“No admittance except for party business” – The Hobbit
New Zealand is a destination where it is so far from the rest of the world. When you finally book your trip there, you want to spend as much time as you can to see and explore this beautiful country as possible.
The Problem Not everyone has the luxury of time to get away for more than two weeks. Even if you do have more time, it is not possible for you to see the entire country where you can really appreciate the things you are seeing without trying to rush to get from one destination to another.
Needless to say, it is essential to have an idea of what your interests are and what you really want to see on your first visit to New Zealand. Are you more of a nature lover, adventurous junkie or Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie fanatic?
I wanted a little bit of everything in New Zealand and only had 12 days. Based on what I have read, my must-sees and dos (in no particular order) were:
- See the Glowworms;
- Visit Hobbiton Movie Set;
- Go skydiving;
- Soak in some natural hot springs;
- Check out the most raved about city Queenstown; and
- Visit Milford Sound the most visited tourist spot in New Zealand
To help plan my trip, I mapped out where everything was. Everything was soooo spread out! How am I going to do everything? I was traveling alone. I didn’t want to be driving myself around the island. This is when I remembered, a girl I met in Prague told me, she will be visiting New Zealand and signed up for the Kiwi Experience Bus Tour.
What is Kiwi Experience?
A backpacker hop-on and off bus tour that lets you customize your trip along their bus routes, giving you the flexibility to go at your own pace. They also provide the convenience of organizing your activities and your first night of accommodation where you are headed.
You simply have to decide if you want”
1). To stay at their recommended hostel or book your own accommodation;
2) Sign up for whatever activities you are interested in. My hesitation: I’m in my 30s and not sure if I want to be on a party bus and staying at hostels. But let’s look at the facts:
- I only have 13 days;
- Kiwi Experience Bus Tours had the best price and offered North and South Island bus packages under 21 days stopping in cities I wanted to check out;
- I can book my own accommodations;
- I also have the flexibility of getting myself from North Island to South Island by purchasing a flight from Wellington (North Island) to Queenstown (South Island).
The verdict. I wanted to be social and decided I could suck it up and stay a few days in shared accommodations with other fellow backpackers. For those who are looking for other ways to get around New Zealand, Nomadic Matt wrote a great article, click here. And for the ease of sharing with you my two weeks adventure in New Zealand, I decided to split the article up into two-part series. The North Island and South Island.
I arrived in Auckland early evening and overnighted here before hopping on the Kiwi Experience bus early next morning. The city is a bit lackluster.
What you need to know:
-To get into town from the airport take the SkyBus;
– The city was a bit lackluster. It’ s more of a business hub and your gateway to the rest of New Zealand;
– To get over your jetlag, go for a walk down Queen Street, one of the main streets and head to the harbor area for a nice view.
– If you are more active and adventurous you can climb the Auckland bridge or head to the SkyTower and do an edgewalk or bungy off it;
– You may start to fall for New Zealand at this point : ) but the head over heels won’t hit until you head outside of Auckland;
If you have more time in Auckland, you may want to consider a day trip to the wineries on Waiheke Island.
Accommodation: I booked a private room with ensuite bath at Kiwi International my own room. The hotel met my needs for a place for a one-night stay. Basic and good WiFi. And it was literally less than a 5-minute walk from one of the Kiwi Experience pick-up locations.
The Coromandel Peninsula
Hot Water Beach
The next day I officially began my New Zealand tour with Kiwi Experience Tour. Our first stop is Hot Water Beach located on the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula
Reality – it is hard work digging your own hot pool! And it is tricky to find pockets of hot thermal water in the sand! And when you do, it is super hot so you have to mix it with some cooler sea water! Needless to say, I don’t know what I was thinking. The idea sounded amazing but in my opinion, it was an overhyped beach.
What is worth checking out in the Coromandel Peninsula?
The Cathedral Cove
It is a 15-minutes drive from Hot Water Beach. And the beach here is pristine and is surrounded by lushness and nifty geological formations. It is made famous by the Narnia films and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Can’t Hold Us video). Take the 45 min coastal hike (one-way) from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove.
For outdoor lovers, you can also kayak here when the weather cooperates but sadly when we were here, it was too windy.
Kiwi Experience Recommend Accommodation: Hot Water Beach Holiday Park (I stayed in a 4 pax dorm room with
Aside from the Glowworm Caves, there really isn’t much to see and do in this little town. So come here, only if you are mesmerized and want to see these unique glow worms. It serves as a great stop from Auckland to Rotorua. For those who are renting a car driving yourself, it is about three hours drive from Hot Water Pool or about a two and a half hour drive from Auckland. The glowworm caves are unique. It reminded me a little bit of my lava tubing experience in Iceland. Instead of iridescent lava rock formations inside a cave shining at you with your headlamp, you have these shining glowworms twinkling at you like bright stars on a dark night.
What are glowworms?
They are scientifically known as Arachnocampa Luminosa. They emit light to attract flies and small insects so they can feed and trap them in their web. The glowing blue/green light is the by- product of a chemical reaction between oxygen, ATP and waste. It’s a deadly dirty beauty.
Still want to see these creatures?
Here are a couple of ways. You can walk thru the cave and take a boat ride. Or if you are feeling more adventurous and have the time, you can sign up with Black Water Rafting Tour for caving and tubing. There is one that is three hours (Black Labyrinth) and another that is 5 hours (Black Abyss). I did the Black Labyrinth as it is less intense and there is no abseil involved. What you can expect is to jump off two waterfalls and float down the river looking up at the luminescent glowworms inside the cavern.
Things to note if you are taking part in the more active experiences:
- There is a change room, locker and, showers at the facility;
- Wear your swimsuit underneath your day clothes; You will be given a wetsuit and shoes to wear. If you get cold easily, I recommend you ask for fleece top to wear underneath your wetsuit.
