Lost in New Zealand: The North Island

Lost Girls RTW Adventure, New Zealand — By on May 24, 2007 at 4:43 am

Having alighted in a fantastically picturesque city where the streets were spotless, the residents spoke our language and we could indulge in the creature comfort we’d abandoned nine months ago (we now consider drinking water from the tap to be a rare treat), it was tough to fight the urge to plop down and spend the remaining months of our journey living the sweet life in Auckland.

Despite our local friend’s protests that living in the city was about as exciting as waiting in line at the post office or getting your teeth cleaned, we loved the town and lavished the attention and care dotted upon us by our new local pals Carmi, Wendy and Greg (we’d chosen to stay with friends rather than one of the well-priced Auckland hotels). By the fifth day in town, however, we realized that we needed to get our asses in gear and so Jen and I hightailed it to the travel desk at our hostel to find out if we should rent a car, invest in an intra-country bus pass or get tickets aboard the two main backpacker buses-Stray or the Kiwi Express.

Jen, who generally crunches the numbers for the group (I tend to be better at directions than budgets, while Holly does destination planning), determined that it would actually be the least expensive to split the cost of an economy car-and we’d have total control over where we’d go and when we’d get there. We’d learned that New Zealand is filled top to bottom with amazing wineries, fruit orchards and even boutique chocolate factories, so we were eager to pop in and sample the goods whenever the mood struck (as it often does!).

We had one last stop before leaving town-the New Zealand Tourism office (located near Pier 1 along Auckland’s waterfront)-to pick up discount passes for activities throughout the country. Lost Girls Tip: If you’re coming to Kiwiland, it’s very much worth your while to scout the racks in hostels, hotels and local tourism information offices for great deals and discounts-you can get from 10-30 percent off the listed price of an activity just for holding the right coupon. Even if you can’t find a coupon, you should call or email the tour company to see if they have any unlisted discounts-many properties are happy to give you a bit of financial encouragement to book with them.

We spent just under four weeks touring New Zealand’s superlatively gorgeous countryside. The impending autumn turned the whole world from mossy green to shades of gemstone rarely seen outside of a Harry Winston display case. The first part of our drive, through the slightly more populous North Island, took us from Auckland, through the volcanically active town of Rotarua, past Lake Taupo, onto the Tongariro National Park (where Mt Doom is located!) and finally ended in New Zealand’s social, political and cultural capital of Wellington.

Rather than recap the entire Crossroads-style highway adventure (do you really want to read about our 7-11 popcorn, candy and soda binges?), we’d decided to run the highlight reel of our top 10 favorite stop-offs, local interactions and Kiwi insights. Enjoy!

1. The Kiwi Experience
(Amanda): Back in Auckland, the girls and I had to make a quick decision whether we wanted to tour New Zealand on a pricey guided-bus adventure, or a rent a car to make the same journey. We chose the latter, but we didn’t realize what a wise decision we’d made until the first time we saw a mega-sized tour bus pull up in front of a hostel and watch 60 exhausted gap year travelers spilling out into the road, straining under the weight of their backpacks, daypacks and bags of travel grub. They herded past the reception desk en mass, picking up their keys and shuffling off to rooms to prepare for another night of partying.

This is a generalization, I realize, but many riders on Stray and Kiwi Experience busses told us that the best part of the hop-on, hop-of adventure is the chance to knock back a pint or six with your brand new friends and fellow travellers. Honestly, if I’d come to NZ just after graduating Florida State, I’d have been the first one to sign up for a big bus tour, but as I’m rounding 30 (egad!), I’m thrilled to gas up my own little car and see the country with my best girlfriends. We can come and go as we please, stop anytime to take photos or stock up at country fruit stands and sing radio tunes at the top of our lungs. What could be better than that?!

2. Hell’s Gate Mud Baths
(Holly): Remember the “star baths” in Kenya where the three of us had to share just two tubs? Well, the girls and I went beyond getting our hands dirty and jumped right into a single mud bath at Hell’s Gate, a geothermal reserve near Rotorua. Heated by lava very close to the earth’s crust, the sulphurous water was hot-and stinky! But the natives of New Zealand-the Maoris-have long celebrated the geothermal pools for their natural healing properties.

The Lost Girls decided to soak up the benefits by ditching our bikini tops and smearing the clay-like mud across our chests and faces for maximum exposure. Not quite your typical luxurious spa experience, we felt like we were applying war paint. Still, we were reluctant to climb out and rinse off with a cold shower after we’d reached the twenty-minute time limit. And I don’t think it was simply power of suggestion that had us feeling so rejuvenated after only a short dip.

3. Lava Bar at Hot Rocks
(Amanda): When you’re talking “nightlife’ in Rotarua, there’s really only one watering hole to speak of-the bar at the Hot Rocks Base Backpackers where we stayed. And since we were required to stroll past the place every single time we left or came back to our dorm room, we ended up getting sucked into conversations and boozy invitations quite often. Fortunately, the ultra casual, saloon-like atmosphere of the place meant that we could wear whatever we wanted, so the three of us ended up tipping back pints in our sweats while we watched teenaged girls, freshly scrubbed after their journey on the Kiwi Experience bus, pretend that they weren’t freezing their asses off as they braved near freezing temperatures in tube tops and sun-dresses.

During our nights at Lava Bar, we met an entire cast of characters, including two young American dentists-Dave and John-who not only bought us a round, but offered to provide free teeth-whitening procedure if we visited them in Portland and Seattle. We re-met a freaky Danish guy who’d already approached us in Auckland with an offer to snap our photo, and who did the same again in Rotarua. Somehow, over the course of the next month, this determined, bearded dude “re-met” us so many times and in so many places, we were convinced that he was stalking us! As for me, I ended up chatting with a gorgeous English guy whom I was planning to make my next boyfriend-until I learned that he’d just graduated high school. I normally love younger men, but when I found out that Jack was a mere babe of 18 years, I had to politely dip out of our flirtation. Oh my god, when did I become the dirty old woman at the bar?!!?

4. River Rats Rafting Adventure
(Jen): During our five-day stopover in Rotarua, the girls and I were determined to squeeze in as many adventure activities as possible. At first, we were a bit overwhelmed by the extensive laundry list of adrenaline inducing sports to choose from. But after perusing several glossy brochures, comparing various packages and chatting with other backpackers at our hostel, our mission was clear – – sign up for a white water rafting trip with River Rats! One of the regions most popular companies, River Rats offers daily cruises down the Rangitiaki, Wairoa and Kaituna rivers, even taking on a few Grade V rapids along the way. But what really caught our attention, was the promise of a death-defying plunge straight over a 21-foot waterfall – which incidentally, is the highest commercially-operated drop in the world! Always up for a challenge, Amanda, Holly and I registered for the next available time slot.

The next morning, a psychedelic pink and purple van pulled up to our hostel, carrying a motley crew of staffers, river guides and wide eyed tourists. We hopped aboard, taking in the rapid fire instructions, trip information and safety warnings as we headed towards impending doom, I mean, the rapids. Nervous laughter filled the vehicle as we each signed a waiver exonerating the company of any liability and stating that we fully assumed the risk we were about to take. Umm! Sure. OK! After getting geared up in sexy helmets, life jackets and water booties, we were issued paddles, assigned to a team and given detailed instructions on how to operate the raft and what to expect as we headed downstream. Confident that our guide wouldn’t steer us in the wrong direction – literally and figuratively – we hit the rapids with enthusiasm.

