New Zealand’s North Island makes us imagine an alternate universe where Canada has somehow taken over Oregon. The North Island is stunningly beautiful. There is a constant focus on outdoor activities, as you would imagine, in a land of clear blue lakes, snow capped mountains, rolling hills, rugged coastlines and hip people to explore all of it. The water is delicious right out of the taps and they produce solid wines. The roads are well built and it is easy to get around – the locals talk about traffic problems that LA residents only dream about. You can feel the emergence of good coffee and good craft beers in every town we visited. Every place we stayed had lots of options for recycling. Everyone seems to be a combination of laid back, outdoorsy and friendly. And yet, they have multi-colored money and have managed to adopt a $1 and $2 coin. Here they have an accent that rarely gets in the way of understanding anyone and there are a dozen round-abouts for every stop light we found.
For this post we thought we would try and capture the highlights of our two weeks by writing a bit about each of the things we loved. So, feel free to skim along, just look at pictures (or jump link if we can manage a bit of coding in the blog) or read the adventures that catch your interest. Sorry for the length of the post, but just know our journals have lots of other adventures that didn’t even make the list (we did try and go with our top three things for each of us but just couldn’t pare it down).
Our individual top five things about New Zealand’s North Island:
John (10) – Zorb Ball in Rotorua, Zip Lining on Weiheke Island, Mineral Hot Springs water slides (DeBeretts, in Taupo), The Napier Prison Tour, and Minigolf in Napier.
Alan – Tamaki Maori Village hangi dinner, Storehouse breakfast in Taupo, Wine aroma room at the New Zealand Wine Center, Revels Coffee in Auckland, and watching cricket in Auckland.
Judi – Glow Worm Caves in Waitomo, Robert Harris Coffee in Rotorua, the Deberetts Hot Springs pools, Zip lining and The Globe Theater (movie house) in Napier.
Kate (12) – Zip Lining, The Globe Theater, Napier’s Art Deco buildings, Ram Lamb and the Glow Worm Cave.
Zip Lining – Weiheke Island (short ferry ride from Auckland), EcoZip Adventures. Five Stars.
Near the top of everyone’s list was our adventure to Weiheke Island, but it almost didn’t happen for us. It was an easy 40 minute ferry ride to this beautiful place from Auckland. It has a wonderful main village, Oneora Village. We had been told that it was fine to buy tickets upon arrival on the island but a quick call led us to discover that they only had room in their 2:30 group, we jumped on it. We took a taxi the 1km (because of Kate’s injury making walking hard) from the ferry landing to Oneora and had a great lunch at the Cove. John tested his toe in the water down at the beach but the water was too cold (after Fiji) to jump in.
The bus ride up to EcoZip was a quick tour of island history and what new wineries had popped up. We were all nervous but excited. John needed to be 30kg (66 pounds) and the scale at our hostel showed him right at the mark. But, the scale that matters, the one at EcoZip showed him at least five pounds light. Tears erupted and I wondered how we would get a refund at that point in the adventure. Thank goodness for our wonderful guide, Honey, who took pity on us and assured John they would let him go and that she would climb out and get him if needed. It ended up being three amazing rides over the lush hillsides, each better than the last. It was hard to know, in the fleeting minutes on the zipline, whether to look at the trees, the ocean, the cable holding you up or just sort of let it all blur into the wind. While it is hard to imagine being a bird in flight, this must be close.
Zorbing – Rotorua; OGO Rotorua. Four Stars.
Zorbing is rolling down a grassy hillside in a giant plastic ball. And it is like catnip for kids, particularly little boys. The kids saw it on a tv display at our youth hostel in Auckland and were smitten from that moment. You can either be strapped in or slosh around in the ball half full of water. They have both a straight course and a zig-zag course. The zig-zag gives you about an extra sixty seconds compared to the 90 seconds of straight down hill adventure. Judi threatened to ruin their claim that no one has ever thrown up in a Zorb yet. But in the end Judi and the kids loved it. Five star adventure but for the price and the short time of the ‘ride’, I can only give it four stars.
Mineral Hot Springs and Water Slides; Taupo – Five Stars.
