The top & bottom of New Zealand

Mattg

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Earlier this year, when the trans-Tasman bubble first opened, I headed over to the land of the long white cloud to visit family that I hadn't seen for over a year. Unfortunately, the trans-Tasman bubble was since suspended and Auckland has been in lockdown for the past 5 weeks. But back in May 2021, when this trip report is set, it was a happier covid-free time with relatively unrestricted movement across the Tasman and around New Zealand!

My elderly grandmother lives in Auckland. When I told her I was coming to visit, I asked her if there is anywhere in New Zealand she would like to go on a trip together. “I’ve always wanted to visit Stewart Island,” she said. I had never been there either, so I said “then let’s go there!”

For anyone unfamiliar, Stewart Island is at the very bottom of New Zealand below the South Island. New Zealand's third-largest island, it’s a ferry ride from Bluff or a short flight from Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city.

I had never been to the far north of New Zealand either before this trip, so about a week before the Stewart Island trip I also took my grandmother on a road trip to Cape Reinga, at the very top of the North Island.

This trip report will first cover our trip to very top of New Zealand, followed by the very bottom of New Zealand.
 

Mattg

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Part One: Cape Reinga

This was a 4-day road trip from Auckland. On the first day, we drove up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

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There, we stayed a night at Te Tiriti Motel, just a couple of kilometres from the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. I would have liked to spend some time at the museum there, but we were short on time. (I'm sure it's a great museum, but I couldn't justify paying the $50 entrance fee when I only had an hour or so to spare. Next time I would plan to stay half a day and experience it properly!)

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Along the way we stopped at Kawakawa, a quirky little town which was once home to Friedensreich Hundertwasser. He designed several buildings around the town, including the town's famous public toilets which have become a local landmark.

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Mattg

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The next morning we got up early to continue the drive along State Highway 1 to Cape Reinga. For background, State Highway 1 runs the length of New Zealand, from right up north at Cape Reinga, down to Bluff at the bottom of the south island.

The first stop was Mangamuka

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Unfortunately, State Highway 1 was closed between Mangamuka and Kaitaia, so we had to detour through the Herekino Forest. It was a pleasant, scenic drive but added another hour onto our busy day.

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After stopping for lunch in Kaitaia, we continued north through Houhora up to Cape Reinga.

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The last food available before Cape Reinga was a food truck selling paua pies. I thought I would stop on the return trip to get one, but they had just closed by the time we got back! But now that I knew this was a thing, I started looking for paua pies elsewhere and did find a couple of places that sold them. I imagine they would be similar to the Tasmanian scallop pies, with paua and a creamy filling. Probably not for everyone, but I liked it!
 

Mattg

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The only other shops we passed beyond Houhora were places hiring out sandboards etc. But the scenery was simply stunning!

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State Highway 1 ends at a big carpark around 1km from the Cape Reinga lighthouse, which you can get to along a pleasant board walk with lots of information signs along the way. The only problem on this particular day is that it was extremely windy.

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Cape Reinga is a culturally significant place for Māori people. According to Māori mythology, this is where the spirits of the deceased return to the homeland of their ancestors.

Being the very top of New Zealand, it's also interesting to see how the converging ocean currents meet.
 

Mattg

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That afternoon, we drove back down south and stayed overnight at Acacia Lodge Motel in Mangonui. For dinner we went to the self-described “world famous” Mangonui Fish Shop, which had a great view overlooking the water but we both agreed that the fish was a bit overrated.

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The next day we continued the drive to Kerikeri, where we stopped at the Stone Store. This is New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building.

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The next stop was Whangarei, where we stopped to have lunch. We also drove up to the top of Mount Parihaka where there was a great lookout over the city.

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The sun was setting just as we reached our final stop for the evening, Leigh.

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We stayed in Leigh overnight with relatives, then returned to Auckland the next morning on an uneventful drive.
 

Mattg

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Part Two: Stewart Island

We had a nice road trip, but the trip to Stewart Island was probably more interesting for me. It began with an Air New Zealand A320 flight from Auckland to Invercargill.

We had requested wheelchair assistance for my grandmother and were looked after well by the Air NZ staff. After a visit to the Koru Lounge, we were invited to board first.

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It was an uneventful flight, and we had some great views of the South Island including Mt Cook along the way.

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Approaching Invercargill:

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As it happens, the AKL-IVC flight is the longest domestic flight within New Zealand (other than to/from the Chatham Islands).

Our plan was to spend the first evening in Bluff, then take the ferry across to Stewart Island the next day. We’d then have two nights on Stewart Island, then catch a flight back to Invercargill and immediately onwards to Auckland. So, in total, this trip was supposed to be for 3 nights. It ended up being 5 nights, but I will get to that shortly. Needless to say, we encountered a few problems along the way.

The first problem was right after we landed in Invercargill. We had booked a shuttle bus service from Invercargill Airport to Bluff, but there was no sign of this when we arrived. I waited patiently, but when they still hadn’t showed up half an hour after the scheduled time, I gave the company a ring. A lady answered the phone and when I asked if she was far away, she said “oh my goodness, is that the time?!” and promised to come and pick us up ASAP. We weren’t in a hurry, so no harm done.

