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From Coach to Middle Earth to First on NZ and QF

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Old Sep 9, 13, 9:24 pm
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From Coach to Middle Earth to First on NZ and QF

Tidings and greetings all,

Time for another trip report from a recent jaunt to New Zealand. Like my other trip report, I'll be posting the text here and the pictures will be located at my blog (links will be provided). My trip reports are a bit different from those on here, they tend to be a little more long-form with a bit more emphasis on me than on flights, but I hope you all still enjoy them. I always make sure to make the flight-related posts up to FT standards. But instead of a post telling people about a trip, mine are about me going on a trip. (not saying it's any better or worse than other reports on FT, just different)

I'm not sure how many parts it will run, but the trip is complete and I'm now on a work trip in NYC with not much to do, so hopefully I'll get everything wrapped up pretty quickly.

To Middle Earth, Part I: Part One
To Middle Earth, Part II: To Taupo (via Coromandel)
To Middle Earth, Part III: The Part Where I Actually See Something From Middle Earth
To Middle Earth, Part IV: In and around Queenstown
To Middle Earth, Beautiful Part: Milford Sound
To Middle Earth, The Part Before Qantas First Class: To Christchurch
To Middle Earth, Finale: Qantas First Class

Last edited by bthotugigem05; Oct 13, 13 at 9:33 am
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Old Sep 9, 13, 9:33 pm
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To Middle Earth, Part I: Part One (pictures located at http://andystravelblog.com/2013/09/0...rt-i-part-one/)

Welcome back to another trip report from Andy’s Travel Blog. This one is sure to be the absolutely best trip report I’ve ever written since the one about my round the world trip in April.

If you read my post about my next trip, then you’re missing out on a bit of the surprise, but I went to: New Zealand! Home of Middle Earth, and…ummm…well, that’s what I was going to find out.

So, how would I get there? Let’s start out with some philosophical banter on how I like to use miles. You need some objective way of determining how good of a deal you get when redeeming miles. A frequently used metric is cents per mile. This is found, unsurprisingly, by taking the number of cents a trip would cost and dividing it by the number of miles it would take for an award ticket. Lots of credit cards will let you use their points to purchase airline tickets at 1 cent per mile (cpm), so that’s the absolute minimum I’d want to use for an award ticket. In other words, if it’s less than 1cpm, it makes more sense (to me) to just buy the ticket.

Now, I live in Dallas, and American never really has any reason to discount fares out of DFW, so there are times I’ve had to spend a bunch of miles on an award ticket when I didn’t want to drop a ton of money on a ticket, so it happens. It’s really what makes sense for you: I know I will use my miles to fly somewhere with a champagne glass in my hand and airline pajamas on my back, so I want to hold on to them. If you want to use them and end up getting .00034523cpm, then that’s your call, and neither of us are wrong. I would say, though, to get the Capital One Venture card so you get at least 1cpm.

So, what’s the point of all that? I forgot. OH YEAH. So, I was planning on using United miles (transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account) to get to New Zealand. I didn’t have enough for a nicer flight, so I resigned myself to an economy flight. When I was about to spend 40,000 miles for an economy flight, I randomly stumbled upon a really cheap one-way ticket to New Zealand from Dallas (sub-$500). This was a cheap ticket, and meant I’d only be getting 1.25cpm for miles, so I made the call: I’d buy this ticket and actually earn about 7800 miles, which would get me closer to another First Class Star Alliance flight in the future. Air New Zealand has a reputation for a great and unique coach experience, so surely it couldn’t be that bad, I thought.

The entire reason for the trip was the fact that I found a particularly scant award: First Class availability on the Qantas A380. For 72,500 AAdvantage miles and about $40 in fees, I booked flights from Christchurch to Sydney, a night in Sydney, then Sydney to LAX, then on home to Dallas.

I didn’t really know what I was going to do in New Zealand, as I was on a work trip to Connecticut the two weeks preceding the trip, but cobbled together an itinerary in my head, decided to use a lot of Hilton points, and left for the airport.

It felt weird going to DFW’s Terminal E. I’m a pretty loyal American flyer, despite their continued efforts to lose my business, so going to the “enemy” terminal felt weird. There were no lounges to which I had access (the Priority Pass lounge access I have is through my Amex Platinum card, so I couldn’t use the United Club), so I walked for a bit back and forth until my boarding call on, surprisingly, a United regional jet to LAX.

I would’ve thought, with the intense competition from Virgin and American, United would have used a larger jet, as our regional jet was packed. It was a largely forgettable flight, but there were some great views on a sunny day that was great for flying.

