Category: New Zealand

The last of the tales from Down Under

Vee’s amazing hospitality did not end when we left her at the beginning of our time in New Zealand.  We actually ending up being able to bookend our New Zealand time with her.  While we were together in Auckland the first time, she had asked us what our lodging plans were for when we returned to Auckland to leave the country.  We told her that we were planning on staying in a hotel near the airport – that seemed the most sensible option, since we had a really early flight the next morning.  She encouraged us to cancel our hotel reservation and stay with her again.  We were happy to oblige.

So, when we arrived back in Auckland, she once again picked us up from the rental car place and took us to her house.  We had the house to ourselves for a few hours while she went to work, but after she came back we went out together and got some dinner.  I’m not really sure what made her do this, but instead of suggesting a “normal” restaurant she recommended an Asian street food market in the middle of a covered parking deck.  Whatever her rationale was behind that suggestion, I’m really glad for it.

The market was packed with typical Asian food from all over southeast Asia – and also, of course lots of southeast Asians, as well.  I’m not quite sure what it was, but something about the combination of an Asian street market in the middle of a very western parking deck made me feel both at home and as if I were back in Korea at the same time.  It was definitely an odd combination, but lots of fun.

We had a very early flight the next day, so we didn’t stay out too late.  Michael and I were once again bowled over by Vee’s hospitality – her last gesture was to take us to the airport at 4:30 in the morning.  That almost wasn’t early enough – the check-in line was absolutely crawling, and we almost certainly would have missed our flight if one of the agents hadn’t let us skip ahead of the rest of the line to check in.  But we made it, none the worse for wear except for a little less sleep than we would have liked, and just like that, we were on our way back to the States.

The Great Barrier Reef of Australia is one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  Similarly, the people and countryside of New Zealand are incredible.  I really did have a wonderful time.  But, I couldn’t help but think on more than one occasion as we drove ourselves around in our little rental car, that this was too….too easy.  Boring, even.  As Michael put it, I guess there just wasn’t enough adventure for me – no having to figure out bus schedules or navigating in a foreign language or guessing on which street food is the safest because I don’t know what any of it is.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful vacation.  But I’m glad I didn’t stay longer than I did.  One thing’s for sure, though….if I want to create a hospitable home for strangers and friends alike to come into and feel welcome (which I do), Vee has definitely given me a great role model to emulate! 🙂  I was so grateful for the impression she gave me of her country, an impression that will stay with me far longer than the bounds of my vacation dates.  That’s the kind of impression I want to leave with everyone who comes into my home.  I’ve got a long way to go!


We considered hanging out in Rotorua after our trip to Te Puia – there was plenty to do there (although it’s all fairly expensive), and since we didn’t plan anything in advance we were pretty flexible.  In the end, though, we decided to move on to the Coromandel Peninsula, and I’m so glad that we did!  The Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most famous places in New Zealand, and since this was the off season we got to enjoy it in relative peace and serenity.  Plus, this leg of the trip we actually had lovely weather, instead of having to constantly run away from the rain like we were doing for most of the rest of our time in New Zealand, so we had the luxury of taking our time and enjoying the beautiful countryside and little towns and attractions along the way.  We also stayed in a truly wonderful AirBnB place…it’s billed in the description as a “French-inspired cottage,” and it was really a wonderful way to end our travels in New Zealand.

Our first main stop in the Coromandel Peninsula was the hot water beach, which has been rated one of the best beaches in the world – although I suspect that that’s more for its uniqueness than its beauty.  Hot water beach is famous for its underground hot springs that can filter up through the sand at low tide.  Visitors from all over the world bring shovels and try to time their digging so that they’ve built up their little pool right around the time that low tide is reached, so that they can sit and enjoy their very own homemade sauna.  The pictures in the tourist brochure definitely promise big things – dozens of symmetrically shaped pools scattered all around this one little place on the beach, with steam drifting up from the hot water and people relaxedly sitting in the water enjoying the warmth.

