CategoriesAdventures

Riding the Zorb Sphere – Rotorua, New Zealand

I don’t know exactly what goes on inside Kiwis’ heads, or why they invented the Zorb. Is it that they have just eight television channels? Or that range animals overwhelmingly outnumber humans? The proximity to Antarctica?

Sarah's sphere races downhill.
Sarah’s sphere races downhill.

There has to be some reason that Kiwis dream up contraptions and activities like bungee jumping, jet boats that spin in circles on the water and Zorbing.

Today, let’s talk about that last one … the Zorb sphere. Explaining this verbally is kind of tricky, so you’re lucky I have videos and photos to go along with the written word.

Imagine a giant beach ball with really thick walls. Let’s say it has a little tunnel leading to a human-sized inner chamber. You then dive into that chamber, and someone squirts a few gallons of water in there, seals the entrance and then rolls you and the ball down a hill lined with berms and turns.

Yep, that’s a Zorb sphere.

Sarah and I arrived in New Zealand with a full knowledge of Zorbing, and we were determined to

Zorb
Sarah shakes off her Zorbing legs.

try it. We had some time to kill in Rotorua between geyers and stuff, so we headed out to the Agrodome, which has a number of crazy activities, some of which apparently involve sheep.

We had an array of Zorb choices: The twisty course, the straight course, wet, dry? We selected the wet twisty option, eliciting many choruses of “Good on ya” from the employees. Apparently, this is the favored option. If I recall right, it was $45 NZ.

Sarah went first as I shot photos. She emerged feet first, like the Green Giant’s golf ball giving birth to a human, complete with a rush of fluid. And like a newborn, she had a bit of trouble standing for a few seconds – the Zorb-O-Port employees had to prop her up a bit.

Zorb
A perfect view of the entry chute and the inner chamber.

Then it was my turn. Clad only in a pair of shorts, I sat in the back of a truck with another couple. We drove to the top of the hill, where a conveyer belt-like device delivered the giant spheres. I was the first to go.

“Awright, mate,” one of the blokes told me. “Just back up, get a running start and dive into the hole!”

Click to watch … you can see me slosh about and nearly go over the berm!

I did as I was told, landing face-first in a puddle of water at the bottom of the inner Zorb chamber. The sphere was more opaque, so I couldn’t see out much. The bloke’s face appeared in the tunnel to the outside world.

“Awright, mate (most everything male Kiwis say starts with this phrase) … just push hard that way [points down hill], sit down and enjoy the ride,” he said.

So it began. The Zorb sphere quickly gained speed, and soon it crashed into a berm, bouncing me all sorts of ways around. Water was flying everywhere, and so was I. At this point, I was already laughing and gesticulating like an idiot to nobody in particular.

Moments later, it was all done. The blokes at the bottom corraled the sphere, aimed the hatch

I see the feet!
I see the feet!

downward, and out I slid with a hard THUMP! on the butt.

I was all excited and started telling my Zorb tale to the throngs waiting for their ride. Then I realized my wedding ring had slipped off – not to worry, though. We found it about five minutes later between the landing spot and the conveyor. Without further ado, on to my Zorbing tips!

1. Wear nothing but a swimsuit or shorts.
2. That means no jewelry, especially not rings!
3. Don’t be a wuss – choose the Zydro (wet and twisty).
4. Don’t hesitate when you enter, or you won’t make it all the way through.

To wrap it up, I simply want my own Zorb sphere and a decent hill. Or at least for Zorbing to become the next big thing here in the States.

CategoriesAdventures

Rappelling into the Dark – The Glow Worm Caves of Waitomo

Suiting up for a trip into the glowworm caves has made me look like a complete doofus. I’m wearing bright-white rubber boots, a pair of curry-brown pants, a wetsuit and a bulbous helmet with a light on top. And my hair is flapping out the sides of the helmet to perfect rodeo clown-effect.

Check out the fashion!
Check out the fashion!

Also, my nads are fighting a two-front war against a pair of encroaching canvas straps connected to my rappelling harness. Yes, I am ready for the cover of GQ magazine.

Bizarre as it sounds, this is one of the days of my New Zealand adventure that I’ve look forward to the most: the tour of one of the glow worm caves near Waitomo, up in the sparsely populated, ridiculously green and unbelievably quiet Waikato region. Sarah and I signed up with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. Don’t let the word “rap” fool you … nobody is going to bust out some rhymes while in the underground. It’s actually short for “rappel,” which nobody else really uses in New Zealand. Kiwis call rappelling “abseiling.” But no matter which word you use, it still means that males are going to spend several hours feeling like they’re wearing Satan’s jockstrap.

