Sunday, 28 June 2015

There and Back Again: Castles Down Under-er (Part 1)

Let's not mince words: New Zealand is The. Bomb. Or whatever the kids are saying these days. It's da coolest. Totes amaze. Like, bitchin'. Really really great. Just one piece of advice; if you ever get the chance to go, try and do it with unlimited time and an unlimited budget, kay? Cool.

In April, we went to Middle Earth (don't wince at the obvious, you know we were going to call it that at least once, so we might as well get it out of the way at the beginning, right?). We spent two weeks roadtripping from Auckland in the North down to Queenstown in the South, whence we returned to Australia.

We did about a billion awesome activities, so brace yourselves, a very long post is coming...

Our adventure started in Auckland, where we stayed with family friends for one night before beginning our journey southward.

Upon arrival in Auckland, we checked out the Sky Tower, which, standing at 328 meters (about 18,076 feet...maybe you should check my math), awarded us with wonderful 360° views of the city and surrounds.

We even stood over the glass floors, which is scary. Laugh if you want, but it's kind of a bizarre sensation. Try it if you have the chance one day. And if you aren't at all fazed, then good for you.

We had dinner in the tower watching the sun set over the city before heading over to our home for the night to rest up after our very long day.

The next day, we took the ferry from Auckland proper over to the charming village of Devonport, just on the other side of the harbor.

We took a leisurely stroll over to the North Head, where we explored the old bunkers, tunnels, and grassy slopes of the Historical Reserve.

We were especially fascinated by the 'disappearing gun.' It dates from the late 1800s and is designed so that the recoil from the firing of the gun pushes it back down underground, thus making it "disappear." This made it difficult for enemies to place the location from which they were fired upon. The soldiers could then reload the gun under cover before raising it back up into firing position. Clever.

After enjoying the sunshine and a nice lunch in Devonport, we took the ferry back to Auckland and drove up Mt. Eden, a volcanic cone, and the highest natural point in Auckland. The views were amazing, and the grassy crater was a sight to behold.

After taking in the sights from Mt. Eden, we made our way out of town towards our next destination. Our original intent was to drive to Manakau Heads Lighthouse, but due to some miscalculations in the planning stages and a late morning, we realized on our way there that we wouldn't make it before sunset, or even before the parks department closed the gate to the lighthouse road. We made the call to turn around and head straight for our hotel.

The Cambridge Coach House was our favorite hotel of the whole trip. It's an adorable B&B with little cottages fronting a pretty green lawn, complete with a friendly resident ginger cat who greeted us upon arrival and then joined us for breakfast the next morning.

From this lovely start to our morning we headed over to the Hobbiton Movie Set, which we knew would be one of the highlights of our trip.

Unfortunately, the cold and flu gods were not smiling on us that morning; as our shuttle bus pulled into the tour launch point, Grady leaned over and said "is it freezing on this bus?" Um, no, it definitely wasn't, so I felt his forehead--yep, kinda like a radiator. Or the surface of the sun. Crud. But we are intrepid little travelers, and plus, we had booked this tour ages ago and already paid for it. So. Off we went.

And it was so...I would say perfect, but to say it was perfect would be insensitive to the fact that the hubby was sick as a dog the entire time. So it was almost perfect. This is obviously the real deal. I don't believe for a second that the reason we couldn't enter the hobbit holes was because they are just doors applied to the hillsides with no interior. I think it's because they didn't want us to disturb the actual hobbits who actually live there. They even grow real vegetables in the real gardens. No detail was left to chance.

Our guide even told us that they hired someone to walk the path from one of the doors to a washing line twice a day to pretend-hang purpose-made hobbit laundry in order to wear a realistic little path into the grass. No joke. That's some serious commitment to the illusion folks.

We were graced with a gorgeous sunny morning and a fun tour guide, and we would highly recommend Hobbiton to anyone visiting New Zealand--LOTR fan or no. I just wish Grady had been able to enjoy it more.

One day we will go back and do a healthy tour. I certainly would go back again without hesitation.

Looking a little under the weather, but enthusiastic nonetheless.

Now, you're probably thinking that after a busy morning Hobbit-hole-gazing and trying not to die, we would get to our next hotel and let Grady relax and recover. Nope, not how we roll. This is where planning ahead can kind of get you between a rock and a hard place, folks. We must push on! We had booked tours at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves for that same afternoon. Besides, you know what they (medieval medical experts, that is) say: feed a cold, spelunk for a fever. No, that's not what they say? Well, we did, and it did not make Grady feel better. But we did love the caves, and in hindsight, he says it was well worth pushing through.

We took the triple cave tour, which includes the Ruakuri Cave, the Aranui Cave, and the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves. All three were great experiences, but the Waitomo Caves especially were an almost out-of-body experience.

The Ruakuri Cave was our first tour. In this cave, we learned a lot about the formation and history of caves in the area, saw some cool fossils, and we got our first glimpse of a few glowworms here and there. Curious about these little guys? You should be, they are really fascinating. What we see in the caves is actual not a worm at all, but the larval stage of a fungus gnat. But, as our tour guide said, glowworm sounds a lot more appealing to tourists than fungus gnat larva, so there you go.

Due to our earlier Hobbiton adventure, we were on the last scheduled tours for both the Aranui Cave and the Glowworm Caves. This meant that on the Aranui Cave tour, we were the only ones, meaning we got a personal tour (and we could keep it short for Grady, who was getting progressively sicker throughout the day).

Can you diagnose an illness just by looking at someone's eyes?
Our tour guide even sang to us (and then she told us to try and get our guide on the Waitomo tour to sing...challenge accepted). The best thing about the Aranui Cave is the colony of Cave Wetas that lives just inside the entrance of this cave. These large insects are native to New Zealand, and are the namesake of Weta Workshop, the special effects company behind The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (more on that in the next post!).

Our Waitomo tour was small as well, and we did manage to convince our guide to sing (peer pressure - not just for middle-schoolers!). It is nearly impossible to describe this cave experience in words. Drifting along the underground river, listening to the deep, melodic voice of our guide as he sang a traditional Maori love song, gazing up at millions of glowworms on the ceiling, surrounded by utter darkness; it was a positively magical experience, and one that we recommend to all.

We couldn't take pictures (not allowed!), but this is an approximation of what we saw, only more glowworms covering the entire surface of the ceiling.
Photo credit:

Now, after a very long day, we finally made our way to our next stop in Rotorua. It was soup for dinner (it's practically medicine, right?) and straight to bed, because we were hoping to keep moving the next day (remember when I said you should tour NZ with unlimited time? Uh-huh. Then you won't have to guiltily keep pushing your sick spouse onward).

Day 4 of our great Kiwi adventure was spent exploring the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland just outside of Rotorua. This park is an active volcanic area full of colorful geothermal features, like boiling mud (which is surprisingly mesmerizing!),

geysers, sulphur pools,

The Champagne Pool
Sulphur steam facial!
shockingly green lakes,

The water matched the neon green on his vest...
and generally prehistoric-looking things. It was another warm sunny day, and we strolled around the park taking in the sights - strolling in the sun wasn't bad for Grady's persistent fever, but I'm sure the rotten-egg smell that some features gave off wasn't the most pleasant.

After marveling at the volcanic features of the Rotorua area, we headed down to Taupo, a town on the shores of Lake Taupo. Lake Taupo is the largest freshwater lake in Australasia (it's about the size of Singapore!), and was formed in the crater of a volcanic eruption. We stayed here two nights, which felt very indulgent and relaxing after being constantly on the move so far.

Taupo is a sweet little town with caf├ęs and restaurants along the waterfront, and plenty of fun activities.

A unique attraction in Taupo is the Hole-in-One Challenge. This a little stall on the lakefront where you can hit golf balls at a pontoon 111 yards away floating in the lake. If you sink it, you can win $10,000. Grady and I gave it a go. Unfortunately for us, it started pouring rain a few minutes in, but we were not to be deterred. Grady, of course, seriously impressed everyone there, and landed it on the pontoon a couple times. No hole in one, but there's always next time!

Taupo also boasts Huka Falls, a waterfall just up the road from town. Here, Lake Taupo drains into the Waikato river, and the falls are created where the river, normally 100m wide, squeezes through a 20m gorge and shoots out over a 20m drop into a bright blue-green pool. 220,000 litres of water per second creates a deafening roar as the water rushes through the gorge and over the falls.

After a nice easy day in Taupo enjoying a leisurely brunch, trying to win $10,000, and visiting the falls, we enjoyed an evening cruise aboard the Ernest Kemp.

We enjoyed mulled wine and yummy appetizers as we cruised out to the Maori rock carvings, which were very cool.

After a quick dinner upon our return, it was off to bed so that we could get up early to drive to Wellington in the morning.

On the road again...
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Castles Down Under-er - Wellington, Christchurch, seals galore, and much more!