Several years after visiting the South Island, I finally made it back to explore the northern half. From everything I had heard on my first trip to New Zealand as well as the numerous photos I had seen in National Geographic, I already knew it would be a beautiful trip. However, I was not expecting to be so impressed by the cosmopolitan city of Auckland that was filled with cultural things to do and had an impressive wharf filled with yachts. I also had an amazing time visiting some of the most famous spots around the island that had initially sparked my interest in the trip.
-Wine Tours- the visit to the North Island started out with one of my favorite pastimes, drinking wine. Up and coming on the international wine scene, New Zealand started building an outstanding reputation for its Marlborough region which has produced world-class Sauvignon Blanc. It has continued to expand its repertoire of producing excellent wines throughout the various regions on both islands. There are numerous vineyard tours and wine tastings offered around New Zealand and I found an excellent tour on Viator that included tastings at several vineyards, lunch from a local organic cafe, and a tour of the rugged coastline and famous black sand beaches. The celebrated Sauvignon Blanc lived up to the high standard that the guide set before we began as he explained the numerous awards that the vineyards had earned. There was also some fantastic Syrah from Hawkes Bay and Malbec from Turanga Creek that were offered during the tastings. After stopping for a delicious lunch of all locally sourced food at the Provenance of Matua Valley, we drove along the scenic coastline and hiked down to the Muriwai black sand beach before continuing our boozy afternoon at Matua Wines, which was actually the very first wine company in New Zealand to produce Sauvignon Blanc.
-Waiheke Island- after spending the full first day doing the wine tour around the outskirts of Auckland, we almost skipped visiting Waiheke which is a small island off the coast. However, it received rave reviews from several others that were on the wine tour the previous day and was ranked the fifth-best destination in the world to visit by Lonely Planet in 2016. Since it was only a 45 min ferry ride out of the city, there was no excuse not to go. Waiheke is a small island that consists primarily of large vineyards and one sleepy town with a few restaurants and shops scattered around making it easily accessible by foot or bicycle. After doing several wine tastings at some of the most popular vineyards we headed back to the first that we had visited that morning, Cable Bay Vineyards. The winery simply had one of the best views of the surrounding water and offered giant comfortable bean bags to relax on. After ordering a few bottles of our favorites, we spent the afternoon soaking up the sunshine and sipping fantastic reds and whites while enjoying one the most incredible views of Auckland in the far distance. It was definitely one of the best located vineyards I have visited and had some of the finest New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc!
-Glow Worms- one of my absolute obsessions (outside of tacos) is National Geographic's Planet Earth series. It is the only show that is downloaded on my laptop and is my go to anytime I'm on a long flight. On the 'Cave' episode from the original series, they explored glow worm grottos where tiny worms dangle from the ceiling. The worms bioluminescence is caused by a reaction between chemicals from the glowworms and the oxygen in the air causing them to glow which attracts insects that get stuck in their sticky lines. Two years earlier I had visited a small grotto in Springbrook National Park in Australia, but I still wanted to see the larger caves in NZ that had been featured on Planet Earth which looked far more magical. On a tour that was primarily designed to appeal to nerds- offering a tour of the grottos and the Shire, my dream finally came true. The group carefully descended down the dark stairs without lights and gathered on a platform to board small boats. Using ropes that were attached to the ceiling to pull the boats through the water, each tour guide loaded up a handful of people before pulling them off to wind through the caves. The initial excitement at the first large patch of glow worms only increased as we went deeper into the caves. The guide explained about the species as we wound through staring up in awe at the millions of glow worms filling the dark cave ceiling which looked like a starry night sky. Since no cameras were allowed in order to maintain the darkness, we were only allowed to pull out our phones and snap some photos near the exit of the caves. As one of the world's largest glowworm grotto, this is absolutely a must visit destination on the North Island!
-Hobbiton- as a huge Lord of the Rings fan, I have wanted to visit the Shire since I first fell in love with it between the pages of the Hobbit years ago. How could you not with it's charming hills filled with happy go lucky inhabitants? I wanted to visit New Zealand as soon as I discovered that the movie was filmed in the rolling hills in the North. After a few hours drive from Auckland, the landscape was increasingly becoming more scenic and the excitement was palatable with the other geeks on the bus who passed the time quizzing each other on LOTR facts and trying to remember the names of all the dwarves on the initial expedition. When we finally made it, we all switched from the tour bus to a small shuttle that delivered us to the gate of Hobbiton. It far exceeded my expectations for a movie set! There is a dedicated staff that maintains the little village and all of the hobbit holes including the little flower and vegetable gardens throughout the Shire. It legitimately felt like Hobbits lived there as we walked around door to small door.
The amount of detail involved in making the Shire look realistic was impressive. I wanted to stop and take photos at every new spot, but the tour guide kept us briskly moving along. Eventually we made it to Bag End, Bilbo Baggin's house, and the guide gave us an example of the extremes that the production team had gone to when building the set. Peter Jackson, the director of all the movies was exceptionally attentive to details and was extremely particular about the large oak tree behind Bag End on the hill. The tree overlooking Bilbo's house was actually brought in from near Matamata and every branch was numbered and cut before being transported and then eventually bolted back together (it weighs over 26 tons). After examining the final product, Mr. Jackson decided he did not like the color of the leaves and imported artificial leaves from Taiwan which were individually painted and then wired onto the dead tree. This kind of careful detail is part of what makes Hobbiton feel so real! Although the Hobbit hole doors do not actually open up to homes since the interior shots were filmed further south, the Shire looks and feels exactly the way I had imagined that summer years ago when reading the Tolkien book for the first time. We continued on down the hill to The Green Dragon Inn where they served us large pints of beer and had bins of hobbit style clothes to dress up and take pictures in. By the time the tour guide gave last call and started rounding everyone up to board the bus, I still was dragging my feet not wanting to leave this magical little place. Of all filming locations that I have visited, this was by far the best and most realistic!!
--Auckland Restaurants- downtown Auckland is brimming with a variety of restaurants and bars on every street with a surprising number of options. As usual, Yelp helped find a restaurant close by the hotel that had high ratings. The Occidental was described as a Belgian Beer Cafe with a superb food menu featuring authentic Belgian cuisine along with traditional pub favourites and late night eats. After a long day of travel, we were starving and started by ordering flights of beer and a large platter of oysters per the server's recommendation. Although the waterfront also offered restaurants with delicious meals, and the organic lunch of lamb on the wine tour was simply amazing, the Occidental was superb and we ended up going back the final night and ordering almost an identical meal. Over-all the food in the city was high quality, reasonably priced, and had fantastic customer service!
Hostel Average Cost: $40
Currency: New Zealand Dollar
Drink: Since half the trip was spent doing tours of vineyards, it probably goes without saying that wine is the recommended beverage. Even if you are not a fan of white wine, the Sauvignon Blanc from the region is outstanding.
Food: As one of the highest ratios of sheep per member of the population in the world, there is an abundance of local quality lamb. Any meal offering lamb on the menu is probably an excellent choice. However, as a coastal city Auckland also offers a large variety of seafood restaurants.
Electric Outlet: Type I- also used in Australia
Visa: Not required