Ah, Nelson. Where to start? What a wonderful, varied, interesting part of the country!
As mentioned in my previous post, our visit to this northern city on the south island began with a trip to see Bob, a friend we met on the plane from LAX to Fiji. Bob lives in Glendaun, a bedroom community right outside of Nelson city. A great storm blew us into his town, and we took shelter inside his lovely home enjoying a homemade dinner that included green-lipped mussels (a specialty on the south island—YUM!), local fish, and chard (known as silverbeet here) grown in Bob’s backyard.
The following day we took a short hike with Bob into the hills behind his home. Just a 30 minute climb or so and we got the following spectacular view:
Bob had some errands to take care of, so Jeremy and I continued up the hill a short ways. Now, as is often the case with hikes around New Zealand, there were sheep grazing all over the trail. Incidentally, I finally understand the origin of the phrase “feeling sheepish.” These guys are real scaredy cats! If you get within 25 yards or so of them, they go running. So, it was particularly surprising when the little guy pictured below decided to get tough with us and baaa’d us off his field. He must have followed us for about 10 minutes, baa’ing loudly and continuously. I was imagining he was the big, bad sheep of the field, kinda like the Fonz, getting all the girls and showing the other sheep who was boss. Let’s see him try to jump a shark, hmm?
Bob sent us on our way with a page full of notes on places to visit during our stay on the south island. We’ve pretty much done everything Bob has recommended, including stopping at restaurants he mentioned and hiking trails he’s tramped (that’s the Kiwi word for hiking). I gotta say, Bob’s got a pretty good program! We think he should write a guide book.
First stop on “Bob’s Tour of the South Island” was Marahau, where we camped for the night so that we could hike in Abel Tasman Park the following day. You can hike into the park from Marahau, which is a long way, or you can take a water taxi and hike only the nicest parts of the park (Torrent to Bark Bay). For NZ$62 (approx. US$37) per person, you get dropped off in Tonga Bay (north of Bark Bay) at 10AM and picked up in Torrent at 4PM. We did the hike in about 3 hours and then hung out on the beach the rest of the afternoon waiting for the taxi. You could probably take a later taxi into the park (they have taxis that can drop you off at 11:45AM) but we thought the hike was going to be more like 5 hours long so we hitched the earliest ride we could.
The water taxi drop-off in Tonga Bay.
We heard a lot about Abel Tasman park, but honestly, we weren’t that impressed. The bays were really beautiful and it was fun to see some of the native vegetation (ferns galore), but it was by far the busiest hike, er, tramp, we’ve done. The whole thing felt a bit “packaged” to us. It is quite possible that the coastline was not as stunning as it usually is due to the storm. Our water taxi driver said that the water is usually crystal clear but due to the heavy rainfall the day before, silt and dirt were clouding the water.
That night we drove towards Takaka, which is about halfway between Marahau and Cape Farewell, our next destination. As you drive over the hills into Takaka, you pass through the most beautiful valley.
We camped in Pohara (Pohara Beach Top 10: www.pohara.com/paradise), which was a gorgeous campsite on a stunning beach. We highly recommend staying here rather than in Takaka, as it is much more tranquil and only about 10 minutes out of the way.
Cape Farewell/Whariki Beach
The next day we headed out towards Cape Farewell, which is the very northwestern tip of the south island. There is a long “finger” of sand that juts out from the land, creating a bay. The “finger” is known as Cape Farewell Spit and it is a protected bird sanctuary so there is limited access to the area. You can, however, go on tramps to the west of the spit. Second stop on “Bob’s Tour of the South Island”: Whariki Beach (”wh” is pronounced like an “f” in Maori, so this is actually pronounced “Fah-ree-kee”).
This tramp started out as usual, grassy fields and rolling hills covered with grazing sheep.
Then, incredibly, you hike over another hill and it is a vast expanse of gorgeous, deserted white sand beach. Just like that: one minute: rolling hills and sheep; next minute: incredible deserted beach.
