to say as they offer something different.
Doubtful is quieter, bigger and more expensive to do but it had a remote, untouched quality which made it very special. Milford is arguably more majestic - the peaks taller, the rock faces steeper and the sound is narrower, so it feels far more mighty and impressive as you cruise along. We had a clearer day for Milford so as a day out it just clips it, but I was very taken with Doubtful.
It's also worth saying the road to Milford Sound is as wonderful as the sound itself - epic scenery!
We only stayed in two places in Northland - the Bay of Islands and Whangarei Heads and we loved them both. There's no doubt the Bay of Islands is more touristy and for that reason we'd recommend avoiding Paihia... but it depends on personal tastes. We drove through it and didn't like it at all. Russell was picturesque and chilled out, and the bay itself is gorgeous with a sub-tropical climate.
The nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds were excellent and we came away with a better understanding of New Zealand's founding document.
Whangarei Heads is probably not on that many tourist itineraries as they motor straight through to the Bay of Islands, but it's very scenic and punches above its weight. The town of Whangarei itself isn't all that but the Heads are definitely worth a look for some great walks and looming headlands.
8. Waitomo glowworms
It's pretty impressive that a 3 hour tour out of 11 weeks makes it into our top 10, but it was absolutely magical. We've never seen glowworms before and were stunned by the sight of an entire cave ceiling lit up by these tiny creatures. Having seen them I think it should be on everyone's bucket list.
9. The volcanic geothermal area
This bit was really fascinating and like no other landscape we've seen. Vivid, almost surreal colours of orange, pink, white and sulphur yellows created a dramatic palette. To imagine the powers beneath your feet was very belittling.
Rotorua doesn't have the nicest of smells it has to be said, but the locals are desensitised to it which is an essential requirement, else I just don't think you could live here.
Wai-O-Tapu and Orakei Korako are both really worth a visit.
10. The weather
We're Brits, we have to talk about the weather! It's bloody good down here - especially in the North. We were a bit surprised just how cool the summer felt at times on the South Island. But to be fair, when we arrived in early February the general consensus was that New Zealand had had a rubbish summer. It improved no end and March through to April were glorious... a fantastic Indian summer which we could only dream about in the UK.
It's only right to balance all this postivity with some downsides, right? We couldn't think of many but these are a few things we've come up with...
1. The weakness of our pound against their dollar!
2. It's no secret the countryside is staggering, but we found that many of the towns lacked character and the smaller ones especially just looked like carbon copies of each other. Also, being used to the UK, they were maybe just a bit too quiet?
3. The surf is great... if you're a surfer. Not so great for a cool down dip. A lot of the beaches we encountered, whilst very beautiful, had strong waves and rip tides so swimming was often out of the question. In our 2.5 months we only went in the sea once!
4. Sandflies! Urgh. These were a complete pest at times in the South Island. Hundreds of tiny black midgey type flies with a bite about 10 times itchier than anything a mossie can throw at you.
There's one other thing to mention and that's the ways we travelled. A quick summary of campervanning vs car and B&Bs...
We did the South Island in a camper and the North Island in a car. Our route:
Having a car was a completely different experience to the campervan, and it was better and not better in equal measures. For the first couple of weeks we really missed having a stop and a brew whenever we wanted, and the ability to have a 'naughty cupboard' of goodies! We also missed the handiness of a cold beer or water. But it was cheaper, way cheaper.
The campervan wasn't cheap to rent and we were shocked at how expensive some of the campsite fees were (up to $45). Petrol was dearer for the car though (the camper was diesel) and we needed more of it. We could get to more places in the car and we had more options with accommodation which was good, but there was no freedom camping. We also had to pack our stuff frequently with the car, but a downside of the camper is that all your worldly belongings are in it with you. Being in a car gave us the opportunity to use AirBnB and meet some fabulous people. Overall the places we stayed were of a high standard, and it was a very welcome break from campervan toilets and shower blocks. We did love the outdoor BBQ-ing mind!
All in all we loved both experiences. The South Island suits a campervan, the North suits a car, so we did well to get the combination right and it helped to make the most of our time in NZ.
We were very sad to leave as we have no idea when we'll ever be back. What a fabulous country. Could we live here? Oooh I think so...