A few baby waves building up to a Class ‘3’s and some solid group paddle practice under our belts, we were ready for the Big One – we hoped! We could hear the roar of the waterfall in the distance as the raft glided closer to the edge. But before anyone started panicking, our guide stopped the boat a safe distance away for a pep talk. “Now, there’s a camera rigged to the trees to take your picture, so make sure you smile on your way down,” she prompted. Although grinning for a group photo was the last thing on our minds, it lightened the mood and loosened everyone up for the dramatic descent. Also, the group before us had made the fall without capsizing, so now the competition was brewing. Make it over in one piece or risk being added to the River Rats Hall of Shame! Not these Lost Girls! Ready, set, paddle. We propelled our raft forward as fast as we could and as soon as our guide yelled, “Drop”, we hit the bottom of the boat and braced ourselves for the 7 meter plummet. As we sailed off the edge, white water roaring below, it felt like more like we were flying in a weird rubber plane and that we’d keep going forever. That is, until we crashed back into the rapids. But wait, we were still right side up. We’d made it down alive and even had time to flash a quick grin to the camera before it went off. Are we rock stars or what?

Our group gave a dramatic high five with our paddles and then quickly prepared for the next big rapid that waited for us just around the bend. We spent the next hour enjoying the river, taking in the scenery and learning to “surf” – reversing the boat to head up stream then forcing the front end into churning water so it kind of floated there as huge waves crashed over our heads. Another perfect photo op! We arrived back on land looking like, well, drowned river rats, but totally pumped full of adrenaline just as we’d hoped for. Exhausted, but supremely satisfied, we patted ourselves on the back for being so brave and then raced over to the River Rats office to check out the candid shots taken of us on the river. With expressions on our faces that could only be described as “special” all we could do was laugh at ourselves, hop the next bus back to town and hit the pubs for happy hour!

5. Running with the Redwoods
(Amanda): While in Rotarua, Jen and I decided to take a jog around the lake, but the overwhelming stench of sulphur and lack of a proper path around the water forced us to turn back. After chatting with a few friendly locals, we learned that there was a far more scenic-and far less smelly-jog to be had through a national park just a ten minute drive from the town center. Jen and I took a quick spin over to Redwood Forest Park to find tens of thousands of acres of towering trees and rolling green hills laced with enough hiking and biking trails to keep even the most dedicated outdoor enthusiast fascinated for months. Thanks to the help of one amazingly kind Kiwi (who literally stopped us three times to show us the proper twists and turns on our jogging path), Jen and I experience an absolutely breathtaking sunset run and felt like we were truly running at the feet of ancient, enchanted giants.

6. Fat Dog Café
(Jen): As you should know by now, The Lost Girls take food very seriously – – Holly has developed a unique rating system for veggie burgers, Amanda requires bakery employees to pass a cream cheese frosting test before she’ll buy their carrot cake, and I refuse to indulge a red meat craving without a glass of Pinot Noir and dark chocolate to follow! Unfortunately, living on a backpacker’s budget with often limited meal choices has forced us to lower our culinary standards significantly during our trip. So on the rare occasion we find a restaurant that falls within our price range and satisfies our discerning taste buds, we run – not walk – to the nearest entrance.

Such was the case in Rotarua when we discovered Fat Dog Café, a funky eatery serving an eclectic menu of nouveau Kiwi comfort food like BBQ chicken pizza, caramelized fruit pancakes, pumpkin and feta paninis, spicy potato wedges, fresh baked breads with Mediterranean dips and a wide range of gooey baked goods, including thick slices of carrot cake with Amanda-approved frosting. With portions plump enough for three LGs to share; we were able to save enough cash to justify a glass of wine and dessert with every meal. But the decadent dishes weren’t the only thing that kept us coming back. Dressed from floor to ceiling in hip, canine couture, with walls drenched in deep burgundy hues and quirky quotes splattered across crooked wooden chairs, Fat Dog Café scored high on The Lost Girls’ ambience meter. Transitioning from a hip, coffee house by day into a cozy, candlelit bistro by night, Fat Dog Café was the ideal space for us to relax with a cappuccino, catch up on our journals, pour over celebrity gossip magazines (our first in months!) and soak in the local culture, which is pretty much what we did every day. Hey, if this is what life in New Zealand is all about, consider us converted Kiwis!