We had heard that Whariki Beach could be uncomfortably windy, but we lucked out! There was a very light breeze, the sun was shining, and there were even seals swimming in the ocean and peeking their heads out to observe us.
I mean, I felt like the I was in the group at Burning Man that wandered off and got grilled cheese sandwiches, mojitos, and a cold water head dunk (some of you will know exactly what I mean by this…others, you can figure it out).
Whariki Beach is also known for its caves, and we spent the better half of the afternoon wandering in and out of them. Be careful—there may be some grumpy seals hiding in those caves!
For the life of us, we couldn’t understand why Abel Tasman was swarming with people and this place was completely deserted. It is quite a bit of a haul out to get to Whariki, but it is entirely worth it. If you ever find yourself even moderately close to this corner of the world, GO! And cross your fingers that it’s not windy.
Next stop on Bob’s tour was Nelson Lakes, where he recommended that we hike the Mt. Roberts loop. It’s a pretty steep, steady 1 hour climb to the top, and then 2 hours downhill, but each part of it is beautiful and interesting. I know Jeremy said it before, but I will say it again: we can’t get over how accurately Kiwis estimate the hiking time, especially since we are usually hiking at an above-average pace (that’s what we think, anyway). The nice guy at the information center (known as I-site) told us it would take 3 hours for us to do the hike, and that’s exactly the time we clocked. I guess Kiwis are really strong trampers!
The hike up has great views of Lake Rotoiti…
…and then you tramp through an enchanted forest (it’s not hard to see why Peter Jackson chose to film The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand after seeing forests like these):
And once you get past the summit, the track opens up onto a wide, grassy field with views of the St. Arnaud mountains:
We did a lot of hiking in the Nelson area, and I think that is a testament to its incredible natural beauty. Nelson, we love you!
Wellington is not only a cool city with a vibrant art scene, but the place where you catch the ferry (The Interislander: www.interislander.co.nz/ ) to get shuttled from the North Island to the South (you get dropped off in Picton). For the privilege, you pay about NZ$220 (currently about US$130)—about NZ$55 per person and NZ$116 for the car, so it’s not cheap! For some reason I totally dorked out on this and was incredibly excited about the idea of driving our van onto a ginormous boat.
They loaded us onto the lower deck of the boat along with other cars, camper vans, and even semis! And they really pack you in there…we were shocked by how accurately they could determine how many cars and trucks could fit on the lower deck since they don’t really know what you’re driving until you show up.
The boat is very large and luxurious (actually, for no particular reason, it reminded me a lot of the huge spaceship in Wall-E, even though there weren’t hovercrafts or anything). There is a large sitting room, where televisions were playing the Ellen Degeneres show (incidentally, I wonder how it is for Kiwis…all the major movies that they see are in another accent), and they even have a theater where they show movies (though we were advised by Patty not to watch this because it makes you seasick). We were actually quite surprised by how calm the ride was, especially since it was storming outside. But then again, neither of us really get seasick so we’re not reliable sources of information on this front. On the way to the South Island, you meander through a number of bays around several little islands and peninsulas. It takes you 3 hours to get across and all in all it was a very nice way to spend the afternoon, especially since the weather was bad out.
When we arrived in Picton, we drove our van off the boat into…an incredible storm. I mean, it was really coming down. Our plan was to drive from Picton to Nelson that night, where Bob lives. Bob is a friend that we met on the plane from LAX to Fiji (and he was on our flight from Nadi to Auckland too). He is an ex-pat of sorts; he lives part of the year in Colorado, part of the year in Maine, and part of the year in New Zealand. Not too bad a program, if you ask me! He invited us to visit him when we passed through Nelson, and we readily agreed.
There was just one problem: it is about 2 hours from Picton to Nelson, and though the boat effectively sheltered us from the weather, once we got off the boat, we realized it was bad—really bad. This is the worst weather Jeremy or I have ever driven in. Not sure if you will be able to see in these photos, but there were entire fields that were flooded over. Out the window there? Yeah, that’s normally all GRASS, not water.
