Day 1 Auckland - Auckland
Hopefully you will have 24 hours at least to enjoy Auckland, the problem is the city has so much to offer you may have trouble making choices. First stop should be the volcanic cone of Mt Eden for a panoramic view of the city and harbours to orientate our bearings before we start the tour. Head north over the Harbour Bridge to pretty Orewa Beach and Wenderholm Regional Park on the tranquil east coast, followed by morning tea in the original Bohemian settlement of Puhoi. We then head inland past wineries and orchards to the wild black-sand beaches of the West Coast. The gannet colony at Muriwai is a must see, as not only will the cute chicks and the flying skills of the adults keep you mesmerized, but the sweeping views along the surfing beaches north will certainly blow any jet-lag away. Heading south again lunch can be enjoyed at the Bees Online cafe where several honey orientated products are on sale, or wine lovers should take advantage of having a chauffeur and dine in a restaurant under the vines of a world class winery.
After lunch I recommend a walk in the lush bush of the Waitakere Ranges to a secluded waterfall or along a deserted beach, such as the one made famous in Jane Campion's movie The Piano. Return to Auckland along the Scenic Drive and take a ferry ride to the old suburb of Devonport - Auckland is known as the City of Sails, so a venture out onto the water is an essential part of visiting Auckland. Take the tour or wander up under your own steam to North Head for awesome views of the city and our youngest dormant volcano Rangitoto Island. For a late afternoon swim in our clean, clear and safe harbour you can wander down the steps to beautiful Cheltenham Beach. On your return to the Ferry Building enjoy the sunset and dinner in the revolving restaurant of the Sky Tower.
Day 2 Auckland - Rotorua 240kms
Before you depart for Rotorua, you may like to visit a few attractions you missed yesterday. The Waterfront is where you can find the extremely informative Maritime Museum - the displays are chronological, so you begin with the Maori migration across the seas, step back in time on board a European immigrant's ship, then appreciate New Zealand's proud yachting history including the Whitbread Round the World race and of course the America's Cup. Kelly Tarlton was the inventor of the undersea walkway where you can view the fish from below without getting wet - the Antarctic Encounter and Penguin Encounter are worth stopping here on their own. The revamped old homes of Parnell have brick paved alleyways are full of boutique clothes stores, art galleries and specialty shops.
Head south on SH1, direction Hamilton. After the Bombay Hill, turn left onto SH2, direction Coromandel and after 36kms turn right onto SH27, direction Matamata and Tirau.
164kms – Matamata makes a great coffee stop – try the Workmans Cafe on the left just past the tourist office (which is on the right just over the railway tracks.) Lord of the Rings fans may like to take a 2 hour tour to the film set of Hobbiton. The set has been rebuilt for the Hobbit movies so it is looking particullarly beautiful! Semi-fans may be contented with a photo of the "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign on the traffic island in front of the tourist office. Continue south on SH27, direction Tirau.
174kms – SH27 goes left and immediately right. For the imaginative, or for those not wanting to do the LOTR tour, you can picture Hobbiton hollows and Bag End Row in the hills on the right immediately after this intersection.
184kms – At the Tirau intersection, turn left. It is hard to miss with the giant corrugated iron sheepdog housing the tourist office and the Big Sheep Wool Gallery housed in a giant sheepdog next door. Other tourist shops worth at least a peek at are the Funky Gift Shop which has some, well, funky souvenirs, and the Jade Factory next door specializes in Maori Koru necklaces. For something really unique try the Natures Touch Gallery. The town has a bit of a love affair with corrugated iron, there are quite a few other imaginative signs right the way along the main road. Change to SH5 two kilometers further. You will soon encounter the unusual terrain of the Mamaku district where mini volcanic cones dot the landscape, some showing their solidified lava core.
228kms - The Agrodome’s principle attraction here is the Sheep Show, a highly entertaining explanation of sheep and the farming of said sheep – the mainstay of New Zealand’s exports. Other attractions invented by enterprising New Zealanders on site include Zorbing (rolling down a hill in a giant plastic ball), Swooping (a glorified swing), bungee jumping (jump from a massive height with an elastic cord tied to your ankles), farm tour (on the back of a tractor) and jet-boating (the art of speeding in a tiny boat over very little water).
