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Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years. As such the architecture, culture and elevated refinement are worlds apart from the high-tech modernity of Tokyo. The city is a carefully balanced mix of old and new, with beautiful temples and Geisha culture providing a graceful backdrop to a hip and innovative city. Kyoto is the type of city you can spend an action packed week in without feeling like you have done everything the city has to offer.

The traditional decor at the front of a restaurant in Gion.

We have now visited Kyoto twice. The first trip was the usual run around of visiting famous sites and typical tourist activities. Our second trip however was very different, we flew to Kyoto to attend a friend’s traditional Japanese wedding ceremony. This enabled us to experience the culture through the Japanese lens.

The beautiful setting for the traditional Japanese ceremony.

The wedding was held at an open air shinto shrine in Kyoto where a ceremony full of tradition and solemnity was performed. This cultural experience is one that will be hard to forget. The wedding reception was a lunch affair and was held at the beautiful Park Hyatt in Kyoto. The food here was unbelievable, it was a French inspired menu and like everything in Japan was executed with perfection. 

Millefeuille for dessert at the wedding reception.

Kyoto City:

Kyoto is one of the best preserved cities in Japan, houses constructed in the Japanese style of architecture known as machiya can still be found standing around the city. The Old Town of Kyoto, gives an enticing glimpse into what imperial Japan would have looked like. Along with this the 2000 religious sites and the imperial palaces provide further historical and cultural context to this very urbane city. The rest of Kyoto sprawls out around the river in low lying buildings, there are no tall glass and concrete skyscrapers to be found here. All in all a trip to Kyoto provides a soothing reprieve from the hectic hustle and bustle of Tokyo. 

Some of the traditional architecture that abounds in Kyoto.

The Japanese take design seriously, Kyoto elevates this to the next level seamlessly blending imperial elegance with vintage cool and new wave design. Walking around the inner city suburbs of Kyoto will allow you to discover quaint shops full of vintage goods, curated apparel and of course, Japanese denim.

Kyoto temples:

Visiting temples is a must during your time in the city. Kyoto is known as the city of temples, you can spend days viewing over 1600 temples or alternatively pick a few of the must see gems.

One of the traditional temples we stumbled upon within the city of Kyoto.

Kiyomizu dera

This is one the most famous temples in the region. It is located on a hilltop and as such the views at the summit are stunning. The path to the top begins in the Higashiyama neighbourhood, it is easily marked by souvenir shops and the throng of tourists who make the daily pilgrimage. If you visit the temple at the right time of year, you will be able to see Cherry blossoms flowering by the temple lake.

The view from the top of Kiyomizu Dera
Kiyomizu Dera, one of the more famous temples to visit in Kyoto.

Some of the other must see temples in the area are:

Ginkaku – Ji (silver temple)
Kinkaku- Ji (gold temple)
Ryoan – Ji (famed for its zen garden)

There also some temples you can do as day trips from Kyoto. It’s worth checking out all the possibilities so that you can best plan your trip for what truly interests you.

Another temple within the city of Kyoto.

Gion district:

This is the famous geisha district of Kyoto and is renowned across Japan as a centre for arts. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot a geisha strolling in and out of shops and restaurants in this neighbourhood. The Gion district, retains much of Kyoto’s history as it is filled with traditional shops, tea houses (Ochaya). It is now also a famous nightlife destination for tourists and locals alike with its plethora of restaurants and bars.

The laneways of Gion.

Arashiyama:

The trip to Arashiyama takes 30mins by train and is relatively easy to get to. It is tucked into the base of the Arashiyama mountains and has quite a few things to see and do here.

The most famous of course is the Bamboo grove. Where you can loose yourself in a green world full of peace and tranquility.

The bamboo forest, walking through the grove imparts a sense of serenity.

Tenryu-Ji is another headline attraction in the area, it is a sprawling zen temple with beautiful gardens. The other destination often visited by tourists in the area is the Kameyama Koen Park to see the monkeys.

Fushimi Inari:

This is an important Shinto shrine near Kyoto and pays homage to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. There are thousands of vermillion tori gates that mark the hiking trail ascending Mount Inari. The hike to the summit of the mountain takes 2 – 3 hours and roughly half way up the mountain is the Yotsutsuji intersection. Here you can see sprawling views of Kyoto city. 

Daytrips:

Kyoto is a great place to base yourself for a trip to Japan as it easily allows daytrips to the most commonly visited places in Japan.
The benefit of daytrips from Kyoto is that they are all easily accessible via the rail network. Cities you can visit include: Osaka and Kobe for a food adventure, Nara to see deer, Hiroshima to learn more about world history and Uji for the tea connoisseur.

Foodie things to do: 

One of the best things to do in Kyoto is to visit their market. It’s a lot smaller than Tsukiji market and most of it is under cover making it easily accessible. All the produce is fresh and the quality of the food is unbelievable. We had succulent king prawns cooked fresh and simply over a grill with salt, pepper and a little lemon – these were amazing! The Kyoto style omelette is also a must try, it is a warm, fluffy savoury version of the famous Japanese omelette.

One of the food stalls at the Kyoto Market.

It is at night where the city of Kyoto truly comes alive with all of its various bars and izakayas. The Kyoto bar scene is sophisticated, always serving the best quality sake, beer or whiskey. Often times the drinks are all accompanied with scrumptious morsels of Japanese bar food. The atmosphere here is laid back and unpretentious but that’s where it’s misleading – you get the impression that these places are where the trends actually begin!

Sake bottles all lined up at a laneway izakaya.

During our second trip we were taken to a couple of eateries frequented by locals. We had a multi-course dinner at a family run restaurant specialising in eel. To get a booking at this hidden gem you really need a local contact as the restaurant is only open by reservation. The food as you can imagine was unbelievable. 

This was the entry way to the restaurant, I don’t even know the name!
Entree with local river fish, pickles and mushroom.
Eel with leeks and tofu.

For lunch one day we visited a local tea house called Wakuden Sakimachi which specialised in ochaya (teahouse) style lunch meals. This included rice and tea with some grilled meat. It was a very simple lunch cooked to perfection. We were served some delicious houjicha at the beginning and a matcha tea at the end of the meal with some local sweets. Again getting into this restaurant required a local contact to organise a reservation. 

Pork with rice, served with tea broth.
Matcha tea and a sweet treat to balance the bitterness of the green tea.

If you have local contacts in Kyoto definitely get in touch as you will experience a completely different side of the city. However Kyoto is still fun as a tourist and reviewing food review sites like Tabelog will allow you to eat well during your stay and skip the plethora of tourist traps that abound. We have also listed a bunch of our favourite Kyoto food recommendations here.

Kyoto River

Top tips:

1. Geisha culture is still a part of everyday life in Kyoto. You might be able to catch sight of one in the main city area in the evenings with their clients.

2. There are some really beautiful temples to see in Kyoto, with amazing zen gardens, make a list of the your must-see destinations, to help plan your stay in Kyoto as some are located far away.

3. The coffee scene in Kyoto is fantastic and the four square app has lots of quality suggestions

4. Catching the train to Kyoto is super easy from Tokyo. You also get a stunning view of Mount Fuji. Sit on the right side of the carriage heading to Kyoto.

5. Kyoto is the ideal place to base yourself for a trip to Japan as many of the must see tourist attractions are day trips from this cosmopolitan city. Aim to spend more time in Kyoto if you are planning on doing these day trips. 

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The Hakone region is a well known destination for relaxation and onsen bathing located an hour away from Tokyo. It is a picturesque region with beautiful green hills and stunning flowers. The big drawcard here of course is hot spring bathing, although the region also has a host of art, culture and natural beauty to explore. Hakone is also famous for that elusive view of Fuji-San, if you travel on a good day you can catch a glimpse of the majestic mountain in the horizon.

Getting to Hakone:

Travelling from Tokyo to Hakone can be tricky, as you need to change multiple trains if you are travelling with a JR pass. However you can approach the JR counters at the train stations, they will be able to help organise your trip to the region using the JR pass. Alternatively, refer to this post for more information on travelling to Hakone. If you don’t have a JR pass then there are direct options to Hakone available on different trains.

Accomodation options:

There are a wealth of accomodation options in the Hakone region. The township of Hakone-Yumoto, is the gateway to the area with shops, restaurants and hotels all close by. It is an ideal location if you are planning on staying one night only. However if you want to spend more time in the area and explore the region then staying up in the Gora hills is a great option. Provided you have good weather, two days here is a good amount of time.

Hakone is also home to traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokan. These hotels are common in hot springs areas and are famous for their hospitality, regional cuisine and onsen bathing. Rooms in a ryokan are traditionally styled using tatami floors, shoji paper screens and futon bedding. Staying at a ryokan gives you a unique experience into Japanese tradition and culture.

