Tuesday morning, we got up and checked out of the hotel in Auckland. Dropped off my first batch of postcards at the front desk for them to mail for me. No breakfast. My plan was to drive for a bit out of town before stopping for lunch. We took SH1 (aka the Southern Motorway) south, then SH2 east, and then SH25 covering a 120 km route from Auckland to the town of Thames.
Until this point, there wasn't a lot to see on the drive. Just under 4 million people live in New Zealand (C.I.A. World Factbook on New Zealand) compared to just under 6 million living in the state of Washington. The country is the size of Colorado. That's a lot of space to put not so many people. Especially when you consider that 1¼ million people live in and around Auckland. There's little need in the rest of New Zealand for U.S. style four lane divided highways (a.k.a. Interstates). Shortly after you get out of Auckland, the motorway ends and except briefly near Wellington, we did not see another divided highway the rest of the trip.
Nearing Thames, we encountered our first one lane bridges. And the crossing across the Waihou river was the only traffic light controlled one lane bridge we crossed in New Zealand.
In Thames, we stopped to get lunch. There were a few cafés open, although we stumbled into one that only looked open. Ate at one that made sandwiches and had some pre-made entrees (like lasagna) in a display counter. While sitting and eating, we got to witness the local muscle-car boys make a couple of rounds down the street in some souped up racing cars. Over the weekend Auckland hosted the PlaceMakers V8 International and Thames entered a team. They didn't win, but were celebrating their participation by driving up and down the main drag with revved engines. Before leaving town, we stopped to fill up on petrol (gasoline) for the first time. Ran into a bit of a problem. Couldn't find the gas cap release button. Not on the floor of the driver's seat. Not in the dash. Not in the glove compartment. The attendant tried to help even. Eventually, we found it on the driver's side door recessed where I couldn't see it. Checked out the visitors information center next door to see when low tide would be, and we headed off. Low tide would be around 3:45 p.m., which would be right around the time we would get to Hot Water Beach. High tide makes for a not very interesting Hot Water Beach we were told.
From Thames, we went north on the SH25. We followed the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula on SH25, rather than traveling the more direct route SH25A which cut across the mountains. Scenery turned out to be quite impressive, but SH25 was very narrow and windy. This was significant because in Thames I turned the driving over to Erin. I didn't make a good passenger for her first stint at driving in New Zealand. Not only did she need to acclimate herself to the basic differences of driving there, but she had to do it on a road with no shoulder, with steep cliffs to the ocean to our left, lanes not wide enough for our car, and crazy New Zealand drivers who barreled past us at breakneck speeds. I got really tense because I felt like we would be going off the road a number of times, and I kept giving driving instructions from the passenger seat. As to the views themselves, they were incredible. Didn't get a lot of pictures taken, as there weren't a lot of places to stop. Got a few from the window of the car as we drove along.
Our destination on Coromandel was Hot Water Beach which is basically a hot spring on the beach. Rather than having the water emerge from rocks or from a regular landscape, it actually comes up through the sand below the high tide mark. In order to enjoy the hot spring, you dig out a hole in the sand. However, like hot springs in the U.S. you don't get to enjoy it alone. And in this place there were a lot of tourists milling about, many of them German. German taste in beach wear is not something with which I am generally comfortable. God didn't create Speedos, the evil in hell did. Men should wear Speedos on pain of eternal condemnation to hell. Germans also think nothing of wading out into the surf and removing their swimwwear to rinse out the sand. If the German were Claudia Schiffer, I might not mind so much. When they are older, uglier, heavier, and wrinklier, I am less of an open-minded person. It was also too crowded really to dig our own hot water pool, and we didn't have shovels. The shop next to the beach rented shovels for $NZ4/hour, but we hadn't taken up that offer. So mostly we stood around in pools dug by others, or worked our feet into the sand until we hit spots that were just too hot. Occasionally waves would wash in to cool our soles. Much amusement in watching the people scramble to build themselves nice walled off pools with sand only to have waves knock them over minutes later. After less than an hour though, we were done with the place though.
Back on the highway, we took SH25 to Waihi where we rejoined SH2 to Tauranga where Erin got to learn all about traffic circles or roundabouts. It's only now as I look at the traffic safety web site that I figured out that I was signalling at them incorrectly. The thing about traffic circles is that you lose perspective of which direction you need to exit from the traffic circle really quickly.
Have I gone around enough for the 5/8ths exit or is this the exit that was directly opposite the way we entered? And some of them didn't sign the roads too well. Combine two traffic circles in quick succession and you can easily lose your way. You have to do all of this while negotiating traffic, and the larger traffic circles have funny lanes sometimes as well. Just after Tauranga, we ended up getting onto the wrong road because of this that took us back into Tuaranga by a different route. A half hour later, we finally got on the highway going the correct direction, and we got to see the industrial port district of Tauranga up close and personal.
Heading east from Tauranga on SH2, we started seeing kiwi fruit farms. They look similar to grape fields, as the kiwi fruit trees are supported by similar mechanisms as grapevines. This area is the kiwi fruit growing center of the world. Not the most auspicious of assertions, but better than the moniker of the Palm Springs of Washington. From the kiwi growing region, we headed south on SH33 to Rotorua which is the center and most active part of a geothermally (volcanically) active region that stretches from Ruapehu in the south to Whakaari in the middle of the Bay of Plenty. We smelled the sulfur 15 km out of Rotorua.
The first hotel we tried was full, but they directed us to the Prince's Gate Hotel where we got the last available accommodation (though perhaps one of the motels in the area had rooms). Quite nice, as we got a suite (usually called apartments in New Zealand motels and hotels), though there were some odd things about it. Creaky floors and angled alcoves. We dumped off our luggage and headed out to get food because we didn't get in to Rotorua until after 8 p.m. and hadn't eaten since Thames around 1 p.m. Our porter directed us about 3 blocks away to an area that had a few restaurants, which he claimed were all good. Walking along, we picked Mitas, an Indonesian restaurant with absolutely delicious food. Afterward, Erin made me buy her a pack of cigarettes, which required that we walk a bit (further than we remember the distance) to get to get to the nearest petrol station. Despite being nominally a non-smoker for a couple of weeks, driving in New Zealand was stressful enough that she wanted to kill herself the slow way. The pack lasted over a week though, so I can't flip her too much shit for it.
The facilities back at the hotel were decent. The head of the bathtub was recessed into the wall, but like most New Zealand accommodations we found, the controls for the shower were separate from those of the tub, even when the tub and shower were combined. Not enough space for two people to lay out their bathroom gear though. Two beds though, which meant my snoring didn't have to be right in Erin's ear. Disclaimer: I don't know if my snoring actually was audible, or loud enough to bother her… I'm callous and self-centered enough that I didn't worry about it. She never complained about it though. And for the morning, they provided us with a french press for our wake-up coffee. Nice place and extremely nice and helpful staff.