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Tours in review

Candid appraisals of group tours
International Travel News,  April, 2004  by Harvey Lampert

My wife, Esta Lee, and I visited New Zealand November-December '02. As we didn't expect to make other trips there, we wanted to spend a substantial period of time. We chose World Discovery Tours (P.O. Box 6145, Auckland, New Zealand," phone [1 p.m.-midnight PST] 800/880-0152, e-mail or visit, which offered longer tours for less cost than the other companies we researched.
We opted for the 3-week "Magnificent New Zealand" plus a few extra days in Christchurch and Auckland. This tour is actually several shorter modules combined. Often, the two of us were the only travelers, and there were never more than seven.
The cost was NZ$5,400 (US$3,121) per person, including the extra days. We chose first-class hotels; there is a less expensive option that uses motor inns. Airfare was not included, but we got a good fare on the Internet for the two of us for less than $2,000 round trip from Los Angeles; a one-way flight from Auckland to Christchurch on Qantas was $62 apiece.
Overall, we thought Stephen did an excellent job of juggling our tour with a number of others that he had going at the same time. On several occasions he upgraded our accommodations; he also made very last-minute changes at our request. Because of the modular nature of our tour, there were a lot of changeovers of guides and transportation, but these were handled with almost no hitches.

In Christchurch we found some noteworthy restaurants. The Palazzo del Marinaio serves good seafood, but keep in mind that what they call "rock lobster" is what we call "crayfish" and has a completely different taste. A 3-course set menu was NZ$35 (US$20); seafood entrees were US$14-$18 a la carte.
The Tramway restaurant is a vintage tram that loops around the city While you dine. Seating is a little cramped, but the food is remarkably good, especially considering the tiny kitchen. A 3-course dinner ran about US$31.
At the Retour we had not only the best meal of our tour but one of the best restaurant meals we've ever had. A 3-course set menu pairing foods with complementary wines was NZ$65 (US$37). We went there twice.
After picking up our first guide, we left Christchurch for Queenstown. Queenstown is the adventure center of New Zealand. Although very touristy, it is in a gorgeous location surrounded by mountains, and there is a lot to do. We had sunny weather but not enough time.
By van and then excursion train through beautiful Taieri Gorge, we went to Dunedin. The most interesting sight there was Olveston House, which, unlike the museum feel of many great mansions, had the warmth of an actual home.
We also toured Penguin Place. While we had to admire the effort to preserve these animals, from a tourist viewpoint it involved a lot of up and down walking for little reward.
After Dunedin we took a tour through the Catlins, a lovely coastal area with forests, waterfalls, seals and penguins.
The next day we took a ferry to Stewart Island, off the southern coast of the South Island. It's also possible to fly by small plane, but we preferred a less cramped though sometimes choppy route. Stewart Island doesn't get a lot of foreign tourists, which is a shame because it is very pretty and pleasant and a good place to relax. We were sorry to stay only one night.
There are almost no accommodations with private baths on the island. Stephen put us in the Stewart Island Lodge (phone 0064 03 219 1085), which had beautiful rooms with facilities en suite and a wonderful view of the island's small harbor.
The owners of the lodge picked us up at the ferry port, got us to our tours, and took us and our luggage back to the ferry the next day.
A highlight was a visit to Ulva Island, an avian nature preserve five minutes away from Stewart Island by small boat. You can see Ulva Island on your own, but going with Ulva's Guided Walks (phone 0064 3 219 1216) added greatly to the experience.
On Doubtful Sound we took an overnight cruise on the Fiordland Navigator. The boat itself was small, with tiny but adequate cabins (take only an overnight bag) and good food. This is the rainiest part of New Zealand (getting about nine feet per year!), but we had two beautiful sunny days. The views are breathtaking. You also see lots of wildlife, including seals and penguins. At one point we were followed by a pod of dolphins so closely I could almost touch them. It was the kind of thing you 'see on nature programs but never expect to see in person.
Overall, the boat trip may have been the greatest highlight of our New Zealand visit. If you're traveling on your own, the cruises should be arranged well in advance through Real Journeys ( nz).
After a stay in Te Anau we did a short cruise of Milford Sound. As with Doubtful Sound, it's possible to do an overnight cruise here, but if you can only do one, Doubtful Sound is the best chioice.
We spent a couple of days back in Queenstown and headed to Franz Josef Glacier (we felt there was little to see from the viewing site) and Punakaiki (the pancake rocks in Paparoa National park are scenic, but some of the steps are quite steep).
We took the Tranz Coastal express to Picton and caught the ferry to Wellington on the North Island. Again, here was a place that would have been worth an extra day. We stayed at the very good James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor. We are not fond of buffets, but the one in this hotel was excellent.
We went on to Napier, famous for its art deco architecture. En route to Rotorua we stopped at the Waiotapu thermal area. The terraces and mud pools may be interesting, but they stank so badly of sulfur that we turned back from the tour after only a few minutes. We did better at the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute and thermal area.
In Rotorua we stayed at the Millennium Hotel. We thought this was the nicest hotel of the trip, but this may be because we were upgraded to a suite. The city was pleasant enough, though you could never completely escape the smell of sulfur.
Heading to Auckland the next day, we stopped at the Agrodome for a most entertaining farm show exhibiting all the different types of sheep raised in New Zealand. It was great fun and should not be missed.
The following day we headed for the Bay of Islands, New Zealand's main seaside resort, stopping at the surprisingly interesting Kauri Museum. The kauris are the largest and oldest trees in New Zealand, one or two of them being over 2,000 years old. On our last day there we took a cruise around the bay. The water was very choppy, but we had a repeat of our experience in Doubtful Sound, only with killer whales following the boat rather than dolphins.
We finished with three nights in the large city of Auckland. The viaduct harbor area is particularly attractive, with many restaurants and tourist sites.
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