I had the good fortune to start my 2020 far, far away from home.
See, I decided last year to take a study abroad leap. This leap sent me away from my school in Boston and away from my home in the Dominican Republic, all the way across the world to Auckland, New Zealand.
It was like being the new kid at school, the college freshman, and the new intern on your first day at work all over again. It was, in other words, a rush of excitement, anticipation, and all other fitting jittery feelings. I was in a constant state of jitter.
I ended up staying up to three months in New Zealand before I had to go back home, but the memories I hold from all the incredible experiences I had in that stunning place will stay with me forever.
The same view, one shot up close and another shot from Devonport’s Mt. Victoria.
The beautiful thing about New Zealand is that the possibilities there seem endless. You are literally never, ever, limited by your surroundings.
Sure, I lived in the 5th floor of an apartment building and had breath-stopping views of a supermarket right across my street. However, walking two blocks in any direction meant the start of a new adventure in a completely new part of the city.
I could walk north and head in the direction of the Queens Wharf, where I could walk along the pier and relax in one of the many chill restaurants and bars, like Headquarters, which sports many refreshing ciders and hosts awesome events, karaoke nights, and plays many of your favorite old hits! Honestly, dancing along to “Come On Eileen” in the middle of a pulsing, cheerful crowd hits different when you’re in Auckland.
I could also catch a ferry and visit one of Auckland’s smaller islands. Rangitoto Island, for instance, sees an amazingly short hike up a hill made entirely of volcanic rock that would give to amazing sights of the distant cityscape and the lands beyond. Waiheke Island, on the other hand, is a luscious territory full of vineyards and breweries you can tour to drink and taste local wines and beers in the company of your friends.
Travelling by ferry is a super convenient and cost-efficient way to travel if you’re near the city.
Walking south would take me into the heart of Auckland, where I can choose to relax and read a book at Albert Park; sit down in one of many cafés and enjoy an iced coffee or a flat whites; socialize with friends or meet new people in bars like Vulture’s or clubs like Roxy and AV Club; walk along the streets and enjoy the amazing public works of art the city has to offer; and more. Hell, I had something to do even if I didn’t want to relax! I also had the option to see the city from the top of the Sky Tower and bungee jump your way down! You can appease the daredevil in you, even when squat the middle of a crowded city!
Some of the beautiful things Auckland has to offer!
Auckland is a fantastic city to live in. But a car, bus, or even a short electric scooter ride can take you far enough to enjoy an entirely new sight you have never seen before.
One day, for instance, me and my friend decided to stay local and visit one of the city’s beaches. We rented out some ride share electric scooters and drove around the bay, taking in the beautiful sight of the boats rocking in the blue sea, before we reached Okahu Bay and spent hours of the day paddle boarding before sitting down at beach in Mission Bay to enjoy some fish and chips and watch the sunset. You know, an average day in New Zealand.
My friend looks out at the waters of Okahu Bay as people kayak in the distance.
Things get even better the further out you go. One long weekend, me and a group of about thirteen others decided to venture out and explore a bit of what the North Island had to offer in and around the Coromandel Peninsula. We booked a few cars, rented out a house to stay in overnight, and headed out to the coastal town. We hiked The Pinnacles at Coromandel Forest Park, where I proceeded to hyperventilate at least three times in the process from all the arduous climbing and walking we had to do. The view was way more than worth it, however, and I must admit that dying in the company of other dying friends while hiking up an impossibly tall mountain peak serves as an incredible friendship
As hard as it was, the Pinnacle’s hike was totally worth it!
We later left to catch the sunset at the famed Hot Water Beach where, using a simple shovel, we dug our own hot tub in the sand. Where the hot water came from, I never found out, but the heat of the underground water, combined with the cool breeze of the night and the refreshing water of the ocean just a few steps away, it was, indeed, a magical experience.
Beautiful views of Cathedral Cove!
And these are things you can do after a short car ride. Imagine what you could do, what you could see, if you were to hop on a plane!
During our semester break, we decided to book a flight and explore some of the sights the South Island had to offer. We landed in Queenstown, where we hopped on our rental car (it was called “El Cheapo”, a name that was not designated by us but by the rental company; you’d think the name would’ve been warning enough for us, and yet we still had the gall to be surprised when the car broke down five times… big yikes) and drove around from town to town.
