24 November 2017

How To Spend Four Weeks in Australia and New Zealand

I've only been back from my month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand for ten days and I'm already missing both countries. I blogged on the road about the places I visited — Australia here and New Zealand here — and have posted some of my favourite photos on Flickr — Australia here and New Zealand here — but I also wanted to report back on my overall itinerary: where I stayed, how I got there and how I spent my time. I had 28 full days so this is a very long article and you may wish to make a cup of coffee before you dive in.

Four weeks isn't nearly enough time to spend just in either Australia or New Zealand, but although I toyed with the idea of spending my month-long sabbatical in one country, I couldn't choose. I've long wanted to visit both and I don't know when I'll next have the opportunity to return, so I opted for a taster of both countries. As I devoured my Lonely Planet Australia and New Zealand guidebooks and began my online research back in January, I wasn't sure how I would ever manage to narrow down my long-list and build an itinerary, but I got there in the end, deciding to focus on East Coast Australia and the North Island of New Zealand.

I booked my international flights six months in advance, paying about £800 for Singapore Airlines flights from London to Melbourne, returning from Auckland to London, with a 3-hour stop in Singapore both ways. I was excited to visit Changi Airport (I visited a butterfly garden, had a foot massage and ate at a Hawker-style food court on the way out, and had a swim and jacuzzi on the way back) and Singapore Airlines' reputation for service and comfort won me over.

The flight times also suited me, contributing to my lack of jet lag. Outbound, I flew out of London at 10 pm on Friday, landed in Singapore at 6 pm on Saturday, took off for Melbourne at 9 pm on Saturday, and landed in Melbourne at 7 am on Sunday. I slept well on both overnight flights and managed a full day of coffee, brunch and sightseeing in Melbourne on the Sunday. The return flights were just as convenient and comfortable, taking off from Auckland at 1:15 am on Sunday and landing in London at 3 pm on Sunday, after a stop at Changi. I stayed up until bedtime on Sunday and woke to my alarm in the morning. I thought about a longer layover in Singapore but didn't want to sacrifice a night of my trip, and the itineraries with eight-hour layovers were considerably more expensive.

Once I'd booked the flights, it was time to plan the rest of the itinerary. Given that I was visiting in the late spring, I figured I would go to Australia first and then, by November, the weather might be better in New Zealand. I'll talk about the weather in more detail later on, but this wasn't quite right. I booked most of my hotels and internal flights in August, adding a few days in Queenstown in New Zealand's South Island to the end, after strongly worded advice from many friends.

Skip to:  Australia    New Zealand    Itinerary    Accommodation    Packing & weather

Day 1: Arrive in Melbourne
I landed in Melbourne just after 7 am and just over an hour later, I had cleared immigration (as a UK citizen, I could apply in advance for an e-visa), collected my suitcase and took the SkyBus into the city. My hotel, The Atlantis, was a short walk from the SkyBus terminal and various tram lines, and there were plenty of good coffee shops nearby (not difficult in Melbourne). I paid about £52 per night for my city-view room, which was fairly spacious, clean, comfortable and quiet. The wifi was free but shockingly slow. There was a swimming pool in the basement, which I used once.

I spent my first day getting my bearings by exploring on foot, visiting Queen Victoria Market, Federation Square, the Ian Potter Centre, the riverfront and South Melbourne Market, as well as numerous coffee shops and eateries.

Day 2–3: Speciality coffee shops, street art and St Kilda
One of my main reasons for visiting Melbourne was to explore its incredible speciality coffee scene and I spent a lot of time checking out coffee shops and cafés. I also took an excellent walking tour with Melbourne by Foot. I walked almost everywhere but I bought a Myki card and took the tram down to St Kilda to spend the afternoon on the beach.

Day 4: Fly to Cairns, shuttle to Port Douglas
I had the whole morning in Melbourne before taking the SkyBus back to Tullamarine Airport for my 2:30 pm flight to Cairns. I paid about £145 for my Jetstar flight and although I had concerns about the airline's reputation for delays, my 3h20 flight was fine. Alas, the weather in Cairns was less fine. It was raining torrentially with a storm threatened, in fact, although at least it was warm.

There is no public transport from Cairns to Port Douglas, but numerous tour companies run shuttles. I booked with Port Douglas Bus, who offer a discount if you buy a return ticket, and I paid £40 return for the one-hour trip.

