Rachel and l left Gullivers HQ in the middle of an unusually cold April to head to New Zealand in the throes of a glorious and balmy autumn. First we had to get to New Zealand and we flew to Auckland via Dubai, on the longest non-stop flight scheduled flight in the world, lasting over 16 hours.
We arrived in Auckland in the morning to sunshine and warm weather. There was no time to enjoy this though as the first task of our trip was to scout out the options for the Gullivers End of Tour festival. We met up with our Ground Agents who whisked us away to visit some of the locations they had pencilled in for us - we hit the jack pot with The Sweatshop Brew House, a great bar not far from the action in the centre of Auckland. Here we met Mark, the Managing Director, and got to taste some of the delicious food they have got planned for us - we even had time to taste some of their own beer, brewed in their onsite brewery, along with some lovely New Zealand wine. This seemed to cure our jet lag and we set off for the first of our hotel inspections with a spring in our steps.
After an early night, our second day started off with us accidentally having a quick breakfast in one of the trendiest breakfast bars in Auckland, on Federal Street, before our first meeting of the day with the SkyCity team. We were both very impressed with the hotels and the extensive number of restaurants and bars they have to offer, along with the general facilities. We took a ride up the SkyTower and the blue skies gave us unparalleled views of Auckland and its sparkling bays stretching before us. We could also see Eden Park and the full layout of the city. If you have the opportunity while in Auckland, a visit to the SkyTower is well worth the time. While in the SkyTower, we dropped in to meet the manager of The Sugar Club restaurant, which is at the top of the SkyTower, to discuss some of our VIP dining options with him.
We then took advantage of the warm weather to walk to our other hotel appointments and the rest of the day flew by with visits. Generally we were impressed by the level of interest the hotels had in our visit next year and their helpfulness in discussing our requirements.
After a busy day and sore fee,t we headed over to Devonport for a BBQ with one of our regular Tour Managers, Murray Scott, and his family. Devonport is only a short ferry ride across the bay and if you are looking for a little day trip, then again it is worth a visit.
The next day saw an early flight down to Wellington. Wellington, known for its windy weather, lived up to its name! We spent the morning in the head office of our Ground Agents, running through all of the details that are so important to any Gullivers tour before more hotel inspections beckoned. We finished the day with an evening checking out the local bars, looking for the ideal Gullivers HQ for next year. Our choice is in a prime location and while its German theme is a little unusual for a rugby tour, the food and beer are great - Lederhosen will be optional!
The following day was a Saturday and the start of a long weekend in New Zealand in commemoration of ANZAC day. This meant the pace of meeting quietened down and Rachel and I had time to explore aspects of Wellington other than hotels and bars. We visited Te Papa, the national museum, and spent some time at the temporary Gallipoli exhibition, a moving and fascinating exhibition - all the more relevant considering we were there for ANZAC weekend. Te Papa is well worth a visit while you are in Wellington and a great way to explore New Zealand’s history and cultural heritage.
In the afternoon, we had a meeting at Poneke Rugby Club to discuss the Gullivers Barbarians vs Poneke Pies Rugby match. The Poneke Football Club was founded in 1883 and is one of the grand old clubs of New Zealand Rugby. The guys at Poneke were very welcoming and we will have a great day here playing their team and enjoying their clubhouse atmosphere. We finished off our day with a trip to the Westpac Stadium to watch the Hurricanes vs the Chiefs. Unfortunately for our temporary allegiance to Wellington, the Hurricanes lost 27-28 but it was a great match and the atmosphere really gave us a hint of how it will be for the Second Test next year.
It was then time to head to Queenstown, with another domestic flight. Flying over the South Island was spectacular and gave a peek at what the island has to offer. We picked up a hire car at the airport and started with two days of hotel and excursion inspections. The hotels all impressed us in their own ways, either with their great locations in the centre of town, their views of the stunning scenery, their facilities or all three!
While in Queenstown, most groups will have a few days without any rugby and it is a great opportunity for extra excursions and exploring the South Island. Included with every group is a ride on the Skyline gondola which takes people up Bob’s Peak for spectacular views over Queenstown. We have booked lunch for everyone at the Stratosphere restaurant and while Rachel and I didn’t eat there it looked like a sumptuous buffet. We chose instead to have a couple of rides on the luge carts, not quite one of the extreme sports Queenstown is known for, but great fun none the less!
We looked into the excursions and optional extras we could offer to everyone. We stopped off in the office of the Shotover jet. This will be a great fun jet boat ride and we were both disappointed that we didn’t have time to test it out. For more leisurely options, we have excursions in place on the steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, as well as options for unmissable day trips to Milford Sound. The Millbrook resort, where many people will be staying, also presents the ideal opportunity to put on a mini golf tournament, in possibly one of the most stunning settings of a golf course in New Zealand, if not the southern hemisphere! Rachel and I also had time to explore Arrowtown, a charming gold rush village with shops, cafes and restaurants, only 10 minutes from Millbrook. If you are looking to do any shopping for sheepskin ‘ugg’ boots or merino wool, this is your place.
It was then time to leave Queenstown and head back to the North Island. Here we picked up another hire car and drove to Napier, via Palmerston North and the National Rugby Museum. Here we were given a tour by the curators and learnt many fascinating facts about the All Blacks history. We were also proud to see various items of Gullivers memorabilia on display, part of our long history as part of the Lions tours.
We arrived in Napier after dark, making waking up to the rising sun over the ocean an even more delightful start to the day. It was only a fleeting visit to Napier as we had a busy day ahead with a few miles to travel. We had a couple of hotels to inspect before heading off to Taupo and the Huka Falls, what these waterfalls lack in height they more than make up for in sheer power and momentum. It was then on to our next destination of Rotorua, via some interesting unplanned detours that the coach drivers will not be taking you on – but the rural sights of this area are beautiful!
We arrived in Rotorua in time for another hotel visit and then on to meet Sean Marsh at Te Puia, a geothermal park and Maori cultural experience. Shaun showed us around the park and was fascinating with his explanations of Maori culture and history. We then has dinner in Eat Street, a pedestrian street full of bars and restaurants and the place to go in the evenings in Rotorua.
We were close to the end of our trip, and after a few more meetings with hotel managers in Rotorua, we were on to our last overnight stay in Hamilton. We had hoped to do a detour for a visit to Hobbiton but time was short so we missed this, though we have arranged for those staying in Hamilton to have a trip to Hobbiton as an extra excursion. A night in Hamilton done and dusted we headed back to Auckland for a few more meetings before catching the evening flight back to England and some rest!
It had been a busy and productive ten days but we came away feeling that New Zealand and the Kiwis can’t wait for the Lions and all the supporters to descend next year and we know that we will receive a warm rugby welcome.