Part 3: Exploring New Zealand’s Beautiful North Island

Intro: Building A New Zealand Adventure Around A One Way Qantas Flight
Part 1: Getting To New Zealand Via Asia
Part 2: Spending A Couple Recovery Days In Kuala Lumpur
Part 3: Exploring New Zealand’s Beautiful North Island
Part 4: Exploring New Zealand’s Beautiful South Island
Part 5: A Short Stopover In Sydney And The Ride Home

With little time between trips to plan anything myself, I decided to book an eleven day organized tour with G Adventures, a company I had used previously for a trip to Galapagos.  G Adventures guarantees there will be no more than 16 people in each group, the actual average being closer to 12.  The dates were perfect, the itinerary included key locations and experiences, and because I booked last minute and off season, the tour was discounted by 25%.   I soon learned that there would only be three of us plus our full time driver / guide on the tour.  Awesome!

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11 Day New Zealand Itinerary

After sleeping through the red eye Malaysian flight to Sydney, once on the ground, I headed to the Qantas business lounge for some breakfast, and then boarded a near empty LAN flight from Sydney to Auckland.   Upon landing I located the airport bus that would take me directly into the city, the last stop conveniently right next to my hotel for the night – The Hilton Auckland.

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Airbus Express Ticket Booth

The hotel is situated on the end of a pier, with amazing views of the harbor – which were included with my upgraded harbor view, corner room!

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Amazing Views Of Auckland Harbor

I didn’t plan anything more than exploring Auckland on foot, since I would be meeting up with my tour less than 24 hours after arrival. Limited initial impressions (and with the hindsight of having now been to both islands) are that if you have limited time in the country, don’t spend too much of it in Auckland.  Nothing wrong with it, there’s just so much more to see and do in this amazing contry!

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Beautiful Albert Park
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Auckland Sky Tower At Night

After a great Hilton breakfast, at which steak was being served, (!) I packed up and headed over to The Pullman hotel, where I would meet up with my fellow travelers and guide for dinner and where we would spend our first night.

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Steak – For Breakfast!

The group consisted of a pharmacist, insurance sales woman, and our expat South African guide.  And me!  We headed out early, and began our journey amongst beautiful sceneic countryside and farmland, which would only get better as the trip progressed.

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Our Spacious 16 Seat Mercedes Van For The Road Trip

Lodging, most meals, transport, and several activities were all included in the price of the package.  It was a ‘comfort’ style trip, which meant upgraded hotels, as opposed to multi-share dorm style hostels, available as part of some of the other styles of tours.  Our nearly new Mercedes van was equipped to transport at least 16 people, giving us ample room to spread out or even sleep.   We all got along famously, and being a small group allowed for a measure of flexibility not normally possible with a larger group.  I’m not really an organized tour type of person, but I was really happy with this one.

Our first stop, and lodging for the night would be in Raglan – a small beach town with a huge surfer community.  En route, we stopped several times for small hikes or to view beautiful waterfalls or other pretty things.  It was winter, so the roads and attractions were nearly empty.  Yet the weather was perfect, if not a little cold, which is to be expected in winter.

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Bridal Veil Falls
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Raglan Harbor, Normally Bustling In Summertime

After an amazing dinner, we turned in and prepared for the early morning departure and ride through Tangariro National Park.  We would be overnighting at Chateau Tongariro, a historic hotel in the middle of the park.

After breakfast and a tour of a very interesting local sustainable farm, we stopped in Waitomo, famous for  underground caves filled with millions and millions of glow worms.  They’re not the easiest things to photograph but it’s definitely a unique experience not to be missed.

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Shining The Light On Glow Worms

As we entered the National Park and progressively gained altitude, we encountered our first snow of the trip.  It’s pretty unusual to get snow at the altitude we were traveling, but a cold weather front was beginning to come through and by the time we arrived, it was a winter wonderland!

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Traveling Through Tangariro National Park

It was late by the time we arrived, but I was looking forward to some good hikes the following morning, but Mother Nature had other ideas.  We awoke to crystal clear skies and a deep layer of fresh snow.  The fresh powder made any significant hiking next to impossible.  But it was a lot of fun to play in the snow!

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Chateau Tongariro With Fresh Covering Of Snow

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Snowman Posing In Front Of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom From The Lord Of The Rings)

After digging the van out of the snow, we hit the road, traveling down the mountain and through the Lake Taupo region en route to our final destination for the night the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua.   After more breathtaking scenery (a recurring theme…)  we stopped for lunch   in the resort town of Lake Taupo, a popular summer destination with lots of private boats and holiday residences.  The lake and town were a bit sleepy in winter, but no less beautiful.  I did a bit of wandering and ran into one of the coolest McDonalds around!

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Enjoy Your Big Mac In A DC-3

We later stopped for a short hike along Huka Falls, an area of the Waikatu river that narrows causing  powerful rapids followed by a dramatic falls.

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Huka Falls Rapids

Next we stopped at Waiotapu Thermal Park – advertised as a “Geothermal Wonderland” created around a landscape of bubbling mud, geysers, vocanic craters, and naturally heated and colorful lakes.

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Steaming Geothermal Lake
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Colorful Bubling Pools

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After checking into our Rotorua hotel, we hopped on a bus to for an organized visit to a historic Maori Village.  I was skeptical, not being one for  touristy type canned tours, but this one was really good.  We were first educated on ancient ways of living including housing, traditional dress, customs, food, gender roles, body and facial tattoos, etc.

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Maori Sleeping Hut

After a performance of ritual song and dance numbers, we were served dinner prepared using the traditional hangi method, consisting of using heated rocks buried in a pit oven to cook the meal.

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Dinner Being Removed From Traditional Hangi Oven
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Part Of The Maori Culture – Scary Facial Expressions And Tribal Tatoos

The next day, we headed out early to catch our Air New Zealand flight to Christchurch.  On the way, we had just enough time for a visit to a living Maori village, situated on and around geothermal lakes, used for everything from bathing to cooking meals.

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Using Geothermal Resources To Power A Village

I was very surprised to discover that intra-New Zealand flights require no security screenings whatsoever.  How refreshing to be able to board a plane, liquids and all, without being felt up or having belongings rifled through.  The only thing better was the special Air New Zealand black plane livery gracing our ride to Christchurch!

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Special Black Air New Zealand Livery

NEXT – Part 4:  Exploring New Zealand’s Beautiful South Island

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