In August 2023, I got to cross off a big, big item on my bucket list: I went to Middle-earth.

We traveled throughout Aotearoa (New Zealand) for 3 weeks. It was, in a word, unbelievable. Here is a summary of our trip, from the notes I wrote as we explored.

And if you’re just here for the pretty pictures, no worries – I’ve got a slideshow for each day. You can’t miss them. 😉 

Day 0 – August 1st

We were finally on our way to New Zealand via Los Angeles. The trip to the airport and flight were uneventful. When we arrived at LAX, we stored our bags and headed over to the Santa Monica Pier for the day.

We ate brunch at a lovely place called “Interstellar” in Santa Monica. We then headed over to the pier, which Billy loved. We went on the ferris wheel and the roller coaster. Billy insisted on the latter, and then was not a huge fan, lol. We got icees and then went to the arcade for a bit (skeeball!). We then booked a Lyft with a stop on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater. There was a lot of traffic, and we gave the driver a hefty tip!

We picked up our bags and had dinner at In-N-Out, and then headed back to the airport. 

The flight was long and uneventful. We sleep for a bit (Billy and I cuddled on the sky couch) and the food (dinner and breakfast) was surprisingly good. I was excited to cross the International Date Line and the Equator for the first time. That, of course, meant there was no August 2, 2023 for us.

Day 1 – August 3rd

We arrived at Auckland Airport (AKL) on Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island) and hopped the shuttle from the airport. We arrived at our B&B in the Auckland CBD (Central Business District), Braemar on Parliament, super early. We weren’t sure if we could get in and leave our bags but the innkeeper, John, was absolutely delightful and accommodating. He’s a real talker and just a wonderful host. We relaxed for a bit in the lounge and then had tea with the other people staying here (Nick and Suzy from Michigan).

We left our bags and walked across the street to Albert Park, where we wandered and people-watched. We went to the Auckland Art Gallery on the other side of the park. They had a special exhibit on Australian Aboriginal art, which was really interesting. We ate at the cafe (pumpkin soup!) before we explored the gallery.

From there we walked to the Sky Tower and went to the top for some spectacular views. It was very cool.

We cabbed back to the B&B and ordered in (pho and bubble tea) for dinner. We managed to stay awake until 8pm before we call crashed (Billy was very funny when I kept rousing him to keep him awake until then).

Day 2 – August 4th

We had breakfast with Ann from Wellington and then headed out for a tour of Auckland. Our guide, Angelo, was wonderful (Billy loved him – we probably have 100 photos of him that Billy took, lol).

We got to see Achilles Point, West Haven (and drove under the Auckland Harbor Bridge), Cornwall Park and the One Tree Hill monument, Auckland Domain and the Winter Gardens and Fernery, and Viaduct Harbor. Angelo was just delightful and we really enjoyed our tour.

Angelo dropped us off at the harbor and we had lunch at Feriza’s (Turkish), which was phenomenal. We were a little lost and further from the ferry than we expected so we missed the 3:00pm ferry to Waiheke Island.

We caught the 3:30 and met Graeme at the ferry. We had a great little tour of Waiheke Island, including Oneroa Beach, Palm Beach, and Onetangi Beach. He also took us to see the roosters at the Onetangi Sports Park. Billy cracked up at the roosters hanging out in the trees.

We went back to the ferry terminal and then found out that our off-peak tickets weren’t valid for another 45 minutes, so we went to Oneroa and had a lovely dinner (and some lovely Waiheke rosé for me) at Vino Vino. We caught the 8pm ferry back (with flocks of seabirds flying alongside our ferry, and absolutely gorgeous nighttime views of the Auckland skyline) and went back to the B&B. I chatted with John, who was watching rugby, for a bit in the lounge and then headed to bed. 

Day 3 – August 5th

We got picked up by our tour guide Paul bright and early at 6:30am and we were off, headed to the Coromandel Peninsula. Paul was great, and I enjoyed talking with him so much that I spent most of the trip sitting up front in the van with him.

We saw the sun rise over the Coromandel range and the Firth of Thames. We stopped in Coromandel town for breakfast and then headed to the Driving Creek Railway. The railway was really cool and eclectic with ceramic art everywhere. The view from the top of the “Eyefull Tower” was gorgeous. From there we headed over the mountains and down through Whitianga to Hahei Beach, where we boarded an inflatable motor boat and explored the coast, including seeing the little coves and caves carved into the sea cliffs and islands of the Gemstone Bay and Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. We saw a couple of seals and a bunch of red snapper. Billy was scared but had fun once we were out of the open ocean and it was less choppy.

