New Zealand is one incredible country. I’m not even sure what to say about this trip. As I’m sitting on my ninth airplane ride in the past three weeks, my final ticket home to Chicago, I’m at a loss of words. I’m sure over the next few weeks, months, and even years, my memories will only grow more and more fond of the kiwi culture. Two weeks will never be enough time to experience the greatness of New Zealand, but we sure tried to pack it all in.
We left Chicago MDW on a Tuesday at 2:25pm, got to LAX at 4:55pm, and flew out at 10:40pm. We arrived in Tahiti PPT on Wednesday at 5:05am, then left at 7:55am for Auckland, and finally arrived to our destination at 12:45pm on Thursday (we crossed the international dateline). Yes, it was as exhausting as it sounds. We had a couple hours to kill in Auckland before heading out to our first excursion, so we walked around and explored. We settled on drinks/appetizers at Northern Steamship Co. and dinner at Depot. Both were good, neither were MUST DOs – but as you’ll see throughout this post, most of my MUST DOs are activity based. The food was overall good, but not as good as I was expecting.
After dinner we drove 3 hours to Waitomo to spend the night at YHA Waitomo Juno Hall. At this point, we had been traveling for over 24 hours so we were pretty much zombies and passed out. The next day, we had breakfast at The General Store. This place is a MUST DO. It was the cutest little shop/cafe in Waitomo, and probably one of my favorite breakfasts of the entire trip. We also purchased local art from the shop which I loved.
After breakfast we did the Waitomo Caves Black Abyss Tour. MUST DO. This was hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. We started the adventure by rappelling down into a cave, one of the parts was so narrow that you could only fit one person a time and it was pretty tight. If you’re claustrophobic at all – this might not be the adventure for you. Once we were down there, you could see the glow worms lining the walls of the cave. Then they took us down to a part of the cave where we flying squirreled in the dark (basically a zip line except you can spin 360 degrees around). After that we jumped off a cliff into inner tubes pulled ourselves through the water, then we all connected and floated down the river in the cave in the dark to look at the glow worms. We walked through the cave knee deep in water, army crawled through some tight spots, and even climbed waterfalls before finally getting back to the surface. Yes, I know how ridiculous this sounds – but it was incredible and I highly recommend it.
After the tour we drove back to Auckland for the night. We stayed at the Novotel Airport Hotel because well, after traveling for 24+ hours and caving, we needed a nice hot shower and clean beds. The next morning we took the ferry to Waiheke Island for our Zip, Wine and Dine tour. This day was so much fun and I would say Waiheke Island is a MUST DO. It was the cutest little island filled with wineries, friendly locals, great shopping, and delicious food. Our tour started with 3 ziplines over the vineyards and then a short hike through the rain forest where the tree that inspired the movie Avatar grows. Throughout the winery tour we stopped at Stonyridge Vineyard, Rangihoua Estate, and Casita Miro – all delicious wines, all beautiful landscapes. Shoutout to Evelyn for being the best bus driver/tour guide ever. After the tour we walked around the Waiheke Island shops; ate fish and chips/burgers at The Local with our new Aussie friends Lisa/Jari, and ended the day with a sunset cruise ferry trip back to Auckland to crash for the night.
The next morning we flew from Auckland down to Wellington for explore the city for a day. It was like a little kiwi Portland – filled with hipster bars and little shops. We had breakfast at Enigma, shopped Cuba Street (tons of little shops, highly recommend) lunch at Mt. Vic Chippery (delicious fish and chips), got drinks at Goldings Free Dive (hidden dive bar in an alley, had a Chicago flag hanging – highly recommeneded), drinks at Ekim Burgers and Havana; and got dinner at Mac’s Brewbar on the water because everything else was closed. It rained all day so a lot of the waterfront shops didn’t open. The farmers market and food trucks were great though. We stayed at YHA Wellington City Hostel which was GREAT and comes highly recommended for a clean, safe place to sleep on a budget.
And that ended our adventures on the North Island as we headed to Christchurch the following morning. If I would add anything else to the North Island – I’d maybe see Rotorua for the hot springs, but it wasn’t high on our priority list. People we talked throughout our travels were split. Some people said they loved it and some said we weren’t missing anything. That and I would do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Volcano Hike. It wasn’t in the cards for us – but look into it, supposedly it’s the best one-day hiking in New Zealand. Anyway, we spent just a few hours in Christchurch, shopping at the RE-Start Mall where all the stores are inside shipping crates. There were a few cool shops and a couple food trucks – I got a kebob and it was delicious. Meghan got a pizza from another truck and it was not. Could be the Chicago in us, but it was hard to find a good pizza in NZ. After lunch, we drove to Mt. Cook with a few stops along the way. This was a long day of driving, but the incredible sights along the way made it all worth it. We saw Hokikita Gorge, Lake Tekapo, and Lake Pukaki. The water color was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I couldn’t stop taking pictures…
When we finally arrived to Mt. Cook, it was really cloudy so we couldn’t see the tops of the mountains. We just settled into our room at the Mt. Cook Lodge & Motels and ate there. Mt. Cook is such a small little village in the middle of a national park, so there really wasn’t anything other than the resorts and the resort restaurants. We went to bed hopeful that the forecast of rain tomorrow would change, but unfortunately it did not. Our scenic flight/heli-hike of Tasman Glacier got cancelled due to weather issues. Luckily, Charlie – the owner of the Old Mountaineers Café in Mt. Cook who also runs the tours was flexible and rescheduled us for Friday when the weather was looking better. (MUST DO, even if you don’t do the heli hike or tours, drive through Mt. Cook and go to this Café – it might be my favorite place in the world). TIP: When booking rooms in advance, it’s definitely worth it pay the extra $2 for flexible booking. We had to change our reservations quite a bit around the weather. Locals said they hadn’t seen rain like this during a NZ summer in over 15 years!
