It’s been three months married, and I still want to go back and redo it all again! Including our crazy awesome honeymoon. Because when you’re already halfway to New Zealand for your wedding, and have no desire to head back to the US mainland anytime soon, you go to New Zealand to honeymoon! If you didn’t gather, this is a long recap post of the best trip of our lives as a couple thus far.
Three days after our wedding we flew New Zealand Air from Honolulu to Auckland and it was hands down the best airline experience either one of us had ever had. Even the coach seats folded out into beds, they gave you “snuggle straps” (aka extra seatbelt straps so you could lay down) to encourage spooning (can’t make this up), and the food they served was super tasty. This was literally the trip of a lifetime, traveling around New Zealand, just us in a campervan. All the people we met in New Zealand were the friendliest humans, the scenery was amazing, and the sense of adventure we started our marriage out with in a foreign country, with no real itinerary and only the open road, couldn’t have set the tone for building our family any better.
We landed in Auckland in the evening to sunny skies and warm weather. We had one night to burn before picking up the van the next morning so we explored a few pubs and stayed in a Best Western close to the city centre. It had air conditioning to help dry out our Hawaiian soaked hiking boots (that we had to declare at NZ customs because they were so dirty, whoops!) and a hot shower, so there were zero complaints. We woke up to sunshine and blue skies again and went to grab the van, but the van pickup experience was extra special. Because it took forever. Like almost six hours. Mostly because there were a lot of people waiting, but their waiting room had full bathrooms, WiFi and comfy seating so it wasn’t terrible. They also had a special section where outgoing travelers could leave items and food they wanted to pass onto to others, which was awesome because we snagged some Tupperware and wine glasses. We went with the Britz van line, which as far as we could gather was sort of the middle-tier offering. The van was basically the only thing we picked out about this trip ahead of time. We wanted to be self contained, be able to cook our own meals, and have enough room for luggage (we had a lot coming from a wedding), and a full size bed. It gave us all of those things very comfortably. We ended up with a converted Mercedes sprinter and it was honestly so roomy. The bed was in the back and folded up to allow for two couches and a table. Underneath the bed was a small door that held a toilet, which we actually never used. Opening the double backdoors revealed storage, a water tank with sink, a gas powered range and a mini-fridge. They also gave us all the linens, beanbags, a camp table and chairs. When they finally led us out and handed us the keys it felt like Christmas morning, our little honeymoon home was perfect.
For eleven days it was just us and our rental van. And we finally got a little taste of what van living could be all about (not just the glimpse we’ve had random car camping and sleeping in the Jeep all over Yellowstone). I’ve wanted to get a converted travel van for about the past 5 years, which I’ve told everyone I meet it feels like, and I think our honeymoon also showed Jake how sweet it could be. Fingers crossed one is in our future!
After getting used to driving a large vehicle on the opposite side of the road, we pit stopped at a grocery for food – we cooked almost every meal on the road because we had heard food is crazy expensive there, which some things were, but if you’re used to expensive West Coast grocery stores like in Seattle, it didn’t seem too far off. Funny thing we didn’t know at the time was that Auckland was basically one of the only sunny places we would experience on our honeymoon because later that night a cyclone rolled in. Not like a hurricane-force-dangerous-ruin-the-trip type of cyclone, rather just a very stubborn and rainy one. That parked itself over the entire country for the next 9 days of our honeymoon. So we saw a lot of rain after that, with a few patches of warm summer weather scattered here and there. We are used to rain after living in Seattle for two years, which was actually a blessing because with so much rain everyday, if that wasn’t part of our new “normal”, it might have affected us a lot more. But we were just so excited to be there, except for a few frustrated curses to the heaviest rain on the road while driving, not being able to take many photos, and me losing my dream of a honeymoon bronzed tan, we barely noticed.
We didn’t make a real itinerary, but knew we would probably just explore the North island, and with the intense rain it would have made everything outdoorsy we wanted to do on the South island miserable, so we decided to make an entire loop of the North. We ended up not going up to the northernmost tip since all we wanted there were beaches, so on our first day we headed Southeast from Auckland into the Bay of Plenty region and decided to park at Hot Water Beach Top Ten Holiday Park. While there are plenty of places to pull off and camp your van for the night, they are first-come-first-serve and some don’t have facilities, so we splurged some nights on “holiday parks”, which are basically the equivalent of American RV parks and for the most part were very nice and reasonable, around $40-$50 NZ dollars a night, but gave you showers, toilets, and kitchens.
Hot Water Beach Top Ten Holiday Park was the nicest of all the holiday parks we stayed at. The bathrooms and kitchens were super clean, it was walking distance to the beach, they offered rentable shovels to dig with at the beach, had a general store including booze, and even fun things to do like a bouncy-blob. (If you don’t know what that is, think trampoline only made of rubberish plastic inflated to look like a giant pillow on the ground.) And they had a camping cat who greeted us and made himself right at home.
