The Land of the Rings

NEW ZEALAND

Overview

New Zealand was on my bucket list for a while. My then Australian boyfriend Matt mentioned  that he has not been to this country either, so we decided to spend a week in Sydney and then head over to Kiwi land for two weeks.

Knowing how far away New Zealand is and the fact that I might not be able to visit it anytime soon, if ever- I wanted to see both North and South islands. Having only two weeks, that meant a lot of precise planning. This website was extremely helpful counting the distance and the time it will take to drive place to place: http://www.newzealand.com/int/destinations/?rd. We had a spreadsheet with the itinerary, places we will stay (most of them were for one night only) and what we will see/do along the way. Of course plans changed slightly as we went with the trip, but we managed to stay on track and explore main sights of this incredible country.

NORTH ISLAND

Day 1

After exciting week in Australia, I am now jet lag free and off to Auckland- first stop in the North Island of New Zealand. The flight was early in the morning, but 5am wake up did not bother me much- I am too excited to be sleepy! The tickets were sold by Qantas, but operated by Emirates airlines and it was one of the best flights I have ever taken. We had A380 – double decker Airbus with plenty of space, beautiful wood decorated bathrooms and most importantly- great food!

It was incredible to see a full breakfast menu as well as drinks included in the short 2.5 hour flight.

Going through customs was very easy. No visa is needed for Lithuanians and that’s the passport I carry. Suitcases took a bit of time to arrive and by the time we left the airport, my friend Josh, who kindly took us in for a few nights to stay with his family, already waited for us at the arrivals area.

Before even bringing us home, Josh took us to the One Tree Hill- the 182 meter volcanic peak in Auckland where you can get a beautiful view of the city panorama below.

Talking about cities- don’t go to New Zealand for the urban activities. Cities are relatively small and ways apart. This country is all about nature. At least that’s what we came here to see.

We dropped off the suitcases, caught up with Josh’s Lithuanian wife Dalia and all together went out to do some sightseeing.

Auckland is based around two harbours and is a major city in the north of New Zealand’s North Island. First stop- Marae– Maori meeting grounds. A marae is a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe), hapū (sub tribe) or whānau (family).

As it was a lovely warm afternoon, we all took a stroll in the beautiful Mission Bay before going to dinner and a ‘jug’ of beer.

We did not stay in Auckland for very long, as we were on a schedule, but what we saw was a beautiful, clean city. And most importantly- we got to hang out with friends.

Day 2

First thing in the morning we went to Jucy and picked up our rental car for the next week.  It will take us all round the North Island. Luckily Matt was used to driving on the left side of the road. I gave it a try for a couple of blocks and we both were too nervous for me to do it again. New Zealand traffic is very light, but there are a LOT of rotaries (roundabouts). I have to say- entering them to the left is completely against all of my driving habits.

My friends recommended to visit Coromandel and the Hot Water Beach. The drive was long, but beautiful. Winding roads through the fields, summer weather and sunny skies.

Once we arrived, we witnessed quite a funny sight-grown up men and women with little shovels digging in a sand 🙂 . The sand gets hot and bubbles at certain time before and after the low tide. So you can dig out a hole the size that you want and enjoy a self-made Jacuzzi in the natural springs. We played in the muddy looking water and eventually had enough. The sand was too hot to stand with bare feet in some spots.

Not too long of a drive away, in Coromandel Peninsula there is a beautiful Hahei Beach and the famous Cathedral Cove.

 The drive back to Auckland was just as picturesque.

That’s really how all two weeks were- you will see a lot of road pics, because every turn you take, the views are breathtaking. We made a quick stop at the supermarket and stocked up on the snacks as well as the essentials for a picnic with a view! New Zealand is famous for it’s wines after all. We might as well taste them 🙂 !

Day 3

Short visit in Auckland is over and it’s time to say good-bye to our friends. It was very nice to catch up and hang out with Dalia, Josh, his parents and the rest of the family. We were certainly grateful they let us stay over for a couple of nights and showed us around the city.

