New Zealand was fabulous. It’s like a warm Ireland with beautiful beaches. The country is scenic with rolling lush green hills that are dotted with sheep. Spectacular scenic coastline and water is everywhere. New Zealand has outstanding wine and wineries. Kiwis are incredibly friendly and welcoming and we met many new friends along our journey. In short this is bucket lister destination that fully lived up to expectation.
We decided to go to New Zealand on a whim. It’s had been on the radar for some time however how we wound up there was in a circular way. Barcelona was the original destination. With the vacation dates set we started anticipating all that Spain has to offer from architecture, fabulous wine and food to the wonderful climate and scenery. However, in our planning for Spain we encountered so many logistical road blocks that we placed our planning on hold and decided to explore a plan B.
The Plan B emerged, as most plans do, when we were completely unplugged, minds clear and in our case on a long Colorado hike. Recognizing that once something becomes arduous and complicated it can feel like it wasn’t meant to be so we reviewed the bucket list and the destination that remained of high interest was NZ. So it was the big blue Colorado sky that cleared our minds to new possibilities and ended in a reroute from flying east to Spain to flying west to New Zealand.
Traveling without plans was liberating!
Given we had upended our original plans and only a week before our departure, we suddenly had a completely blank slate. We had absolutely no plans: no itinerary, no accommodations and not even a rental car. This was both terrifying and energizing. In the end having absolutely no plans made for the best adventure ever.
Traveling without a detailed plan gave us SO much flexibility. Literally the morning of our departure I ripped a page out of the National Geographic Expeditions catalogue that highlighted New Zealand and this page became the start of our general itinerary. We knew we were flying to Auckland and we had secured a rental car the night before.
We followed the first three destinations on the Nat Geo trip focusing on really seeing the North Island and from there we went with the flow and the freedom of not having any plans allowed us to do whatever we wanted stay as long or short as we liked and the most incredible thing was we met so many friendly Kiwis along the way who made our journey memorable.
We landed in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and after leaving the airport we found an area off the beaten path that had a Starbucks adjacent to a small park and beach. Since we were exhausted from the 15 hours of flying from Denver we stretched our legs with a walk through a park and collected seashells along beach while strategizing our next move. We used the free Wi-Fi at a nearby Starbucks and over a latte searched online for a place to stay that night in downtown Auckland.
We wanted to see the city and the harbor and get a good night’s rest and it didn’t take us long to find an affordable last minute hotel room with a 4-star rating. The online travel sites like Kayak, Priceline, VRBO, Arbnb all make securing a room on a moment’s notice insanely easy and we often found great deals.
This particular day we explored Auckland and found it to be modern, booming with construction, full of great restaurants, pubs and shops. A friendly Kiwi at a local pub spent 30 minutes with us pointing out highlights in the Northern Island of where locals like to go we tucked away all her tips tricks and enjoyed several hours along the waterfront and harbour even though It poured like crazy the entire time we were in Auckland it didn’t dampen our love of the city.
See the Glow Worms
Day two and still on the general Nat Geo itinerary we drove south from Auckland to Waitomo to see the famous glowworm caves. Waitomo is a two-hour drive from Auckland. It’s worth noting here that many of our international trips involve a car rental.
Bruce is very comfortable driving on what is the opposite side of the road in the US and with the steering wheel on the right versus the left. We feel strongly that having a car lets us explore a destination and fully experience the areas that are of interest to us and at our own pace. Having a vehicle, gives us a ton of flexibility to do and see what we want.
When we arrived at the cave tour on the expeditions itinerary we were met with busloads of tourists from around the world, an insanely long snaking line and a three-hour wait. We had come a long way to see this natural wonder so we weren’t about to give up so easy. Instead we backtracked to a sign we saw on the road that said “Cave Tour Tickets Here”. Located on a private farm, was a massive glowworm cave with a tour that offered a wonderful adventure.
Turns out a family were digging on their property some years ago and uncovered a massive cave. The experience was a combination of a forest walk, cave tour, introduction to flora and fauna as well as insights into the native Maori history. Only 11 people were allowed on our tour and we were ecstatic to have encountered this place and to meet the friendly family who hosted us and in the end served us tea. Would highly recommend CaveWorld [www.caveworld.co.nz].
We left the Waitomo Caves and drove east to Rotorua. The scenery in this area was breathtaking. NZ is largely uninhabited with only 4 million people on North and South Islands combine and we appreciated the miles and miles of open space, rolling hills, sheep and cows. We found a charming B&B style accommodation that was situated on the lake and it turned out even though there was a wedding there that night they had rooms available.
We saved some money by going to a local grocery store for the makings of a charcuterie board and wine and enjoyed the balcony at the B&B. We also discovered NZ meat and egg pies for breakfast and fell in love with them eating them several times on our journey!
Rotorua is full of thermal activity and there is no shortage of bubbling hot springs and mud baths. Nature is all around including a scenic redwood forest called “Whakarewarewa Forest” which started in 1901 with the planting of California Redwoods.
