( A Collette Tour )
February - March, 2019
This is going to be a long one, and a bit different!
Susan and I had been talking about some kind of tour of Australia and New Zealand for several years but could just not make it work out. We tried to combine it with our Windstar cruise in French Polynesia in late 2016, but it would have been a very long trip and I just could not make the air schedules work out reasonably.
We wanted to do both countries in one trip: once we go that far, we want to cover as much as possible in one trip across the Pacific rather than go back again. We looked at cruises, but they do not touch the interior of the countries and, especially for Australia, that would leave out just too much. I looked at a Do-It-Yourself driving tour, but it would be many days of traveling and trying to figure out what to see.
Finally, we started looking at guided/escorted tours and that looked like a reasonable approach, but there were just so many of them! We use a travel agency, “Vacations to Go”, for our cruises and I realized that they have a group that handles escorted tours: Tour Vacations To Go. So our cruise consultant referred me to Tanya Khalaf in the tour department and she quickly recommended the Collette Tours “Complete South Pacific” tour. It seemed to cover the parts of Australia and New Zealand that we wanted to visit and there was a tour starting on a workable date, so we said “book it”. It did have an optional 3 day extension to visit Fiji, but we had been in French Polynesia not that long ago, so we skipped the Fiji part.
Collette was not real flexible on figuring out the air schedule to get the best fares so, when I realized that we could save significant $$ by going a day early and coming back a day late, I took care of the airline arrangements myself. Because the flights are so long (14 hours) we wanted the first class “lay-flat” seats. By arranging the flights myself, we saved over $5K which made me feel better about opting for the first class.
This will be a very brief overview of our trip, so you have some idea what is coming and a better feel for the scope of the trip.
Se left home on Feb. 22, flying to Los Angeles, then to Melbourne, Australia, then to Cairns, Australia, where the tour was to actually start on Feb 25. From here, it will probably help to have a map to look at.
Overview map of our tour.
As you can see in the map, Cairns is in the northeast part of Australia. From here we visited the Great Barrier Reef and a rain forest. Next, we flew to Ayers Rock/Uluru for a day and on to Alice Springs. We flew to Darwin and visited the Kakadu Park then made the long flight to Melbourne, where we will stay for a couple of days. Another flight brings us to Hobart, Tasmania and then to Sydney for 3 nights. We then leave Australia, flying to Queenstown, New Zealand on the South Island. From here on, we traveled by coach (bus) to Mt. Cook then Christchurch and took the ferry from Picton to Wellington on the North island. From there, we spent two nights in Rotorua and then on to Auckland to finish the tour.
I am doing this report a bit differently; rather than one long (very long) report, it will be broken up into seven logical groupings of about 3 – 4 days each. There will be links below to take you to the individual reports for:
1. Cairns and the Great barrier Reef
2. The Australian Outback
3. Darwin and Kakadu Park
4. Melbourne and Tasmania
6. New Zealand: South Island
7. New Zealand: North Island
While I suggest you take them in order, you can skip around in any way you like if you have a specific interest.
It is probably worth a few minutes talking about the people on the tour. We had a total of 19 “tour-takers” and our tour manager, Evan, making a total of 20 people. This worked out well for us as the tour is set up for a maximum of 44 people, so we were a relatively small group. This is good for a number of reasons, such as the buses or “coaches” we would ride: they are big enough to accommodate at least 45 people so we were not crowded and were able to spread out and take whatever kind of seats we wanted. On a full tour, there can be issues of who gets the good seats but we had no such issues at all. Also, with fewer people, it takes less time for simple things like loading/unloading the coaches, loading/unloading luggage from the coach, and checking in for the various activities, like airport and hotel check-in. I suspect that it is also much easier for our tour manager to keep track of 19 people, rather than 44, and make sure everyone is where they need to be, and on time.
One big advantage of a small group is that we were able to get to know each other relatively well and quickly, and we all got along well. While it seems like there is always one or two “problem children” in each group, we had no such issues.
I will jump ahead a bit and show a group photo from our last night on the tour to give you an idea of the people.
Tour Manager Evan is the young guy in the front.
We had quite a mixture of people with all but one of us from the United States and the exception was Brian, from England, who fit in with the rest of us very well. We had four ladies who came as a group from New York city, two ladies from Durham, NC, and six couples from across the US, from Virginia to California and varied points in between.
