Full disclosure. I am writing this while sipping a Ristretto cappuccino from Rust coffee shop next door to my local public library on a cloudy, blustery day in Portland OR. So, while I’ll “be” in New Zealand as I write, I’ll have to imagine this cappuccino is that amazing flat white I had while watching locals at the Federal Diner (look for it down a tiny alley off a main street in downtown Wanaka).
Wanaka. While planning the trip I was unsure whether to stay in Wanaka, Queenstown, or both. Queenstown is all over every travel site, and the setting is spectacular. I mean look, this is the view just from the grocery store…
But in one of the better decisions of this trip, we decided to spend five nights in Wanaka, and visit Queenstown for the day on our way to Fjordland. Briefly, Wanaka is much smaller (at least for now) and more mellow, but still with a lot of restaurant and lodging choices. And spectacular scenery. Queenstown is more dramatic, but also more crowded and touristy. However, for the adrenaline junky this is one of the best spots on earth, so thrill seekers please don’t listen to me on this one (I’ll meet you in a later post with tales of an alpine helicopter ride).
Wanaka started off on a good note. After a rainy and somewhat disappointing trip over Haast Pass, we dropped down Highway 6 to the shores of Lake Wanaka, then across a blink-and-you-missed-it isthmus to Lake Hāwea. These lakes are huge. No matter how high we got in the region, I don’t think we ever saw either lake all in one view. Lake Wanaka is over 70 square miles, the fourth largest in New Zealand. Lake Hāwea is 54 square miles. Both were carved by glaciers. Surrounded by high, craggy mountains that we could actually see, not shrouded in clouds (at least not upon arrival). The setting is absolutely spectacular. The Colorado girl in me was in heaven.
We stayed at Apartments on Upton only a few blocks from a large park bordering the lake (where we stopped to watch cricket one day), with views to perhaps three different mountain ranges. The extra bonus was a sculpture in the yard of a man out of wood and iron that caught my eye on entry. Later that day looking into Wanaka artists and designers in our apartment I found reference to an amazing one, Martin Hill. And noticed “our” sculpture on his website. Art and natural beauty; a perfect combination.
Of all places we visited, the two I could live in for any length of time were Lagrasse in southwest France, and Wanaka. What was it about Wanaka? Primarily the astounding natural beauty of the region, but that goes for just about everywhere in New Zealand. The people were relaxed and very friendly, but again, that’s just the “norm” in New Zealand. A few differences of this region were retail in nature. First, there are too many fabulous biodynamic wineries to count. Just outside of Wanaka is Rippon Vineyards, one of the originals with a view to kill. Not to mention beautiful floral displays and quirky artwork and a Riesling even I would want to drink regularly. There’s also Quartz Reef a short drive away with a tasting room in Cromwell. They have eminently drinkable sparkling wine… wish I had some now!
There are many high-end boutiques around town with beautiful if expensive finds. With a very fat wallet I’d go back to Escape, especially for dresses by New Zealand designer Paula Ryan. The one store with local designs that I found was the recently opened Funkee Design. Cute local skirts and fabulous wool knits by Untouched World. The best though is the thrift stores. I am not that person who routinely finds treasures in thrift stores, unlike many of my friends who tend to unearth vintage Gucci handbags and other designer finds. Apparently Wanaka has a number of wealthy inhabitants who come seasonally for skiing and summer retreats (hence the high-end stores). They seem to leave behind those purchases… At the Salvation Army I found a very wide brimmed Eugenia Kim sun hat (which I desperately needed by the way, the sun is so strong here) for about seven US dollars. Typical retail, well over $400. Then at Wanaka Waste Busters where one could wander for hours, found a great white men’s cotton shirt, a top quality New Zealand merino wool sweater, and an Australian designer jacket for about eight US dollars, all together. After more than six weeks in two shirts and one sweater, this doubling of my wardrobe was divine.
Most compelling though was nostalgia. In all the best ways, and very few of the bad, Wanaka reminded me of Colorado in the 1970 and 1980s. Whereas Fort Collins (where I grew up) had the thrilling dining choice of Perkins on the north end of town or Perkins on the south end of town, Wanaka has numerous delicious and interesting restaurants and cafes. And a fun living room theater, Paradiso, with the best chocolate chip cookies at intermission (yes, I made us go see Mockingjay Part 2 here, it had just released). So plenty to do, see, and consume… unlike the Colorado of my youth.
