Spinner

Franz Josef is the name of both a town and glacier. Oddly enough, the glacier is in the middle of a rain forest, so the whole area is humid and rainy. Because of the bad weather, my tour of the glacier was canceled, since a helicopter is the only way to get you up to the glacier. Instead I just did some exploring and hiking of my own.

Peter's Pond, along the Douglas Walk.
Taken from the Callery Gorge Bridge, a 40 minute walk through the rainforest from the hotel.
View from the top of the Sentinal Rock Walk.
What I saw most of the time leaving my hotel room. I did not expect this from a town that also has a glacier.

Glacier Valley Walk

Most people are probably pretty disappointed by this hike, as you can only see a tiny unsatisfying portion of the glacier without taking a helicopter up. But I knew what to expect going in, and the walk itself through the valley was really cool.

This is as close as you can get to the glacier without a special tour.

Lake Mapourika

The sun finally came out late afternoon on my second and last day in Franz Josef, so I took a quick drive up to Lake Mapourika. Very serene and peaceful near sunset.

After Hobbiton I was headed down to Napier, but stopped halfway in Taupo for an hour or two. It helped break up the 3 hour drive, and I wanted to see the lake there, which is New Zealand's largest.

Another hour and a half southeast of Taupo and I was in Napier. It's a really nice coastal city with a unique vibe. It was largely destroyed by an earthquake in the '30s, which led the town to rebuild all at once in the art deco style that was popular at the time. The bay is gorgeous, and there are some great views and hiking at nearby Te Mata Peak.

Hawke's Bay
Centennial Gardens
Te Mata Peak
Nice view for breakfast.
Sweet house on the beach.
Hawke's Bay
Te Mata Peak
My hotel
Hawke's Bay
Napier Port
Te Mata Peak

From Rotorua, I headed an hour west to tour Hobbiton, the fully intact set of The Shire for all six Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit movies. This took me a bit out of the way from my next stop, Napier, but it was more than worth it. The tour takes you up and down the hill, seeing recognizable spots from the movies: Frodo's house (Bag End), Sam's house, and the field where Bilbo's birthday party was. Most of the hobbit holes are just facades, since all the interior scenes were filmed in a studio off-site. Afterward you go to the Green Dragon Pub for a drink, which did actually have an interior that was an exact reproduction of the one used for filming.

Besides the cool scenery, you learn the history of the set and how the tours came to be. After filming of the first movie was complete, the set was to be torn down and the site returned to its original condition, per the agreement the studio had with the property owner. When a storm delayed their progress, they decided to push the restoration back 6 months. Meanwhile, the movie had been released in New Zealand theaters, and a few fans spotted the Kaimai mountain range off in the distance in a single 2.4 second clip. It was the only part of the movie which could be used to identify where the filming took place, which until that time had been kept quiet. This led a few people to find the partially torn down set, and it gave the studio the idea of running tours. The set was ultimately torn down and completely rebuilt for The Hobbit trilogy. This time the New Zealand government insisted that the set be kept up afterward for tourism.

The original tree used for the top of the hill was a real, living tree relocated from off-site. The process of moving the tree unsurprisingly killed it, so the crew built the fake one that is here now. Though most other plant-life on the set is real.
Bag End, the home of Bilbo and Frodo. This is the only hobbit hole built to scale, so normal-sized actors can be filmed using the entrance and look small. Only the first room behind this door is built out, since all interior scenes were filmed off-site.
The home of Samwise Gamgee. The smoke coming out of the chimney was a nice touch.

Wellington was my last city on the north island. Most of the city is built on a hill, and it's got (granted I haven't actually been) a somewhat San Francisco vibe to it. The streets are real windy, with some parts even too narrow for both lanes of traffic to fit. It's a got a busy downtown section and nice beaches. Overall a really cool place.

In the cable car, headed down to city center.
The cable car station.
Oriental Bay
Along Oriental Bay
A trail I happened to stumble upon.
The sunrise from Mount Victoria Lookout.
From Mount Victoria Lookout.
Cricket World Cup
An art exhibit at City Gallery.
The Wellington Airport takes its Lord of the Rings *very* seriously.

I made my way to the south island via plane from Wellington to Christchurch (only a 45 minute flight). Christchurch is sort of a strange place. It was devastated by an earthquake in 2011, and it definitely has not recovered yet. The city is equal parts finished new construction, buildings mid-construction, empty lots, and abandoned buildings, giving it a really disjointed feeling. Some of the damage is pretty sad, as there are a few very old, clearly historic buildings (mostly churches) that are heavily damaged from the earthquake and yet to be repaired or knocked down.

Considering the city is really flat, sort of boring looking, spread out, and some cloudy weather rolled in, it made for a somewhat depressing visit. I imagine in another few years it will be a pretty nice place. Day one I went around by foot, but day two I rented a car to get out of the city and get some better views.

Christchurch Botanic Gardens
One of the few quaint parts of the city.
Driving around Port Hills you get some nice views.
Central Rose Garden, in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens
This artwork covers the entire side of a building. The city seems to be covered in building art, presumably to liven the city after the earthquake.
Earthquake damage
A tourist trap taking you through the city center for a cool $20.
From Mount Cavendish, at the top of the Christchurch Gondola.
Sumner Beach
Sumner Beach
Lyttelton Harbor, from Mount Cavendish.
I met a one-armed local that was painting this on Sumner Beach.
Obligatory wheat closeup. On the path to Halswell Quarry Park.
Pegasus Bay, viewed from Port Hills

No offense to the fine people of Christchurch, but I was a little glad to be headed off to Greymouth, a small town on the west coast. I didn't actually know anything about Greymouth, and mostly I was just excited for how I was getting there: the TranzAlpine, a 4 hour scenic train ride crossing the entire south island east to west.

There was an observation car near the front of the train, which is standing only and has no glass in the windows. Really cool to ride in and get photos without reflections.

Greymouth Proper

After getting into Greymouth, I headed down to the pier to check out high tide. Unfortunately there's not much else to do in Greymouth, as its a pretty small, industrial town.

Southern Breakwater Viewing Platform
The sunset from my hotel room, looking out at the Tasman Sea.

Pancake Rocks

About an hour's drive north takes you to the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki. It's a stunning, layered formation of limestone rock. To get there you take Highway 6 up the coast, which was easily one of the most epic drives I have ever done. Unfortunately there was only 1 or 2 places to safely pull over and grab a photo.

This is what most of the drive from Greymouth to Punakaiki looked like. A picture doesn't really do it justice, though.
The Pancake Rocks
At high tide waves crash through openings in the rocks.

I arrived in Auckland about 24 hours after leaving my Hoboken apartment. It's New Zealand's largest city, with a population of around 1.4 million. It seems to be the standard place to fly into, get your bearings, and adjust to the time zone (EDT+16).

The most famous feature of Auckland is the Sky Tower. Although it seems a little ugly and somewhat pointless looking, the views are pretty unbeatable. On a clear day you can see up to 50 miles from the top observation deck. At 1,076 feet, it's the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere. If you're brave enough (and pay $225 NZ), you can also walk along the edge or throw yourself off of it.

The main observation deck, 51st floor.
A couple taking a guided walk around the edge of the tower.
Northeast view from the 51st floor observation deck. The volcanic Rangitoto Island is off in the distance.
Southern view from the higher 60th floor "Sky Deck" (728 feet), looking out toward Manukau Harbor.

One Tree Hill

My favorite spot by far was a place called One Tree Hill. It's a 600 foot volcanic peak about 15 minutes by car from city center that really makes you feel like you've just visited The Shire. It inspired the U2 song of that name, which later inspired what sounds like a pretty terrible TV show. The views are stunning, as is the shape of the hills, which I quickly found is not too different from how a lot of the hills in New Zealand look: hand-sculpted and beautiful. The pillar at the top serves as a monument to the Maori people. The tree which gave the hill its name has since been cut down by Maori activists, leading to the not-so-clever nickname "None Tree Hill".

City Center

Here's a bit of what the city center was like.

The view from Queen's Wharf
A building at Auckland University
A very LOTR-esque tree at Albert Park providing shade for an afternoon nap. The park is filled with trees like this.
Hobson Street, where my hotel was. I was clearly practicing for a car commercial shoot.
I happened to come across Zach Morris reading a book at this luscious spot.
I don't know what's going on here, but I like it.

I took a bus tour from Auckland to Rotorua, which is known for its geothermal activity. Just wandering around you are likely to find a boiling crater of water in the ground. The whole place smells a little funny due to the water's sulfur content. You never really adapt to the smell, as it only hits you in a sharp, sudden breeze that makes you wonder who just let one rip. The answer? Mother Nature.

I also picked up a rental car here, which I found was the key to getting the most out of New Zealand. The bus tours seem great, but once you're in a city, some of the best places to visit are rarely walking distance from your hotel or hostel. And traveling between cities you'll definitely want to pull over constantly. With the epic scenery and windy roads, the driving was almost never boring.

Driving on the left side of the road was a little tough at first, and I drove on the wrong side within 5 minutes of getting my car. Just when I thought that couldn't happen again, I drove on the wrong side for a good 15 seconds before another car got on the road and clued me in. Whoops. After that though, I actually got really comfortable driving. The roads are very well marked and in great condition, and the signs are clear. Roundabouts replace pretty much all stop signs and most lights (although bigger cities did tend to have some lights, Auckland in particular). Despite the learning curve, I found driving in New Zealand to be much simpler than driving in New Jersey (I'm looking at you, Route 78 turnpike extension).

