Hello from New Zealand! We have embarked on the second leg of our travels. Technically, this is where we go 'round the world. We started in New York on January 4 and will loop the globe westward for the next four months until we're back. Our first stop was an unexpected detour to a wonderful place that neither of us have ever been: Hawaii. We stopped in Honolulu for one night during our layover to NZ, because we needed a few extra days of home-time. The germs got us, and we both came down with a plague-like flu-cold-thingy that knocked us down n' out. But it all worked out for the best and we left NY rested and ready for the next chapter.
Honolulu was beautiful, but given we only spent a few hours there, we don't have much to report... other than we will be back, Hawaii! On the other hand, just six days in New Zealand has given us loads to talk about... this place is bonkers beautiful.
We started off in Auckland with just a day to experience the sights and recover from jet-lag. It's so bizarre completely losing a day of your life while crossing the international date line. For us, the lost day was January 6, 2015. The rest of you probably had 24 hours of that day. We, on the other hand, had exactly 54 minutes of that day, having left Honolulu at 2PM on the afternoon of Monday, January 5, then just 9 hours later, arriving in Auckland at 11:06 PM on Tuesday, January 6. Yes, yes, we know this is a real thing and it happens all the time when people cross the international date line. But this was our first time and it felt really weird! We spent a while discussing how a good movie plot line could be the story of a New Zealander who somehow finds out he's going to die on a specific date, but then flies to Hawaii, crossing the international date line, thereby gaining an entire extra day of life to live in paradise! Any producers out there want to invest?
Auckland was a supercool gem of a city. Sparkling waters against glimmering skyscrapers. A downtown that's small and manageable. Great restaurants and a burgeoning craft beer scene. And great seaside transit to the many islands off the coast. We chose to check out Devonport, which is across the harbor and is a cute little seaside suburb on a peninsula. Also, it's the home of Lorde, which we didn't know, but Kiwis are proud of her success and so we quickly learned this factoid. A beautiful ferry ride on a sunny NZ day was a treat – the skyline is beautiful and reminiscent of Seattle with the water views and a similarly-shaped needle observatory. One Auckland highlight for us was Brothers Brewing Co. – a warehouse-like beer tasting room with vintage couches to sit on while you sip their tasty house beers or other local brews. Overall, the city feels quite Utopian. Cute parks, impressively creative playgrounds for little Kiwis, even al fresco free libraries in re-purposed shipping containers all make for solid outdoor life within city limits.
As much as we liked Auckland, we were itching to get out into the countryside. First stop: Coromandel Peninsula, northeast of Auckland. We came here for the gorgeous seaside views and beach community vibe. The main attraction here was Cathedral Cove, a wondrous arch on a beach formed from thousands of years of the ocean's powerful waves. Whitianga, a main town on the peninsula, is a cute fishing town on a beautiful bay with little restaurants and bars. We tried the famous Coromandel green-lipped mussels and were quite impressed! Also a lucky find... We arrived hungry on a gray afternoon and wondered what to do on rainy day in a beach area? Just at that moment we saw a sign on the road, on a stretch of desolate mountain road: “Brewery ahead”. It was fate. We popped into the Hot Water Brewing Co., which was a brewery at a campsite! We enjoyed lunch in their lovely restaurant, which abuts the camping area. Their food was outstanding and the beer was solid – we highly recommend it!
After Coromandel, things really got interesting. We drove down to Matamata, NZ which is the home of Hobbiton! Yes, it's the real Shire, from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Nerds & geeks, this part is for you. People who hate the Lord of the Rings – skip ahead to the next part (and take your feeble taste with you!)
Hobbiton made us feel like giants and kids, and giant kids. It's a working sheep farm that Peter Jackson found to create his Shire, and the movie set is nestled in the rolling green hills dotted with white sheep. Visitors walk the same paths that Frodo, Bilbo and Gandolf walk in the actual movies, it's hard not to get excited about being in the “real thing.” There are real Hobbit holes everywhere, on the perfectly preserved set, amid beautiful real gardens and towering trees. The whole thing feels like a dreamscape. Now, for accuracy's sake, let us clarify that this isn't the exact same set as LOTR. Most of that set was in the same location but dismantled after the shoot due to rights issues. However, the exact same set was rebuilt ten years later for the Hobbit movies, and this time the Alexander family, who own the farm, asked for it to be made a permanent set so they could offer tours to the throngs of LOTR fans already flocking to their farm to see the Shire site. They're no dummies! They knew a gold mine when it came knocking on their door the second time.
