I worked up until 10 a.m. the day we left. Our flight was at 3:30.
It had been a nearly month-long marathon of very early mornings, very late nights and countless photo shoot in between. Deadlines loomed. I gave all of my clients eight weeks notice that I was going to be gone for nearly a month. And the photo shoots came pouring in.
I was exhausted.
Mike and I had planned for this trip for nearly a year and we hadn't vacationed together since 2008. And by vacation, I mean a real vacation. Not a long weekend piggy-backed along with one of our trips to NAB in Vegas.
This was VERY overdue and very much needed.
It was wheels up at 4:15 p.m.
Our 3:30 flight was delayed a bit by wicked thunderstorms that rolled through Little Rock. We later found out that a few tornadoes were nearby so I was amazed our flight only left 45 minutes late.
We had a long, really long, flight ahead of us. With a marriage of American Express Points and Delta Skymiles, my ticket was free. Our flight took us: Little Rock > Atlanta > Los Angeles > Sydney > Auckland. 30 hours in total. We ponied up the extra money and bought most of our seats in Economy Comfort. An extra $300 each bought us extra legroom, seats that reclined back a bit more and slightly better food. If you're over 5'7" and all legs, as we both are, it's well worth it.
We had a slight hiccup in Sydney when Mike's boarding pass was declined and we discovered he was not on the manifest. After a few minutes, he was added. We had a hunch this was going to be an issue with our baggage.
We were right.
We landed in Auckland to discover our luggage never made the connecting flight from Sydney. Thankfully we both had extra clothes in our backpacks and I had a small toiletry kit with me. No big deal. By Noon the next day, our bags were delivered to the hotel.
If you travel to Auckland, I highly recommend staying at Rydges. It was an excellent hotel with a wonderful staff. We only stayed in Auckland for two nights which was just long enough to recover from the jet lag. We headed out for a quick walk of downtown Auckland. We ended up in a tiny alleyway off the main drag and had dinner at Urchin & Amber, one of the oldest pubs in town. It was clearly a locals favorite. We were there at Happy Hour and the place was packed. We had an early dinner and it was damn near perfect. I had the Fish and Chips and it was the best I've ever had. I spent six weeks in London and these were far better. The fish was perfectly fried, light and crisp and not heavily battered. The same went for the chips. Sorry, no photos of dinner. I ate it too fast. But below is a lovely iPhone exterior.
By the next day, it was time to head out. We loaded our rental SUV and headed southeast. Destination: The Hobbiton Movie Set.
I am not a fan of Lord of the Rings. There, I said it out loud.
Visiting Hobbiton was one of things Mike really wanted to see so if it was important to him, it was important to me. The day we had planned for Hobbiton, it rained....all. day. long. Rain or shine, the tours went on. The skies were very gray and very foggy. The dreariness obscured the rolling hills that was the Alexander Family Farm, home to the Hobbiton Move Set< and the hillside along the drive to get there.
I thoroughly enjoyed touring Hobbiton, even if it was in the rain. We were soaked. The one thing that really stood out to me was the incredible attention to detail. The detail give to even the smallest thing was fascinating. Things that would likely never be on camera were crafted as if it was going to have a close-up. My favorite was the aging process they did to all the small, wooden picket fences. They look like they had been there for centuries, but they are only a few years old. The "mold" you see on some of the fences is a combination of sawdust and yogurt. They mixed up a paste and then splattered it on the fence. In time, mold would form naturally on the yogurt and you have a weathered look.
I used my iPhone for all of the photos below. The rain was too hard for me to risk dragging out my camera.
After we left Hobbiton, our destination for just one night was Rotoura. We didn't plan much for here since they next day, we were making a long drive to Tongariro National Park. More on that in the next section. We took the afternoon before we headed out to visit Hells Gate. It is New Zealand's only Maori-owned thermal park, Hells Gate has unique geothermal features.
If you don't like the smell of sulphur, you won't like Hells Gate. It's not a huge park, but it's geothermal activity was really interesting to see. As we headed into the main section of the park, we passed through a small, woodland area where much of the trees were coated in a yellow crust from the sulphur.
Some of the mud from the park is used and sold in a variety of hand creams, mud masks and packs and soaps. Sulphur has many healing and medicinal properties and has been used by the Maori people for centuries.
Tongariro National Park
This was my favorite part of our trip on the North Island. There was so much to see and do here. We were greeted our first evening in Tongariro by a lovely sunset on the face of Mt. Mount Ruapehu.
