New Zealand with MoaTrek Tours

I generally find reviews that say “It was absolutely perfect or horrible” to be worthless so I decided to write a bit more detail about our New Zealand experience with MoaTrek.  If you dont want to read the whole thing our conclusions and picture link are in the first two paragraphs.  We found New Zealand full of beautiful and diverse scenery; and friendly and welcoming people.  Moatrek did a really great job introducing us to New Zealand.  Below are details as to why we make these comments.

If you just want to see some of our pictures, you can go here.

When we started writing this review, we wondered about the best approach to the review. What was important to consider?  The following major categories were considered

1.     General considerations-5 stars

2.     Pre-tour communication and arrangements-5 stars

3.     What was seen or experienced-5 stars-would give it a 6+ if that were on the scale.

4.     Communications during the tour-5 stars

5.     Accommodations 4+ stars

6.     Food-4 stars

 General Considerations:

First it is important to provide the perspective that we came to the tour with.  Our only tour experiences (one to South Africa and a second to Peru) were private tours.  The Moatrek tour was a small group rather than private.  The people on the tour were friendly and enriched the experience vs that of a private tour, but the trade-off was that the schedule needed to be adhered too more rigorously.

When we started looking at Moatrek as a tour service, there was a detail that we did not fully appreciate:  they provided information on various optional activities that would add an additional cost.  Originally, we had not planned on doing these optional activities, but in the end we chose to do several of them.  Without a doubt these optional activities greatly enhanced our overall experience and Moatrek did an excellent job integrating these optional activities into the tour. The optional activities we chose: Tiritiri Matango Island, Rotorua Canopy Tour Zipline, Te Pō, Zealandia, Abel Tasman hike from Awaroa to Tonga Quarry, Tasman Glacier Explorer Tour, and the Dart River Jetboat Wilderness Safari.  I will offer more comment on these optional activities later.

Pre-tour communications and arrangements:

We found these communications were excellent and all of our questions were promptly answered.  About 4 weeks before the tour, we received a detail itinerary that included all of the tour activities, our selected optional activities, accommodations (and contact info) and restaurant recommendations.  Moatrek recommends having a copy with you.  We agree and had a copy on our mobile phones as well as tablets.

What was seen and experienced (we saw a lot so this will be a bit long): 

We took the 14 day Kiwi tour that included Auckland, Rotorua, Tongariro National Park, Napier, Wellington, Nelson, Methven, Mount Cook, and Queenstown.  And we traveled in a small van that could seat a maximum of 20 people.  We had 10 on the tour with us and that was a perfect number.  20 people was doable but it would have been pretty tight. 

We saw a lot of New Zealand in a very short time.  Nearly all was very interesting and there was very little wasted time.  The down side of this whirlwind tour was we found on many occasions a desire to linger and absorb the details, but were unable to do so.  There were many occasions we wish we could have stopped along the road to take pictures of beautiful countryside or stay longer to experience the bubbling mudpots or sit in the Lake Rotoiti Hot Springs longer.  Given the natural tension between wanting to see a lot and desire to linger, in our opinion, the MoaTrek Tours achieved a very respectable balance.

Our guide, Andre Booth, was very knowledgable and provided two very important functions: provided interesting history and details of New Zealand as we traveled to the different places and kept us informed to the day’s activities and options.  He also made sure everyone was doing ok.  He was great!

Some of things we did:

Sebel Hotel in Auckland: This hotel is located on the harbor.  The provided link does not really do justice to how great this hotel is.  It is within a few steps of a wonderfully entertaining and vibrant harbor area, with many great places to eat, places to relax and people watch.  Very enjoyable.  

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Viaduct Lookout near The Sebel in Auckland 

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Wedding Guest in the Viaduct Lookout

Tiritiri Matango Island:  This was a wonderful walk.  If it is your first visit to the island, we would strongly advise having a guide.  Don’t expect to get super great pictures of birds/wildlife unless you are willing to spend a fair amount of time on the island.  It is plentiful, but as to be expected, carefully hidden in the trees and ground.

