December 2015 – January 2016
In spite of our extensive previous travels with friends and family, we had actually never been to New Zealand or Australia, and Julie and her sister, Pam, had this “idea” that we could see it more intimately by “biking” the country! Now, although we wanted the physical challenge of biking, we were not willing to completely “rough it”, so we planned a 3-part vacation by chartering “back-to-back” cycling trips with Backroads Active Travel Company and following it up with a week exploring the east coast of Australia.
Part-1: Backroad’s Multisport Trip in New Zealand’s North Island
Our trip began on Christmas Day, 2015 as we flew from Washington, D.C. through Los Angeles and Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand. After checking-in for the night at the Auckland Hilton, we connected-up with family, Pam and her husband, A.J., and with friends, Peter and Nikki. For dinner, the 6 of us explored the local marina and docks, viewed the historic America’s Cup boats, and sampled the local cuisine before preparing for the next day.
The next morning, we met up with the other 14 “adventurers” and our 3 Guides, Heidi, Johnathan and Max, loaded up into three vans and traveled east to the Coromandel Peninsula where we had lunch in Pauanui and began our afternoon with a 3-mile hike to explore local fauna and flora of the Broken Hills area. Then we checked into chalet cabins on the edge of an undisturbed rain-forest ravine at the Puka Park Resort. This was only about a mile from the coast, and so we walked to the beach and explored the popular local recreational area. That night, we had dinner outside at the Miha Restaurant, located high up on a hill overlooking the surrounding vineyards, countryside and Mercury Bay.
The next day we boarded our bikes for the first time, and then rode to board a ferry, after which we began a challenging bike climb up Pumpkin Hill along the Mercury Bay coastal road in the wind. This ride would take us 18 miles to Mercury Bay Vineyard for lunch and a little wine, but a significant number of riders got lost along the way. After recouping, we rode another 6 miles to the beach where we were outfitted onto our 2-man sea-kayaks for the 1.5-mile paddle to Cathedral Cove – a section of beach where low-tide exposes a beach tunnel that towers beneath a lands-head that extends into the bay. After beaching our kayaks and exploring the area, our guides surprised us by setting up a “pop-up” coffee service on the blanket on the beach. After a return kayak trip back to our starting point, we rode the vans back to the hotel for drinks and dinner, and to get ready for the next day’s adventure.
The next day, we shuttled in vans to Karangahake Gorge, where we explore the remnants of an historic mining area. We hiked over 5 miles through tunnels, over the ruins of wash plants, across suspension bridges, and along mining-car train tracks to eventually reach a beautiful swimming hole with crystal clear water and inviting jumping-off points. After a refreshing swim, we had a picnic lunch, before hiking out of the gorge to rejoin our vans for the trip to Rotorua. Our hotel here was a resort on Rotoiti Lake where we were treated to a dinner or pork belly and snapper, and an enchanting evening socializing on the lake’s grass lawn and strolling along the lake’s edge.
It was now Thursday, December 31st, and after breakfast, we began the day with a vigorous bike ride of only 16 miles through the quiet local countryside. Upon returning from the cycling loop, we showered, ate a barbeque lunch of chicken, beef and lamb before collecting ourselves and heading to the “Agrodome” – a working sheep farm where we got to visit various “fiber-providing” animals up-close, and where we were treated to demonstrations of herding dogs and competitive sheep shearing. On the way back from the Agrodome, some of us took on an extra adventure of “Zorbing” – rolling down a hill inside of a double-hulled, giant plastic ball that’s partially filled with water! It’s a crazy minute-long ride that we all would recommend. Upon returning to the hotel, we cleaned-up again and prepared to visit a Maori marae at Taheke. We were welcomed into their ancestor’s house, the Whare Tupuna, in a traditional “calling” event, and spent a number of hour’s getting to meet and learn from on of the tribal leaders, Sean, and his wife, Jen, and their family. We had a local dinner prepared by them, and the men of the group were then privileged to learn a haka. – a Maori war chant made famous by New Zealand’s World Championship Rugby Team. When we returned to the hotel, that night was New Year’s Eve, and since we were only 2 hours from the Earth’s “date-line”, we ordered a bottle of champagne and celebrated the occasion as a precursor for the rest of the world.