Our car broke down so much, and it even got stuck in a trench at one point. El Cheapo, our not-so-trusty steed!
Funnily enough we ended up hopping from Queenstown to the Fiordlands, back to Queenstown and into Glenorchy, back through Queenstown (again!) and into Wanaka, then into Tekapo and Mt. Cook and, finally, to Christchurch. As my friend loved to say during our trip, it seemed like all roads led back to Queenstown, but we managed to see so many beautiful sights all throughout.
Everywhere I went, I felt like I was living in a postcard.
We took the opportunity to camp under the stars or to stay at a hostel every night while we were there. From camping underneath the stars at Moke Lake to camping by the highest peak of the island at the base of Mt Cook, the view of the sky at night in the South Island of New Zealand is absolutely impeccable. And hostels like Kinloch Lodge, which hosted a beautiful view of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains beyond, or Jailhouse Accommodation, an old prison-turned-hip-hostel, made spending the extra money to sleep in at night worth it.
I learned during this trip that camping is not so bad, so long as you have a good view to accompany you.
The biggest selling point of the South Island, however, has to be its nature. Hiking up Queenstown Hill, for example, you find there are many different trails you can take, and all of different length and steepness so that you can make your hiking trail as hard or as easy as you’d like.
We ended up getting lost while hiking up; we were supposed to traverse a fairly easy walking trail and ended up climbing our way up a triple-black diamond (the hardest level of difficulty for a trail) bike trail. That’s right, a bike trail. It’s sufficient to say that my resolution to not die during a hike flew out the window that one time. But the breathtaking views at the top were incredibly worth it.
The amazing view atop Queenstown Hill.
A few days later we hiked up a path along an abandoned gold mine, after which we proceeded to stop in the middle of a highway to walk a short trail into a nearby hidden waterfall. It was like finding a little piece of paradise within paradise.
I must say, taking a dip in a waterfall is an excellent reward for an arduous hike.
We then proceeded to book an all-day guided trip around Milford Sound. The Fiordlands of the South Island had recently experienced some intense flooding, causing many roads in the area to close and tourist excursions to be cancelled until further notice. Luckily for us, the day we decided to go was also the day they opened up the roads for the first time since the floods. This is how we became one of the first people to go to Milford Sound since its closure. And even though I made the horrible mistake of wearing jeans and a white tank top when our boat driver decided to stick the tail of the boat underneath one of the waterfalls, my soaked clothes and ensuing cold were totally worth it.
Milford Sound was extremely beautiful… and wet.
A sunrise hike up Mt. Cook, a hike where I can proudly announce I did not hyperventilate in, not even
once, felt like the perfect way to end our journey in the South Island.
Getting goofy at Mt. Cook’s Hooker Valley!
I didn’t get to travel much after that. Me and my roommate took a quick weekend trip up to Lake Tekapo, where we did a small hike at Mt.Tauhara that, while riddled with extremely annoying bugs and a lot of cow dookie, held a view as impressive as all the others I’d seen thus far in New Zealand. We also got to visit a beautiful hot spring edging along the Waikato River, which made the trip more relaxing than expected.
These are just a few of the many cool spots to see at Taupo.
Unfortunately, not soon after that trip we got the news that our study abroad program had been cancelled due to an increasing number of cases and concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Right after a new semester of school had started at the University of Auckland, our time in New Zealand had come to an abrupt and saddening end.
There were still an infinite number of things left to see in that country that we never got the chance to explore, and while our few remaining months in the country were stolen away from us, I also cannot help but think that I was lucky enough to go there and experience all of these incredible things in the first place.
The thing is, while times right now are tumultuous and difficult, we must not forget, not just to look back, smile and be thankful for the experiences we’ve had in the past, but also to look forward to the promises the future holds.
So, as we sat at the summit of Mt. Eden, the tallest volcanic peak in Auckland, and watched our last sunset on our last day, there was one thing I knew, and still know, to be true: someday, somehow, I’ll be coming back to New Zealand, and I will get the chance to explore its endless wonders once more.
Because the beautiful thing about New Zealand is that the possibilities there seem endless. There are an infinite number of things to see, to do, to live—and these things are not going anywhere.
But, I guess you’ll just have to take the leap and see for yourself.
One last sunset for the road.