The reality for us was a bit different.  We were in New Zealand at the beginning of winter, so it was definitely very chilly – Michael made several comments about the ludicracy of going to the beach when there was frost on the windshield, lol.  Once we got to the beach, it was actually quite hard to find places that had hot water close enough to the surface that it could be reached with a shovel, so everyone who was there ended up collaborating and trying to work together to build one big pool in the single place where we could find hot water.  Except that area was too close to the incoming tide, and kept getting washed away…it didn’t help that we really weren’t very good at collaborating, either :).  In the end, after about 2 hours of digging, we had successfully built several pools, and we had been able to feel the hot water under the sand, but we were never quite able to do both and get the hot water into a pool.  So, rather than us all relaxing in our own saunas like the brochures had promised, we all ended up huddling together in the sand, with our poor abandoned pools lying neglected in the background.  Apparently even at low tide, the tide was too high to really get the desired effect.  But it was still fun – I got to say I’ve been to one of the best beaches in the world, and got an upper body workout on top of that!

That afternoon, we decided to go exploring.  We ended up finding a path up to the top of a place called Shakespeare Cliff.  It was a lovely walk, but at the top was a very unexpected and pleasant surprise.  Rather than a simple lookout landing, we found a huge expanse of beautifully manicured lawns and gardens, with fearless birds flitting in and out of the shrubbery, and a breathtaking view that completely surrounded us.  We spent a whole lot longer there than we meant to, but it was time well spent.  I have become such a fan of traveling with no plans!  There is so much that you miss out on when you are rushing to hit the next tourist destination on the schedule.

The next day we went to see the other main attraction in the Coromandel Peninsula, Cathedral Cove, which is part of the larger Mercury Bay area.  Like the hot water beach, this is only accessible during low tide and by foot, but unlike the hot water beach, it took about 45 minutes of hilly walking to get there, as opposed to 10 minutes on a flat beach for the hot water beach.  But luckily, low tide was about an hour later the second morning, so we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn ;).  Even if we had had to do that, it would have been worth it.  A popular site for kayaking, snorkeling, and other water activities, the cave and beach is also used as the tunnel through which the Pevensie children first re-enter Narnia in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.  And it’s absolutely breathtaking.  I could have very happily spent the whole day there.

There were several other little side trips along the way to the cove, such as Stingray bay and Gemstone cove (I just love the names of the places in this area!).  We spent at least a little time in all of them, but the majority of the time was spent in Cathedral cove.  And then, just like that, our trip down under was drawing to a close, and we had to begin making our way back to Auckland to return to the states.

Te Puia – a little bit of everything

We left Hobbiton and arrived in Rotorua for a little bit of everything – a cultural Maori performance, flax weaving, wood carving, a geyser, a redwood forest, and more (and when I say more, I really do mean a little bit more, not in the infomercial sort of more, where they tell you there’s more but there really isn’t :]).

Our first stop was at Te Puia, where a full day of experiencing Maori culture and activities awaited us.  We started out watching what was billed as a “traditional Maori cultural celebration.”  It was, I must admit, interesting but a bit overdone.  HOWEVER, Michael ended up being one of the stars of the show, which definitely upped the enjoyment level for me :).  At the beginning of the show a woman came out dressed in traditional Maori costume, and asked for a male volunteer.  I teasingly elbowed Michael, encouraging him to volunteer, but didn’t expect him to actually do so.  To my surprise, he did!  So he ended up playing the role of “chief” in a re-creation of a Maori peace ceremony between another tribe.  I got more than I bargained for when the Maori woman asked for his family members (that would be me) to come out and follow right behind as we walked into the longhouse.  So it was Michael with his Maori guide, then me, then everyone else who had come to watch the performance, as we walked towards men standing outside of the longhouse in fur loinclothes and holding spears.

Michael was taught and performed the Maori peace signs, which include shaking hands and rubbing noses with the leading members of the opposite tribe.  Once inside, we watched the Maori tribe juggling and musical performances, and then they decided to include the audience.  First they brought the ladies up and taught them how to do a sort of ball-twirling thing that ended up being much harder than it looked.  They followed that up by bringing the men up to the stage and teaching them how to intimidate their opponents with a Maori warrior pose, which includes opening your eyes as wide as they will go and sticking your tongue out.  I’m sure in the Maori culture it must be terrifying, but Michael and I found it far more amusing than anything else.

