We arrived into Auckland just before 11:00 PM and headed straight to our hotel, ordered a bit of room service & got to bed as soon as possible. We met our tour guide, Steve, the following morning at our hotel. I found Steve’s company, New Zealand Tours, on Google after a bit of searching and was pleased that his tour matched up exactly with what we wanted to see outside of Auckland for 3 days on the North Island. Steve owned the company and had been running it for about 40 years, but was semi-retired so we decided to take a chance even though he wasn’t listed on TripAdvisor. I am so happy we did because the next 3 days were amazing & the tour wound up being a private tour for just my family.
After a quick tour of parts of Auckland near our hotel, we immediately hit the road in the direction of our first destination, the Kiwi House and Native Bird Park. During the drive, we learned a lot about New Zealand’s history which was great because we didn’t get the full overview during any of our tours on the South Island. The main highlights were that New Zealand was first discovered by Tahitians who fled their island due to over crowding and war about 850 years ago (although some Maori will claim it was 3,000 years ago)! One of the people that led the expedition was told to follow the birds – it was known that birds migrated during different seasons, but their destination was unknown. While using the stars and flight path of the birds for navigation, they eventually stumbled on New Zealand. When they found it, they were staring up at the sky and saw a long white cloud. This is why the Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, or The Land of the Long White Cloud. The Maori lived without influence until 1642 when a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman discovered the islands, but never set foot on them after an altercation with the Maori. In 1769, Captain James Cook arrived and had much more success as he was traveling with someone from Tahiti that looked like the Maori and spoke some of their language. Slowly, Europeans migrated to New Zealand and began to mold it into livable land by their standards. For the most part, they got along with the Maori and largely obtained their land through trade. Over the next 250 years, despite a few conflicts, the Maori and people of European descent have gotten along. Due to intermarriage, there are no pure blood Maori left.After a few hours of driving, we arrived at our first stop, the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park. It was here that we saw the endangered Kiwi bird for the first time. Even though they are nocturnal animals, the room they are kept in mimics daylight during the nighttime and nighttime during the day which enables visitors to see the birds in a dimly lit room. I could not believe how big the birds are! We were also able to see stuffed versions of the kiwi birds which allowed us to appreciate them in more daylight.
After the Kiwi Bird House, we headed to our next stop a short drive away, something that multiple people said we 100% had to do while we were in New Zealand – the Waimoto Glow Worm Caves. We were not allowed to take pictures in the caves, but come can be found at this link. The beginning of the tour has you walk through a variety of caves and caverns like most similar tours, but it ends with you getting onto a boat in near pitch black conditions. Once you are on the boat, everyone is silent as you are quietly rowed below thousands of glow worms that illuminate the ceiling of the cave. The glow worms are in the larvae stage and make it feel like you are looking at the stars when you are actually just looking at the top of the cave.
After the glow worms, we drove through a foggy countryside to a restaurant for lunch. The food was delicious which was very important as we wouldn’t eat for a while – our next stop was the Hobbiton set! I had seen plenty of pictures of this set from other travelers and wanted to see it when originally planning the trip, but wasn’t sure I’d be able to fit it into our tight itinerary. About 2 weeks before we left, I figured out a way to add it and made sure I binge watched all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies before I left. Not only were the movies visually stunning, but I was able to appreciate them as a traveler who loves going on adventures! Upon arriving at Hobbiton, we boarded a bus for about a two hour guided tour of the set. On the bus from the visitor center to the set, we learned that the movie rights were purchased by Percy Jackson who wanted to use the films as a way to showcase the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand. One day, he was on a small plane surveying the landscape from above on a location scouting mission for the Lord of the Rings movies when he found the location. It belonged to a farmer who was reluctant to let them film on his farm, but he begrudgingly agreed under the pretext that everything would be removed as soon as filming was over – and so it was. Then, it became a tourist attraction as, despite nothing being there but farmland, people would sneak onto his property just to see where the set for Hobbiton was created. When it was time to make The Hobbit movies, they approached the farmer about rebuilding the set. This time he agreed in exchange for the creation of Hobbiton as a tourist attraction and a cut of the action. I think he made the right choice as it was packed! On the bus, we passed rolling hills which were not part of the set, but it was easy to imagine these hills were what originally attracted Percy Jackson to identify this location as THE LOCATION for his films.
