New zealand is known for adventure sports and incredible views, but it's also a must visit vacation destination for luxury travelers. with undeniable beauty around every corner, new zealand's north island is the perfect place for planning an unforgettable road trip packed with high end experiences. for two weeks, my husband and i journeyed from auckland to wellington in search of the best locations, most memorable attractions and hidden secrets to ensure you have all the info you need to plan an epic adventure.
The layout of this guide is built slightly different than previous guides - walking you through our trip plan, location by location, beginning north in Auckland, ending south in Wellington. You can plan your own journey any way you like, starting and ending anywhere, so I've included quick links below so you can jump to specific cities you are interested in. You may be wondering about the South Island - for us, we felt like the trip would be too rushed by adding both islands in a two week timeframe. Although you can technically drive the length of the North Island in roughly 8 hours, there are so many stops along the way that it takes time to truly take it all in so keep that in mind as you do your trip planning. Otherwise, I hope these travel tips help you organize an exceptional voyage ahead!
Top 10 Tips to Winter Travel in New Zealand:
Low Season lasts from May through November - Seasons in New Zealand are opposite from the US so fall begins sometime around May and early spring lasts through sometime in November. However, New Zealand is known for adventure sports including skiing so expect that snow tourists flock to mountain resorts on the South Island for a second high season between July and August. If you are truly looking to travel during off season, consider traveling during shoulder months, April and September/October, when temperatures are low but snow is non-existent.
Winter prices for lodging and flights can be significantly less - In many cases, deals during low season can be up to 50% less than high season prices and upgrades are much easier to receive. Air New Zealand often has flight deals for less than $1,000 r/t, where it's normally $1,700+ and hotel prices are extremely reasonable. When we stayed at our favorite lodge in Whitianga, 970 Lonely Bay, we were the only guests and were upgraded to a two bedroom honeymoon suite and had the entire place to ourselves! During regular season they are fully booked and that type of experience wouldn't have been possible.
It's cold, but not too cold - Yes, winter in New Zealand is cold, averaging somewhere between 30-60 degrees fahrenheit depending on where you are, but surprisingly mild overall. It's definitely not warm enough to jump in the ocean or lay out by the pool, but everything else you'd want to do is not a problem. We hiked ocean cliffs in light jackets, took long walks along the beaches, zip lined through the trees and rafted rivers in dark caves without a second thought. Expect May through July to be have the harshest weather with occasional to heavy rainfall and crispy cold mornings with more sunshine than clouds the closer you get to September. Just keep in mind that like anywhere else, storms come and go and weather can be impossible to predict; leaving you with a much greater chance of hitting bad weather during the winter months so unless you are willing to take that risk, you're better off visiting during peak season.
Pack in layers - Temperatures can shift drastically throughout the day so you'll want to pack enough to layer on cold days with light t-shirts and pants for warm, sunny afternoons. For the North Island, you shouldn't need more than 1 pair of thermal pants, 1 long sleeve thermal top, a rain jacket, gloves, hat, scarf and warm coat in addition to your regular clothes. We didn't wear our cold gear that often, maybe 2-3 days overall when it was extra cold, but we did wear our rain coats often. I battled with bringing my long, down coat that I would normally wear when in New York in the winter, but ended up not packing it and definitely wouldn't have needed it while there (it would have been overkill). Do bring closed toed walking shoes and warm boots like Uggs if you have them as they will be enough for 90% of the outdoor activities.
You'll want a rental car - It's not that easy to get around from city to city, don't expect an extensive train system like there is in Europe. If you'll be visiting a few cities, the best way to get around is by car. You’ll be able to find all of the normal rental agencies like Hertz and Avis; however, if you’re looking to save some money and are less concerned about curb appeal - check out Jucy. Jucy is a very popular rental company throughout Australia and New Zealand for their camper van rentals as well as having some of the lowest prices for cars. Now, the cars are often a bit dinged up, 5-10 years old and lack the fancy upgrades you might be used to like GPS and back up cams. We ended up saving over $600 for a 2 week trip and had no issues driving around in a 2008 Toyota Corolla.
Kiwi's drive on the other side of the road - If you do plan on driving around New Zealand, brush up on the driving rules and signs before you go. This was something I was initially terrified about, but it ended up being fairly easy, especially since roads are well kept and pretty empty during low season, other than in cities like Auckland and Wellington. Here's a link with some rules to follow when driving in New Zealand: Important New Zealand Road Rules. Please keep in mind that the South Island is a different story - the terrain is much rougher with elevation changes, extreme weather, with windy and narrow roads. The North Island isn't as extreme, but there are definitely sketchy driving areas just like anywhere else and you'll want to remain cautious no matter where you are. For this reason, we decided to pay extra to rent an automatic vehicle instead of a manual transmission since neither of us are experts and it would ensure one less thing to worry about during our journey.
New Zealand isn’t fancy so leave your Prada bag at home - Overall, New Zealand is a down to earth, casual destination, especially during the winter when most people are more concerned about staying warm than looking trendy. We visited some of the most glamorous accommodations throughout the North Island and rarely felt a need to be more than smart casual anywhere we went. I packed one dress, three nice tops and one pair of wedges and my husband packed three collared shirts and one pair of dressy shoes and that was more than enough for any situation, including nice restaurants. So, save some packing room for souvenirs and leave the dressy clothes at home.
Beware of pricey stopovers to islands like Fiji or Rarotonga - I made the mistake of planning a cheap stopover to Rarotonga on our way back to LA from for only $100 more, cheap, right? Well, what I didn’t realize is that winter/low season in Australia and New Zealand means high season for the islands because that’s where everyone escapes the cold! Which meant that hotels were booked out and I struggled to find even mediocre options for under $500 per night. I’m not suggesting you don’t go to one of these beautiful islands, but do your full research before booking your flight plan. In the end, I decided to change our flights, paying the steep $500 change fee and staying longer in New Zealand (ultimately costing us less in the end and more time to explore the North Island), and it ended up being a really great decision.
People are friendly and will invite you to their house, 99% of the time they are not trying to kill you - The people of New Zealand are hands down the friendliest people collectively that I've met in all of my travels. On more than one occasion, including on our flight home, we would start off random conversation with a friendly Kiwi and they would end up inviting us over for tea at their house. In true California fashion, I was convinced they were luring me to their house to tie me up and kill me slowly... but apparently New Zealand isn't like an episode of Law and Order SVU and they really just are nice folks. I'm not saying you need to take them up on their offer, just be prepared for super nice people to say and do things that are extremely uncommon in American culture, like smiling and being considerate.
Not everything will be open or running during low season - There are plenty of places that decide to close during low season, so it's important to call or email to check as you organize your trip. We ran across a few locations that scheduled renovations or smaller boutique hotels that closed to take vacation during our visit and although it didn't hinder our travel plans, it did take some extra time to research so we didn't show up to find a big "Closed" sign staring back at us.
Planning a Road Trip Through North Island, New Zealand
Auckland is the easiest city to fly into and is a convenient starting point for a New Zealand adventure. Auckland is a typical large city and in my personal opinion, there's little reason to spend more time than necessary here. Our flight arrived late at night, so we spent an evening downtown (roughly a 20 min drive from the airport) on the way in and two additional nights at the end of the trip before flying out, which was far too much time. It's funny, I asked several people in Auckland what they suggested we do while there and the only suggestion was to leave the city and visit some of the islands. Seriously, even the hotel concierge had trouble suggesting places to go; if that's not a sign then I don't know what is. You'll most likely need to stay at least one night if you're flying in or out, so you might as well do it in style - here's my suggestion for where to stay while in Auckland.
