First of all, we would like to thank you *so much* for all you did for us. We had an absolutely amazing time, and aside from a few issues I'll spell out below, everything went very smoothly. It was fantastic. You live in an incredible place. All of our lodging was great. Generally, we had rather nicer rooms than we really needed or were used to. We probably could have gone down a level and saved some money. But we were very glad we got the upgrade on the cars! We found hotel clerks to be much more helpful and friendly than American ones. Enough were so exceptional that I will comment on them individually.
Mercure Auckland. I told them we were celebrating our anniversary, and they brought us champagne and chocolates in the room. Very sweet. Tuscany Villas. I think this was my favorite place other than the Chateau Tongariro, mostly because of the in-room hot tub. But I didn't realize how hot the tap water would get in Rotorua, and I came out looking like a lobster! The desk clerk there, Donna, was the most helpful of all of our hotel staff. She was just great, incredibly helpful not just with check-in and breakfast but also when our pickup for the Mitai Maori Village (arranged at the last minute) failed, and she had to call them twice and then give us directions for driving there ourselves. The owners of the Tuscany Villas should hear about how much we appreciated Donna's assistance with everything. Chateau Tongariro. This was an amazing choice for our 25th anniversary celebration, and I'm glad you picked it! It was great even though we couldn't see the mountains the whole time we were there. I've since seen pictures of the dramatic setting we were in and couldn't see! The room was fabulous, with an in-room hot tub and fireplace. Since we didn't get to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we had tea in the hotel. Both the tea and the food that came with it were excellent. It was better than the tea we had in London. Best food we had in NZ was tea at the Chateau Tongariro. Hotel Ibis Wellington. Perfectly serviceable, not remarkable. Very convenient location. Anchor Inn Motel. Lyn was also an extremely helpful desk clerk. Please pass on our good wishes for getting her place fixed up and keeping her business going. It must be devastating. I'm glad the government is helping. The room was great and the view was gorgeous. Rydges Latimer Christchurch. The desk clerk gave me free drink coupons for the bar because I cried when he asked me where I was from (on the day after the US elections) and he felt badly. It was sweet and cheered me up a very little bit. Mt. Cook Lodge. A unique and interesting room. Victoria Hotel Dunedin. Again, the hotel staff were very helpful here, and we appreciated them. Marakura Te Anau. We were confused here, because Marakura isn't in the name of the actual motel; it's just the wing we were in. The rooms and view were great. The first day, they gave us a whole suite! It was much more than we needed, and we had such a great time touring the Catlins that we arrived fairly late and hardly had a moment to enjoy it. But this is the one place where the hotel staff were not particularly helpful, and were actually more surly than Americans. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise. Room was bigger than I expected! The boat and food were just great. I appreciated the commentary and knowledge of Blair, the guide out on the deck. By the time we got to the boat (there's a whole story there, below under Problems), we were exhausted from our amazing dive trip with Descend Diving, and I was ready to sit in the bar with a post-diving beer and my computer to process some photos. But then we found out there were included activities! They didn't have a kayak that would fit Eric, but I set out on an amazing paddle and got a very close look at a Fiordland Crested Penguin with my binoculars. It was very exciting! Clearbrook Motel. The man was very nice. Due to an administrative error, he gave us a much nicer room than we had paid for. We had another in-room hot tub, a full kitchen with dishwasher and even an oven, and a washer and dryer! We had some extra time to enjoy our room that time, because our tramp up Iron Mountain took less time than we had planned. We ran into some Germans we had met first on our very wet hike to Taranaki Falls in Tongariro and then again at Zealandia in Wellington, and they tramped all the way up and down the mountain with us. They were incredibly patient with us, but we still felt obliged to go a little faster than our usual pokey pace. So, we got a hot roasted chicken from the Four Square and cooked some frozen vegetables in our room. Definitely enjoyed this place. Rainforest Retreat. As lovely as advertised. Staff were very friendly. The birds were loud! I told myself, if I were staying in a place called "Rainforest Retreat," I couldn't really complain about birds waking me up at 5:00. In general, we found that restaurant service in NZ did not live up to the standards to which we are accustomed in the US, and after a while, we gave up trying to get restaurant food and mostly went to the Countdown and the Four Square. The one exception was Monsoon restaurant at the Rainforest Retreat. The service there was great. Activities Hobbiton. It was cute and sweet. We ended up on tour with only eight people, and