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Trip Report Auckland and central North Island

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Our trip to the North Island was planned and undertaken on an essentially different focus compared to our round-the-South-Island trip years ago. We were travelling with 2 young children under 6 years old, so we had to strike a balance between what the children liked and what we wanted to do.


Day 1: Auckland - Rotorua
Arrive into Auckland at 11am, collect car from Apex Car Rentals, and drive down to Rotorua via SH1 and SH27, passing through Matamata.

We reached Matamata around 2pm and there was plenty of time to join the Hobbiton Tour that afternoon. However, we proceeded to Rotorua after a coffee break as the driver (my dear husband) was feeling washed out after the long flight and wanted a bed ASAP. I had my own reason to arrive early into Rotorua. There was a Whakarewarewa Night Market (a Friday night event that is held in conjection of the Rugby World Cup) and Te Pakira cultural group was giving a free performance at 6pm.

We checked into Holiday Inn, which is just beside Whakarewarewa: The Living Thermal Village and the night market (which was held in the carpark outside the Village). After a rest, we made our way down to the night market. The night market was a small affair, not quite what I anticipated. We sampled a Hangi which comprised of small portions of chicken, beef, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin and carrots, bread stuffing, cabbage, corn on the cob and gravy for NZ$10. The Hangi was prepared by the Village's Maori women, who cooked the food using thermal steam. It was quite tasty.

The Village closes at 5pm and the open bridge leading to the Village was to be out of bounds to any curious tourists. Like a few independent tourists, we stood before the bridge, near the Village's gateway to take a glimpse of the village and admire its geothermal activity. We did not intend to visit the Village as we did not think that the tour would appeal to young children.

Later, we watched the Maori cultural performance. A gold coin donation was appreciated for entry into the hall. We did not pay to enter, but stood outside and watched through the glass windows because we were biting into our hotdogs. We left after 3 song-and-dance segments as the children were not too keen.

Back at the hotel, we had a good night's rest.


Day 2: Rotorua – Taupo

After breakfast, we checked out of Holiday Inn and departed for Taupo. The first stop was Aratiatia Dams. We had planned to witness the opening of the spill gates at 10am but were half an hour late. At first, we uttered some regret at our tardiness but later realized that there was no opening or closing of the gates during the season due to maintenance, and we were able to witness the incredible force of the water at any time. A road bridge across the top of the rapids provides the best vantage point, while the Aratiatia Rapids Walk is an easy stroll to 2 viewpoints located down the river.

We did the 5min (250m) track to the Mid Viewpoint and were rewarded with an awesome experience of the rapids.

We continued our jouney into Taupo. The Riverside Market was supposed to be operating that day, but surprisingly it was not. So, we strolled along the lake and the children had some fun at the playground.

We proceeded to the Huka Falls where we see the ferocious Waikato River hard at work. We dropped by Huka Honey Hive and saw a live display of bees busying with their chores. We sampled honey and enjoyed the Kapiti brand of Fig and (Manuka) Honey ice cream and Pohutukawa Honey ice cream. Absolutely satisfying!

Then, we tossed a coin for Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk and the Volcanic Activity Centre. The coin settled on the latter. The centre was a very small place and while it was informative, it was not an exciting place for young children. It would be more appropriate for upper primary or secondary school students interested in geology. We experienced a simulated earthquake, try out devices that reproduce a hurricane and a geyser, and watched a documentary on volcanic eruptions.

Subsequently, we drove out to Orakei Korako, which means ‘place of adorning’. Lonely Planet Guide had all praise for this thermal park, describing it to be “possibly the best thermal area left in NZ”. True or not, we just had to see.

It was off the beaten track but not at all difficult to find. Following the boardwalk, we took about 1.5 hours for a roundtrip. The main attractions are at the beginning of the walk, where you see silica terraces in their varied colours. The mud pools and the Ruatapu Cave are further in and requires some uphill and downhill walking. The cave extends 120 ft down to a jade-green hot pool, which is thought to have been used as a mirror by Maori women who prepared for rituals here. However, the sun was setting and all we saw was a dark pool of water. It was hard for us to appreciate its likeness to a mirror or its splendor. Overall, the park was enjoyable.

We returned to Rotorua and checked ourselves into Rotorua Hideaway Lodge.

Day 3: Rotorua

The plan for the day was to visit Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland in the morning and the Agrodome in the afternoon.

After purchasing the admission tickets, we drove to the site of the Lady Knox Geyser a short distance away. I expected we would need to jostle with the crowd to get a good view of the geyser, but was pleasantly surprised to see a fenced stage where our lead character - Lady Knox, stood with poise facing rows of seated audience. At 10.15am, a staff of the thermal reserve fed Lady Knox with a piece of soap. She foamed and bubbled. Within minutes, she erupted to about 15m. The height would play down over time and end some 20minutes later.


The crowd dispersed and most proceeded back to the main park. There are 3 walks in the park. Walk 1 is about 1.5km long and takes about 30min to complete. Walk 2 combined with walk 1 covers 2km and takes about 40min to complete. Walk 3 combines with walk 1 and 2 covers 3km and takes about 75min to complete. It is recommended to undertake the entire (Walk 3) route, and we did.

This park is much larger than Orakei Koroko, and comprises more geothermal features. It is obvious that the park is touristy, but not without reason.
I shall also recommend Wai-O-Tapu over Orakei Koroko because it is a more scenic park with greater variety and amazing colours, offering better photographic
opportunities. It is also nearer to Rotorua and more convenient to visit. However, if you have time to explore more than 1 park, Orakei Koroko is worth a visit for its silica terraces which are not available in Wai-O-Tapu, and it is an adventure of sorts when you have to take a boat across the river to the Hidden Valley (as Orakei Koroko was also called).

Nearby Wai-O-Tapu is a mudpool (signposted). The boiling mud here is more spectacular than that at Orakei Koroko or Wai-O-Tapu, and best of all, it’s free!

If you are looking for a place to enjoy a free geothermal soak, leave time for a detour to Kerosene Creek (signposted) or the Waiotapu Stream where the hotpool, a result of two streams colliding (one cold, one hot), is called “the Bridge” or “Hot and Cold” – watch for a bridge on Waiotapu loop road and head down the banks into the stream. We had no intention of soaking, so we did not pursue further.

The Agrodome’s Sheep Show was a magnificent display of various breeds of sheep and included a polished demonstration of sheep shearing and how the sheep dog rounds up the animals. The audience had a chance to participate in either bottle feeding the lamb or milking the cow. It was the first time the children came so close to live sheep, so they were excited as well as a little afraid to go near them. Later, we had a briefing of how wool was processed. We were shown the antique rollers, and given a demonstration of how to work a spinning wheel like Rumpelstiltskin.

Then, we went on the Organic Farm Tour which included kiwi juice tasting and handfeeding farm animals. We had a fabulous time at the Agrodome.

Back at Rotorua Hideaway Lodge, the children enjoyed the creative playgrounds build by the owners with recycled materials and fed the miniature horses carrots. It was a surprise when the dogs raced up, snatched the carrots and gobbled them up in no time at all. We heard from the owner that her dogs are vegetarians and love carrots. So funny!


Day 4: Rotorua – Tauranga

We started our day with a visit to Rainbow Springs Wildlife Park. Our main purpose was to see the kiwi and originally thought of joining the Kiwi Encounter Tour. However, the ticketing staff suggested that we could see kiwi chicks without joining the tour. The park offers visitors a taste of the local spring waters, and visitors are allowed to fill bottles with spring water from the taps. Currently undergoing renovation and a new extension, some areas were closed. Other than a huge aquarium of rainbow trouts, the variety of wildlife was limited and the farm animals were pathetic. We had a glimpse of 2 kiwi chicks, but they were motionless and with their backs facing us. Kiwi birds are nocturnal, so it was quite difficult to spot them in their dark enclosures. Ultimately, we saw 2 adult kiwi birds lying still in the far end of their enclosures. For the admission price, we felt that it was a rip off! We went with high anticipation but left with great disappointment. Not recommended.

We drove up to Tirau, where we had some Kapiti ice cream again at The Honey Shop beside the Information Centre. This place is interesting as the building is shaped as a Sheep and the Information Centre’s was in the shape of a sheepdog.

We continued our way to The Shire’s Rest, the meeting point for the Hobbiton Tour.
It was nice to see how the natural landscape was changed to accommodate filming needs, and hear how Peter Jackson developed his ideas for the films. Currently, the site for Lord of the Rings movie is being refurbished and a few new structures (Hobbit holes) have been built for a new movie “The Hobbits”. The film site was on a sheep farm, so the tour included a sheep shearing demonstration and a chance for us to interact with the little lambs, including bottle feeding them. There were 3 lambs about 2-3 weeks old in the wool shed, and these lambs were endearing and friendly. They flocked around our legs, instead of running away. We could stroke them, hold them and cuddle them. Since we didn’t get to feed a lamb at the Agrodome, the children were excited to hold the bottle here.

Then, we continued our way to Tauranga. Our accommodation at Tauranga was Durham Motor Inn in the city centre.

Day 5: Tauranga – Mount Maunganui

We spent a relaxing day at the Mount feeding seagulls, climbing a little of the mountain and walking the full loop at the base of the mountain. We were amazed at the purity and fineness of the sand on the Main Beach, and a beach of seashells at the base of Mt Mauganui. The children were thrilled as they had never seen such a sight before. They quickly gathered seashells and didn’t want to leave. The seashells were broken, but they couldn’t care less. They just picked and picked without any scrutiny, and put them on their fingers and declared that they were rings! There were sheep and lambs grazing on the slopes. To avoid the sun, the little ones tried to hide in the rocks’ shadows. If we tried to get close, they would start to move away, baa-baa-ing for their mother. We also spotted some seals sunbathing on the rocks off shore.


Day 6: Tauranga - Karangahake - Auckland

We set off immediately after breakfast. Katikati was known for its beautiful murals, so we stopped for a stroll. We bought some sandwiches and chips from Sy Bakehouse and Café for our journey. Soon, we arrived at Waihi, where Goldfields Railway operates a 30min nostalgic rail journey to Waikino on Friday to Monday during the off-season, and daily during summer months (from December 26 to the end of Feburary) and school holidays. It was a Wednesday so train service was out. We drove past Waihi and arrived at Waikino, where we dropped into the Waikino Station for some nostalgia.

Next, we stopped by the Owharoa Falls. It is a relatively small waterfall that is easily accessible (as I was aware). However, we had a difficult time locating it as we didn’t notice it from the car. After some clueless driving, we stopped a local and asked about the waterfall. She pointed right in front of us and said, “The waterfall’s right here.” And we saw it the moment we got out of the car. The track to the falls and back took us less than 15min.

At Karangahake Gorge, we ventured the Windows Walk – 1 hr round trip. A significant stretch of the tunnel in this walk is totally dark and calls for a torch. We met two park rangers and walked with them through the darkness as we had left the torches in the car. We understood that they were inspecting the timber wedges that were supporting the rocks. Once through the dark tunnel, they continued their deeper into the mountain while we cross the bridge to the opposite side of the gorge. How lucky! If not for them, we couldn’t have gone that far and would have needed to retrace our steps back to the carpark. We chatted with two Australians gold panning in the stream. They said that they were trying their luck as they had heard of success stories from friends. Well, good luck to them! There are a few other walks including a 45min Tunnel Loop Walk (through a lighted tunnel) which we did not explore.

Next, we drove to Bullswool Farm where we spent a good hour feeding the animals. We were quite impressed with the farm’s tidiness and attention to details. We were handed two scoops to hold the pallets to the animals’ mouth should we wish to hand feed, so we need not place the pallets directly on our palms. In this way, there is better safety and hygiene and at the same time, it eliminates any fear of that unpleasant lick or accidental bite. We can also pour the pallets down a funnel in the pens/cages, so that the pallets are neatly on the food container instead of everywhere on the ground.

It was then a straight drive to our motel - Airport Harbour View, Onehunga for the rest of our time in Auckland.


Day 7: Auckland

This morning, we went to Ambury Regional Farm Park at Mangere Bridge.

Lamb feeding starts in late August/beginning September and lasts until October, when the lambs start to get weaned. Feeding times are Mon-Fri: 8am, 4pm and Sat/Sun: 8am, 12pm and 4pm. We did not care for this activity since we had experienced that in Matamata.

Instead, we entered the paddocks and took a stroll on the foreshore. Afterwhich, we witnessed the milking of dairy cows. The cows are milked between the months of June and December, once a day at 10.30am. This milk is used to feed calves and pigs between 8am – 8.30am and 4.00pm – 4.30pm. Once the calves are old enough they are fed at the same time as cow milking. We were quite fortunate that a group of kindergarten children were on excursion. The park warden conducted a separate milking demonstration to the children so we had the opportunity to listen in, and we were offered some hay (which the teachers prepared for their excursion) to feed the cows.

Next, we went to Onehunga Mall for our retail therapy. Dress Smart outlet shopping offers good bargain for brands such as Pumpkin Patch and Cotton On Kids - we focused on kidswear for obvious reason.

Afterwards, we drove into Auckland city and lost ourselves. After many wrong turns, we finally made it to Freemans Bay. We fed seagulls at the end of Hamer Street and strolled to the Viaduct Basin. There is a famous Fish Market here which holds wholesale auction at 6am, Monday to Friday and visitors can view the auction process from its viewing gallery. The harbourfront is lined with restaurants and exudes an air of sophistication. We sat on the timber deck, ice-cream in hand, admiring the yatches resting in the harbour, and watched adventurers freefall from the Sky Tower in the not-too-far distance.

Next, we went to Mt Eden which provides good views in all directions over the city. The Mount Eden crater, with a depth of 50m, was a magnificent sight.

We ended our day at Cornwall Park which adjoins the 1 Tree Hill Domain. Again, we had a great vista of the city at the summit. We also had great fun at the playground, which comes complete with a Flying Fox and a ride-on which jolts up and down and goes round and round. These unique playground facilities are clearly winners for both children and adults.


Day 8: Morning Flight Back Home


Note: All accommodations are reviewed on Trip Advisor.

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