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Monday, June 17, 2019

A Kiwi Christmas on New Zealand's North and South Islands

Dec 23, 2017 - Jan 7, 2018

I’ve been to over 50 countries in my lifetime.  Many of these are places I’ve loved visiting, but don’t feel any need to revisit, while others continue to open new doors to exploration each time I return.  New Zealand is one of those places.  I’ve been there five times, the most I’ve visited any country outside of places I’ve lived.  I’ve seen more of the country than I have probably any other country in the world.  And, it receives one of the highest honors I could bestow on a place – I’ve be willing to live there. 

So, it was no surprise that when my family agreed to come visit me in the South Pacific in Dec 2017, I rerouted them from Australia (where I was currently living) to New Zealand for an amazing 2.5 week holiday, ticking off more of my never-ending checklist of Kiwi adventures.

In the time, we’d explore the North Island from Auckland to Paihia and the South Island from Queenstown to Nelson along the wild West Coast.  I’ve provided the details from our trip in the blog post that follows but thought I’d start with some general advice upfront.
  • While we had a great time and stayed in some beautiful Airbnbs and hotels, there’s a reason most people see New Zealand (especially the South Island) by campervan.  It gives you the freedom to stop anywhere because you aren’t trying to get to a certain location to sleep and you can stay longer if something is cancelled or full when you arrive.
  • Avoid driving more than two hours in a day; by the time you add in all the stops it’s ALOT
  • You need a hat and a beach towel for this trip; just too many amazing water spots to jump in!
  • Snorkel and aqua socks would be good too since most places require a bit of a hike to access
  • And a waterproof camera!
Our adventure started in the North Island after an easy flight from Sydney to Auckland.  We stayed in a very small Airbnb for six people (I’d rethink that next time) but it was otherwise central.  There was six of us (Mom, Dad, Brother, Soon-to-be-Sister, and Boyfriend) so we ended up renting a hilariously large minivan for our roadtrip of the island.


The apple didn’t fall far from the family-obsessed-with-fantasy-movies, so you can imagine the excitement when my family found out I’d bought everyone tickets to Hobbiton for their Christmas gift.  The only downside of Hobbiton is it’s not really “on the way” to anything, so we had to dedicate a full day for the trip.

I’ve been to Disneyland, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, SeaWorld, Aquatica, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farm and countless other amusement parks all over the world… none of them compare to the magic of Hobbiton.  You literally expect to see hobbits appear around any corner.  Every single detail is there from the 200,000 leaves added to the Party Tree to the man-made lake to Bilbo’s 12 window house.  The best part is you are in groups of about 10-15 people and they spend enough time at each spot that you can get that perfect photo op, without random people milling about in the background.  I really appreciated that…. And the beer included in the ticket price.  The food was really good too! I was so impressed; it was well worth the $84 for the two hours; I’d highly recommend a visit whether you are a Lord of the Rings geek or not.

Paihia / Bay of Islands

We were up early the next day for our looooong drive to Paihia, up the coast to the famous Bay of Islands.  I’d researched a good coffee stop, but crazy-looking Café Eutopia was closed indefinitely for renovation, so we went across the street to Café Bianca (1958 State Highway 1) in the little town of Kaiwaka.  Some of the best hot cakes I’ve ever had.   

It’s was a long drive to Paihia, so we needed another pitstop and decided on Whangarei, just over halfway there.  As we approached, we passed Uretiti campsite on the beach which looked like a great spot for those looking for camping.

You have to be VERY patient when looking for parking in Whangarei; there are a lot of one-way streets and entrances and roundabouts so you might go in a few circles to get where you want to be.  Aim for the pier.  It’s a cute little port-side boardwalk with restaurants and shops lining the dock filled with boats.  We had delicious bloody mary’s at No. 8 Restaurant and Bar while listening to a live band.  Perfect stop before the final leg to Paihia.

The Airbnb we booked in Paihia was one of the best accommodations I’ve ever experienced.  WOW.  The main house has two bedrooms (and bathrooms) a kitchen, dining room and living room that all look out onto a wraparound deck.  Down below is a separate studio with its own bathroom.  For ~$250/night it was a steal.  The pictures on Airbnb don’t do it justice and the host couple were amazing (they don’t stay onsite but are in the area if you need anything).  It’s walking distance to the main downtown area (just turn right along the beach for a 10 min walk).  If you turn left, you can access a large Countdown for groceries. 

Paihia itself isn’t that exciting of a town to be honest – most of the excitement is out in the Bay of Islands.  I wish I’d booked more aquatic adventures, but at the same time it rained many of the four days we were there, which was a bit of a bummer.

The one adventure we did book was the Dolphin Eco Experience Cruise from Paihia with Fullers Greatsights Tour Company. I did a lot of research and felt that this boat was the best value for swimming with dolphins ($120 per person for the boat + $30 to swim with the dolphins).  They max the boat at 35 people and take you out for four hours so you have a pretty good chance of seeing dolphins.  Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to swim with a pod if they have babies and the pod we saw did, so we didn’t get to swim.  That was a pretty big bummer considering that’s why I booked it, but we did get our $30 dolphin fee back.  Regardless it was nice to be out on a boat, albeit pretty chilly and windy – bring a coat!

If you have additional time, I’d recommend doing a boat trip around the islands.  Hindsight 20/20, since I was hoping to swim with the dolphins, I kind of wished I’d done the island tour instead.  We did get a free drop-off in Russell, the town across the water from Paihia.  Much cuter little town; we had lunch at the Marlborough Tavern, which has amazing chips and chicken burgers.  We walked off lunch with a 30 min, very steep hike to Long Beach.  There’s a coffee cart ON the beach with epic cappuccinos.

When you aren’t gallivanting on the high seas, here are other restaurants and activities near Paihia that I enjoyed.
  • Coastal walk from Paihia to Opua – A beautiful walk, but beware the time of year because parts of it end up underwater. There is also no bus or ferry in between so be prepared to walk the whole thing or hitchhike your way back (we learned the hard way).
  • Alongside – great bar on the water that takes reservations.  A bit expensive, but great cocktails and the bar food was pretty good.
  • Charlotte's – also on the water with a more homey vibe than Alongside.  The pizza is delicious as are the margaritas.  Bring a jumper though because it can get a bit windy and cold later in the evening.  Wasn’t a huge fan of the staff though…
  • Movenpick Ice Creamery - super fresh waffle cone and who doesn’t love ice cream when it’s hot out?  Also, if you’ve never had Hokey Pokey flavor it’s a Kiwi classic.

Mermaid Pools

A few days after Christmas, we left our amazing Airbnb and began the drive back towards Auckland.  I’d heard of the Mermaid Pools in Matapouri which I had to see!  It was a very long, very windy road to get to beach (Take Highway 1 to Hirangi and then turn off).  The beaches on the way to Matapouri were equally beautiful, especially Sandy Bay.

It was still very windy when we arrived at Matapouri and I may have underestimated how difficult it is to get to the Mermaid Pools themselves. From the carpark, you have to walk the entire length of beach to the left.  You then follow the coastline to a very steep trail going uphill.  I recommend exploring with nothing more than waterproof camera and sunnies because you will have to wade through ocean up to your neck to get to the trailhead.  It can be a little intimidating if you aren’t a strong swimmer.

I found it easier to hike up the trail without shoes.  Make sure to give the person in front of you plenty of space – very slick in places.  My boyfriend almost took me out.

There are beautiful views from the top of the hill looking back towards the beach.  You go a bit farther down the far side of the hill and the Mermaid Pools appear below you.  You have to be very careful you aren’t in the pools when the tide comes in (or if it’s a choppy day) because you are right next to the open ocean and you don’t want to end up smashed against the side of the cliff.

If it’s a super sunny day I’d recommend bringing a hat and slopping on the sunscreen and leaving your towel in the car (you airdry pretty quick).  You can see why they are called Mermaid Pools as people pull themselves out of the pools to suntan on the surrounding rocks.  Unfortunately, for us it wasn’t wonderful weather, so we didn’t stay long.

Before reaching Auckland, we made a pitstop at Whangarei Falls because it’s located just off the main road - easy to stop and see.  I wish we had longer because you can swim around at the base of the falls.  Love how much Kiwis make use of their natural habitat!