Getting Ready for the Glow Worm Caves

We started the day at the Triple R headquarters (my own nickname for the outfit) on Waitomo Caves Road, just a few minutes from town Te Kuiti and Otorohanga. There, we met a trio of sisters who’d share the adventure with us, along with our Welsh tour guide, Nic. At this point, we had all the gear we’d need for the trip – swimsuits, towels and spare socks. Triple R took care of the rest.

Then, we all piled into a van and started on our way, winding into the countryside. We were headed for glow worm caves owned by a local farmer, who essentially rents it to the company.

We eventually parked next to a small series of huts that stored equipment and housed changing rooms and bathrooms. There were rows of gumboots, the local term for the aforementioned boots that looked like refugees from the stormtrooper scenes in Star Wars. We also got out wetsuits, wide-legged pants to protect the wetsuits from the sharp rocks, helmets with headlamps and abseiling harnesses.

Nic gave us a great introduction to using a mini-rack. I’m not going into details about that here: It’s better, if you go, to give your guide your full attention. We trudged in out gumboots into what seemed like a small valley, but was really the fractured roof of a huge cave.

Sure, I’ll Go First

“Who wants to go first?” Nic asked, after we’d practiced our abseiling rope control on dry land. Not wanting to be like the sheep wandering around us, I volunteered.

glow worm caves
Sarah can’t wait to descend the rope!

The funny thing about abseiling: You know in your logical mind that everything will work. But if you rarely do it, there’s a visceral reaction to letting yourself ease off of a safe, stable platform into empty space. Just get over it – it’s way too fun once you let yourself go.

And let myself go I did, descending into the gloom toward an underground river, a shaft of sunlight peeking through the foliage to light my way somewhat. I touched down, unclipped from the mini-rack and hopped into the water.

Of course, it was chilly as it filled my boots … but I wandered straight in to get used to it, getting clear of the landing spot. One by one, the other five joined me. Nic had us grab an inner tube from a selection stashed along the river.

Fear of the Dark

Then we carried them along with our lights off, using the natural light as we slogged upstream. We headed up several hundred feet, and we started seeing tiny pinpoints of fluorescent green light on the cave ceilings. We continued splashing along, and soon the sunlight faded, leaving us only with the pinpricks of light above.

These, my friends, are glowworms. Each point of light was a small larvae.

glow worm caves
The glow worm caves are aglow with light-bummed maggots.

“They’re maggots, with glowing bums,” Nic said, delicately. That’s right: They don’t poop.

It dangles a strand of web down from the ceiling, hoping to trick insects into thinking they are starlight. The insects, then, fly toward the light as bugs are wont to do. There, they get caught in the web, eaten and digested. The glow worm is the ultimate clean-burning machine – rather than pooping out the waste, they burn it in their butts, turning waste into a lure.

The glow worm webs ... revealed!
The glow worm webs … revealed!

We eventually turned on our lights and got a close look at the slithery little creature, which are much cooler with the lights off. After spending some time milling about, Nic told us to plop our tubes down and hop in … right away, the currents rushed us back toward the entrance. I got a nice spin going for a 360-degree view of the glowworms, plus the Cylon Centurion-like glow of the red lights on top of our helmet lights. We had the main lights turned off for this portion.

Underground Tubing in the Glow Worm Caves

We passed the glow worm cave entrance, continuing downstream. There, the channel narrowed, turning the river into a great theme park ride! I was buzzing along like The Black Pearl before my wide tube got stuck in a channel … and then everyone plowed into the back of me! I had to wedge myself out to get everyone moving again.

We came to a dry spot, and it was time for fun and games. I gamely trotted up to Nic as Sarah and the sisters got out of their tubes. He waited for them to gather round before saying:

“Now, Justin has volunteered to take responsibility for you, so just follow him.”

He knew I’d pick up what he was putting down. He pointed up a narrow upward chasm, which I

glow worm caves
Slithering Justin leads the way.

slithered through, using my hands, butt, head, feet and practically my ears. We spent the next hour or so wedging our way through increasingly narrow spaces, a few of which made me genuinely nervous but oddly ecstatic.

How to Get Out of a Tight Spot

Nic taught us the best way to get through a cave obstacle: Upper body first, almost like a diver. It worked like a charm, really.

After all that work in the chilly water, Nic stopped us for a snack of some hot fruit-flavored energy drink and a bit of chocolate. Odd as it sounds, it worked great. We were then on our way back to the entrance, and our final obstacle: the climb up.

See Sarah wiggle.
See Sarah wiggle.

