Top Ten Places to See Dolphins in New Zealand

I live in a country surrounded by dolphins. Tourists choose New Zealand just for the opportunity to swim with them. Since we moved here, my family’s encountered many species of dolphins in different places. Here are the top ten places to see dolphins in New Zealand, starting from the top of the country and travelling down:

1) The Bay of Islands

You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dolphin tourism operators in New Zealand, and the Bay of Islands is no exception. You go out on a ferry, sail around a bit until you find dolphins, and hope they’re attracted to your bow wave. They usually are. It’s apparently marvellous fun for them to swim in. Then, if the dolphins don’t have any calves with them, you’re allowed to get in the water. Sometimes the dolphins will come right up to you, sometimes they won’t.

Dolphin 5The Bay of Islands is a great place for swimming with dolphins because the water is quite warm compared to the rest of the country, and because there’s some pretty scenery around, instead of just ocean, such as the imaginatively named Hole in the Rock.

The two species of dolphins you’re likely to encounter in the Bay of Islands are the common dolphin and the bottlenose dolphin. The bottlenoses are the stereotype of what everyone expects dolphins to look like; the common dolphins have yellow patches on their sides. Both species can be really friendly towards humans, but they can also get boisterous and downright violent, which is why you’re not allowed in with them if they have calves to protect, or seem in a slightly odd mood.

Also, if you’re extremely lucky, you might see some killer whales. (You’re not allowed to swim with those.)

2) Goat Island

Goat Island is a haven for snorkelers, with its clear water and abundance of beautiful, colourful fish. For most people, wading into the shallow surf and having all these vibrant aquatic creatures swimming around your ankles is a wonderful experience, which is why so many people flock to Goat Island each year. Unfortunately for me, I’m scared of fish.

When I was at Goat Island, swimming around trying to avoid the fish because the beach was far too hot to stand on, a sudden strong wave knocked me under and trapped me in a bed of seaweed, and a whole load of fish slammed into me, flapping and wriggling on my skin. I tried to stand up to get my head above water, but the drag and the seaweed stopped me. I panicked. For one very short moment, I thought I’d drown, but I got free and ran back to the scorching sand.

I think that’s where my icthyophobia started.

Anyway, you can see bottlenose and common dolphins at Goat Island as well. So I guess if you’re not scared of fish and want to get close to dolphins while snorkelling in clear water… great.

3) Auckland

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A dolphin that was riding our bow wave

You can get a ferry that’ll take you to see the dolphins out in the Hauraki Gulf straight from downtown Auckland. This is where we saw our first dolphins in New Zealand – where I saw my first dolphin that wasn’t performing in a tank. And watching them leaping and diving alongside the boat was better than watching them leaping and diving through hoops. I saw them playing between the twin prows of our catamaran, turning over to surf on their backs and even having sex. Gay sex, at that. Yup, I’ve witnessed gay dolphin sex.

I don’t think I got in the water that time, but I got as close as I could to the dolphins by dangling my legs over the side of the bow. I was delighted when one of them tapped my foot.

We saw both common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins that day, but unfortunately no orca. We did, however, get a fantastic show of gannets working with a pod of dolphins to hunt fish, which I’ve talked about elsewhere on this blog, in my article about New Zealand wildlife, in which I also relate my rather, err, traumatising ‘swimming with dolphins’ experience… Moving on.

4) Tauranga

There are yet more dolphin tour companies operating from Tauranga, which, again, offer the opportunity to see common and bottlenose dolphins, along with killer whales, and occasionally even something as magnificent as a baleen whale. These tours take you out past Mount Maunganui into the Bay of Plenty. I remember I found the scenery almost as interesting as the dolphins themselves. For example, some way beyond the Mount there’s this huge, tiara-shaped rock formation rising out of the sea like Ursula at the end of The Little Mermaid – I really enjoyed sailing by that.

