New Zealand proved a great choice for a vacation to celebrate our daughter Alissa’s college graduation. We wanted a trip that provided great scenery, a mix of city life and adventures plus affordable, but comfortable lodging for a family.
By planning 11 months ahead, we secured airfare using our frequent-flyer miles and by arriving in March, Alissa’s spring break, but New Zealand’s fall, we found fewer crowds and rates a bit lower than those in
New Zealand’s high season.
Plus, we admit it. The movie images of milky blue lakes and valleys ringed with misty mountains from the “Lord of the Rings” piqued our interest. With just two weeks to explore, we focused on the scenic South Island, particularly the southwestern region that’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We had four willing drivers and lots of opinions about where to go and what to do. That’s why on this trip, rather than take a pre-packaged tour, we rented a car, created our own itinerary and hit the highway.
Since our plane landed in Queenstown, we stayed a few days to get over the long-haul flights—about 18-hours total from Washington, DC. Because we were still getting over jet-lag, we chose a mellow outing for our first excursion: a wine tour of the Central Otago Valley, a region of rolling farmlands east of Queenstown that nurtures scores of wineries.
As John, our guide/driver rattled off the region’s award-winning Pinot Noirs and Rieslings, we admired the vineyards lacing the rounded hills and the vistas of soft brown mountains flecked with gold that rose from velvety green meadows.
En route to Gibbston Valley Wines, one of the area’s oldest and largest facilities, we drove past the 140-foot-high Kawarau Suspension Bridge, birthplace of bungee jumping. Watching an enthusiast leap, we heard her screams echo off the distant hills as she dangled up and down and then up and down again, confirming our decision not to include bungee jumping on our list.
At Gibbston, our favorite winery, the tour included a walk-through of their vast cave cut into a schist mountain where the temperature remains a constant 58-degrees F. The guide delineated the grape to bottle process as we passed towering, stainless steel fermenting tanks and rows upon rows of French oak barrels. We sampled Pinot Noirs, a Riesling, and a Gewurztraminer.
At Olssens Winery in the Bannockburn hills, we discovered a good Riesling with a slight aroma of lemons. At Mt. Difficulty Wines, we sipped a dry chardonnay and a memorable Merlot.
Mellow, we would have preferred to return to our hotel for a nap, but we had three more wineries to visit. Since John was so enthusiastic we decided not to disappoint him by cutting the outing short. For a six winery tour, the designated driver and guide is a wise decision. However, if you sip and sample—not drink glassfuls--and choose only two or three places to visit, you can save time and money by going on your own.
Queenstown, a top visitor destination, is also the hub for South Island adventures. After perusing adventure brochures, we decided against sky diving, zorbing (rolling down a hill in a big plastic ball) and bungy jumping, but chose a jet boat ride on the Shotover River.
Think James Bond on a speed boat, crazily stopping short and circling away from pursuers. The first two hair-pin turns and spins were fun. The remaining 10+ felt to me like being whacked in a car crash only add nausea. Even the stalwart twentysomethings had headaches at the ride’s end. The scenery, however, was beautiful, and we had gone “local” by doing at least one wacky, soft adventure.