After a brief stop in Australia to practice our surfing (more on that later), we made our way to Auckland, New Zealand, to meet up with Jess’s family. Angie and Kevin, Jess’s sister and her boyfriend, were already waiting at the Airbnb having spent the prior week in Australia themselves. The rest of Jess’s family would be arriving the next day, and we would not be wasting any time getting the whirlwind tour started.
Abby once remarked that all we did was eat, play games, and eat again, and we would say this adventure was not much different. We had a few other activities sprinkled in, but there was a big focus on food, and lots of it!
True to form, our very first excursion was a walking food tour of Auckland with Liz from AuckyWalky. Liz welcomed us to New Zealand and taught us some Maori words including “Kia ora” (welcome) complete with hand gestures for “key” and “aura” we are certain she told us we should use. She took us to four different food establishments and described the history and culture of Auckland along the way. We had fried oysters and pork belly squares with apple sauce at Glass House. At The Kimchi Project we tried soft shell crab, pulled pork and tempura chicken bao. We visited Boutique Hotel DeBrett for a cheese plate with port chutney and fruit jams where we had a grand discussion about the difference between jam, jelly, and preserves. We finished the tour at the hugely popular Giapo where we had artful and delicious ice cream.
Liz explained that Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is unique in many ways. It is the only city in the world built on an active volcanic field. There are roughly 50 dormant volcanoes with an estimated 0.1% chance of eruption in any given year. It is both one of the most liveable cities in the world and one of the cities with the least affordable housing in the world. She explained that average home prices are NZD 900,000 while average salaries are NZD 90,000. Auckland also has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. It is a very cosmopolitan city with many residents from all over the world. Liz shared her love and pride for her city with a lot of humor and even sang us a song in Maori at the end to wish us well on our adventure.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the port. We enjoyed a beer looking out over the water until the sun went down and we got cold. Everyone who had arrived that morning was exhausted. Abby skipped dinner to go to bed early and the rest of us went out to Amano, a restaurant we had passed on our walk, and shared some delicious small plates.
The next day we took a short ferry ride to Waiheke Island. We had awesome views of Auckland and the active port from the ferry. Auckland is currently mulling an expensive plan to move its port and redevelop the waterfront. When we arrived on the island, the Hop On Hop Off bus was not running, so we took the local bus to the end of the line and walked on the beach. Angie took off her shoes and played in the water. Mike tested the waterproofness of his hiking boots by boldly striding on while the waves lapped at his feet. Besides the beach and a few restaurants, there was not much there, but we did find a yummy place to eat lunch just before it started to rain.
After lunch we took the bus back towards the ferry and stopped along the way at Tantalus Estate for our first wine tasting. The wine was excellent and the winery was very pretty. We walked around the vineyard and strolled through the winery’s enchanted forest.
We walked to another winery, Cable Bay, where we had hoped to have a second tasting. Unfortunately, the winery has to stop wine tastings at 5pm because of the terms of their license, so we opted for individual glasses of wine. We were all still full from lunch, so we ordered some appetizers to share for dinner. We caught the 8pm ferry back and enjoyed the beautiful sunset over Auckland on the way. We spent the ferry ride having a great debate about whether it is possible to “find something back” once you have lost it or whether it must be “found again”. We almost certainly disrupted the other passenger’s peaceful enjoyment of the ferry cabin with our passionate discussion, but they only had to endure it for a scant forty minutes.
Our next quest took us roughly 145 miles south of Auckland to Rotorua. We had rented a big van for our two week trip. Mike and Chris did most of the driving in the beginning and Abby took a long shift at the end. Everyone got the hang of driving on the left-hand side of the road pretty quickly, but it took a lot longer to figure out the turn signal lever was on the other side. All of the drivers were wiping their windshields when they intended to indicate a turn.
We stopped along the way to explore a limestone cave in which glow worms exclusively found in New Zealand light up the cave ceiling like stars. The Waitomo caves were first explored in 1887 and opened to tourists just two years later. The caves themselves are fun to explore, with stalagmites and stalactites that have taken on identifiable shapes like Bob Marley and a three-person family. In one spot, a huge rock has fallen from the ceiling. The tour guide told us it fell last week so there was some concern about another one falling, but she was joking. In reality, the rock fell hundreds of years ago. There is another part of the cave with a huge vaulted ceiling and excellent acoustics where musical artists have come to perform. Only Kevin was brave enough to test out the acoustics on his own, but everyone else joined in for Jingle Bells. We could see a few glowworms glimmering here and there along the way, but deep in the back of the cave we found the starry night. There were thousands of glowing worms trying to attract food in the hopes that a meal would fly towards the light and get stuck in the sticky strands that hang down. When you looked directly at a glowworm, the light appeared to twinkle just like a star. We walked down to a small boat dock where we boarded a boat to ride through the glowworm grotto and back into the daylight.