238kms – As you come into Rotorua, follow the city centre signs. The Kuirau Park will give you your first taste (or I should say smell) of the volcanic area around here. The area is still very active with sulphur escaping from the earth’s crust (think rotten eggs). Don’t worry, you will get used to the smell. The city lies on a beautiful lake, actually a flooded volcanic crater - the surrounding hills are the remains of the rim of the giant volcano. Rotorua sits squarely on the Pacific Ring of Fire, so volcanic activity is part of the city’s past and present.
Rotorua has become New Zealand’s second largest tourist centre – so there are no shortages of establishments willing to take some cash away from you but if you’d like to make the most of what Rotorua has to offer and all that is thermal, then my stay would go something like this:-
Kuirau Park has the largest display of steam and mud pools. An eruption took place here as recently as January 26th 2001 when mud, steam and debris were thrown 200m into the air. Springs regularly just appear, resulting in families being forced to move and the land having to be given back to nature.
Wander around the original Maori settlement at Ohinemutu. The church is worth a look at, as is the Marae (Maori meeting house) across the courtyard. Wander the tiny streets where everyone has their own private hot-water bore to fill their bath in the out-shed….just follow the steam and, stay on the paths!
If you have time, soak in the reputedly therapeutic thermal pools at the Polynesian Spa, a delightful but busy public pool. If you wait until tomorrow morning the spa is less crowded - it is a wonderful way to start the day - relaxing with serene views across the lake.
The excitement junkies can take the Gondola up Mount Ngongotaha for awesome views, interspersed with hair raising rides on a luge (3 levels available, so suitable for children).
This evening don’t miss the excellent Tamaki Brothers cultural show followed by a traditional Hangi (earthen cooked meal). Pickups from your accommodation in a waka (war canoe) cleverly disguised as a bus, followed by a fun evening superbly hosted and entertained by local Maori.
Day 3 Rotorua - Christchurch ... internal flight
An early afternoon flight to Christchurch is best, so that you still have time to visit Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, the best thermal reserve in the area.
Departing from the tourist office, drive up Fenton Street direction Taupo. At 29kms turn left at the Wai-o-tapu Tavern and 400m further left again onto the Loop Road and take a look at the thermal Mud Pools. Don’t forget to lock your car - the bubbling mud can keep you mesmerized for hours! The Lady Knox Geyser is between the Mud Pools and Waiotapu and blows her top at 10:15am, so try to time it to arrive in time for this spectacle….a bit touristy but quite impressive none the less!
Follow the Loop Road to the main attraction at Wai-o-tapu. It really is a wonderland of orange, green, yellow, blue, white and black pools, the highlights being the exquisitely coloured Champagne Pool, Oyster Pool and the Devil’s Bath - you’ll be amazed how nature can conjure up such colours. There are 3 self guided walks, the short, the medium and the long – the latter takes about 2 hours past the green lake of Ngakoro, with great views en route of the blue lake Whangi-o-terangi, meaning "colour of the sky". The track is uneven at times so you need walking shoes.
Continue on the Loop Road to SH5 and turn right back to Rotorua to catch your flight to the South Island. The flight can be described as a scenic flight, with spectacular views of the North Island volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom in the LOTR Trilogy), Ruapehu, Taranaki (Mt Fujiyama in the Last Samurai) before crossing to the South Island and following the Southern Alps all the way down to Christchurch.
Day 4 Christchurch - Mt Cook 350kms
Christchurch is New Zealand's second largest city which sprawls across the Canterbury Plains towards the Southern Alps. The main attractions here are the English style gardens and parks, the city even has its very own Avon Riveron which one can punt. It has an English colonial feel to the city with school children in formal blazers and straw hats, with fine architecture and heritage sites evident everywhere. ……however, on February 22nd 2011 the city suffered a devastating earthquake that has unfortunately destroyed many of those heritage buildings, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral!
