When I was planning our family vacation to New Zealand, several people asked me, "Why New Zealand?" or "Why aren't you going to Australia?"  I would laugh and say, "Why NOT go to New Zealand?  It looks amazing,"  or  "Sure, I'll go to Australia another time, but not this time."  After much deliberation, I decided to limit our time to one island, the North Island.  We would have a little over two weeks and I didn't want to be too rushed or spend half our time driving or flying, trying to cram everything in.  I took the mentality that we wouldn't be able to see it all in one trip and that was fine.  I should note that I did all of the planning by myself, from choosing the airlines and flights to where to go and what to do and where to stay.  Regarding the hotels, I compared the hotel website prices to those on hotels.com and hotels.com was always cheaper, plus after you stay 10 nights, you earn a free night's stay.
 I've summarized our vacation below and given some tips and highlights.  After my daughter's teacher saw photos from our vacation, she was inspired to go there and went this month.  I hope our vacation to New Zealand inspires more people to visit.
 Since we were flying from the east coast of the United States I decided to break up the flights by stopping over in San Francisco for the day on the way there and back home.  This was a fantastic decision, one that I'll get to the details about later.  Flight time from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand is about 13 hours nonstop but since Auckland is 19 hours ahead of San Francisco, you lose a day flying there and gain it back on the return.  All that being said, the flight really didn't seem that long.  My husband, daughter, and I filled our time watching movies, playing games, reading, and sleeping.  We flew with Air New Zealand, which I had researched and felt was the best airline for us comparing such things as seats, food, reliability, and general comfort based on what I could find online.
The plan was to do a bit of hopping around for our first week, spending one night in a city then driving on to another place, doing a loop around much of but not all of the island, then spending the next week in one city and doing some short day-trips from there but limiting our driving that week.  We went in late March, which means it was fall in New Zealand.  The weather was absolutely perfect for hiking and going to the beach, both of which we did a lot of.
 We arrived in Auckland around 6:00 in the morning.  Since it was too early to check into our room, we picked up our car from the rental agency Apex Rentals and drove to Mount Eden.  There is no admission fee and it's high enough from the top to give you great views of the city (see photo below).  The inactive volcanic crater is really cool to see as well. We also spent a few hours at the Auckland Museum. It was good to get some history about the people and culture on our first day in New Zealand.  We saw many carvings and historical treasures of the Maori and learned many things.  Abaco on Jervois was a nice but not overly expensive hotel with everything our family needed.  Our room felt more like an apartment than a hotel to me, which is a good thing.
The next day, we drove to Ohakune with the intention of hiking in Tongariro National Park.  You could literally spend days hiking here.  We chose some trails and saw what we could in a day but we didn't over-do it.  There are three major mountains in this area:  Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings filiming locations) and Mt Ruapehu.  We spent our second night in Ohakune and stayed at the LKNZ Lodge.  This was by far the least impressive of the places we stayed in, as far as our lodging and accommodations.  LKNZ is more like a hostel and while our family had our own room, the room was outdated and simple.  I had my doubts when I made reservations, but the hotel choices in this area were limited and the ratings for LKNZ were all very good.  It was fine for one night but I wouldn't have wanted to have stayed there any longer.  If we had the gear, camping in this area would have been great.
For our third day, we drove to Rotorua, which is a geothermal city known for bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and natural hot springs, as well as Maori culture.  My family and I went to Te Puia, where we saw the famous Pohutu geyser that erupts up to 20 times a day, in addition to many mud pools, hot springs, and the National Carving School and National Weaving School.  We spent the night at the Arista of Rotorua.  Our room at this place was enormous!  It was two floors, with the top floor being a huge bedroom with four beds.  There was also a bed on the first floor, so we could have hosted another family or two on the top floor alone.  We also had a jacuzzi tub on the outside patio.  The next morning, we went to the Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest and hiked there for a few hours.  The Redwoods here rival those in California as far as sheer size and beauty.  This is a place that is often called "magical," and it truly is.
After leaving the Redwoods Forest, we drove to the Hobbiton Movie set in Matamata. This was the setting for The Shire from 'The Lord of the Rings' and the 'Hobbit' movies. On the guided tour, we walked around much of the 12 acre site and were given many details about the filming of the movie.  Although most of the doors to the Hobbit homes were shut, we were allowed a glimpse inside one of the Hobbit homes, which was a lot of fun and for the finale we were given a pint of ale at the Green Dragon Inn and allowed to hang out for a bit here.  Although all of the interior scenes from the Green Dragon Inn and Bar in the films were shot in studios in Wellington, that same interior was recreated at the Hobbiton Movie Set.  You can sit in a comfy chair by the fire and enjoy a snack or tasty beverage and take in all of the details around you.  This was a highlight of our time in New Zealand.  After the tour, we drove to Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty and spent our fourth night at the Blue Haven Motel.  This was also the day of my wedding anniversary.  It was quite the anniversary gift to ourselves, getting to spend our time in such a breathtakingly beautiful place.  Mount Maunganui is a quiet place on the coast with a calm and relaxing vibe.  We hiked to the top of the mountain and were rewarded with amazing views.
I almost didn't include the Coromandel Peninsula in our itinerary but when I researched the area, I thought this was a must-see area.  First we went on a tour of a Glowworm Cave and while the cave itself was impressive, the best part was at the end of the tour when our eyes had adjusted to the dark and all of the glowworms came into view and it was eerily quiet around us.  After that, we went on a boat tour that remains a highlight of all of my vacations before and since.  There are several companies that offer "Hole in the Rock" boat tours, but I chose one of the smaller outfits that used small boats that could be easily maneuvered in the caves.  I was all smiles from beginning to end of that boat tour.  The scenery was spectacular and the commentary was fun and informative.  We were in Whitianga for our fifth night and stayed at The Beachside Resort.  This was a very modern, clean, and updated resort only a short walk to the beach.
For the remainder of our time in New Zealand, we were in the Paihia region and stayed at Club Paihia.  Paihia is called "The Jewel of the Bay of Plenty."  From here, we drove to Kerikeri and went to a few wineries, all of which were run by laid-back, friendly people, we took a ferry to Opua and spent the day there, we went on many hikes in the area, and we checked out the world famous Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa.  A must-see area is the Waitangi National Trust estate.  This is New Zealand's most historic site as the 'Birthplace of the Nation' and is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the 6th of February 1840.  Waitangi is a 506 hectare (1000 acre) reserve where Maori and the British Crown signed New Zealand's famous Treaty of Waitangi.  Here you can also see Ngatokimatawhaorua, the 35 metre long war canoe (waka) that is one of the largest ceremonial war canoes in the world with a hull carved from two massive kauri trees.  It is launched each year for the ceremonial commemoration of the signing of the Treaty.

I can't wait to go back to New Zealand and visit the South Island!



Published by Donna Stefanick