NZ Tour Scouting Trip Report
We have just returned from a very fruitful scouting trip to the North Island ahead of our Feb/Mar 2020 tour. While this is mostly about checking the route, accommodation and restaurants and finding the best places for morning tea, lunch and rest stops, we also managed to fit in a few extra-curricular activities (we have to know the best things to show and recommend to you!).
It was deep in winter while we were there and it was pretty chilly but still lovely even when it was wet and grey. We just know it’s going to be even nicer when the weather is warm and sunny.
We’re pretty excited about how the tour is shaping up and we think it’s going to offer some great cycling and a whole lot of interesting places and possibilities for activities. Since our return we’ve also made a few changes to some of the days routes to make sure the tour is as enjoyable and interesting as possible.
Stage One - countryside and rural delights
Starting in Wellington, the first few days will offer lovely green rolling countryside featuring grazing land and vineyards. We pass through small villages, many of which feature a traditional Maori Meeting House (Marae - see pic below).
Our first rest day will be in the picturesque town of Napier which is known for its many original art deco buildings. It also has a bustling beachfront and a lively wharf area full of restaurants (with a special mention to the Jandal Bar) so there’ll be no shortage of things to see and do. There is also a great view of the port from Bluff Hill lookout which is interesting for all the export timber being loaded onto the ships.
Our last overnight stop before the halfway point of Rotorua is Whakatane which is a lovely seaside town famous for the Lady on the Rock (see pic below). This is a bronze statue of Wairaka, daughter of Toroa the captain and navigator of the Mataatua waka. The story of this canoe’s arrival and Wairaka’s heroics in bringing it back to shore even though this defied the rule forbidding women from handling a canoe is where the town gets its name. As they came to shore she cried out “Kia Whakatane au i ahau – I will act the part of a man”. There is a lot of Maori history in the town and a walk along the waterfront is well worthwhile.
Halfway Rest Day - plenty to do
Rotorua is our halfway point between stage 1 and 2 of the tour and people choosing to do either half of the tour will have the chance to experience this amazing place. The sulphur smell is not as strong as we were expecting (which was a pleasant surprise) but still there in the background reminding you of the unique geothermal features of the area. You don’t have to go far to experience a hot spring; a walk through the town’s public park reveals many small pools of steaming water, most crystal clear, some opaque with minerals. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit a bath house but the Polynesian Spa (right across from our hotel) would be the place to go for this. With a day off in Rotorua, Te Puia Geothermal Park is definitely worth a visit. This is where you will see the best geysers and bubbling mud pools (see pic below). They also have a kiwi house (in case like us, you’ve never seen an actual kiwi) and some interesting Maori history.
Rotorua isn’t just about thermal pools and geysers though, the town itself is large and we went for a stroll through the Government Gardens. These beautiful gardens feature an ornamental lake surrounded by garden beds and a croquet lawn (well why not?). The stunning Museum building (which was formerly a bath house) is the main feature of the gardens, and although it is unfortunately closed for renovations at the moment, it is still beautiful from the outside (see pic below). This will all be a part of our rest day walking tour hosted by longtime resident Ken Buchanan, retired Operations Manager of the award winning Rotorua Museum of Art and History.
Stage Two - variety and beauty
Stage 2 of the tour will see quite a variance in landscapes and scenery. From lakes to forests to caves, coastal roads, sandy beaches and vibrant seaside surf villages, stage 2 has it all including an extra rest day to soak it all in (that’s right, you read correctly but more on that later). First up, Lake Taupo! Usually known for its annual cycling challenge event, we were fortunate enough to spend time overlooking its other magnificent attribute: the lake itself, which is huge and beautifully serene. In the background we could see a snow-topped Mt Ruapehu while we watched the seaplanes taking off and landing. All of this is visible from our hotel, meaning you can either get out there and live it or just admire it with a bottle of NZ’s finest liquid refreshment.
After leaving the lake district we will move across the countryside to Waitomo, staying in the historic Waitomo Caves Hotel. We spent a great night in this fantastic 19th century building and even made a few new friends hanging out by the fire. The highlight though was a visit to one of the cave systems (there are over 400 in the area) and a magical 45 minutes spent in a glow worm cave. Each tour operator in this town works in their own different cave which they lease the rights to from the landowner so no two tours are the same and while we can’t compare them, we were more than happy with the tour we did. The time spent in the glow worm cave became better and better as our eyes adjusted to the dark and the glow worms become more and more visible to us. They glowed off the water as we gently floated along the cave and the guide made them glow brighter by banging on the side of the raft a couple of times (see pic below). Definitely not to be missed. And to make sure you don’t, we have shuffled the itinerary to create a NEW rest day here with an optional loop ride through the caves district for those that just refuse to lose any time on the bike. What can we say, it’s the best of both worlds!
After a couple more days travelling through the countryside, we make our way to the popular coastal areas of the north. Whangamata is a pretty little surf town with a lovely beach and a nice spot to chill for a day. In fact, it’s so nice, we have made it two! That’s right, we have pulled up stumps on our original rest day in Tauranga, to this magnificent corner of the country. The best part of a reconnaissance trip is identifying what works and what works better.
Coromandel and a magical finish
Next up is a night at Hot Water Beach where you can grab a shovel and dig your own spa in the sand. Given that it was about 14 degrees when we were there, we declined to dig, but the beach was certainly pretty. We took a drive out to Hahei Village and scoped out a great spot for dinner after a walk out to Cathedral Cove. This will be a pretty action-packed day full of great cycling and stunning sights.
The next day is just as good as we pass through many more seaside/surf villages on our way to Coromandel Town which is a beautiful little town full of character and charm. The day will involve a very short ferry ride across the mouth of the Whitianga Harbour for cyclists and a very long drive around the harbour for the crew. Coromandel has many interesting little shops and eateries and we had no trouble entertaining ourselves for an afternoon. There’ll be no group dinner this night, so there will be plenty of options and time to explore. We hung out with the pub cat at the Star and Garter, taking advantage of their $10 pizza night.
Our penultimate night will be a relaxing stay in Miranda at a holiday park that has its own thermal mineral pool which was steaming away nicely at 36-39 degrees when we visited. This will be just the thing to relieve those weary cycling legs for the last ride into Auckland. There’s some more beautiful coast on the final day, which reminded us, in parts, of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. We pull up at Beachlands township and board the ferry through to Auckland CBD where our hotel is just a stone’s throw away from Auckland’s Sky Tower and the waterfront which was bustling with life and will be a great place for our final celebration dinner and farewells.