But you don’t necessarily have to book an expensive dolphin tour to be amazed. Every now and then, a pod of orca will come right into Tauranga Harbour for a short stay, mainly to hunt stingrays in the shallow water, which are apparently like killer whale confectioneries. When this happens, you can get up close to the orca in a kayak, or on a jet ski, or just watch from the shore. Despite living in Tauranga when I’m not in Auckland, I’ve never been lucky enough to experience this. It’s really annoying.

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5) The west coast of the North Island

Off the west coast of the North Island is the only place in the world you’ll find the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world. It has a round, black dorsal fin and is really cute. Unfortunately, the chances of you seeing one are so small that if you do see one you have to inform the Department of Conservation. There are less than eighty left.

Maui’s dolphins like to swim around in shallow water close to shore, which means they’re in danger of being caught in fishing nets or being hit by boats. I’ve never seen a Maui’s dolphin, but I have seen Hector’s dolphins, of which Maui’s dolphins are a subspecies. Hector’s dolphins can only be seen around the South Island, which is where we are headed next.

6) The Marlborough Sounds

The Marlborough Sounds are at the top of the South Island and are beautiful to cruise around even without the dolphins. Along with the expected bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and orca, from Picton you can see the rare Hector’s dolphins and the more common dusky dolphins. In fact, you might see dolphins on the ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton anyway.

The waters of the sounds are nice and peaceful, absolutely lovely for swimming in, and relaxing to kayak on.

Dolphin 27) Kaikoura

As we travel round the South Island we reach Kaikoura, a town famous for its whale watching. Here, you can see sperm whales, humpback whales and even sometimes a blue whale! Of course, you can swim with some dolphins as well. There are common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, killer whales and the rather confusingly named southern right whale dolphins, the only dolphins without dorsal fins.

There does seem to be a greater variety of dolphin species hanging around the South Island than the North.

8) Akaroa

Akaroa is the place to see Hector’s dolphins, though it’s a charming village in itself. Conveniently located near Christchurch, it was originally settled by French immigrants so, of course, you get the whole culture of fancy food and wine. Although, if I remember rightly, when my family visited Akaroa in our New Zealand campervan rental we ended up going to a Thai restaurant. What a waste.

We definitely, however, took advantage of the dolphins. Akaroa is the only place in the world where you can swim commercially with Hector’s dolphins. They look the same as Maui’s dolphins, which I described earlier, small and sweet. It was certainly the most special dolphin experience I’ve had in New Zealand.

9) Fiordland

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

So our New Zealand campervan trip continued on from Akaroa, down the east coast of the South Island and across to Fiordland, which is one of the most stunning places on earth. I mean just… wow. It’s at the bottom of the South Island and has sounds like Marlborough at the top, but they’re somehow more dramatic, and there are dolphins in them too. You can see the dolphins if you go for a cruise on Doubtful Sound, or Milford Sound, but there’s only one species, the bottlenoses. You probably wouldn’t want to swim with them either. Aside from the water being dark, (which means it’s like a mirror, reflecting the breathtaking hills, waterfalls and mountains above,) it’s freezing.

10) Porpoise Bay

Unfortunately, we didn’t drive this far south, but I kinda wish we had. Porpoise Bay has a resident population of Hector’s dolphins, which you can see just by standing on the beach. It’s a good place for surfing, but, I imagine, would be very cold, even in summer. Still, I suppose the risk of hypothermia would be worth it if a posse of dolphins approached you to play, which they reportedly do. It’s important to let them approach you, though, not the other way around.

So there are plenty of places to choose from if you want to encounter dolphins in New Zealand. The South Island has a greater variety of dolphin species, but the North Island is warmer for swimming with them. Either way, it’s an unforgettable experience.

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The Versatile Blogger Award

Well isn’t this nice?

I didn’t even know this award existed, but apparently Claire, author of True Traveling, thought I deserved one. So thank you, Claire.

Huka Falls

Huka Falls, just ’cause it’s a nice photo

Now, this is what you have to do when you receive a Versatile Blogger Award:

– Display the Award Certificate on your website

– Announce your win with a post and link to whoever presented your award

– Present 15 awards to deserving bloggers

– Drop them a comment to tip them off after you’ve linked them in the post

– Post 7 interesting things about yourself

So… time to pass it on, I guess. Here are 15 blogs I really like:

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In the bush somewhere – I can’t remember where

1) Chris Gregory’s Alphathreads

2) The Thompson Traveling Circus

3) Islandside Chronicles

4) Our Amazing New Zealand Adventure

5) Where’s My Backpack?

6) Sorry Television

7) Travels on a Small Island

8) Retiree Diary

9) A Great Escape

10) Elizabeth and Chris: Adventure is Out There! New Zealand

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Driving back from Mission Bay, Auckland

11) Adventures in KiwiLand

12) Just Jenn’s Journey

13) Travel Bugs 101

14) Bazza’s World

15) Ramblings of the Average Man

And finally, what I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, 7 interesting things about me:

1) I love role-playing, (the nerdy, Dungeons and Dragons kind of role-playing, that is.) I’ve been playing the same character at the University of Auckland role-playing club for well over a year now, a young woman who ran away from home after she accidentally summoned a demon that killed her entire family in an extremely gruesome fashion. Now she’s on the road to redemption and is learning some pretty awesome healing magic.

2) I studied Drama and Classical Studies at the University of Auckland and just graduated with First Class Honours. Now I have no idea what to do with my life!

3) I love to write novels and plays. The play I wrote for my Bachelor of Arts, Honours year has just been picked up by a director, so that’s quite exciting.

4) I have a lovely, lovely boyfriend called Tim, who completely destroys the stereotype that girls never fall for nice guys. I’m just a sucker for the pale, skinny computer nerd-type.

5) I have fully accepted the fact that I am destined to be a crazy cat lady. At the moment, I have two cats (at my parents’ house) called Crookshanks – yes, I know, I was eleven when I got him – and Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien.

6) My favourite author is Oscar Wilde, closely followed by George Orwell, closely followed by Terry Pratchett. Also, J. K. Rowling has brought me so much joy over the years. Whenever I’m down or sick or can’t sleep, I snuggle up and listen to the Harry Potter audio books read by Stephen Fry.

7) Speaking of Stephen Fry, for the last few years, I’ve been watching every episode of QI on a loop. It’s my favourite show, along with Doctor Who and Game of Thrones. My favourite movies, rather diversely, are Jurassic ParkThe History BoysIn Bruges and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

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In the Auckland Domain

The Mount

Like Mount Fujiyama and the River Avon, New Zealand’s Mount Maunganui has a tautological name: it literally means Mount Big Mountain. Officially, it’s supposed to be called Mauao, but no one can say that, so everyone just calls it The Mount.

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It’s not much of a mountain really, more a big hill. It’s quite pretty, sitting there at the end of the peninsula, overlooking Tauranga harbour on one side and the Bay of Plenty on the other. You can be up and down it in less than two hours, and there are different tracks for different levels of fitness. There’s even a track that goes around the base, which makes for a very nice walk indeed, as the waves crashing into the boulders are fascinating.

Mount 3

There are sheep roaming over the Mount, and lots of birds darting through the trees on either side of the paths, but what you go up (and around) it for are the views. On a sunny day, when the pohutukawa are in bloom, you get the green slopes, the red trees, the multicoloured rocks, the golden sand and the crystal-blue sea, not to mention the city stretching along the sandbank.

Mount 6

Two things you must have when walking up the Mount are a hat and a bottle of water. The track can get fairly dusty in summer. Oh, and a camera – the sight of Matakana Island from the top is something you’ll definitely want to take a picture of.

Dolphin 5Mount Maunganui is also the name of the settlement at the foot of the Mount, adjacent to the city of Tauranga. It’s a rather posh place, full of penthouses. It’s pretty much the premiere beach resort of New Zealand. There’s some nice shopping to be done there, and nice eating, and there’s lots of adventurous activities you can book, such as paragliding, jet skiing, kayaking and swimming with dolphins.