We filled up on gas and snacks for the road and headed off to Waitomo Caves. Also known as Glowworm Caves!

The glowworm, Arachnocampa luminosa, is unique to New Zealand. Thousands of these creatures light up the caves creating a special atmosphere and magical experience. The caves are limestone formations and so far there are at least three hundred of them discovered in New Zealand. Worms were flooded out in 2004, so they had to be reintroduced. The glowworms shine blue light and according to the guide, the reason for that is that this color is the easiest for nature to reproduce. The worms are only alive for two days once they come out. Females glow, get fertilized, lay eggs and die. Such a short yet bright life 🙂 .  We all got in the little boat and floated down the underground river. It felt like under a starry night sky, except we were in the cave! Unfortunately no pictures are allowed while the shiny creatures brighten up the walls, so not to scare them. I guess you will just have to go and see this magic for yourselves 🙂 .

The tour got us hungry, so we had a delicious burger at the cafe near the caves. Interesting fact- most of the burgers come with beets in NZ! It’s a different twist to a simple burger and definitely adds a nice taste!

Mount Maunganui was our next stop and that’s where we will spend the night. Bed and Breakfast host left us freshly baked cookies and milk, which did not go to waste 🙂 . We need all the energy we can get before going for a hike. Well, it’s not that long of a hike. A little steep, but oh SO rewarding when you reach the top!

The sweeping views of the Bay of Plenty, the town, the blue water left us in awe and took our breath away ( or maybe it was a hike that did that too 🙂 ).

On the walk/run down we saw a bunch of sheep-so typical for New Zealand. Someone said that there are more sheep than people in this country. Not sure that’s true, but we were fascinated by them. City child that I am, I wanted to get closer and take a good pic.

Got some photos, but not really the close up- these animals are surprisingly fast!

This busy day left us with a beautiful sunset and a great meal at the local Thai restaurant.

So far the road trip is not too tiring and certainly not boring! Luckily we are getting plenty of exercise walking/jogging up and down the hills. VERY excited for tomorrow’s adventure- Hobbiton Movie Set:) !!!

Day 4

We do have a bit of a distance to cover today, but there is enough time to enjoy the morning at Mount Maunganui. Breakfast was toast, home made jams, yogurt- light, easy and delicious. Even better when you can eat it outside in the lovely yard. Remember, it’s a cold February in Boston at this time, so I am taking advantage of the warm weather as much as I can! And being near the beach, I will certainly spend some time there.

We had a little run, walk, swim and some semi-successful handstands this morning 🙂 !

Ok, so I promised Hobbiton Movie Set, time to go there! If you have never watched Lord of The Rings series, then it might not be something you want to spend your time on. But for me it was one of the MUST see in New Zealand.

We arrived to the town called Matamata and went to the ISite Visitor information center, where we bought the tour tickets (it was $75 NZ dollars per person in 2014). The bus took us to the village where we transferred to another bus to get to the movie set. It was SO cool 🙂 !

The guide gave an awesome tour with a lot of behind the scenes information. There were a so many video effects being used while filming Lord of the Rings! Also many tricks were used as well. For example- children were dressed as hobbits, positioned far enough to look like adults. Different props were being used to make the people look smaller- forced perspective technique was very popular during the filming too. The guide also explained how many small details went into this production.

There even is a fake tree, just because it was in the book and was needed for the set. So 200 000 fake leaves were made in Taiwan and hand tied to the tree branches! Also- plum tree was too big, so they used apple and pear trees, stripped off the leaves and used plum tree leaves hand tied on! They even grew moss on the fence by putting the yogurt on to speed up the process!

After the fun tour, we went to the Green Dragon Inn for a beer that is only brewed for Hobbiton Movie Set and had a sandwich called “Mouse trap”.

I very much enjoyed this visit and now off to the smelly Rotorua! It’s a very special town known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. In Te Puia’s Whakarewarewa Valley, there is the 30m-tall Pohutu Geyser, which erupts daily and bubbling mud pools that create the distinctive smell. You cannot avoid it even if you are not near the pools. It’s basically a smell of a strong fart 🙂 .

