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  • Highlights:
    Without a doubt the scenery. What stood out as really unique and special was the South Island: prominent mountain ranges, glacier blue lakes, spectacular fjords, diverse flora, and a hotbed for any and all outdoor activities. Second was diving Poor Knights Islands, featuring different types of marine life in cold water conditions. Marlborough Sound was also worth the visit.

    Food:
    Nothing new, but generally quite good with fresh ingredients (farm to table). The meals that stood out were breakfast at Vudu Cafe Queenstown, lunch in Arrowtown, fish and chips at Fishbone Queenstown, and upscale dining at the Grove Auckland.

    Next time:
    Spend more time on the South Island, maybe even the rural Stewart Island, to do more tramping and diving the Milford Sound. Hit more of the Great Walks such as the Milford or Kepler Tracks. Wanaka sounds fun and is surrounded by mountains. Also, late December doesn't generally have the greatest weather; we caught quite a few rainy days and cooler temperatures. February is the best month for summer weather.

    The quirky:
    - Corona is surprisingly popular here, and is generally served without a lime!
    - Driving regulations are very strictly enforced. We were told that NZ has the highest rate of children hit by cars in their own driveways.
    - Lots of digs at the neighbors: "The best thing about the Tasman Sea is that it separates us from Australia." Or, in reference to introduced possums eating native birds, "Most of our problems come from Australia." Finally, "despite the boat being built in Australia, it lasted quite long."
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  • Explore, what other travelers do in:
  • We signed up for a New Year's Eve festival during the planning stages of the trip, so we found ourselves on a ferry to Waiheke Island with NZ's rowdiest 20 something crowds on Saturday afternoon. The liquor was flowing on the boat ride in, and we were concerned about our capability to "hang." Waiheke is an island in Auckland's harbor that houses several wineries and pretty beaches. The festival was on one of the vineyards, so all the party goers were bussed there from the ferry terminal.

    The festival setting was pretty nice, surrounded by vineyards and rolling hills. There were also some nice food options - we went with a fresh pizza. The music unfortunately left much to be desired. The DJs weren't quite up to our standards, but I suppose it's tough to ask top talent to fly around the globe for relatively small crowds. I don't think we'll be seeing "Calvo" headlining at major US clubs any time soon.

    The wine, local from the vineyard, was flowing. To be cost effective, we would buy an entire bottle to split between us. When all was said and done, after 6 hours, we were almost 3 bottles down. Fortunately we drank plenty of water. There were fireworks and a champagne toast when midnight rolled around, over 20 hours before friends and family back in the US celebrated the new year.

    The ride back was a bit chaotic. People were asked to choose from 3 departure times (naturally we chose the earliest). Unfortunately many others had overestimated their ability to "hang" so our ferry was way overcrowded with those scheduled on later trips. But alas, we made it back to our hotel just after 2 for our last night in New Zealand.
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  • We left ourselves two days to explore New Zealand's largest city. While the country is much more renowned for its outdoors, Auckland is uniquely positioned on an isthmus between the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean (Hauraki Gulf), and offers trendy dining options.

    The first order of business was finding new black sandals. There was a cruise ship in port for the day making the streets extra crowded. After 2 hours up and down the main Queen Street, we finally proclaimed victory. Next up, we took a stroll into the North Wharf / Viaduct Harbor neighborhood. The waterfront area is pretty nice and we were fortunate to have nice weather. We stopped at a few beer gardens on the way and then headed back to the hotel.

    Dinner that night doubled as Nico's birthday dinner. We had reservations at an upscale restaurant, The Grove. We started with 4 small snacks that were very creative and flavorful - a good sign for the rest of the meal. We chose the four course tasting menu and supplemented our meal with one of the offered specials (fresh fish). We thoroughly enjoyed all courses, particularly the special.

    The next morning, we brunched in the Parnell neighborhood, and then took a long walk through the Auckland Domain which is home to several forest paths, nurseries and a museum.

    The city is definitely worth a few days on the trip. The time from Christmas to New Year is pretty quiet as many people leave town and shops close down.
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  • After 2 days of cold water diving, we were ready for some rest and relaxation. We drove another hour north to the Bay of Islands. This is the area of some of the first European settlements and site of the treaty establishing New Zealand as a country. It's also a popular tourist destination due to, you guessed it, lots of islands and water activities. The accommodations were at a luxury home stay, Point Veronica Lodge, run by two friendly British expats in a fantastic location overlooking the bay.

    We started off the rest and relaxation straight away by enjoying the awesome views from the hot tub. It was the perfect way to wind down after 2 days of cold water diving. We headed into the small town, Pahia, for dinner and made it an early night.

    One of the reasons we chose to stay at the lodge was for the breakfast, which many reviewers had commented on. We weren't disappointed. John did an excellent job commanding the kitchen, cooking up perfect scrambled eggs with salmon over English muffins and lox. They also had a big selection of cereal, cheese, croissants and fruit. We rounded it all out with a couple cups of coffee. On more than one occasion, Nico was asked if he was sure that he didn't want any meat. A common thought by people is that he's forced to not eat meat by Brittany. :)

    The lodge is situated off one of the walking paths that follows the shoreline and leads to the neighboring villages. We ventured over to Opua with full bellies and enjoyed the views of the coast along the way. The entire country sees a lot of rain so there was greenery all around us.

    After our walk, we took the car ferry over to Russell which is a quaint little town that lies on the opposite side of the bay. We wandered through the little town, enjoyed some local oysters for lunch, stopped by a beer garden, and then visited the Pompellier Mission, home of the country's first printing press. The press was used by a French bishop to translate the bible into Maori in an effort to convert the native people. It was surprisingly interesting to see the entire book making process in work, from printing to binding to the leather cover.

    After that, we checked out the nearby Long Beach. Unfortunately the good weather only lasted around 20 mins until clouds and wind moved in. As the (made up) saying goes, if you like the weather in New Zealand, just wait 10 mins and it'll change.

    For dinner, we ate at the Thai/Indian restaurant Greens which actually prepared both cuisines quite well.
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  • Day 2 started bright and early with a wake-up at 6 AM. It was a little tough getting into our damp and chilly wet suits knowing we had to jump in the cold water for 3 more dives! But we didn't regret it.

    The first dive was along a wall. With murky visibility and seemingly no bottom, it was a bit eery. The swim back to the boat was a little calmer over a field of sea kelp.

    The second and third dives, also along walls, were quite spectacular. At dive guide Ren's suggestion, we got really close to the wall and focused on the macro life. There were lots of little blennies and triple fins to be found, along with different types of moray eels hiding and swimming about: grey, mosaic, yellow and speckled. Scorpion fish were also blending in throughout.

    Overall, we were pretty impressed with New Zealand's premier dive spot. Although the cold water takes some adjustment, there is a plethora of unique little creatures to be found among the colorful rock coral.

    We cruised back into port and then headed further up north.
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  • Diving was up next on the agenda. We drove around four hours from Waitomo to Tutukaka, gateway to the Poor Knights Islands. We boarded the Acheron liveaboard and were greeted by dive guides Ashleigh and Ren, cook and ship hand Mandy, and skipper Kevin. There were 6 other divers on board: the Whitehouse family, one Canadian and one Chinese.

    The Poor Knights are volcanic rock formations, rated as one of Jacques Cousteau's top 10 dive sites, in part due to the mix of local cold water and tropical species brought in via current from the Great Barrier Reef - as described in the documentary, Finding Nemo. :)

    We did 3 dives the first day, kitted up in thick 7 mm wetsuits with vest, hood (+ sharkskin for Brittany). Even before jumping in, we saw Schools of trevally hanging out at the surface feasting on small crustaceans.

    There were no tropical coral formations, instead kelp, algae, sponges, and sea fans, with sea urchins throughout. There were colorful byrozoans covering large sections of wall, surrounded by anemone and lots of different nudibranches, from the size of a fingernail to several inches.

    The highlight on the first dive was seeing a small carpet shark hiding under the kelp.

    The third dive, our favorite, was the famous Blue Maomao Arch. The arch extended above water, and consisted of large purple boulders underwater. As hoped, there were massive schools of blue maomaos, a brilliant blue fish local to these waters, who like to hang out in caves and under archways. These were some of the largest schools we've ever seen, beautifully moving in unison around divers.

