We picked up our rental car from the airport and headed to the city. It was our first time driving on the left hand side of the road so that was a little nerve-racking. After a nice hot shower at our Airbnb, we walked up Mount Eden for a gorgeous view of the city skyline. We then walked through the bustling Queen Street and explored Auckland city center. Later that evening, we drove over to the West Coast to Piha Beach to catch the sunset. We walked the Mercer Bay Loop Track which took us to the top of steep cliffs dropping into the Tasman Sea.
Rangitoto Island is a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland city center. There is a trail that leads right up to the top of the crater on the volcanic island. On our way back down, we took a little detour to check out the lava caves. We spent around 3 hours on the island, including time at the top of the mountain and a picnic lunch.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
Our hosts in Auckland recommended this as a must-see in New Zealand, and I’m glad we took their advice! The ceilings of these caves in Waitomo are filled with photo-luminescent glow worms. There is absolute silence inside the caves except for a drip of water here and there — magical!
In Rotorua, we visited the traditional Maori village of Whakarewarewa (pronounced fa-ka-re-wa-re-wa). The Maori are the indigenous polynesian people of New Zealand. We were greeted by a cultural dance performance followed by a guided tour of their village. The highlight of the tour was to see how the Maori live in harmony with nature and how they harness the free geothermal energy effectively and sustainably. We ate some sweet corn cooked fresh inside a hot spring, saw their traditional communal baths and got to peek at a full dinner being cooked in a traditional Hangi.
Whakarewarewa is filled with numerous hot springs, geysers and emerald pools. After our tour of the village, we went on a nature walk on the outskirts to explore the beautiful surroundings.
After checking in into our Airbnb, we went on a sunset walk by the lake. It was a little chilly in the evening so there weren’t too many people around. We got dinner at an Indian Restaurant right by the lake — great food with a great view!
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Tongariro Alpine Crossing aka “The Crossing” is rated one of the best day hikes in the world. It’s 19.4km one way and we chose to do it from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi. We parked our car at Ketetahi Car Park in the morning and took a shuttle bus which took us to the trailhead. Mount Tongariro is an active volcano and the alpine terrain can get pretty challenging, especially on a rainy day. For the first part of the hike, the horizon is dominated by Mount Ngauruhoe (which plays Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings). Once we climb up to the rim of Red Crater, the trail descends sharply towards the Emerald Pools. The view is stunning and totally worth the grueling uphill climb.
We were in Wellington on Christmas Eve. Most people had the day off from work and the streets were teeming with last minute shoppers and people just enjoying the perfect weather. We went to Cuba Street for lunch, took a long stroll on the boardwalk by the water and wandered aimlessly on the streets to get a feel for the city’s vibe. We returned our rental car at the Interislander Ferry Terminal in Wellington and hopped on the ferry to head to the South Island for the remainder of our trip.
The ferry from Wellington to Picton is three hours long. We picked up a rental car from Picton and drove to Cape Foulwind on the West Coast. Our Airbnb at Cape Foulwind was a small piece of paradise. When we woke up in the morning, the room was drenched with sunlight, and we could hear the birds chirping in the gardens outside and the sound of waves crashing on the cliffs in the distance. We walked around the beach and then headed over to Tauranga Bay to check out the Seal Colony there. We continued our drive down the West Coast making a brief stop at Punakaiki to see the famous Pancake Rocks.
Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Village was our base for visiting Glacier Country. We picked up some fruits and snacks from the local supermarket and set off on the Roberts Point Track (trailhead at the Franz Josef Glacier Car Park). The trail requires a good head for heights as there are several wobbly suspension bridges over raging rivers.
In many parts, the trail is not well formed and we had to scramble over loose rocks and jump over some slippery soil. Roberts Point is a fantastic view point of the Franz Josef Glacier and a great way to enjoy the glacier far away from the tourists. Later that evening, we went to the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef Village to unwind and relax our sore muscles from the arduous hike that morning.