We were really relieved once we made it to Bob’s house. It took a little longer than expected and we considered pulling over a few times, but we made it. The best part? Apparently this is a normal-sized storm for Kiwis. I guess that’s why they are such hearty folk.
A note from H&J: We’re experimenting with how we approach/organize these blog posts. If you have an opinion one way or another as to what works, please let us know! Otherwise, thank you for your patience while we get the hang of this blogging thing while we’re on the road.
After our scenic drive down the 45, Jeremy and I were jonesing for some beachside camping for the night. We were headed for Martinborough, which is a small wine-producing region about 1.5 hours east of Wellington, but we pulled over for the night since Martinborough was still 3 hours away. Our map showed that Otaki Beach, which is about 60 km north of Wellington, had a holiday park where we could stay so we pulled off the main road to settle for the night. I believe you can officially mark this as the point at which we became holiday park snobs. After our gorgeous beach-side camp spot in New Plymouth, the holiday park in Otaki, while perfectly adequate, was not close enough to the beach for us (two blocks away from the shore rather than directly wave-side). So, we decided to find a nice spot along the shore and “freedom camp.” This is what Kiwis call it when you just pull over to the side of the road and settle in for the night, and we haven’t done a lot of it since our van doesn’t have a toilet or shower. But hey, life’s too short for two-blocks-from-the-beach camping.
In general, it seems that the further south we go, the nicer the holiday parks get in terms of location, amenities, etc. At this point, the holiday park in Raglan seems almost like a dump compared to some of the other locations we’ve stayed in!
For our first time freedom camping, we did a pretty darn good job picking a spot. We sat on the beach, cooked our dinner, and watched the incredible sunset over Kapiti Island. We’ve subsequently seen this exact same scene replicated in art prints and paintings! Hey, when it’s good, it’s good.
The next day we headed straight for Martinborough. This area is mostly known for its Pinot Noir, but like Marlborough (on the northeastern side of the south island), it also produces a pretty darn good Sauvignon Blanc.
It was a very different experience tasting here vs. the Northern California wineries. First of all, the wineries are tiny here! You can walk from vineyard to vineyard (though we were the only people doing so), and some of the wineries are as big as the Napa Valley parking lots! Overall, we didn’t love the Pinots here…they tasted young to us, almost grassy. And while we don’t usually like the super-bold Napa or Sonoma valley varietals either, we wished there was a little more richness to the wine in Martinborough.
We tasted at Schubert Winery and the popular Ata Rangi, but the one standout was Alana Estate, where we stopped for lunch as well. They had a 2006 Pinot and a 2008 Pinot they were tasting, and both were incredible. I was skeptical about the 2008 since I am usually suspicious of wines produced in the same year you are tasting them, but for a hot summer day, Alana’s 2008 Pinot was perfect. The food here was great too.
BTW, we stayed at Martinborough Village Camping (www.martinboroughcamping.com), which was fantastic. Though it was not beachside, the grounds were in a beautiful rural setting, and the place was super clean and well kept.
The next day, we headed for New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington. Wellington is a super compact little city (they advertise that you can walk from one end of the CBD—Central Business District—to the other in 20 minutes), and it is known for having a thriving arts culture. As you can see, they really do pack those buildings in there:
Our first day in the big city, we checked out Te Papa museum (www.tepapa.govt.nz/), which is a museum about the history, art, and culture of New Zealand. The exhibits and signage are all in English as well as Maori, which I thought was really cool. The art floor is really well curated, and I loved seeing historical colonial vs. Maori art and how each influence the other. The interesting thing was that colonial art from New Zealand was executed in pretty much the same way as it was in Europe (just with a different landscape), whereas Maori art immediately began taking on some European flavor. There was some really interesting modern art in the museum as well.
