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New Zealand, North Island Travel Tips

  Visited in December 2013

Maori Hello: Kia Ora
Currency:  New Zealand Dollar



First Question:  Where to start in a country that seems small on the map but is big on outdoor experiences?  I selected four keys areas for my trip:  Bay of Islands, Rotorua, Coromandel, and Tongariro.


My visit started in Auckland at the house of some friends I had met on a previous trip.  When you travel and meet people from all over the world, you never know when you might host someone or be a guest.  And what matter way to be introduced to a city or a country?  I find people eager to share their favorite experiences in a city they know well.  And a few home cooked meals can’t be ignored for their comfort value.

Maori culture - One of my favorite parts was learning all of the traditional Maori names and learning about the Maori culture and influence in the places I visited.  It makes this island seem to belong to itself instead of the influence of British imperialism.

What to do and where to go
How to travel:  There are buses that you can take to most locations around the island or you can rent a car and drive on the “other” side of the road.  For the maximum flexibility, rent a car. This was my first time to tackle the left hand side of the road.  It does not require special skills just a re-orientation for your brain.  It was like batting left-handed or mounting a horse from the opposite side.   
The first hour was the most stressful, navigating through Auckland and several lanes of traffic while keeping my brain focused on opposites.  I would signal to change lanes or turn and suddenly my windshield wipers were frantically flapping back and forth on a cloudless sunny day.  Oh yeah, everything is opposite - turn signal is on the other side.  I was constantly checking my rear view mirrors to make sure I was actually driving between the lane lines since I did not have a good feel for the left side of the car.  But your brain adjusts and you start to relax.  Tip:  Do invest in the GPS if you don’t have a navigator.  It will be worth it.  Of course, on day two, I woke from a dream that I was driving on the “wrong” side of the road.
I was there right before the busy season and found it very easy to book my hotels a few days or a week in advance as I traveled using Booking.com.  There are multiple backpacker options or you can find very affordable rooms for one.

Bay of Islands
This area is located north of Auckland and you can consider Paihia your base for exploration.  It’s easy to book a bus trip from Auckland and let someone else do the driving.  When you arrive in Paihia, you can easily walk to the little hotels and motels along the water.  Plan your luggage accordingly.  There are plenty of restaurants, stores, ATMs and tours to book (day trips, boat rides, swimming with the dolphins, etc.), as well as taking the ferry over to Russell (they leave about every 20 minutes) where there are additional restaurants, hotels and some nice walks. I opted for the quick hike up the steep hill to Flagstaff Hill Historical Reserve.  Beautiful views - but why so much fuss over a flagpole?  It’s symbolic.

Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga:  Cape Reinga is the northernmost tip of New Zealand where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea.  The amazing thing is that you can actually see a color difference where the oceans meet and this creates a classic tourist attraction.  It is worth the trip to see the amazing landscape of cliff walls and crashing surf at the feet of an iconic lighthouse.  This was a full day tour and was well done.  Our driver was Maori and gave great commentary on the trip to explain the history of the area.  We drove along Ninety Mile Beach, stopped to get in the ocean, and then went sand boarding along the giant sand dunes.  I learned about the gumdiggers and the Kauri tree and we ended the day with fresh fish and chips at the Mangonui Fish Shop.  It’s also a good way to meet other single travelers.  

Rotorua
There is lots to experience in this area and it seems to be a popular tourist destination.  Rotorua is not too big with lots of restaurants and hotel options.  There is plenty to see to keep you occupied for a few days and there is the opportunity to take advantage of the hot springs for relaxation.  Situated on Lake Rotorua, take the opportunity to drive along the shore for the views and stop in the park to relax.  You can also attend a cultural show to better experience the Maori culture.  

To do:  
Te Puia - This is a local attraction of geysers and mud pools.  You can see the Pohutu Geyser, the Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser and the Kereru Geyser.  There are guided tours so you can see the geysers, learn about how the Maori used the hot water within daily life and also see the mud pools.  There is an opportunity to learn more about Maori culture with daily scheduled shows.  And you can even see the rare Kiwi!  It takes about 3 hours to see everything including a weaving and carving school.  Bring water as most of the walking is in the sun and it is quite hot.

