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

Seals, Crayfish and Snow-Capped Mountains

kaikoura seal sign

Kaikoura: the only place where a meal from a van at the side of the road costs more than from a posh restaurant. To be fair, that meal consists of freshly caught crayfish. That’s what Kaikoura means, in fact: meal of crayfish – so you have to try some. The price, however, is why my fiancé and I settled for crayfish fritters, as opposed to a whole, or even half of one. We ate them crowded on a bench with other tourists, on a strip of grass between the road and the sea. It was actually lovely.

kaikoura seal

People from all over the world handed each other ketchup, exchanging smiles and travel advice.

“Have you seen any seals yet?”

“Yeah, there are lots down there.”

“We saw a dead one up the road.”

“Well, if you climb up there, you can see whales surfacing.”

kaikoura whale bones

The crayfish was lovely too. And the view: seals silhouetted against a sparkling bay, surveyed by a row of snow-capped mountains. That’s what Kaikoura’s all about, really. It’s a small town that used to be a whaling station. Now people go there to watch whales instead, as well as seals and other examples of marine wildlife.

kaikoura

There are some nice, little shops in the town, all aimed at tourists, of course. The selection of cafes and restaurants is decent, although the many roadside vans seem to offer a more authentic Kaikoura dining experience. The tourist activities are endless. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to marine safaris. I quite fancied going on a seal kayak tour.

Now, you’re not allowed to “freedom camp” in Kaikoura, but don’t despair, fellow New Zealand campervan travellers: we found a wonderful place to stay. It’s called Donegal House, which, aside from being one of the best Irish pubs in New Zealand, allows campervans to stay overnight in its carpark for free! Oh, and here’s the view from its carpark:

kaikoura donegal house

The food at Donegal House was sublime, the décor was genuinely interesting (and humorous,) and the barman was the epitome of Irish hospitality. He even offered us breakfast on the house.

kaikoura seals

As for the road to Kaikoura, it is open, but, as of time of writing, it’s still being repaired from that big earthquake. There’s a lot of waiting, but the coastal drive remains preferable to the inland one, both in terms of time and views. There are places to stop and observe seals along the way. We pulled over at one point, expecting to stay for a few minutes, take a few photos and be off again. Before we knew it, we’d been watching the seals for an hour!

kaikoura seals

The Dead Seal Sketch

On the evening we arrived in Kaikoura, we pulled over on the rocky shore to enjoy the light of dusk on the Pacific Ocean. In a distant rock pool, guarded by an adult, a crèche of baby seals was splashing about. Closer to the road, however, a fellow tourist had spotted something.

“Oh my God, look, a baby!” she squealed, pointing to a small, limp seal practically at our feet. “It’s so cute!”

“Looks dead to me,” I said.

“No, it’s just sleeping,” she replied, without a hint of irony.

I was unconvinced. I crept closer until I could see its face. Sure enough, I was greeted by a pair of empty eye sockets. Rather worryingly, a little further along the beach, there was another dead seal. Neither looked like they’d been attacked, but my fiancé contacted the Department of Conservation – as you’re supposed to do if you spot sick, injured or dead animals – just in case. Next to the second dead seal, I saw a gleaming paua shell, but I didn’t pick it up.

paua shell

Thankfully, we saw far more live seals than dead ones.

Apart from the seals and the crayfish, the thing I found special about Kaikoura was the backdrop of snowy peaks. I think it’s the only time in my life I’ve seen the sea and snow-capped mountains in the same frame, as it were. Even just wandering from shop to shop and looking up to see the mountains looming over the town felt special to me.

new zealand fur seal

We didn’t end up going on a whale safari, as our time and money was limited, but that just gives us an excuse to go back at some point!