08 November 2017

New Zealand North Island Road Trip II: Rotorua, Taupo, Waitomo and Hamilton

At the end of the first installment of my New Zealand North Island road trip, I had just arrived in Rotorua. Unfortunately, the beautiful sunshine of the Coromandel Peninsula shifted into grey skies and persistent rain that didn't stop until I left Rotorua three days later. I didn't let the weather get in the way of my enjoyment, though; having a car of my own also helped me to stay as dry as possible. Here's what I did in the second part of my road trip.

I must confess that I was a little underwhelmed by Rotorua when I first arrived. The rain didn't help, of course, but I had thought that the small city, located on the shores of a lake of the same name, would be prettier. Before long, though, I warmed to the place — and not just because of the thermal springs, geysers and other geothermal activity in the area. The people were friendly and very welcoming and it was a nice base for a relaxing few days. I stayed at the Six on Union motel, a short walk from the city centre. The hosts were very friendly and the room was large and comfortable, if rather dated and with the worst hotel wifi I've ever had (worse than the Atlantis in Melbourne; most of the time, I couldn't even connect to the network and when I could, even Google wouldn't load most of the time).

Most of Rotorua's attractions lie outside the city centre but there are a few things to do in town. Unfortunately, but understandably, the Rotorua museum is closed for earthquake strengthening work, but I enjoyed a stroll through the Government Gardens that surround it.

Nearby, you can also visit the Polynesian Spa, a series of mostly open-air mineral bathing pools of various (hot) temperatures, some of which allegedly help aches and pains while others are said to yield ageless beauty. I don't know about that, but after two visits, my skin did feel very soft. Entrance to the adult pools is $30, plus $5 if you need a towel and $5 if you want a locker (most people leave their belongings in the boxes freely available for all visitors). I went first early on a Friday evening and there were several big groups there, although it quietened out after 6:30 pm. Locals used to be able to visit any time of day for a monthly fee but now have to pay extra in the evenings so it is quieter then than it used to be. I also went at lunchtime on a rainy Saturday and it was much quieter and more relaxing — I loved the feeling of the cool rain on my face while I soaked in the hot water.

If you want a free bit of geothermal action in the city centre, head to Kuirau Park, where you can watch the mud pools bubble and there's also a hot foot bath. If you drive south on Fenton Street, you might also catch a glimpse of Pohutu Geyser, which erupts frequently but sporadically.

Initially, I decided against booking a cultural experience at one of the Maori villages in the area as I was concerned it would be too cheesy and touristy. Instead, I was planning to go to Hells Gate for a mud bath, but after reading some of the reviews, I felt that a Maori experience would be more rewarding. I booked an evening village experience at the family-run Mitai Village. It cost $116, including minibus transfer and an authentic earth-cooked hangi dinner. I ended up really enjoying the evening and learned a lot about the history and culture of the Maori people in general and the Mitai family in particular. We watched a haka and various traditional songs and dances, and after dinner, we went for a short bushwalk, looking at the traditional buildings, as well  impossibly clear Fairy Springs and even a few glow worms.

A few miles south of Rotorua is the Whakarewarewa Redwoods Forest, which has a number of different walking and biking trails. The day I went, it was pouring with rain so, I opted for my wine-selection strategy and picked the second-shortest walk, which took about an hour. I'd hoped that the rain would abate but it didn't. Still, the redwoods were perhaps even more beautiful in the rain and I did at least have most of the paths to myself.