So if you abseil in, you can bet there’s probably not an elevator, escalator, staircase, dumbwaiter or anything like that.

Now, I don’t really cotton to rock climbing. This time, I went second instead of first (third, if you count Nic). The wall leaned in at an angle, and had lots of good handholds and footholds. But it was a bit wet and slippery. We were roped in by our harnesses, so I knew it couldn’t be too bad. But still!

Eventually, I got my way to the top and unclipped from the rope.

Getting Out of the Wetsuit

After this glow worm cave adventure, nothing feels as good as getting your wetsuit and harness off. Yes, my boys

Looking up at the cave entrance.
Looking up at the cave entrance.

were free of the encroaching canvass. And Satan’s jockstrap or not, this was a seriously great time. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded a longer tour!

Nic ran us back to the headquarters, where they gave us a nice post-adventure cup of homemade soup. Since it’s wet down there, it helps to have a waterproof camera. The tour staff has one, and they’ll sell you a photo CD of your trip plus some stock photos for $25 NZ. It would be cool to take your own photos, but I didn’t want to risk my Pentax and a perfectly good lens.

Out on the Town

That night after some lengthy showers, we headed to The Thirsty Weta for dinner, and a walkabout through the nice rural town of Otorohanga. We had enough energy for a walk through the local Rotary Park, which was a pleasant way to cap the evening.

formation-40
A big ol’ wetta!

But enough about that: Let me conclude by saying that, if you don’t do a cave tour in Waitomo, you’re making a big mistake. I can’t tell you which company is best, but I enjoyed our time with the Rap, Raft ‘n’ Rock crew. I don’t recall the price, but I want to say about $135 NZ per person, and it was worth every cent. The only better cave tour I’ve done is the ATM cave tour in Belize – a long, crazy underground voyage complete with the calcified skeletons of people sacrificed by Mayan priest. Super-creepy! But in this case, there’s nothing wrong with being #2.

Ratings:
Fun – 4/5 (I’d give it a 5/5 if it were longer)
Fitness Factor – 3/5 (not that exerting, really)
Guides – 5/5 (great instructions, information and character)

Interested in a reservation? Check ’em out here.

glow worm caves
Our caving group, with a backdrop of glow worms.
CategoriesUncategorized

Land of the Aussies Versus Home of the Kiwis

The crater of Mount Ngauruhoe

Since I’ve been to both Australia and New Zealand, I’ve had a lot of people asking me which one I like better. You can read my answer at the end, but now it’s time to figure out which one you should visit first. Here’s my take on some head-to-head comparisons:

Food – This is pretty much a draw. Both are relatively close to Africa and Asia, in addition to having a lot of European influences. If you can’t find good food in Australia and/or New Zealand, you’re just too picky and set in your ways. Because I ate camel, crocodile and emu on its shores, this round goes to AUSTRALIA!

From Australia

People – Australians are gregarious and have a natural exuberance. All you need to do to break the ice with an Australian is ask them about footy (Australian rules football), rugby or cricket. Boom, you’re in! With a Kiwi, there will be no need to break the ice. They are born talkers. They have a slightly more proper English vibe to them, though. You’ll find people in both countries pleasant and laid-back, for sure. But being a bit more loud and exuberant myself, I say advantage AUSTRALIA!

Scenery – The entire middle of Australia is desert. The coasts vary a bit. You’ll have rain forests, and even snowier patches! A lot of the continent is remote and unspoiled. It’s darn pretty. But holy cow, New Zealand will boggle your mind. There’s a reason epic movies and adventure-themed TV shows are filmed there. The active volcanoes, the rain forests, the glaciers! Advantage NEW ZEALAND!

From Australia

Cool Stuff to Do – Australia has awesome cities, great small towns, adventures a-plenty. Camping in the Kakadu is unforgettable, as is spotting wild crocs in a billabong. What does it take to beat that? Hiking the aforementioned active volcanoes and glaciers, schweebing, zorbing, incredible national parks, parasailing, the Thermal Explorer Highway. Wow. Sorry, Aussie buds … but advantage NEW ZEALAND!

From New Zealand Volume 1

Transportation – In the cities, both countries are neck and neck. Australia is a huge freakin’ continent, but it’s easy to get around by air. And it’s not overly expensive. Driving is not feasible. New Zealand is small enough that you don’t really have to fly unless you’re jam-packing your schedule. This also goes to NEW ZEALAND.

Cost – The Australian dollar is a bit weaker than the American, so you can stretch your dollar. At this time, the NZ dollar is down nearly 2 to 1 to the US dollar. Mind-boggling exhange rates like this really let you get the most out of your trip. For now, advantage NEW ZEALAND!