The similarities? Wanaka is friendly. People smile at one another in the streets. It is low key and unpretentious. The stunning natural features are central to how, and why, many people live here. And there’s a difficult-to-explain energy in the ether that pretty much anything is possible here.
Unfortunately, Wanaka also shares with the Colorado of my youth a refusal by many locals, especially the land holders, to manage growth. Across from Mount Iron, an already crowded local hike, a large swath of land had been bulldozed for construction of up to 1000 homes and numerous commercial buildings. The concept of preserving open space in the face of rapid development is as slow to catch on here as it was in the Front Range of Colorado. Here’s a few images from our hike up Mt. Iron.
But back to the joys of the place. In a nutshell, here’s what we did:
We tried to hike to the Rob Roy Glacier. Sadly we left too late, bad weather was coming, and our dumpy little rental car could ford only about the first four or so of seven river crossings on the road to the trailhead. However, the views up and down the Matukituki Valley along the West Matukituki River were unbelievable and well worth the bumpy journey.
Our “consolation prize” that day was a hike up Rocky Mountain. Both near and far the scenery was amazing. We were nearly blown off the top (the Department of Conservation had actually closed some hikes nearby due to high winds), but in the end that just made it more exhilarating. Here’s a great review by a non-hiker of this route. I think Jeff may have had similar thoughts on this and other hikes during our stay in New Zealand come to think of it…
We visited numerous wineries and art galleries in the relocated “Old Cromwell Town” (though after France, buildings from the 1860s just didn’t seem that old).
We had drinks at the local wine store/bar, Pembroke Wine & Spirits, with Carly. Carly I know from Denver where we worked together in her father’s French bakery when she was in high school and I was, well, way past high school (by the way, this may be the best French bakery in the US; if you’re in Denver, go to Trompeau Bakery). Time with this smart and sarcastic young woman always lifts me up. She and her boyfriend were just at the end of a year working in New Zealand on youth visas. Something I really wish I had done, but I probably would have skipped the apple-picking gig they had. That sounded brutal (complete with collapsing ladders and vicious branches).
Highlight was hiking Roys Peak Track. The brutal part is that it was 10 miles round trip and an elevation gain of about 4000 feet. Having not exercised much, this was a slog for the two of us. Our chagrin at our fitness level was not helped by the numerous super fit locals who jogged past us (just like old times hiking in Boulder, CO). The track had just recently reopened after the spring lambing season, so we hiked with numerous adorable lambs and equally many wary mamas. Views from this hike were amazing. Here are way too many shots:
Here’s a video of Jeff hiking with the lambs (and the wind):
Sadly after five days we had to journey on. We drove through more gorgeous mountains, spent about two hours in Queenstown (with seemingly half of the time driving through construction and looking for parking), then drove south towards Te Anau and Fjordland. Somehow, the trip just kept getting better and better. That post (hopefully) soon.
This voyage has been years in the wishing, and only about a month in the actual planning. We talked for at least five years about flying around the world, but there was always some reason we couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t go. Why that changed at last wishing is not where I’m going with this (at least right now). The main point is that I had little time to plan and research this trip. In that short time one of the destinations/activities that I knew I wanted to do was traveling the West Coast Highway, visiting the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, and driving over Haast Pass, west to east of course. Being a fervent mountain lover, a large part of the reason for this was to view the Southern Alps from the verdant vegetation and aqua glaciers found on their western flank. I somehow forgot to read the part about how all that vegetation got so verdant, and how the glaciers manage to arrest their retreat at all in the face of global warming. That would be the six to eight meters of rain that fall annually.
Which brings me to sacrifices. I’m a firm believer that some blood must be shed at the beginning of any important new venture. I don’t do it on purpose, but it always seems that something slips and I start to bleed. And rather than be upset, it reminds me that oh yes, this sacrifice must be made.
I now believe in a second kind of sacrifice. To the weather gods. As my sister pointed out, rallying against the weather gods is not a terribly productive activity. My takeaway? Pre-trip sacrifices are the way to go. I am not sure the protocol, but I will figure it out before our next voyage.
So here is what I saw from our hotel of the Southern Alps:
And from our hikes:
And from our drive (first attempt at posting video):
Yep, those would be dense clouds. To be honest, we did get this little peak, for which (any weather gods reading this) I am supremely grateful.