We returned to the van and it was off to Hot Water Beach, which was weird. People dig in the sand at low tide and geothermally heated water bubbles up. it’s way too hot on its own, so it needs to be mixed with seawater to be tolerable. Once you dig out a hole, you have your own little hot pool to relax in. Jon and I just put our feet in, but Billy was completely submersed.

Paul then showed is a small pool nearby where native eels lived, which Billy was excited to see. Then we headed back to Auckland the long way around, since Kopu-Hikuai Road was closed due to slips from the cyclone earlier in the year.

We ordered burgers in for dinner after our long but wonderful day.

Day 4 – August 6th

We had breakfast with a lovely little family from further afield in New Zealand and then bid a fond farewell to John (and to Auckland).

We headed to the airport to pick up our rental car, and then we were off to The Shire with Jon at the wheel. The scenery on Buckland Road was just breathtaking. We arrived in Matamata at The Shire’s Rest and had a quick lunch before boarding the bus to Hobbiton. 

Hobbiton was everything I dreamed of. Some hobbit holes were built in small scale to make Gandalf look large, and some were built to make the hobbit actors look small. We learned bits of trivia about the movie filming: Sir Ian Holm was never on set there – he was recorded in a studio in London; the tree above Bag End is fake and the leaves were made out of silk… after filming delays they were faded so each of the 37,000+ leaves had to be painted by hand (they were replaced with plastic after filming).

After walking through Hobbiton and taking photos in a hobbit hole and in front of Bag End, we crossed The Water and went to the Green Dragon Inn. We had a pint and then we feasted! Three large banquet tables were set with heaps of food, and dessert came after. We truly felt like hobbits. We were each given a commemorative mug to keep as a thank you for bearing with the construction on Bagshot Row, and lanterns were handed out to light the way back through the town.

On our way back to the bus, we stopped at the Party Tree to take a look at the stars (Milky Way! Southern Cross!). We walked back through Hobbiton by lantern light, and all of the hobbit holes were lit by lanterns. The whole scene was absolutely magical.

I drove us to our cottage in Rotorua at On The Point, following the Thermal Explorer Highway, and we checked into our villa, tired and happy.

Day 5 – August 7th

Billy and I started the day in the hot tub watching the sun rise over Lake Rotorua (this may have been the first time we spent time in a volcanic caldera, but it would not be our last this trip). There were sheep that came right up to our porch and the bird songs were a delight. We let Jon sleep in. 😊 

After breakfast we went to Te Puia. We saw two kiwi birds in the kiwi conservation house and listened to the cute squeaking and snuffling noises they made as they hunted for food in the soil. We then saw bubbling mud pools and the geyser Pōhutu was going off. We took a tour of the Māori art schools and art gallery.

We got some lunch and Billy and I had more hot tub time, then we were off to Te Pā Tū and a Māori cultural experience. We got the see a Māori village and learn more about the culture and traditions (we participated in a fire ceremony to be welcomed into the Pā). We got to see traditional dance and hear traditional songs, and experience a haha. We then had a wonderful seasonal meal celebrating Matariki, which marks the start of the new year for the Māori.

We were tired and got a good night’s sleep for our further journeys the following day.

Day 6 – August 8th

We had breakfast, packed up, and Jon drove us to Waitomo. We toured the Ruakuri Cave and saw amazing formations and glow worms. Our tour guide Ben was really great and let Billy wear the hard hat and headlamp he was using as a lantern, and he let Billy turn on the lights in the cave for him.

After the cave we checked into our B&B in Te Kuiti (the “sheering capital of the world”) and headed to Otorohanga to eat at the Thirsty Weta. We went back to the the Loft at Te Kumi Tirohanga and Billy and I crashed before 7pm and slept through to morning. 

Day 7 – August 9th

When we got up, the mist was hanging over the trees and was just breathtaking. We left early and the fog was thick and the car was covered with frost when we left. This was our coldest morning so far at 0ºC. I drove to our next destination, Taupō. 

The countryside was beautiful. When we got into Taupō we were greeted with our first glimpse of snow-capped mountains (we would see even more later in our trip).

In Taupō we had a quick breakfast and then went for a sailing cruise of Lake Taupō to see Māori rock carvings. It was chilly but beautiful.

Afterward we wandered through Taupō and got kebab for lunch (and dinner, lol). We stopped in a yarn shop as well (I couldn’t resist). Then we checked into DeBrett’s and headed to the hot pools. 

We spent a few hours lounging in the mineral pools, hot tubs, and warm pools. Billy went on the waterslide and played briefly in the hot water playground. He made friends with a family from Australia and another from Auckland. It was lovely in the pools and frigid outside. None of us were particularly excited about getting out of the pools.

