Wellington, New Zealand

Completing my tour of New Zealand’s North Island

It was the final few days of my week-long tour of New Zealand’s North Island with small group adventure tour company Haka Tours.  I’d joined the tour after spending some time travelling solo to the Bay of Islands and Auckland and so far, we’d spent time on the Coromandel, in Waitomo and Rotorua.  Now, we were about to leave a 2-night stay in Taupo behind us.

Looking back at Tongariro National Park from the road

Still exhausted and aching all over from completing an almost 20km hike across Tongariro National Park the day before, we checked out of our hostel, loaded up the bus with our luggage and hit the road.  Today, we’d be heading to our final North Island destination, New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.

At the National Army Museum

Along the way, we made a couple of stops.  First up was a roadside stop to enjoy the stunning views of Tongariro National Park and then a stop at the a National Army Museum.  While none of the group decided to pay to go into the museum, we used the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the conveniences and pose for photos with the tanks outside!

Gumboot sculpture in Taihape

Our second stop was on the outskirts of the town of Taihape where the town’s boundary was marked with a sculpture of a giant ‘gumboot’ or Wellington boot as we’d call it in the UK.  Taihape is the gumboot throwing capital of New Zealand. 

Competitions in this unusual sport are held regularly here on a purpose built court and after we posed for photos with the giant boot, that’s exactly where we headed next for our own bit of friendly competition throwing gumboots!

Armed with a boot each, we stepped up in pairs to throw it as far as we could, winner staying on to compete again.  I somehow won my first couple of rounds, luck more than anything, but it certainly wasn’t third time lucky for me as I crashed out in the next round!!

Game over, we walked to a nearby café for a well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch before our next stop at Gravity Canyon.

Trying out the Flying Fox at Gravity Canyon

Here, we had the option of trying out a Flying Fox – a kind of zip line over a canyon where you fly down head first like Superman! I’d ziplined many time before and didn’t see how this could be any scarier than that so seeing as I’d not signed up for any of the other more adventurous activities like bungee jumping or skydiving, I decided to give this one a go!

Three of us were strapped into the holster next to each other before a cord was pulled sending us hurtling down over the canyon below. It was great fun and I was glad I decided to do it.

From here, we continued on towards Wellington. Just outside of the city, we stopped once more to stretch our legs at a park, letting out our inner kids to play on the swings etc.  Traffic was already heavy into the city and our rush hour arrival made it worse so by the time we arrived at our YHA hostel accommodation, there wasn’t a lot of the day left.

We made plans to all meet for dinner after a bit of downtime.

With most of the group deciding on an Asian Fusion restaurant recommended by our tour guide for dinner, a couple of us who were not keen on this cuisine made plans to either eat elsewhere or cook our own food at the hostel before meeting back with the others at the Asian Fusion bar after for drinks.

Still tired from the previous day’s hike, most of us went straight back to our hostel dorms afterwards for an earlyish night.

Wellington waterfront

The next day was the final day of our week-long North Island tour. Tomorrow, some of the group would be continuing on to complete the South Island leg of the tour while I would be staying a few more days in Wellington alone before flying home.

Walking along the waterfront

Today, we had the full day in Wellington to spend as we wished.  Our guide was offering to take us on a tour of the city in the morning or we could make our own plans.  A few of the Lord of the Rings fans in the group wanted to visit the Weta Workshop, where many of the props for the films were made, for a tour.

As a big film fan, I decided to go along too so rather than join our guide’s city tour, we instead walked to the tourist information office to book a place on a tour later that morning.

Arriving at Weta Cave for our Weta Workshop tour

We had an hour to kill before our tour was due to leave so we had a walk along the water front and got drinks and a snack from a nearby café before returning to catch our mini bus.

The bus took us out to Weta Workshops where we were taken on a guided tour of the premises. We were shown props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as well as other films made in New Zealand – unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos during the tour – and I was surprised to learn what a big part Wellington played in the film industry.