    For dinner, Mandy served up some lamb legs and a vegetarian lasagna for us. We opted out of the night dive to keep warm, drink some wine and chat with the boat crew. We stayed up just late enough to enjoy warm brownies and ice cream.
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  • Waitomo, located in the center of the North Island, has several underground limestone caves. These are home to bioluminescent glow worms, subterranean rivers, and can be explored through caving. We booked a tour called "Black Abyss" which featured abseiling, rafting, and climbing.

    We got equipped with wetsuits, climbing gear and helmets and set off. After a quick instruction in rapelling, we descended down 30 meters into the cave through a small hole. Once in the cave, we were hooked into a zip line to descend a bit further.

    We didn't stay dry for long. We jumped into the chilly water, which flooded our roomy wetsuits, and tubed a section up to a small waterfall. From there, we linked together, turned off our headlamps, and were pulled along by the guide. There was a galaxy of glow worms that glittered the walls and ceiling. From afar, they're beautiful. We got up close to some as the guide explained more about them. They prey on small insects that get trapped in the cave by attracting them with their glow. The insects think they've found a way out, but instead get stuck in a toxic set of strings produced by the worms.

    We continued by foot down the river - stumbling a bit over the rocky, uneven ground. There were also sections requiring swimming. We slid down a slide the company had installed and that we both agreed was a bit tacky. We ascended out of the caves by free climbing up two sets of waterfalls which was pretty cool.

    After a hot shower, we had some soup and bagels, and then took off to make our way northwards.

    Overall, it was a pretty surreal setting, spending most of our time 60 meters underground. However, we don't think it was really worth the $240/pp price tag. You're not allowed to bring a camera for safety reasons, but they charge $30 to buy the pictures they took. We feel like it would have been more reasonable to have them included. Instead, we leave you with the bathroom warden, a large spider.
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  • In a somewhat surprising yet not uninteresting turn of events, we ended up at a farm stay in the central part of the North Island on Christmas Day. We arrived at the Big Bird B&B in the afternoon on Christmas Day, after flying to Auckland and driving two hours south. We were welcomed by our friendly hosts, Ann & Russ. It turns out that they lived on a farm with a large assortment of animals. None of said animals are native to New Zealand, with the exception of the statue of a 12 ft Moa (which is extinct), but it was still a great time!

    Guests are invited on a free farm tour every night at 6pm; visitors are charged $5. Ann was busy tidying up the rooms for a full house of guests so Russ was in charge of the tour. We started off in the ostrich pen. This was a bit intimidating because Russ shared that you typically wouldn't be able to get so close to ostriches because they tend to be territorial. However, he could tell they happened to be very welcoming at the moment with no signs of aggression...

    We walked around the lot while the two ostriches seemed to think they were also human and weaved in and out of the group, following us across the field. One of them was not fond of the farm cat and took an aggressive stance but the cat was quickly shooed away and all was well again. They were very up close and personal - at one point pecking Brittany on the back of the neck (noticing a tag) and at Nico's shoelaces.

    From there, we visited miniature breeds of bulls, cows, pigs, cats, donkeys, horses and many other normal breed animals. According to Ann, this apparently was Russ's first and only tour that he's given but he did a fantastic job answering questions and entertaining us with jokes.

    The rooms were nice, rustic yet clean. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying our previously made egg sandwiches and wine with the rest of the B&B guests (a family from Hawaii and mother/son from NZ) which made for a memorable Christmas dinner.
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  • We didn't have long to transition from paddling to pedaling. Our lodge was surrounded by many wineries (not an accident) and offered bikes to cruise among them. We chose this region for wine tasting (NZ has many) because they produce some of our favorite Sauvignon Blanc. It's quite renowned internationally so it can be found all over in the states.

    Like most good wine regions, the area is subject to large diurnal temperature swings and microclimates. There are also three distinct types of soil (clay) which create different notes: tropical, green bean, and earthy. Most wineries combine grapes from 2 or 3 regions to balance the wine.

