New Zealand Part 3: The North Island
Written by: Kenzie
Listen, people, I know you’re all just dying to hear about the end of my New Zealand trip from last November and I apologize for the delay in the final installment. I have been busy and distracted and I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, so please bear with me!
Anyways, Claire and I landed in Windy Wellington and got our second rental car from the very small airport which was a bit of a hassle. We had already paid to have a GPS included and the woman said she couldn’t find it in our reservation even though I repeatedly showed her my receipt and emails that included it. (Every major trip we go on, we print out EVERYTHING - I’m talking confirmations, tickets, copies of passports - and keep it in our trip folder that we carry along everywhere. It’s a huge help.) Eventually, we got things sorted and she ended up upgrading us to a larger SUV for no extra charge which was nice.
By now, we were used to driving around on two-lane roads with little traffic. Wellington, however, was another story. It was the busiest city we’d been in so far and our hotel was in this really strange tucked away dead end. We also had to pay for parking which is not cool seeing as we HAD A ROOM, but we just parked for the night and chilled out in the room a bit.
Here’s a suggestion for anyone going on an extended vacation like this: TAKE BREAKS! It’s important to let yourself just sit around for a bit, you’re not going to miss anything exciting, I promise. And if you don’t have time to relax, you may just have a breakdown in the middle of a crowded train station in London (that’s a story for another time).
After an hour or so of chill time, we headed to the main drag and ate at, get this, McDonald’s. And it was just as satisfying as a meal at some hidden gem would have been. We bought a ticket on the historic Wellington Cable Car up to the Wellington Botanical Gardens. They were gorgeous!
I don’t know how my Vans managed to stay so white and I don’t know how they get their succulents to grow so big and I wonder if the ducks know they were swimming in a pond that looked like the sky.
It was a beautiful place, but there were quite a few rowdy teenagers. I guess they do things differently in New Zealand because these kids were clearly underage and also clearly drinking alcohol. They made pretty much no effort to hide that either.
Wellington was nice, but way too busy for our liking. Thankfully, we only stayed one night before making our way out of the city (also somewhat confusing as it required several U-turns) and to Rotorua. Once again, the New Zealand countryside did not disappoint. It was much different than the sights in the South Island. Here, the terrain was mostly rolling hills that went on forever and vast forests. Still absolutely stunning. We made sure to pull off for any vistas that couldn’t properly be enjoyed from the moving car.
Rotorua is a town of significant geothermal activity. So significant that our Airbnb’s heat was powered by it and there was a park in the middle of town where geothermal steam pumped out of the actual earth! This also meant that the whole town smelled of sulphur so we quickly began referring to Rotorua as Fart Town and anytime we were around a hot springs - which was a lot - we called it earth farts. We got a real kick out of this.
Don’t think for a second the sulphur smell took anything away from this beautiful city. The town itself had many restaurants to choose from and a beautiful lake with swans in the center. There was also an attraction not far down the road called the Geothermal Wonderland that we spent the better part of a day in. There were many hot springs, mud pools, and even a geyser (that we didn’t see erupt). I’m pretty big on geology (I’ve only ever taken one geology class in college as an elective, but I’ve always had a thing for rocks), so this was a neat stop!
We had two nights in our Airbnb in Rotorua so the next day, we drove not too far up the road to the Whakarewarewa Forest (can’t help you any on the pronunciation there, sorry) to do the treewalk among the redwoods. This consisted of several suspended bridges between towering trees. The platforms and bridges were all built so that the trees could still grow and shift. New Zealand is all about preserving its natural beauty which is absolutely commendable.
I am terrified of heights, but this was so wonderful. After two or three bridges, I was pretty used to it and enjoyed the view and the weather and everything we had experienced on the trip so far.
Leaving Rotorua was a bit of a sad day because it meant we only had one night left before leaving for home. Usually, after an extended vacation, I’m ready to head home and get back to normal life. This time was different.
We were to stay in Auckland that night after stopping in for a Hobbiton tour in Matamata. I remember Claire was driving us to Hobbiton and I was just looking out the window at the endless countryside. I’m pretty sure some Mumford & Sons song was playing which doesn’t help the emotions and I actually teared up. I couldn’t believe we only had one more excursion and one more night before we would be leaving such a beautiful, carefree place.
This excursion proved to be one for the books. Now, neither Claire nor I are very into Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit books or movies. I know, I know, we’re terrible people. I’d seen bits and pieces of the movies but never any all the way through. We still wanted to stop for the tour just because it looked so pretty and it was ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT.