we were the biggest fans in it. We liked our tour guide, who was very engaged with the subject matter, and not just phoning it in. White Island. One of the most exciting tours we've been on in our lives, and we have done some really amazing things. This was superb! We got a five-sense experience of the volcano. Our guides were very helpful, knowledgeable, and safety-minded. It seems to be getting more popular, as we talked to many other tourists who had visited the island. There were a couple of Belgians, Guy and Anne, who were on a similar tour that I think was also organized by your company. They took a helicopter to White Island! They had aerial photos they had taken with a cell phone that were utterly amazing. Wish we had done the helicopter (but I know that I specified the boat)! Mitai Maori Village. This was really interesting. I'm glad we decided to go at the last minute. Some of it seemed kind of Disneyfied, but we still enjoyed it and learned quite a bit. A good experience. Waimangu. This was a great tour, and we saw so very many things. I particularly loved the extremely informative brochures they gave us, and wished I had similar brochures for everything. When we got there, they had rescheduled the boat, and told us to plan on two hours rather than an hour and a half for the walk. Even with more than two hours, I still had to *run* for the boat to hold it for Eric and Guy and Anne. It turned out when I reached it that it was further delayed for a group of Russians, so I hadn't needed to run. The Russians had a recording in Russian to listen to, so Eric and I and the aforementioned Belgians had a guide, Martin, all to ourselves. I could ask all the questions I wanted to (which, as you can imagine, were a lot!). Martin was great and very knowledgeable. We were still hoping to see a little bit of Wai-O-Tapu, but with all of the delays with the boat, we couldn't. I kept trying to ask other tourists if anyone had seen both to find out how they compared, but I didn't talk to anyone who had seen both. Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This was the one huge disappointment of the trip -- and, of course, it was nobody’s fault but the weather. We are so sad to have missed this. We enjoyed a tramp on our own to Taranaki Falls, but it was very, very wet! Zealandia. This was an absolutely incredible place, and should be highly recommended to anyone interested in wildlife. We did not get to see the kiwi, but we did hear it. Our guide, Johannes, taught us so much about New Zealand and its ecology. There are lessons here that would be valuable all over the world. What these people are doing should definitely be supported. However, the tour is an hour longer than what your information indicated! We really had to rush off to get to the ferry the next morning. This one was your suggestion, and I'm very glad we did it. Interislander Ferry. This was *so easy* compared to dealing with any sort of American transport! The on-board cafeteria also exceeded expectations. Mmm... scones! Whale Watch Kaikoura. I was so impressed with their operation, their ability to find whales, and their consciousness about the uniqueness of their environment. There were several guides, and they were all very good about identifying birds as well as knowing about the whales. I feel so lucky, knowing what I know now, that we were able to do this. Three days later and it would have been much more of a problem! Also, the day we went on this tour was the first day they had seen a Sperm Whale for several weeks. They told us at the desk that we would probably only see Pilot Whales, but we did see the Sperm Whale, and the crew were so excited about finding one. I remember all the joy they felt that day, and I'm sure the earthquake must be very hard on them. I read that the sea floor in Kaikoura rose several meters, so that they are now able to send boats out only around high tide until the boat launch is redesigned. I see the business is Maori-run, which explains our guide's elaborate greeting in Maori. We wish them all the best and hope they can get back to their regular business as soon as possible. Dolphin Encounter. This was amazing! We were really impressed with the work of our guides here. They were particularly great at helping out with equipment and getting us onto and off of the boat several times. We particularly enjoyed speaking with Marina from Sao Paolo, Brazil, because Eric and I have been trying to learn Portuguese. I asked Marina about a bird, and she told me some very interesting things about it (in English). But I didn't write its name down properly, and so after we left Kaikoura, I e-mailed Dolphin Encounter to ask if they knew which bird it had been, and they were able to identify it for me. I really appreciate this sort of service. But I tell you, I am used to cold water, and it was cold! I was so glad I had brought my own extra-warm and well-fitting wetsuit! I was able to stay out with the dolphins longer than any of the other women, and I was much older than any of them were. Again, please pass on our well-wishes for getting their business back in order after the earthquake. Glacial Explorers Mt. Cook. Absolutely one of the highlights of the trip. Stunning beauty. It was rained out for the time it was scheduled, but they were fortunately able to fit us in