Hot Water Beach is a very tourist thing to do, but we couldn’t resist trekking out there with a shovel and building our own thermal hot tub. At low tide you can walk into the beginning of the surf and dig down about a foot or so and hot water will spring up from the sand. The key is to finding one of the bubble streams which will supply a constant stream of warm water to your makeshift sand pool. Some places were scalding and some were just cool, but it was an interesting feeling looking down the beach at hundreds of people braving the cold wind on digging holes and laying in them to stay warm. We had read a lot of travel blogs saying to skip it, but I’m really glad we didn’t. We came back to camp to make our first van dinner and were greeted by a beautiful sunset and full rainbow.
The next day we took advantage of the hot water showers early and headed to the Rotorura area, known for its geothermal activity, volcanoes, geysers, and hotsprings. At least 50% of the fun of this trip, like our past long road trips, has been in the experience of “getting there”. We love enjoying the drive of heading to the next destination and the freedom of being able to pull off wherever we want. New Zealand made this part even more fun because the landscape is so varied and scenic. From rolling hills and mountains to fields filled with sheep and geysers (how the sheep aren’t boiling I still don’t understand), to wine country, beautiful beaches and lakes, waterfalls, and massive volcanoes. The New Zealand countryside really can blow your mind. On our way we decided to take a chance on “Kerosene Creek” that some people had told us about. It’s a small geothermal river with rapids and a stone bottom so it’s easy to float and wade in to relax. The entry point is down a dirt road, but when we rounded a bend about 3 miles in and saw all the other campervans we knew we had arrived. We threw on swimming suits and trekked down the muddy path to these rapids that at first glance looked a little strong, but there were little kids playing in them so we headed in. It was heaven (even if the air smelled like sulfur), if your heaven is hot, steaming water pouring over boulders that you can sit underneath and let it hit your shoulders, because mine is.
Afterwards we explored the town of Rotorua, bought some rain pants and gators, then headed out to find a remote campsite for the evening. The rain was pretty intense this day, but we took a random road and found a campsite on a lake to camp at that had bathrooms so we could drink some wine and listen to it rain. One of the great things about New Zealand is that it is so well catered towards tourists that it’s literally almost impossible to get lost. There are impeccable road signs helping you out everywhere. And the roadside bathrooms put America’s to shame. Shame! The next day we got up early and went to the Wai-O-Tapo Thermal Wonderland, which we had stumbled upon looking for a campsite. We were so glad we paid the entry fee because it was pretty much like the Disneyland of geothermal areas, which Jake loves. We learned some interesting history of the area and saw some crazy geyser activity. It basically felt like a mini Yellowstone without anyone around to tell you not to kill yourself in a hot pool of sulfur. Since we were early and it was raining we had the entire park to ourselves, it was nuts and the photos below don’t do it justice. It was raining, but you can still make out all of the steam coming out of the ground and the crazy colors of the mineral pools. The area was also about 20 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, so about 80 F degrees. The trek ended at a huge lake with a colony of black swans.
After the park we decided to try and head for wine country in search of better weather so we took off for Napier, which is like the NZ Napa Valley on the coast of Hawke’s Bay. Napier is an old art deco city surrounded by countryside full of vineyards. We didn’t find better weather, or get a camping spot along the bay like we wanted so we explored down to the next small town of Hastings and stayed at a holiday park there for the night. The next morning we brunched (one of the only meals we ate out), shopped around in adorable downtown Napier and took a walk on their black sand beach. Napier has great architecture, gardens, and statues basically everywhere you look from downtown, which also right on the beach.
We really wanted to try to get one winery in, but since the weather was poor our plan of camping and biking from winery to winery wasn’t going to work, so we started searching for any that would allow campervans to stay the night. We found one on the outskirts of wine country called Junction and headed there. Much to our surprise, the winery is owned and operated by a famous retired All Blacks rugby player, his wife and sons. We arrived mid-day and everyone had just woken up, but they greeted us like we were long lost family members, taking us into their adorable home, pouring us wine, telling us wild partying stories from back in his rugby years, and even catching one of their baby lambs so I could pet it. We ended up just doing a small tasting and deciding to get back on the road, but THAT was a surreal experience. He forced Jake to put on one of his old jerseys for a photo op, sold us some wine, and we were on our way.
