New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

New Zealand – The Land of the Long White Cloud; two islands, two different climates, characters and charm. After our South Island excursions which you can read about here, what would North Island have in store for us? Despite views that south is best, we decided to split our time evenly between both islands. And we are so glad we did. In fact we had too little time in the north and missed a huge amount of this fabulous island. Although here are our Top 6 highlights from our North Island exploration.  Check out our Interactive Map below with all our POI’s and overnight stopovers. 

 

 

1. Marlborough Sound and Cook Straight

The first of our highlights has to be Marlborough Sound. Renowned to be the most beautiful ferry journey in the world, the trip from Picton to Wellington is certainly an experience. With a 3.5hr crossing through Cook Straight, named after Captain Cook, you will be invited to explore the joys of Wellington. Although think not of the capital, because appreciating the Marlborough Sound with its inlets, coves and bays is a must. If you don’t get to see Abel Tasman National Park, then this journey offers a taster of this incredible part of New Zealand. 

Before you know it Wellington is your host as you disembark the Interisland ferry.  New Zealand’s capital (not Auckland as many think), Wellington is one of the world’s classically understated capitals. I would put it in the same category as Bratislava, Slovakia and Zagreb, Croatia The first sight is a built up area of docks and shipping terminals although in the city’s heart you feel its youthful vibe and arty characteristics. We didn’t see much as our primary focus was attending the ICC World Cricket match between England and New Zealand. Although I guess in truth we saw more of Wellington than we expected because the match was dire. Still, the less said about that the better. 

Our two hours around the city gave us a great flavour and our one recommendation would be to take a trip up in the iconic Wellington Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens. The panoramic views across the Cook Straight, the docks and city is amazing.  Myles summarised the day up nicely, saying that it was “A great palate cleanser between the two isles and cleared the decks for an equally magically ride ’on t’other side’”.

 

 

2. Whanganui River Adventures, Pipiriki

We love taking the route less travelled and getting off the beaten track. Sometimes it get us into trouble, although on the whole we find some absolute gems. And Pipiriki is one of those treasures. With a gift from my mum for our anniversary, we decided on a Rafting and Jet Boat adventure up the Whanganui – what a top drawer choice. 

It was a 5 hour trip from Wellington, yet as we drove through the isolated valley to Pipiriki our spirits were raised by the landscape. It looked like it had jumped straight out of the pages of The Hobbit’s Middle Earth.  Our arrival at Pipiriki was just sublime and the Whanganui River Adventures team welcomed us with open arms. We stayed at their lovely campsite and with a good night’s sleep we were prepared for our next adventure.

Now rafting down a river through a stunning gorge sounds quite tranquil. What we didn’t realise was that there were five rapids to negotiate on this sedate meander downstream. Although that was for the return journey. In the meantime we had the most spectacular high-sided gorge to immerse ourselves in and its Maori history.  On top of that we also had a hike the the Bridge to Nowhere, which a fabulous sight. A bridge built literally in the middle of nowhere, to absolutely no where! 

Our trip back down the river was, in part on the Jet Boat which skimmed the surface of the mid-summer water with exhilarating hand-break turns. The final stretch of 10km back to camp was by canoe. We were told that it would be a Canadian Double Canoe, as if somehow that would make all the difference. Alas it still meant we had rapids to navigate. Despite the water level, this part of North Island benefits from more tropical weather so the rapids were still pretty fierce for us as first timers. I look back now and have very fond memories although it wasn’t without its challenges, check out our video below to see exactly what we mean.  

The rest of the trip was just insanely beautiful, especially as the sun started to change the visions in front of us. Like a stage, spotlights of the sun’s rays started to bounce off the gorge walls and light up the crystal waters. With echoes of the historical ghosts dancing amongst the gorge, it left us feeling that this river adventure would be on our Top 10 list. 

 

 

3. Thermal Wonderland 

The thermal wonders of North Island are out of this world. When people try to compare the two islands, my view is you can’t. North Island has a rawness where the earth quite literally opens up, like windows for you to see into its soul.  The only downside to this particular region is that it is most certainly not off the beaten track. It is full of visitors looking to see the geysers (that predictably go off at 10.30 each morning!!). There are thermal parks everywhere and so you must do your research to find the right one for you. Just beware that some Parks really are quite commercial, especially if you are keen to see the Haka dance by the Maoris.  