The cultural performance was followed by a tour around the recreated traditional Maori village, complete with signs explaining how the Maori people used to do things.  At one point in the tour, I stopped dead in my tracks, totally distracted by a place name on a nearby sign that was 37 letters long – it said Tewhakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao, which means “the war dance of the war parties of Wahiao.”  Apparently the Maori language is known for its exceptionally long place names.  In fact, they hold the Guinness world record for the longest place name in the world, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, an 85 letter word which means “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one”.

After getting over the enormity of Maori nouns, we continued on our tour to see traditional weavers and woodcutters and work.  We were even taught how to weave our own little flowers out of flax leaves!  The tour around the village was then followed by a visit to Pohutu, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.  There were even naturally heated seats, where the boiling subterranean waters came so close to the surface that they warmed the rocks above them.  It was really very beautiful and ethereal, but honestly it paled somewhat after seeing other places in the world like Yellowstone National Park.

For me, the highlight of this part of the tour actually after we left the geyser and went to lunch.  Part of our tour was a “steambox lunch,” which is exactly what it sounds like – our lunch was cooked in a wooden box that was placed in vent of the geyser itself and heated by the steam coming out from the mountain.  At the beginning of the tour, we had put raw meat and vegetables into a little aluminum container, and then the chef had bundled our lunches off to put them in the mouth of a steam vent of the geyser.  A few hours later, cooked by steam alone and only seasoned by the sulfur in the steam, our lunches were ready.  And must I say, they were delicious!  I was quite skeptical of the validity of using sulfur as a seasoning, but it really was very tasty.  Plus we got to actually watch the chef pull our meals out of the steam vent, so that was an added little bonus there :).

We finished up at Te Puia a little after lunch, and decided to go on a whirlwind tour of the rest of Rotorua before we left the next day.  Our handy dandy little guidebook told us that there was a redwood forest only a few minutes away from where we were staying, so we decided to go check that out first.  It was really incredible!  I never would have thought to find such enormous trees in the middle of New Zealand.  The trees stretched up and up and up, and sound came in muted patches from the soft carpet of leaves underfoot.  The light was dark and splotchy, clogged up from above by the thick overhead canopy.  It was truly an ethereal experience.

After the redwood forest, we had just enough time to quickly swing by the Blue Lake, one of the clearest lakes in New Zealand, and the buried village, which is exactly what it sounds like – a village that is now nothing more than rooftops sticking out of the ground.  And then darkness came, and we enjoyed a night of playing cards in front of a very effective space heater that was truly glorious after the frigid temperatures in Otorohanga.  Next stop, the Coromandel Peninsula!


After going under the earth in Waitomo, our next stop took us to see Middle Earth.  Lord of the Rings enthusiasts already know this, but for the rest of my readers, Hobbiton is the permanent movie set location where all of the scenes from the Shire were filmed for director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.  It’s actually located in the middle of a huge private family farm, and was originally intended to be torn down after the movies were completed.  They had halfway completed tearing it down in the early 2000’s, but then rebuilt it permanently in 2011 for the filming of the Hobbit trilogy.  It is now a popular tourist attraction that garners millions of dollars and visitors from all over the world every year.

Our tour guide, Dave, was full of fascinating stories about the making of the Lord of the Rings.  One tidbit that stood out to me was the fact that about 1/3 of visitors to Hobbiton have never seen any of the movies or read any of the books – they are largely grandparents who go simply to make their kids and grandkids jealous, haha.  I particularly enjoyed Dave’s explanations of how the creators of the movies used forced perspective to make it look like the normal-sized actors were actually Hobbit-sized, such as having small hobbit holes on one side of the road and large hobbit holes on the other, or making the hobbits walk several feet behind their human companions, to make it look like they were smaller.

