Auckland, NZ

Auckland, NZ

The only real plan for today was to drive the 4.5 hours to Auckland from Tongariro. We woke up refreshed and the hotel owner delivered fresh-baked croissants with raspberry jam to our room. We ate breakfast in bed while watching the sun rise over the mountain. You really can’t beat a wake up scenario like that!

The view from our room at the Tongariro Suites @ The Rocks in Tongariro, New Zealand

We got our bags packed up and hit the road around 8:30 AM. The views along the drive were gorgeous and we listened to the How I Built podcast to pass the time. Eventually, we pulled off at a gas station to get gas and ended up buying a Thai meat pie and fried chicken tikka hash-brown thing to snack on. They sound weird but were really, really good! One of my guilty pleasures down-under are meat pies. Instead of filling pies with fruit, Aussies / Kiwis make savory pies with beef, chicken, veggies and more in all different flavors. When you go to New Zealand / Australia, you must try a meat pie from a bakery. If you don’t like it on first bite, send it to me… don’t want to waste that deliciousness. Haha!

 

We hit some traffic on the drive into Auckland that delayed us about 30 minutes, but, 5 hours later, we finally arrived at the Sofitel Hotel in Auckland Harbor. We stayed at a Sofitel hotel in Bangkok and it was so lux, so I thought some hotel pampering on our last day in Auckland would be nice too. Boy, was I right! The lobby so was pretty with water features everywhere and our hotel room was so comfy with awesome windows and a balcony.

We refreshed in the room for an hour or so before meeting up with my good friend’s mom, Anne, who is a native to Auckland. Anne was kind enough to take us on a tour around the city! She walked us through the harbor, passing super expensive and huge yachts and tons of super cute restaurants.

Once we made it to her car, Anne drove us through the different sea-side towns, pointing out attractions, places her daughter (my friend) liked to go or worked while growing up there, and great views along the way.

About mid-way through our afternoon, we stopped for coffee and conversation at a café overlooking the water. With some more energy, we hopped back in the car and enjoyed a beautiful view of the city atop the hillside, and then went to check out Michael Joseph Savage Memorial Park that celebrates his legacy as a Prime Minister.

After that, we drove to the Parnell Rose Garden which was “chockers” with beautiful flowers. Anne really outdid herself showing us her home town and how much she loves Auckland!

Eventually, we said our goodbyes, we walked through Queen Street, looking at all of the cute shops and restaurants. I was in the mood for some Thai food, so we found the Grasshopper and had a yummy meal of Pad Thai and duck confit.

We spent the rest of the night walking along the ship yard and checking out all the sea-side restaurants and bars. It was our last night in New Zealand before heading to Australia and we wanted to savor every moment of it.

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Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The big hike on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was upon us! We woke up at 6 AM to get layered up for the 30 degree projected weather. Since we were hiking in May on the bring of winter, the weather was supposed to range from 30 degrees at the top of the hike to 50 in other areas, so I wore 3 top layers and 2 pairs of leggings just in case I needed to take things on and off. I probably didn’t need both leggings but I am glad I had all the other layers!

As the Tongariro Suites had our breakfast already set up in the room, we quickly carbo-loaded and were off on our drive to National Park town. We parked out front of a small lodge and were ready for our shuttle pickup. Since it is not a circular trek, you have to get a shuttle to drop you off at the start of the hike and then pick you up at the end. The 20 minute shuttle ride to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was beautiful as the sun rose over the mountains. We were so excited to get hiking!

About to embark on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand!

The start of the hike was relatively flat, along a wooden walkway through some bush. It was really stunning and the sun was giving us the heat we needed to stay warm. My layers were steadily coming off as we started to go up!

The trail is about 19.4 kilometers (12 miles), so we decided to have a snack and water break every 5K or so. There is no water on the trail at all, so we had to pack a gallon each and food for lunch / snacks. After our Quest Bars, water, and a loo break, we had to go up, up, and up! We were basically climbing the side of the mountain for a good 45 minutes with tons of stairs. My heart rate was definitely on the rise. We started in the valley in the picture below and that picture was taken about half-way up the first hill!

After the first hill, we got to a flat area with lots of shrubs. The sun finally hit the volcano side and the colors were beautiful!

Unfortunately for us, the flat bit ended and we started out final assent to the highest part of our hike. At one point, it was so steep that there was a chain rope to help us get up! Ryan’s legs started cramping pretty badly so we were slow going to the top, but it was OK because I got more time to take in the view. You can see the flat trail we walked on below (left picture) and then we hiked up the steep slope on the right all the way to the top!

Huffing and puffing, we made it to the top / mid-way point in the hike and the view was so worth it!

Not only that, but we finally made it to the famous volcanic lakes on the other side! The natural blue color in the lakes was insane!

To get to the lakes, we had to go down a very steep section of the mountain with lots of gravel. We basically had to do the electric slide down and it reminded me of the decent from the volcano I hiked in Guatemala! See the mini-people on the trail in the picture below for scale! You can’t even see those at the top!

We spent some time by the lakes before continuing on our hike and finding a good spot for lunch by the biggest lake, Crater Lake. I made some excellent PB&J sandwiches to fuel us through the day and we were pretty peckish by the time we got to eat.

After lunch, it was time for the 3 hour hike down. It started with 1.5 hour zig-zag path down that had an amazing view of lakes and a steamy part of the mountain. Ryan’s legs were still cramping like crazy so we were chugging water as much as possible to help him feel better. At this point, he had no choice but to keep going down! Eventually, we got low enough to enter the jungle and it was another 45 minutes of jungle hiking to the end of the track. 6.5 hours and 35K steps later, we did it!

