Over 34 days, we enjoyed some of Australia’s top sites and crisscrossed 930 miles of New Zealand’s twisty roads. This included six days of independent travel in Australia, 17 days aboard Holland America’s Maasdam from Sydney to Auckland; and nine days roaming New Zealand on our own. (Click here for our best 232 photos.)
Here are my top 10 highlights from Down Under:
No. 10: Scuba diving one and a half times in the Great Barrier Reef off of Cairns, Australia
I’ve always loved snorkeling and longed to try scuba diving. The Seastar tour we took in Cairns included introductory dives so it was the perfect opportunity to try out at Michaelmas Cay. It was exhilarating and terrifying as I was fixated on breathing, gulping at the air nozzle, trying not to panic about being UNDER WATER. It took a lot of focus to try to appreciate the reef, coral and fish, although I did get an additional rush when we knelt on the sea floor to examine an ancient clam. We were down to about 25-30 feet over 20 minutes or so. Disappointingly, the coral and fish were not as stellar as others we have seen snorkeling in Hawaii.
Callie, the terrific instructor, said I did so well, surely I wanted to go again at our next stop, Hastings Reef. I was unlikely to do this again, so, why not. Well. We went a lot faster down, to nearly 60 feet, and I found myself struggling more. We touched bottom and when Callie pointed out a lion fish just a few feet away, I got distracted and forgot how to breathe. I couldn’t calm myself, and Callie had to take us to the top, where I was “rescued” ignominiously.
Would I scuba again? No thanks. But I’m glad I did.
(By the way, it took nearly two weeks for my ears to finally balance out.)
Bonus: No. 11 on my list would have been swimming with sharks at the Napier Aquarium in New Zealand. It would have ranked higher had the water not been frigid.
No. 9: Cruising Milford Sound, New Zealand
On a mostly cloudy Christmas Day, we cruised through this 9-mile fjord en route from Tasmania. Dubbed New Zealand’s most famous site, it’s one of the wettest places on earth, so we were fortunate that it wasn’t raining.
Milford would be amazing on a sunny day but it was pretty impressive even as clouds flitted in and out because it’s so narrow you feel you can touch the soaring jagged peaks around you. Mistakenly labeled a sound, Milford is an inlet that “dead ends” at Milford village. Two powerful permanent waterfalls are dwarfed by the cliffs: Bowen Falls near the village, and the larger Stirling Falls further out. We couldn’t swivel our necks fast enough to capture the snow-capped crests peeking out here, and then there.
No. 8: Queenstown, New Zealand
Such a picturesque tourist town, on Lake Wakatipu, surrounded by mountains, filled with youthful adventurers embracing every imaginable outdoor thrill. One feels more youthful just soaking up the atmosphere. I hiked up to the Queenstown Hill, and took an excursion to Glenorchy and Paradise (Lord of the Rings filming areas), and the views were magnificent at every turn. This is the gateway to Milford Sound and the glaciers and from where we took our scenic flight (see No. 2).
No. 7: White Island, New Zealand
We started New Year’s 2017 with a nice surprise, circling this active volcano for several hours aboard the Maasdam. White Island, or Whakaari, is in the Bay of Plenty and has had continuous activity since its discovery in 1769 by Capt. Cook. This was not on the original itinerary but the captain apparently backtracked in response to passenger requests!
It was fascinating to see the plumes of steam ebb and flow, the boats and helicopters ferrying tourists for close-up views, and the bold visitors who actually went on the island, walking around the vents and cliffs.
No. 6: Sydney, Australia
WHAT A HARBOR! The vibrant activity with ships of every size and shape against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and Harbor Bridge is intoxicating. We admired it from our hotel, from our walk across the bridge (not atop the bridge as did tethered bridge climbers who had paid a handsome fee), from the ferry to the Taronga Zoo, from Mrs. Macquaries Point, and from our cruise ship Maasdam as we sailed away, going under the bridge as bridge climbers waved us off.
Two other fabulous Sydney highlights:
- The wonderful zoo, with the harbor as the backdrop, where you can be photographed up close with panda (but save the encounter for Burnie if you’re going to Tasmania. See No. 4)
- The lively Bondi beach, set on a sweeping crescent bay, and the spectacular 2.5 mile coastal walk to Bronte Beach
No. 5: Hiking Uluru and Kata Tjuta, Australia
When we arrived at Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, we thought we had made a terrible mistake. It’s in the middle of nowhere, incredibly hot, infested with annoying flies. But our two hikes bonded us to these beautiful primeval rocks.
Uluru is the largest monolith in the world at 1,142 feet and 5.8 miles around, with much more below the earth. Nearby Kata Tjuta (“The Olgas” or “many heads”) is a string of rocks that contain gorges and valleys.
We walked around the base of Uluru: 6.6 miles in 2 ½ hours, intrigued by the sandstone markings carved over time. While I tend to climb anything I can, I did not even consider climbing Uluru as visitors are urged by the local Anangu people to stay off this sacred landmark. It’s not banned, though, and many tourists do take the climb.
The next day, we hiked Kata Tjuta 3.5 miles into the Karigana overlook, going up and down somewhat challenging rocky terrain to a beautiful gorge remarkably hidden within. We were thrilled to come across our first and only wild kangaroo enjoying a water hole, looking at us looking at him. He was a vibrant specimen compared to those we’ve seen in captivity: muscular, robust, with a very long, powerful-looking tail.
