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New Zealand: North Island

You'll hear people say that New Zealand's South Island is the place to go for nature and adventure. While that is true, don't let that deter you from some really fantastic gems in the North Island. 
I should note that I spent the first 5 days in Tauhoa, a rural community, about an hour north of Auckland for a New Year Wellness Festival. The day Ariana and I arrived in Auckland, it was humid, cloudy and rainy. Apparently Auckland is considered similar to Seattle in terms of climate. (I had no clue!)
Photo By: Sonia Azad
We had a quick lunch at a lovely open-air Indonesian restaurant called Bandung and walked to a nearby threading spot, Beauty Lounge, owned by a Balinese woman and her husband who is from India. 
Right away, the city of Auckland appeared incredibly clean, safe, easy to navigate, and globally diverse in population. While major upscale shopping is available, that's not really my thing. In fact, I didn't spend much time in the city at all. New Zealand's heavenly countryside was calling. 
Ariana and I said goodbye in Auckland, and I planned to meet up with my college friend Maureen for the festival. Maureen is from Texas, but now lives in New Zealand. Her friend Ruth, from Scotland, swept through downtown Auckland to pick me up and we headed north in the rain for the festival. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
The festival days are a blur. In addition to teaching yoga, I attended workshops ranging from the science of traditional cacao ceremony to vibrational sound healing journeys, ate delicious vegan food, danced around-the-clock to DJ sets and joined life-giving, spirit-activating drum circles. I was fully charged and floating through life on a different level after five days there. If there's enough interest, I'm happy to write a separate blog post on just this experience. For now, I'll skip to the days after the festival. Ruth gave me a ride from Tauhoa to the ferry terminal in Auckland. I'd been invited to check out Waiheke Island with a new friend who Ariana and I met the week before.
The ferry to Waiheke is amazing. I walked up to the counter and purchased a ticket without reservations (and happened to arrive 20 minutes before the next departure!). The magical ride was smooth and comfortable, the vessel wasn't crowded, there was space to store luggage and restrooms and snacks for sale were available on board.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Of course, I didn't have a plan for Waiheke, but my friend James was already out there and ready to beach hop! Pulling up to the island via ferry, I felt as though I'd been transported to an entirely new place. I was surrounded by turquoise water, sail boats and lush vineyards, olive groves and beaches. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Waiheke is a charming place. Known for elegant accommodations, stunning beaches, scenic hiking paths, wineries and boutique brunches, the island is a popular holiday spot for visitors and locals looking for a long weekend getaway. And, this time of year, it was busy! 
It reminded me of a small California beach town lined with restaurants, cafés, yoga studios and wine bars. Think: Healdsburg, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo. 
Pro Tip: make reservations for wine tours, hotels and restaurants during peak seasons and keep in mind that restaurants and shops close by 9pm
The cheapest way to get around the island is via public bus. (My experience was terrific!) There are also taxis and believe it or not, hitchhiking is more common than you'd think in New Zealand... (story ahead!)
It would've been nice to stay on the island longer, but my time in New Zealand was running short-- and there was still so much left to explore! I took the ferry back to Auckland and caught an Uber to pick up a rental car. My first stop: Countdown, New Zealand's largest supermarket chain, for road trip water and snacks that could double as meals. 
To this point, I hadn't driven on the "other" side of the road much at all. Ariana did most of the driving for us on the South Island, and I didn't have or need a car much since. This was a true test of courage for me. 
It's like brushing your teeth or using utensils with your non-dominant hand. Once I got the hang of it, I was very proud (LOL). The trickiest parts for me were the roundabouts. So, there I was, in what felt like the passenger seat, driving solo across New Zealand on the 'wrong' side of the road, circling roundabouts very (and I mean very) slowly. 
From this point of the trip, there would be a lot of zigging and zagging. I only had a few days before my flight from Auckland to Bangkok, and the list of places I wanted to see was still quite extensive! I'm not a hobbit person (sorry!) so you won't find any such stops ahead on my trip. I didn't get to: Wellington, Rotorua, Coromandel, Paihia, Hot Water Beach or Tauranga (despite the fact that Maureen and Ruth live there). These are all solid enough reasons for me to return to New Zealand for at least two more weeks. 
Aside from Auckland, I didn't run into any dense traffic while driving from town to town. The roads are paved, well-marked, clean and safe. The nights are dark and there is little to no light pollution outside of major cities and towns, so be aware of possums and other (larger) wildlife if you do drive at night. Gas stations and cell towers aren't always readily available so make sure you're monitoring gas tanks and have maps and important information downloaded. 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
I drove about two hours south to Raglan, a ridiculously cool surfer-yogi-backpacker beach town. 
Here's where the hitch-hiker story comes in: I've never ever picked up a hitchhiker. I've never hitchhiked. While highly attuned to the nuance and subtle energies of life, I would call myself far more spiritual than religious. But rarely have I felt the presence of God like I did after driving past a hitchhiker on the side of the road. I turned around and picked him up. He was by himself, and something about his spirit-- and the one I felt-- told me it would be safe. And it was. It turns out this young guy and his partner run a permaculture retreat center in a native forest. He was heading toward Raglan, where he is from, which was only about 30 minutes down the road from where I met him. He had hitchhiked his way all the way back from a different north island festival.
Photo By: Sonia Azad
We talked about life in New Zealand, festival culture, and the spiritual community. He gave me some advice on where to stop, stay and eat. I told him that I felt called to pick him up because so many people have helped me along the way so far on this journey-- giving me rides and offering free places to stay-- and this was a simple act of kindness that I could offer to pay it forward. I dropped him off and made my way into town. Raglan is walkable with a laid back vibe and upscale flair. The main road is dotted with coffee shops, health-conscious restaurants, pilates and acupuncture studios and gyms. I found Raglan, like much of New Zealand, to be highly environmentally conscious. Their commitment to sustainability is evident in day-to-day life, in business operations and in how people care for the land and water. 
I went for a walk around the bay and soaked up the sunny day, wishing that I would've booked an Airbnb here... but there was something else on the map that caught my attention. 
I drove 15 minutes away to Bridal Veil Falls. My hope was to catch this place at sunset and-- wow-- did I time it perfectly!

Photo By: Sonia Azad
The area is free to enter, and there was hardly anyone else there. The view to the falls is a short walk, depending on whether you want to see it from the top, side or bottom. I didn't hike all the way down because from the top, I was mesmerized by the elements of water, earth, wind and fire from the setting sun -- all blending right in front of me. 
These quiet moments where time melts and you're left standing gratefully in awe of Mother Nature are what made this trip so special to me. It's why I don't plan. It's why I rarely share "itineraries" with friends who ask after seeing my Instagram posts and stories. An itinerary would have me moving quickly past this to get to a restaurant reservation-- or maybe skipping it all together. 
This slow-setting sunset was so dramatic and naturally diffused over the countryside that even after driving away from the falls toward my Airbnb cottage, I stopped along the side of the road several times just to stare.  To be honest, I was moved to tears at the beauty I was witnessing. I left an audio message for one of my closest friends back home in America, encouraging him to make this place a high priority to visit. 
The one booking I did make was to see the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. It's a 45-minute group tour and boat ride through the cave. Friends from America who've visited New Zealand really encouraged me to make a stop here. For me, it was okay. If I skipped it, I wouldn't have missed much. However, this is a great family-friendly experience that is engaging, dynamic and educational for people who have never been through limestone caves or seen glow worms that sparkle like stars across dark sky.  (FYI: They don't let you take photos and videos in most of the glow worm areas.). This was the point of the trip where I had to decide whether to stay in this vicinity and check out Rotorua -- or head north toward a mystery adventure.
My friend Sebastian who I'd met at the festival days before would be meeting some of his local friends at their lake house. When he messaged me to join them, I headed back north to Whakapirau. This might sound like a lot of driving-- and, truthfully, it was. Two hours this way, an hour that way. But, I loved every moment! It gave me a chance to see so much of the island... roads lined with sheep, farmhouses, coast lines, communities tucked into rolling hills. The driving felt peaceful and non-disruptive. With music turned up and windows rolled down, I felt ultimate freedom swirling through this sacred land. 
Photo By: Sonia Azad
Sebastian's friends were delightful. Two married couples with their children and dogs were enjoying a long weekend at their lake house with barbecue and wine and campfires and smores. Right away, they invited me to stay for dinner and sleep there overnight, where I had my own (huge) campervan. This is another example of the generosity of Kiwis. These people didn't know me at all, but they opened their hearts in a way that made me feel as though we had been friends forever. I played with the girls who were around age 6 or 7 (which really made me miss my niece back home) and slept so well following a night of shared laughter, stories, reflections and travel tales. 
The next morning, following a slow coffee chat and breakfast, Sebastian and I said goodbye to his friends and decided to make the most of my last full day in New Zealand.

With no plan, we followed our inner compass to: Te Arai Beach, Goat Island and Omaha Beach -- with a stop for a midday coffee and snack at Whanga Eats.

Photo By: Sonia Azad
This was the cutest random roadside café I've ever seen! We sat outside and I sipped my latte, taking in the picture-perfect countryside, dreaming of what it would feel like to never leave. One thing I appreciate about these New Zealand beaches is that the public bathrooms are clean, large enough to change clothes, there are showers available so that you can rinse off after a swim and they offer family-friendly environments. There are loads of kids playing soccer and flying kites, jumping around playgrounds and building sand castles. I loved witnessing so much youthful, innocent joy and catching squeals of delight between the crashing of waves. (*Goat Island was the most crowded of our stops and is known for snorkeling and water activities. Omaha beach is the largest and in my opinion the most beautiful stretch of beach with white powdery sand, long and wide -- perfect for a long walk.) 

Photo By: Sonia Azad
Sebastian and I collected seashells and had a nice chat about the swings and sometimes misses in life. He is Australian and was visiting from Sydney (a place I've not yet visited!) so, of course, I was keen to learn more about his rhythm of life there. 
We landed at an incredible dinner spot called The Farmer's Daughter. Between laughs, a flood of flavors, dessert and the view-- this felt like a most special send off. It started to rain and the landscape outside of this restaurant, which offers patio seating among lush nature, just came to life -- glistening, between raindrops and the glow of string lights. 
Had I stayed in the city or planned an itinerary, I would most certainly have missed these moments in places I'd never read about, seen or heard of before. It seemed at every turn through New Zealand, God/ Universe was showing me what I needed to see, guiding me to places I needed to be, connecting me with well-intentioned and supportive people along the way. I was never 'alone.' I had everything I needed. There was nothing to fear.
This is where I began to trust the beauty of humankind and surrender to the flow of life's journey. 


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