New Zealand – North Island

An endless array of outdoor activities and a laid back vibe. Our main mistake was only spending one week there and not being able to explore the south island as well! We went over the week of Thanksgiving, and lucked out with incredible weather. While the wine was excellent, we were not overly impressed with the food.  Tipping is not standard but if service was excellent, we were told that 5-10% was greatly appreciated.  Since we were planning to be both hikers and tourists, we packed one normal carry-on suitcase with our basic needs and then our camping backpacks with our hiking gear.  It was easy to check both bags and be able to leave the stuff we weren’t using in the trunk of our car. One other tip – don’t be fooled by the weather forecasts.  Despite the expected top temperatures being shown as around 70 degrees, when the sun comes out there…it is incredibly hot!  Pack light, breathable layers and lots of sunscreen. Below is our itinerary and a few of the trip highlights!

Type of Trip: Self Planned 

Day 1: AucklandArrive in Auckland, direct LAX-AKL on American Airlines.  We picked up our rental car at Hitch (fair priced and easy to pick up/return) and drove to our hotel.  Get ready for driving on the other side of the road!  We dropped our stuff at the B&B, where they greeted us with a complimentary glass of wine and coffee.  We spent the rest of the day exploring Auckland – stopping at the Wharf for lunch, visiting the bridge bungee jump (didn’t do it though), and popping in a random bar on our walk home.

Hotel: The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel – lovely accommodation with a fabulous breakfast in the morning! Totally recommend this spot.

Day 2: Raglan –  After a restful, jetlag catch-up sleep, we took our rental car and began the road trip down to Raglan.  Beware of tons of road construction with gravel roadways and large trucks.  Our first stop was the famed movie set “Hobbiton”, where the Lord of the Rings movies were shot (The Shire).  While pricey, this turned out to be really awesome!  Either make your reservation in advance (it gets slammed) or go first to the Matamata Visitor’s Center and book your tickets there at the same price.  We ended up doing that and the bus picked us up and dropped us back at the Visitor’s Center.  Before the tour, we stopped for lunch at Redoubt Bar & Eatery.  The waitstaff was friendly and accommodating and the food was the best choice that we found in the small town.

Hobbiton was seriously cool.  Such elaborate art design and the tours are spaced out well so you don’t feel overcrowded.  The tour takes you through the set and provides fun movie trivia along the way.  The tour ends with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon (yes, the bar from the movie).

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The rolling hills of farmland along the way was gorgeous.  Lots of cows and sheep, which added to the ambiance.  When we finally arrived in Raglan, the vibe shifted to chilled out surf mode.  Our studio hotel room was perfect, and ideally located.  We had an extended dinner at Orca Restaurant…the service was dismal (they didn’t come to the table for 30 min and when we did order, they forgot about our order)…so that turned into a 3 hour dinner of sub par food, but we didn’t seem to mind with the view of the water and it being the start of our trip.

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Hotel: Bow Street Studios – Rachel quotes “this place is amazing to meditate in!”  Two story apartment with lots of space and serenity.  Very enjoyable.

Day 3: Turanji – We woke up early on our own and had a lazy morning, with breakfast at this great cafe called The Shack. Driving out of town, we detoured to the Bridal Veil waterfall. It was much bigger than expected and made for a nice, steep morning walk to stretch our legs during a long day of driving.

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We tried to stop at the Waitomo Glow Caves, however all the main tours were booked up for the day and it seemed a tourist sink hole.  There were people and tour buses everywhere and the cost of the tours were pretty hefty.  We opted to skip it on our trip, though other people have said it’s pretty cool.

We finished up the day by driving to Turanji, where we would be staying for the night before our big hike.  The town was a small trucker town, a bit run down.  We stopped at the local Tavern for bad cheese pizzas and some penny slots.  Rachel was the big winner, so that was decently exciting.

Hotel: Parklands Motor Lodge – simple, no-frills, inexpensive motel accommodation. Lots of truckers and few amenities.  The rooms were clean and it was nice to be able to order breakfast the night before and have it delivered at a certain time in the morning.  

