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A Month in Paradise

On the 5th of February 2013 Nigel and Lida Wilson from the US decided to travel for 32 days around New Zealand on our “Month in Paradise” self-drive itinerary. Customised to suit, on their return they emailed through their feedback. We’ve edited it slightly for brevity but it’s a very interesting read and useful for those thinking of travelling through New Zealand on one of our longer self-drive itineraries. Enjoy!

Our Self-Drive Route


We visited Waiheke Island on Waitangi Day – probably a mistake due to the crowds, but found it a worthwhile trip as it gave us a different perspective on the city. We took the Waiheke Explorer bus tour of the island and visited Devonport as well as climbed up Mt. Victoria – our first experience of the steepness of walking in New Zealand! Again, worth it for the views of the city. We went up the Sky Tower, and did NOT do the jump! We found the War Memorial Museum well worthwhile for the New Zealand history and natural history we learned. The Maori exhibits were especially interesting. The Botanical Gardens were also worth the few minutes it took to walk through them. Lida is not “good” at boats so we did not do the America’s Cup cruise, but others we spoke to said it was a great experience.

Auckland to Paihia, Bay of Islands

If you have access to the internet (we did) you can get the toll paid on-line and save a dollar! We found the Kauri Museum very interesting and worth the visit – although when we first pulled up and saw all the tourist busses we were a bit skeptical. Since the Kauri tree and Kauri “gum” are so important to the history of the North Island and to the few remaining areas of “old” forest, I would urge people to see the museum – very well done. Believe it or not, we missed seeing Tane Mahuta as we made a wrong turn coming up from the south – people should be told they should not take the turning to the Waipoua Forest Visitor’s Center unless they want a drink or a snack, because there’s actually nothing of the trees to be seen there. We then took the next signed path which took us to the Three Sisters and the second largest tree Te Matua Ngahere. When we saw the third turn-off (signed Tane Mahuta), we assumed we had already seen it. Probably need to give clients a little more details on visiting this area as it is unexpectedly spread out over quite a distance on SH12.

The walk through the Arai-Te-Uru Recreation Reserve at the entrance to Hokianga Harbour is worth the short detour to the parking lot off SH12 as it gives beautiful views of both the ocean and the harbor. It got rather late in the day (this happened quite often!) so we missed some of the other sights as we pushed on to Paihia. We never did get to see the center of Kerikeri.


I think we enjoyed Paihia best of all the places we visited in the North Island. It was the right place to stay as a base for our activities.

We have a friend who has a beautiful home high above Russell and she said we should have stayed in Russell rather than Paihia, but with a car it would have been just too difficult to get in and out. We got off the Hole in the Rock Cruise in Russell (they give you a complimentary ferry ticket to complete your ride back to Paihia) and visited her home (a neighbor let us in and brought a bottle of wine for us to share). We also had lunch at the Duke of Marlborough and would strongly recommend this “side visit” because Russell is very pretty and has a lot of historical significance.

The Cape Reinga Tour was very worthwhile (although we do not generally like bus tours). It was a loooong day (in this case, I was glad I was not driving all that way), but the drive along 90-mile Beach was a unique experience. I even did some boogie-boarding! The toughest part was the climb up the sand dune! Sadly, this was one of the very few days when we had more clouds than sun, especially at the Cape itself, but it was a good day. We visited the Treaty Site at Waitangi – sorry, but $25 per person to walk through it is too much to charge! A pity as it does have major historical significance and really should be a National Park with no admission fee. We spoke to someone later in our trip who spoke very highly of the Maori Cultural “Experience” that they have there. See my comments on Rotorua below.

Golf at Kauri Cliffs was an unforgettable day! Blue skies all the time and the course is simply breathtaking! So are their prices, of course, but if you are a keen golfer, you simply can’t miss it!

Bay of Islands to Coromandel

While Coromandel was pretty and Kiwi Dundee showed us many interesting things, I would think it is not a “must see” for many people. However, if you go, I would definitely recommend taking the extra time to drive the longer coastal route around the Firth of Thames – it is a spectacular, if at times nerve-wracking, drive. We stopped at the road-side stand of the Coromandel Oyster Company for a dozen on the half-shell and a bowl of mussel chowder – unforgettable!

The Kiwi Dundee tour was a lot of fun – mainly because we had our guide, Peter, to ourselves. He was extremely knowledgeable, and very keen to show us as much of the area and its history as possible. I still think it is an expensive day but a private guide made it a special one. One of the places he took us was Hot Water Beach (only at low tide) which was another unique “Kiwi Experience” to be suggested to anyone visiting the Coromandel Peninsula.

