w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
New Zealand is breathtaking. Sprawled over two islands and riddled with volcanoes, geothermal hot springs, bubbling mud pits, golden beaches, emerald coves, world-class wineries and snow-capped mountains. If you can stomach the long flight, it’s definitely worth a visit!
We started in the North Island, where we spent six fantastic days exploring Auckland. The Airbnb gods were on our side and we lucked out with a luxurious cottage in the very cool Grey Lynn/Ponsonby area. We brunched, gallery hopped, hiked Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill, biked Tamaki Drive and took the ferry to Waiheke Island for wine tasting and beach romping. Auckland may very well be the laid-back California of my dreams; a diverse, urban environment surrounded by mountains and water, perfect weather, emphasis on clean, outdoor living and some of the nicest, most laid-back people we’ve met thus far. In fact, it's impossible to stay lost for very long because if you linger even one beat at an intersection, a Kiwi will sense your hesitation, sidle up and ask, “Hey mate, need some help?” It was, perhaps, the only place other than Rome that I could imagine myself living.
Hanging out at the Ponsonby Central Art Show.
Just a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island is a haven of secluded beaches nestled among quaint towns and lovely vineyards.
We “wasted” a perfectly good morning swimming and wave jumping.
And then hit up Stonyridge Vineyard for a fantastic lunch.
Auckland rests on 55 volcanic cones; among it’s most famous is Mt. Eden. The great views are worth the hike.
We also made it to One Tree Hill with its grassy terraces and dramatic, wavy landscape.
The kids hate museums, but loved the Auckland Museum where you can experience a simulated eruption in the Volcano Room, repellent with an explosive blast and jerking furniture. And of course we had to pry Isoo from the stuffed kiwis.
Auckland Art Gallery is located next to Auckland University and shares its outdoor space with the pretty Albert Park. The great location and accessibility (free admission!) make the mostly “meh” collection forgivable. My favorite piece was Seung Yul Oh’s giant plastic bubbles entitled Soom (which for the non-Korean speakers translates to Breath).
On our sixth day, we picked up our RV and headed north to Coromandel to dip our toes in the famed Hot Water Beach. We had wanted to kayak Cathedral Cove, but as novices to the RV pump and dump (it’s as fun as it sounds), we got a late start and had to race straightaway to Rotorua for our scheduled Hobbiton Tour and dinner at the Mitai Maori Village. I can’t decide which felt more like Disneyland as both were expensive, crowded, commercial and gimmicky, but despite its “culture lite” approach, we ended up having a blast and managed to learn a lot.
Near Tongariro (a National Park in which much of the Lord Of The Rings movies are filmed) we hiked to thermal spas and waterfalls, and trekked the Northern Circuit of the Alpine Crossing, which was pretty much like hiking Maui, Southern Utah and the West Coast of Ireland all condensed into a stunning four mile mile stretch. Oona really wanted to do the 12 mile hike and climb to the top of Mt. Ngauruhoe to drop a ring into the fires of Mordor, but we were short on the time, stamina and the $150 needed to buy the reproduction “ring to rule all rings” sold at the Hobbiton gift shop.
The RV was pretty nice as far as RV’s go, but NZ roads are notoriously windy. Here we are in the few rare, smiley moments. Truth is that we spent most of the drive car sick and picking up stuff that slid off the counters, tables, etc.
Getting into hot water at Hot Water Beach. The day we hit the beach was a cold and rainy one. Good thing a geothermal spring bubbled beneath the shore. Arrive two hours on either side of low tide and wiggle your feet in the sand for a blistering hot foot bath.
Beach girl in Hot Water.
The campsites in NZ were not what we expected – more pavement than grass, not a scrap of privacy and a strict “no fire” ban that left the kids hungry for s’mores. But we lucked out with our beachside campsite in Coromandel where we woke up to crashing waves, sandy feet and morning coffee with a view.
I’m not a Hobbit nerd, but even I found this tour interesting. It took Peter Jackson two years to build the Shire for what turned out to be 15 minutes of movie footage. It was dismantled and then rebuilt for each installment until the owners of the farmland suggested leaving it up as permanent attraction. Jackson agreed and while the houses themselves are empty, in accordance with NZ laws, each Hobbit hole is built to code and officially deemed livable. Just wipe your hairy feet on the doormat before entering.
We joined the hordes of tour groups and headed to Mitai Maori Village for a show, traditional Hangi feast and glowworm bushwalk.
We stopped in Taupo to visit the Thermal Spa and hike to Huka Falls. Along the way Isoo and Chris couldn’t resist jumping into the super deep, emerald green river, but despite much urging, Oona insisted that she was too scared. Isoo was thrilled when she surprised them by taking the plunge.
Hiking the Alpine Crossing at Tongariro National Park. Next time we sleep in a hut and do a three day hike like the real trampers.
Isoo got a floppy hat. It’s official: He’s a birder.
In Wellington we camped in a parking lot downtown overlooking the harbor. I won’t even call it a “gloried parking lot” because it didn’t even try to be anything other than an expensive city car park with a couple of stanky public toilets. It was noisy, dirty and incredibly crowded. When we told the kids we were staying two nights, they threatened to call the NZ equivalent of DCFS (cue eye roll). Despite our location, it was great to be in a city again and we managed to fit in a couple of delicious meals, museum visits and strolls by the water. If ever you’re in Wellington, you must visit the Te Papa Museum – its Maori exhibits are a fantastic way to learn about the culture and history of the indigenous New Zealanders.
While we were in Wellington we met a 60 year-old Cambodian refugee who had escaped Phnom Penh during Pol Pot’s reign. His father, a member of the old Parliament, had been murdered, and he himself only survived by hiding in the jungle for 6 months. He finally made his way to Thailand where he was reunited with 10 surviving family members. After several months at a relocation camp he and his family were granted asylum. They had to submit paperwork to enter a placement lottery. Each form had room for only 4 names so between the 11 of them they filled out 3 sets. They did not realize they could staple the forms together, which is how he and 3 of his family member ended up in Wellington, and the other 7 family members in the U.S. We told him that we had just visited Cambodia a month prior. As most of the elderly were killed and only the lucky few managed to escape, we were deeply grateful to be able to meet him and hear his story firsthand.
Home sweet home - our Wellington digs. Oh well, at least we had a sweet view of the harbor.
Wellington and its famous cable car.
Outside the excellent Te Papa Museum, thrill seekers take turns diving into the bay off the South Pacific.
Loading the RV onto the ferry to cross the Cook Strait.
Chris and I spent the 3 hour ferry ride pouring over a map, trying to figure out a way to hit all of the South Island’s sights. In the end, we gave up – two weeks is just not enough time to see everything – so we stopped briefly for a wine tasting and some petanque at the Cloudy Bay Winery in Marlborough before heading west (a lucky pick as Cyclone Pam was already on its way to close down all attractions on the east coast).
We ended up at Abel Tasman National Park setting up camp at a great little RV park across from the beach. A speed boat dropped us off on a gorgeous stretch of golden sand for a picnic lunch and from there we hiked through forests, crossed rivers and splashed around emerald green coves. We had a fantastic time at Abel Tasman until the very last second when Chris made a spontaneous turn and hit a post on the way out, pulling off the RV’s side rail.
After a relatively quick and painless repair, we were back on the road, headed to the Pancake Rock of Punakaiki. Everyone we spoke to warned against spending too much time in the north or lingering too long at each spot saying, “There's just too much to see in the south!” In the end, we wish we’d slowed down and spent a couple of days watching the surfers and the seals ride the waves of the west coast.
The NW corner of the South Island has gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches and emerald green coves that empty out into the crystal blue ocean.
NZ takes Customs very, very seriously. To keep their environment pristine Customs officials inspect the soles of shoes to ensure that visitors don’t accidentally import plant or animal pests. Also prohibited? Outside food and drink. We ended up having to dump all the snacks and drinks we’d brought for the long flight. Abel Tasman National Park takes it one step further – in 2007 the island of Adele poisoned all of its stoats and rats and is officially pest free. You know I totally want to move there.
The Rope Bridge at Abel Tasman.
I loved the wild west coast with its gorgeous rock formations, clean beaches and killer waves.
Lunch at Bay House Cafe overlooking surfers. After our tasty meal, we walked to Foulwind Seal Colony and watched hundreds of wild seals swim and play in the water.
The stacked rock formations at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks. Go at high tide and watch the blow holes spout water high into the air.
Oona watching nature’s TV.
Hands down the best thing we did in New Zealand was visit the Franz Josef Glacier. We hiked over volcanic rocks and past waterfalls to the base, but to get up close and personal, you have to board a helicopter. We donned crampons and snow gear and even managed a three hour heli-hike. Our guide Ollie led us over the blue tinged terrain through ice tunnels and past ever changing ice formations. Talk about bucket list!
Ironically, despite our heavy snow gear, the weather on the glacier was warm and sunny, a sharp contrast to the temperature in Queenstown. We rolled into our urban campsite/parking lot just in time for lots of freezing rain. Queenstown may be the NZ’s adrenaline capital, but all we wanted to do was cuddle up under some blankets and watch a movie. We ran to the supermarket for snacks and DVDs and spent most of the Queenstown segment in the RV. But we did manage to get in come luging before the rain washed away our plans to bungy jump.
Hiking over the volcanic rock to Franz Josef.
Getting ready for take off. All systems go!
Ollie gave Isoo an ice pick and let him lead the hike. Thankfully, Isoo did not trip!
Emerging from ice tunnels and scaling hills.
The really cool thing about glaciers is that they melt, move and re-freeze. Ollie says no two hikes are alike. This ice formation was only expected to last a couple of days till the next rain.
I’m not much of a skier because I absolutely loathe the chair lift. Unfortunately, it was the only way to get to the top of the luge course. Here I am holding on to Isoo for dear life. Why do my kids insist on doing things that require scaling tall heights?
Isoo speeding down the hill with Queenstown looming in the background.
Isoo really wanted to see the critically endangered, highly elusive, Black Stilt. We drove to Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki prepared for disappointment, but instead, eagle-eye Isoo found several in the first five minutes. To my right loomed the majestic Mt. Cook, to my left the sparkling turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki. Black birds chirped, rabbits hopped and all I could think was that in two blessed days we would be in Christchurch, in a hotel with internet, heated pool, marble bath and a proper bar. When a school bus pulled into the campsite and unloaded 85 screaming kids, we considered Mission Black Stilt complete, unplugged the camper and cut out early for Christchurch.
Driving to Christchurch Isoo pointed out, “Mom, I don’t think we are RV people; I think we are luxury hotel people.” Oona put it more bluntly: "All I want is to shower without wearing shoes, sit on a real toilet seat, and get some space from you people!” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know what I was thinking suggesting a motorhome. It’s not like we needed any more together time, least of all in a tightly packed space without doors to separate us. But New Zealand is expensive and sprawling with gorgeous scenic drives, low fuel costs and well maintained roads. At the time it sounded like a no brainer. Now I know!
Lake Pukaki's amazing turquoise waters.
Hiking Mt. Cook.
One perk to RVing? A table with a view.
Isoo applauds as we pull into the RV return center.
Last but not least, we had low expectations for Christchurch. Since the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes the city is still in a state of rebuild. Yes, cranes line the city streets and most of the major sites are still cordoned off, but the city’s love of art and spirit of innovation are evident. Re:Start, a mall of temporary shops housed in metal shipping containers is helping to revitalize the commercial district.
The biggest of the earthquakes hit 7.1 on the Richter scale, and in just 24 seconds, resulted in 181 deaths, leveling a quarter of buildings in the city’s center. From the looks of it, the 20 year plan to rebuild the city is very slow going.
Yet another great NZ museum – the Antarctic Centre, is compact, informative and hands-on. A concierge greets you at the front desk and then helps to plan out your itinerary so you don’t miss any of the good stuff. We got to experience a simulated Artic Storm, brave the chill of freezing cold water, learn about life in modern day Antarctica, watch Little Blue Penguins dive for fish, watch it snow…indoors! And enjoy a rollercoaster Hagglund Ride. Not to mention I finally understand that whole global warming thing. Every museum should take a page out of this one!
If I could do it all over again, I would have added another night in Coromandel to kayak Cathedral Cove, an extra day lazing on the west coast and booked a whale watching trip in Kaikoura (minus Cyclone Pam). Despite everyone’s claim, we actually preferred the North Island to the South Island. Queenstown/Mt. Cook/Lake Pukaki felt very much like the Inter-mountain region of America and while beautiful, it lacked the culture and diversity of the north. And next time I suggest an RV trip, remind me that I am a “luxury hotel person”. But whatever you favor, however way you see it, NZ has something for everyone.
A city with a plan.
Learning about the seasons in Antarctica's. Boarding the exciting Hagglund.
Art abounds! Prettying up a city in transition.
Yup, NZ in a nutshell!