New Zealand Winter Self Drive Trip 2017

A few months ago, we decided to go for a family vacation in New Zealand prior to me starting my new job in August. I was a bit apprehensive about driving in winter, but after asking around it seemed doable so we just prayed hard for good weather... and it turned out to be great! On a personal note, I have so much to be thankful for in this trip it just outweighs the calamities and bad moments... I really thank God for that!

Here is my 15D Trip Summary:
(Dates: 5-18 July 2017, Winter Season)

North Island (3D)
Auckland CBD - Viaduct Harbour - Auckland Domain
Waitomo Glowworm Caves

South Island (6D)
Christchurch - Lake Tekapo/Mount John - Wanaka - Milford Sound - Queenstown

(Return to) North Island (4D)
Hobbiton - Hamilton - Rotorua - Auckland - Mt. Eden - Mission Bay - extra day

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Some tips for self-drive travel in NZ:
1. Car rental - We were 4 adults (my parents, hubby and I) and a 3yo kid. There was a lot of luggage considering we were going in winter, so we needed a car with ample luggage space. We rented a Toyota Corolla in North Island (GoRental) and a Mazda 6 sedan in South Island (Hertz). The boot could fit (well, barely) 2 large luggages, 2 carry-on luggages, 1 stroller.
2. Car rental - We rented snow chains for good luck! Extra charges incurred. (The myth is that if you carry snow chains, you might not even need to use them at all... and we really didn't need to!)
3. Car rental - We picked up the Hertz car at Christchurch Airport and dropped off at Queenstown Airport. Extra charges incurred due to different service points.
4. Car rental - Child car seat is a must. We brought our own child car seat all the way from Malaysia with no additional charges to check-in luggage.
5. Driving - Maximum speed limit is 100km/h. And always observe the speed limit on the road.
6. Driving - Just use Malaysian driving license will do.

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Travel Itinerary (North Island):
Day 1 - Auckland: We arrived at Auckland International Airport around 4.30pm. Our luggage was delayed for 1 hour++ due to lighting strike. We barely managed to get on the booked Intercity bus to downtown Auckland. Should try to book the free bus to the city next time. We put up for two nights at Econolodge (4 stars for great location, 2 stars for room size). We ate dinner at Elliott Stables - great selections of food!

Day 2 - Auckland: Woke up in the morning and explored Viaduct Harbor on foot. Ate fish-and-chips at Auckland Fish Market which is a far cry from Sydney Fish Market. Can skip it next time. Headed to Queen Street for some shopping. We walked from Auckland CBD to Auckland Domain, intending to visit the Wintergardens but it was already closed. Well, no big deal as it actually houses a tropical forest. Visited the Auckland Museum for a short while before closing time. Took the Inner City Loop bus (only $3 per pax) back to our hotel. Dinner was at Elliott Stables again! Strolled back to our hotel via Queen Street and Auckland Sky Tower.

Day 3 - Waitomo: Woke up early and drove for about 3 hours to reach the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. This has been on my bucket list ever since I watched the glow worm cartoon as a kid. After visiting, I felt that... the view of the fireflies in Selangor are much more enchanting! But the underground dark river cruise was a good albeit short experience. Afterwards, we took a short hike up to the Waitomo Viewpoint. A great calamity happened here, after coming back down, I put my handbag on the floor to wipe my shoes... and then proceeded to drive off in the car for about 1 hour before realising that I had left behind my handbag, with 3 passports, phone and wallet inside! Thank God that some angel found it and brought it to the lost-and-found counter. The Waitomo staff were very helpful in contacting me through email and looking after my lost handbag. Next, hubby had to do a Fast-and-Furious all the way back and to the Auckland Airport for us to catch our 7.00pm flight to South Island! Thank God again that we managed to make it in time - the flight was delayed 20 mins and GoRental staff were miraculously available at the domestic terminal to pick up the car keys. Reached Christchurch and put up a night at IBIS Christchurch (4 stars, I have no complaints except a blown fuse in the middle of the night!).

Travel Itinerary (South Island):
The North Island and South Island of New Zealand are starkly different, even in winter. While there were greenery and rounded hills in the North Island, we were greeted by a magnificent view of the white-washed snow-covered mountains grandeur of the South Island.


Day 4 - Christchurch: Spent a lovely morning walking around the town square to see the Cardboard Cathedral, the vintage tramway, Christchurch Cathedral, Botanic Gardens, Museum etc. All around the city we could see the after-effects of the earthquake; there was a lot of rubble and reconstruction happening everywhere, the city looked like it was in a transitional state but I could imagine it being a good place to live in if there were no natural disasters. After lunch we set off to Lake Tekapo, which was 3 hours drive away. Put up a night at Tailor-Made Tekapo Backpackers Hostel (3 stars, cozy and nice backpackers lodge with complete kitchen). After eating a delicious home-cooked dinner, we headed down to the lake by the Church of the Good Shepherd to stargaze and to feel the cold winter night!


