Nelson & Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t that excited to stop here. I only planned it out of necessity. Wellington is at the bottom tip of the North Island. There aren’t any bridges connecting it to the South Island, so the only ways to get across the channel are to fly or take the ferry.

Luckily, the price of my rental car included the ferry crossing. A ferry ticket for a vehicle is around $200 one way! But it makes sense. The voyage is 3 hours long and covers quite a bit of distance. The ferry is also fully outfitted with restaurants, cafes, and even a movie theater! So each crossing must cost the company a pretty penny.

I booked myself on the 9am crossing from Wellington to Picton. Vehicles had to check in at 8am, so I set my alarm at 7am to check out of the hostel. I had been staying at the Lodge in the City. It was the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in! It all culminated on the final night when a Brit entered our dorm room at 4:35am (I know because he was so loud, it woke me up and I checked my phone.) I listened to him struggle to climb into the top bunk and then try to catch his breath. Not even 30 minutes later, he shouted “Is anyone awake?!” The guy sleeping above me replied “I guess I am now. What do you need?” And the Brit explained, “I’m disabled. I had a stroke and can’t move the left side of my body. I desperately need to use the loo but I can’t climb out of this bunk. Should I jump or will I break my legs?”

Our entire room spent the next 15 minutes telling him not to jump and trying to help him down. We ended up all lifting him out of the bed and placing him on the ground. I assume he complained to reception and got another room assignment because he came back soon after and gathered his things. It was certainly an eventful night.

I caught the ferry in the morning and landed in Picton around 1pm. It was a rocky journey since the remnants of Cyclone Gita were finally hitting NZ. Apparently the storms caused a lot of damage and flooding to coastal towns and roads. Some people are still stuck in Abel Tasman National Park since the roads are washed away.

I drove 4 hours from Picton to Nelson where I had decided to stop for two nights. I didn’t have anything I wanted to see, but I knew I would be tired from the ferry and then the long drive. I am trying to space out my drives and have rest days in between.

Nelson is known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park. Other than that, it’s just a town. The day before I arrived, I was researching things to do and finding nothing other than hikes in the National Park. I knew if I simply drove myself into the park and tried to explore, I’d get bored or frustrated that I didn’t know where to go.

So, on a whim, I booked an all-day kayak tour. I’ve never been kayaking before, but I figured it couldn’t be too difficult. They had half-day tours that they recommended for beginners, but those were only 4 hours long and only 2 hours of actual kayaking. If I am going all the way into the park, I want to be there all day! So I opted for the 7am-6pm tour with 8 hours of kayaking! I’m young and fit. My shoulder has fully healed. I figured it would be a fun challenge.

I arrived in Nelson and explored the downtown area a bit. It is located right on the waterfront with a quaint stream running through the center. There is a gorgeous park with some of the most beautiful flower gardens I’ve ever seen. As I continued to walk, I fell more and more in love with Nelson. Everything was so clean and well designed. There were cute cafes and organic grocery stores. It had everything, including a giant public beach!

In the evening, I met my host, Robbie. He lives in an amazing home on top of a mountain with great views of the bay. Seriously stunning!

I was greeted by his 3 kids since he was out making cookie deliveries for his bakery. When he came home, we sat on his balcony and watched the sunset while discussing travel and New Zealand.

The next morning, I drove into town to catch the bus. Part of my kayak package included a bus ride from Nelson into the park. The drive takes 1.5 hours, so I was glad to let someone else do the driving so I could enjoy the view!

I was expecting a small van driven by kayak employees. Instead, I was loaded onto a giant tour bus that several companies use to haul tourists into the park. I was the only kayaker on a bus filled with elderly tourists destined for a Sea Shuttle cruise that shows them the park without them actually having to walk. I had a really fun bus ride listening to them all complain about their bodily pains.

We arrived in the park and I was greeted by Mark, our kayak guide. Our group for the day was small. It was just me and another kiwi family with 3 daughters my age. The mom was quick to make me feel included by offering to put sunscreen on my back and sharing her snacks with me. The kayaks were all two-seaters and the mom even asked if I wanted to be her partner!

After a quick safety briefing, we hit the water at 10am. Kayaking was much harder than I expected! We would paddle for an eternity but seem to go nowhere. I started to doubt if I could last the entire day. I focused on my form and steering. Two-seater kayaks have pedals so the person in the rear can steer with a rudder. I volunteered to sit in the back, so I had to juggle steering, paddling, and admiring the view all at the same time!

Luckily, whenever my arms started to get sore, Mark would direct us to paddle into a cove. I bet we paddled for 2 hours before we stopped at a beach for morning tea. While Mark was preparing the snacks, I explored the beach and discovered the most beautiful alcove. Mark said that was the spot that early British settlers would shower. Apparently there’s even a painting of that scene!

After snack time, we paddled to Adele Island to see the seals. I’m not a big animal lover, so I didn’t take any photos, but they were fun to watch. After another couple hours of paddling, we stopped for lunch. It was getting pretty warm, so I spent awhile swimming and climbing on rocks. I forgot how much fun it is to just explore!

We headed south and the winds were picking up, so Mark suggested we try sailing. Basically, all the kayaks line up and hold onto each other. Then the people on the ends raise a giant sail and the wind propels the raft forward. It was fun! And saved us another hour of paddling.

Near the end, we paddled around Split Apple Rock, one of the park’s most famous attractions. While we were there, we even paddled through a giant cave!