Dave also had plenty of anecdotes about Peter Jackson’s directoral brilliance /  insanity – at times it was hard to tell which term was more accurate.  He told us about how they spent months constructing a large part of Hobbiton that only showed up for a couple of seconds in only 1 of the 6 films that were shot there.  We heard about how Peter Jackson imported hundreds of black-faced sheep from Scotland, even though the farm already had thousands of white-faced sheep.  Or about how he insisted on hand-wiring on hundreds of thousands of fake leaves to the oak tree above Bilbo Baggins’ house, and then decided that the leaves were the wrong shade of green, so the set designers had to unwire the leaves, paint them a different shade of green, and then re-wire them back.  Dave even gave me a leaf that was partially painted with both shades of green as a souvenir :).

Our tour through Hobbiton concluded at the famous Green Dragon pub, where we got to spend some time enjoying our amber ale and ginger beer in front of the crackling fire and enormous hand-carved wooden dragon.  We wrapped up right as the rain started coming down in torrents, so at least Michael and I had some fun stories from our time in Middle Earth to laugh about as we continued our drive through New Zealand, since there wasn’t much to see of the countryside through the pouring rain.  Overall, it was a delightful little day trip that I throughly enjoyed and would definitely recommend, but probably would not go to again – I didn’t enjoy it quite enough to pay those overpriced admission prices a second time!

Hamilton and Waitomo

Upon leaving Auckland, we decided to follow up our trip to the Winter Gardens with…you guessed it, a trip to another garden.  One of the most incredible gardens in the world – at least, so says the International Garden Tourism Network, who rated the Hamilton Gardens as the international garden of the year in 2014…and who am I to disagree with that? 🙂

In all seriousness, though, Hamilton Gardens is truly a unique experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to go.  What started out in the 1960’s as a desolate city dump has been transformed into a several acres-wide series of gardens that celebrates the history, concept, and meaning of gardens over the ages.  It consists of several separate gardens, each one honoring the uniqueness of the traditional gardens of that specific place and era.  There is an English Flower Garden, Tudor Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Chinese Scholar’s Garden (one of our favorites!), American Modernist Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden, Indian Char Bagh Garden, Herb Garden, Tropical Garden, Te Parapara Maori Garden, and several others, as well, plus numerous other enclaves and walkways, all meticulously maintained.

Even in the middle of a rainstorm, with light sneakers that quickly got soaked through all the way to my poor little toes, it was a stop well worth making.  The umbrellas that we borrowed from the visitor’s center certainly helped, so I was grateful for those.  Bonnie and Nancy, the ladies who were working at the desk when we arrived, were lovely old ladies who were absolutely delighted to find some young tourists willing to stop and listen to them for a while.  That was a trend I noticed throughout our trip – it’s amazing how often you can find people who are willing to talk and listen to you, if you are willing to slow down long enough to engage them in conversation.  I resolved yet again, as I often do when I travel and have the chance to slow down, to make the effort to slow down in my normal life back in the States, as well.  It’s always worth the effort.

But Hamilton was just a side trip on our way to Otorohanga.  Once we decided we had gotten wet enough by traipsing through the gardens, we got back into the car and finished our journey to our next Air BnB’s house, Liz.  Liz was certainly not the same level of host that Vee was, but she wasn’t a bad host…my biggest complaint with Liz was that she kept the windows open in her house, even though New Zealand is pretty close to winter by the end of May.  It was always so frigid in her house, that Michael and I mostly kept to our room while we were there, trying to huddle by our little space heater and conserve body heat.

The next day, we made our way to the Waitomo Caves, about 15 minutes from Liz’s house.  We wanted to go to Waitomo to see the famous glowworm caves, which house a unique glowworm that does not live anywhere else in the world.  These insects live on the cave ceilings and emit a bright blue light, which in some places makes it look like the ceiling is covered with brilliant twinkling little stars.  It was truly breathtaking.

Of course, you always get bonus points if you get to mix a little action and adventure with your beautiful sightseeing, so we elected to see the glowworms by going tubing through the one of the caves, the Ruakari Cave.  Just getting into the wetsuits was a harbinger of what was to come – the water still in the suits was bitingly cold.  By the time we finished our tubing adventure, my feet were painfully numb to the point where I almost could not walk on them.  But the wetsuits did their job – the rest of me was relatively warm, so I was definitely grateful to have them.

