Snippets of New Zealand

By Philip Wagenaar

—The Discerning Traveler is written by Philip Wagenaar.

(First of two parts)

It was our third trip to New Zealand. We were on a 4-week Elderhostel (11 Ave. de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111; 800/454-5768, tour of the North and South Islands.

Our last journey, in 1984, had culminated in the county hospital in Nelson on the South Island, where my wife, Flory, was treated for two weeks after she fell when stepping out of the shower.

The accident, which resulted in a ruptured spleen and five broken ribs and required five blood transfusions, left Flory so weak that upon leaving the hospital she could take only five steps at a time before having to sit down to rest.

Despite the catastrophe, we had fond memories of New Zealand, of the welcoming kindness of its people and the unbelievable splendor of its countryside. Indeed, whenever somebody asks Flory to name her favorite country, she invariably answers “New Zealand.”

Our 2007 trip

Our January 2007 Elderhostel tour consisted of 10 days on the North Island and 15 on the South Island. As is common in Elderhostel programs, our journey was a combination of lectures and field trips.

But it was neither the former nor the latter that made this journey memorable. It was the wonderful and sympathetic participants who made the trip a success.

Elderhostel programs are all-inclusive, which means that everything (accommodations, in-country transportation, excursions, lectures, guides, meals, tips, etc.) is included in the program price. There are no other expenses, although you have the option of incorporating international airfare.

Of course, New Zealand is one of those heavenly countries where tipping is not expected. (Nevertheless, we did reward our last bus driver, since he went out of his way to accommodate us. When I handed him the money, he commented, “You don’t have to do that.”)

Highlights of the North Island


We landed in Auckland, New Zealand’s commercial capital and its largest city. Its location on a narrow cape between two harbors is exceptional. It is built atop 53 volcanoes, some of which are cones and others, lagoons.

A side trip led us to Muriwai Regional Park on New Zealand’s west coast. With its magnificent beach and spectacular surf, the park afforded us a close-up view of the resident gannet colony. Because of the long breeding season, it often is possible in a single visit to see examples of mating and bonding rituals between partners, who usually stay together for their entire lives. Both parents take turns to brood the solitary egg.


Steam emitting from cracks and crevices in parks, gardens and paths and a distinctive smell of sulfur permeating the air left no doubt that we had arrived at our next destination, Rotorua, the center of an active geothermal area.

Geological records show that there has been constant volcanic activity in this area for thousands of years. The most recent eruption was that of Mt. Tarawera on June 10, 1886. It killed more than 150 people and destroyed the famous, so-called Pink and White Terraces. Each of the terrace sites, which were less than a mile apart, consisted of a hillside with a boiling geyser spouting hot, silica-containing water at the top. As the hot water flowed down the slope, it crystallized, giving the appearance of a gigantic staircase.

The terraces, internationally regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World, attracted celebrities from all over the world. Despite the arduous journey, people traveled there not only to observe the extraordinary vistas but also to bathe in the area’s deep and clear-blue-water pools. Many visited Rotorua’s bathhouse, then known as the Great South Seas Spa, where they immersed themselves in the water to cure their ailments.

The Rotorua Museum of Art & History, on the premises of the now-defunct bathhouse, shows a 20-minute, must-see, fascinating film that describes Rotorua’s history. It presents the various hydrotherapies that were used in the spa — such as running an electric current through the thermal baths (can you imagine?) to treat “nervous exhaustion” — and depicts the eruption of Mt. Tarawera, physically letting you participate in the explosion by violently shaking and vibrating your theater seat. Hold on!

Rotorua is also the heartland of Maori culture, the country’s indigenous population. To acquaint ourselves with the Maori way of life, we visited the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village.

After we viewed a large interactive tableau of the area as well as exhibits of native handicrafts, a guide accompanied us on a tour of the geothermal area. We repeatedly heard “Ohs” and “Ahs” as we passed gurgling mud pools and spectacular high-spouting geysers. We watched in awe as its most famous one, Potohu, shot its water far above the ground (it has gone as high as 98 feet) — a feature that is repeated 10 to 20 times a day, each time for five to 10 minutes.

Later on, we participated in a warrior show, where I represented our group of 31. After making sure our party had peaceful intentions, five of the combatants welcomed me with the customary nose touchings, the traditional way of Maori greeting. (Each nose is touched twice, once on the left and once on the right, somewhat similar to the European cheek kissing.) Luckily, for me, nobody had a cold.

Afterward, the warriors presented a protracted, traditional dancing show in which, toward its conclusion, the audience participated.

By now it was late in the evening. We all were hungry and anxious to take part in the hangi, a Maori word for cooking in an outdoor pit oven which runs on geothermal energy. The quality of the buffet dinner was outstanding and included large portions of exquisite seafood, meat and a great assortment of salads and vegetables.

