Hobbits, breweries, caving and tea

Travelling through the North Island of New Zealand is a much-underrated experience. Places like the beautiful Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions in the North Island offer so much.

From cosmopolitan cities and geothermal spas to sweeping countryside and exciting cave adventures, there’s a wealth of things to experience in the North Island. And let’s not forget Hobbiton!

This is just a few of the highlights – we will have more in-depth individual features and videos coming soon.

We hope you enjoy this special NZ Weekly Edition.

Cher bro! Jim & Christina xx

Auckland, NZ

It might surprise you to learn that this is our first major trip to New Zealand and it certainly won’t be our last. To kick off this highlights reel of our week in NZ, we start in the country’s biggest city, Auckland.

We only have a day to explore Auckland, so we do the most sensible thing and go bar hopping!

From Quay Street on the water through to Vulcan Lane and the High Street, we wander the city looking for cool spots for a drink. And boy, do we find some.

The Jefferson, Auckland, NZ

Brew on Quay and Northern Steamship (now The Brit) on Quay Street, and Vultures’ Lane on (confusingly) Vulcan Lane all catch our eye, but The Jefferson down under Fort Lane really captivates us.

This hidden little speakeasy with the largest selection of whiskies in New Zealand is perfect for a snug cocktail. I even get to try a local dram – Thomson Distillery from Riverhead in northwest Auckland. Their Manuka wood smoked single malt is well worth keeping an eye out for.

Giapo ice creamery, Auckland, NZ

While we’re nearby, Christina decides it’s time for an ice cream. But not just any ice cream. This is Giapo – and their ice creams are sensational. Everything’s made in-house, including the waffle cones and the centrepiece Giant Squid chocolate ice cream topper.

Christina’s chosen the ‘Kiwi As’ flavour, which is a chocolatey, cornflake crusted, crunchy cookie masterpiece. With the regular waffle cone, this bad boy’s around NZ$15, so be careful what you order. It’s worth the money – the ice cream is incredible – but also worth baring in mind.

Ferry to Waiheke Island, NZ

Waiheke Island, NZ

Today, we’re dodging torrential rain storms and heading to Waiheke Island off Auckland’s east coast. While we wait for our ferry, we pop into Shucker Brothers Oyster Bar in the Ferry Building for a quick six and a sip of prosecco.

Famous for its Pinot Noir wineries and its beaches, we were hoping to be able to see more of Waiheke. Unfortunately, the rain’s just too bad today to explore far on foot. Instead, we’ve hopped on the local bus.

It’s only a couple of dollars per person each way wherever you go on the bus, so we’ve stayed on all the way to the end of the line to Onetangi Bay.

The beach here is beautiful, even in the rain, but we’re blessed with a bit of sun through the clouds too.

Charlie Farley's, Waiheke Island, NZ

Onetangi Bay, Waiheke Island, NZ

There are a couple of places to eat at Onetangi; we’ve picked Charlie Farley’s for a couple of beers and a late lunch. Christina has the crab sandwich, which is good, but my double wagyu cheese burger now owns a spot in my ever-evolving top 10 burgers list.

Zealong Tea Estate, Waikato, NZ

All too soon, we’re on the road heading for the city of Hamilton south of Auckland in the Waikato Region. Our first stop at the Zealong Tea Estate. This 100% NZ-grown organic tea plantation is the only one of its kind in the country, which as our contact Jordan points out makes it both the biggest and the smallest in New Zealand!

Jordan guides us first through a tea tasting, where we get to try most of the different teas this incredible company makes and then through the estate explaining the history to Zealong.

Zealong Tea Estate, Waikato, NZ

Once we’ve learnt more about the plantation and how its teas are grown, harvested and crafted, we’re treated to a high tea at the Zealong Estate Tea House

While we’re enjoying our towers of delicious food, Christina and I feel a bit closer to the tea we’re drinking. Knowing that only the top three leaves are picked by hand before the lengthy process of turning green sprigs into tealeaves.

Zealong dries the leaves until there’s around 3% moisture in them. Then the whole cutting is rolled into the signature ball shapes of oolong.

Jordan also explains that you can re-steep the leaves up to five times – you just have to increase the infusion time by about 30 seconds each time after the second brewing.

Visiting Zealong has certainly taught us that you can drink tea without milk. I never thought that black tea was anything more than herbal tea. My favourite Zealong tea – Fire and Ice blend – is a testament to that.

Hamilton Gardens, NZ

Our next stop in Waikato is the fascinating Hamilton Gardens. It’s hard to imagine this oasis in the middle of Hamilton was once the town’s municipal rubbish dump. But the genius of Dr Peter Sergel and the benefit of almost 60 years have transformed the area into a wonderland.

Sectioned into different cultural representations from around the world and across the eras, Hamilton Gardens allows you to wander and wonder through a maze of meticulous ornamental landscaping.

From the Chinese Scholars’ Garden to the Italian Renaissance Garden, there’s so much to see here. This is the Indian Char Bagh Garden, which is particularly striking and looks out over the Waikato River.