Gora Hanaougi, Ryokan:

We booked a Japanese Ryokan up in the hills in Gora, which is known for its beautiful scenery. To get to Gora we had to take a 45 min train from Hakone-Yumoto followed by a short 10min trip on the Hakone Cable Car. Once we disembarked off the Hakone Cable Car, we had to take an elevator to get to the hotel.

The hotel building sat back from the garden and was secluded and private. Upon entry into the building we were greeted by our hosts and were encouraged to take our shoes off. Our shoes were then stored at the front entrance, for us to use when we wished to go outside. This is one of the rules of staying at a Ryokan, you can’t wear your shoes inside the hotel, instead you are provided with soft indoor slippers to use throughout the facility.

The view from the deck of our room, on the side is our own personal onsen tub.

We were shown to our room, which overlooked the Hakone mountains. Our room was filled with traditional Japanese furniture, a futon bed and shoji paper screens. The room also had its own deck with a small onsen tub for our use. We had been provided with a canister of the hotel’s famous seaweed tea and homemade Mochi for us to indulge in before dinner. This is another traditional aspect of the ryokan experience, a snack is provided to welcome guests.

Before departing, our attendant gave us a quick lesson on how to wear the Yukata that was provided for our use. This is a traditional cotton kimono, commonly provided to ryokan guests during their stay. We were strongly encouraged to wear the kimono to dinner, another rule of a ryokan. This is to ensure everyone is appropriately dressed for the traditional Kaiseki dinner.

Things to do in Hakone:

Hakone has a treasure trove of activities which include onsen bathing, hiking and visiting renowned art museums. Hakone is in fact home to the famous open-air museum of sculptures. Alternatively, if you are after a family friendly activity then visiting the Kowaki-en Yunessun, a hot springs adventure park is also a great idea.

Township of Hakone-Yumoto

Onsen bathing:

Hakone has 17 different hot springs sources across the region, and each source has its own mineral qualities. There are sodium chloride, calcium sulphate and alkaline springs which are all renowned for various different health qualities. As each spring has its own properties, and you can choose to visit the onsens that have the health benefits you are after.

Onsen bathing pool.

Like many things in Japan, hot springs bathing has its own rules and customs. Bathers are expected to bathe in the nude and are provided with a small dignity towel to cover themselves when moving in and out of the spring pools.

Hakone-Tozan Circuit:

One of the key attractions in Hakone is the Hakone-Tozan circuit which commences and ends in Hakone-Yumoto. This circuit is the best and easiest way to see all of the top nature sites of the region and can be completed in one day in any direction. The Hakone-Tozan circuit allows you to travel on a variety of different transport options to better experience the mountainous region.

The Hakone-Tozan Circuit

Once in Hakone-Yumoto, you can explore the town before heading to the cedar lined avenue in Moto-Hakone. From here, Lake Ashi is close by. If it is a good weather day, then you may be able to see Mount Fuji in the horizon from the side of the lake. This is one of the quintessential photo opportunities of the region.

Lake Ashi with the red tori gate and Mount Fuji in the background.
Cruising Lake Ashi on pirate ship

To continue with the circuit, you can take a cruise along Lake Ashi on a pirate ship. The end of this cruise will bring you to Torendai where you disembark. This stop is the starting point for the the Hakone Ropeway that takes you to Owakudani via sky gondola. On a clear day you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the horizon during the ropeway ride. Unfortunately we lucked out as the weather was very cloudy and we didn’t get to see it.

Hakone Ropeway over Owakudani Valley.

Owakudani is an active volcanic zone, once you arrive at the Owakudani Ropeway station you can take a stroll around the area. Its possible to walk down into the volcanic crater to experience the steam vents and bubbling pools powered by the volcanic activity in the region.

Kaiseki experience at Gora Hanaougi:

Staying at a ryokan means the chance to experience local cuisine, as such when booking a room at a ryokan you generally have the choice to book full or half board. Full board generally includes dinner and breakfast, whilst half-board is dinner only. The Gora Hanaougi ryokan serves a multi-course formal Kaiseki dinner to all guests staying at the hotel. Breakfast though, is a much more laidback affair with a spread of dishes served to the table. The sheer amount of food on the full board option is a bit much though, truth to tell.

Kaiseki dinner menu.

Kaiseki cuisine is a multi-course formal dinner that is meticulously executed and presented. The ingredients in a kaiseki menu are seasonal and are often sourced locally. The courses in a kaiseki dinner traditionally involve the following types of dishes:

  1. Sakizuke, an appetizer
  2. Nimono, a simmered dish
  3. Mukozuke, a sashimi dish
  4. Hassun, an expression of the season
  5. Yakimono, a grilled course
  6. Hanmono or shokuji, a rice dish.
Fresh sashimi course

Dinner was an extravagant affair, we started off with the cold dishes of sushi and sashimi and gradually meandered our way through to the larger grilled dishes and rice. Some of the outstanding dishes were the tempura with miso salt, and the pork with glutinous rice.

Tempura vegetable with miso salt. the Vegetables were crispy and light and the miso salt was the perfect complement.

In the morning we were lucky enough to be able to do it all again. We were served a traditional Japanese breakfast which included grilled fish, eggs, congee and an assortment of pickled vegetables. The disorientating part of breakfast though was the lack of coffee with the meal. Instead, we were served a morning green tea on arrival. The ryokan however, had a post breakfast coffee service in the lounge, which we headed to after our meal.

Hakone is a fantastic destination to visit to immerse your self in Japanese culture and to get close to nature. Whilst in the region, if you have the chance definitely book yourself into a ryokan as this unique experience will allow you to take home some lasting memories.

  1. Staying at a ryokan is a true Japanese experience. There are lots of strict protocols to follow – be prepared, so that you don’t risk upsetting your hosts!
  2. If you’re not comfortable with bathing in the shared public bathhouses at ryokans then consider booking a room with a private onsen tubs
  3. A traditional kaiseki meal is very large, combined with the breakfast on the following day it can be too much indulgence. In hindsight we would do half board in the future.
  4. Weather in Hakone can be difficult to predict. Views of Fuji-san from the lookouts are all dependant on cloud cover. Try and plan your trip to the Hakone region around weather if possible. Arrive in the area early so you can get to all the attractions before the crowds.
  5. Many ryokan have a last arrival time policy which is generally before 6pm. Getting to Hakone the day you land in Tokyo may not always be possible. It’s better to spend the night in Tokyo and then head out to Hakone the day after
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Onetangi Beach at sunset.

A trip to Waiheke island is one of those highly recommend trips in any guidebook for Auckland city. Waiheke Island is situated in the Hauraki Gulf and is an easily accessible day trip. Waiheke Island is Auckland’s summer playground and is also fast becoming the destination for luxe weddings. It is a place renowned for its bohemian atmosphere, gourmet produce and its beautiful wines. Waiheke Island is the place where Aucklanders go to get away from the drollness of city life.

Waiheke Island, ferry terminal.

Getting to Waiheke Island

There are several options available for the boat trip across the gulf, and the majority of them depart from Auckland Pier. The government run ferries are the cheapest option, they have multiple sail times throughout the day and don’t require pre booking. These ferries run over public holidays and weekends. However, If you want a more luxury experience you can book a private ferry charter to the island instead.

Onetangi Beach, also known as the beach of tears.

Getting around the island

Now this is the hard part, Waiheke Island has limited public transport, which mainly services the routine and touristy areas. For anywhere off the beaten track like the Man O’ War vineyard, you’re on your own. You can hire taxis however they are few and far in between.

If you are planning on doing some nature hikes and heading to some of the more remote wineries then you should definitely look into hiring a car. One thing to note is that most travel insurance policies don’t cover cars travelling via ferry. So it’s good to check if a car hire from Auckland to Waiheke Island by ferry is covered under your policy. There are also some car hire companies on the island available.

We ended up using taxis to get to our accomodation in Onetangi and utilised the bus when we wanted to travel to the main parts of the island.

Onetangi Beach

Accomodation

We travelled to New Zealand over the Easter long weekend, and as such the cost of accomodation was expensive. We ended up having to travel further out from the centre of the island to stay within our budget. Most of the accomodation is owned by holiday rental chains, although Airbnb rentals are also available in certain parts of the island.

We stayed in Onetangi (Maori word for beach of tears), in a serviced apartment that was a short walk to the local beach. Due to its close proximity to the beach, we spent quite a bit of time there, although in the middle of April the water was very cold!

Things to do

Hiking:

There are a treasure trove of hikes and walks that you can do on the Island. This includes a range of scenic walks along cliff faces and down into the local beaches. As public transport on the island is difficult, walking can be a fantastic way for getting around to explore all of the Island’s natural beauty.

The pathway to the beach in Oneroa.

