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THE BEST GUIDE TO CAMPING IN NEW ZEALAND

THE BEST GUIDE TO CAMPING IN NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries we’ve ever visited. To fully explore NZ, we had decided long before arriving that we would rent a car, buy a tent, and camp all across the country. We researched a lot before heading out, and there’s a ton of stuff we found out along the way. Whether you are a local Kiwi or visiting from abroad, we’ve compiled what we learned from our bests and our blunders to bring you the best guide to camping in New Zealand.

Camping in New Zealand: When and Where to Start

Although some (not all) campgrounds in New Zealand are open year-round, camping season generally runs from October 1st to April 30th. December, January, and February are the warmest and most popular months, making the new year the ideal time to camp. However, it can still get chilly depending on where you are in the country, especially in the mountains. Spending the night in the area of Milford Sound, for example, can be quite chilly, and the South of the South Island is generally prone to rain.

To avoid crowds, pay attention to the types of campsites you select and make note of New Zealand’s holidays. Campsites near lakes and beaches can be very busy on holidays and weekends and a lot of sites are first-come, first-served (only some need to be booked in advance).

To start planning, check out the Department of Conservation website (DOC) or if you are already in New Zealand, visit the nearest DOC Visitor Centre. These offices have a lot of information on hand, including brochures outlining all of the conservation campsites throughout the country and which campsites are currently closed or inaccessible. This is also where you would purchase permits for select campsites that require them.

Helpful Apps for Camping in New Zealand

Camping is such a huge part of the culture in New Zealand that several camping apps have been made and are available to download. These apps were immensely helpful to us, so try out a few and decide which one works for you. We ended up using a couple different apps because some campsites would appear on one but not the other. These apps may also show free Wifi hotspots across the country, showers, bathrooms, etc. Wifi is not available while you’re driving in the middle of nowhere, so we would start off our day by marking the GPS coordinates of where we were going to end, as well as anywhere we planned on stopping on our way. Some of the maps and their features also work offline.

Our favorite part about the apps were the reviews. Keeping in mind that an individual’s experience of a campsite is subjective, the reviews give campers an opportunity to relay helpful information to others. For example, some reviews may advise against using a certain route to access the site, or avoiding another site because the only toilet is out of order. We once read a review that warned us about the prevalence of sandflies at a campsite. We thought it would be fine because we were only planning on staying one night, but we had to leave within five minutes because a plague attacked us as soon as we got out of the car.

While we were camping in New Zealand, we used these two apps:

 

CAMPING NZ

Download for iOS
Download for Android

 

WIKICAMPS NEW ZEALAND

Download for iOS
Download for Android

 

What to Bring

We planned on preparing a checklist of items and gear you would need to go camping, but that list can be long and vary depending on how you like to camp. If that is what you are looking for, the folks over at Kiwi Holiday Parks have a general but comprehensive camping checklist that you can find here. We can highlight and add some items that we found helpful specifically for camping across DOC sites in New Zealand.

  1. Weatherproofing: Bring a waterproof tent with a rain cover. Make sure the tent bottom is also waterproof. Rain is more of a concern on the South Island, but something to prepare for nonetheless. If you may be camping where the nights are cool, a warm sleeping bag will be very important.
  2. Sun Protection: The sun in New Zealand is no joke. At peak hours during Summer months, the UV index can exceed 12, making sunscreen a must. Bring a hat to protect your head if you are planning on taking some hikes, and don’t forget sun protection for your lips.
  3. Bug Repellant: We would suggest bug spray if you can’t stand even the smallest amount of annoyance, but we didn’t find it necessary. We didn’t use any except for the aforementioned sandfly plague, but even then it was no match against the swarm. Check out Goodbye Sandfly’s NZ Map for an overview of high density sandfly spots across the country. Our sandfly experience occurred in the dense red cluster you can see at the North of the South Island, so we can vouch for the map’s accuracy in that instance.
  4. Gas Camping Stove: There are many camp sites where open fires are prohibited. We had with us a portable burner that worked off of a small, contained wood fire, and even that wasn’t permitted sometimes. Luckily for us, the site office had a gas stove to lend us, so go that route from the beginning and ensure you always have something to cook on.
  5. Flashlight (Torch): At Basic campsites (more on that later), amenities are minimal. The drop toilet can be a walk down the road with no light to guide your way. Having a flashlight will be very handy for those unavoidable nature calls in the middle of the night.
  6. A Pen and Change/Cash: DOC sites run on a semi-honour system. If there is no supervision on a paid site, a payment box is located at the entrance, and site patrollers make intermittent rounds to collect and ensure payment. Use your pen to fill out the form and detach the portion to be placed on your car windshield. Once complete, you can put the form and exact change in the provided ziploc bag and drop it in the payment box.
  7. GPS: Couple a GPS with the use of the apps for camping in New Zealand, and finding your site for the night could not be easier. While on Wifi – or using the offline maps – mark down the GPS coordinates of your chosen site and plug them into your GPS when you are ready to head over.
  8. Food: Stock up on groceries for your trip and make sure you can always go a couple days without restocking. Though you are never too far from civilization while camping in New Zealand, some sites are more remote than others, or you may plan to stay at one site for a few nights in a row.
  9. Something Heavy: Every night we found a new campsite, we had to search around for something we could use to setup our tent. We could have saved some time had we packed a hammer or something to secure the tent pegs into the ground. If you forget to pack something, find a rock that works and hold onto it for the rest of your trip.

