We had always wanted to visit New Zealand, having heard incredible things about the landscape, the people, and the sights. The most helpful tools we bought for our trip were the NZ Frenzy Guidebooks by Scott Cook. These guidebooks are what you need if you are looking to experience the NZ roads less traveled. They don’t have all the wifi/restaurant/library information that your Lonely Planet guidebook will have, so don’t buy them for that. Instead, Scott put a ton of effort into mapping out all of the natural treasures throughout New Zealand. NZ Frenzy is full of secret lakes, waterfalls, tracks, and coves we would never have found or heard about otherwise. With one book for New Zealand’s North Island and one for the South, Scott breaks up the points of interest by geographical areas and provides detailed directions for finding each and every spot.
Our memory of traveling New Zealand is like the most exciting, cross-country treasure hunt, and that’s because of the NZ Frenzy Guidebooks. If you’re heading to New Zealand, consider buying one or both of these guidebooks through the link below. It doesn’t cost any extra, and a small percentage helps keep The Gays Abroad Travel Blog running!
Arriving in New Zealand
We’re always excited to take the airport transfer into a new city. Outside of the airport, it’s really the first glimpse you have of a new country, and you have no choice but to stare out the windows and take it all in. Conveniently, the bus let us off only a couple blocks from where we met our Couchsurfing host, Seb. He was so kind to meet us early in the day to hand us his keys instead of having us wait with our massive backpacks until he was off work (which would have been understandable, of course). Staying with Seb was an incredible introduction to Auckland New Zealand. We spent a couple days with him, during which time he would come with us on walks around the Auckland, showing us some of the popular spots and telling us all about them.
We learned very quickly that, when you’re in New Zealand, you’re never far from a beach. On our second day, Seb drove us to Piha Beach, roughly 45 minutes from Auckland on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Piha is at the end of a long and winding road, but this beach is massive and well worth the drive. We bought our first chips, relaxed amidst the views, and climbed up Lion’s Rock. We even took a hike up to Kitekite Falls for a swim in the pools at the top and bottom of the falls. Seb also had lots of knowledge of, and a great appreciation for, Maori culture in New Zealand, including the Maori names of places, their roots, and significance. As Canadians, we thought that we knew quite a bit about First Nations history in Canada, but Seb really put us to shame.
Starting Our Road Trip Across New Zealand’s North Island
To fully explore New Zealand, we had decided long before arriving that we would rent a car, buy a tent, and camp all across the country. NZ is packed with campsites with a range of amenities. There is everything from free sites with nothing more than a toilet, to paid sites with hot showers and kitchens. We created an article specifically about NZ camping, so if you want more details about exploring this beautiful country under the stars, check out The Best Guide to Camping in NZ.
Driving North from Auckland, our first stop was a leisurely half-day at Piroa Falls. We found the falls after a short, marked walk from the carpark. We noticed a picnic table nearby and set down our bags along the water’s edge. Our first introduction to the water in New Zealand was frigid, but our bodies eventually acclimatized. Piroa Falls drops into the main basin, then steps down into tiered pools that are easier for swimming than directly under the falls (though not as exciting). Though we didn’t find it ourselves, there should also be an accessible path to climb to the top.
Our next major stop on New Zealand’s North Island was the Te Paki Sand Dunes on the way to Cape Reinga. Our guidebook made note of a secret lake in the middle of the dunes, so we set out to find it. We must have taken a wrong turn because the lake took longer to find than we expected, but we did eventually arrive. It turns out dark water is extremely eerie (who knew!) so after all of that walking, we didn’t jump in. However, it was fun to find and we did learn a valuable lesson: the sun in New Zealand is killer. In the far north of New Zealand’s North Island, the UV index can reach as high as 14. Not having fully prepared for that reality, Adamo experienced some pretty painful burns on both of his legs.
The drive to our next stop, Cape Reinga, was a mere fifteen minutes from the Te Paki sand dunes. If you’ve ever seen images of Cape Reinga’s lighthouse and scenery, then you know this spot is well worth the 5.5-hour drive from Auckland. Cape Reinga is often mistaken as the northernmost point on New Zealand’s North Island. Though it’s a close contender, the real reasons we wanted to visit this spot were the relaxing views and incredible landscape. From the viewpoint atop Cape Reinga, we looked out to the water and could see the meeting of the seas. The Tasman and the Pacific meet at Cape Reinga from different directions to form beautiful, crystal collisions.
Te Werahi Beach
We noticed a track at the entrance of Cape Reinga that led to nearby Te Werahi beach. About 30 minutes of downhill trekking along the coast (uphill on the way back) led us to descend upon the absolutely massive, solitary beach of Te Werahi. Apart from a flock of seagulls, we were the only living beings on the entire stretch. We can’t stress enough how ‘worth it’ it is to visit this beach. If you make it to Cape Reinga, take the extra time to enjoy the bliss of Te Werahi.
St Paul’s Rock
We made an equal number of stops on the way back down toward Auckland as we did on our way up. One such stop was at St. Paul’s Rock in the Whangaroa township. It took us some time to find the entrance to the track, but once we did, it wasn’t too difficult to climb up. There are some tricky parts to the climb, but chain links are strategically placed along the way to help you up. Once atop, the 360° views are incredible.
Dozens of incredible photographs strengthened our resolve to get to our next destination: the Mahinepua Peninsula Track. Beginning at Mahinepua Beach, this track takes you on a 2-hour roundtrip from the beach to Trig and back. Along the way, there is a pit stop at a gorgeous bay for swimming and taking shelter from the scorching sun. The weather in New Zealand is so confusing. At one point we would be climbing uphill along the track, sweating profusely under the intense sun. The next moment, the sun would recede behind a cloud and the cool breeze would set in, making us wish the sun would come back out. The track followed successive hills, up and down until we reached the trig at the end. Make no mistake, this is not a brisk walk in the park. The uphill portions can be arduous, but the coastal views along the way make this hike an absolute must-do. Worth noting, however, is that halfway or three-quarters through the track is an option to continue further to the trig or turn back for a shortcut.
Matapouri Mermaid Pools
To get to the mermaid pools, we followed a path at one end of Matapouri beach that took us up and over a hill and through a cluster of palm trees. Descending along the opposite side of the hill, we could see the mermaid pools were within reach. The one thing we wished more than anything that day was for the sun to come out and warm everything up. It was so gloomy that we decided not to swim, and our photos came out quite dull without the sun. We like to avoid using others’ photos on our blog, but we still think you should google these mermaid pools and see how beautiful they can be. Try to plan for a sunny day when you make the trek out to these wonders!
We arrived in the evening to the campsite near Karangahake Gorge with plans to set out early the next day for a visit. There was an option today hike a trail that starts at the campsite, but because of our time limits, we packed up our tent in the morning and drove directly to the entrance of the gorge. Visiting the gorge is a good half-day adventure full of abandoned railway tracks, tunnels, and walking paths spread along the edges of the mountains. Bring a headlamp if you’d like to venture into some of the dark – albeit shallow – caverns along the walk.
At only a twenty-minute drive from Karangahake Gorge, Orokawa Bay is an absolute must if you’re in the area. First, drive yourself to Waihi Beach and find the walking track to Orokawa. Give yourself roughly forty-five minutes to reach the Bay and enjoy the incredible Pacific views along the way. You’ll get a spectacular view of the Bay as you approach along the track, looking like it could be from one of the fifty seasons of Survivor. Once you arrive, Orokawa Bay makes for the perfect picnic spot with the forest at your back and the clear, blue waves ahead.
Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata
Even if you didn’t love the LOTR trilogy, who could pass up the opportunity to visit the one and only Hobbiton? What was once a temporary build, the Hobbiton movie set is now a permanent structure sitting only a bus tour away from New Zealand’s Matamata. We bought our tickets ($79NZD/adult) in town at the Matamata site Visitor Centre where a free shuttle took us directly to the site entrance. From there, we were given a forty-five-minute walking tour of the Shire and its hobbit homes, plenty of photo opportunities, a visit to the party tree from the first film, and a complimentary beer (or Ginger Beer!) at the Green Dragon. The tour was pricey, but anything is possible when you convince yourself that you’ll only ever have the opportunity once in your life.
Waikite Valley Hot Pools Eco-trail
We arrived here thinking it was just an eco-trail, but for an extra fee, you can also enjoy the thermal pools for the day. The eco-trail alone is $3NZD/person, and though it’s not the most incredible walk, it is certainly unique. We were engulfed by massive pockets of mist as we made our way along the trail, pushing aside the large, overhanging leaves. We couldn’t help but feel like we were in the middle of the set of Jurrasic Park. There are a few lookouts along the path and several informative signs explaining how the geothermal water is sourced and then cooled for use. This eco-trail isn’t the strongest recommendation from our road trip, but it’s unlike any other trail we had walked.
It was a hot and sunny day when we arrived in Otaki Forks. As such, we would highly recommend bringing enough water with you to last a couple of hours. This area includes several tracks ranging from forty minutes to two-hours in length. From these tracks, there are also options to branch off onto longer, multiple-day hikes if that’s your pleasure. Traversing footbridges, suspension bridges, walking up and downhill, these tracks offer a relaxing and adventurous experience with views of the incredible landscape and dissecting river.
Wellington is New Zealand’s capital and a beautiful city. Our only day in Wellington was spent foraging through the downtown produce markets, walking up and down the hills throughout town, and strolling along the waterfront to watch beach volleyball tournaments spike their way through the strong (and often relentless) winds. The highlight, however, was the pleasant but arduous walk up to the lookout atop Mount Victoria. You can choose to drive to the top from Wellington center, but either way, the views are exceptional.
From Wellington, we took the Cook Strait Ferry to NZ’s South Island, where we would spend the second half and final two weeks of our one-month trip. We’ve already started the article for our New Zealand Road Trip: South Island, so check back soon for the rest of our itinerary!