Attractions still worth considering are :-
- Head to Antigua Boatshed where canoes are available for hire. Request a picnic basket hamper to be enjoyed on the banks of the Avon River along the way.
- Or hire your very own gondolier to punt you through the Botanical Gardens.
- The Grand Café at the Casino is a great option ….open for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week.
- Visit the Canterbury Museum for their informative Earthquake exhibition as well as the Antarctic section and impressive Maori collection.
- The new Christchurch Art Gallery is a must see.
- The excellent International Antarctic Centre near the airport is where you can experience all there is to know about the icy continent.
- Take to the Port Hills for stunning 360° views as you walk along the Crater Rim Track.
- Mona Vale was a beautiful Edwardian-style homestead set amongst 5½ ha. of beautiful gardens…..the gardens are still worth the visit!
- The nearby Dean’s Bush at Riccarton is home to the only surviving stand of wetlands podocarp forest.
- Join the Christchurch Bike Tour…..they ride along the bike paths and through parks and there is not a hill in sight! Stops include both Mona Vale and Deans Bush, as well as Hagley Park and the attractions.
- The Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is a zoo with a difference with plenty of opportunities to get up close and touch the animals.....be sure to check out the massive eels! And buy a bag of food to feed the various animals as you walk around the well marked bush lined paths. Time your visit to include the 4.30pm guided tour (no extra charge) through the Natural New Zealand section showcasing our rare native birds, including the kiwi of course. Other highlights here are close encounters of the wildlife kind with various and the farmyard animals that clamber for your attention to be fed and stroked!
Follow SH1 south, direction Ashburton and Timaru.
126kms - Soon after passing over the Rangitata River, turn right onto SH79, direction Geraldine and Fairlie.
140kms - Geraldine is a great place for a coffee and has a few attractions worth stopping for. You can choose from :-
- A larger than fair smattering of arts and crafts galleries.
- The Vintage Car Club and Machinery Museum has a sizable collection of cars and tractors.
- The Giant Jersey has, you guessed it, the largest jersey in the world, plus lots of woolly stuff on sale.
- Barkers Berry Barn is a specialty shop, where you'll find a huge range of fruity liqueurs and wines, plus unique gift and gourmet items.
- Kiwi Country is purpose built for the tourist buses and is full of the usual souvenirs. However it does have excellent coffees and toilet facilities.
- Try the hot-chocolate and/or handmade chocolates at Coco - the prices ensure they are solf fresh.
187kms - Turn right onto SH8 to Lake Tekapo. The scenery dramatically changes as you cross over Burke's Pass. You are now entering the Mackenzie Basin, a flat expanse of tussock grasslands and home to New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki (or Mt Cook as it is known) plus the longest glacier Tasman and sparkling turquoise glacial lakes below the rolling foothills of the Southern Alps - and it bears little resemblance to anywhere else in New Zealand.
228kms – The village at Lake Tekapo is small - their claim to fame being that it has the cleanest and clearest air in New Zealand. There is not much to hold you here beyond taking a snapshot of the much-photographed Church of the Good Shepherd and the Sheepdog and grabbing a coffee.
232kms - You could (should) drive up to the summit of Mount John by day (turnoff just south of the village) to Astro Caf'e and enjoy spectacular 360 degree views.
290kms – The Lake Pukaki Lookout is a great place to stop for photos of Mt Cook reflected in the water... The gorgeaous turquoise-blue lake derives its colour from the fine glacial particles suspended in the water. They also sell the locally farmed Salmon here (either hot smoked or cold smoked).
295kms – Turn right onto SH80. Lord of the Rings fans may prefer to stay in Twizel to view where they filmed the massive Battle of the Pelennor Fields on the grassy fields to the left of this road, however it really would be sacrilege not to make the 55 kilometre scenic drive to Mount Cook Village at the base of the same named mountain and the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers. The drive encompasses world-class scenery at its best where your excitement grows in parallel with the vista before you as you enter this world heritage site known as the Mount Cook National Park. On arrival you can choose from :-
- Several different alpine walks with wonderful views.
