Auckland and More of the North Island, New Zealand

March 13 – 25, 2020

Back in February, while we were still in Australia, I sent a message to my good friend Kim from Seattle asking her for any tips for our upcoming time in New Zealand. Kim is a Kiwi that grew up in Auckland and I knew she would be our best personal travel advisor for that region. As soon as Kim received my message, she connected me via FB with her sister Vicki that lives in Auckland with her two sons. Kim’s mom Jan also lives in the neighborhood and I already knew her from all her visits to Seattle when she would visit Kim and her granddaughters (the younger one was Nina’s and Petra’s great friend from back in the elementary school). Within a couple of minutes from receiving Kim’s group message, Vicki replied back with something like: “Nice to meet you, Aleks, it’s fantastic that you are coming for a visit to New Zealand, you are staying with us, I’ll pick you up from the airport, just send me your arrival date and time.”

Vicki radiated my kind of high energy even over a few lines of text in our FB exchange. We have never met before and I was feeling a bit uneasy about unleashing our chaotic bunch on her by taking over her home for a few days. However, Vicki wouldn’t even entertain other options of us to stay someplace else and just said: “Have no worries, I’m coming to get you, I’m happy for you to stay with us”.

We arrived in Auckland, New Zealand at 1am on March 13th. Note that arrival time – 1 AM, that’s after midnight 😉

Vicki and Jan were at the airport, waiting for us with two vehicles. There was truly an immediate familiarity and warm connection between our two families. Both Vicki and Jan made themselves completely available to us and Vicki did all that’s humanly possible to make our stay in her home fabulous. We literary took over her house as she set us up with not one, but three rooms for our family. Maki immediately fell in love with Vicki’s youngest son Flynn, and all of Flynn’s super cool toys (PS4, Nintendo, hoverboard, coolest Legos and so much more). Flynn is a smart, kind, and dashing teen that didn’t show an ounce of annoyance for having a strange family of 5 take over his home.

Vicki is an exceptionally creative soul that has enriched her home with brilliant decorative pieces that make you feel like you are visiting the most eclectic, cheerful, colorful fairy tale place. I now wish that she’ll make it to Seattle someday to spice up our living space with her design talent.

We had a great time with Vicki, Flynn, Max, and Jan, cooking fun meals, attending Flynn’s water polo game, roaming around Auckland, and probably the most memorable, making a Serbian meal together and laughing with all the kids while they practiced recreation of the most famous scene from the Dirty Dancing movie (videos included).

We had too much fun with Vicki, Jan, and the boys that we didn’t really feel like doing the regular touristy things around Auckland but I am not sorry one bit. We will have more opportunities to see Auckland but those few days with them have been the highlight of our New Zealand experience on the North Island.

We left Auckland on the 5th day in New Zealand and spent the next week driving down the North Island. We drove through Hamilton where we visited the best botanical garden we’ve ever seen, hands down the very best one!

We skipped the Hobbiton, the movie set of the Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit film trilogies. It was too expensive for an activity of a few hours for a family that’s not really into those movies.

We spent a couple of days in Rotorua where we saw some geothermal geysers and went out on a nice hike.

We then headed south to the Tongariro National Park where we went on a famous hike. We didn’t do the whole crossing but the hike was nevertheless memorable. At that point, we were trying to do activities that provided some social distancing so “A hike a day keeps the virus away’ was our new motto. I got to have the first Covid19 Zoom call with my girlfriends in the US (‘way before’ the world actually stopped and the Zoom Call Happy Hours became popular). We were on a hike during that call and once again, I was reminded how much I love Google Fi (and my husband for getting it set up for us).

Our next stop was Wellington that’s located on the southern tip of the North Island. We ended up staying in one room accommodation in this really cool hostel. Any other time, I would have really loved this place. However, with the covid19 threat rising, I was worried that I made a huge mistake by picking that particular place because of the young travelers that weren’t as serious about social distancing as they should have been at that point. Spoiler alert, we didn’t get sick from spending those 2 nights at the hostel.

On March 23rd, from ‘Windy Wellington’, we took a ferry to Picton, located on the South Island. By then, New Zealand was moving quickly from requiring 14-day self-isolation for all incoming travelers, on March 16, to completely closing its borders to anyone but NZ citizens and permanent residents, on March 20th.

While we were on the ferry ride, it was announced that New Zealand was heading into Level 4 lockdown, 48 hours later.
For New Zealand, Level 4 lockdown was a really serious effort. During Level 4, there was no non-essential travel of any kind. That meant, strict lockdown, social distancing if you were to pass someone on the street, everything was closed except a few key large grocery stores, pharmacies, and hospitals. You were not allowed to get in a car to drive for a hike. There were almost no cars on the roads. You could drive to your closest open grocery store but that was about it.

Anyway, more about Level 4 in my next post.

Originally (way back at home in Seattle, when we first planned the New Zealand portion of our journey), we were supposed to pick up a motorhome in Christchurch on March 25th to travel around the South Island for a couple of weeks (with our long-awaited close family friends, McElwees, that were supposed to join us from the US). However, now the lockdown was to start right on March 25th and McElwees didn’t come to NZ!

Since being in a motorhome during lockdown was not possible (or allowed actually), we immediately needed to find accommodations for the following several weeks. From the moment we got off the ferry, while Pedja was driving to Christchurch, I was franticly calling around to see about canceling our motorhome reservation and finding us someplace to be during the lockdown. Motorhome cancelation was a no-go at that point (more about that in the next post) and finding new accommodations was turning out to be almost impossible.

From the moment New Zealand’s most fabulous Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement of the upcoming lockdown, the prices for all Airbnb accommodations in Christchurch literally doubled! This was most likely due to the Airbnb pricing algorithms responding to the sudden surge in demand (just like Uber price surges).

Again, thank goodness for Google Fi and sporadic internet connection during our 4-hour drive from the ferry to Christchurch.

During that drive, I made contact with a half a dozen Airbnb owners to try to secure a place for us at a reasonable rate for the whole duration of the lockdown. I ended up with a couple of decent options that we then ended up checking out in person once we arrived to Christchurch. Within the next 24 hours, we landed in a place that was perfect for us. We rented a townhome that turned out to be great for our family and we have been in it ever since, all through the lockdown and later on.
Then the next day, we managed to stock up a bit on food supplies and got some warmer clothing since our carryon luggage full of sunny weather attire wasn’t going to serve us well in New Zealand’s March and later – fall and now winter.

Once again, we were lucky to end up where we did when the world went into a standstill but I’ll write more about our time under Level 4 lockdown in my next post.

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