Since I freshly came back from New Zealand I thought I would deviate from the norm and do a post on my recent trip. I mean, I’ve been benefiting from the shared online itineraries so I might as well contribute one of my own. Plus, this one includes recommendations on gelato. Who can resist that? (Caveat: don’t get your hopes too high though, we didn’t get to try as many as we would have liked. Too much time taken with day tours. On the other hand, you would get a lot of details on the 3 meals of the day.)
All quoted prices are in New Zealand dollars unless stated otherwise.
Day 0: Melbourne > Auckland
This is essentially just us catching a direct flight from Melbourne to Auckland and arriving at 5am the next day. So I called this day 0.
Day 1: Auckland Explorer bus tour
I mostly dozed off amidst the audio guide on board the Explorer bus. Mum and me got off at stop 8- Bastion Point and tried to get to Mission Bay except that we gave up too early, thinking it was the wrong way since we had to go down a set of stairs and cross the street. When we asked a local, that turned out to be the shortest way/only way (should have trusted the sign but we lacked confidence). So we gave up and just took the Explorer bus back to Sky City.
We did yumcha for lunch at Huami next door. I should have caught on that it was not the Cantonese style yumcha that we are used to do since the name of the restaurant is based on the Mandarin pinyin. We ordered 5 things and 4 of them were either too salty or had other problems. Only one dish was exactly right according to our taste. Still, I already booked to have dinner there on day 3.
We had dinner at Tony’s Original Steakhouse and Seafood restaurant that night. They do a seafood platter at $55.5 that is more than ample for two like us with a small appetite. In fact, we left a whole fried blue cod and fries untouched but we had eaten most of the other seafood. Highly recommended.
Accommodation: Skycity Hotel (4 stars, 3 nights stay)
It was on special on Booking.com the day I booked it but the original price might be slightly pricey. I was actually specifically looking for it given the stuff I heard about Super Shuttles and how if your flight was delayed you would miss your booked shuttle ride to the hotel. So, as I was looking for a replacement for Super Shuttles, I found the SkyDrive bus which only goes between the Auckland airport and the Sky Tower basically. I didn’t end up taking the SkyDrive bus in Auckland ever though as my Booking.com reservation came with a free taxi ride from Auckland airport to SkyCity Hotel. Anyway, I would recommend the hotel- it’s a good modern hotel with a spacious room. The queen size bed is a little shorter than standard issue in Australia but since we are 1.5m or shorter that’s okay for us. Staff is eager to help when you ask directions and ask them to book taxis for you (there is actually a taxi stop right outside the hotel with two taxis there 24/7 but out of caution the concierge booked a 5am taxi for us for our flight to Queenstown). And when I was wrongly deducted for room service lunch from the deposit (I didn’t check the receipt carefully because our booked taxi to the airport arrived early and I was rushing off) and emailed the hotel about it, reply and the rectification of this error was very prompt.
Day 2: Auckland Hobbiton, Rotorua and Waimoto caves tour
Hobbiton was a disappointment- just a big bus loading you in and then walking around taking pics of hobbit holes that look the same except for colour of doors while following a guide- although I think I’ve always known this at the back of my mind. I only went because I’m a loyal LOTR fan and I thought Mum would be interested in taking pics of the colourful hobbit holes.
Rotorua (I think I had picked a photo of Rotorua from free stock at the top, we didn’t see that particular view though on that day) was kind of just a filler on this tour- we were only taken to the region where we could see white steam rising off the gutter and behind a hospital and then a park where we could see mud bubbling and a massive wave of white steam rising off Lake Rotorua. But this is understandable since the distance covered is just huge. We were picked up from hotel at 6:25am and our guide/driver was kind enough to drop us all off back at our hotels as opposed to Auckland CBD as it was written down on Viator because we ended up coming back at 7:30pm instead of 6:30pm so it was pitch dark already. Then again, I wasn’t sure if we could stand longer at Rotorua given the sulfurous smell. Mum especially has a sensitive nose and she just wanted to run away.
