Is it worth it to pay $200 or more for a hotel night?

Maybe your headline would say $100 or maybe your threshold is $300 or $400 a night. I thought about this a lot on my most recent trip to New Zealand because I splurged on a few nights at special venues.

When my Aunt and I travelled to Iowa we stayed at a Hampton Inn in West Des Moines. The staff was super friendly and provided great service. The room and beds were comfortable. The bathroom was extra clean and toiletries were provided. There was a mini fridge where we could store our leftovers from dinner and then forget them. All for a bargain price (thanks AARP and AAA) of about $100 a night. What more do you need? And is it worth paying for?

Sorry. You have to decide for yourself. Is it worth spending an additional $200 a night to have more space (a small apartment) at The Rees overlooking Lake Wakitipu? For my Mom and her friends. Hella yes!

When I was planning my most recent New Zealand trip I had Friday to Friday to plan on South Island. I started with a super ambitious agenda that included Christchurch. My Kiwi friends helped me get some perspective, yet I still bit off a little too much. (I will share what I will do next time at the end).

Wilderness LodgeI finally landed in Queenstown, which is the closest airport to Haast and yet it is still a 3-3.5 hour drive to the Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki. As you can tell by my Christmas post on the Fiordland Crested Penguins, I do not begrudge any of the time invested. It was a fantastic experience. It was (gulp) $499 NZ ($387 US) a night for a room that included dinner and breakfast. My room was very comfortable and had a super view of the river. The was the most expensive room I had ever booked and I only stayed one night in part because I had a hard time justifying the expense–even for penguins. Now I realize part of the room rate is because Gerry and Anne McSweeney invest so much in the habitat surrounding the lodge and in providing lodging in as sustainable a way as possible. If I had that trip to do over I would stay at least 2 nights.

I left about 1:00 p.m. to drive about 6 hours to Invercargill in the hopes of visiting Stewart Island. Then I turned around the next day, disappointed and tired without getting to the Island. My neck was torked from driving. I decided to return to Queenstown as quick as I could to enjoy my next splurge: The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel. In February a taxi driver pointed out the hotel and said it was consistently ranked number 1 on Trip Advisor. I was intrigued. The proprietors have taken an old “Dairy” or corner market and several other buildings and converted it to a first class hotel. I called ahead and asked Matt if he could arrange a massage for me in town. It was a Sunday so I thought it might not be possible. He made an appointment for me at the Body Sanctum spa just a few blocks into town from the hotel with Juliana. After the ill-fated massage in the Pyrenees I was hesitant. Wow–best massage I have had since my favorite masseuse Jackie moved away.

The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel is in the heart of Queenstown.
The Dairy Private Luxury Hotel is in the heart of Queenstown.

I arrived at the Dairy Hotel in time for afternoon tea. It was a very proper and delicious tea with cream scones and fruit (all prepared in their kitchen). The public rooms in the hotel are so comfortable I actually did make use of them. Other guests also read in front of the fire in the evening. My bed was super comfortable. The bathroom was well appointed except that I could not figure out the bath fixtures which made for a bit of contortion washing my hair. When I mentioned it to Paul he explained that I needed to push the button to start the shower before I turned the water on. Oh well. I only wish I could have stayed longer. Even at $465.00 NZ a night. Just to have Matt’s exquisite omelette again at breakfast. And to be referred to as Madame.

Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand
Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand

The thing about spending more on a hotel night is that it then makes the $290 NZ spent on Larnach Castle accommodation seem like a bargain. Again I justified it with the proximity to penguins. It is only 20-30 minutes from the Royal Albatross Centre–depending on your nerves driving on a windy road where one moment of daydreaming will have you swimming in the bay. The rooms are not in the Castle, which is a historic restored mansion open for tours. The hotel rooms are in specially built buildings and in the retrofitted stables. This price includes full breakfast the next morning but not dinner in the Castle. I pulled out my wallet for the $65 NZ for a 3 course meal with other guests. It includes ghost stories.

My view was impeccable. The windows run the length of the room including the bathroom. There is a short deck too. I could have stayed on the deck and enjoyed the view of Dunedin longer but the gardens were calling. I wandered around the various “rooms” of the garden until it was time to change for dinner. You do not have to dress for dinner. They said “come as you are.” I had packed some nicer clothes and I wanted to mark the occasion of the last night of a very special visit to New Zealand.

