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In the last couple of years Ellen and I have taken to the idea of traveling to warm places in the months of January and February, largely to escape cold winter months and more recently to begin the new year away from the events that are hard to escape in the nation’s capital.

This year that took the form of a 17-day trip to New Zealand, a place that had long been on our list visit but had never been practical because of the time needed to explore such a far away place. It had long been recommended by a number of friends and our daughter Annie.







We roughly divided our time between the North and South Island, combining driving and flying. Before you to turn New Zealand: Thru Ellen’s Lens, here’s a brief overview of the trip (with some of my own iPhone photos), starting and ending in Auckland.

North Island


We landed in Auckland after a comfortable 14-hour flight from Houston on Air New Zealand, and we were met by a driver/guide with the curious name of Richard who  rose to an immediate need: the need to fix my broken eye glass frames (the only pair I had with me). As we negotiated our way around the city with that purpose, and of course to see the city itself, he gave us one of the best half day introductions to a city we’ve ever had. Not only did he give us an overview of Auckland, but he answered our endless questions about New Zealand and gave us an understanding of where the country has come from, where it seems to be headed, and the challenges its faces. (Who knew, for example, that sheep farming for wool was on the decline because of more demand for the new synthetic warm fabrics?)

In the afternoon, at the urging of a cousin, we took a ferry to Waiheke Island, an enjoyable half hour ride from the Auckland boat deck, where we took a bus around the island before having one of our best New Zealand meals (at Cable Bay Vineyard). We returned to Auckland just as the sunset around 9 PM. A delightful day and introduction to NZ.

The next morning we picked up our rental vehicle and began our two week exploration, heading north from Auckland. On the way to Bay of Islands we stopped at a lovely little beach — Mangawhai Heads — where we walked off our driving, and Ellen began to photograph in earnest.(Note: Ellen thought we’d best make this NZ trip while she still trusted my driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. It was a breeze, tho there were a couple of car related “incidents”, none of a dangerous variety). In the Bay of Islands we most enjoyed simply sitting on the balcony of our B & B, Cliff by the Sea, ‘ingesting’ the view of the bay when we weren’t ingesting the many varieties of raw oysters.

We headed south from Bay of Islands to the Coromandel Peninsula, where we stayed in Whangamata, a beach side town used as a vacation site for New Zealanders. The two highlights in this area were a hike to Cathedral Cove from one of the nearby villages and meeting a couple from the UK with whom we felt an immediate rapport. We also explored and marveled at — but did not immerse ourselves — in the mud holes of The Hot Water Beach. Nor did we kite surf, as a Facebook photo seemed to imply.

Then we drove further south, stopping at two wondrous thermal sites, the best of which was Wai-o-Tapu (Maori for “Sacred Waters”) Thermal Wonderland, near Rotorua. Here we wandered for several hours around thermal pools of various sizes, colors, and depths, with the Champagne Pool being the most memorable. It was mesmerizing.

We headed to the Lake Taupo area next and stayed at what was clearly the most satisfying and luxurious of our various accommodations through out our entire time in NZ: The Huka Lodge. It was on the banks of the Walkato River, just upstream from the cascading waters of Huka Falls, and as the weather was unkind to us (we didn’t see any of the three volcanic mountains on our boat trip on Lake Taupo, NZ’s largest lake), we spent a lovely afternoon luxuriating at the lodge. We met up again with the friends from the UK and had a long and thoroughly enjoyable meal (and an almost four hour conversation) further getting to know each other.

The next morning we were back in the car for the six hour drive to Wellington, where we arrived in time to explore New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. Generally we are not ‘museum people’, but here we got a wonderful introduction, explanation, and the beginning of some understanding of Maori history, culture, and treasures. We also had one of several outstanding meals (see list below) at the Whitebait Restaurant.

Early the following day we left our car at the ferry and took the 2+ hour boat trip across the Cook Strait to the South Island. The final half hour of that ferry ride excited us as what we saw prior to landing in Picton conformed to what our expectations had been about the geography of New Zealand (a land comparable to Alaska). Once we found our next rental car (took us an hour…don’t ask!), we headed to Nelson (reportedly the place in New Zealand that has the most sunshine) for a two night stay. One more unforgettable experience and one more superb dinner. The experience was a half day helicopter ride with three landings, one in Abel Tasman National Park, one on the isolated Whararaki Beach (except for the seals), and one in the rocky outcroppings of Kahuarangi National Park (think filming spot for Lord of the Rings). This was a our first “heli ride” and similar to our balloon trip in Myanmar, I think we will long remember this flight. The scenery was glorious. Our pilot  was confident, knowledgeable, and a nice guy trying to figure out what to do with his life. Our memorable meal was at a small restaurant on the river in Nelson, Boatshed Cafe (don’t miss it if you’re ever any where near Nelson).

