Waitomo to Rotarua

Waitomo to Rotarua

Waking up was easy in our airplane in Woodlyn Park! I was somewhat alert because, in the middle of the night, an animal was trying to get into our plane! It was rustling about outside and was probably a sheep but, after that, I was a light sleeper. My body was awake at 7 AM and our Waitomo Black Labyrinth cave spelunking tour was not until 10 AM.

We made toast for breakfast in our plane’s kitchen and got all packed up for the day ahead. We waited until the office was open at 8AM to drop our key off and the front desk guy assured us that we would have no issue hopping on an earlier cave tour. With that in mind, we drove over to the Black Water Rafting Co. check-in and were able to move up to the 9:30 tour. We hung out in the lobby and had some very expensively average coffee while we waited. WiFi has been pretty sparse in NZ so far so I took full advantage of that time waiting!

We were finally called out by our two guides for the 9:30 tour. There were ten of us on the tour and we had to get all suited up with very wet and cold gear before we could go to. Just to give you insight into how it felt, pretend like it is 45 degrees out and you are putting on very thick, wet socks, pants, and a jacket that are also like 40 degrees..and then add rain boots on top of that. We were looking gooood!

After a briefing, we headed out onto the bus to take us to the cave location. We all unloaded by a stream with a platform and the guide showed us how to jump backwards using our inner tube into the freezing water. We needed to practice outside so we could jump OVER WATERFALLS within the cave! So scary but awesome at the same time.

We took a trek down a path with our inner tubes and were at the cave head. There were rocks everywhere so figuring out footing was essential. There was no way I was going to twist an ankle before our big Tongariro hike! We got down into the cave and turned all of our headlights on. It was otherwise totally pitch black. The rock around us was so complex in shape and I was loving every minute of our walk through the water.

We got down to thigh level in the water and the rapid was so strong I almost took off at one point! We climbed up a rock platform and had to jump backwards with our butts in our tube out and down from a 7 foot waterfall. It was exhilarating!

Cave jumping for the Black Labyrinth Tour in Waitomo, New Zealand

After our waterfall jump, we lined up and grabbed the feet of the people behind us to form an “eel”. Little did I know, there were actually eels below us in the water…. But anyways, we turned all of our headlights off and looked up in the dark to see the absolute spectacle of the glowworms. They were everywhere and looked like blue constellations across the cave ceiling. All of the glow worms drop 20ish “fishing lines” that trap insects for the worms to eat. If you are ever in New Zealand, the Black Labyrinth tour is worth every penny and is a must do. You can kind-of see the glow worms in the photo below, but the quick flash camera does not do them justice at all!

Glow worms in the caves during the Black Labyrinth Tour in Waitomo, New Zealand

We were in the cave for about 2 hours and eventually floated our way out. It was cold and slightly drizzly outside but who cares when you are already soaked? We sloshed our way back to the HQ and had hot showers ready and waiting for us, the only trick was trying to get out of our gear when our hands were still totally frozen! Talk about hilariously awkward undressing!

The hot shower was probably one of the best showers I’ve ever had in my life – it felt so good to defrost! After we got dressed, there were toasted bagels and tomato soup waiting for us in the lobby. The soup was soooo yummy and warmed us up even more. What an amazing start to the day!

When we were ready, we hopped back into the car and took off on our two-hour drive to Rotorua for our Maori cultural experience. The drive through the country side was beautiful (as usual in NZ!) and we pulled up to a beautiful Wai Ora Resort right on the lake. We got a tour of the resort and were really happy with the room and the view of the lake. We also had some time to kill so we grabbed a bottle of wine and hopped in the hot tub for some relaxing.

The shuttle picked us up for the Takami Maori Experience at 5 PM and we were transported to the check-in area. We waited for about 15 minutes until our driver, Mark, arrived with a much bigger bus. Mark had a bunch of personality and said hello to us in 59 languages! He named each country and had 4-5 versions of “hello” / catch-phrases from each country in its native language with a perfect accent. He was pretty impressive and it took him all 15 minutes to get to the Takami Maori village to get through it all!

Once we arrived, we had to pick a tribe chief from our tour group who then led us to the entrance of the village to greet the Takami chief. The Takami villagers came out in a boat from the river and performed the Haka in front of us

Then, each of our selected chiefs had to accept the offering from the Takami chief so we could enter the village. Once that process was over, we were invited in and led to 5 different stations throughout the village where we learned about the traditions, houses, Haka dance, face tattoos, and how the Maori came to New Zealand. It was pretty interesting and worth going to.

After the learning stations, we were moved into the area where our food was being cooked in the ground. There was a huge hole in the ground where our food was placed, covered with burlap sacks and dirt, and left to cook for 3-4 hours! They pulled the food out and smelt so delicious!

While they were preparing our food, we were taken to watch and listen to traditional Maori singing and dancing. The songs were very catchy and the performers were excellent. The singing and dancing, traditions, dress, and even people looked very similar to Hawaiian people and culture. Apparently, the Polynesian people (including the Maior) all came from the same island that was separated / destroyed by tectonic plates. The people ended up on multiple islands across the pacific, like Hawaii and New Guinea, so they all come from the same ancestry! I had no idea!

Once the dancing was over, it was time for dinner! There was so much food consisting of 3 types of potatoes, carrots, chicken, lamb, muscles, and bread. It was pretty tasty too! We sat across from another couple from Texas and chatted with them about traveling with kids for the duration of dinner. It is always nice getting to know people from other walks of life while traveling.

Traditional dinner at the Maori Village in Rotorua, New Zealand

By this point, it was 9 PM and I was exhausted. As soon as we got back to the resort, I was in bed and asleep within minutes.

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Waitomo

Waitomo

With all of the jet lag and poor plane sleep, we slept for 12.5 hours straight in our little New Zealand bungalow! Since it was 70 degrees out the day before, we left one of the windows open while we slept. Little did we know that, at 7 AM, it going to be 30 degrees and, thus, so was our bungalow! I did not want to get out of bed!

After checking out of the Top Ten Hotel Hot Water Beach, we drove over to Hahei to park for our Cathedral Cove walk. The hike from the parking lot to Cathedral Cove was about an hour and we were ready to go in our hiking boots! While the hike itself had a peculiar start walking through a massive field in between houses and then continuing on a neighborhood side street, the morning view once the trail opened up to the beach was perfect.

We continued on the trail and went up, and up, and up a seaside cliff. Since it was so cold when we woke up, I wore a sweater and got pretty hot. Thankfully, my sweater had an open back for extra air conditioning! We walked up and down a total of three giant mountains to get to the Cove. It was a great workout! We even ran into our pool-friends from Hot Water Beach in the day prior!

The views along the hike were insane…

The cove itself was so pristine and empty – going to tourist attractions early really is the best way to beat the crowds and have a truly intimate experience.

The Cathedral entrance was huge and it was so cool to walk through. Definitely worth the hike and the hike back.

We worked up a big appetite on the hike and went into Hahei town for some lunch. We stopped at a Café and I had a delicious muesli, berry compote, and yogurt dish and Ryan had an excellent bacon and egg bagel.

After lunch, we stopped off at the market to get groceries for breakfast / lunches over the next few days and some wine for night caps. All of our hotels had kitchen areas which made meal prepping easy and what a better excuse to eat PB&J’s every day than a road trip?

We walked back to the car and were off on our 2.5 hour drive to Waitomo. The drive was so twisty and turny but I couldn’t believe the landscape. I am officially in love with New Zealand!

Waitomo is located in the upper-mid-west of New Zealand and is known for its glow-worm caves and we were staying the night for our “Black Labyrinth” cave spelunking tour in the morning. In my research for hotels, I stumbled across the Woodlyn Park motel which had a bunch of really cool sleeping experiences in hobbit houses, planes, trains, and ships! After seeing those accommodation options, we decided an average hotel wasn’t going to cut it and opted to stay in an old war plane instead. Our room just happened to be in the cockpit of the airplane too! Something totally different and cool. Go big or go home right?

