Grand Explorer Review
7 Mar 2008
Hey all, I just got back from the Grand Explorer 15-day tour through New Zealand. It was my second Contiki tour (first was Scandinavia last June). Thought I’d share a few comments for those considering the tour. If you are considering *any* of the NZ tours, the Grand Explorer is a combination of all of them, covering the whole country, so if you’re doing just the North or South Island, or one of the shorter tours, your region will be covered here somewhere!<BR><BR>The starting point for the Grand Explorer is Auckland. The tour starts at noon so you will likely need to arrive and book a room the night before. Contiki can do this for you, or you can do it yourself. I got my own room at the Hyatt, a short walk from the CBD, but it seems most Contiki clients stay at the Mercure, which is conveniently the meeting place of the tour. You will immediately depart Auckland at the start of the tour, and stop there for an hour lunch break when you head south again after the Bay of Islands (Paihia). If you want time to sightsee in the city, definitely arrive a day or two early. <BR><BR>The first stop is Paihia on the Bay of Islands, where you spend two nights. It’s generally a relaxing start to the trip, depending on the optional activities you choose to do on Day Two. When you arrive, you have the option of taking the Excitor boat out to the Hole in the Rock. This was enjoyable, despite the cheesy music and jokes made by the tour guide. Pending weather and sea conditions, the boat may take you right through the hole. If you tend to suffer from motion sickness, this excursion is not recommended. The boat is fast and rough. You will need to hold on for most of the ride, though it does slow down and stop for photo opportunities. I was generally fine, but many tour mates felt a little ill afterwards. The trip out was exciting, but the trip back was a little irritating. It seems to go much faster on the return to the dock, causing big splashes. You will get wet, even through the rubber suits they provide. And the salt water did no favours for my contact lenses. I would still recommend it, if you have a sense of adventure. If you don’t, you’re in for a looooong trip!<BR><BR>Dinner is provided both nights in Paihia by the hotel. The provided meals and optionals on Contiki are generally edible, but not great. I looked forward to opportunities to feed myself when we had free time in the cities to go to whatever restaurants we wanted. There are a few exceptions, which I will mention later on.<BR><BR>The first night in Paihia, you will likely be directed to the Lighthouse bar. This place was a lot of fun, great venue for meeting your tour mates. Each night has a different musical theme. Fridays they have a live cover band, which was fantastic. Don’t get the $3 drinks offered before 10pm, they are awful. Alcohol is pretty expensive all over New Zealand. This wasn’t a huge problem for me because I’m not a big drinker, but if you are (like most Contiki travelers!), be sure to budget this in. <BR><BR>The next day there are several optional excursions to choose from. I did the Explore NZ, which is a dolphin sightseeing cruise in the morning, and then a relaxing afternoon on a catamaran, with lunch included. We saw lots of dolphins on the cruise, though you don’t always. The group that went in the afternoon didn’t see any (you get a refund if this happens, but 85% of the time, you do see dolphins). It’s very difficult to take pictures of these creatures! They are very fast. Be my guest at trying, but do try to just enjoy their presence, don’t waste all your time trying to get a great picture. I took about 150, and only one or two turned out. You may get a chance to swim with the dolphins, but not always. It depends mostly on whether or not they have babies with them. Newborns have very delicate feeding cycles and cannot be disturbed, and NZ has a heavily regulated system to protect them. Even if you don’t get to swim with them (we didn’t), it is still a really fun morning.<BR><BR>The afternoon on the catamaran is very serene. This is a misleading start to the tour, so take advantage, but don’t get used to it! Contikis in general are very fast-paced! There are many activities you can do in and around the catamaran, including snorkeling, kayaking, and taking a hike on Urupukapuka Island, the Bay’s largest. I went snorkeling. There wasn’t much to see, but I enjoyed it anyway because it was novel to me, I’d never been in salt water before.<BR><BR>Returning to dry land in late afternoon, you will get dinner at the hotel again. The accommodation in Paihia is basic, but nice. All of the hotels on the NZ tours have running water, which is a huge improvement over my Scandinavia tour.<BR><BR>In the evening, you will likely head out to Lighthouse again. On Saturdays, a DJ spins a mix of music, mostly Top 40 dance and hip hop, with some classics. Later on, there is a wet t-shirt contest. My roommate won the night we were there, which was rather amusing.