New Zealand – Part 3, the North Island – Part 2

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June 1st 2016
Published: June 1st 2016
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Wellington City – again

Thankfully it’s a lovely day (it’s the end of Feb’16 & cold back home), so the crossing is smooth and we arrive in Wellington at 5-30pm. The walk to the hostel, from the Ferry Port takes 20 minutes with all our bags. This time we’re staying at the YHA Hostel opposite the Te Papa Museum, which has great facilities, and we stayed here on our previous trip to NZ. It’s a huge hostel (some rooms small and inward looking – so no great views). However, the facilities are the best we have come across in a hostel anywhere.

A local Lebanese family have a food stall in the lobby of the hostel. Some of the food looks really good so we buy some Kofta Kebabs, Hummus and Tabbouleh (and they throw in an extra kebab and some wraps as M spends time chatting with them). This goes down a treat with our fish & chip supper (butter fish and kumara chips - both great) from a little but very popular ‘Chippy’ around the corner. All washed down with a nice Merlot for a change. The NW Supermarket is across the street & very handy.

Next morning, we Face Time with the family, which is a good way to start the day. Then off to Thrifty Cars to pick up our hire car to take us further north on the last leg of our NZ adventure. It’s a new and good quality Toyota again.

We go for a drive around the Wellington coastline that Kevin (our UK neighbour) has recommended. He was born and brought up in Wellington and visits his family, each year around Christmas and New Year.

It’s a really nice coastline drive and helped by a sunny day though it’s quite windy. We make a lot of photo stops. There are some lovely sheltered bays where folks are swimming. Then we drive through Shelly Bay, which has some old derelict fishing buildings which are being rejuvenated with galleries etc. We enjoy a good Havana coffee at a funky café on Scorching Bay – it’s called Scorcho-Rama.

Next we drive through an area with fabulous houses called Karaka Bay and stop off for lunch at another funky place on Lyall Bay (by the airport) called Maranui Café - recommended by Karolina (our friend in Nelson who used to live in Wellington). The café is definitely worth a visit even if just to take in the views and some pictures of a creative eatery.

After a fabulous lunch we drive on to Island Bay, an area quite wild, rugged and un-spoilt, before turning inland and back through Newtown to the city center and go back up to Mt Victoria for the views as the weather was pretty awful when we visited it before. All in all, a great way to see the area.

Napier – The Art Deco and ‘Great Gatsby Town’

It’s up very early for the long drive from Wellington to Napier on the east coast. The countryside and scenery are lovely as we make our way to the vineyards of Napier. We stop at Yummy Mummy’s Cheesecake Café in Woodville, for a break and some coffee. It’s a surprisingly lovely place once you get inside and they do great food. The drive takes us through the Hawkes Bay wine region which produces mainly reds – Pinot, Merlot, Syrah – and there are winery’s all around.

We are booked into the YHA Hostel in Napier, which is on the main road across from the beach. Lisa, the American Manager, is very helpful. The hostel is quite small with basic facilities and nice rooms, however, as it’s hot & humid and the window needs to be kept open to keep the room cool, we get quite a few bugs as uninvited guests, some quite large. C freaks a couple of times!

We do the City walk (45 mins) from the LP guide - mainly along Hastings and Tennyson Streets and it’s a hugely photogenic town. The Napier of today, is the ‘silver lining’ after the worst natural disaster NZ has faced. The whole town was destroyed by a huge earthquake in 1931 and was rebuilt in the architectural style that was famous at the time – Art Deco! It still has a unique concentration of Art Deco buildings and each year they have an elaborate Art Deco Festival (everyone in full period costume), which we unfortunately miss by a few days. One to come back for perhaps? It definitely has the feel of ‘The Great Gatsby’ about it.

The beach is long with black sand (and unfortunately also black flies!) and very clean with amazing BBQ spots and overall we feel Napier has the air of an affluent English seaside town, and perhaps we should have allowed more time here.

Unfortunately, the Bluff Hill view point which we drive to is really disappointing – despite the lovely flowers and butterflies. It’s largely a viewpoint onto logging yards and a container ship yard!! Not sure why they promote it.

As we haven’t found a place that grabs us for dinner (unusually the cafes here are not that great or creative as our general NZ experience) so we go for a drink at the Masonic (Emporium) which continues the Art Deco theme inside, and then a BBQ at the hostel.

Whitianga – (The Coromandel Region) - sea fishing, diving & beautiful Cathedral Cove

It’s another long drive to our next stop - Whitianga, so we start at 7am and get to Lake Taupo in 1.5 hrs and straight to L’Arte café for breakfast! Just as good as before and still more photo’s are taken. Then it’s on to the Coromandel Peninsula. We seem to be making good time until we get near there then the roads become incredibly windy and incredibly slow! This is new territory for us and it’s surprisingly lovely, hot and humid (28 degrees) & so rainforest-like vegetation.

We are booked into On the Beach Backpackers, 8 mins walk to town, which is literally opposite the beach, very colourful and has great rooms, and Sue the manager is a star. The bay looks great for a swim and as it’s hot we partake.

The big attractions here are Mercury Bay, deep sea fishing, boating & kayaking. It’s also the access point for a trip to the Whanganui A Hei Marine Reserve. Nearby are two famous and fantastic natural attractions – Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach (where you dig a hole in the sand to sit in at low tide and enjoy the hot water that fills it - though we’re advised by Sue that Rotorua is much better, so we stick with just going to the Cove. And that is a must do!!!

Cathedral Cove is near Hahei, about 40 mins drive away and after renting a car space on a local’s driveway (better we feel than going all the way back to the shuttle bus area) we walk for 45 mins downhill through rain forest to the beach. It’s hot and humid but the Cove is spectacular – it’s essentially a huge natural arch that separates two beaches, and with some limestone rock formations breaking out of the amazingly blue water when the sun is out, it reminds us of Thailand! It’s beautiful, the swimming is lovely, the water cool and the only downside – it’s busy as hell!!

Back in Whitianga we try out a couple of cafés by the edge of the estuary, listening to all the fishing tales of the locals and visitors, and discover the best Ice Cream ever – Killinchey Gold – Maple Walnut & Salted Caramel with Cashew. It is to die for and we almost do, we eat so much of it!

We eat in (BBQ) both nights chatting to other folk staying at the hostel. We’ve noticed there are many French visitors in this part of the N Island (and no Chinese) which is apparently due to it being a popular place for those from nearby French New Caledonia to visit. M also teaches 2 Japanese girls how to BBQ, though we’re not sure they got the point of it!

Whangarei – (Whangarei District) – gateway to the Tutukaka coast & The Poor Knights Islands

We leave Whitianga at 7.45am to get to Auckland on a journey that should take 2 hrs – but the Auckland ‘Express way’ made sure it took nearly 4! Complete madness like being back on the M25. And it’s pissing down with rain when we hit Auckland.

We need to get back to pick up our Camper Van from Escape in Parnell and had hoped to have some brunch there, before picking up the van and then dropping off the car at Thrifty. Change of plan.

We agree with Thrifty to return the car late and head straight to Escape to pick up the van (after paying another 35 dollars a day insurance – quite ridiculous with crazy exclusions in the deal) then use the shelter of the covered section at a petrol station to swap luggage from the car to the van. It all looks very suspicious and nutty and the staff are laughing at us! Then it’s off to drop the car off and then we finally get some lunch at Verve café in Parnell (great as usual). And then it’s another 4hour trip to get to Whangarei for 3 nights at the ‘The Whangerai Falls YHA Campsite & Hostel’.

We’re pleasantly surprised at how fast the van will go, though it’s a real bone shaker and noisy as hell. And as for state of the art luxury – well this ain’t it!!! Beyond basic, it has mdf trimmings, foam mattresses, a cool box for a fridge and a one ring stove. The bedding is decent though.

We arrive at the campsite (Free-Camping is severely restricted in NZ, only in certain areas and you must have your own loo etc.) to find a small neat site with small pool & hot spa. The kitchen & BBQ facilities are pretty good even if the equipment is old and limited so we cook in every night. In some ways it’s quite like a hostel.

The weather is pretty hot and humid and despite the site owner’s assertions to the contrary, mosquitos abound. Cags is not well pleased with being bitten! The weather is better than expected so we go into town to explore. The nicest area is called River Basin in the center of the town – yachts galore and the buildings are very colonial. There’s also a walk along the river which has a variety of art installations, some of which are interesting and some which make you think “what?”

We grab a coffee at Mokaba, which is pretty good, discover a Killinchey ice cream outlet for later (happiness!), take some pics then head off to explore some food options. Just on the edge of town is Stumpys fish and chips where we definitely over indulge - Paua Fritter, Snapper, Kumara fries with Salt & Pepper Squid which was all a bit greasy though very tasty.