We flew to Queenstown in the far south of the island. The drive from there to Glenorch, along Lake Wakatipu, was a highlight, as was our lodge at Blanket Bay. Both define the word picturesque. We enjoyed a long walk along a lake starting near Glenorchy, as we did the drive from Glenorchy (on an unpaved road) to a place named Paradise. (Much joking about finally arriving in Paradise.) We spent a harrowing — and also memorable — time in a Jet Boat on the Dart River, and when we returned to Queenstown, we took the Skyline Gondola to Bob’s Peak where the views of city and the surrounding areas indeed merit the word awesome. We avoided the temptations (fairly easy!) to luge, sky dive, bungee jump, mountain bike and even passed up Ultimate Mini Golf, whatever that is. Unfortunately, because of poor planning and bad weather, we missed the fiords —  the Milford Track, Milford Sound, Mitre Peak, and Doubtful Sound — and the other stunning sights along the south west coast of the South Island. No doubt a reason to go back someday.

From Queenstown we had  a lovely last drive, this one across the southern part of South Island, through the Otago farmlands, filled with sheep and cattle, expansive farms, and lovely countryside. We arrived at our Lenarch Castle lodge overlooking the town of Dunedin just as the fog was rolling in and covering the road, an almost mystical feeling. (Unfortunately the lodging was not in the castle but a ‘lodge’ next to the former stables.) We weren’t sure why we were in Dunedin, NZ’s oldest city, but we took a half day Taieri Gorge Limited train ride through the Taieri River Gorge, across some rickety viaducts and through hand carved tunnels a 100 years old. Back in Dunedin, we stumbled across Lan Yuan, a classical Chinese garden that was simply stunning and comparable to the best of any gardens we’ve seen both in and outside of China. (We avoided the Penguin colonies and missed the Albatross viewings and Stewart Island.) And we did have another of our outstanding meals, this one at the Bacchus Wine and Bar restaurant in the heart of the old city of Dunedin.

We flew the 200 miles to Christchurch, where we found a city still struggling with the after effects of the 2011 earthquake was. The Quake Museum was interesting (particularly the personal testimonies of various individual during the 2011 quake) and we spent some time in the architecturally fascinating Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, a temporary church constructed with cardboard tubing to serve until the Christchurch Cathedral itself can be rebuilt (no signs of that happening any time in the near future). One more very good meal, this one at the Twenty-Seven Steps’ restaurant in the one reconstructed one block area of Christchurch that seemed to have some liveliness.

Then, a flight back to Auckland and the return 13 plus hour flight to Houston and then onto DC.

At the end of most of our trips, usually on the final day or on the flight home, we try to summarize some of the “Best” aspects of the trip. So for this January in New Zealand:

WOW Moments:

*Helicoptering in Abel Tasman National Park, landing on Wharariki Beach, and landing in Kahurangi National Park

*Cathedral Cove (Coromandel)

*Champagne Pool, Thermal Pools, Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (Rotorua)

*Jet Boating on Dart River (Queenstown)

*Water Falls (Lake Taupo)

*View of Bay of Islands from Cliff by the Sea B & B

*Gondola over Queenstown

*Lan Yuan, Chinese Garden, Dunedin

*Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, Christchurch

Best Drives/Hikes, etc.:

*Hike to Cathedral Cove (Coromandel)

*Drive from Queenstown to Blanket Bay

*Hike around the Glenorchy Peninsula & Lake Wakatipu

*Drive from Queenstown to Dunedin

*Ferry from Wellington to Picton

*Train thru the Gorges (from Dunedin)

Best Accommodations:

*The Huka Lodge, Taupo

*Blanket Bay, Lake Wakapitu

*QT Hotel, Wellington

Best Meals:

*Cable Bay Vineyards, Waiheke Island,a  ferry ride from Auckland

*The Huka Lodge, Taupo

*Whitebait, Wellington

*Boatshed Cafe, Nelson

*Blanket Bay, Glenorchy

*Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant, Dunedin

*Twenty-Seven Steps, Christchurch

Best Bites:

*Oysters (everywhere)

*Ginger Fudge

*Hokey Pokey Ice Cream

Best Museums:

*Te Papa Tongare, Museum of New Zealand, Wellington

*WOW (World of Wearable Art) Museum, Nelson

*Quake Museum, Christchurch

Best Moments to Forget:

*The Broken Eye Glasses

*The Failure to Pay the Toll

*The Police Incident

*The ‘Damaged’ Rental Car

*The Empty Gas Tank

*The Jet Boat Spinning

*The Dinner ‘Disaster’ in Whangamata

Finally, in retrospect, we think we spent too much time on the North Island and too little on the South Island. Also we spent too much time driving from place to place, the result of which was that we had too little time in most places. Our biggest disappointment was missing the Milford and Doubtful Sound areas.

Now, go to New Zealand: Thru Ellen’s Lens to see what it really looks like (the photos above are from my iPhone and are just to give a bit of context to the travelogue.)