Waimoto Glowworm Caves was really the highlight of this day for me. The 30 hour walk around the cave was nothing special since I had been to a similar cave in China already but the talk through of the stalactites and stalagmites were much better with an actual guide telling you and shining a torch at the stone formations- in China, you had to listen to an audio guide instead which I found tedious (and the device resembles a walkman but since I’ve never used a walkman before I didn’t know how to put the damn thing on and the staff was impatient with me because he expected that as part of the younger generation I would be able to put it on myself.) Then the boat trip was definitely worth gold. It was like entering another world, with the glow worms seeming like constellations above your heads and everything so quiet that you could hear the sound of the water dripping down from the roof of the cave.
Food-wise, the tour included a buffet lunch at Te Puia. The food available were reasonable- Mum had some Chinese fried noodles and cold prawns and vanilla ice-cream for dessert. I had cold prawns and 2 slices of ham that were too salty. I didn’t like any of the hot food available so I didn’t have dessert in case too much cold food ingested causes diarrhoea (I had that before). For breakfast and dinner, we made do with a packet of 4 large croissants that we picked up from Countdown supermarket (aka Safeway/Woolworths) the day before. $4.6 in total for two meals for two (but applicable only for those with smaller than usual appetite).
Day 3: Auckland half-day scenic tour
To be honest, we actually regretted booking this tour in some ways. We did get a nice Auckland panoramic photo out of this tour but it’s much more tiring than I thought it would be when I booked it. This is one of the three tours I booked with GetYourGuide instead of Viator (and the only one we actually went to, more on that later) and I much prefer Viator. The description of each tour is just crystal clear on Viator whereas GetYourGuide often contains confusing or too sparse descriptions and doesn’t provide as easy correspondence with the activity provider.
One of the things we didn’t expect was that there would be so much going through the timbers used in houses constructed in different eras and in general just cruising by suburbs, so much that Mum commented the guide/driver was like a real estate agent. The other thing was that when I got into contact with the activity provider to ask about whether we had to hike on the visit to the 2 extinct volcanoes covered by the tour I was assured that one would be a flat walk and the other would only be a 5 minute gentle hike. However, on the day our guide/driver winged things a lot (from the perspective of the sparse tour description set out) and we eventually did a little hike and then crawled under a tunnel to see a gunning chamber even on the flat volcano visit. And the so-called gentle hike was already quite steep at the start so we just asked to stay in the car since we had to catch a very early flight to Queenstown the next day. Also, it’s like 15 minutes as opposed to 5 minutes.
We had a pancake breakfast at Denny’s which was just a street over from SkyCity but I was disappointed- the pancakes were too big and thick which essentially made them flavourless. Since it was an afternoon tour, we decided we couldn’t really go out for lunch that day and just had room service- 6 pieces of tempura prawn and 2 juices (we were offered $40 credit for not using cleaning service throughout our stay so we used it up for lunch). For dinner, we had crayfish and a pot of fried eggplants (one of Mum’s favourite dishes) at Huami and that blew out our budget for this meal to thrice what I had estimated because… I was completely amazed that Mum forgot to ask what the seasonal price for crayfish was for that day before she ordered! And she had worked as a cashier in the food industry for over 10 years in Hong Kong! Moral of the story: always ask for the seasonal price before ordering! I made sure I did that afterwards, for oysters. Also, since that day I learnt that seafood was produced in the South Island, not the North Island. Ah well, you can’t research them all. Anyway, the crayfish was quite tasty and certainly better than the Australian lobster we had in Melbourne. It was cooked from alive crayfish, unlike the frozen lobster we sampled only once in Melbourne. And thankfully, it wasn’t too salty- we asked to have it wok-fried with ginger and spring onions, which also coincide with the usual request for its preparation.
The other overall pity with our Auckland stay was that we had no time to search out ice cream/gelato. I did suss out that Miann at Britomart was a candidate but had no time to go (I passed over Giapo which doesn’t sell single scoops and it’s a bit awkward for Mum and me- we can’t each eat a separate 2 scoop cone and we both like the waffle cone so sharing one is tricky as well). Related to that, Mum actually made the lament that we should have canceled this tour and just went around the CBD searching for gelato. Ah well.
