The Frugal Traveling Pensioners

If you’re interested in the details and logistics of our trip to New Zealand, read on!  I thought perhaps our experiences might help someone else who’s planning a trip to this amazing country.

Everyone has their own idea of what’s important to see and do when traveling.  Eric and I had one basic mission, which drove the planning process:  see the natural beauty of the country while staying within a very limited budget. Our goal was to avoid the pricey activities, while still soaking up the essence of New Zealand.

Seniors in New Zealand are called “pensioners”, so Eric and I adopted the term.  We asked ourselves “What would a frugal pensioner do?” when faced with a financial decision.  This helped keep us on track!

General

Using the internet extensively as a research tool, I learned that the South Island is where most of the magnificent natural beauty is.  Travel experts recommend scheduling at least three weeks in the country:  one week on the North Island, and two weeks on the South Island.  I googled “Top Ten Must See Sights New Zealand” to find out more specifically where to go and what to see.  Then I created a personal Google map where I pinned all the recommended places, so I could have a visual to help plan the route.

Transportation

We decided to use our frequent flyer miles with United Airlines to keep costs down (flights were $3,000 round trip), which limited our flight options to arrival in Auckland, a major city on the North Island.  Eric wanted to visit with some folks in New Plymouth and Wellington, both on the North Island, so we knew we would spend at least a few days there.  But, after analyzing the locations of the “must see” sights, we decided to head south as quickly as possible.

We considered traveling by bus, but after comparing the costs of individual bus tickets with renting a car and splitting that cost, and considering the lack of freedom with a bus, we chose to rent a car.  One thing we did NOT consider when making this decision was the price of gas – we were stunned to find when we got there that gas was about $5.45 per gallon!!

We decided to pick up the rental car at the Auckland airport, and return it in Christchurch on the South Island, where we could catch a flight back to Auckland and then take the return flight home.   By doing this, we avoided the drive all the way back to Auckland.  Our route ended up being three nights on the North Island and the remaining nineteen nights on the South:

Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand
Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand

Lodging

I used TripAdvisor to help choose places to stay – I’ve used it for many years and it’s always served me well.  I sorted each town’s options by price, and then chose from motels with the lowest price which had a user rating of 4 or above.  Challenges included the busy time of year (I was booking only two months in advance, and many desirable places were already booked), and our requirement for two beds in each room.  Ultimately, we stayed at twelve different motels ranging from $59 to $175 per night, at an average of $100 per night – which we split, so it cost each of us about $50 per night.  We were not disappointed by any of them!  If you go at a different time of year, and you only need one bed, you could probably do even better than that.

Something very different about New Zealand motels is that they all provide milk in the room for your coffee or tea!  Sometimes it was in a little pitcher, sometimes in a small bottle, and sometimes in little plastic single serving containers.  Never the powdered stuff!

How cute is this?!?
How cute is this?!?

Food

We were quite surprised and pleased that ALL of the motels had a small kitchen in the room, except for one, which had access to a shared kitchen.  We bought a little cooler, which the Kiwis call a “chilly bin”, and bought food at supermarkets for breakfast, lunch and snacks.  We made our own iced tea to drink rather than buying drinks along the way.

We tried to limit our dining out to dinner only, at a maximum cost of $15 per person.  This was very do-able by ordering entrees only – no appetizers, dessert, or drinks (just water). If you know me, you know I like my wine!  I found perfectly acceptable wine in the supermarket for about $6-$7 per bottle, so I had my wine in the room before dinner.

One of the fun meals to have in New Zealand is the daily or Sunday “Roast”. The type of meat varies (beef, pork or lamb), it comes with “mash & veges”, and it’s often on special.  We ordered it numerous times for anywhere between $10 and $15 a plate.

Extras

We enjoyed hiking, taking scenic drives, and going to any free activity we found.  We didn’t pay more than $25 for any activity except for a ferry ride at Abel Tasman Park ($50 each), and a cruise on Milford Sound ($88 each); there was no other way to see these two natural landmarks.  We had endless temptation, from helicopter rides to the glaciers, to penguin and albatross tours, jet-ski rides on the beautiful lakes, a visit to Stewart Island, and the opportunity to observe the night sky at a professional observatory.

We had to keep reminding ourselves that we’re frugal pensioners, and we couldn’t do it all.  We were just thankful to be in New Zealand!  We have yet to tally up the exact costs, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve done a 22 night New Zealand adventure for perhaps $3,000 each, all in.  That’s about the same as the typical cost of a flight there.

