10 Places All Kiwis Should Visit

Paradise New Zealand

These are unprecedented times. At last, New Zealanders have the opportunity to visit all New Zealand’s very best tourist attractions – without the tourists! Even better, the tourism industry is so desperate for customers that many operators have drastically reduced their prices. So, if you’re a New Zealander who hasn’t yet managed to experience New Zealand’s most famous spots, get out there. They’re famous for a reason.

To get you started, here’s a list of ten places all Kiwis should visit:

1) The Waitomo Caves

I was a kid the first time I went to Waitomo and the caves blew my mind. The idea that there was this mysterious, scary, beautiful world beneath the ground made me feel very small. Quite literally, in the case of some of the subterranean chambers. I found the glistening stalactites, disconcerting drops, and eerie whispers of waterfalls echoing through the rock both exciting and fascinating. What really enchanted me, though, were the glowworms: whole galaxies of electric-blue fairy lights!

2) Milford Sound

No doubt you’ve heard that Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the Eighth Wonder of the World. Floating across the dark, mirror-like fjord, surrounded by bush, waterfalls and peaks, you may well believe it. When I was there, on my family’s first South Island campervan trip, I felt quite overwhelmed. Struck by the sheer force of nature on display, on suppose. Of course, Mitre Peak is just as stunning as its pictures promise.

3) The Bay of Islands

Sounds idyllic – and it is. As well as being a sub-tropical haven of beaches, orchards and water sports, the Bay of Islands is historically important. It’s home not only to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, but New Zealand’s very first European settlement, Russell. I had fun searching for the musket ball holes in the side of the church! Walking along Russell’s waterfront is lovely, and it has a row of great-looking restaurants to choose from.

4) The Glaciers

glacier

The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are known for being the most easily accessible glaciers in the world. When I was a kid, we did both on the same day, simply walking up to them. We didn’t walk on top of either of them, which is expensive, but just seeing them was awe-inspiring. I remember imagining one as a crystal wall, magically imprisoning an ice dragon! You should see them before they disappear.

5) Rotorua

You haven’t lived until you’ve inhaled the gloriously gross, eggy fart aroma of New Zealand’s Sulphur City. Or gazed into its steaming pools of gloopily bubbling mud. Or soaked in a natural spa bath. Then there are the endless thrill-seeking activities, the unmatched displays of Māori culture, and the gripping history of the Mount Tarawera eruption. I have many fond memories of Rotorua, a lot consisting of a teenage me hooning down a luge track!

6) The Otago Peninsula

I’ve been up Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula a few times. The first, it was all about the wildlife: seals, penguins and the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony. The second, it was all about the views. My fiancé and I spent the day just driving around it – it was very romantic! The third time, we visited New Zealand’s only castle, Larnach, which is worth visiting even though it isn’t actually a castle.

7) Cathedral Cove

The Coromandel’s Cathedral Cove is one of the most amazing beaches I’ve been to in my life. Its name is well-deserved. It’s not an easy beach to get to, however. It’s a bit of a walk from the car park, which is torturous in hot weather. That’s why some people catch a boat there from Hahei. It’s also a marine reserve and a fantastic place to kayak.

8) Paradise

The name says it all, really. Only once have I been to Paradise: it can be found an hour northwest of Queenstown. The drive takes you along the shore of Lake Wakatipu and through the picturesque settlement of Glenorchy. The surrounding countryside was used in The Lord of the Rings and it’s so beautiful I almost cried. I experienced it from horseback, but, of course, there are lots of tracks and tour options.

9) Tongariro National Park

One does not simply walk into Mordor. One drives there. Despite standing in for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, Tongariro National Park is far from a desolate hellscape. It’s home to three volcanoes, three ski fields, a myriad of hiking tracks and a glamorous hotel from the 1920s. The Chateau Tongariro, as it’s called, does a delectable high tea in a room overlooking Mount Ngauruhoe. When we were there, my fiancé and I did a short walk in the morning, had high tea for lunch, and embarked upon another walk in the afternoon. We want to do the Tongariro Crossing one day.

10) Mount Cook

I’m not suggesting everyone has to climb New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but you at least need to look at it! The landscape for miles around Aoraki is epic. The view of it over Lake Pukaki, for example, is sublime. (Provided it isn’t cloudy like the last time I was there, camping on the shore in a campervan rental.) There are many easy-yet-awesome walks to choose from around Mount Cook National Park. The Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre’s pretty cool too.