It was so much fun and I’m glad I pushed myself to try something new. I will definitely be going kayaking this summer in Portland! They’re also fairly cheap if you buy them second hand. Might be a new hobby!

I had an early night since I was so exhausted. The next morning, Robbie invited me to the Nelson farmers market with him. It was giant! All of the other markets on the island were tiny in comparison. He bought some produce while I tried samples of goat cheese and granola.

Afterward, he showed me his bakery. I was expecting a regular cafe, but that’s not it at all! It’s located inside a replica colonial village. The bakery operates as an open museum, but Robbie rents it out so he has access to it 24/7. He said he goes there every Sunday and bakes scones as a way to relax. There’s even an espresso machine, so he made us coffee. It was such a relaxing way to spend the morning!

And with that, I left Nelson. It was the first place I actually wished I could stay longer. I wanted to spend some time hiking in the park and enjoying Nelson’s beach. They have yoga circles there most mornings and stand-up paddle boarding. I have a very short list of cities I’d love to own vacation homes in… and Nelson made the list!

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Wellington, New Zealand

I’m consistently surprised by how small New Zealand cities are! On my first morning in Wellington, I had to figure out where to park my new rental car. Since my hostel was downtown, I wouldn’t be needing it for the next few days as everything is accessible on foot. I also didn’t want to pay for downtown parking! The only areas with free street parking were out of the city. On the map, it looked miles away, but in reality, it was pretty close!

I left my car in the Newtown area which seemed to be filled with young people. Wellington is known for two things: wind and hipsters. It felt a lot like Portland!

As soon as I ditched my car, I headed for the famous waterfront. As I wandered along the docks, I saw an astounding number of people jogging, walking, and generally enjoying the sun. Cafes and restaurants lined the water. There was even a rock climbing gym and a few boutiques located inside repurposed shipping containers! The city definitely seems to have everything you’d need.

I typically hate paying for tourist attractions, but I couldn’t resist paying $7 to ride the cable car up to the botanical gardens. It was an amazing view! It blows my mind to think that some people commute to work via the cable car and get to enjoy this view every day.

I continued to wander the city. I strolled down Cuba Street, the preeminent shopping and cafe area. It was very quirky and diverse. The shops ranged from expensive boutiques to grungy vape stores. Certain design aspects reminded me of posh Auckland, but others were uniquely Wellington. There’s a ton of cool street art, too! Once, when wandering into an alley to check out a mural, I discovered a hidden street with even more cafes and shops. I spent all day following my feet and checking out cool spots like the Wellington Chocolate Factory and the Capital Market – a giant outdoor food court that seems to be a trendy place to hang.

When researching free things to do in Wellington, I came across The Free Store. In an effort to reduce food waste, this nonprofit collects unused bread, pastries, sandwiches, etc from restaurants and cafes. Every evening at 6pm, they open their doors to anyone who wants free food. At first, I thought it was for the homeless population, but my hostel suggested that travelers go for a free meal! So I thought I’d check it out. I can’t say no to free!

I loitered outside around 5:45, a little nervous to stand in the line. There was a wide variety of people ranging from homeless to travelers to businessmen! I guess I looked a little shy, because a guy named Peter walked over and introduced himself. He was clearly homeless, but seemed kind and non threatening, so I chatted with him. He told me to come wait in line with him and enjoy some free coffee during the wait.

Volunteers for The Free Store clearly knew Peter and welcomed us both as they poured us coffee. We stood in line for awhile talking about travel (he was born in the Netherlands) until 6pm when it opened. Peter explained that everyone was supposed to bring their own bag to fill. I had assumed each person got 1 item, so I didn’t bring a bag. Peter let me use one of his.

The Free Store is located in a shipping container with a large window. Volunteers stand inside and recipients line up outside the window. One by one, recipients talk to a volunteer who retrieves food items for them. Food is separated by sweet, savory, and quality (sandwiches, salads, etc.) Recipients can get 3 sweet, 2 savory, and 2 quality items. It makes sense why you need a bag! It’s a lot of food! In addition, each person gets a loaf of bread and 5 bagels. On the day I went, we each got a gallon of ice cream, too!!

Recipients technically get to choose what they want, but it’s pretty chaotic and fast paced. I walked away with a final haul of: a gallon of ice cream, a baguette, a croissant, a scone, a cinnamon roll, a pita, a rosemary flatbread, 5 bagels, couscous salad, and a banana. It was a lot of food! I shared most of it with people at my hostel.

There must have been 100 of us in line and each person got an entire bag. It’s scary to think that all of that food would have been thrown away. It’s even scarier to think that it DOES get thrown away in the majority of cities.

When I returned to my hostel, the entire kitchen was filled with people eating the same strawberry ice cream. It seems I wasn’t the only traveler standing in line!

Tuesday morning I awoke to a downpour. Most of NZ is getting the remnants of cyclone Gita. I decided to stay indoors and check out Te Papa, a famous museum about NZ and the native Maori people. It is the most popular museum in the country! After spending a few hours wandering the exhibits, I ventured outside and realized I wanted to send postcards. Who knew it would be so difficult to find a tourist store selling postcards?! I walked almost 2 miles across the city before I found some… and then walked another mile to find a post office!

On my search for cheap eats, I discovered a popular hole-in-the-wall that sells a curry combo for $7 NZ or about $5 US. It comes with roti (chewy flatbread), curry, and peanut sauce. I wasn’t too hungry, so this lunch sounded perfect. Thankfully, it was delicious! I’ve had naan and pita bread before, but roti is so much better. Its a little flaky so you can pull apart the layers. I also learned that people judge curry by its shininess, so the oilier the curry, the better!

That evening, I got coffee with a few girls from the Girls Love Travel group. Most of them had come to NZ on the work visa and were planning on finding work and staying here for a year! I couldn’t imagine. Then, I hung out with people in my hostel and marathonned Comedy Central while enjoying more of the ice cream. I debated going back to The Free Store, but I honestly didn’t need more food. I thought I’d let other people enjoy it.

On my last day in Wellington, I took advantage of the laundry facilities in my hostel. As a last-minute spot, the hostel isn’t bad, but I got some bad luck in roommate’s this time. I’m only in a 4-person dorm, but each of the other 3 people are terrible. One is a snorer. One lets her alarm ring for 15 minutes before pressing snooze, only to have the cycle repeat again. And the last person is so stinky. I’m slightly concerned she’s injured because she lets out a wail each time she rolls over in bed. It’s alarming and bizarre.

After doing laundry, I went to Southern Cross Cafe to work on this blog. It’s the cutest cafe with a giant outdoor garden. The vibe is very bohemian and cozy. A fellow traveler named Ana came to meet me at the cafe. We met through the Girls Love Travel group. I’m so glad someone recommended me to the network. It’s been so nice meeting up with people and swapping stories and tips!

Once I picked up my car, I drove to the Weta Cave. I had seen it in several of the lists of free attractions and wasn’t sure what it was. A weta is a type of bird, so i thought it might be a cool cave filled with wildlife!

I drove to the West Cave and walked inside. It was a small warehouse filled with Lord of the Rings memorabilia. Since the films were made in New Zealand, there’s a large tourist market for showing off filming locations and items. Apparently the Weta Cave was actually another tourist trap!

I quickly left and went to Mt Victoria Lookout which gives an amazing view of the city. It was so gorgeous!

Tomorrow morning I have to wake up bright and early to catch the ferry to the South Island. Since I’m taking my car, I have to be at the ferry terminal at 8:00am. The journey takes a few hours but is often delayed. Hopefully not tomorrow! Then I head south, hopping through Nelson, Fox Glacier, and Wanaka until I get to Queenstown for a few days. I’m eager to see the stunning glaciers, but a little worried that the roads will be even more winding and difficult to navigate!

Napier, New Zealand

Everyone has heard of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that destroyed the city. Earthquakes are quite common in New Zealand due to its location on several fault lines. It’s the same reason the country has volcanoes and hot springs – thanks to all of that geothermal activity!

Napier is a quiet, charming town on the eastern coast. It suffered an earthquake in the early 1900s that destroyed buildings and added a significant amount of useable land to the shore. Napier rebuilt their town in the popular style of the time – Art Deco. Today it lives on as a time capsule of the past.

Other than the buildings, it is simply a relaxed beach town and a popular spot for sunbirds to retire. I originally planned to only stop by for lunch on my way to Wellington, but decided to stay for a couple days once I found out I’d be visiting during their famous Art Deco Festival. Over this weekend, thousands of New Zealanders flock to the town in costume and participate in several parades, picnics, and themed events. The majority of downtown streets are even closed to cars – except ones fitting the era – to recreate a true blast from the past. My dad would have loved it!

I arrived midday Saturday and began to explore. I felt like the only one not in costume! Flapper dresses were certainly popular, but some people really went over the top and wore full military dress and old fashioned bathing costumes. The streets were lined with vintage cars and everyone was in a carefree mood. It felt like Halloween but for adults!

After snapping photos of a few buildings, I headed toward the water to see the coast. The earthquake had turned the sandy beach into a rocky one filled with pebbles, but it was still beautiful. Sailboats dotted the horizon and the water was such a vibrant blue!

Most of the festival events required a $60-300 entrance fee, so I decided to leave and meet my Napier Couchsurfing hosts – Dave and Joanne. They have a small farmhouse in wine country. Hawkes Bay is well known for its wine and home to Church Road Winery and Mission Winery – both over 100 years old – and that’s saying a lot considering how young New Zealand is!

As soon as I arrived, they welcomed me and asked if I was hungry. Of course! We enjoyed a light lunch and sat on their patio chatting for awhile. Dave is from England but has lived in Napier forever. He’s also extremely well traveled and gave me lots of tips on Greece. They were also hosting two women my age from Latvia who decided to stay for a few months and work on a nearby apple farm.

Dave, Joanne, their kids, and the two other couchsurfers were all heading to the festival for the evening. I had already checked it out and was exhausted from a long day of driving (and several days of outdoor activities!) so I decided to stay in and relax. I watched a bit of TV and it felt so good to recharge. I’m always eager to be “on the go” that I forget the importance of relaxing sometimes!

It’s interesting how different each Couchsurfing experience is. Some of them are very modern and feel like I’m back in America, but others (like this one!) are very old and rustic and feel miles away from home. Of course, I’m grateful I’m being hosted anywhere, but I never know what to expect! One common feature is that no one has window screens, yet they all leave their windows and doors wide open for flies, crickets, and spiders to come in. Evenings are difficult because dozens of flies are in each room, constantly landing on me and making it hard to fall asleep.