Part of our food order

After our tour, we had some time to spend in the gift store/museum before our minibus arrived to take us back to the city centre where we met up with a few more of our group who were now back from their city tour. We spent some time exploring the city – grabbing tea and cake from yet another cafe! – before heading back to the waterfront where we sat out at a riverside bar ordering pretty much everything off its menu between us for dinner!

Above, and below, walking along Oriental Parade

That evening, the entire group went out for final night drinks at a bar we found with a 60s cover band playing.  We had fun dancing the night away before returning to the hostel and, as those continuing the tour had a very early start the next day, said our goodbyes.

Looking back at the view as I made my way up to Mount Victoria

The next morning, I moved out of my now empty dorm room and into a private room at the YHA then set out alone to explore more of the city.

First up, was a hike up to Mount Victoria.  It was a beautiful, sunny day and I’d found instructions for a self-guided route which took me along Oriental Parade past the city’s pretty sea front and then up a steep path until I reached the viewpoint at the top.

Relaxing on the beach after my hike, and below, catching the Wellington Cable Car

After spending some time enjoying the views from the top, I walked back down to sea level stopping to relax on the beach, enjoying the sunshine and even taking a dip in the sea.

Above, and below, at the Cable Car Museum

Following a quick change back at the hostel, I walked to the terminus of the Wellington Cable Car catching it uphill to the viewpoint at the top. Once at the top, I had a quick look around the small cable car museum then walked back down to the city through the Botanic Gardens.

As one of the girls from my tour group was also still in Wellington, we met for dinner then went for drinks. It was Chinese New Year and there were celebrations going on at the waterfront ending in a firework display so we watched them from outside the bar – a great way to spend my last night in the city – and New Zealand!

My flight home via Sydney wasn’t leaving until late afternoon the next day so after checking out of the hostel, I went for a hearty breakfast at a café then spent the morning visiting some of Wellington’s museums.  I started off at the Te Papa, the city’s Museum of New Zealand .

After spending a few hours looking around the various exhibitions, I still had some time to spare so walked along the waterfront to the Wellington Museum, a much smaller, but equally interesting museum tracking the history of the city.

At the Wellington Museum

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful city of Wellington and to New Zealand and begin my long journey back to the UK.  I’d loved my time in the city and exploring New Zealand’s North Island, in fact, despite everyone telling me I’d be disappointed after first visiting South Island and that South Island was the best of the two islands to visit, I think if I had to pick, I actually preferred visiting North Island.

I loved the island’s areas of geothermal activity and volcanic landscapes, found learning about Maori culture fascinating, loved the vibrant cities of Auckland and Wellington and visiting the coastal areas of the Northlands and the Coromandel and while the scenery may not have been as constantly dramatic as South Island’s, it’s just as beautiful in its own way.

I was definitely sad to be leaving New Zealand and hoped to return some day.

Taupo, New Zealand

I was nearing the end of a second solo trip to New Zealand. Having visited South Island previously, this time, I was exploring North Island. After spending time alone in the Bay of Islands and Auckland, I had joined a one-week small group tour with Haka Tours which had so far taken in the Coromandel, Waitomo and Rotorua and we were now en route to our first 2-night stop of the trip, Taupo.

Leaving Rotorua mid-afternoon after a morning visit to Hobbiton and a stop off at Wai O Tapu Thermal Wonderland, it was only an hour’s drive so we still arrived at our Haka Lodge accommodation with some of the afternoon to spare. After checking into our dorms, we were taken to the nearby Spa Park. Here, there was a natural thermal hot spring which we spent the next hour or so relaxing in.

Once back at the hostel, it was time for some shopping. Most of the group would be taking on the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, a 19km hike, so supplies were needed to sustain us along the way. Hiking supplies bought, we then grabbed some food from the rather interesting Taupo McDonalds – a converted airplane! – before getting an early night.

