New Zealand Revisited

Queen Charlotte Soundstory and photos by Peter Hicklenton and Joyce Kublin

There are very few vacancies tonight, but tomorrow should be no problem,” said the helpful assistant at the i-site desk.  Hard to believe, since it was the middle of March, beyond the prime holiday season in New Zealand, and Coromandel Town seemed to have settled into a late summer calm. Still, we had not bargained for the triple-header of a large local wedding, mountain bike race and a vintage car show all on the weekend of March 10, and so we were grateful to hear that the Celadon Motel had a few accommodation options.

We had arrived on the Coromandel peninsula (about a two-hour drive from Auckland) during the second week of our New Zealand odyssey, a long-anticipated vacation some 20 years after we lived in the North Island in 1991-92.  A lot has changed in the country in those 20 years, and yet in many ways it remains the same laid-back, stunningly-beautiful land rendered even more intriguing by its starring role in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. New Zealand, it goes without saying, is a long way from our home in Nova Scotia. We opted to do the journey in two legs, first on United Airlines from Halifax to Los Angeles (via Newark), and then a day later, from LA non-stop to Auckland on Star Alliance partner Air New Zealand. The flight from LA to Auckland is overnight arriving in NZ at 7:00 a.m some 12 hours after departure, but a whole day ahead as the flight crosses the International Date Line.  Air New Zealand is a class act with excellent service, good food and, on our flight, a state-of-the-art entertainment system featuring numerous first-run movies, TV series, documentaries and games. On flights between London, Los Angeles and Auckland (Boeing 777-300), they also offer an innovative approach to Economy travel.  if you are willing to pay a little extra (about $400 per person in our case) you can book Skycouch, a triple seat that folds to make a very short, very narrow bed (hence the industry nickname ‘cuddle class’). Even if you find it too tight for comfortable sleeping, the extra seat makes for a much more comfortable flight at a fraction of the cost of premium economy or business class.

The reason for our long absence from New Zealand had a lot to do with time and distance. We vowed we would return only when we had a reasonable block of time to make the distance seem less of an obstacle. So finally we booked off six weeks and planned a trip that would include some parts of the North Island that we hadn’t had much time to explore in 1991/2, and a whole swath of the South Island, as well as some time to catch up with friends. The country is not huge, just 4.4 million people with 33% of those living in and around Auckland. The country would fit comfortably into most Canadian Provinces, yet there is a diversity of geography and ethnicity here that belies its small size. For nearly all travellers, the point of arrival is Auckland, and many spend a very worthwhile day or two exploring New Zealand’s largest city. From the numerous choices of attractions, including the excellent Kelly Tarleton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, the Sky Tower (a 300+ m monolith rivalling Toronto’s CN tower) and the Auckland Museum, we selected the museum to re-orient us to New Zealand’s natural and cultural history. The museum is a ‘must see’ if only for the excellent displays of Maori taonga (treasures) including an ornate, carved meeting house and 25m waka (canoe), and the realistic (and scary) volcano exhibit.

Cape FarewellThe region around Auckland was first populated by New Zealand’s first Maori migrants some 800 years ago, who first cleared the land on the isthmus between the Hauraki Gulf and Manukau Harbour. Today it is the gateway to exploring the far north and north-eastern areas of New Zealand, parts that are not always on the main tourist itinerary. We rented a small car (a Hyundai Getz from Europcar, that was comfortable for two and was easy on fuel, a consideration with petrol prices running between $1.85 and C$1.93/L, as NZ$1=C$0.84), and headed north to the beautiful Bay of Islands. In Paihia we checked into the well-appointed Bishop Selwyn Resort, a small-time share apartment block right in the middle of town with great views across the Bay to the town of Russell. We booked the two-bedroom penthouse as an exchange through Interval International, and we were very pleased with the quality of the unit, and the friendliness of the staff.  Bookings for many local trips including whale and dolphin watching, sea kayaking, and the day-long bus tour to Cape Reinga (New Zealand’s northernmost point), can be arranged at the resort, or at the local i-site (tourist) office. You could spend an entire vacation in and around the Bay, and Northland, but those with less time might want to consider just a few of the highlights.