Polynesian Spa - Hot mineral bathing.  For a fee you can soak in the geothermal waters that many claim to be therapeutic.  It is a relaxing way to spend a few hours and the venue also offers spa services.

Wai-O-Tapu - The Thermal Wonderland.  This place is part of a reserve from the Department of Conservation and has a large area of hydrothermal activity which means you can wander through an area full of steaming geysers and bubbling pools of mud.  It takes about an hour and a half to walk around (on designated pathways) and see a wide spectrum of craters, geysers, and mud pools.  If you’ve never experienced anything like this, you will be quite amazed at the variety of colors from iridescent greens to bright coppery oranges.  If you’ve been to Yellowstone, then you will still find it interesting, if a bit quaint in comparison.  There is one geyser that erupts daily on schedule and they even built a grandstand to watch the performance.  The park is worth the trip and ask for coupons for a discounted entry at your hotel.

Mitai Maori Village - There are a couple of Maori “experiences” that you can select.  Events like this are always questionable in my mind - do I really want to see something that may have been invented just for tourists?  The answer this time - absolutely.  It is a great way to gain a better understanding of the Maori culture.  And how better to do it than through a show where they demonstrate and explain customs such as the welcoming ceremony, the waka (warrior canoe), the weapons, poi dancing and even the significance of the tattoos.  There is also a short walk into the woods where you will see a few glowworms.  The show is supplemented with a traditional ground cooked hangi meal, which was one of the best meals I had in New Zealand.

Tongariro National Park
The snow capped Mount Ngauruhoe premiered as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings films and provides a stunning backdrop to this park.  The Te Maari crater on Mt Tongariro erupted in 2012 but there continues to be a daily stream of hikers in the area.  At the same time, several signs on the mountain advise on the daily assessment of volcanic activity.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing - This is a classic trail on the North Island and is described as a “must do” and one of the most scenic walks in New Zealand.  I agree.  As long as you are reasonably fit you can complete the trail in about 7 hours, including photo stops and breaks to eat.  It is 19.4 km long but the path is very straightforward in almost every section.  There are just a few areas where it seems “scramblely” but they are easily conquered.  As the hike is weather dependent - you really don’t want to be up on this mountain in inclement weather unless you are a bit of a masochist - you may want to allow a couple of days for your visit to accommodate.  In sunny weather, the hike is quite pleasant but bring plenty of sunscreen.  As you gain altitude, you will encounter strong, cold gusts of wind which persist long enough that you break out the fleece or jacket.  After a while, even my hands started to feel a bit frozen, so some people may want to bring gloves.  If it had been much colder, I probably would have felt the need for them.  There were plenty of twenty-somethings hiking in shorts and tennis shoes but I wouldn’t advise it.  If the weather had turned, they would have been very unhappy.
The views are spectacular and I only hope that my camera, an invention of man, could even begin to display the splendor of the landscape.  The pictures are beautiful but the landscape is stunning.  There are the mountains themselves, the long walk across the South Crater, the sharp edges and brilliant colors of the Red Crater, the luminous Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake, and the alpine environment.  I especially enjoyed the views of the smoking Te Maari Crater with its warning of impending danger.  There were eruptions in May and November of 2012 with no warning.  Fortunately, no one was on the mountain at the time.  There is a warning check sign along the way that will advise you if you can go forward once you reach the volcanic zone.  A red light would mean hiking back to the starting point - about 4-5 hours away.  What is more attractive?  Burning in volcanic spew or hiking back the way you came?

What to eat after this arduous journey?  A small restaurant in National Park Village, a gem of a place, The Station Cafe, Bar, and Restaurant.  After reviewing the menus in other local restaurants, I settled on this place for the Sunday special, the roast lamb.  It was so good it was ridiculous.  So the next night I went back and brought a couple I had met on the hike that day.  We all ordered hearty meals and thoroughly enjoyed our various steaks with beers.  What better reward?

Waitoma Glowworm Caves -The name means “water entering a hole in the ground”.  This is certainly a very odd product of nature - a cave whose dark ceilings are covered with what seems to be tiny fairy lights.  They are glowworms, the immature stage of a fly that adheres itself to the cave ceiling dangling luminous sticky threads of goo to trap other insects/dinner, as they slowly become mature.  I’m glad I went because I’m all for seeing anything novel in nature.  I just felt it was significantly overpriced.

Coromandel Peninsula
Drive on the Pacific Coast Highway - My last few days were to be spent on Coromandel.  This Peninsula is about a two hour drive from Auckland and can actually be reached by ferry at its top end.  Several people had told me how amazing it was and some even claimed it as a favorite destination in New Zealand.  The drive up the coast in late afternoon was so distracting that I almost drove off the road.  The sun hit the water at such an angle that the ocean glowed with a turquoise light which offered sharp contrast to the foamy waves crashing along the shore.  The Pacific Coast Highway is a winding road that follows the coast, until it cuts into the interior hills which are formidable.  I wasn’t sure that the lane allotments were as generous as they should have been as opposing traffic seemed to narrowly miss making contact at times.  And many drivers seemed very familiar with the terrain, barely slowing for the twisting, winding curves.  Was it worth it?  Every mile.

HaHei Beach Area- A nice beach down the road from the Cathedral Cove where you can relax for the day.  On the day I was there, it was still a bit chilly so I opted for Hot Water Beach for my mini hot tub in the sand.  

Hot Water Beach - Dig a hole and sit in the sand while it fills with water?  Really?  I walked down to the beach, not really knowing what to expect, and there was quite a crowd, people earnestly digging while others sat contented in their tiny little hot tubs.  I quickly realized that there was a science behind this.  You had to dig in the exact right spot.  Some digging yielded only cold water, some water was so hot the holes had to be abandoned or connections had to be engineered to create the optimal mix of temperatures.  I lucked into a pool as it was being deserted and was able to sit and enjoy my little hot tub for over an hour before relinquishing it to some happy people who were having no luck of their own.

Hot Waves Cafe - A great place to stop for lunch or a drink (caffeine or an adult beverage) before you dig into Hot Water Beach.  And they will rent you a “spade” for your quest.

Whangamata - pronounced Fung-a-ma-TAY.  After calling this town, Wang-a-mata, I finally realized the correct way to pronounce it after some pathetic attempts to explain where I was going to native New Zealanders.  At least they did not laugh in my face.  Whangamata is a lovely little town on the east side of the Coromandel peninsula with a beautiful beach and plenty of little shops to keep you busy as well.  


Auckland - I didn’t spend too much time in Auckland as my focus for New Zealand was to be outside.  The weather was so conducive to activity, that being in the city was not the experience I wanted to have.  However, for the little time I spent there, I walked along the Aqueduct for restaurants and found it crowded with lots of eating options and with people.  On my last day, before my flight, I thoroughly enjoyed going to the Auckland Art Gallery.  There is a good range of art and it’s just small enough to enjoy over a few hours.  The building itself is beautiful too.

Waiheke island - Off the coast of Auckland, there are multiple islands to explore and a plethora of ferries to take you there.  Waiheke was suggested by my friends in Auckland and was a splendid choice for a day trip.  It has vineyards and beaches and art galleries to keep you entertained for a day.  Or, if you prefer, there are various walks and hikes around the island, allowing you to enjoy the beautiful scenery usually enjoyed by those who live on the island.  You can easily walk over to the small city of Oneroa for food and drinks and then walk back to Matiatia Bay to catch your return ferry.  Depending on the tide, you may pursue this in the opposite direction.  You’ll want to wear appropriate shoes for the coastal walk and bring water and sunscreen.  And you can also enjoy the beach at Oneroa after lunch, drinks, and ice cream.  I know I did.  After champagne and oysters for lunch, I blissfully fell asleep on the beach.