We checked into the Lake Lodge B&B and needed to get some exercise after the drive, so decided to go for a walk at the Redwoods Forest.

It ended up being a good 8 km (almost 5 miles) hike. We walked in the woods and up the mountain with the views of Rotorua town below. In the distance you could see the smelly smoke coming out from the ground. Definitely not something you witness every day.

Day 5

First point of interest today – Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. Located 27 km south of Rotorua, Waiotapu is an active geothermal area in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone. It is honestly like stepping on another planet. The closest to it I can compare is Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Just like Yellowstone, Wai-O-Tapu has a geyser, but in order for it to erupt as scheduled, the park staff have to ‘induce’ it with soap. They call it Lady Knox. It is named after Lady Constance Knox, the second daughter of Uchter Knox, 15th Governor of New Zealand.

We made it to the park just 15 min before the geyser show. Knowing that the eruption is somewhat fake, made it a little disappointing to watch it, but the rest of the park was surreal. The colors, the bubbles and smoke coming out of the ground was fascinating.

I would definitely recommend this stop while in North Island. Worth dealing with the nasty smell all around 🙂 .

As we are in the geothermal area, might as well take advantage of the natural resources that mother nature is giving us. Waikite Valley Thermal Pools is a perfect place to relax, unwind and enjoy the hot springs.

We rented a private pool for $18 (in 2014) and spent a good couple hours there. The steam rising from the water creates a cool mystic atmosphere, you can relax by the pool and have a snack at the cafe on site. Very much needed rest with all the driving that we are doing.

Road trip continues towards Tongariro National Park. Initially we did not plan staying there for two nights, but had a change of plans along the way.

While sitting near Lake Taupo and eating a dessert (cookies and cream ice cream with espresso and baileys), we decided to do a 7 hour hike – Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next morning! We called Jucy rentals and asked to extend the car rental for an extra day, which they were happy to do.

The views leading to Tongariro were simply breathtaking. We pulled over several times for pictures and made it to the park just before sunset. Adventure Lodge had very simple accommodations, but when you are surrounded by such incredible nature, nothing else matters really. IMG_6008And when you are having a delicious lamb shank and beer for dinner, you might as well be in paradise 🙂 .

Tonight is going to be an early night, since tomorrow we have a big day- Tongariro Alpine Crossing– 19.4 km (12 miles) hike. This is considered to be a world-renowned trek at the oldest national park in New Zealand.

Day 6

7am came fast. But we are so excited for this adventure! We had arranged a shuttle to take us to the start of the hike and packed water and lunch for the trip. I’d definitely recommend  getting a shuttle as the parking is limited.

We started the hike with the instructions- “If you see the black smoke or the stones coming out of volcano crater, you must immediately turn around and head back!” Okay then…Let’s just hope the volcano stays dormant for another day. Though I kind of secretly hoped to see some lava 🙂 .

We saw Mt Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe) from Lord of the Rings,  hiked the incredible landscape and passed the bright green sulfur lakes, but no, we did not experience the eruption of the volcano. There were warning signs everywhere though.

The hike took us about 6 hours. It was pretty tiring, hot and we were ready to sit down by the end of it. It’s not extremely hard, I would say anyone that is physically active on a daily basis could do this crossing.

The views were worth every drop of sweat. I think this hike was one of the biggest highlights of the trip!

The shuttle brought us back to the lodge where we showered, picked up our car and drove to Wellington– capital of New Zealand. It was a long day, but so much can be accomplished when you start early! Wellington is located near the North Island’s southernmost point on the Cook Strait. Strong winds through the Cook Strait give it the nickname “Windy Wellington.” We did not feel so much of the wind, but what we saw was A LOT of fog! We checked into Gourmet Stay boutique hotel, which is located right in the Wellington’s “Gourmet District”. Hotel has a cafe downstairs and first thing we did was had some delicious home made scones. It is within walking distance to a lot of bars, restaurants and shops, so after dropping off the bags, we went out and met up with one of Matt’s friends that lives there. Lively city has great energy and we soon forgot that we just hiked 19.4 km today! Sleeping in tomorrow.