It would be easy to think, “What’s wrong with these people? This is disgusting. Why can’t they get screens?!” but I have to remember that it’s simply not in their culture. Bugs don’t scare them. I get the gist that it’s a seasonal summer issue and they don’t usually have to live with flies. Similarly, I had an interesting conversation about Americans’ dependence on laundry dryers. No one here uses one. They all hang their clothes to dry. They might think, “Lazy Americans! Why do they want to spend more money and energy to dry their clothes when hanging them is completely free? It doesn’t make sense!” Again, it’s just a difference in culture and embracing these gaps is what traveling is all about.

On Sunday, I returned to the festival and participated in the “Gatsby Picnic” where everyone sits on the lawn and enjoys lunch. There was a competition for the best high tea setup and people got really into it! They brought entire table settings with three tiered cake stands, champagne, and lace tablecloths.

After lunch, I was relaxing on the beach, unsure what I wanted to do the rest of the day and in the morning. I also found myself dreading having to sleep in the bug infested room. Then it hit me – I don’t have any concrete plans. I can leave whenever I want to. So I did! I packed up my bag and said goodbye to my hosts, explaining that I wanted to get to Wellington a day earlier than planned. I also messaged my host, Jonathan, and asked if he was free to host me a day early – but if not, I could easily get a hostel.

I set off on the 4 hour drive to Wellington. The scenery was beautiful! Rolling hills and farmland for miles and miles. I didn’t have to cross any mountains, so the roads were mainly straight, but still single lane.

I was about 30 minutes north of Wellington when the road began to steepen and wind advisories were posted. The road climbed up the side of a giant mountain and became very narrow and treacherous. Occasionally, there were passing lanes, but everyone mostly kept the same speed and stayed in line.

Then, a giant truck appeared in my rear view mirror. He was tailgating me and visibly frustrated every time I hit the breaks – which I did often because everyone in front of me was going slow! Finally, a passing lane came. He swerved into it but didn’t pick up speed. As it was uphill, I kept my steady speed but he was struggling to pass because he was pulling a trailer with a vintage car on it. I was so confused. He could barely make it up the hill and yet he wanted to pass me?

He was next to me when the lane began to end. There was no way he was going to pass with his vehicle AND the trailer. I maintained my speed, assuming he would fall back behind me. Nope. He simply began to merge over INTO me, causing me to have to swerve closer to the side of the mountain. I laid on my horn and slammed on the brakes as he sped by. At the last moment before he passed, I heard a popping sound. My heart sank. I assumed he side swiped me, but looking in my side view mirror, I didn’t see any damage. Since it was a one lane road, there was no where for him to escape. I spent the next 5 minutes going down the mountain trying to read his license plate. The trailer he was hauling had a license plate that was snapped in half and missing some letters, so I was trying to see the truck’s plate, but it was obscured by the trailer. Finally I saw it as he made a sharp turn and desperately tried to memorize it. When traffic came to a stop at a crossing, I snapped a photo.

As soon as we made it off the mountain and into a multi-lane road, he gunned it and started swerving traffic to get away. I wasn’t about to endanger myself by trying to chase him. As soon as I saw a gas station, I pulled off to see the damage. Surprisingly, the side body was totally fine! The back bumper had a tiny scrape, but that might have been there already. I felt so relived that I wouldn’t have to deal with insurance and an accident report.

Then, I turned to get back into the car and I saw it. The entire right side of the front bumper was hanging off the car. The popping sound must have been the trailer clipping the front end of my car, dislodging the bumper. I desperately tried to pop it back into place but it was clear it was broken.

The car was still drivable, so I drove into Wellington and called the rental company. It was a Sunday evening, so their answering service told me to visit the Wellington branch in the morning to swap cars. Ugh.

As if things couldn’t get worse, I checked my email and saw that my Wellington host couldn’t host me early. In fact, his schedule changed and now he couldn’t host me at all. I had no where to go.

I searched online for any last minute available hostels and found the Wild Zebra and booked a room. All I wanted to do was fall asleep and forget the day even happened. Luckily the hostel was nice and I got a great, bug-free rest.

In the morning, I went to the rental company and filled out an accident report. They charged me for the deductible and will refund any portion of it that isn’t used for repairs. I gave them the trucks license plate number and photos and they are going to file a claim. Ultimately, they gave me an upgraded car with a touchscreen and backup camera, so that’s a bonus! I also found a great deal on a hostel to stay in for the rest of my time in Wellington. It’s been a long day, but things worked out. It wouldn’t be travel without some adventure!

Rotorua, New Zealand

America has Yellowstone. New Zealand has Rotorua. The north island has a lot of geothermal activity, but Rotorua is famous for its concentration of hot springs, geysers, and permeating “rotten egg” smell.

I drove in from Mount Maunganui on Thursday morning. The drive was pretty easy and not as winding as in Coromandel. I had read about a waterfall and my hosts in Katikati said it was great, so I decided to make a pit stop and check it out.

Omanawa Falls is a local gem. It’s hidden from the main roads and only accessible by a long farm road followed by a mile hike. There are no signs showing you where the trailhead is. The only way I found it was from the other 2 cars parked along the side of the road and a giant police sign saying “TRAIL CLOSED.”

I’m not normally a risk taker. If I had found this sign without researching beforehand, I would have turned around. But the internet said the police had closed the upper deck of the waterfall due to people trying to jump off, but the bottom was still accessible, so I figured the signs only meant the top.

I hopped the fence and continued on my hike. The trail lead to a gorgeous viewpoint overlooking the waterfall so I stopped to snap some photos.

