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!

Our Campervan Tour of New Zealand’s South Island

When I was twelve years old, my parents decided to take the family on a special holiday: a campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island. We had been living in New Zealand for over two years, having emigrated from Britain, but in the North Island. The South Island, as we were about to discover, is completely different. It is, in a word, magical.

I must admit, though, that I was not looking forward to sleeping in a campervan for two weeks. I was at that age when one especially prefers the privacy of their own bedroom, and I was bitterly disappointed that we could not afford to stay in a hotel every night, but that disappointment melted when we first climbed into our campervan at the depot in Christchurch. The whole thing suddenly became rather exciting.

609 Lake Wanaka 008

Lake Wanaka

The campervan we had was laid out similar to this one. My little sister immediately bagsed the double bed above the cabin, which you had to climb up a little ladder to get to and had its own curtain, so you could create a secret den for yourself. I was stuck sharing the double bed at the rear with my nana, but I was consoled by the fact that the bed was brought into being by transforming the dining table and the couches around it. It’s the small things that delight, isn’t it?

So, having arrived in Christchurch, we spent a couple of days exploring the city. Bear in mind that this was long before those terrible earthquakes devastated the central business district. If you wanted to follow in my footsteps that spiralled to the top of the cathedral tower, you would no longer be able to do so. Fortunately, what my family considered the best part of Christchurch – so much so that we went back there before returning the campervan at the end of our holiday – was relatively unaffected by the earthquakes: the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Cradled by the Avon River, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens are wonderfully tranquil. The twelve-year-old me thought that walking through them was like delving into a fantasy realm, crossing enchanted bridges and ducking under trees. They are the reason that Christchurch is nicknamed the Garden City. The best part is you can take a punt ride along the Avon River – it was one of the most relaxing things I can remember doing in my life. You can kayak along the river too, which I also did. It was a lot of fun – good for people who don’t want to kayak on rough seas – and, most importantly, I beat my dad and sister!

After Christchurch, Dad drove us in the campervan to Akaroa, a peaceful, French-influenced village on Banks Peninsula. This is one place I really want to go back to. It’s so romantic, full of old-fashioned cottages with beautiful front gardens, wine, cheese, craft shops and, best of all, dolphins. The Akaroa Harbour is only place in the world where you can swim with the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the incredibly cute Hector’s Dolphin.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Akaroa also had the best campervan park I can remember staying at: the Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park. It was located on top of a hill with an amazing view over the sparkling harbour, and it had a pool and awesome playground for us kids. This was when I realised that campervans are better than hotels. You don’t have to unpack and repack all the time – with the exception of making sure things are secure for when you’re on the move – and you have the freedom to go wherever you want.

From now on, I’m just going to talk about the highlights of our holiday, as to describe the entire South Island would make for far too long an article.

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A Little Blue Penguin

There was the Little Blue Penguin colony at Oamaru: you can take evening tours where you see the world’s smallest and most adorable penguins waddling up the beach, having spent the day at sea, crossing right in front of you to return to their nests.

There was the Otago Peninsula, officially one of the most beautiful places in the world, right next to the city of Dunedin: as well as stunning views, serene walks and a castle, there’s the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony. Seeing the huge, fluffy, white chicks was fantastic.

The Otago Peninsula

The Otago Peninsula

There was Lake Wanaka, a gorgeous glacial lake with mountains in the background, which is brilliant for swimming in and not as cold as you’d think.

There was Franz Josef Glacier, which you can land on in a helicopter or climb on with ice axes or, if you don’t fancy an expensive tour, you can simply walk up to it like we did. It was truly awe-inspiring. If you want proof of that, I wrote a poem after seeing it.

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

Then there was Queenstown. Now Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. A few days there can bleed you dry, but – my goodness – I loved it. We did a jet boat ride in the Shotover River canyons. We’d been jet boating before in a few locations around New Zealand, including Lake Taupo, but this was by far the most thrilling of them all. It was the most scenic as well, as it was where they filmed the River Anduin scenes in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – you know, the bit where they canoe past those giant statues?

The River Anduin wasn’t the only Lord of the Rings location we encountered on that holiday. We did a horse trek with the Glenorchy-based Dart Stables that passed through Lothlorien and along a ridge overlooking Isengard and the Wizard’s Vale. The horse I rode had actually been ridden by one of the Rohirrim. My mum was aching when we got back to the campervan that day, but I felt so alive.

The Wizard's Vale

The Wizard’s Vale

What was nice about having the campervan was we could have quick showers wherever we were. I mean we didn’t have to wait until we got back to a hotel, as the shower was in our car, as it were. This was most useful when we at beaches. The campervan was like our own private beach hut, somewhere to get changed right next to the sand, and somewhere to cook a meal too.

The Gates of Haast

The Gates of Haast

What wasn’t so nice about the campervan was waking up in the middle of the night whenever someone rolled over in their sleep, shaking the entire thing. It wasn’t nice being cooped up with a certain someone who snores like a dying wildebeest. It wasn’t nice using having to use the toilet after someone had just showered, as the toilet and the shower are in the same cubicle. But these, at least, are the only downsides I can think of.

All in all, that campervan tour of New Zealand’s South Island was the best holiday my family ever went on and I’d recommend New Zealand campervan hire any day.