When you find round trip tickets to Sydney for $490, you really don't have a choice. You get out your credit card and you start planning! We bought round trip tickets on United through skyscanner.com in February for dates in Late October, our Fall and their Spring.
The flight is no joke. From Chicago, we had a a four hour flight to LA with a quick layover. From there, it was another 14 hours to Sydney. We decided to make New Zealand the first part of our trip, so our travel day was not over. We had the afternoon to kill in Sydney and then a 3.5 hour flight to Christchurch. Not for the faint of heart. We stayed at an AirB&B near the airport since our flight was later and we wanted to rent a vehicle in the morning. I would recommend an Uber instead of Taxi since it's an expensive fair leaving the airport.
First thing in the morning, we headed to a camper van rental near the airport. I'd recommend renting a vehicle early so you can have your choice of van. The van we wanted was sold out. Also, head to the location early to avoid crowds and to get the paperwork and instructions out of the way so you can start the fun earlier! If you want to do freedom camping, you must have a self contained vehicle (it must have a toilet). Don't ask them to show you how to use it. Things may get awkward. In NZ and Australia, they drive on the opposite side of the road. If you are an American, all you need is a valid driver's license. New Zealand has high winds and intimidating driving conditions so make sure you rent something you will be comfortable driving.
Our road trip was three nights and four days and took us from Christchurch to Queenstown. Below are a few of the places we stopped along the way! Freedom camping is amazing. You can park your vehicle almost anywhere. Driving becomes difficult at night since there is minimal lighting. You'll want to find a spot before dark to make it easier on yourself. Then layback, and soak in all the beauty the night sky has to offer! Another note, NZ has no large land predators like we do in the states. You can feel safe walking around
The scenery is lovely. There is Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. Definitely worth pulling over for some photos or a lovely place to camp near the crystal clear lakes. I've never seen water that blue before.
Small town good for a place to shop or eat. We ended up eating at the Gastropub 65 & Dine. Not too shabby and they had a great steak special!
Mount Cook- Hooker Valley Glacier Walk
Must see! This was my favorite stop. It's like walking through a Lord of the Ring's Book. Amazing views and the hike was moderate.
Mt. Aspiring National Park
Cool, but I wish we would have invested our time elsewhere. We had a rainy day, so that may have affected our judgement.
Medium sized town with shopping, restaurants, and bars. Right off the lake, it's scenic and offers things to do such as biking and water sports. We stayed at Wanaka Holiday Park. Nice facility with showers that is walking distance to the town center.
The Stoaker Room
We had a really nice dining experience here. The restaurant is in Cromwell on the way to Queenstown. They cook their meats in barrels, which creates unique flavors. The staff was awesome.
Touristy, but it's a must. It's nestled along Lake Wakatipu and there's plenty to see and do. We rented electric mountain bikes for the day from Vertigo Bikes (https://www.vertigobikes.co.nz/) and checked out the scenery that way. The temperatures tend to fluctuate ALOT, at least in the spring, so make sure to dress in layers. The temperature was a low 50s in the morning and would reach the 70s by the afternoon.
We carbed up at Patagonia Chocolates. The line is worth the wait. https://www.patagoniachocolates.co.nz/
We spent 3 night and four days in New Zealand. If you can afford taking the extra time, do it. There's so much more to see! One regret was not making it to Milford Sound. You can do a day trip from Queenstown by boat- much quicker than driving. Rent a camper van! Being able to freedom camp was an amazing experience and something you can't do everywhere.
Next stop, Melbourne.
We were only in Melbourne for a day and a half. We decided to split up our flight from Queenstown to Cairns with a short detour to Melbourne. If you have limited time, I would recommend spending more time in New Zealand and skipping Melbourne. But if you must, the one great thing about the city is the food!
Queen Victoria Market
The market is one of the most iconic attractions in the city. You can purchase anything including produce, meats, and treats. There's cuisines from a number of nationalities and it's a great place to grab a bite to go. Make sure to walk around- it's much larger than you would expect. The variety is great and it supports local retailers.
There are plenty of places to eat in the city, but one cool spot that we found was Centre Place. It's a laneway that runs north between Flinders and Colins Street. There are a ton of restaurants, cafes, and shops. Check out Flinders Street Station if you're in the hood.
We had THE BEST Malaysian food I've ever had from this spot in CBD. The service wasn't great, but it's worth it. I had a curry dish. Definitely recommend if you're in the mood for some comfort food.
Cairns was next on the list. It was about a four hour flight from Melbourne. Heading north, we had warmer, more tropical weather. Cairns is the closest city to access the Great Barrier Reef. You can purchase a day trip to different parts of the reef in town. There are also a number of great restaurants and shops in Cairns. If you're walking around and hear a loud chatter, it's not birds. There are trees in town that serve as nests for bats, or flying foxes. They are harmless, but you might want to avoid getting s*** on.
Green island is what I’d consider Great Barrier Reef for beginners. If you’re looking for an amazing snorkeling or diving experience, I’d suggest going elsewhere. Green island is one of the cheaper options. There are only a few areas where swimming is allowed and there's not much to see. We did get lucky and find the best spot! It’s on the left side of the jetty if you’re facing the island. Either bring your own food or buy it from your boat tour- very expensive on the island.
Cairns night Market
The night market has great options for food and shopping. Great bang for your buck if you're looking for seafood. The market opens at 4:30pm and closes at 11pm and is located in the heart of downtown.
Cairns does not have a beach. It's surrounded by an estuary and salt water crocodiles, so I would avoid that area if I was you. They do have a lovely boardwalk that is great for running and sightseeing. There are a few outdoor workout spots along the boardwalk and the Cairns Lagoon is located nearby. The lagoon is a manmade pool built by the city and free for the public.
Road Trip North towards Port Douglas
If you're looking for a day trip out of the city, I'd recommend renting a car and driving north up the coast. The drive isn't as bad as New Zealand, but the drive can become difficult at night with minimal lighting and winding roads. The scenery is spectacular though! We made our way to Kuranda and stopped at Baron Falls. We walked around the city, which was fine. There were shops and a few tourist attractions. W had another pit stop in Daintree National Park. We were able to hike for a few hours. The park is very beautiful and has fresh water pools that you can swim in. Our final stop was in Port Douglas. The town has a very beautiful beach and a ton of restaurants. We were able to do all of this in a day!
Last but certainly not least, we made our way back to Sydney for the last leg of our trip. We only had two days in Sydney, one of them scheduled as a day for engagement photos. I wish we had more time. Sydney is amazing and I'd recommend at least two full days in the City.
The most touristy thing you must do while you're in Australia. The Rocks area has the Opera House, The Royal Botanic Garden, the Rock's Market, and Sydney Harbor Bridge which will take you to Luna Park and Cope's Point. There are plenty of restaurants and bars in the area.
A beautiful beach on the East coast of Sydney. There's a number of great food spots. We had fresh fish at Bondi Surf Seafood and then took a walk along the Bondi to Bronte Coastal Walk.
We stayed in Surry Hills at Hotel Harry. It's an old school hotel with charm and quirky decor but doesn't have the most updated amenities. I'd still recommend this place because the interior is beautiful. We walked through Hyde Park, the Queen Victoria Building, and had breakfast at Bare Naked Bowls. One of the BEST acai bowls I've ever had.
So there you have it. We were able to conquer New Zealand and the East Coast of Australia in 12 days. It's a lot of time at the airport and in the air, but so worth every painful second of flight time. Everyone we met was very friendly and we felt like we were at home. We hope to make a trip to the West Coast and I would love to see more of New Zealand and check out Tasmania. Best of luck planning your adventure down under!