What do you do when two of your favourite people fly to the other side of the world to see you? Go to some of the north island’s most amazing sites of course! My bestie Erin and her husband Jason came to visit Steve and me last week, breaking up their Australian holiday with a few whirlwind days in New Zealand. Because they only had two weeks total, their time in NZ was brief—only four full days—but I think we managed to squeeze a whole lot into that quick trip.
They arrived in Wellington late Sunday night and we immediately got down to business with a long-overdue catch-up (and some of our favourite local wine and beer). I hadn’t seen Erin and Jason since the end of last summer, and the four of us hadn’t been in the same place since their gorgeous wedding last May.
Despite staying up until nearly 3am (an especially impressive feat for me since I’d run a half-marathon earlier on), we got up early the next morning—so much to do, so little time! Because Wellington weather is unpredictable, we took advantage of the decent if a bit overcast day and as soon as we picked up the rental car we drove up to the Mount Vic lookout for a view over the harbour.
Then it was off on the road to our first stop of the trip! Martinborough is a quaint little town just over an hour from Wellington, and it’s known for one very important thing: 20+ wineries. Lucky for us (Erin and me), Steve and Jason aren’t big wine drinkers, so we were free to flit our way from tasting to tasting despite the five-and-a-half hour drive still ahead. After stops at Muirlea Rise, Margrain, and Schubert, we finished up at Poppies for one more tasting and the most delicious lunch platter I’ve ever had.
After this, bellies full (all) and pleasantly tipsy (Erin and me), we (Steve) drove up to Taupo. On the way we encountered our only bad weather of the trip. Luckily, Steve is a pro at driving in rain, thanks to us living in Wellington. We stayed at the gorgeous Lake Taupo Hilton, and woke up the next morning to find that the rain had disappeared and left us with a gorgeous clear sky. Steve and I had been to Taupo before, after our trip to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but we were happy to return to the area’s best spots.
Taupo is full of geothermal activity thanks to its positioning in the north island’s volcanic zone, and Craters of the Moon is the perfect place to see examples of this phenomena. It looks like something out of Jurassic Park, full of vents emitting whistling steam and bubbling pools of mud. Just across the street is the impressively powerful Huka Falls, making it easy to reach two of Taupo’s best sites in a short period of time. That’s good, because our day was far from finished.
Here we reach the first stop on our trip that Steve and I had not done before. When we were planning the trip with Erin and Jason, we asked what things they most wanted to do and made sure not to do them so we could experience them for the first time together (and because there’s so much we still want to do in NZ there was no point in doing things that we knew we’d be doing again). Erin said that one of the things she was most interested in was learning about Maori culture, so we knew we had to go to Rotorua. There are a number of Maori cultural villages you can choose to visit there, but we went with Tamaki and would definitely recommend it.
The tour began with various stations where we learned about Maori history and culture—games, ta moko (the traditional tattooing process), and the boys even got the chance to do the haka. Then we watched a beautiful performance of song and movement, followed by dinner, made in the traditional hāngi style. Maori culture is vibrant and very present in day-to-day life in New Zealand, but this was a wonderful way to learn some more of its details in a short period of time. Then it was back to Taupo for an early night, because we had an even busier day to follow.
Obviously, for a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan like myself, New Zealand has been a dream. While we’ve barely touched the South Island, where some of the most famous scenes from the movies were filmed, we’ve seen several filming locations and to be honest, nearly every part of New Zealand looks like it could be straight out of Middle Earth. However, there was one place that I was most excited to visit: Hobbiton. Just south of Matamata (and about 2.5 hours south of Auckland), the full set of the Shire has been preserved (it was taken down after filming LotR but when it was put back up to film the Hobbit trilogy they ensured it would be able to stay permanently). On the two hour guided tour, we saw Bilbo and Frodo’s home of Bag End, the field where Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday took place, Sam’s house, the Green Dragon pub, and more.
I was extremely impressed by the care and detail that went in to the creation of even minor aspects of the set, and equally impressed by the tour. Our guide was knowledgable and full of anecdotes about the construction and filming of the location, and something that could have easily felt like a tourist trap instead felt like a loving tribute to something that means so much to so many fans.
After a quick drink in the Green Dragon, we headed on to Waitomo for our second tour of the day. If the Hobbiton tour made us feel like hobbits going about their daily lives, this second tour made us feel like Bilbo in the cave with Gollum. We took the Black Labyrinth tour through Waitomo’s famous glowworm caves, squirming into wetsuits and delving deep underground to see a bunch of bioluminescent maggot poop.
On a tour that involved leaping over waterfalls, drifting through an underground stream in pitch-blackness to see the glowworms, and navigating around rock formations in our inner tubes, it definitely added an adventurous element to our trip. If you’re not so adventurous, there are also options for walking and boat tours, but we had been told by several people who had done those tours that they’d wished they’d gone for the rafts, and we think we made the perfect choice.
We stayed the night in a lovely little airbnb near Waitomo, and the next morning we packed up to head back to Wellington. It was about a six hour drive, but we left fairly early and had time for a few stops along the way. The weather was much clearer on the way past National Park than it had been during Monday’s rain, so we were able to see a stunning vista of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, as well as the tip of Mount Taranaki in the distance looking the other direction.
We also made a quick stop in Paraparaumu as we got closer to Wellington. The reason for this stop was the Tuatara Brewery, one of New Zealand’s best beers, and it set the stage for the rest of our evening, Erin and Jason’s last in the country. When we got back to Wellington, we unpacked the car and Erin and Jason organized their belongings to get ready for their early morning flight to Sydney, and then it was back into town for a few more beers at some of our favourite breweries—Heyday, Black Dog, and Fortune Favours. We also had a delicious Asian tapas meal at Mr. Go’s, which I had been to for the first time the week before and am now sort of obsessed with (that fried rice and that pumpkin satay, mmm).
Erin and Jason left early the next morning to catch their flight back to Australia for the rest of their trip, and I’m so delighted that they were able to visit. Plus, shortly after they left I got the news from my family that they have finally booked their flights for a trip over in October, so I’m already excitedly planning another visit from loved ones. It’s really special to have people come visit you, and even better when you can do amazing things like we did last week. Can’t wait to see what comes next!