Cathedral Cove and Waiheke Island

After Hobbiton, it really felt like our trip was starting to come to a close, but we still had a few fun activities left. One that I was really looking forward to was a day at the beach at Cathedral Cove and had my fingers crossed for nice weather. We stayed in a small town called Hahei at this lovely backpackers lodge and spent the afternoon exploring around the town – getting ice cream, walking along the beach, and having a few local beers. Beach towns always have a great vibe and we felt really relaxed.

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The next day the weather was great and we decided to skip the water taxi and hike out to Cathedral Cove, but not before renting some snorkeling gear at the local dive shop. It’s not too long a walk to Cathedral Cove, about an hour, and there are gorgeous views of the ocean and cliffside all along the trail. We took our time on the way there and decided to stop at the first beach to do the Gemstone Snorkel Trail. It’s basically a series of buoys in the water that you can snorkel between and there’s supposed to be all kinds of cool fish.

I ended up having a great time, but I’d advise that if you’re visiting Cathedral Cove, the snorkel trail is really better off done by boat. It is a little bit of a swim to get out to the buoys. I’m a strong swimmer and a former lifeguard, so I thought it was fine, but I was concerned about Seth and would really have felt better if we had lifejackets, which we didn’t. Seth swam out to the first buoy, but it was his first time snorkeling and he couldn’t really get used to it and had no where to stand up, so he bailed, but I had a great time swimming around. I didn’t end up following the buoys, but rather just swam around inside them until I found the fish. I did a bit of research after and I’m pretty sure I saw some blue maomao, red moki, banded wrasse, and maybe some snapper. The red moki was my favourite and looks like a zebra fish.

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We continued on along the trail until we finally arrived at Cathedral Cove! It was a weekend, so it was a bit on the busy side, but we found a nice little spot at the back of the beach to hang out for the day. The main feature of Cathedral Cove is the archway/cave that goes through the rock from the first beach to the second beach. There are several sea stacks around and beautiful golden sand, so it makes for a really picturesque location. Plus the water is really warm, so I had a blast swimming and we spent a ton of time in the water since it was so hot. Seth tried out the snorkel again and had a lot more fun with it in the shallows. We found some more fish swimming around and Seth was way more interested (then I would have been) in all the organisms growing on the rocks.

We planned to take a water taxi back, but there were so many people using them that it was a 2 hour wait to get on one, so we just walked back to Hahei instead and grabbed another ice cream before hitting the road for the last part of our road trip.

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It was back to Auckland for round 2. Although we didn’t actually end up spending that much time in the city. We wanted to finish up most of our food, so we had dinner at the hostel and had a lazy evening. The hostel was pretty interesting actually, it’s basically an old train station that has been reconverted into a hotel/boarding accommodation. So half the people actually live there for months at a time and the lobby is a huge train station entrance.

Our next day was devoted to a trip to the nearby island, Waiheke, which is known for it’s wine. It’s about a 45 minute boat ride to get there and we had booked a hop-on hop-off tour for the day. It was still a bit too early for wine, so we did the first part of the bus tour, stopping for an hour at the local beach, before starting our wine trail for the day. New Zealand definitely has some good wine, but it also makes for a pretty expensive day. Very few places do free tastings, so you usually have to pay $10-15 for a tasting. We each had our own for the first few places, but the more liquored up we got, we started sharing the tastings instead.

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I think we ended up doing 5 wineries. We had a light lunch at the first one, Wild Estate, and Seth went for a beer tasting since it was also a brewery. We stopped briefly into Stonyridge, which is one of the island’s most well known and most widely found wines. It was one of my least favourites though and I only ended up doing a small sample. Gorgeous views though! Next we went to Tantalus, which was probably my favourite of the day. It has this gorgeous building and the truffle fries were TO DIE FOR. The wine was great too and we each did a taste, but I still dream about those truffle fries.

The last two wineries were more memorable for the views. We went up the hill to Batch Winery, which has an amazing view looking out over the island, and then finished at Mudbrick (another really popular winery) for one last taster. In terms of decor and landscaping, Mudbrick was probably my favourite, It’s on the west side of the island and had a great view looking out over the water to Auckland. Plus the buildings are all made of a pretty red mud brick and there were flowers and a lavender garden sprucing the place up! We did stop briefly in the village to do a little shopping around before heading back across the water to Auckland.

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An Adventure in the Shire

As you might have guessed, I’m a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan. I read the books for the first time when I was 10 years old and before we went on the trip, I re-read the series and re-watched all the movies. Growing up my friends and I were totally obsessed with the Fellowship of the Ring movie, which came out when I was 11. A bit odd for a group of girls maybe, but we found a copy of the script on the internet somewhere and used to act it out as we watched it. The movies are 100% what inspired me to want to visit New Zealand and it was so exciting to finally travel around the islands after so many years of dreaming of going there.

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When we first started planning the trip, I figured the most time we’d be able to get away from work would be 3 weeks. I hate not having enough time to do a place justice and after a bit of research I had to admit that visiting both islands in 3 weeks would be a bit too ambitious. The South Island was the island that was really calling to me as an avid adventurer and hiker, but I couldn’t bear to not visit the North Island and see Peter Jackson’s Hobbiton set. I had to make it happen, so I revisited all my ideas and somehow we were able to make it work that we could both skip town for 5 weeks to explore New Zealand.

It felt fitting to visit Hobbiton towards the end of the trip. We had a beautiful day for it and it really had a feeling of closing out the trip. We still had a few activities left, but after Hobbiton I felt that I could leave feeling happy and accomplished. I’m sure there’s some people that look at the Hobbiton tour and think, “nah, that’s too kitschy and expensive, I won’t bother,” while I was like, “only $30 more for the Hobbit feast? We must do that!”

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It was about an hour drive out of Rotorua and we had a 10am tour booked. They run the tours like a smooth sailing ship and we departed promptly on a bus that took us into the heart of the Alexander Farm in Matamata. Our guide took us on a tour to all the little hobbit holes and Bag End, before finishing in the village with a pint at The Green Dragon (okay, it wasn’t pint sized, but it was still craft Southfarthing beer!). He shared all kinds of interesting tidbits of information with us, some of which I already knew and lots of which I didn’t, before we settled down for a feast fit for a Hobbit.

Apparently Peter Jackson scouted the countryside for the perfect place to build the Shire. He had up to 10 different locations he was considering before ultimately deciding on its current location on a small piece of the Alexander Family’s large farm. He took a helicopter tour of the farm to scout out locations and it was the party tree that’s described in the book that ultimately drew him to that location. It was mostly swamp at the time, so he requested some funding from the government to get his project started. They turned him down, but sent him a division of the New Zealand army to help him bring his vision to life.

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Th original set was sadly demolished after the Lord of the Rings movies, but they had to be reconstructed again for the Hobbit, so this time Peter made it a permanent enterprise. They currently employ 7 full time gardeners to maintain the set and you couldn’t help but marvel at all the vegetation and flowers and Peter Jackson’s almost fanatic attention to detail. Everything you see on the set is completely real with the exception of the tree growing on top of Bag End, which is 100% fake, but had every single leaf hand painted.

It really was a dream to get to explore around the set and see a beloved world from your childhood completely brought to life. I do wish the group sizes were a bit smaller – it’s a lot of people per tour and it gets a bit overwhelming. We ran off a few times to take some pictures; I understand they can’t have hundreds of tourists running around the set, but there’s so many little details I felt I needed a bit more time to explore them all. Although truth be told, I can’t imagine ever having enough time to hang out there. After dinner we snuck back to the lake to admire the scenery and almost got left behind (we didn’t realize our tour group would be leaving from a different exit and were waiting for them to make an appearance).

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Admittedly, the party tree was a bit of a highlight for me too. Before I’d learned of the significance of the party tree to Peter Jackson as well, I’d been looking around the set trying to find it. It’s centered in the middle of the field, with coloured flags hanging from it and Sam Gamgee’s house just around the corner. We were also super impressed with the commitment to the village and the craft beer they brew just to sell in the Green Dragon. The only thing missing were little hobbits getting into mischief! If you ever go to New Zealand, don’t skip Hobbiton, trust me, it is so worth it!!

