New Zealand Wonderland

There is a great deal more to New Zealand than the haka and hobbits, as Charlotte Waters found out on a 17 day APT Luxury guided tour.

With a population of just 4.5 million and an incredible assortment of stunning landscapes – from steaming geysers, snow capped peaks and deep fiords to lush forest, sandy beaches and turquoise seas – New Zealand is a land of breathtaking contrasts.

You’ll be enchanted by the warmth of its people, the power of Maori culture and the quality of the country’s fresh cuisine and award winning wines. It might be nearly 20,000 kilometres away, but having experienced it I can say the journey is certainly worth it!

Travelling to a natural wonderland on the opposite side of the world to spend our time studying maps behind the wheel of a car didn’t appeal, so exploring New Zealand on a guided tour seemed like the obvious choice.

APT’s 17 day New Zealand Wonderland ticked all the right boxes: two and a half weeks to cover all the classic destinations of both
the North and South Islands, and the prospect of having an experienced Tour Director on hand to ensure everything ran smoothly meant we could focus on the important things – relaxing and enjoying ourselves.

The level of inclusions - from an array of fine dining and sightseeing excursions, to accommodation in luxury hotels and even a luggage porterage service – was the icing on the cake.

Beginning in the beautiful North Island’s city of Auckland, we met our fellow travellers and APT Tour Director Amy – an attentive, yet not overbearing Kiwi keen to share her local knowledge and passion for her homeland. We were immediately presented with a dilemma that was to become familiar over the next few weeks – which excursion to choose? In key destinations, APT’s Freedom
of Choice concept offers a range of included sightseeing activities, often as diverse as the local landscapes at no extra cost.

I chose to soak up the best views of the city from atop volcanic cones at the quaint harbourside suburb of Devonport, whilst others opted for a guided exploration of lush rainforest and black-sand beaches.

Leaving Auckland via the busy Harbour Bridge, we travelled along the Hibiscus Coast to the spectacular Bay of Islands, a subtropical region consisting of 144 islets with picturesque beaches and sheltered waters made for kayaking and snorkelling. Our tour included a scenic catamaran cruise to Cape Brett and the famous Hole in the Rock; plus the opportunity to visit Cape Reinga, go on a tall ship sailing adventure, or a guided tour of the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

Our journey continued through the North Island, stopping at Waitomo, home to the famous glowworm caves, before continuing on to Rotorua for culture of a different kind. Here, we enjoyed a traditional Hangi – a Maori feast – followed by a wonderful song and dance performance at the Tamaki Maori Village. Yet more Freedom of Choice activities gave us the opportunity to discover the icons of Rotorua at the Agrodome Farm Show, or explore the geothermal wonderland at Wai-O-Tapu with its impressive
steaming geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools.

Delving deep into the heart of the North Island, the following day we visited the Wairakei Steam Valley, Huka Falls and Lake Taupo, before travelling across the vast  volcanic plateau of World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park.

The next day included a sightseeing tour of Wellington’s best-loved landmarks, before riding the iconic cable car for magnificent views of the coastal city. Bidding a fond farewell to the North Island we continued on to the fairytale scenery of the South Island, cruising across Cook Strait aboard the Interislander ferry to Picton.

Rejoining the coach with Amy, we watched the landscape change yet again as we journeyed down the central east coast to Kaikoura, adding glorious sandy beaches to the smorgasbord of natural wonders, before we reached the city of Christchurch.

Swapping road for rail, our included trip on the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps to Arthur’s pass took us across spectacular viaducts through the rugged terrain; certainly living up to its reputation as one of the world’s great scenic rail journeys.

We continued along the dramatic New Zealand west coast to the mighty Franz Josef Glacier, a seven-mile sea of ice that has been advancing for millions of years, it’s quite unique as it is one of just three glaciers in the world that descends into temperate rainforest. We settled here for the night at a luxury five-star eco-resort Te Waoniu Forest Retreat, where we were treated to a delectable four course degustation dinner.

Our base for the next two nights was New Zealand’s undisputed adventure capital, Queenstown where we got into the spirit of adventure and enjoyed a truly thrilling jet boat ride through the Shotover Canyons. And with a range of dining experiences on offer in Queenstown – once more at no extra cost – we truly were spoilt for choice!

The next leg of the tour along the Milford Road through Fiordland’s valleys, mountains and freshwater lakes took us to what is arguably New Zealand’s most iconic sight: Milford Sound. A cruise granted breathtaking views of steep cliffs, dense rainforest, powerful waterfalls and the iconic Mitre Peak rising majestically from the sound. Stunning landscapes continued on our picturesque drive to the lakeside settlement of Te Anau.

The next morning we crossed Southland admiring untamed shores and a wilderness of forests and mountains, before arriving in the ‘Scottish’ city of Dunedin for more Freedom of Choice touring.

Leaving Dundein, we wound our way north to Koekohe beach, stopping to view the mysterious Moeraki Boulders stood sentry on the sand, before reaching the spectacular World Heritage-listed Mt Cook National Park; home to the highest peak in Australasia, Aoraki (Mt Cook). I chose to visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, learning about the stars of the southern night sky with an
expert astronomer, before winding down in our room at the renowned Hermitage Hotel.

The next morning I awoke to spectacular views – without a doubt, our stay in Mt Cook was my personal highlight. The snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps provided a stunning backdrop as we travelled to beautiful Lake Tekapo to visit the much photographed Church of the Good Shepherd on its tranquil shores.

Continuing on through delightful scenery across the patchwork farmlands of the Canterbury Plains, we returned to Christchurch, for a memorable Farewell Dinner. As we reflected on all we’d seen and done, the places we’d visited and the people we’d met, we were glad we had finally decided to visit this unique country.

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