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.

Bulls: A Town Like No Udder

bulls sign

Yes, that was really what was written on the sign: A Town Like No Udder. We were unable to suppress our groans as we drove past it. We knew Bulls was famous for bad puns – that was why we were stopping here on our way back from Wellington – but the small town had already exceeded our expectations.

We parked on the road outside a café with the following sign in the window:

Sighing, we proceeded to explore.

New Zealand is teeming with small, boring towns that have chosen a single quirk to double down on, thus turning themselves into tourist destinations. Or, at least, towns you’d get out and look around in, as opposed to just driving through. Katikati, for example, is full of murals, whereas Tirau is full of giant, corrugated iron things.

tirau sheep

Bulls, of course, is full of… well, actually, quite nice boutique shops. We were pleasantly surprised by that. The antiques shops were especially cool, although I failed to spot a sign that said COLLECT-A-BULL, which – come on – surely, I must have missed, because if there isn’t one, that’s a serious oversight.

First, though, I needed to relive myself. Thankfully, I found some public toilets labelled RELIEVE-A-BULL at the information centre, which was labelled…

bulls sign

INFORM-A-BULL. Nearby stood an outlet of the fast-food chain Subway that had declared itself SUBMERGE-A-BULL, and the local police station: CONST-A-BULL. It had a cute – if PREDICT-A-BULL – mural on its side.

bulls police

But that wasn’t the only mural in Bulls. This one looked oddly familiar:

bulls american gothic

I found it opposite the local Plunket building. (Plunket is a New Zealand charity that provides free health services to children under five.) Incidentally, the sign on the side of that building said NON RETURN-A-BULL.

As I made my way towards the centre of town, I appreciated the milk churn-shaped rubbish bins encouraging people to be RESPONSE-A-BULL.

bulls bin

The hub of the town, opposite some FASHION-A-BULL shops, is the old town hall:

bulls town hall

Very SOCI-A-BULL. Though one mustn’t forget the MEMOR-A-BULL museum or the CURE-A-BULL medical centre, which, for some reason, has a Trojan bull outside of it.

trojan bull

We had a late lunch at a posh café – DELECT-A-BULL – and squeed at a collection of BLING-A-BULL wedding tiaras. (Though I think I’ll keep it simple with a flower garland for my wedding at Hobbiton.) I liked that the library was READ-A-BULL, and guessed that the church would be BELIEVE-A-BULL, but I was wrong. As we drove out of Bulls, I leaned into the window to check. It was FORGIVE-A-BULL.

bulls

Road to Wellington

wellington harbour

Qualifying for the National Harry Potter Quiz – see last week’s post – meant an unexpected trip to New Zealand’s capital city. I’d been to Wellington before, once as a child and once as an adult. In fact, I’d written about it in an article called My Weekend in Wellington. The plan was to drive down on the Friday, cram as much sightseeing into the Saturday (before the quiz) as possible, and drive back on the Sunday. We shoved our Harry Potter costumes into the boot and off we went.

Driving from Hamilton to Wellington takes about seven hours, so pretty much a full day. As we had more than one driver, the journey was actually quite nice. The rolling hills of the Waikato Region gave way to glimpses of Lake Taupō, before the greenery was replaced by the tawny scrub and snowy peaks of Tongariro National Park. We stopped briefly in Turangi, where the hospice shop was notable for the number of skis it was selling, and then in Taihape.

taihape gumboot

The famous corrugated iron gumboot did not disappoint.

We did a short walk up to a lookout tower in Taihape. It was pleasant enough.

taihape view

The next notable place we passed through was Bulls. Yes, it’s a strange name for a town, but they’ve run with it. Boy have they run with it. It deserves a blog to itself, so that’s what I’ll do. It was already getting dark as we approached it, so I requested that we explore Bulls on the way back up instead, which we did. Blog to come!

We got to Wellington in time for a late dinner. We settled into our B&B and walked to Courtenay Place to find somewhere to eat. As Courtenay Place is pretty much all restaurants, this was easy. Or, at least, it would have been if our group hadn’t included both a coeliac-sufferer and a low-FODMAP dieter! Oh, the joys of living with food allergies and intolerances.

plimmer wellingtonThe next morning, my travelling companions went to visit friends of theirs, leaving me to my own devices. I like exploring cities on my own. I wanted to get pictures of places I hadn’t gotten pictures of before, so I ignored Mount Victoria and the Beehive, (New Zealand’s infamously hideous parliament building,) and set off on foot towards Old St Paul’s Cathedral. On the way, I passed a few second-hand bookshops and a gorgeous, Edwardian-looking shopping arcade that had the archaeological remains of a boat beneath it. It’s called the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay, opposite Plimmer’s Steps.