Upon check-in, the receptionist suggested we check out Marokopa Falls and Mangapohue Natural Bridge if we didn’t have evening plans. It was still light out so we figured it was “adventure time!” and so we hopped back in the car for the 30 minute drive and ten minute jungle walk to Marokopa Falls. I was not expecting much but OH MY GOD. It was like something out of Jurassic Park. I literally was trying not to tear up at how amazing it was and how overwhelmed I felt about this trip so far.

Marokopa Falls in New Zealand

We hung out at the falls for about 15 minutes to take it all in. There was only one other couple that came and went too so it was basically private which was nice for reflection.

After the falls, we drive back to Mangapohue – and under ground cavern where 90% of the roof collapsed. It was massive and the “bridge” that was left was amazing to see. From the top connecting points, you would have no idea there was a cavern underneath.

We took a little walk after the cavern to see some oyster fossils and then jumped back in the car to head to dinner. Based on the awesome suggestion record of our Woodlyn Park check-in lady, we decided to go to Huhu Cafe for dinner. It was empty at 5:30 when we arrived, but was full within the next 15! We got a table and opted to share a few things – the bread, pear salad, and crispy pork. Oh my, was it good!

We devoured the deliciousness that would have cost us double in the US, and were in awe of how good it was in such a rural location. We tried to get dessert but the service took fooorever so we opted to head back to our plane instead and prep for our big, cavernous day tomorrow.

Hahei

Hahei

My mom is from, as the locals say, “Down Under”. While I was growing up, my family and I used to go to Australia to visit my relatives and explore! I am pretty sure those trips were the ones on which I got bitten by the travel bug!  My husband and I have been together for a little over 4 years and he still had not been to see and meet my heritage so, when the opportunity came up in May for some time to get away, we hopped on it!

While I’ve been to Australia a handful of times, I have never been to New Zealand. I wanted to make this trip somewhat new for both of us, so we planned to do a week in New Zealand and a week in Sydney. I figured a week in each would be plenty of time and bought the tickets – little did I know, just a week in NZ is pushing it! The best way to explore New Zealand is to do a giant road trip of either the North or South Islands (or both!). You need a solid few weeks to do all of the attractions in both. Knowing we were going to be jet-lagged upon arrival and we only had 6 full days in NZ, we opted to do a route around the North Island.

We flew out of Houston on Air New Zealand. While our check-in guy told us that our big plane was swapped with a smaller one last-minute, making my 6’2 husband a little nervous for leg space, we ended up scoring the airplane jackpot with an entire row to ourselves! We slept most of the 15 hour flight and I caught up on 4 different movies. While we were delayed about an hour and landed around 7:30 AM in Auckland, customs was a breeze and we were on the shuttle to our rental car in no time.

While I looked into getting a camper van for the trip, the rental, gas, and camp site fees were actually a few hundred dollars more than booking the hotels I looked into. Granted, I was looking at vans with toilets so they were more expensive than the just-bed versions, but still! We ended up going to hotel route and renting a tiny little, beat up Nissan Tilda to scoot us around. It was perfect on the narrow roads and already had so many marks on it we were scratch-stress free. Not only that, but I requested a car with a trunk instead of a hatchback so we could have our luggage in the car while we were in between hotels without anyone knowing (just in case).

Our first stop on our road trip was Hot Water Beach in Hahei. We had about a 2.5 hour drive from Auckland to the coast. The drive was absolutely beautiful with so many hills, sheep and cows, and immensely thick brush, but it was all hard to see considering my eyes were on the windy roads and I was focused on driving on the wrong side of the road!

We pulled up to the Top Ten Hotel Hot Water Beach and were so excited. We were staying in a little bungalow and it was so cute! It had a great porch for relaxing, amazing wake up view, and was only a ten minute walk from Hot Water Beach!

We relaxed for a few minutes and decided it was time for some lunch and exploring. The hotel recommended Hot Waves Café which was hidden in the woods. It was a cute café and we were expecting pretty average food but, boy, were we wrong! I got a lamb burger with capsicum salad and tzatziki and it was probably one of the best burgers of my life! It also had yummy potato cakes. Ryan actually got a sweet potato cake dish with bacon and, again, it was scrumptious!

