New Zealand - North Island
November - December 2015
After about 12 hours in the air (plus a 4 hour layover in Melbourne) and a 6 hour time change, we had landed in Auckland, NZ. Our time there was brief and we mostly just slept off our jetlag, walked around, and ate some good food, but below are some highlights:
From Auckland we drove about 2 hours north to Whangarei (which we discovered is pronounced "Fangarei") for a few nights. Our main goal in Whangarei- to scuba dive at the Poor Knights Islands. The Poor Knights are a group of islands about 25 km off of New Zealand's Tutukaka Coast and are an extremely popular diving spot. Our instructor in Phuket actually suggested we go there- he had been years ago and loved it and also told us that Jacques Cousteau had once said that it was one of his favorite dive spots in the world. We were feeling pretty confident after our diving in Thailand so we signed up. The trip consisted of two different dives- the first was just around one of the many islands and the second was in the world's largest seacave, Rikoriko.
Right away we knew this dive would be WAY different from our dives in Phuket. In Phuket, the water was over 80°. We wore wet suits, but they weren't really necessary (and they were were not full wet suits). We also were still completing our certification so we had an instructor who's only job was to focus on us and to make sure we were ok. Once we got to NZ, we were certified divers. We were in a group of 6, with a dive master who was actually training to be a dive master- this was only his second time leading a dive. We didn't have special one-on-one attention. Also- the water was sooo cold! It was like 60°. That's pretty cold. We had full body wetsuits (with hoods) and they were very necessary.
So, needless to say, I got a little freaked out. I think it was a mix of being a little nervous and being very cold, but I had a really hard time descending. We all got in the water and started going down and I tried, but every time I started to descend I felt like I couldn't breathe. Dennis was also having a hard time descending at first- but more so because he just kept floating back to the surface. After a few tries Dennis got down but I was not feeling great about it. You know how when you jump in a cold pool or lake or ocean or take a really cold shower and you have a hard time breathing? That's what I felt like. My chest was tight, the wet suit was super constricting, and it was cold. And again- there was no one-on-one instructor helping me out. I got scared and the dive master-in-training pretty much told me to go back to the boat and try again on the next dive. But as I started to swim back to the boat, the girl who was supervising him came and got me and told me she would stay with me and slowly help me descend. It felt much better to have someone with me and helping me. After a few minutes, we finally got down to the rest of the group and found Dennis- I was so happy to see him and he later told me he was so happy to see me. He was so sad about doing the dive without me and really didn't expect me to show up.
These dives definitely ended up being awesome but we both agreed Thailand was way better for beginners like us. It is so hard diving in cold water (and I know people dive in way colder water than this!). Plus it was so dark and hard to see and we saw way cooler sealife in Thailand. That being said, it was a really cool experience and I'm glad we did it.
From Whangarei we headed southwest to Waitomo for a night, home of the famous glowworm caves. We had planned to do a crazy tour of a cave where you jump off rocks and scale cliffs but there were no openings when we went so we just did a normal walking/boat tour. The glowworms are super sensitive to light though so you can't take any pictures but click here and you can see what it looks like. It was pretty magical- we had never seen anything like it.
There were also some adorable sheep, goats, deer, and kunekune (really interesting pigs we had never heard of) that lived at the farm next to our hostel.
From Waitamo we traveled northeast to Rotorua. Rotorua is most famously known for the plethora of thermal activity that exists in the area. We spent 3 days exploring the geysers and hot springs, hiking through the redwood forests, and most importantly- visiting Hobbiton!
TE PUIA GEOTHERMAL VALLEY
We spent one (rainy) afternoon at the Te Puia Geothermal Valley, which is home to the Pohutu Geyser. Pohutu Geyser is the largest active geyser in the southern hemispehere and it was pretty remarkable. It just kept going. We thought it would erupt for only a few minutes but it was a constant and powerful flow the entire time we were at the park. The geothermal valley also had tons of crazy hot mud pools and beautiful trails to explore.