- Note 1: We went to four different sites for sunrise/sunset. The best is sunrise at the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewpoint at Uluru, which allows you to see both Uluru and Kata Tjuta at the same time. But it’s a mob scene, our first real crowd.
- Note 2: The park doesn’t open until 5 a.m. in December. We were first in line.
- Note 3: the flies are dreadful. Invest in the face netting when you arrive.
No. 4: Wings Wildlife Park, Burnie, Tasmania
We wanted to have close encounters with the wildlife unique to Australia, and this little gem exceeded our expectations. We got to feed kangaroos, many with little Joeys in their pockets, then touched and stroked (though did not hold) a koala, a baby Tasmania devil, a grown devil and a wombat.
The most memorable sight was the feeding of the devils, safely inside a compound, by a park worker. When she slung a wallaby leg over the ledge, the critters viciously attack it like…Tasmanian devils! They tore it apart, fought and raced each other for the sinews and tendons, razor-sharp teeth bared throughout. It’s a must-see video!
No. 3: Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
This renowned 12-mile hike between Mt. Doom (aka Ngauruhoe) and Tongariro is relatively easy for fit hikers on a nice day. On Jan. 8, 2017, it was miserable and grueling for three and a half hours due to severe winds, fog and cold drizzle. I met people turning back, and passed others sobbing and depleted. I couldn’t see Mt. Doom let alone climb to the top to pay tribute to Lord of the Rings as I had wanted.
Stubborn and optimistic, I pushed on. As I descended the slippery peak from Red Crater, I was rewarded by a hint of a blue emerald lake in the mist. But wait! It got clearer and clearer and the sun finally edged out for the rest of the hike. It took me nearly eight hours with a long break at the Emerald Lakes. Here’s my detailed report of the hike.
No. 2: Scenic flight from Queenstown to Mount Cook and around the Southern Alps
On Jan. 5, 2017, we soared from Queenstown to Mount Cook (highest in New Zealand at 12,218 feet), around the South Alps, and back with Air Wakatipu Captain/owner Peter Daniell during an awe-inspiring experience. The peaks, glaciers, lakes, rivers, roads, towns were simply stupendous from the air.
We lucked out with ideal flying conditions as the weather had been cloudy and windy. Peter was the perfect host, offering scenic commentary and pilot info along the route. “There’s the former house of Shania Twain”; “the Tasman glacier has changed dramatically over the past 20 years”; “That’s the Haast pass, the only way out west from Queenstown.”
Like other companies, Air Wakatipu does a lot of trips to Milford Sound (which we had seen via our cruise boat) and takes people to helicopter sites for “glacial hikes.” We would fly with them again in a heartbeat.
Bonus: Later that afternoon, we drove toward Mount Cook and captured on-the-ground images of what we had just seen from 10,500 feet, now against the glacial blue of Lake Pukaki.
And, the No. 1 highlight down under: Hobbiton, New Zealand
If you’re a LOTR fan, this is your mecca. Peter Jackson and crew have done an amazing job recreating Hobbiton, with 44 darling Hobbit holes set among lush greenery, charming flowers and towering trees. It’s the Shire come to life, and you have a starring role!
OK, just you and hordes of other tourists who’ve made the drive to this former sheep farm. The Shire’s Nest is the staging area for packed buses leaving at 10 minute intervals to the site, with video welcomes from Peter.
Soon you catch a glimpse of Hobbiton and Bilbo’s house in the distance and you’re about to burst with excitement. Groups are taken up to Bag End, then through the gardens and to the Green Dragon for a little drink. Each hobbit hole is unique with captivating little touches: there are the breadmaker, honeymaker and cheesemaker holes, clotheslines flapping in the wind; a glass of wine; smoke from the chimneys. Visitors can “enter” one doorway to pose (the inside is empty).
While there are large crowds, you can find a moment of solitude for pictures and reflections if you drag your feet just a tad. Our guide was generous with our time and we didn’t return until 3 1/2 hours later. When I told her how much I appreciated her not rushing us through, she said, “For some people, this is the only reason they come to New Zealand.” Indeed.
BONUS TOP 10 LIST from husband Randy Kirk!
- Mount Cook and Southern Alps overflight: Over and around the awesome peaks, glaciers and lakes. Excellent pilot and guide added to the experience.
- Wings Wildlife Park at Burnie, Tasmania: Devils and koala. Close encounters well worth the cost; far better than the encounter experience at the Sydney zoo.
- Hikes at Uluru: Ayers Rock, the 6.6-mile hike and changing views in different sunlight, and Kata Tjuta over the crest to the beautiful valley.
- Sydney Harbor: The bridge, the Opera House, the view from the zoo and from Macquaries point with views of both bridge and opera house.
- Milford Sound: On Christmas Day, the ship goes to near the end of the 9-mile passage with snow-peaked mountains hanging over us. It was the first of many views of snow during the Down Under summer.
- Mount Cook drive and view from Lake Pukaki.
- Tongariro: The first views of Mount Doom and other snow covered peaks crystal clear, and the drive up to Mount Ruapehu ski area.
- Close your eyes and get rid of the tourists and all that’s needed is hobbits and a wizard to make it real. Scenes, including the live gardens, are recreated tastefully.
- White Island: Ship circled closely to the venting volcano on New Year’s Day.
- Bondi and Bronte beaches in Sydney; and the hike by them.