Water activities:

There are a host of water activities to do in and around the island, these include: fishing tours, surfing, jet skiing as well as snorkelling and scuba diving. Being a holiday island the vibe is incredibly laid back and getting to the beach is a must do activity whilst visiting here!

Visiting Oneroa:

Oneroa is the main town on the island, it has a very cool bohemian vibe and is teeming with boutique jewellery and clothing shops as well as funky craft and general knick knack stores. Its the type of place where you will always be able to pick up that perfect souvenir for your trip.

Wineries

Waiheke Island is renowned for all its local produce and of course the wines. Visiting a world renowned vineyard is not a bad way to spend a leisurely afternoon. Some of the vineyards even have stunning views that go along with their gorgeous produce.

The stunning view of the Hauraki Gulf, from the picnic grounds at Cable Bay Vineyard

There are a plethora of different vineyards throughout the island. The island was famous for growing Bordeaux style wines however there has been recent branching out into Syrah and white wine varietals over the past decade.

Cable Bay Vineyard:

We decided to visit Cable Bay vineyard as we had a bit of time to kill before checking into our accomodation. This vineyard is relatively close to the ferry terminal, although we did need to catch a taxi as we had our luggage with us.

The cheese platter at Cable bay was divine with a fruit chutney and sourdough bread.

The vineyard is beautiful, its the perfect place to laze about taking in the view of the ocean from its outdoor dining and picnic areas. Dining at the vineyard is divided into three parts: the formal restaurant, an outdoor alfresco area and the beanbag picnic grounds. During the weekend the winery can become packed with hungry tourists so getting there early to snag a beanbag overlooking the Hauraki gulf is recommended. All the food was amazing, however I highly rate their cheese platter and their beautiful Viognier wine which was so easy to drink!

Pork ribs and sausage tapas along with a their cheese board and bottle of Viognier

Other highly recommended wineries on Waiheke Island include:

  • Mudflat winery
  • Man of War
  • Tanatalus Estate

Food

Oyster Inn, Oneroa:

This is a classy seafood restaurant located on the second floor of a commercial building on the mainstreet of Oneroa. The interior is very elegant although still manages to exude a laidback seafood shack vibe.
The oysters, as you can imagine are the speciality here with a wide variety to choose from. We were even lucky enough to try some Bluff Oysters whilst we were there. They were incredibly creamy!

Oysters at the oyster inn. The smaller ones are the New Zealand Bluff Oysters.
Prawn cocktail, salmon gravalax and side salad at the Oyster Inn.

Island gelato:

This is a small roadside food truck that sells specialty gelato on the mainstream of Oneroa. They have a range of innovative flavour combinations like basil and lemon. It was a really nice way to finish our day exploring the village of Oneroa with this gelato in hand!

Onetangi food options

Onetangi is a large holiday town, frequented by families. The town has a small selection of eating options located close by to the beach. Most of the options are targeted towards families and are a nice way to unwind after a day spent exploring the island.

The best thing about a trip to this island is that it is so close to Auckland and can be easily visited as a daytrip. You don’t need to stay on the island to enjoy all that it has to offer. Waiheke Island provides the perfect summertime vibes during a trip to New Zealand!

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Auckland has a quirky side that is hiding beneath the industrious exterior of the CBD. The city is situated off the Hauraki Gulf and has a close proximity to farmland. This means that day trips and adventures out of the city are possible and accessible at any time. The CBD itself is small although has a few university buildings, a casino and some adventure sports opportunities.

The view of Auckland City from the Auckland Sky Tower.

Transport

Auckland airport is located far away from the city, this means that you either need to hire a car or purchase tickets for the airport bus. We ended up purchasing return tickets for the Skybus, and were able to disembark at a stop close to our apartment. On our return trip to the airport, we were able to hop on the Skybus easily as we had already purchased our return tickets.

Transportation around Auckland can be difficult, it is easier to get around by a car or even walking. Transport late at night is really tricky, you are better off catching a taxi or uber. Auckland also has some fantastic ferry services to travel to the Islands of the gulf, these boat services are efficient and easy to use.

Accomodation

The first time we were in Auckland, we stayed in serviced apartments in the CBD, which was a relatively easy location for getting around. On the second trip, we stayed further away from the CBD on Karangahape Road. K road as it’s called by locals is a loud area with nightclubs in nearby buildings. The AirBnb apartment we were staying in was a beautiful colonial style building however the noise from the street below was audible. We had decided to stay in this location as I was attending a conference nearby.

View of the Auckland parklands from our serviced apartment near the city.

Day trips

The islands off the Hauraki Gulf provide great opportunities for island hopping and are a treasure trove of adventures waiting to be discovered. Waiheke Island is the most popular to visit and is renowned for its beaches and award winning vineyards. Some of the other islands are protected wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves. One of these is Rangitoto Island which is the youngest volcano in New Zealand. You can travel by boat to this island to hike upto the peak of the dormant volcano.

Getting to all the islands of the gulf is easy and can be arranged either via a chartered vessel or by catching the public boat services. Some of the islands have restricted timetables so its best to plan ahead of time to ensure that you can get there and back before dark.

Hobbiton

Our tickets for the Hobbiton movie set.

This is one of those must-do experiences on the North Island, especially if you are a Lord of the Rings fan. I generally avoid visiting theme parks whilst on holidays, however this was one of those places I absolutely wanted to visit. The company that runs the Hobbiton tours, manages to keep the spirit of the movies alive whilst allowing you to savour the natural beauty of the farm.

The beautiful landscape of the farm that houses the Hobbiton movie set.

The original movie set for Hobbiton, is located three hours drive from Auckland in Matamata. You are either going to need a car or organise for a tour company to take you there. The trip is completely manageable as a day trip from Auckland. Just make sure to book your Hobbiton tour ahead of time to avoid disappointment. To gain access to the movie set, you need to purchase tickets for the tour which are all timetabled depending on the day and time of the year. The tour times and ticket bookings can be found on their website.

Hobbit houses of the movie set.

The tour takes 2 hours and departs via a bus from the entrance of the farm. The farm itself, is stunning, it is set amidst verdant farming country with gently rolling hills. The tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the movie and all the special effects used during filming. You are able to visit all areas of the Hobbiton set and even try your hand using some of the props. The special effects used to make the hobbits look tiny were really cool and the pictures we took during our trip also created the same effects.

Another one of the dwellings on the movie set.

Rotorua

Rotorua is a one hour drive away from Hobbiton and four hours away from Auckland. After our tour of Hobbiton, we decided to push ahead with the trip to Rotorua as we were so close to it. The town of Rotorua has a host of activities to explore including geothermal parks. One of these parks is within the city and it’s easy to take a stroll around to explore the area. The other reason people explore this area is to visit the hot springs for bathing.

The first thing you notice as soon as you arrive in Rotorua is the smell. The hot springs of Rotorua are all derived from sulphur and the smell of rotten eggs is strong in the air.

Champagne lake at the geothermal park Wai O Tapu

The bathing in the hot springs at Rotorua is a great experience, we visited the Polynesian Spa. The soak in the hot mineral water is very relaxing, just make sure not to wear any jewellery into the water as it will become discoloured – I learnt this the hard way! The pool house also offers a host of beauty treatments available to help enhance the relaxation. The gift shop at the hot springs is also a great place to pick up New Zealand souvenirs like mud masks and mud soaps.

Auckland food

The food scene in Auckland is taking off. There are a plethora of eating options from hip new joints serving tapas style food to the quintessential fancy dining experiences and farm to table cuisine.

The Store, Breakfast:

A New Zealand big breakfast with produce fro local farms.

We visited this laidback brunch cafe: The Store, which is located in Britomart. This area is a relatively new development near the marina that has turned a previously industrial area into a shopping and dining precinct. This cafe has its own farm nearby that grows the majority of its produce. Eating breakfast here was the ultimate gourmet farm to table dining experience for the city slicker.

Watermelon juice and poached eggs with halloumi.

Espresso Workshop:

We stopped off at a new wave cafe in Auckland prior to our ferry to Waiheke. The coffee here was fantastic and on top of that they were serving bagels for breakfast which were delicious!

This place was highly rated for their coffee. We also bought some yummy bagels from here for breakfast.

Revolving restaurant: 

During my first trip to Auckland we ended up having a fancy dinner at the 360 degree revolving restaurant: Orbit, situated in the Auckland Sky Tower. This building sits in the centre of the CBD and provides spectacular views of the city and the harbour. The food at this restaurant was impressive however the slow 360 degree revolution of the restaurant can be nauseating. Just stick to looking out of the windows and not into the interior of the restaurant if you get travel sick.

Salmon with mashed potato.

The quality of the food was fantastic and had a very farm to table approach albeit in a fine dining capacity. The main dishes were were all fresh and perfectly cooked. The cheese course was my favourite though with fresh local cheeses and a dob of honey for added sweetness! 

