In 2009 we explored the beautiful South Island of New Zealand. Last year we decided to return to New Zealand to visit the North Island. We were flying with Singapore Airlines and decided to do a 2-day stopover in Singapore on our way to Auckland.
The start in Munich wasn’t smooth at all. Due to a security breach of a Spanish passenger arriving from Thailand, the whole terminal 2 was evacuated and completely closed for 3 hours. More than 200 flights were canceled on this day. Luckily our flight was one of the very few flights that left Munich from Terminal 2 on that day although with many hours delay. Since we had planned a stopover in Singapore we had no problems with any connecting flights.
It was our first trip to Singapore (in the past we have been only at the airport for changing flights but never explored the city). Before our trip, we talked to several friends who had already been to Singapore. This city seems to polarize. About half of them loved the easiness, relaxed atmosphere and great food, and the other half found Singapore artificial, clean, and boring. We loved it. The people were always extremely friendly and the food was fantastic. And since everything is so easy in Singapore it was a very relaxing start of our long trip to New Zealand. In addition, the two days in Singapore helped to get quickly accustomed to the huge time-difference between Germany and New Zealand. If you fly with Singapore Airlines they offer very attractive stopover packages with free shuttle service to the city, free entrance to several attractions, and reduced prices for many hotels.
The highlight in Singapore besides the great food was the Gardens by the Bay area with its lovely botanical garden and the impressive giant artificial trees (especially with the free light and music show at sunset). Close by is the Marina Bay Sands complex with its posh shopping mall and a great food court with very reasonable prices (just the food court, all the other stores, and restaurants in the MBS are luxurious and expensive). The view from the MBS rooftop is awesome.
In addition, we visited Chinatown, Little India, and the Colonial District of Singapore. After two days we continued our trip to New Zealand. We could have easily spent another day or two in Singapore and recommend the stopover there. After another long but uneventful flight, we finally arrived in Auckland.
Arrival in New Zealand
Sadly our trip in New Zealand started with our worst rental car experience ever. We booked and prepaid a Toyota Prado SUV with additional snow chains several months in advance via Sunnycars in Germany. We knew that Europcar would be the company providing the car in New Zealand. Sunnycars sent us the local terms and conditions of Europcar New Zealand before the trip and everything seemed to be fine. To be sure I nevertheless checked the local contract at the Europcar counter in Auckland again and compared the details with what we got in advance. There were two significant differences: it was not allowed at all to drive on gravel roads and in winter conditions (roads with snow or ice). Remember: We rented a 4WD SUV with additional snow chains because we wanted to visit some of the national parks located in the mountains, like the Tongariro NP and the Egmont NP. A friendly remark from my side that there is a difference between the Europcar terms we got in advance and the one we should sign now just led to the reaction that they don’t care for the terms we got in advance. My question of why they rent snow chains and 4WD vehicles if driving on winter roads and gravel roads is forbidden was ignored. We were really desperate. Therefore we decided to nevertheless sign the local contract and adjust our travel plans accordingly to not violate this stupid rental contract. And now the highlight: The woman at the Europcar counter told us, that they will not give us the car anymore (despite we had already paid the full price in advance) because she assumes that we will use the car on gravel roads or winter roads. Crazy!
After calming down a bit we went to the next rental car counter. Luckily Hertz had a Toyota Hilux pickup available. In their rental contract were no restrictions regarding gravel roads or winter roads at all and the price was even a bit less than the Prado from Europcar. After the trip, it took us another 3 months to get our money back from Europcar. Not a really good start in New Zealand. And it was my third bad experience with Europcar (after Norway and Chile). I will avoid renting any cars from them in the future.
Although we took a tent and some sleeping bags we stayed in hotels or huts during the whole trip and never used the camping equipment. Since it was winter in New Zealand and therefore off-season it was very easy to find cheap and nice accommodations. Mostly we just checked on booking.com one day in advance and sometimes even on the same day and never had a problem.
