Victorian Villas and Vineyards

greytown

New Zealand’s most complete main street of wooden Victorian buildings – that was what attracted me to Greytown. Nestled in the vineyard-rich Wairarapa, just north of Wellington, it was recently voted New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. I can’t really dispute this. The day my fiancé and I went there, the sun had gilded every surface. In fact, it was almost too hot to walk around!

greytown

Using my umbrella as a parasol, I felt like a proper Victorian lady promenading down the high street. It seemed as though each shop was a fancy boutique, mostly catering for middle-aged women. There were a few nice-looking cafes and bakeries, and a bicycle shop old-fashioned enough to make hipsters drool. I got more enjoyment from the architecture than the shops themselves, although there was one shop that I spent a little too much in… the chocolate shop.

greytownSchoc Chocolates is right next to Greytown’s historical village. The shop is actually inside a tiny Victorian cottage, and the chocolate they make there is divine. There’s a range of interesting, and often experimental flavours, but my favourite is their Earl Grey tea dark chocolate. The aroma is intense without being overwhelming, and the chocolate feels velvety in your mouth. You can’t help but eat it slowly, savouring the aftertaste of every piece.

greytownThe historical village itself was unfortunately closed when I was there. From the outside, though, it looked unbelievably pretty, especially as dappled light was filtering down through the trees. The walk back towards the centre of town was a slog in the heat, but the houses along the road were pleasing to look at. To cool off, we had a drink in The White Swan, an old, wooden building with a large balcony. We’d run out of things to do in Greytown, so we headed to the nearby village of Martinborough.

martinboroughMartinborough is entirely surrounded by vineyards. It has a few fancy boutiques, though nowhere near as many as Greytown, including an old-fashioned sweet shop, a predictably impressive wine shop and a disappointingly expensive bookshop. There’s a selection of good restaurants around the village green, serving, naturally, local wines. My fiancé and I went to a little place called Pinocchio. It was expensive, but he was treating me, and the food was orgasmic.

cat martinborough holiday parkAs a side note, the Marlborough TOP 10 Holiday Park was a brilliant place to stay. We were in a rental campervan, and though we didn’t need to plug in, there weren’t any convenient free campsites around. This place had unlimited free Wi-Fi, nice facilities and a friendly pussycat.

So, in conclusion, if you’re a wealthy, middle-aged lady with a liking for designer clothes and fine wine, the Wairarapa Region is for you!

New Zealand Has Its Own Stonehenge!

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

I love stone circles. I’m not a ‘spiritual’ person, but such ancient monuments fill me with awe. My favourite is the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, which I visited last year. My sense of awe was only slightly dampened by the various tourists trying to ‘fall through’ the stones. (The Outlander TV series was at its most popular and the lure of dashing, eighteenth century highlanders waiting to be the tamed by modern, sexually enlightened time travellers was potent.)

Of course, there were nowhere near as many tourists at Brodgar as there were when I visited Stonehenge – the Stonehenge. I often joke that the thick ring of tourists revolving around the circle made it look like it had an extra layer of megaliths, each wearing a different, brightly coloured anorak and speaking in a loud, American accent. Nevertheless, it was awesome to behold. I lingered so long the bus almost left without me. I can still see my teachers rolling their eyes.

So, when I heard New Zealand had its own Stonehenge, I had to see it. I was apprehensive, though. I mean, how could it possibly live up the original? Well, it couldn’t. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t trying to.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Stonehenge Aotearoa is located between Masterton and Martinborough, near the bottom of the North Island. Most people who haven’t been think it’s a replica of England’s Stonehenge, and are worried, therefore, about it being tacky. I was in the ‘I want it to be awesome, but will be probably be disappointed’ camp. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I mean, wrongly assumed it would be the sort of tourist attraction with a café.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