I wanted to get some photos of Old St Paul’s because it’s not just another cathedral – it’s made entirely out of wood, you see. When I got there, however, it was closed for renovations.

old st paul's

Bugger.

Ah well. No biggie. Onwards, to the next destination on my list, the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden. (I’ve written about Katherine Mansfield before, in my blog about Hamilton’s Katherine Mansfield Garden.) This place was where she was born, and it’s now a museum. When I got there, however, it was closed for renovations.

Bugger.

wellington harbour

Feeling a little bummed, I made my way down to the harbour. The walk along the harbour is wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it all three times I’ve been in Wellington. It was Saturday afternoon, so the Underground Market was on there, as a little bonus.

wellington underground market

I walked all the way around to Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, before heading back up to the centre of Wellington. Cuba Street’s rainbow crossing looked especially inviting.

cuba street rainbow crossing

What with all my walking, I’d run out of time to visit anywhere else. It was time to go and get changed for the Harry Potter Quiz. (See last week’s blog to find out how we did!)

wellington harbour bicycle

Solscape: A Relaxing Campsite in Raglan

solscape raglan

You know when your tent starts glowing with the light of dawn? And the sounds of nature gradually permeate your dreams? Cockerels cock-a-doodle-dooing. Cicadas building to their perpetual crescendo. Distant waves rushing into the bay. Other couples thinking they’re bonking quietly. You know that moment, when you feel totally in another world? Work doesn’t exist here. You’re free to do nothing but stare at the view.

solscape ragland

And what a view Solscape has. It’s not a place I’d have chosen to come myself. It’s a friend’s birthday and he chose the place. It’s one of those eco campsites that oozes kombucha-flavoured self-righteousness. It advertises itself as a ‘harmonious diversion from conventional forms and patterns’ and uses phrases such as ‘holistic wellness’ and ‘to nurture our connection with each other and the natural world’. The café is called the Conscious Kitchen. You get the idea.

railway carriage caboose solscape raglan

And though we’ve all made a few too many chakras jokes since arriving, even I have to admit that I like it here. The Conscious Kitchen overlooks a gorgeous bay. The composting toilets and solar showers are actually quite nice. The cabooses made from old railway carriages look awesome, as do the earth domes and the tipi forest. The permaculture gardens and glorious sunflowers add to the relaxed atmosphere, and even though I can’t eat much of the food here due to an intolerance to veganism – note that I’m not trying to be a dick; I am genuinely intolerant to most fruits, many vegetables, some nuts and all beans (including, of course, soy) – I would definitely come here again.

solscape raglan mud huts

If you’re on a New Zealand campervan trip, I’d recommend booking one of the powered van sites here. It’s a little on the expensive side, but it’s a place worth seeing. As we’re in Raglan, one of the most famous surfing spots in the world, Solscape offers surfing lessons as well as the expected yoga. There’s a beach within easy walking distance, and the town of Raglan is a short drive away. I’ve written about the town before, in Raglan on a Winter’s Day – you should definitely check it out.

solscape raglan mud huts

Raglan’s a bit of a hippy (as well as a surfers’) paradise. It’s full of quirky craft shops and cafés, often down intriguing, little alleyways. If you’re a fan of household art, vintage clothing and macramé necklaces, it’s got your name crocheted all over it. There’s even a tiny secondhand bookshop. You can walk straight from the town centre to the sea and – not far away – you can find one of the most beautiful waterfalls in New Zealand, Bridal Veil Falls.

sunflowers solcape raglan

It’s time for us to leave now; to return to our respective unconscious kitchens. I’m really going to miss this view.

solscape raglan

Winter Sunshine on Bethells Beach

Sea Foam

The world had been grey for so long that the blue sky above Bethells Beach was a beacon. We were drawn to it, as were many others. The air was frigid, but the sand was sparkling, silver and black. Each footprint pressed into it seemed an act of liberation.

Bethells Beach

Excited dogs splashed through the stream; babbling tourists took kooky selfies. The stream had changed its course, forcing people to forge a new path to the sea – the result, perhaps, of those epic storms a while back. (Bethells residents had ended up without power for a worryingly long time.)

Bethells Beach

Aside from that, the beach was the same as it always had been: the bushy cliffs; the grassy dunes; the rocks jutting into the waves. We made our way to the cave at the southern end of the beach, always a deceptively long walk.

Bethells Beach

No one was surfing – not even Westies* being that insane. As we walked back up the beach, I appreciated, as always, a particular chunk of bushy cliff that resembled a giant, sunbathing woman. Its curves undulated against the sky… face, neck, breasts, belly and thighs…

Bethells Beach

Mother Nature enjoying (or guarding) one of her better creations.

Sea

*West Aucklandlanders

Now here’s what I think are The Best Beaches in New Zealand