The next day, we made short stops at Lake Matheson and Fox Glacier before driving over to Wanaka.
We stayed in an Airbnb at Lake Hawea, a 20 minute drive from Wanaka. Wanaka city center is located right by the lake and has great shopping and dining options. We rented mountain bikes and set off on the lakeshore biking trail. Lake Wanaka is situated in a beautiful setting with the Southern Alps in the horizon. The water is crystal clear and full of adventurous kayakers and swimmers. That evening, we hiked up Mount Iron to get a bird’s eye view of the city by the lake.
We drove from Wanaka to Te Anau Downs and stayed at Fiordland National Park Lodge. We reached Milford Sound bright and early and enjoyed the peaceful waters and crystal clear reflections of Mitre Peak and other fjords in the vicinity. We cruised at 9am and enjoyed the views of the many fjords and waterfalls along the way. After our cruise, we did a small 3 hour hike up to Key Summit.
The next morning, we hiked the Gertrude Saddle Track. Mr. Frugal Hacker dubbed this the Half Dome of New Zealand. It’s a relatively short trail (only ~5 miles round trip) but the real challenge is the terrain. We scrambled up huge rocks, crossed the base of a waterfall, walked up loose sand, used cables to climb up large slippery stones, and navigated snow and ice to climb over to the Gertrude Saddle.
We were tremendously lucky with the weather — it was perfectly sunny and there was a mild cool breeze. Any precipitation during the hike would have made the rocks too slippery and the climb overly treacherous. The struggle was rewarded with the most beautiful view of the valley with Milford Sound in the distance. The harder the effort, the better the reward.
The drive from Milford Sound to Te Anau is beautiful in its own right. Surrounded by waterfalls, lush valleys and majestic mountains, anywhere your eyes land is paradise. We stopped by Cascade Creek to walk through the wild lupine fields. The variegated colors and fragrance of the flowers are magical.
New Year’s Eve in Queenstown is a pretty big deal. The whole city was out partying and Earnslaw Park was full to the brim. We walked around town and lost ourselves in the crowds. We decided to also get some delicious gelato from Ferg Gelateria to celebrate the end of a fabulous 2015.
We woke up bright and early on New Years Day and walked around Queenstown. We grabbed brunch at Ivy & Lola’s and took a stroll on the boardwalk. We spent the day checking out the local shops and walking around aimlessly through the streets. In the evening, we kayaked through Lake Wakatipu and had wonderful views of the city from the water. We waited in line for two hours for a burger at Fergburger (it’s a thing) and followed up with some delicious ice cream at Patagonia. Queenstown was a great place to unwind and relax at the end of our action-packed trip.
Pro-tips for future NZ travelers
- We saved ~$200 per person by booking our Interislander Ferry tickets through Wendekreisen. This could have been a one-off thing as we travelled on Christmas Eve when demand was off the charts, but worth checking anyway.
- The cost of taking a car on the Interislander Ferry is pretty steep. We emailed Avis in advance to break out our rental reservation into two portions so that we could drop off in Wellington and pick up in Picton for no extra fee.
- We used our free international roaming data (thank you T-Mobile) everywhere in New Zealand for navigation and looking up information on the go. Except for the rural areas on the West Coast of the Southern Island and Milford Sound, most areas had great cell reception.
- We used bookme.co.nz for last-minute deals on activities and tours. Think of this as priceline for activities.
- If you’re planning to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, highly recommend booking a shuttle the night prior to your hike. You can check weather forecast with the shuttle operators and guarantee your spot in the morning. We booked our shuttle service with Tongariro Expeditions and recommend them for punctuality and professionalism.
- If you’re planning to stay in Queenstown for New Year’s Eve, book your accommodation well in advance as everything gets sold out/price per night goes upwards of $400. No kidding.
- There are no gas stations or grocery stores beyond Te Anau on the way to Milford Sound, so stock up on supplies and fuel in Te Anau.