The Redwoods of Rotorua

Rotorua, New Zealand

The rain had stopped and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky this morning as we walked past Lake Rotorua, which sits atop a spent volcano. Some children threw bread into the water, drawing the attention of a large group of black swans, which honked and fought over the food.

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After some flat white coffees, we drove to Whakarewarewa (inexplicably pronounced “Fa-ka-re-wa-re-wa”) Forest. It’s home to 170 species of trees which were planted in 1899 to determine which could be grown successfully for timber.

At the Waipa Mill entrance, Planet Bike had set up a makeshift rental agency out of the back of a truck. Fitted on two mountain bikes and with a map of the 100 kilometers of one-way tails, we got peddling. Because the ground was drenched, we were advised to stick with the Green (Easy). Slogging up and down steep paths with various obstacles in our way, we learned that New Zealanders have a different concept of “Easy” than Americans.

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Of the 170 species, radiata pine was deemed the best and it dominates many hillsides here today. But it’s the mighty California redwoods that draw in the visitors. These tall, majestic trees can grow to 360 feet tall and live 600 years. In Whakarewarewa, the largest stand at around 219 feet high and 66.5 inches in diameter. The trees provide a shelter for New Zealand Silver fern and giant Mamaku ferns, which, given their size, look more like palm trees.

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On our way back, we stopped at Blue Lake, its bright turquoise waters shimmering majestically against a backdrop of lush green forest and vibrant blue sky.

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We spent the remainder of the day at the Polynesian Spa, voted a top 10 spa by Condé Nast Traveler. The baths were filled with mineral rich water of varying temperatures; all overlooked picturesque Lake Rotorua.

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Dinner was at the Pig & Whistle — housed in the town’s former police station, the pub served up tasty burgers and pints of local Mac’s lager.

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Breathing deep in the “Sulphur City”

Rotorua, New Zealand

The skies were sunny in downtown Auckland as we picked up our Toyota Camry at Avis and set out on the Southern Motorway. Just off the Green Lane exit was One Tree Hill, the country’s greatest fortress and subject of the song of the same name on U2’s Joshua Tree album.

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At the summit (182 meters) sits the grave of John Logan Campbell, who gave the land to the city in 1901. There were also amazing 360-degree views of Auckland and the surrounding suburbs. As for the tree? It was chopped down by activists in 2000.

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The rain was steady as we continued southeast for 3 hours to Rotorua, one of the North Island’s most visited cities, best known for its Maori culture and active geothermal attractions — which scents the air slightly with the smell of rotten eggs. We’re staying at the Regent of Rotorua, a motel that has recently been given a new, stylish, black and white life.

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The rain had started to let up and we were feeling stir crazy from sitting in the car so we made our way to Te Puia, what Lonely Planet said was the “most polished of New Zealand’s Maori cultural attractions.”

We started with a performance inside the Te Aronui a Rua Meeting House. It was not nearly as touristy as we thought it would be and provided us some sense of the customs and traditions of this country’s indigenous people.

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Afterward, we walked along steamy vents and bubbling cauldrons, ending at Pohutu, the park’s largest geyser that shoots hot water about 100 feet into the air.

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It’s sad to say but we’ve already gotten a bit tired of the fresh — but bland — New Zealand cuisine. Amazing Thai changed that tonight with spicy Tom Yum Goong soups, along with green curry chicken and a rib eye fillet nam jim that left our mouths burning.

Gales on Waiheke Island

Auckland, New Zealand

Exhausted from our travels and still adjusting to the time difference, we were in bed last night at 9 p.m. and didn’t wake until nearly 12 hours later. Feeling refreshed, we hit up the DeBrett’s continental breakfast, which included freshly baked cranberry muffins, fruit, yogurt, granola and Flat Whites — or, in American English, coffees with milk.

The weather outside looked ominous, with dark rain clouds on the horizon, but we didn’t let it deter us from our day’s plan: a trip to Waiheke Island, out in the Hauraki Gulf. A 35-minute Fullers ferry ride dropped us at the small island’s port of Matiatia Bay where we rented a car from Pauline at Waiheke Rental Cars and set out on our way.