Later that afternoon, we stopped again, this time at a happy destination for weary hobbits – the Shire. We loved seeing all the hobbit holes in Hobbiton including the comparatively palatial Bag End where Bilbo and Frodo lived. Peter Jackson found the 1,250 acre Alexander Farm with rolling hills and green pastures from the sky when he was looking for a setting in which to place Hobbiton for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was so much like the Shire J.R.R. Tolkien had described, he knew it was perfect. The original set was made from temporary materials and largely destroyed after the filming of the Lord of the Rings. However, when Peter Jackson came back again to talk about filming The Hobbit in the same location, the Alexander Farm asked to make the site permanent. The result is a beautiful village full of hobbit homes surround by pretty flowers and complete with a bakery, a cheese shop, a carpentry shop and a pub, the Green Dragon Inn. Towards the end of our visit we stopped into the Inn for a hobbit beverage and then continued on our way.
We ended the day in Rotorua. After a long day of driving, everyone was ready to be out of the car and moved swiftly on to stretching their legs.
After dinner, Eric and Jess presented the chestnut sweets gift they had purchased in Obuse, Japan. When Eric pulled the box of sweets out of the paper bag it was in, a stink bug crawled out! It must have crawled in when we were at the farm in Japan where there were stink bugs everywhere! Jess had seen a very serious sign at the Auckland airport that described what you should do if you found a stink bug. New Zealand is trying to become pest free by 2050 and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug is on their list of pests. Here we had accidentally smuggled one in to New Zealand!
We captured the stink bug under a glass on a plate and then called to report it. We were asked to photograph the stink bug and email the photos to an email address beginning with stinkbug@…, so they could confirm it was the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug they were after. Then they asked us to put the stink bug in a bag in the freezer so they could come and collect it. The next day, an official responsible for chasing stink bugs called to ask some questions about the provenance of the stink bug and the path it had taken into New Zealand. We responded to all of his questions, but we left before anyone showed up to retrieve the stink bug. We were amazed at how seriously the New Zealand government responded to a single bug. Jess was pleased that, once again, her sign reading had come in handy and we had known how to respond.
The next day was another big day of driving to make our way down to Tongariro National Park where we were planning an epic trek past Mount Doom. First though, we wanted to explore the geothermal features at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. We arrived a few minutes too late to see the eruption of the Lady Knox Geyser which occurs every morning around 10:15am. However, we did explore the Geothermal Park which has a wide variety of colorful geothermal pools owing to the different minerals in the ground.
After admiring the hot springs from a distance – the water in these pools would burn you if you touched it – we went to the nearby Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. The water at Waikite Valley, which flows directly from the Te Manaroa Spring into the pools, is diluted to a more tolerable temperature so you can bathe in it. There are five or six different pools with water ranging in temperature from 95 degrees F to 104 degrees F. We moved from pool to pool enjoying the warm water and the scenery before we continued on to our next stop.
The third stop of the day was at Huka Falls where the Waikato River is funneled from 300-feet wide into a narrow ravine only 45-feet wide. This causes turbulent water to rush down the ravine and drop into the basin 33 feet below at a rate of 220,000 liters per second.
We finished our day of driving at the Park Hotel at the gateway to the Tongariro National Park. The Park Hotel caters to people who come to the area for activities like the Tongariro Crossing hike we were planning to do the next day. They prepare packed lunches and operate three shuttles to the trailhead.
The Tongariro Crossing is an epic 12.1 mile day hike in Tongariro National Park that starts at roughly 3,600 feet elevation and climbs to roughly 6,000 feet before descending to approximately 2,600 feet. It is one of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand, in part because it crosses a stunning alpine volcanic landscape with beautiful blue and green pools, but also because it passes by Mount Doom. Mount Doom is a fictional volcano in the Black Land of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. The hike had only just opened for the season a few weeks before, but there were tons of people! In some places the path was narrow and everyone had to walk in a single file line, stopping from time to time to let faster walkers get by. It was a long and challenging hike; walking up in the steep mud seemed hard until we got to walking down in the soft sandy soil. We were quite tired by the time we got back to the parking lot to pick up the shuttle.
We had a victory beer back in the bar at the hotel and then had dinner in the restaurant. Chris and Mike decided to challenge Jess and Abby to a Tichu game before bed. Tichu is Jess’s family’s favorite card game. We played Tichu almost every night in New Zealand, but there is only room here for the most noteworthy stories. Jess and Abby had not been partners before, and they think it was to save everyone else the pain of losing which was confirmed when they beat Mike and Chris by more than 1000 points!
We had prepared the next day as a backup day for the Tongariro Crossing in case the weather was bad, but we had had spectacular weather, so we drove to Napier instead. Napier is a coastal city on New Zealand’s North Island. Napier had a place on our whirlwind tour because of its concentration of Art Deco architecture. Most of the buildings in Napier were destroyed when the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake struck nine miles north of Napier in 1931. The surrounding area was immediately transformed when the earthquake pushed land up two meters filling in the lagoon that had separated Napier from nearby Taradale. The town of Napier was rebuilt using the popular and economical Art Deco architecture style of the time. Over the years some of the Art Deco buildings were torn down and replaced with more modern structures until the Art Deco Trust was formed to protect and preserve Napier’s unique heritage. Napier is now one of the best preserved Art Deco towns in the world. We took a walking tour of the town with the Art Deco Trust. Our guide pointed out a lot of the colors and geometric shapes and features, like ziggurats, eyebrows and sunbursts, common to Art Deco architecture.
