We made the conscious decision to split New Zealand into two separate trips. On the South Island, which is more rugged and untamed, we would take it slower. In contrast, the North Island was going to be busy.
We needed to roll up our sleeves and get serious if we had any hope of covering the North Island in the eight days we had allotted. I’m happy to report that we were successful — so successful that writing about it in detail would leave me with too much to say. Instead, here’s the abridged version to try and tell our story.
After stocking the fridge, we began our North Island tour by driving two hours out of Auckland to the Miranda Hot Springs. We arrived that evening and had just enough time for a swim before nightfall.
The next morning, we left immediately for the scenic Coromandel Peninsula. After an obligatory stop for homemade popsicles, we hit the trail at Cathedral Cove. The hike itself was beautiful, but the crystal blue water, white sand beaches, and eroded sandstone arches that awaited at the end of the trail were truly stunning. It was Valentine’s Day and it was perfect.
After a few more hours on the road, we parked Max at Orewa Beach. I’d offered Mandy a Valentine’s day dinner out, but she preferred to cook together — that’s what seven months on the road will do to you. We put together a super-fresh, healthy dinner of Israeli couscous, organic sausage, onion, chives, parsely, and grated paremsan, while we shared a bottle of wine and looked out over the advancing ocean. As darkness fell, we eventually pulled ourselves away from the mesmerizing waters, climbing into bed and drifting off to sleep to the sounds of the incoming waves.
We were on the road again early the next day. Our destination was Waipoa Forest to explore some of the last pristine NZ wilderness — including the towering Kauri trees. Being in the forest felt immediately familiar, but gradually we began to appreciate how unique our surroundings actually were. The songs of the birds were unlike anything we’d ever heard and most of the plants we’d never seen before. Over seventy percent of the animals and vegetation are found only in NZ. The forest is hauntingly beautiful, especially once you consider that this may be the real New Zealand’s last stand– most native NZ plant and bird species are endangered, if not already extinct.
Afterwards, we continued on to the picturesque Bay of Islands where we boarded an old-fashioned sailing ship, the R. Tucker Thompson, for an evening cruise. For most of the year, the ship takes disadvantaged children on week-long voyages with the aim of teaching both seamanship, as well as leadership and teamwork. For us, it just meant relaxing on the boat, plus a chance to pick up some basic sailing skills, along with the knowledge that we were contributing to a good cause.
The next day was one of the highlights of the trip for Mandy: Hobbiton. Following the filming of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson’s set was kept intact. Not only that, but it is maintained in a “lived-in” state: the gardens are full of fresh vegetables, hobbit clothes are hanging out to dry, and at times there is even smoke billowing from the chimneys. The quality of the construction, level of detail, and accuracy with respect to the books is unbelievable (and so was the cost to build it). It is so impressively cozy, it’s a shame no one actually gets to live there.
We followed up our visit to Hobbiton by stopping at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. The caves are home to millions of glowworms, an insect that spends the majority of its life-cycle in the larval stage. They’ve adapted to their environment by utilizing bioluminescence to attract other insects, which then become their meal. We toured the first part of the cave on foot before returning to the surface via a small wooden boat on an underground lake.
We loved our NZ Park Service guide, a disciplinarian who didn’t tolerate any talking in the group. The only noise was the occasional droplet of water falling from the roof of the cave into the lake below with a tiny splash that echoed through the silent cavern. We drifted along slowly in the darkness, broken only by galaxies of twinkling light emitted by the glowworms overhead.
No visit to the North Island would be complete without a visit to the Agrodome. NZ is one of the biggest producers of wool in the world and the Agrodome is the Epcot Center of sheep. Want to feed them, learn how to shear them, meet the different breeds (and their relatives, like alpacas), and watch a sheep dog demonstration? Yes, you do. Mandy even earned extra credit by going on stage to milk a cow.
Near the Agrodome is the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Area. As a result of NZ’s volcanic activity, boiling hot water rises from deep underground forming hot springs and pools of boiling mud. The intense colors are courtesy of naturally-occurring chemicals and mineral deposits that produce an unearthly landscape.
Finally, we visited a traditional Maori Village for some cultural enlightenment. Like most people, we felt fairly knowledgable regarding New Zealand’s history (the country was initially settled by hobbits before evil forces grew in power, culminating in a great war against elves and men), however, we still learned quite a bit. Unfortunately, the other the tourists were complete duds when it came to the interactive demonstrations, meaning that Mandy and I ended up “volunteering” for just about everything. Oh well. The food, a traditional Maori hangi (a whole pig plus assorted vegetables roasted underground in a pit for an entire day), easily made up for it.
As we continued to head south, the scenery became more and more breathtaking. We stopped for ice cream (I dropped mine in the water and it was promptly eaten by a black swan, which is clearly some sort of good luck omen) and lunch at Lake Taupo, NZ’s largest lake, before driving past Mt. Doom. That night was our last on the North Island and we ended up at my favorite campground, an ultra-relaxed spot along the Whanganui River with a pet goat (to keep the grass trimmed) and plenty of ducks for company.
Unfortunately, our hectic schedule and non-stop driving wasn’t without consequence. Time wasn’t on our side as we drove to catch the ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island, and I was pushing Max to the limit. I was a bit stressed, Mandy a bit defensive about the scheduling, and we had our first real argument of the trip.
Maybe it was fate, but minutes later we passed a bakery named “Kiss and Bake Up.” Despite the fact that we were behind schedule, it was clearly pre-ordained for us to stop. Three desert bars later and we were on the ferry (barely, we were the last van on, right before they loaded the semis hauling sheep), smiling, back in love, and headed to the South Island.
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