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

10 Cool Places to Get Married in New Zealand

Cathedral Cove

I’ve been thinking about this non-stop since Tim proposed.

Oh yeah, Tim asked me to marry him last week! He got down on one knee during a zeppelin flight over Lake Constance, between Switzerland and Germany. I genuinely had no idea it was coming. (We’re in Europe for a few months visiting various family members, mine in England; his in Germany. That’s why I haven’t been posting as consistently as usual, but there should be at least one new article every few weeks.)

So, anyway, I think I’ve mentioned before that I’d quite like to get married in Hobbiton, but that’s not the only option. Here’s a list of ten places in New Zealand that I think would make pretty cool wedding venues:

1) Hobbiton

The Hobbiton Movie Set near Matamata is truly gorgeous. It captures all the beauty of Tolkien’s medieval fantasy world without being tacky. The gardens around the hobbit holes are perfectly tended and the views are wonderful. There are two possible reception areas: The Party Marquee – reminiscent of the setup of Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party at beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring – and The Green Dragon Inn, which is like all the very best historical pubs in Europe combined. I think I’d prefer the inn; I remember it being very cosy.

Read my blog about visiting Hobbiton

The Tree Church

2) The Tree Church

The Tree Church is exactly what it sounds like: a church made out of trees. Some guy in Ohaupo, just south of Hamilton, did it as a hobby project, and was later convinced to open it up to the public. It’s not just a church, it’s a whole beautiful garden with a labyrinth and a pond. There’s also a ginger cat that’s always demanding attention from visitors. The atmosphere inside the church is tangibly magical. I imagine it would be perfect for any wedding, Christian or pagan.

Read my blog about visiting the Tree Church

3) Hamilton Gardens

What makes Hamilton Gardens so exciting as a venue for your wedding ceremony is all its differently themed gardens. I’d probably pick the Italian Renaissance Garden, but what about the English Flower Garden, the Japanese Garden with its tranquil pond, the Tudor Garden, or the gloriously colourful Indian Garden? Not to mention all the others. It’s pretty cheap to get married there, too. And Tim’s just reminded me of the new fantasy garden with the model steampunk zeppelin in it – that would be appropriate for us, considering his proposal!

Read my blog about the Hamilton Gardens

4) Larnach Castle

Larnach Castle is the closest thing New Zealand has to an actual castle. It was built in 1871 by a guy called William Larnach. It has a ballroom, lavish furnishings and award-winning gardens. You can have high tea there and, of course, weddings. Perhaps the best thing about it is the location: it sits halfwayup the incredible Otago Peninsula, surrounded by natural beauty and wildlife such as penguins, seals and albatrosses. Tim and I loved exploring the Otago Peninsula; it was very romantic.

Read my blog about the Otago Peninsula

5) Howick Historical Village

Howick Historical Village is in Auckland. It’s a complex of buildings from the nineteenth century arranged into an ersatz colonial village, including a church, a grand villa and an old school hall. If you’re after a Victorian-flavoured wedding, this place is as charming as any.

Read my blog about Howick Historical Village

Cathedral Cove

6) Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove is possibly the most beautiful beach in New Zealand. Featuring golden sand, crystal-blue water and epic rock formations, a wedding here would be breathtaking even without the natural cathedral. You can say your “I do’s” in a large cave on the sand that looks for all the world like it has a vaulted ceiling. Cathdral Cove isn’t easy to get to by foot, so wedding parties arrive by boat. It’s on the Coromandel Peninsula, which produces lovely wine and seafood, so no doubt the catering at the reception would be excellent.

Read my blog about Cathedral Cove

Chateau Tongariro

7) The Chateau Tongariro

The Chateau Tongariro is a grand, old hotel in Tongariro National Park, nestled in the midst of three stunning volcanoes. It was built in the 1920s and retains something of the era’s oppulence – all chandeliers and red velvet furnishings; even a billiards table. It does a scrumptious high tea and has a very posh restaurant, and outside there’s a ski field and an abundance of fantastic hiking trails. If you want snow-capped mountains in the background of your wedding photos, or a Great Gatsby-themed day, this is the venue for you.