We landed on time at LAX, and I prepared to deal with the (albeit remodeled) dredges of Tom Bradley International Terminal. Turns out I’m a dummy, as you Air New Zealand folks are thinking right now, because Air New Zealand departs from Terminal 2 at LAX. Thankfully I realized this before I spent more than 20 minutes walking around Tom Bradley looking for the Air New Zealand check-in desk. Feeling like a moron, I sheepishly walked to Terminal 2 to start what I hoped was a great Coach experience.

Air New Zealand has two nonstop flights from LAX-Auckland departing about 40 minutes apart, so I was expecting a long line, but was surprised at how quickly everything moved. Aside from a bit of extra questioning since my outbound flight from New Zealand was on a different ticket, my bag was checked through and I made my way through a relatively short security line.

Through my Priority Pass membership I was granted access to the Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge before my flight. There’s also an Air France/KLM lounge, but the friendly check-in agent for Air New Zealand recommended the Air Canada lounge and even politely laughed at my “so that’s the better lounge EH?” joke.

It was a simple, yet adequate lounge. Air Canada’s flight had just finished boarding, so it was mostly empty during my stay. It had the usual self-serve booze, and a nice soup and salad bar.

I like to move around before a flight, especially one as long as this, so I left with about 30 minutes before boarding for a walk around the terminal and found my gate, which was in Extra People Mode.

I snuck behind the Virgin Atlantic desk to take a picture of our 777-300ER and was lectured by Virgin gate agents (great name for a rock band btw) on how what I was doing was illegal and blah blah security blah ok I’ll leave. Time slowed to a crawl, but the first Auckland flight left, followed by a quick boarding process onto our 777-300ER for our “quick” flight to New Zealand.

I was incredibly impressed with Air New Zealand’s economy cabin. They, like most airlines who fly the 777-300ER, annoyingly put ten seats across the plane in a 3-4-3 combination, but compensate by giving you another inch or two of legroom, which really does make a difference. As we had a short taxi and smooth takeoff, I oriented myself with seat 45A and the in-flight entertainment system, which featured an impressive lineup of movies and TV shows, all on-demand. You can even order a snack between meals, all from your screen. There were plugs and USB ports galore, so I made sure everything was charged up for when I landed.

The food was good, for economy, and had a bit of New Zealand flare, they said. Having never had New Zealish food before, I didn’t really know for sure, but who was I to argue.

I used to have a technique for sleeping on airplanes, called: drinking booze. It was remarkably ineffective, but I always enjoyed another shot at it (pun intended). This time, I tried some new tactics, namely: juuuuust a little booze and sleep meds. I know I know, you’re not supposed to mix the two, but look at the people who say that: doctors and pharmacologists and whatnot, what do they know?

My combo worked this time, and I slept for about 7.5 hours of our 11.5 hour flight. I awoke to the soothing red mood lighting, wondering a) if I was in hell and b) why people say red lights to wake people up are soothing. I was a little groggy from the sleep meds, and noticed the seats next to me were empty, so I took advantage and headed towards the lavatory. A random Kiwi gentleman very nicely asked what I was going to do in New Zealand, but, due to my grogginess and his accent, I very confusedly replied “about 7.5 hours”. I realized, while in the lavatory, what the guy had actually asked, and felt stupid again. Turns out this guy was sitting next to me, so I apologized and ended up having a wonderful conversation with him about my plans. He set a standard that nearly every Kiwi lived up to: some of the friendliest people in the world.

The breakfast was, well, eggs and three tator tots. Classic New Zealand food. A rainy landing was announced, and we touched down in Auckland, the beginning of a Fellowship of Two Towers before the King Returns kind of trip.

This is the point where a lot of people would say that the flight was over “much too soon”, but I was ready for it to be over. It was a good flight, don’t get me wrong, but I began to slowly go insane towards the end of it. That said, Air New Zealand was impressive. Their staff were friendly, and I particularly liked how every hour or so the flight attendants would walk down the aisles with a jug of water and stack of cups for anyone who was thirsty. This cut down on the need for a full drink cart service. I’d definitely fly them again, even in coach.
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Old Sep 10, 13, 12:36 am
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Awesome! Love your TR's! So refreshing!!!
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Old Sep 10, 13, 6:21 pm
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Originally Posted by bthotugigem05 View Post
I randomly stumbled upon a really cheap one-way ticket to New Zealand from Dallas (sub-$500)
Wow, where did you find such a cheap ticket from!?

