At a recent meeting we were asked to share our most favorite travel experience. Well, I certainly have been very fortunate with respects to travel, having been on numerous memorable trips to spots all around the world (six continents and counting!). So when it comes to a favorite, I have several, for very different reasons.
But when pushed to choose only one, I consistently come back to the same, one destination.
It's been a number of years since I've been to New Zealand, however the memories still remain top of mind. When asked "Why New Zealand?", I have a hard time pinpointing a specific reason. Friendly people. Unbelievable natural beauty. Incredible food and wine. It's safe to say the reason is 100% all of this combined.
And some you might relate to this as well. During my years in the corporate world, I would rate a vacation on how long the "vacation bliss" lasted. Of course not entirely fair as a lot of this depended on what projects were happening at the time, but the "bliss" from this vacation far outlasted any other - almost six months! Tough day at work? All I had to do was close my eyes and take myself back to this most amazing place.
We spent just about three weeks exploring both the north and south islands. I highly recommend this as a minimum, especially if you want to see both islands. If schedules don't allow for that much time, I recommend spending more time to fully explore a few places versus little time in too many places. Despite being a somewhat small country, there is so much to see and experience, so plan on going back!
There are a number of ways to explore New Zealand, from cruising (that usually includes Australia as well) and escorted tours (awesome when you don't want to drive on the "other" side!) to flying between cities and self-drive options. We did a self- drive.
Our itinerary started and ended in Auckland - typical since this is where flights from/to the US arrive/depart. Here's how we spent our three weeks.
We only stayed in Auckland a couple of days, but the city and the surrounding area offers a lot to see and do. Auckland can easily be used as a base to explore beaches to the west, Waiheke Island (Auckland's island of wine), the Bay of Islands to the north and of course the city itself. We explored the city by foot, which helped us ease into the new time zone.
Our first stop, the Sky Tower is a must see. Amazing 360 degree views of Auckland await you at the top. New activities since I was there, adventurous dare devils can now try the Sky Walk (a walk around the platform at the top) or Sky Jump (a base jump by wire off the tower 192 meters down!). Also on the list to see is the Viaduct Harbor, built in the 90's when Auckland hosted the America's Cup. Here you can catch a day cruise around Auckland harbor, out to Waiheke Island or out to see dolphins and whales. History buffs might enjoy the Maritime Museum. We enjoyed the boutique shops, took in the America's Cup "vibe" and relaxed at one of the many restaurants.
The Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel is known for its beautiful white sand beaches and is a popular holiday destination for Aucklanders. The peninsula isn't included on many itineraries that I have seen, but personally, I think it should be, especially since it is less than three hours from Auckland. The drive to Whitianga, the main town on the peninsula, offers spectacular views of the Bay of Plenty, and here is where one can enjoy the famous Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove (above). Approximately 2 hours from Whitianga is the beach resort area of Waihi where we had, in my opinion, the best fish sandwich EVER! Fish caught that morning, served from this little shack on the beach, eaten on a picnic table overlooking Cove Bay. Nothing can beat that!
From the Coromandel we headed south to Rotorua, known for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. Rotorua is part of what is called the Volcanic Zone, and here you will find plenty of natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools and geyers. And yes, it really smells of sulphur. Stinky, but after a while we didn't notice. We spent a day at the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserves and authentic Maori village - a perfect place to see the hot springs and mud paths but more so a wonderful place to get introduced to Maori culture, especially the Maori warriors.
Taupo, is a short drive from Rotorua, and sits at the northern end of Lake Taupo. A few miles north of the town is where you'll find the famous Huka Falls, an area where New Zealand's longest river, the Waikato River, squeezes through a narrow ravine, creating an awesome display of hydro power. While we didn't try this, we did watch others on the the Huka Jetboat experience. Fast, fun and wet! Maybe next time. Taupo Lake, about as big as the country of Singapore, is a perfect place to sail, kayak and water ski, but is known all around the world for it's fantastic trout fishing,
Our first day in Wellington was very rainy - wet and cold, so we spent it indoors in the Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum. Te Papa Tongarewa means "container of treasures", and this it truly is. The museum showcases New Zealand's Maouri culture, the country's history, nature, art and more, and in my opinion is a must see. Day two was full of sunshine, so we took the famous Wellington cable car up to the Kelburn lookout. Stunning views of the city and the Cook Strait greeted us. A perfect way to end our visit on the north island (other than finding some wonderful cuisine in town).
Stay tuned! Next week I will complete this itinerary with the South Island portion.