New Zealand is one heck of a place. Growing up quoting The Lord of the Rings, watching rugby and going out with a geologist; it was only a matter of time before I took the 24 hour flight to the other side of the world to see what Aotearoa has to offer.
We have not been disappointed. The huge mountains, tramping hikes through crazy scenery, friendly people, copious amounts of Eggs Bene and swimming in lakes, all while driving around in a huge purple and green campervan- what’s not to love?
Admittedly, our planned six week road trip around both islands has now taken a rather unexpected turn due to the global pandemic of Covid-19. I decided that the last five weeks of my life have been far too good to not write about, even though initially it was the last thing I felt like doing as our whole plan for this year has had to drastically change.
A crisis completely out of our control (wash your hands, ya’ll, please) has meant that we are currently in lockdown for at least four weeks in Queenstown, overlooking the pretty magnificent Wakatipu Lake.
There are definitely worse places in the world to be self isolating right now and while feeling very fortunate, I thought I’d take some time to share some of our favourites places on the North Island to help anyone who may be planning a trip when all this craziness is over.
I’ll regale you with a few nice stories, some of my favourites snaps and I hope a post that serves as a reminder that even when we are facing an unprecedented adversity, the world is always still beautiful.
We flew from Heathrow into the North Island’s largest city and after a day of time-travel (leaving the UK on a Sunday evening and arriving in New Zealand on Tuesday lunchtime), we jumped into our rental car and despite not really knowing what day we were on, managed to navigate our way to a nice AirBnb in Herne Bay, very near to the hip area of Ponsonby.
We took a few days to acclimatise and explore; visiting Auckland Museum, climbing two of the city’s forty eight volcanic craters, Mt Eden and One Tree Hill, and spending sunny evenings in the Wynard Quarter. This was definitely my favourite part of the city, overlooking the huge yachts in the harbour, enjoying a prime viewing spot of the Sky Tower and working my way through a lot of cocktails in attractive Tiki glasses at The Good Luck Coconut. Highly recommend.
We had four nights in Auckland which for me was enough (the cities in NZ are good but really, you’re here for the nature) and we spent one of our days ticking off two of the main tourist attractions in the country: a visit to the Hobbiton film set and Waitomo Glow-worm Caves.
I would highly recommend doing both of these. As both of us are huge LOTR fans, a visit to Hobbiton was a must and it was fantastic. It took us around 2h30 to get to Matamata but it was so worth the long day in the car.
Posing by hobbit doors, seeing the insane level of detail from fake moss on fences to smoking chimneys to show a hobbit was home and, of course, the famous green door of Bag End which got us a bit emosh. The admission includes a drink of ale in The Green Dragon pub (perfect opportunity to channel your inner halfling) next to the famous watermill and although you are taken around by a guide, you have the freedom to take your time. It was great to just take in and enjoy all the intricate detail of the living, breathing set re-created as a permanent fixture by Sir Peter Jackson and the gang for The Hobbit films in 2010.
After a morning of hobbit-ing, we got on the road again and went to Waitomo Glow-worm caves. This was one of my top experiences of the trip so far. Entering into the subterranean white rock caves, seeing amazing stalagmites and stalactites, hearing our fab guide Kori sing a Māori love song in the dark and of course, stepping on to the boat and floating out under millions of glow-worms, glittering overhead. It was awe-inspiring and very special indeed. A real must see.
After Auckland, we picked up our beautiful Jucy Condo campervan which would be home for the next few weeks and made our way up the coast of Coromandel. Here we stayed at Hahei Holiday Resort– which had amazing facilities, super clean showers and was a thirty second walk on to the beautiful white sand beach.
We spent three nights here and enjoyed the clamber up and over the cliff to the famous Cathedral Cove and her huge sea rock formations which was very impressive but I think I preferred the quiet of Hahei beach which was just as beautiful. We swam in the Pacific, enjoyed the beach rope swing and I got very excited when I realised it was this beach that featured in the famous video of three orcas playing alongside a swimmer. Sadly, there wasn’t a cetacean in sight but NK did narrowly avoid a reef shark which gave him a story to tell.
It felt like a real beach holiday (prize for the nicest sand however goes to Piha beach west of Auckland where the volcanic black sand was just talcum powder) and was the perfect spot for us to get to grips with how the camper worked and get in to the routine of van-life.