It took us a while to rally in Franz Josef, but eventually we got out our heavy-duty rain ponchos (this was not a garbage bag rainstorm) and headed out on a hike to the glacier. It was frustrating to not see the backdrop of snow-covered mountains, but once we got used to the wind and rain, it was actually fun. Once again, we were plastered in smiles on this trip. And the waterfalls were unbelievable up and down the valley. I don’t think I’ll ever be as impressed with a Pacific Northwest waterfall again. Thanks to Jeff who snapped all these on his iPhone (the Fuji stayed back in the dry car).
The next day we got a slightly drier window for our hike out to Fox Glacier. And here is where we caught a glimpse of the distant mountains. For some (more) spectacular pictures of this area, and other parts of New Zealand, check out a blog by Michael Evans, an Australian photographer. Stunning images, and I think he got more sunny days than we did.
After Fox Glacier, we headed out on the pass. Windshield wipers were on full blast most of the drive (except of course while Jeff was filming above video). Pretty perhaps, but I want to go back some day after I’ve made the appropriate sacrifices.
As I write this, it’s Saturday in the Western Hemisphere, which means it’s Sunday in New Zealand, which in houses around the world means it’s Pancake Day. So today, I bring you, Pancake Rocks (oh, and Hokitika).
Continuing our lack of synchronization with the good weather, we pulled out of Little Kaiteriteri on a full-sun, beautiful morning and headed southwest to the West Coast Highway, into more astounding beauty, and at our day’s destination, cool, cloudy, rainy weather in the forecast.
Having been well trained on the curvy, narrow roads of France, we were more than up to the challenge of driving New Zealand’s “highways” even with the driving on the left thing (biggest problem honestly was turning on the windshield wipers when we wanted to turn and the turn signal when it rained…). That said, Google needs to send employees to New Zealand to drive the roads and learn why their point-to-point time calculations are so wildly optimistic (Google, I know you’re reading this, so just saying, I’d be a great hire for this task!). One reason I see is that there are 10,000 river crossings on any drive and they are all one-way and you are always going in the direction that has to yield. But honestly that just means you have more time to look at the stunningly beautiful river you’re about to cross, so it’s not a big concern.
So off we were, driving down the highway, enjoying what seemed a very wide road by our new Gallic standards, stopping and waiting our turn to cross many a river. We drove through central farm and ranch lands for a bit before emerging at the Tasman Sea pounding full blast into the western coast. We pulled over at a random shoulder, where a sign informed us we were at latitude 42° south. Further south than Portland is north.
Here is the raw beauty of the cove we found. Jeff basically had to tear me away from sifting through the rocks (exactly what you don’t need to gather when you’re trying to travel light and have already stocked up on facial products in glass jars).
Next stop down the coast was the town of Punakaki and Pancake Rocks, found in Paparoa National Park, where we headed out on the easy, and stunning, Blowhole Walk. Wild rock formations made of limestone. The layering comes generally from pressure on alternating soft and hard marine layers, but it is apparently still a mystery as to how exactly they formed (or at least it was at the time they printed the trail-side signage). Here again the pictures tell the best story.
And this panorama, hard to tell what is where, but gives a great sense of the scope (photo credit to Jeff).
We visited at low tide, so not the prime viewing moment for the blowholes, but still a beautiful site (and fun time to use the rapid fire feature on my Fuji X-T10).
Our stop for the night was the town of Hokitika. This is where The Luminaries, the book I mentioned back in the Perth post is set by the way. Recently finished the book and definitely recommend it. First thing that struck me about the town: the super-wide streets. Reminded me of where I grew up, Fort Collins. My mother rented rooms at one point to foreign exchange college students who first thought we must be very important as our street was so wide. That was before they got out and about and realized the whole town is that way. Expanding to fill the space perhaps?
Hokitika (worth saying that out loud by the way, fun word to say over and over) is known for its artists and craftsmen, especially for work with “pounamu“. This highly varied green stone is found only on the South Island of New Zealand primarily in the southwest. Pounamu takes one of two mineral forms. Most common is Nephrite, a calcium magnesium silicate mineral. Bowenite is only found at the entrance to Milford Sound and is an iron magnesium silicate mineral. We met one person later in our travels with a pendant from that region; it was luminescent. Pounamu is of great importance to Maori (the article linked to above has some great detail about this). We saw numerous historical pieces in the museum in Wellington. Chiefs (and others?) would carry paddles made of this stone as a weapon and as a peace token. I would not want to be hit by one of those but would take one in a ceremony.
