Ah, New Zealand! How many ways did we fall in love with thee? Truly, this is one of the most beautiful and enchanting countries we have seen.
In fact, we adored it so much that we contacted an immigration lawyer there after we left to see if we could find a way to move there. Unfortunately, it turns out I would need to find a job at a New Zealand-based company willing to sponsor me, so for now, it’s off the table — but we both agreed that at some point in our life, we will live in New Zealand, one way or another.
We flew from Bali to Auckland because that was the cheapest NZ destination, and we spent two weeks in the country, from February 1-15. We visited Auckland, Hobbiton, Rotorua, Lake Taupo, and Mount Maunganui on the North Island, and Marlborough and Christchurch on the South Island. We rented a car when we arrived (and got a great deal, but more on that later), so were able to see a lot of country as we drove around and on the ferry between the islands called Cooks Strait Crossing. (That last experience alone might be worth the cost of flights to New Zealand; it was breathtaking.)
We both wanted to have the freedom to go wherever, whenever, so I researched rental cars quite a bit. I found that many companies in New Zealand offer one-way transfer deals (or “relo” deals, short for “relocation”), where you pick up a car in one city and return it to another, thus eliminating the cost to the rental company of transporting it themselves.
These offers are limited and come with restrictions in terms of dates and number of days available, but if you can find a good one, they’re perfect for seeing the country. We did, twice. The first car we rented this way was a brand new, fully loaded Hyundai Santa Fe for just $19NZD per day for up to 10 days, transferring it from Auckland to Christchurch. Score!
Later, we needed a cheap way to get back to Auckland from Christchurch, since we were flying from Auckland to Hawaii, our next destination; for some reason, flights between Christchurch and Auckland were pretty expensive, so I found a free two-day car transfer to Nelson, where we got a cheap flight back up to Auckland.
Yes, we literally “rented” a car for free for two full days — all we paid for was our tank of gas. Definitely a great way to cut costs!
Another way we kept costs for New Zealand relatively low was to cook all of our own meals; it’s a pretty expensive country to visit, generally, and the cost of dining out is high even relative to Canada or the U.S.A. For example, a restaurant considered “cheap” on TripAdvisor would cost us $30USD (or about $40NZD) for a simple lunch.
To sidestep that issue, we purposefully rented slightly more expensive Airbnb’s to ensure we had fully equipped kitchens. Like you’d do at home on a limited budget, we bought our own groceries and did the prep and cooking ourselves. This cut our overall costs significantly.
To the Fun Stuff!
Ok, enough about costs and budgets. (It’s hard not to talk about them, though, since of course it’s a major factor when planning a trip there. Anyway, FYI if you ever plan to go, and you definitively should, there are ways to keep costs down!)
From the airport, we took the bus into Auckland and were a bit underwhelmed initially.
Auckland is fine, but I wouldn’t call it a beautiful city; it’s sort of commercial and plain, lacking in historical buildings. It’s a port city, though, so the waterfront is nice.
But like North American cities, such as Atlanta, GA, it’s not really ugly, it’s just… well, sort of unremarkable. Our accommodation in Auckland wasn’t great either, so that probably added to the general feeling of meh-ness.
Our first full day there, Scott worked while I walked around the city. I have to say, after a few months in Asia, it was really nice to be able to communicate easily with people in English! One thing I did that was pretty awesome was to take a ferry to a small nearby island called Waiheke, where I spent the day going to some delicious wineries: Wild On Waiheke, Stonyridge, and Te Motu. The bus dropped me off right in front of these three, so I visited each and loved them all.
I was able to resist the temptation to buy any bottles, as they were pricey — like $30USD / $40NZD for the cheapest bottle. I’m a $10 bottle kinda gal. Maybe $15 if I feel fancy.
After the wineries, I was a wee bit sleepy, so I took a little nap by the Onetangi Beach. 🙂
Glow Worm Caves
The next day, we left Auckland and drove south for about 2 hours, where we toured the Waitomo Caves to see the famous glow worms. It was a sight to behold! But you’ll have to trust us, since you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the caves.
These little creatures are fascinating; they live as worms for about seven months, and then they turn into little flying bugs for about two weeks, during which time they procreate… and then they die due to starvation because they don’t have mouths or stomachs.
Nature is weird sometimes.
After that, we went to Hobbiton, in the Shire. This place was the set of the hobbit village in all the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. It’s no exaggeration to say this was one of our top five all-time favorite experiences we’ve had on our entire world trip. It was so awesome!!
If you aren’t a fan of the Tolkien stories or haven’t even heard of them, I’m confident you’d still love this place. It’s just so damned cute and fun, AND you get to feel like a giant! We took about a thousand pictures during our guided tour. I don’t know if our young British guide was a genuine fan, but he sure knew enough Tolkien lore and LotR/Hobbit movie trivia to fake being one well.
Best yet, at the end, we got to have a pint in the famous and adorable Green Dragon Inn! Hobbiton is definitely an experience we will remember forever. I’m smiling even now just thinking about it.
Tauranga & Mount Maunganui
The beach by “The Mount,” in Tauranga along the western edge of the Bay of Plenty, is consistently voted as one of the most beautiful beaches in all of New Zealand (which has no shortage of beautiful beaches), and we wholeheartedly agree.