What makes Mount Maunganui special is it’s two different types of beaches in one. The Mount is connected to Tauranga by a long, narrow piece of land. On one side is Pilot Bay, the entrance to Tauranga Harbour, where the water is calm and lake-like. It’s great to swim in with small children, or to kayak around in peace. On the other side is a surfing beach. That’s also great to swim in, but you do have to be careful. It’s a lot more lively on the surfing side. Come summer, it’s got heaps of sunbathing locals and tourists. At the base of the Mount, the two beaches are about a minutes’ walk apart from one another.

Mount 2

What’s great is there’s a holiday park right at the bottom of the Mount, with toilets, showers, laundries, kitchens and barbecues. You have book because it’s so popular. I know a family that lives in Tauranga and takes their secondhand campervan to the Mount every year, as if they didn’t live close enough already!

Right next to the campervan park is a collection of salt water hot pools. They’re the only sea water pools in New Zealand, naturally heated. I love going there with my mum. You can get massages there, but we never have. We get massaged enough by the huge jets in the middle pool, and by ‘massaged’ I mean ‘pummelled’. Good for the shoulders, apparently. It’s so nice in the warm water I never want to get out.

Before my family moved to Tauranga, we came on a holiday to Mount Maunganui, but we didn’t get to climb it. It was on fire. Still, we had a good time standing on the beach watching the helicopters scoop up gallons of sea water to throw on the flames.

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Kiwi Houses

One of the most notable differences between England and New Zealand is the housing.

I grew up in a small, terraced house in the North of England. The lounge was less than half the size of our lounge now, here in New Zealand, and we had a tiny bathroom that had been partitioned off from the upstairs front room – there were still the remnants of an outdoor toilet, which we used as a shed.

We had little yard, completely concreted over, and a drying green we shared with the rest of the terrace. When we bought a house in New Zealand, it was the first time we’d actually owned our own garden with grass.

Our street in England was a Victorian street. Every house was the same: two-storied and skinny, just wide enough for a big bay window and a front door. There were no grass verges. Cars lined either side of the road, turning it into a one-way street.

And the next street was the same. And the next.

When we moved to New Zealand, I was astounded at the simple fact that, on our street, every house was different. And most of them were single-storied. It was hard to get used to not having stairs.

Every house had a luscious, green garden in front of it, and the pavements had wide borders of grass.

The houses had space in-between them. Returning years later to look at our old house in England, I had definite, unexpected feelings of claustrophobia, and I couldn’t believe how grey the world seemed.

Houses 3

Space is what defines New Zealand housing, the space to build whatever you can dream. There’s a bit of a problem with some older houses in that, since New Zealand is generally quite warm, they weren’t built with proper insulation and heating – hardly any houses here have built-in radiators – and that isn’t so good when it gets damp in winter.

Houses 1

There’s a lot more outdoor living in New Zealand. Decks are a must-have when it comes to kiwi houses, but lots of kiwi families like to do some outdoor living away from the home. Campervans and caravans are very popular, but not as iconic as the kiwi bach.

A bach is a holiday home by a beach. Traditionally, they’re really basic – practically sheds with beds in, built out of second-hand materials – but I recently visited a friend’s ‘bach’ in Coromandel and it was the fanciest place I’ve ever been in, far flasher than any house my family’s owned. I thought retreating to the bach was supposed to be about leaving the modern world behind, along with all of its electronic distractions, so you could get back to nature – well not this place!

I think I prefer holidaying in a campervan. I’m one of those people that needs encouragement to get outdoors, and this bach was so luxurious I didn’t want to leave it. Mind you, the view from the deck was fairly all right.

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The Magic of Waitomo Caves

Growing up in Britain, I visited some pretty magical places – the Lake District, Tintagel, Lindisfarne – but there’s one place in New Zealand that out-magics them all: Waitomo Caves.

