New Zealand: North Island

From the magical allure of Hobbiton to breathtaking hiking trails, New Zealand's North Island captivated us with enchanted landscapes, melding fantasy, adventure, and natural wonders.

Fast Facts

Visiting New Zealand has been on our list since 2016 when American announced a new LAX to AKL nonstop flight. We were gearing up to make the trip with Stephen’s parents back in February 2018, but life had other plans for us. We realized that we probably needed to upgrade from our 730-square-foot condo to something a bit larger before Stephen started his master’s program later that summer if we both wanted to stay sane (and married). Purchasing a house used up our travel budget, but in hindsight, it was definitely the right decision. Instead, we planned on making New Zealand a post-MBA trip in 2020 . . . except, well, we all know what happened with that. Long story short, with a new seasonal direct from DFW to AKL and a recent move to the Dallas area, New Zealand was back on the books in early 2023 with a fresh bank of vacation to dedicate to a two-week trip! Since this is another not-so-quick trip, we will be breaking it up into three sections: our three-night, four-day stay on the North Island, our stay in Queenstown including our two-night, three-day guided hike of the Routeburn Track, and finally our loop of the South Island. First up, New Zealand’s North Island!

Dates: February 24–March 11, 2023

Overall Rating: 5/5

Pizza Rating: 3/8 – We wouldn’t recommend the 14-hour flight for their pizza!

Walkability: 1/5 – There is too much to see to not rent a car/travel by train.

Airport Rating: 3/5 – AKL airport is nice, but immigration was pretty disorganized. There were only one or two other flights at the same time as us, and it still took nearly an hour and a half to clear.

Airplane: 787-900 (Finally!)

Free Walking Tour: This is one of the few trips where we didn't do a free walking tour.

Lay of the Land

New Zealand is primarily made up of two similarly sized islands, North Island and South Island (although there are a few other smaller islands). The capital, Auckland, is the main hub of the country and by far the most populous city. Auckland is located on North Island about a third of the way down from the northernmost tip. Much of the commercial focus and population resides on the North Island with approximately 3 out of every 4 Kiwis (nickname for New Zealanders) living there. This makes the North Island the logical start of the trip, as it is more accessible than its southern brethren.

Originally settled by Maori people from nearby islands, New Zealand was later colonized by the British. To this day, you hear an interesting accent that is a mix between British and Australian (another previous British colony). You will also see a very focused and intentional recognition of the Maori people and their culture. This was a really nice surprise, as the whole country seemed to be proud of both sides of their heritage, so it was easy to learn about both.

Our plan for the North Island was to get out of Auckland and explore. Although we had heard good things about Auckland, the point of our 14-hour flight from Texas was not to see another city! Since much of the unique wonder of New Zealand is away from major cities, we opted to rent a car and drive ourselves. You can also explore using trains and guided bus tours, but we wanted to control our pace. New Zealand is also famous for its finicky weather, so we figured it would be beneficial to have the flexibility of a car. Although our weather for the North Island was nearly perfect, it was nice to adjust our timing and plans as needed.

The flight was very long, but it was our first time on a 787 Dreamliner. We were able to snag two Premium Economy seats together, which was a really nice upgrade from Economy. The level of service, amenity kits, and improved meals also made the flight a lot more enjoyable. After rewatching The Hobbit in anticipation of our first stop, we snagged six hours of sleep before waking up for breakfast. A lot of people claim that the new generation of wide-body aircraft (787/350) has several features to reduce jet lag, and after flying on both, we are believers! We felt surprisingly good immediately on landing. During our approach, you could see the impact of recent tsunamis and flooding with brown water filling the numerous rivers and inlets nestled between bright green, lush hills. 

While we were lucky to avoid most of the tsunami ramifications, clearing customs was another thing altogether. For a country known for its strict agricultural import regulations, COVID-19 lockdown protocols (people were stuck in the country for years during the pandemic), and overall focus on protecting the natural environment, the slow, chaotic, and unorganized immigration and customs process was a huge surprise. Signage and stanchions were haphazardly put together, with multiple dead-end queues. There were tons of signs warning about declaring if you had any used hiking equipment due potential environmental exposure/contaminants. Our boots were used, so we had to get into another line to have those inspected. Bags were completely searched, and eventually they determined that 3 out of our 4 boots needed to be cleaned (which they did), and then they sent us on our way through an X-ray machine. Overall, the hour and half was really not that bad, but the disorganization made it feel like forever. Definitely budget some extra time just in case!

