Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Land of the Long White Cloud

As with a lot of people, traveling to New Zealand had become a bucket-list vacation when Lord of the Rings came out over a decade ago. It was one of those, "yeah, someday I'd like to go there" things, but it didn't become a serious, all-consuming goal until a few years ago.  I think the conversation about finally making the trip a reality went something like this:

Me:  "Kevin, I really think we should go to New Zealand."

Kevin: "OK."

All right.  It was a bit more complicated than that.  There was talk of saving up money and being responsible adults and all that jazz.  So, we socked away a bit of cash every week, and after a couple of years we were finally able to make it happen.

The trip was a dream come true, absolutely all of it. The beauty of the country cannot be overstated. Every place we went was breathtaking.  And there is no shortage of things to do.  A country with the land area of roughly the size of Colorado has an awful lot crammed into it.  Two weeks there was only enough to just barely skim the surface; you could spend years there and only just begin to discover what New Zealand has to offer.  Do I sound like a travel brochure?  I don't mean to.  I just can't say enough wonderful things about it.

Here is a rundown of what we did, plus some tips if you are thinking of visiting.

Days 1 - 3:  Queenstown

We flew into Auckland from LA and, after a brief stopover, jumped on a plane down to Queenstown to begin our two-week journey (because what could be better than adding another hour and a half on a plane after you've been flying for 15 hours already?). Located at the southern end of the South Island, Queenstown is a beautiful resort town sitting on the shores of clear blue Lake Wakatipu, nestled among the Southern Alps and the Remarkables range, a mountain chain that deserves its name because you look at them and say, "Remarkable!"  Queenstown is a paradise for people who like adventure sports and outdoor activities -- bungee jumping, luging down a mountainside, jet boating, skiing, ziplining, parasailing, you name it. This was quite the introduction to New Zealand.  It was like being constantly pummeled in the face with natural beauty.  You know, in a pleasant way.

What we did:

- Shotover Jet Boat: Great fun!  Do it if you like your boat rides fast and full of close scrapes with canyon walls, plus being sprayed with ice cold water. We did it first thing in the morning and it was a wonderful way to wake up.
- TSS Earnslaw steam ship lake cruise: We did buttloads of walking and this was a nice way to give our feet a rest -- a leisurely boat ride around Lake Wakatipu.
- lots of walking around Queenstown and neighboring areas of Arrowton, Lake Hayes, and Wanaka, which is big time wine country, if that's your thing.

What we wish we had more time for:

- the gondola ride to the top of Bob's Peak (and riding the luge down)
- visiting the towns of Glenorchy and Paradise, not only for the scenery, but because there are lots of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit filming locations around there.

Where we stayed:

- Queenstown Motel Apartments: We loved this place.  Super comfortable and reasonable.  Not too far from downtown; the walk up and down the hill was great cardio.

What we learned:

Queenstown is not a large city and you really don't need a car there if you stay close to downtown.  Most of the tour companies will pick you up at your motel or have buses leaving from their office downtown.  You only need a car if going out on your own to one of the surrounding towns, but be warned that driving on the left side through winding mountain roads can be quite scary.

Days 4 - 5: Te Anau

We drove from Queenstown to Te Anau, which takes a little over two hours. You pass by loads of sheep farms, small towns, and of course jaw-dropping vistas in every direction.  Te Anau is a small town which sits on beautiful Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island, and it is right on the doorstep of Fjordland National Park.  It is lush, green, and mountainous. Te Anau is generally the place people stay for taking fjord cruises or hiking through Fjordland.

What we did:

- walk on the lakefront trail to the beginning of the Kepler Track, which takes several days to complete if you want to do the whole thing
- Milford Sound cruise.  This is an absolute must-do if you are going to the South Island.  Misty mountains cloaked in dense rainforest plunge into the cold, dark waters of the narrow fjord.  It was one of our favorite adventures in NZ.

Where we stayed:

- Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park, a huge complex on the lake consisting of motel units, campsites, dorms, cabins, and saunas.  We had a huge, albeit basic, room for pretty cheap.

What we wish we did or had more time for:

- Doubtful Sound cruise
- hiking more of the Kepler Track

What we learned:

You do not need a car in Te Anau.  If you're visiting Milford Sound, pay the extra fee for the bus ride down to the cruise ship.  Not only do you get to hear about the area from the driver, you don't have to worry about managing the two-and-a-half-hour drive down a windy, rainy road with no amenities. Also, take bug spray.  There are these little jerk bugs in Fjordland called sand flies and their bite makes you very itchy.

Day 6: Back to Queenstown to fly to Wellington

This day was unfortunately a bit of a "lost day" on our vacation.  We drove back to Queenstown early in the morning to return the rental car and fly up to Wellington on the North Island.  Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by about five hours due to weather, and we had to fly to Christchurch and then on to Wellington, so we ended up not getting there until around 6:30 p.m., instead of having the whole afternoon to explore the city. The day was not a complete waste, however, since we met up with Sean, an old pal of KO's, and had a delicious dinner at this place called Chow (their curry...oh, my god) and then drinks at a couple of taphouses.  KO and Sean totally geeked out on beer, and apparently there is an abundance of geekworthy beer in Wellington.  I found a cherry lambic I haven't seen in CO.  One of the many cool things about traveling was finding loads of ciders/beers/lambics that they just don't have at home... *hic*

Day 7: Wellington

What we did:

This day could be referred to as the day that our Tolkien nerdom reached its zenith.  It was the day of our full-day Middle-earth tour.  It was drizzly and chilly, but that didn't get our spirits down as we were driven around Wellington and its environs, along with some other geeks, to visit and photograph Rings filming locations.  We were shepherded by tour guide and uber-nerd Jack, whose knowledge of all things Middle-earth was impressive.  For you fellow LOTR nerds out there, these are the filming locations we saw: the river where the Fellowship rows towards the Argonath; the quarry where Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith sets were built; the river in Boromir's dream sequence about Faramir dying; the Gladden Fields; Lothlorien (the shore where the Fellowship receives their gifts from Galadriel and where she bids them farewell); the gate of Rivendell; Saruman's gardens; and the place where Frodo tells the other Hobbits to get off the road because of the approaching Nazgul.  We also went to the Weta workshop and saw a lot of props from the movies.  It was great, nerdy fun.

We only got a little taste of Wellington, but from what we saw it looks to be a super cool city.  One of our few regrets about the trip is that we didn't have more time there.

Where we stayed:

- Apollo Lodge Motel.  Good location, and like the other places we stayed, very basic.

What we wish we had more time for:

- Te Papa National Museum
- hiking to the top of Mount Victoria

What we learned:

We didn't have a car in Wellington, and from what I saw, I'm glad.  Driving there seemed a little intimidating.  Also, if you are a coffee snob, Wellington is your place.

Day 8 - 11: Rotorua

We left Wellington midday to fly to Rotorua, a couple hours north on the North Island.  Rotorua is best known for a couple of things: (a) being a very important cultural center for Maori people, and (b) being very stinky because of all the geothermal activity there.  We were staying in Rotorua primarily as our base for exploring various things in the region, and I got so focused on the activities we were going to do that I didn't give much thought to Rotorua itself, but I wound up being very impressed by its beauty, which I can only describe as being a mix of the pastoral -- impossibly green rolling hills as far as the eye can see, dotted with sheep -- and the ethereal -- ancient forests, steam venting from the ground in random places, and the geysers, boiling mud, and acid pools.

What we did:

- hike in Whakawerawera redwood forest, which was magical. The drizzle only enhanced it.
- drive to Tongariro National Park, about two hours south of Rotorua, to hike and catch glimpses of Mounts Ruhapehu, Ngauruhoe, or Tongariro, active volcanoes that were all used as some part of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.  Alas, it was a drizzly day with low-lying clouds, so all the volcanoes were obscured, but we still had a lovely hike to Taranaki Falls.
- visit Waikite Valley Thermal pools, a collection of hot springs pools a little off the beaten track.  Soaking in the hot water outdoors at night in light drizzle was one of my favorite parts of our vacation.
- ziplining in a rainforest just outside of town, an experience that was, again, enhanced by the drizzle.  I was a little nervous because I'd never ziplined before, but now that I've done it I wish I could travel everywhere by zipline.
- Hobbiton (the Shire) in Matamata.  This is the filming location for Hobbiton in LOTR and The Hobbit.  It is a tiny portion of a real sheep farm, and the film crew lovingly set up about 20 or 30 permanent Hobbit holes (facades only) that all have incredible detail and look homey and lived in. The village also includes a mill and the Green Dragon pub.  Sometimes when you're really stoked about doing a tour, you end up being a little disappointed by how cheesy it is in real life.  Not this.  It is absolutely stunning, It was my favorite part of our time on the North Island.
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.  There are several thermal parks in Rotorua.  I mean, it's a must-do thing.  Even though it smelled like barbecued, sweaty gym socks with a hint of hot dogs, it is really cool to see all the weirdly colored acidic pools and giggle (if you're immature like me) over plopping mud bubbles.

Where we stayed:

- RotoVegas Motel.  The rooms are decked out in kitschy '60s style, which could be charming or horribly garish, depending on your taste.  Easy walk to downtown.

What we learned:

- Don't walk around the lake near sunset unless trying to escape from swarms of lake flies by waving your arms and running like a maniac seems fun.

What we wish we had more time for:

- a traditional Maori cultural evening

Day 12: Drive to Auckland via Waitomo

It was time to make our way to Auckland, and on the way, we stopped at Waitomo, home of the famous glowworm caves.  The drive from Rotorua took about two hours through the gorgeous Waikato region.  The glowworm caves are one of those quintessential NZ things.  You kinda hafta go.  There are actually several cave systems, not just the one with the glowworms in it, and you can either do a walking tour or get a little more crazy and raft and abseil in them.  We considered doing the blackwater rafting, but decided to do just a walking  tour through three caves since we still had a long-ass drive to Auckland ahead of us.

I really love the cool, quiet otherwordliness of caves, and I enjoyed every minute inside three caves we visited: Ruakuri, Aranui, and Waitomo.  It is humbling to be near something that took millions of years to form, and is still continuing to change.  The silent boat ride underneath a cavern ceiling chock-a-block with glowworms was the cherry on top of our day there.  It was like being outside on a clear summer night, looking at the stars.

Days 13-14: Auckland

Auckland is NZ's biggest city, and we only saw a little of it.  We stayed right downtown near a couple of main drags, and most of our time was spent walking around this part of the city.  I'd heard a lot of people describe Auckland as "meh" and "skippable", but I went in with an open mind to see it for myself.  Since we really only saw the downtown area, I can only speak to that and say that it had some interesting little joints, but I'm guessing it is not the most exciting part of the city.

What we did:

- walk around downtown a bunch
- visit the Auckland Art Gallery on a rainy day, which I thought would be a little boring but was really, really cool, especially the Maori portraits.
- Mt. Eden overlook
- drive out to the Waitakere Ranges, a rainforest with lots of hiking trails on the west side of Auckland.  We did a small loop hike near the visitor's center, then drove further down toward the coast to hike a longer trail on a clifftop overlooking the Tasman Sea.
- walked along the black sand beach at the small surfing community near Piha.  It was a really wild, windy beach with huge rock formations reminiscent of the Oregon Coast.

Where we stayed:

- City Lodge Backpackers.  Dirt cheap, great location.  Essentially a dorm room.

What we wish we had more time for:

- exploring some of the different neighborhoods
- taking a cruise out to Rangitoto or some of the other islands
- hanging out at the beach, if the weather was a little nicer
- a longer hike in Waitakere

What we learned:

We finished our journey in a small hostel room right in the heart of the city, and looking back I think ending a two-week vacation in such tight quarters amid the hustle and bustle was not the best way to unwind and decompress, but that is a minor quibble.  When you spend two weeks in paradise, it's hard to get bummed out by much of anything.

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