Why Our Layover in Auckland was the Best Part of the Whole Trip

Last week I talked about my trip to the Cook Islands this summer. If you missed it, click here to catch up – or I can give you the reader’s digest version: it was great, but not as great as I had hoped. The Cook Islands were like a lot of other places I’ve seen, just not quite as spectacular in one way or another.

And yet I wouldn’t trade that vacation in if I was given a shiny red redo button. Why not? Well, it’s all thanks to an airline mistake.

The Cook Islands aren’t exactly the most popular American summer vacation destination (never heard of the place? Neither had I!), so it makes sense that the flights aren’t very frequent. In fact, in order to get from San Francisco to the main island, Rarotonga, we had to take a flight from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand and then backtrack four hours from Auckland to Rarotonga. The trip home was supposed to be the exact opposite of that path, but one thing or another happened to the flight we were originally on from New Zealand home and we ended up with a whopping 36 hour layover.

Does anyone fancy sitting in the airport for 36 hours?

We didn’t either.

IMG_4259So instead we rented a car and drove to Middle Earth. Hobbiton, that is, which we happily discovered is just outside the small town of Matamata, a quick two hour drive south of the Auckland airport.

My major qualm with the Cook Islands was that I had seen it all before, but better. What I loved about our time in New Zealand was the fact that I couldn’t say that I had seen anything like it before. New Zealand is a world of its own and with just a little added imagination, the rolling green hills easily become a world where fiction and reality begin to blend.

Now, my whole family and I are dedicated Lord of the Rings fans. Not in the nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons way, but in the much more socially acceptable way where you appreciate the incredible cinematography, character development, and well-choreographed battle scenes. So we were reasonably nervous when we handed over our 79 New Zealand dollars per person, fearing that we were signing up for a cheesy, tourist trap, theme-park-style tour.

Our apprehensions couldn’t have been further from the reality as we stepped off the bus from the visitor’s center and onto the path that led to the Shire – the same path Gandalf followed in his first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring. The change was immediate. We weren’t in the middle of someone’s ranch anymore. We weren’t even in New Zealand. Hobbiton is as real as any other place you can visit and we might as well have planned our vacation there.

IMG_4448 (1)As we made our way along the path our tour guide told us the history of Hobbiton in Middle Earth, of the Hobbiton set in New Zealand, and about how the two came to be the same place with a little help from New Zealand’s army.

Peter Jackson was granted permission to rebuild the Hobbiton set for the Hobbit trilogy at the original filming location on the condition that it be a permanent structure and with this in mind the attention to detail was incredible. From the blooming flower gardens (in the middle of the New Zealand winter) to the clothes hung out on the line to dry to the smoke curling out of the chimneys, it wasn’t hard to believe that there were hobbits just on the other side of those bright, round doors.

After following the path through much of the Shire, we reached Bilbo’s house on the hill, complete with an artificial oak tree whose leaves were painted and adhered by hand in order to create a tree true to Tolkien’s own illustrations. This also offered a phenomenal vista from which to admire the entire expanse of the Shire.

The tour continued around the pond, iconic water wheel, and to the Green Dragon – a functioning pub and restaurant with its own friendly Shire cat – where we had the chance to get out of the light drizzle that had begun and enjoy a drink by the crackling fire.

In 36 hours New Zealand managed to accomplish what two weeks in the Cook Islands had not: we felt as though we had been somewhere new and seen something we couldn’t have seen anywhere else. As we drove away from the Shire, even the greenery framed highway seemed to be calling for us to come back someday.

I will.

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Want to see more travel pictures? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @faithaeriel

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The Cook Islands – An Island Destination for the Borderline Adventurous

Ever since I was little my family has been a strong supporter of the notion of “summer vacation.” By the time I got to college I considered myself pretty well traveled – Hawaii, Washington DC, New York, Bermuda, Roatan, etc. I figured that it was time to start my solo travel career, but with me home from studying abroad and my brother about to leave for college, Mom and Dad had one last family trip planned: the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands are a small nation in the South Pacific made of a series of small – very, very small – islands. Situated east of Australia and southwest of Hawaii, the main island of Rarotonga became our home base for nearly two weeks. The island was small enough to drive around in an hour and we didn’t have to try too hard to exhaust all Rarotonga had to offer.

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Muri Beach at sunrise.

If you love the feel of sand between your toes but don’t want to fight for a spot on a busy beach in Hawaii or Florida or the Bahamas or some other such sandy beach getaway, Rarotonga might just be the perfect escape. The white sand beaches were one of the highlights of the island, especially if you can motivate yourself out of bed early enough to watch the sunrise from between the palm trees and to when the sand crabs will be scuttling back into their holes for the day and the dinner-plate-sized royal blue starfish appear in the shallows.

