If your idea of the most rewarding journey is equal parts enriching culture and magnificent natural beauty, then the Lands Down Under are for you. Utterly fascinating, wholly engaging, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous, New Zealand and Australia will find you marveling at the pristine fjords of Milford Sound one day and browsing trendy Queenstown shops the next … drinking in the rich culture of Melbourne in the evening, then boarding a flight to the starkly beautiful desert of Ayers Rock the next morning. In these spectacular countries, the immensity and drama of the unspoiled wilderness is only matched by the rewards of their cultural offerings. And Gate 1 Travel brings it all within reach.
Auckland, Where Modern and Maori Meet
Stunning Auckland can best be summed up by its literal low and high points. Beautifully set at sea level on an isthmus, it boasts not one harbor, but two: Waitemata to the north and Manukau to the south. Nearby, lift your eyes to Maungawhau (Mt. Eden), one of the region’s dormant volcanoes, at 648 feet. Maungawhau is sacred to the indigenous Maori, who once called its slopes home and still act as its guardians. Then follow the horizon to the Sky Tower; at over 1,000 feet, it’s the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere and a symbol of the city’s economic vibrancy. To delve into the city’s rich heritage, visit the Auckland Museum, where the traditions of the Maori come alive. Between the city’s natural and manmade wonders, Auckland’s modern-meets-Maori flavor is on full display.
With its fantastic harbor setting, it should come as no surprise that one household out of every three has a registered boat. The local passion for yachting earned the city its nickname, the “City of Sails.” Gaze out over either harbor at any hour, and you’ll see vessels of all sizes, from massive trade ships to sleek yachts to the Maori waka, the simple, traditional watercrafts that have skimmed these waters for centuries.
The Gold Rush & the Wine Boom: Dunedin & Queenstown
For those who want their outdoor experience enhanced by unforgettable vistas, the rugged Otago region on the South Island has it all: rushing rivers cutting through lush forests and crystal-clear lakes reflecting soaring mountains. These are the backdrops against which the 1860s’ gold rush played out. A visiting prospector who had already made a name for himself in California wrote home that he found a riverbed in which he “saw gold shining like the stars of Orion on a dark frosty night.”
That set off a three-year stampede to the region and led to the rise of towns like Dunedin, which went from colonial outpost to the country’s largest city in two years flat. Visiting Dunedin today, the glories of the 19th century are on display everywhere in the Victorian and Edwardian architecture, especially the elaborately decorated railway station, a curious-looking hybrid that’s part gingerbread house and part royal palace.
The economic rewards of that era also created lovely Queenstown; the most successful gold diggers built homes on the shores of mirror-like Lake Wakatipu. By the end of the rush, the town’s fortunes faltered, the population dwindled and the modest town struggled to find a new industry. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the gorgeous setting itself began to draw New Zealanders back, cementing Queenstown as the recreational hub of the nation with year-round options from skiing to jet-boating.
What’s really made the economy sing again has been a boom of a different industry: wine-making. The very first vines here were planted during the gold rush, but then neglected. A few enterprising vintners revived them a century later. In the past 25 years, winemaking has soared, with the number of wineries rising from fewer than a dozen to 112 at last count. Unlike the gold of yore, the grapes are in no danger of running out —and that’s something lucky travelers can raise a glass to.
More South Island Spectacles
Wine lovers aren’t the only ones attracted to the South Island. The harbor of Oamaru, the pretty seaside town lush with beautiful Victorian architecture, is home to a colony of blue penguins. More than 130 make their home here, nesting in burrows dug out by other animals or in manmade structures. Some of them have been breeding here for over 16 years, which is double the average life span of those living in the wild.
Blanketing the island’s Canterbury Plains, you’ll find a little bit of England. In fact, Christchurch – New Zealand’s second largest city – is often regarded as the most British of the country’s cities. It also enjoys its status as the Kiwis’ favorite “Garden City.” Its many colorful and beautifully manicured gardens and parks are a joy to stroll.
The South Island’s most astonishing showcase of natural beauty is Milford Sound, part of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This paradise of deep-cut fjords, towering peaks skirted by lush rainforest, and torrential waterfalls cascading down cliffs takes the breath away. You will have the opportunity to experience this unspoiled wilderness up close during a remarkably scenic cruise.
Melbourne & Sydney Go Head to Head
A decade before that first prospector ever landed in Queenstown, the Australian state of Victoria across the Tasman Sea was having its own gold rush. Discovery of the glittering stone yielded epic wealth and transformed sleepy Melbourne into the richest city in the world and the second largest after London. The Royal Exhibition Building, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, opened here, as did the stock exchange, a bevy of concert halls and grand hotels, and Australia’s first high-rise.
While the region suffered from the end of the gold rush, it never relinquished its role as arts capital of Australia. Sharing their city with 500 live music venues, international film and theatre festivals, and 100 galleries hosting Australia’s largest annual art show, Melburnians think they’re the clear frontrunner when it comes to culture. That’s just one reason it’s Australia’s fastest growing city.
Sydneysiders, as the residents of Sydney call themselves, hear Melbourne’s claims of cultural supremacy and counter with three words: Sydney Opera House. There is simply no more visually iconic concert hall on earth than this harbor-side UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its become an enduring symbol of the city’s cosmopolitan nature since it opened in the 1970s.
Locals also point out that they have something else Melbourne doesn’t: more sunshine (twice as many sunny days a year) which means more time to soak up rays at Bondi Beach or enjoy boat rides across Sydney Harbour. The favorable climate is ideal for a stroll through the historic Rocks area. Its first residents were convicts, but today it is a vibrant (and very law-abiding!) neighborhood of markets, restaurants, and coffee shops. Whether braving a “BridgeClimb” across Harbour Bridge, affectionately called The Coathanger for its arched shape, or strolling the flower-lined pathways of the Royal Botanic Gardens, travelers have made this the most visited city in Australia.
Treasures of the Ocean and the Desert
North of Sydney, surrounded by tropical rainforest and facing outward to the sea and the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a paradise no matter how you look at it (including from space, where the reef is visible). No visit here is complete without cruising by catamaran among a few of the 600 islands that comprise the Inner and Outer Reefs. Every isle casts its own spell but we think you’ll love Green Island, a 6000-year-old coral cay featuring 126 native plant species, vivid tropical birds, and dazzling coral gardens which are home to an endless array of marine life. Back on land, you’ll find a leisurely pace and laid-back charm. Sink your toes into white sand beaches, poke in and out of little shops, or take a dip in the Esplanade and you’ll see why so many Aussies think of Cairns when they hear the world holiday.
It’s hard to believe that Ayer’s Rock is in the same country as Cairns, never mind on the same planet. Rising amid the arid “Red Centre” of Australia, the sandstone monolith is known to Aboriginal people as Uluru, and holds a sacred place in their culture. Rising 1,100 feet and running a mile in length, it’s a monster of nature almost too big to take in at one pass; that’s why we’ll make sure you see it twice, once at sunset, and again at morning. You’ll get the Aboriginal perspective when you follow the Mutitjulu Walk around the rocky base, witness Aboriginal rock paintings, and discover handmade goods at the Kata Tjuta Cultural Center.
Join Gate 1 Travel to discover the enormous breadth and richness of New Zealand and Australia, from their indigenous roots to their glittering cities, all while knowing you’ll savor the greatest comfort, the most insightful sightseeing, and the best value.