    The first stop was Whitehaven. We enjoyed almost all of their lineup, especially the Pinot Gris. Next up was No. 1 Family Estate which specializes in sparkling wine. We also stopped at Huia, where we were joined by fellow Californians, and Giesen, a large producer wth German heritage and generous samples. The last stop before closing time was Nautilus, also quite good and available in the states.

    We rode our bikes back and walked to the grocery store before the impending day-long closure of the entire country. At the store, the owners of a very small family vineyard were passing out more samples so we gladly obliged. Like most people we met, they were eager to tell us about their country. When we asked why everyone was so friendly, he told us that it's because they live so far away from everyone else so they have no choice if they want company.

    Since we were in no condition to drive, and no Uber or taxis in town, we were relegated to dining options in walking distance. We went to an English pub called Cork & Keg for some fish & chips and pizza. Not the best Christmas Eve dinner, but a memorable day nonetheless.
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  • After a day of travel and realizing that most things would be closed on Christmas Day, we planned for a busy day touring what the region has to offer.

    We booked a half day sea kayaking trip out of a small town called Picton. Picton is the South island port of ferries crossing the Cook Strait from Wellington. We were joined by three other couples - American, Spanish and Australian - all off the cruise ship that was docked for the day. The trip took us out into the Queen Charlotte Sound - one of the many sounds/bays in this area, and also a scenic 70 km walking track. The islands were forested and extended in all directions.

    It was a clear day with excellent weather that made it a perfect morning for kayaking. At times, we saw large pods of jellyfish in the water around us. Since their stings are pretty weak, we were able to get some pictures with the underwater camera. Shallow rocks were covered in mussels, a local delicacy. We also got very close to a NZ fur seal sunbathing on a dock. The various bays feature numerous vacation homes, locally known as baches, which sit empty most of the year.

    We stopped for snacks and drinks in a nice beach cove, and through chit chat found out that the American couple was from Colorado. We paddled a few more bays to yet another sandy beach which was our pickup point. The return drive took us into the hills which made for great views to show just how scenic the area is.

    When we returned to town, it was overrun with cruisers so we made a quick exit. Besides, we had some wine to drink.
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  • We unfortunately started the trip out with a head cold that probably wasn't helped by the hiking we did in the rain. So, in an attempt to speed up the healing process, we decided to choose an adventure that wouldn't make us feel worse. And, from multiple people's recommendation, it sounded like Jet Boating up the Shotover River was the not-to-be-missed activity. Jetboating was apparently invented by the Kiwis due to few roads but lots of rivers.

    The company we chose, Skipper's Canyon Jet, provided a little bit of history while the tour van was winding up and down a narrow single car dirt road. The area grew in population in the 1860s when gold was discovered. After about 45 minutes down the canyon road, we boarded the jet boat outfitted in lifejackets. There was a brief safety chat, where we were told to hold on and that it might be a bit bumpier than usual due to the high water level being just below safe operating levels.

    As we roared up the river at 90kph, the driver would manuever the boat close to the river banks and walls, through a narrow opening, and threw in a few 360° spins. We stopped under some bungy jump bridges, one of which used to be the highest in the world at 120-130 metres.

    The boat ride was around 30 minutes. We were both expecting a little more of an adrenaline rush based on others' stories, but it was still a fun experience.

    Since it was such a clear day, after arriving back in Queenstown, we decided to take the gondola up for a peak out over the town and surrounding Lake Wakatipu. We enjoyed some Sauvignon Blanc while taking in the views and discussing our travels.
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  • The day after the trek, we took it easy in Queenstown. We would have slept in but since we went to bed so early, we were up by 7. We did some laundry, walked around town and ventured to a small neighboring village called Arrowtown. It's a nice little town nestled in the mountainside with little shops and cafes. We found a cute outdoor cafe where we enjoyed some wine, avocado toast and mushroom toast. It was incredibly fresh and delicious. Arrowtown was definitely worth the visit.

    That evening, we met Elaine for dinner at a spot known for its fish and chips, Fishbone. She kindly brought us bottle of wine for "saving her life" by offering her a ride. It was a great meal with great conversation and the fish (blue cod) and chips really were quite good!
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