On the other side of the world lies a slice of Eden on earth. With turquoise water descending from glaciers to lake shores, mountain tops dimpling the clouds and dense forests packed with climbing vines and silver ferns. This is of course New Zealand, a land so pure that the spirit of nature itself seems to run through its veins. It is a country whose creation story is filled with tales of giants whose mighty battles in love and war pushed the mountains from the ground to the sky and forged the Great Lakes in the spaces where they lay.
This wonderful country lives in the shadow of its mighty neighbour Australia, but for its diminutive size, it offered so much to a visitor. Our deputy editor Kate Thomson was able to spend three weeks in this majestic country, and loved it so much that she is splitting her journey into two accounts. Here you can read all about the wonderful North Island.
Auckland and The Coromandel
Our trip to New Zealand was part of a longer journey across a couple of continents, so we arrived after a short stay Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
My partner and I arrived in Auckland feeling a little jet lagged but so pleased that our three week journey through this special country was about to begin.
We took the airport bus (easy as pie to get and may come complete with a driver singing into his microphone as ours did) to the city centre. Our home for the night was the very comfortable Auckland City Oaks – an absolute haven compared to the more basic surroundings we endured in KL. After a shower to wash the plane fug away, we strolled into the city in the early afternoon.
Our visit to the city fell on the eve of Waitangi Day in February, a national holiday, so the streets were buzzing with people ready to make a start on their long weekends. We strolled around the base of the sky tower and then on to the harbour side to see the water and sails that the city is so well known for. Top tip: Auckland might as well be called the Windy City so don’t wear a loose skirt unless you’re planning to re-enact some classic Monroe – I speak from experience!
Auckland is a wonderful place to spend a few days if you can find time to explore the suburbs too. Unfortunately our stay was only a stop over as we were intent on seeing the rugged shorelines New Zealand is famed for as soon as possible.
We woke early ready to make for the Coromandel Peninsula, a stretch of land out toward the north east of the island. As we began to drive though, it appeared that many Kiwis had also decided to make for the beach to celebrate Waitangi weekend. (this was the only bit of traffic we would see on our whole trip!) Luckily, after passing through the towns of Thames and Te Puru, the traffic started to peel off and we could truly enjoy the drive. Varying from coastal stretches right up into mountainous twists and turns, the drive was spectacular and worth doing for its sheer beauty.
The drive alone was enjoyable, but we were heading to a very famous attraction, the Hot Water Beach. At low tide, the beach fills with visitors armed with spades who come to dig baths in the sand which fill with hot spring water. It was remarkable, with different parts of the beach bubbling up at different temperatures. We thought we would buck the trend and head for the lovely expanse in the middle that no one had cultivated into baths. That’s when we saw the steam rising from the ground and felt the rush of near boiling water over our feet followed by the cool sea water. Reminded of our lack of local knowledge, we decided to take the cuckoo approach of gently stepping into other people’s pools! Another must visit spot in this area is Cathedral Cove. From beautiful Hahei Beach you can walk to Cathedral Cove, where a naturally formed archway deserves photographic attention. If you are exploring the North Island, make time for the Coromadel, a magical place and well worth a visit.
After our complete tour of the circumference of the peninsula, we started our drive to Hamilton. It’s a lovely place but after a very satisfying curry we were straight to bed as we had to be up early the next day for the next adventure.
Caves and Culture in Waitomo and Rotorua
The next activity on the agenda was a visit to the renowned Waitomo Caves. Famed for their constellations of glowworms and formations of age-old stalactites and stalagmites. We opted for the three cave combo, which included the glowworm caves themselves, plus two other remarkable caves discovered during the early twentieth century. Those with fears about the dangers of the myriad of stalactites above our heads were quickly soothed with the knowledge that no major fall of the limestone had occurred in millions of years. So strong are the caves in structure that they have withstood the many earthquakes that occur on this geographical fault line – can we say that of many of our man-made structures?
The guides were excellent, weaving the Maori creation stories through the scientific explanations and peppering it all with wonderful dry Kiwi humour. We learnt why the glow worms glow – it is a bioluminescence which attracts prey and is created by essentially, their poo. The sun really does shine out their….
I digress. It was a wonderful morning, but was only the start of our adventure into Kiwi culture. New Zealanders are a people truly proud of their landscape, in love with the mountains, seas and the rivers and connected in a deep way with the spirit of the land. Maori or not, it is something that unites them all. That and a special love for Captain Tackles himself, All Black Captain Richie Mccaw. Our education about the history of the land and its original settlers was to continue when we arrived in sulphur city Rotorua. There we took part in a Hangi (a Maori feast) along with a cultural evening where we learnt about the way in which the Maori carved out their existence. As well as the practical basket weaving from flax, hunting and carving, we were also shown the games that helped prepare the children to become great fighters and the wonderful dancing and singing that is so resonant and timeless.
Rotorua is best known for its thermal pools and geysers, so if you have time visit Hell’s Gate, a centre where you can see the dazzling array of coloured mineral pools and see the raw thermal power of the steaming cliffs, throwing boiling water metres into the air. You can also indulge yourself with a cleansing spa treatment, using the mud form the pools which is known for its health benefits and skin soothing properties.
If you are going to tour around New Zealand in only three weeks, be prepared for more of a boot-camp than a holiday, with early starts and lots of walking. If, like me, that’s your poison, then keep reading as that’s pretty much the theme here!
Anyway, we left our lovely accommodation in Rotorua (the Fernleaf Motel) with the promise of the fulfilment of a great trip keeping us going. You see, we were off to Hobbiton. For those uninitiated in the world of Tolkien (and more pertinently Sir Peter Jackson in this case), this is the home of the Hobbits, the Shire, in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit Trilogies. We were able to explore Shire’s Rest, the beautiful and functional Hobbit vegetable gardens and the lovely lake. We sipped a pint in the Green Dragon and saw the main event, Bilbo’s home Bag End. The guides again were charming and funny, telling us anecdotes of the filming and of course tales of the folk who come to the set dressed as elves, hobbits and orcs. My partner and I realised that there are those that enjoy the films and those that are fanatical, and very happily we reside in the former of the two camps.
After Hobbiton we ventured back into Rotorua for a little activity to get the heart pumping – zorbing. Known over here as OGO balls (www.ogo.co.nz), we decided to try out rolling in pairs, first down a straight hill and next down a winding path which had us tossing and turning inside. Unlike options in the UK, the balls are filled with water meaning you slide around much more easily but don’t end up going head over heels. It was exhilarating and turned my partner Henry into a giddy, giggling monster who just didn’t stop smiling.
After this, we began our drive to the shores of Lake Taupo. On the way you can visit the incredible Huka Falls, where you can witness the phenomenon of natural hydro power – more than 220,000 litres of water per second. The Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river which feeds its biggest lake, moves gracefully north from Lake Taupo between banks 100 metres apart. Just before the Huka Falls it enters a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock. The effect is nature’s large-scale equivalent of a fire hose feeding into a very fine nozzle.
As we continued the drive we experienced even more spectacular scenery. Both the drive itself across the more rugged terrain of North Island and the shimmering blue as the northern-most shores stretched into view took our breath away. As we drove on we saw a place to pull up and paddle in the water. It was one of those divine pinch-me moments where we just couldn’t really take in the magnitude and beauty of what was around us. The day was not done however, and we still had a long drive past the south shores to our home for the night, a B and B in the shadow of the magnificent Mt Ruapehu. It was a pretty perfect day that brought together all the things that compelled us to visit the country – the adrenaline activities, our appreciation of NZ in cinema and the astoundingly beautiful scenery that seems to shift with the shadows and sun.
We stayed in lots of different types of accommodation over our trip, from 5* hotels to roadside lodges. One triumph for us was Air Bnb and I have to mention one amazing place we stayed – Berry’s Bush Lodge in Okahune. Although it was remote it was so worth the drive. It was at the top of a hill with panoramic views of the country side and unblemished bush surrounding it. Our host Michele provided the most amazing breakfast including homemade ginger yoghurt, bread and jam, raw milk from her cow, and eggs from her chickens. It was a little slice of heaven.
After a heavy breakfast (we basically cleaned the poor woman out) we went for a quick hour hike through the forest surrounding her house and then got ready to drive to Wellington. The wonderful thing about New Zealand being that there’s nothing that can kill you lurking in the forest (just things that annoy you, hello sandflies!).
The drive went really quickly – I even took the wheel for a time and before long we were arguing about how to get to the hotel. We found it by complete chance but were able to check in to the Bolton Hotel. Still in hiking attire, we quickly ran upstairs to change into clothes more befitting of our new swanky surroundings. That evening we strolled into town (we got a lot better at finding the route in the end) and enjoyed some food at the Five Boroughs diner before heading back to plan for the next day.
World’s Coolest Little Capital
Wellington is a marvellous place. It has all the buzz of a capital with the associated trappings – great independent food outlets, art galleries, clothes shops and bars – but without even a hint of big city isolation or coldness. Each street thrives and buzzes, spilling over with exciting places to explore. It’s a pretty wonderful thing when you have to eat only small bites at each establishment because there are so many you want to try.
We were up and out early with one destination firmly in mind: the iconic Fidels on Cuba Street. With big soul and bigger portions, this is an ideal breakfast spot frequented by tourists and locals alike. One thing we quickly understood was that the eating in Wellington is very good indeed. Surprisingly too is the coffee – New Zealand is known for it’s excellent blends and roasts and we really got into the cafe culture as we sipped our way around the city. After a belly-busting breakfast at Fidels, we waddled over to Te Papa, the National Museum. Te Papa, meaning ‘our place’ in Maori, tells the incredible story of this beautiful country, it examines its geology, ecology and the philosophy of its people over many generations. It was a truly fascinating insight into what makes New Zealand such a beautiful country but also the difficulties that come with living on a tectonic fault-line. Some of the most interesting exhibits include a collection of sea creature skeletons, ranging from their smallest native species of dolphin to an adolescent sperm whale. They also have a fully preserved giant squid which reminded me of those strange alien autopsy tables in sci-fi shows.
All of that learning obviously makes a person hungry, so we stopped at the highly rated Ti Kouka Cafe to grab some of their famous salted caramel cookies and some drinks to enjoy on the harbourside. The sun was shining and life couldn’t have felt much better.
We took a leisurely stroll home before heading to the Fish Shack for another amazing meal (there’s a theme developing here isn’t there…) before catching American Sniper at the pictures. It was a fantastic day in what is a very special capital city.
Catch up with us next time as we continue the adventure to the South Island…
Words and photos from Katie Thomson
Our top stays:
City Oaks Hotel, Auckland: This hotel is really competitively priced for relative luxury. Although it’s a little out of the centre, the rooms are spacious and very comfortable.
The Bolton Hotel, Wellington: This stunning hotel is conveniently placed to explore the city, but is away from the noise and bustle. The rooms are sumptuous and really well equipped for tourists on a long trip – a washer dryer is a real godsend!
In both my flight to Kuala Lumpur preceding this and to Auckland from there I enlisted the services of Holiday Extras. They provided access to the business class lounges in both airports which made the long haul process much less arduous. After a day in a very humid KL, it was so invigorating to have a shower in the lounge before a 10 hour flight. Hire a car to make the journey yourself and try and be as flexible as possible. If you travel during Chinese New Year like we did hotels do book up quickly so be prepared.