NAPIER and the wineries
We stayed at the Hotel Te Pania which was centrally located and on the edge of Hawkes Bay. Within walking distance of our hotel was a museum highlighting Napier’s unique history and showcasing the town as one the best Art Deco cities in the World. After a catastrophic earthquake in 1931, much of the city was destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt during a time when Art Deco was popular. We did the $5 tour (not kidding) which was essentially the Twitter version. A short slide show highlighting the key events, people and historical highlights of the town. From there we walked the town and got a very good sense and appreciation of the architecture and charm of Napier.
This is where our path departed from National Geographic and we veered off and discovered the wineries. First stop was Mission Estate Winery, established in 1851, it is the oldest winery in NZ and they reside in a restored seminary building near Napier. The tasting was excellent and we enjoyed their scenic grounds and views. From there we went next door to Church Road this winery had a rustic vaulted great room with exposed wooden ceiling and beams.
The gardens outside are spectacular with a park-like feeling. At Church Road we had another tasting as well as a nice lunch. Our lunch was inadvertently delivered to the table next to us and that sparked a lively round of joking back and forth with two local couples who then decided to join us and what followed was a couple of hours of jovial exchange and an invitation to their home the next day for a BBQ.
Kiwis are the nicest people
We walked a lot in Napier including several miles to have dinner along a wharf. We like to ask where the locals go so we had heard of a spot along the wharf and it turned out that night they were serving a steak dinner special for $10 and it was delicious! As we sat on the patio adjacent to the waterfront we sipped wine and made small talk.
A couple with their adult nephew sat next to us and once again they bantered in small talk back and forth until they asked if we would join them! We had a fascinating conversation sharing life in NZ and life in the US and entertained each other’s questions. Which by the way, everywhere Americans go these days, we are asked about our view on Trump and this evening there was no exception. I love turning this around when asked about American politics by listening first to what they think and then being transparently honest.
The 24-year-old college educated nephew had definite views and thought Trump was in his words “crazy”. When he pressed for what Americans think I said we are a country divided including in many cases where states, communities and even families have very different views AND I pointed out that even in my relationship with Bruce we are often have opposing views on political issues.
The Kiwi couple invited us to stay at their B&B and we are now friends on Facebook.
Get Off the beaten path
We drove through the central part of Northern Island staying at a remote lodge that was hours from the nearest town and with phenomenal views of lush green hills spotted with an occasional building, sheep and cows. The area is not too far from the filming of The Lord of The Ring’s “Hobbitown”. I ventured out on my own one late afternoon for a long walk along a road and encountered a ginormous pig who decided on her own to accompany me. The bullring in her nose made it clear she belonged to a local owner who didn’t want her rooting around too much and the ‘precious’ ring prevented her from doing just that.
My new found friend and I walked a very long way for over an hour and I got completely caught up in the peacefulness, the solitude, and snorting pig only to find I had lost my way and in that moment when the sun was starting to set and things were rustling in the tress I flashed back to the scenery in The Lord of the Rings and was startled by the eerie similarities. Once I centered myself and knew I needed to find my way back I spotted a slight bit of the corner of the lodge off in the distance I got reoriented and managed to find my way back as the sun completely set and my pig friend set off on her own.
Leaving the lodge, we set off on a winding two lane road and quickly encountered a huge herd of several hundred sheep running full speed over a hill. Pulling off on the side of the road and video running we captured a small blue heeler dog barking and nipping at the heels of the sheep while he rounded them up. Jumping, leaping, running full bore to avoid the dog at all costs they were making a bee-line for the pen. Was highly entertaining.
The beach is my happy place
Our final destination was to Mount Maunganui Tauranga and it was my favorite destination. This area has everything from a gorgeous beach that is rated as NZ’s best beach, to the waters of Pilot Bay and the iconic “Mount”.
We hiked to the summit of the “mount” which was a moderate hike that took about 45 minutes. The 360-degree ocean views at the summit were phenomenal.
This was the only destination we encountered some difficulty finding inexpensive accommodations however we wound up in an efficiency apartment with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, washer/dryer and balcony and we would up be spending a couple days here because we loved it.
We watched the sun set in the harbor and enjoyed a fantastic bottle of wine from the wine country.
Definitely will go back!
We will absolutely return to NZ and next time go to the South Island. Would highly recommend traveling without the confines of a structured itinerary and enjoying the freedom of seeing where your journey takes you. With cell, laptop, tablet in hand it’s possible to plan as you go and stay longer where it suits you and move on where it doesn’t. A great travel tip is to open to asking locals for tips and in our case we found that spontaneously sharing, dinner, drinks, and just having an open invitation for others to join us made for a better experience. In every case we enjoyed our new friends company and they provided insights that otherwise we wouldn’t have had.
Have you been to New Zealand? If so, would love to hear about your experience. If not and you have questions or thoughts, please comment below.