I Visited New Zealand’s Only Castle

larnach castle

New Zealand’s only castle can be found in the South Island, lording it over the Otago Peninsula. But wait, you think: New Zealand doesn’t have any castles! Well you’re right. Larnach Castle is merely a nineteenth century mansion with delusions of grandeur. I still enjoyed visiting it, though.

larnach castle

This so-called castle is impressive enough upon approach. There are crenellations. Stone lions flank an imposing staircase. It’s small, even for a mere mansion, but it has an undeniably distinctive character.

What makes Larnach Castle different from all of the similar buildings I’ve seen, (mostly around England and Scotland,) is that it’s ringed by a glass-encased veranda. It’s like a laird’s estate spliced together with a colonial villa.

larnach castle

The first thing we – my fiancé, my little sister and I – did was seek out the café. It’s located in the ballroom, which has a cosy, yet grand hunting lodge feel to it. To our delight, we found it serving proper tea and scones with jam and clotted cream!

Next, we explored the garden, finding not only the White Rabbit, but a statue of Alice trying to play croquet with a flamingo, amongst the expected fountains and topiary. Finally, it was time to have a nosy around the house itself.

larnach castle white rabbit

The child in me delighted in the labyrinthine staircases. The adult in me delighted at the antique furniture. The crazy cat lady in me delighted at the stained-glass window showing the Larnach family’s feline sigil, complete with the motto SANS PEVR – without fear.

At first, I didn’t get why the Larnach ancestors would have chosen a cat to represent the concept of fearlessness. I mean ‘scaredy cat’ is a common insult for a reason! Then I read that it’s meant to be a Scottish wild cat, which makes a lot more sense.

Of course, you can’t visit Larnach Castle without climbing to the top of the tower. From it, you get commanding views of not only the garden, but the whole Otago Harbour. I didn’t stay up there very long, as it was quite cold.

larnach castle tower new zealand flag

Standing, shivering, atop the tower, grey sky looming overhead, reminded me of my childhood. So many rainy, British weekends visiting castles. “Can we go inside now?” I’d moan. Not that I didn’t like visiting castles.

Another thing that reminded me of my childhood was the castle giftshop. Larnach Castle’s giftshop is pretty good. I bought a lovely notebook, which I’m writing in right now. They were even selling their own brand of whiskey. I was tempted, but wouldn’t buy it without tasting it first!

The Moeraki Boulders

moerakiboulders

You’ve probably heard of the Moeraki Boulders, those strangely spherical rocks on that beach somewhere in New Zealand.

moerakiboulders

Well that beach is called Koekohe, and can be found on the South Island’s east coast, between Dunedin and Oamaru. The boulders are absolutely worth seeing, but be warned: they attract a lot of tourists.

moerakiboulders

When you turn off State Highway 1 at Koekohe Beach, you’ll see an enormous sign pointing left towards the Moeraki Boulders. It’s a trap. It leads to a crowded café and giftshop, and a stairway to the boulders that you have to pay to go down. Instead, turn right. That road leads to the public carpark, from which you can access the boulders for free.

moerakiboulders

The more you look at the Moeraki Boulders, the more they resemble enormous alien eggs.

moerakiboulders

The worrying thing is that some of them look like they’ve already had things hatch out of them.

moerakiboulders

Here, you can see the cliff giving birth to one.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders are made of mudstone, formed millions of years ago on the ocean floor. As the cliff erodes, more and more are exposed.

moerakiboulders

The scientific term for them, and rocks like them, is septarian concretions.

moerakiboulders

The Moeraki Boulders contain calcite crystals, as well as quartz and sometimes dolomite.

moeraki boulders

They’re not unique to Koekohe, or even New Zealand.

moeraki boulders

You can see similar boulders in a seemingly more bizarre and even more magical setting in a forest near Taihape. They’re called the Whitecliffs Boulders. I’ll show you the pictures I took there another time.

moeraki boulders

Books, Cheese and Victorian Costumes

steampunk hq oamaru

Oamaru is a coastal town between Christchurch and Dunedin. It’s known for two things: little blue penguins and steampunk. I went penguin watching there when I was a kid, so this visit, I headed straight for Steampunk HQ.

Steampunk HQ is an art gallery, but no ordinary one. It has an immersive atmosphere that’s almost spooky, showcasing Victorian inventions from the realm of fantasy. It can be found on the fringe of Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct, an area of preserved and restored buildings from the town’s 1800s heyday. The buildings are all made out of stone, more specifically a hard kind of limestone called whitestone. This is what gives Oamaru its distinctive look.

oamaru criterion hotel victorian precinct

I was excited to explore the Victorian Precinct. Walking down Harbour Street felt like stepping back in time. As well as museums, galleries and giftshops, there was an old-fashioned bakery, a bookbinder’s, vintage clothes boutiques, a whisky tasting place and not one, but two second-hand bookshops.

penny-farthingBoth bookshops were interestingly decorated. The first I visited, Adventure Books, was exploration-themed. There were old globes and maps, and – just casually – an entire, full-sized sailing boat sitting in the shop. The second, Slightly Foxed, had a more general selection of literature. Alice in Wonderland art and quotes adorned the walls, and the cupboard under the stairs was a children’s playroom. It even had a mezzanine, from which you could look out over the whole shop. I made a few too many purchases, all of which were entered in a Victorian-style ledger, wrapped in brown paper packages and tied up with string!

victorian costumeThe Victorian Precinct is right by the harbour, where you’ll find a large, steampunk-themed playground and a rather good pub called Scotts Brewing Co. – it’s a microbrewery that does tastings as well as great pizza. It was recommended to me by one of the wonderful guides at Whitestone City, a small but brilliant museum on Harbour Street. Not only are you encouraged to interact with the artefacts, you can dress up in Victorian clothing to do so! My fiancé and I had a whale of a time there, especially riding on the penny-farthing carousel.

