Back in August, my mom came to visit my partner and me in Australia! It was an amazing visit and of course we did all the expected Sydney-tourism things. That said, my mom is a HUGE Lord of the Rings fan (as am I) so we decided to hop over to New Zealand for a road trip. For some reason Aussies really get annoyed by the American mentality of “Well I’ll be in Australia so I may as well visit New Zealand.” After visiting New Zealand I have comfortably decided that it’s because they are jealous their country has to be the size of America just to have as much terrain variation as New Zealand 😛 I’m sorry to my Australian friends but I couldn’t resist the jab. Also Kiwis are, as expected, very nice.
What better way to see Northern New Zealand than by driving the entire island.
We Landed in Auckland in the evening with immediate plans to go out and find the best dessert in town. Just a short walk from our hotel was the famous Giapo ice cream shop. Their creations are out of this world with strange mix-ins, ornate toppings, and flavors that make you go “hm, I have no idea what that is.” Basically, it’s my dream ice cream shop. Being winter, I treated myself to a lovely, warm yorkshire pudding with ice cream something-or-other on top that I still dream about. My mom enjoyed a decadent chocolate work of art.
Early next morning I went for a 4 mile run through the Auckland Domain, which was absolutely lovely. Admittedly, it’s a very sleepy town with nearly no one about at that time of morning. As much as I love early morning running, I started to panic when I found myself too far from the hotel with a tight departure schedule. Naturally, this schedule was my own doing, but one must stick to one’s own plans. I huffed and puffed my way back to the hotel and we set out for Matamata. We had a date with Hobbits.
Our route was admittedly tough for a 4.5 day itinerary. There were a lot of early starts and long stretches of driving. Luckily, the Damerst family is a tough lot! We’ve done the hard yards of short, international vacations before. (If you’re interested in our full itinerary, I’ve provided the PDF at the bottom of this post! A lot of credit for ideas on what to do and where to go goes to Type A Trips).
Interested in doing Hobbiton? I can’t stress enough how incredible and absolutely worth-it the banquet is. Yes, it’s a lot more expensive. Yes, it only happens so often but is, without a doubt, one of my best travel memories to date. We actually planned our whole trip around being in Matamata on the right day for a banquet. It ended up being way better than I anticipated. Added bonus – It’s always the last tour of the day, so the lighting is wonderful for photography.
We enjoyed the movie set tour, per the usual tour program, but afterwards, when all the other tour groups have finished, the tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn. A warm fire and (one) free cider was waiting for us as dinner was prepared. The ambience was nothing shy of perfect, with the sun setting and the drinks setting in. After about an hour of taking pictures and making friends in the foyer, the red, velvet curtain is drawn to reveal the most lovely banquet I’ve seen in a long time. Traditional English foods such as bangers and mash just waiting to be devoured. No matter your preferences, there is something for everyone on the table. We take out seats at the communal tables and tuck in.
After dinner, we step outside to see the magical world of Middle Earth all lit up with lanterns dotted across the hills. Our tour guide leads us to “the big tree” under which Bilbo’s birthday scene was filmed. They ask us to turn our lanterns off and look up to the sky, where the milky way is visible on this night. We all dance and sing a final goodbye to Hobbiton and return home.
We awoke to a beautiful view of farmlands sparking in the morning frost. Our gracious Bed and Breakfast hosts feed us fresh eggs and milk from nearby farmland and we make our way to Rotorua. There is a news report about the Taupo-Napier pass being shut, but we set out anyways, in hope that the snow melts.
Right on schedule, we arrive at Kuirau park for a morning wander around the geothermal pools. The whole town smells strongly of sulfur, but if you can move past that, the pools were so cool! Bubbling and steaming in the winter air, we loved taking pictures and chatting with lovely Korean tourists sitting at the free foot spa.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend staying in Rotorua overnight. For us, just a stop was enough. Exploring the nearby volcanoes would have been ideal, but many of those require multi-day hikes. Next time!
We set out down the Thermal Highway through towns completely entrenched in steam from the surrounding geothermal activity. I find these towns hauntingly beautiful, constantly shrouded in clouds. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of hikes to do on this route and I certainly plan to go back for some treks.
Lake Taupo is just as beautiful as we hoped it would be, as we arrive mid-morning for a coffee break and some shopping. We have a walk around the lake, visit Replete Cafe for a coffee and a cake, do a little browsing of the cute shops, before setting out to Napier.
Just outside of town we run into a long line of traffic and police road blocks; The road is still shut. We wait 30 minute before my mom gets out to ask the nice cop what he recommends (She’s always the more outgoing between the two of us). Lucky she does, he recommends we set out for Palmerston North, hooking back north to Hastings.
The part of the trip I was looking forward to the most (after Hobbiton, of course) evades us as we spend the rest of the day driving. We wanted an afternoon of sipping wine and relaxing in our lovely cottage, but mother nature had other plans. The drive to Hastings is long and treacherous (To me at least, mom is a Denver-native and doesn’t bat an eye at the black ice). Luckily, this new route meant we got to see the Great Desert Highway and Mount Ngauruhoe (a.k.a. Mount Doom). The vast, snow-covered fields were really beautiful and helped alleviate the disappointment of missing out on Napier. We decided it was a sign that we will return to NZ some day.
By the time we arrive in Hastings, it’s nightfall and raining. Making the best of it, we drop our stuff off at our cottage and head over to Vidal for dinner, one of the only wineries (Restaurants, even) still open. Dinner is pricey, but nice and we enjoy lovely wine while having the place to ourselves (It’s definitely the off-season).
The next morning we awake to a stunning view in our cozy cottage, and I head out for a brisk run. Sheep dotted hills and uninterrupted nature as far as the eye can see make Hastings my favorite city so far. What’s better, our cottage provided fresh eggs, bacon and bread in our refrigerator. We cook up a wonderful meal and enjoy the morning from the deck.
All too soon, we say goodbye to Napier, Hastings, and Hawkes Bay as we set out for Wellington.
The drive to Wellington is beautiful, with the last 1.5 hours being some of the best views on the trip. I’m instantly in love with this city, with it’s wind and temperamental climate. It reminds me of San Francisco and I never want to leave. We visit Mt. Victoria lookout and the surrounding park, where many of the opening sequences of The Fellowship of the Ring were filmed before going to the Weta Workshop and Cave. We thought we had booked the whole-day tour but unfortunately we had only booked the half day, so we missed out on seeing “Rivendell,” or at least the mountainside they composed the city onto with CGI magic. Another sign we need to return some day.
After a long day of tours and driving, we wander around Cuba street before deciding on good-old fish n’ chips for dinner. The vibe of this city speaks to me and I decide to live here one day. I’m sure my Aussie partner would totally go for that.
With heavy hearts, we wake up early the next day and set out for the airport. Thankfully, there are amazing Weta creations all around the airport to send us off on a good note.
For anyone considering this journey, my recommendation would be to stretch it out to a week. Our tight schedule made the trip somewhat stressful and an extra day would have helped greatly. That said, it was an absolutely jam-packed, wonderful, whirlwind trip. Thanks mom for suggesting the hop across the Tasman Sea!