Looking forward to reading about the rest of your adventure!
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Old Sep 10, 13, 10:39 pm
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I actually never noticed it (I couldn't even find it on ITA) but when I was about to book it with miles, a little screen said "You could buy this for $489". So I was like "hmmm" and did. I wish it was more wizardrous than that, but I just got lucky.
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Old Sep 10, 13, 10:53 pm
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To Middle Earth, Part II: To Taupo! (via Coromandel)
pictures at http://andystravelblog.com/2013/09/1...ia-coromandel/

I begin this episode of What Did Andy Do To Cause Others To Laugh At Him with a confession. I'm an aspiring rugby fan. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, there's a field where a bunch of players run into each other, with fervent aggression, until everyone dies of injuries/bludgeoning. There is allegedly a ball involved, and most likely some sort of scoring system, but I've covered the basics and the parts people really care about.

When it comes to rugby, there are teams and then there's The Team: the All Blacks, New Zealand's national rugby team. Imagine if you will a group of men the size of small hatchbacks, hell bent on causing you bodily harm. Your only defense against them? Aside from the sheer human will to live, not much, just some blokes who have run some drills with you who also do not have pads. Then it begins. The haka. Haka is a Maori word that, loosely translated, means "Ha, you guys read the rules about the ball and the scoring while we practiced tackling and infliction. This will end badly for you." There's simply nothing like it. Observe the haka against the French, who you'll notice are wearing white and holding hands: http://youtu.be/kjVqZkDZrgg

As we wish our French readers well as they leave offended, we move on to New Zealand's match against Australia on August 24th in Wellington. Had I used Planning, I would've realized that this was happening and booked my ticket to arrive in time for the match, but the confession: I'm a moron, and while New Zealand was beating Australia in a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all the fans, I was in a plane over the Pacific. hashtag fail.

Alas, I arrived early early on Sunday morning in Auckland. I stepped off the plane and was immediately hit by a chair by the still celebrating All Blacks fans. Either that or I very calmly made it through a very empty immigration hall and was politely welcomed to New Zealand. I made my way to the luggage carousel, retrieved my bag, and walked aimlessly around the arrivals hall looking for my rental car agency. Again, had I used Planning, I would've found out they were located off-site and had a shuttle that you could call from an information desk. Having been politely told this by Auckland Airport's designated Kind Old Information Desk Man, I called Ace Rentals and was retrieved by their shuttle.

A word about Ace Rentals. New Zealand doesn't have a fantastic public transport system, so hiring a car is almost essential. Ace Rentals is a fantastic option. The low-cost rental market is a crowded one in New Zealand, with cars about half as much as the big name brands like Avis and Hertz. I picked Ace because they had cars available for about $25/day. I have a variety of credit cards, and only my Chase Sapphire Preferred's insurance would cover rentals in New Zealand, so be sure to check your card's policy, as most won't cover rentals in New Zealand. I picked up my rental, a Nissan Whattheheck (I think the actual name was a Tiida). It was older, but perfectly functional except WAIT WHY IS THE STEERING WHEEL ON THE OTHER SIDE.

Driving on the other side of the road really wasn't that bad, you go hoarse from screaming in terror more quickly than you think you will. The one part that was always funny was cars driven by foreigners who were about to turn. The turn signal on most New Zealand cars is on the right side of the wheel (instead of the left in the civilized world, like France WELCOME BACK FRENCH READERS), the wiper control on the left. So it's easy to tell when Americans were driving, as they'd come up to a turn and turn on their windshield wipers. It's really funny, shut up.

I had all day to make it to my destination: the Hilton Lake Taupo. I absolutely love driving in foreign countries, so I looked forward to a wonderful road trip. My initial plan was to head down south to Waitomo, so I made my way to one of New Zealand's main highways (there are two). I was oddly drawn to the Coromandel Peninsula though, and found myself turning east, towards Coromandel. The scenery was lush and green, as expected. It reminded me of Scotland, or the rural parts of Norway.

The fields of New Zealand have a way of making your mind drift, along with your car, but after a horn honk and getting back into my lane, I really enjoyed just watching the scenery go by, Crowded House on the radio. (recommended listening for this part of the report: Running on Empty, by Jackson Browne) I made it through Thames, and recorded a video for all my Facebook friends, and unsurprisingly made a painfully bad pun for all of them.

The road got simply fantastic on my way up the Coromandel Peninsula. Quick turns, long winding hills, more turns, and all of a sudden I made myself motion sick from driving, which has never happened before. So I blessed New Zealand with a little bit of sick, then continued my journey. The scenery up the peninsula was simply breathtaking, the rain adding weight and a seeming thickness to my surroundings. The views were epic, and most will remain in my memory because it was raining too hard most of the time to stop and take pictures. I managed to grab a few though, just for you guys.

