If you read to end of my Boxing Day post, you’ll know that I not only recommend a decent knife block as your next splurge purchase, but also that I recently took a trip to New Zealand for three weeks. This trip was one of the best I’ve been on and one that will stick with me the rest of my life. It was the definition of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my first travel series in three parts, detailing my trip around a spectacular country that I feel blessed to have seen. I’ll be sharing the panic of getting lost on an abandoned country road, the giddiness of seeing a live kiwi up close, and the appreciation of breathtaking scenery that is only understood by true Lord of the Rings fans. Let me take you into a world many people never get to see and allow me to guide you on your own New Zealand getaway through my experiences. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I feel truly blessed to be able to share this with all of you.
I know I’ve titled this series “My Middle-Earth Adventure” but that’s only because I’m secretly such a nerd. New Zealand is far more than a commercialized product of Lord of the Rings; it’s a land rich in history, culture, and landscape. Alongside the contemporary Anglo-culture thrives a healthy Polynesian culture, the Māori. As a fascinating and influential part of New Zealand life, it’s hard not to admire and gain knowledge of the Māori people and their customs. New Zealand also has an intriguing geographical history, which flourishes into their spectacular mountain ranges, active volcanos, and lush greenery. I must admit, I didn’t know much about the country before I arrived (except that Viggo Mortenson had trod the same ground I was going to), but by the time I left I was overwhelmed by everything I had seen and learned. It’s a gorgeous slice of the globe, and I have every intention of returning.
My journey began at the top of the north island. We landed in Auckland, rented a car, and the next morning started our trip downward. Our first stop was Lord of the Rings related (were you expecting anything else?!) – as we passed through Matamata, sign after sign went by advertising Hobbiton tours. As you can expect, I was all over that.
After a sharp right turn that made my boyfriend lose confidence in my driving skills and a brief detour through some sheep fields, we were parked at the entrance to the Hobbiton tours. I could barely contain my excitement. The price of the tickets is fairly high, but don’t let that deter you from the tour. It’s worth every penny. The tour lasts 2–3 hours and you’re guided throughout the entire Hobbiton movie set by a very knowledgeable and comedic guide. We were shown the vegetable patch where Sam and his Old Gaffer sowed their sprouts; we trekked up a hill to take photos in front of Bag-End; we sat below the party tree in the same field Bilbo had his 111th birthday; and we drank some fantastic ale and cider at the Green Dragon, the same pub in which Pippin, Merry, Frodo, and Sam share a pint. It was magical. It was unreal. I nearly cried.
Strap on your walking shoes and let me show you around:
For me, this was one of the highlights of the trip, and my boyfriend (who isn’t as hardcore on LOTR as I am) also mentioned that it would be hard to top. Not bad for a first day!
After our life-changing experience at Hobbiton, we arrived in Rotorua hungry, tired, and sun burned. We grabbed a quick meal at a local restaurant and then headed to bed for an early start the following morning.
Rotorua is known for its geothermal phenomena: hot springs, sulphur pits, and geysers. In the morning we took a short drive out to the Wai-O-Tapu thermal park, excited to witness the fantastic colours and sights (and smells) of these natural wonders. The entrance prices to the park are average in comparison to what you witness there. I highly suggest a visit if you find yourself near Rotorua. The landscape is magnificent and unbelievable. I had no idea the earth could produce such diverse, striking colours from simple elements.
The park is also home to the Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts promptly at 10.15 each day. Unfortunately we were ten minutes late, so we missed the eruption. However, we did get some interesting photos of the park’s mud pools and volcanic destruction.
Rotorua is a very quiet, laid-back town. After we spent the morning and early portion of the afternoon at Wai-O-Tapu, my boyfriend and I headed back into town for a walk and a late lunch. As we ate, we overheard some locals talking about the town’s annual New Year’s Eve party being held in the central park. Not really having any other plans besides grabbing a bottle of wine and heading back to our hotel, we decided to check it out.
It was pretty large affair for such a small town, and it was an enjoyable way to spend our New Year’s Eve in New Zealand. We watched some live music performances, ate our weight in mini sugar-dusted doughnuts and kettle corn, and got rained on while watching the fireworks. I couldn’t have asked for a better evening out.
Our expedition to New Plymouth was… exciting. The next morning we had a very early breakfast at the hotel (biggest food mistake of the entire trip), packed up the car, and headed southwest toward our next destination.
The trip started innocently enough: myself driving and boyfriend navigating as we usually do.
“Your choice: we can take a shortcut down [insert name of doomed road here] which will cut two hours off our arrival time, or we can keep taking the highway,” I heard him say.