Flora – Australia … all sorts of awesome fruits and vegetables, plus a strong coffee crop and vineyards! And there’s that wild exotic fruit farm in Cape Tribulation. Beautiful forests and bushlands. NZ has all sorts of great fruits and veges, too … and a hop-growing region along with the vineyards! But no coffee. Also great forests and bushlands. This round goes to AUSTRALIA!

From New Zealand Volume 1

Fauna – Oh, man … you will never see a more exotic and weird selection of native-born critters than in Australia. And just wait until you leave the airport! I kid, I kid. But seriously … salt-water crocs, box jellyish, snakes all and sundry, insects, wallabies, platypuses, kangaroos and more! New Zealand has a bunch of flightless birds, sheep and possums. Oy. This is all AUSTRALIA!

From Australia

Culture – Both places are rugged and manly, with Australia having a more bawdy vibe that suits me. As for the indigenous stuff, I love the aboriginee culture for its stories, its language and the mysterious buzz of the didgeridoo. The Maori are a butt-kickin’ bunch, too, but I have to give this round to AUSTRALIA!

Intangibles – There isn’t anything I don’t love about Australia. The people, the food, the activities are all great. I would go back in a second. But I love the newness of New Zealand … a place that still seems to be growing, evolving and forming. It’s like a land before life. There is a majesty there I’ve never experienced before. Tough call, but it’s NEW ZEALAND!

The final score … Australia 5, New Zealand Australia 5. I can’t believe it! I need a tie-breaker! Let’s see … the flight time from Los Angeles is slightly less of New Zealand, so I’ve gotta give the Kiwis the nod by the very slimmest of margins.

Now, back to you: If you’re scared of big mean creatures that want to kill you, you might prefer New Zealand. But if you’re a big-city fashionista, Melbourne and Sydney will tip the balance in the Aussie’s favor.

Either place you go, have fun, be safe and send your friends!

CategoriesUncategorized

Coffee Culture Showdown – Comparing Caffeine

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Coffee is a shape-shifting drink. No matter what country you’re in, that country has added something distinct to the coffee bean and the way people drink it. Each time I travel out of North America, I find a little learning curve waiting for me.

Imagine an Australian visiting a cafe in California and asking for a flat white. You can count on that traveler getting a blank stare from the barista. Same for an American visiting a non-Starbucks coffeehouse in Costa Rica asking for a Frappuccino, and so on.


My first experience abroad as a coffee drinker was in Costa Rica. I was expected some awesome coffee since Costa Rica is famous for exporting quality beans. I couldn’t wait to drink some coffee – even after checking into our hotel at about 9 p.m., I found a pot brewing in the lobby. I scoured the area looking for cream, only to find out Costa Ricans don’t take cream in their coffee. Better yet, I learned it doesn’t really need it. I also found that just about any place that serves coffee serves it well, from a roadside soda to a full-service coffee pillar like Cafe Milagro. Most of it is brewed rather than served espresso style.

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CategoriesAdventuresTravel

New Zealand Travel Itinerary – My Ideas

New Zealand travel itinerary
Tongariro – a must for your New Zealand travel itinerary.

If you need some ideas for a New Zealand travel itinerary, I have you covered. Here are some suggestions for 14 full days in New Zealand that can help you put your own adventures together.

First off, visiting New Zealand involves a lengthy flight (unless you’re from Australia). That means spending at least two weeks is the only way to go. These ideas include some highlights from my trip and a few ideas of what I would’ve changed in my New Zealand travel itinerary with my newfound knowledge.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Our caving group, with a backdrop of glow worms.

Day One: Arrive from Los Angeles at 6 a.m. local time. Drop bags off at hotel in Parnell near the downtown area. Grab a few flat whites at Ben’s. Ogle crazy foods at local Asian markets. Take a ferry to Rangitoto Island and hike to the top of the volcano. Return to hotel … check in and shower. Then off to dinner and wandering the streets of Auckland. Hindsight is 20/20 … and mine says I should’ve rented a car after the flat whites and driven the easy two hours to Rotorua, thus affording some time in the fun capitol, or extra time in Wellington. I was planning to feel far more jet-lagged, but the symptons never came.

Day 2: Bus from Auckland to Rotorua. Arrive around 2:30 p.m., check into hotel. Visit Kairua Park, walk around Lake Rotorua. Watch for the sulfury lagoon where the lake turns color. Eerie! Indian dinner at Ambiance. General hanging around the town.

New Zealand travel itinerary
Heading up Franz Josef Glacier.

