New Zealand’s Most Enchanting Museum

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You know sometimes you go somewhere not expecting much, but end up utterly enchanted? That’s what happened when I went to Nigel Ogle’s Tawhiti Museum in Taranaki. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Just go there, and make sure you give yourself plenty of time to see everything – a few hours at least. And visit the café. It’s just… well… let me explain…

Tawhiti Museum 01Tawhiti is the largest private museum in New Zealand. Housed in a former cheese factory, it was developed by an artist called Nigel Ogle, who spends his time creating life-sized models of people, using moulds cast from co-opted locals. These models, along with many scale dioramas, tell the story of Taranaki, from the early interactions of the European sailors and Maori tribesmen, to the tragic life of mid-twentieth century local author, Ronald Hugh Morrieson.

The entrance of Tawhiti has the look of one of those historic…

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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 Coronomandel 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) Waikeke 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.

Why Living in Tauranga Ruins You for Life

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I live in Tauranga, New Zealand. But not for much longer. The time has come to fly the nest.

To Hamilton.

Laugh all you want. Hamilton’s a nice place. (I’ve written about it here – fingers crossed I won’t have to eat my words!) But it’s not as nice as Tauranga.

Living in Tauranga has ruined me for anywhere else.

Just yesterday, we visited our local beach and took a few pictures.

Mount Beach 2Tauranga Rocks 4Pilot Bay

Yes, that’s our local beach. That’s Mount Maunganui, known locally as the Mount. Well, actually, as the Mount is situated at the end of a very narrow peninsula that has a beach on either side, that’s two of our many local beaches. And if you walk around the base of the Mount, you’ll find many more miniature beaches and so be able to claim your own private beach. God, I love living in Tauranga.

Mount Bench 2

Tauranga is the perfect…

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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

A Look Inside the Oldest Library in New Zealand

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You wouldn’t expect to find New Zealand’s first library down an unassuming street in Tauranga. Nor would you expect it to contain a secret trapdoor, under which treasures (and people) could be hidden in the event of attack. Imagine yourself crammed into the 1.8-metre-deep oubliette, trying not to make a sound as invading enemies stomp across the floorboards inches above your head, tearing your precious books from their shelves.

A Beautiful Book at the Elms Mission Station

Thankfully, the library was never actually attacked. It’s a tiny, wooden building on the edge of the Elms Mission Station, completed in 1839. The Elms, then known as Te Papa Mission Station, was established by the Reverend Alfred Brown, who was sent from England to educate the children of other New Zealand missionaries. Living at Te Papa was risky: the spot chosen for the mission station was prone to bouts of intertribal warfare.

Reverend Brown was keen to spread Christianity to…

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