Last year I spent the better part of December traveling throughout New Zealand - meeting my husband Phil's family, exploring the sights, and learning all about his country ! Never before have I seen such vast expanses of raw natural beauty - I often found myself marveling at how often I would turn my head to find yet another epic view in sight. I was happy to have a little summer in the middle of winter (December is peak summertime in New Zealand) - prime time for wine tasting, beaches, and flowers all abloom. Our initial itinerary was ambitious, and with winding country roads and long distances between cities, we found ourselves continually cutting down on the number of places to visit. Three weeks was just the right amount to get a taste and feel for the country, but nowhere near enough time to see everything we wanted. I hope to return again this winter for a little summer down under !
I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan, so I knew Hobbiton was on my must-see list. About an hour outside Auckland, surrounded by rolling hills and cows, Hobbiton is a pristine and magical little world ! The former movie set is beautiful and meticulously maintained, with large staffs of gardeners working round the clock. The experience felt just a bit like Disneyland - an organized and well-oiled machine for visitors to meander through the set, snap a few photos, and end with a beer / cider at the Green Dragon Inn, all on a punctual schedule. Although there were quite a few people there, they've clearly nailed the pace of the tours and it never felt too crowded to enjoy. Guides gave all kinds of fun tidbits about filming - from director Peter Jackson dictating every single leaf on a tree be painted a particular shade of green, to transporting an entire pond of frogs elsewhere because they were too noisy (and returning them back again post-filming !) Visiting Hobbiton gave me a huge appreciation for the enormous scale of the set and Jackson's amazing attention to detail that lent such visual beauty to the trilogy.
WHERE TO STAY - OKOROIRE
While visiting Hobbiton, we spent the night at Okoroire Hot Springs Hotel - a historical inn built in 1889. I loved its quaint, rustic charm - flowery bedspreads and quirky taxidermy (outfitted with Santa hats for Christmas.) My favorite part, however, were the hot spring pools - surrounded by such lush greenery that I felt we were in the tropics ! These mineral-rich baths were so relaxing, the perfect way to acclimatize after our long journey from the States.
After just a few short days on the North Island, we headed down to the South Island for the remainder of our trip. Queenstown, sometimes called the Adventure Capital of the World, is a hub for bungee jumping, skydiving, jet boating, and skiing. I'm a little on the milder side though, so my experience was more - sunny beaches, stunning views, and wine country ! We took the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob's Peak for some amazing panoramas of the city. They also had a fun luge run (driving small go-karts) that weave down the windy hillside and overlook the water.
Our stay in Queenstown was otherwise pretty mellow - packing picnic lunches for the beach, wine tasting, stopping by the side of the road to snap photos of the scenery. I highly recommend the bistro at Amisfield Winery as a great lunch spot with outdoor seating, stunning views, and excellent wine pairings with the meal.
WHERE TO STAY - MILLBROOK RESORT
While in Queenstown, we stayed at The Millbrook Resort, a world-renowned golf course and spa. The grounds are gorgeous - with sweeping views, standalone cottages, and manicured gardens. A hotel of this caliber would easily cost upwards of $600-700 in the US, yet the Millbrook somehow remains surprisingly affordable (between $200-300 per night.) Their Millhouse Restaurant was also one of my most memorable dining experiences in New Zealand - featuring local, seasonal ingredients and beautiful food styling.
Our trip to Milford Sound was probably my favorite part of the entire vacation ! The fjord (a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion) was once famously coined "the eighth Wonder of the World" by writer Rudyard Kipling, and it's easy to see why. The boat ride through the national park gives you 360° panoramic views of lush forests, stunning waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks. We drank water straight from beneath the waterfall, watched seals-at-play, admired a double rainbow. It's a majestic display of nature not to be missed.
Getting there is an adventure itself, as Milford Sound is a good 4 hour drive from Queenstown - yet the journey there was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. It was fascinating to drive through so many different microclimates in a short period of time and we stopped frequently to document the experience. While we began in the warm sunshine of Queenstown, our drive took us though rainy lakes, fields of wildflowers and sheep as we headed straight into the looming storm clouds of Milford Sound.
WHERE TO STAY - MILFORD SOUND LODGE
We passed the night at the Milford Sound Lodge during a torrential rainstorm, meaning all the waterfalls were in action that evening and during our tour the following day. The lodge is truly in the middle of nowhere, without wifi or fancy amenities, and bathrooms are mostly shared (though they have a few private room options.) Yet the lodge still managed to feel quite cozy, with a communal kitchen for backpackers, and rustic, hearty fare for dinner. It's nothing fancy, but I have a really fond memory from our evening there - Phil and I huddled up in our tiny room watching The Hobbit with a bottle of red wine, warm and safe from the raging storm outside.
We finished our vacation in Phil's beautiful hometown of Christchurch. The final leg of our trip fell around Christmas and was less about tourism and more about family-time - the week was filled with holiday gatherings, leisurely afternoons, delicious food, and blooming gardens. It was a novel experience to have Christmas during summer - BBQing outside, enjoying berries and ice cream, wearing tees and sandals. I feasted on lamb and pavlova, drank the local kiwi wine. And while it was difficult to be apart from my family for the very first time on Christmas, Phil's family was incredibly warm and welcoming.
Living together in California, I'd spent the last two years sharing all my favorite childhood haunts with Phil. Now it was his turn to share his history with me - visiting the house he grew up in, walking around his college campus. It was a restful week punctuated by compelling conversations over delicious meals, strolling through gardens, and learning more about my love.
New Zealand is such an easy country to travel around - safe for tourists, a common language, and friendly people. I've really been pushing it on my friends as a gorgeous place to visit during winter (and get a little taste of summer) - especially for those who are active and love being outdoors. I've been to over 30 countries (and counting) now - and New Zealand is by far one of the most beautiful ! You can't escape its dramatic mountains, lush greenery, and crystal clear waters around every bend, and I felt constantly in awe of nature. I can't wait to return again and discover more of this country's raw, natural beauty.