You know what? I’ve just remembered I met Sir Edmund Hillary. It wasn’t long after I arrived in New Zealand, aged ten. I can’t remember much about it, but there was a massive, Mount Everest-shaped cake that I got a piece of in a napkin. It was at the Auckland Museum. My dad was giddy with eagerness to get the old man’s autograph.

Wow. That’s the first time I’ve remembered that in years. It’s hazy, though. I should ask my dad about it.

edmund hillary

 

How I Became a New Zealand Travel Expert

waitomo caving

As an immigrant, I’ve seen more of New Zealand than most New Zealanders.

Hopefully, in this brave new era of international isolation, that fact’s about to change. A silver lining on an otherwise depressingly dark grey cloud.

But how come I’ve seen so much more of New Zealand than the average citizen? Well, my family was never one for overseas holidays. We couldn’t afford them. Growing up in England, I never set foot on Continental Europe. To me, visiting Scotland or Wales counted as a foreign holiday. We never went to Ireland, or even Northern Island.

disneyworld animal kingdomOnly once did we leave Great Britain. When I was seven, we went to Florida – but only because my nana had been given a year to live and was spending all her money on us. (I didn’t know that at the time and, two decades later, my nana’s still with us and living in Tauranga.)

Then, when I was ten, we moved to New Zealand. Obviously, emigrating was a massive expense, but things were cheaper in New Zealand back then. And the exchange rate was three dollars to the pound. We bought a house far posher than I’d ever dreamed of living in: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a massive lounge, a deck, a walk-in wardrobe, a stained-glass window, a garden we didn’t share with the whole terrace… Most of my parents’ salaries went towards the mortgage. They were teachers.

Of course, this meant we still couldn’t afford to go on overseas holidays. Not that we cared. I mean, to us, New Zealand was overseas. Instead, we went on holidays around New Zealand.

glacier new zealandAnd they were awesome.

We went to the Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga and Ninety-Mile Beach. We went to Waitomo and Rotorua and the Coromandel. We went to Napier and Wellington and Taranaki. Mount Maunganui, Rangitoto, White Island. Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown. All around the South Island in a campervan. And so much more.

It wasn’t until after uni that I started writing about all the places we’d been. I’d always planned to earn a living by my pen, but not as a travel blogger. Now I needed to visit more places in search of new material. And more. Then tourism companies started offering me things in exchange for writing about them, so I visited even more places. Before I knew it, I was an unofficial expert. Whenever a question about New Zealand geography came up, the quiz team turned to me!

horse riding glenorchy

And apparently that’s my role now. People ask me for New Zealand holiday advice. I know about many obscure places you wouldn’t necessarily think of going to. I know about the places you absolutely have to go to. There aren’t many places in New Zealand that’ll disappoint you.

The Top 10 Places to See at Our House

It’s day eighteen of lockdown and, in the words of Freddie Mercury, it finally happened. I’ve run out of locations to blog about. As a New Zealand travel blogger, I find this state of affairs unacceptable. Normally, I would venture out into the world in search of new material, but… you see my predicament. May I present, therefore, my prison?

I mean my house. It’s a pretty weird house, actually. It has all sorts of unusual nooks and crannies. It’s a rental, of course. As a millennial, I’m forbidden from owning my own house by our avocado overlords. (Praise be Their Emerald Scrotalness.) I live with two friends and my should-have-been-by-now husband. (Our wedding was supposed to have happened two days ago. Seriously, f**k this.)

Anyway, should you ever want to visit us, (which, you know, don’t,) here’s a handy travel guide of the top ten places to see at our house:

1) The Cell

Honestly, we’ve never fully figured out what to call this place, so “the Cell” is what I’m going with. It’s attached to our dining room, slightly too large to be a cupboard; much too small to be a room. It’s triangular. One of the walls is mostly frosted glass, to make up for the lack of windows. There’s an in-built desk, with an in-built hinge-lidded box on top of it, which puts forward an argument for it being intended as an office, but surely, you’d go insane if you were shut up in there! My should-have-been-by-now husband says you could lock a child in there until they finish their homework.

