We have just spent a truly fun, relaxed month in Siem Reap (writing now from Battambang). Things to do in Siem Reap besides temples? There is a wealth of experiences, mainly around the tourist area and (aptly named) 'Pub Street'. Pub Street Siem Reap restaurants and bars, offer some great foodie and nightlife spots: Siem Reap Nightlife has taken off in recent years, with traffic to Pub Street actually barred after 6pm. Vibrant Siem Reap Markets (for both the tourist and locals), surround this area, along with numerous Street Food carts. Tucked in amongst the restaurants and market spaces, are shops offering massage or spa treatments. On the street, fish spas offer the rather odd experience of having ones dead skin eaten by fishes - other tourists look on with semi-horror and bemusement. Its both a zoo and a delight.
Theres the usual crassness that comes with any tourist spot, but something still very provincial and charming about this wonderful city too.
I first visited a little over eight years ago, at the tail end of a motor-bike trip through South East Asia. With only a couple of days in Siem Reap on that trip, and feeling like I'd had only a taste of the wonders here, I promised a longer trip next time. The Siem Reap of today, is much changed from the one of 8 years ago - back then there was no "Pub Street" (although still some fun to be had) and the tourist facilities were sparser. While some might argue the negative side of the tourist wheel now in motion, western comforts and great foodie and nightlife options, combined with some of the world's most exciting archeological sights, has extended the fun to be had here . I did miss the ubiquitous bug platters (spiders, beetles, roaches piled high as snacks), that I saw on my last trip, but these can still be found in some of the locals markets, outside the main tourist run, too.
Pub Street Siem Reap Restaurants
"Pub Street", as its name suggests, is a long street of bars and restaurants that runs through the middle of the tourist area. A large intersection in the middle, provides the 'T' for another street of similar businesses, including bars, restaurants and markets. Shutting the 'T' to traffic each evening, means that the streets throng with tourists and locals after 6. It makes for a vibrant atmosphere, with overhead street decorations and lighting adding to the experience.
All of the restaurants and bars that we visited were good (we were here for a month and made a good effort to get around too!). Most offer a variation of the "Temple Bar" menu, which includes lots of tasty (somewhat westernised) Khmer dishes, as well as (often not badly prepared) western ones. If you're wanting the kind of chili South-East Asian dishes are known for, you'll need to ask for it though! Meal prices are between $4-$8US. Most places offer a tasty local draft beer for $0.50 too. Tucked immediately behind Pub Street, are alleys offering food at the cheaper end of the range and with a little less bustle. Below, is one such - the "Traditional Khymer Food Restaurant", which we enjoyed a couple of times. The fresh spring rolls here, are absolutely gorgeous!
The main street restaurants do offer some real foodie spots. To our surprise, we found one of the best creme brûlées ever (for $3!), as well as a really good beef salad (restaurant pictured below). The bigger restaurants usually have road-side seating and great people watching / world go by spots too. Many also have upstairs balconies that look over the street.
'Ambience', tucked behind the main street, is one we frequented a number of times. As well the usual $0.50 beers, they also have a happy hour cocktail menu for $2, and a great well-priced 'chef favourites' menu. The staff were also great with our tot - pouring beers behind the bar, is certainly something he's never done at home!
Street Food Siem Reap
Surrounding the main tourists streets and then heading out into the less touristy areas, street food stalls and family road side restaurants are everywhere. These can be a bit hit and miss, but some of the tastiest food that we found, were from these stalls / local road-side restaurants. We got into the habit of asking hotel staff and tuktuk drivers for their recommendations. Our favourite tuktuk driver, Sokhom (you can find him here), was a foodie, like us. Others, we didn't ask for a second recommendations!
BBQ is a ubiquitous part of street food in Siem Reap. You'll often find soups and curries prepared in large vats behind the BBQ too (road-side restaurants). Most meals are in the $1-$2 range for a large takeaway container. Our favourite lunchtime snack, from a stall next to the hotel we were staying at, was deep fried sweet potato - $1US for about 8 large pieces. Venturing out beyond the tourist restaurants is not only good for the budget, but also provides a window into the gentle culture of the Khmer people, who also love their food.
I've written a bigger post on Street Food in Siem Reap too (posting in the next few days).
Siem Reap Nightlife
Hitting 30, we'd begun to think our dancing days might be behind us. The Siem Reap nightlife put us straight on that one! We limited our big nights to Saturday-eves, so can't really comment on the rest, but Saturday's after about 10pm, the main street begins pumping; we visited in the 'low' / wet season so high season must be even busier!
"Temple Bar" is the big Pub Street club, offering a large ground level dance floor (immediately behind the road-side restaurant seating), as well as an R&B club on the second floor, and a 'Sky Lounge' at the top. The ground floor DJs can be a bit hit and miss, with some great bass-heavy music offered in one moment, intermixed with some rather odd numbers the next. We had a great time every visit though.
Beyond Temple, there are a numerous other bars and clubs. We started most nights with dinner on the main drag, followed by a few cocktails at Miss Wong or the Yellow Submarine. Wandering the main street and taking in the atmosphere (after more than a few drinks) was always a laugh. 'Cheers', has another good dance floor, but we always ended up back at Temple. Its not a late scene; still plenty going on at 1am, but only Temple is really still pumping at that time - might be different in high season though.
Beer, as mentioned, is cheap. Cocktails tend to be $4-5US each (Temple offers them by the pitcher for around $12 too). Some bars offer $2 cocktails during an extended happy hour, which can be a great way to start off the night (these are readily advertised on the street as you're wandering).
Siem Reap Bars
Its difficult to comment on the best bars in Siem Reap, as it is very dependent on what you're in to. If you're after large, loud, smart, and a good dance, then Temple Bar (as mentioned above), will be your go to. For a quieter, closer bar, tucked a street back from Temple, we highly recommend Miss Wong. Next door is the Beatles tribute bar, Yellow Submarine, too. We started a couple of nights out in these bars - both good for a chat and a decent cocktail / spirit. For those after a sports bar, particularly one that plays the rugby, then Jungle Burger is the place to go. Many of the main pub street pubs play the main soccer / football games too though.
Miss Wong Siem Reap
Miss Wong is gay-friendly and beautifully decorated. Tucked down a back alley (behind Temple), we usually began a night out here. Its quiet in low season, but has a good vibe. Tasty food to go with alcohol-heavy cocktails too.
Yellow Submarine Siem Reap
Yellow Sub is a small Beatles tribute bar, next to Miss Wong's. Stools line the bar, providing the only seating and making for an easy space to meet new people. We had a good laugh with a newly-met Aussie here one night. Their drinks are served with unusually shaped giant sphere ice cubes - ridiculously fascinating; maybe it was the cocktails I'd just had at Miss Wong's though!
Jungle Burger Siem Reap
Jungle Burger was our haunt every Saturday arvo - hubby is a rugby nut and among others, they play all of the All Blacks games. The owner is an ex-kiwi, who lived in the UK for many years, before settling in Siem Reap. $7.50 3.5L beer towers are also a good draw and they have some tasty food on their menu too.
Siem Reap Markets
There are many many markets in Siem Reap and I've done a larger post on this too (posting soon). Around Pub Street, tucked in behind / among the restaurants, are many great shops, like that pictured below. Heading towards the river, there is a large tourist and locals market that covers a large block, mingling tourist souvenirs and clothing with household goods, dried foods and fresh meat & veg. At the river-side end of the market, there are a number of jewellery and silverware shops too. Immediately across the river (over a prettily decorated bridge), you'll find more jewellery shops and the "Art Markets". From Pub Street, signs directing you to a couple of "Night Markets", are readily obvious. Markets abound in Siem Reap and there is LOTS of good shopping here. For more info / markets beyond the main tourist area, check out my larger blog post (to be posted shortly) :-)
Massages & Fish Foot Spa Siem Reap
Siem Reap has numerous places for massage, easily found wandering the main tourist streets or markets. An hour-longer Khmer-style massage tends to range in price from $4-$8; you can negotiate down from the printed road-side prices too. My daughter and I partook regularly during our stay: some are better than others, but we generally had a very good experience.
A particularly novel experience is the dead skin eating fish food spas, next to Pub Street - good for a laugh!
For something a little more upper-end, Lemongrass Spa is one that we tried, which offers a more luxurious experience for a few extra dollars.
Floating Village Siem Reap
Visiting a floating village on the Tonal Sap, near Siem Reap, is a must-do, both for its visual appeal, as well as for the experience of seeing a culture so vastly different to that experienced in the West. Do see my larger post on this. We visited Kamong Phluk initially (video below), which was absolutely fascinating. Equally close to the city , is Chong Kneas, but (from all accounts), this is meant to be something of a tourist zoo these days (quite different to what I experienced on my visit 8-years ago).
If you've got a longer period in Cambodia, we do recommend the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang, which does begin in Chong Kneas though. You'll also see numerous floating villages on this gorgeous trip down the river to Battambang (blog coming on this!).
Tuktuk Siem Reap - the best way to get around
When you're not simply wandering the tourist centre, Tuktuks are by far and away the best way of getting about the place. Trips about town are $1-$2 at most - our hotel, about 2km from Pub Street, was always a $2 ride. For longer trips out to the temples (or similar), see my earlier post on Siem Reap Temples itineraries.
SIEM REAP TEMPLES ITINERARY including ANGKOR WAT TICKET INFO, OPTIONS & MAP: Time in Siem Reap Travel Blog
The Siem Reap Temples, including the very famous Angkor Wat, are some of the most fascinating archeological sights in the world. I first visited 8-years ago and was so inspired, that I've long promised to come back for a bigger trip. In June, I finally made it back and spent the month exploring this wonderful area again!
This post covers the best Siem Reap Temples Itineraries, Angkor Wat Ticket options, where to buy Angkor Wat tickets, and the Angkor Temples Map. I've also made a note about getting around by tuktuk (including approximate prices), at the bottom of this post.
Angkor Temples Map
Longer Siem Reap Temple Itinerary
For the ultimate Siem Reap Temple Itinerary, I recommend a visit of at least a week. This means that you get to see all the best sights, including (1) the main small circuit temples, including Angkor Wat, Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm; (2) Beng Mealea (an amazing off-the-beaten-track jungle temple) and the floating village at Kampong Phluk; (3) the big circuit temples of Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre rup; (4) Banteay Srei (the womens temple west of Siem Reap) and Kbal Speen (a beautifully carved river bed deep in the Cambodian jungle); (5) the Roluos group temples including Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei and Prasat Prei Monti; and (6) Preah Vihear (an incredible mountain top jungle temple to the north of Siem Reap) and Koh Ker (an off-the-beaten-track, pyramid style temple, on route to Preah Vihear).
For a longer trip, I'd also recommend mixing up temple sightseeing, with plenty of time in Siem Reap itself. Siem Reap has become a great foodie spot and I highly recommend spending time at the Pub Street Siem Reap restaurants, or checking out the great Siem Reap nightlife. I've written about Siem Reap Markets and street food here, or see my blog on 'Things to do in Siem Reap besides Temples', too.
Time spent lounging by the pool (if you can afford it), with the odd Khymer massage added in, also comes recommended! Mixing things up with a bit of relaxation, means you're likely to enjoy and appreciate the temple sights all the more.
I noted earlier, that we spent a lazy month in Siem Reap. This meant we could stretch the bigger temple (or related) outings, out to just a couple per week, with many trips to Pub street and the surrounding areas and markets in between and lots of time lounging by the pool too. It was a great way to spend a month if you have the time. I also highly recommend the gem of a hotel that we found on this stay: Naga Gate Boutique Hotel Siem Reap, which I've written about here.
2 days in Siem Reap
If you only have 2 days in Siem Reap, use DAY ONE to head to the main small circuit temples: Angkor Wat, Bayon, Baphuon and Ta Prohm. You could also end the day with a sunset visit to Phnom Bakheng: the temple mountain that overlooks Angkor Wat.
On DAY TWO, I highly recommend a visit out to Beng Mealea, which is a great crumbling titanic of a temple (about the same size as Angkor Wat), that was lost to the jungle until relatively recently. On our visit there, our tuktuk driver, Sokhom, was telling us about his visit ten years ago, before the mines were fully cleared from the area, and his hearing a mine set off by an animal. Its a different place today, with a new road put in not long ago. Still relatively off-the-beaten-track, it was our favourite temple on this visit.
In the afternoon, visit the floating village / village on stilts, at Kampong Phluk. This is a must-see while in Siem Reap. It is a colourful, interesting place, which provides an amazing insight into a very foreign way of life.
For this itinerary, just the one-day Angkor Wat Ticket is needed. Beng Mealea then has its own $5 ticket, which can be purchased near the park entrance. On the road to Kampong Phluk, there is also a fee of $20 per person, which covers the installation of a new road out there and includes the return boat ride.
KAMPONG PHLUK: FLOATING VILLAGE SIEM REAP
3 day Itinerary Siem Reap
For a 3 day itinerary in Siem Reap, follow the 2-day itinerary above. On DAY THREE, visit The Big Circuit Temples, which include: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre rup. These are all different, interesting temples in their own right. Preah Khan, impresses with its size and combination of buddhist and hindu reliefs. Ta Som's jungle door (situated down the very back of the temple complex), is a fascinating ruin that nature appears to have almost overtaken, with a tree growing right over the door.
If you're following this itinerary, I recommend buying the three day Angkor Wat ticket - although you'll only use two days of the pass, its still the cheapest way to sightsee (see my notes below on this).
Alternatively, you could use the full three days for temple sightseeing in the Angkor Wat vicinity and skip the visit to Beng Mealea and floating village at Kampong Phluk. This is good option if your budget is limited (although you will be missing something special!). The alternative temples that I would recommend in this case, are those in the Roluos group, including Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei and Prasat Prei Monti. These are all situated within a short distance of one another, 15km east of Siem Reap.
If you're keen to see Beng Mealea and Kampong Phluk, as well as these temples, you could also potentially do these all in one day. They Roluos group temples are situated on the road back from Beng Mealea and Kampong Phluk. You would need to be feeling particularly energetic though, as this would make for a long day!
4 days in Siem Reap PLUS +
DAY FOUR: visit Banteay Srei (the intricately decorated womens temple 35km west of Siem Reap) and Kbal Speen (a majestically carved riverbed deep in the Cambodian jungle, 59km west). The Landmine Museum is also out this way and could be combined with this trip. A visit to the Roluos temples, including Bakong, Preah Ko, Lolei and Prasat Prei Monti, could also be made on the way to / from Banteay Srei. Do keep in mind that after the two-hour jungle walk to/from Kbal Speen, in the Cambodian heat, your energy levels may be a little down though!
DAY FIVE: I would highly recommend the full-day trip out to Preah Vihear and Koh Ker. Preah Vihear is 3.5 hours drive each way, with Koh Ker on-route to Preah Vihear. You could also combine this trip with Beng Mealea, which is on the same route too (but closest to Siem Reap).
If you do decide to see Beng Mealea with these other temples, I suggest that on DAY TWO, you combine seeing the floating village at Kampong Phluk, with a tour of the Roluos group temples.
Angkor Wat Ticket Options
There are three ticket options: a one day ($37US), a three-day ($62), or a seven-day pass ($72). The three day pass can be used on any three days over a ten day period. The seven day pass can be used any time over a month; this is the one we purchased. It is a great option for a longer trip and meant that we could come and go as we pleased. Saving the temple sightseeing for more energetic days, is also a good idea! For those not used to the (wonderful) humid heat here, wandering the temples in the sun can be very draining, very quickly.
The Angkor Wat park is very large and the longer passes are therefore recommended. On the 'small circuit', which includes the Angkor temples and the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, there are more than two dozen potential temples to explore. Around or immediately outside of these, are the big circuit temples, including: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre rup. Further afield, there are the Rholus Temples (15km to the east of Siem Reap), Banteay Srei (the womens temple - 36km north) and Kbal Speen (a majestically carved river bed, 59km north) - among others. All of these are covered by the Angkar Wat Ticket.
Some of the temples you may want to come back to for a second look too. Bayon, for example, captured my husbands imagination. Cycling the many paths around Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, is also another option, particularly for discovering and exploring some of the smaller, less popular temples.
Where to buy Angkor Wat Tickets
Angkor Wat Tickets can be purchased from the Official Ticket Centre only. This is located approximately 4km from Siem Reap on Street 60, next to the Sokha Siem Reap Resort. Googlemaps is the best way to find it. Alternatively, you can also just ask your driver to drop in there on your first temple sightseeing day - we took tuktuks everywhere; the drivers all appear to know what they're about.
The Ticket Centre is open from 5am to 5:30pm every day. Credit cards, as well as cash, can be used to purchase the tickets - fairly unusual for Siem Reap, which is primarily a cash-based economy. Do note that tickets purchased from hotels or other third parties, are not valid.
When you purchase your ticket, a photo is taken and this is then printed on a laminated ticket. Being caught in the park without a valid ticket, means a very large fine.
Tuktuk Siem Reap - the best way to get around
Tuktuks are by far the best way to see the Siem Reap Temples and surrounding scenery / countryside. Like being on a bike, you're part of what is happening - not shut away in an air-conditioned van. Tuktuks are also an efficient and inexpensive means of transport. A days trip around the small temple circuit costs around $13-15. The large circuit is around $20. For sights beyond this, as an example, we paid $40 for a trip out to Banteay Srei and Kbal Speen; and $50 to get out to Beng Mealea (with additional sight-seeing stops on the way back).
Everything is up for negotiation though.
As a general rule, we found Cambodians to be very friendly people, interested in negotiating whats fair (relatively speaking), rather than seeking to take advantage (although there are a few less polite). If you're after the best possible price, go for a wander near Pub Street and ask any of the many tuktuk drivers that park up near there, what their best price for a particular trip is.
We met a great tuktuk guide a few days into our trip, who we recommend. Sokhum, pictured below, is as friendly as they come. Our toddler loved him! And we used him for almost all of our excursions. He has excellent English and knows where everything is, including some of the best local eating places. We communicated via text whenever we needed to get somewhere, and he was always very obliging. You can reach him on his facebook, here. Sokhum also lives near the centre of Siem Reap and has three kids, aged 11, 9 and 3 (at the time of writing). He is a lovely, lovely man.
We have had a lovely month in Siem Reap - feeling very sad to be leaving tomorrow morning, as well as compelled to write about the gorgeous gem of a place, that we've made our home this last month: Naga Gate Boutique Hotel Siem Reap, has been a home away from home and we can't recommend it enough. For the grand total of $37US a night (on average), we've enjoyed a 85sqm Family Suite with a king and a double bed; balcony and pool views (and a great pool to use!); daily room cleaning; amazing breakfasts; and unbelievably friendly staff, looking after all of our needs.
The staff are what really make this place. We were struck by their professionalism and friendliness and then their ability to switch to genuine playfulness and fun with our two-year old too. Our tot adored Rith in particular, who indulged him like a little brother and often rescued him when he'd do his disappearing act out the front door (to where the tuktuks were). All of the staff were wonderful in this respect though - Pom and Somphors, would also frequently return our run away with a ready smile or would indulge his desire for playtime behind the bar. And aside from being just lovely people, they were always there with a smile for anything we needed.
Although we ate out in town most nights (or would grab a take-away from the nearby street vendors), the one night that we did eat in, we discovered that the hotel had a great chef too. Our four course meal of wonderfully flavoured local dishes (chef recommendations), began with a three mango salad, followed by a chicken lemongrass sour soup (a take on tom yum style soup, but different), a chicken curry and then fresh watermelon and mango for dessert. It was absolutely divine.
The manger of the hotel had also noted my husband's birthday during our stay and approached my daughter and I discreetly, soon after arrival, asking whether the staff could arrange a (without charge) surprise. My husband doesn't tend to go in for these things (he's not big on surprises) but I couldn't say no! After a birthday eve explore of the night markets near Pub Street, we came back for a final drink by the pool before bed: hubbie took it like a champ when Pom (and some of the other staff) presented him with a 'fruit cake' and bubbles, then turned up the 'romantic' poolside music. It was a laugh and such a nice (personal) touch. Acts of thoughtfulness, like this, were a constant during our stay though.
Our room was wonderfully large and comfortable, with a couch, desk, tv and in-room safe. The fittings in the bathroom were a little interesting - I made the joke to my husband that it was 5-star luxury on a budget. We had two rain-fall showers and a beautiful marble basin. Fresh towels and linen were provided daily. And despite the terrible mess that our toddler so often made, we only ever encountered smiles and friendly greetings from the wonderful staff who looked after us upstairs.
We highly recommend the in-room kymer-style massages, which cost $9.50 and between 3pm and 6pm daily, the hotel offers a two for one happy hour. We indulged in both regularly during our stay. Not at all a tough way to live!
The hotel is located a 5-7minute tuktuk ride from the main tourist area ("Pub Street"), which might not be for everyone, but meant a quiet sanctuary for us to come back to each day. Tuktuk rides into town are free and available immediately outside the hotel. The return trip is $2US (at the time of writing) - most of the drivers in town know where the hotel is and few quibbled with the reasonableness of the $2 fare during our stay - simply stay firm on price if you run into any difficulties and walk to the next tuktuk if needed. Generally though, Cambodians are very friendly people and we were often more worried about taking advantage, rather than being taking-advantage of.
The hotel also offers tour booking services and will help out with anything that you need. We compared booking service costs beyond the hotel and found that the price difference was generally only a few dollars. We mixed it up and organised some things for ourselves, but when it suited / it was easier to book with the hotel, we did this too - nothing was ever too much trouble.
Street foods aren't for everyone, but we're big fans. Next to the hotel, there are a number of good stalls / local food stops. Immediately to the left, as you walk out the front door, there is generally a noodle cart, which offers a $1 (cheap) noodle and veg dish. Immediately across the road, theres a cart that does deep fried sweet potato too - our lunch most days (when at the hotel), was a $1 bag of large tempura style slices. Across the T-intersection (to the left, just up from the hotel), theres a road-side family BBQ, which does amazing BBQ pork, as well as a number of other local dishes - again a couple of dollars goes a long way. My husband also frequented the gym about a ten minute walk / 1 minute tuktuk down the road (same side as the hotel) and just down from there (on the opposite side), theres another great family restaurant that does the best fried rice and noodle dishes - $5.50 for four takeaway boxes was a fairly standard dinner. Expectation is key for street food - it can be hit and miss, but these were our favourites. If you're after western fare, or some really good restaurants, you'll need to head into town. I'll be doing a write up on our favourite places near Pub Street soon!
LATEST FOUR CORNERS TRAVEL BLOGS ON CAMBODIA
The Coromandel is a must see corner of New Zealand. It epitomises the classic 'kiwiana' summer holiday getaway, with sparkling blue waters, and relatively unpopulated coastal roads, curving around the coastline all the way up to the point, at Stoney Bay. Coromandel Cathedral Cove Walk and Hot water beach (a top coromandel beach just a few minutes from Cathedral Cove), are must see sights.
Immediately across the Hauraki Gulf from Auckland, sits Coromandel township, known for its cultural and historical significance and home to the many creative people that have flocked to this relatively isolated little outpost, over many decades. Today, its something of a foodie centre, with local delicacies including the pacific oyster and green lipped mussels, as well a growing range of fine cafes and restaurants. We've stopped in here more than a few times over the years and been pleasantly delighted with the growing quality of food and related options. Boutique shops abound and summer time also means festivals and other local treats too.
Options for getting here
The scenic Downtown Auckland to Coromandel ferry, which takes 2 hours, is a top option for getting across, with the ferry arriving at Hannafords Wharf and a connecting complimentary shuttle bus driving the remaining 20-minutes to Coromandel township. If you're already out exploring the Hauraki Gulf, ferries also depart from Orapieu Wharf on Waiheke Island, and take about an hour.
Taking the ferry means that you're largely confined to the Coromandel township area, once here though. While the township is a quirky, fun stop for a day or two, wider Coromandel presents some exciting opportunities all of its own. For most, the 2.5 hour road trip from Auckland, is therefore a good option.
This is an area very worthy of a road trip and a vehicle is a must if you want to gain a full appreciation of the region. The peninsula road is about 100km from Thames up to the point at Stoney Bay, on the West side of the peninsula; theres about 150km of road, coming back down the East. Slow and scenic describes much of the route, so expect any trip to take longer than you might first imagine!
Two must see sights on the East Coast, are Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, located within just a few minutes of one another. Here, you'll be treated to postcard perfect views of the Hauraki Gulf, native New Zealand bush and the kiwi summer ideal. Hot Water beach is just plain fun!
1. Coromandel Cathedral Cove Walk
My favourite part about visiting this area, is the views. I love the summer scenery: the glistening blue waters; the clearly visible islands off the coast and the green foreground that is New Zealand's native bush. I love the walk in the summer sun and the rinse in the clear waters, after a humid walk down the hill. This is an absolute stunner of an area.
At the top of the Coromandel Cathedral Cove walk, a wooden walkway and viewing platform provide great spots for photos and an overview of where you'll be walking. The tracks leading down the hill, are well managed by the Department of Conservation and while there are a lot of visitors in summer, and walking back up the hill can be sweaty work, the track is not otherwise difficult.
New Zealand native bush abounds in this region, which when combined with the summer sun and crystal waters, reflects what I often describe as the quintessential "kiwiana" summer feel. This is the place that kiwis (mainly Aucklanders), holiday at.
2. Hot Water Beach
Hot Water beach - a top coromandel beach - is approximately 8km from Hahei or 12km from Whitianga. Its name comes from the underground hot springs, which filter up through the sand between the high and low water tidal reaches. It has been a favourite of locals, or those holidaying from Auckland and the Waikato region, for decades. In recent years, there has been a surge in annual visitor numbers, with an estimated 700,000 now coming for the experience annually. That is to say, on a good summers day, it does quickly fill up with people! In saying that, it is a very large, very beautiful white sand beach, with lots of room. There is something joyous and wonderfully comical about families piling out of cars with shovels and then digging small pools from the wet sand, all together.
Do stop in at the local hardware store and pick up an inexpensive shovel. Theres also a Mitre 10 in Thames or a Bunnings in Whangamata (New Zealand's larger hardware stores). Some nearby businesses do hire shovels - try the Hot Water Beach Top 10 campgrounds, Hotties Cafe or Hot Water Beach Cafe. At the time of writing, hire was around $5 per shovel, with a $20 deposit or similar required. Do check the tide times before visiting. The best time for digging yourself a pool, is two hours before or after low tide, when the hot springs are accessible. Hot Water Beach tides here.
Above and below, are the view looking down the beach, towards the hot water area (after leaving the carpark). It takes a good ten minutes or so to mosey on across the sand and the scenery is worthy of the trip on its own. The surf is wild and fierce, the waters a crystal blue and the hills and surrounding vegetation, are a particular lush kiwi green. Stick between the flags if heading out into the surf - New Zealand beaches are known for their 'rips', which can pull you out to sea. Swimming between the flags means that this area has been checked for its safety and life guards are watching over.
LATEST FOUR CORNERS TRAVEL BLOGS: NEW ZEALAND
NEW ZEALAND NORTH ISLAND ITINERARY - The Central Plateau & Mount Ruapehu : PART THREE of our 5-day Free Motorhome Hire in New Zealand / vehicle relocation with TransferCar New Zealand
Free Motorhome Hire in New Zealand - Vehicle Relocation with Transfer Car New Zealand - yes!!
This very short New Zealand North Island itinerary, involved a quick jaunt from Wellington to Auckland, through the Central Plateau New Zealand, with an overnight stay at the base of Mount Ruapehu and a brief visit to Waikato's Hakarimata Walkway.
Having initially picked up our free motorhome transfer in Christchurch (organised through Transfer Car New Zealand ), we'd made our way to Kaikoura (part one of our trip here); then headed up through Blenheim to Picton and across on the inter-islander ferry, between the North and South Island of New Zealand (part two of our adventure here). Hitting Wellington, with two days to spare on our vehicle relocation, we then took our time moseying on up the North Island, driving around Lake Taupo (after our overnight stop on Mount Ruapehu, Central Plateau New Zealand ) and then bypassed Hamilton, to overnight near Ngaruawahia, ready for our lovely morning walk at Hakarimata; up through some of New Zealand's very perfect native bush. Arriving in Auckland on the arvo, the trip was as much for the scenery as the sights - which was quite wonderful!
Seeing New Zealand by motorhome, is an absolutely fabulous way to the see the country. The convenience of having a home on wheels and the luxury of New Zealand's never-endingly wonderful scenery to wake up to, is something that we highly recommend. Of course, motorhome hire, particularly the large 6-berth variety that we had, ordinarily costs a few hundred dollars per day to hire. Which is what makes Transfer Car New Zealand 's offer of a free 5-day hire, quite extraordinary!
While 5-days is hardly enough time to see all, or even many of New Zealand's wonderful sights, it is certainly a worthy taster. Perfect if you're tight on time or have a constrained budget. Some vehicle relocation companies will even offer the ferry crossing and/or a tank of gas, as a bonus. Paying for gas and the ferry seemed like a fair deal for the adventure we had though.
Mount Ruapehu & The Central Plateau New Zealand
Mount Ruapehu, on the central plateau of New Zealand's North Island, is somewhere that I have been coming since I was a kid. It is the highest point and the only place for mountainside skiing in the North (do check out the South Island for plenty of other slopes though). Its also the largest active volcano and has some truly dramatic scenery from its slopes, including out across to Mount Ngauruhoe - also known as "Mount Doom", in the Lord of the Rings movies filmed here.
Our visit, in summer, meant that the rugged landscape, ordinarily covered in snow come winter, was all the more dramatic. Come June, when the Mount Ruapehu snow season generally begins, this area is white!
Mount Ruapehu Ski Fields
Mount Ruapehu has two ski fields: Whakapapa and Turoa, on opposing sides of the mountain. Those skiing on, or visiting the Turoa side, will usually make Taumarunui or Ohakune their base. We visited the Whakapapa side on this occasion (generally my preference). There are three chair-lift levels going up the Whakapapa side: Happy Valley for the beginners; Hutt Flat (and related slopes) serves intermediate / advanced; and Knoll Ridge has a variety of t-bar slopes for advanced skiers and snow boarders. I've only skied on the Turoa slopes a couple of times and would say that their black slopes are generally a little more difficult than those found on the Whakapapa side. All a matter of opinion though.
The Mount Ruapehu snow season generally runs from late June / early July to October. Avoid school holidays where possible - the mountain gets overrun with kids holidaying with their parents. A Mount Ruapehu Ski pass can be easily purchased from the top carpark on either field. Full-day adult passes begin at $73 ($44 for youth), with multi-day and season passes also an option - see here. These can also be combined with ski and boot rental. I've only ever rented (never bought my own gear) and have found that the rental gear is generally good quality / does the job well. For Mount Ruapehu snow report, see here. Mount Ruapehu skiing is a must if you're here during the winter. Fantastic slopes and the views are magic.
Climbing Mount Ruapehu
On Whakapapa, even in summer, the chair lift operates all the way up to the Knoll Ridge Cafe - New Zealand's highest cafe and a great coffee stop, with some incredible views. Many use this as the starting point for a hike to the summit too. I've done this a couple of times. The return trip is about 5 hours (7 from the bottom of the chairlifts). A good level of fitness is needed. The first half, as you'd expect, is all uphill, so a fair bit of stamina is definitely required. Always check the weather, as it changes quickly up here; many an adventurer has been caught out, even in summer.
The most commonly used route follows the left-hand side of the Knoll Ridge T-bar line, and continues up the valley above the last T-bar pylon. At the head of the valley, climb up onto the ridge behind Glacier Knob. From this point, follow the narrow foot track, zigzagging up the side of and along Dome Ridge. The Ruapehu crater lake lookout point is at 2672m and is simply magic! Unfortunately, we had a toddler in tow and couldn't make it up there this trip. My fitness, ahem, might have needed some work too. Otherwise, I'd have loved to have posted some fab pics from the tops. Another time though!
Tongariro National Park Walks & The Tongariro Alpine Crossing Shuttle
Heading back down the mountain, there is a wealth of great hiking opportunities. Check out the Tongariro National Park walks on the DOC page. Particular ones to recommend are the Tama Lakes and the Tongariro Crossing.
The Tama Lakes (also known as the Emerald Lakes Tongariro) are just a short 2.5 hour, medium grade walk, with gorgeous turquoise / emerald waters amongst the rocky outcrop and stunning views back out to Mount Ruapehu.
The Tongiroro Crossing is a little longer at 19.4km / 6 to 8 hours. The climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, so come prepared! Even in summer, it can get cold quickly. Seriously worthwhile if you're after stunning views of the area and a serious challenge. More info here. The carpark at either end is good for 4 hour stays only, so the Tongariro crossing shuttle / Tongariro alpine crossing shuttle is recommended. This has a large variety of departure points / times (see here) and at the time of writing, costs between $30NZ one way or $40NZ return, per person. The Tongariro Shuttle also has multi-day options with respect to the Northern Circuit.
Whakapapa / Tongariro Accommodation
When visiting Whakapapa in the past, we have either stayed at National Park Village (about twenty minutes from Whakapapa), or at "The Chateau", at the base of the mountain (Whakapapa Village). Tongariro crossing accommodation can also be found here.
In National Park, Plateau Lodge is recommended for budget travellers. For bigger budgets, we recommend Tongariro Crossing Lodge, particularly if you're after spacious rooms and a little luxury. Camping Tongariro is also an option (although more for summer!), with a campground just across the road from The Chateau, at the base of Mount Ruapehu.
Having a motorhome on this adventure, meant the best of both worlds for us. A little at-home (on the road) luxury, with scenic natural scenery to wake up to in the morning! And when we found the campground full, we simply parked up at the pub next door, right at the foot of the great mountain. No better way to travel than a couple of beers at the place you're sleeping for the night and some stunning natural scenery to begin the day.
The Chateau Mt Ruapehu - 1920s era hotel
The Grand Chateau is the premier Mount Ruapehu Hotel and one of my favourite spots in this area. Sitting at the base of Mount Ruapehu, it was opened in 1925, in the 'opulent glory days of the roaring 20's'. The hotel today, continues to work hard to 'preserve the atmosphere of that glorious era'. It has a very large, very beautiful lounge, directly past the reception, with a grand piano, full bar, and an extraordinary window that frames the ever impressive Mount Ngauruhoe. Its large dining room, just off the lounge, also offers some truly divine foodie delights too.
Downstairs, there is a full cinema, games room and underground thermal spa. The rooms upstairs can be a little dated (my last stay was in 2016), but they are clean and comfortable and are in keeping with the era of the rest of the hotel. We don't always stay here when we're in the area (its not generally horrifically expensive, but its not for anyone on a budget either), but its always first on my list when I go looking for accommodation. I'm a little nostalgic on this though - my father took us here a couple of times as kids (happy memories!) and I was matron of honour at a close friends wedding here, many years ago. Best rates can be found by booking directly on The Chateau website.
The Waikato & Hakarimata Walkway
After leaving the central plains, we meandered past Lake Taupo, taking a very scenic route, up around beautiful Lake Taupo. The weather wasn't great, which didn't make for great photos, but this is a stunning area to visit.
Crossing over into the Waikato region, we picked an overnight spot next to a lovely little out of the way walkway. Hakarimata Walkway, next to Ngaruawahia, is tucked into the rural countryside and made a perfect spot for a nights freedom camping. Climbing the hill the following morning, we were treated to views out across rural Waikato.
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KAIKOURA TO PICTON & The Interislander Ferry Timetable, Bookings & Interislander Prices - PART TWO of our 5-day Free Motorhome Hire in NEW ZEALAND
This post continues that begun last week, where we picked up our Transfer Car New Zealand, free motorhome hire in Christchurch and made our first stop in Kaikoura. Todays post is about the trip from Kaikoura to Picton on the Kaikoura Coast Road. Seeking out things to do in Blenheim, we then also explored a cherry orchard and the 'best Marlborough wineries'. There was limited time for exploring all of the things to do in Picton before our ferry crossing, but I've talked a little about this wonderful little town and the Marlborough Sounds as well; having visited this region a few times now. This post also covers the Bluebridge and Interislander ferry bookings, Interislander prices and the Bluebridge and Interislander ferry timetable. And although we were travelling by motorhome on this particular trip, I've also provided some recommendations for accommodation in Blenheim & Picton, having been through a number of times now.
The road between Kaikoura & Blenheim
The trip from Kaikoura to Picton, on the Kaikoura Coast Road and then via Blenheim, is a top New Zealand South Island road trip. It takes a little over two hours, and offers some absolutely stunning scenery. The road winds around the coast, with clear turquoise waters on one side, and dramatically rising mountains and hills on the other. As you get closer to Blenheim, and head in-land a little, this gives way to Marlborough vineyard country and orchards.
The Kaikoura Coast Road is a much changed road since the relatively recent 7.8-magnitude earthquake here. To quote an authority on the subject: the Kaikoura earthquake 'shook loose more than one million cubic metres of earth from the hills, burying the road, destroying bridges and ripping railway lines out into the sea. More than 40 separate landslides fell in all, closing the road in two places: a 21km stretch north of Kaikoura and an 8km one to the south'. That aside, and in spite of the continuing roadworks repairing the above, it is a stunningly scenic trip and now back open to the public (for the most part). The continuing roadworks provide something of an interest point (in their own way) too and we highly recommend the trip.
About half way along the trip from Kaikoura to Blenheim, on an isolated rural corner, you encounter The Store, overlooking the turquoise waters that this area is so known for. On a hot summers day, as we had, it proved a perfect stop for a beer in the sun. For classic kiwiana dishes (think classic kiwi burgers, fish 'n chips - fresh from the sea, and kiwi carrot cake), this is also a great foodie stop. The views and grounds are immaculate and theres a funky little chef's garden down on the waterfront too. We watched a Kaikoura helicopters land on the lawn, while we were down there exploring.
The Blenheim Sun & 'Best Marlborough Wineries' - Things TO DO in Blenheim & Marlborough
Heading in-land, the ocean scenery gives way to vineyard country. Marlborough is known for producing some of New Zealand's top wines; it is particularly famous for the gorgeous Sauvignon Blancs that it produces, but there are a huge range of other varieties as well, from Pinot Gris to Pinot Noir to Chardonnay (among others). With over 20,000ha of vineyards in the region (about two thirds of the national total), it is New Zealand's largest wine producing region. We had only a short window for exploring the 'Best Marlborough Wineries', but we picked our supermarket staples: Withers Hill and Villa Maria. Wither Hills, in particular, has a beautiful building. Climbing the stairs, you're gifted with a gorgeous view of the surrounding vines spreading out in every direction on the flat Marlborough plain. Their Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blancs are not particularly expensive, but they are divine!
Marlborough & Blenheim Wine Tours
Vineyard hopping is a perfect holiday all on its own and there are various tours that you can do, including Wine Tours by bike Blenheim. There are also full-day Marlborough Wine Tours and wine tasting by car, which include several local vineyards and a roundtrip from Blenheim, Picton or Havelock. A half-day tour can include up to 4 local wineries. If you're a foodie as well (like us!) theres a full-day 'Wine Gourmet & Scenic Delight' tour from Blenheim, promising a 6-hour gourmet tasting tour, including wineries, artisan foods and chocolatiers - yum!! If you're planning a trip in winter, one company offers a special 'Winter Wine Gourmet and Scenic Pleasures of Marlborough' tour, and another offers a 'Progressive Winter Wine & Gourmet Trail'.
Near Blenheim, the orchards also begin to appear in force, with some of the most divine stone fruit that New Zealand offers, all thanks to the Blenheim sun! Blenheim and Nelson have among the highest sunshine hours in the country, and in summer-time New Zealand, it simply beats down. My favourite in the December / January period, are the cherries! Signage offering 'pick your own' for a few dollars, is fairly ubiquitous and was an absolute highlight of our trip this time. Tasting and picking fruit warmed by the sun and straight from the tree, is absolute heaven. You get given a bucket at the orchard entrance and are then giving free reign to go wandering. Weighing and payment at the end, doesn't include all the wonderful fruit gobbled on the journey!
Marlborough Accommodation / Marlborough Winery Accommodation
Marlborough B&Bs - Botanica Marlborough is a gorgeous spot with a lovely garden, just 1.9km from Villa Maria and 3.2km from Wither Hills. They have clean, charmingly decorated units and also offer free bikes for exploring the region. For affordable rooms (more about the bed than the breakfast), AirBnB is a great resource too - Marlborough has a large selection of these private rentals.
Top Hotels Blenheim NZ - Chateau Marlborough, with a 8.9/10 guest rating on booking.com , offers 'luxury self-contained suites', an outdoor pool and fully equipped fitness centre. They also book winery tours. Hotel D'Urville, has also been reviewed well by travellers, and offers 1920s Art Deco boutique style, featuring 'a column facade, a grand staircase and high ceilings'.
Motels Blenheim - for those a little more budget conscious, Ellena Court Motel, in the heart of Blenheim, offers studios and apartments, and is known for its particularly friendly staff.
Backpackers Blenheim / Top 10 Holiday Park Blenheim - If you're camping or simply after clean, professional facilities that don't break the bank, a Top 10 Holiday Park is always a good bet. There is nothing particularly amazing about this particular one, but clean and comfortable is definitely a good description, including immaculate shared kitchens and well kept bathrooms. There is a small pool and playground for kids and a good size / tidy TV lounge too.
Car Rental Blenheim
If you're flying into Blenheim direct and need an easy car rental, Thrifty Car Rental have a booth at Blenheim airport and offer a good value for money service.
Things To Do in Picton NZ
Picton, where the ferry between the islands begins/ends, is just twenty minutes from Blenheim. The scenery changes significantly between destinations though. Where Blenheim is flat and covered in vineyards and orchards, Picton is surrounded by hills and small mountains and covered in kiwi native bush. Her harbour also opens out in front: the gateway to the picture perfect Marlborough Sounds NZ - one of New Zealand's absolute must see sights.
Picton is a major hub in New Zealand's transport network, as it connects the South Island road and rail networks, with ferries across Cook Strait to Wellington and the North Island. It is a small town, with just a few thousand people, but plenty of restaurants that service the many travellers that come through here and on to the Marlborough Sounds. It is a relatively quiet little corner of the world otherwise though. Pohutukawas and palm trees line the waterfront, and rain or shine, it is a picturesque place for a stop. There are large lawns and a pirate themed playground on the waterfront. Near the towns waterfront / next to the small round-about, there is a great spot for fish 'n chips too, which overlooks the harbour. We've stopped in there, on a couple of our travels down this way now and recommend.
Queen Charlotte Walk
The Queen Charlotte Walk / Track is a major attraction from Picton too, which is renowned for its 'stunning views and contrasting landscape, historical landmarks and wonderful variety of native bush and wildlife'. It 'passes through lush coastal forest, historical bays, and along skyline ridges with unsurpassed views of Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds' (Queen Charlotte Track). Although it has been recommend to us by friends a number of times now, we still haven't done the 4-5 day trek, but we've exploring in and around this area, and out to the Marlborough Sounds NZ. It is clear that this would be a highlight, if you're looking to see some of the best of New Zealand's pristine natural scenery and beauty.
Guided sea-kayaking tours can be organised from Picton or Anakiwa (30minutes around the coast from Picton), with full-day and half-day options. Full-day Queen Charlotte Kayak and Walking Tours are also offered from Picton. Picton is a stunning area for kayaking and a definite recommend.
Boat Hire Picton
For those wanting to get further out into the Marlborough Sounds NZ, boat hire is an expensive but worthy option. Compass Charters operates from the beginning of September each year and offers full and multi-day hires, with discounts for longer booking periods. Hourly yacht rentals (with GetMyBoat), are available here too. There are also a variety of less expensive boat cruise options, including the Seafood Cruise (featuring 'regal salmon, cloudy bay clams and greenshell mussels', pared with 'Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for the definitive wine/food match - yum!) and the Mail Boat Picton cruise, which is one that we did a few years back and is still a favourite of ours. A Picton Water Taxi is also another option for getting out on the water and round to some of the Marlborough Sound's many isolated bays.
Accommodation Picton NZ - Picton Motels
Picton New Zealand hotels are on the expensive side (thats New Zealand though!). Worth recommending is the Picton Yacht Club Hotel, which has a fabulous restaurant overlooking the water, clean, spacious rooms and a great outdoor heated pool.
Top Picton Motels include the Beachcomber Inn, which offers smart-looking clean rooms and great views of Picton Harbour from the restaurant. We've stay at Broadway Motel on our way through in the past as well. It offers good value for money and has been reviewed-well by fellow travellers since.
There are some budget friendly Picton Bed and Breakfast options too - try Glengary B&B, Admirals Lodge, or one of the many nice looking private rentals on AirBnB.
Backpackers Picton - the top ranked Picton backpackers are Alicante Backpackers and Atlantis Backpackers. The top 10 Holiday Park in Picton and other Picton camping grounds, also offer backpacker accommodation - see below.
Top 10 Holiday Park & Picton Camping Grounds
The Top 10 Holiday Park in Picton, is probably one of my least favourite Top 10 parks to-date, as it is a little crammed and dated. It does offer the usual clean and professional facilities that we've come to expect with this franchise though. Other Picton Camping Grounds include the Parklands Marina Holiday Park and Picton's Waikawa Bay Holiday Park - both of which have received good reviews from other travellers too.
Free Camping Picton is not really possible. Marlborough residents appear to almost religiously hate freedom campers and you'll see signs banning freedom campers, throughout the region. On a recent trip near Havelock, when we'd pulled over with car issues (having just hopped off the ferry) and ended up staying the night next to a walkway (no sign banning freedom camping), we woke to a ranger knocking on our window and moving us on. $200 fines are the norm too.
We were also recently parked up in Motueka for the day, relaxing in our trailer next to the beach while we watched our son playing on the playground, when locals began nailing laminated 'no freedom camping' signs on posts next to us, while giving us obvious side-eye. Forgive me for my little rant, but the lack of knowledge as to ones privilege really does my head in sometimes - I hate exclusion and the idea that a small minority may 'own' what should be shared by all. New Zealand is pretty divided on this issue though.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) does have some good, cheaper camping sites in the wider Marlborough region, with the occasional free one. Camping apps, such as CamperMate are also helpful for finding spots. Picton itself, does not have any immediate freedom camping sites though, so expect to pay for a holiday park or similar.
Rental Cars Picton
If you've hopped across the ferry and are looking to pick up a rental, Thrifty, again, does some good deals here. Their office, at the Picton Interislander Ferry Terminal building, is only manned for pre-booked confirmed reservations, so do make sure you book ahead.
Ferry Picton to Wellington
The ferry crossing between the North and South Islands, is absolutely gorgeous. Beginning in Picton, the first couple of hours is spent travelling up through the Marlborough Sounds. Made up of 150km of coastline, that winds in and out, around the many native-forest covered hills, which rise steeply from the sea, there are many beautiful sheltered inlets and sandy bays to observe on-route. It is a truly gorgeous part of New Zealand.
Interislander Prices v Bluebridge Ferry Prices
There are two ferries that cross the Cook Strait from Picton to Wellington: the Interislander and the Bluebridge. We've used both a number of times over the years. The Bluebridge is a little smaller and a little more comfortable / modern for relaxing on, during the four hour trip between the islands. We usually pick based on price though, and always check both websites before booking. Prices vary according to demand. Always book ahead during holiday seasons: Easter and Christmas tend to be particularly full. School holidays can also mean that the ferries are booked out early, but generally speaking, you can book a couple of days before a trip, without difficulty.
Interislander Promo Code - If you're doing an extended camping trip or similar, the Top 10 Holiday Park franchise (which also tends to offer really good camp facilities), offers a 15% discount for travel on the Interislander, with their membership. This costs $49, but with a vehicle, we found that we earned this back on just one ferry crossing, and it meant that we got the other membership benefits for the year, as well.
Interislander Ferry Timetable & Interislander Bookings
The Interisland Ferry Timetable includes 5 daily sailings at 9:05am, 10:45am, 2:15pm, 6:45pm and 10:15pm. The journey across the Cook Strait, averages 3-3.5hours. Further details can be found here. Interislander Bookings can be made here too.
Bluebridge Ferry Bookings
Bluebridge ferry Bookings can be made here.
The Marlborough Sounds NZ
I'm intending to do a fuller write-up on the Marlborough Sounds NZ shortly. If your'e only in the area briefly, there are a few options for gaining a taste of this beautiful region. A broader Marlborough Sounds Cruise, which leaves from Picton, can be found here. The Ship Cove and Dolphin Eco Tour cruise, which is a half-day nature cruise that seeks out seals, dolphins and seabirds, while providing a history of the area, comes highly recommended too.
Marlborough Sounds Kayaking is also a great way for seeing the region. As well as the kayak tour options mentioned above from Picton, you could do a 2-hour road-trip out to Punga Cova (as we did on another trip), winding around the Kenepuru Sound to Punga Cove Resort, where you can hire kayaks for $15NZ from the beach-side restaurant lawn. Fabulous little isolated spot with incredible views. Also a great spot for a meal and a beer overlooking the water when you're finished kayaking. We understand that a number of other resorts over this way, offer something similar too.
For recommended Fishing Charters Marlborough Sound, see here and here (the latter allows for shared cost charters too). Boat Hire Marlborough Sounds is expensive. If you've got the funds though, there is a greater article on chartering a Marlborough Sounds yacht, here, which includes a selection of New Zealand charter yachts - scroll to the bottom for the smaller / less ridiculously priced vessels. Still, if you've got the dosh, this is one of New Zealand's top sailing / boating spots.
Marlborough Sounds Accommodation
Marlborough Sounds Resorts - I've mentioned a personal fav above (Punga Cove). Hopewell Lodge receives the highest online reviews though. These are isolated resorts, generally only / easiest accessed by boat, in one of the worlds' most scenic spots. They do tend to be expensive, but they also offer something truly unique.
Queen Charlotte Track Accommodation - the official Queen Charlotte Track page, offers a full list, so I won't repeat. Camping Marlborough Sounds, is another great option if you're on a budget. Head over to the Department of Conservation (DOC) page for a full list of campsites. These generally range in price from $4 to $12/night (bookings online or using an honesty box - often checked by the rangers), with some of the particularly scenic / popular sights sometimes costing a little more. We highly recommend these and have stayed in many over the years.
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Free Motorhome Transfer in New Zealand
Christmas was approaching. We were living down near the bottom of New Zealand, in Dunedin. Auckland, most of the way north, is where our family lives. Getting from Dunedin to Auckland for Christmas, on a budget, was proving to be something of a dilemma. The cost of domestic flights skyrocket at that time of year. And then we happened upon a very useful solution! Transfer Car offers free 5-day motor home transfers from Christchurch to Auckland, for companies who need to get their vehicles from one part of the country to another. With most people arriving in Auckland and traveling down country, motorhome companies are often left with an excess of motorhomes in the south. Other destinations / transfers are also available too though and their booking process online is very simple if you are considering one - we had confirmation of the free transfer, within a few hours.
While 5-days is not really long enough to give more than a taste of some of New Zealand's gorgeous sights, it is a great warm up to the country, particularly if you're short on time.
We drove from Dunedin to Christchurch in our own vehicle, parked up near the airport and then packed the family into the motorhome in Christchurch. From there, we headed up to Kaikoura; then through Blenheim to Picton; across on the ferry to Wellington; up through the central plains, including to Mount Ruapehu; and across to the Waikato region, before heading into Auckland.
Kaikoura is an East Coast stunner. Located in the North of the Canterbury region and just under three hours drive from Christchurch, you drive down through the hills to a picture perfect vista of turquoise waters, surrounded by a dramatic mountain backdrop. It is a relatively isolated area, with just a couple of thousand permanent residents and a classic kiwi small-town feel; boosted in recent years, by the tourism that has now become a ubiquitous part of its existence. It is an area renowned for its marine life, with whale and dolphin watching its key attractions. On the peninsula, seals and other wild life can be seen in their habitats. It is also known to have great fishing grounds, as well as some of the best reef diving in New Zealand. Kayaking around the beautiful peninsula is another must.
Kaikoura Township & Beach
The little township is situation just back from the beach, with a small creek running between the town and the water. There is a good collection of restaurants, pubs and boutique type shops. It is not large and until relatively recently, would have been considered a (wonderfully isolated) backwater. There is a great fish 'n chip shop in the main township area, which we highly recommend. A fabulous ice-cream shop is also just along from there too. Fish 'n chips and ice-cream on the beach, is a classic kiwi tradition. We got both and headed across the bridge to take in our first experience of the simply breath-taking scenery here. The beach is stony, but perfect for a picnic and it is an easy place to while away an hour or a few, just taking in the calm and beauty of the area.
We overnighted at the Top10 Holiday Park in Kaikoura (highly recommended: it has lovely clean facilities) and then headed up the coast to the Kaikoura Peninsula, the following morning. There is a lovely walkway up this way, with walks from 5mins to 3 hours (see the Department of Conservation page for more info). We headed out onto the rocks immediately in front of the carpark, in search of seals. Clambering over the rocks, with stunning views on every side, was a bit of fun in itself. Summer time Kaikoura, also means sun beating down though, so hats and sunblock are a must! Out towards the sea, we found large groups of seals lounging on the rocks. Our kids were thrilled to watch the babies playing, with some of the large seals diving and ducking in the current. Seals can be incredibly elegant creatures to watch in the water.
Below, are pics taken when we climbed out to the rocks on the waters edge. Our toddler was mesmerised watching the seals diving into the water and lounging in pleasure, clearly taken from the sun and sea.
Exploring around Kaikoura
The drive out to the peninsula, is just a few minutes from the township, curving around the coast. Pohutukawas line one part of the coast and beach. There are a couple of great playgrounds along here too. Closer to the peninsula, there is a fabulous (and so I understand, fairly famous), seafood cart, which does some truly divine fare, fresh from the sea. Evidence of early European Settlements can also be found down this way and there are signposted notes, explaining the significance of some of the sights.
For whale watching (Kaikoura's big drawcard), Whale Watch Kaikoura is a good bet. They offer tours beginning at $60 per person. Wings over Whales, offers 'spectacular whale watching' from the air, starting at $180 per person (kids half price and infants free). Encounter Kaikoura does dolphin and albatross encounters - $95 to watch and $180 to swim with the dolphins. Encounter Kaikoura also have a large cafe and shop on the water front, next to the beach-side carpark behind the township. Kayaks can be rented from Kaikoura Kayaks - $70 for a half day and $85 for a full-day. They also offer a family seal kayak tour (among others) for $110 per person. Maori Tours Kaikoura also offers some interesting experiences - but they are expensive unless you've got a large group.
Before you travel by road, make sure you check the latest conditions for SH1 Kaikoura. In recent years, Kaikoura has had something of a hard time, with a spate of large earthquakes in the Canterbury region. This has meant that Kaikoura has sometimes been cut off by road, for days at a time. At the time of writing, there is also still extensive work being done on the main highway, up and down the many isolated kilometres on either side of Kaikoura.
This trip begins in our current home-town of Dunedin. Meant to be a biking adventure on the West Coast of New Zealand, with a group of our daughters teenage mates (yes, we were called brave a lot before we ventured out!!), it didn't quite turn out as intended. We did make it to the West Coast, but only with our previously reliable 4WD, spluttering rather terribly from its behind. With the indication that it would take a few days to fix the exhaust, we ended up "camping" at a holiday park in Hokitika, rather than undertaking the grand biking adventure planned. That is to say, the main purpose of the trip is not actually something I have that much to write about! However, we did see some absolutely incredible sights on-route to the West Coast, which definitely need a share. Pictured above, for example, are the amazing Blue Pools in the Haast Pass - worthy of a trip all on their own. We also took in the picturesque dam at Clyde and Cromwell's perfect blue lake (Lake Dunstan), set amidst the desert-like hills of central Otago. We also stopped for a swim, camped alongside renowned Lake Wanaka, and tramped through New Zealand West Coast rainforest to reach those wonderful pools in the Haast Pass.
Prepping for a Group Bike Trip
The prep for the trip was a little hilarious in itself. At the last minute, we managed to find a small enclosed trailer from a local (budget) rental provider. Complete with roof-top bike rack, our trip was looking a little more organised than the intended plan of piling half a dozen bikes a-top one another on the roof of our 4WD. Packing the four teens in the truck, along with our little lad (our 2-year-old toddler if you're not a regular follower of our blog), proved the funny bit though. Teenagers already taking up the space that they do and filling every inch, we then packed excess baggage around them (what wouldn't fit in the trailer) and our two medium / large dogs went onto teenage laps as well. With all the benefits of hindsight, I'm really not sure how we would have fit everything that we did without the trailer. 'Stretch the boundaries as far as possible', has become something of a family motto in recent years, but this really was at the edge. Hilarious to boot as well though! The teens were laughing at the beginning of the trip anyway...
The Drive from Dunedin to Hokitika
With the drive between Dunedin and Hokitika estimated (by google maps) to be almost 7-hours all up, we planed an overnight stop at Lake Wanaka on the way, as well as regular stops for a stretch and a little sight seeing. Our first was at the Clyde Dam, which sits in the heart of central Otago. Its bluer than blue waters provide a dramatic contrast to the relatively shrub-less hills - quite unique in New Zealand's otherwise usually green and rolling landscapes. The teens jumped out for an explore, climbing a large rock pile that overlooks the dam - its a good spot for lunch as well, with a picnic table overlooking the water. Even in early December, though, the sun bakes at well-over 30degrees - it didn't take us long to decide we needed shade!
The lake formed by the dam (Lake Dunstan), extends alongside the road, heading west. It weaves its way through the Cromwell gorge to Cromwell township, providing a very picturesque roadtrip. Just above the township, theres also a stop that provides a gorgeous view down across the lake, town and to the surrounding mountains. The dramatic contrasts of this region make this a really must-see place to visit. It is an incredibly beautiful area and only an hour from (New Zealand's very famous) Queenstown and Lake Wanaka too.
Taking our time winding through central Otago's very scenic roads, we arrived at Lake Wanaka late afternoon. I mentioned that the sun bakes in this region through the summer, and we arrived very sweaty; very much looking forward to a swim! I'm more often a lounging on the beach kind of person, but even I joined the teens for their swim this trip. Lake Wanaka's crystal clear waters are fed by the mountains that surround the Lake and it was pure gorgeousness wallowing in the fresh cool water.
The main street of the township runs alongside the beach as well, and its an easy hop out of the water for ice-creams or a restful stop at one of the many fine bars or restaurants along this small stretch. Wanaka is actually a place worthy of a decent stop. There are hills for exploring; a great walk up to Roy's Peak, which has a view out across the lake and many surrounding mountains; and theres some seriously good dining to be had as well.
I've written about Wanaka a little before - I came through here at the beginning of winter, which provided a different experience again (see my page on Wanaka). We also first visited this region a couple of years back, staying at a lovely lodge on the lakefront (I was a lawyer and could still afford a little excess back then!). Our favourite restaurant from that first trip, Bistro Gentil, sits on the hill above the township, overlooking the golf course, lake and mountains. Lovely fine dining aside (I have a couple of pictures of their dishes on my Wanaka page), they also have a particularly novel way of serving wine! Its one of my favourite New Zealand towns and we have lots of happy memories here.
But this was not a gourmet trip this time around! Quite aside from a tight budget, we also had four teens in tow. Take-away pizzas purchased on the way out of town, we head up the lake-side to the top of Lake Wanaka; arriving at Boundary Creek (DOC) campsite as the sun set. It is not at all a bad drive with the late afternoon sun hitting the mountains. Beautiful is a word that gets over used at times, but this part of the country really is simply that. Wanaka is just an hour from Queenstown, and as much as I personally hate the hyper commercialisation of that centre today, the grandeur of this region makes it easy to see why so many tourists go mad for this part of the world. It definitely is in the running for world's most scenic spot.
Boundary Creek campsite is a spot we highly recommend too, if you're intending a camping trip in this part of the world. The facilities are basic, with clean public toilets and some sheltered picnic spots and basic outdoor kitchen facilities only, but the grounds are lovely and the views of the lakes and mountains are incredible. Not at all difficult to wake up to!, Its also only $8NZ/adult a night ($4 for kids), making it relatively affordable (as long as you don't have a big family) - something New Zealand is not known for.
The Haast Blue Pools
To our surprise, the teenagers actually kicked us out of bed at a reasonable hour the following morning. We'd heard them chittering away half the night, but bleary eyed as they were, they seemed more eager to hit the road than we were.
The big stop for today was the Haast Blue Pools! Located about half way between Wanaka and Franz Josef township (the first real stop at this end of the West Coast), it is a little off the beaten track. The three and half hours drive between, is mainly wilderness and rainforest - no cellphone reception. In saying that, parking up at the long road-side carpark, next to the entrance of the Haast Pools walkway, were many motorhomes and camper-vans, indicating that for those who do travel this part of the country, these definitely are considered a highlight!
The walk down to the pools, through some lovely West Coast rainforest, takes about half an hour (an hour / 1.5km return). Its an easy walk with a fabulous swing-bridge just before the pools, over the Makarora River. The walk and the river itself are a treat, but then you arrive at the pools! They really are as stunning as the pictures suggest too: a clear blue colour, contrasting against the rocks and lush green of the West Coast bush. A second swing-bridge, just along from the first, acts as something of a viewing platform.
Our teens, who swore they weren't going for another swim that morning (there was a bit of a breeze up and some light rain as we were leaving the car), were inspired by some other tourists taking turns to jump off the bridge into those perfect looking waters. After some discussion around whether they were brave enough to try this themselves, a couple of them did a mad run back up to the car to get swim-suits. I have some hilarious footage of the girls hanging off the side of the bridge, willing themselves to let-go with the group egging them on; the boys deciding they need to make a braver showing and taking the almighty leap more quickly. Its a fair drop and made for a fun bit of morning's entertainment to watch. Although we are ourselves only in our early 30s, those icy mountain waters were not at all enticing, no matter how beautiful (must be getting old!!). Watching others make the leap is a laugh though and much cheering followed anyone who did take up the challenge.
Haast Pools to Hokitika
After the Haast pools, there are other nice, frequently sign-posted, sight-seeing stops along the main road. We stopped in at a large and beautiful waterfall, just a few minutes down from the pools. There are also many lovely walks up this way too - long and short. Its a good couple of hour on to Franz Josef township from Haast Pass, with plenty to see: you quickly hit the coastline, meaning there are stunning wild beaches to see on one side of the road and dense rain-forest covered mountains on the other. I wrote a little about this road, in a blog on the West Coast, that I did earlier this year. Fox glacier is a little before Franz Josef, which is worthy of a stop for viewing, as well as the glacier and township at Franz Josef. Do be prepared if you're driving up this way though. There really is no cellphone reception and just a couple of very small remote petrol stations along this very long stretch of relative wilderness.
West Coast Rail Trail
We did eventually make it past the glaciers, all the way up to Hokitika! The plan, as earlier mentioned, had been to do a bike trip from here: the West Coast Rail Trail, if you're interested in doing one yourself over this way. Its 122km and comes highly recommended. We can at least tell you that the scenery really is second to none, although not a lot else. We do also recommend that you take a reliable vehicle - the townships are small in this part of the world, and spare parts need shipping in (as we discovered). Hokitika Holiday Park is one to recommend here too. It has fresh clean facilities, large lounges and kitchens, and just some really lovely people that run the place. When we got stuck for a few days, one of the owners went so far as to lend us their personal car so that we could still get out to see a few things. It wasn't a tough place to stay for an extended visit at all! I wrote a little about Hokitika on my earlier West Coast blog too. Unless you're an adventuring outdoorsy kind of person, there isn't a huge amount to do. The scenery and the beach are great though. Our teens did a scenic boat cruise of the waterways near the township, which they recommend. Mostly though, I'd recommend the West Coast for its laid back, slower-life feel. Spending some time in a local pub, talking to the very friendly locals about some of the history here, is also not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
I had to get back to Dunedin for a meeting, ahead of hubby. My little lad and I therefore got to jump on a plane from Hokitika (pictures from our flight above), while hubby got the long slow drive back home with the teens. A very long drive with a packed car and no bike trip! Hardly a wasted trip though :-)
Sandfly Bay is out on the Otago Peninsula: about a twenty minute drive from the Dunedin city centre. After a visit to the Glenfalloch gardens (for lunch), we headed here for a wander. Discovering our dogs weren't allowed down on the beach, limited our exploration a little, but we made it about half way down the 3km return track - well within easy admiring distance of this picture perfect Bay. Of course, we missed out on the penguins and seals that this beach is known for too.
If you're not up for paying for one of the more comprehensive tours of the peninsula, Sandfly Bay is known for being one of the better places for viewing wildlife. New Zealand's department of conservation does ask that if you encounter a penguin on the beach, that you keep well back and crouch down though - so that they don't feel threatened to come ashore (see the NZ DOC page here).
The name of the Bay comes from the massive sand dunes and windy nature of the coast, which is causative of flying sand - not the small biting insect that the locals often ascribe the name to (so says Official Dunedin). In saying that, even from our vantage point, half way down the hill, there were plenty of sandflies! Not to put you off though. I can think few more beautiful places for a walk and an explore, even if its not a beach for restful sitting in the sun and swimming. Larnach Castle is also out this way, and a morning at Sandfly Bay, lunch at Glenfalloch Gardens, and an afternoon at the Castle, would make a quite perfect sight seeing trip.
Otago Peninsula Coastal Road
It is a gorgeous drive out this way too: either up over the hills, or around the coast. We picked the hill road on the way there, which winds up over what would have been an old dirt track in earlier days. The hills drop down on either side in places, and panoramic views of the two coasts present. Really quite stunning.
The Portobello coastal road, is also an absolutely beautiful drive. You curve around one corner after another, with bay after bay, opening up in front. The waters are crystal clear and a beautiful light blue, framed by New Zealand's renowned and very green native bush and countryside. The little village of Portobello, about half an hour from the city, is also a lovely place for a stop and an admire of the scenery. There are coffee shops there, as well as a pub and a nautically themed Pirate Park, with slides, swings, a boat, fort and mini flying fox. We stopped in here, on our way back from Sandfly Bay.
The Peninsula is worthy of exploration just on its own, but little out of the way places, like Glenfalloch and Portobello, provide the human charm very much evident in this area too!
Update: January 2018 - The Otago Daily Times (Dunedin's local newspaper), posted an interesting article on Sandfly Bay, at the end of December (2017). Actually a repost of an early explorers description, written in 1864, titled "Sandfly Bay just out of reach but what a walk", published as part of a series of articles from the mid-1860s titled "Rambles Round Dunedin". I love it! Combining stunning scenery, with a little history and early intrepid adventure: the picture it paints!
We are a family who love to travel - teenager and toddler inclusive! Some of our most recent adventures have included Egypt, Morocco,Spain, Italy, East Europe and New Zealand.