That evening we had a revolving Tichu tournament in which two people swapped places after each hand so that at the end of seven hands, every player had played with every other player as a partner. It was a hilarious way to play Tichu and resulted in every player having their own individual score instead of a team score. The rankings in the first game varied widely from the rankings in the second game!
Angie had carefully organized the schedule to include a free day the next day. After breakfast, Chris, Abby, Jess and Eric went for a walk up Bluff Hill. The road to get there was steep and a difficult walk after the Tongariro Crossing. At the top we had beautiful views down to the Napier Port. There was so much activity going on at the port we spent an hour watching. There were piles of lumber all over the port and big machines being used to load lumber into trucks. The full trucks were then driven to the other side of the port so the lumber could be loaded into a large ship. There was also a large container ship that was fully loaded and ready to set out to sea, so two tug boats towed it away from the dock and helped it maneuver into the open water. Google helped turn Eric’s photo series into an awesome gif so you can enjoy it a much as we did in timelapse.
From Napier we drove to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. Just outside of Napier, we stopped at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Market to stock up on food for a picnic. Everyone ran around buying items to bring to the picnic: cheese, chorizo, cherries, bread, beer, kombucha, fig jam, and by the time we were finished we had a feast. A lovely lady at the farmers market had told us we were taking the most scenic route to Wellington and that there was a nice picnic spot at the Mangatainoka Reserve across the street from the Tui Brewery along the way. We found a small grassy area near the river where she described and had our picnic there. Afterwards we continued driving and arrived in Wellington in the late afternoon.
The previous guests at our rented apartment had left with the key fob to the garage and the owners did not have any other keys. We were struggling to find a parking lot that was tall enough to accept our van and open twenty-four hours. Peggy and Mike had left us kids to take all the bags up to the apartment while they went to park the car, but they did not have a way to get into the apartment. It had also taken the kids a while (and some help from a local) to figure out that apartment 31 was on the 6th floor. How does that make sense? So Jess and Eric went back downstairs to let Peggy and Mike in and show them to the apartment. When Jess and Eric got outside, Peggy and Mike were nowhere in sight. We stood on the street for a while and wondered how we would find them. We were just concocting an elaborate plan in which Jess would log into the nearby KFC’s free wifi to iMessage Angie to ask Kevin to text Eric’s phone which was in Peggy and Mike’s possession when Peggy and Mike pulled up and said “get in!” It felt a little bit like an escape after a jewel heist in which a fast moving, unmarked van pulls up and the thieves jump in and drive away. Unfortunately, it was considerably less exciting than that. We went back to the office where we found a most unhelpful woman who told us she did not have any other keys, pure and simple. We found a 24-hour garage near the apartment using Google Maps and sorted ourselves out.
That evening we went out to dinner at Noble Rot, a wine bar with beautifully crafted food. It was widely regarded by the group as being one of the best restaurants we ate at in New Zealand. It is also the place with the bottle of wine that everyone talked about for the rest of the trip, the Ata Rangi Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough. We suppose it is only fitting that after all the wineries, restaurants, and grocery store bottles of wine, it was a wine bar that served our favorite wine.
The next morning Peggy, Mike, Chris, Abby, and Eric went to the WETA Workshop, a special effects and props company based in Wellington. WETA made props for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and that success rocketed them into one of the leading prop and special effects companies in the world. The tour consisted of a series of rooms describing the history of WETA, their process for making a lot of props / scenery, and then an in depth tour of the miniatures used during the creation of a new TV show called Thunderbirds Are Go! The original was all done with puppets and miniature sets, and the new version uses the miniature sets, but is done with computer graphics characters. Apparently young kids nowadays think that the old-style puppets are creepy. Seeing the miniature sets was a ton of fun, and the entire day was a wonderful behind-the-scenes look of some favorite films.
While everyone else was off doing that, Angie, Jess and Kevin hiked up Mount Victoria and were rewarded with spectacular views of the city.
In the afternoon we met up again for lunch and then a visit to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The museum had many interesting exhibits, but the main reason we had come was for the Gallipoli exhibit. The Gallipoli exhibit highlights the extraordinary sacrifices of the Anzac troops who were deployed to fight at Gallipoli during World War I in an attempt to force the Turks, allied with Germany, out of the war. It was ultimately a failed campaign in which huge numbers of Anzac troops were killed or wounded. The exhibit is beautifully done and tells the story through the eyes of eight New Zealanders who are portrayed in amazing larger than life-size sculptures created by the WETA Workshop.
We had crossed the North Island from North to South in an epic nine-day journey full of yummy food, long walks, beautiful scenery, history lessons, and even unwanted stowaways. We were tired but excited for the second half of the trip still to come on the South Island.