Day 11 - Christchurch to Rotorua
We arrived in the North Island on Christmas Eve, and were greeted by rain and crowds. Although after 10 days in the extremely sparsely populated south, more than 5 people in one place starts to feel like a crowd. We picked up the rental car, did some grocery shopping, and headed south east, to Rotorua.
The drive there was nothing special except that it's surprising how well New Zealand's road system works. The major roads are all two lane highways, and you'd imagine constantly getting stuck behind a really smelly truck. Or a beat up old tractor. And sure enough, you encounter some of both on the road, but right when you're about to get impatient, you also encounter a passing lane. Even with all the people on the road on Christmas Eve, we never got stuck in a jam. Let me remind you that I live in LA. Vive la difference!
At Rotorua, we checked into the Hideaway Motel, in Ngongotaha. Just off the main road, it was a very mellow little place that had a kitchen, which would let us hole up and not worry about everything closing down for Christmas. It turns out it also had very nice grounds, complete with two alpacas (the brown one was named Cinnamon), a cow named Scrumptious, a pig named Delicious, three sheep, a lamb, a grumpy ram all alone in his paddock, a miniature horse named Mist and her baby named Summer, and two Dalmatians, Tessa and Chloe. Quite the menagerie. And for those who think miniature horses are cute, let me just say that baby ones are painfully so. Summer either ran around the yard frolicking, or lay down completely sacked out, next to the dalmatians who liked to soak up the sun. So cute.
We cooked ourselves a nice Christmas Eve dinner, which sadly did not include shrimp. They leave the heads and limbs on the shrimp here, and that's just too much reality for me. But it did include the bottle of bubbly we had bought at Cloudy Bay, the Pelorus nonvintage. Yumm. Then we headed into town and took advantage of Rotorua's location in a geothermal hotspot by soaking in some hot pools overlooking the lake. It was late enough that the pools weren't crowded, and it was wonderfully relaxing. The only problem was the sulfur content was quite high, and when we got home, we smelled pretty terrible of rotten eggs.
Day 12 - Rotorua
By this point in the trip we were grateful for the excuse to stay 2 nights in the same place. We did well at unpacking and repacking the car every day, but still, the routine gets wearing. So we took in easy Christmas morning. We did go for a drive, thinking we might check out an area that has more "geothermal features", plus some interesting Maori cultural displays. But we were dissuaded by the steep admission fee, and the fact that the craft demonstrations were, not surprisingly, closed. So we drove out to Blue Lake and sat for a while admiring the scenery, before heading back and having a late lunch. Followed by a nap. Followed by a very late dinner, as it was the first time either of us had roasted lamb, and the oven was running way cooler than the temperature settings indicated. It was a very relaxing day, but it didn't really feel like Christmas at all. Just too sunny, and too far from home.
Day 13 - Rotorua to Turangi, via Napier
Even though we didn't get on the road until mid morning, it didn't take long at all to reach the shores of Lake Taupo, the big lake in the center of the island on whose shores we were going to stay that night. So after visiting a waterfall,
we headed east, driving through the beautiful Esk valley to reach Napier on the coast at Hawke's Bay. I was excited to see vines again (for those who are counting, this is NZ wine region #3!) and wanted to taste some wine, but all the vineyards were closed for boxing day.
So we wandered around Napier for a bit, admiring the art deco architecture (the town was flattened by an earthquake in 1931, and subsequently rebuilt). Then we headed back west, and south along Lake Taupo to Turangi, one of the trout fishing capitals of the world. It was a long way to drive, to wander along a beach. But we were well entertained by This American Life podcasts, and besides we were saving our energy for the next day.
Day 14 - Turangi to Tongariro Crossing
The main reason, at least in my head, for leaving the south island to head north, was to see volcanoes. And one of the nicest day hikes in all New Zealand, apparently, is the Tongariro Crossing, on which you see lots of them. So we deliberately planned this part of the trip to make sure we could fit in a hike. Little did we know, as with the rest of New Zealand, to really benefit, you need to allow a lot more time. They have a great system of huts in that national park, and the crossing can actually become a several day look. Oh well. We started at Mangatepopo, and hiked in along a long, gorgeous valley, slowly climbing with the active volcano, Mt Ngauruhoe shrouded in mist on our right. Once we read Soda Springs, the steep part started, but the trail is the most beautifully maintained work of art, I had to take photos. Rather than scrambling across the lava flows we were crossing, we were strolling up custom-built staircases, covered in gravel that had clearly been schlepped in. This country takes trail maintenance seriously.
My mom's knees are in bad shape, but she's tough, so she made it most of the way up to the south crater before stopping. I hiked on a little further, just enough to see that the south crater wasn't going to give us dramatic new vistas before turning around. We had lunch on the side of the volcano, who was feeling generous enough to let the mist lift and show her cone. Then we hiked back down, through the changing light, along a beautiful stream. It was a gorgeous hike, even if we didn't make it to the parts that show up on postcards.
We stayed the night at the Discovery Lodge, near Whakapapa Village. It was very cozy, and I can't say enough nice things about the owner Callum, who was working his butt off to make everyone comfortable. And since this is high season, everyone is a lot of people!
Day 15 - Tongariro Crossing to Auckland
We started the day with another hike, this one a loop out to Taranaki Falls. Also very beautiful, I'm running out of adjectives, so I'll save most of this for the photos. It was very sunny and clear, so we had a perfect view of the steam and smoke that Mt. Ngauruhoe (the volcano we spent yesterday hiking on) was putting out. Then we had a pleasant drive north to Auckland, through lots of farm land, eventually winding up at our bed and breakfast - the Nautical Nook.