I cannot tell you enough how adorable this place was. After a meal at the cafe and a short bus ride onto gorgeous farmland where sheep scattered in front of the bus, we were lead down a little path (the same one Bilbo Baggins runs down shouting “I’m going on an adventure!”) and all of The Shire stood in front of us.
Our tour guide was great and told us all sorts of interesting facts about the movies which I loved because I love movies and the “movie magic” that goes into making it really come to life. We got to wander around and see all of the little Hobbit doors. The attention to detail was incredible. The gardens were well-kept in a haphazard, cottage kind of way and smoke even billowed form several chimneys. Some Hobbit homes were themed with what the Hobbit would have done as a hobby or job. There was a cheese seller, a beekeeper, a potter, and even a town drunk.
We got to see Bag End which was one of the cutest and our tour guide told us all about the tree that grew on top. There was a great big tree there originally for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, since The Hobbit took place before LOTR, the tree was dug up and replanted and a fake tree that looked decades younger was built in its place. Each leaf was made and attached by hand and looking at the tree from the path, you couldn’t even tell it was fake. Movie. Magic.
The tour ended in a pub where everyone got a complimentary cider or apple juice. As we neared the pub from over a hill, you could hear happy pub music floating up and people laughing. Colorful paper lanterns were strung all around and the atmosphere was absolutely fitting to the joy we were feeling. Also, the cider was amazing.
After our magical time at Hobbiton, we drove to our hotel in Auckland which was also a hassle. This is definitely the biggest city in New Zealand (even though its population is half that of Houston and I’ve driven there many times) and there was a lot of construction happening on roads near our hotel. The GPS was unaware of this and kept making us go down the same dead end roads! Claire was driving and she is a somewhat anxious driver as is, but this was much more stressful. I was stressed because I knew she was stressed and I couldn’t figure out how to get us around the construction. However, we persevered and Claire drove us all the way to the hotel which was a huge triumph for her and I was so proud!
(Side tangent: Vacations in places you haven’t been tend to either bring out the worst or the best in people. In our case, thankfully, New Zealand was a place we both faced fears, got out of our comfort zone, and had the time of our lives. It really made me believe in myself and in Claire and I think we are both better people having been.)
Okay, let’s wrap this thing up.
That night, we ordered food from Uber Eats (my first experience with it ever, would highly recommend) because we didn’t want to get back out in that mess. The next morning, we packed everything up for the final time. We had half the day to kill before our flight though so we put our suitcases in the car, and drove to the main street known for neat shops.
Spoiler: the shops weren’t that neat. We hadn’t eaten since last night and really wanted some coffee so we spotted a place on a side street that looked fairly promising.
It. Was. Great.
I wish I could remember the name but maybe that makes it even more magical. It was a very small shop filled with books, someone’s iPod playing from a speaker quietly, plants, and all sorts of patrons - young people studying what have you, old people reading books, middle-aged professionals meeting with others or grabbing a quick bite. There were large windows that opened directly to the street for prime people-watching and the staff was friendly but aloof enough to not bother you.
We each got an avocado toast (THE avocado toast if you remember from my earlier post), some beverage, and a slice of lemon loaf to split. Everything was delicious and I could’ve spent hours in that place.
We allowed ourselves about an hour to take everything in and reminisce about the trip so far, as if it was already over. And to figure out what else we could do to kill the time before we needed to be at the airport.
We decided on Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium. I remember the drive there quite vividly. We were cracking up over the dumbest stuff, cruising along the coast. We pulled up to the aquarium and saw that there were penguins which I was super stoked for. After stopping to admire the view of the city skyline, we perused the aquarium and saw so many penguins and so many cool critters.
At the airport, we turned in our car, and were the first to make it to our gate. We were WAY TOO early. So, we bought some snacks and set up shop on the floor watching The Hobbit. I soon learned I had indeed been missing out all these years by not getting into it. It was a nice end to our trip to see one of the places we’d been on the not-so-big screen of Claire’s laptop.
I cannot encourage you enough to travel as much as you can. It doesn’t have to be a huge trip like this (although these are a blast too). I know travel isn’t feasible for everyone all the time, but just drive to the next town over and see something new. You learn things about yourself on the road, or in the air, or on a boat - however you travel.
You see things differently and feel like you are a part of the world. A very, very small part because this world is huge, but you’re a part of it nonetheless. You feel a little more capable of handling your life, you walk a little taller, you see things with a little brighter eyes. Or at least I did. Thank you, New Zealand, for a truly unforgettable trip. And thank you, Claire, for getting me that plane ticket and that final push to just GO.