Saturday, January 10, 2015

Renting cars in New Zealand and Australia

In Australia and New Zealand, cars are driven on the left hand side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car. For those of us who are not already use to this, it takes a lot of concentration to drive. Even if you think it's bothersome or not necessary, I recommend having a passenger be a backseat driver with reminders. Having an annoying backseat driver is better than the alternative of causing an accident. During my visit, there was an ongoing debate amongst locals about tourists renting cars and causing devastating accidents. See one article here
Four of us and all of our luggage fit into our Toyota Corolla.
New Zealand has a website which offers helpful information for anyone driving in the country. I have looked for this kind of information from other countries when I have rented cars abroad I and never found a site so thorough. 

Taking all of this into account, I would still recommend renting a car to travel around either country. If you have room in the budget (in November 2014, a gallon of gasoline was $8 USD) and if you are pressed for time, it's the way to go. I spent a total of seven days on the south island and am so glad that we had a car to get around quicker than using public transportation. We would routinely pull off the main road to explore the parks, hiking trails, or other natural beauty that these amazing countries have to offer.
We found this river after pulling over in one of the many National Parks in New Zealand.
Over the three weeks of my visit, we rented four cars. The majority of the time, we rented from Budget. We were happy with their service and pricing. We were also interested to find out that Budget does not charge extra for additional drivers. We also rented one car from Hertz. Hertz allows additional drivers who share the same address as the primary driver to be added without an additional charge. Do beware that in Australia both companies charge a fee for a mandatory toll transponder for the rental car. We were not allowed to opt out of this charge.

General Notes on Australia

While in Australia, keep in mind that pedestrians do not always have the right of way in crosswalks. Cars will not stop for you when you crossing in a crosswalk unless it is striped. If driving there, be aware that the driving lanes seem to be more narrow than in the U.S. I felt like we had a few close calls with semi-trucks while on the highway.

Lunch is served from around 11:30am – 2pm in most towns and cities. As you get into smaller towns, most restaurants and cafes close or stop serving food after these hours. We ran into this more than once. Thankfully, we had snacks in the car to sustain us. Also, Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

Alcohol is quite expensive in Australia. I recommend bringing some with you. Allotment information can be found here.

Pharmacies (chemists) can provide you with many over-the-counter options for basic medical issues (colds, aches and pains, etc.), but these remedies are not cheap. A bottle of cough suppressant can cost around $20 AUD. Obviously, illnesses cannot always be predicted but taking a basic first aid kit and OTC medicines with you can save you some money.

Each state has its own tourism website which has lots of helpful information. Be aware that each Australian state is rather vast, so sometimes the site will recommend towns or attractions that are nowhere near your chosen location. Still, it was a great resource for National Parks, accommodations, and attractions. Here is the website for New South Wales.

For those of us with credit cards issued by American banks, beware of Australia's rules regarding credit cards. Most credit cards have a chip and a PIN making them more secure for the credit card companies, the merchants, and the users. Currently, the United States does not offer chip and PIN cards, rather we use a signature to validate our use of the card. While visiting Australia in November 2014, I had multiple merchants deny my credit card because I did not have a PIN. It seemed as though this was a new rule change because I did not encounter it everywhere. Eventually, I began asking if my credit card with signature would be accepted before the purchasing process began. U.S. banks are slated to offer credit cards with chips by October 2015, but most will be chip and signature, not chip and PIN. Check with your bank prior to travel and be prepared to use cash. Click here for a news article discussing this issue.

Canberra, Australia

When we made it to Canberra to visit a friend, we were happy to get out of the car and stay in one place for a few nights. We stayed over a weekend which is probably not the best time to visit Canberra, as most people living there for work leave during the weekends. While the town was deserted, our friend filled us in on all of the events that go on in there throughout the year. Because it is the nation's capital, many cultural events from all over the globe take place there including art exhibits, sporting events, and cultural activities.