This cheese platter was amazing, the honey on the side was the highlight of the platter.

Depot, Auckland CBD:

On our second trip to Auckland, we decided to goto Depot, which is a hip restaurant located near the Auckland casino. It is one of the new wave of restaurants serving delicious food, tapas style. As we didn’t have a booking, we had to wait for a table for quite some time, however it was definitely worth it. The restaurant specialises in seafood and even serves bluff oysters when they are in season. Unfortunately by the time we were seated they were all sold out. We also ordered some NZ Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough here which was fantastic. 

Pacific oysters and razor clams with some beautiful Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough.
This bone marrow was rich and creamy and went beautifully with the toasted bread slices.
Lamb ribs with harissa.

Gammyze street, K road:

This was a little Persian restaurant recommended by our Airbnb hosts on K road. The food here was divine! We were blown away by the middle eastern flavours and the quality of the food. The restaurant is located within a shopping centre and serves some fantastic middle eastern cocktails as well. 

Dessert bars, Britomart:

Our friend who lived in Auckland, recommended that we try one of the new dessert bars in Britomart. We ended up walking all the way there which was a decent hike, although was well worth it! We initially tried to get a table at Milse which serves artisan deconstructed desserts however were unable to be seated. We ended up at Miann a specialist chocolate bar that served ice creams and specialist hot chocolates.

Top Tips

  1. Auckland on the surface can appear dull, however the culture is live and kicking. 
  2. Public transport around Auckland can be a little tricky, so best to try and stay within the cbd/central areas as most things are within walking distance
  3. There are plenty of day trips near Auckland city so keep your options open as you never know where you may end up! 
  4. Book your Hobbiton tickets in advance so that you can skip the crowds when you arrive 
  5. Many of the cafes in Britomart use a farm to table philosophy and source their ingredients from a near by farm
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Lake Wakatipu and one of its many vistas.

Stunning! Is probably the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about this town. Oh! and the chance to experience some adrenaline packed adventure! In all honesty though, Queenstown really is that beautiful. Especially at twilight when the lights all twinkle against the Wakatipu lake. We visited Queenstown in Autumn and were able to enjoy autumnal scenery dotting the nearby mountain range. I can only imagine how beautiful The Remarkables mountain range would be in winter, covered by snow.

A view from the lakeshore.

We stopped over in Queenstown for one night before flying out to Auckland. In fact, staying here was really an after thought as we didn’t want to get stuck missing our flight after our long drive back from Milford Sound. The drive back from Milford Sound shows you just how stunning this lakeside town actually is as the road hugs the lake shore. The lake is a lot more vast than it first appears and there are cruise companies that provide tours to explore the environment.

The township of Queenstown with Bob’s Peak in the distance.

Queenstown is one of the more populous towns in the area with shops that cater for adventure gear, lots of bars and restaurants. It’s the big town that churns our holiday vibes, all day, every day. One thing to note though, is that it is expensive! It’s a very touristy place and hence the prices can be a lot more higher than other parts of the South Island. We were lucky enough to stay in the centre of town at a motel (we booked accomodation late and this was the best available at the time)! We were able to walk around everywhere from this location.

Things to do:

The Queenstown Skyline and gondolas.

Queenstown Skyline gondola scenic lookout

The local mountain: Bob’s Peak, sits near the centre of town and provides a stunning view over the town, its lake and the surrounding mountain range. In the past the only way to get there was by hiking up the hill. Now, however you can take a gondola ride (cable car) up the mountain in minutes on the Queenstown Skyline. The Skyline is the steepest in the Southern Hemisphere and is worth a visit for the engineering feat in itself. Once up at the top, there isn’t much to do but savour the stunning view. We decided to get drinks at the restaurant to linger over the twilight vista a little longer.

Drinks at the Stratosphere bar at the top of the Queenstown Skyline.

Lake Wakatipu

The beautiful lake of Queenstown is the third largest in New Zealand and is 80km in length. The lake is a lightening bolt shape and fills a deep valley carved out by glaciers. The colour of the lake is a stunning turquoise blue resulting from minerals in the water. The lake is surrounded by mountain ranges and around every corner there is a new vista to discover. With all of this natural beauty, it’s hard to believe that this large inland lake is surrounded by a thriving township.

Exploring the corners of Lake Wakatipu.

The lake is the centre of the township and has an important role to play in its local economy, it is a popular place for fishing, boating and hiking. The lake is a popular place for people to soak up the natural beauty, by traversing the surrounding botanic gardens, restaurants and cafes. We had some time to kill before our flight so ambled around the region near the botanic garden and came across many surprising nooks and sheltered coves to explore. In certain areas it is possible to feel like you are the only person there. 

A cafe by the shore of the lake.

Thrill seeking

Queenstown is known as the adventure capital. There are a plethora of activities on offer including: bungee jumping; para sailing; river boat cruises. It is also possible to arrange tours from Queenstown to Milford Sound and even Franz Josef Glacier. The other activity Queenstown is famous for is its winter sports. The alps are right on the doorstep and it’s possible to rent an out of the way farm stay that has easy access to the alpine fields.

Food:

Our Fergburger goodies.

Fergburger

When anyone thinks of Queenstown, the third thing that comes to mind is fergburger. The burger restaurant that has placed Queenstown gastronomy on the map. Who would have thought that one of the best burgers in the country would be in a tourist friendly town in the south of the South Island?

The line of people waiting to order at Fergburger!

We decided to weather the hype and try out their burgers. After extensive research online I came across a comment that said if you didn’t want to wait in the hour long queue then you could place a phone order and pick up your burger order in 15 -20 mins. Mind blown! We ordered the burgers from our motel and meandered our way to the restaurant and within minutes were clutching the hot burgers in our hands. The one problem to this extremely efficient method was finding a place to sit to eat our meal. We found a bench at a nearby grassed area. However if you venture out behind the main strip of shops you can sit by the lake instead.

If burgers aren’t your cup of tea though, then there are plenty of other restaurants catering to tourists to be found in Queenstown. Just do a quick google!

The burger was packed full of fresh ingredients and top quality meat. It had a clean taste and made you feel like you were eating the healthiest version of a burger possible.

Mrs Ferg Gelateria

For dessert we ended up at Mrs Ferg Gelateria for ice cream! There was a wide variety of flavours including orange and basil, rum and raisin as well as traditional flavours like vanilla and chocolate. The team here take the same approach to ice cream as to their burgers. Fresh quality ingredients to make the best possible gelato.

Ice cream selection at Mrs Ferg Gelateria.

Fergbaker

The selection of daily baked goods at Fergbaker.

The third Ferg outpost is Fergbaker. This place blew me away. You step inside the dark wood panelling and brass highlights have you thinking you have travelled back in time. Apparently this is the consistent theme across all the Ferg shops. All available surfaces inside the bakery are set up with a heady display of sweets and baked goods. We ordered croissants and coffee for breakfast the next day. The baked items definitely met expectations! Flaky and soft croissant that were perfect.

Croissants and coffee from Fergbaker.

Patagonia Chocolates

Queenstown also has a Patagonia Chocolates boutique. There is also one in Lake Wanaka, however we didn’t get a chance to visit there. Patagonia is not only famous for its selection of chocolates, it also has a range of ice creams and hot chocolate drinks for sale.

Dark chocolate with rose petals

Queenstown is a vibrant town, well suited to travellers as it has a range of creature comforts like a plethora of restaurants, bars and shops. It also has lots of services and resources to help plan your South Island adventure.

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The region of Fiordland is located in the south-western portion of New Zealand’s South Island. This area is famous for its sheer natural beauty which has been largely undisturbed for thousands of years. Fiordland is a densely packed maze of mountains and valleys defined by the flow of melting glaciers on land over extended periods of time.

Fiordland alpine scenery

Milford Sound Geology

The famous tourist destination: Milford Sound (Piopiotahi), is in fact a fjord, a deep u-shaped valley carved into a mountainside by the flow of glacial ice. As this glacial river retreated, sea water swept in to fill the steep chasm. This natural geological phenomenon has created a unique ecosystem overtime. The fjord at its deepest point is 265m and is mainly filled with seawater however the first 10m is rainwater runoff that flows into the fjord from nearby rivers and waterfalls.

Milford Sound

In addition, the densely packed mountainous landscape of this region influences its weather patterns and climate. The annual rainfall in Fiordland is the highest in New Zealand with at least 200 days of rain to be expected throughout the year. The weather can dramatically change in this region, so be prepared with rain gear and warm clothes when you visit. The true beauty of the area, needs to be experienced during rainfall as mini waterfalls erupt down the copious mountains.

Fiordland and its landscape of mountains and valleys.