the next morning. We are so glad we got to do it. And, on the trip, we got a tiny peek at Aoraki/Mt. Cook itself. A great time. Big Sky Stargazing. We didn't get to see the stars; it was snowing. At least the snow made for pretty views the next day. The Big Sky Stargazing people were very nice, they showed us the planetarium show, and we learned some things. They gave us a Southern Hemisphere star chart and told us we would receive a partial refund. We were never able to use the star chart, because, by the time it finally stopped raining, the days were so long that we were asleep whenever it was dark. But of my six forays outside of North America (assuming we count Hawai'i as part of North America, which it really isn't), four of my trips have been to the Southern Hemisphere. I definitely hope to be back south of the equator and able to use the star chart! Otago Peninsula Wildlife Tour. This was incredible. We were very excited about the things we saw, and we did much more than I expected. The tour really did go all day! They brought us back at 19:00. I would recommend this one mostly for people who are seriously interested in nature. It might bore some others. For us, it was great, and I'm glad we signed up for it. Catlins. We were so glad you encouraged us to visit. It was beautiful, and we were so caught up in Nugget Point, Curio Bay, and Slope Point that we didn't get to go down to Omaui and Bluff to see the lighthouse. A Curio Bay, we stepped out of the car and saw a Yellow-eyed Penguin right there on the beach! Diving Milford Sound. This was absolutely superb. They had three crew for five divers, two dive leaders and one support person on the boat. That is a very good ratio! We were well fed, and I was kept nice and warm on the boat! They were lots of fun and we really enjoyed diving with them. Milford Mariner Overnight Cruise. This was great; I wrote about it above under Lodging. Te Anau Glow Worm Caves. Being in the caves was an incredible experience, but we had the distinct impression that this tour was a little too popular. The object seemed to be to get as many people in and out of the caves as possible. The parts of the cave outside the Glow Worm Grotto were really fascinating, and I would have appreciated some more time to explore, and to have been able to take pictures where there weren't any Glow Worms. Our guide was excellent and informative. Wanaka. As I've said elsewhere, we really enjoyed the tramp up Iron Mountain! Franz Josef Glacier Guides. Once again, we had the impression that the object of the company owner was to get as many people on and off of the glacier as quickly as possible. When we arrived, right on time at 14:00, we were told that our tour had been moved up half an hour, and we were rushed through the getting-ready process. This was supremely annoying, and I didn't really have time to think through what I needed to bring with me. It turned out that a couple of things I didn't bring, chapstick and water, were in the "goodie bag" they gave us, but I hadn't had time to inspect it. We also found out belatedly that we could have left some of our things at the helicopter pad site rather than at the check-in site, and that would have been very helpful to have known, because it would have given me the van shuttle ride over to think about what I really needed to bring. That said, the rank-and-file workers at Franz Josef Glacier Guides were excellent within the constraints imposed on them by their employer. In the brief time allotted, the staff in town got us properly outfitted and briefed. When one of them saw me putting my phone into the bag with the crampons, he gave me a mitten to put it in to prevent scratching of the screen. Very thoughtful. Cody, our glacier guide, was truly incredible. On our glacier hike in Alaska, we had one guide just for the two of us. We had to pay a little extra for that, but normally they send one guide for four tourists. In Iceland, we had two guides for ten tourists, some of whom spoke limited English and had to have the others translate for them. But here was Cody, all by himself, with twelve tourists, again in the situation where some of them spoke limited English. He was absolutely amazing at keeping all of us safe and comfortable while still showing us the incredible features of the glacier. We did have to spend a fair amount of time standing around while he helped other people individually, but we were in an utterly beautiful environment, so standing around wasn't bad. He was very knowledgeable, and his explanations were very clear. Cody really should be commended, and he should have fewer people per tour! Problems There were three places where we could have used more help, and I'll mention them here so that you can give more advice to future tourists. Car pickup in Auckland. We were scheduled to have a driver pick us up and bring us to the Europcar office at 9:30, and then check in for Hobbiton at 11:30. There was no way this timetable was realistic. There was a long line at Europcar, and we didn't get on the road until 10:30. I had to call and have one of your staff reschedule our time for Hobbiton, but we had to have it rescheduled again when we got there, because we were still too late. It worked out, but Eric would have been extremely disappointed if we had missed Hobbiton. I think I foresaw