I stopped in the town of Coromandel for lunch and a quick fuel stop, then, well, basically turned around and headed back south. My goal was to turn further east and head down the east coast of the peninsula, linking up with the southbound road towards Taupo near the town of Tauranga. I instead completely missed my exit and went all the way down the motion sickness road again. It was just as nice and the rain let up a little, allowing for more pictures.

As those of you who either are from New Zealand or know it well are thinking, Coromandel is quite legendary for not being anywhere near Lake Taupo, my destination for the evening. I realized this over lunch. The jetlag hadn't hit me yet, but I could feel it creeping all up on my insides, so I wisely decided to head straight towards Taupo. It was a lovely four hour drive brought to you by Red Bull, due to the amount of it I consumed (I was going to say how many gallons I had, but they're metric, with which I struggle, I think it was around 7 kilopascals).

I wearily arrived at the Hilton Lake Taupo. And by "arrived" I mean I couldn't find it, so went to every overseas American's favorite place (McDonald's) and found the proper directions. Why, you ask, is McDonald's every American's favorite place? Just about anywhere where you go in the world (outside of the US), every McDonald's will have free wifi. New Zealand it turns out is quite stingy with free wifi, so this was very appreciated and utilized often throughout my trip.

As you can see, the Hilton isn't directly on the lake (New Zealand's largest), so the name of the hotel is a bit misleading, although it's understandable, Hilton Lake Taupo sounds a little nicer than Hilton Kind Of Near Lake Taupo. The rates were surprisingly low (the winter is pretty slow for the North Island), so I just booked two nights through a special Hilton was running. I was given a complimentary upgrade to one of their suites, which was very nice. I made my way to my room, unpacked, and was tackled by jetlag, sleeping hard until the next morning.

I awoke on my second day in New Zealand, and began exploring.

I do need to apologize, the pictures of the room at the Hilton are on my other computer, so I will update this post when I get back from this work trip I'm on
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Old Sep 11, 13, 6:11 am
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Great trip report so far. Looking forward to the rest.
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Old Sep 17, 13, 11:15 am
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Part III: The Part Where I Actually See Something From Middle Earth
(pictures located here)

I awoke in Taupo the following morning, very jetlagged. I eventually made my way down to breakfast, which was in the restaurant attached to the hotel (which, in an effort to serve you better, I faithfully forgot to take pictures of) and…went back to bed for a nap. My nap came to a peaceful end around 11am, at which point I decided my vacation would be better spent doing things than sleeping, so I got dressed and tried to figure out what to do.

New Zealand is very volcanic, as the islands are quite new geologically (geologists universally agree that New Zealand was formed at least 40 years ago). The Taupo area is particularly volcanic, with geothermal vents/pools all over the place (there’s one literally next door to the Hilton Near Lake Taupo). One of the highly-rated ones from TripAdvisor is Orakei Korako, so I made my way back to the epic and legendary Nissan Tiida and made my way in the riNO OK IN THE LEFT LANE to the highway.

After a short drive, I made a right turn and followed the signs. New Zealand handles tourism very well, as the roads have great signage pointing you to all manner of attractions, so I was able to get there pretty quickly (it’s about 30 minutes from the hotel).

So, a short aside (I know, I don’t really do short asides, but bear with me). I talk often about how much I love driving in foreign lands. I love the scenery and getting to stop whenever I want to take pictures and/or cause traffic jams. I also enjoy music and pairing music with the emotion I feel from the scenery I see. Before the trip, I was listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack pretty much nonstop, because that’s what I imagined New Zealand feeling like, if you will. Songs like this

Gorgeous, right? Gives you images of greenery, home, and little hobbits being chased by evil demons. Now, on the flight over, Air New Zealand had a random assortment of movies, and one of them was one of my favorites, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And it ruined me. For some reason, I forgot all the peaceful and wonderful music and the only thing I could hear as I was driving past all of this beautiful scenery was this combined with the sound of coconut halves being hit together.

Orakei Korako
Orakei Korako is a geothermal formation that sits alongside the Waikoto River. It was formed in AD 131 when…and that’s all I read of the tour pamphlet.

Those of you who read my Hong Kong post earlier this year know I like HDR photography, even though I tend to process my pictures a little too much. Anyway, here’s one I got on the shores of the river near the entrance to the visitor’s center.

To get over to Orakei Korako, you take a ferry from the visitor’s center (which is included in the $35 NZD entry fee) across the river. From there they have a general path for people to walk around with little offshoots to other areas. It’s about a 1-2 hour walk and is very attainable for people of all shapes and sizes (although there is no wheelchair access).

