I dreamed of coming to New Zealand for years. This trip around the world has helped me to fulfill so many dreams! This country is SO full of amazing things to see and do (and eat and drink), you need months to even begin to fully explore both the north and south islands. Some of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in my travels so far are (1) where to go, and (2) how much time to spend in each place (tough life, eh?); there is so much of the world I still want to see that I ultimately decided three weeks in NZ was a good compromise. I decided to spend one week on the north island, and the remainder of my time road tripping around the south island. This post focuses on the fantastic week I spent on the north island. I didn’t try to see or do everything; instead, I spent time in and around Auckland, and visiting a friend and her family in Wellington. There is a lot I missed on the north island; upside: that means I have a lot to return and visit! Though the north island is full of amazing hikes and nature to enjoy, you’re a fool if you don’t indulge in the food, coffee, and wine/beer/cocktail culture, because the north island is a foodie paradise!!!
During my first stop in Auckland (my 1.5 day layover, detailed in my prior post “Airport, Timezone, & Country Hopping in the South Pacific”) I explored Queen Street and the funky, edgy K Road neighborhood. When I returned from the Cook Islands, I had three more days to enjoy Auckland, and spent my time getting to know other areas. I stayed in the most wonderful Airbnb in Freeman’s Bay- yet another fantastic neighborhood that I fell in love with! (If you’re looking for a place to stay and want something more private and with more ammenities than a hostel, but cheaper than a hotel, I highly recommend staying at Candice’s place: https://www.airbnb.co.nz/rooms/18591091?s=51)
I spent a lot of time walking around Ponsonby Road, which was full of so many shops, bars, and restaurants, that I could have spent a full week exploring this area and still only covered a tiny part of the cool places! I especially recommend starting off at Ponsonby Central, which is a bit like Chelsea Market in NYC (but way less crowded)- tons of bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, and even markets all in one large shared space.
Without fail, one of my favorite days in Auckland was my day trip to Waiheke Island (a little slice of heaven if you ask me!), which is full of unbelievable restaurants and charming wineries. If you purchase tickets down at the wharf, it will cost you 45NZD (~$30USD) for a roundtrip ticket; I found a deal online (through Viator) that included my ferry transport, and a ticket for the hop-on/hop-off bus on Waiheke Island, for 45NZD all in (I think it saved me 15-20NZD = $10-$13USD). The bus stops went around most of the island and were pretty convenient for a day of winery-hopping. I had no idea how much I would love this island, so I foolishly took a midday ferry (45-50 minutes), and did not arrive onto the island until early afternoon. Mistake! Give yourself at least one full day, or even better, book an overnight stay on the island so you can have the time to enjoy this beautiful spot. There are 20 wineries on this island (https://www.waihekewine.co.nz/our-vineyards/tasting/) and because I had only 5 hours, and needed to include a lunch stop, I ended up visiting 4 places. I’ll put details about all of my visits below, but let me introduce this with a Winery Travel Tip: I had many decent wines, but few really good wines, and when I paid for “premium” tastings was disappointed. Many of the wineries charge only 10NZD for a “standard” tasting, but prices escalate to as high as 28NZD for “premium” (at Stonyridge, see below); save yourself the extra money and stick with standard tastings while on the island. Use the extra money you save to indulge on food, because there are some incredible restaurants there! Another thing I loved about the wineries: super dog friendly! Four legged friends (cats too!) welcome just about everywhere ❤
Stop 1: Stonyridge. Beautiful grounds, but located really close to the bus stop, which meant it was really crowded. I opted for the premium tasting, because I tend to prefer red wines over whites. The premium tasting is conducted down at the vines, and I appreciated this extra touch. The wines were all lovely, but nothing that knocked my socks off. At the end, I wished I had opted for the “standard” and saved myself the 18NZD.
Stop 2: Obsidian. I found my way onto the Vineyard Walking Trail, which takes you from Stonyridge all the way to Obsidian and Casita Miro (which was my intended lunch destination). FYI: this is not some easy, leisurely walk. It was at least 30 minutes, exposed to sun the entire time (so hot!), and loads of hills. Great for the extra workout between wineries, but don’t attempt if you’re not at least somewhat fit and wearing comfortable shoes. If you are up for the walk, you’ll be treated to rolling hills, horses, and sheep along the way.
