New Zealand is a spectacular and very popular destination for lovers of gorgeous landscapes, adrenaline-pumping adventures, and for the movie fans of “The Lord of The Rings” films. Join noted gastroenterologist Dr. Jun Ruiz as he explores the City of Sails and his journey to Middle Earth in its cinematic glory.
New Zealand is enjoying a new surge in tourism in the last two decades since its stunning landscape and breathtaking scenery became the perfect fantasy backdrop of The Lord of the Rings blockbuster film trilogy. These movies and the subsequent The Hobbit trilogy captivated movie audiences worldwide, enticing a multitude of adventurous tourists and cinemaphiles to visit, despite the high cost of travel and the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.
New Zealand is an archipelago, consisting of two main islands. Two years ago, I shared my heavenly experience in the South Island leg of our journey to this country where I was mesmerized by its majestic snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, and stunning fiords. The North Island is a land of mountain ranges, volcanic plateaus, and its biggest cities. It is also the location of the Hobbiton Movie Set that draws the movies’ faithful fans and the bandwagon crowd. In this sequel, I write about my wonderful journey exploring New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, and its surrounding regions in the North Island.
Auckland – the City of Sails
Auckland was our gateway to New Zealand. It is a culturally diverse city with a population of 1.4 million people and is the world’s most populous Polynesian center. Based on the 2013 census, there are around 35,000 Filipinos living in Auckland and the North Island. Compared to the other more famous cities in the world, it looks smaller and more laid-back. But do not let this appearance fool you. Auckland has the vibrant cosmopolitan lifestyle of a big city, yet it retains the relaxed small-town charm. Surrounded by a variety of natural landscapes in its large land area, this unique locale makes Auckland one of the most desirable places to live in the world.
One doesn’t have to travel far to enjoy contrasting experiences. Auckland has sophisticated museums, galleries, and other urban adventures. The lovely beaches and native rainforests in the scenic islands are only an hour from the busy business districts of Auckland. Where else can you sail in a yacht, then climb a dormant volcano, and finally dine in a fine restaurant at the top of its tallest building all in one day?
Auckland is built on an isthmus located between two magnificent harbors – Waitemata and Manukau. In the east, the sparkling waters of Hauraki Gulf and its beautiful islands offer a stunning backdrop to the city. Auckland is home to more than 135,000 boats and has the greatest number of recreational boats per capita of any city in the world, earning the title City of Sails.
When we arrived in the afternoon in Auckland, we were ecstatic to discover that we were booked in one of the best hotels in the city by our Manila-based travel agency. Our three-night stay at the five-star SkyCity Grand Hotel offered premium luxury rooms, exquisite elegance, and a world of relaxation in the heart of Auckland. It was unfortunate that we were not able to enjoy the full range of high-end amenities of the heated pool, spa, sauna, and gymnasium due to our tight schedule. The hotel is perfectly located in the central district where one can easily walk to numerous restaurants, boutique and souvenir shops, live entertainment, and to the harbor.
On our first day in the city, we met with my friend and high school mate Dax, who is now based in Auckland. Along with two other tour mates, we spent the lovely afternoon at the waterfront. The weather was just right, with a good amount of sunshine and cool sea breeze. The Viaduct is the perfect place to begin exploring the city. The views of the marina with the neat arrays of white-colored yachts moored at the harbor are very picturesque. This popular area is the place to be seen in Auckland in meeting up, doing business, or simply relaxing. We spent enjoying our savory dinner in an elegant restaurant followed by drinks over a couple of great New Zealand beers in one of the trendy bars. The combination of fine food and new drinks with the magnificent water views is so hard to resist.
The Viaduct Harbor was originally developed as a base for the America’s Cup yachting regatta (the match race between the world’s top sailing yachts) in 2000. Now, the area is bustling with fashionable restaurants, fine cafes, trendy bars, boutique shops, and new apartments. For a Kiwi experience, you can sail from here in an authentic America’s Cup yacht or take a ferry to the surrounding beautiful islands of the Hauraki Gulf. For shopping needs, go to Queen’s Street, which is known as Auckland’s “golden mile”.
The following day we were set for a full day tour. If you are not in an organized tour package from the Philippines, it is best to take the Auckland Explorer Bus, which is a hop on hop off sightseeing tour that can take you to Auckland’s 18 attractions at your own pace. We first made a sightseeing stop to get photos of an icon of the city – the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It is a motorway bridge over the Waitemata harbor, measuring 1020 meters long, and connects central Auckland with North Shore.
