We’ve been home for 4 days now. It simultaneously feels like the trip flew by and like we’ve been gone forever. Either way, it’s safe to say that this has been the best vacation of my life. I’ve been to over 25 countries, and it’s safe to say that New Zealand is my favorite. I’ve always said it’s hard to pick a favorite country because each has it’s own allure, whether it be the flavorful food (Italy, Thailand), the exotic culture (Vietnam, Indonesia), the kind people (Germany), the breathtaking architecture (Prague, Budapest or anywhere in Europe really), ancient ruins (Cambodia, Belize) or the gorgeous landscape (Costa Rica). New Zealand took it home in most of those categories and got bonus points for being incredibly easy to travel in, very safe and perhaps most importantly for someone with the bladder the size of a pea, more fully-stocked public restrooms than you could imagine. It’s safe to say that Mike and I will be back to explore even more.
The last few days of our trip were pretty action packed and also included a fair amount of driving. One thing I didn’t mention about the driving here (besides the fact that it’s on the left side of the road) is that nearly all of the highways are simply two lane highways which run straight through each town along the way. The speed limit is at most 100 kilometers an hour (we got really good at doing math – I usually convert using some multiple of a 10k which as a runner I know is 6.2 miles) but in most towns it can slow to 50k or so. On top of it, a lot of the roads are windy, so the going is slow (no traffic though!).
Luckily, the scenery is entertainment in itself and it seemed like around each bend I would be mesmerized by another fantastic view, whether it be rolling verdant hills that are such a bright shade of green you can’t believe they’re real, a yellow flower dotted field full of grazing sheep or deer, a canopy of gnarled jungle-like branches, or a stunning cliff alongside a roaring river or windy blue ocean.
On the 27th of December we drove a port on the top of the South Island and hopped onto a 3 hour ferry to the North Island. The ferry itself was unremarkable but the views were pretty great (surprise surprise). I had hastily booked us a hostel in Wellington, the Capitol of New Zealand and our ferry’s final destination, without reading the reviews. We were staying one night and I needed something cheap and close to all the action with parking, and this hostel (Park in the City) seemed to fit all of those criteria.
When we arrived, we were horrified by the state of the hostel – there were what appeared to be crack dealers hanging outside the front door and in the dank lobby and a female receptionist with a thick foreign accent greasy hair greeted us coldly. Our room was almost as bad as the lobby (we later read that the elevator often gets stuck so it’s a good thing that we were on the 2nd floor), and smelled like someone had burned incense to get rid of a scent which resembled what I’d imagine a house built in 1850 and left untouched for 150 years would smell like. This was the only hostel I booked where we had a shared bathroom and unfortunately for women, this was a communal restroom to be shared with the men on the floor as well. The restroom was disgustingly dirty and we almost immediately decided we would spend as little time as possible in this shit hole of a hostel.
We ended up having a nice evening in Wellington, making up for the cheap cost of the room by going to an absolutely delicious italian dinner at swanky restaurant and then heading out for drinks afterward, ending the night with a shared street waffle. We went straight to bed when we got back to the hostel but were woken up at 3 a.m. by a few guys loudly partying in the hallway. Just before I was about to tell them to shut up, one of them punched a picture frame on the wall and it shattered. At first I thought this might mean they’d go away, but instead, they came back with a vacuum cleaner and were yelling and hollering for longer. Mike came out and asked them to keep it down and they shouted at him, blaming him for tracking glass into the communal bathroom. Needless to say, as soon as we woke up the next morning we packed up and got out of there! Later I read the reviews online and realized that we weren’t the only ones who would rank this hostel as the worst we had ever stayed at!
We found a yummy place called Fidel’s (named after Castro) for breakfast on the infamous Cuba Street in Wellington and then spent the majority of the afternoon driving to our next destination, the Tongariro National Park. When we arrived at our hotel (which thankfully was far more clean and accommodating), we arranged our transport to and from the hike the next day, took a walk and had dinner and called it and early night.
New Zealand has quite a few “great walks” (the Milford Track being one of them), but most of them are designed as multiple day hikes. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is known as the best single day hike in the country. It is a 19.4 KM trek (about 12.5 miles) with a few optional bonus tracks, one of which we took to the summit of Tongariro, the formerly active volcano for which the track is named). In total, we hiked 14 miles over about 8 hours with about 3,000 feet of climbing. It was a challenging hike but not much, if at all, harder than the Mckinnon pass day of the Milford Track. The biggest difference was that we were NOT at all alone on this trek, as we often were on the Milford and basically every other hike we’ve done on the trip. At times we felt like one of millions of ants crawling over the Mars-like terrain. The views on the hike were spectacular and unlike anything I’d ever seen so it was worth the lemming feel.
The best part was the optional 3k out and back hike to the summit that very few others took. It was also the most dangerous of portion of the track and there were a few times where I was very aware that one misstep could send me sliding over a cliff and not coming climbing back out. We celebrated our adventure that evening with a great meal at The Station which was formerly a train station, now converted into a fine dining restaurant.
On December 30th, we began the longest day of our life (literally – it would be 45 hours in length). We left Tongariro in the morning and arrived in time for our 12 p.m. Waitomo Caves adventure. When telling others were headed to New Zealand, pretty much every person told us we must visit the Waitomo glow worm caves. I had found a tour company which not only allowed you to see the constellation-like glow worms from within a cave, but was 5 hours of adventure starting with a 105 foot abseil/rappel down a tunnel into the cave and included tubing down the underground river and traversing it on foot.
The rappelling was quite a rush and definitely harder than I remembered it being. The highlight was definitely the underground zip line!! I was the first to go and had no idea what to expect – I got hooked up to the line and we all were instructed to turn off our headlamps. The cave ahead of me was dark but also illuminated with glow worms. The guide pushed me off and I flew into the darkness down the cable, screaming and laughing until I hit the end and was flung back. It was a rush and SO fun!!! The tour included commentary, snacks and the finale was climbing up two waterfalls and through various small caverns to finally emerge on solid ground again.
Luckily the tour concluded hot showers, soup and bagels and the opportunity to purchase our photos on a Zip drive and we were on our way by 5 p.m. to make the final trek to Auckland International airport. We stopped along the way for dinner at a small town and then dropped the rental car off and checked into our 12:30 PM December 31st flight, which arrived in Honolulu at 10 a.m. on December 30th. Time travel is possible thanks to the international date line! We will arrive in San Diego at 10 p.m. on the 30th. What a day!
Mike and I have both agreed that the Milford Track guided tour by Ultimate Hikes was the highlight of the trip, but we can’t choose another favorite. Everything was just great about this trip. We literally had 3 mediocre meals the entire time – every time we ate, it was delicious. Every city we went to had well-marked hikes everywhere (and along all the roads we took to get there were more opportunities to hike or pull out for a scenic photo) so adventure with a view was always at our fingertips. The wine and craft beer was plentiful. The people were welcoming and generous (at Mount Cook a guy literally stopped his car and got out and asked if he could take a photo of us when we he saw us taking a selfie! The photo he took is the first on this blog post). I also fell in love with all the sheep. I want one for a pet (fun fact- there are about 2x as many sheep in New Zealand as there are people). Of course the travel is always better when you’re doing it with someone you love and Mike is my favorite travel partner. All of the beauty and adventure wouldn’t have been as sweet without him.
So that’s it…now that the bucket list has been checked…where do we go from here?! For once, I’m actually not already planning my next big trip. Just waiting to see where the road takes us.