Site Types, Prices and Amenities

New Zealand is packed with DOC campsites with a range of amenities. There is everything from free sites with nothing more than a drop toilet, to paid options with hot showers and kitchens. We stayed at Basic and Standard sites for the most part. When we just could not go any longer without a nice, hot shower, we spoiled ourselves and dropped serious coin on a $15 NZD pp Serviced site. The money is worth it for the Serviced site when you need it, but the cheaper options are better for a more rustic, nature-oriented and likely less populated camping experience. Here is an overview of DOC site options:

NZ Camp Grid

Serviced sites and some Standard and Scenic sites require bookings. You can still do like we did and simply show up hoping that there is space. It just means that there’s no guarantee unless you book it in advance. Basic campsites are always first-come, first-served. Use the apps for camping in New Zealand and the DOC website to find out which sites require bookings as you travel. In any case, find out whether the site has access times. The last thing you want to do is drive for an hour only to find out that the entrance gate closed at 8:00 pm.

Budget camping is the focus of this guide, but we should quickly mention that there is the other, the much more expensive option of staying in New Zealand’s Holiday Parks. For more information on Holiday Parks, visit http://www.holidayparks.co.nz/

Ferry and Car Rental

You’ll need a car if your plan is to embark on a cross-country camping road trip. After the plane tickets, the car rental is the first thing we booked. There are many rental options available, especially if you are starting in Auckland. The company we went with and would recommend is Apex Car Rentals, and there’s a very good reason. With certain conditions, Apex includes the Cook Strait Ferry ticket for your car in the rental price. The Cook Strait Ferries (there are several companies) take you from the North Island to the South Island, and vice-versa. Normally, you’re looking at a price of roughly $286 NZD for a small car, and with other rental companies, you would have to pay that.

Here are the details of the Apex Ferry deal, where you can also find the pricing information for the passenger fares (not included, but about $130 NZD return pp). You’ll need to book the ferry tickets ahead of time through Apex, so make sure you have your anticipated crossing dates on hand. If you don’t plan on crossing the strait, then you may find better deals with other companies that don’t include the ferry ticket.

Camping in New Zealand: Do Not Forget

Now that you’re informed and well equipped to experience an incredible camping road trip across New Zealand, here are a few additional basics to keep in mind:

  1. Fires: Many DOC campgrounds prohibit fires while others provide designated fire pits. In any case, be sure to follow the DOC’s regulations. If you are unsure, check with the site’s office or on the DOC website when there is no office. Always remember to soak your fire before leaving or going to bed.
  2. Garbage/Rubbish: Respect the area and don’t leave your trash behind.
  3. Prohibited Camping: There are spaces where camping is expressly prohibited, or limited to certain types of campers. Don’t pitch your tent on a campsite meant exclusively for campervans.
  4. Site fees: After only a few nights of camping in New Zealand’s breathtaking outdoors, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the DOC has made the outdoor experience so accessible. Support their efforts and always pay your nightly site fees.

 

ICELAND RING ROAD TRIP: PART 2

ICELAND RING ROAD TRIP: PART 2

If you’ve already read our Iceland Ring Road Trip Part 1, then you know we left off our story having visited the iceberg lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Continuing East and then Northward, our drive along Highway 1 became a more secluded and sparse experience of Iceland. The further we ventured away from Reykjavik and the Golden Circle, the less populated it became and consequently, the less touristy. This also meant longer drives between points of interest. Luckily for us, what Iceland began to lack in tourist spots, it made up for in breathtaking routes and landscapes.

Iceland Ring Road Trip: Driving Northeast

We had read very briefly about wild reindeer that live and travel in the higher altitudes of East Iceland, but we never imagined we would see any for ourselves. While seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we were lucky enough to encounter a family of Reindeer in the distance, wanting to cross the road ahead of us. After a scramble to grab the camera, we were able to capture a few of them on film.

Continuing our drive up the east coast of Iceland meant we would soon be ascending into the mountains that would then descend down into the Northeastern towns. As the ascent began, the unpredictable nature of Iceland’s weather rang true when a thick fog settled in and cut our speed in half.

Driving slowly and with much caution, we eventually made it through the fog and to the highest elevation. Though the terrain was fully covered in snow, it was by far the warmest weather we had experienced since being in the country. All we were ever told about Iceland is how cold and damp it is. It turns out, the Northeast of Iceland is where the warm weather is at. We parked our campervan, took off our jackets and walked around for a bit.

Our descent took us all the way to the small town of Egilsstaðir. It only has a population of roughly 2,200 people and not so much in the tourist department. But sometimes when you’re consistently on the go, there’s nothing you want more than a simple, calming spot to relax, unwind and take in the views. We parked our van in front of lake Lagarfljót, sat at a nearby picnic table and enjoyed.

Hallormsstaðaskógur

Our next stop was Iceland’s largest forest, located about 25 kilometers from the town of Egilsstaðir. Up until now, most of our hikes had been on land covered in moss with no trees in sight. Needless to say, it was a bizarre experience to suddenly encounter an abundance of trees, not having realized your mind had unconsciously missed them.

There are over forty kilometers of marked trails and footpaths in the Hallormsstaður National Forest, making it a perfect spot to hike and picnic for the day. We walked for a while, enjoying the heat of the sun, then plopped down for lunch with a view of the mountains beyond.

We didn’t end up staying for long but had us more time, we would have looked into renting a campsite for the night and booking one of the horse-riding tours for the following day.

Dettifoss, Selfoss & Goðafoss

Have we talked your ears off about waterfalls yet? It’s funny because when we started our road trip, we were amazed by all of the waterfalls we encountered, stopping at each and every one. After a couple weeks, however, we became a bit more picky about the waterfall detours we would take. These three are worth stopping for, and you can visit our dedicated ‘Iceland Waterfalls Aplenty‘ post to read about them in detail.