We got back to our chalet and ate the rest of our kebab, and then it was time to sleep.

Day 8 – August 10th

We woke up to rain. Since we were headed to Tongariro and the mountains today, I looked to see how that would affect us, and it actually made things very easy! I had been trying to decide between the more scenic Desert Road to the west of the mountains and the less scenic road with access to the Sky Waka gondola. Mother Nature made the decision for us – Desert Road closed to icy conditions (not surprising, it’s often the first road that closes when there is bad weather). Sky Waka availability was questionable, so we decided to go ahead and find out what the deal was when we got there.

We ate some GF muesli for breakfast (Thanks John! And thanks DeBrett’s for the “complimentary milk” we got when we checked in – I thought it was weird, but it came in handy!) and headed out on our next adventure.

I drove west around Lake Taupō to Te Ponanga Saddle Road and down to Tongariro National Park. We started seeing sporadic snow on the ground as we slowly gained elevation and it switched from rain to snow as we turned up the road to Whakapapa Village. There was about 6 inches of snow on the ground and more coming down quickly; unfortunately, this meant for low clouds and we couldn’t actually see the mountains. It seemed like a waste at that point to try and get a shuttle to the Sky Waka gondola (we didn’t have chains for this rental and they were required for Bruce Road) just to see the inside of a cloud, so we ended up heading south sooner than expected.

We decided to go to the Waitarere Fairy Forest (“Ithilien”) and the Middle-earth Playground a day early so we could save time the next day. We then decided to see if we could check into our hotel in Wellington a day early instead of going to the hotel I’d originally booked in Whanganui to minimize driving in the dark in bad weather – we weren’t going to have time to check out Whanganui in any meaningful way anyway. We were successful and so we continued on to Wellington with Jon driving. We passed Queen Elizabeth Park (“Pelennor Fields”) in the process. This made for a much easier next morning and for an early return of our rental car. We checked into our hotel, Copthorne Hotel on Oriental Bay, and called it a day.

Day 9 – August 11th

We woke up and headed up to the Mount Victoria Lookout. What a gorgeous view of the city!

We returned the rental car and headed to the Wellington Regional Stadium for Women’s World Cup semifinal match 57 – Spain v. Netherlands. We enjoyed it quite a bit! Billy cheered for Spain, I cheered for Netherlands, and Jon didn’t have a preference. Spain won, and Billy was happy.

We wandered down to the waterfront and had dinner. The cab driver who brought us back to the hotel let us know that there would be fireworks that night. We went out the front of the hotel and waited on the waterfront, and it turns out we had a perfect view of the fireworks, which celebrated the last World Cup game played in the capital.

Day 10 – August 12th

We had a lazy morning before going to breakfast and to the zoo.

The zoo was amazing! It wasn’t large but had loads of things for kids to do. We got to see kiwis so close we could have touched them. We also got to see giraffes up close. Lots of cool animals and just a beautiful area. Very clean, and we really enjoyed it!

After the zoo, we went to the Lambston Quay cable car station and took the cable car to the top, to the botanical garden and Space Place. Space Place was really great. Like the zoo, it wasn’t huge, but just really well done. We saw a planetarium show, “How It Was Told to Me” based on Māori mythology, followed by a talk about the Southern Cross and how to use it to find south. We got to touch a meteorite and a moon rock, and “capture the sun” like Māui.

We ate dinner at the Cable Top Eatery and then took the cable car back down to the bottom and returned to our hotel. A full day, and one that was great fun.

Day 11 – August 13th

A lazy start to a dreary day, we went to hotel breakfast. They were playing smooth jazz versions of 80s hits at breakfast – I’m talking war crimes against Whitney Houston. Jon and Billy both danced around in their seats just to annoy me, and I grounded them both.

We gadded about the hotel room a little more. It was raining, so it actually worked out perfectly that we went to the zoo the previous day. We took advantage of the rainy day to go to Te Papa – the Museum of New Zealand.

There was a special exhibit on New Zealand’s role in the Gallipoli campaign in WWI. Te Papa worked with Weta Workshop to create “giants” of the individuals telling the stories throughout the exhibit, and it was just devastating to take in. 

We cleansed our palates with the nature exhibit, which was amazing. There was an earthquake hose that simulated a 6.3 earthquake, an area about conservation, a volcano exhibit, and birds and other wildlife of New Zealand. 

We had some lunch at the museum cafe and then went across the street to the Tākina Convention Center for Brickman Jurassic World, a LEGO exhibit. It was very interactive and wonderful, and we all really enjoyed it.