Where to stay: The langham
At the end of our three week trip through New Zealand, we spent two glorious days indulging in complete relaxation at The Langham before heading back to LA. We had an early flight from Wellington into Auckland, so we arrived at the hotel rather early. Immediately walking into the lobby you are surrounded by elegance and are welcomed home by the staff. Our room was not available when we arrived (I did send an email prior requesting an early check in, if available); however, we were offered the option of upgrading to a suite for an additional cost, which would allow us to check in immediately. I'm not a huge fan of being charged extra for a room that is currently available, but I understand that we were there well before check-in and since we were tired and in need of sleep, we opted for the upgrade. We were directed to our two room suite, which included a spacious living room and separate bedroom with a king bed. The room was comfortable and provided all of the amenities needed for a lazy weekend, including a delivery of complimentary water and fresh fruit. The classic victorian decor is a bit dated for my personal taste, but there's no doubt that everything is of the highest quality from the large flat screen televisions, dark wood details and marble counter tops to the plush bedding and expansive array of Chuan toiletries. I absolutely love all of the light pink details throughout the room; just enough of a delicate touch to soften the darker tones. This is definitely the room you would want for an extended stay in Auckland for complete comfort and pure opulence.
The Langham Club
Suite guests are invited to enjoy the benefits of The Langham Club, which includes additional privileges such as a continental breakfast, afternoon tea, pre dinner drinks and butler service. The breakfast was an especially nice benefit and included a variety of hot and cold delicious options.
First Class Car Service in a Pink Bus
One of my favorite parts of staying at The Langham was the shuttle service that drops guests at the harbor with return service throughout the day. The hotel is within about a 20 minute walk from most of the city's main attractions (not actually that far), but this provides guests with another option on those days where you're either just feeling lazy or rain is in the forecast. The shuttle is in the hotel's signature soft pink and is an incredibly comfortable and convenient way to get around the city and just one more way The Langham serves their guests.
The Chuan Spa
The Chuan Day Spa is the perfect oasis for pampering yourself after a long day of sightseeing. Once you are whisked inside, you take part in the tri-bathing process that awakens the senses and calms the body through the sauna, herbal steam room and snail shower and ice experience (if you're brave enough, I could only take the ice for a quick second!). Once you've washed away all of the stress and loosened your muscles, guests with scheduled treatments are brought into a quiet area to read and sip tea as they wait.
The Chuan Spa offers a wide variety of treatment options, specifically tailored to meet your individual needs. I scheduled a 2 hour spa package, which included a full body exfoliation and wrap, followed by a hydrating facial. After so many long weeks of travel, this was exactly what I needed to finish out the trip. The woman who performed my treatment was extremely kind and professional, ensuring that everything from the temperature of the room to the music was to my liking as well as ensuring that I was relaxed and comfortable at all times. The body scrub and wrap was sensational and the facial was exactly what I needed after weeks of sun damage. Following the treatment, I was led to a beautiful room with tea and snacks and given a breakdown of suggestions for future skin care (much appreciated!). I left soft, smooth and glowing from an incredible afternoon treat; definitely a deluxe spa experience and one I would absolutely suggest when in Auckland.
I love finding restaurants that try out new concepts for dining and not only was Eight doing just that, it had terrific reviews to match. Eight is a new take on a buffet, where it is all you can eat with eight different kitchen stations with a large variety of delicious choices. Now I'm not a person who enjoys buffets, but here's the twist - each dish is cooked to order to your liking at the various stations and is made of top notch ingredients. We were blown away at the level of quality in the food, especially considering the wide selection of seafood and meat, including sashimi, shrimp, scallops, lamb, venison and top quality beef cuts. The service level also matched that of the food quality; the staff was attentive, informative and did everything they could to ensure that the guests left happy and satisfied with every detail of their meal. The dessert bar was especially exciting as it had everything from fresh made waffles and Nutella to Swiss ice-cream and a chocolate fountain. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Eight truly has something for everyone and provides guests with a high end dining experience unlike any other in the city.
Next Stop: Whitianga
Just two and a half hours drive south east of Auckland lies the Coromandel Peninsula, one of the most beautiful beach destinations on the North Island of New Zealand. This picturesque area has incredible ocean views and dramatic cliffs on one side and rolling hills on the other with the feel of a California surf town. I would highly suggest spending a minimum of 2 nights in this area; we made the mistake of only booking one night and it's one of my biggest regrets of the trip and when we return to New Zealand we will definitely be going back.
Where to Stay: 970 Lonely Bay Lodge
Hidden down a quiet street, alongside the historic Shakespeare Scenic Reserve and estuary is the boutique, luxury accommodation 970 Lonely Bay Lodge. After many days and hours of doing research on the Whitianga area, it was clear that 970 Lonely Bay Lodge was the epitome of peaceful, beachside relaxation that I wanted to start off our New Zealand vacation. We only had one night, so I wanted to make it count and it couldn't have been a more perfect match.
From the moment we pulled up to the lodge, it became obvious that we were in for a special experience. Kym, the property manager, greeted us at the door with a warm smile welcomed us into the incredible property. To this day, it's one of the most beautiful accommodations I've ever been in - exquisite in every way and in every detail. The lodge is comprised of three, one bedroom suites and a fourth two bedroom honeymoon suite. The downstairs living area has floor to ceiling windows that absorb light from every angle, and provide incredible views of the lush backyard looking out toward the estuary and beachfront. There, you'll find a dining room, kitchen, library/sitting room, and an open television room and sitting area with numerous fireplaces. The sitting area windows glide open completely and the ceiling remotely retracts to allow for optimal exterior views - the ideal place to watch the sunset with a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers. In addition, the lodge also has its own elevator to accommodate those with accessibility needs or anyone who simply doesn't want to lug all of their luggage up the stairs like my dear husband. Decorated in sophisticated elegance, no details were forgotten when it came to ensuring that guests had every luxury needed for an unforgettable stay.
The backyard is immaculately kept, with a luscious garden, private outdoor bathtub, wrap around deck and direct access to paths leading to the beach and to easy hikes to some of the area's best viewpoints. In the spring, the magnolia trees are in full bloom, covering the ground with their soft, pink leaves, complimenting the interior decor perfectly. The beach is a direct shot from the patio, less than a five minute stroll over a whimsical bridge to the long sandy oceanfront; so secluded in the winter it feels like it is waiting just for you. The Shakespeare Reserve is also directly in front of the lodge, a unique spot for bird watching and enjoying some of New Zealand's natural bush.
Since we were traveling in August, which is late winter/early spring in New Zealand, we were the only guests (lucky us!) and were led up to the Estuary Terrace Honeymoon Suite, which is an expansive two bedroom suite with a covered outdoor dining/entertaining lounge with a gas fireplace facing the ocean and overlooking the estuary. The second small bedroom is up a small set of stairs and has its own patio, perfect for a family with older children or two couples traveling together. The main bedroom has its own door that closes off from the other bedroom, so while the two rooms share a bathroom and large walk in closet, the suite is completely private. In addition, the honeymoon suite has a separate entrance, with stairs on the side of the house leading up to the outdoor lounge. The lounge is perfectly situated with a large dining table for entertaining friends or enjoying a quiet dinner by the fire while listening to waves crash in the distance.
The main bedroom itself is incredible, with the best view in the house, plush king sized bed, electric fireplace and complimentary mini-bar, fully stocked with water, sodas, wine and organic snacks. The bathroom has a gorgeous claw footed bathtub with premium amenities to fully indulge in complete relaxation. Each and every subtle detail of the room, from the white washed shutters to the toilet light (Colin's favorite detail), remind you that you're experiencing the best that New Zealand has to offer.