7. The Maori Experience
(Holly): While Jen and Amanda were off running in the Redwoods, I decided to go the tourist’s route and see a Maori Twilight Cultural Tour in Rotorua (it’s the lazy woman’s way to pick up some basic local history, fast). This involved boarding a bus with about 50 other travelers before getting dropped off in a “village” to watch poi dances (where women twirl balls of woven flax) and haka (war dances where the men paint their faces, wave spears and belt out fierce battle calls). Our group wandered around the make-believe village to witness woodcarving and tattoo demonstrations and listen to tribe members tell their people’s stories. Long before the Europeans first set foot on the islands, these Polynesian descendants called it home. Exactly when the Maori arrived, and where they originally came from (Tahiti? The Cook Islands? Marquesas?) is still up for debate.

After the history lesson and dance performances, we dug into a Maori feast, called a hangi. The meat- and potato-heavy meal was cooked for four hours in an earth oven. I carb loaded on my favorite veggie, sweet potato, which is known as kumara in NZ. Heck, the $85 price of the tour was worth it for the smoked meal alone.

Even without my fellow Lost Girls to share the experience with, I was having a grand old time. That is, until our guide announced that it was tradition for tourists to share songs from our home countries. I’d rather be stuck with a spear than forced to sing in public, so I tried to inconspicuously slump down in my seat and hide behind my hair. As luck would have it, our guide zeroed right in on me and thrust the microphone in my face. “Let’s hear it for Holly from New York!” he yelled as everyone applauded. How had he remembered my name?! The first song that came to my head was, of course, “New York, New York.” As the group fell silent in anticipation, I had no choice but to utter my best off-key rendition. I can guarantee that nobody wanted to hear me sing. Poor, poor people!

8. The Tongariro Crossing
(Holly): We admit it: We were hoping to spot some hobbits in this “Land of the Long White Cloud,” as New Zealand translates to in Maori. So we decided to make a pilgrimage to the gateway to Middle Earth where “Lord of the Rings” was filmed. Having a rental car granted us the freedom of the open road, where we cruised the Geothermal Highway and made frequent pit stops to check out the plethora of thermal springs, bubbling mud pools and spewing geysers that has sprung up from this land of molten volcanoes. Our final destination? The Tongariro Crossing, home to the setting of Mordor’s Mt Doom.
The 17-kilometer, one-day trek is one of the North Island’s most popular and winds around volcanoes, through glacial valleys, past emerald lakes and into lush forest. The downside was some over-crowding on the trail, but it was a small price to pay for such stunning scenery. The bigger cost? Seriously sore muscles-the girls and I felt like hobbits ourselves the following day after hobbling around with aching legs.

9. Wellington and Peter Jackson
With so much to do in New Zealand and so little time (3 ½ weeks to explore an entire country can be a bit tricky), there were definitely some places we wish we could have visited, but didn’t get a chance to and others that we loved, but didn’t have enough time to explore properly. For me, that was the country’s capital of Wellington. A sci-fi geek to the core, I couldn’t help but get a rush at the thought of hanging out in Peter Jackson’s hometown. For those of you who don’t know who that is (shame on you), he’s the acclaimed director of Lord of the Rings – one of my all time favorite film trilogies.

A town built on its hip, café culture, thriving art community and sophisticated late night scene, Wellington is a place that you can just kind of “be” in without feeling the need to race around and play tourist. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Lonely Planet-recommended activities to keep visitors busy for days (Botanic Gardens, Te Papa museum, Parliament House and the Carter Observatory – to name a few). But after only a few hours in this bustling hipster haven, I knew I’d prefer to experience this city through more low key activities like sucking down stiff espressos in local diners, catching a show at an art house cinema and bar hopping from one live music venue to the next. With barely a day to explore before we had to hop the ferry to the South Island, the only Wellington sites we really got to see were the inside of our hostel and a couple neighborhood cafes. Although, seeing Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, two of the Hobbits, grab a meal in Fidel’s (a famous dive that serves the most amazing eggs, muffins and, of course, coffee) in one of the movie’s special features, then eating there myself – practically in the same booth – was pretty freakin’ cool. Hey, I told you I was a geek!

While I was a bit bummed at the lack of time we had in Wellington, our visit there really just affirmed something we already knew – – New Zealand is at the top of the list of countries we must re-visit in the future. And when a Lost Girl sets her mind to do something, you better believe it’s gonna happen!

10. Ferrying to the South Island
(Amanda): When one speaks of “ferry ride” to a New Yorker, the first thing that comes to mind is the miraculously floating hunk of iron and steel that provides utilitarian transportation to and from Staten Island. This is the sort of vessel I was expecting to deliver us from New Zealand’s North Island to its South Island, so you can imagine my shock and delight to arrive at the dock in Wellington to find what can only be described as a first class airline terminal designed for water travel. Quite possibly the very last three passengers to arrive (isn’t that always the Lost Girl way?), we walked straight up the reception counter, placed our bags onto conveyer belt and boarded the boat, ascending six floor to a massive passenger lounge that remind me very much of American Airline’s first class Admiral’s Club.

Rather than stiff wooden benches and stale chips (the offerings on most ferries), this ship offered outstanding deli-style lunches, first-run movies on two big screens, incredibly comfy the lounge seating and even a cocktail bar for those who wanted to get loaded during the three hour journey across the channel. The girls and I were psyched to plug in on computers and get caught up on blogging and were actually a little sad when our ship-all too quickly-pulled into port.

And that’s all for the North Island, folks!
Stay tuned for more adventures from the South Island!

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  • Steven says:

    Great adventures! I got tired just reading it. I keep looking longingly at New Zealand each year when I fly to Bangkok. You’re definately inspiring me to get over there. All the best, Steve

  • leah braun says:

    i just found your blog and i love it!! i was in nz for 6 months a few years ago, and i miss it so much! it’s awesome seeing your pictures of wellington and the tongariro crossing and all of the places i’ve been!! have an awesome trip, enjoy it for me… 🙁

  • Carina says:

    You girls hit the nail on the head there…especially with Fat Dog and Fidel’s! And I KNEW that Danish dude was weird when we met him…creepy!
    Hope to see you here again soon!

  • sugarsandsalts says:

    Thanks for sharing such adventures.Next time i know where to head in Newzeland.
    Great experience and stories telling.

  • Tripodyssey says:

    You girls are AMAZING!!!! What a superb blog and nice stories!!!

  • Anonymous says:

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    Check it out @ ultralighttowels(dot)com
    I can bet u wiLL reaLLy find it useful 🙂

  • Maryam in Marrakesh says:

    You guys are so funny. I love the mud bath in particular and am noticing that your skin looks fantastic afterwards:-)

    Are you coming to Morocco?

  • Schmanders says:

    Hi Maryam,

    I don’t think that we’re gonna make it to Morocco this time, but it definitely on our list of places to visit together!


  • Dellie says:

    Would a mudbath work as well on the skin using Colorado River mud? I guess not though that’s just down the road for me…You gals are living a dream…Can’t wait to see you on TV!

  • Andrew says:

    Peter Jackson… LOTR… I was feeling just a tinge jealous (lol) before I got to that part but now…. wow… yeah.

    Awesome stuff! I look forward to reading more!

  • Long time reader, 1st time poster. I just want to say I appreciate all you do with your website. This is one of the first sites I visit each night.

  • the idea beach towel should be colored white because it reflects heat away ,`”

  • Sophie says:

    It is so much fun to travel indeed… By just looking at your pictures I can say that you had lots of fun. Amazing adventure you got there. I wonder if you guys are insured during your travel. Ha! Ha! I am an advocate of travel insurance so I asked hope you don’t mind.

  • pandora sale says:

    I really enjoyed the virtual conference. I have learned a lot of cool things to work with my ESL students.Thank you! and I am glad it is on a Saturday otherwise I couldn¡¯t attend it.

  • Alex Rascanu says:

    Such an adventure! Traveling to new countries among friends makes for such a great experience!