On the gushing recommendation of our friend Kim McArdle, I made reservations for the Black Labrynth Tour at Waitomo Caves weeks in advance, but with a dead phone, wasn’t sure of protocol. We arrived in the nick of time for our 9 am tour. With only mild trepidation, we squelched into wetsuits, donned caving helmets and headed into New Zealand’s subterranean world, intertubes on one shoulder.

The next three hours were spent clambering over boulders, jumping–backwards–off waterfalls and floating lazily down dark tunnels lit by twinkling blue glow worms overhead. Our tour guide Sophie and Laura were both delightful and patient. I got the chance to sing in one of the caverns. The noise echoed between the water and the walls, giving it an erie, ethereal texture that gave me goosebumps. Okay, maybe I was just freezing because we’d been sitting in ice cold water for two hours. At the end of the tour, of the ten people in our group, all ten were present and uninjured.

Next order of business was Hobbiton. We sat in traffic for an hour surrounded by the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Seattlites, the experience was actually pleasant. Highly recommend. When we arrived at the tour, we learned that the $79 NZD fee would grant one (1) person twenty minutes on the shire portion of the Lord of The Rings set with a complimentary beer at the end. We picked up a souvenir for my brother Joey at the shop and headed elsewhere for cheaper–if slightly less magical–beer.

Rotorua was quaint but touristy. We stopped in at The Pig & Whistle–chosen for its live music–and enjoyed some local brew, along with free wifi. I read about a group of hot springs about thirty minutes to the south and we decided to check them out on our way out of town. Kerosene Creek was two kilometers off of State Highway 1, situated under large tangled trees. A local told me that the water was 44 degrees–thats 110 F for my American friends. Such a delight to wade in a natural bath tub, fed by a gushing five foot waterfall behind. We made friends with a German couple, Anja & Alice, who are doing a very similar trip to ours, but I n reverse and three times longer. Their tales of recent travel in Southeast Asia were both helpful and inspiring. We hope to reconnect with them in the South Island!