Imprint Tours’ first foray to the southern hemisphere was a huge success. Our intrepid group of 23 travelers enjoyed a fabulous 2 weeks in New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. Every new tour I do develops its own “theme”. For NZ, that theme was Natural Wonders and Natural Warmth. The spectacle of glowworm caves, geo-thermal wonders, and the stunning scenery and wildlife of the south island were matched only by the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the Kiwis themselves. Throw in some great entertainment (the Kiwis know how to put on a show), a homestay, wine tasting, great meals, some Maori connections, and the world-class city of Sydney and you have the recipe for a great tour. We began our adventure in Auckland with a morning driving tour of the city. We crossed the famous harbor bridge for views from the other side, stopped for a photo op at Westhaven Marina, and then wound our way up to Mt. Eden for more views back across the City of Sails. Next was a drive along the scenic coastal drive to Mission Bay beaches and views of the Hauraki Gulf. Auckland is a vibrant, multicultural city in a rather stunning setting, surrounded by beautiful Waitemata and Manukau Harbors. For me the highlight of our morning tour was our stop in The Auckland Domain, where we made time for a visit to the Auckland Museum. The museum is a wonderful introduction to New Zealand with some of the country’s most impressive Maori artifacts, a volcano room, fossils and Pleistocene skeletons, and an entire floor devoted to the country’s participation in two world wars.
After a free afternoon we re-gathered for our splendid dinner atop the Sky Tower, the highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Although dinner atop and tower is hardly a unique experience, this was certainly memorable. Taking the express elevator with it's glass floor, we were whisked to the 600-foot high observation deck. More glass floor sections provided cheap thrills as we walked, jumped, and took photos on them. A bit later we settled in to our fabulous buffet dinner. The food tables groaned with choices: soups, salads, dozens of seafood choices, carving stations, and a plentiful dessert buffet. It was a memorable first night.
After a generous breakfast buffet we departed Auckland. Almost immediately we were in rolling countryside, dotted with farms and forests. New Zealand’s agricultural importance was immediately obvious. A two-hour drive brought us to the charming, self-proclaimed capital of Kiwiana (all things New Zealand), Otorohanga. The small town memorializes all things Kiwi in a series of displays and signs. It was a fun lunch stop and my group found it to be a great place for souvenir hunting, boasting the best prices on the trip. Our next stop was the Waitomo Glowworm caves. We were taken down into the impressive caverns, given a brief geological history, and eventually boarded flat-bottomed boats in which we glided silently across and underground lake in complete darkness - except for the ceiling illumination of thousands of glowworms. Glowworms are the larvae of the fungus gnat. They live in hammock-like cocoons suspended from the cave roof. They weave sticky, spiderweb-like threads that hang down, glowing with luminescence. Insects are attracted to the light, get stuck, and are reeled in. But for us, it was simply a mysterious display of thousands of greenish-blue lights over our heads. It was a magical experience.
After the caves we continued to Cambridge where we dispersed to area farms for a homestay. In keeping with our travel values of making cultural connections, the group was divided into groups of 4 and taken home to spend a night on a local farm. Based on the enthusiastic sharing of the group the next morning, it was a highlight of the tour. Maia and I stayed on a small sheep farm where we enjoyed a swimming pool, a delicious home-cooked dinner and breakfast, and great conversations with our hosts. It was a great look into the lives and attitudes of everyday Kiwis.
Our group reassembled in Cambridge and headed for a local stud farm, swapping homestay stories along the way. Cambridge is a famous horse breeding and training region. We visited Cambridge Stud Farms where we were treated to a tour of the facilities and a show. We learned about horses, their care, breeding, and training, toured the stables, and even had a chance to ride a champion racehorse. We rounded out our morning with a lovely lunch stop at Mamaku Blue, a blueberry farm outside Rotorua. After learning about blueberry cultivation and the fine nutritional merits of blueberries we sampled products ranging from blueberry wines and liquors to jams and honeys. There were even blueberry dog biscuits (we passed on the sampling). We were dropped at our Rotorua hotel by mid-afternoon. In the early evening we gathered for a happy hour at the Pig and Whistle, a local institution.
Kiwi agriculture was on display again this morning as we started with a sheep shearing show. As stated, they know how to put on a show and the sheep did not disappoint. Then it was on to Whakarewarewa thermal village where we viewed some of Rotorua’s famous geothermal wonders, but more importantly, learned about the Maori people who have made their homes there for centuries. Our guide, a local Maori woman, was warm, welcoming, and full of information about the thermal features and Maori cultural life. She seemed especially proud of Maori traditions of living in harmony with the land. We learned about everything from communal bathing to tribal justice, and even how to boil an egg in a morning glory pool. We also enjoyed a Maori cultural performance which included the ritual challenge/welcome, Maori music and singing, the graceful “Poi” dance (women swing poi or flax balls on strings to the rhythm), and the “haka”. The haka is the warrior’s chant traditionally used to intimidate enemies before battle. The World Cup Champion NZ Rugby team famously performs the haka before their matches (a good example of how Maori culture is still present in modern NZ society). The aggressive chanting, bellicose posturing, stomping, slapping of chests, and intimidating facial expressions (eyes bugging and tongues out) make for a riotous and entertaining performance.
During a free afternoon, a number of our group extended their sight-seeing by visiting the nearby Buried Village - a 19th-century Maori village that was covered by a volcanic eruption, sort of a Maori Pompeii. While I found the actual site a bit underwhelming, our guide was charming, the setting lovely, and the site included a rather impressive waterfall. Next Maia (my 13-year old daughter and official Imprint assistant) and I headed out to the Zorb, a NZ adventure invention. We squeezed into a giant plastic ball and rolled down a hill. One can be strapped in or slosh around freely (with water added) and choose between a straight or zig-zag track. It was great fun and a highlight for Maia. That night we had a traditional Maori feast, the Hangi, at our hotel. Included was a second Maori performance. It was essentially the same show as seen earlier in the day, but the music is so enjoyable, the performers so good, and the atmosphere so fun, that we enjoyed it completely, even a second time. Participants were chosen from the audience and several from our group tried our hands at being intimidating in the haka.
The following day we flew to Queenstown and the south island. Part II (next week) will describe our adventures there.