With a population of under 5 million, almost 2 million of those living in Auckland, you are 7 times more likely to come in contact with a sheep than a human in New Zealand. Couple this with the towering Southern Alps, pristine lakes, and ancient glaciers, and you can begin to understand why New Zealand remains at the top of many a traveler’s bucket list. Read on to learn about my April 2018 trip to Auckland and Queenstown, New Zealand!
New Zealand has been on my bucket list for a long time. However, being so far from the United States it can be a bit of a hassle getting all the way down there. For instance, Dallas, my hometown, offers an epic nonstop flight from DFW to Sydney on the Qantas A380. At a published flight time of 17 hours and 5 minutes, it currently ranks as the 4th longest time flight in the world!
Booking: The Long Haul Dilemma
In the summer of 2017, I was notified of a “mistake fare” on United Airlines to Sydney for USD 400! Great deal, by all means, but 17 hours in economy? I don’t think so. In a moment of serendipity, my friend Spencer, a renowned player in the “points and miles” world, sent me a text about saver award availability for this exact same flight … in first class!
If you are familiar with saver award space, Sydney from mainland US is pretty much a unicorn booking. So, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump on my first international first class flight on the 4th longest flight in the world! For 110,000 American Airlines miles for the outbound and 70,000 Alaska Airlines miles for the inbound, I soon found myself the proud owner of seat 3A on the big A380!
Tim’s Tips: Being in Dallas, I fly American Airlines quite a bit. So, those miles were easy to come by. However, I rarely fly Alaska Airlines so I had very few Alaska miles. Fortunately, SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) is a transfer partner of Alaska Airlines, AND SPG has a transfer bonus for most of their airline partners. So, for every 20,000 SPG points that I transferred, SPG gave me a bonus 5,000 Alaska miles! Since I was flush with SPG points at the time, I transferred 60,ooo SPG to Alaska, giving me 75,000 Alaska miles … more than enough for the inbound flight.
Day 1: Travel Day, DFW to Sydney … nonstop!
I’m weird. I get as excited about getting to the destination as I am about the destination itself. So, you can imagine my excitement as travel day arrived for my first ever international first class flight!
Boarding started right on time, with only myself and another couple in First Class. The First Class cabin on the A380 is on the lower level, very front of the plane. The cabin is only 14 seats, in a 1-1-1 configuration. However, the port side is by far the more private side of the cabin (the middle and starboard seats both open to a common aisle, leaving only the 5 port side seats using the port side aisle). The other couple was seated on the starboard side, leaving me the only person on port!
Tim’s Tips: Do yourself a huge favor on these long haul flights and do some research on the seating chart and best/worst seats. I use Seat Guru to research the cabin, seating arrangements and reader comments when choosing my seat for a long flight. It can make all the difference between a great flight and a miserable flight!
As you can see from my picture above, the seat was immense. It was essentially a mini-cabin, measuring at least 5 feet wide with a huge seat (with massage feature!), plenty of shelf and cabinet space, plugs, remotes, foot rest … the works. Plus, 3A has direct viewing through 3 windows, which really opens the plane up.
While the rest of the plane was boarding, my flight attendant Steven offered me champagne, warm mixed nuts, and a caviar tart. He also, after hearing that this was my first flight on Qantas, gave me a thorough walk-through of my seat and all of the features, explaining the menu options, sleeping arrangements (they provide comfy pajamas and literally make your bed when you are ready to sleep). Steven really made the flight a true experience.
I’ll leave it to the pictures to explain the rest of the flight to Sydney, but suffice it to say it was the best 17 hours I have ever spent in the air!
Day 2 (or 3?): Auckland!
My flight to Auckland arrived in the early afternoon, two days after departing Dallas. For those who haven’t crossed the Pacific, there’s this little imaginary line called the International Date Line midway across the Pacific Ocean. Crossing the date line from east to west causes you to immediately jump forward one day. It can cause some serious disorientation when you lose an entire calendar day!
Upon arrival in Auckland, and after a short sparring match with the customs official (“Why are you flying all the way to New Zealand for only 6 days?” … “Because?”), I was officially in New Zealand! My flight to Queenstown wasn’t until the following morning, so I had the afternoon and night to do some exploring in Auckland.
Auckland is a fun city, from the small amount that I saw. I was staying the night at the M Social Auckland Hotel, which turned out to be a very contemporary and chic hotel, situated perfectly in a great shopping and people watching district in downtown Auckland. Having only one evening, and following an epic journey from the US, I opted for a hot shower, quick nap and a stroll along the harbor, ending at a restaurant and bar called Jack Tar for some raw oysters and several pints of local brew.
After dinner, my body and soul gave in to exhaustion and I retired to my hotel to rest up for the early flight to Queenstown!
