We took the Nature’s Wonders excursion as part of a 16-day cruise to New Zealand, roundtrip from Sydney. And while I knew exactly what to expect regarding wildlife in Sydney – copious kangaroos hopping about the streets of downtown with precocious joeys peaking out of pouches and lovable koalas in every tree begging to be cuddled – I didn’t have many expectations, reasonable or otherwise, for New Zealand. (It turns out we didn’t see a single kangaroo or koala in Sydney on the cab ride from the airport to our ship. Big shocker.)
But as urban dwellers (we live in a high rise in downtown Seattle), we wanted to soak up as much scenery and wildlife as possible while in New Zealand. So an excursion called, “Nature’s Wonders” sounded appealing. Plus I figured the promise of a “thrilling” off-road ride in an Argo might keep my 9 year-old quiet while I lost my crap over every freakin bird and sheep. Spoiler alert, it didn’t. And that was actually a direct quote from him: “Mom, why do you have to lose your crap over every. freakin. bird. and. sheep.” Just wait until I see the fur seal pups, kid!
So we booked the Nature’s Wonders excursion in Dunedin (Port Chalmers) through our cruise ship (Holland America’s ms Noordam).
Here’s how it was advertised:
Nature’s Wonders Excursion Description
How much was the Nature’s Wonders Excursion?
As noted above, we paid $179.95 per person, but this price may vary some depending on cruise line (this same excursion is also offered by most other lines that cruise to New Zealand), ship, and itinerary.
What we Experienced on the Nature’s Wonders Excursion in New Zealand
We boarded a full-sized comfortable coach with around 30 other passengers from our ship. While large groups are always a downside of ship excursions, it didn’t deter much from the experience on this one.
We enjoyed an hour-or-so long ride on paved roads through Port Chambers and along Otago Harbour, Sawyers Bay, and the Otago Peninsula while our driver provided interesting and informative commentary about the areas we passed.
Once we reached Taiaroa Head, we turned up a steep dirt road to reach the main public structure on the property of Natures Wonders, a working sheep farm and self-funded conservation area owned by the Reid family:
This building housed a cafe, restrooms, and a small shop. Upon our arrival, Mr. Reid boarded our bus to introduce himself and welcome us to Natures Wonders. Then we were given a few minutes to use the restrooms before boarding our Argo.
What’s an Argo?
A 2012 movie staring Ben Affleck? Yes, but it’s also one of these:
This 8-wheeled off-road vehicle made the woman sitting across from me wish I hadn’t indulged in that third breakfast, however it also saved me a trip to the dentist by knocking loose all the plague on my teeth. While brief, at just 15 minutes, it was a thrilling, bumpy, wild ride as we navigated rough, steep dirt trails, some with mud puddles large enough to delight a herd of elephant calves (not native to New Zealand, but you’re about as likely to see one there as you are to see a wild kangaroo in Sydney).
After ascending to the top of the property to gaze over a dramatic, sweeping vista, we made our way downhill to our first stop, a colony of New Zealand fur seals in their natural environment. We hopped out of our Argo and were greeted by this guy…
before being introduced to the rest of the community, including nearly a dozen pups, some just days old:
I’m writing this review from beyond the grave because upon seeing the angelic face of the little pup in the video on the left above, I literally died. Then I woke up to discover that heaven exists and features blue penguins…
and views like this…
Having left my physical body back with the fur seals, I found that the short ride on the Argo to our second stop was much easier on my geriatric neck and back. At this second stop, we walked down a steep paved path to view blue penguins (it’s also possible to see yellow eyed penguins, but we didn’t see any on our visit) in nesting boxes carved into the hillside. While the boxes were placed their by humans and featured little doors that could be opened to view inside, the penguins were not confined and could come and go as they pleased – with the adults venturing out to sea to bring food back for their chicks. We saw an adult sitting on an egg and several chicks in the boxes. It’s the first time I’d ever seen penguins outside of a zoo or aquarium and it was a surreal, magical experience. We had to be very quiet, speaking only in soft whispers, and weren’t allowed to take any photos because penguins are very sensitive to noise and we didn’t want to risk spooking them.
This stop also offered views of a rustic and protected beach area that hasn’t been walked on by human feet in over a hundred years. We even saw a pregnant sea lion on the sand below.
At this point we transferred from our Argo to a mini-coach to head back up the hill to re-board our bus back to the ship.
Would I Book the Nature’s Wonders Excursion Again?
This was our first port day and first excursion in New Zealand and after it was over I said to Mr. Cruise, “well that’s going to be hard to beat.” And it was! It remained my favorite organized excursion/tour (either booked through our ship or privately – we did a mix of both) of our cruise. While it was pricey and I wouldn’t want to pay this much for excursions at every port, I’d recommend splurging on this one.
Tips for the Nature’s Wonders Excursion in New Zealand
Tip 1: Sit on the left side (facing forward toward the front) of the bus. You’ll have beautiful views of the coastline on the ride out to Taiaroa Head. And snag the very front seats on the bus if you can.
Tip 2: You’ll have the option of taking the Argo ride downhill to the wildlife viewing areas (and taking the mini-coach back up) OR taking the mini-coach down and riding the Argo back up. Take the Argo ride first! You’ll see more going down and it will be more fun.
Tip 3: You can skip the Argo ride all together if you have neck, back, or other issues that may make getting jostled about uncomfortable. You will have the option to take the mini-coach both directions.
Tip 4: On the other hand, if enough people turn down the Argo ride, there may be room to ride on it both directions. Just ask if there’s room when it’s time to make the switch.
Tip 5: Sit in the front of the Argo with the driver. There’s room for two people up there and the views will be better. Otherwise you’ll be smooshed in the back with three other people (it was pretty tight).
Tip 6: This last tip is on…tips. Tips are not standard in New Zealand like they are in the U.S. Tour operators and bus drivers will not expect (or sometimes even accept) a tip. And with that…
Homework (10 points): Read my Tips to Prepare for a Cruise to Australia or New Zealand.
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