Travel Review: Wellington, New Zealand

25 Jan

I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand since I first saw the Lord of the Rings. We almost had the chance in January 2011, except we were depending on me getting frequent flyer points from Qantas which never went through and using those (we had SO many built up!). Plus, the floods that year made travel a bit tedious. Finally, we were able to make the time and save up the money to head over for a few days. We spent our four-day vacation in Wellington. Kind of wish we had a few more days in order to travel around a bit more, but we were pretty happy with everything.

Review: Virgin Blue Holidays
http://www.virginaustralia.com/au/en/bookings/holidays/holiday-packages/

We booked our trip through Virgin Blue Holidays, which had some sort of sale on at the time. Virgin bundled airfare, hotel, and a tour for us, and it was much cheaper than it would have been otherwise. It was easy to book and we didn’t run into any problems at our various check-in points. The only issue was just after we booked, the link that they e-mailed didn’t work to get us to our itinerary. Their customer service was extremely quick to resolve that issue, and I plan on booking with Blue Holidays again in the future. I’m particularly intrigued by their “mystery holidays” — but that is a blog post for another day.

Review: Travelodge Wellington

Keep in mind that we’re a young couple without very high standards looking for the cheapest deal we can find. The Travelodge was one of the cheapest options for our travel deal and very centrally located–perfect. It was only about a fifteen minute taxi ride from the airport. We checked in no problem and went up to our room. We had a king room, very clean and stocked with toiletries, and that’s all we felt we needed. Some of the negative reviews we read said “small, horrible view, overpriced minibar.” Sure, it might have been on the small side, we had a view of a parking lot, and they wanted $6 for a bottle of water you could get for under $1 at the shops–but it wasn’t a moldy hostel shared with six other girls (and then two boys when the hostel forgets you requested all female rooming… seriously, Belfast. Never again.)

Anyway, we were perfectly happy with the arrangements. We were tucked away in a quiet wing on the fourteenth floor, didn’t have any problems with the neighbors, had clean towels and the bed made every day. We viewed the hotel as a place to sleep, since we wanted to get out and about in the city as much as we could while we were there.

Review: Wellington Rover Tour – Lord of the Rings

I read reviews for the tour we took on our first full day in Wellington and knew it was something I wanted to do early on. I think it’s helpful to read both the positive and the negative reviews before you decide if it’s best for you. The Lord of the Rings is very much a set of location movies–that means there isn’t a lot left of the sets. If you’re expecting to see sets, I suggest going up north to Hobbiton instead.

On the day of the tour, the rover bus picked us up at 8:35 a.m. right from our hotel, which was very convenient. They do pick-ups all over Wellington. Our group was so spread out that they had two buses pick up, then they met up and had us transfer into the bigger bus. And by bus I really mean van–our tour was full-up, but there were only ten people on it. The small size was very nice, as it meant less time waiting for people to get in and out of the vehicle (named “Aragorn”) and more time getting to know the people we were traveling with.

That’s one of the things I like best about travelling–being able to meet people from all over. On our tour there was a family of four from Sydney, a man from France, two women from Germany and Switzerland, and another man from Michigan. And the tour guide from New Zealand, of course. It was a lot of fun being able to talk to people–though it was a bit of a chore trying to explain how the guy from Brisbane and the girl from Michigan were married!

Anyway, we started off by driving to Rivendell through Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt. Apparently this is usually saved for later in the tour, but it was a public holiday in New Zealand and the park where Rivendell is located was sure to get busy later in the day. We stopped in a few places along the way, seeing where they built Minas Tirith and Helm’s Deep (the same location!) and one of the four rivers that make up scenes on the River Anduin. At Rivendell, we were given elf ears, a cape, and a replica of Sting and took photos under the tree where a lot of famous Legolas posters are set.

After, we were given the opportunity to have some morning tea and wander around the grounds. It was great being able to wander around beautiful New Zealand bush. We also crossed the swaying bridge at the same location. It was an area we wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise, neither of us having access to a car, and we were thankful that we were able to have the opportunity while we were on the tour.

On the way back, we went through the Gardens of Isengard, where Sarumon says, “So the ring of power has returned.” The guide presented lots of pictures of how the filmmakers changed the scenery and how they built things. He also had a lot of funny stories about “wizard golf.” We were then given our very own wizard staffs and walked through the gardens in pairs, just like Gandalf and Sarumon.

We then hopped back in the van and went on our way back to Wellington. We might have stopped once more, but I can’t remember what we saw. In the city we were served a fabulous lunch of sandwiches and pastries (seriously good sandwiches–the name of the cafe escapes me, unfortunately!). A market was on, so we had a little bit of time to look around before getting back in the van.

Then we drove all the way to the South Coast and had a great view–the coast is rough and rocky, and so gorgeous. This took us to the technical part of the movies–studios where sets were built and where the movies were edited, as well as Peter Jackson’s house (we didn’t go inside obviously, we just hovered stalkerishly outside). We learned about all that Peter Jackson has done for New Zealand’s economy, before we were off to the Weta Cave.

The Weta Cave is where special effects were done for the movies–which, as you can imagine, played a massive role in the films. The actual part of the store we were in was a bit tiny and cramped, as a few tour groups arrived at once. The store had tons of stuff for purchase, all of which was a bit out of our budget-price range, but it was quite nice Lord of the Rings merchandise (along with merchandise from other films the Cave had worked on). We were able to see a short movie about what the workshop did. There was an optional workshop tour that cost extra.