Day 4: Queenstown to Arrowtown return trip
We took an early morning flight from Auckland to Queenstown and instead of taking the SkyDrive bus like I planned originally and have to lug luggage ourselves, Mum decided she preferred to take a taxi so we took the booked cab that concierge arranged for us which actually arrived early by half an hour. Funny thing was that New Zealand Airways actually didn’t open that early and we had to wait until we could properly check in. We landed in Queenstown around 9am. We took the line 1 Fernhill bus from airport to hotel and as soon as we stowed away our luggage at the hotel, we went to catch the line 2 bus to Arrowtown.
Now, just let me deviate a bit and talk about the Beecard which you use to catch public buses in Queenstown. Going by research from a blog, I was actually looking for what I assumed was a news agency within the airport to get a Beecard but actually you can just get one from the bus driver. And I assumed that the $5 fee to get the actual card doesn’t go towards the actual credit for travel which turned out to be wrong and we were left with $9 surplus after we topped up $10. Also, something you might not be used to is that you get a single Beecard to share for two people and you have to tap off twice or so I was told to pay for two people instead of one (in practice, I think I tried to tap off twice but it didn’t work. And I have no idea why we are left with a $9 surplus instead of $8 since each trip is $2 each. We didn’t tap off on this particular day because there was just a crowd getting off at Arrowtown and Mum just copied other people when she saw no one tapping off. Maybe that screwed up the fare calculation).
If you wanted to shoot pics of red maple trees then actually you wanted to head towards where you can see an unobscured view of the mountain ranges because otherwise you get more yellow trees except for some odd red ones in the entrance car park.
We originally planned to do the Lake Hayes Walkway but we were dressed wrong for that- we brought along two fluffy jackets that we didn’t put away with the luggage and imagine carrying that around as we did a 3 hr return trip! We did the practical thing and gave up after we asked for directions at the Lakes District Museum.
When it came lunch time in Arrowtown, we were both not hungry and ended up getting 2 cones at Chocolate Patagonia instead. Mum had the coffee and cream and I had the hazelnut. We were both satisfied with the flavour we ordered. The cone was the most crispy we had ever tasted and the thickest too, so it was really crunchy.
We had dinner at 7:30pm at Finz Seafood&Grill back in Queenstown along Steamer Wharf just across from our hotel. We had oysters to share for starters. Compared to our Tasmanian oysters, NZ oysters seemed to be bigger and thicker, with a different taste. The seasonal price was $43 half a dozen that night. For mains, Mum had the handmade spaghetti with prawns, clams and baby octopus whereas I had the tuna loin with soba noodles. As is the Chinese wont, we shared the mains around and I preferred the soba noodle which was thinner and more smooth compared to the spaghetti. I actually didn’t know the tuna would be partially raw when I ordered (it obviously didn’t advertise that on the menu). But compared to raw meat, I could accept less than well cooked fish and the tuna was very tender. Also, NZ seemed to have very sweet prawns compared to Australia. Mum liked her spaghetti very much.
Accommodation: Crowne Plaza Queenstown (4 stars, 4 nights stay)
On a per night basis, this is actually slightly cheaper than SkyCity Hotel at the discounted rate but not as good value for money. Firstly, the room is smaller but that’s no big issue. What I found problematic was that it has really poor sound penetration, made worse because it seems to be converted from some kind of shared accommodation where each room has two interconnecting rooms to each of the neighbouring rooms (which I assumed were sealed but Mum actually asked me whether people could break in from the other sides). It also didn’t help that we had one particular annoying neighbour who would bang the interconnecting door whenever we talked a little loud at around 9-10pm. And it’s not as if that’s our fault that a 4 star hotel has such poor sound-proofing.
So why the 4 stars? The only answer I could come up with is that it’s conveniently located in the CBD with a bus stop right in front to the airport and has balconies with a lake side view. But personally I don’t think that makes up entirely for the noise problem. Nevertheless, the staff is really friendly and withstands me going into reception twice a day to ask directions during my stay and even one night after we checked out of the hotel and had to get to an ATM urgently to take out cash for Super Shuttle rides etc. Concierge also helped out when I had a freak out moment with one of my tours just the next day.
Actually, for those with a more tight budget, I would suggest staying at Frankton (a suburb as opposed to the CBD) or Arrowtown if you knew you were definitely going there and didn’t mainly travel in NZ via day tours like I did (because then hotel pickup is not likely offered or going to the meeting place might be tricky, especially for early pickup times).
