Saturday, July 22, 2017

New Zealand, Day 6 - Lake Taupo and Waitomo Caves

We woke up to a heavy, steady rain. Which was a bummer, but it made leaving the campground a little easier. I think the kids would have been happy to swim in that amazing pool all day (even in the rain), but sorry family, we didn't come to New Zealand for the tepidly-heated swimming pools! So we enjoyed hot showers and hair dryers while we had the chance and then set off to explore Lake Taupo (the actual lake.)

On the way we came across an advertisement for the Ernest Kemp--an adorable and old cruise boat that takes you around the lake and to view the Maori Rock Carvings (which are only able to be seen from the water.) They were offering a winter special (that included coffee and cookies), so we opted to give it a try!

There were only 15 of us on the cruise--which I'm sure is a much different experience from the 58 visitors they pack onboard during the summer! The skipper was a retired New Zealand Coastguardsman and the hostess was a lovely older women with two grandkids in Switzerland that she was missing very much. She immediately took to Julia and Joci and kept them entertained most of the cruise.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much to see out on the water. It was rainy and foggy--normally you would see snow-capped mountains in the distance, but we could only see the houses that were hugging the edge of the lake. But it was still a nice, relaxing few hours of floating.

We made it out to the Maori carvings which were pretty impressive--as they are literally right on the water! But I was surprised to hear they were created in 1979. Certainly not ancient, but still a feat to be admired!

Our hostess brought old bread out to show the girls how to feed the ducks and actually had them eating out of her hand at one point! So that was quite a show when the kids were done looking at rock carvings.

And then on the ride back she gave them all coloring sheets and crayons and played ring-around-the-rosie with the girls. Julia kept asking her to play Duck Duck Goose, but I don't think she understood. At one point, she asked me if Julia spoke another language. "That's not English, is it?" "Yes, actually it is. It's just very fast and very terrible English." *blush*

Putting those Ginger Beer bottles to good use!

We pulled back into port and loaded back into the campervan for potty breaks and to eat lunch, right there, BECAUSE WE COULD! And then made our way to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Still raining when we got to the caves, but it didn't matter because--we were in a cave!!

Like the Waiotapu Geothermal Pools, I wasn't overly expectant for this tour. But there's not many Glowworm Caves in the world (just two in NZ and one in the US) and it's one of the top-rated tourist activities in New Zealand, so we went for it. You guys, I was so wrong. From the moment we first stepped into the cave it was AMAZING! And it certainly helped that we had a fantastic tour guide. He was an older, native Maori gentleman who passionately appreciated the caves and was also really funny!

Yet again, we had a small tour group--around 20--and were told that during peak season groups are around 70 people. This allowed us to see and explore a little more. In the middle, we reached the Cathedral Cave, which is a large opening with perfect acoustics. Our guide encouraged someone to break out in song to test this out, but one disadvantage to a smaller group is no one was brave enough. If only Marmie had been there! He said they do a special program at Christmas where they can fit over 100 people in the Cathedral to sing carols. And now I want to go back at Christmas!

This was the part of the tour where we transitioned from stalagmites and stalactites to glowworm viewing. He has us all duck down and peer into the farthest reaches of the cave--and then he turned off the lights. And the glowworms were right there! When he turned the lights back on your could see their little strings hanging down like fishing line.

From there, we turned around and headed to toward the sound of lapping water where we boarded a rowboat. It was completely dark and our tour guide reminded us to remain totally silent (try telling that to a 3YO) as he rowed us out into the water and the blue-green glow reflecting off the ceiling. It was so beautiful and even more impressive when viewed in total dark and quiet. No pictures allowed--so I snagged this image from a postcard. But this is exactly what it looks like--utterly amazing!

We continued following the stream and ended up outside at the mouth of the cave--and back in the rain. The forest looked beautiful but we were all hurrying along to get back under shelter.

We made a quick stop at the Gift Shop, where Jon got talked into purchasing these tourist photos. (We were such suckers for these expensive photos that anyone could take but they're some of the only ones we have of our whole family on the trip!)

I immediately went to the creams and lotions display again--because hello dry, winter face. Except apparently the tube I picked was not a moisturizer and instead some sort of clay mask that I could not rub in or get off. And while trying to be discreet, I got some in my eye. So I ended up washing up in the public restroom. Lesson learned--maybe all those free samples aren't exactly the best idea.

It was fairly late in the day by this point and still very rainy so while we would have loved to do the nearby hiking trail (which supposedly offers more great views of glowworms and is FREE), instead we drove just a minute or two down the road and camped out at Waitomo Top 10--which was probably in my personal Top 3. It's not very impressive when you pull-in-- a smaller holiday park, located in this little valley surrounded by hills and mountains. But it was so peaceful and quiet there that night. There were quite a few of us in the park (and by "few" I mean, maybe 5 campers??) because Waitomo Caves are a bigger attraction and we ran into a lot of British tourists on the North Island who were following their rugby team around the country.

But we still had the outdoor hot tub all to ourselves. And it was HOT. Has it become evident yet that I rate my campgrounds based on the temperature of their water attractions? Because after traveling and living with 4 kids in a small-confined space, and sleeping on a 2 inch foam mattress, the value of a hot soak at the end of the day simply cannot be underrated. We slept good and hard knowing that the following day would push us to our limits with lots of driving followed by another flight. Soon we would be our way to the legendary South Island!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Zealand, Day 5 - Rotorua and Waiotapu

We woke up to rain and the anticipation of rain for the rest of the day. We had plans to explore the town that morning and, although you couldn’t see much in the thick layer of fog, we decided we’d attempt to stick to the plan.