I was trying to eat and drink cheaply while in Rotorua (it helped, perhaps, that there wasn't any good speciality coffee that I found, which meant I was self-caffeinating by brewing up the Kenyan coffee I bought from Reformatory Caffeine Lab in Sydney). On Thursday evenings, there is a street-food market on Tukiterangi Street. Despite the rain, it was bustling and the food I tried was cheap and generally pretty tasty. Most of the more interesting restaurants are on a covered section of Tukiterangi Street called Eat Streat. I had dinner one night at a lovely restaurant called Atticus Finch. I had the Harper Lee cocktail (of course) and some chicken with lentil salad and spinach. The menu has various interesting small and large sharing plates, and the staff were really welcoming.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park
Perhaps my favourite activity of my stay in Rotorua was my visit to Wai-O-Tapu, a thermal park about 20 miles south of Rotorua. The region's geothermal activity is highlighted in technicolour here, and you can take one of three linked walks through the stunningly beautiful park. The longest takes about 1h15, although it took me longer because I stopped to take so many photos. Entrance costs $32, but I thought this was well worth it.

There's a geyser, Lady Knox, that is 'helped' to erupt each day at 10:15 am with a little surfectant — it does erupt if left to its own devices but less predictably. If you want to see the show, you're advised to arrive at 9:30 am, drive in to the visitor centre, pick up a ticket and then drive back to the Lady Knox car park. While perhaps not as dramatic as Strokkur in Iceland, it was still quite impressive, and the story of the discovery of the geyser given by the guide was quite entertaining.

Even more enjoyable was the walk through the rest of the park. In places, the colours were so vivid and vibrant, whereas in others (the 'devil's ink pots' and the mud pools near the entrance), it almost looked like I'd taken my photos in black and white.

My favourites were (in order below): the multicoloured 'artist's palette', the bubbling 'champagne pool', and the lime green (that day, at least; it changes depending on the climatic conditions) 'devil's bath'. Even the trees and other plants seemed more vivid and colourful than usual, and I spotted a lone bird wading optimistically in one of the pools (they have to fly elsewhere to find food as the pools are too acidic for anything much to survive).

When planning my road trip, I thought about staying the night in Taupo, a town on Lake Taupo with views of the nearby volcanic mountains of Tongariro National Park, which has some excellent climbing and walking. There are lots of outdoor activities in the town itself, from jet boat rides to skydiving, but as I was saving some of those for Queenstown, I figured that I didn't need a whole day in Taupo. Instead, I spent the afternoon there after visiting Wai-O-Tapu, which is about halfway along the one-hour drive from Rotorua. I suspect Lake Taupo is probably prettier in the sunshine, but I strolled briefly along the esplanade and then went for brunch at a hipster spot called The Storehouse. They serve Kokako coffee, and I had both a piccolo and a V60 pourover, which were both pretty decent, as well as some fried chicken sliders. There's a small lifestyle boutique inside and it was a bustling, lively café.

After lunch, I tried to find another potential coffee spot, Volcanic Coffee, but Google Maps was misinformed about its location and as I wasn't entirely sure whether it was trade-only anyway, I gave it a miss. Instead, I visited the small but good Taupo Museum and Art Gallery ($5), which had lots of information about the region's cultural, natural and geological history. A few miles out of town is Huka Falls. I hadn't read up on the sight in advance and so was expecting something taller but it was, nonetheless, very impressive to see the impossibly clear turquoise waters of New Zealand's longest river, the Waikato, as they crashed over the rocks. There are a couple of walks you can take, one a round-trip and one back into Taupo, but it was still raining and starting to get a bit dark, so I headed back to Rotorua instead.

About two hours' drive west of Rotorua, the small village of Waitomo is best known for its series of caves, some of which are famous for their impressive glow worms. I didn't quite experience four seasons on the drive over, but the heavy rain often gave way to clear blue skies. By the time I got to Waitomo, the grey drizzle had returned. I booked tickets online for both the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves and Ruakuri Cave (a combo ticket cost $91) and I was glad I did because when I reached the visitor centre at noon, there was a three-hour wait for the next Glow Worm Caves tour. By the time my Glow Worm Caves tour started at 3:30 pm, they were sold out for the rest of the day.

Although less famous than the Glow Worm Caves, Ruakuri Cave is, in many ways, much more interesting. The two-hour tour was led by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Pippin, who grew up nearby and was exploring the caves practically as soon as she could crawl. There were hundreds of fascinating geological formations, from curtains of 'cave bacon' (I guess it's a bit like a streaky bacon rasher) and 'cave coral', to underground lakes, holes in the process of forming, fossilised scallops and oysters, and, of course, many stalactites and stalagmites.

