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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
Here's a bit of what the city center was like.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Rated one of the world's top 10 day spas by Conde Nast. Not gonna lie; it was pretty awesome.
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.
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.
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.
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.