Hands down Obsidian had the best wines I tasted that day. I was blown away by its Reserve Chardonnay, and its Pinot Gris! Did I mention before that I’m typically a red wine drinker?! But the white wines they had were really excellent. I was super sad that I was traveling and couldn’t pick up a case! Another plus to Obsidian: because it is not close to any of the bus stops, crowds there were much thinner, which made for a much more relaxing and enjoyable stop.
Stop 3: Casita Miro. This was a relatively short and easy walk from Obsidian. Yes, Miro has wine. But what drives people there in flocks is the food. OH MY GAWD. One of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at, anywhere. The homemade focaccia bread is perhaps the best bread I’ve eaten in my life. I selected the beetroot spread as the dip (they have four to choose from, and yes, you can order all four), and this was easily the most delish beetroot spread I’ve ever eaten! And as my second dish I had this lovely entree (tip: “entree” = appetizer in much of the South Pacific and NZ) of asparagus and homemade cashew cream; a few other things thrown in there as well, but those were the primary ingredients. All so yummy! And my glass of Miro rose was lovely and very drinkable. A fantastic stop, and a must do if you make it to Waiheke.
Stop 4: Mudbrick. I was running out of time so had to choose between Mudbrick and Cable Bay. One of the servers at Miro recommended Mudbrick, so I opted for that. Again, due to being short on time, I shared a cab with another couple to get to the winery. That cab ride (after some negotiating) cost me 20NZD; the driver told me if I had taken a metered cab individually I would have paid 45NZD. So beware, cabs appear to be very expensive on this island (and no, uber is not available). I again made the mistake of ordering the “premium” tasting, and again, found myself disappointed and wishing I had stuck with the standard; thankfully, the price difference between the two was only 5NZD (so, 10NZD for standard, and 15NZD for premium). What I loved most about Mudbrick wasn’t the wine, but instead, the view and the food!
Since I’m currently cheating (not sticking to a strictly veg diet) I decided to indulge in the oysters, and a lovely fennel and apple garden salad. The salad was full of wonderful herbs and a light vinaigarette, just perfect. And the oysters! THE OYSTERS! Best I’ve ever had, in my life. Period. So if you eat seafood, do yourself a favor and try the oysters here. They are complimented by a spectacular view.
After taking the ferry back into the city, I headed back out (again to Ponsonby Road) for a travel buddy reunion! Jacqueline (from Germany) and I met at the surf camp in Morocco, and thanks to social media, we discovered we were both in Auckland at the same time! We met up for ramen (one of the cheaper places to eat in Auckland) at Ramen Takara; the ramen was decent and portion huge (we easily could have shared a single dish) for 17NZD, so not a bad value. But don’t go out of your way to come here if you’re craving really delish ramen- it’s just so so. For me, the highlight of the night was spending time with such an awesome lady. I love how small the world is!
The next afternoon I flew down to Wellington, which is where LOTR was actually filmed, and more importantly, my friend Jodi’s hometown! (For those who don’t know, Jodi and I met about 5.5 years ago while planning for, and then during our trek of, Mt. Everest Base Camp. We’ve stayed in touch and seen one another several times since, and I’d previously been fortunate enough to meet her equally fabulous sister Tessa, but it was a real treat to be invited to spend a few days around New Year’s with her and her family.)
Jodi picked me up from the airport and we spent much of the first day checking out Cuba Street, which is overloaded with restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. As Jodi explained: because of how bad the weather often is in Wellington, they have to compensate by doing other things really well. And where Wellington really shines is its food and drinks! You just can’t go wrong! I had so many people recommend so many restaurants here, and while I usually try to go anywhere someone recommends, I deferred to Jodi to do all the picking. Best decision ever! I had so many wonderful meals during my time in Wellington, Lower Hutt, and Martinborough. Below are a few shots from Cuba Street and the surrounding area.
Jodi (have I mentioned already how amazing she is?!) treated me to a wonderful “welcome!” dinner my first night in Wellington. We had a seriously delish rhubarb mojito followed by an amazing selection of apps and a so-good-it-melts-in-your-mouth monkfish dish. Outstanding! Oli & Mi is definitely worth a visit.
For New Year’s Eve day, we lucked out with sunny and super warm weather (it full on felt like summer!), so Jodi gave me a full city tour. We went to the top of Mt. Victoria (LOTR fans: the paths on this mountain are where Frodo and crew ran and hid to escape the black riders when leaving the Shire) and got 360 degree views of the city. We headed down to the waterfront and had a drink by the ocean before spending a bit of time in the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa (https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/). The museum is really well done and especially fantastic for families with children (if you have kids, this is a must do!). I even got to see the beehive (Parliment)!