We also really enjoyed the floor with native Maori art. The photo below was taken in a reproduction of a Maori hut:
The city of Wellington is really cool. We walked up and down Cuba Street, which is a long street full of vintage shops, design stores, and boutiques full of refashioned clothes—very similar to the Haight. I LOVED this street, though it was a bit torturous, as there were tons of cute clothes and design-y type curios but I couldn’t buy anything. In particular, I loved Iko Iko (cute design store), Hunters & Collectors (amazing vintage shop), Madame Fancy Pants (all handmade goods), and Frutti (really amazing refashioned clothes).
The coolest part about this cool city was its proximity to an amazing coastline. Jeremy and I drove along the shore out of the city, along several different bays. When we got to the end of the road, there was a large park with hiking trails and an incredible rocky shore. Jeremy and I kept saying that if Wellington was in California, a gorgeous place this close to the city would be overrun with people (on a Sunday, no less!). But the beach was practically empty. Jeremy went for a run down one of the trails and I hung out, checking out the tidepools.
We adore Wellington and of all the places we’ve been to in New Zealand so far, this is the one place we could see ourselves living. Hmm…maybe when we retire?
3 (+/- 1) Sisters
We headed south from Kawhia, initially inland to join back up with the major highway, but then south and along the coast. More verdant hills dotted with happy sheep. I definitely have an affinity for this landscape; must be those Irish genes.
The clearing winds from previous days’ storms had the sea whipped up and huge waves crashed against the shores and cliffs. Too messy for surfing, but very impressive to watch. We learned later that this part of the coastline is eroding at a rate of around 3 meters a year—obviously a source of concern for many. The area in the picture below is known as “The Three Sisters” because of 3 large pieces of cliff orphaned from the rest by the waves. It turns out that one of the sisters was lost in a big storm a few years ago and now there are only 2. Stay away from the cliffs!
We arrived in New Plymouth and setup camp at Belt Road Holiday Park (http://www.beltroad.co.nz). It was a spectacular camp site with views of the harbor, what could be an excellent point break with the right tide and swell, Mount Taranaki, and a bit of downtown. Between us and the water was a walking path that skirts the shore all the way through town.
Apparently, there are several good surf breaks right in town, but alas, the westerly winds were too much and the surf was blown out. Each evening, there were kiters and a few windsurfers playing in the waves. I was surprised how few there were given the steady 15-20 knot side/onshore wind and fun-looking swell.
New Plymouth sits on the north shore of a piece of land formed by the volcanic Mount Taranaki (see map). There is skiing in the winter and hiking (or “tramping” as it is known here) and mountaineering in the summer. We spent one morning hiking to the snow-line; to go any further, you need crampons and ice axes or risk glissading off the 100 meter cliffs that circle part of the mountain. Martina had told to us how the estimated hiking times advertised in the guidebooks and information centers in New Zealand are not padded for fat Americans (like they are in the States). She was right: it took us exactly the 3.5 hours that the info kiosk said it would.
Highway 45 (The Surf Highway)
The next 2 hours of highway south of New Plymouth is known as “The Surf Highway“. Apparently, the area is trying to bring in tourist dollars by advertising the waves. By the time we made it here, the wind from the previous days had died down and so had the swell. But it gave is an excuse to explore a half-dozen beautiful deserted beaches.
Here is the spot on Opunake beach where we stopped for lunch:
And this beach, where we saw several elderly vacationers working with nets to catch river fish:
We were struck by the change in landscape as we moved South. Whereas in the North, it was all hills (some rolling, some more severe); in the South, it became very flat between the mountains and the coast.
Our first destination after Auckland was Raglan, which is in Waikato, and where Robert and Chuck told us about a world class left point surf break (Jeremy brought his surfboard on the trip and will sell it when we leave Australia). Raglan is about 3 hours drive from Auckland; it is directly west of the town of Hamilton on the Tasman Sea. The drive down is really beautiful, with acres and acres of farmland, and, unexpectedly, lots of cows. We were expecting sheep coming out of every corner, but we got cows on the way down to Raglan. And let me tell you, THESE cows are happy cows. Those California cows ain’t got nuthin’ on NZ cows.
