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.

 

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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…

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!

Continue this adventure to Waitomo, New Zealand…