After we had our fill of LEGO, we returned to Te Papa and visited the Māori modern art exhibit and the Pacific Voyagers exhibit. We then walked out to the Wellington sign on the pier and “put the I in Wellington”, quite literally.

We headed back to the hotel with wet coats, sore feet, but happy hearts and had a quiet night in before our tour day the next day. 

Day 12 – August 14th

We got up relatively early and had breakfast, and then headed out on a Lord of the Rings tour of Wellington and the surrounding areas. The tour was just us, the tour guide Stan, and another tourist, Hattie, from the UK. 

We started by heading up the Hutt Valley to “Helm’s Deep”, which was filmed in the Dry Creek Quarry. It’s a working quarry, so we didn’t get to explore, but it was cool seeing the photos Stan had of what it looked like during filming. 

Our next stop was Poet’s Park and “the River Anduin”. We got to see the location of the scene where they filmed the close-up shots of the Fellowship traveling down the river.

We then headed to Harcourt Park and the “gardens of Isengard”. After seeing where Gandalf and Saruman walked together during Gandalf’s visit to the white wizard’s domain, we headed to the Kaitoke Regional Park and “Rivendell”. We got to see the locations where The Last Homely House and Bilbo’s room were filmed. We walked across a swing bridge and through the woods afterward, while Stan pointed out some of the native flora.

From there, Stan brought us to Miramar for the Wētā Workshop tour. It was amazing. We got to hold actual swords used in the LOTR movies and saw Sauron’s armor (so delicately engraved). We saw prosthetics, armor, helmets, and the Argonath models used in the movie, and lots of other models. We got to see how they make the prosthetics and models. We got to see Peter Lyon in action, he was making a sword, and we got to meet and chat with Woz Beaton, a special effects artist who works in making models from aluminum foil. Richard Taylor was actually in the building too, although we just missed catching a glimpse of him. 

After Wētā, we wrapped around to see the Wellington sign, and then headed to Wellington Town Belt to see the “Outer Shire”, including the path used in the scene where the hobbits fall down the cliff and land next to the mushrooms, and the place where the hobbits hid from the Nazgûl under the tree roots (the tree was a prop, but we got to nestle in the hideaway). We also saw the place where the Nazgûl rider was standing backlit while searching for the ring, and got to hear more about the practical effects the team used to film the movies (the Nazgûl was backlit by car headlights, and to get around the visible breath from the Nazgûl actor, they had them use a snorkel).

We then headed to the summit of Mount Victoria to take in the views. Billy was absolutely done by this point, so he and Jon stayed behind, but Hattie and I got to see an absolutely gorgeous panorama from the top.

We arrived back at the hotel and had an “exciting” night of doing laundry, eating dinner, and packing up for our next adventure.

Day 13 – August 15th

We got up bright and early, ate a quick breakfast of muesli, and once we finished packing the last of our things, we headed to the Interislander ferry port. We boarded the Kaitiki and headed across the Cook Strait. What a ferry – it had three cafes, a 2-story play area, two movie theaters, several outside observation decks, and a couple of small shops, lots of different places to sit and relax! Billy and I explored the ship and then we set sail (only 45 minutes late, lol). Sailing time was 3:50, and we had lovely weather and seas. I got my first glimpse of Te Waipounamu (South Island) and snow-capped peaks from the ferry. Sailing into Tōtaranui (Queen Chartlotte Sound), we saw all of the beautiful bays and coves, and the gorgeous land on either side of us. It was truly a wondrous sight.

Upon arrival in Picton, we were sure that Billy had something like strep throat going on, so after getting our new rental car (Mitsubishi Outlander), we tried a medical centre but they didn’t have availability to take him. We decided to head to Nelson as planned and get him seen there.

Jon drove as we took the scenic route to Nelson, and I do mean scenic – views of the bays, and twisting, winding roads going up and down the mountains. 

We arrived at Nelson at exactly 5pm and I was worried that we wouldn’t get to see Jens Hanson’s One Ring, but the shopkeeper graciously let us in and gave us the quick tour. We got to hold the huge one ring used to film the ring up close in the snow.

We then went to the medical centre and checked Billy in. While we were waiting, we went to the Centre of NZ monument (saw it from the car, as it was already getting too dark to hike there), and then we got Thai takeaway to eat in the car in the medical centre parking lot. Billy got seen eventually and was prescribed antibiotics. We then had to decide what to do next.