Milford Sound wildlife

Milford Sound is renowned for its local wildlife, and is famous for the diverse marine life that can be experienced at the Milford Sound underwater observatory. It is possible to view sea animals like: eels; octopus; sea stars swimming amongst the famed Fiordland black coral reefs. The fjord is also home to two different types of dolphins the dusky and bottlenose dolphins. There is also a local colony of fur seals that can be seen sunbathing on the rocks of the fjord. The Fiordland Crested Penguin is a rare and reclusive penguin breed that has evolved independently in this remote part of the world and can be viewed in the area during their breeding season from July – November.

New Zealand fur seal taking in the sun on the rocks of the fjord. We saw this seal during our Kayaking tour and were able to get incredibly close to take photos.

Getting to Milford Sound

In the past there were only two ways to get to Milford Sound, either a four-day hike through Fiordland or via boat along the coastline. However with the completion of the 19 year engineering project of carving out a 1.2km tunnel directly into the Darran Mountain Ranges. The option of driving directly into this remote part of the world is now an easily accessible possibility. Driving access into Milford Sound is weather dependant and roads can be closed during the winter months due to snow and risk of avalanches.

Getting ready to go through the Homer Tunnel through the Darran Mountain Range, to get to Milford Sound.

Our drive to Milford Sound commenced in Wanaka and was a five hour trip by car, making this the longest leg of our entire South Island trip. Given the long drive we were keen to break up the travel by staying a few nights in Milford Sound. We took a short driving rest break in the township of Te Anua to purchase groceries and fill up the fuel for the car. This is the best place to prepare for your trip into Fiordland and speciality hiking needs and food can be readily purchased from the local supermarket in Te Anua. Te Anua is the closest township to Milford Sound and is still 2 hours away by car. The drive from Te Anua to Milford Sound is gorgeous though as you drive through the Fiordland National Park.

Driving into the Fiordland National Park.

The Milford Track

Getting to Milford sound in the past required a three to four day journey on foot with an overwater boat crossing at the beginning and the end of the journey. This walking trail is still accessible and is known as the ‘Milford Track’. It is one of New Zealand’s great walks and requires forward planning and booking as only 100 people are allowed to be on the track on any given day.  

Milford Sound

The Milford Sound village or township is tiny, it has one fuel pump and the cost of petrol here is expensive! There is one cafe that caters to day tourists and serves mainly fast food. If you are planning on staying in the area for a few days it is best to come prepared with a full tank of fuel as well as food and supplies that you will require for your trip. There are no supermarkets so be sure to stock up on all the things you need before you enter Fiordland. Another thing to note is that there is no cellular reception in Fiordland. That’s right no phone or internet access for the duration of your trip!

Wildlife in the inlet of Milford Sound

Accomodation: The Milford Lodge

To truly experience Fiordland, it is best to stay overnight in the area. There is only one accomodation option open to the public: The Milford Lodge. As you can imagine accomodation is limited so it pays to book your trip well in advance. The Lodge is a well designed blend of a boutique wilderness resort mixed with hostel facilities and a camping site. The Lodge has a selection of well appointed self-contained chalets, as well as dorm bunks and powered camper-van sites. As we were booking our accomodation late we did not have much choice in our accomodation so we ended up booking beds in the dorm rooms.

The dorms were actually cabins which consisted of six beds and were generally booked out each night of our stay. The rooms were clean and well maintained. Bedding and towels were all supplied although we did have to pay a small hire fee to have access to these.
The Lodge was well designed to cater to travellers staying in the dorm rooms and in the camper-van sites. Communal bathroom, kitchen and lounge facilities were clean, spread out and well maintained. There was plenty of space available for everyone to use these facilities. The kitchen was also equipped with a range of cookware, although there was no oven available.

The reception and kiosk area of the Lodge

The Milford Sound Lodge also accommodated for travellers who wanted some luxury during their trip. The reception staff were incredibly knowledgeable about the region and helped to organise all our activities during our stay. The Lodge also had some fantastic dining options if you were feeling too lazy to cook or came unprepared. The Pio Pio Cafe served breakfast, lunch and dinner whilst the small kiosk in the reception foyer was stocked with snacks and served good quality coffee.

Coffee break at the Milford Lodge kiosk.

We ended up eating at The Lodge restaurant: Pio Pio Cafe, a couple of times during our trip. The produce was all seasonal with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. For the remoteness of the location, the quality of the meals was unbelievable! The wine list was a real delight, as it allowed us to explore some fantastic New Zealand wines from the South Island. We had received the recommendation to eat here from a few people and the high praise did not disappoint. Both the quality of food and service was fantastic at the restaurant.

Dinner on our first night at Pio Pio after a long day of driving. I had the lamb dish, B choose the Fiordland wild caught venison.

Things to do

The Fiordland region is beautiful with its jigsaw of peaks and valleys. The best way to truly experience it is by hiking, preferably to an altitude that gives you a panoramic view of the surrounding area. There are soo many hikes you can do in this region. If you are here for a couple of days definitely take the time to explore the walking trails.

Milford Sound Foreshore walk 

The Milford sound foreshore track takes you along the fjord and points out the plethora of wildlife that has taken up residence in the majestic surrounds. It is also a really beautiful way to soak up the misty landscape of the Milford Sound mountains.

Exploring the Foreshore walk. There were plenty of educational boards to read during the circuit.

Milford Sound Lookout track

The Milford Sound lookout track is an easily accessible track in the township that takes you pass Donald Sutherland’s grave (the first European settler to the area) and onto the lookout point where you can see the fjord below. 

A misty day in Milford Sound. Days like this are very common due to the high amount of rainfall this area experiences.

Key Summit Hike

This is a hike to the summit of mountain that provides stunning views of Fiordland. The Key Summit Track commences at the same starting point as the Routeburn Track and takes about 3 hours return to complete. The hike consists of quiet a few switch backs as you reach the alpine elevation, making it an easier hiking experience. The hike meanders up from the forest floor into the canopy and opens up far above the treetops for fantastic views of the alpine skyline. There is also a short loop track to complete on the summit of the mountain. Here we learnt a lot about the glacial landmarks on nearby mountains and the alpine flora growing in the nearby summit meadows. 

The hiking trail to Key Summit
The stunning view at Key Summit

Gertrude’s Saddle

This is a track for experienced hikers and climbers. It is one of New Zealand’s most accessible alpine trails which is 7km in length and takes 4-6 hours return. The view at the lookout point allows you to see out into Milford Sound with the backdrop of the Darran Mountains. We were interested in this hike however were informed that there are areas marked only by stone markers and requires some climbing over rocks at altitude!

Kayaking

This was recommended as a must do activity during our trip. We booked with Milford Kayaks and were asked to arrive at 6.45am to prep for our sunrise kayaking adventure. Our early start time was due to the fact we were doing the beginners tour, which runs when the water is at its calmest. We were provided with all equipment and clothing including thermals that kept us toasty warm out on the water. It was a fantastic experience having the opportunity to get up close to the native fur seals, kayak around the waterfalls and into the inlet of the fjord. 

Kayaking on a misty morning in Milford Sound.

Milford Observatory

There is an underwater observatory that you can visit during your trip to the area. It showcases the complexities of marine life in the area and allows you to view the famous black coral of the region.

Milford Sound Cruises

We had received mixed reviews about taking one of these touristy cruises, however the receptionist at our accomodation highly recommended it. We chose to do the nature cruise which is longer in length and gives you the chance to see more wildlife. On our way back we were lucky enough to spot some dolphins making their way out to the sea!! 

We got to see Dolphins during our cruise! This was an unbelievable moment seeing them cheekily swimming through the water.

You will also be able to spot the seal colony during your cruise as the seals languish on the rocks of the fjord throughout the year. During the cruise we had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the waterfalls in the fjord. We were completely drenched by them but it was definitely a fun experience. 

Viewing the Bowen Waterfall from up close. Those that were standing on deck got completely drenched!
The glacial facial as our boat tour guide called it! Getting completely soaked by the waterfall.
  1. Fill up your car in Te Anau, there is only one petrol station in Milford Sound and it is very expensive!
  2. You can book your own activities through the Internet. However we found that the service and quality of activities we booked through the Milford Lodge were exceptional
  3. Be aware of the road conditions before heading out into Fiordland, during winter the roads can be closed due to snow 
  4. We had no cellular or internet reception in Fiordland. It is possible to purchase wifi at the Lodge. However you may want to let friends/family know you will be out of contact for the time you are in the area 
  5. It rains for the majority of the year in Fiordland. So make the most of any sunny days in the area. The rain can put a damper on your day trip/holiday however the whole Fiordland area is shrouded in mist and waterfalls appear on the mountainsides everywhere. It is definitely a beautiful experience worth viewing
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View of Lake Wanaka and surrounding countryside from our AirBnb.

Wanaka is a lake town located in the Otago region of the South Island. Wanaka is like the younger bohemian sister of Queenstown, its ideal for tourists wanting a more authentic experience than what the adventure capital can provide. The vibe of this town is laidback charm, akin to a surfing beach town. Wanaka, however is much larger than first meets the eye. Accomodation options range from upscale apartments with views of the lakeside to camping facilities right by the lakeshore.

Lake Wanaka

 I feel like I need to take a moment to describe the lake view itself. We arrived into town at dusk, and were presented with an eery view of the lake and its surrounding mountain range shrouded in a layer of fog. The whole atmosphere felt like a medieval tale – you know the one about that famous sword in the stone? It was incredibly magical. We were lucky enough to stay at an Airbnb that overlooked this stunning fairytale view!

Things to do:

Wanaka is an ideal destination for travellers who are keen to explore the UNESCO listed Mount Aspiring National Park. The township is surrounded by four ski resorts with Cardrona and Treble Cone being two of the most popular. Wanaka though, is an ideal place to visit throughout the year for skiing in the winter to skydiving, canyoning, mountaineering and hiking in the warmer months. Lake Wanaka is also an ideal place for water based activities like kayaking, fishing, jet boating and lake cruising. Honestly you’re spoilt for choice for things to do in this area. 

Views of the Mount Aspiring National Park.

Wanaka Lavender farm:

The Lavender farm is located just outside of the Wanaka township. It is renowned for its beautiful lavender fields and locally made lavender products. Visiting the farm is a fun family day out where you can walk through the beautiful grounds, visit with the local farm animals and play some outdoor garden games. The farm also has an onsite cafe where you can eat some of their handmade lavender ice cream. On a sunny day its a perfect place for a relaxing picnic and stroll.

Lavender Farm maze
Garden games: Connect Four
Veggie patch and the local scarecrow
The farm animals.

Hiking:

With its proximity to the Mount Aspiring National Park there are plenty of hikes and natural wonders to see around Wanaka. Here are a list of hiking options near the township.

Blue Pools:

The Haast Pass Highway lies between Wanaka and the west coast and is well known for the numerous scenic spots along the way. The Blue Pools are located a short drive away from Wanaka along the highway. The Blue Pools are famous for their turquoise coloured water. You can spend time taking in the view by taking the one hour loop hike through the surrounding beech forest. This is a relatively flat hike recommended for families.

Blue Pools

Roys Peak:

The Roys Peak hike is one of those must do hikes of New Zealand. It is a 5-6 hour return hike with its departure point 6 mins drive out of the Wanaka township making it incredibly accessible. The elevation to the summit is 1578m, with the track length spanning 11km. This track requires a reasonable level of fitness due to some steep areas. The scenic viewpoints and the summit near the top will give you a view of the southern alps, Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring. This view at the top is a popular instagrammed photo and the hike itself is listed as one NZs best day hikes.

The view from the top of Roy’s Peak

Mount Iron:

For those who want a shorter climb, Mount Iron gives panoramic views over Wanaka town itself with a much shorter hike time of 1 hr and 30 mins return. 

Rob Roy Glacier:

We decided to hike to the Rob Roy Glacier as we really wanted the opportunity to see a glacial landscape whilst on the South Island. The entry point for this hike is the Raspberry Creek carpark which is actually located an hours drive from Wanaka through the Matukituki valley. During this drive you get a chance to appreciate the NZ countryside. Two private properties line both sides of the road and it’s possible to see the farmers herding their sheep during the day. This feels like a quintessential NZ experience waiting for the sheep to pass before you can continue driving! 

The local sheep in the Matukituki Valley crossing the road in front of us.

The hiking trail, opens up in the Mount Aspiring National Park with its glacial valleys, alpine lakes and rocky mountains. The hike itself takes 4 hours return and spans a distance of 10 km. This track also requires a reasonable level of fitness as there are narrow areas of trail hugging the cliff face and some rocky areas. It is an incredible beautiful walk though, as you meander up the mountain you walk through the valley floor and all the way up into the alpine skyline. During the ascent the temperature does drop quickly so be sure to pack appropriate gear for the summit.

The beginning of the Rob Roy Glacier hike.
The views of the national park during the hike.

The first lookout point gives you a nice glimpse of the glacier and is a nice way to take a short break. However, it definitely is worth spending the extra 30 mins to hike to the summit. The glacier sprawls out in front of you. It is so much larger than you could have imagined from the glimpse at the first lookout point. The temperature up here is cold and we ended up putting on our pre-packed layers.

The Rob Roy glacier. Its difficult to see, however it is the mass of white at the top of the photo.

The really beautiful thing about the Rob Roy glacier hike is you have an opportunity to get right up close and personal with the National Park. The vistas at the beginning of the walk are incredible and it’s easy to imagine that you are just a traveller in a very rocky yet picturesque lord of the rings landscape. 

A scenic viewpoint into the valley during the hike.

Food:

When anyone speaks about an upcoming trip to New Zealand, food generally takes a back seat to the stunning scenic beauty of the South Island. It really shouldn’t though. The South Island has a strong farm to table philosophy resulting in delicious, fuss free cuisine. The township of Wanaka is within the famed Otago region of the South Island. As such the food options here are diverse and plentiful. Within a short drive it is possible to end up at nearby wineries and farm shops. 

Eating a famous New Zealand pie from one of the local bakeries in Wanaka by the lakeshore.

Our three hour drive from Lake Tekapo to Wanaka led us to visit the High Country Salmon Farm and Cafe in Twizel for a late brunch. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs and roamed the decking surrounding the salmon farm and had the opportunity to feed the salmon as well. The draw cards at the cafe are the salmon pies, hot smoked and cured salmons. We ended up buying some cold cured salmon to take with us during our journey. It was some of the best cured salmon we have eaten. 

The waterways of the salmon farm.
Feeding the salmon
Hot smoked salmon pie.
Some of the salmon products on sale at the High Country Salmon Cafe.

The food scene within the Wanaka township itself is thriving. There is a parking lot in the centre of town dedicated to food trucks and plenty of restaurants on the lake foreshore. There is even a food truck that specialises in Bluff oysters during the season! We ended up at the Mexican food truck twice. It’s authentic style Mexican food with a choice of tacos and burritos on offer. B highly rated the fish tacos here!

Burrito Craft food truck located in a carpark in Wanaka.
Tacos from the Burrito Craft foodtruck.

We also completed a short drive to the Mt Difficulty vineyard for a long lunch. The drive was 45mins from Wanaka and was through the beautiful Otago countryside. The vineyard restaurant is situated on the top of a mountainside and the stunning valley lays beneath you. The food has a fantastic farm to table ethos with a touch of gourmet. The wines though are the real winner here. We decided to share the Pinot tasting box and were blown away by the intricacies in the different Pinots. It would have been fantastic to have had more time in the Otago region to sample all the amazing food and wine as there are a range of highly recommend wineries to visit. 

Savouring a Mt Difficulty pinot overlooking the Otago countryside.
The food at the Mt Difficulty Winery.

Things to remember:

  1. This is the type of place to go if you want a laidback holiday town atmosphere 
  2. Plan to spend time in the Otago countryside during your time in Wanaka, there are so many fantastic places to dine at
  3. Wanaka is a good place to situate yourselves if you are interested in skiing over the winter months
  4. #ThatWanakatree is a famous insta photo opportunity and is located at Roy’s Bay. It has a stunning backdrop of the Mount Aspiring National Park
  5. The Mount Aspiring National Park is a wilderness of alpine flora, mountains and valleys. Definitely try and access one of the hikes in this area to experience some of the South Islands natural beauty
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Lake Tekapo with the Church of the Good Shepard to the right and the Southern Alps in the distance.

Lake Tekapo is one of those small townships that is commonly recommended as a great place to visit during a driving holiday of New Zealand’s South Island. The township is situated in the arid Mackenzie Basin and the charms of this village do not easily reveal themselves at first glance. The Tekapo Lake and the surrounding scenery is similar to that of any self respecting region of the antipodes and is absolutely stunning. No, the real reason to spend a couple of nights in this part of the world is a little more elusive and a whole lot more eclectic. Oh and it also involves freezing your butt off in the cold night air!

The night sky in Lake Tekapo with the Milky Way galaxy visible to the naked eye.

The Tekapo township and the surrounding townships of Twizel and Mount Aoraki are part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. This reserve has received international gold tier status in recognition for its light pollution free night sky. What this means is that the night sky in this region is some of the busiest you will ever see with the naked eye! It is an indescribable feeling being able to easily spot the Milky Way streaking across the horizon! Of course these towns have had to make some town planning concessions to keep the night sky pristine. All of the street lights are one metre off the ground and are only allowed to give off red light to help limit light pollution.