Anyway, we decided we’d rather explore Queenstown/Lake Wanaka in the rain than Mt. Cook, so the next day we decided to drive to Lake Wanaka. We found this adorable café about an hour outside of Mt. Cook in Omarama called Kahu Café (MUST DO). Meghan and I both agree this was the best meal we had in New Zealand – it was simple, fresh, delicious, and the surroundings could not have been better. A few hours later, we made it to Lake Wanaka to see the Wanaka Tree, then shipped off to Queenstown for a few nights. We had dinner at Ballarat Trading Co. (just alright, wouldn’t call it a MUST DO) before calling it a night in our Queenstown Hill Air BnB (this area is about a 20 minute walk from downtown Queenstown but had an awesome view overlooking Lake Wakitapu where you could see the airplanes flying in and out of the Queenstown Airport.
The next morning was still cold and gloomy, and it definitely started to affect our spirits a little. We spent the day walking around Queenstown with our hoods up shopping, exploring, eating, and drinking… stops throughout the day included: Ivy’s Box Art Gallery (cute gallery along the Lake Wakitapu path covered in ivy), brunch at Joe’s Garage (where I realized NZ breakfast sauasage was not the same as American breakfast sausage), drinks at Surreal Bar (where the bartender made fun of my accent when I ordered a ‘s-eye-derrrrrr”, and Patagonia Ice Cream (which quickly became a favorite of ours and part of our daily routine). A last minute boat cruise around Lake Wakitapu capped off the afternoon before heading to drinks/apps at Eicharts (historic, cool spot, good food, friendly servers), drinks at Harry’s Pool Bar (a locals bar recommended to us from the bartender who made fun of the way I said cider), and a delicious steak and seafood dinner at Jervois Steak House. Lots of drinks and all of the food later, we made our way back up Queenstown Hill with hopes for better weather to come.
The next day, the weather still wasn’t cooperating so we decided to go for a white water rafting trip on the Shotover River (apparently rafting is the best when it’s raining). We had brunch at Captain’s Restaurant in town (pretty good food, not my favorite ambiance though) before our trip. White water rafting in Queenstown is a MUST DO. The drive on the bus alone was worth it. They took us through windy roads on the sides of mountains that felt like we were going to topple off of at any moment. We saw the rock that inspired King Kong. It was the stuff straight out of movies. And this was even before our rafting trip started. Because of the rain (silver lining) the conditions were so good that day that even the off-duty employees came in to raft with us. The rapids were so intense that 6 out of 9 rafts had flipped in the morning session, so the guides were pretty good about preparing us for that situation. Luckily, our raft never flipped and we made it through – but I can’t say enough how fun this day was. Highly, highly recommended. By the time we came home, we were exhausted – so we just grabbed a drink and dinner at Coalfire BBQ (good, again not the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but pretty tasty) and called it a night.
It was another early morning for us as we drove 3 hours back to Mt. Cook for our heli-hike. On the way there (sidenote: we drove through Lindis Pass which was a curvy road in the middle of rolling hills lined with lavender and wild flowers – really pretty drive – I’d recommended taking it if it’s on your route!), we stopped at the little shop (New Zealand Apline Lavender Farm and Shop) we had driven past on our way in/out of Mt. Cook the first time, but it was so small that by the time we saw it, it was too late to stop. Luckily, we had our eyes peeled for it this time. I highly recommend checking this place out. It was a tiny, one-wall store inside a shipping crate in the middle of a huge lavender field. They sold everything ranging from lotion to candles to lip balm to lavender oils – all of it smelling sooooo good and made right from the lavender in that field.
After we shopped, we drove a little further to Mt. Cook for our Heli Hike. It was INCREDIBLE. We flew in a tiny little ski plane through the mountains (probably the most scared I was the entire trip – super rocky flight, the plane was tiny so every gust of wind felt like it was going to take down the plane. Once we got to the top of the glacier, we snowshoed as a group all tied together in case the glacier cracked any of us fell down into a hole. It was one of the most jaw dropping, humbling things I’ve ever experienced. After a few hours we flew back into Mt. Cook where we had dinner at The Old Mountaineers Café – quite possibly my favorite place on earth. Definitely a MUST DO regardless if you do the heli hike or not. Find Charlie, exchange stories, and tell him I said hi.