Waitomo’s in the Waikato Region, south of Auckland. It didn’t look too exciting when we were driving up to it in our NZ campervan hire – just a lot of moist, green farmland, not dissimilar to views you get driving elsewhere in the North Island – and Waitomo Village isn’t that interesting either, being so small. There is, however, an old hotel on a hill.

As is the rule with old hotels on hills, Waitomo Caves Hotel is said to be haunted. Funny thing is, my house in England was far older – in New Zealand, ‘some parts of it are nearly a hundred years old’ is considered impressive. No. What’s impressive about Waitomo is the geology.

One of Waitomo's wonderful surface rock formations

One of Waitomo’s wonderful surface rock formations

I suppose the Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is worth a mention. There’s an i-SITE in practically every town in New Zealand, but this one is quite good. It has a nice shop, and there’s a sort of museum dedicated to the caves. In this museum, if I remember correctly, there’s a pretend rock tunnel you can crawl through and, let me tell you, it freaked me out no end.

I used the word ‘crawl’ incorrectly. You have to pull your way through on your belly, just like those extreme cavers, and, even though this model cave was quite short, about halfway through I got scared I was stuck. My head started to spin and my heart was suddenly taking up so much room in my chest I couldn’t breathe properly. Plus, someone had stuck some chewing gum to the wall, which wasn’t nice.

Anyway, I got out eventually, but let’s just say that cave crawling isn’t for me. And the caves where you have to do that but underwater, not knowing when you’ll next be able to breathe – that’s the stuff of nightmares.

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Inside the mouth of a cave

Luckily, most of the guided tours through various sections of the Waitomo cave system don’t require any crawling. The only safety equipment you need is a hardhat, a head torch and covered shoes (and a jumper, unless you’re from somewhere like Newcastle.)

You can do the extreme stuff as well. There’s even an adventure attraction where you can go rafting on a rubber ring down an underground river.

Waitomo 5The caves are beautiful – not quite ‘magical,’ I haven’t got to that part yet, but they have a certain otherworldliness to them. There’s something in the cool, damp air. Your breath is hushed. You can hear a powerful waterfall somewhere behind the rock, but the echoing makes it impossible to tell exactly where. The torchlight gives eerie illumination to the stalactites and stalagmites. Some of the stalactites, over thousands of years, have formed fascinating structures that ripple like cloaks. They sparkle with minerals and moisture.You want to touch them – to stroke them – but it’s forbidden. You just have too look on in awe. And pay attention so you don’t bang your head.

In one of the caves, you can see the skeleton of a moa that fell through a hole in the forest floor to its death centuries ago, complete with the gizzard stones it had swallowed.

Waitomo 4

I remember wondering if it broke its neck in the fall, or if it wandered around in the darkness, unable to find a way out, and starved to death.

The opportunity to see the bones of an extinct animal – not in a museum, but in the place where the creature fell – is fairly awesome, but what makes Waitomo magical is the glowworms.

Something you absolutely have to do if you come for a holiday in New Zealand is go on a Waitomo glowworm tour by boat. It. Is. AMAZING.

You’re taken into a cave, down into a tunnel that has a gentle river flowing through it, and helped onto a boat. You are told to be very, very quiet and to take no flash photos. Then the lights go out.

The boat floats away from the side and into the blackness. For a while, all that accompanies you is the breathing of the tourists in the boat, and the soft sloshing of the water. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Above you, and reflected perfectly in the water below you, are thousands of blue stars. You feel as though you are drifting in space, but you suddenly realise that you can’t be: you are merely in an enclosed passageway that feels as big as the universe. It’s unreal – dreamlike.

Each one of those blue lights is a glowworm. You have to be quiet not just to add to the atmosphere, but so you don’t scare them. If they feel threatened, their lights go out.

Seriously, that place was like Lothlorien. I felt my heart swell just being there. It was so inspiring, and I know I have to go there again before I die.

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Glowworms elsewhere in the caves, with their silken, beaded threads

Waitomo Caves are consistently rated among the top tourist attractions in New Zealand and I completely agree. They’re one of the top tourist attractions in the world!