Finally through customs, we were onto our next adventure: finding our rental car. The Auckland airport is actually two separate airport buildings—the domestic and international terminals are not connected. There is a large construction project (like any major airport) to improve this and numerous things, but this meant the rental car pickups were a maze of temporary and repurposed walkways. Once there, picking up the car was a breeze, and we were on our way (with Stephen muttering “stay left, stay left” to himself to remind himself that Kiwis drive on the left side of the road). Hobbiton, here we come!

Day 1: Arrival, Hobbiton & Drive to Rotorua

Once out of the city, we settled into the approximately two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast from Auckland to Hobbiton. The busy city streets quickly gave way to a two-lane interstate, where besides having to remember to cruise on the left, pass on the right, driving was relatively stress-free as traffic was minimal and the scenery improved the farther from Auckland we got. Quickly into the drive, you begin to appreciate why so many movies, such as The Lord of the Rings, are filmed in New Zealand. There were different varieties of vegetation and terrain all within a couple hundred kilometers of Auckland that could encompass a huge number of different environments for filming. As we approached Hobbiton and got off the main highway, we quickly found that outside of the cities there are three main types of roads: two-lane interstates, one-lane “highways,” and 1/2- to 3/4-lane back roads. The latter could get very exciting when oncoming traffic appeared around a bend! This was especially true on the hilly back roads closer to Hobbiton. The hills were dotted with hundreds of sheep, some of them fenced in merely inches from the side of the road. There were so many sheep scattered across the countryside that we wondered if there were more sheep in New Zealand than Kiwis—a quick Google said yes, there are about five times as many!


Nearing our destination, Stephen began to wonder if Hobbiton was going to live up to the hype. As a self-proclaimed The Lord of the Rings nerd, he was extremely excited and had already said it might be the highlight of the trip before we had even arrived. We pulled into the parking lot around 1:00 p.m. for a 2:40 p.m. tour after budgeting plenty of extra time in case of flight delays or a lengthy airport experience. We booked our tickets ahead of time to ensure there was availability. In hindsight, it was probably not necessary, but they allow you to move up to an earlier tour once you are there, so we’d recommend doing that for your visit as well. 

After stretching our legs, we grabbed lunch and settled down at a picnic table by the road. We were quickly joined by two older couples who were native to New Zealand but visiting Hobbiton for the first time. Over lunch, we had a great conversation about where we were from and differences and similarities between our countries. It was a nice welcome to the country, and as they headed over to their tour start, we were struck by two things that remained true for almost every other Kiwi we met on our trip: First, they were genuinely interested in getting to know us, not the typical travel small talk. Second, there was a subtle but clear humble pride in their country, and they were excited that we were there experiencing it just like they were! During our time in New Zealand, we found New Zealanders to be some of the most welcoming, helpful, and decent people in all of our travels. After wrapping up lunch, we strolled a bit, checked out the gift shop, and then hopped on a slightly earlier tour to get going.

The tour is a short bus ride away, which is actually a nice touch. It helps control traffic and crowds on the set, but it also gives you opportunities to gain context around the history of the movie set. After The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed, the entire set was deconstructed, as most movie sets are. When The Hobbit movies were filmed, Director Peter Jackson and the family whose farm was used for the film realized that they had an opportunity to create a joint venture and keep the set open so the public could experience the magic of The Shire. Shortly into the bus ride, you come around a corner and get your first glimpse of The Shire—yup, it definitely lived up to the hype! 

With the attention to detail to make everything look lived in, Hobbiton made us feel as if a hobbit could pop out from a hobbit hole any second. As we moved to the middle of the set, we really started to appreciate all of the special tricks used to make hobbits seem hobbit sized. For example, there are three main scales of homes—40%, 90%, and 100%—which were used to make humans seem taller and hobbits seem smaller. The tour snakes you through the entire set, with plenty of fun facts about the film, opportunities to take pictures, and places to explore. You can understand why Peter Jackson picked this location for filming, even in 2023 you could not see another building, power line, or cell tower from the top of the hill that Bag End sits on (although apparently a couple farm buildings did have to be relocated prior to filming). Peter Jackson also went to painstaking efforts to make the set as realistic as possible, planting real plum trees, creating a working fireplace and chimney (with smoke coming out of it) in one of the hobbit holes, and crafting a custom tree on the top of Bag End that took several attempts to get right. It was absolutely amazing! After a quick beer at The Green Dragon, we rode the bus back to our car. Overall, Hobbiton lived up to the hype and is a must-do for anyone who is a fan of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit movies or who enjoys movies in general.