We started our trip in the north of the North Island. In Whangarei, you can find the beautiful Kauri Park with boardwalks high above the ground.
In Kawakawa we explored the Hundertwasser toilet and some colorful murals.
Our next stops north of Auckland were at the Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri, at the Kouto Boulders, at the Waiotemarama waterfall, at the Piroa Falls and at the Waipu Cove.
Close to Waipu Cove is the Waipu Cave, our first glowworm cave on this trip. It’s completely free to enter and you can explore it without any guide on your own (of course at your own risk). For glowworm photography, it’s one of the best places in the world since you can take as much time as you need contrary to guided tours. For a good glowworm image in a completely dark cave, you need exposure times of several minutes (in addition to a large aperture lens and a high iso setting on the camera). Especially for the Waipu Cave wading trousers are really useful. I spent altogether about 5 hours in the cave.
The next destination was the Coromandel Peninsula east of Auckland. On the way to Coromandel, we did a quick stop at the Hunua Falls.
One of the most interesting places on the Coromandel Peninsula is the 309 road with its lovely Kauri gorge, the Wiau falls and the crazy Waterworks park where we spent a couple of hours.
The New Chums Beach is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. Since it’s a one hour walk over rocks and roots to get there it’s not crowded at all.
Probably the most famous place on the Coromandel Peninsula is the spectacular Cathedral Cove. It was used as a film location in the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Some beaches there can only be safely entered (and left!) at low tide. Therefore check the tide table before you start the 5 km hike.
The same can be said for the Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Two hours before and after low tide you can dig your own hot water pool. Spades can be rented at the cafés next to the car park. It’s fun but you are not alone there.
Hobbiton Movie Set
From Coromandel, we continued our trip to Matamata. The Hobbiton Movie Set close to Matamata was really impressive and well worth the high entrance fee. It was used as a film location for The Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit trilogies.
After the Hobbiton Movie Set, we visited the Blue Spring along the Te Waihou Walkway which is close by.
Our next stop was Rotorua. It is famous for its geothermal activity. Contrary to places like Iceland most of the interesting areas are fenced and you have to pay very high entrance fees to get there. We chose to visit the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland because it has some of the most colorful pools in this area.
Near Rotorua are also the Hamurana Springs with its intense blue water and the Okere Falls where you can view rafts going down the falls (and sometimes capsize).
Whirinaki Forest Park
Southeast of Rotorua is the Whirinaki Forest Park. This is probably my favorite place on the North Island. The temperate rain forest is extremely beautiful and the Whaiti-Nui-A-Toi Canyon spectacular.
Tongariro National Park
The Tongariro National Park is famous for the Tongariro Crossing through a beautiful volcanic alpine landscape. In summer this is supposed to be a tough day hike but in winter it’s more of an expedition. Therefore we decided to stay in the lower part of the Tongariro NP and visited the Mahuia Rapids and the Tawhai Falls used as a film location in the Lord of the Rings (Gollum’s pool).
Close to the Tongariro NP near Kakahi is another opportunity to watch glowworms. This is currently still some kind of insider tip and we were completely alone there during the evening/night. It’s not a cave. The glowworms are on the banks where a road cuts through the hillside. See here for details regarding the location.
The Forgotten World Highway (SH 43) is a 150 km long scenic drive west of the Tongariro NP through remote landscapes and colonial history ending close to the Egmont National Park, which was our next destination.
Egmont National Park
We stayed there at the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, which was a bit expensive but well worth the money. It has atmospheric wooden buildings, extremely friendly and helpful hosts, and good food. In addition the Egmont NP was one of my favorite places in New Zealand with beautiful forests, lovely waterfalls, and the impressive Mt Taranaki. We stayed there two nights and did several of the many possible day hikes.
Our next stop was Wellington, the capital of New Zealand with 190,000 residents in the city and 420,000 including the surroundings. Lonely Planet once described Wellington as “the coolest little capital in the world”. I tend to agree although it shares this status with Reykjavik in my opinion. We enjoyed the Cuba Street with its many restaurants and interesting night markets.