After, we started heading up Mount Victoria, one of the first Lord of the Rings filming locations. This was my favorite part, because you could see exactly that this is where the Shortcut to Mushrooms scene was filmed. On the way we picked up a kitty travel pal–a young cat (probably 6 months or so) who must have wandered up from one of the surrounding houses. Again, the guide showed pictures and asked for people to reenact scenes filmed there, which was a lot of fun.

Running short on time, we hauled ourselves up to the Mount Victoria Lookout, where we were given a splendid view of the city. Again, I was really thankful for this tour. Despite not being able to see the now-destroyed sets, it was fun listening to stories behind the making of the films and seeing places we wouldn’t have been able to see without our own car. The tour guide dropped us back at our hotels when the tour was finished, and we felt extremely accomplished that day!

Review: Wellington

Soon after checking into our hotel, we decided to grab fast food for dinner and hike down to the entertainment district to see the Hobbit. We hadn’t seen it yet because we wanted to see it in 2D (we HATE 3D!) and the 2D showings in our neighborhood had been drastically reduced, so there was never a good time for us to go together. And really, where better to see the movie than in Wellington? We went to Reading Cinemas because that was the first one that we saw. It was a bit pricey–around $16 each–but well worth it. The chairs were comfortable, the popcorn was delicious, and the movie was excellent.

We emerged after 8 to find it was still light outside, which was a surprise for us. Here it sets before 7. We decided to walk down to the water while it was still bright and we were rewarded with a fantastic pastel sunset behind the mountains. Absolutely gorgeous. We didn’t stay very long, as our Australian summer-attuned bodies were absolutely freezing in that Wellington breeze.

We learned the next day that we should have gone a bit further down the street to see the Hobbit at The Embassy Theatre, where Peter Jacskon grew up watching movies and where the premieres of Return of the King and the Hobbit took place. The cinema has a giant statue of Gandalf and a Hobbit door hanging over it, which was pretty impressive.

The second day was our full-day tour, so we were pretty beat at the end. We ended up heading back to the city after a brief rest at the hotel to have dinner. We ate at Molly Malone’s, an Irish pub just down the road from the theatre. The food was delicious–we both ordered beef stew and a pint of Guinness (how could you not?) It was about $40 all up, but totally worth it. The stew came with bread, and starving and cold as we were, it really hit the spot. Great service, too. The pub was less occupied than others on the street, but it certainly wasn’t because of quality or service. We also appreciated the quieter setting.

The third day we had nothing to do but tour the city. We started the morning by queuing for tickets to go on the New Zealand-famous Wellington Cable Car. It’s an old cable car that goes up to the Botanic Gardens. Only $3.50 per person one-way, it was worth it just for the experience. It’s only a five minute journey or so, but it saves the walk up the hill! At the top we headed into the Cable Car Museum, which was small but informative, with old cable cars you could climb on and pretend to be a passenger for the photo op.

From there we headed into the Botanic Gardens, which were very pretty. We wandered around up top for a while, then wound down through tunnels of trees, spotting some cool flowers and trees. Finishing in Lady Norwood’s Rose Garden, we then continued on through the Bolton Cemetery and ended up going past Parliament.  We ended up in the Reserve Bank Museum, which wasn’t incredibly interesting to me in regards to displays, but they had an old movie going of the Queen’s first visit to New Zealand, which was highly entertaining. Plus, they gave us lollipops.

Then it was on to Te Papa Museum. This is, from what I gather, Wellington’s “big deal.” As far as museums go, we weren’t incredibly impressed. It was free, and they did have the three trolls from the Hobbit on display, life size, so that was cool to look at. They also had a “Game Masters” exhibition that cost something like $16 to see. It’s something that would have interested Cal, but he didn’t want to pay to see it. We saw the first three floors or so before we decided to head out. We ended up coming back the next day to see the remaining floors and were much more impressed by them. They had a cool music-mixer where you used your hands hovering over a projection to make different sounds play, and there was lots of information about immigrants in the 1800s, plus a game kind of like The Oregon Trail (but for New Zealand, obviously) that was fun to play. It’s definitely worth going–don’t get disappointed by the first few floors like we were and give up!

That night, we grabbed some food stuff at a grocery store to save some money and walked with it down the road to Oriental Bay to watch the sunset. Seeing as we started out at 4, we had a long wait, which Cal wasn’t incredibly pleased about. But it was fun watching people. Despite the (relative) chill, I kind of wished I’d brought my swimsuit so I could have taken a dip.

Finally, wind whipping through my hair, the sun began to set after 8. We weren’t even rewarded with the views we had the first day, but I liked how calm and peaceful it was.

For us personally, I don’t think we needed that day in the city to see all that we wanted to see. We could easily have done it in the half day we had after landing, plus the half day we had before our flight on the fourth day. If I could do it again, I would book the Seal Coast Safari Tour that I wanted to go on, or something else. That one looked really fun, if a bit expensive. If we’d had a few more days in New Zealand, we probably would have taken the train up to Auckland and headed off to see the Hobbiton set, but that will be a trip for another time.

All in all, we had a pretty good time in Wellington. It was fun, beautiful, entertaining, and informational, and I’d recommend it to my friends. I’ll get some pictures up soon!

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