Northland Part I

Happy holidays dear readers! However you celebrate, may you find peace and joy in the new year. This post grew so long that I have divided it in two.

New Zealand does not disappoint. In 2009, I took a solo trip to the South Island for a month and loved it, so I was quite excited to be returning to the land of the long white cloud for more exploration. Aside from being a bit delayed, the flight from Rarotonga to Auckland was uneventful. We had reserved a hotel room near the airport for that evening, so, unlike others on our flight, we were not anxious about making any connections. After getting our luggage and clearing customs, we went to one of the telecom outlets so that I could purchase a sim card for my mobile WiFi hotspot. Then we called the motel for our pick up. The motel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Best Western BKs Pioneer Motor Lodge was clean and well equipped. Our bathroom even had a large jacuzzi tub! It was too late to get any dinner, so I took a bath instead, and we filled in a card to have our breakfast order delivered to our room in the morning. This was another unexpected bonus, and the breakfast was actually pretty good.

Our first adventure in New Zealand involved driving a rented campervan around the northern part of the North Island, known as Northland, for ten days of camping. We had not outlined an itinerary for this, but rather, were planning to wing it, one day at a time. For those of you who might be considering a trip such as this or those who want to get out a map and follow along, I will outline our overnight stops. In the end, we drove up the east coast and down the west, starting in Auckland.

Day 1 Auckland to Orewa Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 2 Orewa to Oakaru via Mangawhai Heads– Whangaruru Beach Camp

Day 3 Oakaru to Russell – Russell Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 4 same

Day 5 Russell to Pukenui Holiday Park

Day 6 Pukenui to Cape Reinga and Tapotupotu DOC campground

Day 7 Tapotupotu via Hokianga and Waipoua Forest to Kaihu – Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park

Day 8 Kauri Coast to Piha Domain campground

Day 9 same

Day 10 Piha to Auckland airport depot to return campervan

We had some good weather, some rainy weather, some long days of driving, some spectacular campsites, and a lot of amazing scenery. So all in all, I think we did pretty well. We found it quite easy to find grocery stores to meet our needs, and were mindful of getting fuel before it was an issue. Though the campervan we were given was not what I had booked, and was bigger than we wanted, it performed well enough and was reasonably comfortable. We had no road incidents, thank goodness, and pretty quickly got used to driving on the left, despite the sometimes narrow, and winding roads.

Our first day was mostly taken up with picking up the campervan, provisioning ourselves at the supermarket, and driving through Auckland heading north. Michael did the driving that first day, which was the most congested and urban driving we saw. Talk about trial by fire! When we reached Orewa late in the afternoon, we thought it best to stop for the night, unpack our things, and get to know the camper.

The Orewa Top 10 Holiday Park fronts right on the beach at one end of a long stretch of sand where an inlet joins a bay. It has good kitchen and bathroom facilities, and nice flat sites under the trees, a few steps from the beach. After some unpacking, a walk on the beach, and getting ourselves and the camper sorted, we had a nice supper of grilled salmon and zucchini with rice. It was so nice to cook for ourselves and eat the foods we like! The Cook Islands were lovely, but food was quite expensive there and the cheap stuff was mostly fried.


Orewa beach – great for walking!


The beast

To our delight, the morning dawned sunny again. After a leisurely morning that included breakfast, another walk on the beach, and hot showers in the campground bathrooms, we set out to make our way further north. After a stint on the highway, we turned off toward Mangawhai Heads. There we found another beautiful beach and bay. It was a bit windy, so we picnicked in the camper, but then enjoyed another beach walk.


Mangawhai Heads beach entrance





Back on the road, we travelled up the coast through rolling green hills and farmland, across flats, and over little mountains, on small and winding roads. The scenery was mesmerizing and the plants and trees new to us. Finally, we made our way to a tiny village on a sheltered harbor and a mostly empty campground overlooking the water. It was a perfect evening at the Whangaruru Beach Camp in Oakaru and we enjoyed our sundowners while watching the shorebirds and listening to the sounds of unfamiliar birdcalls from the surrounding bush.


The view from our campsite


This is a Pohutukawa tree about to bloom. It was just around the corner down the beach.



In the morning, we backtracked just a bit to check out an establishment we had passed on the way in. Helena Bay Hill Gallery and Café had a lovely and varied collection of artwork from New Zealand artists. One of the things I remember enjoying from my previous trip to New Zealand was the local artwork, so I hated to pass up a good gallery! There was a mixture of painting, sculpture, jewelry, glass, cards etc., in many different materials and styles. After a look around, we continued on along the coast. When our stomachs were rumbling, we just happened to be passing a diminutive little cove that screamed picnic spot. So we pulled off into the one conveniently located parking spot and took our picnic down to the beach. Tapiri Cove was a little gem and we were tempted to while away the entire afternoon sampling its delights. However we had ground to cover, so on we pressed.


The coastline near our picnic spot




As we drove we passed cows, sheep, turkeys, pigs, pheasant, quail, and alpaca, winding our way through the landscape to the historic town of Russell, in the Bay of Islands. Russell is a lovely small town on the water, which played a significant, historic role as one of the first permanent settlements of Europeans in New Zealand. American and British sperm whalers, who arrived in the early 19th century, gave the port its English name and a reputation for debauchery from their activities during shore leave, much to the dismay of the missionaries, who comprised some of the other early settlers. After looking into activities in the area, checking the weather, and having driven for two days, we decided to stay put for two nights. Our camp spot that night, at the Russell Top 10 Holiday Park, had a smashing view across the bay toward Paihia, which didn’t hurt either. The campground was well located in easy walking distance to the village and had excellent facilities. We wanted to get out on the water the next day, so we booked a tour with Explore Cruises which promised dolphin spotting, among other things. A stroll through town, which netted a very handy bird book, was followed by camembert and Sauvignon Blanc before sunset to round out another beautiful day.


The Russell foreshore





The view from our campsite




Waiting for the boat

Our boat tour of the Bay of Islands the next day turned out to be a big success. It was a gorgeous, sunny day again, with calm seas and not too much wind. We were happy the boat was not full to capacity, so it was easy to get a good viewing spot. As we set out through the bay toward more open water, we got a view of the hilly terrain, small coves and beaches, and rock formations that make up the convoluted Bay of Islands coastline.


The Tucker S. Thompson – another option for cruising the Bay of Islands


Leaving Russell




b-of-i-2As the name would suggest, there are also a number of islands in the bay, and our itinerary included a lunch stop on one of them. But first, we were treated to a sighting of a pod of common dolphins. They are smaller than the well-known bottlenose dolphins and have white and black or dark grey markings. The water was beautifully clear, so it was easy to see them swimming underwater as well as when they surfaced.






The next stop was a trip through the Hole in the Rock, a local landmark, which also afforded us a view of the Cape Brett Lighthouse.


Cape Brett



The aptly named Hole in the Rock


The boat actually travelled through the hole



Cape Brett Lighthouse


Then it was back into the bay to Urupukapuka, the largest of its islands. The color of the water was fantastic in multiple shades of blue and turquoise and we passed many idyllic anchorages and camp spots on various islands. This is definitely a sailor’s paradise!



At Urupukapuka, we disembarked to have our lunch sitting at a picnic table on the lawn overlooking the cove. We chatted with some young German backpackers, whose main focus seemed to be the acquisition of free food wherever they could find it. Fortunately for us, they were distracted by the included lunch on the tour, tickets for which they had been gifted, so our lunches were safe from their scrutiny! Really, they were very nice and we enjoyed hearing about their travels.  After lunch we made a quick ascent of the nearby hilltop to get the spectacular 360° view before re-boarding the boat.



Looking back down on the cove. The hill is much steeper and higher than it looks!


The view from the top was spectacular in every direction!








Our boat

On the way back to Russell we passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins and enjoyed another encounter with these lovely creatures.






Back in Russell we had another look around town before succumbing to a nap. For dinner, we went to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront. The food was excellent and we enjoyed dining on the porch. It had been a lovely day and a novel way to spend Thanksgiving!


Some of the local birdlife – a Tui


Another view of the Tui


a Weka visiting our campsite

We really enjoyed Russell and the Bay of Islands and were glad we had decided to stay a second night and get out on the water. The weather had been so perfect, but that was about to change. We feel lucky we had those glorious days to get acclimated to New Zealand.

Our campervan tour continues in my next post.