But I was confused. I thought I was going to the lower viewpoint, so how did I end up at the top? During my hike, I passed two other people who were coming from the waterfall and they had clearly been swimming, so there must be a way to the bottom. I looked around and spotted stairs leading down to a doorway that descended into darkness. I could hear the roar of the waterfall echoing up the tunnel. There was no other way. Either I entered the tunnel or I turned around. I stood there for a full minute debating my options. I had come so far and I wanted to see the waterfall! But the tunnel was pretty terrifying and looked like it was out of a horror movie.

I decided to do it. I turned on my phone flashlight and walked very slowly down the slippery stairs that went on forever. When I emerged, I found myself at the base of the waterfall and it was gorgeous!

There was a viewing platform raised above a bed of boulders leading to the water. There were 5 other people who had jumped the fence and climbed down to swim. I wanted to swim, but I was scared. I usually never break rules. It looked dangerous. As I mentioned before, I am terrified of slipping and falling, so this was daunting! But after pretending to “enjoy the view” for several minutes, I pumped myself up and hopped the fence.

Surprisingly, climbing down the boulders was easy. I forget how human feet have literally evolved to help us grip the earth. I didn’t slip once and even felt confident climbing down into the freezing water. Once I jumped it, I was ecstatic. I had conquered my fear and was now swimming in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I felt on top of the world!

After my swim, I hiked back up to my car and drove the rest of the way to Rotorua. Before I met my hosts, I stopped by a free park that has an amazing geothermal pool you can walk over top of. It was already a scorching hot day, so standing in the steam was a bit nauseating, but the views were cool!

Then I drove to meet my hosts, Dan and Sarah. They live in a cute little house that Dan has completely renovated since he’s a builder. Sarah works with foster kids who live in group homes. We sat all night drinking beer and chatting about our travels.

I learned that Rotorua has a reputation as a cheesy tourist capital. Asian tourists come here by the bus load to see the geothermal sights and stay at the fancy spas. The city has earned the name “RotoVegas” since the streets are lit up by neon hotel signs every night.

On Friday, I woke up and headed to the Redwoods Forest to go for a morning stroll. My knee STILL is giving me troubles, so I opted for only a short walk, knowing I had a whole day of activity ahead of me. After the forest, I headed to Kerosene Creek. There are numerous hot springs you can pay $20 to sit in at a resort, but I’d much rather drive into nature and find a hidden one for free!

Kerosene Creek is named from the stinky gasoline smell that comes from the water. It’s a long stream that has many waterfalls that bathers can sit under and enjoy. Before I went, Dan and Sarah warned me not to put my head underwater because some people have died from amoeba entering in the nose/ears and causing meningitis!

When I arrived, Kerosene Creek was deserted. I shared the spring with only two other people, but suddenly a large tour bus arrived with loud, obnoxious Australians who began splashing each other and causing a ruckus. I figured it was time to leave.

Friday afternoon, I went with Dan and Sarah to meet their friends and spend the afternoon on Blue Lake on their boat.

It’s always lovely to spend time on the water and I’m so glad I got to be on the lake! Tomorrow morning I head out to Napier for their Art Deco festival!

Coromandel & Mount Maunganui, New Zealand

After weeks of anxiety over driving on the opposite side of the road in New Zealand, I finally did it. And it was actually pretty easy.

Luckily I’ve been driving in fairly populated areas of the country, so it’s easy to just follow the person in front of me. The only time I’ve had a slip up was in a residential neighborhood where there weren’t any lines on the road. I had just pulled out of a park and was lost in my head for about 10 seconds before I realized I was driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left! Luckily there were 0 cars around, but I still felt silly. Since then, I’ve gotten used to driving on the left and it feels second nature now.

After picking up my rental car, I drove to Katikati where I had coordinated to stay for two nights. During my travels around NZ, I am trying to save as much money as possible. Hotels are out of the question since they run about $100 per night minimum. Hostels are a better option at $25 per night, but that means sleeping in a bunk room with 8 other snoring people and usually no air conditioning. So I’ve decided to do Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing is an online network of hosts and travelers all over the world. If you know you’re going to be in a city, you can look for hosts accepting guests and then contact them to see if they will accommodate you for free. It is all about cultural exchange and connection. Usually hosts have traveled around the world via Couchsurfing and are now looking to give back to the community. When I traveled through Scandinavia with my friend Tracy after university, we couchsurfed and it was an amazing way to meet locals and learn about the history and culture of a city.

My first hosts were Ian and Marionna in Katikati on the eastern coast of the north island. They own a nice farm with tons of kiwi, vegetables, and cows! They are middle aged and have 3 kids who are in their 20s but are scattered around the globe.

I arrived on Tuesday and was greeted my Marionna. We sat in the living room and discussed their farm, family, and recent NZ news. It’s a big deal here that politician John English resigned! She also made us a nice dinner of corned beef and salad with tomatoes from their farm!

In the morning, I took a day trip to Coromandel. I drove two hours north to the town of Hahei. There is a famous rock formation called the Cathedral Cove. I didn’t get to go see it because it was packed with tourists (it’s the Chinese New Year this week, so everything is crowded!) and it required a 2 hour hike to get to. I normally would have gone in a heartbeat, but I am trying to let my knee heal so I decided not to. Instead, I explored Hahei beach and even found a cute swing to play on!

Then I drove to the nearby Hot Water Beach. It is famous because it’s an area of geothermal activity. There are collections of lava under the beach that heat the groundwater. The ocean water is still cold, but if you dig 2-3 feet into the sand, you can find the heated water. This phenomenon causes tourists and locals to flock to the beach with hand shovels to dig their own mini spas. It was definitely a bizarre sight to see!

It was getting late, so I drove the winding road back to Katikati. I’m not sure why I expected NZ to be flat, because it certainly is not! Every road is like a back country road with curved switchbacks that you have to go 25mph around. It definitely takes a lot of concentration, but the views are incredible. I told myself that I have to stop at every scenic viewpoint and take a photo. Here is the first one:

That evening, Marionna made us another wonderful dinner of pork chops and roasted kumara. Kumara is basically like a sweet potato, except a different species and different color. The kind we had was white with dark flecks throughout. So tasty!

Over dinner, they taught me about the various types of birds and trees in NZ. It’s amazing how much they knew! They said that there are very few mammals native to NZ, so birds had to adapt to fill all of the niches. That’s why NZ has so many non-flying birds. They could flourish because there wasn’t any competition. But now that invasive species like possums have been introduced, many birds face extinction. It was all so educational and interesting!

While I certainly appreciate the gracious hospitality, it was definitely an experience living on a rural farm. They didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were open 24/7, allowing all sorts of flies, spiders, and crickets inside the house. Falling asleep was tough because I was constantly batting flies away from my face and having the crickets jump onto my bed. But overall, it was an awesome experience getting to live on a kiwi farm and I’m excited for the rest of my Couchsurfing adventures.

Thursday morning I woke up and headed to Mount Maunganui on my way to my final destination of the day, Rotorua.

Mount Maunganui is a cute beach town with the namesake mountain sitting less than a mile from downtown. After so many days of rain, I was craving sun, so I headed to the beach and enjoyed a morning coffee and watched people surf.

Each town seems to be set up in the same way: one main road with all of the restaurants and shops lined up along it. The standard grid layout of American cities doesn’t apply outside of Auckland, Wellington, and other major cities. It’s quaint, but makes parking quite tough!

Before heading to Rotorua, I grabbed a quick snack at one of the many adorable cafes in town, Wild One Whole Foods Eatery. NZ has some of the prettiest cafes, but also most expensive! All of their menu items like salads and sandwiches were $18-20! I got this small falafel wrap for $8. Feels like a steal! At least it comes with free yummy basil water.

Auckland, New Zealand

They say if you smile at the world, it will smile back.

All of the books I’ve been reading are a about the importance of having a positive outlook. This is especially hard for my cynical, worry-wort nature that always has me expecting the worst outcome of any situation. Maybe it was the spirit of aloha, but on my last day in Hawaii, I was in a carefree mood.

So when I had to carry my 40lb backpack despite my shoulder injury still causing pain, I decided to look on the bright side and rejoice that I could check it and not haul it through the airport. And when Ausra explained that I had to return the car at 11am despite my flight not leaving until 2pm, I agreed and looked forward to exploring the gorgeous Honolulu airport gardens and enjoying a walk before sitting for 9 hours.

My easy going attitude of the day was rewarded when I checked in for my flight. One bummer about booking a ticket with Chase Rewards points is that I never get a seat assignment. This usually means I get stuck with a middle seat, so imagine my surprise when the gate agent assigned me 14G! A quick google search told me it was an aisle so I was thrilled. I could drink as much water as I wanted (and I love water!) without bothering my neighbor every time I had to pee. I gleefully stood in line and chatted with the people around me.

Once I boarded the plane, I was dumbfounded. The seat 14G was an aisle… in the Comfort Plus section! The seat map I looked at was wrong and I actually had an aisle bulkhead seat – the best possible combo! I enjoyed my 9 hour flight with a complimentary bag of toiletries (toothbrush, comb, eye mask, moisturizer, chapstick, and headphones!), unlimited free alcohol, and two meals. Hawaiian Airlines is definitely the best airline I’ve ever flown.

I landed in Auckland around 10:30pm and was antsy to get off of the plane, but the pilot announced we had to wait an additional 15 minutes in a quarantine area. Apparently ALL international planes have to be inspected and then have all the overhead bins treated with a special spray to prohibit the accidental introduction of invasive species. The flight attendants had to open each bin and spray our bags. It was definitely interesting!

I didn’t get through immigration and customs until 11:30pm and planned to take an Uber into the city since it was so late. I opened the app and thought it was strange there were no Ubers in the area – turns out it’s because Uber is banned from picking up passengers at the airport!

Even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I had to figure out the bus system. Luckily there is a direct bus from the airport to the city center called SkyBus. It was a hefty $18 one way, but I had no other option. I arrived downtown and decided to walk the mile to my Airbnb. Even though I had my giant 40lb backpack, I figured I needed the exercise after sitting on a plane for so long.

Halfway though my walk, I was faced with a massive 40 degree incline hill. I made it to the top… only to find ANOTHER massive hill. Auckland might be more steep than San Francisco! I’m not sure why I expected it to be flat, but it certainly is not!

I made it to my Airbnb in one sweaty piece. My host had left the keys in the mailbox of the apartment building so I could let myself in. The listing was very vague, but it sounded like I would have a private room in an apartment. Other female Airbnb guests would be in other rooms, but I would have my space. Imagine my surprise when I realized my “room” was actually a bed in the living room with foldable partitions separating it from the couch! There WAS another guest staying there… but the host also lived there with her elderly mother! Such a bizarre arrangement, but for $10 a night in the city center, it was a steal.