In the morning, Kym prepares a breakfast feast that smells so good it literally grabbed us out of bed. Amongst the tea and coffee, yogurt, granola (muesli) and fresh fruit, she also makes guests a hot breakfast to order - we both had eggs and bacon over toast. As if it wasn't already the best way to wake up in the morning, what I will remember most are the delectable, light and fluffy croissants and pain au chocolate pastries that appeared fresh from the oven. They are imported directly from France and are sumptuous, buttery clouds that melt in your mouth with every bite.
I have to say that this will always be one of my most memorable, enjoyable and most beautiful stays we've had in the world. In addition to the extraordinary view and superb elegance of the lodge, we loved the time we were able to spend with the property manager, Kym. She is one of the most lovely people I've met - kind, accommodating, generous and omits a sense of peacefulness that few embody. I continue to believe that accommodations are only as good as the people behind it, no matter how beautiful it may be, and this is why 970 Lonely Bay has it all. When you visit, be sure to take some time getting to know Kym; she is truly the gem that makes this place shine so bright.
My perfect Day in Whitianga
Unfortunately, we had a few short days in the Whitianga area, so I've put together how I would suggest spending the perfect 24 hours while staying at the lodge. Let me first say that you should stay at least 2 nights, if not 3-5 to enjoy it fully; however, I know that's not always possible so here's how I would do it, knowing what I know now and experiencing it first hand. It's also important to note that this is based on having a car, which I highly suggest, as it's the best way to experience all of the areas of New Zealand without restriction.
Arrive Early: If driving from Auckland, give yourself about 3-3.5 hours to get there to allow for photo stops and a quick breakfast. We stumbled upon Pukeko's Nest Cafe, which was great quick break for a yummy hot breakfast and a fresh display of gluten free pastries. There are plenty of other cafes along the road leading into Whitianga, more than you would expect, so don't feel pressured to eat at the first one you see in fear that there won't be any more along the way.
Check In: Call ahead of time, letting Kym know you are on your way. Even if you can't check in quite yet, drop your bags and quickly freshen up before exploring the area.
Cathedral Cove: Take the 20 minute drive from the lodge to the first and best introduction to Whitianga. Cathedral Cove offers an unbeatable ocean view, striking cliffs, white sand beach and easy to moderate walking paths/hikes for a picture perfect afternoon. If you haven't had lunch, I'd suggest grabbing some food from a local cafe or grocery store and bringing it along to have on the beach or lay out a blanket and sit on the grass near the lookout. There is a free parking lot at the top of the hill directly in front of the stairs that lead you down to the walking paths with clear explanations of where to go, effort level and length of time. I'm scared of heights and prefer easy to moderate hikes, so we took the Stingray Bay route, which took about 20 minutes each way. This doesn't take you all the way to Cathedral Cove, which takes 45 minutes one way, but is a quick and easy alternative with great views of the cliff. If you have the time and energy level for a longer, more difficult walk/hike, I've heard Cathedral Cove is absolutely worth it.
Hot Water Beach: Making your way back toward the lodge, take a turn toward Hot Water Beach. This is the famous spot where you can dig a hole in the beach sand and create your own natural hot water pool from the hot spring just below the surface. This can only be done a few hours before and a few hours after high tide, so be sure to check times before heading that way and bring something to dig with to make it easier (you can rent them from the local shops near the beach). It was a cold day, so we weren't ready to get in the water, but we got to enjoy the view anyway.
Afternoon Tea and Bubble Bath: By this point, you're probably ready for some rest and relaxation. Head back to the lodge and enjoy your beautiful suite. Run a bath, make some tea and open the windows to let the sea breeze in.
Watch the Sunset from the Outdoor Lounge or Downstairs Sitting Room: Savor the incredible view as you sink into one of the plush seating areas throughout the house with a blanket near the fire as the afternoon sky turns to a fiery red and the sun slowly tucks behind the lodge.
Order Take Out from Go Vino: The best way to relax is to stay in the lodge as much as possible, so instead of spending hours out at dinner, pick up some food from Go Vino - one of the local favorites. Despite the strip mall exterior, it's actually a fine dining restaurant with an extensive wine list and delectable and flavorful dishes. For lodge guests, they perfectly plate everything for you to take back with you to enjoy as if you were eating at the restaurant. Highlights for us included the mushroom risotto cakes, charred polenta dish, and for dessert, the dark chocolate marquise.
Star Gaze from the Outdoor Bath: After dinner, pour an extra glass of wine, put on a robe and slippers and head to the backyard with a few candles. Fill up the bath and gaze at the never-ending stars from your very own outdoor bathtub. Don't worry, it is completely closed off and locks from the inside so you don't have any new friends joining you unexpectedly!
Early Morning Hike to Shakespeare Cliff to Watch the Sunrise: If you're up for an adventure with an incredible view, wake up early and take the path from the backyard to the nearby Shakespeare Cliff outlook to watch the sun come up over Whitianga. Oooor, you can do what I did and sleep in instead.
Breakfast at the Lodge: Indulge in Kym's scrumptious breakfast spread outside on your patio or in the dining room and be sure to have some of those heavenly French pastries fresh from the oven!
Paddle board from the Estuary to Cook's Beach: If you're not too full, take out the lodge's paddleboard onto the stream that flows just a few yards from the backyard and paddle out to Cook's Beach. Walk along the sand towards the reserve and explore the rock formations, tide pools and native New Zealand bush.
Say a Tearful Goodbye at Checkout: This is the worst part - leaving this enchanting lodge. With a warm hug from Kym, wave goodbye to 970 Lonely Bay, Whitianga's best hidden luxury retreat.
Next Stop: Matamata | Hobbiton & Waitomo Caves
planning your visit - to stay or not to stay in matamata
Drive Time from Whitianga: 2hrs 15 min
Matamata is a pretty random town with no other major tourist sites to explore in the near vicinity other than Hobbiton; however, it is decently central depending on your plans. We decided to stay in Matamata for 2 nights because we visited the Waitomo Caves in the morning (just over an hour drive each way from Matamata) and did the Hobbiton Evening Dinner that night, which makes for a busy day but is definitely doable if you have a car. The dinner ends sometime between 8-9pm, so it's also nice not to have to drive long distances on a very full stomach; another reason we decided to stay in town. Otherwise, if you are just going for a Hobbiton day tour, I'd recommend staying in Tauranga/Mount Maunganui or Rotorua and just doing the drive there and back in the same day (1-2 hours each way depending on where you are coming from).
This is not a destination with many high end options; however, we found The Eldonwood Bed and Breakfast, a quaint luxury B&B that suited all of our needs for a short stay. This very new accommodation option run by Willie and Faye is comfortable, clean, safe, central, extremely welcoming and an incredible price. My husband and I booked their private suite above the garage, which has a private entrance, a mini kitchenette, bathroom with heated floors, extremely comfortable queen sized bed, cable television and wifi and in the morning, they cook and serve you a hot breakfast in their home. Willie and Faye are a lovely couple, helping us plan our trip by answering questions and offering suggestions along the way. We would absolutely stay there again if we were in the area.
hobbiton evening dinner tours
There is the one place in the world where Middle Earth and reality collide and every Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie fan's fantasies come true. In the small country town of Matamata, somewhere in the center of the North Island, you'll find New Zealand's #1 attraction - Hobbiton (you heard me right, it's the most visited tourist destination in the entire country!). We were lucky enough to book one of the coveted spots for the Hobbiton Evening Dinner Tour, which started just last year. I'm bringing you an inside look at what you can expect from the Hobbiton Movie Set Day Tour and the Evening Dinner Tour so you can plan your next visit to this mystical world. I'm not going to give many details away so you can experience the enchantment for yourself, I'll just provide you with the necessities to plan your visit.