After a trip to the grocery store to restock the kitchen, we stopped by Skyline Rotorua just to “check it out.” One benefit to the weather was the lack of lines, so we decided we’d give the Luge a chance and before we knew it we had boarded a gondola and were on our way up the mountain. I’m sure the views would have been lovely but, again, we couldn’t see much beyond the rain and fog.

At the top we were fitted with helmets and given a quick lesson on how to work the luge cars—and then we were off! Julia rode with me, Joci rode with Jon, and the boys were on their own. We often joke about living in “lawless Hawaii,” but I think New Zealand enjoys even more freedom. Amazingly, no one made us sign a waiver or give our minors permission to whiz down a slick hill in a plastic cart. And I rather enjoyed the lack of rules!

Well, I should say, Julia and I had a grand time! I tried to take a video but it was very blurry and all you can hear is us screaming. Jack, and especially Jude, had a little bit harder time maneuvering their carts. And Jon had to stop a few times to get Jude back on track. But apparently it didn’t quench their thrill because all the kids claim the Luge was one of their favorite activities in New Zealand!

Yes, I lugged my rain boots halfway around the world and I NEVER regretted it!
We didn’t realize that we would have to ride a ski lift back up to the top of the mountain before catching the gondola back down. Our kids have absolutely no experience with ski lifts—and they only sit two people at a time. So we crossed our fingers and sent the boys up the mountain. Julia and I followed behind. And then Jon and Joci, who got banged on the non-bruised side of her head with the lift handle while getting loaded. Ouch!

Not only was Joci’s face banged up but everyone was very wet and cold by this point—these things happen when you’re racing luges and riding ski lifts in the rain. Fortunately, there’s a great cafĂ© at the top of the mountain and we all enjoyed lattes and hot cocoas with [what should have been] an amazing view.

Randomly, there is also a Jelly Belly store at the top of the mountain. We popped in to get the kids a treat and ended up letting Jack talk us into buying Beanboozled. Jack had seen it on a YouTube video and thought it’d make an excellent family activity. Let’s just say he was the only one that enjoyed it! 

The game includes several pair of jelly beans that look identical, but actually taste quite different. For instance, chocolate pudding or dog food or juicy pear or booger. You flick the spinner, choose whatever color jelly bean it lands on, and then pop it in your mouth while everyone is watching … and hope you got the good one! It was funny, I’ll admit, but it only takes one or two rounds of chewing vomit or rotten egg before the game starts to lose it’s lure. Of course, Jack thought it was all such wild fun and couldn’t understand why he was always the only one that wanted to play.

But now I'm getting ahead of myself! After getting our fill of the top of the mountain, we headed back down (where we got suckered into purchasing this photo of our family riding a gondola!) and out to our campervan to enjoy a potty break and lunch—perks of traveling with your toilet and kitchen!

And then we decided to check out Waiotapu Thermal Pools. I gotta be honest, I wasn’t real gung-ho about this excursion. Science isn’t really my thing. But I was pleasantly surprised! It was raining when we arrived, so there was hardly anyone else there (and that’s also why all these pictures are from the iPhone—didn’t want to bring the big camera out in the rain.) But it ended up tapering off right as we started our hike and stayed that way until the end—perfect!

It was a great walk—there are three loops so you can do the short, medium, or long version. We did the long one and the kids did really well. I was surprised at how interested they were in the thermal pools. But they WERE interesting. And there was a lot of variation—different colors, textures, temperatures; some were bubbly, some were stagnant, some were trickling … you get the picture.

Oh, and some (well, most) were really stinky! I’d say we all enjoyed the walk in fresh air but there was nothing fresh about that sulfury atmosphere. And it certainly added a new dimension to getting stuck with the “rotten egg” Jelly Belly later that evening!

We passed through the Gift Shop on our way out and the girls picked out their souvenirs for the trip—stuffed sheep. And while they were trying to find the perfect stuffy, I was over at the cosmetics display testing out all the face moisturizers. And there’s my hot traveling tip of the day: I neglected to bring moisturizer because I was attempting to pack light and it’s not something I use regularly here in humid Hawaii. And I was missing it within the first two days. But conveniently, nearly every place we visited had a gift shop and every gift shop had a display of lotion and cream samplers. And I unashamedly tried out most of them!

That evening we drove down to Lake Taupo for our next campground and had just enough time to stop off at Huka Falls. It’s not so much of a “falls” at it is a rapids. But the sheer force of water was quite impressive! It was raining again at this point so we didn’t do the hike or venture too far—just enough to snap a few pictures and load right back up again.


On this night, we were “camping” at the Lake Taupo Top 10. This was everyone’s favorite holiday park (and also the most expensive.) It’s really too bad it was raining because I think I would have enjoyed it more. It also didn’t help that the kids ran straight to the jumping pillow after we pulled in and returned soaking wet and covered in mud—it would be days before their rain boots would fully dry out again.

Not the best picture, but you get the idea! I'm sure this place is extra-dreamy in summer!

So what made this park so special, you ask? Well, basically one reason and one reason only—the pool. Not just any pool, but a zero-entry heated pool with attached hot tub, outdoor movie screen, and swim-up bar! Madagascar 3 was playing when we arrived and it didn’t take the boys long to figure out they could order their beloved ginger beer WHILE SWIMMING in the pool. The whole “heated” aspect just wasn’t quite enough for me, so I spent the evening either with chattering teeth in the kiddie pool area or dragging the girls to the hot tub to get warmed up again. Nevertheless, it was a pretty cool way to spend the evening and the perfect way to end our fifth day in New Zealand!
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