Day 5: Queenstown Skippers Canyon tour
Pickup from hotel was 8:15am and we went over to Mrs Ferg on Beach Street (since our hotel was on Beach Street) to have a croissant breakfast. Very tasty after heating. Then when it came pick up time, we had a freak out moment since we went outside on the clock (it was cold outside) and found that there was no van waiting for us and the hotel clock outside said 8:20am. Quickly I rushed back into the hotel and told reception of this issue and I was handed over to the concierge who rang the tour company for me.
Staff who picked up on the tour company was impatient with the concierge (this was a landline so I could only hear the concierge but I deduced from what I could hear on the hotel site) and also with me when the concierge passed over the phone to me. I was told that I was supposed to reconfirm but on the confirmation email I got sent and printed out before I boarded my flight to NZ, I never read anything about the need to reconfirm. There was no further contact from the tour company until the day before the tour and it was just the same email as the original confirmation email. The concierge even read the tour printout I showed him and came to the same conclusion as me. At any rate, because I already paid in advance, a van was sent out within 5 minutes to pick us up. So, overall, satisfying conclusion to the issue.
Now, originally I planned for a one-day visit to Twizel on this day. But then I realised that the whole point of the trip was to visit Lake Ruataniwha and there was only less than 2 hours for us to get to the lake before we have to rush back to the bus stop to catch the ride back to Queenstown. I timed our morning 1 big lap around the house and found that our speed was 37 minutes for a little over 2km meaning that we won’t ever make the lake in between the same-day bus rides. That ruled out the Twizel trip and boy, was I glad that I did that and picked up Skippers Canyon instead. Despite the choppy start to the day, the tour was just great. By happy accident, we had a whole van to just me and Mum.
By the way, this is the only tour that you couldn’t do yourself if you’ve got a rental car. The road to Skippers Canyon is a public road which means that pedestrians and mountain bikers can access it as well as those with a 4WD car but it is closed to rental cars due to insurance reasons. It is a very dangerous road going up with no railing for some parts and very steep corners that come out of nowhere. The road is also likely closed off in winter for safety reasons.
For those who like history, Skippers Canyon is full of history to do with a gold rush originating in Arthur’s Point. And the views along the way are stunning- there are strange rock formations as well as views from being up high. I personally suffer from a mild fear of heights but I feel safe enough in a car. The only instance when it flared was when I came out to take a photo near two rock formations. (Well, there was a mini instance when I was looking down on the big vista down below at one point where I could see Arrowtown and the airport. I was fine for about 10-15 minutes and then I felt a big weak in the legs.)
We skipped lunch for that day because the tour included a morning tea. We each had a choc chip cookie and was sated. In the afternoon, we set out for the Frankton trail. At first, I was intending to catch a bus to the Frankton golf course and then walk to Frankton beach 10 minutes away but reception showed me it’s much simpler to just start from the hotel and then navigate to Queenstown gardens to start on the trail. So that’s what we did. We actually detoured to the Marine Parade a little along the way since that’s just along the shores of Lake Wakatipu but we pretty much followed the directions set out by reception to get to Queenstown gardens. We dallied a little within the gardens to take pics of red trees and when we found the start of the trail we decided we had enough walking already and had no need to embark on the actual trail. We almost got lost over which way to exit the Gardens but was pointed the right direction by a local.
I reserved a table at Jervois Steakhouse for dinner because Mum asked me to (even though she’s like almost a vegetarian and has a thing against big chunks of meat but she just saw recommendations on blogs and decided she wanted to try a steak). It was a very popular place- we had to wait downstairs for our table in the bar when we arrived half an hour early but it was warm inside so that was okay. The waitress did a detailed explanation on the seasonal price for oysters and what dishes on the menu were not available etc before I even ordered. We ended up not ordering steak at all (because the smallest was still over 200g and I figured that we could only ever handle 100g which is like a non-existent size for a steak) but rather seafood- half a dozen oysters for starters again for $40, a prawn entree that ended up being very close to how we cook prawns the Chinese way and the most tender salmon we’ve ever had (I figured it’s probably the most tender part of the salmon). So that was a great meal just like the dinner the day before.
Day 6: Queenstown to Wanaka return trip
Not exactly a tour but I paid in advance for a Queenstown to Wanaka return trip with Ritchies transport and it was $120 for one adult and a senior inclusive of GST (it’s cheaper to book online like I did). It’s really more like a bus service except that you ride in a small van and it runs 4 services daily to and from Wanaka. I booked the earliest service to Wanaka and the latest back. That meant we arrived in Wanaka at 10:30am.
The main goal of the day was basically to walk around Lake Wanaka until we got to the Wanaka tree and that’s actually a while- we kept thinking we would turn the corner around the lake and the corner kept being ahead of us. But I think we eventually got there just before 2pm, with plenty of stops along the way for photos.
We then had a belated lunch at Lake view Seafood, a Chinese restaurant, as we didn’t like any of the cafes and I missed the Cow. We walked past an ice-cream place en route but didn’t feel like it instead of lunch this time. We ordered a wanton soup (containing 3 not that tasty but very filling wantons), a beef rice noodles and a veggie dish that came up to $70. Mum remembered the food as being terrible whereas I remembered it being average, not that great.
We were going to have dinner at either Lakeside Palace or Cody’s (both Chinese restaurants) but since it was dark we ended up going to the Mandarin Restaurant which was closer to our hotel. We had Peking duck, salt and pepper prawns, a vegetable dish and rice. Originally I had wanted to try scampi sushimi so that we were not always have oysters for starters. But I was quite tired that day and just didn’t feel like cold food at all. The Peking duck was okay except they didn’t heat the wrapping for us (initially Mum wasn’t going to order rice, thinking we would get by with the wrappings, luckily I persisted). The salt and pepper prawns were large but clearly not as good as the other prawns we had (although it wasn’t too salty as I thought it would be, prawn still tasted slightly sweet, just not as fresh as those prepared in Western restaurants) and then again, usually Chinese food cooked via salt and pepper is a signal that the key ingredient is not that fresh or is frozen in the first place. The cost of the meal was actually slightly larger than either Finz or Jervois at around $120- this meal cost us around $150. Mum decided we would have no more Chinese restaurants after this day. My original plan was actually to have Chinese dinner 2 more times while in Queenstown but instead we decided to rebook Finz or Jervois instead for when we returned to Queenstown for the second time.
Day 7: Queenstown Milford Sound tour
I booked a small group tour through Viator with Altitude Tours and overall, I’m quite happy with it (they offered free wifi on their vans which was not offered with the other tours and apparently you got $30 off the next tour by using coupon codes that your driver/guide would tell you).
We had super luck with the weather. Apparently for a good Milford Sound tour it had to be raining in Queenstown the day before which it did and it was the only day it did while we were over at Wanaka which was all sunny.
On the way in, we had some stops for scenic photos but mostly they were just to rest the legs and toilet breaks. We brought our own supermarket food from an Asian grocer along for lunch (we bought a big packet of 12 Chinese sweet pastries in separate packings, we usually had one each for breakfast and two for lunch unless we had bananas and other fruits which meant we could save one pastry each for later, I think we did that a couple times) instead of having to each pay $27 for a chicken salad sandwich. The actual Milford Sound experience was a 2 hour cruise. I wasn’t too excited by the sights- mostly the waterfalls were tiny. I even dozed off during the cruise but I did get to see 3 big waterfalls with rainbows next to them. Mum was busy taking photos outside the cabin while I mostly stayed in. She took some photos of me with the waves and only caught one of me with a tiny waterfall outside. But that’s okay, I’m not crazy about photos like she is. Apparently, we spotted seals and dolphins on the cruise. I was in general too lazy to spot seals when I heard the callout and the dolphin spotting must have been while I was dozing. At any rate, Mum and I tend to not like animals in general and avoid zoos.
Instead of having to buy more supermarket food on the way back, we actually had a quick dinner at the Alpine cafe on the ride back to Queenstown. We shared a large blueberry muffin between the two of us alongside hot drinks which came to $17.5, the cheapest dinner we had in this trip at an eatery.
And that concluded our first week of travel within NZ. Stayed tuned for the week 2 continuation of this post in June.