After our exquisite Airbnb in Paihia, our Auckland Airbnb was a huge disappointment.  It was promoted as a two-bedroom apartment that fits four people, but the beds weren’t even big enough to fit my boyfriend or my dad.  We ended up giving my parents the Airbnb and booked ourselves a room at the Adina, which were very nice apartments.  We were exhausted from a long drive, but still decided to grab dinner at Café Hanoi.  Good thing we did, as the beef and veggie curry with rice would end up being the best meal of trip!

I’ve been to Auckland many times but always as a stop on the way to somewhere else.  I was excited to spend the next day getting to know this amazing city.

I started the day with a delicious coffee at Chuffed before brunch at Federal Delicatessen, which I wasn’t that impressed by.  The rest of the afternoon was spent walking Ponsonby Road, a hot bed of hip restaurants, shops and bars.  The Lane is a little “market” of restaurants including Burger Burger, heralded as once of the best burgers in Auckland… and yes, it lived up to the hype! 

We walked off lunch by traversing the city to Brother’s Brewery, which I had visited on a previous trip.  Unfortunately, it was closed, so we went back to the hotel to change before dinner at Mekong Baby.  The pork belly and spicy chicken curry were incredible, but the cocktails were overpriced and not very good.  Very cool atmosphere and décor in the restaurant and the staff was lovely.  It was a great ending to our Auckland stay.


Next day we were up early and out the door for our flight to the South Island.  It was a quick trip down to Queenstown where we checked in to Pepper’s Beacon - amazing views and a spacious two-bedroom apartment, but a little dated.  I thought the shower door was going to come off in my hand.  But the private deck looking out over Lake Wakatipu made it all worth it.  It’d be a perfect viewing spot for the New Year’s Eve fireworks!

As the only person who’d been to Queenstown before, I eagerly lead my parents and partner to my favorite restaurant, Winnie's, for some delicious pizza.  Winnie’s is somewhat famous among backpackers and locals alike.  It’s known for the retractable roof that they occasionally open during snowfall so that the snowflakes float down onto the dance floor!

We spent the rest of the day window-shopping, sipping coffees and eating. 

Some of my favorite spots in Queenstown:

  • Base Shop - bought a very cute rain jacket that I then had to use an hour later
  • Joes Garage – very good coffee (and espresso martinis)
  • Below Zero – hokey tourist bar where the entire bar is made of ice, but still fun!  Just make sure to wear closed toed shoes… I almost froze my toes off. Also, there are plenty of promoters handing out cards in town for free entry (save $20)!
  • No 5 – great dinner option with a tasting menu including dessert and wine
  • Bespoke – tried to go here for breakfast (best brekkie) but it was packed
  • World Bar – delicious chicken and waffles
  • The Winery – wine shop where they are happy to give you a few free tastes if you look like you’ll buy some bottles
  • Coalfire – incredible BBQ (grilled chicken, pork belly, ribs, Mac n’ cheese)
  • Barmuda – dance club with house beats (good NYE option!)
  • Bardeaux – after dinner drinks or pre-party drinks.  Great wine list.
  • Fergburger – famous burgers but the line these days is insane.

For NYE, they had a whole festival setup down by the water with live music and food stalls.  We listened to the band for a bit and then when back to our awesome deck for champagne and fireworks! Dad accidentally popped the champagne two minutes early which was pretty hilarious.  Turns out our hotel was a bit far from the fireworks so they were small and the display was very short, but still fun to ring in the new year together!

New day, New Year!  We were up early to see off my boyfriend – it’d just be my parents and I traveling the rest of the South Island.  After an amazing breakfast at Pub on the Wharf, we took the TSS Earnslaw Steamboat Tour to Walter Peak Farm at the other end of Lake Wakatipu ($105 ticket per person which you can buy at the wharf).  It was sunny and warm and we drank cold craft beer on our way to the farm.  Granted I’d still bring a light jacket because it can get breezy sitting outside on the deck. The ticket includes an all-you-can-eat BBQ lunch on the water.  The food was outstanding (which is unusual for a tour).  In fact, it was the best part of the tour.  We learned how to shear and herd sheep (two skills I had been lacking) and went for a swim in the lake with the ducks.  In total it’s a 1.5 hr boat ride plus 2 hours on the island, which was the perfect amount of time.  A LOVELY day.