Getting to Tekapo:

We landed in Christchurch and picked up our pre-booked rental car at the airport. The drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo was exhausting. It was only a three hour ride however coupled with an early morning flight to NZ and lack of sleep the night before we were pretty exhausted. The scenery during the drive though just kept getting better and better. 

The golden landscape of the Mackenzie Basin.

The views during our drive gradually changed from manicured gardens outside of Christchurch to the umber toned landscape of the Mackenzie Basin. We reached the Mackenzie Basin an hour before sunset and had a spectacular view of this golden landscape. The Mackenzie area is known for its arid, desolate, almost alien-like landscape which is completely different to the verdant green mountainous landscape New Zealand is commonly famous for!

The Lake Tekapo township in the Mackenzie Basin.

Once we arrived at the Lake Tekapo township we were astounded by the overwhelming sense of isolation. The township is set far back away from the lakeshore and is sparsely habited allowing the wide expanse of the water to take up the panoramic view. The tranquil blue lake also provides a stunning backdrop to the Church of the Good Shepard that sits by its shore. This muted small building is unassuming in its austerity with rustic stone walls that blend seamlessly into the surrounding countryside.

Lake Tekapo Township:

Lake Tekapo is a small rural township, with a strip of shops on its Main Street. The town also boasts a generously sized supermarket, although it is a lot pricier than if you were to shop at one of the larger towns like Fairlie or Twizel. There are a range of restaurants, cafes and bars along the Main Street of Tekapo which cater for all meals throughout the day. However they do have early closing times of 9pm on weekdays and a little later on the weekends.

Low lying and spaced out township of Lake Tekapo, this photo was taken from outside our AirBnB.

The town itself is set back in low lying buildings away from the road and the lake. We stayed in an AirBnB in the Tekapo village which is a relatively new development that sits on top of the local hill. It is a two minute drive to the shops on the Main Street however gives you stunning views of the surrounding countryside! If you want to stay closer to the lake there are serviced apartments and caravan parks available for hire by the lakeside.

Places to Eat:

The Japanese restaurant Kohan is a popular dinner venue and gets booked out quickly so be sure to make a reservation if you want to visit here.

We ended up visiting Thai Tekapo a small cafe/restaurant that specialised in Korean and Thai food. Surprisingly, for a rural restaurant the food here was fantastic.

The delicious coffee from Run 76 Cafe, Lake Tekapo

We also bought coffee beans for the rest of our trip at the local cafe: Run 76 Deli and Cafe. The food here is wholesome country style cafe food and the coffee was fantastic!

Things to do

Visit Lake Tekapo:

Seems a bit counter intuitive, however it really is worth walking down to the lakeshore and taking in the breathtaking view of the turquoise-green water and the distant southern alps. Taking in the surrounding scenery is very a relaxing and peaceful experience, albeit once you can get away from the hordes of tourists that arrive by the busload for their 10 min photo visit. 

On the shore of the lake sits the iconic Church of the Good Shepard. The sheer lack of ornamentation, its neutral colour palate and prime position by the lake makes this building stand out against the blue backdrop of the lake. The church is tiny and free of ornamentation in its interior, there are strict visiting hours for when you can go inside, however everyone is free to attend their Sunday afternoon service.

Hot Springs:

The Lake Tekapo hot springs is an outdoor hot spring which sits by the lake shore. At their top hot spring pool you get a beautiful view of the lake and surrounding mountains. They even have stargazing nights at the hot springs where you can view the stars by night in their outside pool. 

Stargazing:

The University of Canterbury has a research facility near the Tekapo township and its possible to do a night star gazing tour to explore the Southern Hemisphere skies. This was by far the highlight of our trip to Lake Tekapo. We booked a tour with Earth and Sky to visit the Mount John observatory. The tour is an expensive venture at 150 NZD per person, however it is so worth it! The start times of the tour are announced closer to the departure date and is dependant on sunset times. If you are planning a stargazing tour, you are best off to stay the night in the Tekapo region as you will most likely get back after midnight.

The Mount John observatory

The tour agency provides everything you need for the tour, including a thick jacket to wear. It gets really cold up at the observatory after dark, so definitely take the jacket to put on over your clothes. Make sure to bring your own beanie and gloves and wear sturdy walking shoes.

The bus ride upto the observatory is an experience in itself. The last section of the road is a strict no light zone, which means the bus driver has to turn of the headlights and drive into the observatory grounds using the brake lights only! On arrival to the observatory you are introduced to the tour guides whom are incredibly knowledgeable. They very keen to educate guests and can point out many things to see in the night sky with the naked eye. The highlight of the tour for most people though is being able to view distant nebulas and galaxies using the the super powerful telescopes of the observatory. Seeing Jupiter and four of its moons was a definite highlight for me! 

We were also able to see into the Jewel Box cluster, a nebula that can be seen from the southern skies with a telescope. This cluster received its name due to the colour of stars visible inside the cluster.

Lake Pukaki:

Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook in the distance.

Whilst in the Lake Tekapo region, we decided to take a day trip to the Mount Aoraki National Park. On the way there, we took a rest break at the Lake Pukaki visitor centre which is set on the shore of the Pukaki Lake. Here we were able to take some stunning photos of the snow capped Mount Cook in the distance. The visitor centre is also the retail outlet for the Mount Cook Salmon Farm, where you can buy some of their fresh alpine salmon. They sell hot and cold cured salmon as well as sashimi salmon. This was a perfect lunch spot on our way to Mount Cook!

The Lake Pukaki visitor centre and retail outlet of the Mount Cook alpine salmon.
Fresh sashimi salmon for lunch.

Mount Cook (Aoraki):

The drive into the Aoraki National park. The snow covered mountain is Mount Cook (Aoraki).

The drive from Lake Tekapo to the Aoraki National park takes under an hour and a half. As you head towards the National Park, the country becomes rocky and sparsely vegetated and the spectacular icy facade of Mount Cook looms up ahead to greet you. Mount Aoraki has a small township and there is access to guest accomodation, a few restaurants and nearby camping facilities.

The Hooker Valley trail meanders past some stunning alpine scenery.

We decided to travel to the National Park as we were keen to walk the Hooker Valley Track. This is an easy trail that takes 3 hours return to complete, the track is completely flat and meanders across alpine meadows. The really cool thing about the Hooker Valley Track are the numerous rope suspension bridges which cross the Valley floor. Put aside all notions of romanticism though as it can be incredibly windy on the bridges due to the high altitude!

The suspension bridges of the Hooker Valley Track.

The Hooker Track allows you to get closer to the iconic Mount Cook and the trail ends at the Mueller Glacier run off lake. The Muller Glacier flows over Mount Cook and the meltwater from this glacier travels down into this lake. If you’re lucky, you might be able to hold a piece of glacial ice that has washed up on the shore.

Mount Cook and the Mueller glacier lake.
Holding a piece of geological history – glacial ice from the Mueller glacier on Mount Aoraki.

After the walk as it was getting late, we decided to eat dinner in the Mount Cook village. We ended up at Chamois Bar and Grill for a typical pub meal, however it was one with a fantastic view of Mount Cook!

The view of Mount Cook from our table at the Chamois bar and grill.

Navigating the South Island:

  1. We hired our car through the company: Ezi car rentals. We also a hired GPS device which definitely helped to minimise stress during our drives. 
  2. You will need to book your stargazing tour ahead of time and its best to try and book on your first couple of nights in the Tekapo region. This allows you the option of rescheduling in the event there is bad weather.
  3. If you see an amazing view on your drive from Christchurch to Tekapo in the Mackenzie basin – definitely pull over as it is constantly changing. The scenery in this region was very different compared to the rest of the South Island.
  4. Due to the latitude of the South Island of New Zealand, they have longer daylight hours in summer, which gives you more time to pack in activities within daylight hours.
  5. Restaurants and supermarkets close early in this area, so plan ahead and eat on the road if you are arriving late into the Tekapo village.

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We were invited to a luxe wedding at this boutique property in Ngambie. The cost of the hotel room for the two nights was pricey, however was definitely worth it as we were able to immerse ourselves in the luxurious surroundings.

The view from the Michelton tower looking towards the Goulburn River.

We arrived late on a Friday night (after dark) to the hotel and had to negotiate with a mob of local kangaroos to get into the underground carpark. The kangaroos were just hanging out in the vast gardens of the winery and were very used to cars driving by, thankfully no one was injured!

The property backs onto the Goulburn river, in warmer weather you can sit out on deck chairs overlooking this view.

After the stress of negotiating with the kangaroos, checking into our room was a breeze. The decor throughout the property is countryside chic. The reception space has a small lounge area with comfortable sofas with antique trinkets and cowhide rugs. A stay at the Mitchelton Hotel is like staying at a luxurious country resort. There is an outdoor pool and the whole property backs onto the Goulburn River. It makes for some very picturesque scenery. You can also explore parts of the vineyard that the hotel is famous for!