Day 4: Northern Circuit The BEST part of our trip. We got up early this morning, had a big breakfast at the motel and finished packing our backpacks. Our carry on luggage went into the trunk and we began the half hour drive down to Whakapapa Village (our starting point for the Tongagiro Northern Circuit loop hike).

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Info on hut accommodations and our hiking route:

We had reserved our camping huts five months before our trip – which is highly recommended since the hike is highly sought after and the beds book up. Booking information and availability is HERE. The huts are awesome and well maintained.  Each has a Ranger that stays overnight and lays out important rules and information. The huts have varying numbers of bunkbeds, situated in a few rooms.  Privacy is limited, but the amenities are great for a camping spot.  There are gas stoves, bunks with bed pads, bathrooms (no showers) and heating/lights.  There isn’t a place to charge devices.  You should bring a sleeping bag, inside shoes (boots are not allowed), food and a pot to cook it in (along with dishware). The water is clean and can be consumed from the huts without treatment.

We opted to take the route counterclockwise, which is not the normal direction most hikers take.  I opted for this for a few reasons: less people, flatter first day (elevation wise), and hut availability.  Our original plan was to stop at two huts for the nights, the Oturere Hut and the Mangatepopo Hut. This plan would make our first day the longest (distance) at 23.5km, but our legs would be fresh.  The second day would have the most elevation/climb (~1900m, and 12km) and the last day would be a short out back to the Village (9.4km).  Our hike ended up going a little differently, as described below.

PACKING LIST

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Once in Whakapapa, we checked in at the Visitor’s Center and got our parking pass. We left our car in the designated lot and got on the trail about 9:30am.  It was easy going and gorgeous from the start.  We felt like we were all alone for many aspects of it.  Given that we had a long day ahead of us, we only made two specific stops.  The first was a side trip to the Tama Lakes (worth it).  We dropped our bags and trekked to the lake with just our water bottles, making the extra distance a little easier.  The second stop was for a late lunch at the old Waihohonu hut.  “This was the first hut built in Tongariro National Park (1904) and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It was the base for the first recreational skiing in New Zealand. It was in active use for over 60 years and remains standing on its original site. The hut was registered as a category one historic place by the Historic Places Trust in 1993.” Pretty cool stuff! You cannot camp there but it’s neat to check out. We also made a brief stop at the new Waihohonu Hut to check out the amenities and use the bathroom.  This hut was by far the newest and nicest!

Convincing ourselves to keep going after that first 5.5 hours was tough, but we pushed on to try and make it to our hut with a few hours of daylight left. The scenery begins to darken and become more volcanic.  Really cool…especially when you realize that you are hiking through Mordor (Lord of the Rings) and circling Mt. Doom! Absolutely stunning and we barely ran into anyone along this stretch.  Arriving at our campsite around 6pm, we immediately began an evening of easy dinner and endless gin rummy games.  I think we were hard asleep by 9pm!

Recommended items to bring: sleeping aid and ear plugs!  There are other campers at the hut with you, going to sleep/waking up at very different times.

Food we brought for the trip:

  • Snacks: Clif bars, individual peanut butter packets, gushers/fruit snacks
  • Breakfast: Oatmeal, instant coffee/tea
  • Lunch: Tuna packages (with little mayo packets collected from fast food restaurants beforehand) and mixed nuts
  • Dinner: Easy mac, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate

Hotel: Oturere Hut – best camping accommodation I have stayed in! Obviously, it’s a no-frills scenario but it was super nice to not have to lug thermarests, extra layers, stoves, etc.  They have a campsite there that you can book for less money, but we found the hut to be totally worth it…and warm! Our main complaint was that the hut was shared among many people so sometimes you had to wait to use the stove and sleep still was difficult, given all the different sleep/wake-up patterns.  

Day 5: Northern Circuit We were woken up at 5am, when another guy in our bunk room decided to hit the trail at sunrise and needed to pack his stuff up.  Once up, we just decided to get a move on as well. I don’t do well on limited sleep and our legs/hips were sore, so we made an executive decision to skip our second hut reservation and push through for another long distance day.