View from Room 18 at Larnach Castle lodging.
View from Room 18 at Larnach Castle lodging.

I still want to visit Stewart Island. And I have heard enough about the Catlins that I want to explore there as well. So driving from Dunedin to Invercargill is probably the best strategy. I do not recommend trying to squeeze Invercargill in as it takes some time to get there and then some flexibility needs to be built in on account of weather.

I have seen so much of New Zealand. Just when I think I have seen everything I learn about something else. Plus I have not done a Great Walk yet. I am looking forward to my next visit already. It helps to keep the “I’m not In New Zealand blues” away.

Best Penguin Adventure Yet

symbol of New ZealandrainforestI sat on a rock on beach nestled near the rainforest. The rain was dripping down my nose and onto a towel protecting my camera. We hiked down from the road through thick rainforest and across streams. It was near the end of the penguin nesting season, so my guide Dr. Gerry McSweeney did not guarantee we would see a penguin. I was the only guest on the guided hike and yet because of Gerry’s great enthusiasm to share these rare birds he did not hesitate to take me on my own. We waited patiently for our reward.

Fiordland Crested PenguinsThe Fiordland Crested Penguin nest in the rainforest and go to and fro all day to feed themselves and their chicks. At last we saw a shy fellow peek out of the foliage on a steep trail down to the beach. The trail looked like a slip and slide and it was hard to believe the ungainly penguin could navigate it. He/she saw us as I moved closer to get a better view I spooked her and he retreated. After more patient waiting we were rewarded with two penguins.  All together we saw 15 penguins throughout the morning, plus starfish and sea urchins, a gorgeous coastline and a rare orchid in the forest.

penguinsThey emerged from the forest moved down the bank and onto the rocky beach. They are ungainly on land and yet completely charming when hopping from rock to beach. They slipped into the water and displayed their true grace.  coastline

penguinI have enjoyed many adventures to view penguins in New Zealand, and this was the best yet. There are three types of penguins living in New Zealand. The little blue penguin can be found almost along every coastline on North and South Islands. The yellow-eyed penguin can only found along the southernmost coastline of South Island. And the rarest of the three, the Fiordland Crested penguin, lives along the west coast of South Island.

Dr. Gerry McSweeney, guide and host at Wilderness Lodge. Also keeper of the habitat along this stretch of coastline.
Dr. Gerry McSweeney, guide and host at Wilderness Lodge. Also keeper of the habitat along this stretch of coastline.

Penguin viewing is seasonal–beginning in December the penguins begin to go to sea for long months of swimming and eating. They return again in July and August to raise their chicks in a creche. I was able to arrange a guided penguin viewing on November 29 at the Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki.

starfishTo get there I flew into Queenstown and rented a car, then drove 3.5 hard miles to 30 miles north of Haast on the coast. I arrived just in time for a wonderful dinner at the Lodge. Staying at the Lodge includes dinner and breakfast. The guided penguin experience is an additional NZ$160.00 and totally worth it! The Lodge provides adventurers boots and raincoats, and hot tea and biscuits.

It was so thrilling to watch them in their habitat being penguins. I just look at the pictures and it takes me back. As in the best adventures, I want to do it again.penguin

South Island Road Trip

I am on an ambitious road trip on the South Island of New Zealand. First I flew to Queenstown and drove north to view penguins at the Wilderness Lodge in Lake Moeraki about 30 miles north of Haast. The drive over the Crown Range and through Wanaka immersed me in beauty. I found myself pushing to get to the Lodge for the 7:30 p.m. dinner AND stopping frequently to take pictures.

Along Highway 6 north of Queenstown

So frequently I got to meet Rohan and Dhaval who stopped at three scenic stops with me. Dhaval took this picture of me.

On Friday there were lots of work crews repairing rock slides and slumps. It is spring time in New Zealand so it time to repair winter damage. New Zealand keeps miles and miles of roads in good shape–a lot per capita–only 1.5 million people on South Island. Highway 6 goes from Invercargill to Queenstown and then on to Franz Joseph National Park and beyond. To conserve resources they use one lane bridges and one side gives way and waits if there is someone coming from the other direction. It is a bit unnerving at first, then I realized that I hardly ever actually encountered another car when I approached one of these bridges. One exception is the bridge just outside Frankton and Queenstown Airport. It has a light and there are cars waiting, but the scariest part is the spotty surface. The tarmac is worn away.

