There are few countries in the world that truly live up to its stereotype. New Zealand is one of them: breath-taking vistas, pristine lands, sapphire waters, and a higher sheep population than humans’. When covering both North and South Island, it is not recommended to go for any shorter than two weeks as there is far too much to see and do. Make sure to rent a car as some of the best places are most conveniently accessed by car and the drive is too gorgeous to forego. Presenting to you my rough guide to everything Kiwi, all condensed into one minivan of lewd jokes, a general sense of awe, and intense foodie cravings.
Waiheke Island’s bay
NORTH ISLAND PT. I:
New Zealand’s most populous city, Auckland, is reminiscent of San Francisco’s hilly streets coupled with Melbourne’s alternative pseudo-Victorian vibe. It is the most internationally accessible city and makes a great starting point, being one of the most northerly cities of North Island. Upon arrival, I felt ensconced in chic suburbia, but the city is bigger than it looks and boasts hidden alleyways of cafés, pubs, and boutiques. We stayed at Pullman Hotel’s modern apartments located in The Quadrant, a tree-lined square that is a short walk from the main shopping street and wharf. When travelling in larger groups (we were a two-family group of eight), it becomes more convenient to stay in accommodations with kitchenettes for quick breakfasts and snacks.
The author and her mother, Mudbrick Vineyards
Greeted by glorious sun, we headed to Waiheke Island on our first day. The island is a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland’s wharf, yet its dramatic hills and seaside cliffs make you feel worlds away. It is best known for its wineries and high-quality local produce that fuel much of the island’s restaurants. We visited two wineries for what seemed to be a gluttonous day of tipples and food. The first, Mudbrick Vineyard, sits atop a large hill nestled among fragrant lavender bushes and offers one of the best views that overlook Auckland. Plush outdoor patio seating shaded by large umbrellas added to the charm of the setting. We ordered the Mudbrick Vineyard Platter and Duck Liver Mousse to share, as portions were large but perfect for a sunny day. Paired with their house Viognier, a white wine with notes of apricot and orange blossom, you could sit there all day long and bask in the vineyard’s beauty.
Mudbrick Vineyard’s delicious food
Meandering down the flower-lined roads after a satiating lunch, we wiled away the day by absorbing views of sheer cliffs and rolling oceans. For dinner, we settled on Te Whau winery that is helmed by an award-winning chef who cooks haute-nouveau Pacific Rim cuisine. It is an uncomplicated restaurant with an emphasis on fresh ingredients, which echoes throughout their menu. The curry-dusted seared scallops were perfectly plump morsels paired with pea puree, prosciutto and melon salsa; while the fresh market fish was a divine Dover Sole on a bed of cloudy bay clams, vegetable ragout and jus. To top it all off, the winery’s ‘The Point’ 2008 Vintage, a red wine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, is decadently delicious (and is scored 96/100 by many judges!). The last ferries leave at midnight, so we stayed to glance over the twinkling lights of the bay and city.
Te Whau’s dinner range
While in Auckland, be sure to get lost in the alleyways around Queen St. Being the main shopping street, alleys are full of unique cafés and boutiques selling one-of-a-kind decorations. Ending the day around Quay St. and Customs St., we headed to the Marina, which is where most restaurants and bar-lounges are located. Most notably, it is home to Kermadec, arguably one of Auckland’s best seafood restaurants. Wine, dine, and watch as the skies fade into a magenta-hued sunset on a balmy summer night.
Mount Maunganui Beach, Tauranga
Driving southward to Rotorua, we stopped in the charming seaside town of Tauranga for lunch by the surf. The laid-back, vintage-chic boardwalk offers many food options, ranging from Indian to Italian. We opted for local bistro, The Phoenix, which serves great burgers and comfort food. Stopping by Mount Maunganui beach, the contrast between the calm, sandy beach and lush, green mountains is utterly stunning. The expansive beach attracts both preps and surfers alike with its quiet, rocky alcoves to the crashing waves. From Tauranga, Rotorua, a town known for its traditional Maori villages and sulphuric geothermal spas, is a mere 50-minute drive.
Tamiki Village Entrance
Although there is not much to do in Rotorua itself, it is the principal town where all attractions lie on its periphery. I was adamant to visit a Maori village, mainly because I wanted to see the ‘Haka’, but it was a blessing in disguise as our visit to Tamiki Village proved to be captivatingly immersive. I got a real sense of village customs and life as the Tamiki clan initiate you into their world: from the welcoming ritual to the arts of war, all culminating into a ‘hangi’ feast. I even won a Maori game involving falling sticks that teach children agility and reflexes! The village, set amidst ancient trees, reverberated as the conch shell beckoning us to dinner was blown. ‘Hangi’ is the traditional method of cooking meats and sides in a hot stone-filled pit in the ground that is covered with earth. It lends the food a distinctive charred and smoky flavour that is, surprisingly, utterly delicious and flavourful. Suffice it to say, I went for seconds (and maybe thirds) at the dinner.
Tamiki Village Performances
When all the driving, or general sitting around and indulging, has got you down, I found relief in Rotorua’s ample sulphuric geothermal pools. These waters are in such abundance that almost each hotel will have a warm and inviting private pool for their guests to enjoy. Be warned, I learned this the hard way: it is sulphur, therefore it does smell of eggs, and you will smell of eggs for some days to come. Basically, no matter where you go in Rotorua, there is no escaping the smell of sulphur. However, these pools are the most iridescent shade of sapphire that momentarily, it will not matter how terribly they smell.
COMING IN PART II: I continue with the tour of North Island that brings us straight to Tolkien’s magical world, Middle Earth…