Sadly, in my perspective, many of the stores in Hokitika fall under the category of “schlock” with factory-made pieces made from stone that may have been both made in China and from stone originating in China (all the while exclaiming itself to be New Zealand “greenstone”, a usefully vague term). The same exact pendants, earrings, and warrior paddles over and over in a rather crass execution.
Hokitika was the one place we stayed at a hostel. It had great reviews and was very cozy with a coal-burning stove and a sweet Swiss woman I saw again later in our travels. A quick digression on that coal-burning stove. It was clearly not the only one in town and that is such a peculiar, strong smell that hugs and hangs around a town. If you wanted to feel you had stepped back in time into a western gold-rush town, it was perfect (read that book), but not something I would want to breathe in daily. And remember, we were there in spring headed into summer, not fall or winter.
Back to crafts. We found a couple of galleries featuring talented artists and some beautiful crafts. We especially liked Wilderness Gallery and Hokitika Craft Gallery. The “house mother” at our hostel (not sure her real title but she took care of us all very well) suggested some quality artisans when I asked her where to find the “good stuff.” Some were the galleries we found the day of our arrival (scouting talents confirmed!). Others were new, and she did not lead us astray.
I’m not sure how to explain this, but you see the same four or so pendant styles over and over and most are just that, the same form over and over to oblivion (here is a summary of the designs). But then you walk into a store owned by a true artisan. In our case, the artisan was Colin Davidson and his store is Heritage Jade (sorry, no website but there’s a bit about it here). The same form takes on a unique and powerful force. That “toki” (an adze) you’ve seen 500 times looks different, nuanced, special in every example he has on view. There’s an elegance and finesse. As if the story of the stone has come out. Colin was even commissioned to carve a piece for New Zealand to present to Aung San Suu Kyi.
The other jeweler of note was a gruff former military man, Rex Scott, who I met while photographing his hanging succulents (no really, hanging succulents, look here, and I was with Jeff at the time).
While he still works with greenstone, in some crave-worthy instances combined with copper (sorry, no photos were allowed, but here’s a photo he has online of a fabulous pounamu spider), he is particularly interested these days in chrysoprase. I was wearing my Great Aunt Dorothy and/or Great Grandmother Blench’s chrysoprase ring (I can only ever remember the name of the stone because the late Sir Terry Pratchett has a troll character named that in his fantasy series Disc World). You can see the ring in this photo. I walked out of his store, Tectonic Jade with a stunning (I think I may overuse that word in this country, but there you go) chrysoprase necklace. The store clerk had actually held it back off the floor as she liked to wear it, but brought it out as I was pouring over the chrosoprase pieces. She said she likes to keep the very special pieces for the ‘right’ person. Such flattery got her a sale from me!
Tearing ourselves away from the jewelry and other material wonders of Hokitika, we ventured out into the rainy countryside on roads winding around dairy farms to the Hokitika Gorge. The inn manager had recommended a walk to this spot. Here we walked across another swinging bridge, this time over a pool of powdery turquoise waters. The river, same color, issues from a glacier bearing fine silt/minerals that create that color. Stunning (there’s that word again).
After the gorge we drove off down the coast, stopping briefly at a postage-stamp park with a rare remnant of sand dune totara forest. The Mananui Bush Walk heads through this forest out to an enormous rock-strewn beach that we had all to ourselves, as far as the eye could see.
From here it was off to find some of those turquoise water-generating glaciers. And that, as they say, is a story for another day.
After stocking up on groceries, very expensive (but not top shelf) gin and vodka (and tonic and limes of course), and moderately expensive facial products, Jeff and I headed off for our first national park adventure on the South Island. After talking with numerous people, we decided to stay in Little Kaiteriteri, as the name says, a very small town (town is even too big a word for it), just to the south of the park. Found another nice motel here, Torlesse Motels with views to the Tasman Sea.
We arrived late in the day and scoped out options for taking a boat into the park the following day, then packed up a bag full of provisions, including our spendy gin and vodka, and headed to the small but stunning gold-sand beach less than five minutes from our place.