We could stay the night in Nelson and have a very, very long 6-hour drive the next morning (and a stressful one since we needed to be in Waiau (Franz Josef) by 3:30pm at the latest), or we could drive 4 hours on country roads at night and proceed to our booked cottage in Punakaiki. Ultimately we decided to press on, and while I would have loved to see these roads in the daylight (talk about twisting, turning, winding roads!), we were happy with our choice. I did most of the driving since I felt pretty fresh, even though we said we would switch off each hour. The roads were twisty but excellent to drive on (the same can be said for the entire country, we were really impressed with how great the roads were everywhere), so it was pretty good overall.

We made it to Punakaiki and had a quick sleep in a rustic cabin inside Paparoa National Park.

Day 14 – August 16th

We backtracked just a bit  to the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Track and it was definitely worth the trip – so beautiful!

We ate some cereal bars for breakfast and headed toward Hokitipa, our first stop. We got to the pharmacy and there was a wait, so I drove us out to the Hokitipa Gorge. We had pushed Billy a little too much in the morning with the walk around the pancake rocks, so we just walked to the first viewing platform. The river wasn’t super turquoise that day, but was still pretty. We headed back and got Billy’s prescription, and then were on our way. We ended up getting to Franz Josef with some time to spare, and the most stressful part of our journey was over. Franz Josef itself was an adorable little town (all of the towns on the South Island reminded us of ski towns) with two main roads nestled into the rainforest at the base of the mountains. We checked into our cottage and took in the views.

We were a little worried we wouldn’t be able to take the helicopter tour we had booked because it looked pretty cloudy, but it cleared up nicely and we were able to go. It was absolutely breathtaking. We saw Aoraki (Mt. Cook) and Te Horokōau (Mt. Tasman), the tallest and second-tallest peaks in New Zealand, respectively (Mt. Cook was a pointy peak and Mt. Tasman had shoulders). We flew over Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (Franz Josef Glacier) and Te Moeka o Tuawe (Fox Glacier), and landed on a rock outcropping in the middle of Fox Glacier. The patterns we saw in the ice flow were incredible. We got to play in the snow (and taste it!) and I kept sinking into the snow up to my knees, lol.

We boarded the helicopter and flew over the Fox Glacier a bit more, and then flew back over the Franz Josef Glacier. We were the last flight of the day so the pilot did a little extra flying for us, and then we headed back. What an experience!

We had dinner and then headed back to the cottage and got an early night’s sleep.

Day 15 – August 17th

We headed to the West Coast Wildlife Centre and had a quick bite to eat before our VIP Backstage tour. We got to go to the hatching and incubation centre and see how they worked to rescue and rehome almost 400 Rowi kiwi – the rarest kiwi on the planet with only around 600 alive in the wild. They didn’t have any eggs or chicks when we were there, but we got to touch a kiwi feather and a kiwi egg that failed to hatch. We also got to go into the tuatara room and see the tuatara (a protected reptile endemic to New Zealand, it is distinct from lizards and is the only remaining member of its order of beaked reptiles) up close. We got to see them eat and mostly bask in the heat lamps. 

We then got to walk through the bush walkthrough with two Rowi kiwi and got to see and hear them skittering and snuffling around the habitat. We then checked out the exhibit on glaciers, which was really interesting. Our tour guide had come back around to the tuatara viewing window in the exhibit, and we got to chat with her for a bit. She was really excited to talk more about the amazing reptiles.

We then headed to the Waiho Hot Tubs for a soak in glacier water (and epsom salts). The tub was wood-fired, and was situated in a little area surrounded by trees and brush. We thoroughly enjoyed it. 

We had dinner at the Alice May Restaurant and then headed back to sleep.

Day 16 – August 18th

We decided to head north to Arthur’s Pass to go to Takapō (Lake Tekapo) instead of going south to the Haast and Lindis passes. We were a little wary of them weather-wise, and I really wanted to see Arthur’s Pass anyway. The trip would be about an hour longer, but we wouldn’t be repeating as many of the roads we needed to travel after Lake Tekapo. Jon took the wheel as we started the day’s journey.

Arthur’s Pass was amazing. We stopped at the Otira Gorge Rock Shelter Lookout and almost immediately made a kea friend (kea are the world’s only alpine parrot). It landed on my side mirror and posed for a photo before it jumped on the roof of the car and allowed me to open the door. The views from the lookout were beautiful. Soon we had another kea hanging out with us. They are really smart, and you can see that they’re trying to figure stuff out when you look at them. There are signs everywhere warning against feeding them. We finally got them out from under the car so we could pull out and continue our journey.

