48 hours in Waikato: Rotorua & Waitomo, NZ

You know you’re a powerlifter when you get off work at 1:00pm to avoid weekend traffic, but insist on training before leaving town. Then end up in rush hour at 4:30pm anyway.

Or at least that’s how things go when Brett and I plan a road trip.

After driving 7 hours North of Wellington (including traffic halts), Brett and I checked into our AirBNB (a lovely place called Tui Rest at a fantastic price of $65NZD/night). Regardless of our bedtime, we only had a weekend away and woke up early on Saturday to check out the tourist town of Rotorua in the Waikato region of New Zealand.

Fun fact: Wellington City only has one Starbucks, so I’m not ashamed to say that we made a beeline for Rotorua’s Starbucks on Saturday morning.

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Kuirau Park, Rotorua

Near the shops is Kuirau Park, which looks like a Jurassic Park movie set with its steaming vents and bubbling ponds. I think this is the best thing about Rotorua – only slightly ruined when you get the occasional whiff of sulfur gas.

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Skyline Rotorua

Brett and his family vacationed in Rotorua when he was a kid. And although the pungent smell of rotten eggs didn’t rustle up any childhood memories for me – our visit to Skyline Rotorua did the trick.

Skyline Rotorua is essentially an outdoor “Fun Park” (I made that word up). After a gondola ride to the top, there’s a luge track, swing, zip line and petting zoo (in case you still haven’t seen enough sheep – because I know I sure haven’t!). Oh, and there’s also a massive mountain bike park, if you’re into that crazy stuff.

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We tackled the luge and the swing – both of which were terrifying for a risk-averse person like myself.

Despite my reservations, I went flying (or as Brett would say, “rode the brakes” – I’ll leave you to believe who’s more accurate) down the luge track anyway. I do these things for Brett.

And for the record: If you push the handlebars all the way forward, they essentially act as an Emergency Break. Trust me on this one.

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I’m still laughing at the people who messaged Brett on Instagram asking how long he was in Las Vegas for.

The “swing” was something else. Perhaps it’s best that I didn’t know what was going to happen before I got strapped in, hauled to the top of a giant slingshot, and pulled the cord. I’ve never screamed so much in my life – but I’d do it again!

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This baby goes 150km/hr and swings out over the cliff, overlooking Rotorua below.

After the risky adventures, we made our way back into town, ate some of the worst sushi I’ve ever had, and made a pit stop at the liquor store before heading back to the AirBNB for a mid-afternoon beer and lounging session.

Sulfur Springs: Kerosene Creek

Around 6:00pm we made the decision not to go to Hell’s Gate (mud and sulfur pools), which I had dreamed about since we decided to move to New Zealand in March 2016. But, as usual, Brett made a good observation: We were about to pay $100 to sit in a mud pool with dozens of other people, then going into a giant sulfur bathtub with a dozen more.

So instead, we experienced the “giant bathtub” scenario free-of-charge by making our way to Kerosene Creek, located about 25 minutes from Rotorua (easily searchable on Google Maps).

I didn’t take any photos, but I did enjoy the hot springs and even more so relished in the fact that I experienced bathing with the masses for free.

Waitomo: Ruakuri Cave

I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I will no longer go out of my way to do “Bucket List” items that I’m not actually keen on. And when I saw a photo on TripAdvisor of dozens of tourists crammed into wooden boats like sardines in a dark cave – that was the end of my desire for the Waitomo Glowworm Cave tour.

HOWEVER. Upon further (highly technical) online research, I determined that Ruakuri Cave would best fulfill our desires. So on Sunday morning, we hopped in the car and drove 2.5 hours to Waitomo – a very ‘scenic’ route for heading back to Wellington.

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Caffeine pit stop at the Rotorua Farmers’ Market before leaving town.

Unlike the traditional glowworm tour, the Ruakuri Cave is a 90-minute walking tour. And although there are only a few glowworms to be seen, I was seriously impressed by the cave formations, the history of the cave, and the level of care taken to create such an incredible experience. Also a bonus: This tour has a max capacity of 18 people, and allows cameras (just don’t be annoying and blind your fellow tourists with the flash).

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Glowworm threads! Cool but gross.

Arriving at the destination is slightly underwhelming, but I can guarantee that when you leave the parking lot, you won’t stop thinking about the hidden caves you’re passing by on the drive home.

Our tour guide also pointed out the Ruakuri Cave Trail, which is *free*, located directly next to the tour parking lot, and allows you to see more of the caves in the area. I’ll definitely plan for a more thorough exploration the next time we’re in the area.

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In summary, if you only have 48 hours to spare, there’s no reason not to take a quick road trip across the North Island, fly through the air at 150km/hr, chill out in a natural hot spring, and peruse through an ominous cave in the middle of nowhere.

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And we always make time for photos with a giant kiwi bird.

48 hours in the Art Deco capital: Napier, New Zealand

The past few weekends were spent lounging around the house, visiting cafes and eating copious amounts of wings and fries. Now, I’m all for R&R but I also get a bit ‘squirrely’ when I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything. This past weekend we switched things up and drove four hours up the North Island to Napier for a weekend away from the city. *Note that it took five hours because of my superb navigation skills.

Napier

Napier is a unique city – and much bigger than I’d anticipated. Part of the City Centre was rebuilt after a massive earthquake in the 1930s, and now boasts an abundance of Art Deco buildings from that era. Now there’s your history lesson for the day.

Accommodation

We spent two nights at The Nautilus on Marine Parade. Our perch from the second floor was stunning: unobstructed views of the ocean and Cape Kidnappers in the distance. We were just far enough from the City Centre to avoid the crowds of tourists, but just close enough to walk to dozens of restaurants and the bike shop where we began our wine tour on Saturday morning.

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View from our balcony to the ocean

The Vineyard Tour

I wasn’t initially sold on the idea of biking from vineyard to vineyard, but decided it would be a good idea to burn some calories while drinking a lot of wine. Brilliant, right? So we booked ourselves in with Napier City Bike Tours on the “Country to Coast” self-guided tour. I think this was a great package: we were dropped off about 20 minutes out of the city at 10:30am, bike 16km and stopped at six cellar doors, then we were picked up and shuttled back to the city at 4:00pm.

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View from Black Barn Vineyard

Any reservations I’d had about biking around the vineyards quickly disappeared. This was an excellent way to spend a Saturday: The sun was shining and temps were around 25 degrees all day. Each vineyard was unique and special in its own way – differentiated by their host, scenery, wine offerings, and history of the vineyard. We visited:

Above: Te Mata and Beach House

Our wine choices

We purchased wine from both Te Mata and Akarangi. The funny thing about wine is that there are two types I will always avoid: Shiraz and Chardonnay. They just don’t do it for me (I actually had to dump out my Chardonnay tasting at Black Barn).

However… Our favourite wine at Te Mata was a Syrah (related to the Shiraz grape) and the Chardonnay from Akarangi. The fact that I bought Chardonnay speaks volumes for this vineyard. We learned from the owner that they’d produced wine in previous years, shut down the business for family reasons, and have only just started producing wine again since late 2016. Their wines are currently online and at their cellar door (which happens to be a church, relocated from nearby Clive). Akarangi was certainly my top pick for location, chill vibes and beautiful wines.

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Akarangi Cellar Door

Note: Another bonus of the tour is that you can leave your purchases at the vineyard and the shuttle driver will collect them before meeting you at your pick-up location. That was a much-appreciated perk.

The unexpected highlight

Near Te Mata vineyard is a café called Chalk ‘n’ Cheese. Do not bypass this place. We stopped in for a cheeseboard and while choosing our selection had a full cheese-tasting experience. I cannot recall the exact cheese we decided on but everything was incredible – and the woman conducting the tasting was very knowledgeable. She also had a very dry sense of humor, which came through when Brett remarked that one of the cheeses would “taste good in a toastie” and her reply to me (with an eyeroll) was, “I am so sorry for this Kiwi man.”

We sat outside underneath beautiful, ripe fig trees. I know they were ripe because one plummeted down onto my arm and exploded with fig juice. A man, whom I’m assuming is a regular, looked at me and said “Oh, you got figged on!”.

Yes, yes I did.

Aside from the fig incident, this was the perfect pit stop on our bike tour, and I couldn’t recommend it enough for anyone in the area.

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Dining out in Napier

After arriving back in the city we went on an evening bike ride to find some food. Honestly, we just wanted pizza. While we were cycling around the “non-tourist” area of town looking for Hell Pizza, we came across Dough Pizzeria. It looked much more inviting than the mob of hungry takeaway patrons at Hell, so we parked our bikes outside of Dough and went in. The wood fire pizza was delicious and reminded me of a place back in Newfoundland that serves authentic, Italian-style pizza (or so I assume since I’ve never been to Italy). I opted for the Mediterranean simply for the black olives, and Brett ordered a chicken pizza. Both were delicious and devoured in minutes (no joke). I think we went to bed at 9:30pm with our carb coma, and it was so worth it.

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We headed back to Wellington early Sunday morning, and it’s incredible how much we were able to see while in Napier for just two nights. I can definitely see myself heading back there in the summer months to visit more vineyards, bike along the trails and get consumed in the relaxed lifestyle once again.