The next morning, we hiked Hooker Valley. It was a fairly easy hike that takes around 3-4 hours, has great views of the mountains, you cross 3 wobbly cable bridges, and ends with an overlook of Tasman Lake w/ some glacier pieces floating in it (30 years ago, this lake didn’t exist because it was still completely frozen).
We had to be in Milford Sound in two days, so we started our drive with a planned overnight stay in Queenstown to break up the drive. Of course, we stopped at Kahu Café on the way out because it was that good. Seriously, go there. Omarama. Check out the weird antique store in town, too. Anyway, on our way back to Queenstown we stopped in historic Arrowtown to do a little shopping. Tons of great little shops, only takes an hour or so to do it all and we had plenty of time to head back to Queenstown for drinks/dinner. FYI – we were told that Devil Burger is as good as Fergberger without the wait by a local bartender… we tried both. Fergberger for the win.
The next morning, we left at 5am to drive to Milford Sound. It takes about 4 hours winding through mountain roads so make sure to give yourself enough time. We stopped at Sandfly Café in Te Anu for coffee/breakfast (warning: Queenstown/all the towns before Te Anu had nothing open before 9am – even the coffee shops don’t open until then; also this place wasn’t the best if you can find anything else open). We got to Milford and did the 10:30am cruise and then the sunset kayak trip. The cruise was gorgeous – I would definitely do it again and highly recommend it. The kayak trip was really long 4 hours (we did about 10 miles and it was pretty choppy water), so it was kind of difficult but worth seeing the sunset through the cliffs. If you’re up for a challenge, do it. If not, there are other shorter kayak trips you could try. The cruise was better for taking pictures, the kayak trip was more for a workout/adventure. We saw dolphins and seals on the cruise, and penguin during the kayak trip (as well as the seals up close and personal). We stayed at the Milford Sound Lodge which was basically a cabin in the middle of the woods. It was the only restaurant and it closes at 9 so make sure to stop and get gas and/or groceries before getting to Milford if you’ll need it.
We spent our last few days in New Zealand gallivanting around Queenstown. We stayed at Hurley’s (highly recommended, good price, clean, friendly staff, laundry available, and located just 5-10 minute walk off the downtown area). We did the gondola and took the luge down (very touristy; buy tickets ahead of time to cut the line; the luge was kind of random but fun – I wouldn’t say it’s a must do but if you have the time, why not?), had dinner at Fergberger (MUST DO; we were told to call our order in ahead of time and pick it up but every time we called the line was busy so we waited about 20 minutes to order and then another 20 minutes for our food – it wasn’t as bad as it looked – every time we drove/walked past Fergberger there was a line out the door). We also went bungy jumping off the Kuwaru Bridge in the morning – I would highly recommend this or the cliff swing in Queenstown. As you can tell from the pictures below, bungy jumping was awesome, and actually not as scary as you might think. It all happened so fast that you don’t really have time to be scared! Warning: I asked to dip my hands in the water, and I ended up going waist deep!
After bungy, we went to this adorable breakfast spot on Lake Wakitapu called Boatshed Café. The food was great and the view was even better. The rest of the day we spent packing and getting ready for our travels home. Travel Tip: there’s a little mall just outside Queenstown that has a Pak n Save, Briscoe’s, etc. (the equivalent of a Costco, Jewel, and Bed Bath and Beyond). It was great for buying cheap groceries, local beers, or pretty much anything you would need – we needed to get extra duffle bags to carry all our souvenirs home and Briscoe’s was perfect for that. Our last night in Qtown we got drinks at Pog Mahones (little Irish Pub, I wouldn’t recommend it, but we just wanted to sit near the water – instead you should go to the Ice Bar, which we completely forgot about!) and dinner at Fishbone. If you go to Fishbone get the Octopus Tacos. Seriously, maybe even get two orders (it’s an appetizer) and eat them as your meal. They’re that good.
After we left New Zealand we spent 3 days soaking up the sun in Tahiti. A 3-night stay at Manava Suite Resort was included in our flight deal. The resort was just okay. The food was expensive and mediocre, but there was an AWESOME food truck across the street that was cheap and delicious. It opens for dinner at 6:30 and I’d recommend eating every dinner there it was that good. Simple, authentic, delicious. We stayed in Papeete, but if you have the time, go to Moorea or any of the other Tahitian Islands.
That’s it! It was an incredible 3 weeks, let me know if you’re planning a similar trip and have any questions on New Zealand – I’d be happy to help or provide more recommendations. I’m also going to be selling some of my prints from New Zealand so I’ll have more on that soon