A quick aside, if you’ll let me. I’ve had the blessing of getting to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world, for which I’m incredibly thankful. I was really curious how New Zealand would compare. The easiest way of putting it is it was as good as the best of any other place I’ve been. The mountainous areas were as pretty as central Norway, the fields and rolling hills as pretty as Scotland, and some of the forested parts as pretty as Costa Rica (example below).

So I haven’t really spoken too much about Lord of the Rings, especially for a trip report entitled To Middle Earth, but I did manage to find the spider web from the Terrifying Spider Scene in the third movie. I hate spiders with the fiery passion of 10,000 burning suns, so I didn’t stick around to see if the spider was equally large.

In one of the forested parts of the site, I caught these really cool and dense trees. They were so dense that they almost made the area look like a black and white photo.

I bid a sweet farewell to Orakei Korako, which is worth the money and deserved the complimentary reviews it received. Seeing it on a sunnier day would’ve been nice, but the clouds and brief rains made it seem more melancholy, which was unique and unexpected.

I had heard lots of things about the town of Rotorua (including “it smells like eggs”, which is accurate), so I went there for lunch. It seemed like a nice enough town, but I made it there about 2pm and there were few, if any, places that were open for lunch anymore, most re-opened about 5pm. I found an Irish pub and threw back a Kilkenny, my favorite beer in the world, and started to head back to Taupo. Rotorua is legendary for the Polynesian Spa and Thermal Pools, but I decided not to visit the spa this time, I’ll save it for my return with a wife.

On my way back, I made a quick stop at Huka Falls, which is the most voluminous waterfall in New Zealand. The volume of the river sometimes approaches 220,000 litres/second. To give you an idea of how much water that is, you could take like an instant shower with that.

To Wellington
I left Taupo the following morning after a hearty breakfast. I made one last pitstop to grab a picture of the lake and met the cutest black goose ever. [editor's note: by "cutest" he meant "murderously ornery with no doubt a taste for human flesh and motivated by the sound of screaming and smell of fear"]

The drive from Taupo to Wellington goes through about 3 different phases: Rolling Hills, Absolutely Nothing, and then Coastally Downhill. The scenery was great, I swear if you just stick your camera out the window and take a picture, it’ll probably turn out all blurry. But if you stop and take the picture then, it’ll be fantastic.

The Absolutely Nothing part of the trip is on the Desert Road, which was very rocky. New Zealand’s military uses this part of the North Island as a testing and training ground, so there’s not much development, although there was a really nice military museum along the road.

As I made my way into Wellington, I got very lost when trying to find Ace Rental Cars office. It took me about an hour and half to find them, but I did end up with a really nice tour of downtown Wellington. I wish I would’ve had more time here, because I feel like I missed out on a lot. And you’ll feel like you missed out too, because I didn’t get to take any pictures around Wellington.

I stayed at a hostel, which was nice, but really loud. I was in a room directly above the hostel’s bar, and the music didn’t stop thumping until about 1:00am.

To Queenstown
I purchased a ticket from Wellington to Queenstown for way too much money (since Queenstown’s high season is the winter because of all the ski fields and stuff to jump off of nearby. It included a brief stop at Christchurch’s airport and left really early, so I left the hostel and made it to the airport via taxi at about 6:30am. When I went to the Air New Zealand kiosk, the computer indicated I could change to the direct flight to Queenstown at no charge, so I did, which gave me a 6-hour pre-layover at Wellington’s airport. I could’ve gone back into the city, but had already paid a bit too much to get here (the taxi driver was from Syria and had a really sad story, so I tipped him pretty well and prayed with him for his family who is still there), so I decided to just hang out at the airport.

New Zealand was very stingy with wifi, but Wellington’s airport had free wifi that was very fast, so my wait at the airport wasn’t too bad. I perused the shops, took a quick nap, had a breakfast pie, and caught up on everything back home.

Also, the Middle Earth part of the post, a MASSIVE installation at the airport.

Boarding was eventually called, and we made our way to our diagonally tilted Air New Zealand plane for our short, bumpy, and very windy flight to Queenstown.

We landed smoothly, and, after a short taxi, I stepped off the plane and into the most beautiful place in the world…
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Old Sep 25, 13, 1:55 pm
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I had a read over at the website. Great TR, and wonderful pictures.

But that's a pretty long flight on an ATR. Of course, back in the day, you'd fly around NZ on an HS-748.
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Old Sep 26, 13, 11:06 am
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Sorry for taking so long to update, I'm in NYC for two weeks at a hotel with nonexistent wifi so it's been hard to get to a coffee shop to get everything uploaded. I promise the next two segments will be worth the wait!
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Old Sep 30, 13, 10:12 am
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To Middle Earth, Part IV: In And Around Queenstown

pictures located at http://andystravelblog.com/2013/09/28/nz4/

So I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of the last post. Hopefully it’s worth the wait. If it’s not, I’ll happily refund your money.