<BR><BR>Day Three, you will head south, stopping in Auckland for lunch and ending up at the Waitomo Caves in late afternoon. There are two basic options at the caves, either a hike or “black water rafting,” which I tried. Our tour guides were useless, but I tried to enjoy the experience nonetheless. You will need to wear a wetsuit (provided), so make sure to pack a swimsuit to wear underneath. The water is cold, but it didn’t bother me (I’m Canadian). If you’re not from Australia, be prepared to put up with lots of complaints from the Aussies! They tend to freeze in any temperature below 25°C. (LOL, just teasing you guys, you’re easy targets! Really, I have many Aussie friends, I love you!) The black water rafting is not a relaxing activity. You have a fair bit of walking uphill in the hot sun, in your wetsuit, carrying an inner tube, before reaching the jump off point in the caves. Once you’re in the cave, you still have some walking to do before you start floating in the tube. The ground is uneven and you are wearing borrowed boots, so be sure to get a good fit! Once you start floating though, it’s a lot of fun. There is one point where you have to jump backwards off a small waterfall, landing in your tube. The fall is only a few metres, but the fact that you are surrounded by rock and fall looks bigger than it is, and it’s pitch black, make it a little terrifying. Once down, everyone “links up” by grabbing the feet of the person behind them, then turning off helmet lights and floating peacefully through the cave in complete darkness. All you’ll see are the glowworms on the roof of the cave. Afterwards, everyone gets soup and bagels to warm up.<BR><BR>Dinner at the Waitomo hotel is quite good. We had pizza, they had about half a dozen varieties. The two-storey cabins you stay in are quite cute. First floor has two single beds and a bathroom, upstairs has two more beds. There is a pub just around the corner from the hotel, but I didn’t go out that night. I heard it was good.<BR><BR>Day Four, you drive to Rotorua, which is only about two hours from Waitomo, but you have a number of stops along the way for optional activities. There are the Rainbow Springs, a sanctuary of sorts where you can see many of NZ’s native birds and fish. It’s the calmest of the activities, and it has the best gift shop in the whole country (I saw almost all of them, believe me). If you want souvenirs that aren’t tacky, this is the place to get them. Huge jewellery selection. <img src="http://connect.contiki.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif" alt="Smiler" width="15" height="15"><!--graemlin::)--> <BR><BR>Other options that I didn’t do were the luge ride and zorbing. I watched the zorbing, nearly everyone else did it. Essentially, it is rolling down a big hill in a rubber ball. The HydroZorb is the most popular option, where you wear a swimsuit and they throw in some water for you to splash around in on the way down. I don’t quite see the point of the activity, but whatever, people seemed to have fun. <BR><BR>Everyone attends the Agrodome Farm show, which is probably the cheesiest thing you will ever see. A sheep herder will introduce nineteen breeds of sheep, and then shear one of them. Major tourist trap, but it’s included with the tour, so you can’t easily avoid it. <BR><BR>The final option in Rotorua is the Te Puia cultural centre. Only three people went from my tour, but I would highly recommend it, and I wish it was more popular. They have guided tours of a traditional Māori village, and the centre is also home to over 500 thermal springs, boiling mud pools, and one of the largest geysers in the country. <BR> <BR>In the evening, the optional dinner is a must. It is a traditional Māori hangi, a special method of slow-cooking food in a pit dug in the ground on piles of hot rocks. There is also a performance of Māori song, dance, and storytelling.<BR><BR>Day Five involves only a short drive, less than an hour, to Taupo, then lots of time for activities. I filled my day up with the Huka Jet, parasailing, and a scenic helicopter ride, all of which were awesome. The Huka Jet is very similar to the Shotover Jet in Queenstown, so if you miss it here, you will get another chance. There are also helicopter options at Fox Glacier. If you have any spare time in the city (I didn’t), you will need to hit the second hand shops or Salvation Army to find something to wear for the dinner cruise. It will likely carry a Pimps & *****s theme, and everyone gets into the spirit. I’ve never been one for costumes (I’ve done Halloween only once in my adult life), but just go with it and I can assure you have a good time. The dinner on the boat is decent, and afterwards there will be dancing. Back on dry land, you’ll hit the clubs. We went to Element, which played some ridiculous music -- “Macarena,” anyone? “Cotton-Eye Joe?” Or one of my guilty-pleasure favourites, “Footloose?” -- but we were too drunk to care. It was one of the better nights out on tour.