Hamilton Gardens afternoon tea, NZ

After a quick rainy tour of the gardens from our guide Kate, we retreat back to the café for afternoon tea. The cheese and ham, and goat’s cheese and pumpkin quiches are particularly good by the way.

After we’ve eaten, we venture back out to see more of the gardens now that the rain’s stopped. The M?ori Te Parapara Garden is particularly interesting, especially after Kate explained the relevance of the symbols in this garden.

Good George Brewery, Hamilton, NZ

After checking into our hotel in town – the excellently located Novotel Tainui – we make our way to dinner. Because we haven’t eaten enough today!

But this evening, we’re guests of Good George Brewing Co, a craft beer company that exists in the abandoned St George Church. We’ve explored the menu (my smoke bowl of amber ale brisket and sides is excellent, as is Christina’s steamed baos), and now we’re exploring the brewery itself.

Our guide, Leslie, gives us these excellent hi vis vests to wear as we go backstage of the brewery. No pressure!

The Good George is very much a craft brewery, still hand-making all of its brews (their APA and Porter are real stand-outs for me). But they’ve cornered a unique opportunity in NZ – they make all the beer for the pub in Hobbiton, which we’re visiting in a couple of days.

You can book a brewery tour here through the Good George website https://www.goodgeorge.co.nz/page/brewery-tours/ – we highly recommend this. It’s a lot of fun.

Waitomo Cave, Waikato, NZ

It’s an early start for us this morning. From Hamilton, we’ve driven an hour south to Waitomo. Famous for its beautiful elaborate limestone cave systems and glow worm colonies.

We have three different experiences here today, starting with a walk through the caves and a boat ride on the underground river. In the pitch black of the Waitomo Cave, the glow worms dance and sparkle in our vision like constellation clusters.

After the boat ride, we make our way quickly to the Ruakuri Cave for a longer walking tour. This cave system has an incredible display of stalactite and stalagmite formations as well as its own fair share of glow worms.

The history to this cave system is interesting too. The name Ruakuri means ‘two dogs’ in M?ori, because the entrance was found when M?ori tribesmen chased now-extinct wild dogs into the caves.

Best of all, this tour is wheelchair accessible, with no steps nor stairs, and well-made metal grid walkways throughout.

Legendary Blackwater Rafting, Waikato, NZ

Our final experience of the day is definitely the most adventurous. We’re with the Legendary Blackwater Rafting guys and have donned cold-water wetsuits, fleeces and hardhats, and have clambered into the belly of the cave systems here, carrying nothing but truck tire innertubes.

After jumping off subterranean waterfalls, squeezing through gaps in the rock and gliding down the river that flows through these timeless caverns, we hop back on our tubes to ride the river back to civilisation.

The last time we did anything like this was in Borneo and it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting as this. Thanks to our amazing guides Christine and Jack for helping us through the Labyrinth.

Sanctuary Mountain, Waikato, NZ

After a well-needed luxurious night at the divine mansion retreat of the Henley Hotel, we’ve come to a very special place in New Zealand. This is the guard fence to a Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari.

Our guide Tali leads us through this ancient forest and explains that the perimeter fence safeguards the wealth of native birdlife from introduced mammalian predators. It’s amazing to think that until humans came to New Zealand around 800 years ago, there were no mammals here at all. Only birds and reptiles.

Sanctuary Mountain is a remarkable project that has helped the ailing population of NZ’s national bird – the Kiwi – stabilise and recover a little. And there are hosts of other native birds that live in relative safety within the confines of this highly engineered defence system.

Sanctuary Mountain, Waikato, NZ

Within the double-lock doors, the forest is profoundly different to the cultivated lands on the other side. The deep peace you can feel from being amongst so many trees and the rich birdsong all around you is something to experience. Even the air feels different as you walk into the forest.

Since all of the grazing animals like deer, goats and sheep have been removed from the mountain, the undergrowth and understory of the forest is growing back to the way it would have been centuries ago.

This unique protected ecosystem has given several of New Zealand’s vulnerable, endangered and critical bird species a habitat they can thrive in again.

Sanctuary Mountain, Waikato, NZ

We climb up the tower in the forest that takes us up into the lower canopy. From here we’re eye level with enormous trees like the Rimu or Red Pine. These trees would have been around when now-extinct Haast’s eagles (weighing up to 15kg) and giant flightless moa roamed the country.

Sanctuary Mountain, Waikato, NZ

In 2006, the 47km-long fence that encircles this mountain started the conservation campaign that led to 13 of the 14 introduced mammalian pests being eradicated from the forest by 2014. Now the only remaining residents are mice.

The fence is an amazing structure, made up of almost 100,000m2 stainless steel mesh. It has a buried skirt that stops digging mammals getting under, scrolls that stop climbers getting over and the mesh is so fine, even a baby mouse can’t get its head through.

If trees fall and damage the fence, inbuilt alarm system alert engineers, who are just 20 minutes away from mending it at any time.

Hobbiton, Waikato, NZ

From Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, we move on to something completely different.

The film set of Hobbiton in Sir Peter Jackson’s franchises for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are about half an hour down the road. Being a Tolkien fan my whole life, this is pretty exciting for me.