We relaxed and waited about 45 minutes for our shuttle back to the mountain. We were pretty dead but felt very accomplished! The shuttle back went quickly and we hopped in the car to get back to our hotel.

A hot shower was the most amazing feeling on our aching bodies and we were starving! We decided to try out The Station restaurant in National Park Village. The place was an old train station converted into a eatery. Unfortunately, there was a management shift so the once delicious restaurant that our hotel recommended wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. They did not have their liquor license yet so we were bummed we couldn’t have celebratory wine. The best thing we had was the toasted bread and dukkah. My crispy chicken was really dry and the risotto had large clumps of cheese which was not super appetizing.

We were exhausted so, after dinner, we drove back to the hotel, opened a bottle of wine, and watched shooting stars on our balcony until it was time for bed.

Rotorua to Tongariro

Rotorua to Tongariro

5:45 AM and I was awake. After a great night at the Mari village, I thought I would at least sleep until 7 but, nope! I needed to catch up on blogging so I typed away while Ryan made coffee and toast for breakfast. We tried to watch the sunrise over lake Taupo but it was in the wrong direction – ooops!

Before we knew it, we were packed up and ready to head to the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley for our volcanic activity experience! There are two other famous and big volcanic areas you can go in Rotorua, but all of the reviews I read said they were super packed and touristy. We passed both of the other places on our way to Waimangu and they looked more like amusement parks than nature reserves. We were the only car in the parking lot for our Valley walk! Waimangu is a national park with trails through the volcanic valley with no lines or tourist expectations!

We checked in, grabbed a map that outlined the various points of interest along the trail, and took off on our two-hour walk. The trail was hilly but not hard by any means, and we were full of anticipation that kept growing as we saw more and more steam coming out of the forest!

We came across the first big site within minutes. A massive lake with bubbling water and steam everywhere! Frying Pan Lake’s temperature averages 131 degrees fahrenheit! Wouldn’t want to go for a swim in there…

The sulfur smell was almost non-existent, but you could feel the heat from the steam. There was even steam coming out of small holes in the rock formations along the path.

We were totally in awe of the natural formations, spouts, and water colors from the volcanic activity and were loving every second of the unique area.

Apparently, none of this existed before 1886. That year, Mount Tarawera erupted and created huge craters in the ground that, over time, filled with water and became the volcanic lakes we see today. We ended up taking the “extended” trail that led up, up, and away to some awesome views of the lake.

We only ran into one other group the entire time we were on the trail. The secluded nature of our hike made it that much more special.

Eventually, we got to the end of the trail and had to wait 30 minutes for the shuttle to arrive. We snacked on Quest Bars and apples to refuel and watched the black swans dive to get food in the lake. They were so funny because they only dove with their heads, so their butts and legs flailed above the water while they were submerged. So funny to watch!

The bus finally came and we were back to the reception area and into the car in no time. We had about 40 minutes of driving to do before we hit our next stop, Huka Falls. After Marokopa Falls in the day prior and our experience at Krkra Falls in Croatia, we were anticipating a great sight since Huka Falls is so much more well-known. We were slightly disappointed. Huka Falls were really more like really blue rapids. The force of the rapids was pretty astonishing, but it was crowded and we like Marokopa much more.

Huka Falls, New Zealand

It took about 10 minutes to see Huka Falls, so we jumped back in the car and sought out a lake-side lunch spot on Lake Topau. We found a cute little place with a great patio and enjoyed some fish and chips and a lamb salad. Little did we know that we were actually visiting over Anzac Day so all of the patios were packed on the national holiday. Anzac day is Australia and New Zealand’s version of Veteran’s Day in the States. We saw a ton of people in their military / service uniforms.

Lunch by Lake Taupo in New Zealand

After we filled up on lunch, we had another hour and a bit drive to the Tongariro Suites @ The Rocks. The drive was beautiful and went by quickly. I even made friends with some sheep!

Sheep in New Zealand

We were in the middle of no where and almost missed the hotel since it’s street was so off the beaten path. Once we pulled up, we knew we made the right choice! The Suites used to be a cow paddock and a fantastically nice couple turned it into a luxury resort with about 5 suites. It is all solar power operated and totally luxurious down to the tiniest detail! Because the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing hike starts so early, The Suites already had the breakfast buffet set up in our room!

The beds had heating pads, the bathroom was super luxurious with heat lamps for extra warmth and the owner even made a Canadian hot tub from cedar wood for the guests to recover in. The list of amenities and thought put into this place goes on and on and we couldn’t get over our view of the moon rising over the mountain peaks….

The owner recommended a restaurant called The Cyprus Tree for a tasty dinner within a quick drive. You would think, in such a remote area, the food would be average, but you would also be thinking wrong! We split a delicious beet, balsamic, and goat cheese ball salad, lamb sliders (that were to-die for), and cranberry walnut stuffed chicken with risotto. YUM!

After we got over our shock at how good the food was and scarfed it all down, we walked across the road to get a bottle of wine and extra water for our hike the next day. We went back to the hotel, grabbed the warm, fuzzy blankets provided in our room, poured two glasses of wine, turned all of the lights out, and sat on our patio to watch shooting stars and look at the amazing array of constellations visible. It was incredible.

 

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.

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.

Continue this adventure to the Waitomo Caves and Rotarua…