Read my blog about the Chateau Tongariro

8) Waiheke Island

Waiheke is a pretty island off the coast of Auckland. It’s absolutely teeming with wineries, so there are plenty of wedding venues to choose from. The ferry journey to Waiheke is enjoyable, taking in all the different islands of the Hauraki Gulf – sometimes you even see dolphins. The island itself is home to quite a few artists, so there are galleries and sculpture parks to explore. It has become a very popular wedding destination, with spectacular sea views, but I don’t think it’s quite right for me and Tim.

9) Lake Tekapo

On the shore the South Island’s Lake Tekapo sits the most picturesque church in the whole of New Zealand. They only allow Christian weddings to be conducted there, but I reckon pretending to be Christian for the day would be worth it for this sight!

10) The Blue Baths

You can have your wedding reception in a gorgeous Art Deco bathhouse in Rotorua’s Government Gardens. There are still pools, but this Spanish Mission-style building has been hosting wedding parties since it was built in the 1930s. I’ve relaxed in the wonderfully-situated geothermal pools a few times over the years, and I’ve always thought it would be cool to get married there. There are old-fashioned rooms and romantic balconies for photographs, as well, of course, as the lovely gardens around it.

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

Twilight Over McLaren Falls

McLaren Falls by Abigail Simpson

I’m always surprised by how quickly darkness falls in winter. We were driving home from my parents’ the other day – not that late in the afternoon – when I realised the world was draped in an indigo veil. A thought struck me.

“Can we stop at McLaren Falls?” I asked Tim.

We were about to drive past McLaren Falls anyway. They’re not hard to get to; you can park right next to the lookout. Dusk is a good time for taking long-exposure shots of waterfalls, you see.

McLaren Falls by Abigail Simpson

There were more cars than I’d expected, but a spot soon opened up. I prepped my camera and crossed to the lookout.

I hadn’t been to the falls in a long time. I was fairly certain I hadn’t seen a footbridge over them before. It was one of those slightly shaky suspension bridges, which unfortunately meant I couldn’t get any decent long-exposure shots from it. (These ones I’m showing you are the least blurry ones I got.)

The falls weren’t at their best anyway. That only happens on certain dates when the water is released from the McLaren Falls Dam. Still, they were quite lovely in the winter twilight. The water seemed almost luminous.

mclaren falls

When they release the water from the dam, you can go whitewater kayaking for free!

mclaren falls

I’ve already written an article about how awesome McLaren Falls Park is. Here’s a photo I took a few years ago whilst kayaking on Lake McLaren:

Lake McLaren by Abigail Simpson

The Great Tower of Matamata

It’s not often you see a tower like this in New Zealand. It’s called Firth Tower and it’s in Matamata, not far from Hobbiton. What’s a stone tower doing in a Waikato farming community, you ask? A couple of weeks ago, I went to find out. I ended up finding a lot more than I expected…

Firth Tower

It’s not just a tower, you see. There’s a whole complex of historic buildings containing museum exhibits, from a Victorian post office to machinery sheds and railway carriages. Not only that, the grounds around them are extensive and quite lovely, with beautiful flowers and trees.

flower butterfly

You’re allowed to explore the grounds for free, but a small fee is required if you want to go inside the buildings. You’re also allowed to stay the night there in your campervan. If you’re on a New Zealand campervan rental holiday, I highly recommend taking advantage of this. There are decent toilets and picnic spots on top of everything else.

firth tower museum

I was delighted to discover that the Victorian post office contained a miniature secondhand bookshop. The selection left a lot to be desired, but still… nice idea. The best exhibition, I thought, was the main house, which had a scene-setting audio track. Why was there a tower in the garden? Because the Victorian estate owner simply felt like having one.

I entered the tower and climbed the precarious, wooden stairs around and around, all the way up to the lookout. I climbed the final ladder and marvelled at the expanse of fields… for a second or two. It was stifling up there! I hurriedly retreated, squeezing my way around the latest generation of children excited to be inside a “castle”.

firth tower

I had a lovely time at Firth Tower Museum. The day had started off cold and gloomy, but became wonderfully hot and sunny. I spent a lot of time simply wandering the grounds, taking photographs of the flowers. Unsurprisingly, you can hire the place out for weddings, as one of the historic buildings is a church.

firth tower museum

train carriages firth tower museum

old farm machinery firth tower museum

red flower