Queenstown is always the popular place for those visiting the Land of the Long White Cloud, but here’s some other ideas on how to have a great time in New Zealand.
This isn’t really a travel blog, but I thought it was time to talk about our trip to New Zealand. It really is a great place. I’m not exactly a world traveler, but I have mentioned and written about my month in Japan going to 14 cities (including the northern most point), as well as my times in Hong Kong, mainland China in Zhongshan, and Macau. Last year I finally added New Zealand to the list, and what a stellar place it was. We went for our honeymoon after deciding Europe may have been too extreme after all the expenses of a wedding (although we’re coming for you!!).
When we were looking, as you might be right now, everyone will tell you that you need to go to Queenstown. Milford Sound, the proximity to the glaciers, The Remarkables, and all the rest made it pretty tempting. We were looking at going there towards the end of our trip, but decided that we would be stretching ourselves too thin and not taking it in if we added the trip out there.
But we did cover a lot of ground, and I thought I’d put this up here for anyone else considering a trip to New Zealand, or people who haven’t seen anything else besides Queenstown. Here’s how to have a great time in New Zealand… or more accurately, the cool places we went and things we did.
In truth, we were only in Auckland for a night as we were going to head out to Hamilton from here the next morning, and we didn’t really stay at too great a hotel, but we went there. Maybe one to explore another day, just not at the noisy, thumpy, paper thin walls hotel we stayed at around Mount Richmond.
Now, Hamilton. This place was pretty cool. The drive here from Auckland was actually really nice, complete with a huge range of scenery and greenery, as well as some of New Zealand’s older industrial cities and buildings. Very interesting.
We stayed at a beautiful place just outside town known as The Monastery. A converted monastery, it was a taste of old world charm on twelve acres of immaculately kept gardens and greenery.
Really quaint and refreshing place to be. Of course, our main reason to stay around the Hamilton area was to do the famous trek over to Matamata, but this little town had some great breakfast and dinner spots and the place we stayed was also very nice.
As Lord of the Rings fans, my wife and I were really looking forward to heading to Hobbiton as part of our trip. We had booked the Evening Banquet Tour as one of the first things we locked in after our flights, and it was well worth it. Make sure you get in early enough as a number of friends have told me it sold out on them!
A rainy little afternoon through some of that quality green countryside, you get on a bus that takes you through to some of the main recording settings of the Hobbit scenes in the movies. The tour guides give you enough film trivia along the way and it really is a magical, other worldly experience to be there in person. I particularly loved getting to see Sam’s house.
And then, the banquet inside the Inn of the Green Dragon. This thing was stellar.
You feel like you’re sitting there with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin as you gather around three immense tables covered in food. Potatoes, ham, lamb, bread, veggies, all in amazing marinades, the staff go way above the call of duty for this food. We also got to meet a whole bunch of families and travelers over the dinner table.
Oh, and afterwards, you get to walk through Hobbiton with elven lanterns like you’re travelling to the Greyhavens, and then get to sing the Green Dragon song around in ye olde folk style. Wonderful. If you’re a fan, you have to do it.
We then flew down to Christchurch which turned out to be a real surprise. We stayed at one of the Hilton’s best kept secrets, Chateau on the Park. Seriously highly recommend this hotel for their service, ambiance, and centrality. Our maid also left little anime drawings in our room after servicing it each time, which was a really nice personal touch.
I think one of the days we didn’t expect to be a highlight but was probably one of our favourite parts was walking through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens all the way to the city centre and back. The gardens are utterly stunning with water so clear you could see the ducks dive and all the fish hiding at the bottom of the river, and the architecture gives you a taste of England without needing to travel that way.
It was a lovely stay which we had mainly chosen to check out the Transalpine Rail, but what a great little city this is. They even have a Westfield (that is super busy) and introduced us to one of New Zealand’s lesser known franchises, The Warehouse.