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Hobbs Beach on Tiri Tiri Mantangi Island

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The rare Stitchbird near a honey feeder

Karangahake Gorge: a hike through an old mining area with very pretty views.  This is one of the places where some extra time would have been appreciated.

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Suspenion Bridge over the Waitawheta River

KiwiFruit Country: This was a fascinating experience and Gavin Fleming, the owner, was very informative.  We learned a lot about kiwi farming, its history and tasted some very fresh kiwi.

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Golden Kiwi on the vine

Tiua Catamaran (Pure Cruise) ride on Lake Rotoiti: This is a relaxing experience, but for us marred by heavily over cast skies (lots of the beauty was lost) and a break down in communication to remind us to take our swim suits with us as we sailed to the Lake Rotoiti Hot Springs for a dip. Fortunately I was able to borrow a suit, but my wife was not able to.  This was a significant disappointment so don’t forget your swimsuit at Pure Cruise.

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Manupirua Springs Hot Pools

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Soaking in the hot springs

Rotorua Canopy Tour Zipline: This was an unbelievably positive and wonderful experience.  It is an adrenaline rush combined with the beauty of flying over the tops of very old trees.  Our two guides, Pinkie (Liv) (age 23) and Tom (age 19), were excellent and made us feel very comfortable doing something that seems inherently very dangerous.  One of us was really scared, but made it through with flying colors!!

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 Getting fitted with lots of gear and safety devices with Pinkie

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Flying

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On one of the stands between 5 separate zipline paths

Lake Tarawera:  We had a sack lunch and a boat tour on the lake.  The history is fascinating and well told by Totally Tarawera.  Our trip was marred by heavily over cast skies.  Had we been traveling on our own, we might have stayed a day or two for better weather to experience the beauty of the lake.

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Natural hotspring on Lake Tarawera

Waiotapu Geothermals: Fascinating geology and wonderful views.  We were able to see mudpots as well as the famous Champagne pool.  This is something you don’t want to miss, but also ponder what is brewing just below you.  Lots of fun colors but dampened by overcast skies.  This is one of those place where we might have lingered longer or stayed for nicer skies.

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 Mudpot of Waiotapu Geothermal area

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Waiotapu Geothermal Champagne Pool

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Waiotapu Geothermal Champagne Pool Bubbles!

Wairekei Geothermal Power Plant:  We were able to get an elevated view of the plant and marvel at both its size and complexity.  80% of New Zealand electricity comes from renewable resources and 16% comes from geothermal plants, such as this plant.

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 Wairekei Geothermal Power Plant

Taupo/Lake Taupo:  There are beautiful pictures of this lake, but the weather was overcast. We did eat lunch in Taupo and walked around a bit.  It seems like an interesting town.  This is another example of where lingering a day or two might have been worth the view.

Tongariro National Park: An excellent walking/hiking area.  We really liked the park and thought it was beautiful.  Views of Mount Ruapehu can be stunning if the weather cooperates.  This is another place where staying another day or so could have been fun, particularly if one likes to hike.  Our weather was quite nice here.  Hiked to Taranaki Falls.  This is a modest hike except for the last bit that is a very steep set of steps down and then back up returning.

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 Chateau Tongariro Hotel

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Mount Ruapehu (Mt Doom in the Hobbit) from the Chateau

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Taranaki Falls

Waipunga Falls: We stopped by a lookout over the falls on our way to Napier.  It is an impressive falls.  Would have loved to see these falls from below, but not sure whether that is possible

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  Waipunga Falls

Napier:Art Deco Tour.  We stayed at the Scenic Hotel Te Pania.  We enjoyed the small city feel of Napier and there are lots of interesting buildings with Art Deco design elements.  The hotel is very close to the ocean, lots of small shops, restaurants and a beautiful park, Marine Parade.  We also enjoyed a lovely sunrise.  We felt it was a worthwhile visit.