We then drove over the Otira Viaduct, the oft-photographed white elevated road through the heart of Arthur’s Pass. We pulled off at the Otira Viaduct Lookout to take photos, and make another kea pal. We then stopped at Arthur’s Pass Village to get coffee and snacks.

We made it to Lake Tekapo with plenty of time before our Dark Sky Project tour so we had some dinner at the Dark Sky Cafe. Lake Tekapo is located in the center of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest dark sky reserve in the world

When it was time for our tour, we got lanyards that had red LED flashlights on them. We were then given ultra cold weather anoraks before boarding the bus. Philippa, our “pilot”, was a hoot and told us lots of stories on our way up to Mt. John, and we found out that she was actually an extra in LOTR – a “Rider of Rohan”. Cool!

We got to the summit of Mt. John and the sky was ridiculous. We had 90% visibility and the moon was a waning crescent so there wasn’t a lot of light from it (hooray for my meticulous planning!). We could see Te Ikaroa (the Milky Way) stretching across the sky, along with the Southern Cross and Maui’s Fishhook. The guide showed us a bunch of stuff and then brought our attention to the aurora – which looked like a faint white haze in person but would turn out to be far more dramatic in photos. 

We then looked through three telescopes they had set up. We were able to see:

  • The Tarantula Nebula
  • Alpha Centauri A and B
  • The Jewel Box Cluster
  • Saturn and its rings
  • The Globular Cluster
  • A star that “ate” another star in its system and then “burped” out matter – was thought to be a supernova but it never disappeared. It looked like a red star with yellow petals around it. I forgot to record the name, leave a comment if you know what star this is!

This was the most incredible experience. I was absolutely giddy and the guides were all super excited to talk to me and answer questions – they were obviously thrilled with my enthusiasm. 😊 

We boarded the bus again and Philippa regaled us with stories from her time on the LOTR set – stories about bringing their own horses, the scene where they surrounded Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, how there were 20 of them and they were copy-pasted to make an army. It was really cool.

It was late when we got back so we went straight to bed. I had started feeling under the weather by this time, and Billy was hacking up a lung.

Day 17 – August 19th

It was kind of crappy and rainy out (once again we thanked our impeccable weather timing) and we all decided that we needed a rest day. We watched movies, napped, and relaxed. We went to the grocery store and got snacks and cold medicine (we drove because google said is was a 5 minute drive only to discover that the store was practically next door to our hotel – it only took 5 minutes because it was one-way around the block, lol).

Day 18 – August 20th

We got up and packed to leave for Te Anau. Our first stop after passing Lake Pukaki (so blue!) was Twizel to get coffee and breakfast. Billy played on the playground nearby while we waited for our breakfast.

We then headed to Wanaka and “That Wanaka Tree”. Afterward we had lunch at Amigos and then went to Wools of Wanaka (I couldn’t help myself). Billy made friends with the shopkeeper and was put to work while I browsed and then bought some yarn (because of course I did, but how could I resist baby alpaca, merino, possum, and silk?).

We headed over the Crown Range Road, the highest main road in New Zealand (reaching 1121m). It was beautiful and I enjoyed driving it, especially with the switchbacks at the end closest to Queenstown.

We drove through Queenstown and down the twisty road clinging to the east coast of Whakatipu (Lake Wakatipu). This was also a super fun drive. 

We finally made it to Te Anau in Te Rua-o-te-moko (“Shadowland”, the Fiordlands) and got takeaway for dinner, watched TV, did laundry, and went to bed. The laundry ended up taking too long so we hung our clothes around the room overnight.

Day 19 – August 21st

We took a tour of Fiordlands National Park and Milford Sound with Stephen as our tour guide. He regaled us with stories and information and answered all of our questions. This was by far the most packed tour we went on. We met Kit “The Interrupter” from Toronto and Josh from Kildare, Ireland, as well as a couple from Pittsburgh and a family from Australia. Everyone was amazed when they found out Billy was 8.

We drove through beautiful farm land ringed with mountains along Lake Te Anau and alongside streams. We stopped at Mirror Lakes for a quick walk along the lake and through the woods. We stopped for a quick tea with a view at the Pop’s View Lookout carpark, then proceeded through the valley. We couldn’t stop there because, as the signs warned us, this was an avalanche area. We crossed over the divide from east to west South Island, and then went through the Homer Tunnel, a 1.2km tunnel through the top of a mountain before hitting switchbacks heading down the other side. The drive was breathtaking. 

When we got to Milford Sound, the view was just astounding. We thought for probably the ten thousandth time this trip that this could not possibly be real. The mountains falling off directly into the sound, Hineteawa (Bowen Falls) cascading majestically, the snow on the peaks – it all looked like make-believe.