Day 7

Oh yes, no need to get up at the crack of dawn! So I slept in. If you want to call 8.30 am a late rise 🙂 . Our flight to Christchurch was not till late afternoon, so we explored Wellington for a bit. Or for as much as the fog let us.

Fog was thick and made the city look slightly spooky! As we walked around it started to lift a little and we were able to get some nice panoramic views of Wellington from the Mt Victoria lookout.

196 m (643 feet) hill might make you slightly sweaty going up, but the views are rewarding.

We spent the afternoon exploring Wellington, doing some shopping and eating of course!

Finally we dropped off our car at Jucy and got a ride to the airport. Just to find out that due to the fog, our flight has been delayed. Luckily the airport has restaurants and does not lack my favorite New Zealand wine- Sauvignon Blanc. So the wait did not seem so bad. Neither was the bumpy flight. Apparently I missed the pilot’s announcement that due to the fog we might not be able to land and it took him three times till finally permission was granted. I blissfully slept through all of the commotion and woke up when it was time to deplane.

Magnolia Rose B&B host came to pick us up from the airport, which was very nice given that our flight landed late at night. South Island adventure begins tomorrow!

SOUTH ISLAND

Day 8

Good morning, Christchurch! The hosts were extremely nice and had a huge breakfast ready for us to start the day. They also spent some time chatting with us, shared their experience in living in Christchurch and how much this city is still suffering from the 2011 earthquake. Mind you, we were there 3 years later and could still see the ruble all over the city.

According to our host, renovations of the buildings did not start right away. Insurance companies did not have enough funds to pay everyone back, so a lot of reconstruction work was stopped. It was pretty sad seeing the ruins of the formerly beautiful church . We walked around and passed by the Cardboard Cathedral built in 2013, a few blocks away from the significantly damaged ChistChurch Cathedral.

Not all of the city is sad of course! We visited beautiful Botanical Gardens and a fun Re:Start shipping container mall!

Shipping containers were instrumental while rebuilding the city after the earthquake and temporary solution became shops, cafes and a symbol of post-quake Christchurch innovation.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we did not come to New Zealand to see the cities. So one day in still rebuilding Christchurch was enough. We got a ride to our trusted Jucy car rentals and picked up another car for the South Island this time. “Luxury” Nissan will serve us well for the next week of adventures!

Without much delay, we took off to Twizel town to explore Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Aoraki / Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand. Its height since 2014 is listed as 3,724 meters, down from 3,764 m before December 1991, due to a rockslide and subsequent erosion. Could not resist stopping for some views along the way…

Twizel is the largest town in the Mackenzie District, in the Canterbury Region of New Zealand’s South Island and a perfect base for exploration of the national park. We booked a simple Aspen Court Motel and were happy to see how close and convenient it is to everything we want to visit.

Day 9

This island even though called South Island is much cooler than the North.  We packed long sleeved shirts, pants and jackets and went for a hike near Mt Cook. It seemed warm at first, but once we reached the Hooker Valley Track, the wind picked up and I was so glad to have my windbreaker with the hood! It’s a nice hike (around 4hrs round trip) that gives you amazing views of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

The trail can be muddy, especially when you get caught in the cold rain (yes, we were those people that pushed forward and did the whole trail).

There are cool swinging bridges to cross along the way, just cold on tight, so the wind doesn’t blow you off 🙂 !

Rain or shine, we made it. I am sure the views are way more spectacular on a clear day. Yes, that’s me, very classy. I was freezing and wine helps to warm up- that’s my excuse 🙂 . Forget the cups, less things to carry for the hike 🙂 .

On the way to Queenstown, we chose a scenic route and stopped by the two incredible lakes – Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo.

The color is out of this world! I have never ever seen lakes with the water color like this. It’s more Caribbean blue than any lake water I have experienced before.

