Contest Over. New Zealand is now officially my favorite country. And I didn't even get to see the whole thing; only a fraction of the North Island. Guess it just gives me a reason to go back someday.
So this is the first place I've traveled where I had zero plan. Just landed at the airport, took the bus downtown and got off somewhere on Queen Street. Feel like I made a lot of rookie mistakes that first day but I learned from them so it's all good. First hostel I went to was booked solid so I had to walk all the way back down this massive incline that I had just conquered, with both my bags, to find some more options. Once I confirmed a room at Nomads Fat Camel, which was ok as far as hostels go and definitely served its purpose, I chatted up a couple of my new roommates then went to find food.
I definitely over-paid for my first meal but there was bubble tea involved so it wasn't a total loss. Also forgot my water bottle there and when I realized this, I went back to retrieve it only to learn that they had thrown it away. Also forgot the reusable bag I brought with me from home and I try to avoid plastic bags if at all possible so I had to buy a canvas one at a small market where I bought a weeks worth of groceries to cover my breakfasts & lunches. Then I spent the rest of the evening figuring out what I was gonna do with several days in Auckland.
The following morning after a nearly sleepless night thanks to the raging bar and karaoke bustling downstairs, I walked towards the harbor to catch the hop on, hop off bus. My first stop was the Auckland Museum which I highly recommend. I'm kind of a geek and love art/culture/history museums and this is top of my list. All in all it cost about $50 NZD for about 3 hours of "edutainment" including a guided tour (for which I was the youngest person by far) and a live Maori cultural show. Here are some key words to whet your appetite: Volcanoes, sharks, dinosaurs, local, Maori, haka, WWII, taxonomy, Pacific, Ancient, Asia, Art, WOW. And free wi-fi all day, every day!
Still in the mood for museums, I hit the MOTAT next (Museum of Transportation & Technology). More emphasis on the transportation than technology for sure. Definitely a niche museum and probably not for everyone. The thing I actually found most intriguing was the fully functioning and free to play Apollo 13 themed pinball machine. It was bittersweet because it's been forever and a day since I last played pinball but then again I was like "Holy crap - I'm old enough for things from my childhood to be in a museum." :/ And it's a cruel, cruel joke that a museum supposedly specializing in technology doesn't have wifi anywhere on the premises.
I went to the most incredible vegetarian restaurant called Revive for dinner and bought one of their cookbooks. There were actually 4 different cookbooks all packed with tasty-looking meat-and-mostly-dairy-free recipes and it took all my willpower not to buy all four of them. But then I thought about how much four cookbooks would weigh down my already heavy rucksack and I was once again satisfied with one.
I caught a bus out to the suburbs to the Stardome (yet another museum/planetarium) to see a presentation about constellations in the Southern Hemisphere. I meant to film the whole thing on my gopro but it was dark and I didn't realize I had it on the wrong setting so all I ended up with was a whole bunch of black nothing. Despite the presenter's monotonous voice and feeble attempts at humor, I found the presentation interesting and we even went outside and got to look through actual telescopes.
You figure it would be just as easy to catch the bus back as it had been to get there, right? Wrong! The time table was posted right next to the stop and the first scheduled bus blew right past me and another Chinese girl that were waiting for it and the next bus never even showed up. By this time, a third girl from Belgium named Selene had arrived. I was not wasting any more of my time waiting for this phantom bus and instead approached a couple of middle-aged guys across the street who were wearing matching safety vests and asked if one of them could call a cab for us. One of them, named John, did us one better and offered to drive us back to town. I invited the other two girls stranded on the bus bench as well and Selene seemed relieved to join me while the Chinese girl (she never shared her name) emphatically declined with wide-eyed uncertainty. Turns out John is part of a volunteer search & rescue team and they were just doing a drill - but he ended up rescuing two foreign girls from the suburbs of Auckland for reals that night. He insisted we not pay him for his incredibly kind service but I gave him a rare American $2 bill to give to his young son as a token of my appreciation anyways.