Wednesday, July 5, 2017

New Zealand, Days 3 and 4 - Cathedral Cove and Hobbiton

We woke up to a dreary, overcast day but soon the sun came out and we enjoyed some mid-50’s weather. Most of our time on the North Island was a mild 50-some degrees, but it was cloudy a good portion of our visit. I suppose that’s why they call this place “the land of the long white cloud.” After hot showers and some clean teeth and dishes, we said farewell to Shelly Beach and continued on our drive around the Peninsula, stopping once along the shore for snacks, more Dramamine, and public restrooms so we don’t stink up the camper! Oh, and a little shipwreck history happened to be there as well!

Our first destination was the famed Cathedral Cove. This is a big tourist attraction and one of the beautiful places I spotted on Pinterest, but thanks to traveling in the off-season, we had no problem securing a spot large enough for the campervan and the scene itself wasn’t too crowded!

Not bad scenery for a walk!

I love how easily NZ moves from rolling pastures to tropical jungles to alpine forests.
There is a bit of a walk down to the beach and the rocks—I think it was about 45 minutes one way. Naturally, the kids complained. But it was a beautiful trail and the fresh air and exercise did us all good! Jon carried Joci on his shoulders most of the way … and then forgot to accommodate for the extra height and she whacked her face on a low-lying branch. Oops.

The beach was beautiful and we happened to time it just right so that we were there at low tide. This is when you can walk through the arch and on down the beach. There’s really not too much to say except that it was just unique and well, beautiful!

We walked back to the campervan and everyone got a potty break and we made lunch because it was all just RIGHT THERE—the beauty of having a house on wheels! And then we drove on to Hot Water Beach. I was a little excited about this place. It’s where, because of nearby volcanic activity, you can dig a hole in the sand and experience your own little hot water spa. It’s also a major tourist attraction and everything I read warned of crowds. So we pulled into the parking lot and the place was absolutely desolate. Just one other campervan enjoying a picnic lunch.

I walked down to the water but there was still no one. Whether it was because it was winter or because we had missed low-tide, it wasn’t quite the show we were looking for. We also didn’t have a spade. And everyone was kind of worn out by this point so we decided to just continue on. I was a little disappointed, but we’ll just have to add Hot Water Beach to the list for the next time we visit!

Not Hot Water Beach--but right across from it.
Our original plan was to stay at the Top 10 campground there but we mistakenly thought it was on the beach. It wasn’t. And the whole place had a weird feel. So since we had some daylight to spare we decided to get further along on our itinerary and instead drove down to Waihi Beach Top 10. This was my favorite holiday park! (We’ll get to everyone else’s favorite later.) It was quaint, with lots of trees, and the leaves were still turning yellow. They had a great playground, another jumping pillow, and it was an easy walk down to the beach.

The kitchen facilities were also pretty impressive (and included a worm farm for composting kitchen scraps). On Friday nights, they fire up the pizza oven outside and you can make your own pizza for dinner. There was also a TV room, which we didn’t use, and an under-5-year-old play room.

I was just so impressed by these campgrounds' neat and tidy community kitchens!

Oddly enough, this campground keeps "pet" eels in their stream. We discovered them on a walk the next morning and the signs encouraged us to feed them--so we did. It was cool and gross all at the same time!

I love yellow leaves!

But the real treat was the heated pool with slide (not hot enough for me) and the hot tub (deliciously hot enough for me!) The kids played outside in the waning light while Jon set up the camper and I made dinner. And then we all enjoyed a night swim while taking care of a load of laundry.

The next morning was my birthday (in New Zealand)! Not gonna lie, I was ecstatic about the chance to celebrate my special day over Winter Solstice for once! Speaking of Winter Solstice, that was one challenge to vacationing in winter—the sun set as early as 5pm and rose as late as 8:30am (on the South Island.) But with kids rising before the clock hit 6am, it made it easy to catch a sunrise! And that’s what I told the kids all I wanted for my birthday—a sunrise walk on the beach.

It was kinda chilly and windy, and that darn long white cloud ruined my sunrise views, but we still had a nice time on the sand and found some really beautiful shells!

While I would have loved to stay and enjoy Waihi Beach a little bit longer, we had some big plans for this day—visiting Hobbiton! Driving off the Peninsula was beautiful and interesting. Seriously, I think some of the windiest roads were on that chunk of the island. And apparently New Zealanders don’t believe in road shoulders. We headed into alpine territory and drove up and down mountains and rounded bends so tight surely we were on only two wheels.

Just one example of those alluring yet frightening NZ roads!

