It’s a long way to go for a holiday but New Zealand has a lot to offer and is well worth the visit. So just what can you see and do in a fortnight? Laura Williams finds out…
New Zealand has to be one of the furthest places you can go for a holiday. It takes a good 24 hours to get there by plane and that isn’t even taking into account the time difference (11 hours ahead of the UK). And just to confuse matters it is the polar opposite when it comes to seasons, so when we’re enjoying a bout of sunshine in the summer months New Zealand is all about the winter sports and when we’re wrapping up warm and building snowmen, Kiwis are basking in summer sun in parks and on beaches.
My Autumn trip (their Summer) started in Christchurch on the South Island. Christchurch is a welcoming small town with some beautiful botanic gardens and a winding river running through the centre. There’s a magnificent cathedral and cathedral square which is bustling with activity and a brilliant cafe culture vibe (in the Summer anyway). A few miles outside of Christchurch itself is the affluent suburb Sumner Beach and it is here you can sample the wonder of paragliding. For just £80 you can go up on a tandem flight with one of the experts – no experience necessary.
From Christchurch we took the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps to Greymouth. This is hailed as one of the most breathtaking journeys in the world and it did not disappoint. The spacious train with massive windows made for the most relaxing environment to watch the epic scenery glide by. In just a few hours you go from the gardens of Christchurch to the farming plains into the mountain ranges with their deep ravines and marvellous bridges. You eventually come out the other side of the country in the small town of Greymouth. There isn’t really too much to do in Greymouth but it’s quality not quantity I say and the tour of New Zealand’s brilliant Monteith’s Brewery proved to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. It is also a great pit stop on the way to the Glaciers.
There are two main touristic glaciers in the South Island – Franz Joseph glacier and the John Fox Glacier. The former is the more popular one and is a must for all outdoors types. The resort of Franz Joseph is pretty limited, just a few hostels/hotels bars and a shop or two but you don’t come here to spend your time at the resort. It’s just a small bus ride out to the glacier, where you can do an unguided walk to the bottom and see the faultline which cuts into the mountainside demonstrating the force of nature. The best way to see the glacier is to climb it. You needn’t be an experienced climber as Franz Joseph Glacier Guides kit you up with crampons, waterproofs and gloves and their expert guides lead the half day/day long expedition at the pace you feel comfortable.
We used the MagicBus to travel around New Zealand. The bus is very popular with the younger traveller, lots of GAP year kids and career break folk but it’s not too overbearing in a club 18-30 kind of way. The driver instills you with his local knowledge on every step of the journey and there are plenty of pit stops where you can sample other local delights, be it panning for gold or trying some bushmeat. The best bit about the MagicBus is the price, you can get a seven day pass which covers a full loop of the South Island from as little as £120 and you can book your activities on the bus meaning you don’t have to pre plan every element of your holiday before you set off. Queenstown is a picturesque little gem right in the middle of the south island. A bustling haven of accommodation, bars, restaurants and shops and busy all year round.
In the summer, it is the best place to stay either side of a day trip out to the world famous Milford Sound and in the winter, perfectly situated for the surrounding ski slopes. We were meant to take a bus out to Milford Sound, enjoy a two hour cruise and then fly back into Queenstown over the sounds but sadly the windy weather meant the flight was grounded and we were forced to endure another five hour coach trip back to Queenstown. Not ideal but it couldn’t be helped and it made our delicious Ferg Burger (a Queenstown institution) all the more satisfying. Apparently, Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on earth but we were really lucky and picked the best day of the week to head out there. The boat trip was such an eye opener, we darted under waterfalls and sailed right out into the Tasman Sea to see for ourselves just why it took European explorers so long to find Milford Sound.
Next stop was Dunedin. It’s funny, our shortest coach trip was almost six hours and the longest, 12 hours, but it didn’t drag at all. If you did that over here you’d be pulling your hair out by Birmingham but the Kiwis are so geared up to tourists and travellers that it’s relatively painfree. Dunedin has a real Scottish vibe about it – unsurprising when you consider the name means Edinburgh. It is also home to the steepest street in the world (yes, it’s not in San Francisco!). Wildlife fans with love the Monarch Wildlife Cruise, which takes them out to the Otago Penguin Sanctuary, before cruising back to town via the albatross and seal colonies. The Customhouse by the Monarch office also does the best Eggs Benedict you’ll ever taste.
From Dunedin we darted back up the East Coast on the TranzCoastal train to Picton in order to get the Interislander ferry across to Wellington on the North Island. This two-hour journey is a delight in itself and takes in some spectacular scenery. Wellington was the most interesting city in New Zealand. It had that San Fran/Bristol/Brighton vibe about it with lots of cultural and arts events certainly compared to elsewhere in the country. Little Cuba has lots of wonderful shops, cafes and bars and you can easily while away a day in that area alone. The Te Papa museum could clinch the prize of the best museum in the world. It’s a modern, educational museum without any air of stuffiness about it. There are interactive displays and colourful exhibitions and it’s all free of charge. Not dissimilar to Bristol’s very own M Shed.
For out North Island travel needs we switched to the InterCity, which is like a far superior National Express. Sadly, we didn’t have time to fully explore the North Island but from Welly we headed up to Auckland via New Plymouth, a delightful and underrated city on the West Coast, and Mount Egmont – a beautiful dormant, snow covered volcano with uninterrupted views of the surrounding area. Auckland itself was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi and you probably needn’t spend more than a couple of days there. It’s good for shopping and the Sky Tower is worth a look but you’d be much better off heading up to the beautiful Bay of Islands. We stayed in Pahia, where you can take a Dolphin Discovery cruise out and swim with the magnificent creatures.
For the most part we stayed in hostels. There’s no shortage of independent hostels as well as some well known chains, including YHA and the more edgy, party-focused Base Hostels, think a slightly more upmarket club 18-30. The amenities are pretty good and private rooms are available. Prices start at about £7 per night in the dorms and go up to about £70 a night for the private rooms. There are plenty of decent budget hotels too, a favourite of ours being Best Western’s Camelot hotel in Christchurch – a short walk from the centre and manned by the most friendly/helpful staff. They also operate a free shuttle to the train station. Bargain!
Whatever you do in New Zealand you are bound to find yourself in awe of the magnificent scenery, much of which was used as a backdrop for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and will return home with some magical memories. And the best bit, you can do it in just a fortnight.