Our three-week odyssey is winding down. After leaving Rotorua, we have just six nights left before we must fly home to Vancouver. Our first stop is Hobbiton before we drive up to the lovely Coromandel for three nights and then to Auckland for our final three nights. I’ll start with Happy Hobbiton.
Is the movie set for Hobbiton an over-priced tourist trap? Kind of. Is it worth visiting? Absolutely! The roads leading across lovely rolling countryside to Hobbiton are empty on the first wet morning of our trip. We anticipate no crowds and lots of time for people-free photos. Five minutes after turning off the empty main road onto the empty side road, we drive into a parking lot teeming with tour busses and cars. Where do they all come from? It’s like they are breeding like, well, hobbits.
We are assigned our giant green Hobbiton bus for the 11 am tour. The bus winds up a steep road that runs across property belonging to the Alexander family. The property is one of twelve properties scouted for Hobbiton. Considering the cash cow that the movie set has become, I should imagine the family is very pleased to own the chosen property. Apparently, after Lord of the Rings, the set was left to grow weedy and neglected. However, after the set was revived for the shooting of The Hobbit movies, the site’s potential as a tourist destination was realized.
I am prepared to be underwhelmed and am very pleasantly surprised. Once we clamber off the bus, our friendly guide takes us on an hour-long walk around the set that ends up at the Green Dragon where we are given a pint of ale or cider. The big attraction is the incredible attention to detail and the beauty of the set. It’s impossible not to snap pictures continuously. We are lucky that the site is not too crowded and so we are able to get lots of shots without people. Unfortunately, the drizzly rain is a bit of a downer, but the guide’s informative commentary and the many interesting things to look at make up for the weather. It it is all just so darn cute. It’s impossible not to smile as we wander the small pathways that wind around the set, revealing new and frankly adorable vistas at every turn.
In the gift shop after our “free” glass of ale in the Green Dragon, Julia lays out some serious dollars before we climb back into the car for the drive up to the Coromandel Peninsula.
The Glorious Coromandel
I’ve heard from a few sources that the under-visited (at least by tourists) Coromandel Peninsula is a must-see. We had to make a tough choice between touring the Coromandel and visiting the more famous Bay of Islands. Our first itinerary had us doing both but I balked at the extra driving so we settled for three nights in the Coromandel and three nights in Auckland. It is a good decision. Our three nights in the Coromandel (one in Whitianga and two in Pauanui) give us a chance to slow down and just enjoy the views. Sightseeing consists of spectacular drives, a few good tramps in the forest, amazing beaches, and a fair bit of just hanging out.
Our drive north from Hobbiton to Whitianga on the east coast of the Coromandel takes us up and over two mountain ranges with a good supply of New Zealand’s typically twisty roads and one-lane bridges. I am getting pretty good at the driving and take the curves like a pro (but a slow pro). We arrive at our hotel on a wide beach at Whitianga around 4 pm and set off again an hour later for Hot Water Beach–reputed to be one of the top ten beaches in the world. Hot Water Beach is best visited two hours either side of low tide. I check the conveniently supplied tide tables at the hotel reception and realize that if we don’t go this afternoon, we won’t see Hot Water Beach at all. Low tide is 6:30 pm. The next day, it’s very early in the morning and even later in the evening. Although tired after a long day of Hobbiting and driving, we pull on bathing suits and set off back the way we have just driven.
A thirty-minute drive south brings us to the turnoff for Hot Water Beach. Armed with a spade from reception, we join the throngs of bathers at a small area of sand exposed by low tide. Many pools are already dug and many already vacated. The pools fill with hot water from the geothermal activity bubbling away just under the sand. In places, the sand is too hot to walk on. We settle into a pool and dig into the sand to release more hot water. Occasionally, yelps of pain cut the evening air as people nearby tap into more heat than they want. Just a few yards away, the Pacific Ocean pounds into the beach as the sun sets.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
The next morning, we set off along the same road south, this time to Cathedral Cove, which is not far from Hot Water Beach. Cathedral Cove is accessible only on foot or by water taxi. We opt for the water taxi which whisks us in ten minutes from the beach next to the car park to one of the most beautiful beaches on the Coromandel. We loll about in the sun for several hours and enjoy swimming in crystal clear waters from a smooth sand beach (no beach shoes required here!). Here are just a few of the stunning pictures I took.
From Cathedral Cove, we drive down the Pauanui to a lovely suite at the Grand Mercure billed as a tree hut. We do feel a bit Tarzan-like standing on the balcony and looking into the top branches of the surrounding forest. Pauanui is a purpose-built town that we find a bit odd. It’s rather like a typical suburban development with a surfeit of cul de sacs leading nowhere. Many of the homes appear deserted probably because summer has been and gone. The little settlement feels a bit like a shy teenager who hasn’t quite figured out how to grow into a real town. It’s lovely, but just a bit unreal–a Stepford town!
The beach, however, is spectacular and deserted. We snap a lot of pictures.
On our second full day on the Coromandel, we drive over to Tairua, a charming and real-feeling little town across the estuary from Pauanui. I buy a lovely ring for me and a necklace for my mother at a little art gallery and chat with the lady about art and stuff. We then drive as far as we can up Mount Paku and walk the steep track to the top. We are told later that by climbing Mt. Paku we are sure to return to the area. Well, I wouldn’t say no to that. Mt. Paku is a volcano that rises high above Tairua with spectacular 360-degree views from the top (and a fair number of hungry mosquitoes).
It’s farewell to the Coromandel the following morning for the drive to Auckland. We encounter traffic, urban sprawl, and a freeway for the first time in three weeks. Fortunately, downtown Auckland is easy to navigate and we are soon checking into the uber-posh Sky City Grande Hotel. We’re assigned Room 1809 overlooking the harbour. I see it as an auspicious omen for my imminent return to work. My next novel – Upstaged–is set primarily in 1809. I take signs where I can find them.
I am to celebrate sixty years on the planet in New Zealand, which means I get, in effect, two birthdays. On the 18th, friends from Australia post their Happy Birthdays on Facebook and then on the 19th, the ones up north post. I like stretching out this most auspicious of birthdays.
A perfect day is planned and executed. We first drop in to visit the company that organized our trip — Southern World–to thank them for doing such an awesome job. Next up is a long walk to the Auckland Museum. It’s not unlike Te Papa in Wellington but I love museums and thoroughly enjoy the exhibits–particularly the one about volcanoes. Auckland is built atop a large number of volcanoes and could basically blow at any time. Best not to think about it.
Julia has organized a special trip for my birthday and finally reveals what it is. At 4 pm, we take a 35-minute ferry ride to Waiheke Island (Auckland’s answer to Bowen Island but with vineyards) and enjoy a Twilight Wine Tour and Dinner. The whole evening is perfection. Waiheke Island is stunning with ocean vistas from every hilltop.
We are the only people on the tour so our cheerful driver takes us on a few unscheduled loops around the island before we end up at the Batch Winery. Here we sample four wines–starting with a lovely Prosecco and ending with a Cabernet. Since Julia does not really like wine, I am obliged to also sample her wines. We are then served a two-course meal that is one of the best meals we’ve had in New Zealand. As we eat, the sun starts to set over the Pacific Ocean. Magic!
I feel very blessed indeed to celebrate my milestone birthday with my daughter in such a stunning location.
A Final Day of Nia and Sheep
On our last full day in New Zealand, we are up early and drive about 40 minutes north of Auckland to attend the only Nia class I can find in New Zealand that fits with my itinerary. Fellow Brown Belt Sally Cook teaches in a lovely space overlooking the ocean. After three weeks of lots of walking but too much eating, moving the Nia way is a very welcome relief.
After Nia we drive a bit farther north and pop into Wenderholm Park on Sally’s recommendation. What a lovely place! I am particularly taken by the fabulous grove of tangled trees that make the area look like something out of fantasy land. Mind you, that can be said about so much of New Zealand. I think I’ve fallen in love with this country! If only it could be moved about 10,000 miles closer to home!
Our next stop is the little town of Matakana. Today is market day and the little village center is thronged with stalls selling mostly food. We grab lunch from various stalls and wander around. Matakana definitely puts the “ch” in charming. I buy a jar of wonderful peanut butter only to have it confiscated at security the next day as we board the plane for home. Sigh.
Our last stop is one we debate making and, as it turns out, are very glad we do. Since coming to New Zealand, we have not seen a “sheep show” that features sheep sheering and sheep herding demonstrations. Well, all that is about to change. The day before, we’d picked up a brochure for Sheepworld and decide that, even if it’s probably mainly for kids, we cannot leave New Zealand without paying homage to the engine of two of its biggest exports–wool and lamb.
Sheepworld is wonderful! We check out an informative exhibition about sheep and wool and then wander around the paddocks of farm animals that eagerly pose for pictures.
Promptly at 2 pm, we file into a barn for the 90 minute sheep show. Run by a very entertaining and sheep-sharp man, the show is really very compelling. We learn about the two breed of sheepdogs used in New Zealand–the “looker” and the “barker” and then file out to the paddock to watch three dogs (two barkers and a looker) herd a flock of sheep. The guide talks a lot about how the dogs–all of which are puppies–are trained. I’ve never seen sheepdogs at work and I must say they are very impressive.
We are then directed back into the barn to watch the sheep shearing. The guide talks a lot about the work of the sheep shearer-brutally difficult and requiring tremendous skill. I am fascinated. Who knew sheep could be so interesting? Finally, we are given bottles to feed some of the lambs. Major cute attack.
On our last day in New Zealand, we cram all our purchases into our suitcases, store them at reception and set off for the aquarium. A free shark bus takes us from the waterfront downtown about fifteen minutes around the harbor. I quite enjoy aquariums but I have to say that the Auckland one is missable. At $39 per person, it’s more than a bit over-priced. Dark and rather scarce exhibits are all underground. I find myself gasping for air after about ten minutes and feeling claustrophobic. The large glassed-in area of penguins is interesting because really, who doesn’t like penguins?
We catch the shark bus back to town, grab lunch, and are soon back on the road for the last drive of the trip. At the airport rental car drop-off, the attendant asks me to move the car into a different parking spot. I refuse (nicely) and he good-naturedly does it for me. I’ve driven about 2000 kilometers without a scratch and have reached my limit! I cannot bear one more minute in the care with the risk of banging into something. I realize a good thing about being sixty–I don’t mind standing firm for what I want (nicely of course).
And so the three-week odyssey comes to a close with a four-hour wait in the international terminal at Auckland. I feel it incumbent upon me to pick up my limit of New Zealand wine and take one more turn through the souvenir shops.
The takeaway from these New Zealand blogs is my hope that people will consider a trip to this most interesting and easy-to-manage countries. New Zealand pretty much has it all–amazing scenery, spectacular beaches, plenty of adventure activities, thousands of kilometers for tramping, compelling culture cheerfully presented, friendly people, empty roads, and good food and accommodation options. The country also feels very safe. It is comforting to tramp through forests and not worry about being killed by snakes, crocs, bears, spiders, etc., or people for that matter. Never once, even in downtown Auckland at night, did we feel in any danger.