Wellington, New Zealand: Only in NZ …

I intended on doing some traveling or sight-seeing on my own the first week I was in Wellie, but I ended up just sitting on my butt and … well, baking. When Jess finished work we would often go hang out somewhere, but other than that I just sat around and watched movies.

But the next week, the next week was considerably different. Jess hadn’t seen any of the North Island either, so we decided to do a road trip for the rest of my time in New Zealand. Bear in mind this is gonna be long, but it covers one hell of a week, so enjoy.

Day 1: Wine Tasting in Martinborough

We left Wellington on Saturday and drove east towards the Wairarapa/Martinborough region. This area is known for it’s wine, as well as picturesque coastal lands. We drove into Martinborough and talked to the people at the visitor’s center abou what we should see in the area. The first stop was the Palliser Estate vineyard for some wine tasting. I remembered Palliser Estate from the bar, especially some very memorable Pinot Noirs. Even though the woman running the tasting room gave us the cold shoulder in favor of a couple of clueless Kiwis, she finally warmed up after Jess and I huddled in the corner and talked about her more loudly than we had planned.

Next we drove out towards Cape Palliser and a walk that took us near some pinnacle formations carved out in the stone of the seaside mountains. The walk was short, but a good workout. By the end we were both famished and raced to the Martinborough Hotel’s Settler’s bar for a great pub meal of venison burgers and onion rings.

Accomodation in Martinborough was available but very expensive, so we moved north towards Masterton to see if there was anything more affordable there. On the way, we passed one of New Zealand’s most secretly indulgent sights. Recently, Jess and I had seen it featured on a list of New Zealand’s tackiest tourist attractions. It’s called Stonehenge Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country), and it’s a manmade … tribute … to the English Stonehenge. This one looks more like someone was building a small outdoor amphitheatre and gave up after putting down the foundation. Jess was so excited we drove up to it only to find out that they owner was closing up for the day. We tried to take some sneaky pictures of it as we drove away.

Masterton didn’t look like what I thought it would look like: I imagined a small, tourist’s town, but what I got was a more developed trucker’s rest area. We pushed through to the town of Napier in famous Hawke’s Bay. We arrived at the YHA about 15 minutes after they closed the reception, so we had to settle for a cabin at the Top 10 Holiday Park. But settled is a negative word; though the holiday park was further from the town center, we got a cabin that could fit 6 people for the price of shared dorm.

Day 2: It Smells Like Rotorua

Sunday morning was very wet. Nevertheless, we got ourselves together early and headed into town. Coincidentally, it seems we arrived on the same day as some kind of exposition in a building along the riverside. Vineyards as well as local merchants had set up stalls to show off their goods, do wine tastings and generally give out free things. Because of the weather, much of the town’s activities were severely impacted. The Marineland attraction, were sea creatures will do a song and dance for you in an outdoor confined area in the bay, wasn’t getting the best reviews from the townspeople, and everyone said that it wouldn’t be worth it in the rain. Napier is known for its art deco architecture, which I was told means most of the downtown area buildings are styled like the 1950s.

Jess and I did a few wine tastings at the expo, and at one stall, when I told the woman I was from Boston, she immediately got her business card and started writing on the back of it. As she wrote she told me about how an old friend of her’s moved to the States and how they lost touch over the years. She said her friend was in the Boston area, and asked if I could look her up on her behalf. Jess and I looked at each other in confusion, and then explained to the woman that what I would probably do is just use an online service that she could use as well. Ahh New Zealanders, so cute.

We got a tip from a woman manning a food stall in the expo that there was a farmer’s market in the nearby town of Hastings. We drove there and picked up some delicious cheeses for dinner that night.

After consulting the map, we drove west towards the center of the Island and the lakeside town of Taupo. Taupo is a popular destination for tourists, and matches some of Queenstown and Wanaka’s appeal towards the adventure-seeking crowd. Unfortunately, when it’s so overcast you can barely see the lake, and so windy you run from one indoor shelter to another, your outdoor activity options are the last things on your mind. We looked through our guidebooks and decided to keep moving to Rotorua. Both towns are popular for thermal springs and hot pools, but Rotorua has made a name for itself out of those attractions.

We were only just out of Taupo when we noticed the smell. It was spoiled eggs, sulphur, and it was noxious. When we got into town and ran into the i-site through the hammering rain, the smell was all around us. We went to the local supermarket to pick up more supplies for dinner and found it was even worse in the store. We couldn’t get away from it. It was well-muted in our hostel room, so we didn’t dare open a window or venture into the hall for long periods of time.

Day 3: Now All I Need is a Giant Bottle Opener

Before we headed out from Rotorua, Jess and I stopped at two tourist attractions just outside of town. The first was the Buried Village, a recreation/restoration of a small village on the base of Mt Tarawera, a volcano which erupted many years ago, resulting in devastating impacts to the surrounding areas. It sucked. The “village” was nothing more than a few poorly assembled huts on the grounds of the museum. The actual village was actually located elsewhere, and the curators simply moved some of the restored buildings, or recreated them. The grounds were nice, but for $23 (and that was with a YHA discount too), I could’ve settled for pictures, or maybe reading about it in someone’s blog.

The next stop was a little more interesting: Hell’s Gates, a geothermal spring and mud pool spa. Now when I pictured mud pools, I imagined something similar to Ogg The Caveman’s bathtub: a hole in the ground filled with thick, goopy mud. This was more lke an in-ground metal bathtub with a dirty river-like consistency of muddy water. You could scrape the precious mineral-enriched mud off the bottom of the tub, but it wasn’t the thick consistency I expected. After that they ask you to jump into a freezing cold shower to wash off the mud, then step into a spring-fed hot pool to relax. Now I covered the smell of Rotorua, but this place was like the Source. It smelled *so* much worse at Hell’s Gates than it did anywhere else in town, I can’t even describe it. After a little while, both of us had to call it quits just because we couldn’t take anymore. “Let’s get the hell out of here, quickly,” I remember saying, as we changed back into our now-sulphurous clothing and peeled out of the parking lot.

We drove northeast to Whakatane (say Fuhk-a-tahn-ay), where we stopped for a self-catered lunch by the beach, and then across to Tauranga. After Tauranga we headed north briefly to the small town of Paeroa to satisfy one of Jess’ requests: see the giant Lemon & Paeroa bottle. Lemon & Paeroa is a classic NZ non-alcoholic fizzy beverage made in and named after the town, most commonly mixed with Bourbon.

Both New Zealand and Australia are covered with giant novelties from an L&P bottle, to fruit, to a prawn. It’s just something that they like looking at. And frankly I can’t argue with them, I get a kick out of it too. So in a light rain, Jess and I took turns hugging the L&P bottle while drivers passed and honked at us.

We drove south to Hamilton, where the next day I would get to satisfy one of my indulgences: the largest candy store in NZ, Candyland. It’s in a small town outside Hamilton, and unless you wanted to devote time to museums and the city gardens, one of the more interesting things to do in the area. Jess had a friend who lived in the city, so that night we met Kristy at a restaurant/bar across the street from THE ONLY backpackers in town. We still smelled like sulphur, and I could smell it in every skin cell on my body, so before I went to bed I took a very long shower.

Day 4: No … More … Candy … PLEASE!

After a stop at the Public Gardens for an early morning stroll, we drove out to Taupiri, the home of Candyland. We got there just as the store opened (in fact, the shop clerk arrived to open the doors just as we pulled up). But to my relief, we wouldn’t be the first through the doors, another group of travelers were actually waiting for the store to open, before even the staff showed up. Although the store was dirty and a bit rundown, they had an incredible assortment of candies, even ones I hadn’t seen since childhood. We loaded up on all sorts of gummies, chocolates and Nerds. Before we even left the parking lot, our hands were in the plastic bags, grabbing whatever treats would stick to our well-licked fingers. By the time we reached our next destination, the Waitomo Caves, I had sailed over the peak of my sugar high and was crashing, hard. Jess had come down so bad she fell asleep, and it wasn’t even a very long drive.

The Waitomo Caves are a series of underground caves which are known for their population of glowworms. For a tour, we went with the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, because they offered a tour package that consisted of a 3-hour caving experience that included tubing and jumping off waterfalls. The experience was incredible, numbingly cold and eerily beautiful. We started with a safety lecture at the opening, and then we slowly ducked, crawled and waded (sometimes up to our necks) through the waters of the cave. When we reached small waterfalls, up to a meter high, we would one-by-one back up to the edge, and then “on 3”, jump backwards into the water, with our rafting tubes already snug around our butts. Every now and then, during a strech of the cave that had deep water and was long enough, we would tube down on our backs, shutting off our headlamps and watching the awesome beauty of the glowworms above. It looked like a starry sky, with an eerie green luminescence shining down on us.

After the tour we peeled off our wetsuits and wamred up with a bowl of hot tomato soup. Jess and I talked to one of the tour guides about the best snow mountains in Tongariro National Park, about 2 hours southeast of Waitomo, because the next activity on this hurried road trip was snowboarding. We drove to Ohakune (say O-ha-koo-nay), a village near the Turoa ski resort. According to the workers at Waitomo, it was the less-crowded mountain that all the locals went to. Unfortunately, by the time we got there the weather had gone south and it didn’t look like it was going to get any better.

Day 5: We Stop Giggling At The Name Long Enough To Get Some Boarding Done

The next morning we could see patches of sunshine everywhere but the Turoa snow village near Ohakune. We checked out of the motel as a light rain began to fall. The other skiing option in Tongariro National Park is at Whakapapa (ready? say Fuh-ka-pa-pa) Village. It’s only about 30 minutes north of Turoa, but we had to backtrack most of the way. I brought my snowboard, boots, helmet and goggles with me, but my gloves and pants were in a box en route to Boston. I we bought our lift tickets and I rented a pair of snow pants, then I had to buy a pair of gloves.

The area had been getting a ridiculous amount of snowfall, and everyone from the tip of the north to the bottom of the south was proclaiming that it was the greatest snow season ever at the ski resorts around Mt Ruapehu. Indeed, the snow was great, but the weather could use some improvement. Quick moving clouds would blanket the peaks in a white haze for about 30 minutes, then the skies would clear for a few minutes, then another cloud would move in. At times, hard, almost hail-like snow would fall and burn into our cheeks as the winds kicked up the higher you went. After a few hours, Jess and I stopped for a beer, and then called it a day. Both of us just wanted to get some time on the mountain, and especially because I hadn’t ridden since last season, and my prospects of riding any more this season looked slim.

The next stop was home, with a quick stop in Wanganui for a kebab.

So in less than one week we went wine tasting, sat in thermal mud pools, explored caves, and snowboarded. And everything was within a couple hours driving distance.

Only in New Zealand …

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