2) The Scary Downstairs Toilet

We’ve lived in this house for well over a year, and I have yet to use this toilet. It’s a wooden-walled box in the corner of the basement/garage. I once popped my head through the door, saw the cobweb-crossed dinginess and thought, “Nope.”

We have two toilets upstairs, so why put yourself through the trauma?

3) The Mouldy Room of Unrequirement

This place is also in the basement/garage. It’s a useful dumping ground for random clutter, (such as swords, Buddhist prayer wheels and Chinese Baoding balls,) but if you spend more than a few minutes in there, your lungs begin to atrophy. Understandably, the property manager has forbidden anyone from using it as a bedroom. You’d think this wouldn’t be necessary, but before we moved in, the house had, according to a neighbour, at least ten students living in it. (There are four bedrooms. Five, if you use the lounge as a bedroom. Six, if you use the Cell as a Harry Potter-style bedroom.)

4) The Dungeon

This is the area under the house, which takes a fair bit of courage to explore. I mean there’s probably a murderous hobo living in there. (Sometimes, we hear him scratching the at the floorboards from beneath… Kidding.) Below the balcony, behind a vegetable bed, there’s a small door. We call the area beyond it “the dungeon” partly because we’re like that; partly because some of it really looks like the ruins of a dungeon, complete with cell walls. In it, we’ve found such historic artefacts as a boombox.

You know what? I’m so tempted to hide a fake body in there for the next tenants to find.

5) The Narnia of Costumes

Yeah, I have a wardrobe just for my costumes. ’Tis a wonderous place you can get lost in. I’ve got relatively wide range of historical costumes, from Medieval to Victorian, and boxes of accumulated accessories.

6) The Narnia of Toilet Paper

There’s an oddly tall cupboard in the main toilet. ’Tis a wonderous place you can get lost in. One of our cats likes to jump up into it and nuzzle against the heavenly, three-ply clouds. Kidding. Our overlords wouldn’t allow such an extravagance as three-ply toilet paper. (Praise be Their Emerald Scrotalness.)

By the way, I’d like it on record that none of that toilet paper was panic-bought.

7) The Feijoa Tree

This can be found in quite a pretty corner of the garden. (Our garden is massive, for which we are eternally grateful at the moment.) Another of our cats likes to climb it and pretend she can’t get down for attention. Around the time lockdown started, the tree began dropping approximately ten metric tonnes of feijoas a day. My should-have-been-by-now husband responded by making it his mission to eat every single one. He’s made feijoa crumble and feijoa biscuits. He’s ruined one of our pots making feijoa jam. He puts stewed feijoa on everything he eats. And guess what? I HATE FEIJOAS.

I’d never even heard of feijoas until my family moved to New Zealand, and suddenly everyone we knew was pushing buckets of the f**kers on us. You can’t sell them, because everyone has a tree. I have yet to find a single fellow immigrant who doesn’t think they’re disgusting. I reckon Kiwis evolved to eat them out of necessity. If they didn’t, they’d be crushed under an avalanche of them every autumn.

8) The Jungle

This can be found in another corner of the garden. The cats love it. Like a proper jungle, there’s lots of archaeology in there too. You can’t even lightly brush the leaf litter without hitting a beer bottle. Just the other day, we were playing with the cats and a loud thunk led us to uncover a pink coffee mug. Every time we go out into the garden, (and I really wish I was kidding,) we find another bottle cap or piece of broken glass. As I said before, we’ve lived here for well over a year. It’s ridiculous!

We also keep, to this day, finding broken glass on our balcony. When we first moved in, we went around sweeping it all up, but it kept coming back. How? How?! After a while, we developed a theory: the infamous students that lived here before us must have routinely thrown their empty beer bottles onto the roof, and every time it rains more shards get washed down.

9) The Library

This place is mine. A paradise built from years of scouring secondhand bookshops. As of time of writing, I have 941 books, but, in the words of the Little Mermaid, I want more. This library is also my office, and that of my should-have-been-by-now husband. Incidentally, here’s a photo of him in the middle of a meeting.

The room it’s in is the nicest in the house. It was obviously meant to be the lounge, as there’s a gas fire embedded in a marble-veneered mantelpiece, and a fancy-as-f**k liquor cabinet that we use for board games. One section of the liquor cabinet is mirrored, and one full-on swivels, thereby enabling your common or garden boomer to pass off their alcohol problem as middleclass sophistication. Incidentally, one of the cats enjoys riding the swivel cabinet like a merry-go-round.