Full disclosure - I've personally never actually been able to get through the first Lord of the Rings movie despite several valiant attempts by husband who is one of those super fans who has read all of the books, watched all of the movies and at times truly believes he has a higher Hobbit calling. I was just as excited to go there as any other stop on our New Zealand road trip, but not necessarily counting down the days with gitty excitement (like a certain man I know who will remain nameless - *cough Colin* - excuse me). With that said, it was truly one of the most memorable and impressive man made experiences I've ever been to and I recommend that everyone visiting New Zealand should go at least once, fan of the movies or not.
You need to purchase tickets online at http://www.hobbitontours.com . There are 2 pickup options - The Matamata i-SITE, which is in the center of town in Matamata or the Shire's Rest Cafe, the main pickup point located just outside the Hobbiton gates and a 15 minute beautiful backroad drive from Matamata. If you have a car, I'd definitely suggest choosing the Shire's Rest Cafe as there is ample parking and you can take your time exploring the shop, opposed to having your time dictated by the bus back to town.
Movie Set Tours depart daily, rain or shine, every 30 minutes starting around 9:30am to 3:30 or 4:30pm. There are plenty of available spots; however, you'll want to get tickets in advance since tours do fill up and can sell out.
Evening Dinner Tour tickets on the other hand should be purchased at least a few months in advance to guarantee entrance. For example - there are already several December dates that are sold out and that's three months away. This private dinner is reserved for less than 50 guests and at this point it is only available Sunday and Wednesday evenings, with Tuesdays beginning January 2016. If you have the time in your trip, absolutely book the dinner tour - it's well worth it and a completely different experience than just the day tour; well worth the money too!
Ticket Costs in NZ Dollars through March 2016:
The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour Only: Adults $75; Kids $10-37.50
Evening Dinner Tour (includes Movie Set Tour): Adults $190: Kids $100-150
The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour
The Hobbiton Movie Set Tour is a guided tour of The Shire and is also included in the Evening Dinner Tour price. Unlike other attractions, this is not one you show up to at any time and explore on your own. You are bussed in and out on large charter buses and remain with your group during the 2 hour tour, with freedom to take pictures and wander along the way.
Unlike Disneyland where fantasy worlds are simply visual facades, Hobbiton feels real; from the growing vegetable garden to the miniature line hanging laundry, I wouldn't have been surprised for a moment if a Hobbit walked right out of one of the holes and said hello. The guides provide a balanced mixture of movie trivia and mood setting creativity, without being cheesy. I personally loved the genuine excitement and passion the staff all seemed to have for jobs, making it that much more enjoyable.
We were there as the sun was setting and after it had been a very rainy day, but it didn't take away from our experience at all. We dressed warm and came prepared with layers. So don't panic if you look at your weather app and see rain - I promise you'll still love it!
All guests end the tour at The Green Dragon "pub", where you receive one free drink, alcoholic or non alcoholic, and you have the option of purchasing other food items. It's the perfect spot to relax and reflect on your Middle Earth adventure.
Ensure that you arrive at the pick-up site at least 15 minutes early so you don't miss the bus!
They provide an ample amount of large umbrellas to use for free, so there is no need to bring your own.
The walk around Hobbiton is definitely muddy, so wear proper shoes.
Definitely bring your camera; there are no restrictions on photos or videos and the guides are super helpful when it comes to taking your photo so you don't leave with only selfies.
If you are doing the evening tour you'll have plenty of daylight for photos, but I'd suggest bringing a tripod for some cool night shots for the walk back at the end of the evening, but only if you know what you're doing otherwise you'll just end up with blurry bright splotches.
Fun Facts: Hobbiton is an actual working farm with thousands of sheep around the property. It was never intended to be a tourist attraction and was actually being torn down, until the movie came out in theaters and locals started showing up at their door, demanding to see the secret set that they recognized in the film! The family decided to partner with Director, Peter Jackson, to open the site to the public.
Hobbiton Evening Dinner Tour
So if you book the Hobbiton Evening Dinner Tour, you end up at The Green Dragon like everyone else with a free drink and relaxation by the fire - but then there's more! Not only have you walked through The Shire during dusk, the best time to catch the sky when it's gorgeously adorned in pink and orange hues, you are the last people left on the property. That's right, all the other suckers have boarded their buses and you and 50 other lucky visitors get the place to yourselves.
After about 30 minutes, curtains part to reveal an expansive dining room set with two long family style dinner tables overflowing with a feast fit for a Hobbit. If you remember the scene in Hook when Robin Williams and the Lost Boys sit down to a banquet dinner - it feels just like that! Now, I've been to Medieval Times and I'm telling you, that's like comparing McDonalds and Five Star Dining, they are a million miles apart. Perfectly cooked, rustic dishes are waiting for you to devour as you sit next to new friends. This delicious bounty is more than enough to feed a college football team, so you're definitely not leaving hungry.
When you think it's over and your stretchy pants are expanded to their maximum output size, here comes dessert in all of its glory. Everything from pudding, cakes and tarts to fresh grilled pears stare you down until suddenly you have an entire plate of goodies in front of you and you don't know how it happened. Trust me, it's worth the calories.
You'd think at the end of the meal, they'd quickly shuffle you back to the buses to get you out of there as quickly as possible - no way, not in Hobbiton. Everyone is handed a night lantern to light your path and for the next 30+ minutes, you get to experience The Shire like few others do. With even more stops and important tidbits of movie information, the enchantment of this sensational journey continues to awe and inspire. Ending the tour with a silly Hobbit dance, you are loaded onto the bus and dropped off back at reality where real life will never be as magical as what you just uncovered. A world beyond a world - The Hobbiton Evening Dinner Tour is one you just can't afford to miss!
Dinner Tour Tips
Wear comfortable clothes, you are guaranteed to be extremely stuffed.
Check out the details in the bathroom, there wasn't a corner of this place that wasn't touched with a Hobbit wand!
Again, bring a tripod for night shots if you've got those skills.
The walk back can get cold since the sun has gone down, even on a warm day, so layer up.
Ask lots of questions. Dinner is a great time to talk to your guide and get all of the behind the scenes dirt that wasn't presented during the tour.
Just over an hour's drive from Matamata is where you'll find the wildly popular Waitomo Glowworm Caves, a sacred underground river wonderland that runs through the Ruakuri Cave. The Black Water Rafting Company offers a handful of professionally guided tours through the caves for every thrill level - from a simple 30 minute boat ride under the glowing cave ceiling to epic four hour journeys jumping, climbing, rappelling and rafting through the cave's tunnels. I'm not an adventure seeker by any means, but my husband loves new experiences so I decided to go the middle route and booked us on the Black Labyrinth Tour, a three hour journey deep into the cave's pitch black abyss, with only the lamp on your helmet and the glowworms to guide you.
That sounded kind of dramatic - here's what really goes on... you bring a bathing suit and towel (don't bother bringing a camera, they won't let you use it for safety reasons), they put you in a wetsuit, booties and fit your butt into a rafting tube and basically throw you into 50 degree water for the next three hours. The guides take photos of you throughout the tour that you can buy at the end, when you get out you jump into a hot shower and are served a simple cup of soup and are on your way.