<BR><BR>Day Six is a long driving day, about five hours to Wellington. There are a few stops along the way of course, including a photo op at Mount Doom for Lord of the Rings fans (admit it, you know you are one). Upon arrival in the afternoon, there is time to sightsee, but I was behind in my laundry, so I spent my free time in the creepy hotel laundry room off the parking garage. There is an optional dinner the first night in town at a bar called Blend. It’s very reasonably priced and the food is delicious. After dinner, dancing on the tables and removing of clothing (especially for the guys) is highly encouraged. <img src="http://connect.contiki.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_smile.gif" alt="Smiler" width="15" height="15"><!--graemlin::)--><BR><BR>My free day in Wellington was unfortunately a waste. I chose to do the full day Lord of the Rings tour (yes, I’m a nerd), and it turned out to be rather disappointing. The tour consists of being driven around the city for the entire day, piling in and out of the minivan every fifteen minutes, and looking at trees. The films were shot six to eight years ago, so naturally none of the set pieces remain. The guide has tons of still images from the movie on hand, and will point out landmarks from the stills, mostly trees, and then show you the actual tree. It was kind of cool for the first hour or two, but by the end of the day, it’s very repetitive and you don’t end up seeing much of the city itself. With such limited time in Wellington, I would recommend venturing out on your own. There is plenty to see in this vibrant and artistic town. Luckily, my day was saved with a solo trip to the Green Parrot, a great little local hang-out that became popular with the Lord of the Rings cast, especially Viggo Mortensen (“Aragorn”). The menu consists largely of steaks and fish, with a few other choices. I had the best omelet ever made. The pricing is neither cheap nor expensive, and the staff are very friendly and know nearly all of their customers on a first-name basis. Definitely not a tourist destination, which was exactly what I was looking for at this point on the tour.<BR><BR>The next day we boarded the Interislander ferry which took us across Cook Strait to the South Island. The journey takes about three hours, so take something to do on the boat. There is a bar and café, as well as a movie theatre that will show a recent release (this costs extra). I watched Enchanted, which I had already seen, but it was adorable and I’m a movie nut, so even something familiar was nice. Going a week without seeing a movie is a huge undertaking for me!<BR><BR>Once off the ferry, it’s about a five-hour drive to that night’s destination, Christchurch, in all making it a very long travel day. There is a lot more driving involved on the South Island, so be sure to take a book, deck of cards, or music to pass the time. Many people chose to sleep through the driving days, but I don’t recommend it. The sights are absolutely gorgeous! There is a photo stop along the Kaikoura Coast to see seals lounging on the rocks. Don’t get too close, they are aggressive and they stink, but you can get a decent picture from the side of the road. We had a free night in Christchurch, which turned out to be kind of dull. We initially planned on going out to an Irish pub as a big group, but it turned out to have a horrible dinner menu, so we split up, and I ended up with some friends at a Mexican joint, which would have been great if I liked Mexican food, which I don’t. Oh well, you win some and you lose some. When traveling in a group, you can’t get your way all the time. I made it an early night, as I knew we’d be seeing Christchurch again at the end of the tour. It is the final destination, and depending on when your flight out is, you should have time to sightsee the day after the tour ends.<BR><BR>Day Nine is the westward journey to the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers, via Arthur’s Pass. This is when the scenery turns from simply beautiful to beyond gorgeous, so stay awake, even if you partied all night! You will cross the Otira Viaduct, an impressive bridge that was completed less then ten years ago. Prior to that, landslides and avalanches often left the road impassable. There is a short stop in Hokitika to see the Jade Factory. New Zealand is famous for it’s greenstone, which is here carved into jewellery and collectibles. It is expensive (around $100 for a necklace), but makes a great gift if your budget permits. If you aren’t buying anything, you can still watch artists carve the stone in the factories.<BR><BR>There isn’t much to do in the Franz Josef settlement, so upon arrival, there’s dinner and of course drinking. Many found this hotel to be the lowest quality on the whole trip, with bunk beds and spring-loaded showers that only provide a few seconds of water at a time. But if you’ve ever been on a European Budget tour with Contiki, this will be nothing new. I was just happy I didn’t have to pay extra for hot water. The dinner provided by the hotel got mixed reviews. Nobody seemed to like the lamb or chicken options, but the vegetarian pasta dish I chose was fantastic.