By Karen Lee Elder
Monograms marries the best of tour groups and the best of independent travel. We didn’t have to worry about transportation, accommodations, sightseeing, or even most of my meals. And if we came across another traveler who, perhaps, was more than a little annoying, I knew we wouldn’t be around each other long!
My amazing two weeks began in Auckland with a stay at the Sky City hotel. We scheduled a pre-tour night and I wasn’t sorry we did. Auckland, New Zealand’s financial capital and largest city, offers a lot to see and do. After meeting with the Monograms Local Host, my traveling companion and I wandered around to orient ourselves and stretch after our long flight. We found a grocery store for snacks – be sure to try the Golden Kiwi! – and made our way to the waterfront. After some lunch, we made our way to Giapo, which was highly recommended by the local host. These fancy, chef-created, Instagrammable ice creams did not disappoint.
We bought ferry tickets to Weiheke Island as well as a bus pass to get around the island. We spent a lovely, if a bit rainy, day on the island going from winery to winery with a stop at Onetangi Beach to breathe in the beauty and fresh air. Our favorite winery, by far, was Te Motu. The wines were very good – give the 2009 Reserve a try – and the staff in the tasting room were very friendly and knowledgable. Unfortunately, they do not have a distributor in the US. So be prepared for expensive shipping charges if you want to ship wine home.
Our included City Tour was fun. It was nice to see more of the city and some of the suburbs and get a sense of local history. The afternoon harbor cruise built on the city tour from, literally, a different perspective. Plus, we met a nice couple who gave us tickets to the Sky Tower that they weren’t going to use. The Sky Tower, which includes a rotating restaurant, is like the towers in Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, etc. What makes this tower different is the activities – you can walk around the outside or jump off. (Thanks, but no.)
Finally, our time in Auckland was at an end. We were off to Hobbiton! As a self-professed nerd, I was very excited about visiting this location. I was not even slightly disappointed. Peter Jackson’s team built durable, permanent structures for this attraction in place of the temporary ones originally built for the Lord of the Rings movies. The detail is outstanding and my (not so) inner nerd was thrilled. At the end of the tour, you get a drink at the Green Dragon Inn and our tour group was treated to a wonderful lunch in the Shire’s Rest. After talking with some other folks, I think this was a benefit of booking with Monograms. Or we were just very lucky.
Our next stop was the Waimoto Glowworm Caves. The caves are smaller than I expected – the whole tour took about an hour or so. But it’s really amazing to see in person. All the photos I’ve seen show the “glow” as blue. In person, it’s yellow-ish. It looked very much like stars in the night sky. Truly breathtaking. After our visit, we continued on to Rotorua.
We had an early morning start for a lot of included sightseeing. We stopped first at the Te Puia Geothermal Center. There is a slight sulfur smell throughout Rotorua (which is stronger in the summer) and a lot of that comes from this area. We learned how the Maori found the location and how they used the geothermal pools and mud pools to their advantage. Despite the smell, it is really very beautiful and peaceful.
The rest of our morning included the Agrodome Sheep Show – who knew there were 19 different kinds of sheep! – and the Rainbow Springs Nature Park. This is the only place I was able to see a live Kiwi bird. We had the afternoon to ourselves before the Temaki Heritage Experience and Hangi Dinner. We were told by a few of our guides that this was the best one in the area. And it really lived up to the hype. I would compare the dinner to a Hawaiian Luau but the heritage experience was unique. It’s very hard to explain so, do yourself a favor, and go to this experience.
The next day, after a nice leisurely morning wandering around the lake and the Government Gardens, we were off to the airport for our short flight to Wellington. None of the airports were more than a 30 minute drive from our hotels. The downside was our transfers were arranged more than far enough in advance of our flights that, with New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed domestic screening, we had plenty of time to get bored at the airport.
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, was quite lovely. Extremely windy – putting Chicago to shame – but lovely. I would recommend you consider “upgrading” the accommodations here. While our hotel was clean, warm, safe, and well-located, it was not up to the standard of the other hotels on the tour. After dinner on the waterfront, we went to the Circa Theatre for a local production. I always like to see what I can of the local arts scenes when I travel.
Our good luck with the weather finally ran out. Our day of touring in Wellington was very wet. But, with rain jackets and umbrellas, we carried on and enjoyed the day. First up was a city and harbour tour. It’s not a harbour cruise – but a driving tour around the harbor. With the rain and winds, I was really glad about that. It was very beautiful and on a sunny day would have been even more so. After the tour, we went to the Parliament Building for the free, hour-long tour. It was really interesting to learn how they run their government and election process. Plus, the art and architecture were worth the time.