Visiting weekend craft markets is a must when visiting Canberra. The Gorman House Arts Centre ( market takes place Saturday mornings. There are craft booths and a few food vendors. My favorite of the food stalls was the little Mexican place. Theirs was some of the best Mexican food I had had in awhile. Each dish was around $7 AUD. Everything was so delicious that I went back for seconds. We also went to the much larger Old Bus Depot market ( on Sunday but the food options at the Old Bus Depot weren't as appetizing to me.

While in town, we hiked from the road behind the War Memorial up to the top of Mount Ainslie. It took us about an hour to walk up as we stopped numerous times to watch the birds maneuver through the trees and to watch the kangaroos lounge in the grass. From the top, there is a view of the city below. If you are not up for the hike, you can drive up the back of the mountain and park at the top.

As an American, I would compare Canberra to the many Midwestern cities that don't seem like they have a lot to offer visitors. But when you meet locals or when you take the time to visit, you find many interesting things to see and do. Visit these websites to check out what Canberra has to offer throughout the year:

Roadtrip from Sydney to Canberra

We headed out of Sydney and drove down through the Royal National Park. We were hoping to get close to the coast on this route, though that turned out not to be the case. The drive through the park was green and lush, but no sea view was had. I think if we were to do this again, I would take the M1 to the town or Waterfall or Helensburg and then cut over to the coastal road from there. Once we made it to the coastal road, we drove through quaint little towns right on the water. Most had beaches and parking tended to be free.
Enjoying the tidal pool
We eventually made it as far as Wollongong before we looked for a place to stay. Along the way, we searched and were lucky enough to find Jack's place right near the beach. At $161 USD per night for four people, the apartment was a great deal. Street parking was free and we were right across the road from not only the water, but also from a public pool and a man made tidal pool.

For dinner, we ate at The [M]eatery. We decide that if we couldn't be home for American Thanksgiving, we would gorge ourselves on multiple meats instead of the traditional turkey. We had been told that is was a pricey restaurant, but I thought it was reasonable for what we received and how full we were when we left. At about $40 AUD per person, we ordered a shareable platter of meats, a few appetizers, desserts, and drinks.

While we weren't in town long, but we did enjoy some time at the Crown Street Mall. In the afternoon, we stopped in a little bar and restaurant called His Boy Elroy for happy hour. It's a small joint with great drink options and a diverse menu. We returned to the mall the next morning (a Friday) for a craft fair which was set up right between the two main buildings of the mall. I thought combining a traditional shopping mall with booths for handmade crafts and produce was a wonderful idea.

Also while in Wollongong, we visited the Nan Tien Buddhist Temple. This is not just a single building, but an entire complex of breathtakingly beautiful structures. As I was not dressed appropriately (I was wearing shorts), I did not go into the prayer halls or other buildings. Instead, I peered in from the doorways and wandered the grounds which are beautiful and serene. The visit was free and was a calming change from the hustle and bustle of Wollongong.
Nan Tien Buddhist Temple in Wollongong
Continuing south along the coastal road, we finally made it to our first real destination of this roadtrip-Murramarang NationalPark. This park is off the main road and is not so much a national park as it is a publicly owned coastal area. When driving in, keep an eye out for kangaroos bouncing about. This is one of a few places where you can see kangaroos grazing on or near the coast, sometimes even hanging out on the rocks near the water. Keep in mind that kangaroos are nocturnal so going early in the morning or in the early evening is best. We arrived around 4 p.m. and were able to watch them hangout in a large grassy area behind some homes. We got as close as they would allow (about 50 feet) though we kept in mind that they are wild animals. According to Wikipedia, they don't tend to be aggressive, but we didn't want to take a chance.

