One day in February, Jean saw a great deal advertised for Air New Zealand while riding on the BART. They were offering roundtrip flights from San Francisco to Auckland for $750 per person, so we just couldn't pass that offer up! We went to airnewzealand.com to book some flights for November. November was a good month for Jean in terms of vacation days, and we figured the weather might be nice in New Zealand around that time of year. The one snag we ran into was that the flights were disappearing as we were trying to book the trip, so we ended up with only a short eight-day trip - rats.
There are two main islands in New Zealand, North and South. Auckland is the biggest city and is located on the North Island. They say that New Zealand is about the size of Colorado, but many of the roads are narrow and winding, so it can take quite a bit of time to cross the island.
Jean had been to New Zealand about seven years earlier with her parents, her sister Jan, and her sister's husband Jahyen, but Bryan had never been south of the equator, so Jean was one the one who made up the itinerary. She wanted to show Bryan the many interesting areas she had seen before. As a result, quite a few of the places we planned on visiting on this trip were places she had been to on her last trip. Since we only had eight days this time, we decided we would limit our itinerary to the North Island.
The flight was approximately 12 hours nonstop from San Francisco International and went fairly smoothly. We arrived at 5-something in the morning. Believe it or not, New Zealand in late November is only 3 hours behind San Francisco (well, 21 hours ahead actually), so the jet lag wasn't bad.
We rented a car, so Bryan had to quickly learn to drive on the left-hand side of the road for the first time. It wasn't so bad, but it still felt more natural to drive on the right once we got back to the U.S.Here's our trip itinerary, shown by the little colored squares - (click the picture for a larger image)
Day 1 - Auckland
From the airport, we headed north into the city (and yes, north is still at the top of New Zealand maps). We started off by going to the city's oldest park, called the Auckland Domain, which includes the Auckland Museum. The museum wasn't open till 10:00 am, so we walked around a nature trail and proceeded to visit the Wintergarden, which opened at 9:00 am. The Wintergarden consisted of a couple of greenhouse buildings with various tropical plants, and a place called a fernery, where various species of native ferns were displayed.
The Auckland Museum is well built and contains a good collection of Maori artifacts and native crafts from the various islands in the South Pacific. There's also a natural history section and a war memorial exhibit. We spent several hours there and then walked around an area called Parnell, just outside the Domain. It's a trendy sort of street with boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. There seemed to be lots of Thai, Indonesian, and Indian restaurants there, and around New Zealand in general.
We also learned that if you're searching for groceries, don't go to a store called Farmers because that's a department store. Woolworths, however, is a grocery market.
Day 2 - To Waitomo and Otorohanga
The next day we left Auckland early and drove south, to a place called the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Along the way, we were expecting to see lots of sheep roaming around the hills, but sadly we actually saw more cows. Apparently many of the sheep farms are switching over to cows because it's more profitable.
We first stopped by a little place, near the caves, called the Shearing Shed. They shear angora rabbits. We missed their 12:45 shearing demonstration but caught another one when a large tour bus stopped by. Then it was off to the Glowworm Caves.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves is a place where you can take various kinds of tours and see glowworms. Glowworms are actually the maggot stage of a fly, which hangs out in caves, and other dark areas, and uses its blue-green light to attract flying insects and other food. It is pretty spectacular when you're in a dark cave sitting in a boat and the ceiling looks like a planetarium show (apologies for this low-res picture). . We couldn't take pictures of the glowworms so this is what we could find on the web. There's a black-water rafting tour available. However, Bryan has learned from past experiences that being splashed with cold water is one of his least-favorite activities, so we just took a tour that included a brief walk through the caves and a calm boat ride. The gross part about glowworms is that they hang about 20-30 threads of sticky saliva which flying insects get caught in. Then the glowworms slurp up the threads with the captured insects. Mmmm. It also turns out that the bioluminescence is their waste product. Apparently the maggots have no anus to expel their waste products so they use an internal chemical reaction to burn their waste which also serves as a food lure for their next meal. Hmmm, I guess facts often ruin the magic. It was time to head to Otorohanga.