Iceland Ring Road Trip: Mývatn Region

Mývatn is the name of the lake situated not far from the Krafla volcano. Created by a large eruption over two thousand years ago, the area is mostly spluttering mudpots, weird lava formations, steaming fumaroles and volcanic craters. The name is nowadays not only used for the lake, but also for the whole inhabited area that surrounds the lake. Having already been to the Blue Lagoon, we opted not to visit the nature baths.

Our first stop in the region was the giant lava field at Dimmuborgir which, according to Icelandic folklore, connects Earth to Hell.

The area is composed of volcanic caves and rock formations, giving it its name which literally translates to ‘The Dark Castles’. You can hike three marked color-coded trails: Church Circle, Small Circle, and Big Circle. Church Circle is 2.25km and takes about an hour, whereas the other two are much shorter at 550m and 800m respectively.

We then visited Hverfell, a crater that came into existence over 2,500 years ago. It rises close to 500m from the ground and stretches for over 1000m. Composed solely of loose gravel, it reminded us of what you see after a dumpster drops gravel at a construction site. You can hike up from the parking lot with a bit of effort.

Höfði Nature Park was our next stop. A private reserve with hiking paths located in the southeastern corner of the region, Höfði is similar to Hallormsstaður in that you will feel like you are in a different country as you walk through the paths surrounded by the small forest. It also has great viewpoints that overlook other volcanic rock formations.

Traveling a bit further, we found the pseudocraters located in the small village of Skútustaðir. These craters, resembling a beginner course in Mario Kart, were formed by trapped subsurface water that came to a boiling point and exploded to the surface. We followed the path up and down, enjoying the wonderful views over the lake and dogging random banana peels along the way. Google an aerial view of this place to see what it really looks like.

Our last stop in the Mývatn region was at the steamy sulfur vents of Krafla. We parked in the lot and immediately after getting out the campervan, Adamo was smacked in the face with the smell. The odor was unlike any we had encountered before. This wasn’t simply the smell of rotten egg: the air was so pungent that it instantly gave him a headache and he found it hard to breathe. We started walking toward the mudpots for Adamo to take some photos, but he only managed a couple before he had to run back to the van. I think he was being dramatic, he thinks I’ve lost my sense of smell.

Akureyri

We also briefly visited the small city of Akureyri. After the capital of Reykjavik, this is the second largest urban area in the country. To be honest, we didn’t do much in Akureyri, using it merely as an opportunity to relax and take in the sun. It was around 21 degrees Celsius when we got here! There was, however, a nice library where we took some time to plan the rest of our route.

Kolugljúfur

After arriving at Kolugljúfur, we instantly knew we would be spending the night there, and it became one of our favorite memories from our trip. Take notes, because you have to experience it the EXACT same way we did. This is where we arrived after spending most of the day experiencing other sites. We had gotten there around dinner time, driving up to this incredible canyon in the middle of nowhere, seeing the houses across the way and realizing we were the only travelers for miles.

Legend has it Kolugljúfur was originally the home of a beautiful troll. She was named Kola and she dug out the canyon to make it her home, hence the reason the canyon and waterfall are named after her. If you look closely, you can even make out her bed as well as her cauldron where she used to cook the salmon that she caught from the river.

We prepared our meal and crossed the bridge overlooking the canyon to make our way to the conveniently located picnic table. Eating there in solitude was unforgettable. Because it’s daylight for most hours of the day, you kind of has to decide for yourself when it’s time for some shut-eye. So shortly after, we hunkered down in our campervan and turned in for the night. Listening to the sound of the waterfall was so relaxing and made for the perfect night’s sleep.

Látrabjarg

The westernmost point in all of Iceland, Látrabjarg is the only spot where we were successful in our quest to see puffins up close and personal. We had been unlucky throughout our entire trip and Látrabjarg was ultimately our last opportunity. It was a long drive that was a significant detour into the Westfjords, but we knew we had to try. And it’s a good thing we did: puffins were everywhere. In fact, millions of birds call the cliffs of Látrabjarg home. If you want to the details about our entire Puffin encounter, visit our ‘A Quest for Puffins‘ post.

Believe it or not, Iceland also has a couple of golden sand beaches: one named Breiðavík and the other named Hvallátur. With turquoise water surrounded by rocky cliffs, it makes them ideal spots for taking a breather and enjoying the views.

You can also make a quick stop in this area to visit the old salvaged fishing boats and aircraft that are on display.

Viðey

After driving throughout the country for over two weeks, our Iceland Ring Road Trip took us back to Reykjavik where we decided to use our last full day to visit the island of Viðey. Just off the coast of the capital, Viðey is situated in Kollfjörður Bay. It was said to contain the best farming land of the country and in the early 20th century, roughly 150 people lived on the island. Currently, however, Viðey is uninhabited.

Visiting the island of Viðey can make for a great half-day trip. The Elding ferry will take you there in 15-30 minutes, depending on your point of departure. It is only $1,200 ISK for a return trip, but free for anyone who purchases the Reykjavik City Card. The island also has several hiking paths. You can explore the paths by foot or, in the Summer, up the ante and rent a bike or horse. We decided to walk as it was a beautiful day and we were planning on being there for several hours. You can also look into combining your trip to Viðey with a whale watching tour, a special offer provided by Elding.

The island is home to Iceland’s oldest stone house (now a restaurant, gallery, and museum), Viðeyjarkirkja church (don’t ask us how to pronounce that), and the John Lennon Imagine Peace Tower (shooting brightly into the sky for two months in the Fall). One thing we really wanted to visit was the Imagine Peace Tower: an outdoor work of art conceptualized by Yoko Ono in memory of her late husband, John Lennon. Annually, the Peace Tower is lit from October 9 until December 8. the former being his birthday and the latter the day of his assassination. The tower’s base is engraved with the words “imagine peace” in 24 different languages.

If you happen to be there in late August, make sure to join the locals to pick caraway seeds that grow on the island. They are supposed to be sweeter and have a more distinctive taste than what we are used to buying and apparently go great with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.

7 TIPS FOR HIKING CINQUE TERRE

7 TIPS FOR HIKING CINQUE TERRE

You’ve likely heard of Italy’s Cinque Terre: five connected fishing towns located on the beautiful coast of the Italian Riviera. Joined by a hiking trail, these centuries-old villages are a popular destination for tourists looking to inject some adventure into their Italian vacation. If you are heading to Italy and plan on hiking Cinque Terre, we’ve got you covered with these 7 tips to make the most of your trip.

TIP #1: Stay in La Spezia or Levanto

For many reasons, the decision to find accommodation in one of the shoulder towns of La Spezia or Levanto is a smart idea. When we began looking for places to stay, we immediately thought about how great it would be to stay in one of the historic towns of Cinque Terre. That was until we saw the prices. If budget is a concern for you, as it always is for us, then you’ll find the accommodation in Levanto or La Spezia to be more to your liking. Our hostel in La Spezia was centrally located (within walking distance of the train station) and the town was a safe, laid-back alternative.

It’s not always easy to get information online about where the best place to stay would be if you want to be able to access the towns during the day. Once you get there, the interconnections become quite clear and are actually fairly straightforward. There is a train route, operating year-round, that runs back and forth between Levanto and La Spezia. With frequent service, this train also stops at each of the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. Wake up early for breakfast and head to the train station to spend the day hiking from town to town.

If you do stay in La Spezia, head over to the pedestrian walkway an find Mr. Molini to try the unbelievably delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, perfectly salted foccacia. Then head across the street to Gelateria Artigianale to check out the gelato shop run by a sweet elderly couple.

TIP #2: Ditch the Car

If you’ve gone the route of a rental car for your Italian vacation, Cinque Terre is where you’ll find it useless. Access to the towns by car is practically nonexistent. For experienced drivers, there are narrow, winding roads connecting the towns, but those roads stop at carparks at the edge of town. The historical core of the villages is pedestrian only with some congested, narrow hills and stairways to climb.

TIP #3: Buy the Cinque Terre Train Card

Hiking Cinque Terre could not be easier than with the Cinque Terre Train card. At € 16 per person, buying this card gives you access to the hiking trails and unlimited train rides between Levanto and La Spezia for the day. There is another card available for € 7,50 that only grants you access to the trails, but the train card is the smarter option. If you stay in Levanto or La Spezia, you will have to pay once for the train to get to the first town, and again at the end of the day to get back. Because the trail between Manarola and Riomaggiore has been closed for quite some time now, you will have to pay for the train to see both towns. When we were there, the trail between Corniglia and Manarola was also closed, so that would have been another train ticket. Lastly, even if all of the trails are open, hiking Cinque Terre means you may be focusing on completing the trails and not on visiting the towns. If that’s the case, you can prioritize the trails before you run out of energy and use the train access to visit the towns when you’re done.

Cards can be purchased at any of the seven rail stations along the train route. To avoid a long wait, get to the station tourist office when they open. Buying the card first thing at the train station also means you’ll bypass the very long lineup at the beginning of the trail. Regardless which card you ultimately chose, they each include 24-hour Wifi access at the Cinque Terre tourist stops so you can keep your install-game on point.

TIP #4: Avoid Peak Times

We thought we were so smart visiting Cinque Terre in mid-April. Our plan was to saunter onto the hiking trails and have the coastal scenery all to ourselves. Unbeknownst to us, we had scheduled our plans for hiking Cinque Terre during an Italian long weekend. The villages, trails, and lineups were jam-packed. Not once were we alone on the trail, and at times we were even hiking in a lineup. We’ve got photos to prove it.

Don’t get us wrong, we wouldn’t suggest going in the Winter because the hiking paths are often closed. However, Spring and Fall months like April, May, September, and October do have their benefits. Not only will you likely experience a more relaxed Cinque Terre, but accommodation will also be cheaper.

TIP #5: Track the Weather

Our best advice when it comes to hiking Cinque Terre and planning for the weather is to schedule two or three days in the area. Give yourself multiple options for your hiking day. If your first full day is raining, then you can fall back on your second or third day. When we were there, we had scheduled only one full day, and the forecast called for a downpour. We were crossing our fingers, toes, and eyes that it wouldn’t rain. Luckily for us, it only started to rain by the time our day was turning down. But it’s best not to gamble with such an important trip. Of course, following tip #4 and visiting in the shoulder seasons means there is a higher chance of showers, but giving yourself some wiggle room should almost guarantee some perfect hiking weather.

TIP #6: Hiking Cinque Terre… Don’t Kid Yourself

Hiking Cinque Terre isn’t the most difficult thing we’ve done, but it is no leisurely stroll. Via dell Amore – the section between Manarola and Riomaggiore – is said to be incredibly easy but it’s been closed for some time now for repairs. Between Corniglia and Manarola was also closed so we cannot speak to that either. However, we did hike the two most difficult sections and can assure you it’s a good idea to be prepared. Bring enough water, especially on a hot day, and wear sunscreen to be safe. Don’t wear flip-flops and definitely don’t wear heels.

Two people who were hiking ahead of us were complaining the whole time. They expected a simple footpath between villages, but the countless, uphill steps had them considering turning back. They asked us how much longer it would be and we joked that there remained another three hours. One of them almost started crying.

TIP #7: Drink the Lemonade!