As mentioned before, we were in New Zealand during spring. The plus side: peonies were in bloom, so I got them twice in one year! The down side: the weather was really spotty. We seemed to be visiting places just before or after good weather, but rarely during warm, sunny days. So rather than the bright sun, sapphire water and golden sand experience, we had the cloudy/rain, multi-colored water, and golden sand experience. With some big waves thrown in for good measure.
We decided that despite the weather we would take the Sea Shuttle “Discovery Day” tour, which included a boat trip from Kaiteriteri (the town next to our spot, Little Kaiteriteri). The boat motored up the coast to Totaranui, dropping people off at different bays along the way. We headed out on relatively calm waters, and the sun peeked out enough to throw some low rainbows.
About a third of the way through the trip, winds came in and the sea got big. Our little boat was going up and down waves, into and out of troughs. All of which made Jeff very happy and me, thankfully, only a bit green.
After at least an hour (or so it felt) of tossing upon the waves, we were dropped off at Medlands Beach to walk 10.5 kilometers to Anchorage Beach where we would be met by the boat and returned to Kaiteriteri. The weather report had called for the rain to lift by mid-day, when our hike was to start. The weather did not check in with the weather report… Thankfully the boat operators had a disposable rain poncho. Aside from feeling a bit like a walking trash bag, I at least did not get soaked through. And thankfully we were not doing the entire Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the “Great Walks” of New Zealand. This one stretches for 60 kilometers and takes three to five days to complete. The people we saw who were clearly walking that did not look overly happy.
Here is where the pictures take over. It was a stunning walk, and as the photos of Jeff and me show, we were certainly not suffering. Storyline continues in the photo captions…
And here some artsy shots; sea shells and burnt driftwood arranged on golden sands:
The next day, still a bit on the rainy side, we headed out to a small local park known as “Resurgence,” officially Kahurangi National Park. The north branch of the Riwaka River emerges from a network of caves under Tanaka Hill. The color of the water where it surfaces is mesmerizing. Unsurprisingly the area is sacred to the Maori. A thoroughly beautiful and peaceful spot, with an almost weighted silence to it. Almost as if you want to hold your breath the whole time you’re there.
The rest of our time here was spent walking back and forth over the rocks (tide in) and around the rocks (tide out), from Little Kaiteriteri to (big?) Kaiteriteri, alternately in search of flat whites and green-lipped mussels. Many New Zealanders come here to vacation annually. A thoroughly enjoyable spot, even better I’m sure when the sun shines bright.
Aspects of New Zealand I will remember the most clearly and for the longest time will likely be first the astounding natural beauty of the islands and second the remarkable (seemingly) genuine kindness of its people.
A key purpose of this trip was to seek out remarkable products made by remarkable people. New Zealand has some amazing design and certainly no end of wonderful people, but in contrast to other countries we visited, I did not find or stumble upon much of the type of product I had hoped to find. Nelson was the exception to this experience.
But picking back up chronologically, we left the North Island, sailed through the Marlborough Straits, and landed in Picton. It was just an overnight stop. Although we had the smallest wine pour of our entire trip, the rest of our dinner was delicious with a bowl of fresh green-lipped mussels and the most elegant garlic bread ever.
Our motel was unremarkable aside from this old radio on the wall. Sadly it didn’t work.
The next morning we picked up a decidedly not luxurious rental car (picture to follow in a later post). Jeff bravely took the first leg, driving us back to the motel. We had been worrying for months about driving on the “wrong side” of the road. A woman on one of our flights gave me the best advice, “steering wheel to the center of the road.” That became my driving mantra. That plus numerous signs along the roads, and an always-alert passenger, kept us safely on the left side of the road. I did a few laps of sleepy little Picton (actually found it harder to drive with little other traffic… you’re not likely to turn into the wrong lane if there’s a car sitting in it already facing you). Then screwed up my courage and we headed out on the Queen Charlotte Drive through the Marlborough Sounds towards our next stop, Nelson.
Our motel in Nelson was one of the nicest of the trips, Century Park Motor Lodge. Beautiful spacious room with an exceptionally nice host and hostess. And the best organized kitchen accessories drawer of the trip.