<BR><BR>There are several glacier sightseeing options, the cheapest and most popular being the 4-hour hike around the bottom of the glacier. Others include scenic helicopter rides with a glacier landing. The one I chose, probably my favourite optional activity on the whole trip, was the “helihike.” It’s a 3½-hour hike about half way up the glacier. The only way to access the area is by helicopter, so you get a combination of both other options. It’s the most expensive, but I can’t recommend it enough! You start very early in the morning, and one of the most amazing sights you will ever see is watching the sun rise over the mountains next to the glacier. I got some amazing pictures. Despite being surrounded by ice, it isn’t cold on the glacier. You can wear light pants (jeans are not advised because they take forever to dry) or even shorts, and a few layers on top. Boots and crampons (spikes) are provided. It takes a little while to get used to walking in them, but it’s not difficult. They will keep you very secure. A guide will show you around and is very knowledgeable. Follow them carefully, they know where to go and what areas are too dangerous, like deep crevices and unstable caves.<BR><BR>Following Fox is another long drive, about 4½ hours to Queenstown. Good news this time though, is you’re staying put for three nights. A rarity on Contiki tours. Queenstown is widely considered the adventure capital of the world. White water rafting, sky diving, and bungee jumping are but a few choices. Personally, I took it easy in Queenstown. On the second day, I slept in, went horseback riding, and then went to bed early. My Dart River cruise was cancelled on the third day due to rain (the only rain I had on my entire vacation, including two weeks in Australia), and it wasn’t that big a deal because the Queenstown lodge is probably the nicest accommodation on tour. After a morning shopping in the rain, I spent the entire afternoon in the spa and sauna, which has a stunning view of the Remarkables Mountains and Lake Wakatipu. <BR><BR>There is an optional dinner on the first night in Queenstown, at the Skyline restaurant. The quality of the food isn’t great, and it’s quite pricey, but you are also partially paying for the gondola ride to get to the restaurant located high above the city, and the terrace offers great views of the city, lake, and mountains. <BR><BR>Leaving Queenstown on Day Thirteen, everyone stops to watch the final bungy jump. The first two are scheduled the day before, but the one at Kawarau Bridge is located on the way to Milford Sound, so the whole bus gets to watch those who signed up for it. Lunch is in Te Anau, a cute little town on the deepest lake in the country. The drive from Te Anau to Milford only takes an hour or so, but on tour, it’s stretched out to include lots of scenic stops for photo ops. <BR><BR>The Milford Sound overnight cruise is really beautiful. You will need to pack an overnight bag, as you can’t take all of your luggage on the boat with you. You will see why when you arrive in your cabin, they are very tiny. Prior to dinner, there are various water activities around the boat, like swimming and kayaking. Beware, the water is freezing! Dinner is served and then the bar is open until only 10:30. Classic board games are brought out, a great way to pass the time after dark. Early in the morning, get up before the “alarm” goes off and get some spectacular pictures of the sound in complete peace and quiet. <BR><BR>Second-last day of the tour involves the most driving, about six and a half hours to Lake Ohau, near Twizel. It’s a quiet night, you’re in the middle of nowhere and the only social option is the on-site bar. The final day is more driving, five or so hours to Christchurch. You should get there early-mid afternoon, and then you’ll have the rest of the day free. Almost everyone goes out for a bittersweet night of good-byes and partying. We went to a great restaurant called Lone Star, which had a seemingly out of place but nonetheless intriguing Texas theme. The cuisine is more Kiwi then Tex-Mex, but the décor is all related to American culture and the portions are huge. Be sure to try the Twisted Kiwi cocktail. It’s quite possibly the best alcoholic drink I’ve ever had. Afterwards we hit Shooters bar, which had a predictable but decent top-forty play list to dance to. <BR><BR>I spent my final night not at the Contiki hotel, which is on the edge of town, but at Rydges, a block from Cathedral Square in the CBD. I had time the next morning to check out the market, which features local arts and crafts, and had a delicious breakfast at the Yellow Rocket, right in the square. If you have time, I highly recommend checking this out before flying out of Christchurch.<BR><BR>And that’s the tour! Phew, I wasn’t planning on writing such a long review. I hope it was helpful. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to email me: black eyed surfer at hot mail dot com. Happy traveling!