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The trip was wonderful — I can’t say enough about most of the hotels and sights. The Longhouse in Waiheke Island is an incredible place to stay. I would recommend it instantly to anyone. Same goes for Orari House in Christchurch, which, if I could capture its essence in a bottle, I would show to future travel agents for our ideal BnB — within walking distance of the city center, reasonably priced, well-appointed, and cozy without feeling like you’re intruding into someone’s home. Whatamonga in Picton was also amazing and we would go again in a heartbeat. The Lofts in Queenstown were great in that they were well-located and also had a washer/dryer, which was key at that point of our trip. Edgewater in Wanaka also had a washer/dryer and it had the benefit of being on a beautiful site with great views and a resort to enjoy. We were really pleased — I forgot to tell you that they upgraded us from a standard to a suite for free, I think because there was a big tour group there that had taken a lot of the standard rooms (or maybe because they knew it was our honeymoon).
The Te Weheka Inn at Fox was very nice, but felt a little “cookie cutter”. But that’s a personality thing — it’s very much a corporate-feeling boutique hotel (very similar to the South Beach Marriott, where we got married, in fact!), which many people like a lot. We had a great meal at Cafe Neve at Fox, and we’d recommend that place to anyone…. The Wellingtonian was the only place we didn’t adore, but that being said, it was perfectly serviceable and clean — just not a place we’d want to stay for more than 12 hours or so…. The Abseil Inn at Waitomo was great — excellent breakfast, good service, a family room with a TV and DVDs available, with a great view of the hills. There’s a nice porch where you can have sherry or coffee as the sun goes down. The Grand Chateau at Tongariro was really special — wonderful views of the volcanoes, a very elegant lobby/downstairs, and in a very picturesque setting. It felt like we were going back in time!
The experiences we had were also great — we felt a little rushed at the Punakaiki Blowing Rocks, so I think we didn’t get as much out of it as we should have, but we weren’t bowled over by them, or by the tranzalpine train. You were totally right about the train, but in the end it was good because it saved us a lot of driving (330k from Greymouth to Christchurch). It was also a letdown because we were expecting a nicer train — in other places where there is a “scenic train”, it’s usually a picturesque locomotive and you’re treated to a small meal or afternoon tea — sort of the “Victorian train” experience. It was a letdown to show up and find that it’s just a normal train with normal seats that happens to pass through some of the most beautiful scenery in NZ. Everything else we would do again in a heartbeat — canyoning in Wanaka, the Skyride/luge rides in Queenstown, lunch at the SkyTower in Auckland, whalewatching in Kaikoura, Waitomo Caves (though you were right that if choosing b/t Rotorua and Waitomo, the former wins), Tongariro Crossing (with keys in a zippered pocket!), the Marlborough Sounds and a walk on the Queen Charlotte Track, Milford Sound and the Mariner (though if pressed for time, a 2-3 hour day cruise probably would have been OK, except for the fact that you end up driving all morning there and all evening back to do an afternoon cruise). For relaxation, Waiheke, Wanaka, and Marlborough were all fantastic, and we would go there again (we regretted not staying more time in all of them!). I would say those are the places where I’d recommend having a “home base” and exploring the region while relaxing at a nice BnB (as opposed to Queenstown, for example, where the town itself is not very picturesque).
When we go back to NZ (it’s only a matter of time!), we’d really like to go to Abel Tasman and to the Bay of Islands, which were the only places we really regretted missing. I would be hard-pressed to pick one highlight, but the Tongariro trek was pretty special, as was the cruise of Milford Sound. Scenery-wise, I loved Waiheke and Marlborough Sounds…. As far as driving, I can’t remember driving times precisely, but we probably averaged b/t 80 and 90km every hour. The only times we felt oppressed by the driving time were the drive from Milford to Queenstown (on the way *to* Milford we stopped for lunch and shopping in Te Anau) and from Wellington to Tongariro. I would recommend telling people to adhere closely to the speed limits, since there were so many policemen pulling people over….
In hindsight, I don’t think there is a lot we would do differently. We had such a great time (and we’ll be paying for it for a long time!!!), and we really enjoyed every bit of it…
Anyway, hope all is well…..