The water is always cold because it's in the cave and the outside temperature doesn't make a difference, although it does help when you get out. On the day we did our tour there was a massive downpour so jumping into frigid water to get out into super cold, wet conditions wasn't ideal. Even with that said, it was my husband's absolute favorite, most memorable part of our entire trip and he continues to tell everyone about it even months later. I also really enjoyed it, but as I said, I'm not an adventure seeker and it definitely challenged me. On our tour which is considered "beginner" level, we had about 10 people ranging from as young as 15 to 50s and unfit, so really most anyone can do it. I come with some baggage - I'm afraid of heights, I'm super short and am not that strong, making parts of the tour difficult, especially as the water rushes pretty quickly and I struggled to easily advance from rock to rock while holding my raft in the dark and I really was terrified to do a backwards jump into the cave's dark waters from a 4-5 foot ledge. I'm not saying these things to deter you because I truly enjoyed the experience and would do it again, but I'm assuming an experienced adventure guide is the one describing the tour online and has no clue what fear is so I thought I'd provide you with a clearer picture so you aren't as surprised as I was. Just remember, the adventure guides are professional, experienced and their sole concern is your safety so no matter what you are in good hands with little to worry about even if you are a paranoid, scaredy cat like me.
Tips: pack a bathing suit and 1-2 towels per person as well as flip flops for the shower (unless damp, communal shower floors are your jam). Also pack whatever you would want to be as warm as possible when you get out - layers, heavy sweaters, etc. because it will take some time to warm up. Don't bring a camera if you are taking a tour other than the boat tour (I'm not even sure if you are allowed cameras on the boats), guides will take photos for you. Plan to eat before and after, the cup of soup will not fill you up but will warm you up. Don't freak out about the fact that there are worms on the ceiling - I'm amazed at how many people are immediately grossed out by that and can't think about anything else. Seriously? The glow worms are high above you and it's one of the most beautiful sights of nature you'll ever experience and no, I've never heard of one falling into someone's mouth. Jeez.
Next Stop: Rotorua
About an hour drive southwest of Matamata is Rotorua, the island's volcanic and cultural epicenter and a perfect location for checking off multiple sights on your New Zealand bucket list. Unfortunately, because Rotorua is so packed with beauty and activities, it's fairly touristy... like it's one of the few places we visited on the island where we passed multiple fast food restaurants and major hotel chains kind of touristy. However, don't let this scare you away, if you look beyond the initial "Orlando" facade (if you've ever been to Orlando, you'll know what I'm referring to), there's many unique and worthwhile gems to explore.
A few important notes before you begin: My husband and I visited in early spring (August/September) so Rotorua was fairly quiet compared to the very busy summer months and we stayed for three nights, which is just enough for both activities and relaxation, but 2 nights is doable if you cut out the relaxation part. Keep the time of year in mind when it comes to booking tours, activities and places to stay because you'll want to plan ahead and do expect crowds during high season (October - April). Finally, anticipate a strong sulfur smell due to the volcanic activity, especially during warmer months (on the bright side, passing gas in public was never easier).
WHERE TO STAY
There are really only a few high-end accommodations in the area and aren't as easy to find as you would expect. Like I said, this is a city flooded with chains like Holiday Inns and family friendly motels... not exactly my scene, but there are three luxury lodges that meet my Type-A personality and one of those that I highly recommend. I'll list them all for you and include a full feature of my favorite, The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa.
The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa
Just minutes from the center of town is a hidden sanctuary of solitude and panoramic views unlike any in the city. TheBlack Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa is a family owned lodge that provides all of the touches of a high-end hotel, while offering a personalized and authentic customer experience. The location is fantastic because you can quickly and easily be at any of the main attractions in town, but can also hide away from the hoards of travelers without losing the gorgeous view. My favorite part about the Black Swan are the grounds - imagine The Secret Garden meets Dante's Peak meets the finale episode of the Bachelor... ok, maybe that wasn't very helpful. Bottomline, it's postcard perfect with a cooked-to-order breakfast each morning and, of course, dozens of black swans waiting to greet you lakeside. But, I'll be honest, the decor is a bit too contemporary for my taste and the website leaves much to be desired, which is why I've tried to provide as many photos to show off what this exquisite property has to offer.
The hotel has lakeside, lakefront and garden facing rooms, but my preference would definitely be the lakeside suites. These spacious rooms are somewhat detached from the main building offering added privacy, have their own porch fireplace looking out at the lake and some are even equipped with a separate alcove with a twin bed, perfect for families. Rooms have a stocked mini fridge and snacks, all included in your stay. The bathrooms are huge, with double sinks, glass shower and a luxurious stone soaking tub (quick note: the bathtub does get a dark ring around the drain as do some of the other white stone fixtures due to the volcanic matter in the water, I promise it's not dirty - just a minor adjustment for being in a geothermal hotspot!).
The property has other amazing perks as well, including onsite parking, a lakefront facing game/sitting room, solar heated swimming pool, old fashioned gardens and gazebo, helicopter pad, private dock, sauna, day spa and a secluded sandy beach. My favorite spot is on the second story wrap around balcony watching the sun go down with a cup of tea and a blanket; the view is unbeatable. Even though there were so many things to do in the area, one of the days we simply cancelled all of our plans to enjoy the peace and quiet of the property.
Other Accommodation Options
Solitaire Lodge - 5 star, starting at $1,200 USD per night
Treetops Lodge - 5 star, starting at $1,200 USD per night. We had reservations to stay here for one night, but it was later cancelled due to the property shutting down for renovations. As a customer experience, it wasn't the best so I would think twice before booking a stay here in the future.
WHAT TO DO
There are so many great outdoor activities in Rotorua, especially if you take some time to drive just beyond the city. Some of the country's finest lakes, hikes and conservation efforts can all be found here so be sure to plan time to explore.
Rotorua Canopy & Ecological Tour
There is currently only one Canopy Tour on the North Island of New Zealand and Rotorua Canopy Tours is it. I know what you're thinking - you've gone zip lining before in Hawaii or Costa Rica or whatever tropical place you've been to in your lifetime... so have I. But let me say, this one was by far my favorite and not just because it has some of the tallest and longest zip lines I've ever experienced - it's because of the incredible knowledge you gain about New Zealand's unique eco system and the intense conservation efforts that this group is doing to save the island's native birds. What I didn't realize before going on the tour is that nearly all of the island's indigenous bird population are under attack and fearing extinction due to predators such as cats, rats and possums that have been introduced into the once predator free eco system over the years. Because these larger rodents have no natural predators to naturally control their rapidly growing population, they are killing off the island's native birds at an alarming rate (every night 70,000 native birds are killed by pests in New Zealand, with about 260 million killed each year) and the team at Rotorua Canopy Tours is working hard to raise funds and awareness to protect these endangered animals.
The three hour tours are small, no more than 10 people at a time, with 2 fun and knowledgeable guides to keep you safe and entertained along the way. I am terrified, and I mean terrified, of heights (can barely stand on a chair without getting dizzy kind of fear), but the guides did a phenomenal job of helping me through the course and putting me at ease. This is a really fun and fulfilling adventure for kids and adults of all ages and abilities - trust me, if I can do it, anyone can!
Tips: Bring a camera, closed toed shoes and dress appropriately for the weather - but if it's cold, they have extra gloves, hats and scarves you can borrow for extra warmth!