10) The Gift Shop

What’s a tourist attraction without a gift shop? Our flatmate makes macramé necklaces out of crystals. With f**k all else to do during the lockdown, her bedroom is now overflowing with them. Care to buy one as a commemoration of your visit? No, really, would you? Here’s a link to her Facebook page: Ems Macramé. (Obviously, she won’t be able to mail any out until after the lockdown is lifted.)

So, I hope you enjoyed your tour of our house. Well, maybe “enjoyed” is a little too optimistic. Endured? Hmm. Too much the other way. Presumably, if you made it to the end, you found it at least more amusing than sitting there doing nothing. Thanks.

This will be the last new Poms Away article for a while. I suggest you check out our massive back catalogue. I’ll keep posting the most interesting ones to our Facebook page: facebook.com/pomsawayblog

Whitecliffs Boulders

whitecliffs boulders

Look at these photos. Just look. I took hundreds and there honestly wasn’t a single bad one. This place is amazing! Beautiful, otherworldly… straight out of a fairy tale. And I bet you never knew it existed.

whitecliffs boulders

It’s called Whitecliffs Boulders. It’s in New Zealand, of course, kind of near Taihape. You know, the place with the giant gumboot? Follow State Highway 1 south a bit, through Mangaweka and out into the wop-wops.

taihape gumboot

Like, a fair bit out into the wop-wops. You’ll end up driving so far down a dodgy-looking road, you’ll start to lose confidence in your path, but keep going. Our two-berth campervan made it, but I would have been concerned in anything bigger. We had to swerve to avoid an escaped lamb at one point.

whitecliffs boulders

The Whitecliffs Boulders are on someone’s private farmland. There isn’t really a car park; you park next to a gate, surrounded by sheep, and pop a fiver into the honesty box. Oh yeah, make sure you bring the correct amount of cash.

whitecliffs boulders

I also recommend you bring wellies – or, as Kiwis call them, gumboots – as it’s a bit of a muddy trek to reach the boulders. You follow a non-existent path through some boggy sheep pastures and down a steep dirt road. I kept slipping in my poor, unfortunate trainers.

whitecliffs boulders

The walk there’s not too bad, though take a picnic for when you get to the boulders, as you’ll need plenty of energy for the walk back! Also, there’s a clearing in which the owner has placed some little tables and chairs, which makes for a charming scene.

whitecliffs boulders

The boulders are scattered about a miniature forest on a riverbank, all winding pathways and fairy ponds, and they are MAGICAL. Like, how did I not know about this place years ago? It’s the perfect setting for fairies and trolls. Even when it started to rain, I didn’t want to leave.

whitecliffs boulders

But leave, we had to, as we were getting soaked. Easier said than done. The rain had turned the muddy road into a full-on mudslide. And not the sort of mud that comes off. The sort that sticks to the soles of your shoes until you’re wearing heavy, grey platforms.

whitecliffs boulders

Next thing I knew, I was sliding uncontrollably downwards, coating my arse, arms, legs and backpack in a thick, cold, cement-like layer of mud that I had to scoop off with mud-and-sheep-shit-clogged fingers.

whitecliffs boulders

Walking (and climbing on all fours up the mudslide) back to the campervan took a whole age of this world. And a lot of involuntary screams of terror on my part, every time I slipped. My fiancé was worried the farmer would think he was murdering me!

whitecliffs boulders

We had to strip to our underwear so as not to smear mud all around the inside of the campervan. I really hoped the farmer wouldn’t choose now to show up! We’d have to chisel the mud off our clothes later.

whitecliffs boulders

So, if you too want to visit the magical Whitecliffs Boulders, remember to take: sturdy shoes and clothes you don’t mind sacrificing to the mud sprites, five dollars in cash, and sufficient sustenance. Oh, and insect repellent.

whitecliffs boulders

Also, be warned that there’s no cellphone reception and you need to be able-bodied. And don’t go in a vehicle you wouldn’t trust on a narrow, steep and winding gravel road that may or may not be half-crumbling down a cliff at one point.

whitecliffs boulders

But don’t let any of the above put you off. For me, the fantastical sight of the boulders in the forest was more than worth the battle with the mud sprites. I mean just look at the photos!