I poked my head through some fenced-in trees at Kuirau Park to find this steaming pool of beautifully clear water.
Maori art permeates the city.
Lake Rotorua, with Mokoia Island in the distance.
My new friend Susi, getting up close and personal with the wildlife.
The town center.
Lake Rotorua
A Maori-inspired fence outside of Government Gardens.
The entrance to Government Gardens, a public park.
At Government Gardens
The Rotorua Museum of Art and History
On my last night in Rotorua, from Kuira Park.

Sulfur Bay

Wandering near Government Gardens, I found a tucked away path that led to Sulfur Bay: a portion of Lake Rotorua with such a high sulfur content that it turns the water milky white. The entire area seemed oddly barren and almost alien. The amount of birds living here made it even creepier. The area is very geothermally active, with warning signs everywhere. You could easily step in a ditch of boiling water if you're not paying attention.

This small inlet was boiling intensely.

Mount Tarawera

I took a helicopter to the top of Mount Tarawera, where we were able to get out and walk around. It's a dormant volcano that last erupted in June of 1886. The views on the way there and back were amazing, and wandering around the peak of a volcano was probably one of the highlights of the trip.

The fissure created by the 1886 eruption.
Our landing point on the mountain.
The summit of the mountain, overlooking Lake Tarawera. 3645 feet.
The view on the return flight.
The Sulfur Bay portion of Lake Rotorua.
Home stretch of the return flight.

Waimangu Volanic Valley

A 15 minute drive south of the hotel was the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Until 1886 this entire area apparently had no surface hydrothermal activity. But on June 10 a violent eruption formed craters throughout the valley, completely destroying all plant and animal life. All the vegetation you see here has been recolonized from that date.

View from the entrance of the reserve.
Frying Pan Lake, the world's largest hot spring. The average water temperature is 131 degrees F.
I'm not really sure what this is, but it looks cool.
Lake Rotomahana, with the dormant Mount Tarawera off in the distance.

Polynesian Spa

Rated one of the world's top 10 day spas by Conde Nast. Not gonna lie; it was pretty awesome.

There are 5 mineral water pools overlooking Lake Rotorua, ranging from 97 degrees to 108.
60 minute massage with running water and distant seagulls outside the window? Yes, please.
Where you can hang out after a massage or the hot pools.

The Redwoods

Whakarewarewa Forest is a a huge Californian Coast Redwood forest with walking and mountain biking trails (though it's primarily a commercial plantation forest). I went close to dusk, so inside the forest it was calm, cool, and peaceful. I was passed by the occasional local jogger, but otherwise I felt like I had the entire place to myself.

The color of the water here almost looks fake. The deepest blue water I have ever seen.

What should have been a 3 hour drive from Franz Josef down to Wanaka took closer to 5 hours, due to the dozen or so times I had to stop to take in the scenery. Besides some great coastal views, you also drive between two gorgeous lakes: Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. They're both massive, and you drive along them for at least an hour. This drive was definitely one of the prettiest I've had yet.

From a public lookout along Highway 6.
Ship Creek, also along Highway 6 between Franz Josef and Wanaka.
Ship Creek
Lake Wanaka
Lake Hawea
Highway 6 and Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea
Lake Hawea
Highway 6 and Lake Hawea
Finally made it to Wanaka.

An hour south of Wanaka was Queenstown, my final destination in New Zealand. It's built around an inlet of the country's third largest lake, Lake Wakatipu. It's basically a resort town where people go to vacation, and for good reason. Queenstown was easily one of my favorite cities.

On the drive to Queenstown, a lake at the Bendio camp site.
Also at the Bendigo camp site on the way to Queenstown.
Still on the way to Queenstown. By the Kawarau Gorge
Arrived at Queenstown: the view from my hotel.
The Queenstown Gardens
Waiting for breakfast on my last morning in town.
Near the start of the Queenstown Hill Hike.
A gorgeous drive to nearby Glenorchy.
Stunning views everywhere, even from the airport parking lot.

A 4 hour bus ride from Queenstown (with some scenic stops all the way) took me to Milford Sound, a fiord carved out by glaciers. From there I took a three hour boat ride through the fiord and out to the Tasman Sea. This was one of the most stunning places in all of New Zealand.

Mitre Peak behind the clouds
A stop we made along the way to Milford Sound.
My new German besties, Nik and Jenny, at the Mirror Lakes; another stop along the way to Milford Sound.