Halfway between Vernazza and Corniglia is the tiniest, most strategically placed lemonade and juice shop. The small store has sitting room for approximately 6-8 people with views of the Cinque Terre coastline out the window. The orange juice is prepared as you order it and a container of homemade lemonade stands iced and ready to order by the glass. This is about the point when you’re ready to give up, so they have no problem getting € 3 from passersby for a glass of their main attraction.

 

ROAD TRIP: NEW ZEALAND’S NORTH ISLAND

ROAD TRIP: NEW ZEALAND'S NORTH ISLAND

We had always wanted to visit New Zealand, having heard incredible things about the landscape, the people, and the sights. The most helpful tools we bought for our trip were the NZ Frenzy Guidebooks by Scott Cook. These guidebooks are what you need if you are looking to experience the NZ roads less traveled. They don’t have all the wifi/restaurant/library information that your Lonely Planet guidebook will have, so don’t buy them for that. Instead, Scott put a ton of effort into mapping out all of the natural treasures throughout New Zealand. NZ Frenzy is full of secret lakes, waterfalls, tracks, and coves we would never have found or heard about otherwise. With one book for New Zealand’s North Island and one for the South, Scott breaks up the points of interest by geographical areas and provides detailed directions for finding each and every spot.

Our memory of traveling New Zealand is like the most exciting, cross-country treasure hunt, and that’s because of the NZ Frenzy Guidebooks. If you’re heading to New Zealand, consider buying one or both of these guidebooks through the link below. It doesn’t cost any extra, and a small percentage helps keep The Gays Abroad Travel Blog running!

Arriving in New Zealand

We’re always excited to take the airport transfer into a new city. Outside of the airport, it’s really the first glimpse you have of a new country, and you have no choice but to stare out the windows and take it all in. Conveniently, the bus let us off only a couple blocks from where we met our Couchsurfing host, Seb. He was so kind to meet us early in the day to hand us his keys instead of having us wait with our massive backpacks until he was off work (which would have been understandable, of course). Staying with Seb was an incredible introduction to Auckland New Zealand. We spent a couple days with him, during which time he would come with us on walks around the Auckland, showing us some of the popular spots and telling us all about them.

Piha Beach

We learned very quickly that, when you’re in New Zealand, you’re never far from a beach. On our second day, Seb drove us to Piha Beach, roughly 45 minutes from Auckland on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Piha is at the end of a long and winding road, but this beach is massive and well worth the drive. We bought our first chips, relaxed amidst the views, and climbed up Lion’s Rock. We even took a hike up to Kitekite Falls for a swim in the pools at the top and bottom of the falls. Seb also had lots of knowledge of, and a great appreciation for, Maori culture in New Zealand, including the Maori names of places, their roots, and significance. As Canadians, we thought that we knew quite a bit about First Nations history in Canada, but Seb really put us to shame.

Starting Our Road Trip Across New Zealand’s North Island

To fully explore New Zealand, we had decided long before arriving that we would rent a car, buy a tent, and camp all across the country. NZ is packed with campsites with a range of amenities. There is everything from free sites with nothing more than a toilet, to paid sites with hot showers and kitchens. We created an article specifically about NZ camping, so if you want more details about exploring this beautiful country under the stars, check out The Best Guide to Camping in NZ.

Piroa Falls

Driving North from Auckland, our first stop was a leisurely half-day at Piroa Falls. We found the falls after a short, marked walk from the carpark. We noticed a picnic table nearby and set down our bags along the water’s edge. Our first introduction to the water in New Zealand was frigid, but our bodies eventually acclimatized. Piroa Falls drops into the main basin, then steps down into tiered pools that are easier for swimming than directly under the falls (though not as exciting). Though we didn’t find it ourselves, there should also be an accessible path to climb to the top.

Te Paki

Our next major stop on New Zealand’s North Island was the Te Paki Sand Dunes on the way to Cape Reinga. Our guidebook made note of a secret lake in the middle of the dunes, so we set out to find it. We must have taken a wrong turn because the lake took longer to find than we expected, but we did eventually arrive. It turns out dark water is extremely eerie (who knew!) so after all of that walking, we didn’t jump in. However, it was fun to find and we did learn a valuable lesson: the sun in New Zealand is killer. In the far north of New Zealand’s North Island, the UV index can reach as high as 14. Not having fully prepared for that reality, Adamo experienced some pretty painful burns on both of his legs.

Cape Reinga

The drive to our next stop, Cape Reinga, was a mere fifteen minutes from the Te Paki sand dunes. If you’ve ever seen images of Cape Reinga’s lighthouse and scenery, then you know this spot is well worth the 5.5-hour drive from Auckland. Cape Reinga is often mistaken as the northernmost point on New Zealand’s North Island. Though it’s a close contender, the real reasons we wanted to visit this spot were the relaxing views and incredible landscape. From the viewpoint atop Cape Reinga, we looked out to the water and could see the meeting of the seas. The Tasman and the Pacific meet at Cape Reinga from different directions to form beautiful, crystal collisions.

Te Werahi Beach

We noticed a track at the entrance of Cape Reinga that led to nearby Te Werahi beach. About 30 minutes of downhill trekking along the coast (uphill on the way back) led us to descend upon the absolutely massive, solitary beach of Te Werahi. Apart from a flock of seagulls, we were the only living beings on the entire stretch. We can’t stress enough how ‘worth it’ it is to visit this beach. If you make it to Cape Reinga, take the extra time to enjoy the bliss of Te Werahi.

St Paul’s Rock

We made an equal number of stops on the way back down toward Auckland as we did on our way up. One such stop was at St. Paul’s Rock in the Whangaroa township. It took us some time to find the entrance to the track, but once we did, it wasn’t too difficult to climb up. There are some tricky parts to the climb, but chain links are strategically placed along the way to help you up. Once atop, the 360° views are incredible.

