New Zealand (Jon Squire)

An Amcan Travel customer visit to New Zealand, December 2001.

A map of New Zealand may help, such as this one http://discovernz.co.nz/driving/smlcalc.html.

Day 1:
Leave here mid afternoon, fly to LAX, and wait for a couple hours for the flight to Auckland. The flight was long, but with nonstop movies, 2 meals, and naps, it went fairly quick. Hopped into our rental car at 8:15 AM on Day 3 (Day 2 didn't exist).

Day 3:
Although a bit tired driving 200 miles with some rain, we enjoyed the green countryside N of Auckland. Stopped at Sheepworld for coffee and a look at the farm animals. Lunch at the Blah Blah Cafe in Dargaville on the west coast. Then, a pleasant nature walk among the kauri trees & lush forest, which are like sequoias (threatened & only found in a few reserves) but much thicker & not as tall. Arrived at our farm stay at the Bay of Islands (see map) at 4:30, hosted by a 79 yr old woman & her daughter. The pool was not working due to recent rains, a disappointment for Sophie. But the yappy & affable terrier Jack quickly bonded with Sophie. The house was on beautiful grounds with carefully tended gardens and, as we find everywhere, a herd of sheep. Had tea with the hosts, then dinner in Paihia, a beach town 15 min away. Then crashed.

Day 4:
Up early, back to Paihia, and a walk to a mangrove forest. Though we didn't make it to the mangroves as we opted to walk across a golf course to show Sophie how it is played. Visited the Treaty House and grounds where New Zealand was ceded from the Maori to the crown (Treaty of Whitianga). Interesting museum, but the grounds & views of the Bay of Islands were the high point. Then parked in Paihia & went on the passenger ferry to Russell across the bay. A very cute, sleepy, colonial style town with many hotels.. Had a picnic with a bay view & a large crowd of various birds joined us. It was hot, and I saw a hotel with a great pool & spa, so made a deal to use the facilities! That evening, we went to Keri Keri for dinner, stopping for a solo hike by the river, with a huge pond of lily pads. Had serious trouble finding a restaurant that was open (it was Monday) - finally found Cafe Cilantro in a quiet shopping alley. Unless otherwise noted, the food was not too memorable in New Zealand.

Day 5:
An early start, but learned that the story of the native Maori is different from our natives. They have been successfully assimilated into society, and seem to have few grievances against the government, though their land has also been whittled down over the years. We later find out that although the date of the above treaty is known by the kiwis, many do not know the date or year that NZ became independent from Britain! (1947). Stopped for coffee at the bustling major town of the area, Whangerei. Back thru Auckland, and lunch at the McDonalds that were in every service area of the motorway that runs thru Auckland. Then west to the Coromandel peninsula. When driving over the gravel road thru the pass, stopped at the Rapuara water gardens, which reminded us of Alice in Wonderland - lily pads, fish ponds, chickens & ducks, and a short hike up a rushing waterfall. We were thrilled to arrive at the Admiralty Lodge in the small beach town of Whitianga, and it had a pool, a spa bathtub, modern decor. In fact, we had a pizza delivered & room service breakfast, & didn't leave till late the next morning!

Day 6:
Late morning went to Hot Water Beach, where it is said one can dig a hole in the sand (shovels are rented) & find warm springs that mix with the cool ocean water. There were hundreds of people there for low tides from around the world. To our surprise, no one found the springs, but all had fun frolicking among the rocks and sand anyway. Found a thermal pool at Athenree Hot Springs and the local playground. On thru Tauranga & our first big food market. We had seen the stores called Woolworth in many towns, but found out at this one that that was a supermarket chain here! Arrived at our farmstay in the hills of Rotorua at 5 PM in a major downpour. We had a separate area of the house from the housewife/consultant mother & tree scientist father & three kids, one of which (Emma) was Sophie's age. Emma introduced Sophie to the joys of a trampoline, and I had unlimited internet access! Had a fair meal at a fish & chips place in an unusually quiet part of downtown Rotorua.

Day 7:
Toured the main attractions of Rotorua: Whaka, the Maori center and walk among the boiling mud pools & geysers; Rainbow Farm, rec. by our hosts, was great for Sophie - a zoo-like park with fish, kiwi birds, aquarium, etc., and a farm show showing working dogs herding sheep, sheep shearing, etc. Sophie joined the stage to feed the lambs with a bottle! Picnicked there, soaked at the Polynesian Spa with multiple pools of different temps, and a kiddy slide! Had ice cream & walked in the park on Lake Rotorua where a carnival was being set up. Finally, the girls toured the Orchid Gardens, which was nice but under construction. That evening, our host volunteered to watch Sophie, so Megan & I had a elegant, quiet dinner in town. All in all, one of the best days of the trip.