Coromandel to Rotorua

We went via Te Puke. We found the port facilities in Tauranga very interesting to drive by – we found out where all the lumber trucks we had been passing were headed! We did stop by at the Comvita Visitor’s Center – very interesting and informative. Don’t buy Manuka honey there as it is about three times the price of Manuka honey that we found elsewhere. On our way into Rotorua, we turned off and visited Hell’s Gate thermal area. Not worth the high price of admission!  It was our first disappointing experience in the Rotorua area (see below). We also walked down to Okere Falls – actually, very pretty and worth the 30 or so minutes required. Another plus – it was free!


Rotorua was the one location we felt we could have skipped altogether. We found it too touristy and the attractions wildly overpriced for what they were. The Koura Lodge was lovely, but that was the high point of our visit. The Skyline gondola is not worth it – unlike the one in Queenstown (see below), unless you want to ride the luge run. We are not big spa fans, so could have skipped the Polynesian Spa, but can see that it might appeal to others more interested in soaking in the warm water. Te Puia was interesting, but, with the exception of the Pohutu Geyser, the thermal features were disappointing. Our daughter had visited Rotorua 15 years ago and had told us that one did not need to go there if one had seen Yellowstone – sadly, we agreed. High marks for the Pohutu Geyser, but that alone did not seem to warrant a whole day spent in Rotorua.

We enjoyed the cultural evening and hangi at the Mitai Village – very well organized and presented. Learning and experiencing a bit of the Maori culture was important to us, but maybe we could have done something similar at another of our North Island “stops”. We heard that the one done at the Waitangi Treaty Site in Paihia was very good. (Ed. Rotorua is a must-see stop for those interested in Maori Culture and in New Zealand it’s considered our cultural centre).

Rotorua to Taupo

We visited both Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Waiotapu. Again, we were surprised at the cost of admission, but found both places worthwhile. Advise your future clients of the bus schedule at Waimangu – we were unaware of this. It makes it possible to walk down into the valley and take the bus back – saving both time and energy. But the busses run only infrequently so we were unable to walk all the way to the lake as we did not have time to do so before needing to catch the bus back. We could easily have left Rotorua a little earlier if we had known. Waiotapu was probably the most scenic of the thermal areas we visited. We did not have time to get to Orakei Korako as well, but someone we talked to said it was not really worth the rather long detour.

Needing to be at the Aratiatia Rapids at the right time was one reason we ran out of time – and this was very worthwhile. You must walk down to one of the viewpoints to get the full experience (allow enough time!). Next stop into Taupo was Huka Falls – not to be missed!

Taupo (Tongariro National  Park)

Our schedule while in Taupo was focused on Tongariro National Park and, in retrospect, I think we would have done better staying either in Tongariro itself (although I am guessing the Chateau might have been a bit more expensive!) or in Turangi. While Taupo was very pleasant, we simply ran out of time to do what we wanted in the park and staying closer to the park might have given us a bit more time. Better still would have been to stay for two full days in the area. We managed to drive up to the ski area before our scenic flight but did not have time to take the chairlift up which would have been an interesting experience for us as we have skied many different places in the world and have never seen such an unusual area! We simply did not know how you could ski over all those volcanic rocks!

The Mountain Air Scenic Flight was spectacular! An absolute “must” – particularly if you are not up to hiking the Tongariro Crossing! We were glad to have taken a flight that originated so close to the volcanoes as you did not waste time flying in from Taupo. Everyone had a window seat and the pilot was very careful to fly by everything in both directions so everyone got a good view of every point of interest.

Finally, we hiked to Taranaki Falls – quite a walk!  Hint for your clients: it is a “loop” hike – stay to the right at the fork to do the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. We did so by chance and were very glad! We did not have time to complete the drive around the whole park but just drove back to Taupo the way we had come.

Taupo to Hawkes Bay (Cape Kidnappers Golf)

We drove through Napier to get to Cape Kidnappers and felt that we should probably have allowed an extra day for that area as we really did not have time to walk around the central area – we just missed the annual Art Deco festival, but we heard that was really worthwhile experiencing. I regret taking out the extra night that we had originally planned. Cape Kidnappers was another golf “must”. The course is harder than Kauri Cliffs and is better known. But, if we had to pick just one of the two, I think we would choose Kauri Cliffs. The weather was less good at Cape Kidnappers but at least we had no rain.