We pulled into our first “holiday park,” which is very similar to KOAs in the US. There are RV sites with power and water (which is where we stay…our van has a plug-in that powers the microwave and outlets), “self-contained” units (cabins with kitchen, bathroom, etc.), tent sites, and many other amenities, like showers, bathrooms, wi-fi internet (for a fee), etc. The fee for staying in the holiday park depends upon which type of site you use. The power sites seems to go for between NZ$26 and $32. The big difference between holiday parks in New Zealand and KOAs in the US is that in NZ they seem to be located in really prime locations…imagine you roll into a city/town/village. Then imagine where they might put the million dollar condos in that city/town/village. That’s where the holiday parks will be. And, they all seem to have trampolines for some reason. The Raglan Kopua Holiday Park (www.raglanholidaypark.co.nz; 07 825 8284) is no different. The campground is located right next to a beautiful black sand beach (and yes, it has a trampoline). We pulled into camp right at low tide and took a walk along the bay towards the ocean.
After our walk, we headed across the bridge from the camp towards town for dinner. The sun was just setting and as we turned back towards the camp after crossing the bridge, we caught this:
“Town” in Raglan is pretty small, basically a collection of shops along 3 blocks or so. Robert told us that Tongue and Groove was the one cool place in town, and that it was. Great food affordably priced (We both had the steak sandwich…remember those happy cows? Well, they make happy beef), cute people, and lots of vintage furniture. Jeremy and I were musing how all these little surf towns seem to have the same flavor…a laid back attitude oriented around the ocean. Raglan was no different.
Unfortunately the weather the following day was not conducive to surfing at all—heavy rain and wind. The forecast looked like the surf wouldn’t be good for several more days, so we packed up and headed out of town; we’ll come back through on our way back to Auckland.
Jeremy was still a little nervous about driving on the opposite side of the road in heavy rain, so we hung for a couple of hours most of the day in a cafe across the street from Tongue and Groove, called Blacksand, waiting to see if the weather would let up. Again, great food (we shared a beef burger…mmm) at good prices. After a few hours of reading magazines, we figured that if we couldn’t do anything active that day because of the weather, we might as well get a little further south, so we decided to drive the backroads over to Kawhia, the next bay south of Raglan, in Waitomo. On the way, we stopped at Bridal Veil Falls, which was the perfect rainy-day weather hike: short, protected by a tree canopy, and steep (on the way back up), so we got a little bit of a workout. Honestly, It wasn’t the most spectacular sight we’ve ever seen but it was a good distraction while the weather was dreary.
We finally got into Kawhia a while later (unexpectedly, the backroads from Raglan to Kawhia included a long stretch of dirt roads, which made driving our huge van very slow). Happily, the trip was worth it because our view from the Kawhia Beachside S-cape (www.kawhiabeachsideescape.co.nz; 07 871 0727) was spectacular. We set up camp and ate our dinner while watching the tide roll back (sensing a theme here?).
We made it!
We arrived in Auckland about 24 hours after we shoved the last of our items in our carry-on bags, locked the door to our house for the last time, and headed to the airport chauffeured by my brother (thanks Eddo!). Twenty-four hours of travel sounds a lot worse than it actually felt, since we stopped in LAX for a drink with Erika, Karl, and Dan (which, btw was a HUGE treat, thank you guys!!!), scored emergency exit row seats on the flight to Fiji, and then, somehow, with the gods of travel smiling down upon us in all their aviation glory, ended up with business class seats from Nadi to Auckland. Let me tell you a secret: business class does not suck. A very auspicious beginning to our trip indeed!
