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Trip Report | New Zealand, Tasmania, and Sydney (Dec 16 - Jan 5)

Hello all, I’m back from almost 3 weeks in New Zealand and Australia! I just wanted to share some of my impressions and notes in case others are also looking to do a similar trip like this. We did most my trip on a Holland America cruise, I felt like it gave us the most bang for our buck, for that particular corner of the world. I book ended the cruise with a few days in Auckland and Sydney, the trip was from December 16th to January 5th.

We were on the MS Noordam (14 day cruise), we started in Auckland (spent a few days there before) and went to Tauranga, Napier, Wellington, Akoroa (Christchurch), Dunedin, Milford Sound, Hobart (Tasmania), Port Arthur (Tasmania), Burnie (Tasmania), and Sydney (where we stayed a few days after). Quite the adventure but I'm glad I saw that part of the world!

Impressions:

Auckland - Is like a mini Sydney, the city area is ok, it was raining most of the time we were there, the highlights were the Auckland War Memorial Museum (told the story of Maori and European history of NZ) and also the top of the Sky Tower (the weather cleared the day we went).

Tauranga - This is where we had my favorite excursion, to the Hobbiton Movie Set! I really enjoyed the experience there, the sights, sounds, smells all made the place come to life. I highly recommend a stop here if you can. The best part - English ale and mince pies at the Green Dragon inn. We also visited Rotarua, after Hobbiton, it was a two part excursion. I liked it well enough, though it got quite hot when we were there, only if it's sunny (not because of the geothermal stuff lol). It was nice to see the geyser, but my favorite thing was seeing a Kiwi bird up close. They have a little sanctuary for a few kiwis on-site at the Pohutu Geyser, you can't take any photos though, the kiwis were a lot larger than I expected!

Napier - Our least favorite stop, really felt like a slice of old Brighton or Blackpool from 30-20 years ago.

Akoroa (Christchurch) - Our second favorite stop, a beautiful lush bay and the site of the only French colony in NZ. From there we took a tour bus up to Christchurch, which I can say is my favorite city in New Zealand! It's called the "Garden City" for a reason. So great to see their amazing recovery after the earthquakes from a few years ago, the city felt so modern and livable.

Wellington - another great stop, I wanted a few more days here. We went on our own and visited the WETA Studios, they produced all the props for the Lord of the Rings movies, we took the on-site tour they offered which I can highly recommend. From there we went to Te Papa, another fantastic museum of the history of NZ and the best part - it's free! Mt favorite exhibit was on Gallipoli, it was very unique but it's hard to describe, I'd just use Google, it was also designed by Peter Jackson.

Dunedin - this stop was ok, it felt like a bit of Scotland in NZ, but other than that had little of interest for us, plus had very bad rainy weather (just like Scotland) on the day we went.
Milford Sound - the site of the many Fjords of New Zealand, very impressive, almost as impressive as the ones I saw in Norway. Our cruise ship spent the whole day sailing around the area plenty of good photo opportunities.

Hobart - here we took a private guide and really liked Tasmania, we stopped at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, very good opportunity to get up-close and personal with Australian Wildlife. From there we traveled to Mount Field National Park (UNESCO Site), for a bit of hiking in the tall ancient forests of Tasmania which I can't recommend enough! We got back in time to the ship for the New Years festivities, and some very cool fireworks in Hobart.

Port Arthur - Another UNESCO site, the oldest convict prison in Australia, it was good to see that kind of history, easy to do on one's own.

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Burnie - on Tasmania's north coast, we had to stop here instead of Eden because of the fires, a bit like Napier as it felt like old England from 30-20 years ago, with fish and chips shops and the like, we took a bus out of town to the Emu Valley Botanical Garden, which was very nice with almost no other tourists, we saw some wild Platypus in one the ponds there.

Sydney - We really liked Sydney, after we disembarked we had a few days there. Uber was available all around the city so it was easy to tour by one's self. We visited their old town area called The Rocks, went to a museum there to see the city's early history, then visited the fantastic Cathedral, we could not get into the big Australia Museum as it was closed for renovations for 4 more months. The lunch buffet from the revolving Sky Tower Sydney was a fun experience (although the views were a bit hazy from the fires) and the food was pretty good too, they even had Kangaroo Bourguignon of all things, which tasted a bit like beef mixed with rabbit. However the big highlight for us was a night at the Sydney Opera. It was a memorable experience for beginning to end, we opted for the option that included dinner from the scenic dining area in the back with views from the Sydney bridge, we felt it was well worth it!

Food and Wine:

I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the local gastronomy in New Zealand and to a lesser extent Australia. It's basically been imported wholesale from England, from bland fish and chips to mushy mince pies. I was expecting there would be more of an incorporation of local ingredients, like in Hawaii, but that was far from the case.

I also expected to be more seafood on the menus (as a Spaniard I love seafood!) but the only thing I could find was fish and chips, fish and chips, and more fish and chips... I thought since these places were surrounded by water there would be more local seafood, especially in New Zealand, I've talked to a few locals about this and they told me that almost all the fish they catch is exported to China and Japan, leaving little for locals, the local seafood is actually quite expensive. It's the same story for all the local fruit grown in New Zealand, they export them to Japan and locals end up buying fruit grown in California, of all places!

The saving grace was the wine, I really enjoyed the wines of that corner of the world especially the ones from New Zealand, which surprised me with a complexity I was not expecting. I can't recall the name of my favorite NZ wine, but I remember it was from Hawke's Bay.

