New Zealand part 5: The north island

New Zealand’s north and south islands are roughly equal in size, but not in fame; the south island seems to get all the attention whereas the north island is the urbanized sidekick; Mario’s Luigi, Batman’s Robin; Ferris Bueller’s Cameron – complementary, but not as awesome. Still, we couldn’t travel all this way without discovering for ourselves what New Zealand’s more populous, if less scenic, island had to offer.

Ferries: an expedient expensive way to travel

So, for the low low price of $321, we hopped on the Interislander ferry and floated from Picton to Wellington. Actually, it was somewhat more difficult than that because the ferry had mechanical problems and we ended up waiting in an ad hoc parking lot for two hours. I think we played twenty-one games of twenty-one questions that morning!

The sun blazed from the clear blue sky down upon the dark blue waters of Cook Strait during the three hour journey. We drove off the boat and into Wellington on the other side, Google Maps talking us through the maze of streets and highways until we were out of the city. For a little while, with the ocean on our left and Tararua Forest Park on our right, we felt like the beauty of New Zealand was barely waning.

A flattening of the land

But as we made our way further inland toward Ohakune, which sits roughly in the middle of the North Island, the landscape became distinctly more . . . plain. Stands of coniferous trees among farmer’s fields; it reminded us a little of rural Ontario.

Posh Airbnb or meth lab?

By the time we arrived at our Airbnb in Ohakune it was late and we were tired. We had gone a little over-budget on this house and it looked beautiful on the outside. Then I opened the door – and was punched in the face by a smokey chemical stench. Within minutes my eyes were watering. I rechecked that the listing had indicated “non-smoking” then called the host. Given an odd interaction he’d had with the last guests, a report from the cleaners, and our account of the smell, we concluded that the last guests had been cooking drugs in the apartment. Unfortunately, our options were limited; we really didn’t have a choice but to open the windows, grin and bear it. You win some, you lose some.

Ohakune – one big carrot

FYI – The world’s largest carrot is in Ohakune

Ohakune itself is perhaps best known for it’s landmark carrot – the world’s largest. It has a cute little town centre that sits at the south end of Tongariro National Park, but given our short stay (and perhaps some light-headedness from breathing crystal meth fumes), we layed low in the local vegetable-themed playground rather than take on a big day hike.

From Ohakune, we drove north. We’d wanted to stay in Taupo, but due to lack of accommodations there, we satisfied ourselves with a pit-stop in the lakeside city. A picnic lunch, a romp at the Riverside park playground, and six ice cream cones later, we were back on the road heading to Tauranga.

And the best part is . . .

As is often the case, the best part of Tauranga was a wonderful afternoon spent with unexpected new friends. Years before (2013, I think), my parents had met a Kiwi couple on a cruise. Over the years they kept in touch and when they found out we would be passing through, even though they’d never met us, Sue and Terry generously offered that we could stay with them. Given the size of our family, we didn’t take them up on that offer, but we did plan an afternoon with them on a day when two of their granddaughters, Charlotte and Lucy, would be staying with them.

Ben loading up on lunch as Terry and I talk shop

Terry is a retired family doctor, Sue a retired nurse. They live in a big white house across the road from the gorgeous Tauranga beach; Sue enjoying a second life as an artist and Terry playing piano and reading in his extensive home library. As the girls entertained the boys by exploring the house and trading stories, we discussed Terry’s decades in the medical profession, making comparisons between Canada and New Zealand, and, perhaps even more interesting, how they are enjoying their retirement.

After touring their beautiful home, enjoying an incredible lunch – there must have been more than a dozen foods to choose from (and our first taste of feijoas!) – we ventured across the street to the beach. The kids ran around in the sun, chasing the edges of the waves while the adults held back to do a little more adulting before hitting the road again. They boys still talk about the fun they had with Charlotte and Lucy; Linds and I are grateful Sue and Terry found a little bit of paradise and took a pleasant afternoon to teach us a few things about how to make the most of retirement.

Gettin’ crazy on the beach in Tauranga

From Tauranga, we drove further north on the Coromandel peninsula to a smaller beach town called Pauanui. From here drove to and hiked the beautiful but very touristy Cathedral Cove . . .

Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach

Sandstone playground at Cathedral Cove
Watch out everyone!

. . . and dug holes in the world-famous – and crowded! – Hot Water Beach. In some places the ground was too hot to stand on!

Hot water beach . . . I guess we weren’t the only ones with this idea?

Winding down in Auckland

Our last stop in New Zealand was the capital, Auckland. By that point we were pretty tired from our one month tour of this amazing country and were so happy to be able to relax in an incredible Airbnb – a family home with a big backyard (and a trampoline!), an incredible kitchen, and a collection of fascinating eclectic artwork on the walls. Here’s one of my favourites:

We didn’t do much in Auckland, but we took a stab at culturing ourselves by visiting the Auckland Art Gallery. To be honest, it was a bit underwhelming for the cost of it, and perhaps the $25 parking fee for two hours was a bit much for our tired, frugal travel selves to handle so late in our trip. But that’s okay – we “played house” in our awesome, artsy Airbnb and relaxed for a few days until catching our longest fight yet to . . . Argentina!

Final thoughts

We had agonized over New Zealand: could we afford to go? Could we afford not to go?? If we’d chosen an alternative destination, we probably would have enjoyed it too, but now that the Epic Road Trip is done we can honestly say it was worth every dollar we grudgingly spent 🙂 Traveling around the world without seeing New Zealand would have been like going to the Louvre and walking right by the Mona Lisa or traveling to the Vatican and opting out of the Sistine Chapel. It’s a treasure and our journey definitely richer for having experienced it.


  1. I was in NZ for a week in 1975, on my way to Australia. I was only on the northern island, but do remember the hot springs, a side trip to 2ZW, a radio station in Whanganui and an over night stay with a fellow amateur radio operator somewhere on the east cost. It was an awesome drive from Auckland to Wellington. Memories fade but the awesomeness of that country lives on. Thanks for posting on your travels, looking forward to the adventure continuing in Argentina, a country I have never been to.

  2. By the looks of Ben’s plate in the photo, an alternate name for the blog was “Big Appetite, Small World.”

    I’m grateful that in a period of costly art gallery visits, un-ferry prices, meth lab fumes and giant carrots, an afternoon with Terry and Sue is precisely the respite from tourism and personal connection that makes the critical difference in restoring faith in your fellow humans.

    Thanks for sharing your tales,


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