In Rarotonga, there are definitely a lot more options for accommodations to suit your budget and preferences. We stayed at a farm stay AirBnB in the Matavera District that was a little up from the beach. It was about a 10 minute bike ride away from Muri Beach, one of the more touristy beaches on the island.
Petra, who was looking after the AirBnB picked us up at the airport and she showed us around. The farm had goats, chickens, cats, a pig, and lots of fruit trees. We stayed in a small guest house separate from the main house that was perfect for what we needed.
Independence Day – August 4
We were lucky enough to be in Rarotonga on their Independence Day and Petra took us to the community centre for celebrations. We saw a traditional dance competition where a dance group from each Cook Island competed. Their costumes were beautiful and the skill of the dancers was extremely impressive. This was my favourite part about Rarotonga. We weren’t allowed to take photos or videos so unfortunately I can’t share any but the songs were so catchy (it’s mostly just singing and drums) that I can still sing one from memory even a few months later. If you can be there around the week of August 4, I would highly suggest it.
On our first full day we took the bus to the other side of the island. It costs $5 per person one way. There is one bus that runs clockwise and one bus that runs counter-clockwise and it takes about 40 minutes to get around the whole island.
I wanted to do some hiking so we tried a medium-level hike on the west side of the island. I don’t even remember what it was called but it was very steep and unkempt and I would not recommend it. A dog joined our hike and followed us the whole way up that I named Raro. After the hike we got a ride to the Rarotonga Hotel, which is one of the original hotels on the island and had a drink. It looks very traditional and reminded me of the Polynesian Hotel at Disney – except real!
I really wanted to do the Cross Island Trek, which takes about a whole day but the weather was pretty bad while we were there and I was advised not to go alone. The hike runs through the whole island and you hike past some waterfalls
Something you’re supposed to do in the Cooks is go to church on Sunday to hear the beautiful music. We went to the local church in our area and were welcomed but we stuck out because we weren’t wearing white (I didn’t know that all the women wore white on the first Sunday of the month). It was also pretty fancy and I didn’t really have any nice clothes with me. The service is given in their native language, Cook Islands Maori, and their singing was so passionate.
We attended a few markets – the first was the Sunday Market in Avarua, which has really great shopping for souvenirs and food. It seemed like everyone on the island came out on Sundays and the markets had better food than any of the restaurants.
We also went to the Night Market in Muri, which was absolutely packed and somewhat sold out so I would recommend getting there early. This market had only food – I got some vegetarian curry and cheesecake. It was pretty hard to find vegetarian food in the Cooks as their dishes are mostly centred around chicken and fish. I told someone I was vegetarian and they laughed.
I would suggest cooking your meals besides the night markets. There were very few restaurants and they seemed to be there mostly for tourists. We did our activities in the day and stayed in at night since we didn’t have a vehicle but it seemed that’s what most people did – wake up with the sun and go to bed with it.
Aitutaki is truly an untouched paradise and has some of the clearest waters and cleanest beaches I have ever seen. It is the second most visited island in the Cook Islands and the attraction is a shallow lagoon with unbelievable snorkelling and several small islands outlining the perimeter.
How to get there
We got a really early flight from Christchurch to Auckland and then almost missed our flight to Rarotonga, Cook Islands. I have never run so much in an airport and luckily our flight was delayed or else we would have missed it. We flew Air New Zealand, which is a lot better than our airlines here in North America. They served amazing vegetarian meals and they didn’t care about the random and heavy luggage we had.
From Rarotonga, we took a 1-hour domestic flight to Aitutaki. This flight was very expensive (around $500 pp round trip) but we had no other option to get there. We booked several months ahead but I read if you’re willing to wait until last minute, they will release cheap tickets in order to fill the flight.
Kia Orana – Welcome to Aitutaki! Make sure that you have arranged a pick-up at the airport as there are no taxis and it’s the smallest airport I’ve ever seen – I’m not even sure if there is a phone. I should mention that there is no free WiFi anywhere on the island. We did without it for a week and it was great to unplug.
We stayed in beach bungalows called Paradise Cove, about a 5 minute drive from the airport. There are no major hotels on the island, only small cottages and fancy resorts. Our place was more rustic and basic compared to others but met all of our needs. We were met with beautiful fresh leis at the airport and our place was right on the beach.
Don’t be surprised when you see chickens everywhere – you have to wake up when they wake up. There are also a lot of goats and stray cats. A cat that I named Coco slept outside of our cottage every night and waited for us to come home every day.