Lake Wanaka à Fox Glacier

Next day, we left Queenstown to drive Highway 6 towards Lake Wanaka.  We stopped in Arrowtown for lunch at Chop Shop, which was my other favorite meal of the trip.  The pork belly bao, corn fitters and beef cheek are outstanding!  They have outdoor deck sitting and give you funny straw hats to ward off the sun.  Very cute. It’s right next to Blue Door, which is a great wine bar, but it was too early in the day to be open.

The goal was to get to Fox Glacier by the end of the day, but we took our time getting there passing lakes and waterfalls and picturesque little towns.
  • Amisfield Winery – stopped for a tasting. Wines were okay.
  • Cardrona Canyon – you drive through the canyon to get to Lake Wanaka; amazing views
  • Lake Wanaka – spent a few hours here – great for swimming, fun shops and delicious beers.  I’d spend more time here next trip
  • Albert Town – we passed a bunch of people swimming and tubing down the river which looked very fun
  • Lake Hawea – huge, beautiful photo opportunity
  • Blue Pools Walk – just past Makarora.  Be on the lookout because it’s not obvious.
  • Haast - first coastal town and the last petroleum for 120km (be sure to stop!)
  • Bruce Bay - pretty beach with waves

Advance warning – there is no wifi or data from Lake Wanaka to Fox Glacier so make sure you’ve taken a photo of the map (or bring a physical one).  You’ll also have to wait to upload all those Instagrams!  The portion of the trip also showcased why so many people choose to take a month and do New Zealand by campervan.  I did feel a bit rushed and would’ve stopped to stay in some of the natural areas if I’d been able to camp.  Oh well, next time!

Fox Glacier is a small town with two pubs.  We stayed at the Alpine Glacier Motel, which was straight out of the movie, Hot Tub Time Machine.  The rooms were huge so I recommend booking the cheapest option. It was a quick walk to Blue Ice Café and Bar for delicious pizza.  Everything in the town, besides the bar, closes at 9pm (even the gas station snack shop) so make sure if you are hiking the glacier that you buy all your snacks early the day before.

You might have guessed by now, why we stopped in Fox Glacier / Franz Josef – yes, I would be hiking the glacier (alarm clock set to 6:45am for the 8:30am departure via helicopter).  I packed up my camera, sunnies, etc, and whistled my way down to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour office for my $480 heli glacier hike, only to find out that the glacier trip was cancelled due to the downpour.  I was devastated.  This was the thing I’d been most looking forward to on this trip (other than Hobbiton of course).

Nothing else was open until 10am and I was wide awake – at least the coffee I got at Full of Beans was good.  Let’s just say I was in a dark mood as we got back in the car and started driving towards Punakaiki.

The weather just kept getting better and better…and my mood got darker and darker.  My parents tried to lighten the mood with some cheesy gold mining in Ross (terrible) and brewery lunch at Monteith in Greymouth (beer was great, food was less great), but it wasn’t until Coal Creek Falls that my mood got better.  I couldn’t help myself; the 30 min walk down to the falls, under the shield of trees in the middle of nature, brought me back.  And the falls themselves were gorgeous, definitely the highlight of the day before pulling into the Punakaiki Resort. 


The resort is right on the beach and we had a little two-bed share house with a deck.  We arrived just before sunset, so we made a mad dash for Pancake Rocks.  Wow, what a cool natural landscape.  I completely forgot my morning and was lulled into absolute peace by the sun setting to the waves crashing on the pancake-shaped rocks.

Pancake Rocks is one of the top destinations on the West Coast of the South Island.  The name comes from the appearance of the rocks – thin layers of limestone and animal/plant sediment have undergone immense pressure giving them the squashed look of a bunch of pancakes stacked on top of each other.  So cool.  The sea has also eroded the underside of the rock formations in many places, creating blowholes that at high tide cause eruptions of water high up into the air.

Thoroughly satisfied we returned to the resort.  Unfortunately, we realized too later that our room did not have A/C and only a small fan, so we spent the night arguing over leaving the windows open to the mosquitoes or sleeping in deathly heat.