Day 8:
the last of our Big Drive days (over 250 miles). While driving, we used the cooler or tapes we brought, and on of us sat in the back with Sophie and drew or played with her toys. She didn't mind at all, though didn't see much of the scenery out the window...Was at the Waitamo Thermal Wonderland when it opened at 8:30 - much grander & dramatic thermal activity (Champagne Pool, Devil's Bath, etc.) than Whaka. Stopped to see Huka Falls before Taupo, then a lovely picnic on Lake Taupo with views of Mt. Tongariro. Took the back roads to Waitamo and the famous glow worm caves, with more rolling green hills & few people. You take a tour of the caves, including a boat ride where on the "ceiling" are thousands of glow worms (actually the larval stage of a fly) - very cool. Also went to Rabbit World, where Sophie petted a big white angora rabbit. On to Hamilton and a business style hotel with a cold pool. walked by the river in town & had burgers.

Day 9:
Straight to the Auckland Zoo, which was very good - a Rainforest exhibit, happy monkeys, meerkat tunnels, hands on anatomy exhibit, etc. To Victoria Market in town in the rain, and I walked to the wharf. Auckland is very livable, not overwhelming - there is one main drag, Queen St, which we browsed & stopped for tea. Went to the amazing Kelly's Tartan Antarctic Adventure & Aquarium - a Disneyland-like place where after viewing realistic exhibits of Antarctic expeditions, you enter moving cars which go thru a field of king penguin families chilled to 5 degrees. They are very impressive creatures and seem to have a lot of meetings. Then, you go on a moving sidewalk thru the huge tanks with all kinds of marine life swimming around you and above you. Stayed at the luxurious Hyatt, which was only $99/night with Regency Club privileges. Drove by the outlying city where are the restaurants are, deciding on a low key Vietnamese place.

Day 10:
A breeze navigating the Auckland airport, and the short flight to Queenstown on the South Island included a decent lunch! Picked up car, drove straight to Te Anau, amid magnificent mountain & farm land backdrops. The S island is less populated & more majestic & pristine than the North - I think it has about 10 national parks! Another snafu - the driver's side window was stuck partly open - had to exchange cars later at Invercargill airport (a mere 1 mile from the city centre). Te Anau is the gateway town to renowned Milford Sound as is on Lake Te Anau (pronounced An-ow), with many motels on the lakeshore. We stayed at the best in town, which is now a Holiday Inn. Unfortunately, it's large pool was being retiled, so they upgraded us to a villa with kitchen. As it was a hot afternoon, we swam in the community pool at the local college instead. There was a private spa tub at the hotel we made frequent use of. Sophie & I went out to rent a bike, but instead wound up played mini golf. Then we stopped at a restaurant to use the loo, heard noises, and in the back yard there was a grand opening party, with a dressed up donkey, dogs & puppies & kids! We had a great time there. When Sophie was offered a donkey ride, a woman snapped her photo, whom I discovered was to be a photo candidate for the local paper! I got her card, & hope to receive the story by email.

Day 11:
We split up to go on separate day trips near Milford Sound. I went on an all day guided hike of the famous Milford Track, only accessible by boat. I was joined by a couple from Wellington. It was a hiker's lifetime dream - the trail followed the Clinton river into a lush beech rainforest, with occasional views of the breathtaking peaks on the fjord (Milford Sound, and other sounds in the area, are actually fjords). Had lunch at the relatively luxurious Glade Hut. The river was incredible clear & the water there is nearly 100% pure. Took a side track back over rocks to a great viewpoint of the river flowing into Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the S. island. Meanwhile, the girls drove the 120 km to Milford Sound itself & joined a 3 hr cruise of the sound and also visited an underwater observatory. I was quite tired after the 6 mi hike, so a home cooked dinner & hot tub was a great ending for a memorable day.