After five weeks in Africa, driving on the left side of the road almost felt naturally as we arrived in the town of Oneroa. As a light rain fell, we stopped to walk along the small shops scattered amongst cafés and real estate agencies. There wasn’t much to see and the weather was crummy so we made our way for an early lunch at Te Whau, an award-winning vineyard.

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The fire inside warmed us up as we sipped a 2007 merlot and took in the spectacular views. Mom went with the John Dory with julienne vegetables, olive tapanade and a bouillabaisse sauce. My za’atar spiced loin of lamb was served over parsnip and goat’s cheese skordalia, with red pepper coulis and green beans.

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By the time we were back outside, the rain had largely stopped but the wind was roaring. “It’s a gale!” a Kiwi woman cried out on our way to the parking lot. Back in the Toyota, we drove to Onetangi, a quiet seaside village. Walking the largely deserted beach, we followed a set of stairs that meandered up past modest sized homes with stunning views of the Bay and rocky shoreline. Occasionally, signs of spring — like vivid purple flowers — emerged among the lush landscape.

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Returning to Auckland on the 5 p.m. ferry, the weather finally started to clear and the sun emerged, providing both a fitting welcome and an early farewell from this country’s largest city.

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Back at the DeBrett, we showered and, without dinner, promptly fell asleep.

Sailing into the City of Sails

Auckland, New Zealand

“The local time is 8:28 a.m.,” the flight attendant announced over the loud speaker. To be honest, I’d not have known otherwise.

My journey to New Zealand started Thursday morning. Tar Heel Taxi was 30 minutes late causing me to nearly miss my 7:15 a.m. flight to Dallas. Thunderstorms there delayed my connection to Los Angeles, where wheels eventually came down around 3 p.m. EST. After dinner with my brother at the Philippe Starck designed Katsuya, it was back to LAX for my 13 hour Qantas flight to Auckland, which departed a little before midnight. Crossing the international date line, and losing 17 hours in the process, essentially caused October 2 to vanish.

And it left my scratching my head, attempting to figure out what day and time it was here when we landed this morning.

A half hour taxi ride brought me into the center of Auckland, which subtly reminded me of cities that I’ve visited in the Pacific Northwest, like Seattle and Vancouver. We’re staying at the Hotel DeBrett, a small boutique hotel that has recently opened on fashionable High Street. The public spaces inside, like the atrium, bar and drawing room, are all hip yet inviting. Just my style.

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Perhaps sensing our exhaustion, the friendly woman working the front desk upgraded us to a spacious duplex room. It was colorful and comfortable, with sunlight streaming through the double-story window. The black and white subway tile bathroom was dizzying.

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After showering, we walked around the quiet streets of downtown and found a small cafe serving frothy and delicious cups of freshly brewed coffee.

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A couple of cups later, we made our way to the Auckland Art Gallery, which was having a special exhibition on Rita Angus, said to be one of this country’s most famous painters. Her vibrant and disciplined landscape water colors offered an introduction to what we’ll be seeing and experiencing firsthand over the next two weeks.

Perhaps Auckland’s most recognizable building is the Sky Tower, which at 1,076 feet, is the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Although the skies looked overcast, we made our way to the top in the hope that it would provide us with an panorama of the surrounding area. We were not disappointed.

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Walking around the perimeter, it was hard not to feel a bit of trepidation staring at the ground through the glass floor.

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It would be hard to visit this city without heading out onto the water. Sail NZ offers an opportunity to do so aboard a retired America’s Cup yacht. This was not a leisurely trip out on the harbor; we were asked to help rig the sails and steer the vessel as it aggressively tacked into the wind. Coincidentally, a group of MAC students from Kenan-Flagler on a GIE were also on the boat — what a small world.

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For dinner, we made a reservation at the French Café, consistently named the best restaurant in Auckland. We started with two fresh local oysters, sitting on a bed of sea salt, and topped with a cucumber granita, ginger dressing and caviar. They may very well have been the best I’ve ever tasted.

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My entree was equally tasty — a sweet spiced roast duck with stir-fried Asian greens, mandarin puree, kumara mash and orange jus. Mom ordered the fish special, a light and flaky white fish served with fresh asparagus and micro-greens.

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If today was indicative of what’s in store for the remainder of this trip, New Zealand is going to knock it out of the park.