Getting to Queenstown
So why did I pick Queenstown? One of the travel bloggers I follow pretty closely, Lucky from One Mile at a Time, rated this as one of his favorite places in the world, and quite frankly I didn’t really know what else to do, so I thought why not?

Liked I mentioned before, I booked a really pricey flight to Queenstown because I waited for the last minute and there weren’t really any cheap options in the first place. As I was quasi-planning this trip, I had to constantly remind myself that August is the height of winter down there, which is Queenstown’s busy season, so it made sense that there weren’t cheap flight options available.

We flew from Wellington in an Air New Zealand ATR72. I actually like turboprops, but this flight got a little cantankerous for me. The weather was pretty bad in Queenstown, so the closer we got the cantankerouser it got. I’m fine with bumps and turbulence that’s up and down, but this turbulence felt like the back end of the plane wasn’t going in the same direction as the front, so it was a little worrisome. The approach path into Queenstown is between two mountains, so there was a bit of a wind tunnel effect that I wasn’t expecting. Whenever there’s turbulence like that, my rule is to take a look at the flight attendants and if they’re calm, I’ll calm down a bit. This paragraph ends anticlimactically, as the attendant was calm, I calmed down, and we touched down smoothly.

After retrieving my baggage from the myriad skis and snowboards, I walked to the Ace Rentals office to see what joy of a vehicle they’d have for me. I booked the Super Saver vehicle class, and they’re very upfront about what you’re booking: a car that’s probably close to 10 years old with 150,000+ kilometers and not much in the way of creature comforts, but they promise it will run well and the heating and aircon will work (this all proved true). Makes the rental a heck of a lot cheaper, so I went with it. The below picture is the result.

When I glanced inside, I chuckled a little bit because surely enough: it had a manual transmission. I was half-excited and two-thirds terrified about driving a stick on the other side of the road, but I managed to make it to my hotel without causing the clutch to explode or crashing into other cars. Crazily enough, I found it easier to drive on the left side of the road with a manual gearbox than an auto. My theory (I was, after all, a psychology major for nearly an entire half of a semester at Texas A&M University) was that the shifting helped keep my mind occupied and distracted from the cognitive dissonance (read: screaming) of the left side of the road.

The Hilton Queenstown
What a great property. Although I find Hilton properties a bit inconsistent in the USA, they’re almost without exception great abroad. There were no good rates available for my dates, so I used the Points+Cash option to make it a little more reasonable (I still don’t feel like I got a great deal, as it was 20,000 points plus $75/night, but oh well) versus paying the full rate. The Hilton is actually not in Queenstown, rather in the Kelvin Heights area that I guess is technically in Frankton. As the crow flies it’s about a half mile from Queenstown proper, but there is a big lake in the way. To drive into Queenstown is about a 15-20 minute drive. If you don’t feel like driving, they have a water taxi that will take you across the lake for a charge, and there is apparently a bus service into town that requires a transfer at the bus station. I would strongly recommend renting a car if you want to stay at this property, the distance is not walkable and the two aforementioned options add fairly needless expenses to your trip.

It was, like I said before, very cloudy when I arrived, and I was suffering from jetlag like whoa, so I grabbed a lite dinner at one of the hotel restaurants and went to bed way too early.

The next morning I awoke at about 4am and caught up with reading and such before the sun started creeping up over the horizon. There was not a cloud in the sky, and I realized what a truly special place I had the privilege of visiting.

The view got better and better as the sun came up.

I decided to head out to the balcony to do some reading and basked in the view for a while. By the time I got ready for breakfast, ate in the restaurant, and made it back, Lake Wakatipu was in it’s full glory reflecting a beautiful mountainscape.

I then shot a little video tour of my suite for my Facebook friends, which I hope links up ok for everybody (let me know in the comments if it doesn’t and I can upload to youtube): Hilton Queenstown
I eventually forced myself away from the Hilton and journeyed into Queenstown to sample a world famous hamburger. Being from Texas, I have high standards for a burger, so it was time to see if Fergburger would live up to the hype.

Once I got into Queenstown, I was able to find a parking place, although I had to pay, which wasn’t a big deal, but they would only let you buy 2 hours of parking during lunchtime hours. But oh well. Made my way over to Fergburger, which was pretty easy to find (“Look for all the people on the sidewalk,” said a lady I asked for directions).