Endless Summer

Life is pretty rewarding in the pursuit of an endless summer. Quite frequently, Michael declares gleefully that “endless summer” is the goal of our trip. Whenever the weather seems a little cooler, he says we’ll have to move further south soon! Indeed we have been blessed with warm days, sunny skies, and nary a need for a jacket. For the last month we have been basking in the autumn warmth of southern California, specifically La Jolla, near San Diego. Michael’s parents still live here in the house he grew up in, and we have taken over the basement guest room. Pretty nice digs if you can come by them! Most mornings I go for a walk along the cove and cliff tops to see what the ocean has to offer that day. Sea lions, pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants, and harbor seals are frequent companions, as well as a plethora of multilingual tourists. Michael goes off to surf at one of the nearby spots whenever the conditions are to his liking. Many afternoons we make time to go to the beach to top up our tans and breathe in the ocean air and sound of the waves. It’s a rough life, I know! In between these leisure pursuits, we’ve been spending quality time with family, reconnecting with old friends, and preparing to go overseas.

Here are some scenes from my morning walks.img_2007


Children’s Pool on a super clear day



Children’s Pool on a very different day!



High tides and heavy surf make for a dramatic coastline!

While we’ve been lolligagging in San Diego, we’ve had a few small adventures of note. One weekend we camped at San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. The campground is run by the state and the sites start booking out 6 months in advance, which is when they become available in the system. We had a stroke of luck back in March and secured a prime campsite right above the beach, close to the beach access, and just the right distance from the toilets.

The view from our campsite.

The view from our campsite, #52

The campground also has showers, a camp store, and a taco shop. It is situated just across the road from eateries, a coffee shop, and a fantastic gourmet market called Seaside Market. So if you want to go minimalist on the cooking, as we did, it’s easy to eat well. The beach has a good surf break, so Michael was happy to have such easy access. It really was lovely to have the sound of the waves lull us to sleep and to witness  incredible sunsets each evening from the comfort of our picnic table or the beach below!

The only downside was the noise from the trains that blow through at regular intervals, including at night. During the day it was pretty easy to tune them out, but their whistles seemed incredibly loud at night when they woke us from a sound sleep! Our second night there, my friend Sandy joined us with her sweet dog Jax. We had a fun time roasting marshmallows and making s’mores by the campfire!


Shaking the tent out…Atlas holds up the world!

Another fun adventure consisted of riding our bicycles down to Pacific Beach from La Jolla. When we got to the boardwalk, we found a beach festival in progress with all manner of booths, crafts, beach volleyball tournaments, a surf contest, food, and bands playing. There was a “Best of the Beach” fish taco contest with entrants from local restaurants which caught our eye– $10 to sample 7 different tacos and vote on your favorite. What a deal! Of course we had to do it. Wow was it good!



Last year’s champion – mmmm, very tasty!


The beach scene


After sampling some tacos, we rode slowly down the boardwalk through Mission Beach all the way to the jetty at the end by the entrance to Mission Bay. The boardwalk was teeming with people and colorful characters, so it made for some superb people watching. That evening we went to a friend’s house for a barbecue.

Michael has been calling and catching up with old friends from high school, college, and even as far back as kindergarten! It’s been a particular pleasure to reconnect and get to know these people. There have been barbeques and snorkeling expeditions and we have plans for more visits next week. One Sunday we drove up to Newport Beach for the day to see one of Michael’s college friends. We really enjoyed spending the day with him and his family, going to the beach, and hearing about their lives.

A couple of times we have been in snorkeling by the La Jolla cove. The first was not so great due to poor visibility, but we did get inspected by a sea lion or two while in the water. The second time, the visibility was pretty good and the water quite calm. The cove is part of a marine preserve. There is a deep canyon in the ocean floor that comes quite close to shore at that spot, causing an upwelling, and making the marine life abundant. I spotted a leopard shark swimming  by. They are small and harmless and come to breed right off the cliffs there. As you may have guessed, they have spots! We also saw plenty of garibaldi, which are bright orange and look like very large goldfish. The young ones are greyish, with bright, electric blue spots! I spied a large abalone as well as a calico bass too. In addition to snorkeling, we have been enjoying regular trips to our favorite beaches, sometimes at sunset.


