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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
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!
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.