So how was it? Very very good. I don’t know that I’d put it against some of the burgers I’ve had in Texas, but the ingredients were very fresh and I found the waiting time very reasonable. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I came back and visited a few more times during my stay. I wouldn’t head to Queenstown just to eat here, but I’d absolutely make a visit if you’re in the area. I had some time left over before my parking expired, so I took a bit of a walking/photo tour of Queenstown until I had to head back to the hotel.

I got back to the hotel and noticed the path that led to the parking garage went the other way into the Kelvin Heights area, so I went for a photowalk. Queenstown’s mild winter lead to some early signs of Spring.

To Wanaka
I had some big plans to go skiing the next morning, but realized I didn’t pack my ski pants. It wasn’t until later that I found out there are plenty of places that rent ski pants, but I ended up hanging out on my balcony and read a book (Ender’s Game, which I thought was fantastic) instead of heading to the ski fields.

I read online about a great road (I love driving on great roads) called the Crown Range Pass which is a path from Queenstown to Wanaka, which I had read was a nice town. So I bundled up and made my way for the pass.

Like I said in my last post, stop almost anywhere in New Zealand and you’ll end up with a great picture, so I made sure to stop often on my way to Wanaka.

I ended up on the shores of Lake Wanaka at a lakeside cafe and just sat and enjoyed the views and some people watching.

My eyes, camera, and heart full of these amazing views, I went back to Queenstown for a Fergburger dinner, then back to the hotel to get ready for my early wakeup call the next morning to visit Milford Sound, a visit I will never forget.
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Old Oct 2, 13, 8:21 pm
  #12
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To Middle Earth, Beautiful Part: Milford Sound
more pictures at http://andystravelblog.com/2013/10/02/nz5/

Rudyard Kipling very famously (and unsourcedly) called Milford Sound the Eighth Wonder of the World. .I've often called Rudyard Kipling the Eighth Most Uninteresting Writer Based on Half of a Book I Read in High School, so the connection was immediate.

Put simply, Milford Sound is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

My journey to Milford Sound started very similar to many others. .There are quite a few tour operators that will trot you out to the Sound for a scenic boat tour, and the one with the best reviews on Tripadvisor was a lovely organization called Real Journeys. .If you're in Queenstown they're hard to miss. .Or even if you're on the internet, they're hard to miss. .The second you type in New Zealand to Google, for about the next six months all you'll see are Real Journeys ads. .I found them a good value with great service.

They sent a taxi to pick me up at 7am from the Hilton (included in the tour ticket) to take me to the bus station. .It was a bit chilly that morning, so the taxi driver very graciously offered to let me stay in the cab where it was warm. .Soon enough the bus pulled around and we were on our way. .Real Journeys has coaches that are perfectly suited for sightseeing in a place as dramatic as the Milford Road, with clear glass windows and seats that are angled towards the windows.

Milford Sound is near pretty much nothing, and is about a 3.5 hour drive from Queenstown. .What a drive. .I took so many pictures just out of the window of the bus, and sure enough they pretty much all turned out blurry. .But the bus would stop every once in a while so we could all pile out, take every picture possible, then pile back in and head onward.

Our first stop was to let off some folks who were meeting up with another Real Journeys bus on its way to Doubtful Sound, then we moved on to Te Anau, which is a lovely little village sitting on the edge of, you guessed it, Lake Te Anau. .As is usual, it was foggy that morning around the lake, which made for some really great shooting on the absolutely still lake.



At Te Anau we met up with the famous Milford Road, one of the great drives in the world. .We set out right as the fog was burned off the lake. .It's quite a long lake, whose coast we followed for a while.

We went through some dense forestry as the guides from Real Journeys gave us some historical information about the area, including a bit about the botanyaaaaaaawn...of the area. .You could tell they were hitting play in their heads, but they kept it interesting and informative.

Odds are you've seen pictures like these before, because everyone stops at the same places. .These are my takes on those places, luckily the weather was great, to the point that I wished that a better photographer would've been there in place of me to capture it better for everyone.

Our first stop was a valley between two mountain ranges, a velvety patch of grass invading the space between the mountains.

As we made our way past the valley, our guide told us we'd be stopping by an area called Mirror Lakes. .I wonder why?





I was already blown away. .I felt like I was in a desktop background. .The scenery just kept getting better as we made our way towards Milford Sound.

[pictures]

We finally arrived at the Milford Sound Visitor Center, where I caught the first view of the Sound. .Pip had nothing on my expectations for this place (six of you will get that joke). .It was almost too much to take in.

Expectations. .Blown. .Away.

We made our way to our boat for our nature cruise, the Sinbad.