We spent just one night in Hastings and had to move on the next day, but not before driving up to the top of Te Mata Peak in Havelock North. This was recommended by Mike at the Hawthorne House. Again, with good weather, this is a “must” for anyone in the Napier/Hastings area. Driving is possible (and, for us, necessary), but hiking up is an option for the fit with plenty of time. Once again, we found ourselves short of time and had to push on to Martinborough without seeing much else en route.

Martinborough to Wellington

Cape Palliser was a very worthwhile detour although it took about half the day as we did the Putangirua Pinnacles hike – another test of our fitness and stamina. Really hot in the canyon but worth the effort. We probably did not get quite far enough into the canyon but we saw enough to get the flavor! Saw a lot of seals in the two colonies near the lighthouse.


While we were only in Wellington for one full day, we managed to “do” the Harbor area and the Te Papa museum (very well presented but we felt probably more oriented to school children – of which there were many!). We thought the cable car – great fun and wonderful views from the top – followed  by the (long) walk down through the Botanical Gardens to be the highlight of our visit. We finished the day by taking the ferry to Eastbourne for dinner. If we had known earlier, we could have gone to an outdoor opera!

Picton to Richmond

As you know, we did not sit in the right class on the ferry – thank you for pursuing a refund of part of the fare. We had no idea we were meant to be in “premium” class. The crossing was one of the few times when we experienced low cloud and a little bit of rain so did not see much of the scenery but the weather cleared completely by the time we got to Nelson. Recommendation for lunch:  The Mussel Pot in Havelock for their mussel chowder. Don’t miss the unique “sculpture” made out of green shell mussels!

Abel Tasman Day Trip

This was a fun day and it was probably worth spending a bit more to be in a smaller boat with a smaller group. Our guide and “captain” was very knowledgeable and worked very hard (he was all on his own and had to do everything). A short hike on shore was probably the “high point” – both literally and metaphorically.

Nelson to Punakaiki

We stopped by Cape Foulwind near Westport which we found a little disappointing, although we might have had a better experience if we had had the time to complete one of the trail walks. We met some friends from Hokitika at the Pancake Rocks – these are not to be missed even when the “blowholes” are not “blowing”. We checked the tides and asked at the information center if it would be worthwhile to return the next morning at high tide but were told the wind had to be right as well and they were not expecting that for another few days. Two other  “not to be missed” items are the short walk down to the beautiful beach (the Truman Track parking lot just north of Pancake Rocks) and the Iramahuwhero View point,  about 20 minutes north of the Pancake Rocks.

Punakaiki to Franz Josef

Our friends told us of the Hokitika Gorge area which we visited on our way – it is a bit of a drive inland from SH6 through very pretty farmland. The gorge has a 25-30min round-trip hike that includes a swing bridge and views of the amazing turquoise water. A good recommendation. Another stop was Lake Mahinapua which is close to the highway and has both hikes and a great picnic area. Once again we ran out of time so had to skip the Gold Heritage Trail in Ross although it looked interesting. A photostop at Lake Ianthe was spoiled by a lack of sun. Our last stop was the side trip to Okarito and the “Trig” hike up to a great viewpoint – again spoiled by low clouds that obscured the views of mountains and glaciers, but in clear weather it would definitely be a “must do” – tough walk, though by this time we were getting used to the steepness!

Franz Josef

If we had a “do-over”, I think we would recommend staying in Fox Glacier rather than Franz Josef. It seems that the heli-trips leave from both locations and the larger number (?) of restaurants in Franz Josef does not warrant staying there. While we did both glacier walks, we found Fox to be the more dramatic (also a LOT steeper at the end). Also Fox is closer to Lake Matheson which was a key photographic location for me. The road between Franz Josef and Fox Glacier is not long but it is steep and windy so getting from one to the other was slow and difficult. By being a little closer to the lake, you could get to the scenic viewpoint earlier in the day more easily. For your other photographic clients, the “reflection” disappears by 10:00am in the morning. Get there even earlier if you can. Also, it tends to get crowded at the “View of Views” overlook which requires a short but steep (what else?) climb up stairs. The better viewpoint is actually about 50 yards beyond the turnoff to the View of Views (going clockwise around the lake) and is right at the edge of the lake, so no climbing and fewer people/tripods to contend with!

We had to postpone our heli flight due to low cloud but luckily got to take it the day we left – and it was worth the wait.  The pilot said the weather didn’t get better than the weather we experienced. Another “must do” – probably #2 overall after Milford Sound.