Mahinepua Peninsula

Dozens of incredible photographs strengthened our resolve to get to our next destination: the Mahinepua Peninsula Track. Beginning at Mahinepua Beach, this track takes you on a 2-hour roundtrip from the beach to Trig and back. Along the way, there is a pit stop at a gorgeous bay for swimming and taking shelter from the scorching sun. The weather in New Zealand is so confusing. At one point we would be climbing uphill along the track, sweating profusely under the intense sun. The next moment, the sun would recede behind a cloud and the cool breeze would set in, making us wish the sun would come back out. The track followed successive hills, up and down until we reached the trig at the end. Make no mistake, this is not a brisk walk in the park. The uphill portions can be arduous, but the coastal views along the way make this hike an absolute must-do. Worth noting, however, is that halfway or three-quarters through the track is an option to continue further to the trig or turn back for a shortcut.

Matapouri Mermaid Pools

To get to the mermaid pools, we followed a path at one end of Matapouri beach that took us up and over a hill and through a cluster of palm trees. Descending along the opposite side of the hill, we could see the mermaid pools were within reach. The one thing we wished more than anything that day was for the sun to come out and warm everything up. It was so gloomy that we decided not to swim, and our photos came out quite dull without the sun. We like to avoid using others’ photos on our blog, but we still think you should google these mermaid pools and see how beautiful they can be. Try to plan for a sunny day when you make the trek out to these wonders!

Karangahake Gorge

We arrived in the evening to the campsite near Karangahake Gorge with plans to set out early the next day for a visit. There was an option today hike a trail that starts at the campsite, but because of our time limits, we packed up our tent in the morning and drove directly to the entrance of the gorge. Visiting the gorge is a good half-day adventure full of abandoned railway tracks, tunnels, and walking paths spread along the edges of the mountains. Bring a headlamp if you’d like to venture into some of the dark – albeit shallow – caverns along the walk.

Orokawa Bay

At only a twenty-minute drive from Karangahake Gorge, Orokawa Bay is an absolute must if you’re in the area. First, drive yourself to Waihi Beach and find the walking track to Orokawa. Give yourself roughly forty-five minutes to reach the Bay and enjoy the incredible Pacific views along the way. You’ll get a spectacular view of the Bay as you approach along the track, looking like it could be from one of the fifty seasons of Survivor. Once you arrive, Orokawa Bay makes for the perfect picnic spot with the forest at your back and the clear, blue waves ahead.

Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata

Even if you didn’t love the LOTR trilogy, who could pass up the opportunity to visit the one and only Hobbiton? What was once a temporary build, the Hobbiton movie set is now a permanent structure sitting only a bus tour away from New Zealand’s Matamata. We bought our tickets ($79NZD/adult) in town at the Matamata site Visitor Centre where a free shuttle took us directly to the site entrance. From there, we were given a forty-five-minute walking tour of the Shire and its hobbit homes, plenty of photo opportunities, a visit to the party tree from the first film, and a complimentary beer (or Ginger Beer!) at the Green Dragon. The tour was pricey, but anything is possible when you convince yourself that you’ll only ever have the opportunity once in your life.

Waikite Valley Hot Pools Eco-trail

We arrived here thinking it was just an eco-trail, but for an extra fee, you can also enjoy the thermal pools for the day. The eco-trail alone is $3NZD/person, and though it’s not the most incredible walk, it is certainly unique. We were engulfed by massive pockets of mist as we made our way along the trail, pushing aside the large, overhanging leaves. We couldn’t help but feel like we were in the middle of the set of Jurrasic Park. There are a few lookouts along the path and several informative signs explaining how the geothermal water is sourced and then cooled for use. This eco-trail isn’t the strongest recommendation from our road trip, but it’s unlike any other trail we had walked.

Otaki Forks

It was a hot and sunny day when we arrived in Otaki Forks. As such, we would highly recommend bringing enough water with you to last a couple of hours. This area includes several tracks ranging from forty minutes to two-hours in length. From these tracks, there are also options to branch off onto longer, multiple-day hikes if that’s your pleasure. Traversing footbridges, suspension bridges, walking up and downhill, these tracks offer a relaxing and adventurous experience with views of the incredible landscape and dissecting river.

Wellington

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital and a beautiful city. Our only day in Wellington was spent foraging through the downtown produce markets, walking up and down the hills throughout town, and strolling along the waterfront to watch beach volleyball tournaments spike their way through the strong (and often relentless) winds. The highlight, however, was the pleasant but arduous walk up to the lookout atop Mount Victoria. You can choose to drive to the top from Wellington center, but either way, the views are exceptional.

From Wellington, we took the Cook Strait Ferry to NZ’s South Island, where we would spend the second half and final two weeks of our one-month trip. We’ve already started the article for our New Zealand Road Trip: South Island, so check back soon for the rest of our itinerary!

WHAT TO DO WITH 2 DAYS IN AMSTERDAM

WHAT TO DO WITH 2 DAYS IN AMSTERDAM

Earlier this year, we spent a short time in Amsterdam and fell in love. Visiting this historic city for the first time meant we arrived wide-eyed and eager to experience as much of the city as possible. If you’re like us and only have a limited time for adventure, you’re likely in the midst of narrowing down the plethora of possibilities for 2 days in Amsterdam. We can help.

Knowing we would write an Amsterdam itinerary, we packed in more sites, shops, and museums than you can probably imagine. We’ve trimmed the fat to bring you a list of our favorite spots, based on what we loved and would love to see again.

