I couldn’t have asked for a better place to end my round-the-world adventure than New Zealand. Though the island nation is often overshadowed by its massive Aussie neighbor located 900 miles (roughly the distance between Seattle and Los Angeles) to the west, in reality New Zealand has a super distinct kiwi culture all of its own.

Besides being one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world, New Zealand is ridiculously beautiful (think Lord of the Rings) and its people are extremely laid-back and friendly.

We started our trip in the chill little city of Auckland on the North Island. Between its clear affinity for boating (the World Cup New Zealand Sailing Team is based here), quiet urban vibe, grey skies and hipster-friendly population of just over a million people, Auckland is a dead ringer for my hometown of Seattle, Washington. I was constantly hit by déjà vu during our few days exploring, whether out for a run along Auckland’s waterfront harbors, watching commuter ferries taking passengers to nearby islands, or enjoying a yummy flat white in one of the city’s many coffee shops.

Besides sailing, there isn’t a ton of things to do in Auckland that one can’t find elsewhere in New Zealand, so after a couple sleepy days we took off for Rotorua, known as the nation’s Culture Capital.

One of my favorite things about New Zealand was seeing the influence of the native Māori culture within day-to-day kiwi life. Similar to the Native American presence one sees when visiting the Pacific NW of the United States, signs and symbols representing the indigenous Māori culture and its way of life are prominent throughout the country, and most evident in New Zealand’s North Island. Unlike in Australia, where the aboriginal people have faced a long history of awful treatment and only recently received voting rights (in 1967!), the Māori people have been involved in the governance of New Zealand since the 1800s. The long-held respect for the nation’s original inhabitants shows up in many ways from cities retaining their original Māori names to the prevalence of Māori symbols in present-day architectural designs. Here’s a shot of Jen and me making friends with a couple locals in their traditional Māori garb after watching a cultural show at Tamaki Village outside of Rotorua.

Rotorua was a personal favorite of mine; Jen and I were lucky enough to stay with the sweetest older Airbnb couple who pretty much adopted us during our four day stay (a very welcome change from #hostellife!). While you can’t beat the cleanliness and convenience of a hotel, and hostels provide the best means to save money on accommodation AND meet tons of fellow travelers, I still find Airbnbs to provide the absolute best experience for those who wish to live like a true local. You can’t put a financial value on the relationships formed while spending time with your Airbnb hosts, and I found this to be true in New Zealand more than any other country I visited over the last six months.

Although on the smaller side, there is plenty to do within the town of Rotorua. Te Puia Cultural Center in the nearby Whakarewarewa Valley boasts geysers and thermal mud pools fed by the area’s geothermal activity, and the Pohutu Geyser erupts multiple times a day. Past that is the huge Whakarewarewa Forest, full of Californian Coast Redwood trees and a mecca of sorts for hikers, mountain bikers and wannabe photographers.

My favorite North Island experience was the day we made a trip out to Waitomo, home to the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves! Jen and I had been looking forward to seeing the glowworms for months and, like most of my experiences in New Zealand, it did not disappoint. Easily one of the coolest experiences of my round-the-world trip life, Jen and I decided to splurge and see the glowworms while blackwater tubing through the caves! After a beautiful two hour bus ride from Rotorua to Waitomo (passing the popular tourist town of Hobbiton on the way!), we found ourselves at the steps of The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company for our tubing adventure. After gearing up in full-body padded wetsuits, spelunking helmets and inner tubes, we spent an amazing three hours working our way through the Ruakuri Cave system.

Besides the moments spent gliding through a pitch-dark underground river watching the beautiful illumination of glowworms while trying not to run into cave walls, we jumped over waterfalls, waded through waist-deep freezing river water and climbed through narrow limestone cave tunnels! It was one of the most satisfying experiences in my life to date and one I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the adventure, I wasn’t able to carry my iPhone so don’t have any pictures to share! But please take my word for it: looking up through pitch darkness to what appears to be a miniature solar system nestled 20 feet over your head while floating through an underground river is an experience beyond description and one you should absolutely try if you have the opportunity! (Sidenote: Google Image doesn’t do it justice.)

While beautiful, New Zealand’s North Island didn’t prepare me for the awesomeness that is its South Island. Stay tuned for my next post detailing more kiwi adventures and the beautiful city of Queenstown!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie