New Zealand – Excursion Envy
…There are gondola rides, bike tours, paddle boarding, historic train trips, hikes on glaciers and ice climbing, helicopter tours,
aqua biking, river surfing and rafting, rock climbing, whale watching, fishing, zip lining, panning for gold, kayaking,
wine tasting, zip lining, sky diving, guided hikes, kite boarding, star gazing tours, glow worm caves, scenic airplane and seaplane flights, paragliding…
…city tours, segways, brewery and chocolate factory tours, visits to film locations from Lord of the Rings, spas for massages after all of that action, and the list goes on and on. However they come at a price, and a hefty one at that (most cost between $100-200, with many priced at a lot more, some up to thousands) So how do you choose?!
It’s a challenge, especially when you’re on a budget. I allowed myself only one per week of the paid excursions on a 3 week visit (technically one extra, since I cruised both Milford and Doubtful Sounds).
I also took a scenic helicopter flight over the glaciers,
and swam with the dolphins, all of which had been on my bucket list for years.
If you have the money, go for as many as interest you, otherwise prioritize. But the good news is that many of these expensive excursions can be experienced for free (other than the cost of getting there).
Most of the guided hikes, you can do on your own, you just have to get to the trailheads. Renting a car is a good investment as it allows you maximum freedom and saves you money in the long run. There are also buses that run to many of the trails.
And as scary as it might sound, hitchhiking is very common in New Zealand. I’ve never picked up hitch hikers before, but I have now. Before you get too worried, two were young smiling, giggling Chinese girls who needed a ride up to Franz Josef glacier, one was a retired lady from Denmark who asked for a ride to the Pancake Rocks, and the other was a young kayaking guide who needed a lift as he and his friend were spotting a car. It’s wise to be careful, just use common sense.
Speaking of the Pancake Rocks (and blowholes), here’s another example of something for free. Sites like these don’t charge admission, however tour companies make a fortune toting you there on a bus and telling you when to leave. Go on your own and you can stay as long as you like!
This is true all over the South Island. Want to see seals? Visit the seal colony near Kaikura, or the beach across from the waterfall just north. I saw a huge tour bus pull up to dump off hordes of tourists, who’d paid big bucks for the privilege to see the same seals and waterfall I just saw for free (other than the cost of my gas and car rental, which does get figured in overall).
There are loads of scenic lookouts that the tour buses stop at, which I enjoyed on my drives at no additional cost (see my upcoming post, “Scene in Between”). You can see the glow worms for free by walking on a trail near the hostel in Fox Glacier, or pay for a tour in a cave, your choice. You can pay close to $100 for an astronomy tour near Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo, or go out at night and look up at the sky. If you want more information on what galactic sights you’re seeing, my hostel host told me about a local astronomer who takes small groups out for $5 (unfortunately for me, he was fully booked – he only has a couple of telescopes and so only takes a few people at a time).
Queenstown is the mecca for adrenaline junkies, with a wild night life as well, I’m told. I opted to stay in nearby Wanaka, a lovely little town on a lake, where on a beautiful walk on the shoreline trail, I stumbled upon a winery for a tasting of their very pretty pinots.
I also hiked to the top of the Rocky Mountain trail, near Diamond Lake, for 360 degree views, including paragliding sightings. I was happier watching them soar through the sky than I would have been joining them.
For some excursions, you’re going to have to cough up the bucks, unless you just want to watch. Near Queenstown, I stopped to see the bungy jumpers leap off of a high bridge attached to a cord. Have to say, it was fun to see, but you couldn’t pay me to do it myself! I did meet a man in his 70’s later who told me if you do it at his age it’s free. (Otherwise plan to spend about $200 per leap!)
When I swam with the dolphins, I opted to go on a small zephyr boat with a local guide from my hostel near Akaroa instead of the bigger, more commercial tour. Although they were about the same price, I got a discount as I was staying at the hostel, and a more personalized trip as there were only 6 of us plus the captain and guide. Yes, it was cold, but they provide wet suits and snorkels.
There are no guarantees that you’ll see any dolphins (they’re the very rare Hector’s dolphins) Fortunately we weren’t disappointed. A couple of days before they’d seen about 50-60, and we only had 3 swimming with us, but we had a bonus on our trip…
…we got to help rescue a penguin! It seems he was a fjiordland bird who’d somehow lost his way, and our guide waded ashore, nabbed him in a towel, and hoisted him aboard, to return him to his rightful home further south. He was a little flustered, until a Scottish doctor on board started singing to him and stroking his head, and he calmed right down. I dubbed her the penguin whisperer. It was an amazing day!
Do I feel like I missed out because of my budget? Nope, I’m satisfied. I got to do the 3 things I most wanted to do, and many of the other things, like hiking, wine tasting, wildlife viewing, and photographing astounding scenery as well, without the high price of the tours. Oh, and check out the discount websites, like bookme.co.nz a few days before you go – you can get some amazing deals from 50-80% off!!