Lunch came with the tour, so I had a sammich and coffee as we departed. .The driver was incredibly nice and loved his job. .During the cruise I asked him if it ever got old for him, and I loved his response: "No". .Succinct, that driver. .He went on to say that every day was different, even though they took basically the same route every day, and he could always spot something new he had never seen before. ."Me too," I said for some reason, ignoring the obvious reality that I had never seen any of it before, as it was my first time there. .I dunno.

We made our way west, hugging the southern side of the Sound, which is actually a fjord, which the kiwis spell fiord.

You know what? .I'm not going to try to narrate these. .Here they are, enjoy!

[pictures]

I will narrate this one. .Just about every tour will feature the boat going by Stirling Falls. .And, of course, by "by" I mean "directly underneath". .It's a tall waterfall that was engorged by recent rainfalls in the area. .Everyone at the bow of the boat made a hasty retreat as the water started to fall on us, but seeing the power of the water hitting the Sound made me grab my camera and start snapping as many pictures as I could, hoping that a few would turn out well. .I nearly lost my camera to water damage in the effort, but the result is one of my favorite pictures.



Our tour wound down, we got on the bus, and ventured home. .I don't think I've ever been impacted by a place like I was that day.

I was sad to lay my head down that night at the Hilton, my last night in Queenstown. .I left a changed person though. .If you have the means, go to Milford Sound in your lifetime. .If you don't, find them, or at the very least I hope that these pictures have given you a glimpse of this incredible place. .I don't know when I will be back, but mark my words, I will return.
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Old Oct 3, 13, 1:16 pm
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Originally Posted by bthotugigem05 View Post
That is an amazingly wonderful picture of Stirling Falls.
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Old Oct 8, 13, 10:19 pm
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To Middle Earth, The Part Before Qantas First Class: To Christchurch
(http://andystravelblog.com/2013/10/08/nz6/)

Milford Sound was wonderful. I wanted to stay there, and briefly thought about applying for a job with Real Journeys. Alas, I could not, I had clients waiting for me upon my return.

Leaving Queenstown after Aggie Football
I awoke with a start at 4:30 the following morning (and by "start" I mean "loud alarm"). I wasn't concerned with jetlag or the long drive ahead of me that morning, my focus was half a planet away in College Station, Texas. The Fightin' Texas Aggies were taking on the Rice Owls in American College Football, and they needed my support. Thanks to a good friend, also named Andy, I was able to watch the game via his BelkinTV app. I watched the sun rise over the top of my iPad as the Aggies handled the Owls. I knew I needed to leave by 9, so the Aggies had a schedule to keep. They did. The victory was ours just before 9am. I quickly packed my things, grabbed a shower, and hit the road for my final journey in New Zealand: driving to Christchurch.

As expected, the views were scenic, if not a little foggy at first, which made me feel like I was in a horror movie.



The fog eventually lifted, which was nice as it meant I could see farther than a kilogram or so ahead. The drive was mostly uneventful. I enjoyed mostly empty roads that were quite desolate at points.



I had heard the drive had a few highlights, which I discovered about halfway through.







The weather was just perfect, allowing for great views of Mt. Cook (which is rare, from what I understand).

You never really knew what you were going to find along the side of the road, I even happened upon a second Mirror Lake!







I enjoyed the rest of the drive, as I unsafely listened to music with headphones from my iPhone. The roads were empty and wonderful, and it was a nice end to my time on the roads of New Zealand.

Christchurch
I like to think I'm a pretty good traveler, but man I did Christchurch wrong. I picked a backpacker's place close to the city centre without doing my research, which would've told me that the city centre was only recently reopened after the highly devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. You could tell they were working as fast as they could to rebuild the centre, but there's still a long way to go.





The Cathedral is still in rough shape.



There were art installations all over the centre of the town, and you can't help but feel hope when walking through these areas.



Christchurch will rise up from the rubble and be a world class city once again, but, having said that, I ended up in a bad area of town, lost, and narrowly avoided what I feel could've been a mugging. Please don't let my impressions of Christchurch impede you from visiting, just please be sure to plan your visit better than I planned mine. As more and more of the city centre reopens that area will be a better place to stay, but for now most of the nice areas are outside of the centre.

I know this was a short post
I'm working on the big one, which will wrap up this trip report series. Up next, the one most of you have patiently been waiting for: Qantas First Class to Sydney, the Shangri-La Sydney, and Qantas First Class to Los Angeles aboard the A380. Talk to you soon!

Last edited by bthotugigem05; Oct 8, 13 at 10:27 pm
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Old Oct 8, 13, 10:25 pm
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Finally figured out how to link the pics right from wordpress, enjoy!
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