Earlier this year, my husband and I spent three days in Auckland, New Zealand. If you think that’s too short, you’re right. The sprawling city by itself isn’t as interesting as Wellington; however, Auckland is a good jumping-off point to explore North Island.
Most memorable: A day on the island Tiritiri Matangi
Best Restaurant for Foodies: The Grove
Most Surprising: The excellent food at the Sugar Club, atop the Sky Tower
Most disappointing: The city itself
To Glowworm or not to Glowworm
We faced one of our biggest dilemmas before we even left the United States. Should we spend an entire day and hefty fees to see the Waitomo glowworm caves nearly three hours from the city? And if we did, should we bundle that with another stop? Were 5-10 silent minutes floating under the worms worth giving up a whole day with only three days in Auckland itself? The answer is, with caveats, yes. After all, we’d probably never get the chance again to see glowworms.
Because we hadn’t rented a car, we chose to book a GreatSightsNZ tour with Viator that included the caves, the Agrodome, and the hot springs and geysers at Rotorua. Our tour left at 7:30 am and returned to Auckland at around 6 pm. We decided to skip the Hobbiton bundle since we have no special affinity for the movie. GreatSightsNZ gave the option of stopping at Rotorua instead of returning to Auckland, a ticket that a handful of people on our tour bought.
Our tour guide Rachale mingled stories about her youth with the history of the land to help pass the time on the road.
Our first stop was at the Waitomo Caves. Because you cannot take photos inside for risk of harming the glowworms, the tour guide makes you line up in front of a blue screen before you go inside. Cheesy, yes. We gamely pointed to the imaginary worms, but had no intention of buying the faked photograph at the end.
The tour of the cave took longer than I expected, mostly because our guide explained cave formation and facts about the worms. We saw a couple of dangling worms up close and several dotting the cave roof above us.
Finally, in complete silence and darkness, we boarded one of the boats that glided through the largest cave chamber. Overhead, thousands of blue lights glittered. The boat ride didn’t take long, and we were done. Because I knew what to expect, I wasn’t disappointed, although I understand why some are.
I considered the Agrodome Rotorua the throw-away portion of the tour, but it turned out to be more interesting than I expected. By the time we arrived, a light rain had begun to fall. We filed inside to watch a sheep get her first shearing, then headed to the outside ring to watch a sheepdog-in-training herd her charges. The dog was so new and enthusiastic that the sheep just gave up in the chaos and went into the pen of their own accord. At least it was humorous!
We boarded a tram for a tour of the facilities. “Farming” in New Zealand means animal husbandry for the most part. We saw sheep, cattle, deer, and alpacas, including an adorable baby.
Naturally, they had a gift shop where we had a few minutes to browse.
Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve
We arrived at our last stop, the Rotorua Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, under a steady rain. The thermal reserve is akin to a mini Yellowstone, with geysers, hot pools, and mud pots. Unfortunately, the rain marred our visit. We saw no geysers, either, during our short stay. But the hot springs and kiwi house were worth the visit. The Maori cultural show was mildly interesting.
With the right weather and timing, this could have been fantastic. Even so, we enjoyed seeing this part of New Zealand.
Although we should have booked this tour from the States, we locked into it only the day before. We didn’t have the ability to print the Viator tickets, and the ferry staff had issues scanning what I had on my phone. Thank goodness they finally waved us on board.
Tiritiri Matangi was absolutely the best thing we did in New Zealand. Hands down. No contest. We are bird lovers, and this sanctuary island without predators harbors some amazing species. Bring your binoculars! Even the 45-minute ferry ride offers views. And bring food and water since none may be purchased here. Even if you have only three days in Auckland and want to see the city, a trip to this island is well worth it.
Choose your path carefully, and keep track of the time. Once the ferry leaves in the afternoon, you won’t have another way off the island. Each ticket to Tiritiri Matangi entitles you to a guided tour. Avail yourself of this. Without our guide, I never would have known the history of the island, nor would I have known what to look for.
The island has forests, grasslands, and shorelines that attract a wide variety of birds. Despite all the birds I saw, I encountered none that I had seen before. Even the New Zealand pigeon was different — a giant about the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.
Other Things to Do
We walked to the New Zealand Maritime Museum from our hotel, the SkyCity Grand (not to be confused with the regular Sky City hotel down the block.) The Maritime Museum was the runner-up to “most surprising” aspect of our stay. I had expected little and found tons of intriguing facts and artifacts, from Maori canoes to World Cup racing boats. Not generally a fan of maritime stuff, I surprised myself by wishing for another 30 minutes to spend there. Alas, we had a lunch reservation to get to.
Because we had already settled on Auckland as a city of tours, we opted last minute for a Greylines city tour. We rode around the city on a giant coach bus, just the two of us and the driver. Although the driver was informative and we got to see things we wouldn’t have otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you, like us, have an afternoon to kill.
The Sky Tower, located in the SkyCity complex, offers fantastic views of the city, plus thrill-seeking bungee jumping. We didn’t go all the way up. Instead, we ate at the Sugar Club for lunch, a pricy but well-worth-it restaurant with the same view.
Our three days in Auckland were well-spent, even if we didn’t spend much time in Auckland itself.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann