Overall this was a successful trip that proved to be equal parts relaxing, fun, and memorable. This was my first time traveling to both New Zealand and Australia and good impressions were left by both places. I can already imagine going back.
Before diving into the on-the-ground experience, I'll first say a few words about the travel company. Overall I'd give their role a B letter grade, owing not as much to what they got wrong as to what they failed to do. My impression of the company is that they are more of a logistics firm in the business of stapling together prefabricated tours, and so the planning process and actual trip ended up feeling less "custom" than some of my other journeys. An example is when I asked for advice on places to eat and received not follow questions asking for likes and dislikes or any other conversation starters but instead links to two pre-made company handouts with blurbs about a handful of restaurants in each major city of the countries I was visiting. Another example were small errors on my itinerary like the short description of an activity not matching up with the longer form description below, a clear sign the language was already there and just cut and pasted. Ultimately, none of this was a big deal nor did it negatively impact my experience. I only raise the issue because I genuinely feel there wasn't any value added to having this company assist me. Everything they did I could have easily done myself, and have done on past trips. In my view, the whole point of looping in travel agents is to get expert advice and guidance and a tailor-made experience that's not possible to get on your own.
As for the actual adventure:
Hotels: The general trend was rising quality as the trip went on. The hotel in Auckland was a basic 3-star experience, and a little weird as I didn't realize until check in it is a mixed use building that doubles as a residential apartment building. It was a comfortable stay, but didn't impress. Also, upon arrival we hit a snafu with our bedroom accommodation; we were given a king instead of two twins as requested. The next hotel was an improvement, a 3.5-star experience owing much to its location on the beautiful lake front and tasty breakfast as to the actual room. The staff there were super friendly as well. Rydges World Square was a solid 4-star hotel, excellent location, beautiful room, and there I had (oddly enough) the best steak I ate while in Australia. The resort we stayed at was also a solid 4-star, maybe 4.5. The room was huge, complete with an enormous bathtub with water jets, we had a beautiful and spacious balcony overlooking the pool, and a nice comfy couch and dining table right next to a kitchen.
Tours: I remember our time in Auckland being mostly disappointing. The city tour on day one was nice, but largely deprived us of any great photo opportunities as the large bus was unable to stop in the most photogenic places. I thought a simpler hop on/hop off tour or a bus with an open roof might have been better. The day trip to Waitomo was overall good (extremely surprised at the quality of the boxed lunch we recieved, very good), at least the tour of the caves. The rest of the day was a let down. I thought the stop at the Agrodome was a waste of time, time that might have been better used at Te Puia. There we seemed to be rushed in and out. Our time in Queenstown was much better. The helicopter tour and Milford Sound cruise were awesome, kudos to our agent for recommending that, I was initially reluctant but happy I ended up including it. The safaris tour was less impressive, not a waste of a day because I did get to see some more beatiful sites but ultimately it was geared towards fans of LOTR, which I am not. In Sydney, the Opera House tour was what you'd expect, nothing amazing but I'm still happy I did it. The harbour cruise was nice as well. In Port Douglas, the day trip out to the Low Isles for reef snorkeling was overall very nice. We sailed on a beautiful catamaran, were guided by a friendly and knowledgable crew, and had a tasty lunch. I did end up wondering though whether it would have been more worthwhile if we had visited a location in the Outer Reef where I hear the corals are more colorful and teeming with life. I won't complain too much though, we did end up seeing a reef shark and a turtle, so all in all not bad. I will criticize the tour company for not making any GoPros available to rent, I would have loved to have filmed what I saw down there. Our last activity in Kuranda was a mixed bag. Tjapukai sounded like it would be an amazing experience, but honestly I thought that was a complete waste of time, time I wished I had later on when I couldn't visit the butterfly sanctuary or heritage markets in the village. After a 15-minute documentary video made back in the 1970s and 15-minute cultural performance, the aboriginal guides led us to three stations (medical/weapons show and tell, boomerang throwing, and spear throwing) for quick talks and demos and then shuttled us to a pretty bad lunch. The Sky Rail trip over the forest was also kind of lame, but I suppose was the fastest way into the village. In the interest of time we rode it straight to the end and didn't bother getting out at Red Peak or Barron Falls (which you could see perfectly well from inside the cablecar anyway). The best part of the day was the 1.5 hours I did get to visit the Koala Gardens and Bird World. The Scenic Railway experience was nice, I'm happy we upgraded to the Gold Class as the regular cars looked really uncomfortable. The views weren't very impressive though so it ended up me just enjoying a train ride and drinking a bunch of Australian sparkling wine.
Pace: I think I shocked my travel agent with the aggressive timeline I pushed for. In the end I got it mostly right. The time we spent in Sydney and Port Douglas was perfect, we had enough time in both places to do everything we wanted to. The same is true for Queenstown. With Auckland its hard to judge given we were there over Christmas. I think rather than the day trip to Rotorua we did, which felt rushed, we maybe should have overnighted down there on Christmas Eve, given that Christmas Day ended up a total wash since everything in Auckland was closed. At least that way we could have spent more time in Te Puia learning about Maori culture and enjoyed the hot springs in the area.
1. New Year's Eve on a private vessel in Sydney Harbour (this wasn't part of our itinerary, it was something I had to arrange myself once we were on the ground.) The most direction I received from Shelby on places to view the fireworks were a few generic locations that were crowded by tens of thousands of people that night.
2. Queenstown and the helicopter tour to Milford Sound. That was an awesome experience (my first helicopter ride) and a really beautiful place.
3. Snorkeling along the reefs around the Low Isles, that was a bucket list item and a very relaxing and fun day.
4. The ten minute boat ride through the Waitomo caves, and really the whole walking tour before that.
5. The scotch fillet I ordered from room service at Rydges World Square, hahaha, it was really good.
TRAVEL COMPANY COMMENTS:
Thank you for taking the time to post your review. We appreciate your detailed feedback and comments. We are pleased to hear you were happy with the way your busy itinerary, 13 nights in two countries, worked out as you are correct that your agent did believe it would be heavy going but as it is what you wanted, this is what we booked on your behalf. With this in mind, your itinerary was absolutely customized as we do not have any "off the shelf" trips that cover so much in under two weeks. We customize every itinerary for our clients but do use regularly include tried & tested best accommodations, tour guides as we know this is the kind of insights are clients are looking for. When we include recommended tours, we do not re-write the descriptions for every client as the tour inclusions are standard, unless they are private charter tours. With regards to restaurant recommendations, we provide documents that have a compilation of restaurants that we recommend but for the most current and detailed options we always recommend speaking with the hotel concierge as local knowledge is absolutely the best way to find hidden gems and know if a particular restaurant will work for your requirements.
The value a destination specialist like ours brings to your trip is itinerary planning & scheduling, wholesale rates for your accommodation bookings, reliable transfer companies, day tours with high standard guides and vehicles and a local office you can contact immediately in real time for any questions or concerns. We appreciate clients can book a trip themselves and I am sorry to hear you did not think we brought value to your trip, however booking arrangements with 22 different suppliers, like you had for your trip, can lead to issues when there is not one central coordination like our company provides and part of our service is ensuring all arrangements are booked correctly with reputable companies which allow the itinerary to flow seamlessly.
We are delighted you enjoyed your time in New Zealand & Australia and appreciate your detailed insights on the accommodations & touring experiences.
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