this potential problem several months ago, and asked if we could get the car earlier, but you said it didn't work. We guess the limitation must have been the driver, because the Europcar office opened at 8:00. Had we known how close it was to the Mercure, we could just have walked and arrived at 8:00. But even if we'd gotten to Europcar right when it opened at 8:00, the 11:30 check-in time would still have been difficult to meet unless the car pickup were much more efficient than usual. I think you should tell future tourists that they could walk and pick up their cars earlier if they wanted to, and even so, leave more time to get to Hobbiton. Descend Diving/Milford Mariner. We arrived in Milford Sound at 8:40, 20 minutes prior to our 9:00 scheduled time to meet Descend Diving, but we didn't know where to go. We really needed very clear instructions from you that we weren't to go to the main marina; it was an alternate site. What we did was park, and then walk 15 minutes to the main boat launch, only to find out that this was the wrong place. The Real Journeys staff were very helpful in this regard. We had no phone signal or wi-fi, and I had left my information booklet from you back in the car, but fortunately I was able to retrieve the name of the dive group from the cached e-mail on my phone. Real Journeys looked up Descend Diving on their wired internet, and got Descend Diving on the phone, so we got directions to another wharf. Real Journeys' staff offered to hold our luggage for us, but we were already going to be late, so we didn't have time to walk back to the car and then bring back the luggage. So, we got a late start with Descend Diving. And everything we saw was so amazing, we were quite drawn in even to wildlife on the surface, Bottlenose Dolphins and Fiordland Crested Penguins. Lance raced the boat back to the harbor (this was really fun!), but it was still 16:05 when we got there, and we needed to check in for the Milford Mariner at 16:30. We grabbed our clothes, and I literally ran in just my underwear and coat. I was at least able to put my shoes on while Eric drove back to the main marina. He dropped me off with the luggage and drove the car back to the parking lot. When I got to the check-in desk, the Real Journeys staff told me that, after 16:00, it was OK to park in the bus lot right next to the terminal. But it was too late to tell Eric this, and we of course had no cell signal. They apparently don't tell anyone this until 16:00, even though we had stood there right in front of them in the morning talking about how difficult it was going to be for us to make the transfer with an unexpected 15-minute walk from the parking lot. So, I didn't really feel badly that we kept 58 other passengers waiting, me still in just underwear under my coat, while Eric walked back from the other parking lot. You, however, can tell future SCUBA divers that it's OK for them to park in the bus lot after 16:00, and that they can save a lot of time and make the transfer much more easily that way! Petrol stations around Christchurch airport. It appears that many of the petrol stations in Christchurch were closed after the 2010 earthquake. However, the extremely old model of GPS Europcar gave us did not know this, and kept trying to direct us to one closed station after another. Worse, the one station closest to the airport would not take our American credit cards, and had no staff to take cash. It thus took an extra half an hour to fill the car's tank before returning it. Fortunately, we had planned on extra time. Please tell people where they can actually fill their cars' tanks before returning the cars to the airport in Christchurch. Size of booklet. I really loved the booklet you gave me with all the pretty pictures. It was very complete and informative in all but the three situations mentioned above, and it is a great souvenir of the trip. However, I noticed that our Belgian friends, whom I think also used Pure Journeys or one of your affiliates, had a book printed on half-sized paper. Yes, this would have made the book twice as thick, but I would have been able to fit it in my bag and carry it around with me. Time and again, I was asked for vouchers that I didn't have, and had to go back out to the car to look at the booklet and get the relevant confirmation number. Eventually, I started programming confirmation numbers into the Google calendar so that I could pull them out of my phone when I needed them. Particularly when trying to find Descend Diving, but in so many other instances, having a half-sized paper book that I could have carried in my bag would have made a big difference. That's it, Hayley! Just a few suggestions for how to help future tourists, but other than those, all of your arrangements went very smoothly. You did a great job, and we had a great trip! You can read more about our adventures and our New Zealand experiences at www.zuckershack.org/travel/nz . I'm not quite done with that home page, but all of the linked pages are complete. Other than the first five photos in this album (which are from elsewhere), on this Flickr page are the best photos I took in NZ and hope to exhibit in our county fair art show next year: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7388553@N07/albums/72157666509419223/with/31245646206/ Thanks again, Beth