Taupo is in the center of the North Island and is famous for its outdoor activities in and around Lake Taupo, its geo-thermal landscape and hot springs. Our hostel was just off of Spa Road so we thought we would check out the natural (and free) hot springs park where scalding hot waters enter into the chilly Waikato River, just above Huka Falls. It was obviously a cool place for locals and groups of friends to hang out, but too much of a walk and risk to navigate wet rocks for Kate to make with her injured ankle. So, off to DeBretts Hot Springs and Water Park we went. It has several pools that range from scalding hot natural mineral water (Judi’s favorite) to cool kid pools. And as a bonus there were three water slides the kids loved. They also enjoyed the level of ride supervision (none) which allowed them to go head first and as groups of two or three. Sigh. For a day of relaxation and soaking up the mineral water, it couldn’t have been better. It was also the last day we saw Judi’s swim suit – first lost item of the trip!
Glow Worm Caves; Waitomo – Four Stars.
We have the Oregon Caves in southern Oregon, but if you add rolling Hobbiton type hills, a little surrounding village with great food and magical glow worms, you get the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. We skipped the rafting in the pitch black caves (Black Water Tours) and did the walking tour and boat ride through the caves where the ceilings are covered with clusters of what appear to be pin-prick stars. It feels surreal and something that Disney might have invented. The cave dwelling glow worms live about 9 months, go into a cocoon for a few weeks and emerge without a mouth or digestive system so they only a few days to mate, lay eggs and then they die. Totally worth the trip to see them.
The Napier Prison Tour; Napier – Four Stars.
This historic prison has a great audio tour and was totally worth the price of admission. It has housed a host of exotic criminals, had a yard for public hangings (site of the only woman put to death), was the quarantine area for immigrants, had huge holding pens for gangs (the Mongrels were the largest of New Zealand’s gangs) and later in its history it was a hostel where you could spend the night in a real cell and pay rent for it.
Mini-golf; Napier – Three Stars.
Napier has an amazing promenade that we loved. Except that the walk for Kate was a long one. All along the bay front, connecting the shore to the downtown core, is a wide, pine tree-lined meandering walk. There is a WW I remembrance garden, mineral water pools, a skate park, sculpture, fountains, an ice cream parlor and yes.. mini-golf. Best view ever for 36 holes of putting.
The Tamaki Maori Village; Rotorua – Five Stars.
Our dinner and visit to the Tamaki Maori Village was well worth the admission. The bus ride from downtown Rotorua and the return right to the door of our hostel was a huge part of the entertainment. The Village itself was a great mix of education and show. But the hangi, the traditional meal of meat and vegetables slow cooked in an earthen pit, was a fantastic buffet. Sure it had a bit of a ‘touristy’ feel, being shipped in to the village in three giant tour buses, but their passion for the language, traditions and history of their culture came ringing through. I would highly recommend this adventure.
The Storehouse; Taupo – Four Stars.
We figured this place would be average since it was giving a discount for anyone staying at the nearby youth hostel. But the food, coffee and service were amazing. Easily our favorite breakfast stop in New Zealand. This place would fit in nicely with the great breakfast places in Ashland.
New Zealand Wine Center; Napier – Four Stars
We headed to downtown Napier to do a little shopping and stumbled onto the Wine Tasting Center. Napier is the hub of North Island wineries. Home to the Mission Winery, New Zealand’s oldest winery, and there are excellent wines everywhere. So when we found the Wine Center we thought we should sample wines. The local reds ran the range of full bodied to nothing special (or as Judi reacts, not too great). But the highlight for us was the wine aroma room. All those aromas people utter at wine tasting events – oaky, skunky, hint of chocolate, cardamon, etc. – they were all there to sniff and even a blind smell testing station. Not sure what Judi is smelling in the picture, but she likes it. Awesome fun for all of us.
Revels Coffee, Auckland and Robert Harris, Rotorua and Taupo – Five Stars.