Day 12:
After Te Anau, we begin driving all of the Southern Scenic Route, south to Invercargill then east thru the Catlin coast area. On the road south, we stopped at Monkey Island beach & played in the sand (no monkeys though), and walked an old historic suspension bridge. Invercargill is the biggest city in the Southland (S part of S island), and has a fairly large downtown with many stores & shops, but no street signs, which led to some wrong turns...Stayed at another great hotel, Ascot Park, on the outskirts but a nice indoor pool, spa bath, and grounds. Can see sheep & horses across parking lot! Went into town & stumbled on the local xmas tree exhibit, where Sophie got to add a star to the kid's tree. Had a good lunch at a noted sandwich place, then split up - girls went shopping, I walked to Queen's park - a very British, elegantly manicured park with gardens, and a museum with Antarctic exhibits (this far south, Antarctica is the nearest land mass except Australia). Went to the aquatic center, with a large kid's and adult pool, and water slide, where admission was about $2 for all of us! dinner at a rare approximation of Mexican food, the Tex-Mex chain the Lone Star cafe - not authentic, but tasty.

Day 13:
Took wrong road out of town, but the back road to the Catlins was very scenic. Lots of rolling hills & farms, much like Sonoma county around here. After coffee at a mom & pop info center, went to the Petrified Forest at Curio Bay, where the rocks on the beach are inlaid with remnants of an ancient forest. It took some time to see what was rock & what was forest remains, but it was very scenic also. Drove over gravel road and took short hikes to Lake Wilkie and Putakamui Falls in a light rain. Interesting & unusual plant life abounds. Back over treacherous gravel road to our final & most remote farmstay, 20 miles from a town on 8,000 acres of farm land. Our gracious host rushed us off for a drive back towards Curio Bay & the farm that her son works on and saw them shear some sheep. Hired hands are mostly used, who are paid by the sheep. Had a big, 3 hr dinner with other guests from England & Israel where we discussed NZ history and California scenery, which Sophie slept thru. The husband is a full time farmer with 3500 sheep!

Day 14:
After a coffee stop in the main Catlin town of Owaka, took another gravel road to Nugget Point, a windswept and chilly coastal lookout where many seals, but no penguins, could be seen. Also a beach walk at Kata beach. Then completed the Coastal Route into the Scottish inspired city of Dunedin. Got best room (suite) in the Invercargill Hotel, overlooking the city. Drove up the Otago peninsula where we took in the popular attractions of Larnach Castle (small, beautiful grounds with classic late 1800's decor) and Penguin Place. For the latter, you take a private shuttle to the beach area and a guide, in constant communication with other personnel, takes you into a complex series of trenches to view the rare yellow-eyed penguins. Each have a name and posted personal history. You can view them, but they don't see much of you! Saw many up close, including care of the young ones. Back to city centre for a good dinner and walk around the Octagon, surrounded by ornate gothic style buildings and cathedrals. Sophie wanted to move there!

Day 15:
Last day in NZ, we drove 3 hours to Queenstown thru Central Otago, stopping for coffee at a very quiet pub/B&B. Flight stopped in Christchurch, on to Auckland, airport lounges, and 5 hour flight to Papette, capital of French Polynesia, otherwise known as Tahiti, arriving 1 AM. Tahiti Part 2 of Dec. 21 started all over again at the Sheraton, an upscale hotel with all amenities, except no beach. Slept in and spend the day by the pool. Sticker shock set in as compared to NZ, prices are much more expensive here. A modest dinner that would cost $20 in NZ costs over $50 here. Continental breakfast for one at the hotel is $16! French is the first language here, and most tourists apparently come all the way from France to vacation here, and most do not speak English! Walked to the Tahiti version of a small Costco with Sophie, who had lost all her little stuffed animals she had bought in NZ. For dinner, took the local bus to city center. At 6 PM, we wondered why there seemed to only be bars open & no one eating, when we realized that no one but us eats before 8 PM. Then stumbled on a band and food booths by the water, oh well.. Had a tropical drink back at the hotel and caught the dance show before bed.

Day 16:
After quick transfer to airport, took the 8 minute flight to Moorea. Drove to other side of island to the Moorea Village. when we found there was no lobby or bell man, and our room had no kitchen, phone, or TV, just a patio with two beds & fridge inside shared with ants and geckos, we were disappointed. So were all the other Americans we talked to there, except one couple that comes here every year. It did have a nice pool and lots of new friends for Sophie, and a nice beach that our bungalow was in direct view of. As the more upscale places were sold out, we decided to make the best of it. The property is the only one owned by locals as opposed to an international chain, so the locals come and hang out, play music, and drink in the afternoon/evenings. We also discovered that while in NZ guest laundry facilities were plentiful, apparently in Tahiti Laundromats do not exist. So we had to wash clothes by hand for the rest of the trip. Moorea & Bora Bora have barrier reefs, so the water is a beautiful greenish blue and very shallow with lots of tropical fish. Had a very good French influenced dinner in "town", including pickup & drop off by our waitress! Mahi-mahi is on all menus.