Day 3: Breakfast, drive out to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland. It’s an amazing but low-key addition to anyone’s New Zealand travel itinerary. After lunch, off to Agroventures. Zorbing is the highlight. Try the Schweeb, too. We followed this with driving around the countryside at dinner at Fat Dog. An extra day here would’ve been nice. Too much fun stuff to do here! I posted about our time there, with more photos.

Day 4: Drive to Tongariro National Park. Stop whenever we feel like it, especially at the Honey Hive. Continue on to Tongariro through Taupo. If you’re a hiker, get provisions in Taupo. Quick two-hour hike on Taranaki Falls Track. Dinner at Skotel. Arrange bus service for tomorrow’s hike.

Day 5: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., hike Tongariro Alpine Crossing with a side trip up Mt Ngauruhoe. An epic journey requiring a post of its own … or two (coming soon). Drive to Waitomo, stopping in National Park at Eiven’s for a quick dinner. Then on through Te Kuiti into Waitomo. Fall DEAD ASLEEP!

New Zealand travel itinerary
Me overlooking Queenstown, The Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu.

Day 6:  Start with breakfast at Bosco Cafe. Then onto Rap, Raft & Rock for our Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour. Post about that coming soon. Shower, followed by dinner at The Thirsty Weta. A late snack at Curly’s Bar & Grill. Fall dead asleep … again! Read all about it in my glowworm cave post.

Day 7: On the road by 8 a.m. for the drive to Wellington. You can do it in six hours without speeding, but more stops equal more time! We made an extended stop at Paraparamu Beach. Hang out on Cuba Street, have a great Indonesian dinner at Rasa.

Day 8: A quick visit to Te Papa Museum, followed by grabbing a few Wellington Phoenix shirts (Wellington’s soccer team in the A League). Then, we catch a flight to Nelson. It’s only about 20 minutes. Arrive, check into hotel, wander the streets and have a late lunch at Falafel Gourmet.

Day 9: Bus to Abel Tasman National Park (this will get its own entry soon). Walk for a few hours. Late lunch at The Park Cafe. Brews at The Sprig and Fern. Dinner at Little India. This may sound like blasphemy, but in retrospect I’d skip Abel Tasman and head straight to Franz Josef today to make up for an extra day in Rotorua.

Day 10: Bus to Franz Josef Glacier. Stop at the Sandfly Cafe … ate a possum pie! By the way, New Zealand likes weird food. You might want to make room in your New Zealand travel itinerary for the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival. Various other stops – a very nice drive. Best 8-hour bus ride ever. Arrive, check out the town. Hang out a bit.

Day 11: Franz Josef Glacier tour. Unbelievable! That was pretty much the whole day, except for showers and cooking dinner at the backpackers’ lodge. It’s not physically that strenuous, but the experience of being on a glacier is amazing. This should be part of any outdoor-related New Zealand travel itinerary.

Day 12: Bus to Queenstown. Stop in Wanaka – beautiful town on the lake! Continue to Queenstown through the heart of NZ’s grape and fruit basket. Lots of vineyards and vintners. Scenery turns more dry and stark. Clearly more commerce and mining, despite the isolation. Arrive in Q-town … we ate some fresh green-lipped muscles at the Aggys Shack chased by gelato from Patagonia – try the banana split flavor. It’s not what you’d expect! Then, off to the cinema to see Slumdog Millionaire where it’s still in a theater!

Day 13: Parasailing and street luge, followed by a nice run around town. We followed the lake’s edge for a few miles. Then to Aggys Shack, Fish & Chips for smoked eel and some sort of raw fish concoction. Took a cruise on the TSS Earnslaw. Fun, and beautiful views. Great to see a bird’s-eye of the crew working the boilers. Finally, a a nightcap at Dux De Lux following a nice pad thai at one of the local Thai restaurants.

Day 14: Breakfast at Halo. Go to Queenstown Airport. Say good-by to Q-Town. Catch a flight in Auckland. And this brings my New Zealand travel itinerary to and end.

CategoriesAdventures

Franz Josef Glacier – 7 Essential Tips

Franz Josef Glacier
From nz2

Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island is one of only three places in the world where you can walk from rain forest to a glacier in less than an hour. It’s also one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers – and the day I spent glacier hiking on its icy bulk takes its place among my best travel memories.I booked a trip with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The company offers a number of options: Half-day hikes, full-day hikes, ice climbing and even a heli-hike. We picked the full-day, which was $150 NZ per person. We arrived in the small South Island town of Franz Josef a bit after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and checked into the Chateau Franz (Read about Chateau Franz). We got only the briefest glimpse of the Franz Josef Glacier that day.