The crowning jewel and end point of the Shire tour is walking across the famous double-arch bridge at the Mill, to the Green Dragon Inn (where all the cool Hobbits hang). They serve you a beer or a ginger beer, both were actually quite tasty, and the setting could not be beat. We've henceforth renamed ourselves as The Albaggins and would appreciate everyone's cooperation with the name change.
Glow Worm Caves
That evening, we headed to the nearby city of Hamilton. After sampling yet another local brewery, where I tried my first-ever hard cider (it was made from Doris plums and was deeeelicious!), we moved south to Waitomo in the morning. This is the home of the famous glow worm caves of NZ. To see the glow worms, you have two options: A) walk on a railed walkway in the dark, or B) blackwater rafting... donning helmets, headlamps, and wet suits, and raft down a freezing-cold cave-river which is 200 ft underground, in an inner-tube. We chose option B.
Now calling it 'rafting' is a slight misnomer. It's really hiking through knee-deep water while holding an inner-tube, and floating sometimes when it's too deep to walk. It also involves jumping backwards down two waterfalls, using your inner-tube to break the fall in the water. The small one was easy. The tall one, slightly terrifying, but we did it. Our guides were great, and helped us overcome the natural fears of caves, dark, cold, heights, claustrophobia, etc. Honestly, it's so cool you kind of forget all that stuff anyway.
Once we got deep into the network of the cave system, we turned off our headlamps and saw the glow worms. WOWWWWWW. They look like a blanket of tiny blue LED-lights installed in the cave ceiling. When there are enough worms, they actually illuminate the cave enough for us to see a little. It was a magical experience to float along a river in the pitch black, holding on to the legs of complete strangers, and staring up at these trippy little creatures. We also learned that, technically, they aren't worms, they're maggots – for you scientists out there. But “glow maggots” isn't gonna bring in the tourists, so they stick with the term glow worms.
Taupo Lake, Volcanoes & Hot Springs
Next we headed down to Taupo Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Australasia and a preeminent vacation spot for Kiwis. It's got it all: Mountain-biking, hiking, kayaking, boating, fishing, sky-diving, you name it. They mountains encircle the lake, and the lake feeds the rivers, creating mecca for outdoor enthusiasts.
We opted to tackle the Tongeririo Alpine Crossing on our first day. This is a 12 mile hike across an active volcanic site. Also, but not the only reason to do this hike, you get to to pass by Mount Doom, from the LOTR movies. For you LOTR fans, you know this is a big deal place for the end of the trilogy.
The hike is quite long, but beautiful and manageable, save for some very steep, rocky parts. The hardest part is that there are zero trees, so you're in the sun the whole time. Towards the end, this was grueling, but luckily the last two kilometers were under tree cover, and boy did we need some trees!
Hiking through a geothermal area is very fascinating. There were red trails of lava floes on the side of the mountain, volcanic rock all around, sulfur smell in the air, and plumes of steam rising from the landscape. At one point, we felt steam coming from the ridge near our legs. The earth was red-hot to the touch, and our hands dampened with geothermal steam. The volcano last erupted in August 2013, after over 100 years of dormancy. So we had some fresh action to look at. At one steep point, you just sort off had to slide down the ash and rocks as best you could, without falling down (though many people did around us.) All in all, the hike took us 7.5 hours including a long lunch break beside an jade-colored thermal pool. A long and rewarding day.
Our legs needed some rest after that, so we did a shortie the next day. Two hours on an easy path to the Huka Falls. These falls were not tall, but forceful and voluminous in a stunning way. Really mesmerizing to look at. We then cooled off by swimming in the crystal blue river waters, and then dipping into the geothermal hot springs that are a pride of Taupo. Hot water springs never cease to amaze – it was like 120 degree waters coming right out from the ground, forming natural jacuzzis. A treat for tired feet and achy muscles.
Also we made friends with a pair of red-beaked black swans and their six cygnets (baby swans!)
I took about 5 videos, but this is the best one. Look at their little baby swan butts waddle!
After some relaxing in the natural spa we set off for the gorgeous 4 hour drive to Wellington, our end point for the North Island. In a couple of days we'll be taking a ferry across to the South Island for some more rugged time in NZ (and maybe some winery tours too). A short North Island gallery is below!