We were up at 4am the next day to be picked up and taken to the start point of the crossing. Before starting the hike, I had little idea of what exactly it entailed other than the length of it but I had been told by members of my South Island tour group who had completed it, that although tiring, it was must do on the North Island tour and that had been my main reason for signing up.

After being dropped off, we made our way along the first part of the track. It was pretty flat and easy going and markers along the way tracked how far we had walked and how far we still had to go. We soon realised we’d been lulled into a false sense of security as we reached the infamous Devil’s Staircase part of the trek an hour or so later.

A long, uphill section with a mixture of steep pathways and stairs to climb causing us to take plenty of stops to ‘take some photos’ of the views!

The path then evened out again as we passed through the barren volcanic landscape of a crater before climbing steeply again, culminating in a tricky section where we had to use a rope attached to the rocks to scramble up a sharp ridge!

At the highest point of the trek now, Red Crater Summit, and also around the halfway point, we stopped to eat lunch. The weather so far had been very changeable and out of nowhere as we reached the summit, a huge cloud had descended around us masking the view.

Undeterred, we were soon ready to begin our descent down the other side of Red Crater. Glad there was some respite from walking uphill for the foreseeable future, we were surprised to find that this would actually turn out to be the most difficult part of the entire hike!

The path down was not only extremely steep but the surface was made up of loose lava fragments, like gravel, making it difficult to get a firm grip. We all lost our footing at some point, some sliding down the track before managing to steady ourselves again and the sheer incline at either side of us made the path even more precarious.

As we carefully made our way down, the cloud around us started to clear revealing the Emerald Lakes in the distance below.

Eventually we reached the lakes and looking back at where we just were and the hikers behind us looking tiny as they came down the steep path, we couldn’t believe we’d ever even managed to get to that point!

We continued on to Blue Lake where we stopped for snacks and to take in the beautiful scenery around us.

Next, there was another uphill section but the climb was much gentler than the previous climbs and the views along the way were stunning. From this point, the scenery started to change, becoming greener and less barren. Soon, we could see Ketetahi shelter in the distance – the first public conveniences since the first part of the track – but the winding track to get there seemed never ending!

Finally reaching Ketetahi shelter, some of the group were starting to flag but after a quick pit stop, I just wanted to get the last section of the trek done so edging ahead of the rest of the group, I started to pick up the pace as the path started to wind downhill. Again, the scenery began to noticeably change until I was walking through a forest of lush green plants and past a stream small waterfall before finally opening out into a car park.

Exhausted but also feeling a sense of achievement, I found somewhere to slump down as I waited for the rest of the group. Once on the coach we all fell asleep pretty much immediately on the journey back to our hostel.

We arrived back to find the few members of the group who hadn’t joined us on our hike looking a lot livelier than us after they’d spent the day exploring Taupo. They excitedly told us our tour guide had organised for us to go on a sunset cruise on the lake that evening. Struggling to muster up the energy to be excited for the prospect of doing anything other than sleep that evening, I retreated to my bed for a nap to recover from the day’s exertions.

After my nap and a shower, I still felt exhausted and ached all over but despite some of my fellow hikers deciding to give the cruise a miss, I decided I didn’t want to miss out so managed to drag myself out of my room and down to the meeting point just in time to be dropped down at the marina.

Here, we found a sail boat waiting for us along with crates of drinks in a cooler and a delivery of pizza’s for everyone. The cruise turned out to be just what I needed as I sat relaxing, wrapped up in the blankets that had been provided enjoying the good food, good company and pretty views.

The boat took us out to the Mine Bay Maori Rock Carving and then back to Taupo as the darkness began to descend. It had been a really fun evening and I was really glad I made the effort to go along but I was also very happy to get back to my bed and slept very well that night!

It had been a fun but exhausting couple of days in Taupo and I wished we had another day there to spend some more time exploring the town and relaxing down by the lake but for now, it was on to the last stop of the North Island tour, the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used int he meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group. Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park

Day 1 of our Alaskan Highlights Tour

After 2 underwhelming days spent in Anchorage, the day we had been waiting for had arrived – the start of our 10-day Grand American Adventures Alaskan Highlights tour.