Next Time

Here’s a link to our RV life: we had no idea that in New Zealand, renting a “camper van” is a thing.  Everywhere we went, there were dozens of RV’s on the roads and in campgrounds (“holiday parks”).  It’s definitely something to consider for next time – I’ll bet it would cost less than renting a car and staying in motels!

Love the bright colors!
Love the bright colors!

If we did it again, we might go directly to the South Island, and skip the North Island entirely.  And, we would avoid the month of January, when it seemed like the entire country was on holiday.  Other than that, we thought the itinerary worked out extremely well, and we would make only a couple of minor changes here and there (like one less night in Invercargill).

If I can help you in any way to plan your own trip there, don’t hesitate to ask!

Goodbye, New Zealand!

One of the measures of a happy life might be to gauge how you feel when you get to the end of an adventure and it’s time to go back to your “real life”, like I did last week.  I feel SO differently than I would have just a few months ago, when I was still living the life I had in Pennsylvania.

I wrote most of this blog post sitting at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand on January 19th, while I was getting ready to board a plane to San Francisco, and then another one to Orlando.  Reflecting on the previous three weeks, I absolutely loved my time in New Zealand, AND I was excited to be getting back to my winter home in Florida – I feel like I’m just jumping from one fun thing to the next!

It’s such a welcome change from the usual sadness when coming home from a trip – sad that I didn’t have more time to stay in whatever place I just enjoyed, sad that I have to go back to a lonely house, sad that I have to go back to freezing cold weather, and sad that I have to go back to work.  I definitely did NOT feel that way this time!!

Eric and I enjoyed seeing the airport’s decorative photographs of some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.  We realized that we had been to most of them, and it just confirmed my sense of satisfaction about the whole trip – I feel like I DID New Zealand.

During the final few days, we traveled from Dunedin up to Twizel, in the central part of the South Island.  Of course the scenery is fabulous everywhere, but this area is unique because it’s on the eastern side of the “Southern Alps”.  Meltage from numerous glaciers creates absolutely stunning turquoise rivers and lakes:

Lake Pukaki, New Zealand
Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

The other amazing thing about this area is that it’s designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.  There’s an observatory on top of Mt. John, and there’s a café there where we got spectacular views:

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

Seeing the famous “Dark Sky” was a little tricky, because twilight lasted until about 10:30 pm, just before the moon rose and lit up the sky, but we did it.  Here’s a photo from the University of Canterbury, which does not do it justice at all:

tekaposign

We could see the entire Milky Way, and of course the constellations are completely different in the Southern Hemisphere.  I can usually spot the Big Dipper right away, but it’s not visible in New Zealand.  I was excited to see the Southern Cross for the first time, which is depicted on the New Zealand flag.

After a couple of nights in Twizel, we drove to Christchurch.  As you may know, multiple earthquakes and aftershocks have caused significant damage in Christchurch, where about 70% of the buildings in the Central Business District have been or will be demolished.  It was especially sad to learn about the many historic buildings lost.  Here’s a picture of ChristChurch Cathedral,  built about 150 years ago, before and after the earthquake:

ChristChurch Catherdral, Christ Church, New Zealand. From Wikipedia.
ChristChurch Catherdral, Christ Church, New Zealand. From Wikipedia.
ChristChurch Cathedral after the earthquake
ChristChurch Cathedral after the earthquake

You can see that the beautiful spire is completely gone, as well as much of the end wall, which had to be braced with steel scaffolding.

We took a trolley tour around the downtown, which was a terrific way to see it all.  Many creative minds have joined together to provide temporary solutions, while the city is being rebuilt.  Here’s an example of a downtown area where shipping containers are being used to house shops and restaurants:

Container Shops in Christchurch, New Zealand
Container Shops in Christchurch, New Zealand

And the congregation of the ChristChurch Cathedral constructed a Transitional Cathedral, which is a temporary building made with ginormous tubes of cardboard:

Transitional Church Interior, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Interior, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Stained Plastic, Christ Church, New Zealand
Transitional Church Stained Plastic, Christ Church, New Zealand

The next day, we got on a plane from Christchurch to Auckland, and you know the rest of the story.  It was a perfect ending to get on the airplane headed home, with a feeling of satisfaction that the trip was everything I hoped it would be, and I can now check New Zealand off the bucket list!

NZ – Southern Scenic Route

The Southern Scenic Route (SSR) of New Zealand begins in Queenstown, runs southeast to Te Anau, then along the south coast to Invercargill, north through the Catlins on the east coast, and ends in Dunedin.  We’ve traveled the entire four hundred mile route over the past week!

