My last stop before Auckland was Rotorua, where I would spend two nights. My main objective was to use Rotorua as a base for getting to Hobbiton (Lord of the Rings fame). But during my visit, I realized Rotorua has several cool attractions of its own.
My accommodation Aura was centrally located with super friendly, very helpful staff. Unfortunately, the room itself was a bit disappointing because of the lack of air conditioning and the lack of plugs. I only found three plugs: one in the kitchen that didn’t work, one in the closet that wasn’t convenient, and one near the bed about 4 feet off the floor (which was also not very convenient for my laptop plug, which kept falling out of the socket). There wasn’t even a plug in the bathroom.
The first day, I had a late lunch at BREW on “Eat Street” – a short pedestrian block that has lots of trendy eateries. I had a great fried chicken sandwich (with bacon, cheese, coleslaw, and jalapenos) and a local Croucher beer.
After that filling lunch, I had to get some exercise. I walked about an hour through the Government Gardens, along Sulfur Point, and up to the Whakarewarewa Forest. The forest was very nice with an interesting history dating back to 1901 when it was established as an experiment to study the suitability of both native and exotic species for commercial planting (and I presume harvesting). I had a nice walk along the towering Redwoods and ferns. I even found a Frisbee golf course!
I found myself (as planned) at the local iSite on Long Mile Road, which is also the location of the popular Redwoods Treewalk which consists of over 25 suspension bridges and platforms that wind through the forest, about 10 meters off the ground. I got there at dusk and walked once around; then they turned on the hanging lanterns and I walked around again in the dark. Very cool, albeit quite crowded with tourists. The iSite location is open until 10pm, and they were nice enough to order me a taxi back to my hotel. It’s not safe to walk in Rotorua at night, I hear.
The next day was the “main event”: I had scheduled a tour of Hobbiton, the famous movie set for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. The bus left at 8:00am and we made the hour drive to Matamata and up to the family farm where the movie set is located.
Hobbiton is very neat and well maintained. The actual tour, however, felt rushed; and it was definitely crowded. Our group was herded along like cattle, just so the next group could follow. The “move-along” nature of the tour made it difficult for everyone to get the pictures (group and/or selfie) they wanted. Our tour guide said that on peak days, they host over 3,500 tourists through the site.
At the end of the tour, we all got a free beer at the Dragon Inn which was built in Hobbiton after the movie was released. (The actual movie scenes of the Dragon Inn were filmed at a studio.) Now the Dragon Inn (as well as other parts of Hobbiton) are used for exclusive private events.
The tour company (“Hobbiton Movie Set Tours”) is very well organized, and I recommend the company. The bus ride was entertaining thanks to our driver’s jokes and stories, and the Lord of the Rings video clips. Again, my only disappointment was just feeling rushed through the actual site.
That night, I had a great dinner at Mexican Cantina Zapata. I met the family next to me – the wife (and her mother who was visiting) are from Puerto Montt, Chile! Small world… since I’ve spent a lot of time on Isla Tenglo, just off the coast of Puerto Montt. After dinner, I strolled through the Thursday Night Market (only once a week so plan accordingly!). The market offers arts and crafts, music, and local food from kiosks and food trucks.
The following day, it was pouring rain. I cancelled my intended hike, and just took a short walk through Kuirau Park, famous for its vigorous geothermal activity. The cloudy, rainy day made the conditions extra scenic and eerie. I made a short iPhone movie that can be found on InstaGram.
Toward the end of my walk, it started raining hard! I hunkered down below a large tree and waited out the storm. After 30 minutes, the rain lightened up a bit, and I made a run for town. After scoping out places for lunch, I couldn’t decide, so I just picked Lime Café next door to Aura. It was bad: no WIFI, no red wine, and no mention of the pizza specials that weren’t on the menu (but on the specials board which I couldn’t see from my seat).
I checked out of my hotel and headed to the bus stop, which happened to be located in front of the iSite tourist office. I caught up on email using the free WIFI and bought a couple of souvenirs. Then I boarded my bus for the 3 hour trip to Auckland…