2016 would begin with a 21-mile cycle ride along the white cliffs of the Paeroa Range through grasslands and farmlands to the Waikite Hot Pools. Here we were treated to a good swim and soak in geothermal pools while enjoying a lunch of lamb burgers, fries and a beer. After lunch, we rode a short distance to the Waiotapu Geothermal area, where we walked along artist’s palate of colorful pools of boiling mud and steaming water filled with arsenic, sulfur and mercury.
We then checked into the Millennium Hotel on Lake Taupo, before taking a short drive to Taupo Bungy for a chance to jump from New Zealand’s North Island’s tallest Bungee platform – more than 160 feet. Some took the plunge headfirst, but many of us chose to take the drop on the “swing” instead. That night, the six of us took dinner on our own at Mulligan’s Irish Pub before making a wine stop at a local store and making a gentle stroll along the lake back to our hotel.
After breakfast in the morning, we made a short trip to Huka Falls and took a 3-mile hike along the Waikato River. Huka means “great body of spray”, and the falls were not so impressive in height, as they were in water speed and volume. We then traveled to the River Valley Café in Hawke’s Bay wine region, for a meal of chowder and salads. The Café was a kitschy little place with knick-knacks and lots of charm, and from here we were to kick-off on one of our more difficult bike rides thus far – 33 miles with a substantial uphill to start. Wouldn’t one know it, Rocky’s bike chain broke on the climb, and after an hour’s delay to get it fixed, he and Peter rode and still caught nearly everyone on the ride. We checked into a lavish private hotel called the Mangapapa Petit Hotel. It consisted of only 12 rooms, and so we had the whole property, and it was a magnificent, quaint but modern place. That night, we traveled a short distance to the Elephant Hill Winery Restaurant for our best meal, by far, thus far on our trip. Dinner of chicken, fish or beef followed appetizers on tuna, venison and pork-belly, and desserts included cheesecake, mousse and crepes, all accompanied by their own wines! Back at the Mangapapa, we took a leisurely stroll around the gardens and readied ourselves for the next day.
On Sunday, we would have the opportunity to bike from our hotel up the Te Mata Peak Road, riding 36 miles and climbing over 1100’ of elevation. The first part of the ride was relatively level, past wineries and out to Cape Kidnappers Point, where we took pictures of the ocean and ourselves. Then we stopped at Clearview Winery for tasting, trying hard to avoid the rain and to maintain an ability to continue to cycle. The route then took us over hills and the Tukituki River, past vineyards and wineries, until we reached the scenic overlook of the ride on Te Mata Peak. From there, it was mostly downhill back to the town of Havelock North, where we stopped for a late lunch at The Rose and Shamrock Village Inn. Finally, we returned to the hotel to get ready for dinner there, hosted by David and his staff, and preceded with a rousing sing-along with one of our group, Steve, at the piano. After a dinner of lamb chops, we took time to explore the hotel rooms more fully while drinking nightcaps with David, the manager. We were very much impressed by the gold-plated plumbing and the original Chagall’s, Picasso’s and Tiffany lamps spread between our rooms.
Day 8 of our North Island Multisport Trip began with a short drive to the base of Le Mata Peak, and a pastoral 3.5-mile hike through the redwood forest groves and up the grassy ridgelines to the summit. From there, the group surveyed the past day’s routes, took pictures and returned to the Mangapapa hotel for lunch and departures to the Napier Airport. We said our “good-byes” to our newest friends, and set off on our flights to Wellington, and then to Christchurch on the South Island to begin the second part of our adventure.