I was hesitant. My instincts told me that driving the highway was probably the much safer route with a guarantee of getting where we needed to go. But I also wasn’t looking forward to the five hour drive. The idea of cutting that time in half was very tempting.
“What the hell, we’re in New Zealand. Let’s go on an adventure!” And, channeling our inner Bilbos, we took the next left.
Immediately, we knew something was amiss. The road started winding along, twisting sharply, and then shrunk into a single-lane farm road. Then we started to climb. Up, up, up we went in our Toyota rental until we reached the summit of a huge hill.
The view was indescribable. All those photos you see in movies, television, and on the internet when you Google “New Zealand?” They’re incomparable to the back roads of the actual country. Although we were most certainly lost, driving through that country side was one of the best visual experiences of the trip. The hills flowed endlessly, bedecked in lush greenery, grazing sheep, and seas of evergreens. Above us the sky was an infinite wash of bold azure dotted with puffs of fluffy white clouds. As we drove to god-knows-where, time felt suspended. It was a beautiful moment and I feel eternally blessed to have seen what I believe few people ever see when they tour New Zealand. If you ever find yourself travelling down a New Zealand highway, I implore you to get lost on some abandoned country road. It may be scary at first, but once you see what I have seen it won’t feel so frightening any more. In fact, it will seem like you’re on a true adventure, which is what many people go away to find. And I can think of no better place to be lost in than Middle-Earth.
I won’t pretend our entire excursion down that road was filled with joy and the freeing sensation you get on an adventure. It wasn’t. After about two hours of driving forty kilometres down a scattered gravel road, we weren’t looking at the scenery anymore. We were wondering where the heck we had gone. We were being judged by passing sheep and cows, whom probably hadn’t seen a Toyota Aurion before in their lives. Eventually though, all roads end; and after what seemed like an age, and a run in with a shepherd and his flock, we connected to the highway and breathed a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos to share of the country side views as I was behind the wheel and the road was too narrow to pull over, but I did get some pictures of the flock of sheep we had to let pass:
The trip to New Plymouth was much more exciting than the actual town, but it is a beautiful place and the people are extraordinarily friendly. The following day we spent walking a ten kilometer sea walk, admiring their stimulating museum and wall murals, and checking out quaint eateries. It was a wonderfully relaxing day.
We didn’t get a chance to visit Mount Taranaki, which is what most people head to New Plymouth for. But we did drive all the way around it on our way to Wellington the next day. If you’re the nature-walking or hiking type, this is the place for you. The volcano is beautiful and definitely worth the effort.
Wellington was the last stop on our northern island adventure. Although it had been a whirlwind tour thus far, I already felt like I had seen so much of New Zealand and learned a lot about myself as a traveler. In Wellington, I learned that even I need time to recuperate.
The drive was uneventful in comparison to the one two days before, and for that my boyfriend and I were silently grateful. We arrived at and settled ourselves into the hotel in Wellington without much trouble, but when we went to find a place to eat (yes, again. Driving is hard work!) we discovered the thing New Zealand is most famous for: hills. Extremely steep hills. And our hotel was on top of one. Fantastic. The way back up was rough, especially after a hearty meal of tapas and gelato.
Now, don’t think I’m uneducated or haven’t looked at a map before, but the most interesting fact I learned in Wellington is that it’s actually the capital of New Zealand! Not Auckland? Mind blown. I did learn a few more things about the country the next day when we took a tour of Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.
Te Papa is massive! I mean, six floors, over fifteen different exhibits massive! We were there for three hours and still couldn’t finish all the exhibits. One thing we noticed was that it was a very well laid out museum and had some very exciting and intriguing displays. We were lucky enough to see their Air New Zealand exhibit celebrating their 75th anniversary, which I found fascinating. The transformation of the uniforms, plane interiors, and other paraphernalia was fun to view and learn. They also have an entire interactive exhibit outside the museum where you can see different plant life, rock formations, caves, and insect life native to the country. The cave portion was my favourite part as we got to tunnel through a hollowed out rock constructed to appear like the glow worm caves.
We also took a brief turn down Writer’s Walk – a causeway by the harbour that features quotes from famous Kiwi authors and poets:
By this time, I was exhausted. After going non-stop for seven days, I had brought myself to the point of no return and could barely get my butt back up the hill to the hotel for an afternoon nap. I slept for three hours. And I also learned to take it a bit easier on our next portion of the journey: the south island.
Wine country, here we come!
The Quality Inn on Fenton, Rotorua: 4/5
Landmark Manor, New Plymouth: 4/5
Travelodge Wellington, Wellington: 2.5/5