The first few hours were a gradual uphill climb with a few beastly ups that kicked our butts. The scenery was stunning though, as we were now totally immersed in the volcanic land.

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We came across the first of the Emerald Lakes and took a lunch break before ascending the steepest climb of the circuit.  These is also where the one-day “Alpine Crossing” intersects the main circuit.  Hence, people of varying hiking experience levels were everywhere! It was a bit chaotic and frustrating to navigate the traffic, but it definitely solidified our decision to NOT simply do the Alpine Crossing and instead hike the full loop. Since we hiked counterclockwise, we were forced to climb the uphill in volcanic ash…which gives a bit with every step (like walking in sand).  That was challenging but I preferred that to the opposite, where there were serious lines/waits to climb up the rocks. The view from the top was perfect, below shows “Mt. Doom” in the backdrop.

Once we came down the other side, we stopped at the Mangatepopo Hut to check it out and have a bite (it was around 1:30pm). This too was a nice set-up, perhaps a little cleaner than the hut we overnighted in.

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The final hike out was deceiving.  We noted that the signs said 3.5-5.5 hours, depending on weather conditions.  We quickly realized why that was – most of the final few miles is an uneven and not-maintained trail. There are challenging rocky areas and trenches dug in, making it difficult with boots and a pack.  We commented that if it had been raining, we would have been screwed.

We finished the 26 mile loop at around 5pm that afternoon, back in Whakapapa Village.  After picking up our car, we made the hour drive up to Taupo, where we reserved a last-minute hotel room.  Embarrassingly enough, as true Americans, we stopped at Burger King for a much needed fatty, delicious burger and fries. The hotel was perfect, with an excellent (well-needed) hot tub and free LAUNDRY!  We threw our entire backpacks into the washer and were good to go. The hotel owners were really sweet and had excellent restaurant recommendations.

Hotel: Gables Lakefront Hotel – highly rated on TripAdvisor and worth the reviews.  The rooms were very clean and substantial, with comfortable beds.  Most rooms have private hot tubs, though those were booked up.  So we settled for the communal hot tub, which we had to ourselves anyways!  The rooms have home-made cookies and all the coffee, tea, etc you could ask for. It was also right on the shore of Lake Taupo, so this made for a beautiful sunset view. The laundry was an excellent addition.

Day 6: Taupo & Rotorua Our trip was beginning to wind down and we were exhausted from the hike, with sore legs and bruised hips/collarbones.  Hence, this day was more of a relaxing endeavor.  We stopped by a few of the tourist attractions on the way out of Taupo, including the Craters of the Moon geothermal area.  This was actually pretty cool ($8/person) and provided a nice excuse for a short walk around the grounds.  There are meteor craters, geothermal hot springs steaming, and lots of cool colors in the landscape.

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We decided to relax the rest of the day and drove up to Rotorua.  We booked 3-hour massage treatments at our hotel (yes, this was overindulging for sure).  They have an in-house spa and it was fabulous.  One hour massage, followed by a honey scrub/mud wrap and then a facial to end it.  Our bodies felt totally rejuvenated afterwards! We ordered great pizzas from Pizza Imperfetto in town and were in bed by 9pm. Perfection.

Hotel: Silver Fern – lovely accommodation with private hot tubs in the room and an in-house spa with reasonably priced treatments.  The hosts are lovely people! Short walk into town. Highly recommended.

Day 7: Rotorua It was nice to stay in the same hotel for two nights in a row. We spent this last free day completely chilling out.  We took private hot tubs sessions in our room, and ventured out to the Redwoods Forest and walked along the treetops.  That was cool and an educational experience.

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Hotel: Silver Fern 

Day 8: Back to AKL The roadtrip back to the airport!  Car return was easy, as was airport check in.  The American Airlines lounge was a nice stopping point in the airport, where we enjoyed our final class of local Sauvignon Blanc.

Next on the list…the south island!

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