Mount Ngauruhoe from the desert roadAfter a day’s orientation in which we explored Russell (the first sustained English settlement in New Zealand, accessible via a 20-minute ferry ride from the main wharf in Paihia) we headed out onto the Bay on the day-long Fuller’s Cream Trip, a modern equivalent of the traditional produce and postal service that still delivers the mail to a number of private homes on the Bay Islands. The trip is excellent value for money (at $100 per person adult, $50 child) and includes close-up views of Cape Brett, and the famous Hole in the Rock, as well as outstanding marine life encounters (on our trip we saw blue penguins, bottle-nosed dolphins, sunfish and a hammer-head shark). For those who don’t mind getting wet there is an add-on option to swim with a pod of dolphins, but only if there are no juvenile animals present. We cruised through several pods on our way out to Cape Brett at the eastern extremity of the Bay, but all had young present.

The Bay of Islands is, in many respects, a crucible of colonization of the country, holding huge significance for both Maori and Pakeha (European immigrants). The region was home to some of the first Maori migrants from across the ocean who named their new home Pewhairangi. Adjoining the town of Paihia, the Waitangi National Reserve marks the location where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed establishing a delicate entente between the Maori and British people, and the birth of a nation.  The grounds, Treaty House, whare (meeting house) and war canoe (waka tuau), are iconic and well worth a few hours of your time.

After a week in Paihia it was time for us to head south. Instead of the faster but congested SH1 we detoured along the Tutukaka coast, passing golden sand beaches and glimpses of the Poor Knights Islands, a marine reserve and a world-renowned diving location.  The friendly folks at Dive Tutukaka offer day-long trips to explore the underwater sites and, as a PADI authorized facility, will guide you through the basics of SCUBA in an introductory course.

Coromandel Town was our next destination, and as described we were surprised, but not deterred by the bustle in this normally sleepy community. While Thames is the gateway to the beautiful Coromandel peninsula, Coromandel Town in the west and Whitianga on the eastern coast are the principle resort towns. We preferred Coromandel T, with its artsy atmosphere, interesting shops, and restaurants and did I mention the seafood? Mussels and oysters to die for – fresh from the bays and harbours where both shellfish are farmed and exported throughout the southern hemisphere. We stayed with our gracious hosts at the Celadon motel for three nights, snuggled in a cozy aerie 53 steps up in native bush with great views across the Hauraki Gulf (even, on a clear night, the lights of Auckland’s sky tower). As with every location in NZ there is simply so much to see and do on the Coromandel. We took a trip on Driving Creek Railway (a unique narrow-gauge private railroad nestled in native bush), visited beautiful Cathedral Cove, and Hot Water Beach, where at low tide you dig your very own hot tub in the sand and relax in geothermal luxury!

From the Coromandel our route took us south and through the middle of the North Island skipping, as very few do, the attractions of Rotorua,  Lake Taupo, and the Central Plateau/Tongariro National Park (a World Heritage Site).  Having lived not too far away, we had visited often and now had our sight set on other destinations. But if you visit the North Island do take the time to enjoy this beautiful region renowned for its lakes, mountains, fly fishing, and geothermal attractions. The drive south on the ‘Desert Road’ is a feast for the eyes, and a scene right out of the LOTR trilogy. The dormant volcano Ngauruhoe (‘Mount Doom’ in the movies) dominates the landscape and brings to mind armies of orcs charging across the landscape!

Aoraki / Mount CookWe dropped our rental car at the InterIslander ferry terminal in Wellington (at no extra charge) and boarded the boat as foot passengers. The three-hour voyage across Cook Strait and through Queen Charlotte Sound lives up to its billing as one of the most spectacular mini-cruises in the world. On the day we crossed, the Strait was nearly as placid as the Sound and the nearly-deserted bays and harbours sparkled in the brilliant sunshine. It is not always so! However, the inter-island voyage is the perfect introduction to the South Island.

There are many ways to get around southern NZ – a train (the TranzCoastal) connects the ferry town of Picton with Christchurch and points south; InterCity buses connect throughout the South Island, and State Highways 1 and 6 connect with the east and west coasts, respectively. Like many visitors, we opted for independent travel with a campervan rental, pre-arranged through Camper Van Hire Sale Finder a NZ-based, on-line brokerage.  We reserved a three-berth van from Wendekreisen Rentals; a 1991 Toyota Hiace that, although well-maintained, was definitely showing its age. It served us well until the alternator gave up some 80 km from the closest repair facility. Fortunately the company lived up to their pledge of 24-hour telephone availability, and we limped to a pre-arranged garage appointment. Our experience is a caution to look carefully at the vehicle age when choosing a van from the extensive listings on the brokerage web site.  A ‘campa’ is a great way to see a country that has elevated this kind of tourism to a level we have seen nowhere else. Yet in reflective moments we asked ourselves would we have been better off with a less-costly rental car, using motel accommodation that, in NZ, nearly always comes with a full kitchen and separate sleeping and cooking/eating areas?