When she picked us up, we told her we were going to Stewart Island the next day and she informed us that they’d just detected a COVID-19 case there. That was a bit of a scare, as my grandmother (who was not yet vaccinated at the time) would have been quite vulnerable. I was also concerned that they could close the island if there was a serious outbreak there. We started making alternative plans.

This was quite a surprise to us as there were no other covid cases in New Zealand and Stewart Island is about as isolated as it gets. How did covid get there, we wondered? It also emerged that the girl had no symptoms, and that this was simply a routine test conducted because the family was about to travel overseas (yes, you can still do this if you live in NZ!).

Fortunately, it soon became clear that this case was a “false positive” caused by a recent cold. The little girl who tested positive had since tested negative, as had her family and almost all of the residents on Stewart Island who turned up at the community centre to get tested. So, we were good to go after all!

Being a weeknight in the middle of winter, I expected things to be quiet in Bluff. But I didn’t expect that we would be the only guests staying at Foveaux Hotel that night.

The owners Mike & Pam looked after us extraordinarily well. Although we had booked a twin room, they gave my grandmother another room to herself at no charge. Mike also offered gave my grandmother a bit of a tour around Bluff, and dropped us as the ferry terminal the next morning – again, at no charge.

This was my room at the hotel:
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I went for a walk around Bluff. There wasn’t a lot going on but it was a pleasant town.

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Bluff is probably most famous for its oysters, but it also marks the other end of State Highway 1. Just like at the top of the North Island, there is also a lighthouse and a signpost showing the direction and distance to various places at the bottom of the South Island.


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The sailing from Bluff to Oban, the main town centre on Stewart Island, takes about an hour. To be honest, it was quite a rough trip across the Foveaux Strait so I was glad we’d chosen to fly back.

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Mattg

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We had almost two full days on Stewart Island and really enjoyed it. Not only is it a natural paradise with pristine beaches, national parks and wildlife, but it’s an extremely friendly community. Only around 400 people live on the island, and I would say it has a similar vibe to Lord Howe Island. In fact, a lot of things about Stewart Island reminded me of Lord Howe Island – except that it was cheaper and (somewhat) easier to get to!

My grandmother has limited mobility, which somewhat limited the activities available to her. But on the first afternoon I rented a car and we drove around Oban and the nearby areas.

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There are a few shops in Oban, including a Four Square supermarket (which was reasonably priced but had a limited range of products), a few clothing/souvenir shops and a couple of eateries.

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The main place where we got most meals was the South Sea Hotel, which had good food and friendly staff. I especially liked their seafood chowder (pictured below) and blue cod!

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There’s also a fish & chip shack which is open some days for a few hours in the evening.

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Mattg

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There are quite a few different tour operators on the island. Being the winter off-season, not all of the regular tours were running. The ferry to nearby Ulva Island also wasn’t running, although it was still possible to get there by booking a water taxi.

Another attraction in Oban is the Rakiura Museum, which had a good history of the development of the island. (Rakiura is the Māori word for Stewart Island.)

Stewart Island is also a dark sky sanctuary for its lack of man-made light, which gives a great view of the stars in the night sky.

On my second night on the island, I joined a dark sky tour. The guide Al had set up a telescope on the golf course (which is away from the light pollution around the town centre) and spoke for two hours about what you see in the night sky. It was very educational and I enjoyed it, even though it did become a bit cloudy towards the end of the tour (Al gave a $20 discount because of this). It was about zero degrees during the tour, so obviously quite cold, but I came prepared with warm clothes and Al provided blankets, hot water bottles and hot chocolate.

We stayed at Bay Motel and were very happy with it. They also had a free shuttle service and were happy to pick us up from the ferry and even drop us off wherever we wanted to go around town.

This was the room and view from the motel:

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Mattg

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The next morning, we got up early for our 9.30am flight to Invercargill with Stewart Island Flights. With this airline, you don’t actually check in at the airport – in fact, they specifically tell you not to drive or walk to the airport as it’s a private road and there are no facilities at the airport. The runway is basically just an extension of the road. Instead, you check-in at their downtown office and they drive you to the airport in a mini-van when the plane is about to land.

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It was a beautiful, sunny morning on Stewart Island. But as soon as we arrived to check in, the lady informed us that our flight would be delayed due to fog in Invercargill. She couldn’t tell us how long the delay would be, but at that point I wasn’t too concerned as we had built in a 3-hour layover in Invercargill.

Instead of making us wait around at the flights depot (which doubles up as the local post office) the staff invited us to head to the pub for breakfast and said they would call us once the inbound flight took off. So we walked over to the South Sea Hotel and had a nice hot breakfast. Nana wasn’t worried at all – she was happy to get some extra time on the island watching the native birds.

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To be honest, this was a very pleasant delay. If it wasn’t for our onward connection, I wouldn’t have minded at all.

But the delay dragged on quite a bit. Eventually we were told we would be able to depart around 12pm. Things were looking dicey for our Air New Zealand connection at 12.55pm so I called the Air NZ check-in desk in Invercargill and told them we were still coming. They said they would “look after us”.

