I spent 3 days right after the trip sorting out the 4500++ photos, creating collages and daily write-up for another purpose so I don't feel like repeating it here. I'll do a summary-kind of post instead.
So.. The 2-week road trip to North Island, New Zealand was wonderful. Contrary to my initial belief, it's not in any way less stunning than South Island. There are differences, of course.. like how I noticed there were more cows along the way during the road trip, when I remember in South Island sheep were more common; and how roads in North Island were always clean, compared to roads in South where dead possums were aplenty.
I visited South Island in Nov 2007 on free-and-easy tour, and since then had been thinking of coming back on a self-drive road trip. So when Jetstar had a sale earlier this year, itinerary was planed and tickets were booked.
Auckland - Whangarei (Bay of Islands) - Auckland - Coromandel - Whitianga - Rotorua - Taupo - New Plymouth - Te Awamutu - Hamilton - Auckland
It took us 10 hour plus to cover the 8417km distance between Singapore and Auckland, with 5-hour time difference. The flight to Auckland was a red-eye one, so it's a little easier. The journey back to Singapore was during a day time though, and 10 hours 50 mins felt so very long. Food and beverages were available upon purchase, but even when I felt hungry I didn't bother to order anything as the food somehow did not look appetizing.
We rented a car from Av*s for the whole trip, the car was picked up and returned in Auckland airport terminal so it's really convenient. They upgraded the car free of charge to Toyota RAV4 that was spacious and equipped with lots of smart tools. The odometer only had 2700km recorded upon collection. When we returned the car, we almost doubled the number to 5156km.
|Our rented car, somewhere in Paihia|
This was a bit crazy but we stayed in 10 different hotels throughout the roadtrip:
Auckland: Quality Hotel Parnell (1n), Rendezvous Grand Hotel Auckland (1n), Ibis Budget Auckland Airport (1n)
Bay of Islands: Falls Motel & Waterfront (2n)
Whitianga: Ocean View Resort (2n)
Rotorua: Arista of Rotorua (3n)
Taupo: Cottage Mews Motel (1n)
New Plymouth: Lockwood Manor Motel (1n)
Te Awamutu: Rosetown Motel (1n)
Hamilton: Argent Motor Lodge (1n)
The trick was to pack what we didn't need in daily basis in a separate luggage and left it in the car boot, so as to minimize the bag carrying and packing & unpacking effort.
A brief review on the hotels:
Quality Hotel Parnell, Auckland
Perfect for budget travellers, first impression was it looked like a dorm with its white walls and tiles. But it's compact and functioning with good heaters (very important). Free 2GB wifi was given provided we sign up as member of their hotel chain.
Rendezvous Grand Hotel Auckland
Just like any other chain hotel, it's impersonal. Location was great, it's in city area with Sky Tower and major shopping street located within walking distance. But precisely because of location, additional fee was imposed on parking. But the room was great, the bathroom was spacious with bath tub and shower cube. Free wifi provided without any limit, although speed could be improved but it's satisfactory.
|Rendezvous Grand Hotel Auckland|
Ibis Budget Auckland Airport
The name says it all. Budget. It's the cheapest hotel among all, so we're not complaining. Bed was satisfactory, king bed at the bottom and single bed on top (bunk-bed style), but the weird thing was the single bed was not made up. The big bed barely left enough space to walk around the room.
Falls Motel & Waterfront, Bay of Islands
Its winning point must be the view. From the motel we could see Haruru Falls and the lake. Facilities were great too: BBQ pit, swimming pool, kayak rental, children playground. There's also caravan parking by the lake. Room was basic, with small bathroom and functional kitchen. The carpark was directly in front of the rooms so it'd be nice if the kitchen window could be opened - so that we could pass things to/from the car :p The owner was very friendly, giving us recommendations and tips to make our trip more memorable. We went on half day dolphin cruise and tried another route to drive to Paihia city centre on his advice and loved it. 300MB of free wifi was included but I finished the quota in no time without realizing it as my phone downloaded updates automatically whenever it detected wifi :(
|Falls Motel & Waterfront|
Ocean View Resort Whitianga
This is the most complete, well-furnished and spacious accommodation we came across. A 3-storey unit, the place was big enough for 3 families. Garage, washing area and a bedroom were in first floor; balcony, living room, dining room and kitchen in second floor, 2 more bedrooms and bathroom in top floor. Fridge was big, kitchen was equipped with dish washer and built-in oven on top of the standard appliances like microwave, toaster, stove and sink. Utensils, cooking apparatus, tea and coffee were not forgotten too. There were swimming pool and small children playground in the vicinity, and there's direct pathway leading to Buffalo Beach.
|Ocean View Resort|
Arista of Rotorua
A really nice place with only one complaint: flies! I'm not sure what caused it but there were quite a number of flies in the vicinity. Even when we're mindful when we open the door, some of them still managed to get in. It's irritating and we only encountered this problem here. Otherwise the hotel was really nice with pretty flowers in its surroundings, most common were roses and pansies. We stayed in a loft unit: beds on the top floor and other rooms on first floor. There's also a semi outdoor jacuzzi at the back of the unit. The children playground was really unique, built especially for Arista - made of wood, it's a bright yellow house with stairs, slides, sand pit and pirate ship!
|Arista of Rotorua|
Cottage Mews Motel, Taupo
Gorgeous motel, I loved their cottage design. The office had this bench by the big windows, with flower pots right outside. We got the unit with lake view, the only one at the corner, with direct access to Lake Taupo. On lower level were the bathroom, bedroom and jacuzzi, on upper level were the living room, dining table and kitchen. To our surprise, the jacuzzi was placed right in the bedroom, with no curtains or dividers whatsoever.
|Cottage Mews Motel|
Lockwood Manor Motel, New Plymouth
The room was clean and of perfect size, not too big and not too small, equipped with bathroom, small dining table and kitchen.
|Lockwood Manor Motel|
Rosetown Motel, Te Awamutu
The motel looked a little run down and was a bit crammed. There's a bedroom with queen size bed and bedroom. In the living room were sofa, small dining table, kitchen corner and another spare bed, which was a little out of place. I did not spot any roses around the motel, though. Compared to other motels, this one gave the least free wifi, capped at 50MB.
Argent Motor Lodge, Hamilton
A very new establishment, everything felt so clean. Room felt a little bit like chain hotel as it's built with modern design, but it's still equipped with kitchen corner and fridge. All the utensils looked sparkling new! We found out that the owner was brothers with the owner of Arista of Rotorua. Their motels must have the same vibes so we happened to choose theirs :)
|Argent Motor Lodge|
We went to supermarket like New World or Countdown several times to stock up on the essentials: sliced bread, butter, Nutella, fruits, instant noodle and snacks. Since most of the place we stayed in had kitchen and toaster, meals could simply consist of toast with Nutella or instant noodles. Snacks were essential during the long drive.
All hotels/motels provided hot chocolate in sachets, tea bags and instant coffee, some even provided a small box of fresh milk in the fridge, which was nice when mixed with hot chocolate in a cold morning.
We ate fast food quite a number of times, mostly McDonald's, simply because there's always children playground in its vicinity, no matter how small. KFC was tasty too, especially the $5 lunch deals for which I could have 2 pcs of chicken and 2 side dishes. Pizza Hut was not as glorified as the ones in Singapore, it's more affordable and it had the vibe of a junk food sit-down restaurant. We did not go to Carl's Jr., Burger King and Wendy's, though.
The most memorable one must have been McDonald's in Taupo, world's coolest McDonald's. It had a decommissioned Douglas DC3 aircraft which was built in 1943. Customers were free to go in to the airplane and had their meals there. However as we went there during lunch time, inside the plane felt hot and stuffy, so it's empty. Everyone chose to sit outdoor or inside the store where there's aircon. It had quite a big playground too. Playground was an essential place, indeed.
I found out that Oporto had branches in several towns in New Zealand, mostly in Auckland. So I had a piece of the grilled Oporto chicken on our second last day - it's nice, but expensive compared to other fast food.
There were quite a number of Chinese restaurants in the big towns, and the funny thing was they all carried fish and chips. What's with fish and chips, I wonder? Usually they also had fried rice, fried noodle and other dishes like pork and chicken. Turkish and Thai food could be easily found as well. Japanese fares were available mostly in big towns.
As for the local cafes they generally carried steak, burgers, fish & chips, and pies. After awhile the pies started to taste the same to me, even the McDonald's Georgie pie and the frozen pies from the supermarkets.
Most commonly found fruits were strawberries and avocados, and surprisingly they were not exactly cheaper than those in NTUC. The cheapest avocados I encountered was at one farmers' market at $1 each.
The parks and gardens
Parks and gardens were in abundance anywhere in New Zealand. Best of all, it's almost always free, and felt totally spacious as there were so few people. A lot of the parks had children playgrounds. I could even sit on a swing and close my eyes for a long while without feeling guilty of making any children waiting for their turns :p
We visited Windsor Park in Devonport, Dove Myer Robinson Park in Auckland, Moana Reserve in Orewa, Government Gardens and Kuirau Park in Rotorua, Pukeiti Rhododendron Park and Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, Rose Garden in Te Awamutu, Lake Rotoroa Park and Rose Garden in Hamilton. All of them were really clean and well maintained, with good public facilities like benches and toilets and carpark, usually with really nice flowers. I think I took hundreds of flower photos while in NZ. I could not help it, as even the wild ones like daisies and manuka flowers (tea tree) were so pretty.
|Only some of the flower photos that I took|
We visited the most beaches when we were in Whitianga. Buffalo beach was just across from where we stayed for 2 nights, so it's a must. The sandy beach was dotted with seashells. I collected a few and brought them home, just for fun :) Too bad it was cloudy and windy when we were there otherwise it'd be even better.
In Whitianga we drove to Shakespeare Cliff lookout where we could see Lonely Bay from the top. It looked small, secluded and lonely, really.
Our next stop in Whitianga was Grange road carpark, which was the starting point for the 2.5km walk down to Cathedral Cove. I trekked down to Gemstone Bay which was fabulous - the bay, not the trek, out of shape as I was.
The Cathedral Cove itself was further ahead, we went through lots of ups and downs, passing by farm field (but it was empty, no sheep or cows in sight), bushes, lots of native trees and plants, especially ferns. After another set of stairs we finally reached Cathedral Cove. Its popularity was proven by the number of visitors we passed by along the way and in the beach itself. It was famous for being in one of the Narnia Chronicles and it could only be reached by foot, boat or kayak. Just off the beach there is a large rock known as “Te Hoho”, sculpted by wind and water throughout the centuries into its unique shape today.
And then since we were already in the area we drove to Hot Water Beach. Its slogan is ‘Sun, sand, surf & spa’. More than 2km underground, there’s a reservoir of hot water and heated rocks, remnants of volcanic activity in Coromandel region. The two hot water springs in the beach (named Maori and Orua) are usually accessible 2 hours either side of low tide, found by digging a shallow hole in the tidal area. Too bad we missed the timing on that day so we only saw what’s left from the holes dug earlier by other visitors.
In Bay of Islands, we went for half day dolphin tour as recommended by the motel owner. We chose the afternoon session so that we did not have to rush in the morning and the weather would be warmer. We were picked up from the motel and dropped off at Paihia Pier. Upon boarding the catamaran, named 'Dolphin Seeker', we sat in the open upper deck but then shortly after the cruise started we moved to the lower deck. It’s less crowded, covered and with better view. The boat stopped for a while at Russell pier, allowing passengers to board the vessel.