Cattle crossings are called Cattle stops.
Cattle crossings are called Cattle stops.

Then there are the different signs. My least favorite: “Drive with Care, Accident Black Spot”. I am not sure what it indicates except it cannot be good.

Then there are the switchbacks, just out of Arrowtown, so severe my GPS thought I had done a u-turn.

I rented a very affordable car (saving money for accommodation) from Snap Rentals in Qtown. It is the same Nissan we drove in Auckland except it has 247,000 km and the seats are broken down and the radio does not work. It did the job and with the excess insurance I did not have to worry about the loose gravel and other road hazards.

Nissan from Snap Rental

I drove through lots of rain showers. The weather was the most severe in Invercargill. Fortunately I had dashed into hotel reception before the heavy hail started to fall.

I love noticing uniquely New Zealand things. On the way out of Invercargill I saw recycled feed sacks full of “Horse Poo $2”. Just leave the money by the stand on the honor system. There are numerous roadside picnic spots. And they call it freedom camping when you can stop your self-contained camper on the side of the road.

I am glad to be moving to a bicycle tomorrow. My neck and back were so sore I called Matt at The Dairy Private Hotel to book me a massage. Juliana at Body Sanctum in Qtown did an amazing job. I am undoing her good work as I lean over my computer to write. (straighten up!) Also glad to finally have a decent internet connection. I have a lot to share. Stay tuned.

Planning the Perfect New Zealand Adventure, Part II Cycling

The place to begin planning your Otago Central Rail Trail adventure.

One of the challenges of visiting any country where it takes 12+ hours to fly to: you want to pack in as much as humanly possible in your schedule. (My kids say not everyone approaches travel this way. Whatever.) When I was last in Dunedin I really wanted to spend a day cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail. It takes an entire day with the coach pick up from the railway station, the cycling, and the return; plus it was not offered the one day I could have made it work.

So this trip I was determined to make sure to experience the retired railway, now pedestrian and cycling path.  After my experience with my Tour de France adventure, I knew I wanted a supported ride and as many days cycling as possible (in between penguin stops).

I started my research at the official website for the Otago Central Rail Trail. Interestingly, some tour operators advertise on the homepage but are not listed on the Tour Operators page. I made a complete list of possibilities. Then I went to Trip Advisor and checked the reviews under Otago Central Rail Trail. It is ranked the number #1 attraction in the Otago region. There were a few more tour operators reviewed here and so I added their names to the list.

Then I began the laborious process of visiting their websites and reading what options are offered and the possible schedules to fill in my matrix. Some options were eliminated because they only begin offering tours in January. Seasons are opposite from North America in New Zealand. (I know, duh.) Early December is not quite summer. I also have some time constraints and some companies have a minimum of 5 nights. Many of the businesses put together all of your reservations and equipment, but do not support you on the road. I believe I found my sweet spot. At a price of $1,200 a person or more, it is worth the extra time and effort to do my homework.

I also discovered that I will begin my adventure in Queenstown. This makes it easier to coordinate my car rental but adds some drive time to my overall adventure. I will take a train at the end of my four days to spend some time in Dunedin and fly to Auckland and then to the US from there.

Making these plans has definitely reenergized my bicycling workouts. I am using the training plan from Bike Your Butt Off! by Selena Yeager with Leslie Bonci.

Have any of you done this trip?  What do you think, does it deserve its #5 ranking in AA’s 101 Must-Dos for Kiwis 2012? Any tips to better enjoy the adventure?

Beauty Through a Fire Hose: Milford Sound

I had read so many rapturous accounts of Milford Sound that part of me expected to be a little let down. Then we got to Queenstown and I was so bowled over by the beauty and I wondered if it could be better than the views of Lake Wakatipu or the Remarkable mountains.

Yes it can.

Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake

We booked the Real Journey‘s tour of Milford Sound and joined a busload of people heading out of Queenstown at 7 a.m. in the morning. We drove along Lake Wakatipu and then entered an agricultural valley with sheep and commercially-reared deer in the paddocks lining the 2 lane road. When we entered the area called Fairlight I felt my body relax and exhale a sigh. The light and air were so lovely. We stopped at Mirror Lake and we gaped at the beauty. We took a bathroom break and grabbed a coffee in Te Anau (Tea Ah Now). I grabbed some yummy meat pies at the bakery even though we were provided lunch as we boarded the boat. I was surprised that you had to pay $1NZ to use the public facilities. These were outlawed in California in the 1970s because they are discriminatory to women (men can go anywhere!) However, there was a full time attendant and it was very clean.

Milford Sound
Milford Sound

At last we arrived at the Milford Sound harbor and moved from the bus to a boat. Mom and I hung out on the prow of the boat, braving the elements to avoid getting seasick. The wind was strong on the way out and not a factor on the return. The weather was so fine it was stunning.

Milford Sound is a fiord and a mighty fine fiord. I kept my eyes wide open for a kea parrot or a Fiordland penguin. Alas the only wildlife visible were New Zealand seals.

I took 589 pictures on this day! These are just a few of the wonderful snaps I captured.

One of many waterfalls in Milford Sound.
One of many waterfalls in Milford Sound.

Queenstown for the Non-Adrenaline Junkie

What is the opposite of an bungy-jumping, parasailing, luge riding tourist? Me, my mom and friends. I could not even convince all of them to take the gondola ride! We still enjoyed Queenstown and nearby Arrowtown.

Gaze all day? Lake Wakatipu from our apartment in The Rees
Gaze all day? Lake Wakatipu from our apartment in The Rees

Staying at The Rees hotel means having to overcome the temptation to stay in room all day gazing at the gorgeous view of Lake Wakatipu and watching the weather and light move across the sky. We all agree that our 2 bedroom apartment was one of the nicest we had ever enjoyed and the kitchen was much larger and better appointed than mine at home. Plus they have a great dining room, True South, with a creative albeit pricey menu inspired by local ingredients and room service.

The first day Mom and friends took the hotel shuttle into town and joined the Real Journey’s lake cruise on the TSS Earnslaw to a sheep station and enjoyed a delicious barbeque lunch. They loved it and highly recommend this experience. I took advantage of a quiet day of walking around town and caught up on emails and did some light grocery shopping.

TSS Earnslaw

Queenstown is truly beautiful. Comparisons to Lake Tahoe are inevitable and full of so many exceptions it is not worth the breath. It stands on its own.

The next day we spent in Milford Sound and that will be its own post. The final full day in Queenstown we took a cab into town and we all enjoyed the Kiwi Birdlife Park, especially the conservation show and the kiwi house at feeding time. Lisa and I bought combo tickets that allowed us a ride on the gondola.

View of Qtown from top of gondola rideThe trip up the mountain in the gondola took only a few minutes (less than the line we waited in to board). We were at the shrine to adrenaline in Queenstown. Mountain bikers hung their cycles off their gondola chair and headed up looking dusty and determined. We lofted above the luge ride and watched the bungy jumpers prep for their brave leap. As we approached the top we level with the paragliders as they took off over town.

The views at the top were as spectacular as you might expect. My best memory was the incredible Tip Top ice cream cone!

We rejoined Mom and Nancy and we called a cab to drive us to Arrowtown. Several friends recommended checking out this charming gold rush town. It is lovingly maintained and an interesting place for shopping and dining. We ate delicious blue cod and chips at the Fork and Tap. We were ready to head back The Rees and attempt to eat all the food still in the fridge. My crew was definitely from the waste not-want not generation.

As we watched the light fade over the lake we understood deep in our souls why so many people make the effort to visit Queenstown.

Hip and Chic Knitters Guide to Auckland and Queenstown

This New Zealand vacation is focused on the most popular destinations because I am accompanying my Mom and her friends on their first visit. We are dividing our time between Auckland and Queenstown.  You might be touching down in one of these two places and needing a yarn fix.

Close to cruise ships in Auckland's Central Business District
Close to cruise ships in Auckland’s Central Business District

The most convenient wool shop is at the Westfield shopping centre at the corner of Albert and Queen Streets right by the wharf: Masco Wool Shop. It is on the second floor in the corridor leading to the food court. It has a great selection of yarn including a large selection of wool made in New Zealand. This was my go to shop when I lived in St Heliers. I could get Debbie Bliss’ magazine here and all the basic supplies. If you arrived in Auckland on a cruise ship, this is an easy location to shop. Hours Monday through Friday 8-6; Saturday 10-6 and Sunday 10-5.

