As the planet heats up environmentally and politically, it’s good to know that New Zealand exists.
What was I expecting when we started planning our trip to New Zealand?
Before our trip, I had very vague knowledge about the country. All I knew was probably the fact that they shot the Lord of the Rings there. Uh oh, and that the country must be gorgeous because it did look gorgeous in the movies!
It took us roughly 20 hours of sheer flying just to get to the place. But what we saw was totally worth it. New Zealand’s sublime nature, welcoming people and excellent wines make it an incredible place to visit – and fall in love with.
Arriving in New Zealand
Before we dive into our New Zealand adventures, let’s learn a little about the country that is so remote from the rest of the world, most people would have trouble trying to point it on the map. 🤓
Due to its remoteness, New Zealand was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. Currently, the population of NZ is about 4.6 million people scattered around the country bigger than the UK, with only 1/14 the population of the latter.
Because New Zealand was populated so late in comparison with other countries, it managed to preserve its unique nature until this day. Besides, agriculture plays a huge role in the country’s economy. So, in order to make sure no foreign contaminant sneaks into the pristine New Zealand lands, people have to throw away all food they bring with them into the country. The homeland security even gets rid of spices, giving some hard time Indian tourists who bring a lot of this kind of stuff with them.
Apart from food, people also need to declare whether they are bringing any outdoor equipment with them and whether this equipment has been used elsewhere outside New Zealand. We were bringing hiking boots with us; mine were new but Dima’s have already seen a lot in this world. When we told the officer that the boots were used, he just took the boots away, washed them clean and gave back to us! Free of charge, of course.
Some cunning tourists use this biosecurity check to their advantage, though. One lady told us how her mother (who lives in the UK) would come to visit and deliberately bring dirty boots with her just to get them cleaned at the borders. Smart!
Cities in New Zealand
After we drove all around the North Island for about 10 days, I can say that New Zealand is indeed about nature more than it is about cities. However, there are still some great things to do in the cities, too. Here’s my top choice.
One of our favorite ways to discover a city is to go on a food tour. We went on one in Ho Chi Minh and Rome, and it was an incredible experience. We walked around the town and visit places that we would probably never find ourselves.
Though not the capital, Auckland is the biggest city in New Zealand, with the population of around 1.5 million. So we knew it would have some great food places to offer.
We booked a food tour with the Big Foodie. Elle, the host, took us to several awesome places, including a cafe, a fish market, and a gourmet shop of Italian cuisine. She was also kind enough to send us very thorough instructions on where to eat, what to see and where to stay during our trip around the North Island. Definitely, a must do when in Auckland!
Another thing to try in town is the Skywalk. Basically, this is a walk around the 192-meter high Sky Tower. The walkway is only 120 cm wide, no handles, no fences, just you and the sky. To be honest, I was so scared to walk around this thind, I started crying. But for all of you who are ok with heights, this is a great thing to try.
The North Island is definitely not all about Auckland. In fact, I would say it isn’t about the cities at all: it’s more about nature. But one town that goes along with nature perfectly well is Taupo.
Due to its perfect location right in the middle of the North Island, we got to visit Taupo several times while in NZ. It is situated on the Taupo lake which in itself is a beauty. For those of you who are fond of walking or running, there is a great Lion’s Walk that goes along the Taupo lake for as far as 10 km.
Another fun thing to do in Taupo is bathing in the hot Otumuheke Stream. It’s a free hot spot that is very popular with locals and tourists alike. We visited it during the weekday, and it was still very crowded and a bit difficult to find a spot. The water is pretty hot at the top and gets cooler by the bridge (which is also the best spot to swim).
Also, make sure to check out the Huka Falls. Personally, this was one of the places in New Zealand that impressed me the most. The crystal blue water falls down from the height of 11 meters, roaring and filling with itself the valley beneath.
When you get tired of travels and need a recharge, head for Napier, a charismatic, sunny town with a feeling of a seaside resort. It is located in the Hawkes Bay, a famous wine region of New Zealand.
Napier retains a unique concentration of art-deco buildings. The city was terribly damaged during the earthquake in 1931, but despite this fact, it managed to keep its Great Gatsby-ish atmosphere of the 1930s.
A couple of eating places I might recommend in Napier:
1) Ujazi: awesome breakfast, very filling, vegan options available.
2) Emporium Bar: great for lunch, a wide range of wine collections, very friendly staff.
All in all, Napier is a great place to chill out, relax after a long journey and just enjoy yourself. Walk along the ocean shore, visit a nearby winery, or just rent a movie and spend a lazy afternoon at the hotel. Napier has it all.
New Zealand Nature
New Zealand nature is stunning and is definitely the thing people come here for. There is literally no other word to describe it. It stuns you with its richness, diversity, and peacefulness. It takes your breath away when you ramble its gorges, green hills with white sprinkles of sheep on them, volcanic valleys of Tongariro. It takes you in and doesn’t let go.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
We decided to experience the NZ nature to its fullest and took on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, often referred to as the New Zealand’s finest one-day walk. But instead of doing it one day, we decided to spend a night in a tourist hut along the way, and then continue our walk the next day.
The crossing goes amid the thrilling scenery of steaming vents and springs, queer rock formations and moonscape basins. The poles mark the distance every kilometer, so you can see how far you have gone and how much farther you still need to go.
The Lonely Planet guide said the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was “a fair-weather tramp”, and boy, should we have listened! Before taking off on our little adventure, we visited the local tourist center in Taupo (and I would definitely recommend you do the same, should you decide to do the Crossing yourself). We were told that the first day of our trip would be nice and sunny but the second one was promised to have showers. We were ok with showers but decided to purchase the raincoats nonetheless.
