Ok... so this post is WAY over-due, but better late than never, right?
I am going to go over our 12-day honeymoon to New Zealand! The country is stunning, the people are friendly and the adventures are unlimited! If you are adventurous and enjoy the great outdoors, this is the trip for you!
DAY 1 | FLY INTO AUCKLAND, DRIVE TO WAITOMO CAVES
The morning after our wedding, we hopped on a plane and flew from SFO to Auckland, in NZ's North Island. 12 hours later, we arrived -- it was 5AM local time. We picked up our rental car (which was a manual transmission in a car with the steering wheel on the right side) and we drove (on the wrong side of the road -- thank goodness for Robbie) about two hours south to Waitomo Adventures. We pre-booked the 'Lost World Tour' excursion about six months out to ensure we got a spot.
By 7:00AM we had arrived and had about 20 minutes to squeeze in a power nap. Then it was off to our first adventure! Our group consisted of two guides plus Robbie and me, which made for a super personalized experience. We first suited up in wet-suits, steal-toed boots, helmets and headlamps. Then we proceeded to the route...
We walked through jungle-like terrain until we reached a gaping hole in the ground. Cables spanned from our feet, down 100 meters into the caves below. Next, we were abseiling (like repelling but below ground). The abseil down was remarkable -- eye stimulation overload! We kept looking up and down at the cable between our fingers, then over at the walls of the caves growing the most vibrant green ferns. The cave walls appeared to be sweating water -- a series of natural high-speed slides carrying the water from the earth's surface 100 meters to an underground river.
Once we landed on our two feet, we began our trek through the underground tunnel carved out by water. Every few minutes, our guides had us shut off our headlamps and gaze at the glowworms clinging to the ceiling of the caves. The glowworm, also known as Arachnocampa luminosa, can only be found in New Zealand. By the thousands, these tiny creatures radiate their luminescent light and create a natural flashlight for visitors entering the caves. With the help of their glow, we climbed through small openings in the rocks and jumped into pools throughout the tunnel.
We walked, swam, jumped, crawled, stopped for lunch and drank from the natural water flows. After about three hours, we finally saw the light (literally), as we had reached the end of the tunnel, but our journey was far from over! We were greeted by a sheep farm upon exiting the caves -- a lush, vibrantly green pasture with hundreds of friendly sheep. Then our guides took us to our final stop: dinner. We changed back into our warm clothes, ate a BBQ dinner with fresh New Zealand ingredients and had some hot tea. Then we drove back to Auckland to rest up for the night.
The Waitomo Caves excursion made for the most incredible greeting to our jam-packed honeymoon, and we would highly recommend this trip to anyone looking for a memorable adventure!
We drove back to Aukland that night, spent the night in a beautiful hotel near the Sky Tower, and got some rest before boarding another flight the next morning!
DAY 2 | FLY INTO CHRISTCHURCH, PICK UP THE RV
We boarded and early flight to Christchurch in NZ's South Island. We picked up our home on wheels from Wilderness Motorhomes (they are so easy to work with and just awesome people), made a grocery run and hit the road! Our plan was to do a counter-clockwise loop around the South Island, with zero reservations booked for overnight camping. New Zealand is very lax on where you can camp, as long as you aren't within city limits. As you'll read, we had a few activities booked along the way, but no real set plans otherwise.
We headed west toward Arthur's Pass and made our first stop Hokitika (a small town on NZ West Coast) where we found a nice remote area to camp along Hokitika Beach.
DAY 3 | EXPLORE HOKITIKA GORGE
We woke up on Hokitika Beach (literally the ONLY people for miles), made breakky and headed toward The Hokitika Gorge -- it is definitely Off the Beasom Path, but SO worth seeing! The blue-green water of the Hokitika River makes its way through the rock sided gorge, and there is a really neat draw-bridge that overlooks the river along the way. Round trip the walk is less than a mile, and would be a great option for kids. In September the water is cold and moving fast, but this would be a fun spot take a dip in the summer months!
Next stop: Okarito! This is where we would camp (again along the beach).
DAY 4 | OKARITO, FRANZ JOSEF GLACIER
We woke up in Okarito and did a little nature hike in the Okarito Lagoon to get the legs moving. This part of NZ is very wet and tropical, and the views of the ocean from this hike were beautiful.
We got back in the RV and headed south toward Glacier Country to check out Franz Josef Glacier. The ice is receding at an alarming rate, and there are signs along the trail stating where the face of the glacier was just 100 years ago. The valley (carved out by the glacier) is blanketed in dark rock and vibrant green moss. The river emerging from the glacier is known as Waiho River -- too rugged to be cleared for farming, it is covered in native forest.
We found a place to camp on Gillespie's Beach nestled between Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers (again, surrounded by sheep)!
DAY 5 | FOX JOSEF GLACIER, ROAD TO WANAKA
After another successful night freedom camping (no one in site, no costs/reservations) we watch the sunrise on the beach and made our way to Fox Glacier. We were the first ones on the trail behind the guide who made a rock path over the river for us -- the glacier recedes so rapidly the walking path changes daily. There are signs reading beware of falling ice and granite rock, as the glacier is very much in transition.
We hopped back in the RV and made our way toward Bruce Bay -- one of NZ's most beloved beaches. The coast here is lined with driftwood and rocks people have written messages of endearment on. We found out the river rafting trip we had booked months earlier was cancelled due to high rapids, so we had to adjust.
Next stop: Wanaka! We drove to the quaint resort town of Wanaka and had just enough time to hop on our bikes and ride around the beautiful lake. Wanaka is known as the gateway to the Southern Alps Mount Aspiring National park (a wilderness of glaciers, beech forests and alpine lakes). We made our way through town, looking inside some of the local shops, when we passed the Harris Mountains Heliskiing operation. Robbie convinced Dina to go inside. Long story short, they had two spots left on the heli fo the next day, and we signed up! We went to a ski shop, rented gear and got some beers to cheers at the pub nearby! We parked the RV on a mountain road just outside of town, and got some rest before our big day!
DAY 6 | HELISKIING FROM WANAKA
We woke up early and made our way to the heli pick-up zone which was in the middle of a sheep farm blanketed in vibrant green grass -- quite the juxtaposition from the snow-capped mountains we could see in the distance! We went through the safety-briefing, hopped in the heli and started gaining altitude toward the South Harris Mountains north of Coronet Peak! The heli dropped us off on the ridge line, and away it went! We clicked in and skied down some of the most epic runs of our lives -- seven total! Eacch runs varied between 1,500-2,500' and the terrain was open boats above the tree-line -- or "wide rolling mountain flanks" as Harris Mountains writes on their website.
We even got to see the famous Kea -- the world's smartest high-flying parrot! They are as smart as a three year old and would fly alongside us!
Editor's note: Dina fell and tore her ACL and meniscus on the last run of the day (of course) but she still had a BLAST (and it made her a better skier once she recovered). She was taken to the local hospital in Wanaka where the New Zealand ski team doctor checked her out and confirmed her injuries. Dina would like to send a BIG THANK YOU to the medical team who took care of her and brought her tea and cookies!
DAY 7 | QUEENSTOWN
After learning how to use crutches and adjusting to the pain meds, we spent the day exploring Queenstown -- a much more touristy town with several nice hotels and ritzy places to shop and eat (think the Aspen of NZ).
Lake Wakatipu serves as the backdrop for this beautiful town (similar to Wanaka, just a bit bigger). We ate at Fergburger TWICE (yes, it is THAT good), once for dinner burgers and the next morning for breakfast meat pies. We had fun exploring the nightlife here (there are lots of little pubs and bars to check out). For us it was a one-stop wonder, but many people spend their entire vacations here -- in the summer months there is a lot you can do in the area from hiking to bungee jumping to lake activites. We found a place to camp outside of town, then the next morning it was off to another adventure!
DAY 8 | ROAD TO MILFORD SOUND
After our meat pies from we headed southwest toward Milford Sound. We stopped in Te Anau for lunch and went to 'Miles Better Pies and More' which has the BEST homemade meat pies in NZ made fresh daily (we highly recommend stopping for lunch, as they close early)!
Then we continued on the LONG road to Milford Sound. In 1950, crews carved out a two-mile tunnel through the granite mountain that allows one car to pass at a time (before that, the only way into the sound was by boat, plane or hike). The views on the other side of the tunnel are epic! Waterfalls everywhere -- we recommend doing this drive in the daylight so you can take it all in.