Days 4-8: Queenstown, New Zealand
The flight to Queenstown was uneventful, and my first experience on Jetstar Airways (think bag fees and food for purchase). I opted for a taxi from the airport to my hostel. Yes, I flew international first class and still stayed at a hostel. Hotels in Queenstown are ridiculously expensive, while a shared room in the hostel was only NZD 20 / night (about USD 13 / night). The hostel I stayed at is called Haka Lodge, and was absolutely perfect for my purposes. I opted for a shared room with 3 bunks, total of 6 people per room.
I hadn’t stayed in a hostel since I was in my early 20s, so my expectations were, let’s say grim. It was surprising to find that my bunk mates consisted of a couple of 20-something guys from Italy (who were in Queenstown hoping to find some work to extend their trip around South Island), a middle aged woman from Germany, and a young woman from South Korea. The 5th occupant was “some guy from some country”, who never said a word (in any language) and apparently came to Queesntown to sleep. “Some Guy” aside, everyone else was friendly, and we went out for beers many nights to chat about our respective life experiences. Hostels are great that way, getting you directly in contact with people from all over the world!
As for Queenstown … first impression? Wow.
Queenstown is on the South Island of New Zealand, situated on the north shore of Lake Wakatipu and set against the Southern Alps. It is as dramatic, beautiful and breathtaking as you can imagine. Haka Lodge is just a 2-minute walk from what I would consider “downtown” Queenstown, which is full of restaurants, shops, street buskers and vast public parks.
As for recreation, there are plenty of information centers and booking agencies that offer everything from walking tours to mountain bike rentals to bungee jumping. Since I was only going to be in Queenstown for a few days, I needed to get my itinerary lined up, which meant booking tours, bikes rentals and excursions on Day 1. I chose to do two big purchases and some smaller, local activities. The booking agent with Southern Discoveries was very attentive and helpful, explaining all of the details of each option after asking about my length of stay, comfort level, budget and more. Below is a detail of the excursions:
Excursion 1: Milford Sound
Milford Sound is an iconic landscape northwest of Queenstown on the Tasman Sea. By air, it is about a 45-minute helicopter ride. Myself, having insufficient funds to book a helicopter, opted for a circuitous bus trip, spanning almost 300 kilometers and taking nearly 4 hours to complete. Sounds miserable, yes? It wasn’t. The reason it takes so long by bus is that the roads are carved straight through the Southern Alps and valleys. The ride is almost as exhilarating as the cruise through Milford Sound. Seriously, if you are weighing your options, I recommend the bus trip.
Tim’s Tips: This is a full-day excursion. I mean that, full day. It is listed in the brochures that I saw as 10-hours: 4 hour outbound bus ride, 2 hour cruise, and a 4 hour return bus ride. In reality, this was a bit longer (closer to 11). Even though we stopped about an hour into the outbound bus ride at a roadside shop for refreshments / bathroom break, I was glad that I had brought along my backpack with some snack bars and water. I would recommend to anyone considering this excursion that they do the same.
Milford Sound is ridiculously gorgeous. It reminds me a much wilder version of the fjords between Vancouver and Victoria Island in British Columbia. The excursion included a 2-hour cruise through the Sound to the point where it opens into the Tasman Sea, returning to port where we disembarked for the return bus ride.
The cruise brought the passengers in close proximity (a bit too close at one point!) to many of the hundreds of waterfalls that cascade down from the surrounding mountains during rainy season. Wildlife spotting included Bottlenose Dolphin pods, New Zealand Fur Seals basking on the rocks, and two species of penguin (sorry, no pictures of these guys). The dolphins were especially playful, performing their acrobatics all around the ship, and even giving the crowd lucky enough to be positioned on the bow of the ship a special show, riding the wake in front of the ship for several minutes!
Excursion 2: Station 2 Station Cycle Trail
Also booked through Southern Discoveries, the Station 2 Station Cycle Trail was a half-day excursion, allowing me to take my time in the morning before getting fit for my mountain bike and boarding the ship. The boat ride was from Queenstown to the southern shore of Lake Wakatipu on the Spirit of Queenstown, offering me up close and awesome views of The Remarkables, an impressive mountain range rising sharply from Lake Wakatipu.
After the 30-minute cruise, I disembarked at Mt Nicholas High Country Farm to begin the self-guided mountain bike journey through the hills and valleys along Lake Wakatipu. A water bottle and road map were provided by staff, and I was pointed in the right direction. The ride was fairly easy, with the exception of a few relatively steep inclines.
The total trip from Mt Nicholas High Country Farm to the final destination at Walter Peak was approximately 14 kilometers, and the schedule allowed for about 2 hours to complete the journey. I found this to be plenty of time to bike at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenery and stopping several times for spectacular photo opportunities.