Throughout the sail we passed by idyllic islands, bays and coves. The famous ones were Moturoa island, Urupukapuka island and Assassination cove. Cape Brett lighthouse was interesting, as we could see an island with nothing but a lighthouse and a house for its keeper. It was used from 1910 when the light was first lit, until 1978 when a new automatic light went into service. Sighting of dolphins was guaranteed, and sure enough there were quite a number of them circling around the catamaran! Not sure what type of dolphin they were, though, maybe the most common ones that were around all year long. The farthest point of the cruise was the majestic Motukokako or Hole in the Rock. The catamaran stopped for a while near the rock, and then slowly navigated through the narrow space to the other side.
|Bay of Islands|
I only realized that we did not consider farmers' market when planning the route, so we just went whenever we happened to be near one. Other than farmers' market that usually took place in Saturday or Sunday mornings, they also had night market commonly held on Thursdays. I'm wondering why it's Thursday, though.
So we went to one night market in Onehunga area, Auckland, and 2 farmers' market: in Kerikeri and Kuirau Park, Rotorua.
The Onehunga address brought us to a closed clothes shop and the streets were dark and deserted. But then we found out that the market was held in the shop’s car park, not exactly visible from the street we’re coming from. The market was lively. It had 2 sections: food and non-food. Many stalls selling different kind of food were setup around the area. We tried chicken cutlet with rice, Japanese ramen, char siew baos and berry juice.
Kerikeri market was not that big, with 2 rows of stalls showcasing their fresh produces like fruits, vegetables, plants, manuka honey. The other section of the market was called the Art Market, where souvenirs and other knick-knacks were sold. Saturday market at Kuirau Park was better with about 50 stalls. There were even Thai massage stalls where they massage was done in the open tent!
|At the market|
We saw 4 waterfalls - Whangarei Waterfall in Whangarei, Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri, Haruru Falls in Paihia, and Huka Falls in Waikato. Whangarei and Rainbow falls looked similar in terms of height and width. But we spotted rainbow in Whangarei fall instead of Rainbow fall :) Huka Falls was a unique one - it's not as tall but the flow was so strong with icy blue colored water, flowing from Waikato, New Zealand's longest river. About 200,000 litres of water plunged 9 metres every second. The strong flow prevented the upstream migration of trout and eels – which was why there are no eels in Lake Taupo.
|Left to right: Whangarei Waterfall, Huka Falls, Rainbow Falls|
The Sky Tower
The Sky Tower is the tallest man-made building in New Zealand, standing at 328 metres. The Main Observation Level is at 186 metres and Sky Deck is at 220 metres. It was a cloudy afternoon in Auckland, grey threatening clouds were hanging low. But then the drizzle stopped and a glorious rainbow appeared in full arch.
The Driving Creek Railway
Driving Creek Railway is unique and quite popular as New Zealand's only narrow-gauge mountain railway. We pre-booked a train ride at 2pm and it's a good call as the 2 operating trains were full. The ride took an hour for return trip, navigating through Kauri forest, bushes, tunnels and lots of pottery works. Then we took a brief stop at the mountain-top terminal, called The Eyefull Tower, standing 165m above sea level. A brief history about the place was told by the train driver while we absorbed in the scenic view of Hauraki Gulf and valleys of native forest.
|Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel|
Te Puia is a Maori cultural centre, home of the Pohutu geyser, a Kiwi House and several mud pools. Next to the entrance there is a fully carved Maori meeting house where Maori dance is presented to welcome the visitors. We also saw the national weaving school and carving school where art of weaving and wood carving are taught. The geysers and mud pools were extraordinary!
The area was big, however the guide only accompanied us up to the geysers, after which we were left on our own. And we took the longer route to get back to the exit point, passing by several more mud pools, streams, small lake, and bridges.
Since we always like riding a luge in Sentosa and absolutely loved the ride in Queenstown back in 2007, we made it a point to go to Skyline Rotorua. We wanted to go on the first day but the weather was not on our side. The following morning we reached the ticket counter just 10 minutes after it opened - we were the first customers of the day!