Sydney, Australia

While visiting Sydney, a local told me, "Sydney is a great city to be in if you have some money in your pocket." Without it, it's a tough city to enjoy since your money doesn't go very far. We stayed in the Rocks area of Sydney for our first few days. We used points to stay at the Holiday Inn on George Street. We only stayed one night here and since it would have cost us a pretty penny (about $400 USD a night), we took advantage of being so close to the action and the sites. We also took at advantage of their rooftop pool and hot tub with amazing views.
View from the rooftop pool at the Holiday Inn
While in Sydney, we took a free walking tour which was advertised everywhere. It took about 3 hours starting in Hyde Park and ending just under the bridge in the Rocks. It was informative and helped us to understand the area. Our guide also gave us recommendations on things to do, things to skip based on price, and an overview on how the buses, trains, and ferry systems work.

I also took the tour of the Sydney Opera House and while the building itself is inspiring, I don't think the $37 AUD tour was worth it. You are told of the history and shown a handful of the theaters inside but I think my money would have been better spent towards a ticket to see a show.
The Sydney Opera House from afar
After two days of sightseeing, we headed south for a few days but returned later in the week and stayed this time at the Holiday Inn in Pott's Point. While the hotel (paid for on points again) was further from the Central Business District and some of the sights, it wasn't too far from Hyde Park and had much more affordable restaurants and bars that actually honored the practice of happy hour. The average bar offered $5 AUD beers and glasses of wine during happy hour. There were also a lot of lunch deals for around $10-12 AUD. Once of these was Boca Grill on the corner of Victoria Street & Liverpool Street. I ordered a glass of wine and an empanada that was enormous for a total of $10 AUD.

We took the obligatory trip to Bondi Beach which is beautiful and the place to be seen. Public parking at the beach costs $7 AUD per hour. When we headed back into town a few days later, we also visited Manly Beach which was much more laid back and not as built up.

General Notes on New Zealand

While we were excited to visit a country where English was widely spoken, there were still a few things that tripped us up and that we had to learn along the way. We found that most causal restaurants did not have servers, but instead, customers ordered at the bar and meals were brought to your table. Tipping is not necessary but is always appreciated. I only tipped when I felt that the service was better than normal or if the server was very attentive.

Pedestrians do not have the right of way when crossing at a crosswalk unless there is a traffic light indicating your right of way. There may be some crosswalks where pedestrians can cross safely but we didn't find them. Once we figured this out, we were much more cautious and only crossed the street at a traffic light. Also, cars drive on the right side of the road so I tried to train my brain to look both ways whenever I crossed a street. I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Finally, most lakes in New Zealand have a pathway around the perimeter for wonderful views of the area. It's also a great way to take in the beauty and get a little exercise.

Enjoying one of New Zealand's beautiful lakes

Arrowtown, New Zealand

We decided to stay in Arrowtown instead of Queenstown partially due to the fact that we couldn't find a last minute place to stay in Queenstown. We found a great little house in Arrowtown on At $253 USD a night for four people, it was over our regular budget of $50 USD per person per night, but it totally fit our needs. We ate a few meals in to make up for the rental cost. We relaxed on the front porch and took walks down the river path a couple of blocks away. Once again, New Zealand knows how to make nature accessible.

There are restaurants, shops, and winery tasting rooms to visit. One restaurant we spend a lot of time at was the Fork and Tap. It had delicious food and a good drink list. And while it wasn't cheap, it made for a great birthday celebration spot for our group. The Postmaster's Residence also looked lovely but we didn't make it in.

Arrowtown was so laid back and quaint. It didn't seem as touristy as Queenstown. If I could go back, I would eat my way through this town.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Queenstown, New Zealand

When we were closing in on Queenstown, we decided to go straight into town for dinner and drinks before heading to our apartment in Arrowtown. We drove around and finally found a parking spot up the hill about a 10 minute walk. Street parking was free, so there were no complaints.

