NZ's North Island

Frustration, frustration, frustration. After a week in the north island we were thinking about cutting our vacation short and returning early to Hong Kong. For days we had been looking for comfortable, secluded, cabin-style accommodation in a rural environment where we could relax and enjoy New Zealand's beautiful scenery. After a week of searching through a half dozen guide books we finally realized that such accommodation is rare in New Zealand. In California, we had taken for granted the possibility of staying in this kind of accommodation, but in New Zealand a 'cabin' is a primitive shelter, not much more than a wooden tent, and very much lacking in seclusion since it is part of a camp site. It seems that New Zealanders take their beautiful countryside for granted to such an extent that they prefer to stay in motel accommodation in urban surroundings whenever possible. Our first week, then, was a frustrating time, and something of a disappointment.

This was our first trip to the north island and we had planned a tour with the help of several New Zealand friends. We spent our first night in Auckland, the City of Sails. Easily New Zealand's biggest city, it is home to a quarter of the country's population of just 3 million. Our first impression was not favorable, for the drive from the airport took us through rather run-down and depressing suburbs and the city center seemed lifeless after Hong Kong. The city didn't seem tourist-friendly since the roads were poorly signposted. The motel in which we had a reservation was so uninspiring we left immediately and found a much nicer place to stay in the form of the Centra Hotel, one of the biggest. We felt a little better after exploring the area around Queen Street and having a fine dinner over the Bay.

The next day we drove to the Coromandel peninsula east of Auckland, a 2.5 hour drive. The main town, Thames, lacked charm, but heading north up the coast took us through progressively more hilly scenery until it opened out into the Coromandel valley itself. Coromandel town is surrounded by rolling green hills and sits on the coast. Perhaps it had sandy beaches 200 years ago but now the beaches are rather muddy, the result of erosion caused by intensive logging of the area and also gold and silver mining since the 1840s.

Here's an old photo of some loggers moving a Kauri trunk - this native tree was much sought after by the British navy for making spars and nearly all the Kauri were cut down.

This photo shows a miner doing his best with nothing more than a spade and the company of his dog. Coromandel gold is contained in quartz deposits and very hard to extract.

We stayed at a motel recommended by our trusty Fodor guide, the Colonial Cottages, which was nice enough. We couldn't stay more than two nights, however, since December is summer in New Zealand and it's the high season, especially from boxing day to mid January.

So we headed down the peninsula's east coast, stopping at hot water beach but being unable to enjoy the hot mineral waters that seep, uniquely, up through the sand since the tide was high. We spent a night in a quiet motel in Taurua, then headed on to New Zealand's number one tourist destination, Rotoroa. Rotoroa is known for it's geothermal activity and the air is heavy with the smell of sulfur.

Here's Catherine at the Polynesian Spa, the oldest hot mineral pool establishment, where we both enjoyed an Aix massage (a massage accompanied by a continuous shower of hot mineral water).

We also visited the Whakarewarewa thermal area near the town but it was raining heavily and there wasn't much there (one or two small geysers, bubbling mud pools... nothing to compare with Yellowstone in the States) so we didn't stay long.

Some people had advised us to avoid Rotoroa since it is so touristy and our first night was not very pleasant - we found ourselves separated from the town center by an industrial zone and a noise that we first thought must be due to geyser activity turned out to be planes taking off from the nearby airport. But the city center is pleasant enough and we found a great little restaurant called Poppy's - we would return to Rotoroa later to escape the worst experience of our stay.

From Rotoroa we headed south to north Taupo on the shore of the huge lake of the same name. It was Christmas Day and we had some trouble finding a place to eat but we ended up with a nice buffet overlooking the lake. Off the next day to visit the national park south of the lake. One of the three volcanoes here had a major eruption a couple of years ago. We got as far as the famous (and tacky) Chateau Tongariro but didn't take the ski lift to the top of the volcano as it was shrouded in cloud.

Heading back north past Taupo, we found the thermal park at Waiotapu much nicer than the Whakarewarewa area near Rotoroa. We had planned to head east from here through the forest covered mountains, which we had been told is isolated and wild land. It turned out to be a little too isolated. After driving for 15 km down a 120 km gravel road we arrived a motel where we had a reservation. It was so dirty, dark and depressing (smelly mattresses, naked light bulb in the ceiling...) that we left in a hurry and hurried back to the comfort of Rotoroa for the night.

The next day we discovered a beautiful trail through redwood forest and giant tree ferns just minutes from Rotoroa. It was a beautiful day and we drank up the peace of the forest and got nostalgic for the redwoods of California.

We had planned to explore either the East Cape of the Bay of Islands (north of Auckland) but the East Cape was starting to look unpromising and everyone was telling us that we might have trouble finding nice places to stay in the Bay of Islands so we headed back to Coromandel for the remainder of our stay.

Back in Coromandel, luck was with us and the Karamara B&B was not full up despite being the only Coromandel B&B recommended in the Fodor guide. We stayed here for the rest of our stay, a full 6 nights. Karamara is one of the oldest houses in the area - the "Stables" date from the gold rush days, the 1850s. Here's Catherine in front of the Stables, where we slept.

From Coromandel we followed route 309 east, stopping at the Harmony Gardens on the banks of this river...

... and the Water Works, with various marvels of New Zealand high technology such as this pedal-powered water-pump.

Once on the east coast, we headed south to the Cathedral Cove, surely one of New Zealand's most beautiful beaches. Unfortunately the New Zealand sun has turned quite vicious over the last 10 years, due to the destruction of the ozone layer, and you have to be very careful to protect yourself from sunburn.

We spent New Year's Eve at the Buffalo Lodge - its upmarket restaurant has a seating capacity of eight and our artistic Swiss and Taiwanese hosts were friendly and attentive. Here's Raoul chatting to some of the other guests...

..and here's Catherine on the restaurant terrace enjoying one of the most spectacular sunsets we've ever seen. As usual, the colours are always at their best just after sunset:

Our hosts at Karamara B&B, Richard and Virginia, kindly offered us a fishing trip in the Bay of Plenty. Naturally I was much more successful than Richard or his son, and I had already landed two snappers before catching this spectacular John Dory (a very tasty variety). By this time Richard was dying of jealousy and he threw this one back in the water, mumbling something about it being too small to keep...

Catherine, by the way, didn't want to fish at all - she found it all much too inhumane. But she was happy to eat the same fish at dinner that evening...

That's all the pictures from our December 1997 trip - we hope you enjoyed them. We don't regret our trip to the north island - although its scenery is not so different from parts of Britain, France or California, it's probably prettier and certainly less spoiled than any of them. Our final advice on New Zealand is this: don't bother with the north island unless you're in the country for at least three weeks. The south island is so much more spectacular, there's so much more space and the tourist accommodations are much more interesting.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention: there are some very good-looking young women on New Zealand's north island. Shame about the guys, though.