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 "A Wave in Time" statue

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View of shoreline in Napier

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Ocean viewing platform-part of Marine Parade Gardens

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Sunrise as seen from our hotel in Napier

Enroute to Wellington: As I mentioned we traveled on a small tour bus which was quite comfortable.  We could have flown between major cities, but would have lost so very much of the character of New Zealand.  Below provides just a small glimpse into understanding the value of traveling by vehicle  

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This scene was between Napier and Dannevirke.  It is a fascinating building and an example of wishing there was more time to stop to get some great pictures.  This picture was actually shot from our moving bus using a very fast shutter speed (1/1000) and continous focus mode.  Not the most optimal way of capturing a picture, but this image creates for us a wonderful memory of New Zealand country side.  We took many pictures from the moving bus with similarly good results, just have to watch out for window reflections.

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Cahoots Cafe in Greystown

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Inside and menu of Cahoots Cafe

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One tiny piece of Cahoots Cafe decor

We stopped in Greystown for lunch.  It is a tiny town of about 2200 people, but it has lots to offer. For lunch there were many choices, but we selected Cahoots cafe.  It was a great choice and other agree with us!

Wellington: We chose to walk along the harbor from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa back to the Bolton Hotel.  There were lots of fun things to experience: kids jumping off a plank into the harbor, reading love/memory padlocks firmly attached to a grid fence, people watching, sampling some ice cream, watching helicopters take off/land, and people kayaking and paddle boarding.  We also took the Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary by night tour.  It was a very pleasant walk and we got to see a single Kiwi, in addition to glow worms, and skinks.  During the nighttime walk, red lights are used to illuminate things of interest.  I took some pictures with very fast lenses, but the red light caused some issues.  Overall, this is an interesting walk.

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 Boys enjoying a dip in Wellington Harbour

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Love Locks at Wellington Harbour

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Skink in Zealandia

Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton:  We traveled in the Premium Plus Lounge where we had breakfast and very comfortable seats.  This is a gorgeous trip, take a selfie or two and plan on watching the shoreline pass by.  Remember the hat in selfie picture because there is more story later on that subject.

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 Interislander Ferry

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Selfie as we approached the south island

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View from the ferry as we pass through the channels to Picton

Forrest Estate Wines: We stopped here for a gourmet picnic lunch and sampled 3-4 of their wines.  This was a delightful stop and both the food and wine were excellent.  Well worth the visit.  Could have sat there for a couple more hours just enjoying the scenery, wine and good company.

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 Jan setting up our picnic tables

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Our tour group enjoying the wonderful lunch

Pelorus River: We stopped for a rest stop along the Pelorus River (famous in the filming of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings).  The river was tame and a wonderful green color.  Would have loved to explored this river a bit more, particularly the famous Pelorus Bridge.

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 Just a short way down river from the Pelorus Bridge

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Our tour group enjoying a rest break by the Pelorus River

Nelson:  This is a great little town and seems like a jumping off point for adventures in the Tasman National Park.  We stayed at the end of Trafalgar St.  A short walk along Trafalgar St takes you to just below Nelson Cathedral and a wonderful fresco eating area.  We had excellent dinner here at Bacco and enjoyed people watching.

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 Trafalgar St, Nelson, New Zealand

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Nelson Cathedral (Christ Church Cathedral)

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A common sight, people with various injuries.  Lots of adventure

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Bruschette from Bacco

Abel Tasman National Park: We traveled to Kaiteriteri via the Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle and boarded a ferry to make our way to Awaroa Lodge.  Along the way to Awaroa Lodge, we saw Split Apple Rock, wonderful golden beaches, and a few seals.  There are several different tours to choose from, but we disembarked at Awaroa Beach, walked past Awaroa Lodge (after enjoying a coffee and pastries) on to Onetahuti Beach along the Abel Tasman Trail.  We arrived at high tide so there was only a narrow strip of beach to walk along and we had to walk through chest deep water to continue on the trail to Tongo Quarry.  At low tide, there probably would not have been nearly as deep of water to walk through.  A recent posting on the Abel Tasman website indicates that 4 hrs within the low tide time, the cross is dry.  The undulating trail is beautiful and well worth the hike. 