There was a boarding school next door that was knocking out Wi-Fi signals for a couple block radius. Apparently there was going to be a meeting about it the following day, but as the internet went in and out over our one-night stay, even though they warned us before check in (when we could have left if we so choose), they refunded us over 20% of the hotel cost the next morning (and emailed me several days later to let me know the problem had been fixed).
After wandering a bit together, Jeff and I decided this was a town for me to explore on my own, popping in and out of the numerous stores featuring local designs. Stores that stood out for me were Red Art Gallery, especially products by Dinosaur Designs such as useful yet quirky home accessories (though should mention they’re from Australia not New Zealand).
Also enjoyed the Little Beehive Coop. Owned and operated by local artisans, the store had everything from weaving to drawings to jewelry. I was especially drawn to jewelry by Marielle Estelle, especially the sea urchins (or kina as they’re called in New Zealand).
Perhaps what I most enjoyed in Nelson were the beauty products. New Zealand has a number of small (to larger) companies that produce high quality, natural face and body products (as I had been vainly searching for in France, and yes, both senses intended). I stopped into one natural products store, Bodywise www.bodywisenaturalhealth.co.nz where a calmly enthusiastic (yes, sounds like an oxymoron, but she was) naturopath named Bridget introduced me to the many lines they carry. Here are the ones I “met” there:
Living Nature: A fairly large range of face and body products. Claims to be “New Zealand’s original certified natural skincare company”. Was tempted by several products but did not buy any.
Antipodes: This line and Triology (which I originally mistook as being a UK company) seem to be the most sophisticated of the New Zealand natural brands. Beautiful packaging, especially the hand and body creams in jewel-toned metal tubes. Unfortunately I did not buy any of this line as it was very expensive. But as a brand that uses unique, local ingredients like the mamaku black fern and to research the best extractions (with no animal testing of course), it’s one I definitely want to watch.
plantæ: Made locally in Nelson, this is a smaller line of products, but seem to be very pure and intense. I did buy the Rose Hip Fruit + Seed Serum, which is the most concentrated rose oil I’ve ever used. They use the entire rose hip (apparently most rose oils only use the fruit, or the seed, I’m not clear on that…), resulting in what feels like the absolute essence of a rose in liquid format. Heaven.
The Herb Farm: A mother-daughter team, this line was the most attractive to me physically. Simple, clean design that somehow conveys a subliminal message that your skin will likewise be pure and elegant with these products (I’m a sucker for marketing). Their products are as natural and fresh as any of the others, but in addition they have a stated commitment to keeping their products affordable, and the prices were very reasonable, especially for the “natural” market. I left with a sampler line of their rose-based dry skin set. Love it, especially the powder exfoliate.
So, with slightly heavier bags and perhaps a more radiant face, we departed Nelson for our first national park, the smallest in New Zealand, considered the “sapphire”of the system, Abel Tasman National Park. More adventures await!
With luck on our side, we made it from the north tip of the North Island to its southern tip with plenty of time to get to our ferry and on to the primary focus of our New Zealand trip – the South Island.
I had read about this ferry crossing in several lists of “Top 50 Travel Destinations” or “The 100 Best Travel Moments” or, “25 Best Boat Trips” or… well, it’s on a lot of those.
The Marlborough Sounds are not fjords, but ancient river valleys that flooded with rising oceans. After crossing over on a blissfully calm sea, I would say that I agree with the inclusion of this venture on all these lists of fabulousness (Jeff says he would have preferred it with big waves, which happens some times).
There’s not a lot of words to describe this trip, mostly the pictures are what matters. I do want to send out a “thank you” to the sales agent from Crumplers in Perth who told us where to go on the ferry to have the best view (get first in line and make a beeline to the front of the ship, which happens to be the bar). We were almost the first on and did exactly as told, and got the best seats on the boat. Front and center (this being one of the few times that I had no desire to ‘upgrade’ as the luxury quarters were in the back of the boat with nearly no view).
Plus, we were in the bar, so it was just a quick trip over to pick up a spectacular glass of wine, for less than $7. I had two.
Lots of good people watching and fantastic scenery. All in all a wonderful couple of hours on the Aratere, and the perfect arrival to the South Island.
As of the last post, Jeff and I had arrived in Auckland after a beautiful train trip up the center of the North Island. In one of those rare moments of great timing, our late arrival by train (given the electrical problems) resulted in an upgrade to a club level room, so we got to be posh and comfortable for a night at the Langham Hotel.
So wonderful was this room and the hotel spa (sauna and an ice pagoda thing…), and so late was our arrival, that it was an easy decision to postpone our 7:30 am departure for a more sane sounding 1 pm one. Prying ourselves away from luxury, we rolled our carryon bags down a steep hill to the Intercity bus terminal and settled in for a sinuous drive to the Bay of Islands.
We had a choice of staying in the more party town setting of Paihia or the more laid back, sleepy town of Russell. No contest there, so we hopped onto a ferry within 10 minutes of getting to Paihia and zipped over to Russell.
The weather was cooler and wetter than we had hoped (a pattern that unfortunately repeated, guess that’s the risk of traveling off season…). But we stayed at the sweet Motel Russell with plenty of space (and a very kind hostess who drove us to the ferry as we departed in the pouring rain) and managed to eat and drink well and get in some good walks.
The highlight was an afternoon boat trip around the islands. The area is rumored to have more than 140 islands, so claimed by Captain Cook upon his visit in 1769. No one has actually counted that many since (we learned that to be called an island, a body of land has to have some surface area permanently above high tide and contain some form of vegetation). But that doesn’t detract from the beauty of this bay filled with water of all colors and at least 80 islands if not more. We took the Great Sights fast boat tour in the afternoon (maybe we should have gone to the party town after all…). Cruised around some beautiful islands, learned some history, got to hike to a lookout where the resident Maori took Captain Cook on his arrival, and learned perhaps my favorite bit of information of the whole New Zealand trip – the Bay of Islands has wild rock oysters that are safe to eat and anyone can gather. This knowledge vastly improved my day, and perhaps the trip as a whole.
For more than ten years at least, I have wanted to wade into the ocean and pull out fresh oysters (yes, we’re talking about oysters again…) to eat there and then. Fresh oysters on the docks in Normandy was amazing. But wading in and eating them immediately, that’s something else entirely. Upon our return to Russell, I asked our guide where I could find rock oysters nearby. He pointed to an outcropping just around the bay and told me all I needed was a butter knife and I’d be good to go. So Jeff and I dropped our things at our motel, grabbed one dull and one sharp(ish) knife, and headed back to the bay, going as fast as I could make us.
Luckily the tide was out just far enough to let me wade right up to the rocks, but rising so that Jeff didn’t have to eventually leave me there with a flashlight as I might well have stayed and eaten oysters all night.
This was my heaven. The oysters were phenomenal. Sweet, salty, firm, small, delightful. I honestly didn’t even mind the lack of a crisp white wine. A nice couple from Australia stopped by at one point and I shared a few with them. Some terns also wanted to share in the feast, but they were a bit scary. Then along came a pair of ducks who seemingly are above terns in the pecking order, as the terns all took off. In exchange for this service, I did share some oysters with the ducks. All in all an amazing hour or so standing in the bay, trying to pry loose, then open, these fabulous oysters. I would say that next time, a pair of thick gloves would not hurt…
(photo credits, Jeff Baumgartner)
The next day it was time to depart and start our voyage towards the South Island. We spent a quick night in rainy Whangarei. Nothing much to report from there except perhaps one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever eaten at Suk Jai Thai. A flight from the teeny airport at Whangarei took us to Auckland where we had to dash, cut in line, and dash some more to get to our flight to Wellington. They were calling last boarding, but as it turns out they still had a line a mile long to get on the plane. I tend to worry too much about logistics and this was one of those times I could have slowed down a bit. Most notable on this flight were the strikingly beautiful flight attendants and the only safety video I’ve actually watched in years of flying. Air New Zealand got the All Blacks rugby team to do the safety video (they are absolute national heroes and recent winners, yet again, of the Rugby World Cup). If you’re really bored, like stuck on a plane bored, you can watch it here.
Why back to Wellington and not fly directly to the South Island? Only one reason: to sail through the Marlborough Straights. Next post, a beautiful ride south to the land of green lipped oysters and unreasonably beautiful countryside.
New Zealand, on fantasy destination list since before Sir Peter Jackson demonstrated to the world that he knew exactly where on this earth JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings could be found (but to be honest, those movies sealed the deal on just how magical these islands are) (and yes, I believe the New Zealand tourism agency requires any blog written about NZ travel to start with a reference to that empire). We did not do any specific LOR tours (there are plenty), nor did we choose our destinations based on specific scenes (though that might not be a bad way to go). I believe we did see some of the locations that were in the film, that is, when the weather allowed… We went to the jeweler who made ‘the ring’ (did not buy anything, found an even better ring on the beach outside that town, on my finger now).
And somehow, New Zealand has flown by without finding time to post. Mostly that’s a good sign. It is a thoroughly engaging place. Food, coffee, people, ‘stuff’, scenery… There were certainly down times, but rather than hunkering down and processing photos and writing (hopefully) witty posts, I seem to have spent those times ineffectively railing against the weather gods, a pastime my sister very wisely pointed out is entirely useless. Note made to self, next time be sure to make appropriate sacrifices to those gods before making travel plans.
So on the morning of our (hopeful) departure from New Zealand, here begins an attempt to capture the rich variety of experiences had over the last three weeks. Will split this up into several posts, mostly chronologically.
As I contemplate our departure, reminded of our arrival. We were way back in coach on our way to Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Being Virgin Australia coach, it was hardly the nightmare that United can be. Nice soothing purple light, enough space for a normal human being, friendly flight attendants.
And as the perfect introduction to the country, we were sat behind an absolutely hilarious and super friendly family. I forget exactly how we started talking, think the little girl was staring at me and we started chatting. The parents had both worked in the travel industry and gave us recommendations of ‘out of the way’ things to do around the country. And then the kids (about 8 and 10 I think, boy and girl) proudly told us that their father was the executive chef at one of the upscale restaurants in Wellington. This earned us an invite to come by the restaurant and try out some steak, their specialty (and no I won’t make a joke about that). They also told us, very proudly, that Wellington had just been recognized as the windiest city in the world, edging out Chicago. I think that’s the definition of dubious honor. When I asked the parents where to find a good flat white in town, they told me that everywhere in Wellington has good coffee, it’s definitely a ‘thing’ there now.
So we arrived after midnight.
By the way, France, take note. Right in the tiny arrivals hall, at midnight, was a friendly representative of Vodafone who set me up in next-to-no-time with a prepaid SIM card. That night included we only spent two nights in Wellington, so some brief outtakes. I did not know that there were hotels with rooms with no windows. There are. I am super claustrophobic, so upon checking in at 1 am, I promptly popped back downstairs to reception and learned unfortunately that the hotel was entirely full. The kindly clerk pulled I don’t know how many strings to get us moved into a window room the following day. So we went from no windows (at least the morning light didn’t wake us…), to a room with a wall entirely made of window. Here’s me celebrating.
It was windy, a bit rainy, and not overly nice when we took off walking the next day. But being New Zealand, there were several hearty people swimming in the bay (look for little dots behind Jeff).
We visited the amazing Te Papa Tongarewa museum. Perfect introduction to New Zealand covering its arts, geography, geology, cultural history, etc. High quality exhibitions, beautiful space. We needed more than a day there. With our brains chock full, we recovered a bit, lounging in our enormous window. Then it was off to meet our new friend from the incoming flight for a steak dinner at his restaurant, easy name to remember, Portlander Bar and Grill. I wasn’t expecting much steak in New Zealand. Lamb yes, and green lipped mussels (both of which we enjoyed multiple times). But there is quite a bit of really high quality beef. The steak we had at the Portlander was far and away the best. Plus we had our first whitebait appetizer. It’s whitebait season (as far as I can tell, whitebait is smelt). They cook them as in an omelet and serve on white bread with lemon and salt. Tasty.
Our itinerary had us mostly traveling in the south island (even people who live on the north island will agree the south is the most beautiful), so to see a bit more of the north island in a short time, we decided to take a train trip up the middle. Kiwi Scenic Rail runs trains several times a week, so we headed out on Friday morning on a nearly 12 hour journey up the island. Amazing scenery and super friendly staff (honestly, just about everyone who works in the travel industry here has been super friendly, it’s a bit odd). The rest of the pictures tell the story. The generator cut out about a third or half way through the trip, so it got a bit warm and we could no longer listen to the interesting commentary or watch our status on the overhead screens, but it seemed the best place to be was back on the observation car anyhow, so it was not too big an issue. Plus they gave out free ice cream, yogurt and drinks as they couldn’t keep them cold. If anyone is planning a trip to New Zealand, I strongly recommend taking this train ride, with or without electricity.