There were also some glow worms in this cave and unlike in the Glow Worm Caves, we could take photos here. My photos didn't really convey the beauty of these arguably rather brutal bioluminescent creatures, but they were lovely to look at and we got to study a few of them catching their prey in their sticky 'fishing lines'. Entry to Ruakuri Cave is through an illuminated, sloping spiral walkway — the acoustics of the chamber are so good that they've held concerts here, including Dame Kiri herself.

The shorter, 45-minute tour of the Glow Worm Caves was also impressive, although mainly for the 10-minute boat ride on an underground river under a ceiling of thousands and thousands of glow worms. The Maori word for glow worm is titiwai, which means something like 'stars reflected in water, and riding through this cave, you could see why. It was a shame not to be able to take a photo but it probably wouldn't have come out well anyway and it was far better to experience the ride in serene silence, untroubled by camera flashes and selfie sticks.

It was another one-hour drive on to Hamilton, where I was staying for the night. I'd hoped to be able to spend a day in Hamilton itself, which I'd heard had some good shops, eateries and coffee spots, but unless I wanted to completely rearrange my whole itinerary, the only feasible day to do this would have been Sunday, when a lot of places are closed. Arriving on Sunday at 5:30 pm at my motel — the comfortable and well-appointed Camelot on Ulster, a few blocks north of the CBD — I thought the town had already gone to sleep. I went for a walk along the Waikato River — wider and less turquoise than in Taupo, but still pretty and with some amazing houses on its banks.

Wondering if I was going to find anywhere decent open for dinner, I happened upon a second-hand bookshop called Browsers. After browsing for a while, I bought a book and then spotted a 'Neat Places: Hamilton' map and guide on the counter and picked up a copy. There were a couple of dozen independent shops, restaurants, cafés and bars listed inside, some of them closed on Sundays or after 4 pm, but happily, I found a restaurant a few blocks down called Dough Bros. Not only was it open, but it was also bustling and had live music (a once monthly occurrence). I sat at the bar and ordered a sourdough pizza and a 'seasonal shrub' cocktail, which involved tangelo, Cointreau and — usually — vodka, but the friendly bar tender made me a gin version and it was delicious. The pizza was good too and I also gorged on doughnuts, served with caramel and homemade dukkah. It was such a friendly restaurant — a great neighbourhood spot.

The Neat Places guide also forced me to reconsider my morning plans because there were some great-looking coffee and breakfast spots so I decided to try to fit one in before heading back to Auckland Airport, where I had to drop off my car at 10 am. On Twitter, The Black Chapel suggested I try Needle in the Hay, but they don't open on Mondays and although SL28, just next to Browsers, opened at 8 am, I settled on visiting the Rocket Coffee roastery, which was slightly closer to my hotel. They also opened at 8 am, and as it was a 1h45 drive to the airport in the morning rush hour, I drove down to save a few minutes. I still didn't have time to try one of their single-origin pourovers but I had the best piccolo of my stay in New Zealand thus far. I loved the cosy, retro interiors of the café–roastery too.

The drive back to the airport was a bit slow in places and less picturesque than the rest of the trip but not too bad — and despite the roadworks and traffic, I arrived within one minute of Google's projected arrival time. I had originally hoped to drive all the way down to Wellington but dropping off the car there would have more than doubled the price of the rental (with Go Rentals, I paid $196 for a Toyota Corolla for six days) and as I was also a bit pushed for time, I decided to fly. On my road trip, I drove just over 600 miles during my trip and had to refill twice (about three-quarters of the tank each time, both of which cost about $63). Although internal flights are cheap, fast and frequent in New Zealand and long-distance bus travel is relatively convenient, I was glad I rented a car for this section of my trip because of the flexibility it afforded me — particularly important on such a tight schedule.

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