As for food on the ship, usually the food off the ship is better than the food served on board, however, in this case, the food on the ship was pretty good, better than what we had on land, especially the food on the Lido Market Buffet. I also enjoyed the dinning room, they even used local ingredients from the places we visited, including local seafood from NZ, which was impossible to find in NZ itself.

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Some tips for the cruise:

• Don't feel obligated to only use the excursions offered by the cruise, they were usually overpriced compared to other local options. If you research in advance, you can find good local guides who will do the same things as the cruise excursion but at a fraction of the cost, and get you back to the cruise on time, they have it all calculated same as the cruise ship excursions.

• One of my favorite things to do on board during the sea days was High Tea at the dinning room at 3:00 pm. It was pretty good with all the little sandwiches and pastries with unlimited tea, it was very English, but in a good way lol! The best part was being able to sit and talk to others in the same large table about their travels and favorite experiences, it felt a bit like if the Rick Steves Forum was in real life lol.

• On wifi, I opted not to go for the internet package. Others on our cruise told me the connection was spotty and slow, anyway most ports had free wifi that I could connect to briefly check emails etc. On the sea days it was actually quite liberating to not have internet.

Impact of the Bush Fires:

Tragically when we were on our Australian leg of the voyage, the Bush Fires really started to worsen. Many people I met were very angry with their PM, especially with that business of going on holiday to Hawaii and trying to shake that firefighter’s hand. On the other hand, the Australians I talked to were very appreciative of all the international support, especially the firefighters from California who came over to help fight the bush fires.

Except for one day, there was no indication of the fires raging in Tasmania, the prevailing winds mostly carried the smoke to NZ. Tasmania was like a mini Australia, but with more moderate climate, it was around 30 c when I was there, compared to the low to mid 40s c in Sydney.

In Sydney and the air quality was mostly ok, not a bad as I thought, but you could still smell a very faint whiff of burn and there is visible smog in the air, like LA. I didn’t see too many people with masks there but I can only speak for Tasmania and Sydney. I talked to a few locals and they told me it really depends how the wind is blowing any given day.

Our cruise had to cancel its stop on the Sapphire Coast due to the Bush Fires, that was the place where people were escaping to the beaches. My private guide to the Sapphire Coast has had to evacuate himself!

I saw a resilience in the Australian people and a drive to get things done and push forward, unfortunately this is just the start of the fire season, which is supposed to last another 2 months. Having been evacuated myself during the Southern California fires last year, I can empathize with what they are going through, I wish them much strength for these next coming weeks.

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4786 posts

Nice trip report, Carlos, and thank you.

Tasmania in particular is high on my list of places that I've wanted to visit for years.

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1557 posts

Hi David, I have to say Tasmania or "Tassie" (as the locals call it lol), was my favorite part of the trip, the landscape just felt so diverse, you could go from southern California, to the English countryside, to the Amazon rain forest, all in one day!

My favorite area was the UNESCO listed Mount Field National Park, just seeing all those really tall trees was incredible. On our way back to town we stopped by the idyllic Possum Shed Cafe, on the banks of a lazy river, that was one of the better food experiences we had on our trip, their English style Scones were particularly good.

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1648 posts

Carlos, What was the status of the rebuilding effort in Christchurch. When we were there a couple of years ago the city center was still one big construction zone. Is that still the case or has everything been cleaned up? And what's the condition of the Cathedral?

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51 posts

Not sure where you were eating while out and about in New Zealand, but we have plenty of seafood available. Crayfish, shellfish (Greenlip mussels - yum), beautiful King salmon (fresh and smoked), trout, and sea caught fish. We have seafood at least 3 times a week at home, and if we eat out I almost always select a fish dish. It sounds like you were just looking in cheap cafes and takeaway places. Please come back and visit us again and sample eating in restaurants away from the tourist areas, our seafood is wonderful.

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1557 posts

@Robert - I was expecting about the same experience you had, but I was pleasantly surprised as the center of Christchurch has been rebuilt into a modern, cool, and happening place - with gourmet food markets, trendy shops/restaurants, a riverside promenade, and spectacular gardens. The whole place was buzzing with a youthful energy, due to low housing prices, there were many young people, so the average age on the street was 20-30 years younger than the other cities I visited in New Zealand. I was told that the Cathedral unfortunately is not able to be saved and they were preparing to tear it down.

@Colbe - thank you for your local perceptive, I was eating at places recommend to me by locals/guides I met in New Zealand. The only fish market I saw in NZ, that was pretty good albeit small, was at the newly built Riverside Market in Christchurch. I agree with more time I'm sure I could have found what I was looking for. Sydney on the other hand had a glorious fish market, so I was able to get my fill of fish in the end ;-)

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2368 posts

And I especially thank you for this report and updates along the way. You have been such a help to us as we prepare for our nearly identical trip we have coming up in a little over a week. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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657 posts

Thanks for the report. I love Australia and my heart hurts for the current difficulties.

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1424 posts

Enjoyed your report! We have been to many of these places and my heart hurts as well for the people and wildlife. We did think that NZ reminded us quite a bit of Alaska! Would love to get to Tasmania someday!

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7 posts

I'm glad you enjoyed your trip to Australia and New Zealand. I recently went on a 4 month backpacking trip to Australia and New Zealand from mid-August to mid-December 2019. It was a fantastic trip and I really enjoyed it (I actually enjoyed it more than the backpacking trip I did to Europe several years ago). I would definitely recommend visiting Australia and New Zealand for those who haven't been.

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146 posts

Thanks so much for this trip report! I have looked at this particular cruise on Holland America, so this report is very helpful.

Posted by
6 posts

Awesome trip report, Carlos, thanks for sharing! I am planning to visit Tasmania really soon!