Rarotonga is a vacation destination for the borderline adventurous – city slickers won’t find much appeal and adrenaline junkies won’t be very impressed, but if you fall somewhere between the two, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Set aside some time for two for $99 scuba diving with Pacific Divers –  who offer an open water diving certification Discover Scuba dives for first time divers – for a chance to see docile sharks, giant rays, and lion fish and swim through ship wrecks and through tunnels in the reefs. Be sure also to make time for the cross-island hike that takes you from the north end of the island to the south along a well-maintained path. This is somewhere between a walk and climbing a really long set of stairs, but the view from the summit was well worth the protesting calves. The whole hike took us just over two hours and could certainly have made for a leisurely afternoon if we had allotted more time.

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From the summit at the halfway point of the cross island hike, you can see 360 degrees.

The Muri Night market is a must do while visiting Rarotonga. Three nights a week vendors set up their stations and create some of the best food on the island, attracting locals and visitors alike. Choose from a variety of fresh seafood or curry dishes for dinner and save room for a fresh fruit smoothie after.

While Rarotonga was beautiful, it somehow fell short of my expectations. Kawaii had better beaches. Roatan had better scuba diving. Bermuda had a better island aesthetic, with its well-maintained pastel houses to Rarotonga’s more au naturel infrastructure that often was bordering on rundown.

The island of Rarotonga is very small and it doesn’t take long to exhaust the attraction the island has to offer. You could fill another day with a boat excursion to one of the other nearby islands that make up the nation, but those trips are an expensive extension of what you will already find on Rarotonga. Instead of planning an entire vacation to the Cook Islands, this is a place better suited to being one leg of a trip. Perhaps tag on a few days in Rarotonga to your New Zealand vacation.


Want to see more travel pictures? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @faithaeriel

Coming Back from Studying Abroad doesn’t Mean Coming Back to Normal

You know that feeling of the day after Christmas? You’re surrounded by all these great things you’ve been looking forward to for months, but all the excitement is gone. You’re tired. You’re numb. You’ve had a lot to take in. And to top it off, everyone is too busy with their own day-after-Christmas-funk that they don’t want to hear all about yours. That’s what it feels like to come home from studying abroad.

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Enjoying a rare sunshiny day overlooking River Cherwell in Oxford, England. 

Before I spent a semester in Oxford, I had a plan: spend a semester in Oxford. Everything I had been doing for the past two years was all leading to that semester, the coup de gras of my college career. I worked two jobs, housesat, babysat and stashed my money like a squirrel getting ready for winter. Grandparents didn’t bother to ask me what I wanted for my birthday anymore—they just cut me a check and it landed directly in the get-Faith-over-the-pond fund.

Let me assure you, I don’t regret a moment of the time leading up to my semester abroad. My three months in Oxford changed my life. It taught me about the world and about myself. It broadened my horizons. It introduced me to new interests. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I packed up my dorm room in December completely content with my experience and assuring myself I wouldn’t have any regrets when my plane touched down in the States fifteen hours later.

I was excited to see my family and friends. I couldn’t wait to catch up and share my stories with them. By the time I had been home for two weeks, I had met up with exactly one of my friends for little more than an hour. A week after that my family visited from out of town for our annual Christmas celebration and my collections of photos only yielded a few apathetic audience members who flipped through a handful snapshots before getting distracted by the shrimp cocktail that had just been unearthed from the fridge. My stories fell on deaf ears.

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Ben’s Cookies is a local favorite at the Oxford Covered Market that boasts fresh, American style cookies.

Just as suddenly, it hit me that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was lucky enough to be starting my job again in January, which would offer a welcome distraction, but the days leading up to that were typically spent in my room flipping through guidebooks that pointed out all the great things I missed while in the UK or trying to keep up a conversation with friends who were now eight time zones away.

It was depressing and I wasn’t prepared for it. Everyone warned me about culture shock when I prepared to leave the States to study abroad, but what they forgot to mention was that I would go through the same thing when I come back—but it was worse. You’ve just had this life altering experience. You’ve seen so many things and met so many people. You’re not the same person anymore. When you get back, everything is just how you left it. It feels like you’ve been running and suddenly you hit a wall.

After that realization, the guilt sets in. Why should you be unhappy to be home? Shouldn’t you be grateful that you experienced so much? Now that you’re back, it’s time to get on with your life. Stop being so irrational. Move on.

But, despite what that little voice in your head whispers to you, it isn’t that simple. As I mentioned before, I had spent two years planning my time in the UK. What I failed to do was plan what I would do when I got back—and that taught me just as much about myself as going abroad in the first place: I’m a wreck without a plan.

It’s been an entire semester since I’ve been back and I’m just now feeling like my life is settling in again. A few friendships didn’t survive the hiatus and I’m having to face the fact that my career aspirations have changed as a result of my traveling. I’ve had to learn to let go of that hazy imagination fueled idea of what my life “should” be and I’ve embraced the idea of not knowing what is coming next.

In January 2017, I will be moving to Ireland. I don’t know what I’ll do there—I don’t even know where in Ireland I’ll go—but I do know I have a visa and a one-way flight. I’m ready to start this whole rigmarole all over again. I have no doubt I’ll be better off for it, just like I was after studying abroad.