New Zealand - North Island in Winter is Amazing

Yes, you absolutely want to go to New Zealand in winter. Just make sure you understand the difference between the weather on the North Island and the South Island! If you go South Island in winter, bring your sub zero (centigrade) outfits and you may end up stuck in a blizzard. North Island was a lot more temperate, which is why most people live up there...

Travel like Just Been There

Twelve days on New Zealand's North Island can look like this:

  • Day 1 through 4 - Wellington. Without World Cup games, spend 2-3 days in Wellington
  • Day 5 - Drive up the North Island and stay around National Park
  • Day 6 - Hike Tongariro National Park and drive to Hamilton (consider skiing if you are into that, stay an extra day or two) 
  • Day 7 - Waitomo Caves
  • Day 8 - Hobbiton and Hamilton Gardens
  • Day 9 - Drive to Rotorua, walk the town
  • Day 10 - Canopy Tour
  • Day 11 - Spa time 
  • Day 12 - Taupo and Wai-O-Tapu 
  • Day 13 - Drive to Auckland Airport / Fly out

Just Been There Art

Look at or buy art inspired by this trip. If you like this trip, but can't go, or you too have just been there, this unique art may rekindle fond memories of your own trip. Click the image for a link to the online store. Note: you will be leaving this site and connect to the artists site.

NZ Cows by Christine Ong-Dijcks
NZ Cows

NZ Sheep by Christine Ong-Dijcks
NZ Sheep

All art copyright by: Christine Ong-Dijcks 

Fifa Women's Worldcup

Our trigger was the World Cup 2023, held in Australia and New Zealand, and more specifically the fact that we managed to buy tickets for two meaningful games: Netherlands - USA and Philippines - New Zealand. That triggered both our choice to spend a summer / winter in AU and NZ and to spend quite some time on the North Island.

The games were a blast, and a somewhat reluctant shout out to Fifa. The event was done very well and the host countries were amazing! The only strange thing: very few games were on tv in both AU and NZ... 

Wellington Sky Stadium
Wellington Sky Stadium

Wellington

While we flew in and out of Sydney, our vacation really started in Wellington. We spent four days in Windy Welly, and loved all of it. It does get windy and in winter can be wet! But since we watched the two soccer games, we got to see a lot of the city, and it did not disappoint.

We stayed in Seatoun, which is right off the airport and a cute little seaside town in its own right. The little center has a grocery store (small but everything you need), a fish and chip shop, two nice restaurants with craft beer, and importantly a bus stop. Since the ferry to downtown was shut down, the bus became our best friend and we traveled to games in downtown Wellington on line 2. It is very efficient and runs all the time, and because of the world cup, most of our rides were free.

Tip: do not rent a car when exploring Wellington! Rent that car when you are planning to leave. Take a bus to the airport or find a local rental. Hertz and Avis rent from within the airport making it very convenient.

Apart from the soccer, here are some highlights of our walking Welly adventures:

The cable car - which for those familiar with the famous ones in San Francisco isn't so special in itself. But it does give you a quick ride up to the botanical gardens, which are pretty and give you some great views of Welly. Surprisingly, the Cable Top Eatery at the top, next to the museum is quite good. We didn't plan ahead, so ended up eating lunch here. We dread tourist trap, but as said, quite nice. You may have to reserve in summer! 

Wellington Cable Car
The Cable Car

Cuba Street, with its thrift shops, coffee houses, and tons of restaurants is a nice hang out. We very much loved the Old Quarter restaurant. Totally funky with a great vibe and lovely food. We had a lot of good coffee around Wellington and across NZ. Cuba street has a ton of them, and we read that Kaffee Eis was great, so we tried it. It was ok in terms of coffee and ice cream, but has a cool vibe.

Apart from the botanical gardens, we did really enjoy Te Papa Tongarewa. You can easily spend an entire day here, but I would reserve a good 2 hours to catch the highlights. We really enjoyed the ANZAC exhibit, which features huge statues showcasing members of the ANZAC army in Gallipoli during World War I. Fun fact, these are created by Weta Workshop, which we skipped in Wellington, even though our VRBO rental was pretty close. For those interested in Weta, the Auckland branch is apparently the more hands-on and fun one to go to!

ANZAC
Weta Built Soldier

After a fun filled few days, with a first ever World Cup goal and win for the Philippines, we were off to explore while driving on the wrong side of the road!

Tongariro National Park

We stayed in Ohakune, which has a bunch of motels. The town is small and laid back, and it is a complete ski town. As we were here in winter, it was all about renting skis and snowboards. You'd get a real ski vibe, and if it hadn't been as warm as it was, Apres Ski would have been ideal. Btw, it was warm during the day, but it did cool down a bunch at night.

The town has a bunch of restaurants, and a well stocked grocery (in NZ, New World supermarkets are your friend!). We ended up at the Cyprus Tree, mainly because of its Crispy Pork Belly promise and because it serves venison... yum. The place is a mix of rustic, fine dining with a kids play area and a big fire place. Funky, but with good food. Reserve in peak season!

On our way to Hamilton, we stopped at actual National Park. It is about an hour up North Island from Ohakune. Pretty amazing to see the snow on the volcanoes. When there, do stop and walk down to Gollum's pool (Tawhai Falls), which is pretty nice. Make sure to walk all the way down, and come early. The parking is very small...

Tawhai Falls
Gollum's Pool

From here we drove to Hamilton, where we VRBO'd our next house to hang around. We picked Hamilton because we wanted to do both Waitomo and Hobbiton. Hamilton gives you are good selection of places to stay and is within about an hour of both.

Hamilton Gardens
It Moves!

If you are in Hamilton, do stop at Hamilton Gardens. Free entry and you can spend a relaxing few hours walking through some beautiful gardens. We really liked the Surrealist Garden.

Waitomo

Trip highlight! We spent quite some time debating which cave tour we were going to take. Which ever you pick, it will be worth the time and money! The caves are amazing and the glow worms just super cool! 

In the end we booked the 4 hour blackwater rafting TTT, and yes, if you go in either winter or summer, be sure to book early. Friends of ours did the all day lost world epic adventure... and while it was epic, they were also shattered from 8-9 hours of caving. Now the good news, apparently, is that at the end there is a bbq. Should be cool in summer!

This one, is a must do if you are in NZ and on the North Island, we loved this. But sorry, no pictures on the blog, you'll just have to click the link earlier to see what it is like.

Tip: the guides told us that the 30 minutes, walk in, see glow worms is a dud... and if you are in any decent shape, just book one of the wet suit, boots on adventures.

Winter tip: if you go in winter, you may get a private tour. We did! We were the only ones on our specific tour slot, so it was just us with our guide clambering around. Gives you a ton of fun and personal attention. It apparently cost Tom Cruise a lot of money to get this, as he had to reserve all slots in the day to get the same experience. Guess there is a big benefit in going in winter. Also, the cave is at a steady temperature year round, so it really isn't any colder in there in winter.

Hobbiton

We decided to do this one. We enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, so figured, let's not skip this one. And to be honest, it is cute, but definitely a tourist attraction including overpriced gift shop.

Hobbiton
The Shire

It is very pretty and very busy with buses going around at a 15 minute circuit. In the end we booked a lunch tour, as the menu looked good and we figured, why not...

The food is good, it is a buffet. You'll have plenty time to eat, there is lots of food, and it is tasty. It is not a cheap lunch, but fun enough. You will likely get to meet people from around the world as you share tables in groups of 6 or 8 or so.

If you are a big fan, consider the other food containing tours. The second breakfast tour is the only time you will get access to the Millhouse. The evening banquet is served in the Green Dragon, which is a nicer location than the tent used for lunch. 

Rotorua

After Hamilton, our next base was Rotorua. There is so much to do in and around Rotorua, and Taupo is only an hour away. The coast (we didn't even make it there) is also about an hour's drive.

The canopy tour is a must do, and we definitely recommend Rotorua Canopy Tours! Book well in advance, as this all fills up quickly. We did the Ultimate Canopy Tour (highly recommended) and it was booked solid even on a rainy winter day.

We definitely had weather, and at some point the wind was strong enough that the guides were debating whether or not to stop the tour and hike out. We got news of a downed tree on the access road. Luckily, the winds died down and we could do the full tour.

Canopy Tours
Your Truly

They are however prepared, and provide everything you need. In winter you will be able to get rain coats and gloves from them, and you are harnessed up and all. 

Tip: take the gloves..., no really, take the gloves!!

We did ask the guides for a good food suggestion and ended up in a sushi place, Izumi, which we ended up liking a lot. After doing lunch, we happily went back to our VRBO rental and relaxed. You'll have an entire afternoon after the tour, so you can squeeze in a lot more.

Next up, we did the Hell's Gate experience. If you do not like smelling like sulphur for a week, then do NOT go here... we booked it without that fun fact. We should have realized that we would smell like sulphur after reading to bring old swim trunks as the smell is hard to get out of the clothes...

Hell's Gate
Volcanoes

But, we really liked it. We did the full package (Hell's Gate Experience) and spend a bunch of time at Hell's Gate doing the tour, the carving and the mud and sulphur baths. It is all well organized and a fun day. The mud baths are fun, and yes, you will smell like sulphur!

We also ate lunch at the cafe, which is relatively low cost and surprisingly good. The fries are excellent...

Taupo and Wai-O-Tapu

Our last adventure was a day trip to Taupo, and a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, which is amazing. We ended up doing these in the wrong order, starting with Taupo and ending in Wai-O-Tapu, just before closing. 

Do it right and leave early from Rotorua, drive to Wai-O-Tapu and try to do the entire walk (a couple of hours) or do some of the walking and take the bus to the lake and back. The guides said to take the boat tour and seemed totally sincere, as it showed some of the geology and gives you an idea of the volcanic activity and changes to the land.

Taupo, is a small town on a big lake. Summer promises a lot of water fun and activities, so if you go in summer, plan ahead and see what lake activities you want to do. We enjoyed lunch at yet another sushi place, and yes, we also liked this one! It's called Japan Deli Sushi.

On our way to Taupo we stopped at the glass blowing studio recommended in some of the local guide books. It's called Lava Glass, and I would skip it... It is essentially a store. If you want to see the glass blowing, you'll have to pay. Same with the sculpture garden.

Huka Falls
Azure Waters - Huka Falls

We do recommend Huka Falls! While not the largest, highest, falls, the color is amazing and the volume of water is spectacular. It is very accessible and you park right next to the bridge over the falls. We ended up parking at the Huka Falls Lookout, and from there (the picture above is taken from here) it is a short 10 minute walk to the bridge. Definitely worthwhile a stop.

Rotorua on Foot

Our VRBO was located just south of the CBD (Central Business District), and walking distance to the main shops and restaurants. Some highlights:

  • Eat Street - exactly what you think it is... a ton of restaurants, bound to be a lot of fun in summer
  • Kuirau Park - walking along the mud pools in a downtown park
  • Pack'nSave, The Warehouse and Countdown are the local super markets, all in walking distance of each other

We enjoyed watching a Fifa Women's World Cup game at The Pig & Whistle historic pub. Decent food, some good beer, and a nice atmosphere. I would however not recommend the Spareribs. 

Auckland Airport 

As the big hub into NZ, this is a bit different from Wellington's calm and quiet little airport. Same with the roads. Only traffic jam we had in almost 2 weeks was on our way to Auckland. So plan ahead and leave plenty time to get to the airport.

If you are dropping off your rental car, note that you have two options: domestic and international. Of course, we ended up in the wrong (domestic) one. In fact, the signs are so bad that we drove into international rental returns, but did not find the actual car return place... Might be us... but we ended up looping around and somehow then in the domestic return. It is however a 10 minute or less walk between the terminals, so nothing to stress out about.

Oh and there is a gas station really close to the airport. I would just gas up there and not do some of the prepay options.

Once parked, it is an airport... and since we flew Air New Zealand, lots of kiosks and stations to check in. Piece of cake!

Practical NZ Stuff

  • The Visa stuff is simple - get an NZeTA, which means: download the app, scan your passports, pay, and you should be good to. Visit their website to read the details.
  • We flew Sydney - Christchurch - Wellington, because it saved us a ton of money. Since Christchurch was our immigration stop, count in the time to get allowed into the country and get your bags and haul them to the departures check in counter... It is NZ, so all relaxed, but still it does take some time
  • Driving and gassing up:
    • Right-hand drive, so just keep that in mind. We used to check in each morning with the family and say: driving on the left side. And then I used "Turn Right - Stay Wide" to remind me of the wide turn.
    • Most roads are two lanes, not a lot of highways, so you'll be driving 80 - 100 kilometers per hour on most road trips
    • In winter, look for road closures, especially the Dessert Road (route 1 - east of Tongariro National Park) is prone to closure due to bad weather
    • Gassing up, your US credit card may not work at the pump. Just go inside, and they may ask you to pre-pay. You typically cannot just say "gas up". So just pick a number in NZ$, and make it high enough, as gas is not cheap
    • International license - we used Hertz and they were happy with our California license. No need - in our case - for an international license
  • Wellington Transportation - BUS
    • Bus, bus, bus! Visit Metlink for fares, routes, and much more. The buses are clean, drivers are courteous, take cash (wow!), etc.
    • At the airport buy a Snapper card if you plan to use the bus a lot. It will also allow you to take the Airport Express to downtown. Look for the little "ATM looking Snapper vending machine" in the arrival hall
  • Paying - almost everything is paid electronically... we did have some cash, but used maybe NZ$40 in 13 days.
  • Phones - either get an e-sim, or rely on lots of free wifi across the country. Wellington has free wifi in its downtown area
That's all for now. If you go, enjoy New Zealand. It is laid back and an amazing place to do an active vacation.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What to do in Pechon, Cantabria - Northern Spain

Purple as the Provence: Heather in Limburg

Day Trips around Pechon - Cantabria, including Llanes, El Soplao, Santillana del Mar and more