Our favorite place for breakfast was Best Ugly Bagels. The Humdinger bagel was really yummy. Our hotel, the Setup on Manners, was terrible. Yes, it was clean and the location directly next to the Cuba Street was great. But our room had no windows at all, we had several false fire alarms during the night where we had to leave the room, the noise insulation was non-existent and the guys in the room next to us had a big party and were smoking pot the whole night (which you could clearly smell in our room). But despite this bizarre hotel experience we really liked Wellington.
The Te Papa museum with interesting exhibitions about the history of New Zealand and modern art was very interesting. And best of all the entrance was free.
Another highlight in Wellington was the Weta Workshop where many of the famous New Zealand films like The Hobbit were supported with handbuilt costumes, masks, weapons, armors, and many other things. We joined a guided tour and recommend the experience.
From Wellington, we drove the southeast coast up to Napier. Halfway we made a stop in Taumata Hill. Its full name is Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu. It’s the place with the second-longest name in the world. Linnéa had the ambition to memorize the full name and managed it after a relatively short time.
Napier is a nice Art Deco village but in winter it’s pretty much dead with no vibe.
On the way to our next destination Waitomo, we made a short break at the Huka Falls near Taupo.
Waitomo is famous for its many caves, most of them with glowworms. But in nearly all of these caves, photography is not allowed. The official reason is to protect the glowworms, but I’m convinced that the real reason is to make more money by leading more tourist through the cave in the same time (photographer spend more time in the caves than non-photographers) and also sell their own images which they always offer at their shops after the tour.
Luckily I found one cave in the Waitomo area where photography is allowed. And they even offer special photography tours. The cave is called Maungarongapu and you can book the tour here. We booked a private photography tour for Linnéa and me since Kerstin wasn’t sure if she really wants to do a via ferrata trail in a dark cave. We got the climbing harness and helmet from the tour operator, but I decided to take my own climbing boots instead of the provided rubber boots. I always feel a bit insecure in rubber boots on difficult terrain.
This is the entrance to the Maungarongapu Cave.
Sadly due to lots of rain in the last days, we couldn’t do the main tour. The water level was too high. But the alternative tour to a sidearm where you climb along the walls instead of walking through the water was nevertheless very interesting with many glowworms. We could spend about one hour in the cave, enough for at least a couple of long exposure images. And since we were alone in the cave no other tourist could disturb my photography with their flashlights. The guide was very friendly and helpful. I can really recommend the tour operator Glowing Adventures, especially if you are interested in glowworm photography.
From Waitomo, it was a short trip to Raglan, a small village with several nice arts and crafts shops. But the main reason coming to Raglan was not the village but the Bridal Veil Falls close by. They are in my opinion the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand.
From Raglan we returned to Auckland and spent the last days of our trip there. We rented a nice apartment directly at the Princess Wharf.
In Auckland everything is shiny and a bit posh. You can find many luxury cars on the streets. In Wellington, you can meet artists, filmmakers, and students while in Auckland most people look and behave like important businessman/-women working in the finance sector. The restaurants were really good (like the Asian White and Wong’s) but always a bit expensive, especially compared to the rest of the country. It’s still an interesting city, but we preferred the vibe of Wellington.
Altogether we drove about 4000 km with our rented Hilux which worked flawlessly. Our flight back to Germany was without another stopover in Singapore and it took us quite some time to recover from both the huge time-difference and the long flight. New Zealand is a great country and we would visit it more often if it would be a bit closer to Europe.
We used the following photo equipment on this trip:
Boris: 2x Sony A7RII with Zeiss Batis 18mm, Zeiss Loxia 25mm, and Zeiss Loxia 85mm lenses
Linnéa: Nikon 1AW1 with 11-27.5mm lens
Kerstin: iPhone 7 Plus
You can find the best images of both my trips to New Zealand in my gallery.