Cruising the Lagoon
The main attraction in Aitutaki is the lagoon and I was particularly interested because it’s where a season of Survivor was filmed. We booked a tour through our accommodations called Aitutaki Adventures. We picked this one because another guest recommended it to us and we liked that it was a relatively small boat (only 12 people). There are several companies that all cost about the same ($110) and they each have a slightly varied itinerary.
Puna was our tour guide and picked all of us up at different resorts in a van. He dropped some of us off at our first snorkel spot and we saw beautiful reefs and the biggest clams I had ever seen. He had gear for the people that didn’t have any.
Our next stop was Honeymoon Island, which was completely deserted except for a windsurfing school. After exploring the island we had bananas and homemade donuts that Puna’s wife made.
Next we took the boat around several surrounding islands and he told us about each one and on which islands Survivor was filmed. He told us all about his experience with Survivor and said that he worked with the camera crews when they were filming.
Our next stop was One Foot Island, the most popular island in the lagoon, where we had an amazing local lunch that was vegetarian for the most part – coleslaw, bananas, breadfruit, etc. On the island you can get your passport stamped at the post office for $2 with a pretty unique stamp and you can buy a beer at the post office if you want to.
Puna took us out snorkelling one more time and there were these huge black fish that circled under the boat. He said they like shiny things and you should make sure you’re not wearing any jewelry when snorkelling because once they ripped out a girl’s belly button ring!
A really bad storm came in and we all took shelter on One Foot Island for about 30 minutes until it passed. A local guy told stories about the island while we waited to go back to Aitutaki.
What to eat…
There are very few restaurants on the island and they are very expensive. We found a restaurant right near our place called Puffy’s that had cheap, simple food that was really good – her fries were the best.
I suggest making sure that your place has a kitchen and making your meals for the most part. The selection in the grocery stores is very limited and also very expensive so I would even suggest bringing some non-perishable items in your luggage. That said, I did find some great local items like ice cream, pawpaw (papaya), coconut, and bananas.
What to do…
Aitutaki is very sleepy and relaxed. Besides the lagoon tour, there are not many organized things to do if that’s what you’re looking for. One day we rented bikes and biked the entire island in about three hours. We also climbed to the highest summit of the island Maunga Pu (only 124 m but still had a beautiful view), which was right across from where we stayed. We mostly spent a lot of time on the beach and snorkelling. There were so many sea cucumbers and I even found a blue starfish.
Aitutaki is truly authentic and preserved and the locals are proud of their culture and heritage. It is relatively untouched and it’s refreshing that everyone is happy with their simple lifestyle. I did not want to leave this paradise in the middle of the Pacific!
We had two weeks on the South Island to see as much as we could and we only scraped the surface! We were there in the worst month, July, and lost a few days to winter storms. The North and South islands are very different – the South is much more rugged than I expected and definitely a lot colder.
We took the ferry from Wellington at 9 AM and it took about 3 hours to cross the Cook Strait. It was too cold to go on the deck but I was able to spot some seals out the window as we were pulling into Picton. Picton was WAY smaller than I expected. There were no taxis, so we were overcharged by a shuttle that took us to our accommodation about 10 minutes away. We stayed in a holiday park cabin that was nice but very basic and there was not much to do nearby. I was told that in the summer stingrays will come right up to you at the marina but we were there in the wrong season.
We took a bus for 8 hours from Picton to Christchurch. All I remember is that my feet were freezing the entire time because there’s no heat on the buses and that I had the best lemon muffin of my life. I should mention that all the food in New Zealand was amazing. It was expensive but really high quality and never disappointing. Sushi and bakeries were my favourites.
I would not recommend taking the bus Picton to Christchurch. It’s actually cheaper to fly from Wellington or Auckland to Christchurch and unless you’re really set on taking the ferry, it’s not worth it the long ride.
Christchurch was our home base on the South Island because that’s where my brother lives and goes to school. We invaded his dorm room for about a week and got to know his city and his roommates pretty well. To thank them we had a few dinners for them – a spaghetti night and a pizza party.
Christchurch still has a lot of visible aftermath from the devastating earthquake in 2011 that killed 185 people. A lot of the buildings in the city centre had to be completely reconstructed and it’s evident that they’re still working on it.
My favourite thing that we did in Christchurch was the Port Hills hike. It’s a range of hills on the edge of the city that overlook Christchurch on one side and the ocean on the other. Once you get to the top there are lots of different routes you can take and a lot of people do mountain biking up there. Other than this day in the Port Hills, we mostly had terrible weather in Christchurch and were grounded for a few days due to road closures.