Hells Gate Mud Spa
Looking for some relaxation? Then Rotorua is your spot for some of the purest, silkiest mud spas in the world. Hells Gate Mud Spa is my personal favorite for a few reasons - it's less touristy, it's an authentic experience (this isn't a high-end European spa, much more rustic and spiritual) and has an extensive thermal park with guided tours so you can get a better understanding for this sacred, geothermic region. For the ultimate experience, book a tour and schedule a soak in both the geothermal mud baths and sulphur spa, with natural minerals and health benefits coming right from the source. I also brought home quite a few of the Alite products that are made from mud from there at the thermal park and super inexpensive compared to the hundreds of dollars similar products cost in the states. Also, at the end of the tour, you get a chance to learn about the art of Maori carving and make your own carving block (it's a lot harder than it looks... let's just say that mine won't be hanging on the wall anytime soon).
Make sure that everything you bring can be washed with the potential to be tossed! The sulphur is strong and will stick to your clothes. If you don't get it out, the last thing you want to do is put it in your luggage with everything else because your entire wardrobe will wreak of rotten eggs. I can't stress this enough. I brought plastic flip flops, cheap cotton clothing and an old bathing suit that I threw away after. Bring a plastic bag to put all of your wet stuff in too. You can also rent a swim suit there for $5, which is a really good option to save you some stress.
The sulphur water stings the eyes and even if you don't get the water directly in your eyes, it comes up through the rising steam. I brought eye drops which helped as well as wearing sunglasses or even goggles if you're super sensitive.
Drink plenty of water, it's hot and you can get dehydrated quickly.
Try not to get the sulphur water in your hair, but if you do be sure to wash it thoroughly as soon as possible. I was an idiot and didn't wash my hair until the next day and even though I only got water on the tips of my hair, it smelled for weeks! However, this only happens to totally lazy people like myself who fall asleep before a quick shampoo; normal, responsible people won't have any issues. Which reminds me - ladies, be sure to bring a hair tie!
There are showers there to wash it all off so definitely utilize this for your body, hair and your wet clothes.
Tamaki Maori Dinner & Cultural Experience
One of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand is the Maori culture and a visit isn't complete without learning about the history, customs and culture of the Maori people. The Tamaki Maori Experience is the highest rated and most popular in the area, even by locals and is a unique and entertaining event for all ages. The three hour evening includes a tour through the village where you learn about traditions and customs, an entertaining performance and a Hangi buffet feast with typical New Zealand desserts. It's fun, engaging, energetic, moving and delightfully filling - a great way to spend an evening in Rotorua.
LOCAL WALKS AND HIKES
There are a plethora of fantastic outdoor activities in and around Rotorua to take part in. Here you'll find some of New Zealand's best lakes, hikes, adventure sports and conservation efforts so be sure to plan time in your itinerary for some exploring in this picturesque city.
Green Lake & Blue Lake
This is a great stop a short drive from the city. It's hard to tell from the photo, but Green Lake is on the left and Blue Lakeis on the right and you can leisurely walk/hike around the perimeter of both of them. Green Lake is actually privately owned, sacred Maori land so it's glassy, eerily still and seriously green (which is why it's so hard to see in the photo) and Blue Lake is recreational and there are activity rentals available for use. Colin and I packed a picnic one chilly afternoon and sat at one of the tables around Blue Lake and spent the day taking photos. If you just want to soak in the view, there's a parking/lookout area just beyond Blue Lake that takes you to the spot between both lakes.
Tarawera Trail was one of those unplanned stops that we made while we were driving around and exploring the area. Just off of the main road we saw a parking lot next to open landscape, perfect for leisurely trekking along, because as you know I'm afraid of heights. Well, my dream of trampling through open fields was short lived because the scenery was wildly deceiving. There is one trail that you take, that takes a turn from the flatlands taking hikers on a one track hike deep into a vast canyon where all you can see is the tops of trees and all you can hear is the sound of (what I can only expect) is a very large waterfall somewhere in the distance. For many, this is paradise... for me it's my worst nightmare. Needless to say, about 2 miles in we turned back after Colin ran ahead and there was no end of the cliffs in sight. I sat, clinging to a mossy rock taking photos without looking down. We've learned from our previous experiences not to push me too far unless we can afford for a helicopter to come save me when I inevitably become I'm paralyzed with fear (at this point we cannot afford such luxuries). No matter what, the first mile and a half is perfect for all ages and a super easy and beautiful walk through New Zealand's native brush and if you're adventurous and enjoy a good hike, keep going! You'll eventually end up at Hot Water Beach for a fabulous hot spring experience right on the beach. Don't worry if you don't think you can make it all the way, you'll know when to turn around, it's pretty clear.
When I was doing research for our trip, I kept coming across these photos of redwood trees, which I thought was so odd considering they are called California Redwoods for a reason... Well, it turns out that in 1901, someone brought trees over from Cali and planted them in the middle of New Zealand, how random. What we found was Whakarewarewa Forest- this serene redwood park next to this incredibly clear, turquoise lagoon filled with wild birds. It's actually kind of crazy, when we parked, we got out of the car and dozens of ducks, chickens, geese and random birds came running up to us - initially I thought it was because I was a fairytale princess and they were coming to pay tribute... but to my dismay, realized they are just used to being fed by visitors. Lame. You can do the walk around the lagoon and through the redwood grove in about an hour and there's miles of hiking and walking paths just beyond the water for a longer trek.
WHERE TO EAT
Like I said, this is a city filled with chain restaurants and mediocre tourist spots so it was a little harder to find unique, unforgettable restaurants - but we did find a couple really memorable places.
Ciabatta Bakery is a just right for breakfast and a perfect stop for grabbing goods for a quick bite or lakeside picnic. Sandwiches are fresh and delicious and they have a large variety of pastries, including gluten free and paleo friendly snacks!
Be Rude Not To Cafe
This is a local favorite right in the center of town. Stop in Be Rude Not To for a good coffee, gourmet sandwich or hot pizza. They use high end ingredients to create unique twists on lunchtime favorites and traditional New Zealand dishes.
We had one of the best meals we had here at Bistro 1284 - a hidden gem and local Rotorua favorite. We actually found out about it because it's owned by the same family who owns The Black Swan Hotel and they offer to shuttle guests to and from the restaurant for free - which meant we actually got to share a bottle of wine (instead of me having a glass, Colin having 3 and then me driving us home while he snores in the passenger seat). This is a fine dining neighborhood bistro with an innovative menu, strong wine list and dishes packed with local, seasonal ingredients. My only regret is not eating here two nights in a row (I wasted one of our nights at a terrible restaurant... I should have known that a buffet that you have to take a Gondola to is a clear tourist trap. I make mistakes too, ok?).
Next (and favorite) Stop: Napier & Hawke's Bay
On our way south we spent 4 nights in the Napier/Hawke's Bay area and it was the most relaxing time we had. Our time was split between complete luxury at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers and rustic seclusion at Tom's Cottages, both amazing depending on your travel style. This growing wine region is set along the coast and is a gorgeous location to spend some down time while being surrounded by breathtaking views of both rolling hills and rugged cliffs along the shore.
Where to stay
THE FARM AT CAPE KIDNAPPERS
*This feature is rather extensive and has been condensed for the guide - for complete details, please check out the full feature here.
If there is one place that you simply cannot miss as a luxury traveler, it is Relais & Chateaux's The Farm at Cape Kidnappers in the wine region of Hawke's Bay, New Zealand. The definition of five star accommodations, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers has it all - breathtaking views, a world renowned golf course, the highest quality of fine dining, superb rooms with every amenity at your fingertips and a lodge so tastefully and beautifully decorated, it would put Pottery Barn to shame. I can say with confidence that The Farm is the best luxury lodge in New Zealand and one of the top hotel destinations in the world.
