Overall our experience on this vacation was very positive and we plan to come back. Having spent 42 days away with our trip split between Australia (12 days) and New Zealand (30 days), I thought it would be useful to reflect on things we would do differently.
We’ve previously spent a lot of time in Australia having lived there for a year and taken holiday there so our perspective is different to someone who has never been. We visited Perth and the south west as we had never visited that particular corner of Australia before and we certainly enjoyed that part of the trip. However, we probably did not need the Melbourne tack on at the end of our vacation and actually we would have much preferred to use those final three days for more time in New Zealand. I suspect therefore we are now done with Australia at least for the immediate future.
The first general comment I would make is that if you are on a very tight timeline where you have pre-booked accommodation or need to be on the road to somewhere else at relatively fixed times, then you need to be prepared for the weather impacting on your planned activities (NZ has far more weather variation than Australia) so you either need to be prepared to press on regardless with whatever you have planned or have ‘bad weather’ alternatives. That impacted us in Franz Josef when our planned heli-hike was cancelled due to poor weather (we were still able to walk to the glacier albeit in pouring rain!).
Second general comment is that although we had 30 days (and met many who were on much shorter itineraries), to use a movie analogy, our trip was like a trailer and we missed the in-depth plot and character development! In seriousness I think it would have been better to not try and cover too much and spend more time in certain locations. More of that later but in advance of the trip we spent a lot of time thinking and reading about our itinerary for New Zealand and were we to go back and plan it again from scratch I am not sure for this first ‘highlights’ trip we would do anything materially differently i.e. I am happy that we hit most of the highlights. The one significant area that we missed out on was Mount Cook National Park, whereas we elected to include Franz Josef. In actual fact we probably could have squeezed Mount Cook in if we had elected to fly to Christchurch from the North Island (rather than Dunedin) and cut out one of the days in Te Anau. However, that would have made the journey more rushed than it already was so it’s not a big regret.
When we started the NZ leg of our trip we flew into Auckland with a very early morning arrival and rather than stay in Auckland on our first day we drove straight to the Bay of Islands. That was a good idea and effectively “won” us a day (although we had to stop to have a short nap on the drive on the way up!).
On the North Island Rotorua was a disappointment for us (just too commercialiszed) and given what we now know we also did not need a night’s stopover in Taupo. So whilst we drove from Whitianga through Rotorua (2 nights), then onto Taupo (one night), we could have condensed those three nights into one night spent somewhere in that area and then used the two nights we gained to spend more time in Tongariro National Park (also one of our highlights). I think we could have done that without compromising anything specific.
We had a fairly focused tour of the North Island and missed out a few places such as the Bay of Plenty, Wellington and Napier. We don’t feel we missed very much (based on discussion we had with other people) but if we can make the time then they would make it onto our trip itinerary for our next visit.
On the South Island we elected to take the scenic drive from Dunedin to Te Anau which is around double the distance and (in my view) not particularly scenic (particularly the stretch after the Caitlins that leads through Invercargill). I need to read more about the Caitlins and Stewart Island was missed from our (and many other) itineraries, so I think the jury is still out on whether that makes sense.
Te Anau is a good base for visiting the sounds and has some amazing local walks so I think it’s worth a visit, however I probably would have reduced the time we spent there and absorbed that into a longer stay in Queenstown.
Now I may go out on a limb here and say that the west coast may not be for everyone, it’s pretty remote and for anyone who has been to the European Alps (or other significant mountainous locations) I don’t think Franz Josef is particularly special. I suspect if we had had better weather then our view might be slightly different but not totally. There are certainly places I would like to have spent more time in (notably Hokitika) but the difficult accessibility of the area means that you really must want to go there (Punakaki is also worth a visit but the same comments apply). Therefore I think on a future visit we might look to fly out of Queenstown to our next destination. Maybe the right way to do the South Island tour is anticlockwise, starting in Queenstown and then driving over Arthurs Pass from Chritchurch, take in Hokitika and Punakaki before driving onto Abel Tasman. Doubtless those with more knowledge than I will have a view.
We did spend a reasonable amount of time looking around for wildlife and some of the tours in the different areas specialize in that but certainly in the case of seals, there is no need to look anywhere else other than Kaikoura although we enjoyed seeing Dolphins in both the Bay of Islands and Akaroa. Bottom line though we could have saved some time (and money) by only seeing wildlife in certain locations.
Finally, I wish we had more time for multi-day walks as the walking in New Zealand was a huge highlight for us, but the multi day walks are simply very difficult to squeeze into a short itinerary. That will be a priority for our next Trip.
As I said in the introduction, we will come back, not exactly sure when but probably in the first half of 2016 and we would probably aim to plan to spend longer in fewer areas namely the Bay of Islands and Tongariro National Park on the North Island and Queenstown and Abel Tasman on the South Island. We might also ‘sweep up’ some of those areas we missed on our first trip (namely Wellington, Mount Cook, Stewart Island etc.).
My second reflections post will talk about budget / costs.