- Bring a towel;
- Leave your valuables at the hotel or in the locker;
- Cameras and phones are not allowed; the company does take photos for you and you can purchase them for $30 NZD. A group of us did pitch in to buy a set and shared it among us. However, we were in a rush and didn’t check them and got only a few photos of the glowworms. By the time we noticed, it was too late to ask them to provide and upload some professional ones, as they said they would but seemed to have forgot.
Kiwi Experience Recommended Accommodation: Waitomo Backpackers (Kiwi Paka Waitomo) I stayed in a 2 pax dorm room with shared bath. The place was basic and clean. You also have the option to book your own chalet with private bath.
Matamata – Hobbiton Movie Set
On the way from Waitomo to Rotorua is where you will find the Hobbiton Movie Set located in the town of Matamata. This place is a farming community and now is also flourishing with tourism. You’ll find rolling green hills with a lot sheep here. If you are a “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbits” fan, this is where they filmed the Shire and is a must-see. This place is so incredible. It’s easy to want to dress up as a hobbit, skip through the pathways and imagine you live in the colorful shire. As you wander up and down the hills checking out adorable hobbit holes, you’ll notice the tremendous details that went into creating this set making it so REAL. You will feel like people actually live here, as you find laundry lines with washing hung out to dry. Afternoon tea and picnic set up on the front porches. Colorful flowers growing and pumpkin patches. As you stroll down to the Green Dragon pub for your complimentary pint, you can’t help but grin ear to ear. You have your choice of two ales, a cider or a ginger beer. Your inner child will literally be awakened. It is so magical! How to get here: If you have a car and can get to Matamata, the Hobbiton Movie Set yourself, you can book a tour directly with Hobbiton Movie Set Tours. If you are staying Auckland, you can definitely make a day trip out with a tour, learn about day tour and transfer information here. Matamata is about two and a half hours drive from Auckland. From Waitomo to Matamata is just under an hour and half.
This is Maori Culture capital where you can get a taste of Maori culture and enjoy the geothermal wonders first hand. As you drive into town, you will smell the sulphur. Once you get passed it, you can enjoy the geothermal parks around town. Wai-O-Tapu and Te Puia are the popular ones.
I opted to skip the geothermal parks as I was recently in Iceland and have been got Yellowstone. I decided instead to spend my afternoon at the geothermal pools, relaxing at the Polynesian Spa overlooking Lake Rotorua.
For nature enthusiasts, check out Redwoods Treewalk. To enjoy these tall beauties you find different length walking routes that you can hike around to fill yourself up with some fresh oxygen. However, the best way to enjoy a fantastic view of these giant trees is via the treewalk above ground, up on a series of suspension bridges.
Kiwi Experience Recommended Accommodation: Base Rotorua. I stayed at RockSolid Backpackers Rotorua, as the reviews were better and cheaper. It was less than a 10-minutes walk from Base and more central.
Taupo is known as the adventure capital of the North Island. It has a relax and chilled vibe here, located right next to Lake Taupo. There are a ton of lake activities for you to enjoy (sailing, jetboating , fishing), and amazing nearby hikes for you to access. The most famous is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. A 12-mile hike through craters and volcanic landscape in Tongariro National Park offering unique moon-like landscapes with emerald green lakes. Close to town, there is a Spa Park where you can relax in the natural hot springs by the river. We went in the afternoon, and the water is steamin’ hot! I’d recommend if you can, do it before noon or at dusk. Bring a towel and a bottle of water to stay hydrated!
For the active, there is a trail that you can walk to the famous Huka Falls, known for the volume of water flowing over the falls at 220,000 litres per second. There are also heaps of adrenaline type activities including sky diving. This is where I signed up and did my first sky dive. It was surreal! It took me awhile to register that I jumped out of an airplane at 12,000 ft with Sky Dive Taupo. The view was incredible! I’ve never felt so free!
I booked an overnight bus from Taupo to Wellington with Mana Bus. It took approximately 6 hours. It was not comfortable at all as the sleepers were all taken when the bus came to pick us up at the bus terminal. I wish there was a way to make a reservation where you can book a ‘sleeper’ instead of it being first come-first serve. If you have got time, I would recommend continuing on your journey with Kiwi Experience. They stop at River Valley where you can go River Rafting and spend a night to break up the long drive.
Tip: if you decide to take the overnight bus, wear long sleeves and have a blanket, scarf or jacket readily available. The bus ride was cold.
The capital of New Zealand is a city that is cultured and has an artsy and hip vibe with a beautiful harbor.
Gives you a remarkable view of the city. It is easily accessible by car, bus or hike. We climbed Mount Victoria to get our exercise in for the day and it took less than an hour from my hotel which was near Cuba Street (in the center of town) to the lookout point.
From Mount Victoria, we hiked down to Oriental Bay. Here you will find people enjoying the small beach and taking a stroll, biking and jogging along the harbourfront. It is a relaxing area to come and grab an ice cream and people watch and clear your mind. Another great view of the city is to take the historical red cable car to the Botanic Gardens from Lambton Quay and ride it to the top. The entrance into the Botanic Gardens is free but there a fee for small fee for the cable ride.
A great place to grab some grub, or drink and people watch. You will find an eclectic variety of food in Wellington that are good and cheap to choose from. On Cuba Street you will see buskers, artists and get a vintage hippie vibe making you feel like you have been transported back to the 70s. At any moment you may encounter Austin Powers in one of the colourful shops and restaurants.
This interactive national museum is free. It covers New Zealand’s biological, social and cultural history with interactive displays and exhibits.
From Wellington, I bought a plane ticket and headed for Queenstown. To get to Wellington airport from city central, check out Airport Flyer.
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