And off we went. During the first day, we covered some 20 km, including climbing the famous Ngauruhoe mountain that was used a stand-in for the Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings. The ascent was arduous: we tried climbing the mountain for about two hours before we gave up, never reaching the crater.
We continued walking and climbing and descending to the hut for several hours before we finally reached it after the sunset. Along the way, we saw incredible sights like the Red Crater and Blue Lakes.
The hut where we were planning to spend the night turned out to be a well-equipped wooden house with bunk beds for about 25 people inside. It had the gas heating, water, electricity and outside toilets, which was pretty comfy, taking into account its remoteness from the rest of the world. How do you normally pack for a hike? What food do you usually take?
Probably you thought of something light and easy to carry, like rice, maybe some vegetables, sausages or tofu. Would you guess what the four of us took instead? Here’s just a part of the list: * Two (!) types of hummus. Just cuz we wanted to try both of them.
Three chocolate bars. Cuz I don’t like white chocolate and only eat dark, and Kate wanted to have white, and there was that third bar that we decided to take just in case we would starve to death.
1 kilo (a little over 2 pounds) of nuts. We definitely thought we were going to starve during that crossing.
16 liters of water. That’s 16 extra kilos!
1 bottle of whiskey. You know.
10 cans of food like soup and stuff. Not very nutritious but super heavy. When we arrived at the hut and started taking all of these goodies out, other tourists who had arrived before us were like, ‘Seriously, folks?!’
Wise tip: plan what food you are going to take with you for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Because it was a torture for the guys to carry 25 kg-heavy backpacks while trying to climb the mountains AND not to fall over at the same time. But the worst part was the second day of the hike. I woke up at 5 am because of the wind and rain that were shaking the hut. The weather was so bad, we could hardly see 5 meters ahead of us, and we still had to cover another 15 km to the car.
It was probably the hardest time of all my travels so far. The wind was so hard, we were practically crawling along the ridges. At some moment, I got lifted up by the wind and had to cling to the rock in order not to fall over. We got soaking wet during the first 30 minutes of our walk, and by the time we reached the car, I could pour the water out of my hiking boots, there was so much of it.
But these are some precious moments to remember nevertheless: us eating hummus in the hut and fighting the nature.
Rotorua Thermal Fields
If you are into geysers and lava and sulfur like I am, you will definitely love Rotorua and Te Puia thermal fields. This thermal reserve is about 3 km from Rotorua’s city center and includes famous geysers like Pohutu and a dozen of others the names of which I can’t even pronounce, let alone spell right 💨
Along with the geysers and bubbling sulfur mud fields, the fun part was to watch a chef cook wontons using the natural steam coming from underneath the surface.
Te Puia sight also includes the Whakarewarewa Village which is a traditional Maori village where the locals still reside.
Definitely a place worth visiting.
Just 5 km from the Rotorua downtown, this amazing place is a must visit. The forest occupies 5600 hectares (I don’t know how much this is exactly but sounds like a whole lot) and is a perfect place for walking, running or mountain biking.
The most peculiar thing is the Californian Coastal Redwoods, the trees that are so tall and slender, they make you feel tiny underneath them.
This place lies on the road between Auckland and Hobbiton and is a perfect 1-hour stopover. It used to be a gold mine back in the 19th century. The rails and lorries were left here to remind us of what the place used to look like.
Frankly, I felt a little uneasy, what with all the old mining detritus. Somehow, it reminded me of the movie “The Hills Have Eyes”. But the views are stunning.
The limestone caves of Waitomo are among the North Island’s premier attractions. And for a good reason!
This cave system consists of some 300 caves mapped in the area. The three main caves are Glowworm, Ruakuri and Aranui. We have visited the first two. It is possible to buy a combo pass for whichever combination though.
The Glowworm cave is called so because of the glow worms. Basically, these small creatures have luminescent organs that produce a soft light which is only visible when they are hungry. Apparently, they are trying to attract edible insects this way.
We were seated in the boat that the guide moves along the cave. The most stunning moment comes when the electric light is turned off, and you find yourself in complete darkness, with glow worms shining like little stars on the ceiling. Don’t worry: they are not falling off onto you! But you should be careful not to touch them, not to make loud noises or shine a light right on them.
Ever since I saw the Lord of the Rings and then the Hobbit, I desperately wanted to visit the place where such a beautiful nature existed. And it turned out, there is a whole Hobbit village in New Zealand!
Hobbiton Movie Set is located in the place called Matamata. The location is just perfect: what with all the green hills, majestic trees, and a picturesque lake. After the filming, Hobbiton’s owners negotiated to keep their hobbit holes, turning it into a true hobbit village.
It really feels like the hobbits live in this place. There is a small garden with real vegetables and fruit that is taken care of by the local workers. Each hobbit hole displays the character of its owner: for instance, if it’s a fisherman’s house, you will see some fish lying on the table. Or if it’s a beekeeper, there will be a honeycomb and some jars of honey. Another cute detail is the tiny hobbit clothes that are hanging all over the place. Uh oh, and when it gets colder in the evening, you will see the steam coming from the chimneys.
After having visited Hobbiton, we rented the movies in Napier and watched two first episodes of the Hobbit in a row. What a memory!
New Zealand is definitely a place to go to if you are in love with nature. And even if you are not, there is no chance you will be left indifferent to the quiet serenity of this unique and beautiful country.
And we are definitely coming back.