We filled up quick and decided to walk to Hot Water beach. The beach is named for its underground volcanic streams that empty out into the ocean. You can dig a hole in the beach to access the stream water and create a sand hot tub! You are supposed to dig around low tide for easier access to the steaming water and, though low tide started at 4, people were already digging around 2! Their holes were at least 5 feet deep and we were a little put off by the effort of digging that far down!

We headed back to the hotel, changed into our swim suits, rented a shovel from the hotel, and walked back to the beach and it was even more packed! We decided to start digging a bit over from the crowds. Even though our dig site was the same level as the others with steam coming out of them, our water was not hot! You could be just a few inches away from the stream output and the water temperature was 20-30 degrees different! Some of the water was so hot you could not even step in it! We found that the best strategy was to dig on the edge of the hot stream to get a mix of cool and hot water and make the perfect temp. There was another couple that asked if they could dig with us and we ended up hanging out in our pool and trying not to boil for about an hour. It was such a fun experience!

We ended up heading back to the hotel to change and get dinner around 5. At this point, we had been up for about 15 hours and it was wearing on us. The hotel had a “Fish & Chip” stand so we grabbed that for dinner. It was delicious but there were sooo many fries. Good thing I shoveled so much sand as a work out!

With the jet lag hitting us strong, we went back to the room and were fast asleep by 6:30 PM!

 

Tuscany

Tuscany

Ryan couldn’t wait for today and our tour through Chianti wine country. His favorite wine’s of all are Chianti Classicos which are from the heart of the Chianti region in Tuscany and have black roosters on the label to signify that they are made with the right formula of Sangiovese grapes.

Chianti region in Italy

Our hotel didn’t include breakfast, so we walked to a little pastry shop to carbo-load on croissants and doughnuts before making our way to the train station to meet our Walkabout Florence tour group. Our tour guide, Lavi, was energetic and ready to go. She led us through the station and down to our smaller sized tour bus. There were about 15 people on our bus and it was the perfect size for a tour. Unlike some of our tours in Phuket, Thailand, we did not encounter any other tour groups during the rest of our day on this tour, making it very intimate and unique.

The drive to our first winery was about 50 minutes but it went by quickly as Lavi told us all about the history of Chianti wines. Apparently, in the days of the Romans, wine was terrible tasting. The Romans used any grapes they could find, didn’t prepare the wine well, and diluted it with 2 parts water. Because it tasted so bad, the Romans would add spices and other things to it to mask the taste and mainly drank wine for health reasons (it was safer than water in most cases). Over the years, people discovered that the way you grow the grapes, the size of the bunch, the altitude of the grapes, the soil, amount of skin used, and the aging process are all critical components to making a decent tasting wine. Harsher growing conditions and smaller grape yields typically give the best tasting wines. Not what you would typically think, right?

To grow a Chianti Classico, there are rules the govern all aspects of the wine making process so that the wine quality maintains the Classico standards. For example, the vines have to be planted close together so that they compete with one another for water and minerals. The wine makers do not water the plants so the vines have to drive their roots deep into the soil to find water. The vines have to be planted between a certain altitudes and on a slope because water is harder for them to get. Most importantly, all of the wines have to be at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. There are a slew of interesting rules that go into makings such amazing wines.

Our first winery was Villa Li Corti which sits on top of a hill on the 617 acre estate. We toured the vineyard and the olive groves before going inside to see the wine making process.

We took a tour of the barrel rooms…

And we got to see how olive oil is made. Apparently, “extra virgin” for olive oil means it came from the first press of the olives in the machine (below) after picking. Buyers be ware, the new and trendy “extra extra” virgin oil is just a marketing gimmick and the closest thing to “extra extra” would be eating raw olives.

We went up to the tasting room and sat at a 4 top table with bread and meats for us to try. We started talking to the other couple across from us and learned that they also got married on September 16th as well and were also on their honeymoon! Small world. We had a good conversation about all things wedding, living in Brooklyn, and other miscellaneous topics while drinking some delicious wines and eating the meats.

After tasting #1, it was off to our lunch location – La Cantinetta di Rignana. We bounced and swerved our way on the bus, deep into the heart of Tuscany, to this little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was just as special as the restaurant we went to in Hvar and apparently, it was so good that George Clooney and his wife went their twice in the same week! The view was amazing and we were treated to an insanely good meal. George has good taste in food…

Up first were 4 different types of bruschetta: tomato and olive oil, chicken liver, “lardo” which is cured ham fat (like on prosciutto), and mushroom. My favorite two were the lardo and chicken liver – sounds gross but it was so good!

