New Zealand first captivated me on screen with the epic films Lord of the Rings and The Narnia Trilogy. I remember seeing the beach in Prince Caspian and immediately researching the filming location. I never suspected that a beach so tropical would be found in New Zealand.
Similarly, while watching the Lord of the Rings, I was mesmerized by the mythical mountain scenery. I also discovered that all signs pointed to New Zealand. How could one country have so many magnificent landscapes? I put it at the top of my list of places to go and it remained there for years. Now it was finally time to make the journey.
Check out the New Zealand photography gallery.
From the moment I boarded the Air New Zealand flight, I knew this was going to be special. The flight began with a hilarious safety video featuring the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team in a parody of Men in Black. As we reached cruising altitude, I enjoyed 13 hours of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, between sips of New Zealand Sauv Blanc - delicious! We flew all night and watched the sun rise. Then finally, land ho! We landed at Auckland Airport.
Bay of Islands: (2:10 - 2:32)
We were headed for the Bay of Islands, a place that gives you glassy eyes when you view it in tour books. To get there, we traveled through cow country in a very underpopulated area. The terrain was unique: a blend of Polynesian palm trees and ferns, followed by rolling grassy hills with sheep and cattle, and then wooded forests. Finally after about 3 hours, we were in the Bay of Islands.
Since we visited in September, this was the end of New Zealand's winter and the Bay of Islands was clearly a summer destination. There were not many people and it was drizzling. We took our car across a ferry which offered a 360 view of the bay: small islands everywhere and large sailboats. I read a statistic that 1 in every 3 Kiwis owns a boats, which seemed like an understatement after seeing the Bay of Islands.
The landscape was indeed beautiful even in the rain, although I will say that with sun I would have enjoyed it much more. We reached a tourist town called Russell, and viewed some of the area's oldest buildings (ahem 1800s is old here). Then we saw the Maori cultural area, called Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the first settlers and the Maori tribes signed a peace treaty. The area featured a Maori meeting hall that was entirely carved with wood sculpture. It also featured a war canoe that could hold up to 100 people in the open ocean, a formidable sight I can imagine.
Cathedral Cove: (0:00 - 1:00)
The next day, it was time to see Cathedral Cove. At last, the beautiful beach from Narnia. The journey to get there was also long (they don't call this the land of open spaces for nothing). It was about 1 hour through bucolic dairy farms, another hour through New Zealand's PCH (literally a road hugging the sandy beach for about 50km), plus another hour for photos along PCH, plus another hour through a tourist village of Coromandel.
We got a bit lost at that point, so we went inside a pub and asked for directions. I was astounded when the waitress stopped her work and came outside to show us where to go. The Kiwi's are amazing like that. Following her directions, we turned left at the series of roundabouts and made it to Cathedral Cove. At this point, the sky was a bit dreary and I was hoping to make it to the beach without any raindrops. I knew it would be a 30 minute hike, so I brought only my camera equipment. From the parking lot, I spotted a glimpse of the beach's cliffs from up above.
I ran down a steep path filled with ferns and palms leading to the beach. When I stepped onto the pure white sand, I was speechless. The sun magically made an appearance, as if it was turning the lights on for us. I looked to the left: the giant cathedral rock, just like in Prince Caspian! I looked to the right: a waterfall! I looked ahead: giant rock formations in the ocean. The waves were glittering in the sun. I didn't know where to start with my photos. I felt like I could blindly take photos and they would effortlessly come out amazing. This was a photographer's dream! Only better because this was a real.
Christchurch: (3:13 - 3:20)
We arrived in Christchurch after a short hour flight from Auckland. The city was substantially more British, with cobblestones streets and parks, much colder than Auckland by about 15 degrees, and still recovering from the 2011 earthquake. The main attraction we were there to see was the KiwiRail Tranzalpine train, rated as one of the top rail rides in the world.
We boarded the train in the morning for the 9 hour journey through the southern alps. The train featured floor to ceiling windows, and an open air observation car. I could see the alps in the distance as we traveled through miles of dairy farms. The alps were covered in snow, with the bluest river running alongside our train. We went to the observation car to take photos the entire time. The wind almost blew my camera over as we went about 100kph across the alpine scenery.
Every time we passed something spectacular, there was an uproar of wonderment followed by a flurry of camera flashes. The train went through a tunnel which lasted about 15 minutes, and emerged at Arthur's pass about 12,000 feet above sea level. Finally, the train landed in Greymouth, a small coastal village. We walked through the town and got some coveted wifi and New Zealand coffee. By the way, the coffee selection had curious names like flat white, short black, and long black. After we warmed up, we boarded the train again for the ride home.
Hamilton Gardens/ Hobbiton: (1:19 - 1:22)
The next day we headed back to the North Island where we made a stop at the Hamilton Gardens, a spectacular free public garden. It featured gardens of Italy, India, China, Japan, and most curiously- a modernist garden that looked like we were in Palm Springs. After that, we headed up the road to Matamata where the land of Hobbits are found. The ride went through rolling bright green hills with white lambs dotted all along the grass. Hobbiton is situated on a sheep farm. The site was chosen due to its rolling hills, mature trees, and the fact that nothing but farmland can be seen all they way to the horizon. It is truly paradise if you are a lamb, a Hobbit, or a fan of either.
We boarded the two hour tour of the Shire where we saw the film set, complete with Hobbit holes of all sizes for visual effect. The details on the homes were fascinating: each one had a theme: one had honey jars, one had a wheelbarrow, some had potted flowers. It was as if real Hobbits lived there. However, the set was an illusion- it had only the facades of the buildings. The interiors were filmed on a set in Wellington. So alas, no Hobbits. However, no trip to Hobbiton is complete without a beer from the Dragon's Lair and an up close and personal encounter with the lambs on the farm.
Rotorua: (2:32 - 2:38)
Two hours south of Hobbiton is Rotorua, or Roto-vegas as the Kiwi's call it because of its plethora of entertainment. It is a geothermal area, with geysers, hot springs, and lakes of colors I have only seen from the early 90's. We toured one of the Maori cultural centers called Te Puia where we got insights into the culture, from the tattoos, to the wood carvings, to the dances. The grounds were on a geothermal area, and as we toured the geyser, it started to explode 35 meters high. The entire area smelled of rotten eggs and smoke was billowing from the ground.
We watched the Maori "greet" us. Actually, they ran out of the Maori meeting house, spear in hand, and performed a warrior dance. He was dressed in animal skins and had facial tattoos. I imagine that the first settlers probably would want run for the hills after seeing these fierce warriors. Then, the chief placed a peace offering on the ground which our group accepted. Only then were we permitted inside the Maori meeting house. The building was an A frame wooden structure that was covered with elaborate hand carved wood carvings (similar to totem poles).
The Maori performed a fierce dance called Haka where they bulge their eyes, stick out their tongue and slap their legs. They also did a spear dance. After seeing the performance, I can see why the island nation was not colonized for a long time - these guys mean business and literally scared away any intruders. The women did a poi ball dance where they spin a ball which is attached to string and catch it in their other hand. I tried it myself, but it was a lot harder than it looks.
After the show, it was time for the Hangi dinner. The Hangi is similar to the Hawaiian luau, only what I would describe as a "winter version". It consisted of lamb, chicken, and native sweet potato "kumara" cooked underground in a pit. The performance and the food were unique, yet still Polynesian. It was interesting to see how the Polynesian culture was adapted to fit a much colder climate, constantly threatened by colonization and mother nature.
Rotorua Part 2 and Mount Maunganui: (2:48 - 3:12)
Day 2 in Rotorua we went to the Waitangi area. It had smoke literally everywhere. We saw sights such as the Devils hole, the Devil's bath (bright neon green pool), champagne pool (red and yellow pool of smoke). The ground was covered in yellow and green from the sulfur. It was truly fascinating that the earth could look like this.
We continued on to Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty, a resort town. The mountain was steep and offered 360 views of the bay with water on either side. The hike up was a mile long and the path featured my favorite New Zealand Landscape: sheep with rolling green hills and a tropical beach with boats in the background.
We took a shaded path with ferns growing everywhere, and just when I thought the mountain couldn't get any steeper, we were at the top. I could see the entire coastline from east to west - tropical beach on one side, bay on the other. It felt like we were in an airplane we were so high up. It was truly a great ending spot for our trip to New Zealand.
I am so thankful to have experienced New Zealand. The kindness of people, the unique colonial and Polynesian culture, and the otherworldly landscapes were spectacular. The country truly lived up to its motto "land of open spaces, open hearts, and open minds".
Check out thephoto gallery from this trip.
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