Visiting New Zealand
Posted in Travel on February 2016Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The thought of a 17+ hour flight from Chicago to Auckland, New Zealand, can make the most traveled person nervous. Despite the long flight, New Zealand was a country I’ve always wanted to visit. Giant ferns, beautiful beaches, and the Lord of the Rings’ movie set are only a few reasons that drew me to the North Island, specifically. Nevertheless, after establishing a centralized location to all the sites I planned on visiting, a city called Tauranga, and sought out a place to rent. Bouncing back and forth from Vrbo and airbnb, trying to find the perfect place, I settled on a house advertised with the former. The realization was slowly coming to fruition. Going into the journey I mentally prepared myself for a long flight, knowing it was going to be boring and uncomfortable (crammed into economy class). Albeit as I anticipated, Air New Zealand was hands down the best airline company I’ve traveled on thus far. The stewards’ professionalism and prompt service paved the way for a wonderful adventure.
I’m an avid researcher, especially when it comes to traveling. I was able to find blogs and forums about people’s travel to New Zealand, but most seemed fractured or missing information regarding the areas I was visiting. My hope is this will help those who are looking for information and suggestions regarding the North Island and New Zealand as a whole.
Around and Around and Roundabout
Once we landed and proceeded through customs, which was much faster and efficient than America’s, the official questioned if we would be driving. She then proceeded to give caution—mentioning that many New Zealanders aren’t too welcoming of foreign drivers, who seem to cause a lot of accidents. If you’re from the United States, the never-ending roundabouts and driving on the left side of the road can be daunting. The customs official made us nervous with her words of wisdom, but it was ultimately too late. Our adventure required driving. After driving in American big cities and Paris, France, I felt New Zealand wouldn’t actually be that bad; and it wasn’t. It’s nearly impossible to ready yourself for roundabouts and foreign roads, but researching road signs and familiarizing yourself with New Zealand’s rules of the road will greatly help. New Zealand’s government offers help with a webpage dedicated to their road signs, something we used before traveling. Additionally, we took an online quiz to further prepare.
Before even starting the rental car, we assessed our situation—understanding the car’s slightly different controls. With a lap around the rental parking lot, we eventually, and cautiously, set out to Tauranga. The entire time we made sure never to become too comfortable at the wheel. After a few days of driving 2+ hour stents one can easily become comfortable in their new surrounding, which is both good and bad. Good because you’ve become more knowledgeable of their driving intricacies. Bad because, although more knowledgeable, you’re still a novice driving a powerful machine in a foreign country. Never driving aggressively and having a competent co-pilot is vital in this situation. Also, from experience, if you have the ability to bring your mobile phone, take it. I’ve had experiences using the rental car’s and bring my own GPS, which ended poorly. The rental car’s GPS wasn’t working correctly or maps weren’t updated. Another time I brought my own, but had issues with it finding certain roads even though maps were updated before leaving. Our saving grace, two different times, was having mobile phones and using map apps, like Google Maps. Thankfully, Google updates their maps often, so you should almost always have the most current directions.
Ultimately, the ability to drive around the North Island was priceless. Tall green hills with low hanging mist, speckled with tropical plants, is a sight that pictures can’t fully capture. Within an hour or so, you’re able to see drastically different terrains—from coastline to geothermal landscape. If you have the ability and feel comfortable enough, drive.
As we drove from Auckland to Tauranga, we quickly noticed the rolling hills were accompanied with sheep and cows. The gorgeous landscape eventually gave way to an unusual sight. We quickly noticed most of the sheep and cows were lying in the pastoral landscape and seemingly enjoying the weather. If you live in the Midwest like I do, you might not have ever seen a cow relaxing in the grass. That image set the disposition precedence, of both people and animals, in New Zealand: relaxed. Americans are often uptight and glued to their mobile phones. The aura of relaxation reverberated onto most people and animals on the island. You rarely saw people attached to their phones. Instead, people were on the beach playing rugby or actually having conversations without the common glance at their mobile phones. I’m sure large cities like Auckland have their share of social media attachments as they aimlessly walk through the crowded streets, but everywhere we traveled that wasn’t the case. Face it, more than likely if you’re traveling to New Zealand, you’re on vacation. Cherish it. Work life and social media shouldn’t hinder your vacation. Especially after traveling that far! Moreover, don’t be surprised if you see people without shoes on the streets and in stores. They aren’t poor; it’s just a different lifestyle. It’s an island setting that creates a relaxed environment and shoes seem to be optional.