Of course, we were up bright and early to check in at 8:15 a.m. the next day. The Franz Josef Glacier Guides building is just a few minutes on foot away from Chateau Franz. It’s a well-kept Continue reading

CategoriesAccommodationsTravel

Rating Hotels in New Zealand

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You’re not supposed to feed him, but he’s hard to resist. Woodlyn Park    From nz2

Booking a hotel on the other side of the planet is a lot easier thanks to the Internet. But really, you still don’t know what you’re going to get until you step inside a room. And Lonely Planet guidebooks can only tell you so much. So I’m rating hotels in New Zealand to give you some real ideas.

These are the hotels I stayed at during my two weeks in New Zealand, so you’re getting the straight stuff. Each selection varies – if you must have a huge plasma screen in your room, some of these won’t make you happy. But at all points of the price spectrum, they were great deals, especially with the U.S. dollar stacking up so strong against the New Zealand dollar. In fact, I will say that you will not find hotels anywhere near this nice for an equivalent price in the U.S., not even in the bleakest depths of the off-seasons.

Parnell City Lodge
– I had originally booked a room at the Parnell Inn. Shortly before our trip, I got an e-mail from the Parnell Inn staff saying they’d overbooked. Rather than leaving us on our own, they arranged a similar room at the nearby Parnell City Lodge. Rather nice of them, really.

From nz3

Our flight from Los Angeles arrived at 6 a.m., which put us at the Parnell City Lodge way before check-in time. But the staff provided us a safe place to stash our bags while we wandered the city. The office may look a bit run-down, but the rest of the hotel is in top shape. It was clean, comfortable and really close to the LINK bus line (look for the bright green bus) that runs in a loop throughout the area, including stops at the Britomart transportation hub and close to the Sky City bus terminal, which we’d need the next day to get to Rotorua.

Parnell is also a really nice neighborhood, with lots of great restaurants and a very nice park area nearby. It’s a 20-minute walk to the water. If you balk at that, just grab the LINK bus for a 5-minute ride to Britomart – that puts you near the water, where you can grab a ferry out to Rangitoto or other surrounding islands for a bit of fun. About $90 NZ per night.

Ann’s Volcanic Rotorua Motel and Serviced Apartments – This is a really friendly and well-kept hotel a bit off Rotorua’s main drag. It’s very quiet, and the staff seems to be composed strictly of Ann and her family. Son Luke check us into a very comfortable and well-equipped room that included a small fridge, a kitchen sink and utensils. He also made a few recommendations on where to go and what to do. The rooms are bright and airy, and you’re not constantly hearing your next door neighbor’s TV. It’s a very short walk to a grocery store and some local pubs. Walkers like me are well within range of the downtown area, the lake and the free and very awesome Kairua Park, a thermal area right in the middle of town.

Cat lovers will enjoy meeting Stripes, Luke’s cat. Bonus! The Budget Studio was $99 NZ per night.

The Skotel                                                                                                   From nz1

Skotel – Staying at the Skotel was not in our plans. We were hoping to be able to rent some camping gear in Whakapapa. D’oh! There’s almost nothing in Whakapapa Village – certainly not an outdoor store. So we were ill-equipped to stay at the huts in Tongariro National Park. We scooted to the Skotel Alpine Resort, which only had a few backpacker rooms left. That means – cue ominous music – shared bathrooms!

Doin’ it Ricky and Lucy style – in seperate twin beds!                               From nz3

But no worries here – those shared bathrooms are modern and immaculate. The rooms themselves? Ours was a cozy job with a homey wood interior and a trio of beds, two in bunk configuration. And odd configuration for a married couple, but what can you do? Bottom line? Warm (a big plus in Tongariro National Park, which turns into a ski area in winter), quiet and comfortable. If you didn’t bring a computer, there’s also reasonably priced Internet access. If you thought to do some grocery shopping in Taupo, there’s a well-equipped kitchen. Or you can opt for the excellent Skotel restaurant – try the pan-fried blue nose if it’s available.

The price? Get this … $49 NZ for two people. Seriously, anyplace at that price in the United States is going to come surrounded by crack houses and infested with cockroaches, not wrapped in the scenery of Middle Earth.

Woodlyn Park – I decided to splurge at Woodlyn Park for about $160 NZ a night. What kind of room does that get you? Well, in this case, a 1950s-vintage British Bristol cargo plane that’s been turned into a two-room hotel block; each room has a bathroom, two beds (at least) and a kitchenette. We were assigned to the cockpit.