For three nights, we used Te Anau, in the Fiordlands National Park, as a home base while we toured Milford Sound and went on a couple of great  hikes.  Pictures of Milford Sound are often found on the front of tourism brochures – that’s how gorgeous it is!!  Unfortunately, it was cloudy, drizzly and misty the day we went, so my photographs don’t do it justice.  Here is a photograph of what Milford Sound looks like on a sunny day:

Milford Sound on a clear day
Milford Sound on a clear day

And here is a photograph I took on the day we went:

Milford Sound on a cloudy day
Milford Sound on a cloudy day

Looks like a different place, but it was still very lovely in a misty sort of way!

When we left Te Anau, we traveled along the SSR to the south coast of New Zealand and stayed in Invercargill, which is not a very interesting place. But it’s near the town of Bluff, which is the southernmost point on the South Island:

Signpost at Bluff
Signpost at Bluff – 9,300 miles to NY but only 3,000 miles to the South Pole!

Along the SSR we passed these scenes:

Scene along the road to Milford Sound
Scene along the road to Milford Sound
Fiordland National Park from SSR
Fiordland National Park from SSR
Southern Coast of New Zealand
Southern Coast of New Zealand
Unbelievably windy on the south coast - note trees almost on their sides!
Unbelievably windy on the south coast – note trees almost on their sides!
Sheep crossing the road!
Sheep crossing the road!

New Zealand has nine “Great Hikes”, which are multi-day backpacking trips.  I would have loved to do ALL of them when I was younger/in better shape!  But, we’ve done quite a few one-to-three hour hikes, which included portions of the Great Hikes, and these are some of the scenes we saw:

Hike Scene 1
Woods on one of our hikes
Stream on Keplar Track
Gorgeous clear stream on Kepler Track
Swing Bridge on hike - there were many!
Swing Bridge on hike – there were many!
Another hiking scene
Another hiking scene

We’ve had a couple of days in Dunedin, which is a college town founded by Scottish immigrants in the mid-1800’s.  Yesterday, we drove out to the Otago Peninsula and visited an Albatross colony:

Otago Peninsula
Otago Peninsula

Today’s been rainy, so we went to a Farmer’s Market this morning, and an amazing local history museum this afternoon.  We only have four more full days to enjoy New Zealand, so I’m going to stop writing, and enjoy!

NZ – The First Nine Days

It’s  Friday the 6th today, our ninth day in New Zealand.  When we arrived on the South Island on New Year’s Eve Day, we felt like our trip had really begun, because the guidebooks say that the most beautiful natural sights are here.  Without having seen much of the North Island, I can’t really compare, but let me just say that we’ve both been stunned by the spectacular scenery around every corner.

Haast River along Haast Pass
Haast River along Haast Pass – the river is turquoise!

It seems like everywhere we turn, there’s a waterfall, a turquoise river, jungle-like woods in every shade of green, wildflowers like lupine and foxglove in bloom, lakes, oceanfronts, and towering mountains with snow-capped peaks.  New Zealand has it all.  Oh, and add a glacier or two.

We spent New Year’s Eve in Nelson on the north coast of the South Island, and then drove along the shore to the Abel Tasman National Park on New Year’s Day.  Much of the huge park is accessible only on foot or by boat, so we took a ferry ride along the coast for a bit.

Some of the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park
Some of the coastline of Abel Tasman National Park

Over the next two days, we drove down the west coast to Franz Glacier, via Westport.  The view from our motel:

View from motel in Franz Josef
View from motel in Franz Josef

There, we did three separate hikes to two glaciers and a lake:

Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier – notice the blue color of the ice!
Trail to Lake Matheson
Trail to Lake Matheson – doesn’t it look like an elf could jump out any minute??
Lake Matheson
Lake Matheson – on a clear day, the lake mirrors the snow capped peaks behind

That was an exhausting but amazing day!  It felt like we never got a chance to put the camera down – it was one incredible view after the next.  And it just keeps going! When we left Franz Josef and headed for Queenstown, this was some of the scenery:

Knights Point Lookout, West Coast
Knights Point Lookout, West Coast
Stopped for lunch at Cameron Flats along the Makarora River
Stopped for lunch at Cameron Flats along the Makarora River
Lake Wanaka
Lake Wanaka, on the drive from Haast Pass to Queenstown
Lupines in bloom
Lupines in bloom on the Crown Range road to Queenstown
Approach to Queenstown
Approach to Queenstown on Crown Range road – note sheep in foreground!

After arriving in Queenstown and checking into our Airbnb, we took a drive along the lake up to Glenorchy:

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown – looks unreal, doesn’t it??
Lake Wakatipu at sunset
Lake Wakatipu at sunset

And this was the view on today’s hike:

Queenstown Hill Hike
Queenstown Hill Hike

Are you on sensory overload yet?? Couldn’t handle looking at one more beautiful thing?  Join the club!  And we still have twelve more days….