Otorohanga is a small quiet town, and the main reason we went there was to see the Otorohanga Kiwi House. Kiwis are flightless birds, related to ostriches and emus. They are all in a group called 'ratite' birds, which also includes the extinct moas that the Maori used to hunt on New Zealand and the elephant bird of Madagascar, which was the largest bird known (although moas were the tallest). Kiwis are much smaller (about 5 lbs. and the size of a chicken), though their eggs are about the same size as their ratite relatives. They're nocturnal, and Jean's sister Jan had told us you could hear the kiwis calling at night if you camped out at this "Holiday Park" just outside the Kiwi House. So we decided to try that, lugging a tent and sleeping bags onto the plane. Sure enough, we heard birds that night. We're still not sure if we heard kiwis - we think we might have, but there were a lot of other noisy birds just over the fence. It sounded like they were having some sort of a pool party all night long.
Rawk-rawk. Rawk-rawk-rawk. RAWWWWK! <SPLASSSHHH!>.
It was kind of interesting, but if you really want to get a good night's sleep you might want to try a different place.
Day 3 - Otorohanga Kiwi House and Drive to Napier
The next day we visited the Otorohanga Kiwi House in the morning. The kiwis are in a darkened enclosure, and we got lucky because there was one kiwi there running around like crazy. She was running back and forth, sometimes getting so excited she would stumble and fall, roll around a little, then get back up and run some more. It was quite a show. They were spraying some water around the enclosure, and they said that she was running because she didn't like the water. Quite cute though. Unfortunately, we couldn't take any pictures of the kiwis. The other kiwi in the enclosure was much calmer. In the wild, kiwis eat worms, beetles, land snails, fresh-water crayfish, other invertebrates, fruits, and berries. We were told that in captivity they are fed ox heart strips (resembling earthworms), cooked oats, raisins, tofu, and various chopped vegetables...
Jean hears this and thinks "time for lunch" but there were lots of other New Zealand birds to see, including many that begin with the letter 'k', like Kea, Kokako, Kaka, Kakapo, etc. . They also had some tuataras (a New Zealand lizard) and other creatures there.
After the Kiwi House we took off for Napier. Napier is on the east coast and is quite a long way from Otorohanga. This was our longest driving day. We thought it would be about a 4-hour drive, but I think it ended being more like 6 hours, with quite a few winding, hilly roads. On the way, we found a nice lookout point with a view of Tongariro. The sheep started outnumbering the cows somewhere along this drive. In Napier, we stayed at a place called Kennedy Park (another holiday park) which had a nice big room. Holiday Parks, in New Zealand, are a little like the Koa Campgrounds in the U.S. They usually include several classes of accommodations beginning with just tent sites, then cabins (like dorms, bring your own towels and bedding), then the "park motels" which are basically just like motel rooms, though they usually include a kitchenette. We arrived too late to cook so we went to a Thai restaurant for some "takeaway". It was a surprisingly large amount of food, and we ended up freezing, packing, and eating leftovers for the next few days.
Day 4 - Napier Aquarium and on to Taupo
We wanted to visit Napier because the National Aquarium is there. We read about a giant squid expert who lives there who mentioned that there was a great giant squid exhibit in the aquarium. It is also the only giant squid exhibit in NZ. More specimens of the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, have been found off the coast of NZ than anywhere else. It is believed they live there in the Kaikoura Canyon. Naturally, Jean expected that there would be an outstanding exhibit. When we got there, we discovered that the National Aquarium is in fact not very big, and the squid exhibit is actually only a box with a big, dead squid inside, with two laminated paper informational signs. There wasn't too much in the way of explanation there - we were a little disappointed considering how long it took to get to Napier. Aside from that, the museum was well built with good displays of other animals. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC also has a giant squid exhibit, fairly similar to this one.
I guess since New Zealand is a relatively small country, a lot of the places seemed to be small family-run operations, which was fine most of the time. We think it added to its charm.
After spending an hour at the aquarium, we looked for other attractions. We found a place called Classic Sheepskins where they tan sheepskins and sell them along with other products made from sheepskins (like slippers). Bryan bought a pair from the "seconds" bin and now walks around the house with fuzzy feet.
Next on our list was a three hour drive to Taupo. Taupo is a touristy town right by a lake called Lake Taupo. It reminded us of Lake Tahoe a little. There's a road full of interesting touristy spots, including a prawn farm, where we got to feed some baby prawns, a volcanic activity center, Huka Falls, a store selling manuka honey products, with a live beehive on site, and a geothermal area called Craters of the Moon.(Huka Falls video).