We knew we wanted to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike near the end of our trip, so we decided to just drive and find another nice remote spot to camp and spend the remainder of our day relaxing. As we were driving South we took various roads to see where they would lead and ended up finding the best camping spot on the Rangitikei River, even though we were headed to another one up the road. We decided on the river because it was so secluded, literally just us, a 90-year old man who had lived down there in his camper for 17 years, and a large family of locals that were just throwing a big party. It stopped raining, we settled in, swam a bit, made dinner, and drank wine next to this gorgeous river. We met the locals around dusk and they told us that the forest behind us had gloworms. These luminescent gloworms are only found in NZ and usually people pay a ton of money for the gloworm cave tour, but we got to see them here for free. We waited until it was fully dark and headed into the forest, which was easy because there was already a service road. Once you let your eyes adjust, it was insane. They were everywhere, tiny phosphorescent lights on the forest floor, on the trunks of trees, hanging from leaves – truly like nothing else we have ever seen (except maybe fields of Midwestern lightning bugs?). Sadly it was impossible for us to get photos because of the rain and not having gear with us, but we are forever grateful to those sweet women who showed us the way.
Waking up the next day it was actually sunny! We drove south to Tongariro National Park, where we ended up staying for two nights because it was magical. We arrived with enough time to do a hike in the sun (which made us very sunburnt, apparently there’s less ozone layer in NZ and at altitude our skin fried) up to two volcanic lakes. We checked into the Whakapapa Holiday Park, which was also super nice, and did about an 11 mile round trip hike on the Tongariro Northern Track to Lower and Upper Tama Lakes. The hike was pretty easy and mostly desert until reaching the lakes where the elevation picked up. The last half mile was pretty steep but the views were awesome. The park is also a World Heritage Site.
Afterwards we had to make reservations to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day because you have to take a shuttle to the start unless you have someone that can pick you up at the end. Because the weather was so messy, nothing was guaranteed and many shuttles were not running. Thankfully we were able to secure a spot on one that was running the next day at 7:00am so we called it an early night with a pasta dinner and hoped for good weather the next day.
We ate breakfast early at a tiny cafe and tried to listen for local gossip on if the shuttles were running or not. Turns out ours was the only one that didn’t cancel so we took off for the shuttle pickup. We had read about this hike, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was going to be a hard almost 14 miles, but doing it in cyclone wind and rain was a whole other level. It is one of the top ten day treks in the world, so we were hellbent on finishing it. The shuttle driver told us it should take around 6 hours. The crossing takes you through the peaks and valleys formed by three still-active volcanoes: Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu. The first leg was gentle grade, easy walking path until you get to the Devil’s Staircase, which is where the track becomes steep and our weather went to total crap. Gale force winds (see photo of Jake’s hair below) and off and on torrential downpours made it pretty hard to see and grip and people started to turn around. Near the summit the trail is basically straight-up bouldering, for which they had secured huge chains to the sides to help you scramble and they were lifesavers in the pouring rain. We were soaked to the bone once we reached the summit and couldn’t see anything. On the descent you slide down an ash slide to view craters and Blue Lake, but we only caught a small glimpse because of the rain conditions. The hike in between honestly felt like we were on Mars. We decided to run the last 5 miles or so because we couldn’t take the rain anymore, which was fun because once you make it down off the mountain side, the trail turns into lush forest. We survived and made it out in FOUR hours. We were super proud of ourselves. And so, so, so exhausted. We never stopped once or ate lunch so by the time the shuttle grabbed us, we were ready to party and decided to spend one more night in the park. There was an awesome pub inside the park (in the winter this is a prime ski resort) that had the Olympics on the TV, overlooked a volcano, and we had it all to ourselves the rest of the day. Jake even surprised me with champagne and by the time we finished it the sun came out for about an hour.
That night was the worst rain of the trip, basically flooding the island. When we got back on the road that morning we saw field after field under water and some roads were closed. On our last full day we wanted to try our best to do something “beachy” and the pub bartender suggested the small surfer town of Raglan on the West coast, so we set out for the beach. It was my favorite town ever. I could have stayed there forever and been quite content. Raglan has a super hippy vibe and reminded me of a town I loved in Costa Rica when I lived there for a summer. People of all walks of life just out and about surfing, doing yoga, walking everywhere barefoot. There are even large yoga and alternative living retreats on the cliffs above town. The coast around the town is famous for whale watching, and the town itself is bohemian and quaint and filled with small unique shops and cafes. It was a dream end destination. We found a holiday park to park in and spent the day exploring the town and walking on the beach. The rain cleared that evening, which was also Valentine’s Day, and is always a special day for us since we started dating on Valentine’s Day. That night we splurged on our only real meal out at a nice seafood restaurant. Best date ever. We ended the day with a sunset over the Pacific at the beach we were parked at and not going to lie, I shed real tears of happiness.
Overall, such an amazing trip. We saw so much, got to just relax and be off the grid, drank a ton of New Zealand wine, ate weird chips and cooked lamp on a camp stove, and had the best honeymoon imaginable. We are so lucky to call this life ours and to have had this opportunity to explore New Zealand. Still pinching ourselves.
Forever a little bit Kiwi now and can’t wait to go back ~ Amanda