I woke up the next morning eager to explore. It was a sunny summer day and I wore a T-shirt and shorts. Unheard of in February in Portland! I wandered around the waterfront and business district until I found myself at the Auckland Domain. It is the Central Park of Auckland, but on top of a giant hill! Several hiking paths lead to the top where there are beautiful gardens.

I strolled back into town through Parnell – a very trendy and popular street with several cafes and modern restaurants. The characteristic I love most about Auckland is how each business has very unique branding and design. A coffee shop isn’t JUST a coffee shop here – everything about it is Instagram worthy, from the cups to the decor to the menu font. Business owners here definitely do not cut corners.

I made my way back to the Wharf to catch a walking tour. I typically despise tourist traps and prefer to see everything on my own. But after a day of walking, I felt like I was missing something. Even after researching online, I couldn’t find any significant historical or cultural attractions. There wasn’t much to DO in Auckland other than eat or work. I was ready to be proven wrong, so I attended the walking tour to find out the true appeal of the city.

During the 2 hour tour, I learned a lot about the history of Auckland. The sudden availability of fertile land to British settlers inspired a longstanding obsession with gardening, sheds, and always “fixing it yourself,” – traits that are still common in most Aucklanders. This had lead to urban sprawl, with every homeowner wanting a single story bungalow with plenty of yard space. City developers are trying to draw people back into the downtown area by investing in areas like the waterfront Wynyard Quarter. They are turning an old shipyard into modern living and trying to recycle old shipping containers in the process. So many public spaces feature repurposed shipping containers as functional art!

New Zealand recently won the America’s Cup boating competition which means they must host the next race in 2021. This global spotlight has put pressure on the city to renovate its harbors. What used to be a desolate fishing harbor is now home to multi-million dollar yachts that Rhianna performs on!

While all of this history was certainly interesting from a urban development standpoint (part of my major!) it didn’t provide much insight on tourism in Auckland. Everyone I’ve spoken to says that locals spend their time on their boat or hiking or enjoying the beaches. It’s a very outdoor-centric culture. I’m eager to see that side of New Zealand once I get out of the city!

Despite the numerous outdoor activities available here, I couldn’t do any of them due to the terrible weather. A massive storm arrived on my second day and it didn’t stop raining until my last day! I’m not afraid of getting wet, but for what purpose? To aimlessly wander around the city, looking at fancy shops and restaurants I can’t afford? In addition, I had injured my knee after walking 12 miles my first day and 7 my second. The overuse presented some pretty severe pain in my knee and calf whenever I walked at an incline or decline – impossible to avoid in Auckland! I think it is just tendinitis, so I’ve been taking it easy to give it time to heal.

To pass the time indoors, I decided to do what I do best: make friends on the internet! There is a giant network of solo female travelers who connect via Facebook to share travel stories, tips, and questions. I discovered a New Zealand chapter of this group and joined to connect with fellow travelers. I saw a post from Liz, a Chicagoan who had just finished roadtripping around the South Island and was now in Auckland. We decided to meet for coffee to pass the time on a rainy Saturday! She ordered a “Piefee” which is coffee served inside of a pie shell! Only found in Auckland!

It was nice to get some social interaction. Both of my apartment-mates stay in their rooms and barely talk, so it’s been a bit lonely! I’ve gotten a lot of planning done for the rest of my trip. I found amazing deals on the two excursions I’m willing to pay extra for while in NZ – a boat tour of Milford Sound and a water tubing tour of the glow worm caves in Waitomo!

I also have a rough plan of my time in Italy and Greece. Until yesterday, I only had a flight into Milan and that was it! Now I know I want to spend March 23 – April 15th in Italy. That gives me enough time to see Milan, Lake Como, Venice, Bologna, Florence and Pisa, and maybe the Cirque Terre. I’m only going to spend 2-3 days in each city, so it’ll be a quick trip until I get to Rome where I want to spend at least 5 days. Turns out, I’ll be in Rome for Easter! How exciting.

Afterward, I want to set up a home base on the Amalfi Coast and spend a week taking day trips to Napoli, Pompeii, and cities along the coast. Eventually, I’ll fly out of Napoli to Greece where I’ll be from mid April to mid May.

As much as I want to see Corfu and Kefalonia, they are just too far out of the way, so I think I will fly into Athens and spend the next month island hopping. I really want to utilize the WorkAway network and find accommodation in a hostel in exchange for working a few hours per day. All of this traveling ain’t cheap!

Finally, on my last day in Auckland, the rain cleared and gave me a bit of time to walk around. My knee was still giving me trouble, so I didn’t go as far as I normally would, but I walked to my favorite restaurant, Revive Cafe. I love trying new food while traveling, but the prices in New Zealand have prohibited me from indulging. A single egg on toast costs $12 NZ, which is around $8 US! A proper meal can range from $17- $30 NZ which is $12-23 US! It may not seem too outrageous, but my food budget is $10 US per day, so spending most of that on one meal is crazy. And most of the time, the cheapest food is the most unhealthy. I still try to eat mostly protein and vegetables and avoid grains and dairy. It makes it tough!

However, at Revive Cafe, I can get their “Large” portion for only $7 and it’s more than enough for two meals! A similar spot called The Raw Kitchen serves tasty grab-and-go salads. I enjoyed this mixed salad of Curry Carrot and Anise Beetroot in Victoria’s Park! I also found my FAVORITE drink of all time – banana flavored milk! And it’s made with coconut milk and no sugar!

Tomorrow I will be picking up my rental car. I’ll head to Tauranga where I’ll be staying for two nights. It’ll be my first Couchsurfing experience in New Zealand! I’m excited to meet locals and get some tips on where to go. Plus I’ve been craving social interaction! I’m starting to miss my lively hostel in Hawaii!