On our tour van
Potters Marsh

Having got the introductions and paperwork out of the way at a welcome meeting the previous evening, it was straight to loading up the trailer with our luggage, hopping on and setting off. The tour was off to a precarious start when moments after leaving the hotel, a huge moose leapt out in front of us just as we had started picking up speed down a main road. Luckily, there was nothing in the lane next to us and we managed to swerve to avoid hitting it. Danger over, we were relieved and excited to have had our first Alaska wildlife spot!

Spotting a moose

Our guide explained to us that she had a tour ‘morning song’ – a song she played as the first song of the day on the bus each morning and which we’d all get to know and be able to sing along to by the end of the tour. The song was I Got a Name by Joe Croce. It wasn’t a song I was already familiar with but by the end of the tour, we did indeed all know and love it.

Views from Potters Marsh

Our first stop of the day was at Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk just outside of Anchorage. We wandered the board walks and were rewarded as we looked out over the marsh with another moose appearance!

Aerial tramway up Alyeska Mountain
View from Alyeska Mountain

Back on the bus, we continued to Alyeska Mountain where we had the option of riding the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain. Never ones to turn down the opportunity to take a gondola ride, we got our tickets along with a few other members of our tour group and soon we were at the top taking in the beautiful views of the mountains and glaciers.

Trail to Byron Glacier

We next stopped at a section of the Byron Glacier Trail in the National Forest. We followed the short section of the trail down to the glacier viewing area then returned to the bus to continue on to Seward arriving early afternoon.

Byron Glacier

Dropping us off in downtown Seward, we visited a cafe for lunch before going to check in at the motel we’d be staying in for the next 2 nights.

In Seward
Visitor Center at Kenai Fjords National Park

While in Seward, we would mainly be exploring Kenai Fjords National Park and this afternoon we would be heading to the Exit Glacier part of the park.

We were dropped off at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center where most of us decided to take the guided ranger tour to the glacier. After taking a walk in the park ourselves while waiting for the guided walk to start, we made our way back to the visitor centre meeting point. It was quite an easy hike to the glacier with plenty of stops as the ranger talked to us about the park and explained how quickly the glacier is receding.

The Yukon Bar

Dollar bills on the roof of the bar

After our hike, we all boarded our tour bus again to be dropped back in Seward where we had a group meal after which a few of us decided to head to one of the local bars, the Yukon Bar, where it was open mic night then after a few drinks, we walked back to our motel.

Inside the Yukon Bar
On the boat

Day 2 in Seward we were taking an included full day cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park. After grabbing breakfast at a cafe in town, we met with the rest of the group at the marina, spotting an adorable sea otter playing in the bay as we waited. Our cruise was lead by a National Park Ranger who pointed out where to look to spot wildlife in the area – and there was certainly plenty of it to spot! We saw seals, puffins, bald eagles and goats on the cliffs we sailed past and eventually, our patience paid off when we saw a whale swimming ahead.

Becoming Explorer Rangers!

During the cruise, the park ranger announced that they were running an Explorer Ranger programme on board, jokingly suggesting that adults could get involved as well as children. So, of course, we requested booklets and completed them to earn our Explorer Ranger badges by the end of the cruise.

Once back on dry land, the evening was ours to spend as we wished. We decided to walk in the opposite direction from the town where we found Seward Lagoon. After having a quick walk along the boardwalk, we went for dinner at Red’s Burgers where you get to eat your food sat on an old converted school bus!

School bus diner

After dinner, we walked back into town taking more pictures around the seafront then returned to the Yukon Bar for drinks at the end of the evening.

Beautiful views from Seward

It had been a great start to the tour. Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park had been really fun places to explore and now, we were excited to head to Valdez for the next part of our tour!

Watch my vlog of my journey to Seward and visit to Exit Glacier here:

and my vlog of my Kenai Fjords cruise here:

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure