Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Zealand, part 1 (Auckland and Taupo)

New Zealand is a country I've always wanted to visit, so it was a must-see on this trip. We flew from Fiji to Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, at the top of the North Island. Most of the flight was water, of course, but as we drew close to New Zealand we saw islands with sheer rocky cliffs dropping off into the ocean, topped with rolling hills of green grass. It was stunning from first sight.

Auckland is a charming city. Our hotel was along the waterfront and we could easily walk to many great restaurants. We had authentic New York pizza one night, and on another ate gourmet tacos at one of the best Mexican restaurants I've found outside of North America. Actually, we've found a lot of Mexican restaurants everywhere we've traveled, and have even seen Mexican food products in grocery stores in various places. I had no idea Mexican food was so popular outside of North America!

One day we visited one of the many islands near Auckland, Waiheke. We took a ferry acriss the bay and then rented a car once we arrived, and spent the day exploring. One of our first stops was at a beach, where we let Carter play for a while.

There were beautiful tiny seashells on this beach, like these nautilus shells with iridescent central spirals. The photo doesn't quite capture it. 

It was chilly, but that didn't stop Carter from taking off his shoes and digging in the sand.

The scenery was just gorgeous, absolutely stunning: rolling green hills dotted with sheep and cows, rocky cliffs that drop of into turquoise oceans, and winding roads that let you experience the landscape with every rise and drop and turn.

How picturesque is this?

In one instance, we went through a copse of trees and around a bend, and then found a cove with a lovely beach. We stopped for a little while, of course.

The views were stunning in every direction.

Here's a shot of our rental car. We kept stopping to take pictures, as you might imagine.

This particular island is also one of the many wine regions in New Zealand. Though the country is mostly known for its white wines, this area produces mostly red wine, syrah in particular. There are quite a few wineries on the island, and we decided to visit a few of the better known ones. The first winery we visited was Passage Rock.

We were delighted to learn that, not only did the winery have a restaurant, but also a nice little area for kids to play, complete with a trampoline. As you may remember from our Australia post, many wineries in this part of the world provide a play area or even just a basket of toys for small children to play with. This is such a fantastic perk, and I really wish all wineries would do it.

We had a fantastic lunch at the winery, followed by some wine-tasting. Carter played and had a blast, and I looked around the little restaurant and out the window and thought how lovely it would be to live in a place where you could just drive over to a winery (one that produces good wine), have lunch, and enjoy a pleasant afternoon.

We visited another winery that afternoon and drove around. It began to rain, which put a bit of a damper on our sight-seeing, but once it cleared we had time to stop at a playground so Carter could run around.

It was also by a beach, of course!

One thing I've been doing on this trip is taking pictures to use as computer desktop backgrounds. My background is then always a beautiful picture of a place we've been. There were piles and piles of shells on this particular beach, and so I took this picture.

We watched the sun set here before heading back to the ferry terminal and back to Auckland.

On another day, we drove around the Auckland wine region. It was a rainy day, which made it difficult for Carter because he couldn't really play outside while we were tasting wine. We found a cafe for breakfast along the way and then visited a few wineries. In particular, we visited the Nobilo Winery, which is a label we see a lot at home.

I can't remember which winery this vineyard belonged to, unfortunately, but it was beautiful.

After a few visits to places that didn't have toy boxes, Carter began to protest the winery visits, and so we decided to check out an Auckland-area amusement park called Crystal Mountain. It was sort of a strange operation, with a petting zoo and a couple of rides, and a museum of crystals and a cafe. I think Carter had fun, though.

They had a tiny little roller coaster that we rode. Someone walked over to open it up for us, and we were the only riders. She basically let us ride continuously until we were done.

After a couple of days in Auckland we packed up and drove  a few hundred kilometers south to Lake Taupo. It was definitely the off-season, but it looks like a really popular vacation destination in the summer. There is a lot of geo-thermal activity in the area, and as we drove into town we could see steam randomly rising from the ground.

We had a lovely view of the lake from our hotel room.

We drove down to town to look for a particular restaurant, only to find it was closed that day. We passed this McDonalds on the way, which has an actual DC-3 as part of its play area. We decided to go back there for dinner so we could check it out.

The inside of the plane had been refitted as a dining room, though it was a bit cold to eat in there that evening. Still, very cool!

One of the things we wanted to do here was go on a jet boat ride. Jet boats are boats with internal propellers that can go very fast in very shallow water and are highly maneuverable.

I was a little worried that we would get wet, and it seemed a bit cold to do this sort of thing, but happily they provided us with ponchos.

I usually don't buy the photo packages these sorts of things offer, but in this case I really liked the pictures.

We also got a video of our ride!  In this you can see the driver do a few 360 degree turns, which was a lot of fun.

The jet boat went all the way up to Huka Falls, a really lovely waterfall. Our driver told us that nearby was an place where they shot some scenes for part 2 of the next installment of The Hobbit. So when you see the movie, look for the scene of the dwarves hurtling down rapids in barrels -- filmed near this spot!

After our jet boat ride, we went to check out another local tourist attraction, a honey store. I've since seen a lot of honey stores as we've driven through New Zealand, so apparently this is a thing here? They had actual bee hives you could look at, which Carter really loved, and also had honey and mead tasting. There was also a cafe where we had honey-flavored ice cream - YUM.

The lake was really lovely. I think that in the summertime there is a lot of boating and fishing to do here.

Carter had fun playing in the city park.

On another day we drove out to Orakei Korako Thermal Park. I've never even been to Yellowstone, so I haven't seen a thermal park before. The steam you can see across the water are the thermal vents.

We rode a boat across the river to the thermal park.

And this is basically what you go there to see! Steam rising from the ground, geysers spraying water into the air, all powered by the earth. Amazing!

It is really stunning to think that we were walking past streams of boiling hot water.

Here is a video of one of the geysers.

As I keep repeating, the landscape in New Zealand is incredibly beautiful. Everywhere you turn, there are incredible sights, even in the dead of winter.

That looks like a waterfall, but it's stone, all formed by the geo-thermal activity.

We even saw some boiling pools of mud.

The walk around the park was a really interesting one, and the last leg took us through a bit of forest.

The trees look prehistoric! They're like palm trees, but the fronds look like fern fronds. Crazy!

Here are a few more shots of the steamy landscape.

And that was just the first week! From there we drove about four hours down to Wellington, where we spent a couple of rainy days before heading to the South Island. That will be detailed in the next post.


  1. I can't read your update without thinking of the hobbits!
    One day in the hopefully near future I will ask for your whole itinerary of New Zealand and I will retrace it with my family!

  2. Hooray the seven continent smiths have made it to New Zealand!!


    i'm from Wellington teh capital, i hope you manage to get down here.. cause welly is the best!! if somewhat windy and rainy..