Drive to Rotorua

Our last stop for the night was Rotorua, which is a couple hours southeast of Hobbiton. The city is known for its thermal activity (hot springs, volcanoes, sulfur pools) and is one of the centers of activities for the adventurous on the North Island. Visitors can explore whitewater sports, treetop canopies on zip lines, mountain biking trails, and many other activities. Unfortunately, our whitewater rafting trip the following day was canceled due to the flooding on the North Island, but we were still excited to explore the Rotorua area. As the distinct smell of sulfur filled the air, we knew we were close. Sure enough, within 10 minutes we were at our hotel! 

Although exhausted from a 14-hour flight and exploring Hobbiton, we decided to venture out for dinner. The front desk pointed us to the lakeside where there were many different restaurants. We found a nice Italian place in a strip of a dozen or so options, all with an outdoor/indoor design (luckily we were seated inside as a sudden squall of rain came through). Downtown Rotorua was oddly quiet for a Sunday evening, the beginning of a trend we found on the North Island. Unlike its southern cousin known for tourism, the North Island had a significantly slower recovery from the pandemic lockdowns (and once-in-a-century flooding a few weeks earlier did not help either). Even in a city as large as Rotorua (75,000+ people), there were many shops and restaurants boarded up. Little did we know, this trend would pose some serious issues in a couple days’ time. We finished our meal and returned to the hotel, collapsing in bed to catch some Zzzs.

Day 2: Exploring Rotorua

After one of the best night’s sleep of our lives, we packed and headed out to explore Rotorua. Without the excitement of a whitewater trip, we decided to focus our day of exploring on what this area of the country is most known for: volcanic activity and sulfur hot springs. First up was Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which was a short 30-minute drive south of the city. The drive wove through beautiful forests and provided plenty of views of rolling hills (and more sheep). Unfortunately, there were not many opportunities to pull off for a picture. On the drive, we also noticed another strange New Zealand phenomenon: Birds were always in the road! Birds would hop onto the pavement and peck at the ground, and then wait until the last possible moment to dart away like it was a game of chicken. We decided that all birds in New Zealand must be descendants of the guineafowl in Botswana who would run out in front of our jeep in a group and then see who could stay in front the longest (at least that is what it seemed like).

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the world’s youngest geothermal system (who knew that was something we could put an age on?). The valley and its system of hot springs and sulfur pools were created back in 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted, splitting the mountain in two and killing 120 people who lived nearby. This eruption also destroyed some structures that are right next to the building at the entrance of the park today. What was left behind after the eruption was a new ecosystem of hot springs, sulfur pools, and structures that are unique. Around 1900, a new geyser began erupting with black sulfur water, giving the new volcanic valley its name “Waimangu,” meaning black water.

The “park” is well designed so that everyone, regardless of age and walking ability, can enjoy the numerous hot springs and sulfur pools. After purchasing tickets for $27 NZ a person, you can either walk down into the valley by foot or hop on the bus that runs approximately every 50 minutes (timetables are included on your map). The paths wind down into the valley, eventually ending at Iron Pan Lake, with several options to explore side trails. There are three bus stops along the way, with the final one at the lake. We opted to walk down to the lake and then ride the bus back, which should take around two hours following the main trail at a leisurely pace. In the end, it took us closer to three hours because we added an optional hike up from Inferno Crater to see the Black Crater that was not worth the extra time (and effort). Although we thought this would be a good warmup for our hike the next day, it ended up probably being a bit too much of a warmup. There were some beautiful birds on the hike (including our first glimpse of the native fantail), the overlooks were too overgrown to see much of Iron Pan Lake or the Black Craters. We would suggest skipping if you are pressed for time or tired!

Overall, the walk was extremely enjoyable. The trail was well maintained and paved most of the way with great signage sharing the stories behind the names of the various geysers, formations, and pools. The lake provided stellar birdwatching, including some magnificent swans and majestic cranes. Even with light rain and mist, this hike was an extremely pleasant way to start our first full day in New Zealand. At the lake, we hopped on the bus, making it back to the visitor center/starting point where we ate a delicious lunch of sandwiches and pasta at the deli before getting back on the road. On to Hell’s Gate!