New Zealand, New Year!

[This was written a few days ago on New Year’s Eve – access to wifi during the trip has been limited, so today was the first opportunity to post it!]

Even though this New Year’s Eve is our fourth day in New Zealand, and I’ve worked my way through the jet lag and shock, I can still hardly believe that I’m actually here!  Traveling to NZ has been a dream since I first became aware of the country’s natural beauty when I was in college, and I feel so fortunate to be finally experiencing it.

This post is a little longer than usual, so in case you don’t make it to the end, I’ll say first that I wish you all a Happy New Year and the very best in 2017!

I remember this time last year, saying to myself that 2016 HAS to be better than 2015 was, and that hope certainly came true.  2016 was a year of many happy changes, and for the first time in a long time, I’m truly excited about the future.

The flight from San Francisco to Auckland was about 13 hours, and here we’re 18 hours ahead of the east coast of the United States.  So when the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, it will already be 6 pm on New Year’s Day here!  It’s summer here, but the weather is wonderfully comfortable: 60’s – 70’s during the day, 40’s – 50’s at night.  And the days are long, with sunrise at 6 am and sunset at 9 pm.

We’ll be in NZ for 22 nights, so the trip has only just begun.  Auckland is on the North Island of NZ, but we’ll spend the bulk of our time on the South Island.  So, we’ve spent our first three days trekking south from the airport.  We spent the first night in Turangi, the second in New Plymouth, and the third in Wellington:

View of Lake Taupo with Mt. Ruapehu in the distance.  Near Turangi.
View of Lake Taupo with Mt. Ruapehu in the distance. Near Turangi.

 

Sunset in New Plymouth, New Zealand
Sunset in New Plymouth, New Zealand

 

Wellington Harbor
Wellington Harbor

One of the highlights so far was the drive on the Forgotten World Highway, which will never be forgotten as far as I’m concerned!  It’s considered the #1 scenic drive in NZ, with about 100 miles of twisty-turny road through some gorgeous, and quite remote, hilly countryside. We drove it on a cloudy, drizzly day, so unfortunately it wasn’t the best for photos, but a few are below:

One Way Tunnel with dirt road along Forgotten World Highway
One Way Tunnel with dirt road along Forgotten World Highway

 

Lavender Farm along the Forgotten World Highway
Lavender Farm along the Forgotten World Highway

 

Intersection along Forgotten World Highway
Intersection along Forgotten World Highway

 

Scene along Forgotten World Highway showing gravel road
Scene along Forgotten World Highway showing gravel road

 

Terrain along Forgotten World Highway
Terrain along Forgotten World Highway

It may be the most scenic drive in New Zealand, but we read that it’s also the most dangerous drive.  In many areas, where part of the road was washed out and fallen down the cliff, you have to drive in the oncoming lane with blind curves; in other areas, rock slides have left debris in the road which you encounter by surprise when rounding a bend.

Area of road washed down cliff along Forgotten World Highway
Part of road washed down cliff along Forgotten World Highway

 

Fallen rocks in road
Fallen rocks in road

Add to this the driving on the left side of the road and the lack of any guardrails – well, let’s just say I was extremely glad that Eric was behind the wheel!  Definitely a white knuckler: the drive was exhilarating and we’re glad we did it, but we both needed that cocktail when we arrived safely in New Plymouth…

Another highlight of the first few days was delving into Eric’s father’s history in World War II, when he was injured in the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, and recuperated in Wellington for several months. During that time, he became engaged to a NZ woman named Joan Hay.  Although they never married, Eric has numerous letters from Joan to his grandmother and aunt during the war.

Unfortunately, Joan died last year, but we had breakfast with her son yesterday in New Plymouth, and then found her parents’ house in Wellington where Eric’s father courted her.  We also found the location of the Marine barracks where he would have stayed during his convalescence. I think Eric felt very satisfied to track down his Dad’s path here, and I certainly have enjoyed that touch of family history on our trip.

As I’m writing this, we’re cruising on the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton, where we’ll jump in another rental car and begin our South Island tour.  It’s a three hour stunning ride across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island.

View from Interislander Ferry as we approach the South Island
View from Interislander Ferry as we approach the South Island

After a few hours of driving this afternoon, we’ll be clinking glasses in the town of Nelson tonight as we say a fond goodbye to the wonderful year of 2016, which brought multiple significant milestones to our little family.

Interislander Ferry in Picton Harbor on the South Island
Interislander Ferry in Picton Harbor on the South Island

Cheers to family and friends – here’s to a happy, healthy and adventure-filled 2017 for one and all!!!  xoxo