Transalpine Rail & Moana
The Transalpine Rail is one a few lists in the top five train journeys in the world. For good reason. Anyone interested in taking this trip would be well advised to wait until you’re in New Zealand to buy your tickets, because the tickets they make available outside the country are super expensive. The Transalpine goes from Christchurch in the east all the way over to the south island’s western coast. Instead of going from Greymouth down south, we decided to make it a day trip instead, stopping at a quaint town called Moana (not the movie) with a picturesque lake called Lake Brunner and a cafe with surprisingly good food. The scenery along the way is great, and I would say it’s probably a region at its best in the colder seasons or just after the snow starts melting.
Quite reminiscent of northern Honshuu in Japan.
After our adventure in Christchurch was over, we started the amazing (truly amazing) drive down to a town called Twizel. Special mention on the way to a town we stopped in called Geraldine. It felt like we were sitting at a cafe in the Scottish countryside.
Twizel is a small town in New Zealand’s international dark sky reserve, so the night sky is perfect. Alas, on our drive there, it was pouring so we didn’t truly appreciate this until the next night, but fortunately the rain turned to snow overnight and covered the mountains in fresh powder. We discovered this place because of the Matuka Lodge that we had seen online as one of the best looking places in New Zealand.
Not gonna lie – this place is excellent. The hosts make you feel like a local and prepare the rooms in sensational fashion, and we had views of the snowy mountains and a little lake from our bedroom and hot tub in the bathroom. The weather is amazing too, and fun fact, it is the realm of Gondor in Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately for me, a full moon each night after the rain ruined the view of the Aurora Australis which I was really really hoping to see. Nonetheless, the hour or so before the full moon came up was a night sky that I will remember for a very long time.
We also had a cool dinner one night in a really cool bar called Top Hut. It’s a town of 1000 but the presentation of this bar was really well done, especially for car enthusiasts. Soft drinks in those big glasses and amazing steaks too.
My wife hadn’t seen snow before, so we drove from Twizel over to Mount Cook, which is about an hour and a half away. The drive there makes you realize the sheer size of it, as the mountain stays in view pretty much the whole drive, never getting closer until we finally got there. It’s also amazing driving past the enormous Lake Pukaki (more on that later) We arrived to an avalanche down the side of La Perouse, the peak next door, with everyone pulled over in their cars watching it.
We unintentionally started the Hooker Valley Trail, which leads you up to the Tasman Glacier, but we mainly did it for the snow. The views, the air, and the surrounds are breath taking.
Photos don’t do it justice. You can even get a helicopter ride to the top for a picnic. Great place for a snowball fight and crunching around, which we definitely did.
Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki
The last places of mention are some of the great lakes of the south island, and indeed the world, Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki.
To be honest, because we had driven around Lake Pukaki so much, Lake Tekapo didn’t really impress as much as it perhaps should have. Pukaki makes Tekapo look like a puddle. Tekapo is also very touristy, perhaps too much, and way too overdeveloped. But we did still go down to the water and see the Church of the Good Shepherd. We also went inside the church which was a very powerful experience.
Special mention to the super futuristic toilet by the water that says “WELCOME TO THE BATHROOM… YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES *starts playing music*” when you enter it. You also have to swipe your hand over sensors for everything. Once the ten minutes is up, the door opens itself, and you get an update every minute that time is ticking away. I had been driving 2.5 hours before we got to Tekapo, but my bathroom needs dissipated in that moment.
Undoubtedly the most spectacular piece of scenery in New Zealand for me would have to be Lake Pukaki. We were driving around this thing for hours. It is cyan blue from the water it receives from the Tasman Glacier, and is a true testament to the earth’s design. Very few tourists probably due to its distance from most places, plus LOTR fans, it’s the scene of Laketown. Wow. We had a picnic there on our last day to close out our New Zealand adventure, before driving back up to the airport in Christchurch for the $70 flight back home (woohoo Australia).
So there you have it, how we had a great time in New Zealand. Looking back on all the photos again reminded me of how much fun we really had there, and it’s definitely on the cards to do again. I thought I’d put our experiences out there for anyone looking to give it a visit.