We love good coffee. We love to hang out and enjoy good coffee. We got into a pattern, almost instantly starting in Auckland, of Alan and Judi venturing out early for coffee and letting the kids sleep in. The youth hostels have marginal internet service or limited so finding a place with free internet was key. We have learned that Judi enjoys either a “flat white” – more milk than a latte or a “long black” basically an Americano, with a small jug of milk. I enjoy a cappuccino but you have to declare if you want the standard chocolate or go for cinnamon; I even convinced one barista to give me both at once. The interesting thing is that cafes open about 8am, 7:30 if you are lucky and search around a bit, and close at 4 or 5pm. Most folks start work at 9 so no reason to be open earlier and people gather in the pubs so no reason to be open later for coffee. There is a cafe on just about every street, that seats maybe a dozen people or so. The ones that stay open later hours serve a full menu and have a full bar, like the slightly edgy Revels I found near the intersection of Queens Street and K’ Street in Auckland. The funny part was that with so many to choose from, we found ourselves drawn back to the places we liked each morning once we discovered them.
Cricket – The Auckland Aces; Auckland – Four Stars.
We started out trying to watch a rugby match but when we arrived we found cricket. Summer here is cricket season. Since either would be a learning adventure, we wandered in to watch two regional teams (which have some international players on squad) square off. Luckily a friendly young man, who happens to also be an umpire, agreed to sit and educate us. It is a leisurely family affair with folks sitting around on the grass and wandering in as things progress. We learned what an “over” is (six throws from one bowler in one direction), how they score (the two batters safely exchanging ends for a run, getting the ball to the outer rope or knocking it over the rope on the fly) and the three main ways (there are ten but only three regularly come up) ways a batsman is retired. We thought it was to be a “20s” game, where each side gets 20 overs (one team tries to score as many runs as possible in those 20 overs (or 120 ‘pitches’) and then the other team gets their turn), and we understood that this would take about three hours. Turns out it was actually 50 overs each and would run all day. Well, after Kate had a churro with chocolate sauce, we decided it was time for us to pack up and leave. Excellent and unique adventure for sure.
The Globe Theater; Napier – Five Stars.
We were directed to a little movie house in Napier that has nice couches (we steered away from the front thinking it would be like an American theater and hurt our necks to sit there but those would have been fantastic seats we discovered) and brings you local ice cream, wine or even pizza from next door right to your seat. We were smitten. We thought for a movie night out we would try and see Lion, but it was sold out. The theater seats maybe 100 people and the owner comes in before the show for a brief talk. We decided we would see La La Land and pre-ordered our pizzas. It was like an upscale McMeneman’s movie brew pub or maybe if the Ashland Varsity had nice couches and let you order dinner. It was fantastic and sold out. Interestingly, (and maybe because it was the very end of the school holiday break) the youngest people in the theater were, in order – John, Kate, Alan and Judi Harper. Great food, not a bad seat in the house and fun experience.
Napier’s Art Deco Architecture; Napier – Four Stars.
Napier was pretty much entirely destroyed by a 1931 earthquake and resulting fire. The Prison has lots of good examples of floors that shifted as a result. The downtown was leveled and much of it was re-built in the Art Deco style of the 30’s. The downtown architectural feels like you are in a movie set for a Great Gatsby remake. It isn’t just one or two examples but dozens of buildings have these remarkable facades. We didn’t do a specific tour but our AirBnB hosts drove us to the main buildings and over the four days we were there we discovered more and more of them.
Ram Lamb; Napier – Four Stars.
Places are wonderful, adventures divine, but it is often the people (and in this case the animals) that we meet that are the most memorable. Brenden and Georgina were amazing hosts to us in Napier. This was our first Air BnB stay during this trip and we desperately needed it. Our place was a cabin right above their large home, just ten minutes by car out of Napier. When we arrived tired and a bit car sick from the drive from Taupo (like driving to the Oregon coast from Grants Pass to Brookings), we were greeted warmly, shown this wonderful little cabin and then popped into their car for a tour around the area and a stop at their favorite cafe. We saw several of sights on our to-do list before we had hardly unpacked. The cabin had a supply of basic food; it had plenty of space, a clothes washer and two bedrooms. Sheer bliss. And between their home and our cabin lives Ram Lamb, their pet who thinks he is human and talks to you. So every morning as I enjoyed the coffee from the coffee press, Ram Lamb would occasionally look over and bleet, as if to say, “welcome” or “why am I still tied to this damn post.” We continue to be thankful and feel blessed for the kindness of strangers and friendships made along the way.
That we have reached the end of this painfully long post, thank you to all of you who are following along with us on this strange but wonderful journey. New Zealand, in our final accounting, is a place that we have quickly grown to love. There is no doubt it will be a place to which we will return someday. The Harpers.