We have planned to go diving in the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve (one of the top 10 in the world) which you access from Tutukaka, so take a drive (about 40 mins) there to find out more. We pass through Ngunguru, a quaint village on the way and have to hope we didn’t get caught speeding going into the village as we passed a police camera van – only time will tell. (Speed limits generally are 50kms in village/town centers, 70 approaching & leaving and 100 the national speed limit. We find that most folk drive carefully & to the limit, and slow vehicles and lorries are very courteous and pull over to allow people to pass – unlike anywhere else in the world!!). It’s very quiet and underdeveloped as an area.

At Tutukaka we find a block of condo’s with shops beneath, a small harbour, a fishing club and a dive centre! It looks like the best day weather wise for diving is Sunday (though we are supposed to be up in Paihia then) as the swell forecast at sea for the next couple of days is pretty rough, so we book, then head back driving very steadily.

As we drive we decide to change our plans for the next few days. In order to avoid a long and early start to get to the dive on time, and to reduce the drive back to Auckland at the end of our campervan experience, we decide to go to Paihia a day early and then return to Whangarei for the dive. Thankfully the campsites at both ends are pretty helpful & flexible.

Just next to the campsite is Whangarei waterfalls which we walk to for a mooch. Nothing much to write home about though you can do an hour long walk down to the basin which is full of mossies! We think not!

Paihia – (The Bay of Islands), where NZ was ‘born’ as a new nation as we know it today.

Our Campervan is quite comfy & we sleep in till 9am, then it’s off for the hour’s drive to our new abode – Bay of Islands Campervan Park at Paihia. The journey is windy and a bit slow – it’s obviously ‘road works season’ in NZ post school holidays, as they are everywhere. Having said that they do maintain their roads network pretty well.

The weather is variable but warm at 25 C so very pleasant and the Campsite is lovely; small, neat and picturesque – pond with water Lilies, BBQ area and good bathroom facilities. As we are enjoying the camping we have BBQ dinner each night.

We stop at the iSite Center in Paihia which is really very good and helpful, and book a day Cruise for Friday going out on a catamaran to the Bay of Islands, which are supposed to be beautiful and the boat is supposed to offer the best food of any of the tours. After a stop off at a Café for a bite and coffee, we return to the van and find the van battery flat as we had left the sidelights on. Damn! We go back to the iSite for help and a lovely guy comes and gives us a jump start with a starter pack he has – for a $10 donation to St John’s Ambulance – a star turn, and we don’t begrudge the donation one bit. And lesson learnt!

Paihia is a small town with a very friendly vibe, many souvenir shops, lots of café’s and eateries and just outside town is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which we decide to visit. This is also a draw for the cruise ship visitors and we’re lucky that they arrive on the day we leave.

WaitangiTreaty Ground

The Treaty Grounds are only a 30-minute walk from the campsite so we walk there, noticing the Maori settlements en route. It costs $40 each for a tour of the grounds with the Waka House (the Ceremonial War Canoes), the Treaty House - the Colonial home of Busby, the English governor who masterminded the Treaty for the British side, and the Flagstaff with 3 flags - a Maori one (though the NZ Moaris seem to disagree on which of 2 flags represents them), the Union Jack & the current Kiwi flag, and finally a Cultural show – entertaining & light hearted in an amazing beautiful ‘Meeting Hall’.

The historic significance and the history behind the coming together of the Maori & Brits is interesting, as not all Maori tribes have yet signed the Treaty and there continues to be discussion about the English translation which gives Britain a greater sovereignty power than the Maori version.

There’s a café called Whare Waka which had some interesting dishes – Nasi Goreng & Fijian curry lamb, but we stuck with coffee and cake.

Russell – once known as the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’

Across the bay from Waitangi and Paihia is Russell – once known as the Hell Hole of the Pacific. We take a Ferry Trip ($12 return – takes about 10 mins) for a mooch around – it’s a pretty village but not really a lot to see. Also, as it’s sheltered by the bay from the prevailing wind it is much warmer and the sea bluer and less choppy.

Bay of Islands

Our day cruise with Zig Zag Charters in a Catamaran cost $115 each with lunch included. Unfortunately, the weather is a mixed bag so not the full on rays bit to finish our NZ adventure we were hoping for. Tissa (Chef) & Gordon (skipper) are very friendly and as the boat only holds about 16 folk, it’s not overcrowded at all. As promised there is plenty to eat & drink (non alcoholic unless you take your own) and great food - all very tasty too.

We make two stops to allow for some snorkeling or kayaking and local walks. At the first stop C climbs up a hill for views across the islands (M only had flip flops so decided a hike wasn’t the best idea) which was nice especially when a group of colourful Rosella’s (parakeets) sweep by. We head off for a swim and snorkel though there’s not much to see in the way of marine life or coral and hope the diving will offer better. Overall, it’s a nice day trip to do but we’ve had better.

In the evening we have a surprise FT with Louise who give’s us the good news that Olive is to have a brother or sister! Yeaaah – two new grandkiddies to look forward to (as Sarah is also expecting). That’s a good excuse for a celebratory night cap!

Kawakawa – famous for it’s architectural toilet!

We set off in our trusty Campervan and our next stop is at Kawakawa not far away. It’s a very unusual place but well worth a stop. It’s famous for it’s Public Toilets designed by Austrian born artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. There are quite a few stores along the High St, that have similar architecture – it’s a sort of ‘Gaudi Meets Banksy’ feel to it and the most entertaining loo stop we’ve had ever!

Whangarei – again

After about half and hour we continue our journey back to the same YHA campsite and spot we were at in Whangarei.

It’s the weekend, so we did the walk by the riverside (aka the Town Basin), where many of the locals’ motorboats and yachts are moored. We chance upon a Sculpture Event(mainly in wood & various types of local quarried stone), sponsored by the local council. The public vote for their favourite entries and the winners work is bought by the Council for display. The other works are auctioned off on at a specific event. Noticeably, there are many women sculptures and we feel that this type of encouragement is sadly lacking for you artists in the UK. We cast our votes and move on - M preferring a Golden Eagle made out of driftwood and C a stone sculpture.

Next morning, we leave the campsite at 7am to drop C off for her dives at The Poor Knights Islands with Tutukaka Dive Centre. M can’t dive as he’s had a spell of Vertigo over the last few days (inexplicable but advised by the local Pharmacist not to dive). We have some refreshments at the Schnappa Rock Café, owned & run by the same folks who do the dives & snorkeling trips. The weather is perfect (after some pretty rough days at sea) – very calm & sunny.

The Dive Site is 50 mins away by boat in the Poor Knights Marine Park. There are lots of caves, some big enough for the boats to go in to and tunnels through rocks – eroded by sea. The Dive Team are good with providing info and briefings. They are great at helping C down on her first dive as she struggles with weight (too light apparently!) even with 10kgs on her belt! She has on a full wetsuit including hoody, as the water is cold, so buoyancy is naturally greater. The dives are pretty good as she see’s 3 rays, moray eels and huge scorpion fish plus a school of trevally that circle the divers. However, the second dive was in a ‘kelp forest’ so she had to move it to see some of the fish and there wasn’t that much colour – no corals, though some colourful plantlife on the wall. Overall C was not sure the dives were worth the cost $190 NZ (compared to what we paid in the Red Sea, Belize, Bali and Mexico). However, all in all, not a bad day.

M spends his time back at the site catching up on a whole host of things, after breakfast at the Mokaba Café by the harbour. And in the evening we get organised for the trip back to Auckland, and on to home.

Auckland – Our final day in NZ

We set off at 9am from the Campsite & decide against the snorkeling at Goats Island, as the weather is dull. The drive back isn’t particularly exciting and surprisingly the traffic into AKL isn’t too bad. So we head to the Waldorf Apartments Bankside in the center of the city, where are staying for our last night here. We got it via as the rewards we have built up entitled us to a free night’s stay.

After dropping off our bags, we head off to drop off the camper van and then set about organizing ourselves for the flight home tomorrow. We have a lovely room (with kitchenette including washing machine helpfully) on the 18th floor with great views of the city and harbour area – especially at night when it’s all lit up.

Unfortunately, the place on Chancery Square we fancied for dinner (called Mamak) is closed on Mondays, so after a short stroll around we decide to have dinner in & we find a great little community café doing Malaysian food called Ngopi, not far from us. It’s a funky not for profit organization, supporting Habitat for Humanity & the A 21 Campaign. We treat ourselves to a nice Pinot Noir from Martinborough, which went down well with the take out meal.

So it’s up, ready and out by 10am, down to Chancery Square for breakfast at The Coffee Club – bit of a NZ institution we had avoided but seemed the best deal around. It wasn’t too bad.

Then we get the Express Bus to the Airport (cost $16 each – a great deal) from the Britomart Centre. The singing ‘Indian’ bus driver (clearly not a student from the smooth driving school of motoring) gets us there in 45 mins. He’s having a fun time anyway & keeping the customers amused.