Craters of the Moon was actually an accidental land sink when too much geothermal water was sucked out the ground for power production. The ingenious kiwis (New Zealanders call themselves "kiwis") turned it into a park.
Seeing all the sheep around this area made us hungry for lamb, so we found a restaurant in town that looked crowded and that had lamb on the menu. We ordered a lamb dish, but it was kind of bland - it didn't really have enough flavor for us.
Day 5 - Rainbow Falls Hike and Rotorua
We were originally planning on doing an all-day hike at a mountain called Tarawera, near Rotorua, which Jean had hiked before with her parents and Jan and Jahyen. Unfortunately, they have apparently closed that mountain to hikers, except for guided tours. The information center at Taupo didn't know anything about Tarawera, but the lady at the volcanic activity centre did and recommended another hike at a place called Rainbow Mountain, between Taupo and Rotorua. So we hiked up that mountain instead. It was actually a short hike, about 2 hours round trip, at the top you end up at a tower next to a maintenance road. But the view was nice at the top and we did get to see some hot springs and discolorations in the mountainside due to mineral deposits.
After that we drove on to Rotorua and arrived around noon. Rotorua is another touristy spot, and it looks like it's trying to be a European town. We first headed to the Agrodome, where they have a sheep show with many kinds of live sheep (and a cow-milking demo, sheep-dog exercises, and lamb-feeding). After our Japan trip we thought we were done competing with huge throngs of Japanese schoolkids, but apparently they've found their way to the Agrodome! Come to think of it, we collided with some Japanese school groups at the Auckland Museum too. At the Agrodome, there were also some Korean tour groups there. Jean noticed that many places in New Zealand had become more commercialized or catered more to tour groups since she visited just 7 or 8 years ago. Additions to the Agrodome included a woolen mill where they have a big machine to card and clean the wool, a wool shop, and a chocolate shop.
For lunch, we first went into what looked like a normal tourist area restaurant, but we were told they were only serving a Korean buffet. So instead we decided to have lunch at a small stand and had an excellent dish called "mushies on toast", basically butter/garlic-loaded portabella mushrooms on toast. Here are the live sheep at the Sheep Show:
Then we made haste to the Maori Arts and Crafts Center. This place showcases various Maori craft work, but oddly enough also includes a geothermal area. The Maori part is a little bit like a small version of the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu, Hawaii, and you can watch a Maori show in the evening and have a Hangi dinner. Wary of a potential cheesy luau experience we decided against that and just explored the standing exhibits. Jean did find something food-related she liked though - a "cooking pool", which is a natural, bubbling geothermal pool where the Maori would cook their food. Apparently, the Maori would put their food in woven pouches or baskets and lower it into these sort of pools to essentially boil dinner.
We stayed at a place called the Fenton Court Motel, which included our own private spa outside the room. Very nice! Bryan wanted to have a relaxing place after the supposed day-long hike, so he picked a place which looked like it would be comfortable. Yes, we know the hike turned out to be only two hours long, but we enjoyed the spa anyway.
Day 6 - To Coromandel
The next morning we walked around Kuirau Park a freebie geothermal park in town (more bubbling pools of mud, etc.). The park is in continuous construction as new steam vents cave in at random locations and are at first fenced off with plastic "danger tape" and then wood. Then we started our drive to Coromandel, which is on the Coromandel Peninsula, east of the Auckland area. We made a pit stop at Tauranga, which our book said wasn't very touristy but sure did seem to have a lot of new restaurants and shops in town, then on to a Hot Water Beach on the east coast near Mercury Bay. Unfortunately we missed low tide, which is when you can rent a shovel, dig a hole in the sand, and sit in a pool of warm to boiling water on the beach. . We also walked down to Cathedral Cove. The Coromandel Peninsula is fairly remote and unpopulated, but very scenic. This was our second-longest driving day. Again we had more winding, hilly roads for much of the way. We arrived at the town of Coromandel in the early evening.
Day 7 - Driving Creek Railway, Waiau Waterworks, and back to Auckland
The main reason we went to Coromandel was to see the Driving Creek Railway. This is a small railway was built by a potter and artist named Barry Brickell who needed a way to bring some clay down from the hills. He built his own small train and rails. Apparently people wanted to ride in the train, so it became a tourist spot, and he expanded the operation. There is now a rail line complete with bridges, tunnels, switchbacks and loops. It's still a small operation with the ticket office looking like somebody's house, but the railway has grown. There's now an Eyefull Tower at the top where you get a nice view of the peninsula and bay. They plan to build a cafe up there and have trains going every half hour eventually. We may have to stop by again someday to see it. Side note, Barry is a devout environmentalist so he is also planting his property with native plants and using the non-native trees to fuel his kiln. .