Hell’s Gate

Hell’s Gate is another area with geothermal activity back in the city of Rotorua. It is also a historical site for the Maori people, where nearly a thousand years ago warriors visited to bathe to heal their bodies after battles. Today, the minerals and nutrients in the mud bath pools can help supposedly relieve things such as joint pain and arthritis. Hell’s Gate has a combination of Maori culture events/attractions, a walking path with over two dozen different geothermal sites to explore, and sulfur mud baths. There are several different ticket packages you can choose from with different types of activities and attractions. The facility also had a small gift shop and cafe with very limited options to eat.

We opted for a package that included the walking path and mud baths. We again booked in advance, but we were able to get started about 15 minutes early. Unlike Hobbiton where we would definitely recommend booking ahead to be safe, there seemed to be plenty of availability at Hell’s Gate if you were willing to do some other activities with your mud baths. We opted to do the self-guided tour and found the signage and provided map had plenty of detail to learn about the area and the stories behind the names of the various geothermal sights. The little anecdotes at each stop were fascinating, and the variety of different colors and types of pools was absolutely amazing. There was definitely a smell as well! 

After doing the full walking tour, we went to the mud baths. Stephen rented a swimsuit for $5 because we read online how difficult it was to get the sulfur smell out of your clothes while Ashley was able to find an old one that she was happy to part with. The smell stayed on our skin for days, so we were both glad about our choices!  After changing, we started with the main attraction: the mud baths. To prevent overheating and maintain availability, the baths are limited to 20 minutes in the mud bath portion. There are a couple different shallow pools (maybe 3-feet deep with seating around the edge). The attendant takes you to one pool and notes your starting time. There are pails of mud around the edges of the pool, but most of the mud was on the bottom. The idea is to cover your body with mud and then just relax! Again, the minerals and nutrients in the mud are supposed to help relieve pain and refresh the body. It was certainly an experience! After around 20 minutes, the attendant comes and lets you know that your time is up. There are showers you can use to rinse off the mud and then you can explore the other pools. 

There are a combination of hot and cold pools (all mud-less) around the facility as well as a few water stations, which are important to keep yourself hydrated. We actually saw a woman faint while we were there, so remember to stay hydrated while you lounge in the hot pools. Hell’s Gate was a terrific experience and we highly recommend it if you are in the Rotorua area! After taking our showers and changing in the stall-less shower/changing room (modesty be damned), we dropped our rented gear and headed for the car for our two-and-a-half-hour drive to National Park for the last major attraction of our time on the North Island: Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

National Park

The town gets its name from nearby Tongariro National Park, which was the filming location for much of Mordor in the The Lord of the Rings films and is home to one of the most intense hikes on the North Island, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. As huge LOTR fans, we planned on doing the crossing to get the full Mordor experience! We arrived in National Park after 7:00 p.m., and we planned on checking into our room and then getting a late dinner before grabbing some supplies for our hike the next day. Unfortunately, we did not plan for the “COVID effect.” Although we had run into this somewhat in Rotorua, it was way worse in National Park. 

We stayed at Mountain View Lodge, a charming bed-and-breakfast run by a local couple. At check-in, they shared just how small the town is and how most of the restaurants and businesses had closed during the pandemic. In fact, there were only two places to get food on a typical evening and one was fully booked for the night already. The only other option was a food truck in someone’s backyard! We could also try to drive about 45 minutes to the next town, but since it was already 7:00 p.m., places were likely to be closed or not seating anyone by the time we got there. With a local population of only 250 people, National Park relies heavily on tourism, boasting 1,500 hotel beds at its peak. In speaking with our host, we found out the problem is not just that tourism had not recovered fully, but also that the student work visa program that tourism relied on so much had been shut down during the pandemic and was just getting restarted. Even in towns such as National Park, where tourism had returned (almost every hotel was sold out during our time there), there were not enough workers to keep stores and restaurants open. 

A little concerned, we hurried to the backyard food truck called Camo Kai and ordered a couple of burgers. It was obvious that everyone knew this was the only spot in town since the wait was almost an hour! While we sat at a picnic table to wait for our dinner, our brains shifted to the next problem: the hike the next day could take up to nine hours depending on conditions, so we were definitely going to need some provisions. With some quick Googling (thank you T-Mobile international cell service), we found a small store down the road that closed in 20 minutes. Stephen ran to the store and found the oddest collection of goods, snacks, and food. It reminded him of an old country store near where his family went camping as a kid. Many of the jars looked like they had been sitting there for a couple of decades. A less than welcoming stare from the small elderly Asian woman running the store made it clear that she was not planning on extending business hours, so Stephen decided it was best to not waste time reading expiration dates. A quick circle of the store ended with a loaf of bread (no mold!), a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, some chips, and some odd-looking New Zealand cookies—now that is a proper hiking meal! After eating our dinner, we went back to the hotel to turn in before our early wake-up call the next day. Unfortunately, half asleep from a long day driving, Stephen accidentally locked us out of our room while going outside to look at the sunset from the balcony. A quick knock on the host’s door got us back in the room, but it certainly added a little excitement—and a few choice words from Ashley.

Day 3: Mount Doom & the Climb

The second main event (following Hobbiton) was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, home to another LOTR location. Well Mount Doom, as it’s aptly called in The Lord of the Rings, certainly lived up to its name! From our pre-trip research, Tongariro Alpine Crossing looked like a must-do experience, with numerous different types of terrain and magnificent views. And although it seemed like a tough hike, we felt it was something within our experience and abilities (we’ve previously hiked Half Dome in Yosemite). Add in the fact that most of the Mordor scenes for LOTR were filmed here, and we had to do it!

Since the hike is a crossing, not an out-and-back, you have two ways of doing it: You can park at the starting trailhead, do the hike, and then ride a bus back to your car (for a small fee), or you can park at the end of the trail and take a shuttle to the trailhead first thing in the morning. Although it meant getting up a little earlier, we opted for the second option after reading how awful waiting for the bus can be after spending eight hours on the mountain. In hindsight, we are glad we did the hike this way; however, we won’t deny that the extra 250 yards to the car after the hike were very painful!

Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park is a protected 300-square-mile area first designated as a place of national significance back in the 1880s by the local Maori people to prevent it from being sold to English settlers. The three volcanoes in the park were of great cultural significance, and by protecting the area for the country, the Maori people also protected it for their culture for years to come. It is also the sixth national park created in the world.

The hike itself is a little over 12 miles and takes you through approximately 3,600 feet in absolute elevation change from the trailhead to the highest peak. This does not account for the several smaller summits you run into as you go, which make it more like 6,500 feet in total elevation gained and lost. Although the elevation, elevation change, length, and grade of the trail would make this hike a moderate grade hike, the elements you encounter can make it extremely difficult. In fact, in the mid-2000s, the word “Alpine” was officially added to the trail’s name to make the harsh elements of the hike more evident. Approximately 40 people have to be evacuated each year from the trail, peaking at about two per week during the summer. Surprisingly, the majority of the rescues occur on the slow descent at the end of the hike because hikers have used up all of their water on the way up. Unlike our hikes on the South Island, there are no clean drinking water options on this hike, so make sure you fill up ahead of time!

Our 5:55 a.m. alarm came very quickly in the morning as both of us had extremely weird dreams and trouble sleeping. Not sure if there is any supporting medical research, but we both blamed the sulfur mud baths from Hell’s Gate the day before. We were able to stay on schedule and pulled up to the parking area 15 minutes early for our scheduled shuttle bus. The lot was not well marked at first (especially in the early morning twilight), but we saw a woman standing near the road. As we rolled down the window, she yelled “DANIEL?!?” Although we were not Daniel, we were able to snag his seat on the 7:00 a.m. bus that was waiting for him. Sorry, Daniel!

At the trailhead (and after we sorted out how to extend our trekking poles purchased for this trip—easier said than done a month after the REI salesman showed us!), we were on our way. Once we got going, a few things quickly became clear: 1) We were in for a long day as Stephen’s left knee started hurting immediately, 2) we were probably the slowest people on the trail, and 3) we were in for some very strange weather with clouds rolling in over the mountains and ridges around us. The hike starts as a walk through a valley between a ridgeline and a mountain, slowly winding up to the base. We got some really great pictures as the light developed through clouds—probably the best of the whole hike.

The Climb

From there, you begin the climb! You start seeing creative signs warning how steep the climb gets and how quickly the weather changes. Unfortunately for us, the clouds that were rolling over the mountains and providing some interesting photos turned into a cold mist/light rain, making the climb even more treacherous. As the trail wound up the mountains, the wind also picked up, making you appreciate some of those signs! Pelted by rain and wind, we felt like we were scrambling straight up a wall at times. At the summit of the first steep section, there’s a plateau you cross before ascending once more until you reach the first stopping point. At this point, clouds fully surrounded us, and our visibility was only about 30 feet. Suddenly, we really felt like we were in the middle of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. Again, the crew and Peter Jackson absolutely nailed the filming location. After another short ascent, we finally came to the Red Crater, the first stopping point. We only got glimpses as the clouds rolled through, but it was still impressive. The next section was absolutely brutal—straight up (it seemed) on loose volcanic rock. The final quarter mile to the summit was the most challenging hiking we have ever done, especially when you added the fact we were doing it in the middle of driving rain and clouds! At the top, we took a picture in the middle of the clouds and then started the slow, treacherous descent.

If we thought going up loose black volcanic rock in the middle of wind and rain was tough, going down was another story! Stephen had one short slip, but all around us people were dropping like flies. At one point, a British tourist exclaimed that “she fell on her fat a**,” which made us chuckle and has now been added to our family travel lore. Coming down, we made another crossing of a plateau with an optional add-on hike (which we did NOT take). The clouds teased us by lifting a bit, but as soon as we got the camera out, they rolled back in. Very frustrating! 

Day 3: Mount Doom – The Blue Lake & the Descent

Following another short ascent, we were at stopping point two: the blue lake. This was our lunch spot where we pulled out our interesting spread of peanut butter, Boysenberry jam, and bread (we did not have containers to pack sandwiches ahead of time, so Stephen carried the full jars up the mountain). In hindsight, packing our tripod, new mirrorless full-frame camera, and all the lunch supplies was definitely a mistake and made the hike a lot more difficult. Especially given the weather, we hardly used the big camera. Our advice: Travel as light as you can for this hike. As we wrapped up lunch, the clouds did blow off a bit and we managed to get a few good pictures of the beautiful blue lake. This was our first real close encounter with the bright blue water that New Zealand is famous for.

There was some more climbing before reaching a saddle pass that ran between two mountains. This was the “exit” from the mountains and marked the beginning of the descent to the end. Only 4 miles to go! There were supposed to be bathrooms here as well, the first in quite a while, but they were closed. The sun did start to come out, giving us some beautiful views down off the mountain, which was nice. Although the last 4 miles are nearly all downhill, this section of the crossing is where more rescues come because hikers misjudge supplies such as water (75% of rescues come on this final descent). We were mindful of our water consumption but still ran out with about a mile to go. The hike down is full of switchbacks (or zigzags as Kiwis call them). This makes the hike deceivingly long, and as you get an hour or so into the hike down, landmarks like the highway we parked near come into view and you realize just how far you have to go. Halfway down, the sun we were excited to see became an enemy as things heated up. You are completely exposed on the side of the mountain to the sun and wind, so you quickly understand all of the warning signs about rescues in this section. 

The Descent

Finally, the hike leveled out as we wove through what appeared to be a tropical forest (the variation of topography in proximity to each other is astounding). We walked along the bubbling stream (one might say a babbling brook) that flows through the forest. This view was magnificent—so perfectly designed that it looked fake—although we were too exhausted to enjoy it to the fullest! We reached the bus stop and trailhead, but then we realized how far we still had to go down a gravel road to get to our car. After a short break, we stumbled down the road and made it to our car (and a warm bottle of Gatorade that never tasted so good!). We shed our boots and turned the A/C on as quickly as we could. In the end, the crossing challenged us and was probably the most difficult physical test either of us had done. The combination of poor sleep, doing a bit too much at Waimangu, carrying way too much weight, and the dull weather made it harder than it should have been. But even with all of that (and with limited visibility), it was worth it (maybe we’re masochists?).

Back at the hotel, we confronted the limited dinner options from the previous night, which were no fluke. We decided to get quick showers and then drive 45 minutes to a nearby “city” to get some real dinner. After a 12+ mile hike fueled by chips, bread, and PB&J, we wanted something like a steak for dinner! We made it to town around 6:15 p.m. and found the same issues as elsewhere on the North Island. There were only about half a dozen restaurant options even though this was the “big town,” and many of them were already full for the night. Luckily, we got our names on a list for a 45-minute wait. As we were seated and started ordering, we overheard the hostess turning people away for the night already. There were plenty of open tables, but the kitchen or wait staff were maxed. We scarfed down a large steak dinner (hit the spot!), and then we drove back to our hotel, had a quick hot tub soak (nice touch), and went to bed, dropping to sleep before our heads hit the pillows.