Day 17:
Fully shifted to relaxation mode, with no thoughts of what day or time it is or what we need to do next. Walked to a creperie in town for breakfast. Lots of swimming and card playing (Sophie is obsessed with playing crazy eights). Walked over shallow lagoon to the "motu" (island) a few hundred feet away, which has the "honeymoon suite". Dinner at the hotel restaurant.

Day 18:
Getting used to this place, the staff and guests are very friendly. Sophie and a 5 year old French boy Jordan bonded and were rarely seen without each other, even though they didn't speak the same language. rented a bike in the AM & checked out the upscale Beachcomber Intercontinental digs, while the girls took a boat ride to another motu and snorkeled. Then, the rain started, which did not let up for three days. Went to the Christmas Eve dinner gala, including music, local dancing and fire dances, and a gourmet buffet. To bed while the drums and band went on into the night.

Day 19 (Christmas):
Our transfer to the airport, due at 9 AM for an 11 AM flight to Bora Bora, never showed up. At 9:40, we grabbed a taxi that happened to appear. When we asked for an explanation at the airport, it was "the driver forgot". Perhaps a downside of the very laid back lifestyle of the locals..Nearly all the travelers on the one hour flight seemed to be American. The airport at Bora Bora is on an island, so a free shuttle boat takes you to the main village of Vaitape, where the hotel shuttle took us 7 miles down the road to Matira Point, where many of the hotels are. Ours, Le Maitai, was a midscale affair, but lacked a pool. We stayed a few minutes down the road and off the beach in a great villa, with full kitchen, living room, patio, and mosquito-netted large bedroom. It was very tastefully decorated. The TV was pretty useless, as there was only one channel, in French, which seemed to always have episodes of Charlie's Angels or That 70s Show on. Went to happy hour at the bar & planned our activities for the next 4 days.

Day 20:
Still raining nonstop, but we went ahead with our 1/2 day excursion to the Lagoonarium. We had a guided boat ride with English translations that featured: shark feeding, 3 areas to snorkel in, a tour of the main island and its cultural and geological history (volcanic). The finale was the Lagoonarium, where three enclosed areas of the lagoon with stocked with selected marine life, located on a private island. We snorkeled among the rays, sharks, sea turtles, and many tropical fish - very cool! Sophie was not into snorkeling today however, and stayed in the boat. After regrouping, Sophie & I swam in the Sofitel pool down the road, then I walked to check out the digs at the nearby Beachcomber hotel, with also had a pool. After home cooked dinner, heard the drumming from the hotel, so Sophie & I checked out the evening show of fire dances and the guests attempting to dance Polynesian style with the dancers - very funny!

Day 21:
Finally, the rain stopped, though still overcast. Discovered that we could snorkel and see great tropical fish right off the hotel beach, particularly under the overwater bungalows characteristic of hotels here! Sophie started enjoying that more and more. Changed our flight back to Papette to leave earlier and giving us more time at our day hotel, as we would have to check out at 11 AM anyway. That night, Megan ran into an old work colleague - small world indeed!

Day 22:
On our last full day in Tahiti, the sun broke out! Spent all morning at the beach, snorkeling and lounging. The girls were going to take the 2 PM shuttle into Vaitape and I was going to relax, but 5 min before I received word that our mail had arrived. I had instructed our house sitter to send any magazines, etc to us on Dec. 20. I was getting very worried, and today was the last chance for us to get it. I had to sign for it at the post office in town, so I went along as well. Sat at a cafe there & read the mail, which were mostly Xmas cards (maybe yours!). Back at hotel, last snorkeling, dinner in villa, and listened to a rainless storm.

Day 23:
A leisurely check out and transfer to the airport, where we waited 1 1/2 hr for flight to Papette. The interisland flights here have no security - no xray scanner or security procedures at all. While dragging all our luggage across airport to take the local bus to our day hotel, we saw our previous friendly driver that transferred us when we first arrived, who generously drove us to the Sofitel, where we stayed for all of 9 hours. Spent the afternoon at the large pool there. There was a beach, but the water was brown and dirty compared to pristine Bora Bora and Moorea. A poor dinner at the hotel, a 2 hour nap, then up at 11 PM for the 2:30 AM flight to LAX. A long, hot line at the airport, then sleep set in on the 8 hour flight. Another 3 hour layover, and home to pouring rain in Berkeley at 6:30 PM, Dec. 30, 2001....