Week 44: From High Tea to Gatsby: New Zealand’s North Island, Part 1 [Score +67]
New Zealand is far from my home in the Midwestern United States.
Very far. 8,200 miles, to be exact.
Before January of this year, I let that distance keep me from seriously considering making a trip there myself. Even though I’ve known friends who’ve gone and enjoyed it, it still just seemed like such a monumental effort to make the voyage. I told myself, “Some day I’ll do it.”
Apparently what I needed was the right carrot dangled in front of me: an invitation to join two friends who have visited multiple times and could share their familiarity with me.
On February 13, I landed in Auckland, New Zealand, and my first-ever two-week vacation began.
Days 1-2: Zealong Tea Estate and a Quiet Farmstay
Tea for Three… and a Half
My plane arrived in Auckland at about 9:00 a.m., and I’d lost a full day on the calendar to the long flight and +18-hour time change. After washing my face and brushing my teeth in the airport restroom—not my favorite location but infinitely better than the airplane lavatory for helping me feel fresh-faced—I gathered my bags, passed through Customs, and stepped out into a warm, humid, rainy summer day… in mid-February.
My friends Schuyler, Sarah Lynn, and their 12-week-old little boy were ready at the airport curb for me, then within a couple hours we made it to our first destination: the Zealong Tea Estate.
When we were first planning my portion of the trip, they asked what areas were on my list of places I wanted to see and visit. Having never considered a trip with any seriousness, I was at a complete loss to come up with anything specific except one: this tea estate. A colleague had stumbled upon it on her honeymoon a couple months before, posted a photo on Instagram, and I wanted to visit before I even knew I’d get to so soon.
I’m one of the rare American adults who don’t drink coffee (except in extenuating circumstances). Instead, I’m tea-obsessed. I continually have to edit my robust tea collection in my tiny pantry because it starts taking over more than its fair share of space.
Visiting coffee farms in Nicaragua last year was eye-opening. This year, setting foot on an organic tea estate in New Zealand turned me into the heart-eyed emoji.
We arrived at the Zealong estate just in time for lunch in their café, and after considering various combinations of menu options, the three of us each chose to enjoy the high tea. After ordering our teas (I chose the English Breakfast), our server lit a small burner beside the table and set a full kettle of hot water over it to be ready for our refills.
This little touch alone made me quite happy: I enjoy getting a small kettle of warm water for a second cup of tea, but at most restaurants, it almost always has cooled too much before I’m ready for it.
The high tea didn’t disappoint: we sampled our way through three tiers of food and got to taste at least half a dozen items from the menu we’d contemplated ordering on their own. I sat with my back to the window but couldn’t help turning around in my seat every few minutes to take in the view: acres of lush tea plants as far as the eye could see (more than 1.2 million of them), bordered by blooming roses and ornamental sculptures.
My one regret was that we didn’t get to take a tour (it rained steadily the whole time, and none of us were dressed for a soggy trek), but I had enough to look forward to on the rest of the trip that I just mentally noted a need to return sometime in the near future.
Somehow I managed to leave the retail shop with just two bags of chamomile tea to take home.
A Quiet Farmstay Near Rotorua
An hour or two later, we made our way along winding, narrow roads to our first home: a farmstay near the city of Rotorua. The driveway curved down a hill lined with hydrangea bushes full of blue blossoms to the lower level of a home on a farm of several acres.
Rotorua is best known for its odor and for good reason: it’s one of New Zealand’s most geothermally active areas, complete with geysers, hot springs steaming throughout town, and exploding mud pools. Consequently, the air smells of sulphur but doesn’t keep people away. (After many visits to Steamboat Springs, Colorado—another hot springs town—I note a sulfurous atmosphere but generally don’t pay it much mind.)
We explored a bit the following day but were again hampered by the persistent downpour, and though we tried to visit the Rotorua Museum, it was closed for construction to bring it up to earthquake safety standards. Luckily, our farmstay had a number of board games on hand and chickens to watch outside our window, so we had no shortage of perfect vacation entertainment.
Days 3-4: A Thermal Wonderland and Art Deco Haven
One Wrong Step and Mother Nature May Bite Back
My third day in New Zealand finally dawned bright and sunny. On our way out of the Rotorua area, we stopped at the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, one of the most concentrated areas of geothermal activity in this region. It didn’t disappoint: slathered in sunblock, we followed carefully marked pathways (one wrong step and you could find yourself with serious burns or worse) past boiling mud pits, hot springs, and vividly colored pools of water.
I find that visiting areas like this reminds me to appreciate the wonder of Mother Nature anew. I can easily become disenchanted with the environment in which I spend 90% of my days, so experiencing an otherworldly landscape serves to jolt me awake.
An Unexpected Trip Back to the 1920s
Several hours’ drive down highway 5, passing through the Lake Taupo resort area, we arrived at our next two-night stop: the east-coast towns of Napier and Hastings on Hawke’s Bay.
Napier is today known as the city with the greatest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world. It gained that status through unfortunate means: a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Napier and Hastings in February 1931. Fires destroyed what the earthquake didn’t, leaving the town devastated. It remains New Zealand’s most tragic natural disaster.
The city rebuilt in the style of the time—Art Deco—and since it started essentially from scratch, it led to a uniformity unseen elsewhere. Today, Art Deco fans from around the world come specifically to visit the city for this reason, and we fortuitously found ourselves in the area during the annual Art Deco Festival.
A quick glance through some promotional materials informed us of live performances and historic tours throughout the weekend, but it only told part of the story. That Friday night, we ventured into Napier to see the activities and find a restaurant for dinner. Shops had already closed for the evening, streets were blocked to most traffic, and a vintage-airplane airshow was commencing overhead as the sun began to set.
We wandered the downtown area, taking in the architecture and stopping to scope out posted menus as we passed. Many festival-goers were dressed in period attire: women in flapper fringe, drop-waist dresses, feathered boas, and long strings of pearls; men in trousers with suspenders, spectator shoes, and even tuxedos.
At first we admired the costumes as they passed. Then, we realized that those of us in modern attire were outnumbered by 2:1 or more. And as dressed-to-the-nines people started piling out of vintage cars in front of Art Deco buildings while decades-old engines roared through the sky overhead, the magic really hit us: this wasn’t just a festival celebrating a town’s Art Deco history. It was a gathering of enthusiasts who got the chance to live their Great Gatsby fantasies for one great summer weekend.
I absolutely loved it. When I next visit New Zealand—and that’s something I will do for certain—I’ll consider timing a visit to Napier to coincide with this festival again.
And I wouldn’t show up without a costume of my own.
That evening became one of my favorite moments on a thoroughly wonderful trip.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Ventured >50 miles from home: +10
- Left the country: +40
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1
- Burned real calories (so I got some exercise): +1
- Had a conversation with a stranger of at least 30 seconds: +2
- Had a conversation with a stranger beyond basics (i.e., work, hometown, what’s your dog’s name): +2
- Learned someone’s name: +3
- Intentionally stayed out past 9:30 p.m.: +5