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Rotorua’s Geothermal Wonders

After hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we finally took some time to chill. We’d already burned up one of our days in Taupo white water rafting and we decided to explore all around the area on our way from Taupo to Rotorua. There are so many geothermal parks and wonders in the area, and none of it’s cheap, so it’s hard to know where to spend your time and money. A friend recommended Waimangu Volcanic Valley and we decided to just go with it and ended up having a great time!

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Waimangu Valley is the world’s youngest geothermal system and one of few (maybe the only?) whose date of birth is actually known. Mt Tarawera and Lake Rotomahana erupted on June 10, 1886, destroying all life within a 6km radius and birthing a new geothermal system in the valley. The valley has gone through many transformations since then – it was once home to the world’s largest geyser – but is now better known for its frying pan and terrace features. Its also ecologically important because it’s one of few places where you can see how flora and fauna have re-established in the area.

For a tourist, it’s basically a big valley with a walk running through it to all kinds of interesting geothermal features. The frying pan is the largest hot water spring in the world and runs a temperature of around 45 degrees. But my personal favourite was the inferno crater, which is a brilliantly blue hot pool almost 100 degrees in temperature. It was cool to see the hot rivers and springs flowing throughout the valley and the interesting terraces and formations that have been created from the mineral deposits in the river. We spent about 3 hours wondering around exploring the area.

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It was a hot day, so I wasn’t super tempted by all the hot springs in the area, but still wanted to visit at least one, so we decided on Kerosene Creek, which is a free, local hot spring. Word has definitely gotten around about the hot spring, but nothing compared to how busy they get in BC. There were quite a few people hanging out in the hot river and pool, but it was big enough that there was enough space to spread out. It has a nice little water fall before the biggest pool that you can soak your shoulders under.

After that we drove the rest of the way to Rotorua to check into our hotel for the next few days. There was a street festival on at the same time, so we dropped over to the market for a delicious dinner and then did some shopping. Merino wool is super popular in New Zealand, understandably since there’s so many sheep, but it is surprisingly expensive. A lot of it is mixed with possum wool and we did some shopping around to pick some items to bring home with us.

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The next day we took in some of the cultural sites. Rotorua is home to a lot of different indigenous groups and we decided to visit Te Puia to take in a local performance. You can find Maori culture all over New Zealand and it was fun to learn about some of the local history and customs. Seth learned the haka with the men and I learned a few poi skills with the women. Te Puia is home to a weaving and carving school for Maori students, so we got to see artists working and some of their beautiful artwork.

The village is also filled with its own geothermal wonders. Well… all of Rotorua is filled with geothermal wonders. You kind of get the feeling that the earth’s core is almost trying to burst through the ground in Rotorua and that the crust must be extremely thin in the region. We went to Kuirau Park and for a walk along the edge of the lake and we were constantly running into warnings of dangerous thermal zones. All of Kuirau Park is dotted with fenced off areas where the land seems to be almost burning away, Although they have set up a nice foot spa in one area of the park with hot water piped to soak your feet.

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Te Puia is also home to another kiwi sanctuary and they regularly breed and release kiwi. They had 2 young kiwi when we visited and I’ve never seen them so active! They’re hoping to breed the two kiwi, but didn’t think they were going to be successful because the female really didn’t seem to like the male, which became very obvious when we entered the enclosure and the two were running around fighting something fierce (kiwi are very territorial). It’s unreal how fast they can move and we barely caught a glimpse of them! We returned later when they had calmed down and were able to watch one of them feeding.

Besides Te Puia, the rest of our time in Rotorua was dedicated to relaxing. I found a lovely little bookstore that I was thrilled to explore and we decided to treat ourselves to thai massages, followed by a soak in our hotel’s hot tub. I feel like maybe we should have visited a few more hot springs, but New Zealand was finally treating us to beautiful hot and sunny weather and we just couldn’t be bothered. Overall Rotorua is a bit on the smelly side (hello sulphur!), but it was fun to explore around for a few days.

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