Best places to visit on the North Island
Obviously this is subjective and I didn’t see EVERYTHING the North Island had to offer, but I was able to visit a lot while there. From glowworm caves in Waitomo to a geothermal landscape in Rotorua, there are some unique and fascinating places to visit. However, there are three places that quickly come to mind when thinking about New Zealand: Hobbiton, Mount Maunganui, and Karangahake Gorge.
If you’re even a smidgen of a Lord of the Ring’s fan, then you cannot miss visiting Hobbiton located in Matamata. The tickets are rather pricey, but well worth the tour. There are two locations you can depart from to reach Hobbiton. One, the Matamata i-site, is located within the city of Matamata. From there you will be bused, about 15 minutes, to Hobbiton. The other option is to drive directly to Hobbiton, which is what we did. Please note that neither will allow you to enter directly to the movie set. Once bused in or parked, you will wait with other guests until your time approaches for your tour. There is an ice cream shop, bathroom, and gift shop on the premises while you wait.
We opted for the evening dinner tour, since it offered an extra experience to a living literary masterpiece. I knew the tour would certainly be worth it, but I was quite skeptical of the evening dinner. You will need to book your tickets in advance, which is how we found out that the evening dinner was booked for an entire week. Although I couldn’t reserve tickets, I began reading online reviews about the dinner. Not a single negative review was found, but I was still skeptical. Because normal tour tickets were amply available, I waited to book. However, the dinning research fueled the desire to attend. When the time came to purchase tickets, three days later, I checked to see if more tickets became available. Much to our delight, Hobbiton offered a new time slot of the dinner tour tickets. Naturally, we purchased the tour and evening dinner combo.
Without spoiling the excitement to anyone who is thinking about visiting Hobbiton, I’ll keep short and to the point. Once again, Hobbiton is Mecca for those who enjoyed the movies. The tour guides were professional, funny, and ever informative. After taking a bus ride to the actual set, you will finally be introduced to the Shire and it’s utterly amazing. You can take pictures until your heart is content, while the tour guide will gladly take group photos if needed. You can instantly tell they take pride in their abandoned movie set, as it’s clean and every little detail is still arranged as it was in the movie. From the large tree that adorns Bag End to hobbit-holes strewn throughout the rolling hills, you will be impressed. As for the dinner, you couldn’t ask for more. The food was beyond ample and amazing. From mushrooms to tender ham, the presentation and taste exceeded my expectations. I, and probably many others, also found a new favorite dessert—Pavlova. After dinner, an intimate lantern-lit night walk through the Shire was made even more magical by dancing a jig on the party field beneath a light rain while our guide sang a traditional Hobbit song.
Mount Maunganui might have a bit more sentimental value to me, as we resided very close to the green mountain and visited it several times during out stay. Nevertheless, it’s crawling with tourists, but not overwhelmingly. This area is surrounded by a beach and restaurants, which makes it popular to locals as well. Climbing the mount is highly recommended. It might be an arduous hike for some, but well worth the views atop. Azure seas surround Mount Maunganui as it stands proud among the landscape. Gigantic barges filled with containers slowly drift pass the mount, while sheep graze among the lush green mount foliage. For those who seek outside activities, and most people who visit New Zealand are looking for just that, you cannot miss an opportunity to climb the mount. Additionally, there is a small peninsula, just several yards away from the base of Mount Maunganui, were penguins nest. Yes, penguins! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see any as their summer migration might have driven them to a different region during that period. If you’re debating where to stay on the North Island, Mount Maunganui offers a plethora of vacation rentals and there’s not a bad view in that entire area.
I really hate even mentioning this place. Not because it was terrible, but quite the opposite. What makes this place so unique is the ability to hike for hours without seeing another person. It’s peaceful and gorgeous, forever captured in my mind as a hiker and historian’s paradise. Karangahake Gorge is an abandoned gold mining operation. Meaning, there are tunnels, rusted giant vestiges of machinery, and vast jungle to explore. There are four parking lots surrounding the gorge, and, because of the beautiful scenery, there isn’t a wrong way to enter. We parked at the western most parking lot, which I would recommend because of how you enter the park. Once parked, if you parked at the west parking lot, you’re welcomed to enter the site after crossing a sizable suspension bridge. As you gently sway with the bridge, you’re able to see the Ohinemuri River flowing below.
Karangahake Gorge is littered with historic and hiking thrills. There is a battery ruin, Victoria Battery, which was used to crush quartz, rusted railroad tracks that eventually lead you into old gold mining tunnels for which you need “torches”, or flashlights, to explore, as well as several manmade tunnels that offer mysterious explorations and a large section, the Karangahake Windows Walk, an outer tunnel that presents periodic window views over the gorge and the river below. Then, there is opportunity to aimlessly hike. We hiked through over grown grass, ferns that stood taller than people, and went an hour without seeing another human. Oh, and did I mention that New Zealand isn’t swarming with persistent insects or snakes? Making hiking even more enjoyable.