After the rail trip, we decided to investigate this place called Waiau Waterworks. You have to drive along this unpaved logging road called the "309 road" for a while to get there, but it's quite an interesting place. It's a little hard to describe,
but one website called it "a whimsical display of sculpture, machines and playthings, all worked by water." It's a hands-on place, so you're expected to play around and ride on the exhibits. Some of the exhibits included a water-powered butter churn,
a water-powered clock, hand pumped water cannons, a water-powered music box using silverware to produce notes, and a boat race flume (the boats were just slabs of wood). There were also some non-water-powered things such as a "flying fox", a human hamster wheel, and a strange centrifugal
device which seems to spin you around, due to your own weight. Jean thinks of it as a low tech amusement park made with stuff from a junkyard. Jean was disappointed that she couldn't ride some of the rides in a skirt. A unique, interesting, and fun place!
Here are some videos of the flying fox and the music box:
It was time to make our way back to Auckland. We drove down the peninsula on some more winding roads (Dramamine, anyone?), stopping at some beaches along the way. The beaches were full of oysters, clams, and mussels. That night we stayed at a Holiday Park just north of Auckland which also included a kitchenette. Being our last night there, Jean wanted to try cooking some lamb, so we went to a grocery store and bought some lamb (very fresh and very cheap) some garlic butter, and some treats like Fruity Bix. Fruity Bix is an interesting cereal kind of like mini-wheats with pieces of dried fruit that Jan likes to rave about ever since their last down-under trip. :) We brought some back for her. Jean bought a small jar of Vegemite for herself. Yum! Back at the Holiday Park Jean cooked up the lamb chops on the two-burner stove - it was quite delicious, much better than that Taupo restaurant.
Day 8 - Auckland
Our flight didn't leave evening, so we wanted to check out downtown Auckland a little bit. It is a fairly typical crowded downtown city area, reminding us of a cross between Seattle and Vancouver (they have their own Sky Tower, and you can even bungee jump from it). . It started getting cold, rainy, and windy. We had been lucky to have generally good weather during the trip until then. We spent about an hour there and then drove to One Tree Hill, located in Cornwall Park. One Tree Hill is a hill but it has quite a few trees on it. Despite a strong, cold wind, we got a good view of the city from the top. Lots of sheep were roaming around (or at least sitting around) the park. Very cute, though Jean said she'd forgotten how stinky they are. We went to the visitor's center and despite the cold weather Bryan had some Hokey Pokey Ice Cream, which was quite good. Hokey Pokey is some kind of malted milk candy popular in New Zealand. We also made a brief stop at the Auckland Observatory in the same park, but it was small and loaded with school kids.
Jean made us stop by a local craft store to look for wool and found one close to the airport. She figured that yarn should be good and inexpensive with all those sheep around. We saw some wool blends made with sheep and possum fur. The possum, though kinda cute, is a pest introduced from Australia. New Zealanders are trying to control the possums, so they offer clothing made from a combination of possum fur and merino (a kind of sheep). Nice and soft.
We still had some time left, so we went to the Regional Botanic Gardens, not far from the airport. This was a nice find, and it was free! The plantings range from New Zealand natives to the plants of North America, Southern Africa, the South Pacific and Europe. There is also a rose garden, a rock garden, an herb garden, and an edible garden, which Jean liked a lot. The weather had improved a bit too, so it was a nice place to kill time before going to the airport.
Our favorite places on this trip - the Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel (okay, Bryan likes trains, so that one wasn't too hard), Waiau Waterworks, The Botanical Gardens, and that crazy, running kiwi at the Otorohanga Kiwi House!
Next time, we'd like to see the Wellington area and the South Island, which has more of the spectacular New Zealand scenery (much of the movie The Lord of the Rings was filmed there). We would also like to spend time in some of the National Parks. We also read about an interesting little island called Stewart Island just south of the South Island where you can actually see wild kiwis in the daytime - that sounds interesting. Neither us have been to Australia, so we might have to try and visit there too.