Tongariro National Park was the fourth national park established in the world. It stretches around the massif of the three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro are located in the center of the park.
Our first day in Tongariro we spent just relaxing and checking out all of the sites. Our first stop was high tea at Chateau Tongariro. Driving up to the Chateau, I thought we were headed to the Overlook Hotel. It looked eerily similar. While I was walking around, I kept waiting to see Danny Boy and his two creepy twin friends roaming the halls.
High tea wasn't just tea, it was a full on meal of various finger sandwiches of: cucumber, smoked salmon and egg salad. And there were more sweets and pastries that no human could consume in one sitting. My favorite was the Crème Brûlée served in a demitasse.
After we stuffed ourselves, we headed up to the Whakapapa Ski Field. Although the ski season was finished for the year, the ski lift ride to the top was worth the cost of a lift ticket. The ride up gave us panoramic views of the park and the nearby volcanoes. We had the option to hike back down, but I passed on that option. The next day we were tackling The Alpine Crossing and I didn't want to exhaust myself.
After the ski lift, we paused briefly to look at Wakapapanui Stream. It was a small steam that flowed under the road to the ski area, but it had a picturesque view of Mt. Ngauruhoe.
We also took a short hike Taranaki Falls.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
This is why I came.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is considered best one-day hike in New Zealand. In most hiking circles, it is one of the top ten day-hikes in the world.
I don't want to share too much here, because I have a full story in the works which will be published in a few weeks. I'll share just an excerpt:
My legs and feet were so swollen, I struggled to get my boots off.
I had just finished three-fourths of our 19.4 km hike with my husband, Mike McCall, and we were well into our decent. Ketetahi Hut was a brief respite of relief. We had just completed a halatious series of switchbacks descending down from the Blue Lake. I needed to rest, but it was short-lived. We were behind schedule and it was my fault. Adema had set in. Everything was swollen: My gloves were tight. My fingers looked like little sausages. I had to pry my wedding rings off. My pants were snug. My face hurt. My legs throbbed and ached. My feet were so tender I could barely walk.
More coming soon....
I could drive all day in the New Zealand countryside and never tire of the spectacular scenery. The drive from Auckland to Tongariro to Wellington the countryside is dotted with sheep, cattle and the most gorgeous rolling hills I have seen. The hillside of Scotland is close, but to me, this was prettier.
I'm a big city girl. I was born and raised in a big city. But when I'm on vacation, I prefer the smaller towns and what lies off the beaten path. We spent three days in Wellington and honestly, I would have been happy with just one. The weather in Wellington, at least for our three days, was awful. Storms and rain and the most God-awful wind was our forecast. I'm not talking about a gentle breeze wind, I'm talking about 50+ mph winds. Every. Single. Day. We had plans to visit the Wellington Botanical Gardens, but that plans was scrapped due to weather. We instead took an afternoon bus tour covering the entire city, hitting the highlights including a stop to Old St. Paul's Church. It was only a few hours, but we shared the bus with two other people so it was like we were on our own.
The highlight of Wellington was the Te Papa museum. Our hotel was just two blocks from the museum so it was a short, but windy walk.
We spent the entire day in Te Papa and it was well worth the whole day. The Colossal Squid Exhibit was really interesting. I remember when this was on the news so seeing it was fascinating. Truth be told, I thought it would be bigger.
Another big highlight of the museum was the exhibit on Gallipoli. Gallipoli was New Zealand's first campaign of WWI. The exhibit held several sculptures featuring men and women from the battle. These sculputurs were 3:1 in scale for most people. The detail on these was mind-blowing. When you looked up close, you could see every small detail: sweat, grime on the skin, pores, hair, dimpling on the skin, the weathered clothes. But at a 3:1 scale. You can see a photo of Mike standing next to one of the sculptures. We later found out that all of these were created by Weta Workshop. And that was the next day's tour.
As a big Peter Jackson fan, and the owner of a Little Rock, Arkansas based production company, Mike really wanted to do the behind-the-scenes tour of the Weta Workshop. This was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than a showcase of old movie props made by the Weta Workshop team plus a behind-the-scenes video of past projects. The only thing worth seeing were two people in the workshop inserting microscopic hair into a scalp that will be used in an upcoming exhibit. This was really interesting to watch, but not worth the price of admission.
All in all, the North Island was everything I had hoped it would be. My only regret was not spending more time at Tongariro. I could have spent a full week here instead of three days.
Coming next month....Tongariro Alpine Crossing.