As much as we loved Sydney – and we absolutely loved Sydney – the summer heat and humidity there about did us in. When I climbed on the train out to the airport at 8:40 a.m. on the morning we left, I was quite literally already soaked through with sweat following the short walk from our apartment to the train station, with it dripping off my head and face onto the floor of the train. Everyone around me looked as cool as a cucumber while I felt like a very soggy human Las Vegas fountain.
But, we got to the airport, got our bags checked, cooled off and eventually boarded our three and a half-hour flight to Auckland. We arrived on time at around 4:00 p.m., expecting to quickly pick up our bags, get our rental car and hit the road. But it was not to be so easy: Brett got pulled over by customs and had to practically unpack his entire suitcase to show that the little jars in his suitcase were really Oregon jam and not honey. That took a while, and then we had to wait for a van to come and pick us up and take us out to the car rental office, which was near to but not in the terminal. Everyone we dealt with was very, very nice, but by the time we finally drove out of the rental lot it was after 6:00 p.m. and we had a three-hour drive ahead of us.
Thankfully, because New Zealand is so far south, it didn’t get dark until around 8:45, so we did get to see quite a bit of beautiful countryside on our way to Rotorua. We arrived at our Airbnb at around 9:15, met our very kind hosts, got settled into our room and fell right asleep.
After a lovely breakfast the next morning, prepared by our hosts, we checked out the notebook of local sights and activities our hosts had prepared for guests and discovered that you have to pay (a lot) to view almost every site in the area, from natural wonders to Maori villages. Free activities were few and far between However, we did find a few interesting-looking places that didn’t charge admission, so we set off to check them out. Our first stop was Kuirau Park in downtown Rotorua.
We could smell sulphur the moment we got out of our car at the park, and noticed lots of steam coming out of the ground in different places, as well as lots of low brown fences which surrounded the steam. Fairly soon we were walking around pits of boiling water or mud, or listening to water furiously bubble and hiss beneath piles of rocks. It was fascinating! Eventually we reached a rather large pond of boiling water with a low bridge across it. Crossing the bridge was, I thought, like walking through hell, with its smell of sulphur, dead trees all around, clouds of steam blowing across the water, and moist heat rising up through the planks of the bridge. And, all of this was right in the center of town! There were also large area of grass where we could see small pools beginning to form, and just outside the park and across the street was a motel that had apparently just sprung a leak because there were big clouds of heavy, angry steam coming through its fence out to the sidewalk.
From the park we walked up and looked out over Rotorua lake, and down to a Maori village that sits by the lake, in particular to see the traditional meeting house which is decorated with shells. We could have walked down into the village, but it’s not a place set up for tourists or visitors. We stopped at a small bakery nearby though and shared an amazing and affordable piece of quiche and big slice of lemon meringue pie for our lunch.
After lunch we headed over to Government Park especially to see Government House, so called these days only because it sits in Government Park, not because it was ever the seat of government. Actually, it was constructed as a large spa back in the late 19th century, and had thermal waters piped into private bathrooms throughout the hotel. The spa, or bath house, also contained large pools for more complex therapeutic needs, and guests could also receive hot water, high pressure shower massages. The architecture of the place was a frothy mix of several architectural styles from gingerbread to cupolas to leaded glass to half-timbering. Out front were lawns for croquet and bowling.
Nearby was the famous Blue Baths, built in 1933 so both locals and spa guests could swim in hot, therapeutic waters. The Blue Baths were infamous for a while as the first place where men and women shockingly swam together at the same time in New Zealand. Both Government House and the Blue Baths are listed on the New Zealand historic register (as is nearby Rachel Spring, where all the hot water come from), and Government House now holds the Rotorua Museum.
We came back to our Airbnb from that outing feeling a bit tired, but rested for a bit and then headed into town to eat at a highly-rated place called Ali Baba’s, which served Tunisian food. Our dinners were some of the best food we have had since we began traveling – fluffy rice with falafel, tasty sauce and fresh salads – and the price was pretty good too, with our two huge plates of food and some baklava costing less than $25US.
Then it was out to the Redwood Forest to experience the night walk through the trees. We paid $20US each, and for around 50 minutes we walked from platform to platform in the trees in the dark on suspended bridges high above the forest floor. Each platform contained information about the redwoods and the forest. Large, artist-made lanterns, fairy lights, holograms and other types of lights decorated the forest – the experience was absolutely magical, and we left feeling very glad that we had decided to go.
We slept in this morning, and at around noon drove up north to visit Okere Falls (because they are free to visit!). We were able to watch kayakers and a raft or two, loaded with people, go over the falls. The 22-foot high waterfall is said to be the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. We ended up doing quite a bit of hiking in the area when we took what appeared to be a short loop trail and instead had to walk nearly two miles through the woods to get to the other end.
Leaving the falls we took a short drive back to the Redwood Forest to see what they all looked like in the light. The redwoods came from California, and were planted in 1900 – New Zealand is the only place outside of California where they grow. The forest was magnificent, with towering redwoods and huge ferns along the way, and there are several different hiking trails to choose from, depending on how far you’d like to walk (we chose the shortest, supposedly 30 minutes but it took us more like 45). The trees are nowhere near as big yet as the ones in California, but give them a few hundred years and they will be!
Dinner tonight was back at Ali Baba’s, where we shared an extremely delicious Tunisian pizza topped with chicken, apricots and cream cheese among other toppings. It sounds weird but it was fabulous. Our big pizza was just $12, and we still have half to take with us for lunch on the road tomorrow.
We’re heading to Napier tomorrow, located on the south coast of New Zealand’s north island. We’ll stop to visit some more waterfalls on the way, and hope to get into town early enough to stroll around to see Napier’s most famous site, an amazing collection of art deco buildings located throughout the downtown area. We can’t wait!