Getting there and Back
We had a few restrictions on the air arrangements, like, we could not get there after the tour officially started on Feb. 25 nor leave prior to the end of the tour on March 21. We could, of course arrive early and leave late, although that incurs additional hotel and meal costs. A little checking suggested that Delta (and code-share partner Virgin Australia) could get us there on Feb 24 and we could leave on March 22 and save that $5000 on the fares, more than paying for a couple of extra days. The extra days were really a good idea as it gave us a little extra time to look around Cairns and Auckland as well. Since they were Delta ticketed flights in first class, they also did very good things to our Delta Medallion status.
ATL to LAX was on time and comfortable.
Our outbound trip started in Atlanta on Feb. 22 with a 3:25 PM flight to Los Angeles, arriving at 5:24 PM. It was a comfortable flight that did afford some views of some areas of Arizona which had just received some unusual amounts of snow.
Unusual snow on ground as we fly over Arizona
We made the required shuttle ride to the International Terminal and quickly found our departure gate for our 8:25 flight to Melbourne Australia. Here you will start to notice that we are going a little out of our way by going to Melbourne rather than somewhat closer Sydney. This (and the return routing, which I’ll mention later) was the disadvantage of using Virgin Australia: we had to accept some slightly longer flights/legs to get where we were going. But, once you are flying over 20 hours anyway, what is another 2 or 3 hours?
Flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne was a Virgin Australia flight.
The flight to Melbourne was right at 14 hours and, while I would not say the lay-flat seats were as comfortable as my bed, they were worlds better than the coach or even normal first class seats and I was able to get a couple of hours sleep while Susan really passed out. The service and the food for the several meals served were also excellent.
Now comes the strange part. We left LAX at 8:25 PM on Friday Feb 22 and landed in Melbourne the next morning at 7:10 Sunday morning, Feb 24. Yes, we completely lost Saturday: the international date line stole a whole day from us! In Melbourne we cleared Customs (some of their procedures seemed a little strange, but it is their country), rechecked our bags, and made our way to our departure gate for the flight to Cairns.
This was the original gate, prior to the plane swap.
Now the fun begins! At the scheduled time, we boarded the plane and settled in. But, before all the passengers were aboard, the gate crew halted the process and soon told us that the plane had a “technical problem” and we would have to change to another plane. I was pleasantly surprised that Virgin Australia got us another aircraft very quickly, so we boarded it and took off only about 45 minutes late.
Our first real look at the Australian countryside.
As we approached the Cairns airport, I noticed quite a few rain showers in the area and, sure enough, as we got close to landing, I could feel the engine power increase and wheels come back up, indicating we had “missed” that approach. The pilot announced that there was a rain shower over the airport, cutting the visibility below the minimum required to land. He said that we would hold for a few minutes for the shower to clear, and try it again. After about 15 minutes the same thing happened: another missed approach due to the rain. Standard airline procedure in a case like this is to go somewhere else to refuel and give the rain time to clear out, so we headed to Townsville, about 150 miles south of Cairns.
Truthfully, I had never heard of Townsville but will not forget it now.
We waited there about 40 minutes and chatted with the flight attendants while the plane was refueled. This time everything went as planned and we landed successfully in Cairns about 2.5 hours late.
I’ll cover the return trip after the main part of the trip, but it was not as “exciting”.
Now, click on the links below to follow along on our trip to each of the different areas.
Our tour, by general area
Part 2: The Australian Outback
Part 3: Darwin and the Kakadu Park
Part 4: Melbourne and Tasmania
Part 5: Sydney
Part 6: New Zealand – South Island
Part 7: New Zealand – North Island
The return: Going Home
Our return would take a flight from Auckland to Sydney, then Sydney to Los Angeles, and finally Los Angeles to Atlanta. The first flight was a Virgin Australia flight and the other two both Delta flights.
We had an 8:05 AM departure out of Auckland but arrived at the airport just a couple of minutes after 5 AM, which was almost an hour before the Virgin Australia ticket counter opened at 6 AM. When we did get to the counter to check in, the agent had some kind of problem and could not print the boarding passes for our next two flights. This concerned me a bit as I was planning on just going through the “In-transit Lounge” in Sydney rather than going through customs and rechecking our bags. The counter agent said it would not be a problem to get the boarding passes in the departure area in Sydney. Of course she said that… what else would she say? The flight was comfortable and we had a nice breakfast on the way. Side note: the Australian airlines (Virgin Australia and Qantas) served some kind of meal or decent snack on any flight over about 2 hours, even in the economy coach section.