But van camping does come with advantages, especially the freedom to stay in some pretty remote areas, like our first few nights in a small campground on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park in the hamlet of Marahau.  This is the gateway to the wonders of this wild coastal Park and the starting point for the famed 51 km Abel Tasman coastal track.  But for those, like us, who choose a more leisurely ‘smell the flowers’ option, water taxis from Marahau will take you just about anywhere along the coast you want to go. You can then walk as far as you like and take a pre-booked water taxi back to your starting point. We loved the mix-and-match options that also include kayak excursions and guided tours. After a side trip to Golden Bay and a guided day trip to the remote sands of Farewell Spit, as well as some browsing in the numerous art galleries in this remote corner of the South Island, we felt ready to tackle the mountains.

The Southern Alps are accessible from both the West Coast, and the Eastern approaches over the Canterbury Plains. If the weather on the west coast is a deterrent as it was for us (with rain and fog forecast for several days), the eastern slopes within Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park are a spectacular alternative. If you’re lucky, as we were, a rainy day in the Valley means snow at 1500 m. When we awoke at our Glentanner Park camp (situated about 20 km from Mt. Cook village on beautiful State Highway 80), the mountaintops were gleaming white against a cobalt-blue sky with only Mt. Cook (at over 3700 m, NZ’s highest mountain) capped with wispy clouds. Hiking and mountaineering are good reasons to visit this National Park, but you don’t need to be Sir Edmund Hillary to explore the majesty of the Southern Alps.  Numerous walks radiating from the Village provide spectacular views of the mountains and slowly-retreating glaciers.  The Village itself is worth a few hours of your time; the famous Hermitage Hotel provides luxury accommodation and the Panorama Restaurant has meals to match, together with the unsurpassed scenery of this UNESCO World Heritage area.  This is truly a site to delight and engage all ages, especially the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, just four years old and, like so many things NZ, a beautiful blend of form and function. This museum tells the Everest and Antarctic stories in both static exhibits and a planetarium/3D movie centre. If the weather cooperates and you have the chance to take in the combined planetarium and guided stargazing, you will get a rare glimpse of the heavens unpolluted by the lights of industry and transportation.

Mount Ngauruhoe from the desert roadBefore our trip, we thought that six weeks might be a tad too long in a country that measures barely 2000 km from north to south, but we had either forgotten or not counted on the diversity of landscape, culture, and natural history that kept us moving from the moment we landed, to the time our bags disappeared on the belt again at Auckland airport. This is truly a country of natural beauty, and friendly people that draws you in with a seductive power stronger than even J.R.R. Tolkien could have imagined.

A few references …

The Celadon Motel,  tel  +64 7 866 8058  www.celadonmotel.com

Interval International: www.intervalworld.com 

The Coromandel Oyster Company, tel +64 7 866 8028. The Oyster Company operates a nice, light café open from 9:00 –  5:00, but the real delight is to buy oysters or mussels and take them for a picnic!

The Auckland Museum, tel +64 9 309 0443  www.aucklandmuseum.com

Camper Van Hire Sale Finder, tel 1 866 426 0307 (from North America) www.campervanhiresalefinder.co.nz

Interislander New Zealand Ferries, tel 0800 802 802 (toll free in NZ)

Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Auckland from Vancouver, and from Los Angeles. Skycouch is currently only available on flights through or from LA. View the video at www.airnewzealand.ca/economy-skycouch

Fullers Great Sights – day trips to the Hole in the Rock and around the Bay of Islands including dolphin swims.  Fullers also a day-long trip from Paihia to Cape Reinga. Tel 0800 653339  (toll free in NZ)  www.dolphincruises.co.nz 

Aoraki / Mount CookThe Hole in the Rock - Bay of IslandsWater taxi, Abel Tasman National ParkPoor Knights Islands, Tutukaka CoastPicnicking