2 Days in Amsterdam: I Amsterdam City Card

Before we get into the itinerary, you should make note of the I Amsterdam City Card and consider picking up the 48hr card at the airport. After landing, you’ll find the Holland Tourist Information Centre in Arrivals 2, or you can buy the I Amsterdam City Card online.

Buying the card gives you unlimited travel on Amsterdam city public transit (not including rural buses or the airport tram) and free access to a ton of museums, tours, and sites. The card comes with a city map along with a detailed list of everything you can see for free, as well as locations you can visit with a discount. If you read through our itinerary and feel like substituting one of the activities, there are countless alternate options for you to choose from for your 2 days in Amsterdam.

Day 1 of 2 Days in Amsterdam

Museum Het Grachtenhuis

Start your 2 days in Amsterdam with this interactive, multimedia story of the Amsterdam canals. Walking into this historic home, the tour starts with a guide leading you into the first of five rooms, where a mixed media history of the canals begins to unfold in front of your eyes. Progressing through the rooms, you learn more and more about the reasoning, process, and stages of the canal development, combining illustration, 3D models, animation, projections and audiovisual storytelling. This is one of our top picks and not to be missed. You’ll understand this when you see it, but when you get to the room with the 3D house, find the woman hanging her laundry and try not to burst out laughing.

Open Tuesday -> Sunday 10:00am -> 5:00pm
FREE with the I Amsterdam City Card.

Bloemenmarkt Flower Market

At a roughly 500 meter walk from the canal, the museum is Amsterdam’s famous floating market of flowers. Positioned along a stretch of Amsterdam’s central canal belt, this market operates year-round and is a great stroll full of colorful, fragrant tulips.

Open Monday -> Saturday 9:00am -> 5:30pm, Sundays 11:00am -> 5:30pm

After lunch, explore the city’s canals by foot or by bike. 

Plan for some exploration time in the earlier part of your 2 days in Amsterdam. Before you know it, you may have spent all of your trip running in and out of museums without giving yourself a chance to experience the city streets. It is very easy to rent bikes in Amsterdam and some companies even offer discounts with the I Amsterdam Card. Alternatively, you can choose to explore by foot by way of a free Amsterdam City walking tour.

Verzetsmuseum – Dutch Resistance Museum
After a few hours of exploring the streets and before you sit down for dinner, you’ll be ready to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum. The Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany for five years, and this museum does a fantastic job at telling the stories of those who resisted and those who complied with the occupying power. With your free audioguide in hand, you’ll walk through this museum at your own pace, reliving some historic scenes and understanding the various perspectives through thoughtful, tone-setting dramatizations.

Open Tuesday to Friday 10:00am -> 5:00pm,  Saturday and Sunday  11:00am – 5:00pm
FREE with the I Amsterdam City Card.

Have a Stroopwafel
Diets and palates vary greatly, so we won’t even attempt to suggest dinner spots. But regardless where you decide to eat, leave some space for a fresh and hot, traditional Stroopwafel. Step outside and throw a stone in any direction to find the nearest shop selling these gooey goodies. The waffle is baked to order, sliced thinly in half and filled with a caramel-like goodness. You can always pick some up at the airport if you forget, but nothing – NOTHING! – beats them fresh.

Anne Frank House
The famous Anne Frank House is a good option for visiting later in the day because it is one of the few sites that are open late. You must buy tickets online for a specific time slot between 9:00 am and 3:30 pm, but the house is also open from 3:30 pm to 10:00 pm without an online ticket, for those buying a ticket at the entrance. Unfortunately, the I Amsterdam City Card does not cover the cost of the Anne Frank House.

Adults €9, Age 10-17 €4,50, Age 0-9 free

Day 2 of 2 Days in Amsterdam

Zaanse Schans

Start your second day early with a visit to the small town of Zaanse Schans on the outskirts of Amsterdam. In addition to the fresh air and beautiful scenery, this cute and quaint historic Dutch village includes six windmills, a wooden shoe workshop, and a cheese farm. Visiting in the morning is the best idea because the afternoon – especially during high season – can get busy.

The Connexion bus #391 from Centraal Station bus platform will take you there within 30 minutes, and you’ll likely want an hour or two to explore the area. The I Amsterdam City Card gives you access to one of the windmills free of charge. Important to note is that the City Card does not include the rural bus fare from Centraal Station. With the City Card, however, you can purchase a rural transit day pass at a discount. For €10, (instead of €13,50) you get unlimited rides on all of the rural buses for the day.

Hermitage Museum
With portraits, paintings, and featured exhibitions, Amsterdam’s Hermitage Museum is a must for those who enjoy the art and ambiance of a traditional museum. Free audio guides are included with your visit, allowing you to point at signed postings on the walls for language-specific descriptions. Look for the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age for a unique presentation of some immense group portrait paintings.

Open daily 10:00am -> 5:00pm
FREE with the I Amsterdam City Card.

Fields of Tulips
the-gays-abroad-amsterdam-6
If your 2 days in Amsterdam happen to be during the months of April or May, make sure to go and see the vast and boldly colorful fields of tulips in the Southwest outskirts of the city. Having already purchased the rural transit day pass to visit Zaanse Schans, you can head over to either Leidesplein or Rijksmuseum and hop on bus 197 to the airport. From the airport, take bus 858 directly to Keukenhof. After you’ve arrived, you can buy tickets to access the Keukenhof gardens, or you can rent bikes for a self-guided tour of the farms and fields in the area.

Canal Cruise
The I Amsterdam City Card includes 1 free canal cruise with the operator of your choice. Because the Amsterdam canals look magical at night (and it fits better in our itinerary, let’s be honest), you should use your free tour during the evening with one of the operators that schedule night cruises (either Holland International 100 Highlights Cruiser Lovers Canal Cruises).  Both of these companies offer tours until 10:00 pm during the Summer and until 9:00 pm during the Winter.