- Scenic flights either by ski plane or helicopter, guaranteed to be THE trip of your lifetime !
- Glacier Explorer Trips involves walking to Tasman Lake and the taking an informative boat ride to the face of the advancing glacier.
- Eat, drink and just relax in the Hermitage while enjoying the incredible views that lie before you.
Day 5 Mt Cook - Queenstown 280kms
Return along SH80 to Twizel, and head south on SH8 via the scenic Lindis Pass. Consider stopping at Omarama for petrol as there is not another Service Station for 80 kilometres!
200kms - It is hard to believe that this sleepy region was the most populous in New Zealand during the chaotic gold boom years of the late 19th century. Cromwell is one of the sunniest, warmest places in the South Island (in the summer that is), making it ideal for growing fruit trees and the region is fast becoming renowned for fine Pinot Noir wines. The Mount Difficulty Vineyard towards Bannockburn has fine wines as well as expansive views. Bannockburn also has gold mines to explore, otherwise the Goldfields Mining Centre in the Kawarau Gorge, 6kms further along the road to Queenstown is well worth the stop. Gibbston Valley Winery is about half way along the gorge, a great place to stop for a meal.
Change to SH6, the highway then takes you through the dramatic Kawarau Gorge. As you exit Cromwell, there is a big bend to the right and you will pass the Highlands Motorsport Park on the left, the large fresh fruit shop on the left (Jones Fruit Stall) is well worth a stop at as they have all sorts of seasonal fruit that you can try and their real fruit ice-creams are amazing!
Once past the gorge is the excellent winery (220 awards to date) and restaurant at Gibbston Valley Wines…..tours depart on the hour every hour. The guided tour takes you amongst the vines, through the winery and then deep into the hillside where you can sample the wines in a surreal atmosphere. The rocky schist walls within the cool cave are lined with barrels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, still reaching their prime – wear something warm! You may also like to explore the Gibbston Valley Cheesery next door!
240kms - The Kawarau River Bridge is home to A.J. Hackett's very first bungee jumping platform - this is where you get to tie a huge elastic band to your ankles and jump out into space over the river (if you dare?), or just have fun watching others.
245kms - Turn right and then right again to the pretty tree-lined town of Arrowtown - another former gold mining settlement. You can wander amongst the historic cottages, visit the reconstructed Chinese Settlement (the Chinese were subjected to many prejudices so had their own settlement) and the main street is a particular shopper’s delight!
Continue south by taking the road along the base of the hill, via Coronet and Arthur’s Point. You can drive up the Coronet Ski-field Access Road for fabulous views of the Wakatipu Basin and Shotover River! You don’t need to go right to the top, drive as far the Skippers Road and turn left, immediately on your left there is a lookout.
280kms - Queenstown is the Adventure Capital of the World! The beautiful resort was originally named as 'fit for a Queen'. It lies on Lake Wakatipu where you can observe the strange seiches phenomenon - this is an unusual rhythmic rise and fall of 12cm in its water level every five minutes due to variations in atmospheric pressure. A Maori myth says it is the beating of a monster's heart lying in the depths of Lake Wakatipu! The sheer breadth of tourist activities available here is impossible to list, however the ' in-thing' at the moment are tours that have anything to do with the numerous Lord of the Rings and Hobbit filming locations.
This afternoon ride the Skyline Gondola (included) to take in the awesome views - best viewed at sunset when the Remarkables Range on the other side of Lake Wakatipu glow in golden light.
If you love having fun, then you must go up earlier and ride the Luge before dinner (closes sunset). Tickets are available from the café at the top (extra charge). There is a scenic track (to begin with) then you’ll be off to the fast track! The free two-seater chairlift takes riders and luge carts back to the top to do it all again, because once is never enough! A unique braking and steering system on your three-wheeled luge cart means you can alter course and speed at will. Go fast, go slow, stop to take photos, you decide.