The drive north offered us a clue to the thermal activity we were about to experience; a trio of volcanoes filled the sky line. I’ve never had a close encounter with a volcano before and there was something very humbling about treading its molten larva pathways. What history has been strewn around this land. Seeing these active volcanoes up close, was amazing as there was a tantalising uncertainty about when it might blow next. Especially given the billowing pillar of white smoke coming from one of the smaller volcanoes. They are still very much alive and kicking and they commanded our respect. We highly recommend popping in to see the Whakapapa Village at the Tongariro National Park. We didn’t do the famous Tongarriro Pass hike, although it is said to be an experience all of its own.

The volcanoes were just an introduction to the geothermal adventure for our next two days and we were enthralled by the earth, quite literally steaming. It is called a living landscape and you can see why. It was such a surreal vision to see bursts of steam coming out of the vegetation like hidden dragons waiting to pounce. We visited Haka Falls and The Craters of the Moon a great introduction to the thermal landscape so iconic in North Island. Rotorua is the capital of the Thermal Wonderland and you will smell it before you see it. The sulphur aside, Rotorua is worth looking around and of course it is the centre for exploration of the thermal parks and Maori culture.

The thing that struck me most, as we visited a Wai-o-Tapu thermal park outside of Rotorua, was that New Zealand is a powerhouse of seismic activity and each Island has its own unique way of expressing it. The south is disturbingly unpredictable, secretive and threateningly powerful – whereas North Island is very transparent in its seismic expression. You feel it, see it, smell it and hear it. Every sense knows that just below the surface, there is a cauldron of fire from Earth’s soul being thrown into our world.  To be privy to these one-way conversations from Earth’s core was just incredibly primal and puts so many things into perspective. The futility of our materialist living put in its place with the volatility of the planet’s existence. I bow to your magnificence.

Wai-o-Tapu was mindblowingly beautiful with its myriad of colours going way beyond the spectrum of a rainbow. 7 colours is just insufficient to describe the hews and palette that we were presented with. This volcanic wonderland had a real treat in store for us. Iridescent greens, lime, burgundies, bright reds, intense crystal blues and opal, primrose yellows and snow-like whites. My eyes and imagination were in heaven. 

Closer to Rotaruo was the Living Village of Whakarewarwea,  which was the most authentic way to see Maori life without the obvious tourist traps of some of the other expensive parks. It allowed us to submerge ourselves into Maori culture, see the children who lived here and contribute to their way of life without feeling like too much of a tourist. We found ourselves loving this whole area at a spiritual level. Just one of those places that you just have to go to to experience as there is insufficient vocabulary to do it justice.  

Check out our Gallery of pictures from this staggeringly beautiful region.

 

4. Coromandel Peninsular

When you think of New Zealand’s North Island what jumps into your mind? The thermal activity I’m sure, perhaps the Bay of Islands or may be 90 Mile Beach.  What about Coromandel Peninsular? Not many people we talked to mentioned this eastern edge of North Island. So good enough reason for us to explore the area whilst indulging my camera lens in some iconic New Zealand coastline.

Coromandel Peninsular is home to the iconic Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, Cook’s Beach and a plethora of hikes, cycles and kayaking opportunities –  ooh plus a bit of natural hot-tubbing on the beach.

Hot Water Beach is stupendously beautiful, with magnificent surf that any Cornish dude would be willing to negotiate. With golden sands like velvet beneath your feet. Blue sea, trimmed with white foam and thunderous crashing waves -this is a heavenly place for all the senses. 

The surf aside, the reason you go to Hot Water Beach is to dig your own hot water jacuzzi in the sand at low-tide. The underground thermal spring waters that your digging reveal then wash over you. It’s somewhere between a mud bath and a hot water spa. So armed with our spade, we headed off. The beach was strewn with early morning revellers of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Whilst English may not have been spoken by everyone, there was only one language required – dig, shape, sit, smile and enjoy.

Creating our own DIY jacuzzi was a pretty unique experience and whilst it took us 20 minutes to get the right temperature, it wasn’t long before we too were languishing in a thermal induced heat being nicely stewed and looking like overcooked prunes. 

Hahei Beach and Coromandel Cove

How do you follow that? We took ourselves off to Hahei Beach and had a boat trip around the coast and out to the Islands. What a great introduction to the seascape that offered the most perfect setting for Pirates of the Caribbean. With secret coves, blowholes, caves, seals and sting rays, what a way to see this volcanic influenced coastline. If the boat isn’t an option for you, then you could experience the famous Coromandel Cove with its iconic formations either by kayak or by foot – either way you must visit here.

We found a sensational freebie campsite at Cook’s Beach, where we parked up right in front of a golden beach that we pretty much had all to ourselves. The sound of crashing waves would be our evening’s lullaby and our morning’s alarm once more. What a fabulous end to this amazing part of the world.

 

5. The Land of the Gannets – Muriwai

On our last expedition before returning to Auckland, we were in turmoil about whether to blast it up to Bay of Islands or just mosey our way to the city. Our six week road trip had taken a bit of a toll on us and we were travel weary. So we decided to head to Muriwai for our finale because I’d heard about the gannets here. I was a great spot to rest up.

We heard Muriwai before we saw it – surf waves as tall as buildings – or so it seemed to my eye. It was like a thunderous applause for the kite surfers working their magic. It’s a deafening roar, as if a thousand lions are calling their loved ones.  This part of North Island is seriously wild and you can’t help than to feel alive when you feel the wind on your face, the salt upon your lips and the primeval elements of nature colluding. In fact this area in Maori legend is known for the war against the Father of the Elements, the Father of the Forests and Father of the Oceans. And you certainly get full force of all three as you stand precariously on the cliff edge, watching, listening and feeling the effects of the battle.

Add to this the Gannet colony that is perched on the cliff edge, close enough for you to get right up close – if you have a strong enough stomach and nose for it, that is. Truly amazing. Just a dream for the photographer in me. If you love Mother Nature at her best, then this is worth driving west for.

Check out our Gallery of images of this magnificent area.

 

6. The Big Smoke – Auckland

So to our final recommendation, Auckland. It is fair to say that you could have a week in this area alone, with the neighbouring vineyards, the harbour and the city itself. Although given we’re not huge city lovers, having just a day to explore before we flew back to UK was taster enough. And what we saw was great. It is certainly a lively and vibrant place.  From its beaches, marinas to its shopping area and Sky Tower, there’s plenty to entertain. The Tower is definitely a highlight for us and whilst we took the lift up and down, if you have one of those adventurous spirits in you, then you could always take the Zipline down instead!

Take some time to see the city as some of the skyline images are wonderful.  

Aotearoa, you thrilled us with your natural beauty and culture, you inspired us deep within our bellies to travel more and see the world. And so with gratitude we thank you, with respect we honour you and with pleasure we will remember you for all our remaining days. It has been memorable for so many reasons. It has been a journey that will undoubtedly give us many stories to tell. 

New Zealand is most certainly one of those places you need to come to in your life, just once and may be twice. The Land of the Long White Cloud, we applaud you. 

Complete your New Zealand journey by checking out our 11 Highlights from our South Island trip by clicking here.

 

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Poland Road Trip – Part 1

Poland Road Trip – Part 1

Poland, we had you in our sights the minute we crossed The Channel on 23 May 2018. You were our destination for a tour that would take us on a journey around your World War 2 memorials and a whole host of other surprises that we would unravel as we went along. On 16 June, we crossed your border at Bad Makau in Germany and immediately a crazy buzz throbbed across the street that welcomed us into your embrace. What joys would you offer us as we sought out your highlights, your cultural personality and unique characteristics?

Part 1 of our Poland tour saw us flirt with the Czech Republic border to the southern reaches of the Silesia region and then north-east towards our mid-trip goal of Warsaw. What a start it was and we found ourselves slowly, gracefully falling in love with you and your landscape.

Zagan and The Great Escape

I’ll be honest, our first Polish stopover happened to come from a pin on Search for Sites for no other reason than it was close by and we always like to find somewhere we can ground ourselves when we arrive in a new country and this spot seemed perfect. After the jubilation of finding an ATM and a Tescos we were thrilled to find our ‘home’ was Stalag Luft III – the Prisoner of War site that is famed for its Great Escape, immortalised by the 1963 film. What a find we had stumbled upon. A museum, a reconstruction of the 104 Hut from where the escape plan of 1944 unfolded and the ‘Harry’ tunnel deep in the woods for you to visit. What an incredible memorial to the men who lived, survived and died in this camp.  As always a very humbling experience. (51.596976 15.293282)

On the flip side, we had the additional joy of having a US Army training exercise in the field behind us giving us the chance to get up close and personal to Chinnooks and Apache helicopters – happy boy with big toys. For two days we settled our feet on Polish soil with a complete bang, satisfying the boy within.

Heading south-west to the Lakes

We love water and our tiny, eclectic campsite on Lake Czocha was amazing especially with the heat-wave we were experiencing. The Kayak got his first trip out and a short cycle away was one of Poland’s famed castles and with its lakeside view, which made for an awesome visit – even if our tour guide only spoke Polish. The pictures were lovely none the less. (51.032488 15.292713)

Not more than 45 minutes away we found ourselves a super ‘mini-farm’ campsite where we had to sit out a couple of days of storms. Still we made the best of it. (51.030694 15.381793)

Wang Church

Now who would have thought that a Norwegian wooden, stave church would have found itself in the deep south-west of Poland? Still it’s true, this magnificent church that originates in Valdres, Norway was brought over to Poland in 1842 and is one of the most popular tourist sites in southern Poland. There are a couple of nice campsites near-by and the road up to the church is narrow although very doable with a motorhome/RV. There’s a coach park which is the only suitable one for longer vehicles and costs 20PLN (£4.00) for 2hrs.  Driving down to the valley floor you will go through Karpacz, which is a buzzy ski resort, offering you the chance for summer and winter activities. We never really considered Poland as Ski destination. There’s a couple of campsites; one in town and another just five minutes on the outskirts, which is new and beautifully designed. Camp 66 has 39 hardstanding pitches with full facilities all for 45PLN per night (exc EHU) with an ACSI discount even in the high season, equating to £9 per night. (50.793705 15.769937)

Coloured Lakes and Swidnica’s Church of Peace

Trip Advisor has its place for sure and with a bit of research I came across some reviews of Poland’s Coloured Lakes hidden in the forest.    Old quarry pits that mined for pyrite closed in 1925 and they were filled in with water and over time, Mother Nature has taken her role in creating chemical reactions from the rock beds below. Each one has a different colour; purple, yellow, azure and green and although not the largest lakes or breathtaking thing we’ve ever seen, they were a very charming diversion. There is the possibility of camping up in the Forest, just a five minute walk to the lakes. It’s a primitive spot, although for 30PLN (£6) it looked ok. If you just want to park up for the lake walk, then it’s just 10PLN (£2). The hiking up to the azure lake is a tough one and not disabled friendly, so do make sure you have good footwear and are fit enough to do this walk. (50.82966 15.973466).

Moving on to Swidnica, a city in the south-west region of Poland most famous for its Church of Peace, a UNESCO site. There are only two of these churches left and are the largest timber framed Religious buildings in Europe. This 17th century church was built under very strict regulations; it had to be constructed within 12 months, not have a bell tower and be made from only natural materials. So their three hundred year history is a remarkable testimony to the character of the craftsmen. Inside the building the opulence defies the external simplicity as the Baroque artwork and is breathtaking. A stunning building worth the small entrance fee (1PLN – 20p).

Owl Mountain and Hitler

Deep in the Sudetes Mountains you will find a dark secret that is over 70 years old. Owl Mountain may well be a beautiful rolling landscape that appeals to hikers and sports enthusiasts, although there is something more sinister about this region. Hitler has had his hand in these precious lands and so yet again we find ourselves adding another jigsaw piece to our World War 2 education.

Owl Mountain is renowned for the Riese Project, which was a huge Nazi undertaking back in 1943 to construct a network of tunnels. The tunnels, dug out by Prisoner of War inmates, many of whom perished in appalling underground conditions, were never actually finished and with the end of the war came the end of the construction – with it dying their true purpose.  There are rumours that the tunnels which have the guise of underground cities, were to store Hitler’s gold bullion and treasures – a somewhat controversial suggestion or that there were there to store arms and build a super bomb. We can continue to surmise their role in Hilter’s master-plan, although today these tunnels have been secured and opened up to the public by way of a memorial to the thousands who lost their lives. With kilometres of rock drilled away to create these tunnels, you walk through them trying to understand their mystery and conjure up your own interpretation of their place in Europe’s evil perpetrator.

Of the seven tunnels three of them are open to the public; We visited the Complex Rzeczka  (also known as Walimskie Drifts) near Walim, where there is a cemetery to honour those who died creating the tunnels. It is a very well thought out tour for 45 minutes although you will need an audio set for the translation. It gives you a great experience of the conditions the prisoners had to work in and leaves you to ponder on their purpose. For 16PLN per person you can join the tour and 12PLN for an audio set. (£5.60 all in per person).  Complex Ozówka is the other major tourist destination, which we believe offers a similar tour although is a larger tunnel.

A completely unique perspective of Hilter’s World War influence, which we were not expecting. We found a super free spot at the foot of the mountains just 10 minutes drive from the Rzeczka. (50.661201 16.478901)

Stołowe National Park – geological gorgeousness

After the sinister military experience and I must admit rubbish weather, we craved some fresh air, warmth and natural beauty. And so as we arrived at the Stołowe Mountains and the sun came out we knew we were in for a treat. This had been one of my ‘must see’ destinations as I researched this lovely Silesia region. We did consider by-passing it as the weather was really miserable, although I was determined to see this geological masterpiece, unique to this area. So we chanced our luck and were duly rewarded.

The mountains in this region are not akin to their angular relatives across in the Alps; they are more curvaceous, undulating and soft, with forests and acres of golden wheat fields caressing the landscape. It just warms your heart and forces you to submit to its beauty, which we did with ease.

Camped at an eclectic site just on the edge of the National Park, we were in a good position to travel in with the van and we had two main destinations in our sights. (50.40903 16.381647). One was the Labyrinth at Blędne Skały and the other was the forest at Szczeliniec Mały just outside Karlów. The geology here is just incredible and I have never seen rock formations like it, well not this side of the Atlantic anyway. Boulders that look like they have been thrown together by some giants playing tiddlywinks, which is now a safe playground for us to hike through and have a great experience. Both centres are easy to reach with a motorhome and with road tolls, entry tickets and car parks, the whole day only cost us £16. A fabulous experience, which we have shared more detail about in our blog. Click here to find out more about this fabulous place.  For an instant visual, check out our video below.

 

Wrocław – Poland’s 4th largest city

I give you fair warning here! Worcław will make you run out of superlatives as you try to describe its beauty – now firmly on our Top 5 favourite cities. The Silesia capital that stole our hearts has just been awarded Best European Destination 2018 – so it’s easy to understand the attraction that this place must have to win such an accolade. Aside of the aesthetic brilliance of this place after the tragedy of the 1944 – 80 day Siege, this city has soul, grace and resilience at its core. It is the truest example of a Phoenix rising from the Ashes that we have ever seen. 70% of this city was demolished both on purpose and due to battle and yet it has returned to its former glory with an artistry that simply demands your admiration. The main square looks like something out of a Disney film and is the real heart of the city and yet all around its islands, waterways and parkland you will find untold treasures just waiting to delight you. With mulitmedia fountains that dance to Madonna or Chopin, artwork that expresses liberation and over 300 gnomes, Wrocław has everything and it deserves more than a day to really understand its rebirthing from World War terror. We stayed at Wrocław Camping about 5 miles from the centre, easily doable with bikes or trams.  Not cheap, by Polish standards at £20 pn, although very secure. (51.0757781 17.089353)

Read more about our visit here and check out our video below for our highlights.

Łodz – Capital of culture

After the high of Wrocław, sadly Łodz (pronounced Wooge) just didn’t do it for us. You know sometimes how you just don’t feel a place? Well this is Łodz for us. It is a city built on its historical textile industry that has since disappeared. In its place, regenerated factories are now museums, restaurants and shopping malls. Deeper into the veins of the city, you will find Europe’s second longest commercial street reaching nearly 3 miles in length, which is beautifully pedestrianised. Piotrkowska Street offers you elegant buildings with intricate facias and all the shops you can imagine. This main artery though just felt a bit depersonalised and the culture and creative art, just didn’t match our expectations. The street art that we did find, was amazing, although the artistry that we hoped for really didn’t materialise.

Camping here is also tricky – there are no campsites within or close by. So we found a couple of car parks to stop in over night; one in the south about 8 miles away at Rzgów (51.663888 19.489379) and the other only 3 miles north of the town, outside a parkland and cemetery, (51.80521 19.440807) which was super convenient for catching a tram straight into town for just 50p per person covering a 20 minute journey.

Poland has been a lovely surprise so far. I had so few expectations although the diversity of the landscape and the depth of the recent historical scars make for such a profound trip. Someone has just described our World War memorial visits as a pilgrimage and I hadn’t really thought about it in that way before, although it is feeling a bit like that. It seems so much more than just a road trip and a real journey if that doesn’t sound too twee. We have been able to blend some of our beloved ‘off-the-beaten-track’ routes, with nature, history and cities that cry out for your understanding and compassion and not just a fleeting visit.  We are looking forward to the second chapter  of our Polish adventures unfolding and our minds expanding in tune.