Christmas in New Zealand

Christmas in New Zealand is weird.

That’s not just the biased opinion of an immigrant from the Northern Hemisphere; it’s weird for New Zealanders as well.

My nana's snowman

My nana’s snowman

You see, New Zealand is a small country that doesn’t produce much, and, as such, a lot of its culture is imported from America and Great Britain. This means that the majority of the Christmas movies that New Zealanders watch on telly, the majority of the Christmas cards and the wrapping paper they buy in shops, the majority of the Christmas music they hear and the carols they try not to sing have been made with the Northern Hemisphere in mind.

Kiwi children grow up being told that Christmas is one thing, yet seeing with their own eyes that it is something else. They grow up with the image of the traditional White Christmas hammered into their consciousness when many of them have never felt snow in their lives. In New Zealand, Christmas is in the middle of summer.

Santa Claus isn’t exactly dressed for a New Zealand summer – he’d die! (You’ve got to feel sorry for New Zealand shopping mall Santas, eh?)

My nana's Christmas bells

My nana’s Christmas bells

The Kiwi Christmas is such a contradiction – an exercise in Orwellian doublethink: you have to hold two conflicting concepts in your mind and believe both of them to be true. In New Zealand, the tangible version of Christmas that is happening around you is one of barbecues and beaches, of road trips and campervans, of super soakers and trampolines, of scorching concrete and relieving grass; the intangible version consists of snowmen and fairytales, of candles behind frosted windows, and of cute woodland creatures that don’t exist in the New Zealand bush.

My nana's garden display

My nana’s garden display

My boyfriend was born in New Zealand and, a couple of weeks ago, he said something interesting: for him, growing up, Christmas and summer were two separate things that happened to coincide, that ran parallel to each other. For me, growing up in Britain, Christmas and winter were inextricably intertwined – one did not exist without the other, yet here the traditions of Christmastime and the time of year in which they took place clashed.

Christmas and summer are polar opposites: despite the efforts of New Zealanders to mash the ill-suited magnets together, they remain slightly repelled from each other, just unable to touch. The Kiwi Christmas cards you can buy showing, for example, Santa in a red budgie smuggler barbecuing sausages on the beach are fun to send to relatives in the Northern Hemisphere, but the image is forever overshadowed by the Santa in the snow.

Christmas in my home town in England

Christmas in my home town in England

Kiwis long for a White Christmas just as much as the Northern Hemisphere expats. In fact, it is quite common in New Zealand to celebrate a ‘midwinter Christmas’ in June. Many places have a public Christmas tree lit by a giant star put up in winter. Auckland’s started having a midwinter ice rink in Aotea Square, which looks terribly pretty all lit up at night.

Every year, my nana, who emigrated from England to live with us a few years ago, goes absolutely mental decorating the house for Christmas. Every year, you’ll hear my dad exclaim, “The horror! The horror!” at least three times a day in reaction to this, but, actually, my nana decorates beautifully. Everyone wants to come over to see it. If you want to truly feel like you’re in the midst of a White Christmas, step into my nana’s lounge – and that’s just what her Kiwi friends do.

On my nana's mantelpiece

On my nana’s mantelpiece

I’ve been groaning that it’s difficult for me to get into the Christmas spirit when it’s the middle of summer and I’m being bothered by mosquitoes, but my nana’s Christmas grotto never fails to guide me there, and for that I’m so grateful to her.

I asked her today – as I sat in the sweltering, blooming garden writing this article and she took photographs of me and the cats – what she thought of Christmas in New Zealand, and she replied that she really doesn’t like it being in summer. It shouldn’t be so bright outside! It’s all very well making a cosy atmosphere inside with the decorations, but cosy in this heat runs the risk of becoming stuffy. But she makes the best of it.

Boy, does she make the best of it.

My kitten, Ripley, cheekily climbing our Christmas tree

My kitten, Ripley, cheekily climbing our Christmas tree

My Upside-down Summer

I’m English and I’m a June baby, which means I was born in summer. Believe it or not the English summer can be quite lovely. Yes, it’s overcast a lot of the time, but it’s not overly humid. I remember with great fondness the sunny birthdays of my childhood, running around on the grainy, over-exposed grass and splashing about in the paddling pool.

Montana walk

On a summer bush walk in New Zealand

Summer in New Zealand really is quite different. For starters, it’s on the opposite side of the year, so now my birthday is in winter and Christmas is in summer, which is just wrong!

Living in New Zealand, I feel the approach of summer with a small sense of dread. You see, summer in New Zealand is humid. It’s hot – the sort of heat that makes your brain go all drowsy – and all you can hear is the drone of cicadas. You can’t leave the house without putting sunscreen on, (and you sweat it off anyway,) and the mosquitoes – argh!

I much prefer spring and autumn. They’re warm and sunny without being scorching. In fact, if you’re thinking of coming for a holiday in New Zealand, you might want to consider coming in spring or autumn instead of summer. It rains a bit more, but it’s not bad. Besides, it’s cheaper to hire a campervan then anyway.

A blossoming pohutukawa tree in Kaikoura

A blossoming pohutukawa tree in Kaikoura

Oh, I don’t want to sound like I’m grouching. New Zealand’s summers are still a lot nicer than England’s, and, having been to Australia on holiday, I can say that New Zealand’s summers are nowhere near as bad as Australia’s!

The New Zealand summer has come to mean something special to me, and I’m sure I’ll miss it when I go on my ‘Big O.E.’ in Europe next year. Summer in New Zealand means beaches, barbecues and bush walks, (which, come to think of it, I’m sure is what it means in other countries too,) but it also, rather bizarrely, means Christmas shopping and parties with fireworks.

I’ll write more about Christmas in New Zealand next week, when I’m more into the spirit of the thing, (because it’s somehow hard to get into the spirit of Christmas when it’s over 30°C outside and your cat is stretched out on the kitchen tiles trying to keep cool,) but now I’m concentrating on summer itself – insofar as one can concentrate in this heat.

A New Zealand summer means cold beers and crisp white wines. It means going up to a friend’s family’s bach (beach house) and vegging. It means the deep, bright red of the pohutukawa blossoms and deep, bright blue of the crystal-clear sea. It means tanned surfer guys and ice-cream; campervans and jandals. (Jandals is Kiwi slang for the flip-flops that every Kiwi wears everywhere.) It means the infamous togs-undies ad. Here it is for non-New Zealanders – well worth a watch:

Okay, maybe I’m a bit harsh when I talk about New Zealand comedy – that advert is funny!

Most of all, summer means a break from school, which is ridiculous because I’m twenty-two and I’ve been out of university and in the real world for over a year now. I wonder how long it will take for that association to fade from my consciousness?

Aaand that’s it. I can’t write anymore. It’s too hot and the cicadas are too invasive.

Beach 1

The summery view from a friend’s family’s bach in the Coromandel

Top 20 Things a Brit in New Zealand Misses

This is the article I entered in the 2013 Expat Blog Awards. It ended up winning Silver for New Zealand. You can read it by clicking the link below:

Top 20 Things a Brit in New Zealand Misses

173 Back in Sheffield

Following in the Hobbit’s Hairy Footsteps

I can’t wait to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at the cinema. I’ve already got my ticket!

Dwarf Statue

A dwarven statue at Auckland International Airport

Although it’s admittedly not as good as The Lord of the Rings, I still love The Hobbit, and to those that say it’s just more Lord of the Rings, I say GOOD. More Lord of the Rings is exactly what I want. The extended editions did little to slake my thirst.

I want more rich fantasy. I want more epic music. And most of all I want those sweeping shots of Middle-earth, each as beautiful as a painting.

I have to keep reminding myself that all of that fantastic scenery is real. It’s real and it’s on my doorstep. In fact I’ve been to a lot of it.

I remember when we were still living in England, when I was nine years old and we were about to move to New Zealand: I wasn’t very happy at all and the only silver lining I had was the knowledge that they were filming The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.

Below, I’ve listed ten filming locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Even if you’re not a fantasy fan you should make an effort to visit them – they include some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. Scrap that. They include some of the most beautiful places in the world.

The Wizard's Vale

The Wizard’s Vale, Glenorchy

1)      Glenorchy

Dart Stables, Glenorchy

Dart Stables, Glenorchy

My family visited Glenorchy on our South Island campervan holiday. It’s near Queenstown, one of the most amazing spots on the planet, and includes the scenery of so many Lord of the Rings locations, among them Lothlorien, Isengard, the River Anduin and Amon Hen, the site of Boromir’s departure. There are lots of tours to choose from, but the one we went on was Dart Stables’ The Ride of the Rings tour – the world’s most scenic horse trek. I’d never ridden a horse before, but this was nice and relaxed, and I was soon riding with the confidence of Eowyn – being on horseback makes it easy to pretend you’re in the story, cresting a hill to be confronted with the glory of the Wizard’s Vale, or clopping through the enchanted forest, wondering whether you’re being watched by elves with drawn bows. I had to give that tour a ten out of ten; the beauty was just overwhelming.

2)      Matamata

Matamata is perhaps the most famous of all the Middle-earth locations in New Zealand, so much so that it has practically been renamed ‘Hobbiton’. It boasts the rolling, emerald hills of the Shire, especially impressive on a sunny day, and there is something very homely and comforting about it. The tour of the Hobbiton Movie Set is fantastic: you get to see all the round front doors with their flowers and even have a drink in The Green Dragon. It’s best to book ahead, as the place is always heaving with tourists, but considering this the cost is quite reasonable. If you’re a hardcore fan, though, be prepared to spend a lot of money in the gift shop!

3)      Mount Victoria

Mount Victoria is in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and from its top you get great views of the city. That’s not why people go to it these days, though. I have a very clear memory of me, as a child, crying, “Get off the road! Quick!” in imitation of Frodo Baggins in that famous scene, and of crouching under a certain outcrop to hide from the Black Rider. Who could resist the urge to re-enact that? Wellington is also home to several other locations, as well as Weta Workshop itself.

4)      Arrow River

‘Arrow’ seems like a strangely appropriate name for a river used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings – the bit where Arwen confronts the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen. It’s in Otago and gave its name to the small town nestled upon its banks, Arrowtown. Arrowtown is an utterly charming place, a relic from the days of New Zealand’s gold rush, and it’s an attraction in its own right. I wish we’d been able to spend longer there, because the Ford of Bruinen isn’t actually the most beautiful spot in the area. It’s still pretty awesome, though – you just have to imagine a charging line of white, foam horses coming at you!

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

5)      Lake Pukaki

I first laid eyes upon Lake Pukaki long before the filming of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, when it became the manifestation of Esgaroth, or Lake-town. Even without this recommendation, it’s a magnificent place. The water is a creamy, glacial turquoise, reflecting the snowy crown of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki, or Mount Cook. The view across the lake is simply awe-inspiring – to me, it epitomises the sheer beauty of the South Island. My parents took a scenic flight over Pukaki, but there isn’t much else to do there aside from walking and mountain biking – maybe the film’s release will boost its popularity, although I don’t want its purity to be ruined. There’s a free overnight campground on the lake’s edge (and I can’t imagine a better place to spend the night,) but only if you have a self-contained campervan like this one.

6)      Tongariro

Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mount Doom

Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mount Doom

Tongariro National Park, which is located in the centre of the North Island and contains the three active volcanoes of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, has become almost synonymous with Mordor. Mount Doom itself is a digitally enhanced Ngauruhoe, although the volcano looks impressive enough as it is. The park also contains Emyn Muil, Gorgoroth, the Black Gate and the spot in Ithilien where Faramir was camped, and, of course, parts of The Hobbit were filmed there as well. A great way to see all these sights – as well as the pretty Blue and Emerald Lakes and some spectacular craters and steam vents – is to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It takes about seven hours and you have to be moderately fit, but if you don’t feel like that you can fly over the park, go on a horse trek or, in winter, go skiing.

7)      Shotover River

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover River flows through the picturesque Skippers Canyon near Queenstown. It is a fast and often frothy river and, along with the Kawarau River, provided some of the scenery for the Anduin. Skippers Canyon is just gorgeous – my family went on a jet boat ride in it and it was the best jet boat ride I’ve ever been on. The Shotover Jet is heart-stoppingly thrilling as it skims around and even over rocks! Above the canyon wends the ridiculously frightening Skippers Road, which is so narrow and dangerous that you’re not allowed to drive any New Zealand rental cars on it.

8)      Fiordland

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

In the deep south of the South Island, Fiordland is home to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Manapouri and Te Anau. It is consistently cited as one of the most beautiful places in the world, so it’s no wonder that filming for both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies took place there. The Waiau River, between Manapouri and Te Anau, was used as parts of the Anduin, both sides of Takaro Road were used as Fangorn, Kelper Mire was used as the Dead Marshes, Manapouri was used as the area south of Rivendell… I could go on. The crowning glory of Fiordland is Milford Sound, and at the centre of that crown is Mitre Peak. Anyone who visits New Zealand should take a cruise on Milford Sound, but if you walk around you might find yourself following in certain hairy footsteps.

9)      Pelorus River

Part of the pretty Marlborough Sounds at the very top of the South Island, the Pelorus River was filmed as Forest River for the second of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. You know the bit where they escape the Wood-elves in barrels and float down the river to Lake-town? Well the drop was done at Pelorus Bridge. The Pelorus Bridge Camping Ground, which is an excellent place to stay, was closed for filming. The river is awesome to swim in – that area of New Zealand is especially nice and warm – and, no doubt, kayaking down it is set to become a lot more popular.

On the Canterbury Plains

On the Canterbury Plains

10)   Canterbury Plains

The Canterbury Plains are in the middle of the South Island and, along with Poolburn Reservoir in Central Otago, stand in for the Plains of Rohan, the Riddermark. Edoras itself is Mount Sunday, in the Rangitata Valley. The walk up to it and to the top is stunning with the snow capped mountains in the background. It’s easy to get to from Christchurch, and there are many activities to do in the area, including skiing and hot air balloon rides. I think the ultimate experience, however, would be horse riding through that spectacular scenery – you know why!

For more lists of great places to go in New Zealand, visit NZ Top List.

P.S. – Please support my blog by leaving a quick review –> http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/6084/poms-away – thank you!

New Zealand’s Best Beach?

Summer is well and truly here. The sun’s out and so’s school. The cicadas are chorusing and I’m lying here on a picnic blanket, surrounded by my nana’s flowers, trying to forget my hay fever. This, as it happens, is easy: my mind is drawn irresistibly towards what is coming, fast approaching on the cycle of inevitability – barbecues and beaches.

Beaches.

One beach in particular comes to mind, an enclosed stretch of golden-white sand at the foot of a forested cliff, its crystal-blue waters a stage for magnificent rock formations, so beautiful they seem deliberately sculpted.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Cathedral Cove is the best beach in New Zealand.

Oh, I’m not saying it doesn’t have stiff competition and plenty of it – this is New Zealand we’re talking about, but its magic is undeniable. Clearly. I mean it was used as a location in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, the bit where Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter have just made it back into the fantasy world. You thought that was CGI? I wouldn’t blame you if you did, but Cathedral Cove really is that gorgeous.

Cathedral Cove 1croppedYou know why it’s called Cathedral Cove? The beach’s crowning glory is a large cave that forms a natural archway, pointed like a cathedral. When you walk under it, it really does feel like you’re in a man-made chamber with a high, vaulted ceiling. People get married underneath it! It’s amazing.

I’ve been to it a grand total of once. It was ages ago now. My family had taken a six berth campervan rental up to the Coromandel, which is one of the best places for camping in New Zealand, but what I didn’t realise was you can’t get to Cathedral Cove via any road vehicle. It can only be reached by boat, or by quite a long bush walk. We walked, and let me tell you now: BRING A BOTTLE OF WATER.

The walk to Cathedral Cove takes about forty-five minutes, but it’s worth it. More than worth it. The sight that met me, gasping and sweating at the end of the track, was… well…

Coming from England, I was used to nicely ordered beaches, stretches of grey sand and grey water bisected by a pier, possibly lined with garish beach huts, definitely with a fish and chip shop, a tacky arcade, and somewhere that sold buckets and spades and plastic swords close by. New Zealand beaches aren’t ordered. What they have is the random beauty of nature and, at Cathedral Cove, the beauty of nature is in evidence on a dramatic scale.

Cathedral Cove 2

Cathedral Cove is a marine reserve. That means there’s an abundance of colourful fish and corals, and on top of that the water is quite clear, so it’s great for snorkelling in. Kayaking is popular at Cathedral Cove as well, but at the time we went the sea was unusually rough and we saw a couple of guys capsize! Also, as my family have just reminded me, my dad lost his sunglasses in the surf.

I don’t remember swimming much; I spent ages splashing around in the shallows and scrambling on rocks. Cathedral Cove is fantastic for kids. The beach on either side of the big cave offers a slightly different experience and, of course, unlike most other beaches, there’s available shade.

My little sister’s just said that she remembers chafing. That’s because she didn’t dry herself off properly before setting out on the forty-five minute walk back to our campervan. So there’s a cautionary tale for you.

It’s unfortunate that Cathedral Cove is so difficult to access in comparison to most other beaches. You can’t simply park a minute away from the sand. On the other hand, its relative isolation is part of what makes it so magical.

Cathedral Cove 3cropped

It’s different. Once you go to Cathedral Cove, you’ll never forget it. It’s not just beautiful, it’s spectacularly beautiful, which is why I say it’s the best beach in New Zealand. Either by boat or by bush walk, you just HAVE to go there.

 

Check out the Top 10 Best New Zealand Beaches at NZ Top List.

More articles I’ve written about beaches in New Zealand: