Rotorua

Rotorua, quite in the middle of the North Island, is one of the world’s most active geothermal and volcanic region, making it an interesting mix of bubbling natural hot springs, mud, lakes and giant redwood forests. It also happens to be the centre of New Zealand’s remaining maori culture, and a hub for activities ranging from mountain biking to rafting.

Steam from underground.
Steam from underground.

Rotorua is situated between several mountains: Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A maori gentleman I met at the spa told me that kiwis use the mountains as reference points, to distinguish which tribe you come from. Unfortunately as my trip was at first mainly for relaxing, and I didn’t have a car to get me out from the city, I missed out on the mountains and forests.

Rotorua information center.
Rotorua information center.

In the celebrations of Valentine’s day, I was lucky to have a chance to visit Hell’s Gate, quite similar geothermal activities and bubbling steamy and stinky hot pools as in the beloved town I once used to live in, Beppu, Japan. Right away when arriving to Rotorua the familiar odour of sulphur reminded me of the good ol’ times in Beppu, and as they also have different Hells, I felt right at home.

Mini volcano.
Mini volcano.

Hells gate is a thermal reserve, and a spa specialising in mud treatments and traditional massages. I was pampered and treated to an experience consisting of the mineral rich spa pools, a mud bath, and an hour long massage. Apparently after the treatments I looked relaxed, my skin was soft and I was pretty much spaghetti. The rest of the evening was pretty much soaking in my own spa (also a present), and sinking to sleep like a rock.

Spa pools all to myself.
Spa pools all to myself.

Had I had more time, still up and running maori village of Whakarewarewa would have been on my to-do list next. I wasn’t not that interested in the traditional maori dance (performed just for tourists), but more of their hangi food, steam boxes in the natural fumes, again very much like in Beppu. For some reason there were no restaurants in sight in Rotorua making this traditional (and cheap to make!) fare. It is rather sad to see McDonald’s and Subway everywhere, and not a problem to find pizza either, but when you try to find some original food, things get a tad tricky (unless sandwiches and fries are the traditional foods). So far I have not encountered any authentic kiwi food on my trip! I have noticed that they call sweet potato “kumara” and like to deep fry ‘em, and that kiwi burger might have lamb meat (why not, there’s 40 million sheep in the country!), but that’s about it. I wonder if I even get the chance! Anyway, Rotorua is a great destination for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation, some mineral rich water treatments, and spa life. Besides that, it’s a good base for adventuring to Hobbiton, Waitomo caves, and Taupo sky diving.

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Wellington

The trip from Nelson to Wellington was rather nice, with a few hours in the cute harbour town Picton, where the ferry across the Cook strait left from. The ferry trip, lasting almost 4 hours, was very much like the ones we have from Helsinki to Tallinn, the only differences being that on this route the water was distractingly clear blue, there was no drunk people and no tax free. Winner winner! We arrived in the capital city of NZ, population 204,000 just in time for the night market. Shuttle bus from the ferry to the train station, another bus to the hostel, and I was hungry for some street food.

Cruisin' to the North.
Cruisin’ to the North.

I read somewhere that Wellington is like the Melbourne of New Zealand, and I did see some similarities: loads of culture, events, street art, hip cool cafes, trendy restaurants. I enjoyed the night market vibes and a waterfront walk before heading to bed in another noisy snoring dorm.

Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Laneway with hip Soda shop and artisanal chocolate factory. Melbourne vibes!
Kids skipping.
Kids skipping.

Good thing about cool cities on the weekends is the markets. In the morning I ventured to 2, walking pretty much across town on this quest. Not really knowing what to do, I decided to invest in Weta Workshop tour, giving me more insight in the movie industry and the opportunity to see how the hell they made Lord of the Rings. The tour was very inspiring and interesting, and the temptation to take pictures was almost unbearable! I learned a lot about behind the scenes in such a short time, and seeing Sauron’s costume and weapon, as well as the other weaponry right there in front of me was pretty incredible. The old fangirl in me woke up instantly.

Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
Trolls greeting at the door of Weta Cave.
King Theodore's armour.
King Theodore’s armour.

After the tour and driving around Miramar and the lovely bay (and stalking Peter Jackson’s house by the sea), I decided to go to the Museum of New Zealand. 4 floors of exhibitions, I was exhausted and overfilled with information afterwards. There was another night market on, and the Chinese New Year fireworks and celebrations. I desperately
needed to charge all my electronics. Next morning, off to Rotorua.

Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand's movie productions.
Wellingwood, the heart of New Zealand’s movie productions.

Nelson

The biggest bus travel day was from Franz Josef Glacier to Nelson, a lovely town up on the north coast of the South Island. The 10.5 hour journey included several 30 minute stops, but for the most of the trip I was half unconscious in my snotty state, and on each stop came back to lie down on the bus pretty much straight after getting out. Great thing about the Intercity buses: they have never been so full that I would not have had the chance to take the last row to myself and actually lie down.

Pancake rocks at Punakaiki
Pancake rocks, Punakaiki

On the way to Nelson, the main stops were at Hokitika, Greymouth (the start or end point for the Trans Alpine train) and the famous Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki. I would have probably enjoyed all of the stops more had I been able to keep my eyes open without them getting watery within seconds. When we finally made our way to Nelson at 7.30, I was more than delighted to get a shuttle to the hostel.

Paradiso Backpackers is definitely an interesting accommodation option, that I can recommend to those traveling to Nelson. Besides free Wifi, you have a proper pool, sauna and what the Finns would call “palju”, also known as a spa tub, free breakfast and soup. The house looks like something from the tv show Charmed, and if you are lucky like I was you might find yourself sleeping almost on the roof. After the initial shock of climbing a fair long ladder to reach my mattress, I was rather content: way more privacy than on the bottom bunk!

Center of NZ.
Center of NZ.

Nelson is known as the gateway to the phenomenal Abel Tasman National Park, a wildlife wonderland offering secluded beaches, kayaking and hikes to the adventurous. Unfortunately, due to my condition (and lack of planning), I had to skip the national park, and opt for city sightseeing in stead. Nelson is a lovely small city, which is easily walked through in a short amount of time. I managed to find a Chinese garden, snapped some photos, and continued towards the centre point of New Zealand. When I saw the sign for “Centre of NZ, 50m” I got pretty excited – at that point I didn’t know the 50m either meant upwards or then to the start point of the track that went up the mountain where said point actually is. After a sweaty and sniffy hike, I finally made my way to the top, and truly felt like a champion. Beautiful views and gorgeous scenery tricked me to walking across the mountain to another, and make my way back down an hour later. After visiting a Japanese garden, I went back to relax by the pool for just long enough not to burn myself.

Endless green and blue, the standard New Zealand view.
Endless green and blue, the standard New Zealand colors.

I went to a second city stroll and in the evening did not go to the sauna or the pool, but tried to have a skype, poor attempt since seemed like at least 10 other people were trying to do the same. Early next morning to the next destination: over the Cook strait to Wellington!

Something random to finish off: tribute to David Bowie
Something random to finish off: tribute to David Bowie

I am writing this on a bus – going to Rotorua to spend some quality Valentine’s Day time with myself. There might be something special coming up. 🙂

Weekend in Queenstown

Queenstown is also known as the activity capital of at least the South, if not whole of New Zealand. This lovely little village in the south-west of the South Island is nested by the lake Wakatipu and offers activities, tours and fun for backpackers as well as travellers with extra cash to spare. You can get your adrenaline fix from skydiving, bungee jumping, zip lining, jet boating, white water rafting and a myriad of other options guaranteed to make a dent in your budget, or if you are more into the scenery and not so keen on getting your heart rate up and pumping, options like wine trails, steam boat cruises, underwater marine observatory or soaking in the sun by a lakefront restaurant might be more your cup of tea.

Lakefront.
Lakefront.
Weird water flying activities.
Weird water flying activities.

I arrived in Queenstown on a Friday evening, not having any plans regarding the weekend (as per usual). On my scouting walk around town I randomly saw a poster in a restaurant window that caught my eye. Kidnap Kid, one of my favourite artists (especially for pre-service prep music), was playing a gig at a bar that same night. What are the odds, for me to randomly arrive in this small town on the other side of the world, the same day that an artist I highly respect, from the UK, is playing in said town – and for me to stumble across the ad? I overcome my doubts and fear of going to a bar alone, let alone sober, and ended up having a solid dance off for 3 hours straight. It was a lovely intimate setting, and I was within touching reach of the dj. After the gig I went to thank him, we had a nice chat and I went to bed happy, sweaty and tired. – Girls only dorm this time, no snoring, winner winner!

Market bustle.
Market bustle.

On Saturday I ventured around town, and went for an impromptu walk along the lake – a walk to Frankton, the village next to Queenstown, that turned out to be 15kms. Had I known I’d be going that far, I would have prepared myself better. After a refreshing shower and sushi lunch (I decided not to cook in Queenstown, since there’s plenty of cooking in limited conditions ahead) I met up with some new friends, an Estonian bus captain and his crew that has shrunk from 4 to just 1, an Italian guy who looks like Jesus. We hung out at the bus that has been converted into a self-contained motor home, cooked and listened to music. Eventually we got around to go to the dump station and supermarket outside of town, where I stocked on dry food for my Franz Josef experience next week. By the time we got back in town it was too late for me to go book a trip to Milford Sound, apparently the 8th wonder of the world, that would have taken the whole Sunday. Bummer. We ended up chilling out with the guys until I was so tired I could barely walk back home, it was a cold night! As soon as the sun sets, the coldness creeps in.

Mobile house.
Mobile house.
Bus cookery: My first bus cooked meal!
Bus cookery: My first bus cooked meal!

On Sunday I felt like the flu I might have caught from the sick people in my room in Christchurch was creeping in, and terrible for not doing the Milford Sound cruise, and I felt like some activity was in place. After wandering and wondering and ruling out options (anything involving heights), I decided to go for a 2.5hr horseback ride in the scenes of Lord of the Rings! It has been a while (read: years and years) since I was last on a horse, but hey, how hard can it be? Apparently so hard that my fellow rider fell off her horse, but that’s a different story. We did ride in some amazing scenery, but let’s be honest: so far all of New Zealand has been equally amazing, whether it appears in a movie or not. We did stop for a picture in front of Isengard, a spot where Taylor Swift also filmed her newest video. After heading back to town, I ate some quinoa sushi by the water, and watched the people and street performers. Later on I met up with a classmate I haven’t seen since…2012! Funny to encounter someone after such a long time, pretty much as far from home as possible. Somehow it was almost midnight before I got to bed, to the lovely snore-free haze of sleep and being awake. I wish I could have had one more day for Milford, but oh well, off to Wanaka in the morning.

Horseback riding in Isengard.
Horseback riding in Isengard.
Traveling in this scenery is surreal every time.
Traveling in this scenery is surreal every time.

Aoraki/Mount Cook

Aoraki, or Mount Cook, is the highest mountain of New Zealand, 3,724 meters above sea level. It is located in the middle of South Island, about 5hrs drive from Christchurch. The region is known for its’ clear blue lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, clear starry nights, helicopter glacier rides and…I suppose the general breathtaking views.

Pristine blue waters at Lake Tekapo.
Pristine blue waters at Lake Tekapo.

I left Christchurch early in the morning with no sleep, and found myself sitting in a tour bus with old couples and your quota of Asians. The bus was not full, allowing me to nap on both seats. Luxury! We had an elderly English gentleman as our tour guide, giving more or less important information about the areas we passed, New Zealand in general, and we even got 2 songs! I thought the whole trip was more hilarious than anything else, and I was pretty much dead tired and just dozed off every time the guide was quiet. We stopped a few times, to have a cup of tea, take pictures, all that. Soon enough we arrived in our mid-destination (the bus continued to Queenstown), and my need for a nap started to get unbearable.

Gloriuous snowy mountains.
Gloriuous snowy mountains.

Fun fact I learned on the bus: New Zealand sent 10th of its’ population to the 1st world war. Only a fraction of that returned home. A bit more uplifting fact: There are no predators in NZ. No snakes, bears, foxes, wolves, nada. This is truly a safe place!

Aoraki, as the locals call it, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.
Aoraki, as the locals call it, the tallest mountain in New Zealand.

After I woke up from my nap in the most quiet room I have been so far (2 bunks, ensuite bathroom, even a balcony!), I went to take a walk to the Hermitage hotel and around the tiny village. No food options seemed affordable enough (though the dinner buffet, $69, looked like guaranteed food coma), so I opted for cooking my pre-purchased quinoa with tomato sauce. What luxury! The day was a bit rainy, and even at night it was cloudy. Breathtaking stargazing awaits still, luckily I’ve got 2 weeks and another glacier waiting down the road. After I woke up in the morning at the same time with my new Argentinian friend (whose name I never found out), I went for a wee bit of a walk towards the mountains, but didn’t venture on the whole 4hr trek. Next up: Queenstown, the activity capital!