Walking in Waitomo

What to Do in Auckland for Free

If you’re coming for a holiday in New Zealand, chances are you’ll be landing in Auckland. It’s New Zealand’s biggest city, but not the capital – that’s Wellington. Auckland is where I live – where I chose to come for university – and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring it.

The free parts, of course.

Around Auckland 012Where to start? Well, you could take a walk down Queen Street – the main street, named after Queen Victoria – but you won’t find much that differs from any other city in world. It’s the narrow side streets I like, such as Vulcan Lane and High Street. They’re enchanting. I always have to resist the temptation to spend money in the posh boutiques and cafes, but there are pretty fountains to see as well.

Such as this one, a memorial to the suffragettes. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote.

Such as this one, a memorial to the suffragettes. New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote.

Down one of these side streets is the Auckland Art Gallery. It’s free to enter, but even if you find art galleries boring, it’s interesting to walk past. The building itself is a work of art, and there’s usually something weird on display outside it.

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The Art Gallery backs onto Albert Park, which is typically full of university students. It’s a nice place, with art, statues, a bandstand, weirdly awesome trees, flowers and yet another fountain.

If you like parks, though, you have to go to the Auckland Domain.

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It’s a large area, incorporating beautiful gardens, duck ponds, a restaurant and a place that does nice ice-cream, miniature bush walks, splendid views across the sea to a volcano, and the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The volcano’s called Rangitoto, and it’s nearly as much a symbol of Auckland as the Sky Tower.

Around Auckland 033The Sky Tower is certainly not free to visit. It’s the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and pretty much visible wherever you are in the city, so it’s impossible to get lost in Auckland, which is why I feel so safe exploring it.

A brilliant area to explore is the Waterfront.

At the bottom of Queen Street stands the grand, old Ferry Building. Walk through this and you’re at the sea. It’s busy with ferries and restaurants, but somehow peaceful at the same time.

The Viaduct Harbour is a great place to have a drink, but go through a psychedelic carpark and over a bridge, and suddenly you’re in what I think is a very strange part of the city. It’s like it’s trying to be all futuristic, with modern, artistically designed buildings, all interesting shapes and blocks of colour. There are screens around, pictures on the ground, bizarre benches, new restaurants and bars, and twisted, metallic things. Then there’s the silos.

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It’s called Silo Park; they’ve taken an old industrial site and turned it into a playground. The silos are painted and have poems on them. It’s a wonderful idea, but I find the whole place a little eerie. There’s a raised, metal walkway that doesn’t lead anywhere – it’s just so you can look out over the tops of the silos, and at all the yachts on the water.

There’s also vintage trams around there, but the tracks don’t go very far. The whole area’s still being worked on, though, so no doubt there’ll be more to explore soon.

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So there you have it. Auckland’s a fantastic city to wander round, even if you don’t have any money to spend, and I’ve only talked about the very centre of the city. There’s a lot more to Auckland, for example a whole array of regional parks that have picturesque walks, stunning beaches and places where you can park a self contained campervan for the night, so you don’t have to stay in the city itself, which is expensive.

Even so, I like living in Auckland because I always seem to stumble across something new. When I was out taking photos for this article, for example, I found something a little bit amazing down at the Viaduct Harbour.

A piece of Astroturf had been laid down, with unusual chairs arranged randomly upon it, in front of an old shipping crate that had been painted a cheerful colour. Inside this crate was an almost perfect living room, complete with an armchair, coffee table, wooden floor with a Persian rug, pictures on the walls and pot plants in the corners, and lots and lots of book cases. I reeled with confusion and crept closer. Who would leave all this – all these books! – unattended?

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I stepped into the crate and saw that there was bunting across the back wall, which read ‘B OK SWAP’ – one of the Os was missing. Oh! How lovely.

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No one was around. I must admit I felt tempted to take one of the books, with no intention of bringing back another to put in its place.

I didn’t.

To read more about what to do in Auckland, check out my Top 10 Things to Do in Auckland City list on NZ Top List.