After that, we had two types of pasta: boar rigatoni and truffle ravioli. The shavings of truffle were huge and I am now addicted to everything truffle. It was family style so I had to share the ravioli, but I did not want to!

After lunch, Ryan and I walked through the vineyard and tried a grape that had fallen from the vine. IT was so good.

We hopped back on the bus and off to the third winery. The roads were very bumpy, windy, and narrow and we almost had some “too close to the edge of the cliff” moments… but we eventually made it to the Montemaggio estate. The manager gave us a tour of the vineyard and the gardens.

They were actually harvesting the grapes while we were there, so we got to see the grapes getting crushed and pushed into one of the big tanks. It was quite a treat to get to see all parts of the wine making process in action.

Grape sorting at the Montemaggio vineyard in Tuscany, Italy

We were led through the villa and up to the tasting terrace. There were cheese pairings with our wine and we must have tried 6 different, delicious varieties. The lady next to me was making very strange, monotone noises while our host was speaking, and Ryan was imitating her in a way that almost made me lose my wine a few times. Between his silliness and the wine, we had a blast!

After the last wine, it was back on the bus and to a little square for some shopping. There was an amazing butchery there that smelt heavenly, so we bought some meat and cheese to take back to the States.

After about a 50 minute bus ride back, it was time to say goodbye to our tour group, drop the wine and goodies we bought back at the hotel, and walk over to Il Latini for dinner. Like the night before when we first stumbled upon the restaurant, there were 30 people already there waiting for the doors to open. At least there was a line this time, instead of a massive, unorganized crowd. Thankfully, we had reservations and went to the front of the line to get in pretty easily once the doors opened.

The place was family style so everyone sat close together and it was a very social setting. There was a pre-fixed menu for $55 euro a person, but we were not that hungry, so we ordered a few things off of the menu instead and stuck with the table wine that was only 10 euro a bottle. Little did we know, our “small order” got us enough food for 10 people.

We got the 3 salami plate and did not realize that the “selection of 3 pastas” was actually 3 full servings of various pasta dishes!

After that, was the massive steak and two different, complementary desserts. Thank gosh we did not go for the tasting menu!

As it turns out, the couple next to us who did get the tasting menu didn’t get that much more food than us but they paid double! They got one additional entrée, but we were also given the same desert and a free bottle of desert wine! We started chatting with them about the sheer amount of food and what tasted the best. The couple was in town from California and were pretty fascinating. One was an artist and the other was in the energy business and we had a good convo about American politics for about 45 minutes until all of the wine finally disappeared. Overall, the dinner was very enjoyable and we would recommend Il Latini to anyone in Florence that is anywhere on the scale of very hungry to starving. You will get a delicious meal for a great price.

Florence

Florence

Off to Florence this morning! After a quick walk to the Spanish Step’s Metro station, we were on our way to Roma Termini to get on the train to Florence. The Metro station was attached to the train station so there were plenty of signs to easily direct us to the train tracks. We bought tickets at one of the self-serve stations and we in quite a hustle to get on the train. Ryan was running ahead of me, weaving in and out of people to a track. I had no idea if it was the right one, especially since the destination portrayed on the screen was not ours. Ryan made his way down the platform and hopped into a train car and I was still confused. We sat in some open seats and I was pretty sure we were on the wrong train, but there was no one in sight to help direct us. The only thing we had going for us was that the train number on the screen was the same as that on our ticket, so I just had to trust Ryan that we were going the right direction. After the water taxi debacle in Hvar though, I was a bit nervous.

The train from Italy to Florence, Italy

It also turned out that we had assigned seating and were in cart 6 instead of 11. We got kicked out of our seats and had to travel the carts to the back of the train. We finally found our seats, and I was a little stressed out, but thankfully, we were able to confirm we were on the right train! Phew!