It’s like nature turned the colors up a notch 🙂 !

We reached Queenstown late afternoon and checked into Melbourne Lodge. The place was simple, but location perfect- right in the center of town, walking distance to the restaurants, shops and the harbor.

For dinner we chose Pub on Warf and enjoyed delicious meals on the outside patio. There is always room for dessert, which we got at the nearby bakery. Hot chocolate pudding with vanilla ice cream on the side…Yumm!

Day 10

Lazy morning in Queenstown. Today we had the ‘luxury’ of sleeping in till 8.30 am  and enjoyed the breakfast that was included in the say.

Queenstown is known for the adventure sports- weather it’s skiing/snowboarding that a lot of Australians come to enjoy in winter, or the famous bungee jumping off Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. Yes, the thought crossed our minds. We were really considering it, despite my terrible fear of heights. I did sky diving once, but something about being tied down at your ankles and falling head down just seems way more unsettling to me. It’s also not cheap fun. New Zealand is very expensive country to travel in.  We were buying a lot of snacks/making our own breakfast when it was not included in the stay, but still spent a lot of cash. So by the time we reached Queenstown and talked about the bungee jump, the few seconds of thrill for over $300 per person just seemed a bit much. Combine that with the fear of heights and we decided against it.

As we are not jumping off the bridge, we might as well go and eat a good burger :)! Fergburger had a VERY long line, but it was worth the wait.

We shared avocado/bacon and pork belly/mustard burgers- both were de-light-ful!

Before leaving Queenstown (still before noon!) we bought some apple pie with ice cream, good strong coffee and got on the road again.

The trip continues down south till we arrive to Te Anau. This town is known as a gateway to Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, which we will explore tomorrow! Cat’s Whisker’s B&B host recommended that we go into town and see the movie about Milford Sound before the boat tour there. We went to the Fiordland Cinema and  very much enjoyed the short movie. The music, the birds eye view of the fiords in different seasons was incredible. These type of views is not something you would normally be able to see. Unless you have a helicopter and work for National Geographic 🙂 . We got back to the B&B and made some hot tea- it’s getting colder and colder the more south of New Zealand we get.

Day 11

Early morning (as usual 🙂 ). We booked the Milford Sound cruise for 11.15am and still had about 1.5 hours drive from Te Anau. Very excited to see this incredible part of New Zealand despite the weather being far from the best. It is not unusual- apparently it rains 180 days per year here and we had one of those days. Milford Sound is  known for  Mitre Peak, rain forests and waterfalls. We will take a boat ride and hopefully see more than just the fog.

The ride over was beautiful, but the closer we got, the less we could see ahead. We don’t have another day in Te Anau, so we’ll take the cruise anyway. It was still amazing!

Not the picture perfect movie we saw last night, but still pretty incredible views of the fiord and the waterfalls. Luckily I brought my jacket (gloves would have helped as well) and they were selling warm coffee on the boat. It was freeezing!

The drive back was much better, especially after having a couple of warm and delicious meat pies from Miles Better Pies!

They are individual size, so get at least one each! They make them savory as well as sweet, so we had both kinds and got a couple more for the road. Heading to Wanaka- a resort town on New Zealand’s South Island. Again, we made a few stops along the way for photos.

One of the unplanned distractions, literally right near the highway- Cardona Bra Fence. IMG_6498It’s a controversial tourist attraction. At some point between 1998 and 1999, passers-by began to attach bras to a rural fence. The fence gradually became a well known site as the number of bras grew to hundreds, then thousands. The original reason for the bras being attached to the fence is unknown, they were taken down and new ones would reappear again. In 2006, after discovering the fence rested on public road reserve, the local Council determined the bra fence was a “traffic hazard” and an “eyesore”, and ordered the bras on the fence to be removed. Over $10 000 was raised in charity, but the bras are back again. Now it has a donation box to support breast cancer awareness and the bras are hanging there for a good cause.  It’s not a MUST stop, but a fun site nevertheless!