We then took a short ferry ride of 12 minutes from downtown Auckland across the harbor to reach the historic and affluent seaside village of Devonport. It is a charming haven full of art and rich in history— it being one of the earliest British settlements in Auckland. Admire the beautiful colonial architecture of the grand Victorian houses and villas along the waterfront that now serve as boutique stores, art galleries, nice cafes, and upscale restaurants. There are lookout points where you can marvel at views of the downtown, and one can play in the sandy beaches.
After our lunch, we went to the highest natural point in Auckland. The city has 48 extinct volcanoes, and the highest is Mount Eden, which is a dormant volcano at 196 m above sea level. We hiked up this mountain and walked around its-hill like crater. At the top, we were rewarded with breathtaking panoramic 360-degrees views of the city and the harbor. We made a quick stop at Mission Bay, which is a popular park that has beautiful gardens, a reflecting pool, the Savage Memorial, and a path that leads down to the beach.
After a marvelous day around the city, we headed up to the Sky Tower, Auckland’s most iconic sight and the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 m. We ascended in the glass elevators to the top, where the glass-floored viewing platforms offer panoramic views of the city, up to 80 km in every direction. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with a satisfying buffet dinner at the tower’s revolving restaurant. For adrenalin seekers, one can walk around the pergola at 192 m high (SkyWalk) or SkyJump off the tower. This was a captivating experience at the tower for all of us as we ended the day in Auckland at the top.
Sky Tower opened in 1997 and is visited by a million tourists annually. It is part of Auckland’s premier entertainment destination SkyCity Auckland, which includes a worldclass casino, the two first-class hotels (SkyCity Hotel and Sky Tower Grand Hotel), theaters, and huge selection of twenty restaurants, cafes, and bars. The sky’s the limit here as far as entertainment is concerned.
Hobbiton movie set
Beyond the city suburbs, the countryside quickly becomes attractive. Our much awaited visit to Hobbiton Movie Set near Matamata in the lush countryside of Waikato was among the highlights of this trip. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was shot at gorgeous locations throughout New Zealand. The movies have enticed hardcore fans to visit these spectacular locations, but do not expect the actual movie sets. Only one is left standing, as the rest had been demolished due to environmental considerations.
The iconic Hobbiton Movie Set in its full glory was built as the Shire of the Middle Earth where hobbits play and live in hobbit holes in the rolling hills as featured in the two sets of trilogy movies. Hobbiton was the center of the bucolic Shire, and where Bag End (home of Frodo Baggins) was located. There are daily guided tours that let you enjoy the hobbit holes, gardens, bridge, pond, and the Mill in the Shire.
The set has been painstakingly created and reproduced to achieve an incredibly realistic illusion of being in the Shire. The hobbit holes looked so real from the exterior, up to the front door. You can open the door, but the inside of these houses is empty, as the interior was filmed in a movie set in Wellington. I was so enchanted with this tour, as I clearly visualized in my mind the opening scenes of the first movie. After reading the books and watching the films, this magical experience fully immersed me in the fantastic world of Middle Earth, yet it still felt surreal. We concluded our tour at the Green Dragon Inn, the fictional meeting place of the hobbits, where we sampled a Hobbit ale. This was truly a great cinematic adventure of a lifetime.
The other exciting places we visited in the North Island include: our spellbinding boat ride through the caverns under a constellation of stellar glowworms in the Waitomo Caves; our rural close encounter with sheep and alpacas in Agrodome Farms; and watching the boiling mud pools and the spectacular geysers in Rotorua.
It was also in this New Zealand adventure that I experienced “pseudo-celebrity” moments. At the posh Sky City restaurant, the local receptionist asked me if I was someone famous back home. I wasn’t not sure what about me gave him that impression, but I answered back that I am just an ordinary and simple person back in the Philippines. The other occasion was when my friend Ed was taking pictures of me standing atop of the rocks in the geyser park, and a group of Chinese female tourists joined in taking snapshots of me.
This spectacular journey to New Zealand was a lifelong dream that I cherished with so many wonderful memories and quenched my thirst for adventure and wanderlust. As I was writing this travelogue, I yearned to again visit this gorgeous land of majestic mountains, fiords, and magical sets in the near future, maybe in a few years, as things do get busy in my day job. Goodbye until our next odyssey, my dear friends.
“This magical experience fully immersed me in the fantastic world of Middle Earth, yet it still felt surreal”
June 2018 Health and Lifestyle