New Zealand's Reality Matches Fantasy

If you've always dreamed of going, there's no time like the present.
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New Zealand is the type of place that a lot of people say, "Oh yeah, I've always wanted to go to there."

After many years of saying just that, my wife, Joellyn, and I took an 11-day trip there last month. Friends of ours own a house three hours north of Auckland, near Whangarei (pronounced Fahng-eray). Whangarei is one of the few cities in the northeastern part of the North Island. The house where we stayed was actually about 20 kilometers south of Whangarei in Urquhart Bay, which we used as a base to try to experience as much as we could.

As the accompanying pictures indicate, the Whangarei region looks tropical, which is the case for most of northern New Zealand. There are a lot of bays (like Urquhart Bay) and beaches and a little bit of open ocean.

Between Whangarei and where the road ends in Urquhart Bay there are about eight little villages that are all quite similar. They all have spectacular views, charming beach houses and little general stores to buy some basic food supplies or get fish and chips takeaway. Despite the views and the beaches, this part of the island is more of a local's paradise than a hot vacation destination.

The food was very good, although not necessarily five-star. There was a lot of seafood, lamb and venison. Most of the general stores have fish and chips to take away. In downtown Whangarei, the Cafe Parua Bay, between Whangarei and Urquhart Bay, is a great breakfast spot. While we found no Starbucks outside of downtown Auckland, the best mocha we found was in downtown Whangarei, at a coffeehouse called Mokaba.

Judging by the number of ice cream stands we saw, the Kiwis love their ice cream, and their favorite flavor is called Hokey Pokey: vanilla ice cream with crunchy caramel bits in it.

The hiking on this part of the island was perfect for us. There are many trails to choose from and they are all clearly marked. We went on three different hikes while we were there: the Peach Cove Track, Mount Manaia and Mount Maturiki. All three trails took only two hours of steep climbing, but the views were absolutely worth the effort. There were also plenty of flat trails along the beaches. If you plan to take any of the steep trails, I would suggest some hiking poles.

Whangarei itself is a small city, as opposed to a village, which is a better description for most places we saw. As such, it has plenty of shopping and restaurants but will likely remind you of San Diego and won't give you much feel for New Zealand.

Auckland, on the other hand, is a very cosmopolitan city. The downtown reminded me of Seattle. There are a lot of shops and a lot of restaurants. The main drag through the downtown is Queen Street. We had a great seafood basket lunch and cafe mochas at the Vulcan Cafe in the alley right across from the intersection of Durham and Queen streets. A good spot for dinner is the Patio Cafe at the north end of the street. True to its name, it has a big patio that overlooks the entire goings-on down on Queen Street. It is worth knowing that aside from a few dark pubs, most things shut down quite early. An 8 p.m. plan for dinner may leave one with very few choices.

Another interesting feature in Auckland is the Sky Tower. The Sky Tower is kind of like the Space Needle (hence the Seattle reference). There are two high floors you can visit, the 52nd stories and 61st stories. Level 52 has a glass floor, as you can see from the pictures. One of my favorite things of the whole trip was sitting in the café in the Sky Tower and just enjoying the view.

If you spend any time in Auckland, I would recommend taking the ferry over to Devenport. Devenport is a quaint little town 15 minutes across the harbor. There are a lot of neat little houses, architecture and lots of little outdoor cafes.

Around and About

As for the rest of New Zealand, it truly is a beautiful destination. During the buildup to the trip, we created impossibly high expectations. Still, we had a fantastic time. Realistically, it is impossible to hit every tourist hot spot, but here are some of the highlights of what we saw:

Urquhart Bay

Everyone told us to go to the Bay of Islands, an area in the northeastern part of the island, and that was good advice. The main town is Russell which, like a lot of places in New Zealand, has quaint shops, good food and great views. As nice as Russell was, it was a half-day trip at most.

One of the big highlights was a visit of Tane Mahuta, which is a giant tree in the Kauri forest on the western part of the north island near the city of Dargaville. Kauri trees are similar to sequoia trees in northern California. Tane Mahuta means lord of the forest and has religious significance for the Maori people. To give you some idea of its size, its circumference is 45 feet. It rained while we were there, which is supposed to be good luck. For anyone interested in learning anything about Maori culture, a trip to Tane Mahuta is a must.

The drive around the northernmost part of the island is dotted with spectacular little bays, with small villages of beach cottages, called baches. Aside from the area around where we stayed, our favorite seaside village was Taupo Bay. There was very little there besides the beach and the view, so bring a cooler of food if you go.

Our "National Geographic" moment came at the Glow-worms cave just south of Kawakawa, which is on the way to the Bay of Islands from Whangarei. The worms are small and translucent and hang from the ceiling; they glow like tiny blue Christmas lights. There are thousands of them in the cave. I know it sounds odd but it is worth the trip.

Peak of Mount Manaia

Before we left, a lot of readers told me to try some of the local wine. Our favorite New Zealand wine was the merlot from Cottle Hill Winery in Kerikeri owned and operated by Americans Michael and Barbara Webb. We chatted with and bought a couple of bottles from Michael. He made several references to his wine being "approachable." We have no idea what he meant but we recommend the wine.

In planning your trip, I would suggest you visit the

official New Zealand tourism site and register at

Quantas' Web site for email offers. We saved about 60% on our airfare this way. If you plan to move around once you get there, accommodations will be easy to find. We stayed in hotels two nights on our trip and we had our choice of places to stay. If that is too fly-by-the-seat, you can find plenty to choose from at both Travelocity.com and Expedia.com.

If

you

have ever said, "I've always wanted to go to New Zealand," I hope you do it. You'll be glad you did.