We stopped here quick for pictures. It's an old railroad way covered to a hiking and biking trail and looked like it would've been really fun if we had more time!
Finally, finally—we hit flat farmland and straight roads. Like as straight as your eye could see. After two days on the Peninsula, it was bonkers. One thing I learned about En Zed was that if it feels like you’re not close to your destination—you probably are. There were so many times where we thought “this doesn’t look right” and then, BAM--a cave, a rock formation, a wildly famous tourist destination—would just pop up out of thin air.

I attempted hundreds of these "out the van window" photos of farmlands and sheep. I'll only burden you with one for now.

And this is the view from the Hobbiton parking lot.
And that’s how Hobbiton was. Later, we’d learn that the land was actually leased from a local farming family. So it made perfect sense to be in the middle of farmlands. But at the time, a bus depot and gift shop in the middle of a sheep pasture seemed a little out of the ordinary.

You can't actually see the Shire from the motorway, of course they wouldn’t let that happen. So everyone parks at the gift shop/cafĂ© and then a tour bus drives you in. The drive itself is beautiful (even I’m getting tired of hearing me say that the scenery is beautiful, and it’s only Day 4). It’s just rolls and rolls of emerald green pastures and dots and dots of white sheep for as far as you can see. Eventually you round a bend, disembark the bus, and find yourself on the stone-walled path famous from the movies. We're going on an adventure! 

Anyhoo, Hobbiton is exactly what you see in the movies. At least on the outside. We were disappointed to find (as I’m sure everyone is) that you can’t actually go in the homes. Well, they let us peek in one, but it’s just an empty space. The actual indoor scenes were all filmed on a movie set in Wellington.

Speaking of filming, it took two years to build the set and they only filmed there for 12 days. Yeesh! The original set was temporary and was removed after Lord of the Rings. But when they returned for The Hobbit, they rebuilt the set more permanently and received permission to run it as a tourist attraction for 50 years.

Oh, I forgot to mention, kids under 9 are free! Apparently they don’t get many kids there because ours were the only ones I saw the whole day. I thought the whole “under 9” thing was a bit random, but it worked out for us perfectly! And I’m glad, because while I think my kids enjoyed it initially, they quickly grew tired of hobbit holes and a miniature world that they couldn’t exactly touch. But I really enjoyed it!

And our kids do know about hobbits. We thought it’d be a great idea to let them watch the movies before our trip, you know, for research. I’m not sure allowing a 3YO to watch LOTR is the wisest decision, but you know how it is for those babies of the family—always getting away with stuff too early in life. It did help build some excitement for them and they had fun spotting different scene locations throughout our journey!


Interesting to note, the oak tree above Bilbo’s house is actually fake! Originally, they had moved a tree from a neighboring farm and rebuilt it at that spot and then removed it after filming LOTR. But when they returned for The Hobbit, they had to ship in a new one that was created in another country (I can’t remember). Apparently, after it arrived, the shade of green just wasn’t right. So they repainted it a different shade. It just baffles me the amount of effort that goes into movie scenery!

And there’s one scene where Frodo and Gandalf are sitting on the hill watching the sun set. Except in real life, they’re facing east. And the sun is rising. The filmmakers just played it in reverse. Crazy stuff!

When we had our fill of The Shire, we ventured down to The Green Dragon Inn where everyone received a free beverage. And this is where the boys fell in love with ginger beer. We also got the kids cookies and I had my first meat pie. Which was amazing. And sadly, the only pie I had during our entire visit to The Pie Capital of the World!

As much as I would have loved to move in to my own little hobbit hole, we had more things to do and places to see! We drove on to Rotorua and stayed at the Top 10 Holiday Park there. This one was a bit more crowded, but still very empty comparatively! The rugby playoffs were going on during our time in NZ and there were a lot of British there to cheer on their Lions and also exploring with campervans.

Jack said, "It feels like Maryland because it's cold and I'm on a swing." 

We saw a few of the same people on our Hobbiton tour at our campground as well, and then out to dinner later that night. Rotorua was a cute town and would have been great to explore further, if we had time, but it took our little gang so long to walk downtown and back, there was only enough time to eat dinner. We opted for an Irish Pub, not realizing it would also be the main hub for the rugby game. But it really stirred the boys’ interest in rugby. And they served ginger beer. So day=made.

We returned to our campground and decided to test out the “mineral pools” there. I didn’t know what a mineral pool was exactly, and I’m still not sure, but it seemed like a hot tub with really stinky water. And I haven’t noticed a difference in my health since. But a hot tub is a hot tub and to the kids, it was just another fun place to play Marco Polo after dark!

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