We made it to New Zealand, and were lucky enough to spend almost 5 weeks in this small and crazy country!
So many people have told us that New Zealand is one of their favorite countries. We are sorry to break it to you, but you are about to hear the same thing from us! New Zealand has a unique mixture of spectacular scenery, quirky cities, friendly locals, with a Polynesian flare to top it off. It is these qualities combined that makes this country truly one of a kind.
This post will follow our route through the north island of New Zealand, and a second post will cover the south island. While we had a slow start due to two bouts of illness that took each of us down separately for a day or two, as well as a few rainy days mixed in, we could still not get enough of this fascinating island!
The Van Life:
We heard from several people that seeing the country via camper van was the way to go, so we decided to jump in feet first and give it a go. We rented a van for almost the entire length of our stay in the country and decided to start in Auckland (the biggest city) near the top of the map, and work our way south. We were amazed at the sheer amount of camper vans that we saw puttering down the road, and quickly began to realize that this is not only a tourist movement in New Zealand, but also a life style for many locals. This allowed us to easily slip into the culture without much fuss. We also loved the flexibility it offered as we did not have to plan our nightly stays in advance. However, living in a van for so long did have its challenges including the constant need to find basic necessities you do not always think about such as showers, power sources for electronics, and internet (fun fact! McDonalds always had complimentary wifi thus we dubbed it “McWifi” during our travels).
As stated previously, this post focuses on our time on the north island of New Zealand (stay tuned for our adventures on the south island). When talking to travelers and locals alike they all always stated that the south island is more impressive than the north. While we agree that the south island is more impressive, we did not feel as though the north island is receiving the credit it deserves. The sites seen here are truly awe-inspiring in their own right, and would definitely be the main attraction in many other countries around the world. But, we will let you decide for yourself…
- Auckland – This is the largest city in New Zealand that sits on the north side of the north island which provided us with a great starting point for our adventure. Our favorite part of Auckland was climbing the extinct volcano (which is now just a smallish hill) called Mount Eden. This hill sits quite close to downtown, and gives you a great view of the city on the harbor.
- The Landscape – One thing that we noticed about the north island from the very beginning is the variety and quickness in which the surrounding landscape changes. For example, within one day of driving you could start on a pebble beach, drive through lush green fields covered with sheep, take a hike through a verdant rain forest, and end the day in a barren volcanic environment. Talk about diversity!
- Hobbiton – For those who do not know, both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies were filmed in New Zealand. This is kind of a big deal here and reminders are omnipresent. Many shops sell LOTR memorabilia, and there are countless tourist attractions that are famous solely because they were shown in “that one scene” from the movies. That said, arguably the coolest thing to see from the movies is Hobbiton. It was originally built from non-permanent materials and torn down after LOTR, but later rebuilt with more durable materials when they decided to make the Hobbit movies because…well, there is money to be made of course. It was definitely one of the more expensive and overpriced things to see in New Zealand, but being big fans of the movie we could not miss it! Hobbiton in New Zealand comes complete with 44 hobbit holes (outsides only; the insides sets were created else ware), various common areas, and the famous Green Dragon pub. It was so cool seeing the exact spot where many of the opening scenes from the movie were shot, and the tour came complete with a free pint of ale at the Green Dragon!
- Glowworms – Glowworms are so cool! We just happened to stay at a campsite with nearby trails filled with these magnificent little guys. For those who do not know, glowworms are a fascinating insect that hang out in the tops of caves, overhangings, trees, and other areas in the wilderness. Come night time, they drop a sticky line down and light up (they look VERY similar to the stars in the night sky). Other bugs are attracted to these lights and fly towards them and get stuck in the gooey lines… then its dinner time for the glowworms. As you can imagine, a pitch black forest with a scattering of light blue dots did not lend itself to great photography, so no photos are included (Guess you will just have to come see these guys yourself).
- Redwoods (Whakarewarewa Forest) – In 1901 a number of different tree species were planted in the Whakarearewa Forest to determine which would be suitable for commercial timber planting. As a result, a small patch of California Redwoods can be found in the heart of New Zealand. We took about an hour long hike through this region and enjoyed the nature. While not as big as their older siblings in the western United States, they were still massive at well over 100 years old!
- Countless Waterfalls – There are a number of waterfalls dotted all over the New Zealand map. While none of these are as large as say, Niagra Falls or Victoria Falls, they were still always nestled in some of the most picturesque areas we have ever seen. We visited a quite a few of these, and each was truly unique and beautiful. Also, for the LOTR nerds, we visited the waterfall that Golem was captured in front of by Faramir.
- Volcanic Activity – The center of the north island contains a large amount of volcanoes and volcanic activity. In fact, one of the cities that we visited sits right on a lake and is actually a crater from an extinct volcano. As you walk around the city itself, you can find vents that just pop-up in the middle of the park (or out of traffic cones on the side of the road). We opted to visit one of the near by tourist attractions to also see the array of volcanic activity up close.
- Tongariro Pass – This was one of the big stops we planned for the north island. The Tongariro Pass is a 19 km hiking trail that goes between (and over!) a series of volcanoes. The most famous of these mountains is Mount Ngauruhoe, which is better known as Mount Doom from the LOTR movies (fun fact, the giant red eye was done via CGI and is not actually above the mountain). Unfortunately the weather in this area changes rapidly and is quite unpredictable. We ended up camping here an extra 2 days waiting for a clear day to hike as visibility can be VERY limited at times. When we finally did hike the pass, we had great weather for about half the time before it quickly turned on us, and became a near whiteout. Thankfully, we got to see Mount Ngauruhoe while the weather was still clear and got some truly spectacular photos.
- Wellington – Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and is situated almost as far south as you can go on the north island, and as such it is home to the ferry that runs between the two islands. We did quite a lot including hiking to a scenic overlook of the city, visiting a museum to learn about the local indigenous Maori people, pop by the executive branch buildings, and the and visiting a number of nearby locations from the LOTR movies. However, the most notable thing we did was visiting the Weta Workshop.
- Weta Workshop – Weta is an internationally acclaimed workshop that creates costumes, weapons, prosthetics, special effects, and so much more for various Hollywood films. However, it is best know for its contribution to the (yep, you guessed it!) LOTR movies. They created almost all the suits of armors, weapons, special effects, prosthetics, and so on. The tour was only 45 minutes long, but it was a lot of fun! We got to see so many props from the movies and hear a lot of interesting stories about working on the movies from our awesome tour guide! If you are ever in Wellington and liked the movies, this is DEFINITELY a must do.
- Ferry – Last on our itinerary on the north island was taking the ferry down to the south island. We caught the late afternoon ferry from Wellington, which ends in the tiny town of Picton. The journey could not have been more beautiful as much of the time is spent cruising down lush green sound. Leaving late in the afternoon also let us catch the sunset over the amazing landscape; the perfect way to cap off an already amazing adventure in the northern island.
After spending almost two weeks on the north island, we have to say almost everything we saw was stunning beyond our wildest imagination. That said, most travelers who visit New Zealand have told us that the south island is even better. As such, we could not wait to start our next adventure in the south and see what it has to offer!