Port Douglas also suffers from a dearth of mid-range accommodation. I booked a queen room with a private bathroom at the Port Douglas Backpackers, which cost about £59 per night. My room was clean and reasonably big but very basic. The wifi was OK and I did, at least, have a kettle and fridge so that I could brew my own coffee. It was generally pretty quiet for a hostel, the staff were friendly and the common areas seemed nice. There was an outdoor pool but because it barely stopped raining for my entire stay, I didn't use it. The hostel's location is good: it's a five-minute walk from Four Mile Beach, the Reef Marina and the small CBD.

Day 5–6: Port Douglas
I had two full days in Port Douglas, and headed out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef for a snorkelling trip with Wavelength (whom I highly recommend) on the day with the best weather forecast. It was still stormy in Port when our boat left and the boat ride was rough on the way out but it was calmer and occasionally even sunny out on the reef. I wasn't worried about getting wet, for obvious reasons, so much as the visibility underwater. Actually, though, it was good and I saw a wide variety of coral, fish and animal species.

The next day, I took a small-group tour to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation with Tony's Tropical Tours. Although rain shouldn't spoil your fun in the  rain forest, it might have been more pleasant if the rain had eased off at some point. But I still had a great time; the scenery is beautiful, even in the rain, and I learned a lot.

Day 7: Port Douglas and shuttle to Cairns
I couldn't find accommodation for my final night in Port Douglas — I later found out that the Great Barrier Reef Marathon was taking place the following day — so I booked a hotel in Cairns. This was also more convenient for my flight from Cairns Airport the following morning. Before taking the shuttle at 3 pm, I spent some time on Four Mile Beach, and then did a little window-shopping on Port Douglas's main drag, Macrossan Street. It even stopped raining, briefly!

I got to Cairns in the late afternoon and the town wasn't looking its best in the pouring rain. I wandered along the esplanade and browsed a few shops, searching in vain for a clownfish magnet (did Pixar ban them all?). I was tired and damp and my heart wasn't in it so I grabbed a quick dinner and went back to my hotel. Although dated, my room at the Coral Tree Inn was large with two double beds, a separate living area and kitchen, and a balcony, and I paid £64 for one night. It was a comfortable place to spend the night and a short walk from the CBD. The wifi was the best hotel wifi of the trip and the staff were lovely.

Day 8: Fly to Gold Coast, shuttle to Byron Bay
I took an Uber to the airport, which was slightly cheaper ($12) and much faster (15 minutes) than a shuttle bus. Although Ballina Airport is closer to Byron Bay, there are fewer flights so I flew to Gold Coast Airport with Jetstar for about £110. Again, there is no public transport so I booked the Byron Easy Bus shuttle for £50 return. The journey to Byron Bay takes about an hour. Confusingly, just after leaving the airport, I crossed from Queensland (which doesn't observe daylight savings time) into New South Wales (which does) and lost an hour, and the reverse happened on the way back, of course.

I stayed at the Byron Beach Resort, a two-minute walk from beautiful Belongil Beach, which you can walk along into Byron Bay (15 minutes). It's a sort of hostel meets budget-hotel meets resort and there are rooms to suit all budgets, from dorms to whole cottages. I paid about £53 per night for a (small) standard en suite double. It was a bit noisy from the adjacent Treehouse restaurant, but the noise stopped early and I slept fine. The wifi was pretty good (I paid $10 for a one-week pass as only your first hour is free).

I arrived just after lunch and I spent the whole afternoon on the beach, eventually walking into the CBD to get dinner, and then returning to my hotel.

Days 9–10: Byron Bay beach
I had three days in Byron and although it was enough, I wished I had had an extra day of R&R on the beach. The weather was generally very nice — early to mid-twenties and sunny — other than the thunderstorm that hit in my surfing lesson with Black Dog Surfing. I'd planned to spend my second full day relaxing on the beach but because my first surfing lesson got cancelled early, I was able to book a second lesson for a reduced price. When not in the — rough — sea or on the beach, I was jogging up the hill to the Cape Byron Lighthouse, looking out for dolphins and watching the sunrise. There are also some great brunch spots in town.

Day 11: Fly to Sydney
After a final morning on the beach, I took the shuttle back to the airport and waited to board my Virgin Australia flight to Sydney. I had over two hours to kill at Gold Coast, where there's little to do or eat, as a result of the Byron Easy Bus schedule, but used the time to catch up on my writing and photo organisation. My flight cost about £60 and took about 1h30.

In Sydney, I acquired an Opal card, topped it up with $20 and rode the train into the city. I stayed two nights at the Sydney Harbour YHA in The Rocks, paying a whopping £115 per night for my double en suite room. That said, I could see the Sydney Opera House from my bedroom window (the views of the harbour from the large rooftop terrace were even more impressive), the room itself was comfortable, well-appointed and quiet, and the location was excellent. It's a big, busy but well-run hostel. Although the free wifi only works in public areas, I paid about $10 for two or three days' access to the private wifi, which worked well.

I arrived in the rain just after 5 pm, but by the time I'd checked into the hostel, visited the rooftop and headed back out, it had dried up. I went down to the harbour, where there was a glorious sunset before walking to Surry Hills for dinner.

Days 12–15: Sydney
As the weather was uncertain on my first full day in Sydney, I decided to take the ferry to Manly to do the clifftop walk rather than go to Bondi. I was supposed to do the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb at sunset but there was a storm forecast so I rescheduled, getting an incredible sunset second time around.

For my final three nights in Sydney, I stayed with my good friends who live near the University of Sydney and it was fantastic to spend so much time with them. We spent a lot of time visiting coffee shops — they love coffee as much as I do — and restaurants, although we also went to the Australian Museum and the White Rabbit Gallery and did some shopping. I also went to Bondi Beach and did the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk, which was wonderful.

Day 16: Fly to Auckland (eventually)
I was supposed to fly with Qantas at around 10 am, arriving in Auckland at 3 pm, but they cancelled my flight about an hour before I was going to leave for the airport and rebooked me onto the 7:25 pm flight that got into Auckland at 00:25 am. I was not impressed but the other flights were already full and there was no prospect of compensation. I paid £157 for this flight, not including pain and suffering.

In any case, I made the most of my extra day in Sydney — it was 36C so after storing my suitcase at central station and visiting a few final coffee shops, I headed back to Bondi Beach. Much later than planned, I took the train back to Sydney's excellent airport (where you can find both Campos and Toby's Estate coffee).

We landed late, my suitcase was one of the last to arrive and I had a sudden bout of paranoia that the Kiwis would confiscate my lovely Melbourne and Sydney coffee (I declared it but they didn't). The SkyBus does run that late but it was a slow journey. I'd booked a motel in the Ponsonby area but wasn't planning to have to make the hilly 30-minute walk at 2:15 am with my luggage. I stayed for two nights at Abaco on Jervois, paying about £78 per night for the cheapest double room, but it was nice, comfortable and had a kitchenette. The owner, whom I met later, was lovely and had left an envelope on the reception door with my key card inside (ah, New Zealand...). The wifi was good and if you're keen to explore Ponsonby, the motel is in a great location.

Day 17: Auckland
I was supposed to have had the previous afternoon and evening to get my Auckland bearings but arriving so much later than planned meant that I slept in until 10 am, before heading, unrested, into Ponsonby. It was a bright, mild day but my heart wasn't in it as I sampled coffees of varying quality and did a self-guided walking tour in the city centre. Later, I dined at Ponsonby Central but you are spoiled for choice for eateries in this area.

Day 18: Drive to the Coromandel Peninsula, stay at Hahei
With a fair amount of driving to do, I headed to Go Rentals for 9 am. I paid about £100 to rent a Toyota Corolla for six days, picking it up in Auckland city centre and dropping it off at the airport. You can read more about my itinerary for the day here, but I drove to the Coromandel Peninsula, stopping at Thames, Coromandel town, Whitianga and various beaches and viewpoints, until I reached Hahei where I stayed for the night.

I stayed in a private double room with a bathroom shared with two other private rooms at Tatahi Lodge, which cost about £50 for one night. The lodge was beautiful, comfortable and — Hahei being a small village — right next to the few shops and places to eat and a short walk from the beach. There was no free wifi but I paid about £2 for a few hundred Mb mainly so that I could publish the blog posts I'd been working on.

It wasn't the right time to visit Cathedral Cove or Hot Water Beach, so I walked down to Hahei's lovely beach and explored the Te Pare reserve there instead, taking dinner at the only pub (and brewery) in town, The Pour House.

Day 19: Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and Drive to Rotorua.
I headed to Cathedral Cove first thing and then, after checking out of my hotel, I borrowed a spade and a beach towel and made the short drive to Hot Water Beach. I got there about an hour before low tide and the beach was already busy with people digging their own hot-water spa pools. Check the tide times because you need to be there within two hours of low tide.

It took three hours to drive to Rotorua, although I made an impulsive, one-hour pitstop at Wairere Falls, near Matamata, to hike to the viewpoint. In Rotorua, I stayed at the Six on Union motel, a short walk south of the CBD. I paid about £55 per night for a large room with a kitchenette. The décor was dated and the wifi was appallingly slow and flaky — they gave me 20 Gb worth of wifi vouchers to use but I only managed 0.02 Gb in three days, not through want of trying! — but the room was comfortable, meticulously clean and generally quiet.

Later, I visited the street food market that runs on Tutanekai Street on Thursday evenings and went spent a couple of hours relaxing in the thermal mineral pools of the Polynesian Spa.

Days 20–21: Rotorua
I had two full days in Rotorua and it rained on both. One day, I drove to the Wai-o-Tapu thermal park, which was breathtakingly beautiful, even in the rain, and one of my favourite activities of my trip. As Wai-o-Tapu is about halfway to Taupo, I then drove on to the lakeside town and spent the afternoon there.

On my second day, I made the short drive to the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest. There are lots of walking and bike trails of varying lengths — the hour-long walk was enough for me in the rain and it was very beautiful. I did some errands in the afternoon — unfortunately, not as much itinerary planning as I'd hoped thanks to the motel wifi — and then visited the Mitai Maori Village for an interesting evening cultural experience.

Day 22: Rotorua to Hamilton, via the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
It's a two-hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo, famous for its underground caves. I booked a combo ticket for both the Glow Worm Cave and Ruakuri Cave in advance online. I'd strongly recommend booking if you want to avoid a long wait in a place with little other diversions or risk the tickets selling out. I'd suggest doing at least two cave visits to make it worth your while; I got a lot more out of the two-hour guided tour of Ruakuri tour, although the boat ride under a canopy of bioluminescence in the Glow Worm Cave was quite something.

I drove on to Hamilton, a town I picked mainly because it was within easy reach of both Waitomo and Auckland, where I had to drop off my rental car in the morning. I stayed at the Camelot on Ulster Motel, a mile north of the CBD. I paid about £60 for one night, and had a very comfortable, quiet and well-appointed room, with functional wifi. The staff were really friendly too.

I walked along the Waikato River into the town centre, serendipitously stumbling upon an excellent used bookstore, Browsers, where I picked up a free copy of the Neat Places: Hamilton, which contained dozens of great independent shops, eateries and coffee shops.

Day 23: Hamilton to Auckland Airport to Wellington
I rose early so I could visit Rocket Coffee before hitting the road. It took 1h45 to drive to Auckland Airport in the morning rush. I dropped off my car (as well as the £100 I paid to rent the car, I spent about £65 on petrol, having driven over 600 miles) and took a shuttle to the terminal. I paid £170 for three internal flights with Air New Zealand (this one, Wellington to Queenstown and Queenstown to Auckland). My flight to Wellington was short, and I got from the gate at the airport to my hotel in under 45 minutes. I took the public bus 91 into the city centre, which stopped around the corner from my hotel.

I stayed at the Cambridge Hotel, which cost about £53 per night and which was the most disappointing accommodation of my trip. My room was tiny, had dated furnishings and — worst of all — was incredibly noisy with loud music from the bar below playing until after 1 am, even on a Monday night and despite my earplugs. You get an hour of free (OK) wifi, after which there's a charge. I complained about the noise at the same time as asking to purchase some wifi time and, spotting the easy win, the receptionist gave me 24 hours of free wifi. I would not recommend this hotel unless you're a very heavy sleeper or plan to go out partying yourself.

After checking in, I headed straight out for brunch, and spent the afternoon visiting various coffee shops and scenic locations, such as the Mount Victoria Lookout, with Tim, before taking dinner at one of the many restaurants on Cuba Street.

Day 24: Wellington
On my only full day in Wellington, I went for a morning run along the waterfront and over one of the hills, running in to Lord of the Rings tours on the way. I visited quite a few more coffee shops, did a bit of shopping, visited the excellent Te Papa museum and rode the Wellington cable car.

Day 25: Wellington to Queenstown
I visited a few final coffee shops before taking the bus back to the airport (there's decent coffee there too). The short flight put me in Queenstown just after lunch and after a little confusion over the airport bus, I was soon strolling along beautiful Lake Wakatipu and all was well.

I stayed at the YHA Queenstown Lakefront and paid about £40 for a small, basic single room with a shared bathroom (NB 'private single' means private room with a shared bathroom). The hostel itself is newly renovated with a huge kitchen and a big common room. The wifi was terrible, even in the common areas. The staff, however, were really friendly and helpful and the peaceful location, a 15-minute stroll along the lake from the CBD, was a big selling point for me as I wasn't in Queenstown to party. It was a beautiful day, so after checking in, I went straight up to the Skyline Queenstown.

Days 26–27: Queenstown
On the first of my two full days in Queenstown, I took a coach tour to Milford Sound with Cruise Milford. It was a long day — I was picked up before 7 am, and it was almost 7 pm by the time we returned — but Milford Sound was stunning, even in the rain, and the journey itself extremely beautiful.

The next day, I did a tandem skydive with NZone Skydive, which was AMAZING. This took most of the morning, and I spent the afternoon brunching, shopping and pottering, before going for a jog down to Sunshine Bay, and then taking dinner on the lakefront. It took doing a skydive for me to award myself a few hours of downtime!

Day 28: Queenstown to Auckland
My flight to Auckland arrived just before noon and after a few issues, my SkyBus got me into the CBD by 1:30 pm. I didn't have to catch a bus back to the airport until 10 pm, so I had most of the day in the city. I shopped around the High Street, coffee-shop hopped in Parnell and took a ferry out to Devonport. Later, I had dinner at the wonderful Coco's Cantina, a fabulous last supper of the trip.

Overall itinerary thoughts
I accomplished everything I wanted to do but the tight scheduling meant that a) there was little time for relaxing and b) had the weather been less kind, I might have missed out on weather-dependent activities like skydiving. An extra day in each place would have given me this breathing space, but if I'd had an extra week, I know I would have added another stop to my itinerary.

I also took a lot of internal flights, which was quite tiring and sometimes resulted in expensive airport transportation fees. Originally, I planned to spend my time in New Zealand doing a longer North Island road trip, dropping the car off in Wellington and flying to Queenstown. However, it would have been three times more expensive to drop off the car in a different city and some of the extra stops on the east coast weren't must dos, so I decided against this.

Despite the busy-ness of my schedule, I think I managed a good balance between cities, beaches and other outdoor activities. I do not for one moment regret visiting both countries in my four weeks. If you are a similar type of traveller to me, please don't be put off by snippy responses to requests for itinerary help on travel forums that tell you that you are foolish to even try fitting in both countries in four weeks. You know best what will be the most fulfilling itinerary for your own travel style and so if you want to see a few highlights from both countries, I say go for it.

Accommodation thoughts
On such a long trip, I had to stick a tight budget, particularly for accommodation. My goal was spend an average of £50–55 per night, which I managed only when counting the three nights I stayed with friends. I booked all of my accommodation 1–2 months in advance, sometimes taking advantage of Hotels.com discount codes and sometimes booking direct. After years of travelling in Asia and Central America with a similar budget, it was hard not to be a little disappointed with the quality of accommodation. Nowhere I stayed was terrible but most weren't that special and had at least one major flaw.

In case it's not obvious from my comments above, you should not rely on any hotel or lodging in Australia or New Zealand having fast, reliable wifi. It was OK at best — usually when there was a charge attached (advertised 'free wifi' sometimes also means 'for an hour of usage (per day)'). Most airports I visited had decent wifi, though, so I ended up doing a lot of my photo-uploading and blogging from there. If you really need good wifi, look into getting a local sim card with data. Finally, check-out is almost universally 10 am in Australia and New Zealand. This wasn't a problem for me — my itinerary was too packed for lie-ins — but it's worth bearing in mind.

Packing and weather
Overall, I was happy with the packing choices I made. I wore everything at least once and didn't really want for anything, with the possible exceptional of a rain coat but I didn't have room for two jackets and guessed (correctly) that my down jacket would be more useful. It did rain heavily on two days but I made do with a poncho and a brolly. I could probably have left one of my four dresses and my ballet pumps at home — I tended to live in shorts (Australia) or jeans (New Zealand) and trainers or flip flops. For the majority of my trip, it was warm (~25C in Australia and ~19C in Zealand) and generally sunny, but the temperature did range from 36C one day in Sydney to 3C in Queenstown, and I experienced rain, thunder and even an exceptionally late snowfall. My travel wardrobe was able to accommodate all of these variations rather well.

For more packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

I had a little room in my suitcase, most of which I filled with bags of coffee beans, although I bought a few items of clothing for myself, as well as a number of — generally small, packable — gifts. Given the amount of moving from place to place, I was really glad I didn't have a bigger, heavier suitcase with me.

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