• From bucket list activities of Auckland to the buried history of Rotorua, here are some top recommendations if time is short on the island paradise at the bottom of the world

    New Zealand is one of those countries that I never gave much thought about until I arrived here in the UAE. With so many friends and acquaintances from Auckland and Wellington on the North Island it was inevitable that I would fnd myself caught up in the lore of Maori culture, the good-time stories that were shared with me, and the primal urge to dig a ‘hangi’ for dinner (whatever that is) despite never seeing any of the Lord of the Rings movies.

    It was only a matter of time before I was standing in Dubai International Airport with passport in hand ready to embark on an epic journey, bound for the Southern Hemisphere over Christmas for a bit of summer fun.

    For the short time that I was there, I can say that you defnitely need to allow suffcient time to travel in New Zealand. It’s small, but distances are greater than you think and many of the roads wind along the coast or through mountains making for some great panoramic moments along the roadside.

    I feel it would be rewarding to take the time to tour around for at least three weeks on each of the islands, but since I didn’t have that kind of time – I only made it to the upper third of the North Island – here are a few of my favorite check-points for the frst-time traveller.

    AUCKLAND

    If you’re flying into the North Island, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to fly into Auckland so it’s a good place to start your journey. It is also the largest urban area in the country, so enjoy the metropolitan vibe for a bit.

    Whether you drive into town or take the ferry across the harbour if you’re staying outside of the city, the iconic Sky Tower will dominate the skyline. At 220 metres, it is the tallest manmade structure in New Zealand and offers panoramic views of up to 80 kilometres in any direction from the observation deck.

    For those who seek a little bit of adventure, there is the SkyWalk. With a full body harness that is tethered to the tower, you can view Auckland from a 1.2-metre wide platform 192 metres off the ground that encircles the outside of the tower.

    Want more adrenaline? No problem. While you’re up there you can SkyJump and essentially base jump and free fall straight down to the Auckland streets below. The rush is unbeatable.

    To help settle your nerves and overall giddiness of what you’ve just ticked off your bucket list, I recommend wandering down to the harbour for dinner and drinks. In an area known as ‘The Viaduct’ where old shipping warehouses and freight depots have been renovated into all sorts of restaurants and bars for a great evening out. Enjoy everything from pub-style food to fne dining. Easily walkable and suitable for families, I didn’t fnd a better place to spend my evenings in Auckland.

    ROTORUA

    Heading South from Auckland, the city of Rotorua is just under a three-hour drive if you don’t stop to see things along the way.

    If you do happen to stop somewhere, then I suggest stopping for lunch in Tirau. Most of the shop signage along highway 5 into town is what the small city is famous for as it is all made out of corrugated iron. Two shops in particular, one of which houses the tourism board, is made entirely out of the wavy metal and in the shape of a dog while the other is in the shape of a sheep and a ram. All together, the town had been named ‘The Corrugated Capital of the World’.

    But moving on to Rotorua, which takes its namesake from the nearby lake, it is an excellent stop thanks to its geo-thermal activities and a great link into the Maori culture.

    TAKE A WALK IN THE REDWOODS

    While walking through a forest of 115-year-old trees might not be your idea of an adventure, that might change when you are suspended 15 metres from the forest floor. Brought in at the beginning of the twentieth century from California, these gentle giants rise to staggering heights and almost immediately cause a hush to fall over you as you see the elegance and majesty of the forest.

    The canopy walk consists of 21 suspension bridges between 22 redwoods, which makes the 553 metre-long walk the longest suspended walkway of its kind in the world. As you traverse the gentle giants you gain a unique perspective of the forest that you cannot receive from the ground and it is all done without the need to wear harnesses or protective gear of any kind.

    Once nighttime falls, there is a Lantern Walk available. Lit by 30 suspended lanterns designed by David Trubridge and multiple colored spot-lights and LED lasers, the forest takes on a completely different mood and offers a unique night time experience. Kids of all ages are welcome as well. Special ‘prams’ have been built to ft the narrow walkways of the suspended bridges – so everybody is welcome.

    THE LIVING MAORI VILLAGE

    Located in the heart of Rotorua, is the living Maori village of Whakarewarewa, a must-see if you’re in the area. Situated amongst bubbling hot springs and mud pools, the village offers one of the best cultural experiences in the area. I recommend taking the guided tour to experience the culture through the stories of the guide.

    If you have a bit of time, stay for one of the performances of traditional Maori song and dance that take place each day. If you’re hungry, then you can indulge your sense of culinary curiosity with a traditional geothermal Hangi (meat and vegetables cooked in a sack underground by the geothermal heat and steam), have a Hangi pie or corn on the cob.

    RIDE THE RAILS

    Located just 15 minutes from Rotorua, Railcruising offers people just like you and I the opportunity to see the beautiful rolling countryside in our own powered, self-drive, fourseat railway vehicle.

    Don’t worry, it’s all computer controlled and once you push the throttle forward, the onboard GPS system does the rest. Speed is controlled automatically and as you cruise along at 20kph, you can listen to the onboard commentary and learn about some fascinating tidbits of New Zealand Railroading history. If something should go wrong, a helpful staff member can fnd you within a matter of minutes.

    Running on a stretch of the old passenger train line that was bound for Rotorua and further locations South, currently there is only 9.5 kilometres of track available, but work is underway to raise funds to put more lines in service and to extend the experience across the valley.

    EVER SEE A KIWI?


    Nope. Me either, until I visited the Rainbow Springs Nature Park. New Zealand is the perfect country for anything outdoorsy, but if life in a camper van sounds about as much fun as a fnger in the eye, you can still get up close and personal with the bugs, birds, and beasts that call the small island home.

    The most intriguing to me was the elusive Kiwi, which might come to a surprise to some…but is in fact the island resident.

    Kiwi birds are nocturnal, but don’t worry about missing them. Rainbow Springs has a nocturnal kiwi enclosure where many of the island’s inhabitants run around all day in the simulated night ambiance.

    For a truly unique experience, I recommend the Kiwi Encounter Behind the Scenes Tour. In this, you get to see exactly how Rainbow Springs, the largest kiwi hatchery in the world, is helping kiwi in the wild. Every tour that is booked is a 100% donation to the kiwi conservation program.

    Dedicated specialists who hear tips on kiwi nests in the wild are sent out to retrieve the eggs and bring them in for incubation. The day I visited, I was lucky to see two eggs come in for cataloguing.

    The rest of the park has an impressive collection of native birds, fauna, fsh, and reptiles; all of which can be booked as an experience to get extra close and personal.

    Once you fnish checking out the animal park, you can cool down at The Big Splash. Not is it only a ride to raise your adrenaline in a fantastic plume of water, it’s also where you can learn about some interesting New Zealand stories over the course of the nine-minute ride.

    UNDER THE ASHES

    Before 1886, the city of Te Wairoa was established as a model village to help the Maori in that region fnd sustainable ways of fnancial support, primarily in the form of tourism to the fabled Eighth Wonder of the World, The Pink and White Terraces.

    But that all changed when the eruption of Mount Tarawera devastated the area and obliterated the Terraces and dropped nearly two-metres of ash, mud and molten rock over the city, creating what would eventually become New Zealand’s most visited archeological site; The Buried Village.

    Through the museum and walking tour of the archaeological site you can gain a very clear perspective of the people and time prior to the eruption. There are several artifacts that have been found and are on display from a felt-brimmed hat to fne china dishware with barely a crack. As this is somewhat of a ‘modern Pompeii’, it’s interesting to read the letters and historical accounts of the people who survived.