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 Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle boarding at Kaiteriteri

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Split Apple Rock

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Campers on golden sand beaches on the Abel Tasman Trail

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First part of our Abel Tasman hike to Awaroa Lodge

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First view of Onetahuti Bay and Beach

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Onetahuti Beach at high tide

On to Methven: We had a long travel day from Nelson to Methven.  Along the way we stopped in the wonderful little town Murchison (pop about 500) and discovered Sweet Dreams French Bakery.  They had the world’s most delicious Custard Chocolate Twist!!  Sweet Dreams is rated 5 star on TripAdvisor and we would have to agree.  Then we stopped at Maruia Falls (33 feet high, but it looked higher to me) and watched several kayakers go over the falls.  Talk about an adrenaline rush.  It is also very beautiful both above and below the falls.  Then traveled on to Culverden (pop 426), shopped at the Three Bored Housewives (lots of interesting stuff) and had lunch at Red Post Café.  Very tasty and they had a cool, very old red refrigerator.  In Methven, while close to town (10-15 min walk) we decided to eat at our lodging, Ski Time Lodge and had a very good meal.

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Country side between Nelson and Murchinson 

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Sweet Dreams French Bakery in Murchinson

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Kayakers going over Maruia Falls.  Talk about an adrenaline rush!

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 Country side between Maruia Falls and Culverden

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Three Bored Housewives in Culverden

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Ski Time Lodge in Methven

Akaunui Homestead Farm.  We met Ian and Di MacKenzie who were delightful and welcoming.  Ian showed us around the farm (dairy cattle and sheep, but most famous for carrot seeds), while Di prepared an unbelievably good lunch (more like a feast) with produce only from the farm.  The history is very interesting and Ian and Di tell some wonderful stories.  I think most people would have loved to stay longer.  Sadly, it was raining so we did not get to enjoy the surrounding gardens that Di manages, but the link provides a very good idea about the gardens.

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 Ian MacKenzie

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Di MacKenzie

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Kitchen of the Akaunui Homestead

Lake Tekapo and Church of the Good Shepard:  The weather was very overcast and raining.  One can tell Lake Tekapo is a gorgeous blue-green lake, but we only got a glimpse of it in the weather.  The church had lots of tourist, like us, and while great to see up close, it would have been fun to see from a different vantage point than the parking lot.  This is another place where more time, in good weather, would have been very nice.

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 Lake Tekapo

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Church of the Good Shepard

Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village: When we arrived, it was heavily overcast which was a major disappointment.  BUT, we had a wonderful dinner in the Panorama room at The Hermitage and rose early to find wonderful stars from our room balcony and then a spectacular view of Mount Cook (Aoraki).  Delighted to see the mountain and its surroundings.

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Early morning stars from our room at Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village 

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 Early morning view from our room at Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village 

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Mount Cook (Aoraki)

Tasman Glacier Explorer Tour:  We think this is one of the must do activities and it is very much worth learning about the history of the glacier and the lake.  We had a pleasant short walk from a car park to Lake Tasman with beautiful views where we boarded a small MAC boat that got us up close and personal with icebergs from the glacier as well as close to the face of the retreating glacier.  The views and experience on the lake have created lasting memories and our guide was excellent.  The blues in the ice can only be appreciated in person, but did  the best I could.  This is another place where more time would have been deeply appreciated. 

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View from our short walk to Lake Tasman.

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 Our group walking down to the Mac Boat on Lake Tasman

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An iceberg on Lake Tasman

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An iceberg on Lake Tasman)

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Full face of Tasman Glacier


High Country Salmon: Near Twizel.  We got some sashimi and smoked salmon and ate in Omarama.  It was delicious.  In Omarama we also found Kebabs at The Love Shack, a roadside food stand. 

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 High Country Salmon near Twizel

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Country side view between Twizel and Omarama

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Love Shack Kebabs for lunch!