Pat at Woolly For You will help you find fashionable woolens
Pat at Woolly For You will help you find fashionable woolens

On my first visit to Auckland (after a Habitat for Humanity build in Wellington), I stayed at a hostel in Parnell and discovered Woolly For You at 237 Parnell Road in the part of Auckland called Parnell. It is not far from the wharf either and is an easy bus ride or quick taxi ride. You can also walk from the Central Business District if you have good walking shoes. This shop has a good selection of already made sweaters and a small selection of knitting wool too.  I bought a lovely lightweight Merino “jumper” at a more affordable price than you will find on Queen Street.

In Queenstown I walked around town and did not see any knitting wool. My Mom and friends said they saw a shop with knitting wool but could not remember the name. A Google search does not help to identify it. One of the challenges is the term “wool shop” can mean ready-made sweaters or knitting wool. Even “knitting wool” has led me astray. Then there are the disappointing yarn suppliers who carry mainly acrylics (see my blog from Dunedin).

41 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown
41 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown

The shop in nearby Arrowtown offers a variety of supplies for crafters including knitters and quilters. Offering my favorite “good buy” New Zealand wool by Naturally, you can pick up a new project. Quilters may not be able to resist special New Zealand prints for a project commemorating your New Zealand adventure. Anne Murchison at The Stitching Post does not have a website, but she recommends you check out these New Zealand yarn manufacturers and email her your requests: and Anne’s email is and phone is 03 442 0448.

I have made little progress on the dog sweater project I brought along; maybe because it is summer in New Zealand or because I have had little down time. Fingers crossed I will get something like a sweater for wee Cooper knit on the Air New Zealand flight to SFO.


Travel While You Can

Three of the Crazy Eights: friends for 60 years since Aviation Club at Santa Rosa Junior College
Three of the Crazy Eights: friends for 60 years since Aviation Club at Santa Rosa Junior College

I am traveling for 10 days in New Zealand with my mom, Karen, and her two friends Lisa and Nancy. They have been friends for 60 years (since Junior College), so you do the math. It has been fun and challenging.  It is like traveling with teenagers (and I am the parent). We all agreed to meet at the ferry building at 4:00 p.m. and at 4:25 they were still not there and I was very concerned. Unwilling to take my phone I had no way of tracking them or for them to call me if they needed help. I had already called the hotel to check if there were any SOS calls. They show up laughing and enjoying themselves. When I say they had me worried they each tell a different story from “I didn’t remember that we agreed to 4:00” to “I knew we were to meet at 4:00 but I thought the ferry was faster.” I do not want to cramp their style, but I do want them to be safe.

I was telling my friend Steve this story and he looked at me incredulously. “Didn’t you think of taking them for a test drive? Like to the mall.” I couldn’t stop laughing. No, it never occurred to me. Nor did it occur to me that a hotel room on the third floor without a lift is not such a great idea. Or that getting a wheelchair at the airport is actually much more difficult and time consuming than it looks. Or that none of them realize how deaf they really are!  “What do you think those insects are making that racket? (roar of Cicadas in background) “What noise?”  Nevermind.

It is hugely satisfying to give them the opportunity to see this beautiful country. They love meeting my friends and seeing my favorite places in Auckland. And now we are in Queenstown staying at the Rees Hotel thanks to Lisa’s experience as a travel agent. Today is my day for writing and they are off on a lake cruise and BBQ at a sheep station. Tomorrow we all go to Milford Sound.

But some of the best memories have been unplanned. Like listening to my Mom and Lisa cutting up whilst trying to answer the trivia questions on the Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown. The Boxer Rebellion occurred in which country? “South Africa!” they cry in unison with confidence. “China” I mumble looking up from my book. They just laugh.  Then they joke that the airline could give them the same questions on the return trip to Auckland and they won’t necessarily do any better!

Or laughing hysterically at a silly car racing competition inside a supermarket on the show Top Gear. Mom and I were watching in our bedroom at the Rees Hotel and laughing so hard that Lisa and Nancy came in to see what they were missing.

Mom, Lisa and Nancy are taking joy from a motto one of the parishioners offered as we were leaving St Philips Anglican Church on Sunday:

Travel before your medicine bottles outweigh your luggage.