Early evening we headed back home where I had the pleasure of spending the night, and ringing in the new year with, Jodi, Tessa and her partner John #2, Cathy and John #1 (mom and stepdad), Katie and Brent (John #1’s adult son and daughter-in-law), and the four adorable children belonging Tessa/John and Katie/Brent. It was a brilliant night so we spent all of it out on the deck, snacking, drinking wine, and singing along to (while simultaneously competing in a bet to see who could correctly guess) the top 100 songs of all time, as determined by a local radio station’s listeners. I was having so much fun I failed to take many photos at all. Very much living in the moment to kick off 2019.
We started off 2019 right! Not just the great NYE party, but waking up and taking on a 10km hike on New Year’s Day. We (both Johns, Tessa, Jodi, and me) trekked along the Escarpment Track, which is a moderate (in terms of difficulty) hike. The ascent is fairly gradual, though there are approximately 1,100-1,200 stairs you have to climb and descend (I tried counting while we were hiking and think that range is pretty close to being accurate), so it’s by no means easy. A lot of this hike is exposed (very little shade/bush walking) so lather on the sunscreen (and bring extra to reapply!), bring plenty of water, and wear a hat. The spectacular views are worth it! Tip for those afraid of heights: a lot of photos of this hike online make this trek look quite scary. As someone who is afraid of heights, nothing about this bothered me; in other words, many of the photos online make it appear more dramatic than it is. However, I would not hike in strong winds or if it’s raining hard, because some parts could become perilous under those conditions. The views are totally worth it!
And a little bit of VG life advice from one of the benches along the trek…
After the hike (and getting cleaned up), Tessa, John #2, Jodi, and I headed into Wellington City to check out a few bars and have dinner, and WHAT A NIGHT. The first bar, Dirty Little Secret, is one of (or, the?) only rooftop bars in Wellington, and when it’s sunny and clear, is such a spectacular spot to have a drink and take in views.
We headed next to Chow for dinner and YUM! Tuesday nights are vegan night, and although 3 of 4 in our group are meat eaters, everyone loved the food. So, so good, I highly recommend a dinner at Chow’s when in Wellington. (In fact, I loved the food so much I completely forgot about taking photos!)
The other reason to dine at Chow? In an adjacent room is The Library, one of the coolest bars I’ve been to anywhere in the the world. Great vibe, and really fun, creative cocktails (that make for the perfect dessert). Do yourself a favor and zoom in on the photos I took of the cocktail menu; the drink names alone are equal parts witty and hilarious.
Wairarapa Region: Putangirua Pinnacles & Martinborough Wineries
On my last full day in Wellington, Jodi and the family made sure to organize an amazing day! Katie, John #2, Tessa, Jodi, and I left her parents’ home around 8:30am and drove (huge thanks to the beautiful and sweet Katie for driving us all day!) the windy and beautiful roads to our first stop: Putangirua Pinnacles Scenic Reserve. (For LOTR fans: this site is prominently featured in Return of the King, when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli south the Paths of the Dead.) We knew we didn’t have time to do the 4 hour hike in the Reserve and wineries later in the day, so we dressed for wineries and planned to just drive in and view the Pinnacles. Pinnacles “short” trek tip/advice: opt for the streambed trek and view. It’s the same time/distance as from the “lookout” viewpoint, and when you are down below you really get a sense of how huge and impressive they are. I immediately recognized why LOTR filmed the above-mentioned scene there; these amazing, natural structures totally look like they could have been old buildings and palaces from long, long ago (that have slowly decayed over time). Just… wow.
Cathy warned us we’d have a 20 minute walk to get to the Pinnacles, so we all took trainers (aka, tennis shoes) but figured that was a short enough walk that we would be safe without a change of clothes. Oops! Turns out it was closer to 40 minutes of walking in each direction, which means we were all a bit of a sweaty mess. And looked equal parts hilarious and ridiculous because we definitely were not dressed for a proper hike! (Though we all felt good about starting 2019 with 2 hikes in the first 2 days!)
The ridiculousness only increased when I decided it was a good idea to remove my bra and hang it on the outside of my bag so it could dry before we got back to the car. And hey, it worked! #winning Also, huge thanks to Katie for keeping such a cute, extra sun hat in her car and letting me borrow it all day!