Day 4: Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Kiwis & Heading South

We slept in a bit to recover from Mount Doom. After a quick chat with the charming couple who ran the bed-and-breakfast and a coffee from our new favorite to-go kiosk in National Park, we were back on the road to Auckland to catch our flight south to Queenstown. We intentionally booked a flight in the evening to give ourselves time to explore on our way to the Auckland Airport.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

Our first stop was the Waitomo glowworm caves. The drive was nearly two hours due North from National Park and about half the distance back to Auckland, so it was a great time to stop and stretch our legs a bit. Like so many other attractions on the North Island, the caves have special meaning to the Maori people. The caves were “discovered” by early settlers with the help of the Maori people in the area, but it is likely that the Maori knew they existed before. Descendants of those first recorded Maori cave explorers still work there today, which is pretty cool. The only way to access the caves is on guided tours, so we grabbed some tickets and waited for our tour time. Similar to Hobbiton, it seemed like you could prepurchase tickets but then swap if necessary. There were tours starting every 15 minutes or so. 

The Waitomo caves are famous for their glowworms, but they are also beautiful limestone caves. The tour starts focused on the caves themselves, exploring with interesting sound bites from early explorers and highlighting how the caves were formed as underwater pockets hundreds of years ago. There is also a section of the caves called the Cathedral where our tour guide shut off the lights and sang a song in her native Maori tongue. It was really impressive, and we also got our first glimpse of some glowworms on the Cathedral ceiling. The tour wraps up with a boat ride (in the pitch dark). Tour guides pull the boats along using ropes attached to the cave wall. This is where you see the most glowworms, with literally thousands of them all over the ceiling. Although we came in with low expectations (our previous bioluminescence experiences played heavily into our tempered expectations), this turned out to be an exceptional experience, so we’re glad we stopped by! After a quick lunch at the cafe, we were back on the road to our next stop: kiwis (the bird, not the people)!


Kiwis are the national bird of New Zealand. A flightless bird approximately the size of a chicken, kiwis are only found in New Zealand. While you can find them in the wild if you are extremely lucky, patient, and willing to stay up at night, the best chance to see them is visiting a center that is working to protect them. There are several options on the North Island to see kiwis, but the Ōtorohanga Kiwi House was the most convenient for our trip back to Auckland. The facility has much more than just kiwis, which were an added benefit! Since kiwis are nocturnal, most facilities have their habitats on a reverse cycle where the enclosure is kept dark during the day and bright at night. This increases the chance of visitors being able to see kiwis and helps handlers more easily interact with them. 

Kiwis sleep A LOT! This means your best chance to see one active is to visit a center earlier in the morning when it is “dusk” in the exhibit. On our first pass of the kiwi exhibit, we struck out as all of the Kiwis were in their dens sleeping, which you can see on the cameras. We explored the rest of the outdoor center and saw a ton of reptiles and cool birds, including kakas, which had a particular interest in having a conversation with Ashley. They were extremely playful, hopping around their enclosure. Little did we know, we would be getting up close and personal with these on our Routeburn Track hike in a few days.

When we went back to the Kiwi exhibit again, we had no luck, but they were doing work on one of the enclosure cameras. The staff said if we were willing to stick around a bit, we might be able to see them put a kiwi back into the enclosure. About 30 minutes later, they wrapped up, and sure enough, we got to see a kiwi up close! After seeing the kiwis waddle around the enclosure, we were not surprised that these birds are endangered in the wild. Not only has a loss of habitat impacted the species, but their eggs are a nice treat of a variety of mammals. The staff explained that there are no mammals native to New Zealand (besides bats and marine mammals), but foxes, mustelids, and other invasive species were brought over, many intentionally, by European settlers for sport hunting. These have been disruptive to native bird species, especially those stuck on the ground like kiwis!

Once Mr. Kiwi ducked back into his den for a nap after all the excitement, we made our way to Auckland. Since we were departing on Air New Zealand and heading to the South Island, we left from the domestic terminal. The rental car return was a tad confusing, but once we sorted everything out, we were on our way south!


We had really high expectations for our trip to New Zealand—we had been dreaming about it since 2018 after all! The North Island exceeded our expectations in nearly every way: topography, people, experiences, native culture, and unique destinations and activities. It was hard to imagine that the South Island would be able to eclipse the North Island, but we were wrong. South Island, here we come!

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