Whakarewarewa Forest was exactly like the redwood forests of California. It was beautiful and we had so much fun getting lost on the trails for a day.
Perhaps the highlight of our time in Rotorua was our visit to Hobbiton. Neither of us are huge LOTR fans (I've seen them all but Dennis has only seen parts of the first) and it was a little pricey so we were on the fence about doing the tour but we were both SO glad that we did. It was seriously magical. We had the most beautiful day (the best weather we had so far in NZ) and the set really makes you feel like you are there with Frodo and his crew. The details of these hobbit holes- down to the tiny clothes hanging on clotheslines and mini axe and small pieces of wood (which we learned took 2 guys almost 2 years to chop all the wood so that it was hobbit size!) was incredible. Not to mention the rolling green hills and bright blue skies. We had a blast.
And the tour ended at The Green Dragon where we got a free (well, it was included in the price of a ticket) mug of specially brewed Hobbit beer!
WAIOTAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND
On our way out of Rotorua we stopped at the Waitapu Thermal Wonderland. The big draw to this place for us was the Champagne Pool, where the Beastie Boys filmed their music video for the song "Gratitude." The Champagne Pool is bright blue-green with orange rock surrounding it and is consistently between 150-200° F. It was incredible to look at (but smelled like rotten eggs). There was also a brilliant neon green body of water named The Devil's Bath and several small geysers and mud pools.
After Rotorua, we headed to the mountains for Dennis' birthday. All he wanted for his 32nd birthday was to climb Mt. Ruapehu in the Tongariro National Park. A few years ago, Dennis was working at this studio, Artjail, in the city when he saw a photo of a crater lake in New Zealand by the photographer Johnny McCormack. This crater lake is at the top of Ruapehu and ever since then he was determined to make it there one day. So, the day before his birthday, we climbed almost 9,000 feet to the top of this active volcano (with a guide of course- we went through Adrift Outdoor Guided Adventures and they were great). It was cold, very steep, and super icy (we had to wear crampons and use an ice axe!) but we had perfect blue skies and a super fun guide- Jono. Jono is as much of a film and music lover as we are and this drove much of our conversation. When we weren't totally winded from the elevation, we mostly talked about our favorite movies, the best (and worst) decade for film, American v. British music (Jono was raised in England), how Nicki Minaj is a terrible role model but oh so catchy, and what movies we love to hate. There were times when it got pretty difficult and we felt like we going to be blown down the mountain by the 50k/h wind, but overall it was an amazing experience.
And the view at the top! It was incredible and everything Dennis hoped it would be.
So the climb was a lot of fun and everything seemed great... until I woke up at around 1 am the next morning and realized my lips were completely burned. Like covered in blisters burned. I had put sunscreen on my face but not enough on my lips and I guess the sun reflecting off the snow all day just fried them. It. Was. Agonizing. And I've gotten some really bad burns before. I honestly thought I had burned every part of my body that was possible- my ears, my feet, my scalp even... but this was something else. It hurt to talk, to eat, to brush my teeth, to wash my face... I was miserable. We have a few close ups of my swollen lips but I haven't decided if I'm sharing them with the world yet...
That day, the day I woke up with the terrible burn, was Dennis' birthday so I put on my happy face and we drove to Taupo, the nearest actual town, to hang out for the day. We went to some waterfalls, checked out some cool street art, and had a delicious dinner where Dennis cooked his own meat on a hot stone at the table.
Then Thursday was Thanksgiving! We made a delicious dinner at our hostel, complete with a roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, stuffing, corn on the cob, and a chocolate salted caramel cake for Dennis. We missed our friends and family dearly and it definitely wasn't the same, but we had a lovely Thanksgiving in NZ.
We had plans to do some more hiking while in National Park, but rain and my lips kind of got in the way. After a few days it was on to Napier, a little art deco town by the sea!