If we had more time, I could have spent longer exploring the Coromandel coast and definitely want to go back to sample Hot Water Beach (digging your own personal hot pool on the beach when the tide comes in) but there is always next time.
We then began our first big drive in the campervan, heading inland towards the geothermal and wonderfully eggy, Rotorua. Here we sampled all the delights the place has to offer, taking in our first and best Eggs Benedict at the Artisan Café (surely the only appropriate food in a town that is famed for its sulphurous fumes) and then took a stroll through Kuirau Park which had been grown up around the bubbling mud pools and white smoke of a place built literally on top of the land’s geothermal goodness.
My feet, badly bitten by mozzies and stung by a bee who found its way into my Birkenstock (I just don’t get the luck with insects), were so glad of a dip in the geothermal hot pool whose lovely water was free to enjoy for all, right in the middle of the park.
Our campsite just outside the town at the wonderfully placed Blue Lake Top 10 Park, my favourite accommodation spot of the trip. We ended up staying in a lot of Top 10 campsites and while they are a few dollars more per night, they are so worth it for that extra comfort- definitely welcome when sleeping in a van.
There’s never been anything better for the soul than jumping in a lake in the rain, surrounded by huge green mountains. So cold, but so worth it.
We definitely made the most of the geothermal treats in the area; visiting both Wai-O-Tapu Reserve and Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Wai-O-Tapu had the famous Lady Fox Geyser and colour-splashed pools. The highlight for me was the lime green pool which is right at the end of the walk around- saving the best until last- but the whole park was pretty jam-packed so we preferred the more peaceful, relaxed atmosphere of Waimangu.
The 2 hour walk from the start of the park to the large lake at the end takes you up close and personal with all the mud pools and geyser action you could possibly want and the helpful self-guided map means you can enjoy each stop at your own pace. A lovely stroll through a land that feels like it really could be home to some serious prehistoric dinos.
We also took in an interesting visit to Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village. It was fascinating to hear how people have lived and continue to live alongside the geothermal wonders that are part of the landscape for hundreds of years, as well as gaining a better understanding of the integral role the land plays in the lives of the community who still live there today. It felt real and authentic and that’s because it was just that.
While I sadly didn’t get time to sample the corn cooked in a geothermal pool, we did see an impressive cultural performance and won’t be forgetting the first time seeing the haka in the flesh anytime soon. Wowzers.
One of my favourite stops on the North Island and while we only had one night here, Lake Taupo will always have a special place in my heart. The lake is beautiful (again swimming in a lake in the rain is special, especially under a double rainbow at sunset!), we sampled the amazing burgers of Pauly’s Diner where I had the best chocolate milkshake ever and of course, it’s where I jumped out of a plane for the first time.
That’s right folks, this gal did a skydive. I can’t quite believe that it happened and it was one of the best experiences of my life while also being one of the most surreal. I had to have a little bit of persuasion but was so glad I took the plunge (if you’ll pardon the pun) and we did it with the wonderful Skydive Taupo.
The team there were really friendly, professional and got the job done. It was done in the most Kiwi way; welcoming, efficient and no nonsense. Before we knew it, we were suited up, harness on and walking towards a pink plane. We picked the perfect day for it; blue skies and the sun was shining on us. The plane was compact and pretty cosy but the view out of the window was the perfect distraction for what you’re about to do. We decided to do the fifteen thousand feet jump (eep!) with sixty seconds of freefall before the parachute opens.
A twenty minute journey up in the air and suddenly the door is open and you’re moving along the bench and you know there’s only one way out.
I can honestly say I have never felt fear like the 5-6 seconds of time when your feet are dangling off the edge, just like the rise in a rollercoaster when you know the drop is coming but there is nothing you can do to stop it. Then you’re out.
I yelled the whole way down and didn’t stop smiling (my little teeth were cold for the next few days but so worth it). I bloody loved it, even got to guide the parachute for a bit, and the views were sensational.
Can’t recommend Skydive Taupo enough who looked after us so well. We jumped out of a plane and survived, and I’ve got the t-shirt to prove it.
After Lake Taupo, we started the drive on to Tongariro National Park, home to New Zealand’s most famous active volcanoes and the perfect setting to bring Tolkien’s Mordor to life.
Tune in again soon for Part 2 of our New Zealand road trip to see even more of this beautiful country and, of course, me nailing my Gollum impression.
See you soon x