It only took a little over an hour to get to Florence, and our hotel, C-Hotels Ambasciatori, was right across the street from the platform which made things super easy. Our room was quite large, the bed was soft, and we had pretty nice balcony with a good view.

After a quick refresh, we were off to find lunch. We walked for 20 minutes or so through the alleyways, past the markets, super expensive stores, the Duomo, and down to more reasonable restaurants outside of the tourist section.

We ended up at a hole-in-the-wall place down a random alley and had a delicious pasta meal, however, the bread was terrible. We had to douse it in balsamic to give it any taste. Little did we know that, in Florence, the bread is made without salt. Apparently, years and years ago, the coastal city of Pisa was in charge of the salt trade that fed into Florence. Florence and Pisa went to war, and Pisa refused to sell Florence salt so, Florence stopped putting salt in their bread and, instead, made their olive oil and meats more flavorful and salty to make up for the bread’s flavor deficits. Florentines also typically do not eat the bread until their main course, not with the appetizers or pastas, so we were doing it all wrong!

Truffle ravioli in Florence, Italy

After lunch, we explored a little bit before walking over to the Uffizi to meet up with our tour guide for our Skip the Line Uffizi Gallery Tour. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was officially sick. My nose would not stop running and I was exhausted. I think the wine at lunch also affected Ryan because all he wanted to do was nap – we were a pretty pathetic looking duo at this point. On top of that, we realized that the meeting point for our tour was about 5 blocks away at a square, not at the Gallery as I thought – oops. This was not a “good mood” day unfortunately. We made it to the meeting point and were not the “talkative” couple in the group. We somehow made it to the Uffizi and I had to get about half a roll of toilet paper to use as tissues throughout our tour.

Our guide was super nice and chipper though, and did a great job of perking up our spirits and walking us through the amazing rooms of the gallery. We looked at a lot of Gothic, Medieval, and Renaissance period pieces, learning all about the style of painting during those times and the breakthrough’s of Davinci, Raphael, and Micheal Angelo.

The paintings and sculptures were pretty amazing, especially considering the massive size of them. Even the frames were incredible. We just had some art framed and could only imagine how much the ornate frames here would run.

The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

We made it through the Uffizi in one piece and followed our guide over the Ponte Vecchio bridge which is filled with jewelry stores. Ryan kept having to pull me past all of the sparkles in the windows. After we got over the river, our tour was over and we were ready to pass out at the hotel. We made a quick stop for a bite to eat in the Piazza della Repubblica. I had some yummy petso raviolis and Ryan had a delicious salmon gnocchi. Apparently the best day to eat gnocchi is on Thursday’s because that is traditionally the day most restaurants make it and, luckily for us, it was Thursday.

During our entire dinner on the patio, we watched the illegal sellers of random junk harassing people in the square. They had selfie sticks, light up balls that they threw high into the sky, roses, and other little things for sale. As soon as you made any sort of eye contact with them, they would run up to you and hustle you to buy whatever it was they were selling. They even came up to the people inside the restaurant multiple times. It was quite annoying and invasive of our space. The entire time we watched, we did not see one person actually buy anything. It was a little sad really.

We walked through random little alleyways back to the hotel. Along the way, we stumbled across a huge crowd of 50 – 60 people. I thought there must have been a fight or really good street artist or something, but in reality, they were all crowded around the closed doors of a restaurant, Il Latini. The doors opened at 7:30 on the dot and people were basically “Black Friday” rushing to get in. Those with reservations were picked out to enter and everyone else could go in as tables opened up. With such a crowd, the place had to be good, so we called to make a reservation first thing once we got back to the hotel.

 

We were getting ready for bed and I noticed that yet another one of our hotels had a bidet. Since we both had no clue how to use one, I turned to YouTubed to show me the way. Ryan and I laughed our way through the video and then I proceeded to go into the bathroom and turn the thing on out of curiosity. Little did I know, the water spigot was facing upwards and water went everywhere! Not kidding, I flooded the bathroom. I busted out laughing and Ryan kept asking me what happened from outside – my strategy, obviously, was to deny deny deny, but he totally caught me making a total mess of the loo. It was hysterical! Thankfully, we had a bunch of towels to absorb all of the water before hitting the sheets to sleep.