After sweating and working up an appetite we headed to Martinborough, another wine region in NZ. But before we arrived we continued driving along the stunning coast, because, the view is just too cool not to take in a little bit longer. And yes, if you look very closely, we could see the top of the South Island from where we were! Also, since I haven’t mentioned it before (because, truthfully, I lucked out and the weather cooperated brilliantly for my trip), Wellington and the south of NZ’s north island are very windy. As evidenced in beach photos below, hahaha!
This one reminded me of Sonoma in that most of the wineries are pretty close together, many people rent bikes for the day as transport between wineries, and tastings are very affordable (most are 5-10NZD/person). This area seems to specialize in pinot noir and white wines (from bubbly and rose to chardonnay, sav blanc, and quite a few others). This is a really charming area with interesting wines (some were really great, many were just ok but definitely drinkable, and a few very interesting/funky tasting wines that were fun to try, but none of us were even tempted to take home a bottle). I highly recommend replicating our day trip if you can, because it was marvelous. But you’ll need a full day- we didn’t get home until close to 7pm. If you have time for only one stop, head to Tiwaiwaka Winery (https://wairarapanz.com/see-and-do/tiwaiwaka-wines), everyone’s favorite of the day (read below for details).
Stop #1: lunch and wine tastings at Margrain Vineyard- The Vineyard Cafe
Katie and I split a platter that was overflowing with meats (that was all her, John #2, and Tessa), cheese, rocket (arugula), falafel, roasted capsicum (red peppers), grapes, capers, hummus, a pesto spread, and fresh sourdough bread. It was more than the two of us could eat and cost only 39NZD ($26, so $13/person for lunch). The five of us split two premium tastings, which cost a total of 70NZD ($47USD), but was actually a great value because tastings here are half glasses, so we each ended up getting one full glass of wine- but got to sample a bunch! Martinborough Winery Tip: tastings are very affordable everywhere, but glasses of wine will run you between 12-20NZD at each winery. So in many cases it’s more affordable to do a tasting (and you get the equivalent of 1-1.5 glasses in the process). Margrain had my favorite bubbly of the day, and quite a solid selection of other wines (it was Katie’s favorite sav blanc of the day, the chardonnay was popular with the group, and Jodi was a fan of its pinot noir). I’d definitely recommend a stop here for lunch and a tasting when in the area. Also, they have very clever and hilarious quotes at their place; check out the photos for some chuckles!
Stop #2: Tirohana Estate
Tirohana did not open for tastings until 3pm, and we arrived at 2:40pm. Had we been there for tastings, price = 1NZD per white or 2NZD per red, so super affordable. We decided to grab a seat in the courtyard outside, and Tessa, John #2, and Jodi all enjoyed a glass of wine. I skipped because the menu offered only two whites (sav blanc and chardonnay, and I tried both thanks to John and Tessa ordering glasses and I wasn’t impressed) and about five pinot noirs, which I would have loved in a tasting, but don’t typically enjoy enough for a glass. It made for a nice break, but none of us were that thrilled with the wine, so can’t suggest anyone go out of their way to try this winery.
Stop #3: Cambridge Road.
From the driveway bordered by lavender, to the cute french bulldog sleeping in the shade, to the music playing, we loved this quirky winery from the moment we arrived. Cambridge Road had, hands down, the most interesting white wines I’ve ever tried. Its bubbly, rose, and the other white we tried were all a bit funky and reminded me more of some dry ciders I’ve had than wine. And it definitely had the best pinot noir we tried all day; its 2013 pinot is rich, full bodied, and reminded me much more of a petite syrah or even a cab than a pinot. Loved it! We all agreed this was one of the more interesting tastings we had, and I’d highly recommend it because it was so different and fun.
Stop #4: Tiwaiwaka.
We saved the best for last! We all absolutely LOVED everything about this winery. It was cute, small, and not at all crowded. It is run by the friendliest family, and if you’re lucky, when you visit you will be treated to some free lemonade from the girls too! Apart from the charm, they have an incredible homemade hummus, and the best rose we had all day. Plus a great pinot noir. All at very affordable prices.
New Zealand’s north island is so wonderful and so livable, it has made its way to the top of my “places to live abroad” list. I genuinely loved my time there and think everyone should go! Next up… a road trip around New Zealand’s south island. Stay tuned!