Exploring Wellington, Rotorua and Auckland

Hobbiton is located smack in the middle of the North Island; about one hour north of Rotorua...


We chose well for our final week on the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List trip: the North Island of New Zealand.  With so much to see, we focused on the three principal cities – Wellington, Auckland, and Rotorua – and crammed our week with as many activities as we could fit! 

The Week in Wellington

We started down in Wellington, which rightly calls itself the “coolest little capital in the world.”  Surrounded by nature yet thoroughly modern, Wellington is beautiful, cosmopolitan, and a lot of fun to explore on foot, by sea or via its iconic red cable cars. 

Our base for the week was the waterfront Museum Hotel, an ultra-chic boutique hotel whose lobby resembles an art gallery full of paintings, sculptures, and street art.  Our room was as comfortable and as stylish as the city itself!  

Straight away we made for the Queen's Wharf, where we boarded the Megisti Sailing catamaran and set sail for a sunset champagne cruise around Wellington Harbor and Oriental Bay.  From the water it's easy to grasp what makes Wellington so appealing: small clusters of stately homes rising from the shores up the wooded valleys above. 

Back on shore, we explored these hills via the historic cable cars, before walking through the enormous botanic gardens that envelope the CBD.  We then took a quick shuttle to Zealandia, a nature reserve centered on one of the city's old water reserves which aims to slowly restore the rarest indigenous flora and fauna in New Zealand. 

Museum Hotel, Wellington

“Wellywood” and Middle Earth

Wellington is also home to “Wellywood,” the Kiwi film industry that has been given a boost with the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings franchise and the Hobbit, just to name a few. The Weta Cave studios where Jackson created the films stunning special affects offers tours called the “Window into the Workshop,” which showed us everything from designing Ork's costumes to the CGI behind Avatar

Alex is a life-long fan of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, so really our visit to the Weta Cave just whetted his appetite to search out some of the film locations from the movies, starting with the one closest to his heart: Hobbiton, the movie set for the mythical homeland of Hobbits, the Shire. 

Hobbiton is located smack in the middle of the North Island; about one hour north of Rotorua, but it looks as if it was in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  The movie set is complete with 44 hobbit homes, gardens, a lake, and the Green Dragon Inn, which serves authentic ales and porters. After snapping photos in front of our favorite hobbit homes, we raised a pint in the pub and checked the Shire off our bucket list. 

Wearing the Gandalf hat and staff at Weta Workshop, Wellington

Rotorua: Hakas, Geysers, and Hot Pools

In reality, New Zealand isn’t home to the hobbits.  But nearby Rotorua is the heartland of the Maori, and we started off our time with a visit to Tamaki Maori Village, a re-creation of a pre-European Maori settlement.  Through song, dance, and ceremony we learned about the core aspects of New Zealand’s Polynesian heritage before sitting down to a traditional feast.

Rotorua is also popular for its geothermal activity, which we experienced at the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, a natural park of lush ferns and indigenous bush punctuated with spewing geysers, bubbling mud pools and steaming clouds of sulfur.  The variegated mineral of the aptly-named “Artist’s Palette” made for great photography, but we knew we couldn’t fully experience Rotorua’s geothermal activity until we’d taken a dip in a geothermal pool.

We took our first dip in our hostel, the Four Canoes Hostel, which had a pool of its own.  But the Polynesian Spa proved to be the ideal spot to soak our bones after six months of travel. We warmed up in their lakeside pools, jumping from 36° up to 40° before moving to our own private spa to watch the clouds move over Lake Rotorua in total peace.

Tamaki Maori Village & Dinner

Auckland: The City of Sails

The third city we visited was Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand and the commercial capital of the country.  Large, modern, and spread across a beautiful bay in semi-tropical climate, Auckland is a great place to either start or end your time in NZ.

The highlight for us was setting sail with the Explore Group and trying our hands crewing a real America’s Cup yacht. The grand prix sailing ships were the real deal, and it was great fun tacking against the wind racing our sister ship through Auckland’s harbor.  Winning the race was an added bonus to a memorable bucket list activity. 

Next, we did the token Kiwi-Adrenaline-Experience and rode up the 192m SkyTower to strap on a safety harness and jump off of the upper deck! The SkyJump was an 11-second descent to street level controlled by safety cords on either side, making it like a combination of a base-jump and a bungee, but a bit more controlled than both.  After six months of jumping off unnecessarily large platforms, we hurtled through the air with minimal shrieks of terror. 

Finally, we went up the sacred Maori land of Maungawhau (Mt. Eden in English), where we met up with a guide from Tamaki Hikoi, a descendant of the Maori chiefs who founded the city hundreds of years ago.  Before we walked, we proceeded through the ritual Maori welcoming ceremony, in which they introduced their ancestors to our own, sang us a song of welcome, and then pressed their foreheads and noses to ours to share a breath of life.  Witnessing the sacredness of Maori customs was deeply moving, and we proceeded up the hill listening to stories about the foundation of the city, the battles between Maori and Europeans, and the present state of bi-culturalism and coexistence.  

As we closed the ceremony, the chief acknowledged my brother’s and my New Zealand heritage, that this was the land of my father and his father before him.  He told us this was our home as well as his, and that we walk comfortably on two lands. 

After six months of travel, my brother and I stood on the hill in silence, absorbing the moment and appreciating how far we'd come on this journey.  It was the end of the trip, a time for us to reunite with friends and family, but we knew we'd return home as changed people. 

In filming for BBBTV we'd seen the world, we'd lived to the fullest, pushed our own boundaries on a daily basis and expanded our own sense of the possible.  We'd made some serious progress on our bucket list.  But deep down, I knew the trip wasn't over, that we'd never reach the end of our bucket list.  Deep down, I knew the adventure was just beginning.

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Mt. Eden with Tamaki Hikoi Maori Guided Tours