We boarded the boat after collecting our (excellent) lunches from Stephen and our boat tour began. We started out following the west side of the fjord out to the sea (Milford Sound isn’t actually a sound at all – fjords are carved out by glaciers while sounds are formed from river erosion). We saw water cascading down the mountains everywhere we looked. Piopiotahi Most waterfalls  are temporary or semi-permanent created by snow melt or rainfall, with only two waterfalls (Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls) being permanent waterfalls.

We pulled under Fairy Falls. The skipper Aidan played a trick on us – she pulled in to where she knew the falls would be when the wind stopped blowing them away, and all of us on the front of the boat got soaked, lol.

We headed out to the entrance of Milford Sound on Te Tai-o-Rēhua (the Tasman Sea) and we could feel the difference between the calm waters on the sound and the choppier waters on the open sea. We turned around and then followed the east side of the fiord back. We pulled close to Piopiotahi (Stirling Falls) and got wet again, this time with adequate warning from the skipper. 

We docked and Stephen took us to a place where we could “go up a few stairs” (it was a lot of very tall stone/wood stairs and then a wooden staircase, lol) to a wooden platform above the tree canopy for a higher view of the sound. We then returned to the edge of the sound and walked a short walking path. There was a path to the beach where Billy had fun throwing rocks into the water and swinging on the tree swing with Leo from Australia. We walked through trees with amazing moss, lichen, and ferns growing on the bark.

We stopped in at the information centre/café and got some coffees, and then headed back to the van. We stopped briefly at Deepwater Basin and then started on the trip back to Te Anau.

Back in town, we walked to the Fiordlands Cinema to watch “Shadowlands: Ata Whenua”, a short documentary with aerial photography about the Fiordlands area of the country (most of the national park is inaccessible by road). Just beautiful, and cool to watch it in its home cinema. 

We had some excellent Indian for dinner and then walked back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Day 20 – August 22nd

We got up and headed to the playground after packing up. Billy made friends with a boy from Auckland and they played together for a while.

Jon drove us along the Waiau River to Rainbow Reach and we stopped to see the “River Anduin”. We stopped a couple of other places along the river. In one spot the ground was covered with a mat of wood chips and was so springy it felt like walking on a super thick rubber mat. 

We went down to Manapouri and then up to the turn-off to Mavora Lakes. We drove 38km down gravel roads, past the “Uruk-hai mound” where the Riders of Rohan burned the Uruk-hai after their battle, and on to the “camp in Nen Hithloeth” and “the place where Frodo set off on his own and where Sam followed” (and where Sean Astin had to repeatedly go in the lake, and we can personally attest to its frigidity). We also saw the tree stump where “Merry and Pippin hid from the orcs”.

We had a snack in the car and then stopped at a swing bridge where “the Silverlode joined the Anduin”. After that, we drove to Queenstown and Jon got to experience the fun of driving the road along Lake Wakatipu.

Queenstown was cute, nestled among the hills opposite Kawarau (The Remarkables). We got dinner and then had a hot tub soak at the hotel. 

Day 21 – August 23rd

We had breakfast at the hotel, and then I went to a spa in town and got a body scrub, massage, and facial while the boys did laundry and went to a playground (thank you Jon!).

Afterward we went on the gondola to Skyline Queenstown on Bob’s Peak and had lunch at the top. When we went back down, we went to the Ice Bar, which was really cool (-5ºC to be precise) – we got big warm coats, and everything except the floor and ceiling was made of ice. We had drinks in ice tumblers and sat on ice chairs (with fur coverings for our comfort). 

We headed back to the hotel to regroup. We put on the Super Mario Bros. movie and I napped. Then we headed downtown for dinner (tacos!) and walked around the Queenstown Wharf Walk and around before returning to the hotel for the night.

Day 22 – August 24th

Our last day in New Zealand, we got up for breakfast and then packed our bags for our return trip and checked out of our last lodging of the trip.

We headed up to the Onsen Hot Tubs for a pre-flight relaxing soak. The spa was located on the side of a mountain in the shadow of Coronet Peak looking out over the Shotover River. The view was top notch and we thoroughly enjoyed it. From there I drove us out through Arrowtown to Arrow Junction and the Kawarua Bridge (where bungee jumping was invented) for yet another view of the “River Anduin”. We headed up a narrow twisty gravel road on the edge of a cliff to the Card Farm Winery. We did a wine tasting and bought three bottles of white to take home (rosé, sav, riesling). We also stopped to get a photo of “The Valley of Kings”, the location of the “Argonath” from LOTR.