Horseshoe Beach




In three weeks we leave the country. Our first destination is the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, where we will visit both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, two of the many islands. We’ll be there about two weeks before flying on to New Zealand. In New Zealand we have about three months. We have made plans for roughly three-quarters of that time, primarily because it will be the summer high season when accommodation and transportation can book out. We’ll visit both the North and South Islands using a combination of holiday houses, airbnbs, backpackers, motels, bed and breakfasts, car, camper, ferry, and airplane. Just this week, we booked our onward flight from New Zealand to Melbourne, Australia using miles. That is as far out as we have planned, although we don’t foresee coming back to the U.S. for at least a further 3 months after that. Tentatively, we’ll visit Australia, Bali and Lombok in Indonesia, and wherever else may strike our fancy.

It’s hard to believe it’s mid October already! We have certainly been having fun and have tried to soak up every minute of our sabbatical from work. Now, as our departure on the big overseas trip approaches, we have been taking care of the final details of what we will take with us, how we’ll carry it, how we’ll manage our technology, and getting excited for the adventures to come!

See you down the road…



From the Mountains through the Desert to the Sea

Friends are such an important ingredient in the recipe for a good life and we are blessed with some great ones! On our return to Denver, Colorado, we were met by a dear friend who graciously picked us up at the airport and delivered us to our car, which had been stored at their house. After a brief “Hello, how are you, how was your trip?” we were on our way to the foothills above Golden, Codorado, to overnight with other friends. It was a beautiful evening and we enjoyed the view from their house, as well as a fire outside with them after dinner.


The gorgeous view!



Michael and Dusk

The morning proved just as beautiful with abundant sunshine, so we made plans to take a little detour on our way to our hometown of Durango, Colorado. Neither Michael, nor I had ever been over Guanella Pass, west of Denver, and now that the whole road is paved, it really is quite easy. The road crosses a high mountain pass linking Georgetown on I-70 with Rt. 285 north of Jefferson, so it was only a small detour from our usual route. We were treated to a hint of fall color starting to show in the trees and spectacular mountain views.




The drive to Durango was as beautiful as ever. We saw two moose in a pond at the top of Kenosha pass, very close to the continental divide! The white mass of Great Sand Dunes National Park shimmered in the distance as we drove down the San Luis Valley, and the San Juan River sparkled when we pulled into Pagosa Springs to stop for a soak at the hot springs.


The pond on Kenosha with moose


The view from Kenosha pass

Pagosa Hot Springs has 23 outdoor soaking pools to choose from in a riverfront location, and it’s one of our favorite indulgences. There is nothing quite like slipping into the hot water of the Overlook pool and taking in the view of the river and other pools below. You can stay overnight if you wish, or partake of some of their spa treatments and massages if you want to go all out. Here’s their website if you’re curious or want to see photos. I didn’t take my phone or camera in with me. Pagosa Hot Springs

We languished there, sampling various pools, for more than an hour before cleaning up and finishing the drive to Durango into the setting sun. Although perhaps it felt a little strange not to be driving up to our own house down the street, we received a characteristically warm welcome from our dear friends Bill and Machelle. It was good to be home, albeit for a short visit.

We spent three days in Durango getting organized and geared up for the next leg of our trip – driving to San Diego, California, with camping and scenery stops along the way. Our tenants were gracious about our comings and goings to the garage to retrieve camping gear, other belongings, and returning what we decided not to take. Michael did a little maintenance on the house and garden and we enjoyed visiting with friends and fine weather.


The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on my morning walk along the Animas river.

In the end, after some trial and error, we loaded up the Subaru with about as much stuff as you could possibly fit! We had a box on top, one bicycle, and no rear view from the inside. Our tentative plan was to head to Monument Valley and then on to Page, Arizona to camp for a couple of nights. By the time we had breakfast with Bill, said our goodbyes, shopped for some camping groceries, fueled up and hit the road, it was late morning.


The drive to Monument Valley was mostly familiar as it follows a similar route through the four corners region as we took when we rafted a section of the San Juan river some years ago. However, neither of us had ever actually been to Monument Valley, so it was fun to recognize some of those iconic buttes and vistas as we approached, and hard not to stop every quarter mile to take more pictures!