Looking into the cargo plane’s nose/bedroom from the living room/kitchen.From nz2

It can get chilly in Waitomo at night, so host Billy Black provided a space heater that keeps things warm. You can hear the crickets chirping all night, and an incredible display of stars that comes with being out in the Wop-Wops (one of my favorite Kiwi-isms). The interior and exterior of the airplane give your stay an unforgettable vibe.

Exterior view of the Bristol freighter.                                                          From nz2

Woodlyn Park has also converted a small ship and a railroad car into hotel rooms, and built their own reproduction of Hobbit houses. Come for the glowworm cave tours, stay for the killer rooms! Woodlyn Park is about a half-mile from a crazy place where you can watch the staff shear an Angora rabbit. If you stumble a little further, you’re at the upbeat and lively Curly’s Bar.

Comfort Inn Wellington – The Comfort Inn Elliott’s Paraparaumu puts you square in the heart of Wellington. You’re steps from the quay, the fun Te Papa Museum and, of course, the Cuba District.

All this fun and frivolity come at a price: noise. If you’re there on the weekend, you’re going to hear a lot of merriment and revelry. City dwellers might not notice – those used to some quiet at night might get irritated. Still, the rooms are in good shape, if a bit dark. And you won’t lack for restaurant options – try the Rasa Malaysian & South Indian Restaurant across the street. There’s also a lot of shopping to do here.

The hotel used to be a backpacker hostel, but it’s in great shape. And it’s really kind of old-school grand, especially the huge wooden staircase. $80 to $120 NZ.

Cedar Grove Motor Lodge – In the U.S., motor lodge is code for a run-down old shack that hit its peak in 1963. Not here. Cedar Grove Motor Lodge can definitely make a case as one of the nicest hotels we visited. A well-equipped kitchenette, a flat-screen TV and a standout bathroom along with a very helpful staff. It was also quiet and modern.

If you’re a runner, lace up your shoes and take a run on the path along the nearby river. If I had someplace like that to train, I’d be twice the runner I am. When you’re done, make the short stroll into town and grab some Indian food or a kebab at Falafel Gourmet. Everything is very close to Woodlyn Park, but Nelson is too small to have the hurly-burly of Wellington.

$150 NZ a night.

Chateau Franz – I was a bit worried rolling into Chateau Franz: Sir Cedrics – BBH. It’s just not in the best shape. The walls are thin, and things are a bit worn down. It’s also a backpackers place, which can equal a lot of noise.

But guess what? The shower is an absolute monster, and the rooms are actually warm and clean. The backpackers here weren’t a wild lot – probably too focused on getting up early for the all-day glacier tours rather than dropping X and raving all night.

There’s also a well-equipped kitchen, which is a terrific way to meet other travelers. There’s a very warm vibe here, and that counts for a lot. If I visit in winter, I may choose a more solidly built place to keep the chill out. But in summer, I’ll come back. One other thing – there’s a clothing-optional spa. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink – say no more!

$60 NZ per night, backpacker room with ensuite bathroom.

An open and airy room at the A-line.                                                           From nz2

A-Line Hotel – As I’m rating hotels, the A-Line Hotel in Queenstownand Cedar Lodge will probably slug it out for the absolute nicest rooms of our visit. Again, we got a nicely equipped kitchenette and a top-notch bathroom, along with a phenomenal view of Lake Wakatipu and the amazing Remarkables Mountain Range that will blow you away, no matter how many times you see it.

Some might find walking up and down the hill into town a bit of work – but those people shouldn’t shy away from it. Harden up, as your Kiwi hosts will say! It’s also very close to the chairlift that leads to street luge, bungee jumping and paragliding. Lots of great restaurants -Halo, Agyss Shack, Patagonia and Dux de Lux, to name a few- are an easy walk away.

You may also get an audience with Oscar, the A-Line’s official cat-at-large. Seriously, how can a place lorded over by a big friendly cat be anything but awesome? (I’m always rating hotels with pets higher than the rest.) About $100 NZ per night.

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A Practical Guide to Hiking Mt. Doom & Tongariro Crossing

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From nz1

Mount Ngauruhoe is a rocky and barren place upon which your feet will find little purchase. The land surrounding it is a blasted hellscape devoid of much flora or any fauna. All that’s alive here is the earth, as proven by the number of vents gushing steam and shooting crystalline sulfur pellets from its fiery depths.

But walk a few miles, and the stench of sulfur will abate. A verdant rain forest will reappear.