But Oamaru has delights beyond the Victorian Precinct. The Public Gardens are well worth a walk through. In fact, our accommodation was directly adjacent to the Oamaru Public Gardens, perfectly situated for an evening stroll. I especially enjoyed the Wonderland Garden, a space inspired by children’s fantasy literature, featuring a fairy statue gifted to Oamaru in 1926. I would have loved to have had a picnic there; alas there was no time.

oamaru public gardens

There was time, however, to visit one of the best cheesemakers in New Zealand. The Whitestone Cheese factory has a shop and café, and you can take a tour to see how the cheese is made. We didn’t do the tour, but we did indulge in a tasting platter. I, a cheese snob, was impressed. We ended up buying a few blocks for the road. Their blue cheese is particularly good.

fairy statue

All in all, Oamaru felt like a holiday destination tailor-made for the likes of me: lovers of books, cheese, history, gardens and dressing up! And don’t forget the penguins.

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!

Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

omaka aviation heritage museum

Peter Jackson’s old war planes displayed in sets built by Weta Workshop is exactly as awesome as it sounds. I’m not even interested in aviation history and I absolutely love this museum! It’s on the outskirts of Blenheim, near Brayshaw Heritage Park. There are two parts, one dedicated to the First World War and one to the Second, which you pay for separately. If you only have time for one section, make it the Second World War, as it’s the newest and most exciting, but, of course, both are worth seeing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

So, how did a museum in Blenheim come to be in possession of such awesome displays? Well, at some point in the ’90s, the people storing their planes at Omaka decided it would be cool to turn the place into a museum, so they started fundraising, holding airshows and such like. In the early 2000s, this caught the attention of Peter Jackson, a long-time war plane enthusiast. He joined the club, needing somewhere to store his collection of WWI fighter planes, which, presumably, he’d recently purchased with the profits of his phenomenally successful Lord of the Rings films. He, too, thought a museum would be cool, so he called upon the set and prop artists of The Lord of the Rings and bid them do their thing.

omaka aviation heritage museum

The result is magical. It’s hard not to get sucked into the atmosphere. The experiences of the war pilots are brought to life in harrowing detail. I especially enjoyed – well, maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the right word – the scene of the Red Baron’s demise. The churned-up dirt and the expressions on the mannequins’ faces are worryingly realistic. The scene with the plane crashed into the tree, surrounded by snow, is also highly evocative.

omaka aviation heritage museumMy favourite part of the museum is the one dedicated to WWII planes, perhaps because it has even more focus on raw human experience than the WWI part. You enter the exhibition through a recreated air raid shelter, a gloomy tunnel adorned with wartime posters. The muffled sounds of planes and bombs, accompanied by the eerie whine of an air raid siren, make it wonderfully spooky. You emerge from the tunnel to be faced with a life-sized diorama of a lovely moment involving a Kiwi pilot who’s just crash-landed onto some toff’s country estate in the middle of a garden party. He’s being offered a glass of champagne.

lydia litvyakI suppose I shouldn’t give the whole thing away, but I will say there’s a quite amazingly immersive cinematic experience pertaining to the Battle of Stalingrad. You actually feel like you’re there, which is incredible, but I imagine it would give some children nightmares, and trigger distressing flashbacks for certain soldiers and refugees. It left me weirdly winded. There’s also a bit about the Nazis that has a giant swastika flag hanging above it. This, according to the old veteran guide I got chatting to, has proven a tad controversial.

The guide was lovely, but, having mistaken me for the mother of the children in another part of the exhibition with their father, went to great lengths to emphasize a part of the exhibition that might be of more interest to “womenfolk”, and seemed surprised that I was relatively knowledgeably about certain things already. (I took great relish in flaunting my knowledge after this realisation, never revealing, of course, that aviation history isn’t really my cup of tea, my knowledge having been transferred by osmosis from a lifetime of proximity to my father.) Almost annoyingly, I did find the part of the exhibition about the Russian female fighter pilots – the Night Witches – especially interesting.

The two most impressive displays, I thought, were the one focusing on the ace fighter Lydia Litvyak, known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and the one focusing on the bomber crashed into a patch of Pacific jungle. I made sure my fiancé experienced the Stalingrad section, because his grandfather, a German soldier, was actually stationed at Stalingrad, but was recalled to Germany for officer training just days before the battle began. It wasn’t until after the war that he discovered every single one of his friends who’d been at Stalingrad had died.

omaka aviation heritage museumNow Omaka is quite an expensive museum to visit – $40 if you want to go ’round all of it. The money does go towards improving the museum, however. They want to build an Art Deco bit to go in-between the First and Second World War bits, for example. You can also go for a plane ride if you want. Oh, and there are some amusing T-shirts in the gift shop that say “Old Fokker”!

omaka aviation heritage museumSo, if you love planes, or military history, or Peter Jackson, you’ll be in heaven in the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum. If you don’t, you’ll still enjoy it. Like I said before, aviation history isn’t my thing, but I’m dead keen to go back once they’ve finished the Art Deco exhibition. It’s because Peter Jackson’s displays have allowed the exhibitions to highlight the human experience surrounding the planes, not merely the technical aspects of the planes themselves. Human stories are what make history so powerful.