Once at Walter Peak, I browsed through the quaint gift shop while waiting for the boat, this time the TSS Earnslaw, to take me back to Queenstown proper. The TSS Earnslaw is a fun ride, being a traditional, turn-of-the-century, coal-fired steamship. It was, at the same time, a journey back in time and a reminder of the environmental nightmare that such steamships represented! Plumes of black smoke poured out of the ancient smokestack, occasionally being forced down on to the deck by a sudden gust of wind.
This was a very fun half-day excursion. It was fairly inexpensive, and I enjoyed not being part of a large tour group and being able to take my time, enjoying the sunny day. I highly recommend this excursion for those needing a day of solitude, away from the bustle of Queenstown.
Tim’s Tips: As with the Milford Sound excursion, I would recommend taking a small pack with some snacks and additional water. The staff provided one small bottle of water, which I drank straight away after the first hill.
Local Activity: Skyline Gondola Ride and Hike
About 80% of my work can be done remotely, which allows me to travel quite a bit. However, it also requires me to, you know, actually work! This day was one of those days, so I spent the morning on the porch at Haka Lodge, staring at spreadsheets and guzzling espressos. After an afternoon lunch on the wharf at Pier, I was ready for some activity.
I chose to take the Skyline Gondola to the top of the peaks surrounding Queenstown to see the views and decide on one of many available hikes. Entry to the gondola was only a 5-minute walk from Queenstown, and you really can’t miss it. The Skyline Gondola offered great views of the mountain peaks, as well as the occasional bungee jumping platform and screaming people who, in my opinion, made a very poor choice.
I hadn’t done any research on what was up here, but soon found out that it is VERY touristy. There were a few restaurants and bars with great views, as well as a “luge” ride down the mountain. Fortunately, there were also many options for getting away from all of this and taking on one of several hiking routes. The routes were mostly all well-signed and fairly easy terrain. I, however, chose one that went up as far as I could see (emphasis on up!). The route took me past one of the parasailing launch points (closed that day due to high winds) and up a single track path to the top of a peak offering commanding views of Lake Wakatipu and the sprawl of Queenstown. The hike took the breath out of me, as did the resulting view.
I camped out here for an hour or so, snacking on some granola bars, drinking water and taking in the beautiful scenery with not a soul in sight. The hike back down to Skyline Complex was obviously easier, and upon arrival at the complex I discovered that there are fire roads that criss-cross the face of the mountains back towards Queenstown. However, since I had already paid for the return trip on the gondola, I opted to descend in relative luxury (after a couple of pints in the Skyline restaurant, of course).
Tim’s Tips: This is a good option for a lazy day in Queenstown. There is plenty to do at the top of the gondola complex, and it is pretty inexpensive compared to the rest of Queenstown. You can buy tickets to the gondola right at the base of the lift, but the lines can get pretty long. There was an “express line” for those with enough forethought to purchase their tickets online. I wasn’t such a person.
It was almost dinnertime by the time I exited the gondola, so I decided to explore my options. Sushi sounded good, so I scouted out what looked like a promising option and discovered that it didn’t open for another hour. My mind set on sushi, I opted to wait at a local bar, Pog Mahone’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, enjoying a couple of Irish Coffees while waiting for the sushi restaurant to open. Solid choice, great atmosphere, and strong pours!
Dinner was at Minami Jujisei, where I was the only patron and chose to sit at the sushi bar. I ordered omakase shimasu, leaving the choices up to the chef. I wasn’t disappointed, and recommend this option!
Last Day: Auckland Overnight
Since my flight back to the US left Auckland at 5:00 AM, I needed to get back to Auckland the day before. I decided to spend most of the day shopping in Queenstown before boarding for my afternoon flight up to Auckland … Jetstar underwhelmed again.
I stayed in the same hotel, M Social Auckland Hotel, was greeted by the same desk clerk (who remembered me, somehow) and got some recommendations for a last dinner in Auckland. I regret that I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but Jack at M Social could probably remember!
The flight back to US was also in Qantas F, same seat 3A. I can’t imagine, after such a busy trip, riding in the back of that bird for 17 hours. Thankfully, Spencer found that award space and I had the Alaska miles to book it. Same spectacular service on the inbound journey to Dallas, followed by a couple of days of decompression and recovery from massive jet lag!
Ready for the next trip!
Recap: Total Cost
Queenstown can be very expensive if you aren’t careful. Hotels can run several hundred dollars per night. For this reason, I opted for the hostel.
- Airfare: USD 5.60, plus AA and Alaska miles (110,000 and 70,000, respectively)
- Auckland hotel (first and last night): NZD 500 total
- Haka Lodge (Queenstown hostel): NZD 140 total
- Excursions and Meals in Queenstown: NZD 600
- Total out of pocket: approximately USD 900
This probably could have been less expensive, had I chosen to buy groceries and eat at the hostel for every meal. However, I wanted to experience some of the local restaurants, so I opted to spend a bit extra.