First we took the gondola up to the hill, then we could ride the luge and skyrides for a few times before going back down on gondola again. The seats were still a bit wet because of the rain the night before but it did not dampen our mood.
Skyline Rotorua actually has 3 tracks: scenic, intermediate and advanced. But too bad that day the advanced track was closed. We got ourselves 3 luge rides and 3 skyrides. Scenic track was chosen as our first ride. It’s a 2km scenic ride through the Redwood forest. There were even some dinosaur statues put up somewhere in the forest. Along the way there are viewing bays to stop and take photographs, it’s great! Intermediate track was much more exciting than scenic track, it’s a 1.7km long with chicanes, tunnel and gorgeous city and lake views.
Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
There's a well-known geyser in Wai-o-tapu named Lady Knox Geyser. Initially we were not really sure whether we should see it, but since we reached the place just in time, we decided to take a look. We had to go to the main entrance first to buy tickets, and then drove again for a few minutes to the geyser’s location. Judging at the number of cars parked at the geyser’s area it should be really popular.
True enough, when we walked in, the place was already packed with people. It’s shaped like a mini amphitheatre, and in the stage is the Lady Knox which erupts daily at 10.15am, reaching heights of up to 20 metres. The question on how the geyser could erupts on a precise timing everyday was answered right away. 10.15am was when the ‘show’ started, a man came up and talked about the geyser. Then he poured some kind of soap solution to the hole in the middle and after a few minutes the eruption started. It’s still cool even though it’s not comparable to what we saw in Te Puia.
Inside Wai-o-tapu park itself, we took the shortest walk, 1.5km around the interesting thermal area. Actually it could be combined with other more challenging routes with a total distance of 3km. The first few interesting points are The Craters. Several of them contain hot water springs and sulphur deposits. Their names are interesting: Devil's Home, Rainbow Crater, Thunder Crater. A series of mud pools are called Devil's Ink Pots, their water levels fluctuate with the amount of rainfall.
The first breathtaking pool we saw was called Artist's Palette. From the brochure: "Overflowing water from the Champagne Pool draws minerals that are originated from below the surface. As the waters cool and minerals are exposed to atmosphere they show in a variety of locations and colors depending on water levels and wind direction."
The colors are all natural and are due to different mineral elements:
Green: colloidal sulphur/ferrous salts
Purple: manganese oxide
Red-brown: iron oxide
Black: sulphur and carbon
The Champagne Pool is another key feature of the place. "This spring is the largest in the district, being 65m in diameter and 62m deep. Its surface temperature is 74C and bubbles are due to carbon dioxide. The pool was formed 700 years ago by a hydrothermal eruption. Minerals contained in the water are gold, silver, mercury, sulphur, arsenic, thallium, antimony, etc."
Most interesting lake must be the Devil's Bath. The color is the result of excess water from the Champagne Pool mixing with sulphur and ferrous salts.
|Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland: Devil's Ink Pots, Artist's Palette, Champagne Pool and Devil's Bath|
Hobbiton Movie Set
Our Hobbiton movie set tour started at 10.30am in front of the cafe when a bus came to pick all of us up. The bus ride took us through the hilly 1,250 acre sheep farm with views across the Kaimai Ranges. Upon reaching the movie set, the guide escorted us through the 10 acre site while recounting fascinating details on the movie set creation.
The Lord of The Ring & The Hobbit movie set looked surreal. Hobbit holes were all over the greenery complete with realistic, very detailed props like clothing lines with clothes hung on them, bakery stand with breads and buns, wheelbarrow with pumpkins or logs, post boxes, windows, road signs, garden with real flowers. And the flowers were gorgeous. We were all shutter-happy tourists.
The tour was concluded with a visit to The Green Dragon, an exact replica of the inn featured in both LOTR and The Hobbit. All guests could get a drink - we picked apple cider and handcrafted ginger-beer.