The attention to detail on this set, which was built on a dairy farm, is insane. The bridge and watermill look like they’ve been here for centuries, but they’re only a few years old.

Hobbiton, Waikato, NZ

To visit Hobbiton, you have to go with a guided tour group. If you’re not into guided tours, this might irk you, but it’s still worth it. The factoids you get from the tour are interesting, and it means you get the most out of the visit.

There are literally hundreds of photo opportunities, and if you want a photo on your own without the rest of the group in it, you only have to wait a little while until everyone goes past. Quite pleased with my ‘unfriendly get off my land hobbit’ impression. Don’t think that was in the books or films though!

The tours all culminate at the Green Dragon Inn and a mug of ale (made by our friends at Good George Brewery). The inn is perhaps the best part about the whole set because it’s so interactive and well designed.

The hobbit holes and the gardens are good, but they’re just sets. You can’t go inside any of them. It’s a fun thing to do while you’re in this part of New Zealand and we’d recommend you keep a few hours of your trip aside to do this.

Rotorua, NZ

To say that New Zealand has a diverse landscape is an understatement. We’re now an hour southeast of Hobbiton in Rotorua. Set beside its eponymous lake, Rotorua is built on active geothermal springs heated by molten rock and volcanic activity.

Streets and drains spout steam and little piles of rocks by the roadside belch clouds that no one else but us seems to think is strange. In places, Lake Rotorua itself looks like it’s on fire. It’s a very atmospheric place.

Talking of atmosphere, yes, it does smell here. I’m getting rotten eggs with a hint of burnt matches and gunpowder. You get used to it.

Stratosfare Restaurant, Rotorua, NZ

Our first night here, we’re eating at the award-winning restaurant Stratosfare. You arrive by cable car gondola as the restaurant’s on the top of a mountain overlooking the town. Views from the floor-to-ceiling windows are superb.

Considering Stratosfare has won best restaurant and people’s choice best restaurant concurrently, you might be surprised to learn that food is served as a buffet. A gigantic, resplendent buffet. And everything is truly delicious.

Options for your meal take you on a trip around the world with everything from Mediterranean meats to southeast Asian dumplings on offer. There’s a good grill chef here, who can cook steak to order and there’s even a selection of sumptuous local cheeses you can help yourself to.

We’re really wowed by the quality, range and freshness of the food here. And the service is happy, bright and helpful. And the ride back down the mountain is a lot of fun too.

The restaurant and gondola aren’t the only things to do here either. Skyline Rotorua also has a luge where you ride carts downhill, mountain bike trails, ziplines, a giant terrifying swing, star-gazing, shopping and even a wine-tasting experience.

Polynesian Spa, Rotorua, NZ

As our trip draws to an end, we look at how we can pamper ourselves a little. This treatment at the Polynesian Spa – one of the top spas in the world – is just the thing. First, a soak in the mineral baths that range in temperature from 36dC to 41dC relaxes us.

This reminds us of the onsen in Japan, with mineral-rich geothermally heated spring water that’s full of healing and restorative properties. There’s also an acid bath, which sounds like something out of Batman, but it’s perfectly safe. Views out over Lake Rotorua from these pools are amazing.

Next Christina and I enjoy a wonderful geothermal mud therapy and massage that takes all the aches and cricks of travel away. We finish off with a private pool overlooking the lake. Bliss.

Redwoods Treetop Walk, Rotorua, NZ

Because we can’t sit still for very long, we’re checking out the Redwoods Treewalk this evening. This manmade forest of Californian redwoods, which has grown much faster than the native forests of North America, is quite a spectacle.

Even more impressive though is the walkway amongst the enormous trunks of these beautiful giants.

The 600-metre long and going from 6m up to 20m, the low-impact wooden causeways give you a perspective of the forest that’s rare to experience.

As dusk comes, eerie spaceship shapes hanging among the redwood branches come alight. Created by famed designer and sustainability advocate David Trubridge, these giant lanterns give an ethereal presence to the forest. And coloured lights on the forest floor far below make a night walk even more other-worldly.

Eat Streat, Rotorua, NZ

A visit to Rotorua isn’t complete unless you check out Eat Streat. This pedestrianised laneway of bars and restaurants gives hungry locals and visitors alike almost too much choice.

We pop into a couple of bars early on but sit down for dinner at Wholly Smoked Chargrill and Bar for some tasty pork belly and a burger. The owner, Sid, is a lovely guy too and makes us feel very welcome.

After dinner, we pop back into Brew – a craft beer bar on Eat Streat that we’ve quickly fallen for. Staff here are lovely and the beers are superb.

In fact, Brew also has its own brewery, which makes sense. If you ever see Croucher beers anywhere, buy them – especially the Ultra IPA and the Volcano NZAPA. Absolutely delicious.

Us at Hobbiton, Waikato, NZ

We hope you’ve enjoyed this (somewhat epic) rundown of what we got up to in NZ. We’ll have more details for you on specific things we did and what you can expect. But let us know if you have any particular questions about any part of our trip.

Cheers – Jim & Christina xx

We worked with various providers, Hamilton and Waikato Tourism, and Destination Rotorua to bring you this story.

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