My one request for my birthday was that I did not want to spend it in a hostel where we had to share a bathroom and kitchen with other people. Not that we had any bad experiences (minus my make up remover getting stolen from the bathroom in National Park) at the hostels we stayed at- we had private rooms at all of them and they were all clean, but I just needed a break. So, we found an adorable B&B, The Seabreeze, right on the ocean in the beach town of Napier.
In 1931 a huge earthquake leveled most of Napier, so much of the town was rebuilt in the art deco style of the time. The town still very much keeps that art deco vibe alive and it really had the feeling of a Florida beach town from the thirties. It was beautiful- open ocean for as far as you can see in one direction, and mountains and rolling green hills in another. We had an equal balance of relaxation and activity during our 3 days in Napier and it was the perfect place to spend my 31st (eeek!) birthday.
The area surrounding Napier is pretty famous in NZ for wine. There are countless vineyards so we spent our first day visiting a few of them and trying the local wine.
We also drove up to Te Mata Peak, watched some paragliders, and did a hike with beautiful views of Napier and Hawkes Bay.
On our second day in Napier we rented bikes and did a 40k bike ride around the coast, through the vineyards, and past tons of sheep and cows. We stopped halfway at Mission Estate, NZ’s oldest winery, for a tasting and one of the most delicious meals of our trip. We sat outside and (since we weren’t driving!) had a few more glasses of wine.
It was pretty rainy and cloudy on my birthday so we ate a delicious breakfast at Mister D’s (where we got a donut with a maple syrup syringe!), went to see The Hunger Games, played air hockey in the movie theater arcade (I won!), and ordered in from a Turkish restaurant for dinner. It was absolutely perfect.
After our 3 days on the ocean we headed south to Wellington for our last few days on the North Island!
Wellington is the capital of New Zealand a really cool little city. It’s right on the water and reminded us of Portland or Boulder- lots of cute little shops and cafes, tons of great restaurants, and beautiful views in every direction.
One very hot afternoon we did a harder-than-anticipated hike to the top of Mt. Victoria, where we were greeted by a 360° view of the city, the harbor, and the surrounding land.
We later learned that the scene from The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits are walking on the trail and then need to jump off the trail to hide from the Ringwraiths was filmed on the path we took!
Weta Workshop is a special effects and prop company based outside of Wellington. They create sets, armour, weapons, creatures, and miniatures for movies like the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, District 9, Mad Max, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. We did a tour of the studio and saw tons of props from these films and learned about their production process.
While at Weta we also did a tour of the studios for a new show they’re doing called Thunderbirds Are Go. We had never heard of this show (or the original that it’s based on) but it was pretty fascinating. The entire show is done using miniature sets comprised of recycled household items (like washing machines, spatulas, plastic juicers, etc) with CGI characters. We saw the sets they use each episodes (like the characters homes and spaceships) and also saw a few sets for episodes they haven’t filmed yet.
Due to copyright, etc, we couldn’t take pictures of anything at Weta but it was well worth the visit.
One rainy morning we spiked our coffee with whiskey and took a walk to Te Papa. Te Papa is NZ’s national museum and even though it isn't that big it is definitely one of the most interactive and creative museums we have been to. They have the world’s largest colossal squid on display that was found off the coast of Antartica (and a fun game where you can create your own squid), a really cool and interesting earthquake exhibit, and a new exhibit on New Zealand’s involvement at Gallipoli during WWI- something that Dennis and I didn’t really know anything about. The exhibit was done in partnership with Weta Workshop and it was just amazing. There were larger than life but incredibly realistic sculptures of several different people involved in the Gallipoli campaign and 3-D interactive maps and projections that illustrated the stories you were listening to. There were models you could touch and bunkers you could go into to really get a feel for what it was like. It was really incredible.
We also went to a fancy dinner at Ortega Fish Shack, where we had NZ’s famous whitebait fritters along with two different and veryyy delicious fish dishes.
When we got back to our hostel, Dennis surprised me with a coffee tiramisu cake for my birthday!
After a few days in Wellington we said goodbye to the North Island hopped on the ferry to the South!