New Zealand: Adventures from the Bottom of the World
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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 land around 11:30pm and grab a cab to the hotel where my friend Kay has already gotten us a room.
Kay and I both work for ESPN and she’s 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’ve been communicating via e-mail for the past few weeks while she was in Melbourne and I was everywhere. Just trying to figure out where we want to go in New Zealand and what we want 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 that’s where I arrived just after midnight.
Things to do in New Zealand
The one thing I definitely want to do while we’re here is 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 the Marlborough region. So that’s where we decide to make our home base for the first two nights. Then, we’ll drive the length of the North Island up to Auckland and take in the sights along the way.
We coordinate the details fairly efficiently considering the distance between us. Kay books the rental car for touring wine country (which has to be booked on the South Island). And I take care of booking the car for the drive up to Auckland.
From Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island, getting to Marlborough at the northern tip of the South Island requires a ferry ride. Ferry tickets can be booked online so we had each booked that in advance.
The ferry to the South Island
After getting very little sleep thanks to my late arrival last night, we awake 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 fly by and before we know it we’re docking on the South Island.
We pick up our car and since Kay rented it, she’ll do the driving honors for today. Fortunately, she’s driven on the “wrong” side of the road before. So it doesn’t take her as long to get used to it as it took me in South Africa last year.
We have a basic map of the area to work with. But it doesn’t list a lot of the smaller roads so it takes us a little while to find the area we’re looking for. However, the scenery on the drive is beautiful while we’re lost so we don’t mind the detour.
Exploring Marlborough wine country
We eventually find one of the wineries I want to visit, Montana Brancott Vineyards (sold under the name Brancott in the States). It had a restaurant and we’re starving so we decide to stay for lunch. It turns out to be fantastic decision.
After lunch, we taste some wines in their cellar and then move on to a few other vineyards. Thankfully, they provide us with a more detailed map for the rest of the journey.
I have to say, Napa Valley is beautiful but Marlborough is just amazing. Though the wine region here is very small by comparison, I enjoy it so much more since all of my favorite wines are made here. We are even 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.
Originally, we booked the last ferry of the night back to Wellington (at 10:00pm) since we weren’t sure how long we’d need to visit all the wineries.
But we quickly realize that since it’s a Sunday, all of the wineries are closing at 5:00pm. And by that time we’ve pretty much seen it all anyway. There’s also a 6:00pm ferry so we decide to see if we can get back to the ferry terminal in time to catch that one.
We make it back to the terminal in record time, return the car, and board the ferry just in time. We have dinner on the ferry and are 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’re ready to hit the road for Auckland!
When we originally decided to make this drive up the length of the North Island, we thought it was only about 4 ½ hours.
However, when Kay got to Wellington yesterday and asked at the hotel, she discovers it’s more like 9 hours. Oops!
But we really want to see some of the countryside. And there are lots of things to see along the way so we stick with the plan to drive.
Since I rented the car today, I do all the driving. I rented an automatic this time and it’s definitely easier to manage driving on the other side when you don’t have to think about shifting.
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 what it looks like. I haven’t seen the movies but on my Air New Zealand flight the in-flight entertainment was a special about movies made in New Zealand. Many of the scenes in 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 pass through the lakeside town of Taupo and decide to stop for lunch. It’s almost halfway in the drive and it’s the biggest town we’ve come to so far with the most food options. After lunch we continue the drive up to the town of Rotorua.
Zorbing in Rotorua
Rotorua is New Zealand’s adventure capital and there are a number of crazy things to do here. One of those is bungy jumping (a New Zealand original sport) but there are other crazy things to try, too.
Kay did some research about things like jet boating, zorbing and a number of other activities in the area. She’s planning to go back to Rotorua after I leave for Fiji on Wednesday to try out some of them.
I’d heard of the zorbing before and thought it sounded fun but I wasn’t sure if I’d be up to it. So I tell Kay we should stop there on our way up and check it out. Who knows, I might actually do it with her.
Of course, I decline to commit until I have actually seen it.
We get to Rotorua and find the zorbing place without any trouble. We stand off to the side watching other people Zorb for a bit and it’s 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 walk inside the office to see what our options are.
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 – is unavailable due to the winds today. That leaves the “Hydro Zorb” option. For this one, 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 are a little disappointed and nearly ready to rule it out. After all, we still have 3-4 hours left to drive and we don’t really want to do it soaking wet.
Still, we go back outside to the viewing deck to sit and watch for a while longer. At this point, Kay is ready to hit the road. But for some reason, I’m still giving the idea serious thought.
The longer I sit there and watch, the more fun it looks. As other people land at the bottom of the hill and pour themselves out of the zorb, they are – without exception – laughing hysterically.
We’ve gone out of our way to get here. Won’t we regret it later if we don’t do it? And what the hell, we’re in New Zealand!
So, I ask Kay if she’ll go with me if I do it. Since she’s been talking about zorbing for two days now, she’s in no position to wuss-out.
She smiles and says, “Okay, let’s do it!“
We head to the car to retrieve our bathing suits from our luggage. Then we go inside the office to pay and get clothes (they give you shorts and a t-shirt to wear over your swimsuit). After we change, they put us in the back of a truck for the very bumpy ride up the mountain to the “launching area.”
When we get to the top of the hill, they instruct us 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 are already soaking wet and we haven’t even gone down the hill yet. Though we thought we’d be able to see out of the zorb, it’s too opaque to see anything but blurry colors. We later decide this is a good thing since it keeps us from seeing just how high up we are.
Once safely inside the Zorb, they tell us to stand up and start walking forward when they say “go!” This will start the ball rolling (literally). We are a bit scared at this point so I ask what happens if we don’t walk forward?
Spoiler alert: They push you.
We elect to walk, and seconds later we are hurtling down the side of the hill at breakneck speed.
It is impossible to stand up once we start rolling. And even more impossible to stop laughing as we slosh around inside the zorb with water splashing everywhere – elbows and knees flying.
Finally, we stop rolling when we hit the fence (hard) at the bottom of the hill. Then we slide out of the zorb – feet first this time (again, I make 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 give us towels and there are hair dryers in the changing room. So we’re able to get pretty again before getting back in the car and continuing the drive up to Auckland. Kay volunteers to drive the rest of the way and after driving 6 hours and rolling down the side of a hill, I’m more than happy to oblige.
Arrival in Auckland
Unfortunately, we hit some traffic as we near Auckland and the last portion of the drive takes more like 4 hours. Which makes the entire drive from start to finish almost 11 hours (including the zorbing and lunch stops, of course).
Finally, we arrive in Auckland and locate the Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf in the Viaduct. The hotel is architecturally stunning, 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’s getting dark by now so we change quickly and headed out on the wharf to find someplace for dinner and catch the last few minutes of the sunset. We discover a great place for dinner and have a fabulous meal of green-lipped mussels and lamb before calling it a night.
It’s been a very full day and we’re excited to get an early start exploring Auckland tomorrow!
What are those beautiful blue flowers in the Alan Scott Vinyards photo?
You know, I’m not sure. I did a quick google search and they might be called Russell Lupines. They were very pretty, though!
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