Mrs. Jones Fruit Orchard, Cromwell: A large fruit market with lots of variety.  The fruit was very fresh and tasty. We bought some pears and apples for snacks to eat in Queenstown.

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 A small view of Mrs. Jones Fruit Orchard fruit market

Skyline Gondola ride to Bob’s Peak:  At the top is a spectacular view of Queenstown.  If you like high overlook views of cities, this view should not be missed.  Keep your eyes open for bungee jumpers on the way to the top.  Would have liked to spend a bit more time looking at the view and the paragliders catching the air lifts.

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Boarding area for going up to Bob’s Peak

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 View from the gondola part way up to mountain

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Panoramic view of Queenstown and part of Lake Wakatipu

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Selfie on Bob’s Peak with Queenstown in background

Milford Sound: Something that should not be missed.  Got up early and drove to the sound through Acton and Te Anau.  Lots of pretty views along the way and stopped at Lake Gunn to stroll through an unbelievably beautiful forest.  I could well imagine people from Middle Earth moving through these forests at one time.  Enchantment. Passed through Homer Tunnel (more like a hole drilled through a mountain).  If you have claustrophobia, close your eyes and don’t think about it too much.  We were very lucky and had a beautiful day for our boat ride though Milford Sound.  The views are stunning (e.g., Mitre Peak, Bowen Falls); the captain took us to the bottom of the falls where we could enjoy the water spraying over us.  Very cool and great fun indeed.

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Lake Gunn Forest

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Lake Gunn Forest creature making sure you are safe

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 Mitre Peak

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Enjoying the mist of one of the Milford Sound waterfalls

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Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls

Air Milford: We flew out of Milford Sound on Air Milford and I would highly recommend this.  This shortens the time to get back to Queenstown by several hours, but more importantly Michael, our great pilot, gave us some very up close views of the rapidly vanishing glaciers and stunning views of the Fjord National Park from the air.  This short trip really gave us a much better understanding of the landscape in this part of the world.  Exquisite beauty.

Remember my hat in the selfie on the way to the south island.  This particular hat has traveled with me to South Africa and Peru so I am a bit fond of it.  Sadly, by accident, I left it on the Air Milford plane when we disembarked.  Jen of Air Milford retreived my hat and took to our hotel on the same day, but through a series of miscommunications with the hotel staff, I was not able to get it.  Now this gets interesting! I wrote a brief note to Air Milford inquiring about the hat.  With their help, our guide, Andre’s help, and the staff at the hotel my hat was mailed back to me in the States.  Remarkable!  Just great people  

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Cruise boat at bottom of falls from an Air Milford flight

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View of vanishing glaciers from an Air Milford flight

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View of Fiordland National Park from an Air Milford flight

Dart River Boat: On our last day in New Zealand, we took a Dart River Boat.  These are basically water jet boats that can travel at high speed in very shallow water (think adrenaline rush) and the Dart River offers spectacular views (unsurpassed beauty).  Plan on getting wet, but not drenched, and having a lot of fun! 

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View of Dart River

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A 360° heart stopping turn around on the river, water spraying everywhere

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View of Dart River at the end of the trail

Photography Kit

I took 7 camera bodies with me on this trip, 2 Sony a7RII, 1 Sony a7R, 2 GoPro Hero 5 and two iPhones.  The two a7RII Sony bodies were used extensively.    The GoPro cameras proved very valuable in certain conditions, such as selfies, ziplining, capturing some video on Lake Tasman and the Dart River Boat ride.  We also used the GoPro for selfies along with our iPhones.  The Sony a7R with the 24-240 was used once and not worth they carrying weight.

Lenses: I took 6 different lenses: 28mm f2, 21mm adapter for the 28 mm f2 lens, 24-105 mm f4, 85mm f1.4, 24-240 f3.5-5.6, and a 70-200mm f4, all Sony E mount lenses.  The vast majority of pictures where taken with the 24-105 f4 lens.  The 70-200mm was rarely used and the 24-240 was not used at all.  Occasional use was made with the 28mm f2 and the 85mm f1.4 lens particularly when light was challenging. 

Miscellaneous items:

1. Eight Sandisk 64GB Extreme PRO USH II SDXC cards-I was able to keep a copy of the pictures on the cards, just in case I lost the pictures on my hard drive.

2. A LaCie 4 TB Rugged Raid (Thunderbolt/USB 3.0) partitioned as a 3.5 TB and a 0.5 TB partition.  The smaller partition was a bootable version of my MacBook Pro Retina Display computer.  The larger partition served as a backup of my primary picture storage drive, a 4TB Western Digital Passport Ultra USB 3.0 drive

3. Retina Display MacBook Pro

4. Two Transcend Multicard readers

5. CamKix Wireless Bluetooth Camera Shutter Remote control for smartphones.  I used the GoPro app on my iPhone for GoPro selfies.  Both worked very well.  I made sure I had tested these before leaving for the vacation.

6. GoPro 3-way grip, arm and tripod.  This was an excellent choice.  Gave a lot of freedom but was quite rugged.

7.  Two  Visibledust Zeeion sensor blower.  

8. Three  Ceptic USA to Australia, New Zealand…. Travel plug with Dual USB Type I 

Hotels:

Below is the list of hotels we stayed.  All of them were more than acceptable.  All had buffet breakfasts that were quite acceptable.  The rooms were clean, the staff friendly and helpful.  You leave your luggage by your door and the porters transfer it to and from the Moatrek van.  This made the day to day traveling much easier.

Auckland: Sebel Hotel-Auckland: Right on the harbor with lots of restaurants close by and great people watching.  Very pretty.  They had an in room laundry, refrigerator, microwave and small cooking area.  We had a suite like configuration

Rotorua: Novotel Rotorua Lakeside: Right across the street from Tutanekai St with its many different restaurants.

Tongariro National Park: Chateau Tongariro-An older elegant hotel that has lots of charm.  The dinner and wine were quite good.

Napier: Scenic Hotel Te Pania-Beautiful location along the ocean and an easy walk to the town.  I think all the rooms have views of the ocean. 

Wellington: Bolton Hotel Wellington-Suite like configuration and in room laundry and small kitchen.  Very comfortable.  The hotel restaurant provided good food and excellent service.

Nelson: Trailways-Adequate lodging with excellent location to enjoy Nelson.

Methven: Ski Time Lodge: Rooms in a dispersed cluster of buildings, separate from the main building.  We had a nice dinner in their restaurant.

Aoraki Mt Cook Alpine Village: The Hermitage- Very nice facilities with beautiful views.  Our dinner in the Panorama Room was very good.

Queenstown: Scenic Suites-Queenstown- A relatively large suite, with a kitchen, in room laundry, sitting area and separate bedroom.  The room was very nice.   The general room layout is irregular so it takes a while to understand how to get around the hotel.  While the walk into the Queenstown city center is not very far, returning to the hotel requires a significant uphill walk. 

Food:  Overall it was ok to the good side, but with one or two exceptions, not gourmet.

Breakfast: All of them were buffet and quite acceptable.  The only exception was The Sebel.  It was order off the menu and was good.

Lunch: Ranged from bag lunch, to small cafes in small towns to a wonderful picnic lunch, such as Forrest Estate, or the spectacular gourmet lunch at Akaunui fixed by Di MacKenzie.   Madam Woo in Queenstown was also extremely good. 

Dinners: Generally, we were on our own for dinners and they were acceptable.  Special note dinners: the dinner at Chateau Tongariro was above average with wonderful ambience.  In Napier, the Hunger Monger had delicious food and wine. Our meal at the Artisan in the Bolten Hotel (Wellington) was also very good as was our dinner at the Ski Time Lodge.  Both Bacco on Trafagar St in Nelson and Panorama Room in The Hermitage were very good and a wonderful dining experience.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me.  I will do my best to give an honest answer.

A© 2011-2015 by Steven Seelig, Chicago Photographer                          630-561-6581                                      e2photo@e2photo.net