When we arrived and paid the entrance fee to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, we found it to be VERY windy. Since it was later than we had originally planned to be there, we thought we might just camp at Monument Valley and head to Page in the morning. However, after checking out the campground, we decided against that. Although the campsites had a fantastic view of the valley, we didn’t like the prospect of trying to set up in high winds or huddling in our car or the tent to get out of a sandstorm. Oh well. We did look at the visitor center and take the scenic drive around the loop in the valley. The scenery was awesome but with the wind, we limited our vehicle exits. Nevertheless, it was fun to finally see it in person and to take some photos. One couldn’t help but recall the many western movies that have made that scenery iconic on the big screen.


Here I am trying to take a selfie in the wind!




At one spot on the loop drive there was a native american man on a horse posing for photos on a ledge. By the viewpoint he had a sign asking for a dollar for photos and a jar beside it. Kind of cheesy, but I couldn’t resist the photos, so I guess it worked! Up by the visitor center I saw a native american man in traditional dress and paint looking at his cell phone. An illustration of our times I suppose.











After the scenic drive, we debated where to go for the night. Our original plan was to camp in Page for a couple of nights to visit Antelope Canyon and then head up to Bryce Canyon. However, there was a high wind advisory for Page for the next day and we would be setting up camp after dark. So in the end, we bagged that idea and drove down to Flagstaff, Arizona, and got a motel room. The motel rooms in Flagstaff were about half the price of what was available in Page!

I had been looking forward to going to Bryce Canyon National Park because I hadn’t been there since I worked there as a Park Ranger 27 years ago. With our new trajectory, however, it just didn’t make sense to head back up to Utah. Maybe we’ll go there on the way back to Durango. In the meantime, we had figured out that Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona might be nice places to explore. After our motel stay, we drove down the scenic Rt. 89A into Oak Creek Canyon. The road follows the creek and becomes progressively more scenic as you get closer to Sedona. Along the way we checked out a couple of the campgrounds that lie by the creek. They are listed as some of the most popular in Arizona and I can see why. We chose a spot in Cave Springs Campground which has nice sites with good shade, well spaced, with some along the creek and some amongst the pines. There are vault toilets, showers, water spigots, and a camp store that sells firewood and sundries. The campground was not full our first two nights since it was mid-week. This made it quiet and spacious. On our third night, we noticed it began to fill up more with families come to camp for the weekend. This campground typically fills every night in season, so we felt pretty lucky to catch it at the right time. Cave Springs is about a 20 minute drive north of Sedona. We went back and forth a few times during our explorations and found it pretty convenient. As there was no cell service in the canyon, we had to drive down the road if we wanted to check our digital tethers or do any research, but for, us this was not really a problem. Here is our campsite.



Sedona is a town nestled in the embrace of red rock canyons, cliffs, and valleys in the pine forested high desert of Arizona.  Every direction you look there are stunning views. The main tourist area is replete with shops, restaurants, art galleries, and peddlers of new age paraphernalia. We walked around town, went for a beautiful hike up Brins Mesa, admired the incredible red rock scenery, and had a meal or two. Here are a few photos of the Sedona scenery, including some art installations in town showing painted javelinas. When you click on the photos you can see a larger version, if you wish.

Our hike up Brins Mesa was pretty spectacular. The view from the top in all directions was worth the climb.





One day we spent the afternoon at Slide Rock State Park, which has a series of rock slides and pools you can swim in. It’s a good thing it was hot out because the water was COLD!! There were quite a few people enjoying the water and relaxing on the rocks and it was a pleasant way to while away the afternoon.

Our last evening in Sedona, we were driving back through town after dinner when we saw the harvest moon rise above the canyon rim at twilight. We managed to find a high spot to snap some photos before stopping in town for an ice cream and a different viewpoint. Gorgeous!



After three nights in Oak Creek Canyon, we decided it was time to head for San Diego. So after packing up our campsite and shoehorning everything back into the car, we hit the road for the 7 to 8 hour drive to La Jolla, California. Most of the drive is through desert and very hot, but we managed it with minimal stops and not too much wind. Upon arriving at the Pacific Ocean, we couldn’t resist a quick stop at the beach to watch the sun set before ending the day at our next “home away from home” – Michael’s parents’ house.