Auckland Airport is quite smart but disappointing regarding the limited range of Duty Free shops & prices. We spend our last few dollars on Montieths Original ale at a bar and buy 2 Whitakers Chocolates for the memory & hope they will survive the Thai heat. See you in Bangkok………………

It’s been a great trip revisiting places we enjoyed in NZ and especially the new places we’ve discovered. And it’s been terrific to catch up with friends again after so long. We’re not sure when we’ll be back but thanks NZ, and thanks in particular to Lynley, Matt & Zac, Linda, Lance & Luke, Andrew G, and Paul, Karolina & Mila. We hope we can reciprocate for you guys one day.

Some reflections on our time in NZ (in no order of priority): -

· NZ’s wine Industry is booming all over & growing fast. We can see them challenging the market share of the French quite easily. Their wines are very good, reasonably priced and the variety has grown too. We were surprised to find on our return that Sainsbury’s had started stocking quite a few NZ Brand wines – reds and whites. Though here they are at the higher cost end.

· Chinese visitors travel to most of the main tourist towns and cities in the South Island, although the numbers in the North are much fewer. So if ever going to NZ around Chinese New Year, make sure you book months in advance for accommodation. Chinese visitors’ driving is pretty erratic and frankly a pain at times as they don’t follow the normal conventions and can stop in the middle of the road as they see something intetresting or park anywhere.

· The New Zealander’s commitment to ‘Green Issues’ does not see to be as great or so outwardly apparent as before. Perhaps, they are getting lazier & it’s not as much of a national priority?

· BBQs are provided in most parks as in Australia and such a contrast to the UK where we have none.

· We are blown away by the beautiful flora & fauna in the country

· As in the US we could not see any Pig farms on view, yet pork is quite widely sold in supermarkets. We do however, notice many Deer Farms around the country and venison is readily available everywhere & found on most menus

· Their Cuisine is not as creative as we can recall from our last visit – however, the cafes seem to be the more innovative in the use of different local produce. However, one trendy and very popular foodie issue is having steaks grilled & served on Hot Stone.

· One noticeable issue is that everyone everywhere pays with credit card and as such Tipping for service seems to have gone out of fashion.

· NZ definitely have more Fish & Chip shops and outlets than the UK and the variety of seafood available is infinitely better and ridiculously cheap.

· We are quite surprised at how like USA the countryside & rural NZ looks at times with small ranches, villages and towns with a single street etc.

· Political tensions between the Maori community & the Government continue to this date, about the interpretation of the Waitangi agreement. The latest issue is the TPP trade agreement, which people have been protesting about.

· The other hot issue has been the issue about whether or not to change the National Flag. There’s been a lot of consultation & a referendum to get to the final shortlist of 2. However, there’s to be one final referendum to change to the alternative or not. Some people feel that too much time, money & effort has been spent on this issue already. The design with the Silver Fern (minus the Union Jack) is the alternative but some Maoris are disappointed that there is no Maori aspect to the alternative flag design. Update – they voted for no change!

· Surprisingly, Valentine’s Day is not a big deal in NZ – it was really difficult to find cards for the occasion.

· Many towns shut up shop at 8 or 9pm and some shops/cafes on Sundays, which was surprising.

· Clearly people feel safe travelling around the country by road, as we have never come across so many hitchhikers since the 60s and 70s when it was the done thing.

· What’s also surprising is the number of people either on their own or in pairs cycle across swathes of the islands ‘on holiday’, looking completely knackered as they bike uphill at 2 kms an hour. But well done them for going for it.

· There are some foods that are very common in NZ cafes and restaurants - Bacon (which is really good), poached egg, Hollandaise Sauce, Kumara (sweet potato), Feta cheese and avocados are staples, as is a lot of seafood, which is very cheap and plentiful.

· In the final analysis, NZ reminds us of being a lot like England (with more warmth & sunshine – hence their sporting activities are largely outdoor pursuits). The countryside mainly in the South Island, reminds us of Devon, Cornwall, Yorkshire. The Northern tip is more humid and sub tropical. Surprisingly people are quite polarized & prejudiced in their views (except in Auckland & to some extent Wellington where diversity is more welcome).

· People here are generally friendlier than in the UK with ‘funny accents’.

· There are no rough sleepers outside the main cities – Auckland & Wellington

· Finally, we think we tried to do too much as by the end we were a bit travel weary. So the lesson is - plan well before setting off – you can’t see it all.

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