The first full day in Tauranga, while Scott worked, I walked around the cute little seaside town, along the beach, and on a little outcrop.
That evening, we took a leisurely walk around the base of Mount Maunganui (about a 90-minute walk) and marveled at the gorgeous waters that lapped the shores. The water color here, as other places in New Zealand, was a beautiful turquoise blue. We had to stop several times just to take it in. It’s really like something from a movie set rather than the real world.
The next day, I took the car and drove to Te Puke, known as the “Kiwi Capital of the World,” where I bought two types of fruit: both golden and regular kiwis. Both were yummy, but we preferred the golden as they were a bit sweeter and juicer.
Our accommodation was comfortable and well-equipped, so while here we made some delicious soup and generally lounged around.
Lake Taupo, Rotorua
On the way to our next destination, Lake Taupo, we stopped to tour a traditional (and still living) Maori village. There we saw several natural hot springs common in that area, plus a haka war dance and some other songs performed by the Maori villagers. I had only learned of the haka when Jason Mamoa performed it before the opening of Aquaman; it was pretty cool to see the real thing in person. (The guys also had sexy traditional tattoos, hubba hubba!) 🙂
Continuing our drive, we stopped to see Huka Falls, which were spectacular. The water was crystal clear and, again, bright turquoise blue. Absolutely stunning.
The last thing we saw was “Mount Doom” from the Lord of the Rings movies (or, as locals know it, Mount Ngauruhoe).
This was a big highlight for Scott, who loves all things Tolkien. As you can see above, we also staged a photo of me throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mordor, and he photo-shopped in some spewing lava. Probably the cheesiest photo we’ve posted for this entire trip, but we both had a laugh.
We ended the day at a restaurant overlooking the lake. The next day, we walked around town a bit and then took a kayak out onto the lake. The water there is the clearest we have ever seen, seriously. You can see right to the bottom, as if you were in a swimming pool. We were in disbelief the entire time.
Crossing the Cooks Strait was an amazing experience. After parking our car on the ferry, we found seats near a window. Scott did a bit of work while we still had wifi, and then we watched as the North Island drifted away and the South Island approached. People were outside just quietly staring out at the water. It was very peaceful and lovely, if a bit windy.
The journey took about three hours and cost around $280. Worth it!
Wine country! Yay!!
I was super-excited to hit up the Marlborough wineries. We went to Brancott Estate, Villa Maria (the most awarded winery in the region), Promm, Spy Valley, and a brewery called Moa (named after the famous extinct flightless bird of the region). Throughout the day, we got three bottles, and I could have easily bought many more. We especially liked some of the Pinot Gris, which were delicious.
There were many more wineries, but we only had one day and I didn’t want to get too tipsy. (I know, you’re thinking, “who are you, and where’s Connie,” right?! Scott did too.)
On our way out to town, we happened across the intersection of Alabama Road (I’m from Alabama) and Scott Road (my hubbins’ name), so of course we had to stop so I could take pictures.
Maybe it’s Fate, telling us that one day we’ll live in the Marlborough region!?
It took about five hours to drive from Marlborough to Christchurch, and it was just a lovely drive at every turn, even though many of the streams and much of the vegetation were dried up due to the drought they were experiencing while we were there. I can’t imagine how transcendent it would be without the drought. It was stunning nonetheless.
We stopped several times for pictures and to enjoy the landscape, swearing many times that we’d never seen this country’s equal for raw beauty in all our travels. And we’ve seen some truly beautiful places, as you know if you’ve been following our travels!
The city of Christchurch is brand new, really, having been more or less rebuilt after a few big earthquakes devastated it in 2011 and 2012. I’ve never seen a city so new; all the roads, sidewalks, buildings, houses, etc., were clean and bright and seem well-kept. This gives the whole place a unique feeling of youth, vitality, and freshness, courting and celebrating entrepreneurship and endless possibility. It’s a very cool and alive.
Our Airbnb was in a neighboring borough overlooking a port, with our apartment right above the docks. It was really big, with large front windows, so our view was great. We were very grateful to have such a nice place to call home for a few days.
The first day, I rented one of the electric scooters that are everywhere there and rode around town for a few hours. I stopped at some of the major sights of the city, including a few cool areas and the botanical gardens.
While we were in Christchurch, we also went to dinner at the home of a former colleague of Scott’s, Sam Ragnarsson. We had a lovely time chatting with him, his wife Lillian, and their two little girls, catching up and getting to know them a little. They clearly love New Zealand, having moved there to raise their girls. Sam is a consultant, but he also runs an awesome sandwich shop they started in Christchurch, called the “Kiwi Viking.” (He is from Iceland.)
Later, we went to the shop and bought a sandwich, and it was delicious: We highly recommend you check it out next time you’re in New Zealand!
The next day, our time was up with our first rental car, so we dropped it off and picked up our second one. We then headed north again to a small regional airport at Nelson, driving through some beautiful mountains to get there; from there, we took a short flight back to Auckland, where we then checked in for our flight to Hawaii.
Family Time in Hawaii
We spent the next 10 days in Kailua, Honolulu, visiting my brother Joe, his wife Anna, her mother Jeanne, and their kids Leia and Sagan. We had a great time there with some of our favorite people in the world, but we don’t want to bore you all with family visits: Our next post will move on to South America, covering our travels in Peru with my oldest friend, Susi!
—Connie & Scott