Week Two in Hawaii

Every time I feel out of place and unsettled, I have to remember that everything always gets better with time!

Remember my surfer housemates who I found it difficult to connect with? They’ve all moved on and been replaced by several other female solo travelers! It’s funny, we are all tan, blonde, and tall, but from different countries around the world – America, New Zealand, Sweden, and Germany! It’s been much nicer to chat with them about travel topics. The New Zealander said I am doing my trip the right way by spending 1.5 months there instead of a quick 2 weeks. I expressed my quiet fear of learning how to drive there (everything is opposite!) but she said it’s actually pretty easy. So fingers crossed that’s true!

I’ve been on a few more hikes around the island, but I had one particularly memorable one on the Pu’u’ohulu Kai trail. About halfway through the hike, I realized I don’t actually like hiking in Hawaii.

I usually spend the entire ascent worrying how difficult it will be and if I’ve done the hardest part yet. Then, when I get to the top, I start worrying about how I’ll get down. I mentioned it before, but I HATE slipping and the fear of falling. You know that butterfly feeling you get in your stomach when you slip on ice or gravel but then catch yourself? That’s my worst nightmare. So I walk at a snail’s pace on the way down, worrying if I’m going to fall, and not admiring the scenery because I’m staring at my feet.

Maybe it’s something special about Hawaiian hikes, but they all seem to be extremely muddy or extremely dusty – both conditions lead to slipping!

So once I realized that I actually get very little joy out of completing a hike, I decided to stop going. It’s as simple as that!

The next day, I asked myself what would make me happy. I was feeling particularly mellow and wanted to be surrounded by nature and have fun taking photos, so I went to the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens and spent hours walking around. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting! Instead of a “zoo for plants,” it was a giant network of paths and campgrounds and roads. Each area was dedicated to plants from a different region. I was expecting a tourist attraction, so I wore a dress and sandals, but I ended up hiking through mud and forest!

My favorite part were the giant mountains looming over the city. They were so massive and the cliffsides were lined with trees and waterfalls. The eastern area of O‘ahu bear Kailua is definitely my favorite due to the pure beauty. I haven’t seen something so breathtaking since the green, rolling glacial valleys of the Faroe Islands

I also visited the Byodo-In Temple. It is a replica of a famous temple in Japan that was built to honor the Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. As frugal as I am, I was willing to pay the $5 admission fee since it goes to a good cause, however, upon entry, I had a bizarre conversation with the cashier. I was the only person around when he greeted me. I said “Five dollars, right?” and he said, “Wait. Where are you from?” I was a little flustered since he said it in a flirty way so I replied “… uh, America.” He laughed and said, “Well, DUH! We are in America!”

Hawaii is so beautiful and unlike anything in America, so it’s easy to feel like you’re in a foreign country! In hostels, most people usually only say which country they’re from, so it was an honest mistake! I explained that I’m actually from Portland and I’m visiting Hawaii on my way to New Zealand. He said, “Don’t worry about the fee. Enjoy!” I’m not sure if this was a perk of being a female, but I’ll gladly take it!

I spent about 45 minutes at the Temple. There was a giant bell you could ring before entering. The plaque said the resonating noise is meant to represent the transient nature of time. I really liked that.

Thankfully I did all of these outdoor activities as soon as I got on the island, because the last 5 days of my stay have been rainy! I’ve spent a lot of time reading at coffee shops. I even went to see a movie! The rain is definitely making me embrace the leisurely island lifestyle.

I am really glad I decided to rent a car. Even when it is rainy in Haleiwa, I can drive to Honolulu where it is always dry since it’s a desert climate on that side of the island. One day, I signed up for a Hot Hula class in Waikiki. It was definitely an experience. The only people in class were elderly Hawaiian women! I felt so out of place in my adidas activewear while they wore traditional skirts, but I had fun. Afterward, I wandered around Waikiki. It’s crazy how touristy it is. It feels like a completely different country compared to the rest of Hawaii.

Another day I ventured to the east coast to see Kailua. Apparently that’s where Obama likes to stay when he visits! I saw the famous Lanikai Beach and drove around the promenade. If I lived on Oahu, I would pick Kailua as my city of choice. It is nestled between the ocean and the giant, looming mountains. So scenic!

Since there’s not much to do in Haleiwa at night, my hostelmates and I have had to come up with creative ways to entertain ourselves. Last night, we built a fort in the living room and watched Troy on Netflix. It always amuses me how total strangers can become friends so quickly. About a week ago, a 60 year old Brazilian woman checked into the hostel. She’s been spending her days studying for the US Citizenship test which she just took today and passed! This hostel has such a diverse group of people – surfers, tourists, students escaping Honolulu for the weekend, and even local environmental volunteers who have the craziest stories about swimming with sharks!

Today is my last day in Hawaii and I woke up to sunshine! It was forecasted to be another rainy day, but I got lucky. I went with my friend to Waimea Beach and enjoyed the sun before the clouds rolled in.

Tomorrow I have to return my rental car to Ausra and catch my flight to New Zealand. My flight departs around 3pm on Tuesday the 6th. It is a six hour flight, but due to time zones, I don’t arrive until 10pm on Wednesday the 7th. I lose an entire day! Isn’t that wild?

Until then, I’m going to enjoy my last day in Hawaii and pray the airline serves an actual meal again!