Boarding was called and the 9 passengers got into the minivan for the 5-minute drive to the airport. We drove up to the end of the runway and waited for the incoming plane to land. Meanwhile, the van driver was communicating with the pilot of our plane about the wind & weather conditions at the airport.

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We were driven over to the plane once it landed, and the passengers from the inbound flight got into the van (and vice versa). There was another short delay while fog briefly returned to Invercargill Airport, but eventually we were on our way.

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The aircraft was a with 9 passenger seats over 5 rows. The passenger in the front row sat directly next to the pilot. It was pretty cosy in there!

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Once we took off, it was a fast, smooth and enjoyable flight. We flew at an altitude of less than a kilometre over the Foveaux Strait, so had great views all the way.

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Mattg

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When we landed in Invercargill, our Air New Zealand flight was just about to start boarding. We could see the plane, it was right there 😬

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We collected our luggage from the rear of the aircraft, and I ran over to the Air NZ check-in counter in the hope we still had a chance of making our flight. Unfortunately, the baggage security screening had already closed so they couldn’t accept our bags or check us in.

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The Air New Zealand staff member was helpful and offered to rebook us at no cost, but there were no more flights available that day (even via CHC or WLG) so we would have to stay overnight. Luckily, my grandmother paid the extra $10 for travel insurance so the cost of this was covered.

We stayed that night at the Quest Hotel, which was perfectly fine.

This was my first visit to Invercargill so I went for a walk around. To be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot to see but here are a few highlights:

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Unfortunately, the next morning, Invercargill was blanketed in an even thicker layer of fog than the previous day.

We took a taxi back to the airport for our 12.55pm flight. But when we arrived around 10.30am, the airport was in a state of chaos. Not a single flight had landed or departed yet that day, so there were still people waiting around for the scheduled 6am departure. Many subsequent flights were delayed and later cancelled.

This aircraft was supposed to fly out at 6am but was still there in the afternoon:

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We were hoping the fog would eventually lift, but it never did. Thankfully we were able to wait in the Koru Lounge where there was food & drinks available, but we were waiting a long time. The inbound flight from Auckland ended up holding over Queenstown for a while, then returned to Auckland. The Wellington flight diverted to Dunedin. Most other inbound flights never took off from their origins.

Once it became clear that our Auckland flight wouldn’t happen, we were rebooked onto a later flight via Christchurch. But when that too got cancelled, we only had two real options – rent a car for $600 and drive to Queenstown, where we could’ve got a flight out of that night, or spend another night in Invercargill. We opted for the latter and stayed the second night at Kelvin Hotel.

The following day, there wasn’t even supposed to be a direct flight to Auckland. But Air NZ put on a rescue flight which came and picked us up the next day, getting us home 48 hours later than planned.

The Air New Zealand lounge was a lot quieter that morning so I got a few photos:

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Although the delays were quite inconvenient, I must admit that it was nice having travel disrupted by something other than bloody covid for once!
 

SYD

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My last OS trip (not including NLK) was a cruise back from NZ to Sydney back in Feb 2019. We were planning a north to south trip in November At his year thinking all would be fine by then…. Oh well, another refund to chase. The real pain was it was booked on that discount QF award flight offer…☹️

Anyway, some useful info if we get to reschedule.
 

Daver6

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Instead of making us wait around at the flights depot (which doubles up as the local post the staff invited us to head to the pub for breakfast and said they would call us once the inbound flight took off. So we walked over to the South Sea Hotel and had a nice hot breakfast. Nana wasn’t worried at all – she was happy to get some extra time on the island watching the native birds.

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To be honest, this was a very pleasant delay. If it wasn’t for our onward connection, I wouldn’t have minded at all.

One of the better pre-departure lounge breakfasts then! ;)

Trip sounded like a great little adventure. What an amazing thing to do with your grandmother :)
 

VPS

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Thanks for the TR. I remember being in Blenheim supposedly going to be in Auckland in about 2 hours and twelve hours later got there via Christchurch all because of fog.

I went to an Air NZ lounge in Queenstown and was very impressed with the food.
 

drron

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A very nice TR.
We certainly enjoyed our day in the Chathams 2 years ago.Getting a car rental definitely the way to go.
 
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Mattg

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A very nice TR.
We certainly enjoyed our day in the Chathams 2 years ago.Getting a car rental definitely the way to go.

Oh, Chatham Islands is right up there on the top of my list. It seems a fair bit more difficult to get to than Stewart Island, with only a few flights per week (and they are $$) and limited/expensive accommodation options once you get there. But once we get out of this lockdown here in Auckland, I would love to go.
 

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Our last OS flight was ZQN 2 years ago. We stayed at Wanaka with a side trip to Invercargill. Fantastic scenery from Queenstown to Invercargill
 

infrequent_jim

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The highlight for me in Invercargill early last year was the collection of old motorbikes in the Mitre 10 store in town - including Bert Munroe's 'World's Fastest Indian'. Apart from that, I quite liked the run down charm of the place.

We stayed at the Victoria Railway Hotel - a bit of olde worlde charm and friendly hospitality.

 

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