FREE with the I Amsterdam City Card.

Traveling with Kids

If you’re traveling with kids and are looking to substitute any of our highlighted attractions, be sure to look into the Nemo Science Museum as well as the National Maritime Museum (specifically, the incredible replica of the 18th-century ship Amsterdam).

10 REASONS TO VISIT NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is at the top of our list of countries we would absolutely love to revisit. Having spent a month traveling both islands, our affection for the country grew stronger and stronger as each week blew by. And while much of the world begins to brace for Winter, New Zealand’s warmest, sunniest days are on their way. Here are our 10 reasons you should visit New Zealand.

10 REASONS TO VISIT NEW ZEALAND

1. You are Never Farther than 128km from a Beach

Beautiful beaches abound all over New Zealand. No matter where you are, there is always one within an hour’s drive. New Zealand is home to the drivable 90-mile beach in the north, the gorgeous Coromandel Peninsula, and countless bays and coves throughout. You can drive right up to Piha Beach and enjoy a day with the locals, or hike to find some quiet time at the secluded Orokawa Bay.

2. Visit New Zealand for an Amazing Road Trip!

Outside of Auckland and the capital of Wellington, traffic in New Zealand is minimal. The views are incredible along with the coast on the way to Wellington or Queenstown, and especially as you make your way to Milford Sound. Driving your own way around means you can take your time in the spots that really impress you, and adjusting to driving on the left happens with ease. Considering New Zealand has both a North and South Island, it’s a bonus that some car rental companies include a return ferry ticket for your vehicle in the price of a rental.

3. There are no Deadly or Venomous Animals

It may be hard to believe – considering its proximity to neighboring Australia – but there are no deadly or venomous animals in New Zealand. Australia is well known for its poisonous spiders and snakes, but New Zealand has none of that. There aren’t even any large predators like the bears we have in Canada. After Iceland and Denmark, New Zealand has once ranked the safest country in the world. We should say, however, that there is technically one poisonous spider in New Zealand, but people discount it because it hasn’t been seen for decades!

4. You can Camp Throughout the Entire Country

Visit New Zealand and experience a national pastime. Kiwis love camping, and they make it easy with tons of campsites positioned all over the country ranging from basic, free campgrounds to amenity-packed sites and Holiday Parks for a fee. For the socially-inclined, there are many popular spots for groups and families. But if you prefer some time alone in the great outdoors, you’ll find campsites in New Zealand with nothing in sight but the bright, starry sky. For everything, you need to know about camping in New Zealand, check out our complete guide below.

5. The People

We’ve met plenty of kind and helpful people along our travels, but Kiwis top them all. Never have we come across a country so warm and friendly. Standing in the line at a grocery store picking up supplies for our road trip, people would chime in to offer advice on the best spots to visit and to wish us their best for our travels. The Kiwis we had the chance to really get to know had a great appreciation for their history and culture and were just as excited for us to experience their country as we were.

6. The Landscape is a Hiker’s Dream

New Zealand has a plethora of hikes scattered all across both islands. There is something for every type of hiker: hikes of a few hours, day trips, great walks of anything from 3-26 days in length, and remote mountain journeys for the especially fit. The sun is strong during the summer months, especially the farther North you are, but once it recedes behind the clouds, the brisk winds cool you off very quickly. Pack plenty of sunscreen, water to keep you hydrated, and, of course, your swimsuit.

7. Experience the Wildlife

New Zealand is home to many unique native animals. Take, for example, the Kiwi bird, which the country is working tirelessly to save from the threat of extinction. You can share a beach with a penguin in one of the South Island’s hot spots for penguin viewing, or swim with dolphins along New Zealand’s scenic coast. Especially noteworthy is the Kea bird, also dwindling in population. Though they are both loved and hated by New Zealanders, Kea is highly intelligent and the world’s only parrot to call the mountains home.

8. New Zealand is an Adventure and Xtreme Sports Mecca

For any fan of adventure, New Zealand has a lot to offer. Queenstown is located in the South of New Zealand’s South Island and is the famous adventure hub in the country is known for. From there, you can experience everything from bungee jumping to skydiving and whitewater rafting. In the North Island, there is a unique experience called Zorbing that we happily decided to check out. You’ll find it right by the town of Rotorua. Watching a Zorb slide effortlessly down the hill feels a bit underwhelming, but experiencing it first hand is incredibly fast, fun and full of laughs!

9. You Cannot Take a Bad Picture in New Zealand

Often, you can look at a photo and know that it couldn’t have possibly looked that way in real life. Visit New Zealand and discover the exception to that rule because the colors really are that incredible. Take, for example, the saturated aquamarine of Lake Tekapo, or the opaque and creamy turquoise of Hokitika Gorge. We’ve mentioned the views before but there’s no harm in reiterating. On your way to Queenstown, Wellington, or the small French town of Akaroa, you’ll find yourself taking longer than expected, having to stop and make sure you get some unforgettable shots of the breathtaking scenery.

10. The Land of Lord of the Rings

Something everybody knows by now is that when you visit New Zealand, you are stepping directly into scenes from the Lord of the Rings movies. In the past, Air New Zealand has even used this reputation to create some entertaining flight safety videos for their passengers. Though there are travelers who specifically go to explore the scenes of the famed trilogy, you don’t need to be a die-hard fan to appreciate and enjoy the known sites you happen upon during your travels. There are rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests from the film that you’ll likely visit without even knowing ahead of time that they were filmed locations, while a tour of Hobbiton in Matamata will have to be a planned, intentional stop.