Franz Josef to Wanaka

The penguin colony at Monro Beach only has penguins from July to November. Knights Point lookout is not to be missed (and it is difficult to do so!). There are a couple of walks at Ships Creek, but, once again, we were running out of time. The short walk to Thunder Creek Falls is very worthwhile.

Wanaka to Milford Sound

We took the Crown Range Road route to Queenstown – highly recommended (Ed. We agree!). Only the last section that winds down into the Queenstown valley is challenging to drive. The rest is just scenically spectacular and well worth the drive. We drove through Arrowtown and passed by the Amisfield Winery, but due to significant traffic delays as a result of road works, we never got to go back to either place. It’s a long drive all the way to Milford Sound so we felt we had to keep moving as we wanted to arrive there with time to spare, so we did not make too many stops. We saw the steam train (“The Kingston Flyer”) and felt that it might have been fun to ride it, but it runs only once a day so you have to devote a lot of time to doing it. The last sections of the drive up to, through and down from the Homer Tunnel are just amazing. Again, I was glad we were driving ourselves as it gave us more flexibility to stop for pictures.

Milford Sound

This rated #1 in our whole trip! Of course, the weather helped – and indeed is a “must” in order to really experience Milford Sound. The overnight cruise is another “must” – I actually don’t see how you could do it all in one day including (presumably) a round trip from Queenstown. We also rated the cruise the best value for money of our trip – you end up doing the sound from end to end twice, once in the evening light and once in the morning (sunrise was spectacular!). They give you a good dinner, great breakfast and a small but perfectly comfortable cabin. A lecture presentation after dinner and informative commentaries as you cruise – who knew there was something called a “tree avalanche”? And the “Milford Sound Boat Wash” under the Stirling Falls was unforgettable. And I haven’t even mentioned the stunning scenery …. Five Stars all around!


You just can’t beat the setting! If we could have stayed longer, we would have. It seems like you could be there a week just for the golf in the area. Yes, it is a bit touristy and is overflowing with back-packers who party hard into the night on the weekend, but it is still a very special place – not to be missed if you are touring the South Island, although it would be hard to do so given its location.

Activities: The TSS Earnslaw and the Walter Peak Station looked a bit touristy, but turned out to be a lot of fun. Weather was a bit cloudy so missed the best pictures, but we loved the boat – it’s the real thing and they loved showing it off! It was fascinating to see the engine room with the boilers being stoked. Our only question was how the boat passed the environmental standards of a country with such “green pride” as New Zealand! We learned a lot about sheep farming and the farming economy (as well as the history of it all). The morning tea served in their very pretty garden was another nice touch – altogether a memorable and worthwhile excursion.

Skyline Gondola is another “must” in Queenstown – unlike Rotorua, the views from the top are indeed “Remarkable”! Just don’t bother with the buffet dinner with a few hundred of your closest friends! The best idea is go up at sunset when the light is best on the Remarkables and just have a drink at the bar. I am not into “luging” but I suspect that this would be fun as well.

We did the Dart River Jet Boat Safari – once again weather is the key to this trip and we had sunny weather that day. If photography is a priority, I would recommend driving yourself to Glenorchy as there are just too many potential pictures that you miss if you are riding the bus (which is what we did). The jet boat trip was our first (we also did the Alpine Safari out of Christchurch – see below). I am not sure you really need to experience two such trips, and if I had to choose one of these two I think I would go for the Alpine Safari, although they both take you through some spectacular scenery. The Dart River was very low due to the drought and they had to cut it short because the upper reaches were deemed unnavigable – even in a Jet Boat. The (rather short) walk through the native beech forest was interesting as it was such a contrast the other dense “jungle” forests we had experienced. Whether the story our guide told us about how the beech tree’s Latin name (Nothofagus) came to be was true or not, it was a good one! My only criticism was that the “4WD” section was basically a bus ride to get you back from where the jet boat dropped you off – not what I had imagined or hoped for (for comparison, see the Christchurch Alpine Safari, below).

Queenstown to Lake Tekapo

We stopped by the bungy jumping at Kawarau Bridge on our way out of town – not to be missed if you are passing by and also “Roaring Meg” Gorge.