New Zealand’s Food
I’m not a food snob or a picky eater. For me, trying new foods is part of the adventure when traveling. Food in France was stereotypical—great. Scotland’s food was rather disappointing. Preemptively, I assumed New Zealand’s food wouldn’t be outstanding. I was very wrong. The food was actually incredible. The island country boasts some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. Snapper tended to be the fish of choice among New Zealanders, while lobster, crab, and shrimp were either rarely or never found on the menu. The biggest food surprise was New Zealand lamb. Years earlier, a Paris restaurant held the best tasting rack of lamb in my opinion. However, New Zealand lamb might have actually surpassed France’s. Obviously cooks and restaurants have more to do with preparation and taste than the country it resides in. Nevertheless, if you have a chance to travel to New Zealand, try their lamb. Seafood and lamb either surround or resides in New Zealand and there is certainly not a shortage on the menu.
I have a friend who rather eat cheaply when traveling, going to Paris and eating McDonald’s and Subway, to save money. I like to make a point to try a country’s cuisine, hoping to gain a bit of understanding of their culture—as accelerated and rather unachievable as that may sound. There are four restaurants that I highly recommend when visiting the Tauranga area. Firstly, hands down the best restaurant we visited with superb food, gorgeous views, and where locals like to dine is Harborside. This is the restaurant that might have overtaken Paris as the best rack of lamb I’ve never had. If you’re looking for fish n chips, which you can find at every restaurant, Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market offers fresh and delicious fried fish. It was so good we ate there twice during our stay. Not as fancy as Harborside, but it’s a great place to visit after a long day at the beach. A hidden gem we randomly found is a place called Phil’s Place. Located next to the bay, surrounded by docked boats, it gave the aura of a biker bar/restaurant. Nevertheless, the staff was incredibly kind and, once again, the food was amazing. Another hidden gem we randomly found on our drive back from Rotorua was Cafe Irresistiblue. Unlike the other restaurants mentioned above, this place was tucked out in the countryside in a quiet bucolic setting. I would strongly suggest the open steak sandwich. Also, if you didn’t notice from the name, they are known for their blueberries, which were great.
Before visiting a country, I’m always curious to know what’s their famous dish, snack, or drink. In France, I tried absinthe. Scotland, which was actually very good, was haggis. New Zealand was their lamb. However, upon research, I found that their famous drink is L&P (Lemon & Paeroa). It was traditionally made by combining lemon juice with carbonated mineral water from the town of Paeroa and is now owned and manufactured by Coca-Cola. While shopping at one of New Zealand’s grocery store, Pak n Save, I searched and found it. It’s a light and bubbly drink with a slight taste of lemon. I actually bought it several times while visiting. It’s probably good that it’s not sold in the United States or I would have a glass a night. If you have a chance, try it.
When researching a place to visit, safety is my number one concern. Anywhere you visit, you have to be aware of your surroundings. The world is filled with people who are devious, even the safest of countries. I couldn’t find much on crime statistics in New Zealand, which was rather comforting. If there isn’t much to show, then there must not be much crime, right? Well, right. I never once felt in danger while traveling. The only indication of petty crime was a sign in a conservation parking lot. It displayed a man’s picture who was seen breaking into cars.
I traveled with two women and we would often separate when they wanted to clothes shop. I never worried for them. This might sound countryist, but most Americans are “street smart” or pessimistic. Crime is abundant in the United States, so we tend to be protective, even if we don’t mean to. Locking our car doors is second nature, keeping purses nearby is common, and maintaining awareness when visiting new places is normal. Although New Zealand is safe, always be aware of your surroundings, never walk alone at night, don’t leisurely flash money in public, lock your house and car doors when you leave.
Was it worth it?
Of course! My adventure encompassed only a small portion of what New Zealand has to offer. The country boasts some of the best food in the world, drastically different landscape within an hour drive, and wonderful citizens. Did I mention, of course I did, that New Zealand doesn’t have pesky insects like you find in most island countries. Also, there’s no snakes or crocodiles, which makes adventuring into the jungles even more fun and jumping into deep cascades that much more appealing.
Like I said above, there’s so much the country has to offer. I only ventured a small section of the island. I plan on visiting New Zealand again, but to the South Island. I’m not a fan of cooler weather, but the mountains that the South Island has to offer are worth it.