whitecliffs boulders

Memories of Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo

lake tekapo church

DAY 1 of LOCKDOWN: Aside from my dream wedding at Hobbiton having to be postponed, my life is barely affected. As a writer, I’m used to working from home. As an introvert, I’m perfectly happy staying inside. All my anxiety is focused on others; I hope you’re okay.

lake tekapo church

As I sit in bed, notebook assailed by a jealous cat called Circe, the details of last year’s New Zealand campervan trip seem more difficult to recall than usual. Perhaps it’s because not being allowed to travel has made the walls of this house I rent with my friends seem more solid; more difficult to permeate, even in the mind. Travelling in a campervan is so freeing, even though it’s cramped at the back. The walls are psychologically permeable.

lake pukaki

I haven’t thought about it like that before. I remember feeling, when we were parked up for the night on the shore of Lake Pukaki, that the back of the campervan seemed at once both open to the world and cosy. I stared through the windows at the pine trees silhouetted against the turquoise water and the snow-capped alps. It was wonderful, but I didn’t want to step outside because the weather had just turned. This was a September campervan trip, after all.

lake pukaki

Despite the fact that we’d chosen to do the trip in September precisely so there wouldn’t be many other campervans around, the shore of Lake Pukaki was packed. So this was where every other campervan in the country had been hiding! You can’t blame them. The view of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mt Cook, over Lake Pukaki is one of the most famously beautiful in the country. And the campsite on Lake Pukaki’s shore is free.

lake pukaki campervan

This is the view I’d been looking forward to:

lake pukaki mt cook

This, due to the aforementioned weather turn, is the view I got:

lake pukaki campervan

Still nice, but… Anyway, when we woke up the next morning, the weather was even worse, so we drove straight to our next destination, Lake Tekapo. Unfortunately, we were too early in the year to see the famous lupins blooming on the lake’s edge. Fortunately, the weather held just long enough for us to take a little walk and see the stunningly situated Church of the Good Shepherd.

lake tekapo church

It’s strange to see a church like this in New Zealand.

church of the good shepherd

It feels as though it should be ancient, but it was built in 1935!

I Visited New Zealand’s Only Castle

larnach castle

New Zealand’s only castle can be found in the South Island, lording it over the Otago Peninsula. But wait, you think: New Zealand doesn’t have any castles! Well you’re right. Larnach Castle is merely a nineteenth century mansion with delusions of grandeur. I still enjoyed visiting it, though.

larnach castle

This so-called castle is impressive enough upon approach. There are crenellations. Stone lions flank an imposing staircase. It’s small, even for a mere mansion, but it has an undeniably distinctive character.

What makes Larnach Castle different from all of the similar buildings I’ve seen, (mostly around England and Scotland,) is that it’s ringed by a glass-encased veranda. It’s like a laird’s estate spliced together with a colonial villa.

larnach castle

The first thing we – my fiancé, my little sister and I – did was seek out the café. It’s located in the ballroom, which has a cosy, yet grand hunting lodge feel to it. To our delight, we found it serving proper tea and scones with jam and clotted cream!

Next, we explored the garden, finding not only the White Rabbit, but a statue of Alice trying to play croquet with a flamingo, amongst the expected fountains and topiary. Finally, it was time to have a nosy around the house itself.

larnach castle white rabbit

The child in me delighted in the labyrinthine staircases. The adult in me delighted at the antique furniture. The crazy cat lady in me delighted at the stained-glass window showing the Larnach family’s feline sigil, complete with the motto SANS PEVR – without fear.

At first, I didn’t get why the Larnach ancestors would have chosen a cat to represent the concept of fearlessness. I mean ‘scaredy cat’ is a common insult for a reason! Then I read that it’s meant to be a Scottish wild cat, which makes a lot more sense.

Of course, you can’t visit Larnach Castle without climbing to the top of the tower. From it, you get commanding views of not only the garden, but the whole Otago Harbour. I didn’t stay up there very long, as it was quite cold.

larnach castle tower new zealand flag

Standing, shivering, atop the tower, grey sky looming overhead, reminded me of my childhood. So many rainy, British weekends visiting castles. “Can we go inside now?” I’d moan. Not that I didn’t like visiting castles.

Another thing that reminded me of my childhood was the castle giftshop. Larnach Castle’s giftshop is pretty good. I bought a lovely notebook, which I’m writing in right now. They were even selling their own brand of whiskey. I was tempted, but wouldn’t buy it without tasting it first!

The Moeraki Boulders

moerakiboulders

You’ve probably heard of the Moeraki Boulders, those strangely spherical rocks on that beach somewhere in New Zealand.

moerakiboulders

Well that beach is called Koekohe, and can be found on the South Island’s east coast, between Dunedin and Oamaru. The boulders are absolutely worth seeing, but be warned: they attract a lot of tourists.

moerakiboulders

When you turn off State Highway 1 at Koekohe Beach, you’ll see an enormous sign pointing left towards the Moeraki Boulders. It’s a trap. It leads to a crowded café and giftshop, and a stairway to the boulders that you have to pay to go down. Instead, turn right. That road leads to the public carpark, from which you can access the boulders for free.

moerakiboulders

The more you look at the Moeraki Boulders, the more they resemble enormous alien eggs.

moerakiboulders

The worrying thing is that some of them look like they’ve already had things hatch out of them.

moerakiboulders

Here, you can see the cliff giving birth to one.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders are made of mudstone, formed millions of years ago on the ocean floor. As the cliff erodes, more and more are exposed.

moerakiboulders

The scientific term for them, and rocks like them, is septarian concretions.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders contain calcite crystals, as well as quartz and sometimes dolomite.

moeraki boulders

They’re not unique to Koekohe, or even New Zealand.

moeraki boulders

You can see similar boulders in a seemingly more bizarre and even more magical setting in a forest near Taihape. They’re called the Whitecliffs Boulders. I’ll show you the pictures I took there another time.

moeraki boulders

Books, Cheese and Victorian Costumes

steampunk hq oamaru

Oamaru is a coastal town between Christchurch and Dunedin. It’s known for two things: little blue penguins and steampunk. I went penguin watching there when I was a kid, so this visit, I headed straight for Steampunk HQ.

Steampunk HQ is an art gallery, but no ordinary one. It has an immersive atmosphere that’s almost spooky, showcasing Victorian inventions from the realm of fantasy. It can be found on the fringe of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, an area of preserved and restored buildings from the town’s 1800s heyday. The buildings are all made out of stone, more specifically a hard kind of limestone called whitestone. This is what gives Oamaru its distinctive look.

oamaru criterion hotel victorian precinct

I was excited to explore the Victorian Precinct. Walking down Harbour Street felt like stepping back in time. As well as museums, galleries and giftshops, there was an old-fashioned bakery, a bookbinder’s, vintage clothes boutiques, a whisky tasting place and not one, but two second-hand bookshops.

penny-farthingBoth bookshops were interestingly decorated. The first I visited, Adventure Books, was exploration-themed. There were old globes and maps, and – just casually – an entire, full-sized sailing boat sitting in the shop. The second, Slightly Foxed, had a more general selection of literature. Alice in Wonderland art and quotes adorned the walls, and the cupboard under the stairs was a children’s playroom. It even had a mezzanine, from which you could look out over the whole shop. I made a few too many purchases, all of which were entered in a Victorian-style ledger, wrapped in brown paper packages and tied up with string!

victorian costumeThe Victorian Precinct is right by the harbour, where you’ll find a large, steampunk-themed playground and a rather good pub called Scotts Brewing Co. – it’s a microbrewery that does tastings as well as great pizza. It was recommended to me by one of the wonderful guides at Whitestone City, a small but brilliant museum on Harbour Street. Not only are you encouraged to interact with the artefacts, you can dress up in Victorian clothing to do so! My fiancé and I had a whale of a time there, especially riding on the penny-farthing carousel.

But Oamaru has delights beyond the Victorian Precinct. The Public Gardens are well worth a walk through. In fact, our accommodation was directly adjacent to the Oamaru Public Gardens, perfectly situated for an evening stroll. I especially enjoyed the Wonderland Garden, a space inspired by children’s fantasy literature, featuring a fairy statue gifted to Oamaru in 1926. I would have loved to have had a picnic there; alas there was no time.

oamaru public gardens

There was time, however, to visit one of the best cheesemakers in New Zealand. The Whitestone Cheese factory has a shop and café, and you can take a tour to see how the cheese is made. We didn’t do the tour, but we did indulge in a tasting platter. I, a cheese snob, was impressed. We ended up buying a few blocks for the road. Their blue cheese is particularly good.

fairy statue

All in all, Oamaru felt like a holiday destination tailor-made for the likes of me: lovers of books, cheese, history, gardens and dressing up! And don’t forget the penguins.