As nice at is to see signs of life again, it’s the lava-scoured lunar surface that truly makes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing by far the most incredible single-day hike I’ve ever done. According to most guide books, just hiking the crossing should take 6-8 hours, not including a side-trip up Ngauruhoe, which starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as Mt. Doom, the hangout of bad guy Sauron. One look at it, and you’ll understand why it filled the role so well. It adds about three hours to a typical hike along the crossing.

I’m ready for a nice little walk.                                                                      From nz3

A QUICK TIME LINE – Just remember, Tongariro’s weather is highly variable. This was on a sunny and perfect day without much wind.
Hour 1: The hike starts off going between lava flows for Mangatepopo Car Park. You’ll pass dripping springs and a turn-off to one of the huts.

Hour 2: You’ll start up The Devil’s Staircase, which is where things start heating up. The reward once you get to the top is choosing whether to climb Ngaurahoe. Just do it! It adds three worthwhile hours. Turn right toward the hulking cone. Veer to the left, following a bunch of big poles in the ground. On the ascent, head toward the large rock outcroppings. You’ll get the best footing. If you veer right, I’ll hope you like calf-deep volcanic cinders and going one step forward and four back.

Hour 3: Still climbing. you’ll come to a false summit. You’ve gotta go all the way to the top.

Looking into the throat of Ngauruhoe                                                            From nz3

Hour 4: You’re up at the top of Mt. Doom! Snap your photos and head down. Pass the big rocks and follow the path past a vent surrounded by pellets of crystalline sulfur. From there, you can kind of “ski” down the slope. Look for a worn brown track. It’s deep enough that, if you fall, you’ll slide just a little way before the cinders drag you to a halt.

Ngauruhoe looms behind Red Crater’s fractured visage.                                                                                                                        From nz1

Hour Five: March across a flat plain between Ngauruhoe that’s emitting steam from unseen holes. It’s startling and unearthly. At the end of the valley, you’ll find a shorter slog up to Red Crater.

Emerald Lakes                                                                                             From nz1

Hour Six: From Red Crater, you’re onto Emerald Lakes, Central Crater and Blue Lake. There’s actually a small colony of gulls at Blue Lake, the first sign of animal life that I saw that day.

Headed up from the first view of Red Crater toward Emerald Lakes.       From nz1

Hour 7: From Blue Lake, you’ll descend past more steam vents to Ketatahi Hut. Stop there and refill your water, if needed.

Steam rises from vents as vegetation grows. From nz1

Hour 8: On to Ketatahi Car Park. You’ll finally get in under some vegetation. This part of the walk seems to take a long time: You’re at least in the shade finally, but you can’t really see the end. Rest assured, it’s coming! Get to the car park, hop your bus and return to Whakapapa.

We started our trip at the north end at about 7:30 a.m., and we finished just before 4 p.m. As a frame of fitness reference, my latest half-marathon time was 1:57. Sarah’s latest marathon time is 3:59. That should give you an idea of what you might be in for.

Okay, onto the practical stuff!

1. Whakapapa Village is the starting point for most people to launch their hikes. We arrived in the late afternoon from Rotorua, which is two hours away. Our original plan had been to rent a bit of gear like sleeping bags and stock up on supplies. But there’s barely anything to Whakapapa Village: a few hotels, a very small store, a visitors center and the ski lift further up. Stop in Taupo, a much larger town, to stock up on supplies – especially food and hiking snacks.

2. Dress in layers. I wore a pair of REI convertible quick-dry pants, a long-sleeve Nike base layer, a Prana t-shirt and an REI jacket, which I took off while climbing up The Devil’s Staircase. On the feet, I had Smartwool socks and a pair of La Sportiva Trango Trek boots. I love those boots like a lifelong friend. I also had a backpack carrying 120 ounces of water and a bunch of Hamish Carter One Square Meal bars, which is all I could find at the little Whakapapa store.

3. Bring a camera or you’ll kick yourself.

4. Try to get an early start to avoid the worst of the crowds. Even if people aren’t hiking the full crossing, a lot of people are out there. It’s still wonderful, regardless of the crowds.

5. Even if you drive yourself to the park, most locals insist cars are susceptible to break-ins at the trailheads. Most suggest booking a spot with one of the local bus companies from Whakapapa. I wasn’t willing to risk it, and considered about $25 NZ per person a good investment.

6. On the way up, wear gloves! I used gardening gloves, but a pair of Mechanix gloves would’ve been better. Put them on the second you decide to climb Ngauruhoe, and your hands will thank you.

Descending Doom                                                                                        From nz3
Celebrating Stage 1 of an epic day at the crater.                                          From nz3
Another view of the lip … notice Ruapehu on the far side – and the tiny size of the other hikers!                                                                         From nz3