Category Archive for New Zealand + Australia

Maori culture tour of New Zealand with Contiki! Rotorua hot springs, haka dance, Atticus Finch restaurant.

maori art rotorua

Kia ora! When I embarked on my Contiki tour of New Zealand, I was especially excited to see the native Maori culture. Their Sun and Steam journey covers the entire North Island, with an emphasis on cultural experiences.

On this stop of the tour, I’ll take you around the town of Rotorua, a historical home for the indigenous people of Aotearoa.

haka dance, new zealand tongue out

I even got to see a Haka war dance, where the Maori men stomped their feet and made intimidating faces, with tongues thrust out! 

black swan on lake

From the glowworm caves of Waitomo, the Contiki bus took less than two hours to reach Rotorua. This charming little city is located on the shores of Lake Rotorua, home to black swans (yes, these creatures really exist).

new zealand geothermal springs

The Maori settled here centuries ago, due to the unique geothermal landscape. Rotorua’s hot, bubbling springs provided natural heat. The thermal mud pools were also an easy way to cook food (in the hangi style) — and today,  they lend themselves to natural spa treatments. 

rotorua lake, water

The lake itself is not sulphuric. Rotorua has charming parks and gardens, and it’s a pleasure to stroll around the pier.

new zealand black swan birds

I couldn’t take my eyes off these black swans with red beaks. They were hunted to extinction in New Zealand, but later reintroduced from Australia.

maori masks, facepaint

My Contiki bus drove to the Te Puia cultural centre, in the Whakarewarewa valley, for a group activity. This is the home of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, and a famous erupting geyser.

te puia maori park

Contiki tours have a number of included activities, which let you bond with others on the bus. (They also offer plentiful “me-time” on the itinerary, so you can explore whatever you want, at your own pace.)

We split into teams for an “Amazing Race” around Te Puia. We had to complete funny tasks and piece together clues, before time ran out.

maori carvings, kiwi house

The Amazing Race took us to a hut, where local artisans showed us how to do Maori weaving and wood carving. At the Kiwi house, we saw the cute little flightless birds who are the national symbol of New Zealanders.

Pohutu Geyser, te puia

At the center of the park is Pohutu Geyser, which means “Big Splash.” This is the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley for a reason: the geyser spurts up to twenty times per day, and can reach 30 meters in height.

hot springs spa rotorua

The bubbling mud flats created an otherworldly landscape.

(I’m wearing a black fringe skirt, similar to this longer skirt and shorter fringe skirt. My black cut-out apocalyptic top is by Michi )

ogo zorb rotorua ball

Some of the friends on my Contiki tour took part in Ogo, which you might know as “Zorb.” Essentially, you climb into a giant plastic ball with water in it, and roll down the hill! Zorbing isn’t for me, but I enjoyed watching others take part in this amusing activity.

male maori dancers haka

Back at Sudima Hotel, the group congregated for a special dinner: a hangi feast. All of the food was cooked underground, using the natural geothermal steam. My favorite items from the buffet were the kumara (a type of sweet potato only found here), fish, and a gooey bread pudding type of dessert.

Then, a group of Māori dancers took the stage to perform the Haka, or ancestral war cry. They stamped their feet, bulged out their eyes, and extended their tongues while making big, frightening expressions. The haka serves to intimidate opponents, but also to make the performer feel powerful, and commemorate special occasions. The dancers later invited the men in the audience to try out the movements for themselves!

female maori dance performance

Some of the performances were women-only. In this “poi dance,” the ladies swung around a ball on a string, creating patterns and rhythms in the air. I tried to do this on stage, and ended up hitting myself in the face…

Ti Rakau, Māori Stick Game

Everyone took part in the Ti Rakau or Tititorea, also known as the Māori Stick Game. This involves the rhythmic throwing and catching of sticks, from one person to another.

zippy's cafe rotorua

I had another delightful meal at Zippy Cafe in Rotorua. Still dreaming of their New Zealand flat white (microfoam steamed milk over espresso) and Moroccan salad.

zippy kids show mascot

Zippy is a cute mascot from a local kid’s show. At the back of the cafe, he stands in a Super Mario themed mural.

new zealand wine bottles

New Zealand wines are much-coveted these days. I suggest trying local varietals while you’re here, since many are not expoted out. I quite liked The Ned Pinot Gris, which has a rose-like tint.

eat street rotorua restaurants

Rotorua has an “Eat Street” district, filled with international restaurants. This area uses a geothermal heating underlay to keep the outdoor patios warm all year round.

On the way over, we passed a food trucks fair. Rotorua truly is a foodie city.

atticus finch restaurant

One of the highest-rated restaurants in town is Atticus Finch. (Address: 1106 Tutanekai St, Eat Streat, Rotorua)

The restaurant is named after the famous lawyer in Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Both the book and the movie starring Gregory Peck are wonderful.)

(I’m wearing a fringe skirt and shirt by Michi.)

rotorua fine dining, restaurants

Local sisters Cherry and Kay strove to make Atticus Finch a lively dining experience for groups of friends, with an open kitchen and huge heated patio. The bird cage, filled with candles, hints at the literary inspiration.

new zealand atticus finch menu

Atticus Finch’s cocktails are standouts, made from fresh fruits and herbs. The dinner menu is designed for sharing; everything is made from scratch, with carefully selected ingredients.

Quite a few items are vegetarian and gluten free. I loved the handmade gnocchi, seasoned with date puree, spinach and almonds.

to kill a mockingbird cafe

One of the walls displays a quote by Atticus Finch, from the book. He’s known for his words of wisdom and tolerance, such as: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

All of the dishes were clean, yet tasty — often with an Asian fusion influence. I recommend the unique haloumi cheese salad with broccoli, rocket, sunflower seeds and cranberries. You can’t leave without ordering the Chargrilled Kumara (local sweet potato), seasoned with smoked cashew orange chili.

new zealand desserts

As for dessert, the photos speak for themselves. Lemon and almond cake, with red wine poached pears, mint and citrus accents. The perfect way to end my time in Rotorua.

contiki north island new zealand tour

And this photo sums up the fun I had on my Contiki tour of New Zealand! It was fantastic to meet 18-35 year olds from all walks of life, and living in different countries.

contiki tour group photo

We gathered for a Contiki tour group photo, at this viewpoint near Auckland.

(Photos by Salima Remtulla and La Carmina)

contiki bus type

I confess that at first, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy a group bus tour. Contiki, however, is not your typical travel company.

The tours are tailored to millennials, and give plenty of free time. I wouldn’t have been able to see so much of New Zealand’s North Island in a week, if it weren’t for them.

contiki gap year youth tours

If you’re planning on traveling somewhere, especially alone, I encourage you to check out Contiki. They have tours for all types of interests and budgets, in destinations worldwide.

PS: if you’d like more New Zealand travel tips, check out all my NZ posts here.

PPS: I’m currently in six countries all around Europe — check my social media @lacarmina (linked on the right sidebar) to see the latest updates!

Kayaking in Paihia, Bay of Islands! New Zealand nature & adventure travel, Contiki tours.

paihia kayaking, new zealand

I hope you’re in the mood for pretty photos today… because New Zealand really knows how to work it!

When I arrived in the Bay of Islands on my Contiki tour, I felt like I had entered a living postcard. Waterfalls, dolphins, beaches… no wonder NZ is one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.

contiki tours sun and steam

I had no regrets about traveling with Contiki, a vacation company for 18-35 year olds. Everyone on the group tour got along well, and the schedule had plenty of “me time.” You could go off exploring on your own, sign up for activities, relax with a book, party all night with new friends… it’s up to you.

Contiki‘s journeys are all about living life to the fullest, and treating each day as a new adventure. I was inspired to do something different from my usual trips: get up close to nature.

pure new zealand, ocean mist

My Contiki trip started in Auckland, and then we drove about three hours north to Paihia. With a misty morning view like this, it’s easy to see why Paihia is considered the jewel of the Bay Of Islands. (The Bay refers to an ocean-front region with laid back towns like Kerikeri and Russell, and 144 islands).

bay of islands beach

Paihia’s beaches invite both relaxation and adventure. Tourists come her to take part in all sorts of outdoor activities: scuba, fishing, skydive, parasail, kayaking. 

coastal kayakers, bay of islands

I confess I’m not usually an outdoors / sporty type… but it would be tragic to miss out on the natural beauty of New Zealand. My friend recommended kayaking in Paihia, so I signed up with my Contiki tour manager, Monique. (If you want to take part in an optional activity, she makes all the arrangements including transportation.)

paihia kayak tour

Coastal Kayakers offers half and full day tours; I’m glad I went for the shorter one, as I was tired after several hours of paddling! Our instructor showed us how to use the oars and pedals in the rear of the two-person kayaks. Then, we were in the water and off.

adventure travel, kayaking

Even if you’re a total beginner, you’ll get used to the rhythm of the strokes. The pace is leisurely; every so often, we took breaks to admire the stunning Oceanic scenery.

new zealand mangrove trees

One of the highlights of the journey was when our Coastal Kayakers guide led us into a mangrove forest. We weaved our boats through the tress of this unique ecosystem. (Photos by Salima Remtulla)

mangrove forest kayaking

As we passed by these remarkable mangroves, our guide spoke about their unique characteristics. These twisting trees grow in areas with low-oxygen soil, and the shallow waters let sediments accumulate to support a diversity of wildlife. 

north island nz nature

Our guide pointed out a flock of birds nesting in the branches with their children. We held our kayaks together, and she told us a legend of star-crossed Maori lovers whose tears flowed into the Waitangi River.

contiki vacations young travel

These tangled roots and branches look stunning in photos, but they have a purpose as well. They draw in fish and other sea creatures, and shelter them from predators. The roots also stabilize the mangroves during the daily tides, and build up sediments in the mud.

paihia waterfall

We ended the tour by paddling up to Hararu Falls. The image looks more hardcore than it is — people don’t go over the waterfall, but can approach the roaring waters from below.

kayak near waterfalls

The horseshoe-shaped Hararu looked a bit like a miniature Niagara Falls. The falling water creates a foamy top layer that reminded me of a bubble bath.

new zealand vacation town paihia

We went on land for rest and refreshments, and everyone in the group got to know each other better. Then, it was back on the kayak for the 30 minute journey home.

Coastal Kayakers was the highlight of my time in Paihia. I’m happy I challenged myself on this eco-tour, and was rewarded with the beauty of the Bay of Islands. 

vintage clothing stores new zealand

Back in Paihia, I reverted to my modus operandi… and explored the fashion in this cute town. Paihia is a tiny vacationer’s spot with a handful of retro vintage stores, cafes and artisan boutiques.

paihia gelato ice cream

I couldn’t resist getting a scoop of gelato, although it was hard to pick from the 100+ flavors. I went with licorice, as it reminds of absinthe ice cream I had in Prague.

Later that evening, I had fresh New Zealand seafood at one of the ocean-side restaurants. NZ has all types of international cuisine but is famous for its fish and mussels, so I encourage you to seek it out.

maori girl model, art

I went inside this shop that sold Maori art. Love the intricate patterns and tattoos that are part of the native culture.

aotearoa north island new zealand

I learned from our Contiki manager Monique that “Aotearoa” is the widely known Maori name for the entire country.

legends restaurant fish and chips paihia

The Contiki “Sun and Steam” tour includes all breakfasts, and a number of group dinners. I enjoyed dining on fish and chips at the Paihia Ex-Servicemen’s Club. This venue is usually for members only, but Contiki has special arrangements that let us through the door.

Monique poses with the hostess, “Auntie,” who came to each table to introduce herself and make sure we had everything we needed.

dolphin watching tour bay of islands

At each stop on the tour, you can choose to join a variety of optional excursions (for a fee, but it’s less than if you booked it on your own).

While I kayaked, photographer John Contompasis went on a catamaran cruise around the Bay of Islands. His group saw all types of marine life, and he captured this dolphin jumping out of the water! 

hole in rock bay of islands

The dolphin cruise also sailed to Hole in the Rock on Motukokako Island, a natural wonder that you can pass through.

new zealand sailing, ship tours

Arr, there be pirates in Paihia. After spending time on the water, I understand why many travel bloggers consider New Zealand one of their favorite destinations.

new zealand modern art gallery

I’ve heard of bus tours that force you to stop in tourist traps such as warehouses. This was never the case with Contiki — we always took lunch and bathroom breaks in charming towns, where we could find lunch or mosey around.

In Whangarei, I strolled by the sailboats and went into a free art exhibition. 

contemporary artist auckland

If “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” I wouldn’t mind dreaming about these creatures.

Tane Moana Giant Kauri Tree

The Contiki bus also stopped at Tane Moana, home of the giant Kauri Tree. Check out the size of the trunk compared to little ol’ me. (The entire tree wouldn’t even fit in a vertical photo.)

Kauri Tree Walkway, forests

Tane Moana also had a rainway walk that led through the forest. I looked up at this canopy of leaves.

north island new zealand landscape

The bus ride itself was a pleasure. Everyone enjoyed the ever-changing scenery from the window, and chatted and listened to music.

the shire landscape hobbit

Contiki buses are also equipped with Wifi internet, in case you need to Instagram or Snapchat your experience. (I did — I’m @lacarmina on these social networks).

pure new zealand travel blogger

Looking back at these photos, I’m amazed at what I got to experience in just seven days. I didn’t get to see New Zealand’s South Island this time, but that gives me a good reason to come back soon.

new zealand forests, scenery

What do you think of my Contiki tour experience? Have you ever spent time in the great outdoors, on an eco or adventure trip?

PS: I’m gearing up for six new destinations this summer… announcement soon. I’ll give you a hint. Miffy!