I found myself faced with a dilemma that is all too familiar to many of us that like to pick up and go. Five days in New Zealand were just a plane ride away and I had already paid for the ticket in full, but I couldn’t spend $1000 on the usual comforts of travel. I’d avoided making any plans for the trip in advance as I was sure that my finances would force me to skip the trip altogether. Three days away from my flight, most things would undoubtedly be more expensive, but I still wanted to make this work. My doctoral program had been particularly stressful and this getaway was exactly what I needed to recharge, but taking naps in public parks in a place that was completely foreign to me wasn’t exactly my idea of a recharge trip. So, what is a graduate student supposed to do? I could give up the ticket (which was a steal at $250) or I could do some frugal planning and keep my total expenses for the trip (sans airfare) at $500.
Obviously, I went the “keep the cost low” route. I can’t resist traveling to a new country! The exchange rate was on my side at about .70 cents to the New Zealand dollar.
I quickly let go of the expectation that I’d stay in a hotel. Lodging can take up the majority of a travel budget, so who needs all the amenities that hotels offer anyway? This trip would be about exploring, not sleeping in my room all day. I knew I’d have to go the hostel route, so I adjusted my expectations, put my germophobia in check, and tried to find an available bed three days prior to my arrival.
Panic quickly began to set in. Where was I going to sleep? How would I eat? From my previous travels, I knew that rooms tend to open the night of, so I decided to hop on the plane with a bag full of fruit snacks and figure it out once I landed. I don’t recommend that you do this. (Lol.) I packed nothing more than a rolling carry on to make movement around the country and hostel changes easier. In exchange for $150, I was able to get NZD 216 for emergencies. The remaining $350 from my budget would be placed on my debit/credit card. I couldn’t risk the possibility of losing all my travel budget to robbery or some other unforeseen circumstance.
- $26 – Round-trip Skybus ticket
- $10 – Overly expensive burger at Wendy’s for dinner
- $88 – 14 hour Inter-City bus pass
I arrived in Auckland, New Zealand on a Saturday and quickly began calling hostels to ask for openings. I was in luck! A bed opened at Nomads Auckland for that night and it was only $26 for a mixed 4-bedroom dorm! Victory! Skybus service from the airport serviced the hostel as well as many others in downtown Auckland, so I purchased a round-trip ticket online for $26.
Once I arrived at the less-than-cleanly hostel, I knew I needed to make some immediate decisions. I still needed to find somewhere to sleep for the next few days, but Auckland wasn’t my speed. It was cold, crowded, and I just didn’t feel like it could provide the recharge that I needed. I didn’t have enough time in New Zealand to travel to beautiful South Island, so I decided to stick to the small towns of North Island. Rotorua is well-known for Maori culture, natural salt ponds, and volcanoes, and it happened to be experiencing some beautiful weather. New Zealand has several bus services similar to Megabus and Greyhound that connect travelers between cities, and the trip from Auckland to Rotorua was only 4 hours. I settled on an Inter-City pass as it offered flexible bookings. My time of travel would be reduced from the pass, and I could switch my departure up to an hour prior to my original trip. I was able to purchase and manage a 14-hour pass online. With my next destination set, I grabbed a burger at Wendy’s that was way more than it should have been, but food is expensive in New Zealand.
- Morning run around downtown Auckland
- $7 – Breakfast at bus station: Ham & Cheese, Pork Bun and drink
- Bus trip from Auckland to Rotorua using 4 hours from Inter-City pass
- $45 – Polynesian Spa, free smoothie with entrance
- $64 – 3 nights at Rock Solid Backpacks in Rotorua
- $20 – Groceries at Pak-N-Save (Water, sandwiches, cheese, toiletries)
- $32.94 – Dinner at Japanese restaurant (I splurged)
I woke up early on Sunday to take a run around Auckland and locate the Inter-City bus stop. During my run, I realized that Downtown Auckland reminded me of lower Manhattan, another place that I am not fond of. I knew I made the right decision to head to Rotorua.
After four hours on the Inter-City coach (no bathroom on board, eek!) I arrived in Rotorua. My hostel, Rock Solid Backpackers, was clean, inviting, and had lockable storage, internet, and water.
I decided to spend this day unwinding at the sulfur ponds that make Rotorua famous. Polynesian Spa is home to multiple indoor and outdoor pools with varying levels of sulfur. I went for their deluxe offering of access to multiple pools and began my experience outside.
Oh. My. Word.