The outdoor pool, although it was way too cold the weekend we visited for anyone to use!

Muse Restaurant

We had a late dinner at Muse, the hotel restaurant on the day we arrived. When we stepped into the restaurant space, I was blown away by the attention to detail in the design and decor of the space. It felt like a high end country retreat with design elements that were inspired by the local land. The dining area took up the majority of the space however off to the side there was a chill out lounge allowing people to linger over drinks and dessert if they chose.

The fireplace in the chill out lounge section of the restaurant.

The menu at the Muse Restaurant is inspired by the land. Local produce is used as much as possible to create a rustic and regional menu. The Michelton Winery wines are a great accompaniment to the food menu. We were hungry by this stage and unfortunately forgot to take any photos! I ordered the lamb dish which was fantastic and B opted for the risotto. We then sat by the fireplace sipping some hot chocolates!

Hot Chocolate by the fireside.

Muse, offers a full gourmet restaurant experience serving breakfast lunch and dinner. There is also a brief room service menu available. We ate our morning breakfasts at the restaurant. The quality of breakfast and coffee was fantastic. I really loved the crumpets served with local figs and honey!

House-made crumpets with figs, honey and yoghurt for breakfast.

The Providore

The winery has a small cafe on site which serves lunch, coffee and snacks throughout the day. It also doubles as a providore, where guests and visitors can stock up on home-made relishes, gourmet ingredients and local chocolates.

The Providore cafe with outdoor seating

The cellar door

Possibly the most important shop at the hotel! I stopped in on a very busy Saturday and visitors were everywhere enjoying the wine tasting. The cellar door also had some amazing specials on offer!

Mitchelton Tower

Mitchelton Hotel has a lot of things to do to occupy guests. We were busy with assisting wedding preparations so did not have any time to explore the surrounding region. I ended up exploring the grounds and was impressed by everything on offer.

The Mitcheltown Tower offers a 360 degree view.

Climbing to the top of the Mitchelton Tower is one of those must do things, and it’s actually not as hard as it sounds. The tower is fitted with lift access to take you to the top. From this vantage point you can see the Mitchelton Estate and surrounding countryside. If you are lucky enough you can come here at sunset for some spectacular views.

Views of the Vineyard from the Mitchelton Tower.

Art Gallery

Below the tower is the Mitchelton estate art gallery. This was probably the most surprising thing about the hotel. However it’s an ingenious idea! It acts as an art gallery and gift shop for visitors. You can view and purchase local Australian artwork if you so wish. The gallery also has a large collection of aboriginal artwork on display. If you are not in the mood to drop a tidy sum of money on artwork there is a gift shop where you can purchase tote bags, soaps and other nick-nacks.

Some of the art work on display in the gallery.

The Barrel Room

The other really cool thing about the art gallery is that it leads into the underground barrel room. This room is predominantly used for functions and is not generally open for access to visitors. The underground corridors give off a gothic vibe to the winery. We were lucky enough to spend time in the barrel room as part of the wedding festivities.

The underground corridors leading to the barrel room.

Wedding ceremony

The wedding ceremony was held at the ampitheatre by the banks of the Goulburn River. This venue provided a truly rustic backdrop to the ceremony. We were informed that Mitchelton winery only hold one wedding per weekend on the estate. Meaning that the staff’s full attention is ensuring the big day goes off without a hitch for the bridal couple!

The amphitheatre were the wedding ceremony was held.

The reception itself was held in a function room off to the side of the cellar door. The food at the reception dinner was shared plates of charcuterie and roast dishes. The food and dessert were fantastic of course! They also did a good job of catering for different dietary requirements.

The cupcake tower at the reception.

The Mitchelton Hotel offers a boutique countryside escape for guests set amongst the beautiful scenery of their famous vineyard. Visiting the hotel provides a nice respite from daily city life and a chance to immerse your self with nature. Its definitely worth a visit for a short countryside get-away.

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For my first trip to Japan, we planned to visit Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto. These cities were relatively close to each other and only required a few hours of rail travel to reach.

A Japanese bullet train (shinkansen).

Getting to Hakone

We decided to travel to Hakone as it was heralded as a verdant oasis, mere hours from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo city life. We were drawn to this destination as we would have the opportunity to stay in a traditional ryokan (Japanese guesthouse) and we hoped to get a closer look at Mount Fuji. 

We had organised a seven day JR pass prior to departing Australia as friends had recommended that this was the easiest and most hassle free way to get around the country. The one downside to the JR pass though is that there are no direct JR trains from Tokyo to Hakone.

The mountains of Hakone

Using the JR pass you can get to Hakone by getting a shinkansen from Tokyo station to Odawara, which takes about 80 minutes. Once in Odawara, make sure to purchase the 2 day Hakone free pass from the Hakone information counter. This pass will allow you to access all of the transport in the Hakone region. Alternatively, you can purchase the Hakone free pass from Shinjuku station in Tokyo. This will pay for a direct train from Tokyo to Hakone on a private carrier – this is a good option if you don’t want to purchase a JR pass. 

At Odawara you will need to get on the Hakone train, which takes 14 minutes to arrive at the Hakone-Yumoto station. Once here, you will need to change trains again and board the Hakone Tozan Railway which takes you up into the Hakone mountainside. As the train departs Hakone-Yumoto station (96 m above sea level) it steadily climbs to an elevation of 541m above sea level before stopping at Gora station. The scenery is absolutely stunning, verdant green forests, stunning valleys and alpine vistas. This train is a local train, taking 40 minutes to reach Gora and can be a nauseating journey if you are prone to travel sickness due to the number of switchbacks on the track.

The Hakone Circuit and transport options, https://www.hakonenavi.jp/international/en/around

Depending on where your hotel is located, you may need to travel further up into the mountains. The Hakone region has lots of transport options to traverse the mountainous countryside. This includes cable car, ropeways and buses, which are all accessible with the Hakone Travel Free Pass

Hakone – Kyoto trains

To get to Kyoto, we had to head back to Odawara station in order to catch a direct shinkansen to Kyoto. As we had the JR pass this was very easy to organise, we ended up visiting the JR counter in Odawara and had the customer service team book our train for us. The best thing about the JR pass is that, there is lots of help around. It takes away the stress and anxiety of not knowing if you have bought the right tickets for your destination. The train system although efficient in Japan, is very confusing when you first get there. Signs at times can be in Japanese or have the Japanese version of the name. 

When catching the train from Tokyo to Kyoto make sure you sit on the right hand side in the travelling direction – you will be able to see Mount Fuji, majestically peak out from the clouds about half way into your journey! It will be on the left in the travelling direction on the way from Kyoto to Tokyo. 

Mount Fuji during our train ride from Odawara to Kyoto, you will be able to see it in the train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto as well.

Once in Kyoto, we ended up staying in old town which is across the river from the newer part of Kyoto and is located near the Gion district. Staying in this area was perfect to immerse ourselves in the old world culture of Kyoto. To get to this area, we ended up paying for a taxi to transport us and our luggage to and from Kyoto station. Using the local metro was also really easy from this location.

Travelling to Osaka

We were even able to travel to Osaka using the JR pass, we took the JR Kyoto line to Osaka station and arrived there within 30 minutes. On the way back from Osaka, we ended up having to catch the local train back to Kyoto as we travelling after 10pm, this train journey was 40 – 45 minutes. It was relatively easy to travel between the two cities. 

The view during the train ride from Kyoto to Osaka

Kyoto to Tokyo

The train back to Tokyo from Kyoto was smooth without any dramas. We arrived at Tokyo station which is chaotic and huge but managed to find the metro train we needed to get to our Air Bnb in Shinjuku. We had only bought a 7 day JR pass for our 10 days in Japan as we knew we weren’t going to need it in Tokyo. We didn’t end up doing the Tokyo metro pass as we weren’t using the trains all that much in Tokyo. But it is definitely an option to explore if you are going to be spending more than a few days in Tokyo. 

On the way to Tokyo.

Public transport in Japan is incredibly efficient and arrives like clockwork. The Japanese train network can be very confusing especially in larger stations like Tokyo.

There are many rules to travelling by train, for the most part you can just copy the locals and take their lead. A couple of truths to remember though include:

  1. Minimise noise whilst on the train, speaking on the phone on trains is frowned upon.
  2. There are strict disembarkation and embarkation procedures in place, they are drawn out on the platforms of each station and customers are expected to follow them. Always wait for all travellers to disembark before getting onto the train
  3. The Japanese use services to send their luggage ahead of them when travelling across the country. This saves the hassle of carrying them onto crowded train carriages
  4. During peak hour, you will need to fight to squeeze yourself onto the train, otherwise you may find that you have to wait a very long time to get to your destination…
  5. Google maps is a very useful tool as it will give you details like the platform number and the gate you should enter the train station
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