WARNING: Reading this trip report by Jake Adkins will cause an uncontrollable desire to go forth and see New Zealand for yourself!
Auckland: We flew into Auckland and spent a few days exploring the city while staying with a family friend. Highlights of Auckland were;
Mt. Eden: a short hike up a Volcano in the middle of the city that gives 360 views of the surrounding area.
Rangitoto: A bigger volcano off the shore, 20-30 minute ferry ride, 1.5hr hike to summit. Awesome lava rocks, huge crater. The best part was hiking another hour over to the adjacent island, Motutapu, do discover beautiful grasslands and small beaches with a collection of the most beautiful sea shells ever.
Auckland Fish Market and waterfront: Beautiful waterfront with an abundance of restaurants, bars, yachts floating about. Let me tell you about a real Kiwi burger. It has a fried egg, beetroot, and is out of this world. I had about 5 burgers in NZ and every one challenged for a ranking on my best burgers ever list. Speaking of food, meat pies are a thing, a big thing! Steak/mushroom/cheese, chicken/cheese, seafood, you name it they have it. A word of advice on pies, don’t get them from convenience markets or grocery stores. Get them from a bakery or café. It is a world of difference.
Surrounding Auckland: After more of our friends arrived we headed to surrounding areas for some postcard beaches.
Piha Beach: West of Auckland, tucked away by some mountains but fairly expansive. A good surfer’s beach, but we used it for exploring. Lion’s Rock, a huge rock sits prominently in the middle of the beach, a few hundred feet tall. Hiking and scrambling to the top was well worth it. Walking the beach we found numerous sea caves and tide pools, and also took a 30 minute walk to Kitekite Falls. We camped next to the beach for one night. This was my favorite beach experience of our trip.
Goat’s Island: North of Auckland and known for its snorkeling. We rented gear and spent the day following large snappers and schools of other small fish. The water was decently clear, but our local friend in Auckland told us it wasn’t the best day to see everything.
Coromandel: About three hours East of Auckland. This part of the island has numerous beaches well-known as some of the best in NZ.
Hot Water Beach: The most unique beach experience I will ever have. With tons of volcanoes in the North Island (50 in Auckland alone) volcanic activity presents itself everywhere, including on this beach in the form of hot spots in the sand. The thing to do at Hot Water Beach is to find a hot spot in the sand near low tide and dig yourself a hot tub, which of course we did! On this fairly big beach, the hot spots were only scattered throughout a 100ft wide section, so different party’s hot tubs were all huddled close to each other. The hot spots get so hot that you cannot stand on them directly for too long. We mixed our hot tub with the hot water from deep in the sand and the cold ocean water. It was a constant battle to build and maintain our tub water, but it was so much fun! Plus, we got to relax and gaze at the stars in our tub when we were all finished. We camped in the campground for one night.
Cathedral Cove: A short drive North of Hot Water Beach is what might be the most photographed beach in the country. Cathedral Cove is a 45min coastal hike away from the parking lot. The small cove has large, white-sand cliffs with a magnificent archway connecting two beaches. There are islands both near and far off the coast that make for fantastic scenery and fun objectives to reach swimming. We saw a sting ray a few feet from the shore and did some small rock jumping. Kyle braved a 60ft jump off the cliff which was pretty exciting as well.
New Chums Beach: A very secluded beach where we spent an afternoon. Pretty and relaxing.
Waitomo Glowworms Cave: After the Coromandel Peninsula we headed back to Auckland to pick up our final arriving friends at the airport. We then drove south a few hours to Waitomo where there are huge glowworms caves. While this was definitely a very tourist attraction, it was fun floating down a river in complete darkness except for the glow of thousands of tiny spots on the ceiling.
Whanganui River: From the caves we continued south to the Whanganui River where we had a three day canoe trip booked, one of NZ’s “great walks”. We booked through a family business whose house sat on top of a hill overlooking green rolling hills, the river, and a distant volcano. This was one of my favorite views of our trip. We camped out in their yard and in the morning set out on our paddle down the river. This was a truly amazing experience. For the majority of the trip we were enclosed with steep cliffs on either side of us. Waterfalls trickled down every few hundred meters as we paddled through mainly calm waters with the occasional class two rapids. The first day on the river the clouds opened up and began pouring rain on us around noon. The rain lasted for a few hours but fortunately ceased by the time we reached camp so we were able to set up our tents while staying somewhat dry, albeit everything surrounding us was soaked. There was a covered shelter where we made our dinners which was fortunate because after about an hour of dry skies it started raining again and didn’t let up until the morning. I’ll add that me and all of my things stayed completely dry under the fly of our SlingFin tent.
Day two was a calmer day, both in the water and in the sky. The highlight of day two was at our camp that night where we participated in a native Maorie welcome ceremony. The ceremony included introducing ourselves, witnessing a Haka dance, being given an oral history lesson of the native Maorie people and their relation to the river and land, and being granted access to view their huts and totem poles. We felt very privileged to have the experience. Day three was another beautiful day of paddling that ended with some bigger rapids which dumped all of us and our canoes in the water. It was a blast, and the bigger the rapid the more fun we had.
Tongariro Crossings: After our river experience we drove to Tongariro and camped out. The next day we hiked the Tongariro Crossings, known as the best day hike in the country. It is a 12 mile track that crosses through a volcanic area where we scrambled up Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings), and passed numerous uniquely teal-colored alpine lakes.
Golden Bay: The most north-western part of the south island. It was a long drive getting there, but we found a wonderfully secluded cove where we made dinner on the beach we had to ourselves and watched the sunset.
Driving south along the west coast we stopped at pancake rocks, coastal rock formations that look like…well, pancakes, with a “big sur” quality coastline. From there we took Arthur’s Pass to get some great mountain scenery as we continued south, setting up camps at Lake Brunner and Lake Tekapo on our way to Te Ahnu, where we would start our Milford Sound trek.
Queenstown: Known as the adrenaline capital of the world, and the most tourist-covered city in NZ. Here we took the gondola to the top of the hill and took our turns on the luge course. The next morning we decided we needed to experience Queenstown to the fullest, so we signed up to do the Nevis bungy jump, the highest in NZ at 134 meters. It was all of our first bungy, but we loved it and immediately wished our pocketbooks could afford us to jump again.
Wanaka: Wanaka is a town about an hour north of Queenstown that is pretty much a mini version of Queenstown, with less adrenaline activities, but similar outdoor adventures to do. They are both lakeside with mountain peaks on all sides, and full of awesome bars and restaurants for the evening. In Wanaka we took a quick swim in the lake before setting up camp at a nearby river.
The following morning we drove to nearby Mt. Aspiring and hiked through rolling green grasslands covered in cows and sheep and surrounded by peaks, and up through a forest to the base of Rob Roy glacier. It was a densely foggy day, much like the one we had in Milford, which took away from some of the view but added plenty to the mystique and solitude of the location. We camped back at our riverside spot in Wanaka, and in the morning the boys set out for a ride on some mountain bikes while the girls went to a lavender farm for some wine tasting and sheep petting. We all met up that afternoon, each raving about our morning activities.
We flew out of Queenstown the following morning to Auckland where we then flew home. On our flight back up across the south island, I was able to see how the entire middle of the island seemed to be snow-capped peaks. I told myself that one day I would come back to explore more of the higher altitudes of the south island.