When the Lonely Planet lists the best months to visit New Zealand, May doesn’t make the cut. But, when an opportunity to travel presents itself I’m not one to pass up a trip on account of a little rain.
Some back story. My wonderful girlfriend (pictures of whom are below) has spent the last six weeks working in New Caledonia — a French-controlled island nation about 12, 000 kilometres off the east edge of Australia — which happens to be a relatively short flight from another of the South Pacific’s ‘new’ land masses (New Guinea, New Caledonia…), New Zealand!
NZ has been on our respective travel hit lists for a while so the opportunity to reunite there after over a month apart was hard to pass up. A couple weeks before her departure, I booked time off work, tickets and bought a Lonely Planet with an eye on the north island. We would only have nine days (including an unavoidable lost day in travel time) to play with and we figured the north isle would give us the best bang for our buck, and a shot at some decent weather as the southern hemisphere fall turns to winter.
I left Toronto on Friday (May 3) after work and, following a now routine-feeling commute to Vancouver, hopped an Air New Zealand A330 Airbus for a 14-hour epic across the international date line.
Several movies, magazine articles and a surprisingly comfortable sleep (great selection of NZ wines on board), I arrived in Auckland on Sunday morning. Anastasia (my wonderful girlfriend), having arrived the day before and already
mastered nearly mastered driving on the wrong side of the road, picked me up in our rental and drove me back to the hotel for some much needed napping.
From here, I’ll let the photos do the talking. The pics from the trip are laid out below in roughly chronological order and I’ve divided the trip up in to three parts… Part One you’re reading now. Parts two (Hobbiton) and three (the Tongariro Track) I’ll post over the next week.
The view from our room at the Hotel Mercure in Auckland overlooking Customs Street East. A block from the harbour.
On our first night in Auckland we walked up to Hotel deBrett for a drink in one of the boutique hotel’s two equally hip bars. This shot is from the upstairs lounge. We fantasized about staying in the hotel (its highly recommended in the guide books) but even their off-season rates were a bit out of our price range on this trip. Definitely worth a visit if not a night or two though!
Walking back to our hotel (the Mercure, dead-ahead right in this photo) across the free-for-all cross walk at the intersection of Customs and Queen. The rain was Vancouver-esque at times and I can see why the guide books try to steer visitors away in the off season. If you’re not a wimp though, May is a nice uncrowded time to visit!
One of the many flat whites I consumed while in NZ. This one was expertly poured at Federal and Wolfe in Auckland, which is now one of my favourite cafes! I’d teleport back there in a heartbeat. For those not familiar with the coffee bevvy, a flat white is an Aussie/Kiwi take on a latte, but with a little less milk (i.e. better coffee to dairy ratio) and more velvety foam. *Dark Horse in Toronto makes a nice one too, IHMO.
Driving from Auckland to the Bay of Islands through another heavy squall
A favourite fishing ground-turned renowned marine reserve, Goat Island – about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Auckland near the town of Leigh – boasts some serious marine abundance. Its a major diving destination, but the gale-force winds kept us on the grassy hillocks on this trip.
The Ghunga II, motoring through a calm patch
Capt. Mike, a Canadian-turned-Kiwi, explains… something I don’t recall.
Look’in wild on the deck of the Ghunga II
Ours was the last boat load of guests Capt. Mike was taking on a day sail before he pointed the Ghunga for Fiji. Capt. Mike (a Canadian ex-pat) like many of the boat-owning tour operators in the Bay of Islands work the busy summer season non-stop in order to cover costs… and fund longer voyages out into the Southern Sea. Some of these trip welcome crew and I’m already fantasizing about a longer trip… with surf boards!
Just another sparsely populated island in the Bay of Islands
The dolphins in the bay aren’t shy… or just appreciate a free ride in the slipstream around our boat hull.
It was mating season for the resident dolphins in the Bay of Islands but this guy took a break to catch a ride on our wake.
The dolphins in the Bay of Islands are used to having boats around and as our captain, Mike, informed us, the pods of resident cetaceans can distinguish between them based on engine noise. These ones were cool with us and hung around for quite a while, jumping and swimming in our wake.
On the prow of the Ghunga II
Ghunga II anchored in Roberton Bay. We tramped up to the lookout (about a 15 minute walk through some friendly jungle up a well-maintained path) to catch this view. Worth it.
Looks like B.C.! The view off the backside of Roberton Island from the hilltop lookout.
Our ride, the 65-foot yacht Ghunga II, anchored off-shore as we paddled kayaks over to Roberton Island for little tramp-around while Capt. Mike made lunch.
Cruised past a few groups of penguins on our day sailing in the Bay of Islands. These little guys hung out with us for a while, sunning on the surface, in between deep dives for fish. First time I’ve seen penguins in the wild!
The view from our dinner table at one of Russell’s many outdoor bistros.
Russell is a short ferry ride from Paihia, the main tourist hub in the Bay of Islands. Off season offers the luxury of no crowds (I imagine this place is crawling during the southern summer) and your choice of seaside dining tables.
We spent a fair bit of time driving – a necessity when linking the North Island’s hot spots – and every time we did, it poured.
Sheep pasture… its everywhere.
You don’t want to piss these guys off.
Its a Llama!
NZ sheep, no doubt used to being shorn, are skittish creatures. We pulled over several times to attempt to pet them but the wiley buggers made for the hills.
We took the plunge (literally) and spent a morning exploring one of the myriad limestone cave networks in Waitomo with the Black Water Rafter company. Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of the amazing glow worms illuminating the cave ceilings because the tour company doesn’t allow you to bring your own cameras… and we resisted the urge to purchase the fairly crummy photos they take while on the tour.
We spent two nights at the Solscape eco-retreat-hostel-commune overlooking Manu Bay in Raglan. It was rustic but comfortable. Best for a crew of mates on a surf mission who don’t care about the possum living in the wall.
The town of Raglan is the North Island’s go-to spot for travelling surfers. The waves in Manu Bay were small while we were in town but a steady north-west swell kept the horizon rippled for days. Hired a board from our hostel’s surf shack and took the 10-minute walk down a really well maintained path to the beach.
Looking south-west from the path towards world-famous surf spot Indicators, located just off the rocky point in the distance.
The next stop on our NZ whirlwind tour was Hobbiton, the fabled home of Bilbo, Frodo and the other hobbits… Will have that post up soon!