The main lodge is most impressive - gorgeously designed in contemporary chic elegance, with every detail thought of and no expense spared. Set high above the grounds, it looks out onto an endless ocean view and large floor to ceiling windows provide guests optimal viewing no matter what room you are in. It is a single story ranch style lodge and houses the check in desk, three separate dining areas where all of the meals are served and multiple sitting rooms for reading and relaxation throughout your stay. There is also a center courtyard as well as ample outdoor seating to enjoy the views on warm days. Surprisingly, not many people took advantage of the sitting areas so they were often empty, probably because the suites are so comfortable; however, we benefitted from sipping tea, playing games and passing the time in the sitting rooms without interruption the majority of the day.
It is important to note that we traveled during the winter/early spring and were lucky enough to be one of the few guests staying at the lodge since it is considered low season. I cannot express more that this is a wonderful time to be a traveler throughout New Zealand and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers was no exception - over our 3 night visit we practically had the place to ourselves; it was truly magnificent.
The property is comprised of the main lodge, 22 suites plus an Owners Cottage, a world famous golf course, pool & jacuzzi, fully equipped gym and 6,000 acres of their privately owned working farm. There are various designated walks and hikes around the property; however, it would be nearly impossible to see it all on your own without taking a Can Am Tour (see activities), it's just too large and complex. The property spans practically the entire area of Cape Kidnappers and is not open to the public, with the exception of a few accessible coastal areas. It's remarkable that one location can have forest, farms, beaches and cliffs, but this one certainly does. All of the photos below were taken during our first trail walk (about 3 miles).
When I tell friends about my experience at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, I often say that it is one of those rare places that is filled with life. It seemed like at every turn there was life emerging - from the organic vegetable garden, the seals sunbathing along the rocky shores, the thousands of farm animals (sheep, cows, goats and pigs) and the spring babies being born right in front of us. Away from the multi-million dollar lodge is a serenity unlike anywhere else I've been, where nature and opulence converge and excellence emerges.
In addition to the working farm, the owner of the property has been one of New Zealand's conservation leaders in his efforts towards saving the native bird population. With the largest predator fence in New Zealand, the The Farm is home to hundreds of species of birds, including multiple gannet colonies and the rare kiwi.
A large part of what makes The Farm so special is their incredible staff. As you would expect, customer service is impeccable; however, the graciousness and warmth in their hospitality is what struck us most. Unfortunately, in my personal travel experiences, great luxury is often accompanied with a cold, staunchy, stuffiness that can be rather uncomfortable - but there was an ease about the team at The Farm that we fell in love with. We had fantastic conversations with everyone there, learning about their families, their home towns and the story of how they came to work at such a beautiful place; honestly, we tried to convince more than one of them to sit and have dinner with us! The property manager is also lovely, ensuring that all of her guests' expectations are met and that their experience is unparalleled. On a couple occasions we asked about what to do and before we knew it they were making a special experience happen!
One of the days we asked to be driven out to the Gannet Colony about four miles out and we would walk back to the lodge ourselves. It was late in the afternoon and clouds were brewing overhead and about three miles in I was becoming a bit weary from our walk... right when I thought I would start crying from the darkness and the impending rain overhead, a vehicle appeared a quarter mile ahead (which is strange because there is literally no one out there). When we got close, our amazing driver from earlier appeared with an umbrella and said that they were all worried so he came out to get us - my knight in shining SUV!
There are 22 luxurious suites sprinkled throughout the property, in varying proximity to the lodge. There are four Lodge Suites for those who would prefer not to have to walk, eight Hilltop Suites and two multi-room Family Suites just a short walk above the lodge, and finally, the most secluded Ridge Suites which are a 5 minute walk from the lodge with unobstructed skyline views.
We were in the Skyline Suites as we don't mind the extra walking and prefer the added privacy. The suites share only one wall, similar to a duplex, and are designed in a way that you feel secluded from the rest of the property where all you can see from your windows are sweeping ocean views. The photos will tell you most of what you need to know, but some of the highlights include a California-king bed that is so plush you can barely get out in the morning, an electric fireplace, a stocked bar with drinks and delicious snacks, a flat screen television hidden behind a picture frame on the wall, heated floors, a walk in closet big enough to park my Prius in, and speakers throughout so you can play John Mayer in the bathroom while you watch the sunset from your gigantic bathtub with the windows wide open (you feel that isolated) and the ocean breeze flowing in. In addition, the bed faces towards the french doors that open up to a private porch with views that quite literally take your breath away. I would sit outside with a cup of tea and watch the sunrise over the cape, feeling like I was on the edge of the world and the sun was coming up just for me each morning.
Included in your stay is a full breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and canapés and a multi-course evening dinner each day. While lunch is not included, you can order an a-la-cart lunch in the dining room or head over to the Club House at the golf course and have lunch there. Honestly, I'd be surprised if anyone was actually hungry between meals and with the snacks available in the room we never found a need for lunch. All meals are served in the lodge, unless otherwise pre-arranged for in-room dining or specific private dining requests.
Breakfast starts with an array of options at the self-serve cold table - including yogurt, fruit, cereals and fresh pastries. Then as you sit down to one of the three dining rooms, you are provided with a hot menu, with a variety of typical breakfast options like eggs, bacon and pancakes. The orange juice is remarkably fresh and there is a large selection of juices, teas and coffee to choose from. Sitting in the main dining area with grand sliding windows, quietly staring out onto the vast property is seriously the best way to start the morning.
Dinner is a full event each evening and a fantastic excuse to get dressed up (jackets are required for men, so don't forget to add that to your packing list!) and delight in an extraordinary meal prepared by one of New Zealand's finest chefs,Head Chef Dale Gartland. Upon arrival in the evening, you are escorted to the main sitting area near the fire where the impressive sommelier offers you whatever adult beverage tickles your fancy. I asked for a glass of chardonnay of his choosing, providing him with just a few of my personal preferences and he poured me a glass of Te Awa, what has now become my favorite chardonnay of all time (so much so, I shipped home 6 bottles!). While you wait for your table, you are served an assortment of canapés while your glass is continuously refilled... which is something to watch for, because on our first night I was not paying attention and finished three glasses before we ever sat down for dinner!
Guests have two ordering options for dinner - a la carte or the chef's five course tasting menu - both of which change daily based on the availability of the finest seasonal, local ingredients. We dined for three nights and each meal was equally incredible - offering an impressive collection of dishes, prepared and served to perfection. We have eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world and we were absolutely blown away by the quality and care that went into each dish, wish a special note to the pastry chef who makes some of the best desserts and ice-creams we've ever had - I mean wow! I also very much appreciated that the staff was happy to let us pick and choose when it came to the meal, including ordering additional dishes if we were still hungry or, like one of the evenings, deciding that we wanted to try seven different flavors of ice-cream, options were truly endless.
On a side note, alcoholic drinks are not included with dinner, but are included in the pre-dinner portion of the meal. There are options for wine dinner pairings (which I would highly suggest), bottles or very reasonably priced glasses. Again, after all of the pre-dinner drinking I struggled to finish much more than a glass during the meal (but then again, I'm a bit of a lightweight).
ON PROPERTY ACTIVITIES
First, I must advise that there is a very good chance that you will not want to leave the property, so I suggest waiting until you arrive before booking any major activities that are outside of The Farm at Cape Kidnappers as you may just change your mind when you get there and don't want to feel stuck with pre-arranged plans. I recommend that you spend no more than one day away for every three days there; that seems to be the magic number and any more is just a waste of your visit.
