Monday, November 27, 2023

New Zealnd (North Island)


New Zealand's North island had been on our list for a while. We had visited South Island in 2016 and were so awestruck by the beauty of this country that we had ever since wanted to go to the North Island. We knew it would be more city-like and more touristy, and hence it fit the bill for us. We were travelling with our 3 year old and wanted a scenic, developed country with warmer climate during Thanksgiving break and easily accessible medical facilities. And this fit the bill perfectly, as we found direct flights to Auckland which weren't as pricey as we had imagined.

Our Itinerary:

Our driving route
Our driving route
  • Day 1: Arrive in the morning ->Auckland sightseeing and stay 
  • Day 2: Drive to Hamilton Gardens -> Waitomo Caves -> Rotorua
  • Day 3: Day in Rotorua/Taupo
  • Day 4: Day trip to Hobbiton.
  • Day 5: Drive to Paihia
  • Day 6: Day in Paihia/KeriKeri/Russell
  • Day 7: Paihia -> Auckland
  • Day 8: Day in Auckland
  • Day 9: Fly out

Where to fly?

There is pretty much only one option. You fly in to Auckland. This is the most well connected airport in the country. From SFO, we have Air New Zealand and United Airlines flying direct to Auckland. It is 12-13 hours flight, but quite convenient. I know that United is planning to start direct flights to Christchurch from SFO soon, so that would be an option if you want to visit South Island.

When to go?

We went in November this time as well. Weather was pleasant. We needed light jackets in the evening and it is did drizzle a little on most of the days. No heavy rains that would interrupt your plans though. And it wasn't hot summer either. So it worked pretty well for us.

Where to go?

When going to North Island, the top destinations are Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Hobbiton movie set. That is the most advertised ones. Lake Taupo is a pretty lake and the town of Rotorua nearby is a small 'weekend getaway' type of town. We also wanted to go to a beach, so we went all the way to Paihia. We didn't Coromandel as there was some inaccessible areas that were under repair/construction. Other popular thing to-do is hikes, but we didn't look into it with a three year old in tow. We skipped hikes and the town of Wellington. Those are for next trip, along with Abel Tasman Park. More in the section towards the end, What's left?. This website has been the most useful in exploring what to do.


At the Ferry Building
It is not the capital of the country and I have to remind myself again and again. It surely is the number one tourist entry/exit city though. It's a good city to just get your bearings after a long flight and do some 'standard' city- tourism. 

Where to stay:

Their main street is the 'Queen Street' and if you want to stay in middle of all the action, then that is where you'd like to stay. And closer to the pier, means closer to touristy-stuff. We stayed in a hotel on Queen Street first, but it was a bit far and we ended up driving and paying for parking, so we moved to a little farther accommodation for our second stay at the end of our trip. 

Where to eat: 

The best thing was the food. And we found an excellent Indian restaurant. Couldn't believe the food was so good at Jatt & Juliet. Rajma as good as home-made. And our daughter couldn't stop eating the noddle burger in spite of how spicy it was! 

What to do:

Our walking map
We spent an evening going to the sky tower, which is I think nth tallest tower in the world and the tallest in Southern Hemisphere or something. But having been to Burj Khaleefa and taking a elevator through the clouds and feeling dizzy looking down, this was quite meh! It is more like, you are there, might as well check it off your list. We took a stroll from Ferry Building to the Princes Wharf. Reminded me a bit of San Francisco Pier but smaller scale and less crowded. So, essentially strolling on Quay Street. You could also walk from Princes Wharf to Silo Park. Next stops would be going to Aotea Square and the Town Hall building. So we spent our evening walking around this route, approximately.

Walk Around this route. Place to see: Sky Tower, Silo Park, Princes Wharf, Ferry building, Aotea Square, Town Hall.

Sky Tower
And tonight was India-Australia cricket world cup final and we were so excited to be in a cricket loving nation where we could easily watch the match on our TV at the hotel. I had partly hoped that it would be India-NZ final and it would have been fun to be in NZ then as Kiwis are my second favorites, always. But nonetheless, we were here and it was India-Australia. So once we got done with all the sightseeing, we retired to our hotel, waited for the kiddo to fall asleep and turned on the match. But as the match progressed, and depression kicked in, we wanted to eat our emotions. And voila, DoorDash works awesome in New Zealand. We ordered some really good food from Curry-On. Spicy and satisfying. And then we figured we have almost lost the match, we just dozed off to avoid further depression! :D
There is also an Auckland Zoo for kids and we kept that for our last day of the trip. 


Charminar Gardens
Our second day entailed a long drive from Auckland to Rotorua via Waitomo. So, Hamilton was a natural stop for us. So we ended up at Hamilton Gardens. They are super cute small gardens based on various themes. I had picked the few gardens I really wanted to see so we had our work cut out for us. The gardens are free and you could get a map for $2. I really did like these gardens and would have preferred a relaxed stroll, but we were on a time budget as we had to make sure we reached Waitomo for our cave tour that we had pre-booked. It would take about and hour or two to see all of them. They are well maintained gardens and super cute. My favorites were, of course Charminar (India style), Alic in Wonderland and Egyptian gardens.
We then had lunch at a café located in Hamilton Gardens. It is next to a lake and the whole set up in very serene, right our of a storybook. Just that we were running out of time so just inhaled our food as quickly as we could. But this was a very quick and an easy stop. So glad we did it. 

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

At the cave exit
Now we were en-route to Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The drive get prettier and with overhead clouds, it was really beautiful. Once we reached, there was plenty of parking and everything is streamlined given that this is the most sought after tourist destination in all of north island. Glad we had bought tickets as there is quite a crowd. The tours are guided and well managed. No photography allowed, so I don't have pictures, but you do see very pretty glowworms. It isn't long and that is all there is to it. I am glad that my daughter remembers all of it and often mentions glowworms when she sees something shining in the dark, like, stars in the sky were glowworms according to her!
The tors starts with a walk into the caves. You get to see the limestone caves and take a walk through them with about 20 other people. And then once you get down inside the caves, there is a section where they turn off lights and you see glowworms, bright and shining and oh, so many! Its beautiful. THen you take a short boat ride to get out of the caves. This boat ride was pretty nice because it is all in the dark and there are glowworms above you in the cave's ceiling. Fun experience, overall. 


After the caves, we carried on to Rotorua. And the drive gets prettier closer to Rotorua. This is a touristy weekend-getaway kind of a town. Places to see, things to do and restaurants to eat at. 
We stayed at Quest Rotorua Central. It was a suite and they offered a mini kitchen, we we needed with the kiddo. So we made a quick stop at the grocery store and stocked up our kitchen fridge with milk, eggs, yogurt and other essentials.  

What we did:

Luge Ride
We spent one morning taking the Skyline Gondola ride up to the hill top and coming down on the Lugo Ride. this was so much fun. The wait gets a little tiring, but the ride is so much fun. We could have the kid sit in front of us on the Lugo and she enjoyed as well. We could have done this again and again, but given the wait, we just did it once. So you take the gondola to the top of the hill. Get in the queue for the Lugo ride, come down via the Lugo. Then take a chairlift back up. The queue for repeat riders is short, but we just skipped it. There are also other things you could do at the top, like various hikes, mountain biking, etc. We enjoyed the views of Lake Rotorua from the top and enjoyed our Lugo ride till we got down. 

We spent half a day at the pool at the Polynesian Spa. Rotorua is known for hot springs. There is this facility for families where you could just sit and swim in the hot springs water. They have various options you can pick from depending on water pH, views of the lake, etc. We picked the one that was most suitable for us as we wouldn't have done it for long hours and we know our daughter loves going to the pool. There was a cute little slide as well for the kids. The locker rooms were really neat and clean and well managed. 

Every evening, our routine was to hit the playground next to the lake. And boy, was this some playground. Every fixture is so unique and fun. It was a huge playground and could accommodate many kids. There were climbing structures, swings, see-saws, and oh, plenty of other funky looking things. It was like Disneyland of playgrounds. And all the three evening we were here, we spent good 30-40 minutes at this playground. Convincing my daughter to go back to the hotel or for dinner became a huge task. Must-do with kids. 

There is just so much to do in Rotorua. There are plenty of canopy tours, ziplining, mountain biking, etc. There is also Agrodome, which is an animal farm with some shows and tours. We skipped as we thought it was way too pricey and probably won't be much fun for our kid.

Where we dined:

Rotorua had really good food. Good restaurants and variety of cuisines. They have a dedicated Eat Street which has only restaurants and is close to many other good restaurants.

Lake Taupo

We took a day trip to Lake Taupo from Rotorua. Its about an hour drive. The lake is beautiful and pristine. We didn't do any activity on the lake, but I guess you could do boat rides or stuff. We got here around lunch time. Just next to the lake is small marketplace with plenty of restaurants and shops. We spent some time strolling around the lake and then headed to our next stop Huka Falls. Park your car and it is a five minute walk to the various view points. It is a voluminous waterfall, icy blue in color, but not too high. It didn't take much time and next we were off to 'Craters of the Moon' thermal walk. Since this is the area of geothermal activity, that is one of the things you'd like to do here. We picked the one which would be easy for the kiddo. Honestly, it wasn't that great given all the geothermal activity you see in Yellowstone. But there are other thermal walks in this area which could be better I assume. I just picked the one easy for the kids. It took us about an hour to walk around the well paved walk and view some activity. I think Waikea Thermal Walk is the highly rated one here, so perhaps try that. 
Fun fact - Lake Taupo hosts the second oldest Ironman triathlon. Perhaps next time Sumit could sign up for that! 


This was another day trip from Rotorua. The drive is about an hour and you must, absolutely must pre book your tour. This is definitely a must-do whether you are a Hobbit fan or not. The sets are located near the town of Matamata and it is definitely very very beautiful. The tours are well organized and run on time. There is a café, toilets, etc. The tours start with a short bus ride to the location of the movie set. And it is so cute! The whole scenery is beautiful and something you'll definitely remember. We couldn't stop taking pictures. The tour ends with a nice ginger beer at the Green Dragon Inn. The whole tour took about two hours. They have now expanded the tour to take you inside the Hobbit homes, when we visited that was still under construction. 

Bay Of Islands

After we wrapped up from Rotorua, we were headed to Paihia as we were staying in this town.. We chose to drove as it was more convenient compared to driving. It took us about 6 hours drive time, but more in total with stops, it was totally manageable.  We stopped at some scenic waterfalls and vista points on our way. Had lunch at Hamilton and dinner at this cute little town close to Paihia, Whangarei.


This is a cute little town, with one street. Our hotel was located on the road across the beach. The view was very nice to wake up to. The weather was however a little chilly. So we wouldn't go to the beach for sure. We walked in the evening to a restaurant located on their main Wharf, Charlotte's Kitchen. The town is cute and well lit. There is also a playground located at the other end of the Paihia beach which was again quite unique and fun. And our daughter absolutely loved it. The market close to the wharf is the main area in this town and has plenty of shops and restaurants to offer. The most sought after thing-to-do is however, a cruise to the 'Hole in the Rock'

Hole in the rock.

We booked a morning cruise to the 'Hole in the Rock'. This was thankfully pre-booked as well, because the boat was full. A very comfortable boat, but with 200 people on board. It was windy outside, so we preferred to sit inside. It took some time to get to the view point, but well it is a Hole in the Rock and I wonder how you find them everywhere, Cabos, Italy, wherever you go! We did see some dolphins swimming along our boat on our way and that got everyone way more excited than the destination itself. We didn't do it, but I hear on a good day with calmer waters, they take the boat through the hole in the rock as well. 
The more interesting part of this cruise was that on your way back, they drop you to this island, Urupukapuka, for about an hour or so. And this is a beautiful, almost untouched island with plenty of hikes. There is a restaurant onsite, but no one resides on the island. We did hike to view point to see the other side of the island and got beautiful views. Spotted sting rays in the clear blue water at the beaches. This was definitely the highlight for us. 


First church in Russell
It is a small coastal town across the bay from Paihia. There are regular ferries between Paihia and Russell from the main Wharf. We took a ferry to get to Rusell, took about twenty minutes. There are only a couple of streets to walk around and 'the oldest church' of New Zealand that you could visit. We spent about an hour strolling around and on the beach. There is an old hotel, which has beautiful interiors and transports you to old English charm. Usually people go to Russell, have tea or lunch here at 'Duke of Marlborough Hotel' and get back to Paihia or Kerikeri. We just walked in, looked around and decided to get back on the ferry to go back to Paihia. 


Rainbow Falls
Kerikeri is the main town in Bay of Islands. If you were flying in, this is the town you will fly in to. It is about 20-30 minutes away from Paihia. We spent about half a day in Kerikeri. There is much more to do and see here. Our first stop was the Rainbow Falls. It is just a few meters from the parking lot and offers three view points from the top of the waterfall. But you could also do a short hike and go to the base lagoon of these waterfalls. I found these to be prettier than the Huka Falls which are much more hyped. These are too high or don't have much water, but the whole set up is quite pretty. There is a popular stone store and a Parrot Place as well to visit, but we chose to go have lunch/dinner as we were all  hungry after that easy-peasy hike! :D

Mis-adventure in Auckland!

We drove back from Paihia to Auckland to spend a couple of nights here before we flew out back to San Francisco. Our plan was to spend a day at Auckland Zoo and to see the Auckland cricket stadium.
As we were headed out for the day, we wanted to grab breakfast at this bagel place. We ordered a veggie bagel and sure enough it looked just fine. But when our daughter ate it, she started getting hives, we know that she is allergic to nuts, but didn't think that a veggie bagel would have nuts. But the pesto in it is what caught us off-guard. What followed was the whole drill, Benadryl, followed by epi-pen and a visit to urgent care, then to emergency. And then another dose of adrenaline, followed by a few more anti histamines. And an overnight hospital stay. We are very thankful to the Auckland Starship Children's hospital for such good care and. The doctors and staff were so nice, calm and reassuring. They even accommodated us when there was no bed in the regular overnight stay ward. So thankful to them. And a lesson learnt the hard way. We are super careful always, but one slip, and it got us.
Anyhow, the kiddo was upset because we were headed to the zoo and landed in the hospital. So next day we made sure that we went to the zoo for a couple of hours before heading out to the airport. To make sure we keep our promise to her. 

Other notes:

  • Visa: It is very easy to get Travel Authorization through their website. You have to upload your passport details and a photo. It took us only a couple of hours to get this once we took our photos. 
  • Bookings in advance: We made most of our bookings for popular destinations, like the Waitomo glowworm caves, Hobbiton set and cruise to the Hole in the Rock in advance it turned out to be a wise decision. 
  • Adventure Sports: New Zealand is the hub of adventure sports and you will find them in every famous tourist area. Be it Bungee Jumping, Mountain Biking, skydiving, zip lining, you name it and they got it. 
  • Driving around: We rented a car and drove around. Very convenient, especially with a kid. Driving it on the left, India style.
  • Play grounds: New Zealand has some great playgrounds. They have these unique structures to play on there has been enough thought put into designing these. 

When are we going next?

Ahaa, yes we need one more trip. Perhaps when our daughter is old enough to bungee jump!! We want to do a few more hikes, especially Abel Tasman Park, I also wanted to visit Dunedin and east coast of the southern island. Perhaps, after another 8 years! :)