Greetings from the bottom of the world, or at least, the bottom of the globe.
My flight from Sydney to Wellington on Air New Zealand was great, even in coach. I landed around 11:30pm and grabbed a cab to the hotel where my friend Kay had gotten us a room. Kay and I both work for ESPN and she had been in Melbourne, Australia for the past 2 weeks covering the Australian Open. When we realized a few months ago that we were going to be in the same part of the world, we decided to join forces and travel together for a week!
We had been communicating via e-mail for the past few weeks while she was in Melbourne and I was everywhere, trying to figure out where we wanted to go in New Zealand and what we wanted to do. We knew we wanted to spend a few days in Auckland and I was able to score us a room at the Hilton Auckland with my Hilton points.
Since I booked that room, I left it up to Kay to book the room for our two nights in Wellington. She decided on the lovely Mercure Wellington and I arrived just after midnight.
The one thing I definitely wanted to do was check out the New Zealand wine country, specifically the Marlborough region where they make the Sauvignon Blancs that are my absolute favorite. Wellington is the nearest city to that region so we decided to make that our home base for two nights and then drive the length of the North Island up to Auckland taking in the sights along the way.
We coordinated the details fairly efficiently considering the distance between us. Kay booked the rental car for touring wine country (which had to be booked on the South Island) and I took care of booking the car for the drive up to Auckland.
You have to take a ferry to get from Wellington at the southern tip of the North Island to Marlborough at the northern tip of the South Island. You can book ferry tickets online so once we figured out which ferries we wanted to take, we each booked that online.
After getting very little sleep thanks to my late arrival the night before, we woke up at 6:30am to get to the ferry terminal to check in for our 8:30am ferry. The ferry ride between islands takes three hours and it is an absolutely gorgeous trip.
The 3 hours flew by and before we knew it we were docking on the South Island. We picked up our car and since Kay had rented it, she did the driving honors for the day. She had driven on the wrong side of the road before so it didn’t take her as long to get used to it as it did me in South Africa.
We had a basic map of the area to work with but it didn’t list a lot of the smaller roads so it took us a little while to find the area we were looking for but at least the scenery on the drive was beautiful while we were lost.
We eventually found one of the wineries I wanted to visit, Montana Brancott Vineyards (sold under the name Brancott in the States) and it had a restaurant so we decided to stay for lunch, which turned out to be fantastic. We tasted some wines in their cellar and then moved on to a few other vineyards on the more detailed map they were able to give us.
I have to say, Napa Valley is beautiful but Marlborough is just amazing. Though the wine region there is very small by comparison, I enjoyed it so much more since all of my favorites are made there. And we were able to taste a number of other wines that are not available in the States.
All in all, a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
We had originally booked the last ferry of the night back to Wellington (at 10:00pm) not knowing how long we would need to visit all the wineries. We quickly realized that since it was a Sunday, all of the wineries were closing at 5:00pm and we had pretty much seen it all by then anyway. We knew there was also a 6:00pm ferry so we decided to see if we could get back to the ferry terminal in time to catch that one.
We made it back to the terminal in record time and boarded the ferry just in time. We had dinner on the ferry and were back to the hotel by 9:30pm.
Day 2 – Wellington to Auckland with a Stop in Rotorua
The next morning after a good night’s sleep we were ready to hit the road for Auckland.
When we originally decided to make this drive, we thought it was only about 4 ½ hours. When Kay got to Wellington and asked at the hotel, we found out it was more like 9 hours…oops. But we really wanted to see some of the countryside and there was lots to see along the way so we stuck with the plan to drive.
Since I had rented the car today, I did the driving. I rented an automatic this time and it was definitely easier.
I’m not sure words can adequately do justice to the beauty of the New Zealand countryside. If you’ve seen the Lord of the Rings movies, you have a good idea of what it looks like. I haven’t seen them but on my Air New Zealand flight the in-flight entertainment was a special about movies made in New Zealand and they showed scenes from the movies. Much of those movies were filmed near the Wellington area.
The drive consists of ocean, mountains, lakes, rolling green hills, and of course, sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. The closest thing I can relate to it is the Irish countryside (maybe that’s just because of the sheep!).
But New Zealand is even more stunning, and much larger and more diverse than Ireland.
About 4 hours into the drive, we passed through the lakeside town of Taupo and decided to stop for lunch. It was almost halfway in the drive and it was the biggest town we had come to so far with the most food options. After lunch we continued the drive up to the town of Rotorua.
Rotorua New Zealand is the country’s adventure capital and there are a number of crazy things to do there – only one of which is bungy jumping (a New Zealand original sport).
Zorbing in Rotorua
Kay had done some research about things like jet boating, zorbing and a number of others in the area. She was planning on going back there after I left for Fiji on Wednesday and trying out some of them.
I had actually heard of the zorbing before and thought it sounded fun but I wasn’t sure how crazy it would be. I told Kay we should stop there on our way up and check it out and I might do it with her. Of course, I declined to commit until I had actually seen it.
We got to Rotorua and found the zorbing place without any trouble. We stood off to the side watching other people Zorb for a bit and it was actually quite hysterical. The basic idea is to climb into a huge plastic bubble and let someone hurl you down the side of a mountain.
Zorbing was, of course, invented in New Zealand – where else do they have the time to think of such things? After watching for a little while, we walked inside the office to see what our options were.
There are two ways to “zorb”, one is dry and one is wet.
Unfortunately, the dry version – where you are strapped into the zorb and rolled down the hill – was unavailable due to the winds today. That left the “Hydro Zorb” option where they fill the zorb with water and you (and up to 2 others) slosh your way to the bottom of the hill at a relatively high rate of speed.
We were a little disappointed and at this point were ready to rule it out. After all, we still had 3-4 hours left to drive and we didn’t really want to do it soaking wet.
Still, we went back outside to the viewing deck and sat and watched for a while longer. At this point, Kay was ready to go but I was still giving the idea serious thought. The longer I sat there and watched other people land at the bottom of the hill and pour themselves out of the zorb laughing hysterically, the more fun it looked.
I kept thinking that we had gone out of our way to get here and that we would regret it later if we didn’t do it. And what the hell, we’re in New Zealand!
So, I asked Kay if she would go with me if I did it. Since she had been talking about zorbing for two days now and had told me that I was definitely going to do it (when I was skeptical), she was in no position to wuss-out. So she told me that she wouldn’t make me go alone if I wanted to do it.
I smiled and said, “Okay, let’s do it!“
We went to the car and retrieved our bathing suits from our luggage and went inside the office to pay and get clothes (they give you shorts and a t-shirt to wear over your swimsuit). After we changed, they put us in the back of a truck for the very bumpy ride up the mountain to the “launching area”.
When you get to the top of the hill, they instruct you to dive into the zorb (and therefore, into the water) head first. I let Kay go first; this was after all her big idea to begin with.
After diving in, we were already soaking wet and we hadn’t even gone down the hill yet. Though it looks like you would be able to see out of the zorb, they are too opaque to see anything but blurry colors. We later decided this was a good thing since it kept us from seeing just how high up we were.
Once safely inside the Zorb, they tell you to stand up and start walking forward when they say “go!” to start the ball rolling (literally). We were a bit scared at this point and I asked what happens if we don’t walk forward?
Turns out, they push you.
We elected to walk, and seconds later we were hurtling down the side of the hill…at breakneck speed.
It was impossible to stand up once we started rolling and even more impossible to stop laughing as we sloshed around inside the zorb with water splashing everywhere – elbows and knees flying.
Finally, we stopped rolling when we hit the fence (hard) at the bottom of the hill and then slid out of the zorb – feet first this time (again, I made Kay go first). It was a fun ride and I would definitely recommend it for anyone going to New Zealand, it is one of those truly New Zealand kind of experiences.
Luckily, they gave us towels and there were hair dryers in the changing room so we were able to get pretty again before getting back in the car and continuing the drive up to Auckland. Kay volunteered to drive the rest of the way and after driving 6 hours and rolling down the side of a hill, I was more than happy to oblige.
Unfortunately, we hit some traffic as we neared Auckland and the last portion of the drive took more like 4 hours making the entire drive from start to finish almost 11 hours (including the zorbing and lunch stops, of course).
Finally, we arrived in Auckland and found the Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf in the Viaduct. The hotel was architecturally stunning. It’s a brand new Hilton property built on the end of a wharf and designed in the shape of a ship. If you look at it from a distance, it actually looks like a ship sitting in the harbor.
It was getting dark by the time we checked in so we changed quickly and headed out on the wharf to find someplace for dinner and catch the last few minutes of the sunset. We found a great place for dinner and had a fabulous meal of mussels and lamb before calling it a night.
We’d had a very full day and wanted to get an early start exploring Auckland the next day.