Oh, North Island. We wanted to give you a chance, we really did, even though we heard you pale in comparison to the South Island. And you turned out to be perfectly lovely, if a tad less dazzling than the South Island, with interesting features and scenery of your own. But it’s hard to love you when you insisted on rainy weather for almost our entire stay. And not just some rain here and there. Days of nothing but downpours.
After getting a glimpse of the sunshine in Rotorua, we didn’t want to lose it. We consulted with one of New Zealand’s very handy i-Sites (invaluable information centers in every town) on the day before we left Rotorua and they showed rain all over the North Island for days. The next morning, things were looking up and the i-Site told us it looked like it was supposed to be a nice weekend in Northland. So we headed to Northland, which is the region north of Auckland jutting out into the ocean. One coast is the wild Tasman Sea and the other is the Pacific Ocean. Our reason for going far north was to try to fit in a decent scuba dive after our disappointing conditions in the Perhentian Islands. The Poor Knights Islands off the Tututaka Coast in the Pacific have reportedly some of the best sub-tropical diving in the world, at least if you believe the likes of Jacques Costeau.
As we headed north, the darks clouds rolled in, and the rain started pouring down. So much for sunshine. We held out hopes for diving anyway, but when we finally reached Whangeri and checked in with the dive company, we learned they anticipated not being able to go out to the islands until Tuesday – the day we were leaving New Zealand. Quite disappointing, but at least I wouldn’t have to freeze my butt off on the dive boat.
Since we were all the way up north, we tried to make the best of it. We drove up to the Bay of Islands and then over to the Kauri Coast using mostly the scenic routes, trying to fit in as much beautiful scenery as we could. Mother Nature had other plans and threw some fierce winds at us for our final days. As I mentioned here, the winds were so strong it was a constant struggle for Sean to keep our campervan on the road. It’s hard to convey wind in a photograph, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the wind lifted me up and blew me away when I was taking the picture above. Turns out winds reached up to 80 miles per hour; there was a tornado the day we left just outside of Auckland. Mother Nature, please give New Zealand a break.
By the time we left New Zealand, we were glad to ditch the sailboat/campervan. But we absolutely loved our month in New Zealand and were quite glad we tacked it onto the end of trip after all (even if our bank account isn’t). You’re a beaut, New Zealand, you really are – even when covered with fog or rain.
I admit, I wasn’t overly excited to go to Rotorua. We went mainly because it seemed to be the most popular attraction on the North Island and it is conveniently located towards the middle in a good spot to break up the drive north. Let’s face it, Rotorua stinks. It’s the hotbed of geothermal activity in New Zealand, giving off a sulphur smell as soon as you roll into town.
I ended up really enjoying our days in Rotorua. Finally, we had sunny, blue skies. And all of the geothermal activity created a different type of landscape we hadn’t seen before. Upon the recommendation of Rod and Lizzy, who had been there earlier in the month, we checked out Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Park. The geothermal activity there results in concentrations of minerals in the ground, making it the most colorful place around Rotorua. While you can see geothermal activity for free all around Rotorua – even driving down the street in town reveals steaming earth – the Wai-o-Tapu park was a beautiful sight. Upon the recommendation of Akila and Patrick over at the Road Forks, we stayed at the Cozy Cottage Holiday Park. Since they didn’t have our internet plan, we might have passed this park by had Akila and Patrick not highlighted its cool (or really, its hot) features on their blog. I love when wise people travel to our destinations shortly before we do.
The hot feature I was most excited about trying at Cozy Cottage was their hangi steam cooker. The native New Zealanders, known as the Maori, traditionally cooked their food by burying it underground. The geothermal steam (yes, the same stuff that stinks!) slowly cooks the food, making it tender and flavorful. You can try hangi cooked food at a Maori cultural performance. We weren’t planning to partake in one on this trip, so I was eager to try my own hand at cooking Maori style. The one at Cozy Cottage is modernized insomuch as it is above ground, but it still utilizes the cooking method of natural steam. As Sean put it anytime we discussed things we wanted to do on the North Island, you want to go to some town to cook some potatoes. He made it sound so un-fun, but he was glad we went to Rotorua when he reaped the benefits.
Cooking in a hangi oven is very simple. Cozy Cottage provided the necessary pot. In the pot I threw chopped carrots, beets, parsnips (only because I never had tried one) and red, orange and yellow kumaras (New Zealand grown sweet potatoes) on top of the drumsticks of a once happy organic free-ranging chicken. I added a couple of garlic cloves from one of our farmer market bounties, sea salt, crushed peppercorns and some dabs of New Zealand butter, placed the pot in the steaming cooker, and left it there for about three and a half hours. Just enough time to explore the other hot features – namely three different hot mineral pools – as well as take a walk to the beach by Rotorua Lake. There, if you dig a little hole, warm underground water rushes in to fill the place where the sand once occupied. We also made a quick stop to Rotorua’s Thursday night market, where we would have dined on all of the delicious food on offer had we not had our hangi meal cooking away. At the market we scored some delicious passion fruit desserts for later.
When we returned to the hangi oven, we found our dinner ready to eat. The chicken and veggies were so tender they melted in our mouths. Everything, especially the chicken, had the faint taste of sulphur, which, strangely enough, was a good thing. I know you don’t believe me, so why don’t you cook some up yourself and try it? Geothermal steam is a necessary ingredient, however, so if you don’t want to travel where the earth is so hot it boils, you’ll just have to take my word for it!
After one night in rainy, rainy Wellington, we hightailed it over to the east coast. Hawke’s Bay, and especially Napier, seemed like a really cool area. But it was really hard to tell. It rained the entire, and I mean entire, two days we were there. The rain makes for great waterfalls, but ruined any opportunities for us to check out Napier’s Art Deco architecture. In 1931, Napier was leveled by an earthquake. The city used the opportunity to build itself back up in the in vogue style at the time. Good thing our real reason to go to Napier was to meet up with our German friends Rod and Lizzy, who were at the tail end of their three month campervan journey around New Zealand. Also even better thing we left when we did; Hawke’s Bay experienced severe flooding shortly after we left. Mother Nature just keeps kicking New Zealand while it’s down.
Between our time in Nelson and Marlborough, we were starting to feel like lushes. These regions are heaven for beer and wine afficianados. Marlborough produces world-renowned sauvignon blanc wine, which, with its aromatic scent, crisp, clean taste and fruity notes is my favorite type of wine. While we were there, it was rainy and foggy – of course – but the fall scenery is gorgeous. I didn’t realize that leaves on the grape vines turned fall colors, so the golden hues were a pleasant surprise.
We learned the hard way during our South African wine tasting experience that maybe driving ourselves to the wineries is not the best idea, so we signed up for a wine tour. Basically a glorified DD (or at least the one we took), a driver takes you and others around to local wineries in a minivan. Like South Africa, the tastings are free. We visited six wineries: Cloudy Bay (good but expensive), Vavasour (pretty good), Spy Valley (also good, one of the last locally owned wineries in the area), Grove Mill (meh, too sweet), Highfield (good views) and Bouldevines (who knows by then?!?!)
I suppose I have to disclose that somewhere around the fifth winery, I made a complete ass out of myself. I was sitting next to Sean in the minivan’s first row of seats, which was next to a large open space by the door. I used to be an automatic seatbelt buckler, but months of none-existent seatbelts in Asia broke that habit. As the van rounded a bend rather sharply, I completely flew out of my seat and landed, hard, on my butt on the floor. I could hear the American and British girls who we’d been chatting with all afternoon stifle a laugh in the row behind us, and the Aussies in the way back let out a giggle. Sean tried to contain his laughter, but he didn’t do a very good job. After that, I felt like I should cool it on the tastings; I wasn’t anything more than a little tipsy but I didn’t want to feel any judgemental eyes labelling me as that girl on the wine tour.
The tour ends with a stop at the handmade Makana Chocolate Factory – a rather perfect way to end. We picked up some chocolate Easter eggs to go along with our newly acquired bottles of Sauvignon Blanc from Vavasour and Spy Valley for further tasting and evaluating.
Nelson lies on the central northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It is supposed to be the sunniest place in all of New Zealand. And it was for our first day, providing the perfect backdrop to relaxing next to our campervan, drinking our newly acquired limited edition Sprig & Fern Harvest Pilsner and chopping up fresh veggies from Nelson’s Wednesday farmers market for salsa. Day two, the rain started (and pretty much didn’t let up for the rest of our days in New Zealand, save for a brief reprieve in Rotorua). Good thing Nelson is a quaint little town with historic old buildings housing shops and cafes. And furthermore that it lies in a hop growing region and has a thriving craft beer culture (like at the Free House, above. Craft beer in a church – we Pittsburghers can get on board with that). We forgave Nelson for its transgression in raining on us in the sunniest part of New Zealand.
By the way, if you are ever in New Zealand and you’re thirsty, you may want to check out some of the more notable beers we tried. It’s a hard job vetting beers but someone’s got to do it. New Zealand excels in hoppy pilsners and pales ales. We really liked Sprig & Fern’s Harvest Pilsner (from Nelson, see below); Harrington’s the Rogue Hop Organic Pilsner (from Christchurch, recommended by a neighbor Ohioan now living in Motueka); Emerson Organic Pilsner (from Dunedin); Townsend Old House ESB on cask (from Upper Moutere, near Nelson); and the Moa range of beers (from Marlborough).