We capped off our afternoon at the Te Papa Museum. There was an amazing exhibit on Gallipoli that will run through April 2019. Te Papa is one of the better National Museums I’ve been to and is well worth the time. After a stroll down Cuba Street and a stop for dinner, it was time to head back to the hotel to prepare for our flight to Christchurch.
The rain followed us to Christchurch but the winds remained in Wellington. Our flight had us arriving early afternoon, but by the time we got to the hotel and met with the Local Guide, we didn’t have time for the optional sightseeing we’d purchased. The International Antarctic Centre requires at least two hours so schedule accordingly. We did find some tickets to a local theater festival that evening to help make up for the missed sightseeing. I’d not realized that the play was German Expressionism but the Free Theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget!
The next morning we were up early and off to Akaroa. Sadly, our harbor cruise was canceled due to bad weather and choppy seas. The town, with both French and British colonial history, was very walkable and lent itself to shopping and meandering. The motor coach that brings you in takes you back as well. So, if for any reason, you want to leave early, you’ll need to pay dearly for a taxi.
Then it was time to say good-bye to Christchurch and hello to the Canterbury Plains on our way to Mount Cook. The rains stayed in Christchurch and we had good weather to enjoy the passing scenery. We stopped for a bit to stretch and take photos at the gorgeous Lake Tekapo. Finally we arrived at the historic and beautiful The Hermitage in time to check-in and have lunch. I checked out one of the hiking trails before dinner. The location is breathtaking and the quiet is, frankly, a bit eerie for a city girl. It was easy enough to get used to, though. I’d brought a tripod to take some night sky photos. Despite the cold and the very bright, nearly full moon, I managed to get a few good shots. The Big Sky Stargazing activity was sold out by the time we’d arrived. I highly recommend booking this in advance.
In the morning, I was off for the Tasman Valley 4WD tour while my companion went to explore the glacier. I had a wonderful guide who was an actual Nepalese Sherpa. He literally held my hand to help me, despite my fears, ascend a very large incline (small mountain in my eyes) to view the glacier and the lake. Back at the hotel, I took off down another hiking trail and really enjoyed the silence and the majesty of the mountains. I met my companion back at the hotel for lunch in the cafe before our departure to Queenstown.
We arrived that evening and, after checking in, met with our Local Host, Penny, who went above and beyond to help my friend book into a wine tasting tour. She even drove us into the main area of town so we could get dinner. We called it an early night as we knew the next day would be very long.
We were picked up by 7:00am for the trek out to Milford Sound. We stopped in Te Anau to pick up something for lunch as it was not included in our cruise. It was nice to be able to stand up and stretch. We made a few other stops along the way – one being Mirror Lakes. We also stopped at a pull off where the driver said they usually see Kea (large alpine parrots). And, there was one just waiting for us. It stayed calm while we all photographed it like we were paparazzi and it was a movie star.
The cruise on Milford Sound – really a misnamed fjord – was beautiful. Even with a bit of rain, it was worth the long trip out and the long trip back. We weren’t able to stay long as a storm was coming in and was expected to drop a lot of snow. So, once the cruise was over, we headed back to the coach and back on the long road to Queenstown.
The next morning, as my friend went to taste wine, my nerdy self went on a Safari of the Scenes tour. It was a really nice way to see the countryside around Queenstown and learn a little local history as well. To say there have been a few films shot in the Queenstown area would be a large understatement. Seven different movies were filmed in one location alone. After both our tours, and a bit of lunch, we had a wander around the downtown area before our Skyline Gondola, dinner and Kiwi Haka.
I’m sure the gondola ride up the mountain is stunning in the summer with good weather. Even with foggy windows, it was lovely. The real treat was that, shortly before we reached the top, the rain turned to snow! The views out over Queenstown and the Remarkables were stunning. It’s easy to see why so many movies (and Hulu’s Top of the Lake!) were filmed here. The dining room looked over the city and lake toward the Remarkables. I’m not usually a big fan of buffet dinners but this one was really outstanding. If you check in early enough, you can request a table by the window. It’s a $20 per Person charge but that includes your first drink. It’s worth it! The Kiwi Haka is an interactive performance. It’s well done and fun. I don’t think there’s one Maori out there that can’t sing well.
Finally, our two weeks were up. The next morning I wandered around the lake a bit and bought some Cookie Time cookies for my Cruise Team before getting ready for the flight to Auckland and then back to LA. I hated to say goodbye to New Zealand. I’m looking forward to saying hello again soon.