Day 5 - Lake Tekapo:  This was by far one of the best days of the trip. We visited Lake Tekapo and Church of the Good Shepherd again, threw stones in the lake and hoped to revisit it again in our lifetime. Drove up a steep windy road to Mount John Observatory and the view of the snow-capped mountain range (snow, all snow everywhere) blew us away! Had lunch at Kohan Japanese restaurant and did some souvenir shopping at the stores. Had a change of accommodation, checked-in Lakefront Lodge Tekapo (5 stars for the view and location and kitchen/ lounge facilities, 2 stars for the cold taps in winter, we didn't get to take a bath!) and spent some time teasing a pair of friendly Mandarin ducks down by the lake again. After that we spent a lovely afternoon at the Tekapo Hot Springs, the feeling of soaking in the hot pool while gazing at the winter scenery was so heavenly!

Day 6 - Wanaka: We left Lake Tekapo later than we hoped to, this was a day where there was snow warnings and we were afraid that snow might affect our drive through Lindis Pass. It was another 2.5 hour drive to Wanaka from Lake Tekapo. We made a quick stop at Lake Pukaki to take pictures, but sadly there was no turquoise blue lake to enchant our eyes. While driving through Lindis Pass, it started snowing and we stopped to take a few pictures of the lovely snowflakes flying through the air. It was late by the time we checked-in to YHA Wanaka (3 stars for the cold dorm room, 4 stars for the kitchen, movie room and great helpful staff!). After a hearty Korean meal, we headed down to Lake Wanaka for a evening stroll. It was a super cold day in Wanaka but still we enjoyed it very much. We saw lots of people getting off the shuttle bus -- they had gone to nearby Cardrona for skiing and snowboarding.

Day 7 - Queenstown: After booking our next day Milford Sound day trip from the YHA lady at the counter, we left Wanaka for Queenstown. Stopped by Goldfields and the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge to take some pictures. Passed by Roaring Meg, which sounds like me and my name! We stopped for a quick check-in to our Lower Shotover Airbnb which we would put up for 2 nights, and made a beeline for Queenstown Skyline Gondola for a magnificent snow-covered view of the city. To our luck, it was snowing and Hayley got to build a snowman!  

Day 8 - Milford Sound: This was kind of a last minute arrangement, but boy was it worth it! It was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. We followed a Jucy tour to Milford Sound cos it was too far to drive. The tour bus picked us up from the Frankton Bus Depot at 7.30am. It was a 4 hour drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, past snow-capped mountains (The Remarkables, Mt. Christina) and deep valleys. Once we reached Milford Sound we got on a cruise boat and toured the seas for about 2 hours. They say "the journey is better than the destination" and it definitely rang true for this experience. After the tour, we went to nearby Arrowtown for dinner but too bad it was already dark and we didn't get to do any sightseeing. So we hopped over to Countdown and Warehouse for some shopping.

Day 9 - Leaving Queenstown back to Auckland: This was a travelling day, so we didn't get to do much. Our flight left from Queenstown around 11am and we reached Auckland around 1pm. Had lunch and headed straight for Matamata.

Travel Itinerary (back to North Island):
Day 10 - Hobbiton: Put up a night at Matamata at the Horse and Jockey Inn (2 stars for amenities, 5 stars for location). Woke up early in the morning and walked to the I-site in time for our booked Hobbiton Movie Set Tour at 9.30am (2 hours+). The Hobbiton movie set was so beautiful. Our only complaint is that the tour was too rushed, we didn't even have time to finish our free beer at the Green Dragon Inn! Drove to Hamilton to drop-off hubby at the bus station as he would be departing for Malaysia. Proceeded to drive to Rotorua, the town filled with steam rising from the gutters. Took a evening stroll by the beautiful Rotorua Lake and soaked in the Lake Rotorua Hotel's hot tub at night (4 stars, very nice and comfortable hotel). 

Day 11 - Rotorua: Woke up early and drove to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in time to see the Lady Knox Geyser being presented. While on the road to Wai-o-tapu, the morning fog was so dense it was almost impossible to see two cars ahead. However the information counter folk reassured us that the weather would usually clear up once after the Lady Knox Geyser was presented. And the fog did clear up, if not we would not be able to have a clear view of the geothermal wonders of Wai-o-tapu. After lunch at Yamato Japanese restaurant, we headed to the Agrodome which we missed the last farm tour, but it was just our luck to meet a bellowing farmcow and a large herd of sheep, which we helped to shepherd into the barn! After that, we drove all the way back to Auckland and checked-in to Haka Lodge at K Road (2 stars, stairway only but the room was very comfortable). Dinner was at a nice Spanish restaurant just opposite the hostel.

Day 12 - Auckland: Did a short and easy hike up Mt Eden crater hill and were rewarded with astonishing views of the city. Wanted to eat our last fish-and-chips at The Ancient Mariner but alas, it was closed on Monday. After grabbing a quick lunch we went for final shopping again at Countdown then headed to enjoy a stroll at Mission Bay beach like the locals do. This was supposed to be the last day of the trip and we were to depart to Malaysia but alas the AirAsiaX flight was delayed to the next day due to fuel pump problem. So we all got to spend one more night at The Langham Auckland before returning to the airport again the next day. 

That's the end of my NZ travels, hopefully I'll visit again in spring or summer!

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