We grabbed another rental car from Rent-a-Dent and were finally on the road after the winter storm passed. On our road trip to Queenstown, our first stop was Lake Tekapo – a very beautiful and touristy glacier lake. We stopped and took some pictures but a few kilometres later we stopped at Lake Pukaki, which I thought was much more beautiful and there was no one there!
Outside of Queenstown we stopped at a vineyard and had a wine and chocolate tour. There are tons of vineyards along the way and there is something to be said for NZ wine! I also got really into their chocolate and went more than one time to a chocolate shop in Queenstown called Patagonia.
Food was a highlight in Queenstown! Some other recommendations are Fergburger (I had the most amazing falafel burger) and The Cow Restaurant – this one is hidden in an alley and you will probably have to ask for directions.
In Queenstown we stayed at Adventure Q2 Hostel. It was just average when it comes to hostels but there were not very many options. Queenstown is very glam and expensive and it wasn’t in our budget to do AirBnB or another rental here.
In Queenstown we each did different activities. My mom did a boat tour on the lake and my brother went skiing at Cardrona. I ended up doing a really lame zip line that I thought was going to be more exciting than it was. Before I came to Queenstown I really wanted to do the bungee jump because bungee was invented in Queenstown but I chickened out when I realized it was $300 to jump of a ledge. Since coming home I really regret not doing it and will have to make a return trip one day!
My brother and I also did the Tiki Trail that takes you up to a lookout of Queenstown. We asked for a free ride down on the gondola but they said no. On the trail there isn’t much of a view but it’s beautiful when you get to the top and a few goats crossed our path on the way down.
On the drive to Twizel/Mount Cook we stopped in Wanaka, which is like a mini and less touristy Queenstown. In Wanaka we did a hike called Mount Iron and at the top you could see a 360 view of the mountains. The hike was easy and really beautiful at the top. We also saw the famous Wanaka tree.
Twizel / Mount Cook
Our goal while in Twizel was to do the Hooker Valley Track at Mount Cook, another really popular hike in NZ. Unfortunately we got rained/snowed out on our first day there and we spent the day at our cabin accommodation that was actually really nice. There was not much to do in Twizel but we drove around the small town anyway and went to the local bakery.
The next day was cold but the rain had stopped. We drove into Mount Cook on a small road that was covered in snow. When we got to Mount Cook, the trail was covered and I was not very well-equipped for the weather. I did a 3-hour return hike in a lot of snow in just running shoes and my feet were frozen by the end. When we got to the view of the mountain it was covered with clouds but the hike was really beautiful, with a couple suspension bridges and tons of mountains.
After the hike we drove back to Christchurch for a couple days and packed up. We visited a great market called the Ricarrton Market that had tons of great food, books, and antiques. We spent our last few days in NZ doing local things and preparing ourselves for some heat!
If I had more time on the South Island I would have liked to see Milford Sound in the south and take the train across the mountains to the West Coast. My number one thing to do in New Zealand was to swim with the dolphins in Kaikoura but Kaikoura was badly hit by the recent earthquake and I was there in the wrong season. I’ll have to come back one day!
New Zealand is a really small country with a lot to offer. Well, actually it just looks small on the map. The roads have so many switchbacks and are mostly only two-lane, so you can usually count on double the time to get from A to B. We had to cut back on how much we could see after we realized this!
It’s the hub of the country and boasts the biggest population, but I wasn’t overly impressed. We stayed here our very first night because were extremely jet-lagged and needed to crash for a while and we also stayed for one night in the middle of our trip as a layover before a long bus ride.
We spent the first night at Holiday Inn Auckland Airport which we had reserved well in advance using Aeroplan points. It’s expensive to stay around the airport. The hotel was overall very nice and had a great outdoor pool and gardens (which we didn’t get to use since it was winter).
We rented a compact car with Rent a Dent – a Kiwi car rental company that rents great cars with minor dents in them for a cheaper price.
It had been a long-time goal of my brother’s to visit Hobbiton, one of the main sets for the Lord of the Rings movies, so our first real stop was Matamata for a few nights at an Airbnb. Our Airbnb was a guesthouse of some Kiwi hippies and they recommended a beautiful hike for us to do called the Wairere Falls. It was about an hour of steep incline up to the first look-out. We didn’t have time to make it up any further and we almost got caught in the dark at 5:00 pm (a common occurrence on this trip!).
The next day we went to Hobbiton – about a 15 minute drive from Matamata. I’m not a huge Lord of the Rings fan – I’ve only read one book and watched one movie. This tour was way better than I expected and there’s something for everyone, no matter what your LOTR knowledge level is.
The set of The Shire is entirely preserved from the 2009 movie and a LOTR expert toured us for an hour and explained in detail how a massive amount of effort was put into a 5-second shot. He asked trivia questions throughout and if you got it right, you got to keep an artificial leaf from a famous tree in the movie (it sounds kind of dumb, but in the moment all you want is that leaf!). At the end of the tour you get to have a complimentary beer at The Green Dragon Pub in front of the fireplace.
The afternoon after the Hobbiton tour, we decided to take a drive up to the Coromandel Peninsula, which a cousin had recommended to us. This is where we learned our lesson about driving distances! It looked short on the map but actually took 3 hours to drive one way. When we got there, we wanted to go to the hot water beach but it was high tide and we couldn’t go. Make sure you check the tide times before going!
We decided to check out Cathedral Cove, which is a major landmark of the North Island. It’s one of those places that you see on default computer backgrounds and always wonder where it is. Since it was going to get dark soon, we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have liked. Danny and I ran the 3 km walk in and my mom checked out the beach. It was worth the run but I would definitely recommend spending more than a few hours in the Coromandel area.
Next we visited the mountain town, Ohakune, for the sole purpose of conquering the Tongariro Crossing – New Zealand’s best one-day hike. One of our main issues was that there were very few options for accommodations in this area and it was too cold to camp. We ended up staying at a Holiday Park in a very small cabin. It was over-priced and smelled like pickles but it did the job.
Our second issue was weather. It rained almost every day and we were travelling in July, which is New Zealand’s worst month. Since the forecast predicted rain every day, Dan and I decided to go on the hike anyway. I rented boots and gloves from a great shop called Ski Biz and we got dropped off at the trailhead.
The hike took us about five hours but we were powering through and running at some stages. We were faced with blizzard-like conditions, which were pretty amazing to see, but also made the hike really challenging. I can see how it would be beautiful in good weather but I didn’t really get to see the major landmarks (the emerald lake and the crater) because I was too focused on not slipping off a ridge. I’m definitely really proud of finishing it and would highly recommend it in good weather.
Oakura / Mount Taranaki
We picked the Oakura area because we heard it was a great beach town and I found an amazing Airbnb. We stayed with Alan and Helen in their guesthouse, which had a view of Mt. Taranaki in one direction and a view of the Tasman Sea in the other. They loved to tell us that people come to ski and surf in the same day in Oakura. We went to the beach and saw that Alan and Helen lived the lifestyle that most people only dream about.
On our second day in Oakura, we wanted to do a hike around Mount Taranaki. We did a hike called Wilkies Trail. It was in the Goblin Forest, which was full of really mangled and mossy trees that gave it a kind of creepy feel. It only took us an hour so then we headed to the nearest city, New Plymouth, and went to Pukekara Park, which had amazing botanical gardens – tons of trails, greenhouses, and a petting zoo.
My mom and I had to stop and drop my brother in Auckland so he could go back to school in Christchurch. The two of us drove north to a small community called Poroti outside of Whangarei. I had booked an Airbnb farm stay but OF COURSE, we got stuck in the dark and lost our way. After a few moments of panic, I had to turn on my data (for a $20!) and figured out that we were only two minutes away from the farm.
Diane was our host and she let us pick fruit off her trees and help feed the chickens. She also had cows and even a day old lamb! Our places was a guest house off of the main house and was definitely the best part of our stay in Whangarei.
In town, we did the botanical gardens and did a hike at Whangarei Falls. We also drove about 30 minutes to see the Tutukaka Coast. It looked beautiful but seemed like it was mostly closed up for the winter. On the way home we tried to go to the Abbey Caves but they looked too dangerous and we didn’t have any equipment. Whangarei was a great town but I was mostly sad to leave the farm.
We dropped our rental car in Auckland and spent the night there. The next morning we got on a very long bus ride to Wellington. Our bus was delayed for two hours due to winter road conditions and the ride ended up taking 12 hours. I couldn’t wait to get off and I would not recommend taking the bus. We thought we would see more of the country by taking the bus but I slept through a lot of it and we saw a lot of ground we had already covered.
We rented an Airbnb room in David’s apartment, a 40-something year old British guy who had a pristine apartment, heated blankets, and a 3-legged cat named Honey. The apartment was near the botanical gardens so we walked to the centre of the park and took the cable car to downtown Wellington.
Wellington reminded me of San Francisco or Vancouver. It’s very cultured and really well-maintained. We checked out some interesting markets and mostly spent our day in and out of pubs with fireplaces. We went to a night market with amazing cheap Indian food on Cuba Street.