After a long windy road, we finally made it to Milford Sound -- formed by glaciation over millions of years. Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in NZ and one of the wettest in the world (annual rainfall is 252"). It is also one of the most remote places in New Zealand with only about 40 residents but one of the most-visited tourist spots.
Once we arrived, we discovered there was a boat leaving within the hour, so we got our tickets and hopped aboard. We were fortunate to arrive at Milford on a rare clear day, and we saw the picturesque snow-capped mountains lining the crystal blue water, including the tallest peak in the fiord, Mitre Peak (5,522'). We also saw glaciers from the water, dozens of waterfalls, bottlenose dolphins, fur seals sun bathing not he warm rocks, and the entrance to the Tasman Sea.
There is a small lodge with food and drinks, but it's a good idea to pack your own food for this very remote part of NZ. We camped in at the Milford Sounds Rainforest Campervan Park (lucky for us we didn't need a reservation since it was off-peak season, but if you are coming November-April, a reservation is a MUST). After a long day or driving and exploring, it was time for bed. Milford Sound is one of the darkest places in the world at night, and the stars were unreal! But beware: The Kea birds are on the hunt in this part of NZ! They poked and prodded at our roof vents all night trying to get in!
DAY 9 | KAYAK MILFORD SOUND
The next day we woke up early and prepared for our kayaking trip with Rosco's Milford Kayaks (we booked this one months in advance). This was one of the most breathtaking experiences EVER, as we got to see geology and wildlife up close and personal. The kayak company packs a lunch for you, so the more time you can spend out there on the water, the better! We again scored another clear day, so we got to see SO much! We highly recommend putting this on your to-do list if you come visit!
We headed back out on the road we came in on, and made the trek north toward Mt. Cook, finding a place to camp on the side of a remote road along the way.
DAY 10 | MT. COOK
We drove to the trailhead at Aoraki / Mount Cook -- the highest mountain in NZ at 12,218'. Since it was early spring, there was still plenty of snow on the ground and in the mountains, which made for a picturesque backdrop. We didn't hike to the top, but took the Hooker Valley Track where we crossed three suspension bridges over the Hooker River. From the carpark, the hike is about 6.2 miles RT and takes about 2-4 hours.
We continued our journey toward Lake Tekapo and stopped at a little salmon farm where Dina caught dinner, and we had a feast in the RV and set up camp for the night.
DAY 11 | WINE COUNTRY
We went wine tasting to wrap up our week of adventures, and oh what a week it was! The plan WAS to mountain bike in some of the awesome trails in this area, but since I was injured we changed our plans and settled for wine tasting :). We stopped by Maude Wines (which was delicious) and got to talking with the sommelier. We said we were from the Napa region of California, and they made sure to tell us that a cork is an old method of bottling and screw tops are much better for keeping wine from spoiling! They said we are too pretentious in the States and think screw tops = cheap wine, but that shouldn't be the case. Haha... something I've never forgotten! After visiting wine country, we started our final leg toward Christchurch.
DAY 12 | HEAD TO CHRISTCHURCH
We drove all the way to Christchurch so we would be better positioned to return the RV first thing the next morning. We saw some of the earthquake damage from February 2011, when a 6.2 magnitude quake struck 6.7 miles southeast of Christchurch (which was at the time, NZ's second-most populous city). It was sad to see some of the homes that hadn't been rebuilt in neighborhoods where life had resumed. We found a place to camp near an industrial area on the coast (much more difficult to find a camping spot within city limits).
The next morning we caught our flight to Aukland, then flew home to SFO.
New Zealand is the PERFECT country to rent an RV because it is very camp-friendly, and the landmarks and sites you'll want to see are so spread out. The South Island is like a giant land mass of national parks, with so many different types of topography and terrain. There are lots of one-way bridges, but since we went in September, it was very desolate, and we basically had the road and sites to ourselves (we hear in the summer traffic can get pretty gnarly in some areas). It was also rainy, so it was convenient to have a change of clothes at the ready in the RV.
It was so nice to sleep where we wanted, eat when we were hungry (rather than having to drive hours until the nearest town), and just be on our own schedule. If we liked a spot, we stayed there longer, and we never felt rushed to get to the next place. Plus, it was really fun to talk to the locals and get their take on what was "worth seeing" since we didn't have much time.
Until next time, NZ! Thank you for your beautiful beaches, lucious landscapes, glorious glaciers and friendly folk. We will be back!