OK, this is where we made our one serious (well, not that serious) mistake …. we should have splurged on just one of our accommodations and stayed at the Hermitage in Mt Cook Village. Of course, clear weather is a MUST, but, what a view you have from that hotel! Lake Tekapo is pretty but we ended up going all the way to Mt. Cook Village twice, once when we drove up from Queenstown and also on the following day – a lot of unnecessary, if pretty, driving. We could have better used that time doing more walks around Mt. Cook. I know it would have been expensive, but I think you should always at least suggest it to your clients.

The only hike we had time for was the Hooker Valley Track – and we didn’t make it all the way to Hooker Lake. A bit of a disappointment, but we did get to the point where you get a great view of Mt. Cook. This was the hardest hike we did but it was such an experience! In Lake Tekapo, we visited the Church of the Good Shepherd. We drove to the Mt. John Observatory and walked the Summit Track. I think the view from the top of Mt. John was probably one of the very best we saw on our trip – and that is against some stiff competition. So, again, with clear weather, Mt. John is another “must”. I asked about the observatory tours and was told the only tours were in the evening and were combined with “star-gazing lectures” – and were pretty expensive! It’s a pity they don’t have just a short tour to show you around the facility.

Side note: We stopped by the Astro Café for a coffee – and left empty-handed when told that it would be a twenty minute wait!  Huh?!  Maybe they misunderstood our request for a “long white”!

Lake Tekapo to Christchurch

We followed the “scenic route”. We stopped for a walk in Peel Forest. We covered the last part of the route when we went on the Alpine Safari from Christchurch.


We found Christchurch a little sad – not the best note on which to conclude our tour. Much damage remains unrepaired especially in the central area – the “red zone” – into which one cannot go. Many churches outside the “red zone” were also severely damaged (due to being constructed from stone or brick) and most remain in the condition they were in immediately after the earthquake. Many of the locals we talked to were disappointed by the lack of progress, although some recognized the size of the task and the possibility of a “new beginning” for the center of the city. All agreed that the charm of the “old” Christchurch was gone forever. Looking back, I am no sure it was worth visiting – especially as we spent our day there outside doing the Alpine Safari. It might have been better to depart from Queenstown after our visit to Mt. Cook.

That said, we have nothing but praise for the Alpine Safari tour. Again, we were in a very small group – just four of us and the other couple did not do the train section. We got the impression that the tour group was really struggling and had lost a lot of their business due to the decline in tourism in Christchurch following the earthquake. Also the weather during the jet-boat and the 4WD tour was not good so we missed a lot of the scenery, but we saw enough to realise that the boat trip through the Waimakariri Gorge would be spectacular in better weather. It was fun seeing the railway line high above the river along which we would later travel in the TranzAlpine train. If I had to choose between the Waimakariri and the Dart River (given similar weather conditions), I think I would go for the Waimakariri.

The 4WD tour was quite exciting – basically you are driven through a sheep station high above the Canterbury Plain along steep and rugged (i.e. uneven) farm tracks. A lot more interesting than the bus trip back from the Dart River Jetboat trip. It was just too bad that we were in the clouds most of the time. The train section was beautiful and we were very glad that we had the chance to experience it – I am not sure what we missed by not doing the entire trip from Greymouth, but what we saw in a couple of hours was definitely worthwhile. I hope that “Hasslefree Tours” can survive as they do a great job – both the guide and the lunch were great!

Overall Comments

I am a keen photographer and a key part of any vacation trip we take is being able to capture the experience in photographs. Again, sunny weather is (usually) important to this goal, but my “bias” means that I tend to rate scenic locations higher than other visitors might. It is also why a “self-drive” tour is much preferred to a coach-based tour as photo stops can be made frequently and anywhere. Again, those who are not photographers might prefer being driven around – especially as driving the New Zealand roads can be quite challenging! I actually enjoyed the 3,400 kilometers we covered, but it is probably not for everyone.

There are no “flat” walks in New Zealand!  We loved our hiking efforts but felt totally inadequate compared to the locals! The quality and maintenance of the hiking trails is amazing but sometimes we wished that the trails were “rated” in some way for those who might be a little less capable. Maybe a “vertical change” measurement in addition to the “time estimate” would have helped us select the walks we did. In most cases, we found we had to add up to 50% to the “official” times posted!

Most importantly, it was a wonderful trip that was organized very well by Relaxing Journeys. We had almost no “glitches” for which all credit must go to Michelle and Relaxing Journeys. This was our first trip to New Zealand and we wanted to do it thoroughly. By the time we left, we felt we had achieved that goal.

View our 32 Day Month in Paradise Self Drive Tour >>