In Sydney we got through the in-transit process quickly and tried to find some place to get our boarding passes, but there were no ticket counters of any kind in the departure area. (There were lots of expensive shops, but no ticket counters.) We did find someone who told us that we could get the boarding passes at the boarding gate. We got to the gate and waited 20 minutes for the gate staff to come and open the gate, but then there were some very confusing additional security checks before even getting to the gate agent. Susan ended up going through a thorough search process twice! Several other people had the same problem as we did so when we finally did get to the gate agent, we were able to get the boarding passes for the rest of the trip.
The flight from Sydney to Los Angeles was about 13 hours and the plane had the new “Delta One” lie flat seats in first class. We didn’t think they were quite as comfortable as the Virgin Australia seats, but they were quite good. The only problem is that I think the design point for the seats was for someone six feet tall and I’m a little more than an inch over that, so I really could not quite stretch out as I would like to. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep and, again, Susan sacked out pretty well. I will say, however, that the flight attendant team, the food, and the overall service was about the best of any flight I have been on. We tend to carry on and joke with flight attendants and, as we were getting off in LA, the lead FA said to me: “You guys can come on one of my flights any time!”.
On this flight the International Date Line gave us back the day it had stolen on the way to Australia. We took off from Sydney about 11:45 AM on Friday March 22 and arrived in LA at 7:30 AM on Friday, March 22. So, after a 13 hour flight, we arrived in LA more than 4 hours before we left Sydney.
We had an almost 5 hour layover in Los Angeles so, after clearing customs and finding our departure gate, we headed to the Delta Sky Club lounge for a more comfortable place to wait. Since we had such good meals on the previous flight, we were not hungry, but we could have made several meals off of the food available in the Sky Club.
After all the flights and things we had been through, the flight from LA to Atlanta was almost an anti-climax. It was comfortable, we had another meal and it arrived on time, but by this time, we were just ready to be home. We did have to wait for about 15 minutes for our “limo” driver to pick us up, but at that point I was glad that I did not have to worry about driving home.
We got home about 9 PM after a long and very interesting trip and almost immediately started planning our next one.
Just a couple of comments to wrap things up.
Truthfully, when the tour was just starting, I was afraid that Evan was a bit “up-tight” or rigid and did not seem friendly. As we spent more days with him, I realized that he had done that job a lot more times than I had and he did know what he was doing. To some degree, he was there to “manage” the tour and us to make sure things happened when and where they were supposed to and being friendly was secondary. He did that job very well and all the people on the tour certainly helped by always being on time when they needed to be. I believe Evan was also distracted by some kind of personal issues, whether in his private life or part of his professional life, I don’t know, but he sometimes seemed more distant. After a week or two, he started to loosen up a bit and join in with the rest of us a bit, rather than staying separate all the time. I absolutely understand the need for him to take care of business first and I suspect that, with some groups, he really has to be a bit autocratic. Until he gets to know each group and its dynamics, he has to be a bit careful. I will say, however, that I really enjoyed being around “last week of the tour Evan” much more than “first week of the tour Evan”.
That all being said, I think he did an excellent job of managing the tour and making sure all things ran smoothly and, if the opportunity arose, I would be very happy to have him as the manager of another tour I was on.
As mentioned previously, I think we had a very good group who got along well and even worked together when necessary to make things happen. We ended the tour feeling that we had made 17 new friends and would be glad to see and travel with them again sometime.
For any of those tour members who might be reading this, we really do hope to see you again on a future tour. Stay in touch and let us know of your future travels. (We’re looking for a tour in Italy… anyone interested??)
I really cannot say enough good things about the people of both Australia and New Zealand. The geographies and physical attributes of both countries were interesting and beautiful but the real highpoint was the people. They were uniformly friendly, outgoing, and helpful. If we stood on a sidewalk with a map in hand or just a puzzled look, people would ask if we needed help. If we approached someone with a question, they were always glad to answer, usually with a smile and friendly word.
If you, the reader, have not been to Australia and New Zealand and you get the chance to visit there you must go. We had a most enjoyable trip, but really mainly because of the people: the people of Australia and New Zealand, the people in our tour group, and Evan, our tour manager. I hope you have enjoyed this report.
C, M, (Mike) Hammock