From there we drove back through Queenstown and up to Glenorchy. Queenstown-Glenorchy Road was also a windy, twisty, narrow road on the edge of a cliff, but at least it was paved, and the views were amazing.

We got to Glenorchy and had lunch and then took some photos. Nearby Mt. Earnslaw was featured in the opening scene of The Two Towers

We then continued on the road to Paradise, where Lothlorien was filmed. We were on very narrow dirt road (no cliff this time) weaving in and out of Mt. Aspiring National Park and had to ford a stream at one point. We made it to Paradise and would have liked to go on further, but we a plane to catch.

We drove back the way we came and to Queenstown Airport (ZQN), returned the rental car (plus a lot of dirt from the gravel and dirt roads we’d trekked on) without issue, got through security quickly, and then got something to eat while we waited for our flight. 

Our flights from ZQN to AKL was short and uneventful. We got to our flight to LAX with little time to spare, but it was an easy transfer.

The flight, however, was a little too exciting. A passenger in front of me and Billy passed out and started vomiting. His wife called out for help so I hit the flight attendant call button. They gave him oxygen and found a nurse practitioner on board to help – she took care of him, took his blood pressure, and gave him wet cloths and water. He ended up being ok, they thought it was low blood pressure induced by the altitude, and he was able to get cleaned up easily since he had had a blanket covering him when he vomited. The rest of the flight was much more calm, and I was chatting with the NP later and his wife at the end of the flight about how that flight must have been far too exciting for them – to which they agreed (the couple’s kid also fainted). 

LAX was an absolute shitshow. We had to walk probably a mile to get to Customs and Border Control (we walked a total of 3.4 miles that day, and considering 12 hours of that time was sitting on our asses…). We got through walking, waiting for border control, waiting for bags, and doing Billy’s Global Entry renewal interview, then we had to get to Terminal 5. There were no signs for the terminal connector buses so three of them passes us. I asked someone how to get to Terminal 5 and was told to walk for 6-7 minutes. By this time, not having had any sleep on the flight and being sore, tired, and just DONE with being in the US already (after less than 2 hours), I started crying. After coming from Aotearoa, everything was dirty, smelly, and the people were rude – I was basically going through mild reverse culture shock. We walked to the terminal and two automated kiosks refused to print our bag tags, so we went to the help desk. The first guy at the help desk told us to use the kiosk. Luckily the other guy must have seen my face and called us over to actually help us.

After we dropped our bags, we headed to In-N-Out for dinner before returning to the airport and heading to our gate. Our flight home was delayed for about an hour, and the flight was long (by that point we just wanted to be done with planes!). Billy passed out before takeoff and didn’t wake up until landing, so that was good.

Day +1 – August 25th

We landed in BOS, got our bags fairly quickly, and found our limo. The driver was nice and we made our way through East Boston and Saugus because of the tunnel closure. 

Then we were home. Apart from picking up the cats from their own hotel, we didn’t have to go anywhere else for a while. The cats were extremely happy to see us and it was a relief to be done with traveling for a while, but I missed Aotearoa (and still do). I don’t think I’ll ever see a place as beautiful, and I can’t wait to go back there someday.

Big takeaways from our trip:


  • Seeing the kiwis was my favorite part. New Zealand is the only place in the world where kiwis live.
  • Great food!
  • You can see snow in [our] summer!
  • Helicopters can take you high in the sky.
  • They use the metric system. The system the US uses is very much harder.
  • The flight was great!
  • Seeing the Māori people was cool.
  • The hobbit holes were so cute!


  • The most bumpy road there was less bumpy than the least bumpy road here.
  • We should go stargazing more.
  • Driving six hours straight is absolutely doable, and made all the better with good scenery.
  • Using the metric system was easier to get used to than I thought. I liked it.
  • The contrast of New Zealand and entering the US through LAX was stark and disappointing.


  • I would absolutely move to Aotearoa.
  • Kiwis (the people, not the birds) are extremely friendly, funny, and good-natured.
  • Kiwis (the birds) are adorable
  • Māori culture is rich and beautiful.
  • The geography is varied and breathtaking. It was interesting learning how geological processes shaped the land and the people who live on it.
  • Flat whites tasted better there (and didn’t wreak havoc on my digestive system like coffee does here at home).
  • The food was absolutely delicious everywhere we went. 
  • The roads were absolutely perfect, no notes. 
  • I wish we had a dark sky reserve closer to us.
  • I changed my weather app over to Celsius since our trip.
  • Seeing the actual places shown in some of my very favorite movies was magical. Hobbiton was an absolute highlight.
Hobbiton – Bag End
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