We went to Fergburger that night because we had been told of their delicious burgers. We waited in a long line which actually moved rather quickly. There is limited seating in the restaurant, but we were lucky and snagged a table. Once the burgers arrived (two regular Fergburgers, two with cheese), we ate up quickly. Overall, my assessment is that for the money, it's a good deal. It's hard to find any meal under $20 NZD, let alone one that is filling. Was it a great burger matching the fame it has? Not for me it wasn't. For Americans, I would compare it to In 'N Out Burger or Five Guys. The results don't match the hype but it's tasty nonetheless. The place only seats about 40 people so if you don't get a seat, you'll have to take your meal to go.

We also grabbed drinks at Pub on Wharf and stayed to listen to the band playing that night. Drinks were more affordable than I expected, but still not cheap. A large, local beer cost $10 NZD; a mixed drink (with well or rail spirits) was $8.50 NZD. After enjoying some drinks and some live music, we headed to the grocery store for supplies and then it was off to our apartment.

The next day we returned to Queenstown and wandered the town and along the lake. The lake is exceptionally scenic and the pathway around it really gives you a chance to take in its beauty and enjoy nature without putting in a lot of effort.
Lake Wakatipu
Later that day, we grabbed drinks and snacks at 1876 Bar & Restaurant. During happy hours, they offer $5 NZD beers and $4 NZD glasses of wine. For dinner, we headed to The Cow. It's a dark, cozy restaurants that smells of garlic and happiness. It was a perfect choice for us on a day that was turning rainy and cold. We shared garlic bread (which totally lived up to its hype), a small salad, one pasta, and one pizza. This easily fed four people and without drinks, our bill came to around $70 NZD.

We also visited a handful of the wineries in the area. If you have a car, there are a few along Route 6A between Queenstown and Arrowtown that are worth a visit. If not, there are a few tasting rooms in Queenstown and Arrowtown.

Roadtrip from Christchurch to Queenstown, New Zealand

On the route to Queenstown we made a few stops to enjoy the scenery. At Lake Tekapo, there is a stone church just on the banks of the lake. It's a great place to stop for photos or have a picnic lunch. We then drove down around Lake Pukaki and north up its western edge to reach Mt. Cook.
Lake Pukaki
Mountains overlooking Lake Hooker
From the parking lot and visitor's entrance of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, there is a well maintained trail to Hooker Lake. It takes about three hours and is 5.5 miles round trip. I would categorize this as an easy hike as it's not very hilly. The trail goes through the valley and not up Mt. Cook. There are a few suspension bridges over a river and wooden walkways built over grassy land. When we hiked this trail, it was cold, windy, and rainy but the views along the way were breathtaking.

After our harrowing hike to Lake Hooker, we needed to find an affordable place to stay for the night. We had not booked anywhere in advance, so I Googled a few hotels while en route to the towns of Twizel and Omarama. We settled on a hotel in Omarama called the Countrytime Hotel. Walking into the lobby and the rooms was like stepping back in time. This was probably THE place to go in the 1960s. Since then, not much has been updated. There was a radio built into the wall near the bed, and the counter top, which held a small fridge, was carpeted. Despite the hotel's dated appearance, the staff were very inviting and accommodating. There is a dining room for meals and a bar and lounge area where we hung out most of the night huddled around a roaring fireplace. The views from this gem were amazing and at $98 NZD for a double room on, it was a great deal. It was definitely one of our favorite places we stayed during the trip.

In the morning, we went down the road for breakfast at Ladybird Hill Cafe, a place known for allowing you to catch your own fish and then pay $38 NZD for the restaurant to cook it for you. We did not choose this option. Instead, we ordered from their regular menu and were pleasantly surprised with delicious sandwiches options. At around $10 NZD per meal, it was a great deal and awfully filling. We also did a wine tasting while we were there. After breakfast and wine, we headed farther south to the town of Wanaka. We stretched our legs by walking around town and then along the lakefront for a few hours. It's a wonderful little town to visit. If I had more time, I would have liked to stay a few days to explore the town, the winery up on the hill, and to enjoy all of the water sports they offer on the lake.
On the shores of Lake Wanaka
Later, on our way north back from Queenstown, we detoured to St. John's Observatory. The observatory has amazing views overlooking Lake Tekapo and houses the Astro Cafe. We did not eat at the cafe, but the views from the top were well worth the slow winding drive up.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christchurch, New Zealand

After spending a quick four days on the North Island, we flew into Christchurch on the South Island and spent the day wandering around town. We stayed the night at an Airbnb apartment. At a cost of $168 USD per night, the two bedroom apartment served the four of us very well. Being able to spread out and do some laundry were great perks. The apartment is also within walking distance of downtown and the Botanical Gardens.
The river that runs through the Botanical Gardens

Christchurch seemed to have a lot to offer and rebuilding efforts were abundant. There were little shops, bars, and restaurants everywhere along with a lot of construction especially near the Cathedral. If I had more time, I would have loved to stay in Christchurch a little longer to explore and see what else it has to offer. There were also many signs for parking. We had walked into the center of town, but the parking situation seemed like it could be a good, cheap option. I would guess city government is hoping to entice more people to come into the city.
The remains of the Christchurch Cathedral. Rebuilding efforts are under way. 

We grabbed a drink and snacks at a little place near High Street called The Lower 9th Diner. They offered tasty Cajun-inspired food. We also made the necessary trip to Pedro's House of Lamb. Pedro's has a take-away only location in Christchurch (I am under the impression that the restaurant location did not make it through the 2011 earthquake). We were a group of four so we picked up two trays of lamb and potatoes at $35 NZD each. We ate until we were stuffed and then ate the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

Waitomo Glow Worm Caves, New Zealand

After Rotorua, we drove down to the Waitomo district to take a tour of the glow worm caves with Spellbound Tours. It was a great half day tour with a total of only 12 people which gave us more intimate access to the caves than the larger tour companies. At $75 NZD a person, the tour was on the expensive side but the experience was worth it. The small group ensured more interaction with our tour guide, Norm, who is from the area and built the walkways through the caves. The drive from “town” (town consists of: a cafe, a general store, and a hotel) out to the caves alone was worth the time, effort, and money to be there. If you are able, I highly recommend staying in the area at least day or two if not longer. There are hiking trails, caves to explore, and beautiful terrain to marvel at.

Posing for the camera on the short walk to the caves

After we left the Waitomo district, we headed to Auckland to fly out early the next morning. We stayed in a Holiday Inn on rewards points in downtown Auckland. We were only there for a night so I don't think I got a good enough impression to give advice on the city.

Rotorua, New Zealand

In November 2014, I traveled around New Zealand and Australia with my husband and two terrific friends. We started our journey by flying into Auckland and making a beeline for Rotorua. This area has some amazing geothermal sites to visit. We visited both WaimanguVolcanic Valley and Wai-O-Tapu. For the money, I really enjoyed the latter more because visitors have closer access to the geothermal activity in Wai-O-Tapu. The admission costs $36 NZD and $32.50 NZD, respectively. Both sites can be accessed by car or by day tour. We had a limited amount of time for this trip, so I cannot comment on public transportation options. If you are in the area but do not want to spend the money to enter these sites, visit the mud pits that are just outside of the gates of Wai-O-Tapu.

There aren't a lot of restaurant options in the area of Wai-O-Tapu but we popped into the Wai-O-Tapu Tavern. It's just a little snack shop with a pool table but it was good, basic food (sandwiches, burgers, and the best wedges we had on the trip) at around $13 NDZ per meal.

The town of Rotorua itself was lacking in character and people when we were there. I would guess this is because Rotorua is more of a day trip by tour bus than a town to spend time in. This might also be the case because the sulfurous odor from the geothermal activity can be smelled everywhere.

Outside of town is a great thermal bath called WaikiteValley Thermal Pools. While this type of attraction is not usually a big draw for me, this location had seven pools heated to different temperatures which made the experience much more appealing. For an entrance fee of $15 NZD, I found it to be a good deal especially after walking around in the cold and rainy weather all day.