Sydney, Queenstown & Auckland

Julie Northington atop Sydney Harbor Bridge

It was my great fortune to attend a well planned educational experience with visits to Sydney, Australia, Queenstown and Auckland, New Zealand in October.  New South Wales, New Zealand Tourism and Celebrity Cruise Lines arranged this wonderful trip!

At LAX we were ushered into Air New Zealand’s “lounge” for a visit and lite snack. We then boarded our 13-hour flight to Auckland. Service on board was lovely. Business class seats were nearly flat bed type, and economy seats had a comfortable recline.  Each seat offered over 100 tv/movie selections, including the latest releases.

It was an easy connection to our Sydney bound flight from Auckland airport, and in just under 3 hours we landed in the “Land Down Under”!

Upon arrival, we were whisked away by private 14-seater Canon Shuttle service right to famous “Bondi Beach.”  It was Saturday, and a very beautiful day, so you can imagine the crowds. We had a lovely snack of “vegemite” and banana bread next to the first “lifeguard” operation in the South Pacific.

Our accommodations in Sydney were at the Four Points By Sheraton, which was right on Darling Harbour offering perfect harbor front views! In the late afternoon we were again whisked away to the famous Sydney Opera House for “tasting bites” at the “Opera Bar” restaurant, located just under the promenade of the Opera House and with fantastic views of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. This while all prior to a performance of “South Pacific”!!  It was so magical!! The company’s performance wonderful as it was “and enchanted evening!”

We departed early the next day for “Featherdale Wildlife Park” located on the outskirts of Sydney. Located in a unique World Heritage region, this park is dedicated to all of Australia’s unique wildlife including wallaby’s, Tasmanian, Koalas, one huge croc and a very unique albino peacock. 

Soon after we were on our way to the famous Blue Mountains. It was a most glorious day seeing the “Grand Canyon” of the South Pacific. Such stunning views! A highlight of this was a visit to “Scenic World” – the world’s steepest rail ride and a walk through a section of pristine rainforest. 

We also visited “Waradah” Aboriginal Cultural Centre and learned about Australia’s indigenous culture and history, and lunched at a local Golf Club. The best fish and chips I ever had! That evening we took a short drive to Circular Quay to board the “Sydney 2000”.  The Captains Dinner Cruise included the signature dining experience, 3-course Australian a la carte menu, accompanied by dancing and entertainment with the “Sydney 2000” Band. The Captain’s dinner cruise on Sydney Harbor is Sydney’s most elegant way to dine afloat.

View of the city and Harbor Bridge were unforgettable. As it also was the 40th birthday of the Sydney Opera House, we were fortunate to view a huge fireworks display over the Opera House. It brought chills to think where we were and seeing such a celebration!

Next day we returned early to Bondi Beach for the annual “Sculpture by the Sea”. We were fortunate to be in  Sydney during the once a year event! This is one of Sydney’s most loved annual events along the stunning Bondi to Tamarama coast walk, featuring over 100
sculptures by artists from Australia and across the world. 

Our next adventure was perhaps the most anticipated … BridgeClimb
Sydney!!  Visitors from all over the world enjoy the ultimate experience of Sydney atop the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. There are 3 experiences to choose from that take the climber up to the summit of the bridge.  Express Climb, Discovery Climb or Bridge Climb.  All are available at dawn, daytime, twilight or at night.

We were escorted into the prep area for a 45-minute introduction. We were “decorated” with special climb suits, hats, guide belts and headphones and introduced to our guide.  After signing a
declaration and undertaking a breathalyzer test we were on our way!

Yes, my knees were shaking and my heart racing, but once we made it to the top, I felt
exhilarated!!  Words could not describe the feeling. It was as if I were on top of the

Once descended, we received our commemorative Climber Certificate and complimentary group photo. You can purchase more photos and either have them on a DVD or on a Facebook video. I bought the Facebook link as I could post it on the spot and share with all my friends.

Rejuvenated after the climb we all met our group at The Glenmore Hotel for lunch at their rooftop pub.  Another fantastic fish and chips lunch with refreshing local beer to celebrate our climb.

The Glenmore Hotel is an iconic 91-year-old heritage-listed hotel, located in The Rocks area.
As Sydney has undergone renovations and has had new life breathed into it, while honoring its history and heritage.
Shortly after lunch we met our guide from “The Rocks Walking Tours”.  Our guide described the history of Sydney and Australia, from the first European settlements at Millers Point and Walsh Bay, started with a convict history but flourishing as an important portside village. Today, this area called “The Rocks” features readapted wharves and storehouses for PR firms, theaters, cafes and apartments.

Dinner that evening at Sydney Tower reaffirmed my love for this multi-cultural, history-rich, yet very modern city. 

Sydney Tower Buffet is a contemporary self-serve restaurant with uninterrupted revolving views of the city, and offering banquet-style dining experience with fresh, fabulous seafood and more exotic fare such as crocodile and kangaroo rump. And do not forget to have Australia’s famous pavlova dessert.

We departed Sydney for Queenstown, New Zealand. As Queenstown is not an international airport we had to connect in Auckland. Arriving to the very small Queenstown airport, the views of the Remarkables mountain range were awe inspiring. I am sure the pilot of the aircraft had second thoughts on his first landing!  Descending into a narrow and steep landing is quite a thrill-seeking moment!

As the end of October is mid Spring we were greeted by snow-capped mountains as well. A late spring storm happened only days prior to our arrival. The air was as crisp and refreshing as I had ever breathed! After only a 10 minute drive into town, we arrived to the Crown Plaza. 

After a lovely dinner we retired for the night, but not before cleansing our lungs with the cold glacier air and views of millions of stars in one of the clearest skies I have viewed!

Next morning we walked across the road to the Real Journeys visitor center at Steamer Wharf to check in for our morning Milford Sound excursion.  This entailed a very scenic drive through the South Island country side with just a couple of comfort stops and an unscheduled “Sheep” traffic jam…

Milford Sound is about a 4 hour drive from Queenstown and draws visitors from all over the world to cruise its length – and wonder. Its majestic peaks, plunging waterfalls and luxuriant rainforest are simply stunning. Upon reaching Milford Sound, we cruised the fiord on board a spacious vessel. We kept a look out for dolphins, seals and penguins. And a first for me also was “sailing” the Tasman Sea!  The vessel did go out for just a few minutes and then turned around to go back into the protected fjord. It was a bit rough in the open sea, but that is to be expected. Once back in the fjord it was as smooth as glass!

Luckily for us the weather was in our favor to return to Queenstown via scenic flight. Flying between Queenstown and Milford is simply stunning. A hidden landscape unfolds below, revealing glacial lakes, waterfalls, deep valleys and cloud-piercing summits.

The small aircraft we were flown back in are specially selected for the mountainous terrain of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. All the pilots are specifically trained for alpine flying and provide an informative commentary along the way. Along the route, our experienced pilot pointed out the incredible scenery of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. Scenic highlights included dramatic Mitre Peak and cascading waterfalls.

Dinner that evening was at another local favorite in Queenstown, “Flame Bar and Grill”.  Some of the best BBQ I have had outside of my home state of Texas! New Zealand is now one of the leaders of exporting beef to Asia and we had the fortune of tasting the Grade A Beef!

Next day our excursion of Wilderness Safari entailed us to discover and explore the “World Heritage area of a combination Dart River wilderness jet boating, informative guided walk and picturesque back-country 4WD while learning about the surrounds and stopping to view some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery that has been the background for many epic movies including the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogies and X-Men.

Soon after we were off to our wine tasting in the Central Otago wine country, just on the outskirts of Queenstown’s Wakatipu Basin through picturesque valleys and dramatic gorges to the rolling vine-clad foothills of Bannockburn and beyond.   Our tour took us from Queenstown to the Gibbston Valley and through to the Bannockburn and Cromwell region, the heart of the Central Otago wine country.

Our day was not over as we had scheduled a lake cruise on a 100 year old steamer “TSS Earnslaw”. This was a cruise + dinner excursion.  We cruised in style to Walter Peak High Country Farm for a delicious carvery buffet in the historic Plantation style mansion and then strolled over to the barn area for an entertaining farm demonstration that gave us a glimpse into high country farming life.

Our return on the TSS Earnslaw cruise had us enjoying the saloon and sing-along with the ship’s pianist. The views on the return cruise as the lights of Queenstown draw nearer were simply magical!

Our next day was just as exciting as the day before! Nomad Safaris whisked us on a small, personalized tour of NZ back country. We explored historic gold mining areas, locations of Lord of The Rings filming and an exclusive high-country farm. Nomad Safari utilizes fully-equipped Land Rover Defenders to handle all terrain for our 4WD safari.

Our Safari consisted of Wakatipu Basin - This tour offers gold panning, 4WD river and a great overview of the diverse scenery of the Queenstown/Arrowtown area - from towns, to rolling farmland, rugged canyons, mountains, and bush and the famous Kawarau Gorge bungy bridge. The tour offered us a glimpse of the film locations of Minas Tirith, Misty Mountains, the Pillars of the Kings (Argonath), the site of Isildur's fall, and the Ford of Bruinen. We also overlooked Deer Park Heights, where the Rohan refugees and the battle with the Wargs were filmed.  Hope you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you would be star struck!!

Our final night in Queenstown was at the five-star, four-season resort, Millbrook Resort. Surrounded by mountains and blessed with stunning natural scenery, Millbrook offered a full range of luxurious, beautifully appointed accommodations and features an 27-hole golf course, multi-award winning spa and a number of dining options.  An impressive 95% of the grounds are open space, with walking and biking tracks for visitors and locals, and mountain bikes to hire onsite. 

While it enjoys a peaceful rural outlook, Millbrook is only a 20-minute drive from Queenstown, 10 minutes from the airport and two minutes from the nearby historic gold mining village of Arrowtown, where we visited the famous “Blue Door Bar.”  Blue Door is situated underneath one of the oldest buildings in Arrowtown, the old general store built in the 1860’s. The Blue Door has recently been converted into an intimate cocktail bar. For over one hundred years it was used for storage.  Renovations undertaken for the transformation include lowering the floors, raising the ceiling, and adding a fireplace, creating an intimate little bar with ambience aplenty. It was if we had stepped back 100 years.

Once we “returned” to present day, just a few steps away we had a beautiful dining experience at “Saffron”.

Featured in Condé Nast Traveler’s ‘Top 100 Tables’ of the world’s most exciting restaurants, Saffron is one of New Zealand’s iconic restaurants. The vibrant bistro was opened in the late 1990s by Adelaide-born Executive Chef Pete Gawron and his wife Melanie Hill who have since added the quaint Blue Door bar across the alley and Pesto pizza joint next door to their portfolio. 

Renowned for his zest and passion for food, Pete’s dishes are designed to suit the seasons and are heavily influenced by Asia and his yearly travels overseas.  Pete is a great champion of local ingredients, many of which he painstakingly hand-harvests in season, and has shared his favorite seasonal recipes in two cookbooks.  Saffron’s innovative, flavorful menu is complemented by an extensive wine list showcasing wines from Central Otago as well as selected New Zealand wines and a fine cellar of vintage French wines. 

With little fanfare, we waved good bye to Queenstown. I was looking forward to our visit to Auckland, but Queenstown by far will always hold a dear spot in my heart for it’s quaintness and the most clean air I had ever breathed.

Our day tour included the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Established in 1852 as the first guardian of New Zealand’s national treasures, the Auckland War Memorial Museum is now regarded as one of the finest museums in the Southern Hemisphere. The museum is renowned for its unique collection of Maori and Pacific treasures, and for its status as a war memorial to the many thousands of New Zealanders who died in defense of their country.   
We were treated to the Maori Cultural performance by the cultural group at Auckland Memorial Museum. The Manaia show consists of a welcome dance, poi dance, stick game, weaponry display and a haka.  This is followed by an introduction to the Maori court which houses the country's finest collection of Maori Taonga (treasures).

Our last, but not least night was in Auckland at The Hilton Hotel Auckland. This contemporary boutique hotel located 300 meters out to sea on Princes Wharf, offers most accommodation rooms with views over the Auckland Harbour. It is an easy walk to Auckland's bustling downtown and the Viaduct Harbour village.

Unbeknown to us Nov 3rd was marathon day in Auckland!  Racers from all over the world converged on the city. As we drove to the dormant volcano we passed many street detours and lots and lots of racers! It was a bit drizzly but the racers did not seem to mind.

Our experience of The Heaven To Earth Hikoi began at the dormant volcano Maungawhau (Mt Eden), the site of a majestic pā (Māori strategic stronghold). You walked past iconic Auckland landmarks, stopping along the way at places of historical significance to Ngāti Whātua. Our guide brought Auckland’s unique landscape alive through storytelling, song and customs.

Our final Auckland excursion was most memorable…a harbor cruise aboard the waka “Te Aurere”. This bamboo catamaran was featured in a motion picture recounting it’s years long journey of the South Pacific. “Sailing with the Ancestors”.   Our harbor sailing has us go under the iconic Auckland bridge just in time for the daily “bungee” thrill seekers jumps!

This entire Sydney and New Zealand trip was quite special, so very memorable and educational. My goal is to share and customize this type of vacation with my clients and have them return with the same unique memories I have.

Julie Northington, CTC