Friday, March 1, 2024

Whirlwind visit: tourists spellbound

Welcome to Mitai Village
Tourists world-wide come to enjoy New Zealand’s diverse beauty and, likewise, HELEN PERRY’S Finnish and US visitors wanted to “see it all!” She recounts their journey.

“Spectacular” was a word I heard many times over from our friends who were up for a fast-paced, four-week tour of the country.

Our guests (from left), Erkki and Leeleena Paaskunta with Bobbi and Pasi Virta.

Long flights from Vancouver and Helsinki meant allowing a few days in Auckland to recover from jetlag. In that time, we managed a zoo visit, strolling The Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter, waterfront drive, and Auckland War Memorial Museum – The Fernery, adjacent to the winter gardens at The Domain, was a huge hit. Added on was a quick visit to Hamilton Gardens.

However, we were soon flying to Queenstown for four nights before tackling the West Coast.

Sadly, the sun didn’t shine. Instead, rain cancelled most planned events including a Shotover Jet ride, which I consider one of our country’s most thrilling experiences. On the other hand, our stay at the Mercure Queenstown Resort was lauded as “inspired”.

Despite fewer Queenstown adventures than expected, a drive to Glenorchy received the thumbs up and the keen photographer in our group captured close-ups of many lovely birds plus more at Zealandia in Wellington.

Our guests on Franz Josef glacier

Eating out (we did that a lot!) saw questions come thick and fast: “What is monk fish? What is gurnard?” and “What is greasy grouper?” otherwise presented as rock cod, which was not a hit.

Prices were up there but at Haast, The Hard Antler Bar & Restaurant was a treat. Coming from countries where deer, moose and caribou (reindeer) abound, I was surprised by our guests’ fascination for the multitude of antlers and hunting trophies on display.

The timber slab tables impressed as did the hearty meals (including whitebait butties) at prices ranging from $10 for homemade soup and toast up to $25 for a venison casserole. Maybe not for vegans, but Hard Antler was definitely novel and cost-effective.

With limited time, we opted for short walks over long hikes. Our first two stops after Wanaka were the lovely Fantail and Thunder Falls, both just metres from the road.

Must mention a helicopter flight to Franz Josef Glacier. Two of our visitors were fortunate to snaffle early morning seats before the weather set in and came back ‘ecstatic!’ Making themselves ‘snow angels’ (starfish-style, laid out in the snow) gave them a kick!

The Treetop Walk near Greymouth was another success. Although very high, the sturdy walkway structure was most reassuring for those afraid of heights and the fauna, birds, and views were proclaimed, “stunning”. A conservation treasure, this was counted as a ‘must do’.

Many attractions were pronounced “unbeatable” with the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki among the “most unbeatable!” We lingered long at this rugged piece of coastline where intriguing rock formations, angry blowholes, nesting birds and the very primal nature of the area took our breath away.

A night in Greymouth then we crossed Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch where the gondola to the top of the Port Hills afforded magnificent views. The group also visited Brighton, the beautiful Botanic Gardens and bought the day-long, hop on/hop off tram pass for viewing central city sights. Dinner at Rockpool – a personal favourite because of its inexpensive, generous meals – was a must as was The Riverside Market’s food extravaganza.

After three days, husband and I returned to Auckland while our guests flew to Wellington. Their central city hotel (Mercure Abel Tasman) was walking distance to most sights although they hired bikes and rode to the Weta Workshop only to find the tour full – disappointing! On the other hand, Te Papa delivered as did Old St Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament and favourite, Zealandia Eco-sanctuary.

After returning to Auckland we headed for Rotorua staying at Arawa Park (a Rydges Hotel). During two days in the tourist town, we took in Te Puia Arts and Cultural Centre, the Government buildings (undergoing renovation) and Ohinemutu where the guide provided insights into tukutuku (weaving), carving and the site’s history.

A lakefront walk, mud pools near Wai-o-tapu and Eat Street were all commended but the highlight (our prime reason for visiting Rotorua) was the Mitai Village cultural concert and hangi deemed: “enthralling.”

The next day it was home via Tauranga, The Mount and the Karangahake Gorge in relentless rain, then off to Paihia next morning. There, good weather meant a Cape Reinga bus trip, a Hole in the Rock cruise and Rainbow Falls were applauded – all described as: “Spectac’!” However, it was towering kauri in Puketi Forest (near Kerikeri (their remarkable stature and presence) which mesmerised everyone.

This whirlwind NZ tour was topped off by a SkyTower visit then a farewell dinner at Bucks overlooking Bucklands Beach. Although our visitors saw a lot, we missed many landmark places – scenic Taranaki, fruitful Hawkes Bay (before the cyclone), Wairarapa wine country and more.

Yet what we saw received much praise and I was delighted that our guests confirmed they had all fallen in love with Aotearoa New Zealand – a land they ultimately described as… “spectacular!”

Homes away from home

Booking travel accommodation can be hit and miss. For our trip we sought comfortable rooms and good amenities to meet our budget – somewhere between luxury and Billy budget! The result was a mix of hotels and motels.

The Mercure Queenstown Resort (up the hill on Sainsbury Road) provided breath-taking views, warm service and spacious rooms with ample toiletries, including the best hotel hairdryer.

Facilities included pool, heated jacuzzi, sauna, gym and guest laundry plus bar and two dining areas overlooking Lake Whakatipu – excellent buffet breakfasts. As Accor Plus members, we struck a fringe season special of $172 per night.

I was last at this hotel in 2008 with my cousin’s daughter from Finland. Now, 14 years later I was back at the same hotel with her aunt and friends. I wasn’t sure what to expect but the Mercure Queenstown Resort certainly delivered. Our superior lake view rooms enjoyed stunning vistas which proved fortuitous as one on my visitors spent a couple of sick days in bed.

“But, I was never bored,” she said. “The parasailing, tourist ‘sharks’ diving and surfacing, the steamship, Earnslaw cruising back and forth, plus other water activities were fascinating.”

Peaceful with ample free parking, there was an easy rapport among guests – I watched T20 cricket on TV in the bar with a busload of Indian tourists. Camaraderie was at its best!

For the remainder of our West Coast travels we stayed in three Bella Vista motels (virtually carbon copies of each other) priced at $150 and $130 per night. Rooms were smallish but clean and comfortable. Laundry facilities were appreciated as were the obliging hosts.

In Christchurch, the newly opened and very smart Christchurch City Hotel was ideally situated – the lounge and restaurant were (at that stage) still being completed but stylish rooms with elegant bathrooms were just a step to the square, shopping and eateries. At $177 per night, it was excellent value.

Our guests found Wellington’s comfortable Mercure Abel Tasman ($159 per night) offered easy access to city attractions while Rotorua’s Arawa Park, at $185 per night, was better than hoped for. At the latter, we applauded the large rooms and great beds – fabulously comfortable – while the facilities (restaurant, bar, lounge, gym) plus tasty breakfast options saw us well catered for.

Finally, Paihia. The Outrigger motel (at $150 per night), while clean, tidy and close to the shops, was a disappointment. Toiletries were few and the hairdryer needed replacing. Tight onsite parking was difficult for our large van, so I parked roadside. As I age, I prefer a higher level of comfort. If a tidy facility and a reasonable bed is all that is required, Outrigger obliges. However, I missed the added niceties found elsewhere – something to consider when planning any trip. We live and learn.

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