Although tubing certainly isn’t on the top tier of activities as far as adventure activities go, it was still tons of fun.  On several occasions we did have to jump backwards down a waterfall in pitch black, and just trust our guides (Vaungh and Rachel) that we’d land properly on the bottom, so that was pretty scary.  Awesome, though, as scary things often are :).

We finished our tour of Ruakari Cave in early afternoon, so once we had warmed up a bit we decided to do some more exploring.  We had a couple of duds at first – went to see a museum that had been recommended to us by Liz, but wasn’t open; then we went to a Kiwi House around the corner, but decided we didn’t want to pay $24 a person to try to see nocturnal birds in the middle of the day.  In the end, we went for a drive to try to find Mangapohue, a natural bridge that one of our guidebooks recommended.  The long, twisty mountain road we found ourselves on almost gave us pause for concern, and we probably would have turned around had we not finally seen a sign that reassured us that we were on the right track.  We didn’t spend long there, but it was a fun little side trip.  Definitely an amazing sight to see this huge natural bridge in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

A host who offers a haven, not a house

Although the Great Barrier Reef was incredible, after 4 days in Australia I was ready to move on to the next adventure.  We had a nice lazy late morning flight out, which went fairly uneventfully.  Except apparently I look like a major security risk to airline security officers in multiple nations.  At 7 of the 8 flights that we had over the course of our trip, I was asked to step aside by the security agents for a “random” bomb screening.  Random, my foot.  It became a running joke between Michael and I, to see if I would make it through security without getting screened.  But I never did.  Countries of the world, watch out – a diminutive little American girl is coming!

But thankfully, I always was allowed to leave those bomb screenings, so other than having a fun new inside joke to laugh about together, we arrived in Auckland without incident.  We continued our experiment with AirBnB in New Zealand, and I must say, I am glad we did.  Our host in Auckland, Vee, was absolutely the most amazing host we could ever have asked for.  She offered to pick us up from the airport (mind you, we landed around midnight), which was definitely a lovely start to this leg of the trip.  The next day was even better.  She was supposed to volunteer somewhere, but decided to cancel and spend the day with us instead.  She took us to a strawberry farm that made homemade ice cream and fruit pies from their fresh grown strawberries.  I particularly enjoyed that, because it took me on a nostalgic trip down memory lane – my family used to go pick strawberries and buy homemade ice cream from a mennonite farm when I was a kid.

After that, we went to the Winter Gardens in Auckland Park.  I enjoyed it, but Michael loved it – he’s such a sucker for flowers.  To be fair, there were definitely some lovely flowers represented there, especially considering how close it was to winter  (I found it very disorienting having to reverse the seasons in my brain, being on the opposite side of the world and all…).  I wish I had known more of the names of the flowers that we saw, but that’s ok.  Getting to spend some time with Vee, and reveling in the glorious colors all around us was wonderful, regardless.

On Vee’s recommendation, we had fish and chips for lunch.  New Zealand doesn’t have a lot of culturally significant food, so I guess the next best thing would be to try culturally significant foods from their colonizer, England.  I must say….I’ve never had English fish and chips, but the ones from New Zealand were absolutely delicious.  Apparently the seagulls on the boardwalk where we ate thought so, too.  We were completely surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds of birds.  At first it was kind of cute and novel.  But then they started getting closer and closer, and I started to become worried that we were about to reenact a scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”  Eventually I left our boardwalk perch to finish my meal in peace and let Michael and Vee deal with the horde of human-food-obsessed seagulls.

As I’m sitting here writing, I’m thinking about how different our time in Auckland could have been.  We had no plans that first day there, and Vee could easily have stuck with her original plans and left us to ourselves that day…if she had, we would probably have just hung around the house.  I’m so grateful that she chose to spend her time with us instead.  Memories were made, friendships were strengthened, and I was inspired to be the same type of host when I have people in my home – the kind who offers not just a house to stay in, but a haven of peace and happiness.