The Giant’s House, Akaroa

Once upon a time, a little girl looked up at a house on a hill. It was a big-boned house, built of imposing pieces of timber.

“It must be a giant’s house,” she said.

And so the grandest colonial villa in Akaroa got its name.

akaroaNot far from Christchurch, Akaroa is different to other New Zealand towns in that it used to be a French colony. Its street names are French, it has an obsession with French food and wine, and there’s a French flag flying over its tranquil harbour. Its main draw is that it’s the only place in the world in which you can swim with the world’s smallest, and rarest, species of dolphin. Hector’s dolphins are incredibly cute, but while you’re in Akaroa, make sure you also check out the Giant’s House.

giants house

Built in 1880 by Akaroa’s first bank manager, the Giant’s House has, for the last few decades, been owned by an artist called Josie Martin. She’s transformed the terraced garden into a psychedelic wonderland of mosaic sculptures.

giants house

Don’t make our mistake of showing up half an hour before closing. We really had to rush around the garden in order to see everything. Give yourself at least an hour to appreciate it.

giants house

Be warned, though: it’s far from wheelchair-friendly!

giants house

It costs $20 to get in. From May to September, it’s only open from 11am until 2pm, but from October to April, it’s open until 4pm. From October to April, it also functions as a cafe.

giants house

It’s quite exciting to explore. I, for one, felt like a little kid again.

giants house

Well, it does call itself the happiest garden on earth.

giants house

It has also achieved the official status of a Garden of International Significance.

giants house

Further adding to its awesomeness, the Giant’s House commands amazing views of the Akaroa Harbour.

giants house

À bientôt!

New Zealand’s Magical Castle Hill

castle hill

There are places in the world that make you feel like you’ve tumbled through the pages of an epic fantasy. Castle Hill, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, is such a place.

Surrounded by mountains, but easy to get to, Castle Hill does not actually have a castle on it. You can definitely see why it was called that, though. The cyclopean stones atop it almost resemble ancient walls and towers, long since fallen into ruin.

castle hill mountain snow sheep new zealand

The approach to Castle Hill is rather idyllic, what with all the sheep grazing the adjacent fields. We went at the perfect time: it was sunny, but the surrounding mountains were still decorated with snow. The slope at the side of the path is strewn with colossal boulders, seemingly thrown there long ago by giants defending their hilltop fortress. Each one has a curious shape. No wonder tourists are keen to climb on them for photographs!

The hill itself is punishingly steep. Rocks looms dizzyingly over your ascent. I had to be careful not to slip, especially as snow clung to the shadows. Getting to the top is like finding your way through a maze. It really would be a fantastic defensive spot. Even if the enemy managed to make it to the top, they’d be exhausted!

castle hill

At last, panting, I emerged into a treeless glade of rocks. My immediate impression was that I had intruded upon an elvish encampment. I half expected figures to stand suddenly up from behind various boulders, pointing arrows at me. My second impression was that this would be the perfect place in which to perform some sort of druidic ritual. Just imagine LARPing there…

castle hill

I simply cannot believe it wasn’t used in the Lord of the Rings films. I think part of Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed there, unless I’m remembering wrong, but I can’t recall anything else that was. It seems far too obvious. I mean, you can feel the magic in the air! The Dalai Lama obviously felt it too, as he once proclaimed it a Spiritual Centre of the Universe.

castle hill

The rocks of Castle Hill are endlessly fascinating, forming archways, altars and alcoves. And whenever you pause to look up, the mountains are looking back down at you. It reminded me of Castlerigg, a stone circle in the Lake District in England, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Certainly, a cosplay shoot there would be awesome. I didn’t want to leave.

castle hill

Now, when you go to Castle Hill, make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes, and take water, snacks and a jacket with you. In fact, a family picnic there would be wonderful. It’s completely free to visit, and is less than an hour-and-a-half’s drive out of Christchurch. We stopped there on our way to Arthur’s Pass to see the kea. We certainly did see them, but that’s a subject for a future blog.

castle hill