After a few film clips, we finally arrived at the set. After getting off the bus and walking through a very short path, we were immediately immersed in the town of Hobbiton. I have never been on a movie set that felt so real. It was so vibrant and colorful and, having just watched all the movies, I could easily visualize where certain scenes were filmed. I could not believe how intricate the set was & that, to this day, there are set people and groundsmen that keep the former set in tip top shape. We learned that all the plants on set are real, with the exception of one tree which has hundreds of thousands individual leaves that needed to be repainted the weekend before filming because Percy Jackson didn’t like the color. Our tour guide also explained that, as the set was rebuilt from the original one, a lot of lessons learned were applied the second time around and the set was expanded to allow for wider film angles. We even had a chance to have a drink in The Green Dragon, Hobbiton’s watering hole, and it was amazing to see the level of detail that went into the bar itself. We had about an hour and a half guided tour around with plenty of opportunities for pictures, some of which you will find below.
After Hobbiton, we drove for a few hours to our accomodation for the next two evenings in Rotorua. We grabbed dinner at an Indian restaurant on their tourist strip of restaurants, Eat Street, before heading back to the hotel for the evening.
The following morning, we headed to The Agrodome for a show where we learned about sheep, cows, sheep dogs, sheep shearing, sheep herding, a variety of foods that are grown on the North Island and got to feed some of the animals raised on a farm.
After The Agrodome, we visited a hot springs where we learned a bit about Maori art and carving before seeing some of the geysers in Rotorua.
After quite a rainy walk around the geysers, we got back in the car and drove back to the hotel. My Dad and brother grabbed a towel and changed into their bathing suits as they were going white water rafting down a river near Rotorua. As the tour operator was concerned that it was a Category 4 rapid with a 6′ waterfall, they weren’t exactly “gung ho” about me going. I could have pushed to go as I’d gone white water rafting before, but didn’t have my heart set on it – especially given the fact it was cold and rainy.
Given that, after my Dad and brother were dropped off at white water rafting I headed to the Rotorua Skyline which is a gondola to the middle of a mountain overlooking Rotorua which had a wine tasting room at the top by Volcanic Winery. I elected to go with a wine tasting sampler and a cheese platter which was bigger than my head! The entire experience was great and I enjoyed speaking with the staff while I was up there. The wine was actually quite good and the fog of the day burned off for a bit while I was at the top which allowed me to appreciate gorgeous views.
After tasting seven types of Volcanic Hills wine, I headed back down the gondola and caught a taxi to the hotel to meet up with my family and tour guide. Shortly after I arrived, we got in the car to visit the Mitai Maori Village where we spent an evening with a Maori extended family, learning about their culture and had a traditional hangi meal. The hangi meal was very similar to a luau pig roast where the food is prepared then cooked underground before being served.
We also were treated to a performance with traditional Maori songs and costumes. Some of the singers were very talented and it was amazing how they told stories in their native language, however, it was easily understandable based on the dances the singers were doing onstage.
During the performance, a group of children visiting the village on a field trip did the haka of their school. It was very impressive to hear the passion in their voices – it was quite intimidating!
After dinner, we headed back to the hotel for the evening as we had a relatively early morning the following day. We checked out of our hotel in Rotorua and visited Wai-O-Tapu on the way back to Auckland. It was another park filled with geysers, but this one had more geysers in one location and most colorful geysers than I ever saw. What was the most impressive was the sounds coming out of some of the geysers – one of them was even recorded for the sounds of Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.
After Wai-O-Taupo, we began the 4 hour drive back to Auckland. We made one pit stop along the way to see a raging river which had a bridge crossing it, making for a great picture.
Once we arrived into Auckland, we checked into our hotel. As it was dinner time, we decided to grab a bite to eat within walking distance at a restaurant that was recommended to us, Soul Restaurant and Bar. I had an amazing steak and old fashioned, which was a great way to celebrate the final night of our trip.
The following morning, my brother slept in while my Dad and I took a walking tour of downtown Auckland. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain, so we took a different route that didn’t allow us to hit all the main sites. That being said, we heard the history of Auckland and I think I now know all the underground tunnels in the Auckland CBD!
After the tour, we met up with my younger brother and went up to the top of the Sky Tower. Luckly, the weather cleared up and we were able to see in every direction 1,076 feet off the ground!
We had a quick lunch after the tower before heading back to the hotel, grabbing our bags and heading to the airport. With that, our 16 day marathon trip across Australia and New Zealand was over. The countries we visited were absolutely stunning and I cannot wait to go back to explore them at a more leisurely pace in the future!