There are a number of on property and off property activities available to book for an additional fee (click here for a full list of options); however, there are also a number of fantastic activities included in your stay - such as spending time at the pool, riding mountain bikes, numerous walking and hiking trails throughout the property, as well as a variety of games, books and movies at your disposal for a relaxing day in. I have included details of the activities that we took part in during our stay. Unfortunately, it was not the time of year when The Kiwi Discovery Walk was available, but we would have definitely done that if given the opportunity and will plan on it during our next visit.
The Spa is located just above the lodge and is a tranquil oasis for weary, stiff travelers. I enjoyed an 80 minute Swedish massage and Colin had a 50 minute Deep Tissue massage. The therapists are experienced and professional, guaranteeing the removal of any traces of stress you might be carrying from the long plane ride over.
Can Am Tour
The CanAm Tour is simply the best way to see all that The Farm offers. Since the majority of the property is unreachable by regular, four wheel drive vehicles, your private guide is able to use the Can Am to take you to the farthest reaches of the expansive grounds. We learned about how the property operates as a working farm, wandered deep into the native brush, climbed to the peak of the hillsides, peered straight down the ocean cliffs and witnessed the birth of spring babies just a few feet away. The guide is actually a local and grew up working on the property before it was ever turned into a luxury lodge, so he's got the history and the experience to take you on an unforgettable adventure.
Hidden in picturesque Tuki Tuki Valley, tucked between Hawke's Bay's wine country and the rolling green hills of Mata Peak is where you'll find Tom's Cottages - the North Island's greatest hidden gem. While I absolutely love a five star hotel and amenities at my fingertips, there's something so beautiful and so innate about sneaking away to enjoy some peace and quiet out in nature and that's exactly what Tom's Cottages provides its guests. Without the hassle of camping or roughing it in some sketchy digs or having to drive miles from civilization to find privacy, Tom's Cottages offers two fully equipped, self catering cabin suites (Big Tom's Cottage & Tom's Cottage) set far apart on a large open property, surrounded by nothing but nature - I promise you there's not a high rise or building in sight! With everything you would need to build a warm fire, pour a few glasses of wine, put on a romantic comedy and snuggle on the couch while listening to the birds and the wind outside, there's truly no better place to relax and unwind than Tom's Cottages.
Towards the end of our New Zealand journey and after spending three glorious nights at one of the world's most luxurious lodge's in the world, we were ready to shut off from society for a little while. Less than 30 minutes drive from Napier and in the center of the region's most popular wineries is where Tom's Cottages reside. Even though it's just a 10 minute drive from the quaint town of Havelock North where you can find grocery stores, posh boutiques and fine dining restaurants, you feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere as you pull up the drive to the main house.
Van and Linda Howard are the owners and hosts of Tom's Cottages (Van is the front of the house, endearing storyteller and Linda is the decorator and brilliance behind the scenes) and their house is just a 2 minute drive away down the road. After meeting at their home, Van had us follow him in our car to Big Tom's Cottage where we were staying, handed us the large, metal, medieval key (making it that much more exciting!) showed us around and disappeared back to his house (which is nowhere in sight even though it's just a few minutes away), never to be seen again while being only a phone call away if we needed anything.
Big Tom's Cottage is a 2 bedroom, 2 bath bungalow that perfectly fits two couples or a single family. While the cottage itself is from the 1940's and still retains its rustic charm, it has been fully renovated to include all of the modern luxuries you'd need to completely relax without a care in the world. The cottage includes everything you would expect from a normal hotel like large comfortable beds, bathroom necessities as well as wifi, flat screen tv, dvd player and electric heating throughout, with the added bonus of a fully equipped kitchen including a dishwasher, stocked with breakfast basics like bacon from the butcher, fresh eggs, homemade bread, yogurt, tea and coffee. Some added bonuses include private parking, an open back patio and BBQ, outdoor wood fire bathtub (ultimate romance for those warm summer nights), washer and dryer, fireplace and even dvds and games so you never have to leave. What more could you want?
After checking in, we decided to make our way to Havelock North for dinner. Van suggested that we eat at Pipi Cafe, the well known eclectic, pink Italian local favorite and we were so glad that we did. The pizza and meatball pasta were both delicious and the pepper calamari was cooked and seasoned to perfection. We decided to stop at the grocery store for some Hokey Pokey ice-cream to bring back to the house (a vanilla based, honeycomb flavor - a New Zealand staple that's hard to find anywhere else in the world). We then headed back to our secluded cabin, put on our pajamas, lit a fire, snuggled up with a blanket and our tub of ice-cream and watched Notting Hill - seriously the best escape I could possibly ask for.
The next morning we made ourselves a scrumptious breakfast feast; which I have to tell you, was wonderful after 3 weeks of having to get ready each morning to go to a dining room and be served. I know, I know, first world problems, but it was so refreshing to make our own food. I then wandered around the property and was amazed at the morning views, the complete solitude and silence except for the large amount of wildlife that was flourishing all around us. I saw more birds never leaving the backyard than I had the entire time in New Zealand, it was truly incredible. Everything in me wanted to stay another week, but all we had was that day so I tried to take in every ounce of it.
We reluctantly headed back to the main house, handed Van our key, said a tearful goodbye and drove away far sooner than we ever wanted to. The next time we are in New Zealand, there is no doubt that we will be back for a much longer stay at this fabulous hidden haven.
things to do in napier/hawke's bay
Hawke's Bay Sunday Farmers' Market
If you are looking to bring home some locally grown and produced goods, head to the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market held Sundays from 8:30-12:30. There's music and a ton of delicious artisanal delights to try and a great way to spend a Sunday morning like a local.
We planned one day to drive around to do some wine tasting and explore Napier, the Art Deco capitol of the world. After trying some wonderful wines at dinner, we decided to visit the vineyards of our favorites in the area, have lunch and check out the town. The wineries here are lovely, all featuring true New Zealand hospitality. Everyone we encountered was friendly and excited to tell us about the grapes grown in the region and the wines that have been gaining respect and recognition worldwide.
My personal favorite wineries, especially for the Chardonnay, are Te Awa and Vidal. We went a little overboard and ended up buying 15 bottles to ship home. It's actually easier than you might expect to ship wine (depending on where you live) - for just over $100, we filled out a slip, brought all of the wines we collected to a nearby winery to be shipped; six weeks later all of our bottles arrived in one piece and we've been enjoying sips of New Zealand from home ever since!
Napier's Art Deco
We took a quick drive around Napier where we gazed at their rare collection of Art Deco buildings that have gone untouched since the 1930s, when much of the city was rebuilt after a major earthquake. There are not many unique shops or restaurants in town that require a stop, so a quick drive is really all you need.
Final Stop: Wellington
At the southern most tip of the North Island is Wellington, known for it's foodie certified restaurants and posh living. Unfortunately for us, we only had a very short visit - enough for a tour of the Weta Caves (a totally awesome tour of the workshop that creates props for movies like Lord of the Rings and other major films - a must visit for movie lovers and geeks like my husband, and I say that in the most endearing way possible), dinner and a short night of sleep at the InterContinental before boarding an early morning flight back to Auckland in route back to LA. The drive from Napier to Wellington is the longest leg of the trip - 5 hours, but was ultimately shorter than driving back to Auckland. We literally arrived in the dark and left before the sun came back up, so I don't even have any photos to share. If I were to do it again, I'd either plan two nights in Wellington or skip it altogether if timing is tight. While it's a gorgeous seaside city, it felt a lot like San Diego and that's something we can get at home. It is a great spot to end your journey because there is a major airport which means you'll easily be able to drop off your rental car or it's even better for continuing on to the South Island and taking a quick flight or ferry ride across.