Nevertheless, we were tired when we arrived in Auckland, though it is quite easy to acclimate to New Zealand time. NZ is a mere 3 hours behind CA (on the following day), so it wasn’t like we arrived at 2AM or something ridiculous like that. We made our way from the airport to our hostel via taxi. Apparently taxi fares in New Zealand are not equivalent from taxi to taxi, and we unfortunately ended up with one that had a higher tariff than usual. Oh well, lesson learned.
We dropped our stuff off at Aspen House (www.aspenhouse.co.nz; 09 379 6633), which is a perfectly clean and affordable hostel in Centre City. If you are staying in Auckland for a while, I am not sure I would recommend it since the rooms are pretty bare bones (a bed and a desk and some lighting), but for one night it was totally sufficient. We then headed out for a walk to the Parnell District, which is a cute street with lots of cafes, casual restaurants, and pubs. This is where I had my first English-to-English “lost in translation” moment with the counter girl at a cute cafe and wine bar.
Hope: “Can I have a coffee?”
Counter Girl: “Yes!”
Counter Girl: “…”
Hope: “Um, with milk?”
Apparently in New Zealand coffee is organized into the following categories:
Short Black= What we know as espresso
Long Black= Regular black coffee (or an Americano, as some would call it)
Flat White= Similar to a cappuccino but they also have cappuccinos here and we don’t know what the difference is
What I wanted was the Flat White, but I ended up with a Short Black. Oh well, again, lesson learned.
From the Parnell district, we walked along the water to the Ferry Building and then the Princes Wharf. Along the way we walked through a pretty ritzy neighborhood with big houses that had beautiful ocean views. Many of these houses were either for sale or foreclosed, so it does indeed seem that the global financial crisis is, well, global. Now, at this point I was feeling quite tired and possibly hallucinating, but this area of Auckland is so similar to the Embarcadero area in San Francisco that I told Jeremy, “If we turn this corner and there are seals, I am going to feel like we never left San Francisco!” Seriously, the Ferry Building looks very similar to the one in SF, and they even had a Blue & Gold Fleet that takes tourists on boat trips to the local islands surrounding Auckland.
Despite the similarities to SF’s Pier 39, Auckland’s Princes Wharf was actually quite pleasant…the sun was shining, the people were nice, and we stopped for a glass of wine and some nibbles at one of the many restaurants along the wharf. Despite my skepticism, the food was quite good, and we filled our bellies before heading back to the hostel after the sun went down. It was a long day and we were tired!
The next morning we picked up our van from Jucy Rentals (jucy.co.nz, 0800 399 736). We chose the “Cruiza” model, which we booked about 3 weeks before we arrived. A couple of tips: as you head into high season, van rental prices increase, so it is to your advantage to book early. We reserved the van at a price of NZ$73/day, but by the time we arrived in Auckland, the price had risen to over NZ$100. Jucy has one of the lowest rental prices, lots of info on their website, and really excellent customer service. Unfortunately, in our excitement in meeting our new home for the month, we weren’t as diligent at quality checking the van as we should have been. Our van did not include a DVD (as advertised), the safe did not work, it was a missing a gas cap, and for a while, we thought the power didn’t work either (turns out it was a blown fuse and a faulty plug). We called Jucy when we were on the road and they talked us through fixing all of these problems, so ultimately, for the price and the service, they can’t be beat. Also, we really love the way the van is set up (there are many other van rental companies and each one builds out their vans differently) and the bed is super comfortable. You can pick up and drop off in different cities (though we are returning our van in Auckland). Just be sure to check your van before you leave the lot!
Auckland is a great city, but it is very similar to San Francisco, and as such we were pretty eager to leave since we didn’t come to New Zealand to get more of home. In a total “travel moment,” we decided to try to find a cord to connect our iPod into the car stereo on the way out of town and we ended up in the bustling Newmarket district of Auckland for 3 hours…while Jeremy was trying to learn how to drive on the other side of the road…and I was hangry. For our first stressful travel experience, it wasn’t so bad. But we were pretty happy when we finally got on highway 1 to drive south down the west coast.