North Island

Auckland Panorama

New Zealand is a fabulous destination for scenery, soft adventure, friendly people and the value in exchange rate. The only things you’ll find missing are a few vowels. On one North Island trip I arrived at Auckland airport and picked up a hire car to be told to return the keys to “the chicken”.  “The chicken?” I asked. “Yis. The chicken.” I then realised she had actually said Kiwi for the “check-in”.

Lost World WaitomoI have been to NZ a few times on business, a couple of times in transit and and a couple of times for holidays. One was a soft-adventure holiday when I was working with Channel Nine’s Getaway – basically the idea was to get away to where Getaway got away to – and we did the Kiwi Dundee Adventure in Coromandel, Lost World Abseiling (photo) and Blackwater Rafting in Waitomo, luging in Rotorua, skiing at Mt Ruapehu, Quad Biking north of Auckland and swim with dolphins at Pahia in the Bay of Islands.

For this overview I’ll include some of those things but also other attractions in Auckland, Wellington and Rotorua. At the time of writing I had not explored NZ with a disability, but have that slated for September this year – and I haven’t been to the South Island since I was 13, so I’ll leave that for the September trip as well.

I was thinking about how New Zealand has changed so much between my first visit in 1967 and now and I think it is about ‘growing up’.  For a long time New Zealand seemed to think of itself as Australia’s little brother – heaps of cheeky character, but somehow, not quite as ‘good’. Talented people would come across the ditch and work hard at losing or disguising their Kiwi accent – Brian Henderson, Derryn Hinch, Richard Wilkins, Russell Crowe.  Even through the bonding of ANZAC, while NZ fought as hard and has as many (or more) casualties per capita, it took a long time to feel ‘equal’ in contribution. Without rugby, I reckon NZ would have developed an inferiority complex.

Chef AucklandBut suddenly, or so it seemed, the place changed. The way a gangly adolescent can quickly turn into a handsome and mature adult – confident, capable and still cheeky. A simple example – when I first went to New Zealand, aged 13, I remember knocking off a hotel restaurant menu because it made me laugh – a serious waiter offered it to diners and it read, “Entrée du Jour… Plat du Jour… Dessert du Jour…” Brilliant! Today the world’s best chefs offer the finest cuisine – great raw produce and innovative menus across a huge range of cuisine.  The wines, especially the well-bodied fruity whites and pinot reds are sensational. The scenery is just stunning and, being a small country, it is easy to get across a lot of it in a short time. On one trip I was snow skiing one day and, two days later, swimming with dolphins.

So, let’s open this surprise package that is New Zealand and have a peek inside…

AUCKLAND

AucklandAuckland is a vibrant, cosmopolitan, harbour city.  It is the most populated city and the centre for business and trade but it is not the capital (Wellington is, probably because of geography, being in the centre of the country).

There are some fabulous restaurants (harbour side and Parnell are my favourite spots but there are also some gems over the bridge).  There are plenty of things to do and see, but a couple of days will pull most people up because there are places like Rotorua, Waitomo, Taupo, Napier and the bay of Islands beckoning.

Auckland attractions include:

New Zealand National Maritime Museum

New Zealand Maritime MuseumThe Voyager Maritime Museum is a place of amazing journeys. See how the nation’s relationship with the sea has shaped the New Zealand identity.  I have been to Vaka Village on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where the original Polynesian explorers left from Ngatangiia Harbour in search of Aotearoa.  Legend has it that they saw birds arrive from across the sea and figured there had to be land out yonder – and set out on an epic voyage in outrigger canoes – the early European invasion, sorry, exploration and settlement also came from the sea and even today’s yachting success features here. You can even explore Waitemata Harbour on a sailing vessel from here.

There is wheelchair access and disabled facilities and they have a wheelchair for loan.

Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT)

Spread across 40 acres, MOTAT is New Zealand’s largest transport, technology and social history museum. MOTAT takes patrons on an interactive journey to explore and discover the achievements that have helped shape New Zealand from the 1800s to today.

Auckland City Art Gallery

Auckland Art GalleryThe gallery is on the corner Kitchener and Wellesley Streets, just off Queen Street in the CBD. Recently restored and extended, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, is the home of the visual arts in New Zealand with a collection of more than 15,000 artworks.

The gallery is open daily from 10am – 5pm, except on Christmas Day. The café and espresso bar close earlier than the Gallery.  Admission is free (they may charge for special exhibitions) and there are free tours daily.

You can get to the gallery by bus, train and ferry – there is the LINK bus up Queen Street or the Outer Link Bus along Wellesley Street – the Auckland Explorer bus stops out front of the nearby Civic Theatre every half hour.

Auckland Art GalleryTaxis can drop off and pick up from the loading bays on Kitchener Street. There are bike racks opposite the main entrance for pushbike peddlers and there are car parks on Kitchener Street, Victoria Street and Mayoral Drive. The Victoria Street car park has $4 all day weekends and public holidays but you need to get a voucher from the gallery front desk.

A mobility parking bay is located on Kitchener Street and and there are disabled parking spaces in all the above car parks.

All galleries and facilities are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs are available from the front desk free of charge.

Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World

Kelly Tarlton's Underwater WorldWhat do you call a fish with no eyes?  A fsh. Or with a Kiwi accent, a fush.  With chups.  Swit es, eh?  Sorry.

It is about a 10 minute drive from Auckland’s CBD to this attraction.

Located on the waterfront at Ohaku Bay (near Mission Bay beach), Kelly Tarlton’s showcases over 30 live animal exhibits, from more than 80 different species in spectacular habitat displays, including New Zealand’s only colony of Antarctic penguins and amazing underwater viewing tunnels.

There are loads of colourful fish, bizarre crustacea, sharks, gigantic stingrays, delicate seahorses, the world’s only display of Spiny Sea Dragons. There’s also the popular Shark Dive Xtreme.

Kelly Tarlton's PenguinsIf driving – coming from the Southern, Northern, or Western motorway, take the Port exit and follow the road until reaching a T-intersection (ports of Auckland will be directly in front). Turn right onto Tamaki Drive. Kelly Tarlton’s is on the right-hand side of the road (after Hammerheads restaurant).  There’s free parking, subject to availability.

There is a free shuttle service every day from downtown Auckland, on the hour from 9:00am to 4:00pm, from opposite the downtown ferry terminal at 172 Quay Street.

Kelly Tarlton’s is wheelchair accessible (there are two sets of stairs, which each have a wheel chair lift,) and disabled access is provided throughout the attraction.

Auckland Zoo

Auckland zooThis is an excellent zoo and a great way to spend a day.  Set in 17 hectares of lush parkland and only five minutes from central Auckland the zoo is home to the largest collection of native and exotic animals in New Zealand.  There are lots of opportunities to meet and greet and get up close with all sorts of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fast food.

About 90% of the zoo is accessible by wheelchair (70% by scooter).  There’s accessible car parking near the main entrance.  Wheelchairs can be borrowed at no charge but best to book in advance (phone 9360 3805).  Mobility scooters are also available free but a $30 refundable deposit and experience in driving one is required (phone 93603805 to book).  Complimentary zoo admission for carers with ID.  All toilet blocks have wheelchair accessible facilities.

Stardome Planetarium

Stardome AucklandPart of the fabric of Auckland since 1967, the Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is one of the Auckland region’s most popular and best-loved attractions.  It is a unique and fun learning experience for all ages. New Zealand’s southern hemisphere sky contains beautiful star clusters, gas cloud nebulae and star patterns that can only be seen from this latitude.

The floors here are completely flat and there are no stairs into the planetarium or the lecture room.  Going outside to the telescopes there is a slight step down from the building to the concrete of about 3cm.  There are disabled toilets and disabled parking.

Auckland Bridge Climb

Auckland Bridge BungyThis is a slick, professional operation run by AJ Hackett of bungy fame.  It is safe but exhilarating – a bit of adrenalin, a lot of view, heaps of fun and a sense of achievement.  A fair bit of walking and climbing involved so not really a disabled option.  And AJ Hackett also has the…

Auckland Harbour Bridge Bungy

I’m sure it says in Leviticus in the Bible that God prohibits man to partake in unnatural acts, and those acts for me include street mime, karaoke and bungy jumping.  There is no way I am going to try this but I can understand the thrill.

Auckland bungy jumpingThis one is the world’s first harbour bridge bungy – first you have the bridge walk, then out to the ‘bungy pod’ where there’s no turning back – if you can keep your eyes open you get a great view of the harbour, as you hurtle towards it… your call if you want the ‘ocean touch’ dunk – Good Lord, you’ve just thrown yourself of a bridge, what’s a little water?!

You can jump with an ankle tie. A harness or take a tandem.  You get a Jump T-shirt in the $150 cost – sounds a lot but cheap as chips for a lifetime memory and whittle down the bucket list.

Vector Arena

Auckland Vector ArenaVector Arena is a world class multipurpose arena in the heart of Auckland’s CBD and the venue for headline entertainers, exhibitions and functions.

A superb performance space attracting the biggest names in the world of entertainment and New Zealand’s first entirely multi functional venue.  The arena is on all major bus routes, including the free City Circuit bus and the Link Bus runs continuously seven days a week.  It is a 10 to 15 minute walk train stations and ferry terminal.  There is also plenty of public parking nearby (over 7000 spaces within 1.2km of the arena).  The independent website Parkopedia has a map of parking that you might find useful (click here).

Mobility parking can be reserved upon purchase of a ticket to an event at the Vector Arena.  Click here for more information on mobility parking as well as how they cater to special needs.

Interior Vector ArenaWheelchairs are easily accommodated in the bowl and seating arrangements can be pre-booked for mobility-impaired patrons and a companion.  This can be done at the time of ticket purchase via the Ticketmaster contact centre on +64 9-970-9711 or via email customer.service@ticketmaster.co.nz. Mobility parking arrangements, however, are not handled by Ticketmaster and should be made directly with Vector Arena.

There is often high demand for mobility parking for events at Vector Arena, so it’s best to check your parking options early, and allow yourself plenty of time to get to the show on the day.

There is also some parking available onsite for large buses (minimum 39 seats), for a fee. Again, please contact directly on +64 9-358-1250, well in advance, to book a space.

If you need to drop passengers close to the Arena, the designated area is on Quay Street by the pedestrian bridge/ramp, which leads directly up to the front plaza at Vector Arena.

The main entrance to Vector Arena is located between Beach Road and Quay Street on Mahuhu Crescent. The multiple entry points at the front are fully accessible and there is lift access from the Grand Atrium to the second level of the Arena. Additionally, Gate B permits preferential access for wheelchair users and patrons with special needs – this is located alongside the box office and is nearest to the lifts.

Eden Park

Eden Park is New Zealand’s largest stadium.  The park has been a sports ground since 1900.  I’m sure it is a fabulous ground to play on and a great place to watch rugby if you are a Kiwi but it is an oval I hate because the All Blacks always win!

Accommodation

Rydges AucklandRydges Auckland is on the corner of Kingston Street, right in the CBD.  The city’s latest hotel mixes elements of London sophistication, Sydney cool and New York style, with the bonus warmth of world class Kiwi hospitality.

It is a short stroll from the hotel to the Viaduct Harbour, the city’s stunning waterfront precinct with an array of restaurants and bars. There’s heaps of retail therapy opportunities on the doorstep and High Street and the Chancery are home to original fashion designers, artists, jewellers and cafés.

The new Hobson Tower has 88 stunning guest rooms to complete a 267-room urban oasis in the heart of the city.  Hey, I do consult to Rydges, but I also like the pub!

The STK Restaurant & Bar gets good reviews from guests and locals and the Barista on the Corner serves up great coffee and free Wi-Fi.

The hotel has disabled facilities.

HAMILTON

Waikato River passing through HamiltonHamilton is NZ’s fourth largest city and a pleasant little spot with the nice Waikato River passing through.

It is probably more a nice place to live than a place to visit and leave raving with heaps of memories – I’ve been through the place a few times and stayed over once… in fact, the photo is similar to the view from my hotel room.  Hmm… My memories fade after recalling a neat little restaurant where you could cook your own food on hot rocks, a nice café for breakfast and a good men’s clothing store where I first discovered Rodd & Gunn.  It only takes a bit over an hour to drive from Auckland or from Waitomo so a snack or lunch stop will probably suffice.

WAITOMO

Waitomo CavesWaitomo is famous for its limestone caves, glowworms and adventure tourism. The name Waitomo comes from the Maori Wai, water and tomo, hole or shaft. All activities centre around the small but gracious Waitomo Village and if you are into soft adventure, allocate a couple of days – I have been there twice – once with only time to check out the main glowworm grotto – the other to try backwater radfting and to abseil into the lost world.  The second trip was much more fun and both trips stayed in the majestic, run-down, delightful, creaky floorboarded, inexpensive Waitomo Caves Hotel.  I won’t offend the owners calling it ‘run-down’ – here is what is on the official website home page.  I love the Kiwi sense of humour!

Waitomo Caves Hotel, near glow worm caves“Waitomo Caves Hotel is not for those of you seeking the modern sterile chic rather this is a sedate haven of faded décor, doubtful 60’s renovations, sparkling crystal chandeliers, spacious clean rooms, deliciously comfortable beds and deep armchairs.

Come and rest and relax, read, sip wine, and just simply hang out with us. 

Planned renovations may alter this glimpse of the past era irrevocably so be sure to visit us now to experience the difference and the unique ambience before it is too late.”

100m Lost World AbseilThe abseil isn’t for the disabled – getting down is okay, exploring on the ground could be done with cane assistance, but the ladder cavern climb to get out is not for weak legs or vertigo.  But if you are up to it, there aren’t too many better attractions anywhere in the world.

You perch bum-first on a suspended metal bar and then abseil (rappel) slowly down the 100m into the Lost World secured by your guise who drops alongside.  One tip – don’t wear jeans or tight clothing – the rope can be a bit of a groin-grabber and loose clothing helps.

It takes about half an hour to get down and the beauty of the cavern is almost indescribable – the photos do not do it justice.  The greenery, the ferns, the strange plants, the mist, the fossils, the glowworms… you get around two hours underground and it is worth every cent.

On coming back up to daylight and reality, our guide dryly quipped, “Don’t do anything adventurous while you’re here in New Zealand, will you…”

Blackwater Rafting WaitomoWhile you will see heaps of glowworms in the Lost World (and when Blackwater Rafting) it isn’t overkill to go see the main glowworm cave.  The worms, aka arachnocampa luminosa, are unique to NZ and are fascinating little critters and the  limestone formations in the cave are also stunning.

The Blackwater Rafting operation is also slick, exciting and safe.  I wouldn’t hesitate if you have a mild disability like me – you might need a hand getting through the initial part of the cavern but once your backside is parked in an inner tube it is a pretty gentle float through the glowworm studded underworld below Waitomo.

ROTORUA

Rotorua geiserRotorua stinks.  And that’s part of the attraction.  You can’t avoid inhaling the sulphurous atmosphere that is part of the thermal wonderland – you get used to it pretty quickly but it is always there to remind you that you are in an amazingly ‘active’ part of the world.

There are geysers, hot springs and boiling mud pools to explore, but there’s plenty more to do and see over a few days.

We recommend staying at Rydges in Fenton Street.

It is a walk to the CBD and the Whakarewarewa geysers and handy to many attractions and activities – there are 135 rooms, some with disabled facilities and 90 rooms have a private spa bath and balcony.  The Mezz bar is a nice place to unwind after a day’s exploring and the award-winning Atrium restaurant is one of the best in town.  It is free to become a Priority Rewards Member and that gives you 20% off food and beverages.

This is the best place in NZ to visit a traditional Maori village and have a hangi with entertainment and it is a good town if you are into golf or trout fishing.

Rotorua GondolaThe Agrodome is fun and informative (the Sheep Show is terrific), the Skyline Skyride ride up the hill and the luge back down is a hoot – even if I did run into the rear end of a stationery luge parked by two panicked Japanese tourists who found it a bit much and jumped out on a slow turn.  A bit of spa pampering and geothermal therapy is rejuvenating and for some adventure there’s skydiving, horse riding, scenic flights, helicopters, off-road hooning, zorbing, watersports and volcano safaris.

From Rotorua it’s not far to Lake Taupo and the Huka Falls – simply stunning to look at (there are a number of viewing platforms) – and you can get a good adrenalin hit to ride some of the rapids in a jet boat.

And finally, for now, on to the capital…

WELLINGTON

WellingtonWellington is known as the “coolest little capital in the world” and while it looks like it pulls off being ‘cool’ with ease, it has taken a lot of work to get there – you can’t invent trendy, rewarding bars, cafes, restaurants and boutique shopping overnight but, once established, it just feels good to feel part of the place.  It is a harbour front city that does chic nicely, without pretention or snootiness.  Mind you, they haven’t worked out how to redirect the wind – a coat and scarf with boots can do more than look fashionable.

Will be adding to this section after an upcoming visit because the last couple of stays were business and that meant meetings and drinking/dining and not seeing the sights and attractions.

Rydges WellingtonAgain, on the accommodation front we recommend Rydges – the hotel is centrally located with a harbour outlook and the staff are service focused with a cheeky outlook – it’s a fun place to hang out.  The hotel is close to Custom Quay, Westpac Stadium, Victoria University and Wellington Railway Station.  There are 280 spacious rooms, all with kitchenettes (some suites with full kitchens and facilities include a 17m lap pool, spa pool, sauna and exercise room.  The retro-chic Plate Restaurant is very good.

From the hotel it’s easy to get to attractions like Parliament, Te Papa, Wellington Botanic Gardens, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Waterfront Poets’ Walk, Museum of City & Sea, Cuba Street Cafes and the National Museum.