We knew that our trip would entail a lot of driving, but this was the longest day of driving that we just couldn’t plan around. We were not near an airport and there were things we wanted to do around Tongariro National Park, but there is not a lot of NZ that we really wanted to see between this latitude and Wellington which is at the very southern tip of the north island. The only solution that made sense to us was to drive. It was going to be a long day.
We started out driving past Lake Taupo again. If we had known earlier that we wouldn’t be able to do the Tongariro Crossing, we would have scheduled our second night here and bought ourselves an hour since we drove here the previous day and back tracked.
From there we continued over to Napier which is located on a gorgeous baby blue crescent of water known as Hawke’s Bay. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 so much of the current architecture is of the same Art Deco period. There are people who dress from that era and drive cars from that time. We even heard a jazz quartet playing on a street corner.
Like several other areas we would see in NZ, there were lots of wineries on the drive in setting a beautiful scene for a really beautiful little city. If I wanted to do a winery tour or a road biking tour, this is an area I’d strongly consider. Melanie is pretty much a homebody but once we reached the downtown area near the beach she surprised me with an announcement that she could easily live in Napier.
I love the Art Deco period and was really looking forward to full sensory immersion but reality is a little different than what my brain dreamed up. The period wasn’t preserved to the amusement-park level that I was expecting. Streets were completely modern with modern lights. Old style shops were interspersed with new. New signage with old. Normal cars. Normal clothes in most places.
I was hoping to get a cool background picture for this year’s New Year’s card but I never found a spot that would work at all. There were too many trees, street lights, and narrow streets to allow for nice photos and views within the downtown area. There were people everywhere too. This place is touristy.
If you plan to visit for the architecture and want to get guidance from the local pros, be aware, the Deco Center mentioned in Fodor’s travel guide has relocated on the same street (Tennyson St) but down at the beach.
Even with its Art Deco shortage we had a great time and it is still easy to imagine Inspector Poirot waddling the streets solving mysteries. We strolled streets listening to the quartet and hearing the snap of the cricket flags in the breeze (it was the time of the world championships). Eventually we made our way to the beautiful mint blue green water of the bay and the beach. Living in Florida we are very spoiled when it comes to beaches. I think of sand. This place had folks laying out on large gravel – beautiful but not comfy I’m sure.
Next up was a place with high expectations. NZ Frenzy describes Shine Falls as a place that would be a major attraction in any other country than one as richly blessed as NZ. The marketing problem for Shine Falls is that it really is in the middle of nowhere. That is saying something for such an unpopulated country. Frenzy recommends taking full advantage of this and if you are the only people in the trailhead parking lot, then you will be the only people at the falls so he recommends getting naked and enjoying the solitude of the falls.
When I first started planning the trip this idea seemed goofy to me. I’m not an exhibitionist. As I had time to ruminate on it though, I realized it really wasn’t about that. If you were there completely alone at such a magnificent wonder, it could possibly add something to the experience. By the time the trip rolled around, I was really looking forward to this.
Unfortunately, when we arrived the parking lot was full so we knew we wouldn’t be alone on the trail and possibly not at the falls either. I think NZ Frenzy has let too many people know about this place for it to be isolated anymore. In the book, it comes across as something that no one really uses. While we were there we met many locals who visit regularly, including a grandmother who had just been up to the falls for her grandchild’s birthday party. We met two guys from the US that were using the Frenzy book too. Unless we hit it on a fluke, don’t expect solitude at this place, but do go. It is amazing!
The hike itself was not spectacular by NZ standards but still pretty. It had a few steeper ups and downs but little kids were making this hike as well as old folks so I think most could do it. We were some of the few that actually had on any hiking stuff. Everyone, including us, was wearing a bathing suit, but some people were making the trek in flip-flops (something I DON’T recommend). My point is don’t skip it because of age or lack of equipment.
The info board at the trailhead has a typo. The hike is one hour round trip not two hours.
As we rounded the last bend in the trail we saw a picnic table and behind it the falls. Mighty. Tall. Wide. With water dropping straight into a fairly shallow soft sandy pool. Immediately Melanie and I knew this was one of the best waterfalls, possibly the best, we’d ever seen. It isn’t the biggest or most beautiful but the combo of the size and shape with the ease with which you can get right up in it is very hard to beat.
I set up my camera for some pictures and Melanie dropped her pack and boots and got in. Even though this was a warm 80 degree day, the water was quite cold by Florida standards. After a couple of minutes Melanie got out complaining that her feet were so cold that they stung. You should know that she is very cold-natured though. As a contrast, there was a family of four just getting out when we arrived that had been swimming and playing in the water for a while.
Melanie would not get back in the water once I was ready to take pictures, but I wanted a Frenzy-style picture of myself in front of the falls. The last group had left while I was setting up the shot. We were alone. Would I be able to drop my pants and get the Frenzy-style butt shot? Nope. Just then two guys showed up. One was a native and the other was from Boston. He mentioned that Frenzy brought him there too. They politely waited for me to get my picture and then we left. I had the distinct impression that they wanted to get naked in the falls. I chuckled to myself when we passed a group of four pre-teens on the trail back. They might be in for a surprise at the falls.
Protip: You can easily walk around in the water without shoes on, but be very careful getting in and out of the pool. There is a jumble of rocks that are slick as ice all around the perimeter. I also recommend getting in right in the middle of the pool. If you go in on the right side, it gets at least waist-deep pretty quickly.
Be sure to bring a change of shoes. You will be walking through a sheep pasture for about 10 minutes in and out and they poop indiscriminately. No need to track that into the car.
A LONG DRIVE
After that was a grueling drive down to Wellington. New Zealand is a place with virtually no flat ground and driving is a constant mountain-hugging twisty turning up and down affair. This is fine for a while, but for hours upon hours it will wear you out whether you are the driver or passenger. Lanes are extremely narrow in places and you are driving with other tourists who don’t want to share the road. It gets even less fun after dark.
We finally navigated downtown Wellington, which has the tiniest blocks known to mankind, and checked into the fantastic Amora Hotel at 10pm. I was hoping that this would be the nicest hotel of the trip and I wasn’t disappointed to find that it was well done. I can only compare it to the hotels in China that I used to visit. They were built to the highest standards with custom inlaid wood doors, etc. This was not that high end but it was still reminiscent. We had terry cloth robes, stone surfaces in the bath, when I called to ask about the weather they knew to give it to me in Fahrenheit, etc. It was truly a wonderful landing to a long day.