First off, thanks to our agent at this South Pacific travel company so much for helping guide my brother and I through each step of our vacation process with relative ease. We fully appreciate all the painstaking efforts to ensure our trip would be memorable and unforgettable. Things got a bit rocky with the last-minute Boston weather, which nearly kept one of us from cashing in on some of the trip’s early destinations. Without our agent's personal support and due diligence in this time of crisis, our dream journey might have begun with an unfortunate black eye.
But it was not just this one instance in which our agent went out of her way to tend to our questions and/or concerns. I’m sure between my brother and I sending e-mail after e-mail, she was undoubtedly on the brink of madness. :D This was our first trip to the region and we essentially provided her with nothing more than a short list of hot spots that suited our best interests – a list that likely filled just half of our desired trip length. But thanks to our agent's local experience and expertise, she helped flesh out the remainder of our three-week venture with wonders of which we had never known existed.
In summation, it should be crystal clear to any reader of this review that the author and his companion had an intense and absolute time of their lives. Moving forward, it will be difficult to top, or even match such an action-packed quest, because in its entirety, there was not one filler-activity or dull moment to be found. Much appreciation goes out to our agent and her relentless efforts to meet and primarily exceed each and every one of our expectations . Thanks for making our dreams come true.
I felt it would be best to summarize our epic trek by listing our activities in the order in which I would consider favorite to least favorite. Let me just stress, however, that everything was phenomenal; there were no distinct aspects or legs of the tour we disliked. On the contrary, a few of the excursions were simply more mind-blowing than others. So without further adieu, here we go:
1. Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Both my brother and I agreed that when all was said and done, there existed within our entire itinerary scope – this one experience, followed by all of the rest. It was simply head and shoulders above anything else we did. The two of us would continue to recall and repeat throughout the remainder of our tour, how this sole expedition would wind up serving as the barometer against which each subsequent activity was measured. You just cannot go to New Zealand and not do this…a paramount and surreal sensory immersion. And I’ll tell you, I’m glad we decided to climb Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom), because it only enhanced the overall satisfaction of completing the crossing. In fact, if I had realized Mount Tongariro’s prominence (i.e., the elevation you physically climb) was less than 1000 feet (876 ft., to be exact), I probably would have hiked that too, just to say we did everything. We could not have gotten a much better day either, weather-wise, and even though the last four or five miles were a bit less extraordinary than everything leading up to that point, the Alpine Crossing was by far the highlight of the entire trip. And the Chateau Tongariro…WOW…simply breathtaking (if you want to see photos of any of our stops, don’t hesitate to ask. We would love to share!)
2. Milford Sound/Mount Cook. I kind of cheated here because we visited these locations on our free days, but both are “MUST DO” stops in New Zealand. I wish we would have had more time to spend in Queenstown (although we did take a private tour to Double Cone in the Remarkables and went up the Fred’s Peak gondola for dinner!), but we made the most of our brief time there. We essentially rented a car in Queenstown and drove to Milford Sound at 7 am our first morning, made a necessary gas station pit stop in Te Anau, then continued on through what my brother and I agreed was the most jaw-dropping drive of our lives. The beauty and majesty was simply indescribable!! We also were fortunate to have nice weather for the Milford Sound cruise, as we got to witness both sunny skies on the way out to the Tasman Sea and cloudy skies on the way back in. No rain! From here, we drove back up through Queenstown, then arrived at Mount Cook around midnight. Obviously by then, it was dark, so although we could not physically see the mountain, it was still humbling to be aware of its domineering and daunting presence. We crashed for a few hours in the car at the Freedom Camping site on the southeast end of Lake Pukaki, then awoke at sunrise to witness the sun’s beams gently rise up and kiss Mount Cook’s snow-capped apex, before continuing on to its neighboring peaks. Again, beautiful weather and home to some excellent fresh sushi! :D From here, we drove southeast to Katiki Point Lighthouse and came face-to-face with a variety of penguins and seals (spotted some rare yellow-eyed penguins!), before finally commuting back to Queenstown to reserve a bungy jump spot for the following morning at Kawarau Bridge. That next morning we conquered the Double Cone hike, bungy jumped, and high-tailed it to the airport – bound for Sydney. LOTS of driving involved over 36 hours (1350 km/850 miles), but worth every kilometer and bit of frustration.
3. The Whitsundays. The Great Barrier Reef (which we both scuba dived and loved), Whitehaven Beach, and Hamilton Island combined to serve as a powerhouse paradise trifecta, and likewise the perfect way to conclude our epic enterprise. I mean, it was here that we finally felt like we were on an actual vacation. A little rest, a bit of relaxation, and a storybook ending. The weather was so hot and humid, the simple act of breathing made you sweat. And the ocean water was literally bathwater-temperate. People like to overuse the bathwater expression, but this time the comparison actually fit the bill. We even did a bit of hiking and climbed Passage Peak (Hamilton Island’s highest-elevated point) on our final day. Amazing view from the top! Again, nothing but sunny skies far as the eye could see. Plus, we each got to have our photograph taken while holding a koala at the WILD LIFE Hamilton Island wildlife park (yeah, I feel weird saying wildlife twice to describe the place, but that’s what it’s called).
4. Sydney Bridgeclimb/Opera House/Cocktail Cruise. I think my brother would instead opt to place the glowworm caves at the #3 or 4 spot, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Bridgeclimb. What a view! Again, we lucked out with excellent weather and our tour guides were phenomenal at their craft. Afterward, we chose to sink our teeth into some tasty emu, kangaroo and crocodile pizza at the Australian Heritage Hotel. Good stuff!! And of course, it goes without saying that any trip to Sydney would be incomplete without a jaunt through the iconic Opera House. We even had the privilege to return to the latter site that same night and witness a concert performance, courtesy of the Scottish post-rock band, Mogwai. Very interesting music to say the least, but quite the experience in its own right. I’ve personally been to over 300 concerts, but this was the only one I had to utilize earplugs, solely due to the indoor venue acoustics being sharp enough to act as eardrum dynamite!
5. Hobbiton. I feel kind of bad rating this one so far down the list, but as I mentioned earlier, THERE WERE NO DISAPPOINTMENTS. This is like choosing your favorite children. Each and every stop we made was uniquely memorable, and Hobbiton was no exception. What a treat it was to be surrounded by hobbit holes and know that – as massive Lord of the Rings fans – you were literally walking in the footsteps of hobbits, or at least the cast and crew responsible for them. A complimentary ale at the Green Dragon was icing on the cake.
6. Waitamo Caves/Blackwater Rafting. Personally, I went into this venture expecting more of a traditional rafting experience, complete with rapids and more tube time, rather than the amount of required foot traffic. Don’t get me wrong, the blackwater rafting segment was rather neat and encompassed several diverse elements: rock-repelling 100 feet into an underground world; zip-lining into an even deeper dark oblivion; traversing through the unknown on foot; before triumphantly ascending a rocky escape to aboveground reality. It was a very well-rounded tour and highly-enjoyable, I just wasn’t anticipating its specific design; though everyone still had an absolute blast! Additionally, the glowworm cave boat ride was an awe-inspiring journey into the lair of some truly unique and luminescent creatures. As a side note, our guide here was exceptional. The guy literally sounded like a “book on tape.”
7. Blue Mountains Tour. It’s last, it’s least, but it takes no back seat in any itinerary. While still a must-see attraction in the expanded-Sydney area, my only regret (and probably my biggest gripe of the ENTIRE TRIP) was that we were offered very little time to view and more importantly, photograph the Three Sisters rock formation. The blame cannot be laid to rest on the tour guide, as he was clearly equipped in his knowledge and experience, but instead was more of a reflection on our particular group. Evidently, some folks would rather go shopping than take photos of beautiful scenery, so that is precisely what we did. On the bright side, we did once again experience exceptional weather and thus, unrivaled views of the eucalyptus-laden valley throughout. Oh, and the railway and gondola escorts were adrenaline-fueled highlights. Honestly though, I found myself enjoying the Featherdale Wildlife Park (complete with kangaroo/koala petting opportunities) more than the Blue Mountains, which just seems backward to me…but oh well. I guess that is just more of a compliment to the zoo, which does house a vast and respectable array of native Australian wildlife.
Nothing. Not one thing. It was perfect.
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