A bit grumpy and tired of driving, we got back on the road headed for Westport where we stopped at the Portside Bistro for breakfast.  Probably random to have fish cakes for breakfast but they were pretty good!  We then wasted two hours seeing a bunch of seals before getting back on the road and then stopping at Hokitika Suspension Bridge where I attempted to swim in the river but the sand flies were awful.  We pushed on towards Nelson, our final stop of the trip.


Staying in Nelson was my first mistake.  We had come to hike in the Abel Tasman National Park, which is another hour drive from Nelson.  If you are planning to spend most of your time in the park, I recommend staying in Moteuka instead.  My second mistake was the Airbnb I booked was actually just a little room off someone’s house, so I ended up on a couch instead of a bed.  At least it had an awesome deck.

We were exhausted on arrival so grabbed a quick, easy dinner at Char, which was delicious with a welcoming staff - needed after such a long drive.  sad to hear they've closed down since my trip...

We were moving pretty slowly the next day and found out that the tours for Abel Tasman depart very early, so we decided to dedicate the day to wine-tasting instead – a favorite family activity.  We grabbed a very good breakfast at the Boat Shed Café on the water before heading to the wineries.  We are red wine drinkers, and New Zealand is known for white wine, so we picked wineries based on views and if they had any reds to try.
  • Kina Cliffs - beautiful views but wine was only okay
  • Himmelsfeld - Beth was lovely and her Sav Blanc was incredible.  This was my favorite winery as Beth does it all herself with the help of her Romney sheep who keep the vines in shape.
  • Neudorf - had a beautiful back patio where we consumed a lot of cheese; could've stayed all afternoon
  • Kahurangi - Amanda was awesome

We ended the day in Mapua township which was very quaint and cute.  The Golden Bear Pub had live music and you can bring in amazing fish and chips from Smokehouse.  Spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the sun – loved it.

We finished out the evening at Urban Eatery which also had amazing food – the salad with zucchini flowers, bao buns & Kung pao chicken were our favorites.  It’s very popular, so be prepared for quite a wait to get a table during peak times, but very worth it.  Great espresso martinis too!

Abel Tasman

We all agreed that we needed a break from walking and driving so we decided to do a day trip to Abel Tasman by sea!  We booked the Beaches, Bays & Seals Guided Kayak trip with Wilsons Abel Tasman for $175 per person.  The ticket includes your water transportation (you can’t drive into Abel Tasman) to the kayaks, a full day of kayaking with lunch, and transport back.  You can also do an unguided hike at the end which I decided to do (Mom and Dad went back early).

The water transportation is called a “scenic boat cruise” but not really the case.  You are in a tiny boat getting sprayed with water and only one side of the boat is really getting the photo opportunities.  Better hope your camera is waterproof because I wouldn’t use your phone.  Very bumpy too so more likely your phone will end up in the ocean.  You pass Split Apple Rock, a famous rock formation, that I thought was pretty…whatever.

Next was the guided kayak tour, which was awesome.  You kayak from Torrent to Frenchman’s Bay which takes about 2.5 hours (not including breaks) and you get to see the seals playing near Pinnacle Island.  It was pretty hectic, rough seas so I don’t recommend for kayaking newbies or people with a fear of the ocean.  Definitely almost turned over a number of times.

You then get water transport back to Kaiteriteri (where you parked your car).  I decided to do the unguided hike with a couple girls my age that I met on the tour which is another 2 hours through the national park.  Highly recommend bringing a towel, a rain jacket and a fleece just in case.  We got hit by a huge thunderstorm and I was freezing by the time I returned to the car hours later but the hike itself was scenic and sunny (for the most part). There was even a mini-falls you could slide down. Overall, a must-see, must-do part of New Zealand.  One day was not enough; this would be top of the list to return to on my next visit. 

In conclusion, yet another incredible visit to New Zealand. Every time I visit, I expect to finally have seen it all, but instead one stop opens doors to so many more adventures I want to try.  And, I’ve got to go back to Fox Glacier since it evaded me this time!  Maybe next time with just have to be by campervan.

1 comment:

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