We reached Peak Sportchalet in the evening and, as soon as we got inside, we turned on the fireplace. We are far from summer weather in the South Island!

Day 12

Short but lovely stay, good breakfast and we are on the road again. The goal today is to reach Franz Josef, so we can check out the the glacier that is quickly  melting away.

Gillespies Beach with a distant view of the Fox Glacier was a good spot for a walk and a little picnic. The road is narrow and unpaved and the beach is pebbles, not white sand, but still pretty and felt very remote.

The way to town and our B&B was pretty spectacular, and we had some unexpected road blocks 🙂 . Luckily the cows were not angry and we were able to pass soon.

At the information center we checked out the glacier tours and booked one for tomorrow- Fox Trot guided glacier climb. I am not sure why I am paying to see the block of ice, but since it’s melting away and we are here, so be it 🙂 !

Day 13

As we were eating breakfast, we realized that we have only 30 minutes before the Fox Trot tour. Clearly not enough time to get there. Luckily there are multiple groups per day, so we called and switched the time to the afternoon. This left us a free morning to explore the surrounding area and walk around the gorgeous Lake Matheson.

Snow capped reflections of the two highest peaks of New Zealand – Aoraki (Mount Cook) and Mount Tasman give this lake postcard perfect look. I’d say this is a MUST visit while in the area for sure.

Time to go check out some melting ice! Matt was very excited- Australians don’t see snow or ice very often.

As for me- it was a new experience to walk with the crampons attached to the shoes, but it was cold and I was slightly miserable 🙂 . I simply prefer warm weather environment. We were part of 15 people group. It did not help that we were the youngest couple there. So the whole tour seemed a bit slow since we had to wait up for everyone. I would say try this if you don’t mind cold. It is pretty cool to hike on the glacier when you think about it…I have no regrets taking the tour, but half a day was plenty! IMG_6560When we got back in town, we needed some hot chocolate to warm us up and brownie with ice cream to restore all the energy we lost while hiking 🙂 !

We have a long way to go today to one more destination- Arthur’s Pass. It was over three hour drive and we made it to the Alpine motel in the pitch black darkness after 10pm. The winding roads were a bit scary, but had we known how steep were the cliffs that we could not see at night, we would have been even more concerned. Regardless, we made it safe and sound and there was not much to do in the little village, but get some rest and prepare for tomorrow’s hike!

Day 14

Last day of exploring this incredible country…The time flew by, but we also managed to see and do so much! We checked out the area and went back to the Otira Viaduct Lookout- we drove over it last night, but could not see the views in the dark. It is pretty amazing. And VERY high! Lunch followed, accompanied by kea birds trying to score some food right next to the “do not feed kea” signs 🙂 .

For the hike today, we chose Avalanche Peak. It is a 1,833 metres high and is subject to avalanches in winter, that’s where the name came from! Luckily it is summer time, safe to tramp (that’s how they called hiking here).

Definitely pack water, snacks and layers of clothes. I was getting very warm at first, but as we went higher up, sweatshirt came in handy. This was also a very deceiving hike. As we thought we reached the top and got out our celebratory wine/cheese picnic, we saw people way far ahead still climbing up! We were not even close to the summit yet!

It was not easy, but the views on top (the real summit), as well as along the way, were stunning. And a bonus- more friendly kea (New Zealand’s mountain parrot) sightings up top! The whole hike took us about 6 hours total, but the distance was only around 2km each way. An hour and a half drive back to Christchurch, check in the Gingerbread Lodge, dinner and collapse for a few hours of sleep before the early flight back to Sydney, Australia tomorrow. What a trip!

CONCLUSION

Two islands in two weeks was quite intense. It was a very well planned and executed trip and we were very lucky that nothing went wrong. We saw everything and more than we planned. The best part is that we did not feel exhausted by the end of it either. It is incredible country to visit and if you have the time, there is a lot more to be explored. All I can say is that I am extremely grateful for this wonderful opportunity and the happy memories.IMG_5896

 

 

 

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