As our seaplane gained altitude I gazed at the turquoise waters and golden sands of our Fijian island retreat below. With so many places still to travel and the complexity of reaching this part of the world, I understood this was a “goodbye” rather than a “see you later” farewell.
Fortunately my excitement for the next phase of our trip quickly erased any parting sadness. We were on our way to New Zealand to pick up a campervan and explore the North and South Islands for the next three weeks.
That’s right. This lady of minimal camping skills was about to immerse herself headfirst into the outdoors. Showers? Who needs ’em! Daily outfit changes? Overrated! I was trading gourmet resort meals for canned soup. I didn’t expect to be so excited about this transition, but I was. New Zealand has been on my bucket list for-ev-er.
Most travel forums advise against the North Island if you have just a few weeks to visit New Zealand. I understand their rationale. As we learned firsthand, the South Island had enough sights and noteworthy stops to fill two weeks easily.
Thankfully, we had three weeks to dedicate to this epic country and allocated one of them to the North Island. Had we not, we would have missed out on glowworms, hot springs, cliffside campsites and two important Kiwi cities: the most populated (Auckland) and the capital (Wellington). Here’s how we spent our days.
Day 1: Flew into Auckland and spent the night in a hotel. Enjoyed our first Mexican dinner after weeks of Asian cuisine!
Day 2: Found delicious breakfast and coffee at Remedy and completed Lonely Planet’s self-guided Auckland walking tour. We checked out of our hotel and made our way to the campervan rental office. Acquainted with our new home-on-wheels we set off towards our first lakeside campsite.
Day 3: Our destination for the day was Waitomo, home of New Zealand’s famous Glowworm Caves. After touring the caves by boat and learning about the science of glowworms we headed to McLaren Falls Park for the night. En route we passed Hobbiton, where hoards of tourists flock to see the Lord of the Rings movie set on a former sheep farm. We bypassed it, promising each other we would re-watch the movies after our real life New Zealand tour. Based on fellow camper recommendations we waited until nighttime to hike to the waterfall. The advice was spot-on as we walked down trails lit up by glowworms. After learning about them on the tour earlier in the day it was fascinating to see them in the wild.
Day 4: After two days off the grid drinking instant coffee we craved real caffeine and wifi. We drove into civilization to Grindz Café and hunkered down for the morning. Bodies caffeinated and campervan refueled, we drove the remainder of the route to Rotorua. Rotorua is a large lake and a hub of geothermal activity. We spent the afternoon bathing in the hot springs at Polynesian Spa on the shore of the lake. The mineral waters are thought to have healing properties and we soaked up every bit of warmth and luxury before driving to our campsite for the evening.
Day 5: The next morning we awoke to sunrise over Lake Oreka and took advantage of our in-car kitchen to fry up eggs and avo to eat with the view.
Day 6: Our lake theme continued as we set off for Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake also known for geothermal activity. We parked the campervan at Spa Park and hiked the path to Huka Falls.
After enjoying the views we exchanged our sweaty clothes for swimsuits and another round of hot springs, this time free of charge thanks to nature.
We left Taupo behind and began our descent towards Wellington where our North Island tour would end. We found a campsite en route that wasn’t too far off the highway. We didn’t expect more than a convenient location as we pulled into the gravel driveway of the Mangaweka campground. Our eyes widened as we parked along a rapid river backed up against steep white cliffs. As one of only three campervans parked on the massive grounds, it was like we had the entire place to ourselves. We cooked up our standard dinner of soup and tortilla chips and situated ourselves at a picnic table to relax beneath the cliff’s shadows. Nightfall brought on a surreal stargazing scene. We laid back against the picnic table to absorb the scene in silence.
Day 7: Driving away from Mangaweka we headed towards Wellington full of anticipation. Anticipation for wifi, hipster-roasted coffee, and world-famous breweries. Wellington did not disappoint! After getting our fix of wifi and coffee we squeezed in an urban hike to the Mount Victoria Lookout. Wellington, or Windy Welly, as it’s referred to, reminded us of Seattle with its steep hills, friendly people, and balanced mix of parks and urban scenery. We felt right at home. After a dinner of Mexican food and a craft brewery pit stop, we set up camp and set an alarm for 5am to catch our early morning ferry to the South Island.
Day 8: As our ferry made its way out of the Wellington harbor and the North Island faded into the horizon, I felt the familiar wave of gratitude that had been resurfacing repeatedly since boarding our flight to Hong Kong two months earlier. Gratitude for the finances to afford this extended trip; gratitude for having my husband by my side after eighteen months apart; gratitude for seeing a new place in the world. Most of all, gratitude for the best gift a traveler can receive: time.