New Zealand – November 2013

I know I’m not the first person to say this, and I definitely won’t be the last, but New Zealand is a spectacular country.  We only spent a few days there but there’s no doubt we’ll be going back one day.

New Zealand, to me, is a bit like Australia but with only the good bits.  Everyone seems very happy, the food is fresh and succulent and cheap (three punnets of strawberries for $6? – don’t mind if I do), and everywhere you turn there’s an amazing piece of geology.

We started our week-long trip flying from Boston to Auckland via San Francisco.  Our first surprise came on our Air NZ flight where we found the legroom to be plentiful and the food to be not just edible, but actually tasty.

On landing in Auckland we did what everyone else seemed to be doing, and got on a shuttle bus, rather than a taxi.  Our reward was a sunrise drive through town with the radio blasting.  Our next surprise came when we arrived at the Sofitel at about 7am and were told our room was ready.

I should mention here that both of us were recovering from colds, and my husband had put his back out not 24hrs before getting on the flight.  Despite this, after a long and steaming hot shower each, we decided to walk into the city centre, get breakfast (hot chocolate, coffee, a scroll and some wifi) and have a quick look at the sights.  But about 12pm we were both so ridiculously exhausted that we couldn’t resist our bed.

In the evening we met up with an old school friend for dinner on the harbour.  We both decided on fish and chips and when they arrived we devoured it.  We commented that this was the best food we’d eaten in many months: to which she replied “this isn’t actually that good”.

The next day we collected our hired red Suzuki Swift, fired up the GPS and hit the road.  Our destination was Rotorua, geology capital of the world (in my mind).  Along the way we stopped at a roadside café in the bright sunshine for lunch and a supply of strawberries. Shortly afterwards, back out on the road, we found ourselves in an epic thunderstorm.

The road was almost deserted, but not quite deserted enough to pull over safely and wait it out.  I actually couldn’t see the road at all – but I could see the taillights of a lorry and a car in front (both still going at 100 km/hr despite the conditions) so I tried to keep them in my sights.  We could hear the thunder and see the lightning, and at one point they came together right over the car. The intensity of the noise made my husband think we’d had a quadruple blowout, and it felt to me like we’d run into a brick wall.  Thankfully the whole thing only lasted about 15 minutes.

We arrived in Rotorua shaken but in one piece.  The afternoon jetlag had caught up with us again but after unloading our stuff at the RotoVegas Motel I dragged us out to Kuirau Park to look at the steaming mud pools and get a lungful of rotten egg smell.

With that duly experienced we slumped back to the motel and then I was dispatched across the road to find champagne, bread and peanut butter while my husband filled up the extremely deep spa bath.  And after an hour of hot-bubbly soaking, champagne drinking and strawberry eating we felt much more human.

The next morning we were out the door by 9.30am to drive to Wai-O-Tapu for the 10.15am blowing of the geyser (not pronounced ‘geezer’, we were told).  The ranger performed the unceremonious dumping of detergent into the vent which led to a pretty spectacular blowout lasting tens of minutes.

Wai-O-Tapu is not just Lady Knox geyser, however, there is a spectacular volcanic park to explore too. We saw boiling waterfalls and steaming lakes and walked over rocks that made our shoes melt.  It was well worth the considerable entrance fee.

That afternoon we drove to Napier through more thunderstorms, stopping off at Lake Taupo for lunch and an icecream.  Napier proved to be a disappointment – so much for a beachfront town. It turns out there is no beach. However the Art Deco buildings are nice if that’s what you’re into.  We got rained on collecting dinner then spent a night at the inaptly named Beachfront Motel.

In the morning we decided that because we hadn’t seen a beach we’d drive to where the Rough Guide said there’d be one: Ocean Beach, a few kilometers further along the coast.  After getting lost, passing a place where half the road had vanished over the cliff, and descending a steep slope we found ourselves at a wide, inviting looking, and most importantly, sandy, beach.

The carpark, however, looked more like a campsite and it was occupied by a few cars and a campervan. The occupants of the campervan stared at us menacingly through their dreadlocks. We were determined to go on the sand though, and after walking near the water for about ten minutes, disturbing some kind of nudist camp and worrying about if all our stuff was going to be nicked, we beat a retreat, jumped in the car and headed for the road to Wellington.

The drive to Wellington was memorable only because of the massive mountain we had to cross.  We were by far the slowest vehicle on the road and we could imagine the people behind us yelling profanities at us.  We pulled over frequently to let people pass, and when we reached the peak, somewhat unexpectedly, we stopped to take in the view.

We arrived at New Zealand’s capital along the waterfront, giving us a spectacular vista of the city that brought to mind Hong Kong.  It was pre-rush-hour and we had to fight traffic to get to our hotel – the Capital View Motor Inn – which indeed had an excellent view of the capital.

After struggling to get our luggage in the lift, and the lift struggling to get us to the 5th floor, we decided to go to the Botanic Gardens (at the top of one of the city’s many mountains), via the cable car.  We walked into town, found the train stop, and in short order ended up at the top of the mountain with another spectacular view.

Once again, the evening jetlag and general exhaustion from a long drive caught up with us so we decided to just find the rose garden. Of course, this proved to be on the opposite side of the (very hilly) complex.  It was worth it however – a little oasis of fragrant calm and colours.

That evening we had cheap laksa on Cuba Street.

In the morning I insisted that we needed to go to the Mt Victoria lookout before catching our flight to Christchurch.  This resulted in much swearing at traffic and a bit of getting lost but we were rewarded with a quite breathtaking view in all directions.

Wellington Airport turned out to have a Lord of the Rings obsession but the flight to Christchurch was uneventful.  We picked up a much less posh, but much more powerful, hire car in Christchurch and after a stop at McDonalds for lunch (yes, I know) we drove to Ashburton which is an unspectacular little place on a freight train line.

That afternoon and the next day were spent on wedding activities – the whole reason we’d come to NZ in the first place.  In the morning we availed ourselves of the café next to Countdown (aka Woolworths aka the supermarket) and had an excellent hot chocolate.  I was amused to see the signs in the car park referring to “trundlers” – i.e. shopping trolleys.

The wedding took place at the Longbeach Cookshop, which had the most amazing gardens outside of the UK I have ever seen. The air was filled with birdsong and in every direction were flowers and trees and grass and ponds.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed for 10am checkout (why so early?  And we had to miss Doctor Who!) and again, I insisted we go the long way around to the airport so we could have a good look at the mountains on the way.  Ashburton, and in fact the whole Canterbury region, is one big plain with massive mountains towering in the distance. With the mountains duly observed and with the ubiquitous milk trucks getting in our way constantly we still managed to make it to the airport in plenty of time for our flight to Australia.

And so concluded our first NZ adventure: we were both thoroughly impressed with the country and all it had to offer, and we’ll most certainly be back.

My hotel reviews are on Trip Advisor.

Photos of the trip below.

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