This was definitely the sort of experience I needed to recharge! The pools are naturally heated, the scenery resembled a movie set, and the seagulls (while obnoxiously loud at times) were charming. As I stretched out over the beautiful rocks within the pool, I completely forgot where I was and placed my head and hair into the water as well…
Yes, I placed my hair into a pool of sulfur water. After I realized my mistake, I concluded that the experience was worth the potential loss or bleaching of my hair. Goshdarnit I’d do it again!
The outdoor sulfur pool at Polynesia Spa
- Morning run at the Redwoods
- Redeemed my free smoothie at Polynesian Spa
- $82 – Mitai Maori experience with dinner
Rotorua is home to a beautiful forest filled with California Coast Redwoods. I thought that this would be the perfect place for my morning run, so I filled up a water bottle at the hostel, put on my running shoes, and began to walk the two miles to Whakarewarewa Forest. An hour and a few poor directions from Google later, I finally made it to the entrance of the Redwoods with the help of friendly locals. I went with the moderate hike as it had an estimated two hour complete time and I’m not the outdoorsy type. By the time I completed the trail, I needed several hours of sleep if I wanted to be awake for the Mitai Maori tour.
Visiting the Mitai Maori was the highlight of my trip to New Zealand. Although the Maori are the original inhabitants of the land, they currently make up approximately 14% of the population in New Zealand. This tour was one of the few tours that was owned by the Maori people, so the $82 price seemed worth it. The evening started with a traditionally cooked (and delicious) meal and then progressed into performances, storytelling, and a walk to see the glowworms hiding in the trees. The tour included drop-off back at area hostels and hotels.
- Bus trip from Rotorua to Taupo using 1 hour from Inter-City pass
- $41 – All day mountain bike rental
- $24 – Emergency taxi back to Inter-City bus stop
- Bus trip back to Rotorua using 1 hour from Inter-City pass
My big plans for Tuesday included visiting Huka Falls and watching the dam open at Aratiatia Rapids. This meant that I needed to take an hour bus trip from Rotorua to Taupo. The problem with this was that I still needed to make it to both sites despite being two hours walking apart. This was doable, sure! But to spice things up, I decided to rent a mountain bike for the trip. First stop, Huka Falls.
This is where I remark that New Zealand is beautiful. The greenery in New Zealand looks unreal and is complete with loads of flowing meadows atop hills. Those beautiful hills are what nearly killed me on this trip. After inching my way down a treacherous trail called “Acid Drop” (!?) and walking the bike up what felt like millions of steep inclines, I no longer felt that renting the mountain bike was such a good idea. Toward the end of the journey, those difficult inclines gave way to beautiful, leisurely descents that placed the water flowing from Huka Falls in full view. Finally, I had made it. The rush of the water underneath the viewing bridge was so breathtaking that I quickly forgot all about pushing a heavy mountain bike the majority of the way.
Next stop, Aratiatia Rapids.
What should have been a quick, 30-minute beginner’s bike ride between the falls and the rapids ending up being an hour of pushing the mountain bike along a (clearly not beginner’s) trail in the wrong direction, amused but mildly panicked snapchats and tweets to loved ones so that they’d know my last location, sunburn, and some temporary moments of just wanting to turn back around and go home even though I was finally headed in the right direction. However, the unexpected meadows, ponds, and Narnia-esque views along the way kept my spirits up and my legs moving. Finally, I made it to the rapids just in time to watch the release!
Aratiatia Rapids in Taupo, New Zealand
I then made a desperate call for a cab back to the bike rental place. The lesson here is to pay close attention to signage. Also, no more mountain biking ever.
- $46 – Gondola ride up to Skyline Restaurant. Price includes buffet lunch.
- Bus trip from Rotorua to Auckland using 4 hours from Inter-City pass
- $24 – Lodging at Oakland Lodge Backpackers in Auckland
- $30 – Dinner at El Sizzling Chorizo in Auckland
For my last day in Rotorua, I knew that I no longer had the patience for getting lost somewhere and instead opted for wine tasting and a nice lunch at Skyline to relax. A scenic gondola ride must be taken to the restaurant and the views of Rotorua as you dine are unparalleled.
When I got back to Auckland and settled into Oakland Lodge Backpackers, my final lodging while I was in New Zealand, I wasn’t ready for my trip to end. I had spent right around $500 (YAY!) so I allowed myself a nice dinner at El Sizzling Chorizo to end my trip on a high note. This place is a carnivore’s dream!
- Return trip to airport using Skybus
As I boarded my plane back to the United States, I felt a bit sad that my trip was so short. Even when I was lost, tired, and dehydrated, I was surrounded by so much beauty that I knew I needed to return to New Zealand. Next time, I’ll skip the mountain bike.