In addition to visiting the attractions listed above, do stroll along Lake Rotorua’s picturesque waterfront, which offers cruises and water sports.


A 20-minute drive south of Rotorua brought us to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley Scenic Reserve & Wildlife Refuge, created as the direct result of the Mt. Tarawera eruption.

Once you’re there, take the guided hike down the steep gorge of the Waimangu Valley to view the thermally adapted plants and the continuously bubbling mud flats, the boiling, raging rivers and the steaming geysers.

Tongariro National Park

On Jan. 20 we drove to Tongariro National Park, where a number of people in our group took the chairlift to the top of 9,175-foot-high Mt. Ruapehu, the park’s most active volcano, which last erupted on Oct. 4, 2006.

We were fortunate that we visited just then, because two months later, on March 18, the dam which had been holding back the crater lake burst, sending an estimated 1.8 million cubic yards of mud, rock and water thundering down the Whangaehu River. All major roads in the area were closed, trapping thousands of motorists. Luckily, no serious damage was done and no one was injured.


The next day, our bus took us to Wellington on busy highway 1.

Wellington, New Zealand’s third-largest city and its political capital, is a windy but scenic town lying between the coast and steep hills at the bottom of the North Island. To increase the small available area of flat land, a reclamation effort, started in 1852, continues to this day. As space is at a premium, many buildings, including our 22-floor hotel, have a small footprint and rise up as skyscrapers.

Contrasting this, many of the city’s wooden Victorian homes along the coast lie against or on top of steep hills and have their garages at road level. Since the vertical distance between the living area and the garage can be considerable, the two are frequently linked by their own private cable car!

While sightseeing in Wellington, go by public cable car from Lambton Quay to the attractive botanic gardens on top. Be sure to include a sunset trip to the summit of 643-foot Mt. Victoria, the paramount place to view the city’s blinking lights and its harbor.

Our educational program in Wellington started with a morning lecture of New Zealand’s politics and public life followed by a tour of the parliament building, where 121 Members of Parliament (MPs) decide the fate of the common person. There is only one House of Parliament, in which each bill is discussed three times over a period of six months before it can become law. Sounds like a good idea!

Highlights of the South Island


From Wellington we flew to Dunedin on the southeast coast of the South Island. The city, founded in 1848 by the Scots, has a decidedly Scottish feel and ambience, with street names similar to those in Edinburgh, a reality of which its inhabitants are very proud. (Indeed, Dunedin is the original Celtic name for Edinburgh.)

The day after our arrival, we took a drive on the stunning, constantly curving shore road on the west side of the narrow Otago Peninsula, located just northeast of Dunedin. We passed lush green pastures, small bays and inlets, sandy beaches, rugged hills and volcanic landscapes. Small homes on the hillocks abutted the peaceful highway at irregular intervals. These dwellings, which originally were summer homes, have markedly increased in price (as have all homes in New Zealand), and many now are being converted to full-time abodes for those who want to get away from the hustle, bustle and traffic of the city of Dunedin.

For information, obtain the Otago Peninsula map and brochure from Dunedin’s visitor center or go to If you like to hike, pick up the brochure “Otago Peninsula Track,” which presents details of walkways.

The shore road ends at the Taiaroa Head, where an informative tour of the Royal Albatross Centre (call +64 3 478 0499, fax 478-0575 or go to with its 90 to 100 birds is a must. It is the only mainland albatross breeding colony in the Southern Hemisphere.

As the birds mostly float on the wind, the best time to see them fly is in the afternoon when the wind increases. With a wingspan of up to 9'6" across, the albatross can soar at speeds of more than 70 miles an hour. Visit from December to February, when one parent brings food while the other continuously watches the offspring. Reservations are essential.


The next day, we proceeded to the highlight of our trip, a 2-night farmstay in Otautau, a village in the rolling Catlins hills. Each couple in our group was dropped off at a different farmhouse, some of which were located in another community.

Our host and hostess welcomed us with open arms. We were hardly seated when we were offered aperitifs with canapés. Afterward, we enjoyed a gourmet dinner, which definitely had not been designed to make us thinner. Breakfasts and lunches were equally impressive.

The next morning, the farmer, who owned 3,000 sheep, 150 cows and 125 deer, took us for a drive on the hilly meadows of his property, constantly dodging huge flocks of sheep. As we looked with distaste at the animals’ dirty bottoms, our host explained that the sheep could be sold only if their undersides were clean. To achieve this, he contracts with a special bum-cleaning service.

In the afternoon, the farmer’s wife drove us along the scenic, rugged nearby coast, where the many sandy coves full of protruding rocks attracted numerous bathers.

When our Elderhostel group got together at the end of the trip, everybody concurred that the farmstay (for which the hosts received remuneration) had indeed been the best part of the program.

Next month, I will continue sharing with you the scenic magic of New Zealand’s South Island.