New Zealand is unique, educational, wonderful

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 5:58 p.m.

Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, is located on the North Island. We had a quick tour of the city and its picturesque harbor and stayed at the Sky City Hotel, adjacent to the 1,076-foot Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere with views from four observation levels.

This is not for the squeamish, but you can opt to do a 629-foot sky jump. (Attached to a wire you fall at 56 mph then come to a smooth landing.)

Our tour then went to Matamata to visit the Hobbiton movie film set. The popularity of the "Lord of the Rings" and the upcoming Hobbit films has caused a surge in tourism, and given the fantastic scenery, this is no surprise.

We continued to Rotorua for a two-night stay. Despite the pungent smell of hydrogen sulphide gas emanating from the countless pools of thermal activity, this area of lakes, rivers, springs and healing mineral pools draws many visitors. The Polynesian Spa is one of the world's Top 10.

Rotorua is a center for Maori culture, so take in the Te Puia Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and the active geysers of the Te Whakarewarewa geothermal valley. I took a picture of the entrance sign: Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao. Yikes, try to pronounce that!

Be sure to experience a hangi feast, a highlight of our trip. A bus took us to Tamaki Village and we selected a "chief" to represent our group. Told to stand still, not talk or laugh at this serious tradition, we watched as each of the village chiefs came out to greet ours — with elaborate dance movements, chanting, fierce facial expressions and the sticking out of tongues.

Afterward, it was hilarious (and it was okay to laugh) when the Maoris selected four visitors to learn the Haka, the welcoming dance with tongues protruding, etc. We walked around the village asking about the traditions of tattoos, clothing, foods and lifestyle, then dined on a feast of lamb, chicken and fish.

On the trip back we were asked to sing a song from our respective countries, so songs from Switzerland, Australia, Germany and the U.S. all ended with cheers and raucous applause.

Rotorua's Rainbow Springs Park features the life of the kiwi bird. There's a gondola ride like in Queenstown, and from the top we did the luge — great fun!

Afterward, we had a tour on an authentic World War II amphibious craft known as a Duck. The "conducktor" took us to two different lakes for "splashdowns" (with "Mission Impossible" music playing in the background).

The next day was an excursion to Waitomo Caves, famous for the Glowworm Grotto. First you walk through the cave and then board a small boat to cruise through the area with the glow of the larvae all around you. Be very quiet, because if sounds disturb the organisms, they will "turn off their light." Actually flies, not worms, they suspend an array of long threads of silk on which prey is entangled.

It's no wonder New Zealand is a place many people want to visit, as the things to do and see are unique, educational and wonderful.

Claudine Dervaes' travel column publishes the first Sunday of each month.

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