The thing is, it wasn’t built as a tourist attraction. It’s a passion project, built on the farm of a couple of retired astronomers by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was never meant to be a replica of the original Stonehenge, but an accurate calendar for its specific place in the world. Yes, it was built on a similar scale to the original, but it combines modern scientific thinking with the starlore of many cultures, including Māori. The small gift shop is more focussed on educational gifts than spiritual.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There’s an explanatory video to watch to before you make your way out to the circle, through a modest but lovely garden. Though the site promotes science and education, it still attracts the druidic crowd. It holds equinox celebrations, which include storytelling and music. Apparently, the acoustics are something else! Beside the entrance, there’s an old school building set up with a cinema screen, which will hopefully see more use in the future.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

As for the circle itself, it’s underwhelming, but still pretty damn cool. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s concrete. The lines are disconcertingly clean, but of course they are – the pillars and lintels are brand new! They haven’t been subjected to thousands of years of weather, or Victorian souvenir hunters with chisels. You have to appreciate Stonehenge Aotearoa for what it is, not what it isn’t.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There are a few interesting touches, such as an analemma, an obelisk and a statue of Artemis. There’s also a star sign tracker – an accurate one. Apparently, people are always disappointed to learn that their star signs are wrong! I’m really glad I visited Stonehenge Aotearoa. I’d recommend it to anyone travelling down to, or up from Wellington.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

waimangu volcanic valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system in the world. Tourists were flocking to the area before it was even formed, to see the Pink and White Terraces. Then, in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted. Over a hundred people died, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed, and Waimangu was born.

pink and white terraces

A painting of the Pink and White Terraces

Pronounced with a silent ‘g’, Waimangu means ‘black water’. It was named for a geyser – the largest in the world at the time – whose water was dark with mud and debris. Unfortunately, this geyser was only active from 1900 to 1904, but it saw many tourists during that time. Four people died in 1903, when the geyser took them by surprise, and another two in 1917, when an eruption destroyed a nearby accommodation house.

The ruins of the accommodation house weren’t pulled down until 1970.

As far as I know, no tourists have died since, though various eruptions continue to shape and reshape the valley.

waimangu volcanic valley

It’s quite expensive to visit Waimangu. My fiancé and I only did the self-guided walk and that was $42 each! It included a shuttle ride from the bottom of the track back up to the café/gift shop, but still… If you add the Lake Rotomahana boat cruise, it’s another $43 each. Lake Rotomahana is where the Pink and White Terraces were. There are a few bubbling hot springs and geysers along the shore that are inaccessible except by boat.

It turned out my fiancé and I couldn’t have done the cruise if we’d wanted to, as the boat’s engine had just given up the ghost. We got chatting to an employee about it as we were waiting for the shuttle. Apparently – and I apologise if I’m remembering this wrong – the boat had an ex-1950s double-decker bus engine, and, well, try finding a replacement one of those in New Zealand!

So, the walk. Upon leaving the visitor centre, we were confronted with this rather nice view…

waimangu volcanic valley

… and it only got better from there. As we followed the gravel path down the valley, towards Lake Rotomahana, a smorgasbord of geothermal delights presented themselves. First came a lake half smothered with pinkish red algae so thick it looked like a rubber mat.

waimangu volcanic valley lake red algae

Then came a lake that appeared to shiver in the sunlight, but was actually bubbling with heat. Wisps of steam eddied over its surface like spirits performing a dance.

waimangu volcanic valley cathedral rocks

Then there was the stream, steaming away in full technicolour.

waimangu volcanic valley

There were lots of other interesting geothermal features on the way to the lake, but the stream is what stood out to me.

waimangu volcanic valley

It takes about two hours to get down to the lake, which is why it’s nice to be able to take the shuttle back. There’s a total of three shuttle stops along the walk, so you don’t have to do the full track. The best stuff’s in the first two-thirds, not counting the beautiful lake views. Take sturdy shoes, sun protection and a drink bottle.

waimangu volcanic valley

So, I suppose the question is should you visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley over the many other geothermal sightseeing attractions available in and around Rotorua? If you’re short on time and/or money, no: there are places with more spectacular geothermal features than this. If you’ve already visited a few of those other places and are looking for something different, yes: it’s a lovely walk.