The Glass Ballerina

My skin crawled with sweat as I wrestled the tinsel around the tree. I was only wearing a slip, but summer had come hard. I sighed and dug through the bag of decorations: relics of my childhood in England. Every year, Grandpa would take my sister and I to a special shop heaving with the spirit of Christmas; every year, we were allowed to choose two new tree ornaments each. The result was a wonderful, eclectic mess.

To my child’s mind, the shop had been truly magical. It was so filled with shiny things that time and space had seemed distorted within it. Choosing just two decorations was always a trial, but I’ll never forget the year I found the glass ballerina.

Back then, I dreamed of being a ballerina. (I wasn’t yet lonely enough to dream of being a writer.)

The glass ballerina had me immediately enchanted. She was beautiful. I made a stage for her on the palm of my hand as she hung from her display. She was delicate and clear, like ice sculpture, balancing on the point of one slipper.

She wasn’t actually glass; she was plastic, but I didn’t realise that at the time, and she was forever glass to me.

Every year from then, when we were decorating the tree, my glass ballerina was the first ornament I looked for. It was the first ornament I looked for now, sweating under the New Zealand sun. I found her and fished her out, only to see that the foot she balanced on had broken off.

I searched for it to no avail. Indeed, I found that many of the decorations we’d bought back in England were broken.

I wasn’t surprised. Plastic degrades, and they were all two decades old, give or take a few years. It was just more evidence of my life in England crumbling under the relentless onslaught of time.

I put them on the tree anyway. You couldn’t tell they were broken from a distance.

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My Favourite Places in Hamilton

We’ve lived in Hamilton nearly three years now and our Auckland friends still mock us for it. In all honesty, though, it’s a great place to be. Here’s a list of my top ten favourite spots around the city:

10) Down by the river

Hamilton straddles the Waikato River, which, on sunny days, actually looks quite pretty. Extensive pathways adorn both banks, which make for very pleasant walks (and bike rides.) I love having somewhere so peaceful right next to the central business district.

9) Embassy Park, a.k.a. the one with the Rocky Horror statue in it

riff raff statue hamiltonOne of the many paths that leads from Hamilton’s main street down to the river goes through Embassy Park. It’s where the Embassy Theatre used to be, which is where Richard O’Brien, the creator of The Rocky Horror Show, saw his first drag act. There’s a statue of him – well, Riff Raff – as well as a rather quirky public toilet. (It lights up and makes noise when you activate the ‘transducer’… I had a lot of fun with it when I was pissed.) There’s also a sign on the wall telling you how to do the Time Warp. And gargoyles. And a resident population of stray cats.

8) La Cave

This is a shop out in Hillcrest that does imported French food. Cheese, wine, pâté, truffle oil… and baked goods… Heaven, really.

7) The Gouda Cheese Shop

I am obsessed with cheese. There was no way the Dutch cheese shop wouldn’t make it onto a list of my favourite places in Hamilton. It has two branches, one near La Cave and one in Rototuna. They sell both local and imported cheese, as well as Dutch confectionary. You can sample the cheese before you buy it, of course.

Casabella Lane, Hamilton, New Zealand6) Casabella Lane

Hidden amongst Hamilton’s not-so-attractive streets is this adorable, desperately-trying-to-be-European lane. It has fountains and wall foliage and interesting little shops, and I wish there were more places in New Zealand like it.

I probably wouldn’t spend so much time there if it wasn’t for a certain delightful little bookshop called Poppies.

5) Victoria Street Bistro

This is my favourite restaurant, and not just in Hamilton. I love the food so much it’s becoming a tradition to go there for my birthday. It’s in the middle of Hamilton’s main street.

4) The Meteor Theatre

At the top of Victoria Street, this unpretentious theatre has become an important part of my life. I’ve performed in quite a few plays there and witnessed its transformation from a bit shabby to pretty neat. There’s always something interesting on, so if you want to see some original theatre for cheap, check it out.

3) Memorial Park

The first time I explored Memorial Park, I was blown away by how nice it was and continue to be impressed. I wrote more about it in Exploring Hamilton’s Parks.

Memorial Park, Hamilton

2) The Italian Renaissance Garden in the Hamilton Gardens

I’ve written so much about the Hamilton Gardens, because they really are wonderful. It’s hard to choose a favourite garden, but I do love sitting on the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ balcony in the Italian Renaissance Garden.

1) Browsers

Yes. My number one favourite place in Hamilton is a secondhand bookshop. It’s one of the best in the country. (I’ve been to a few!) It has a really cool feel to it and it’s open until 9.30pm on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re a bibliophile, make it your mission to seek it out on Victoria Street.

The Craters of the Moon

The first time I saw the Craters of the Moon, I was crying. The hot, white, sulphurous fumes mingled with my tears, which made my face feel very strange indeed.

I was crying because I was tired, and because my family had just had an argument. I don’t remember what it was about. Perhaps my sister and I hadn’t wanted to visit any more tourist attractions. It was late and we were hungry, but here Dad was, dragging us around yet another site of supposed interest. I didn’t know or care what the place was. I was determined not to enjoy it.

The funny thing is, though, I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it so much I was eager to go back years later. I couldn’t even remember it properly, but I knew it was special.

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon are just outside Taupō, the last stop on the campervan trip I recently took with my partner. I simply had to see them again. If nothing else, I remembered the feel of walking amongst them. I’d stomped off alone, half-running along the boardwalk, and suddenly I was entranced by the mystical landscape around me. Such wonder made the anger I had for my parents seem insignificant. I was lost in the billowing fumes rising from the muddy craters.

The mud was an odd colour. In fact, the whole landscape was a bit off, as though someone had sat down to paint it, but hadn’t had the right pigments.

Craters of the Moon

My partner and I paid the entry fee – $8 each – and set off along the boardwalk. I could still feel the tears on my face: cool and fresh when the wind licked them; hot and tingly when the fumes did. Of course, I wasn’t crying this time. I was an adult and I had chosen to come. I just hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed; that I hadn’t built it up too much in my mind. (Or my partner’s.)

“It doesn’t look much like the moon,” he said.

He was right, of course. But it did, I thought, look like a Victorian artist’s rendering of the moon. Picture a cartoon featuring the adventures of an intrepid space missionary reaching out to the lunar inhabitants; perhaps planting a Union Flag atop one of the larger craters. Very steampunk.

Admittedly, it’s not one of the best geothermal attractions in New Zealand, but at $8, it’s worth checking out. You can spend an hour wandering around it – more if you allow yourself to become mesmerised by the craters. My partner and I didn’t have time, unfortunately, as we had to return our campervan. I could have gazed into a few of them for ages.

The Art Deco Delights of Napier

I used to think the east coast city of Napier was boring. We had a holiday there when I was a child. As far as I was concerned, the only things to recommend it were a beach – hardly unique in New Zealand – and a dolphin show. (I know. Don’t worry: that particular attraction has long since ceased to exist.) I was wholly unappreciative of Napier’s main draw, an abundance of beautiful Art Deco buildings.

NapierYou see, Napier was devastated by an earthquake in 1931. It was, in fact, the most devastating earthquake in New Zealand’s history. Despite this, they did a much better job of rebuilding it than has so far been done of rebuilding Christchurch. Of course, it was rebuilt in the style of the time, so I suppose we can be thankful that the earthquake happened in the ’30s instead of, say, the ’60s. The result is an Art Deco paradise, a situation of which the city takes full advantage.

From vintage car tours to Art Deco festivals, Napier is the place to go if you like to party like it’s… well, actually, maybe not 1939.

It also has a science museum, a Victorian prison and a chocolate museum, which is why my partner and I decided to spend a day there on our recent campervan trip. As it turned out, we didn’t end up visiting any of those places – I got too distracted shopping! I hadn’t been to Napier since that childhood holiday and, apparently, the intervening years were time enough for me to develop an interest in 1930s fashion.

Napier

There were antiques shops, vintage clothes shops, costume shops, and, naturally, Art Deco souvenir shops galore – and all encased within gorgeous façades! There was even a sword shop. If only it hadn’t been raining, we could have strolled along Napier’s famous Marine Parade, an extensive seafront stretch of pleasant gardens and decadent architecture. Even before we’d left, we’d decided we had to return one day.

Elephant Hill Winery

The other main draw of Napier is its abundance of nearby wineries. We ended up having dinner at an extremely posh establishment called Elephant Hill, only because it was right next to a fantastic free camping spot. The restaurant’s atmosphere was surprisingly cosy for such a modern-looking place and the food was divine. I had beef tartar with mustard ice-cream, which was as weird as you’d expect, but an utter taste sensation.

Elephant Hill Winery

As for the free camping spot, I highly recommend seeking it out. It was right on a stony beach, wonderfully peaceful, and had a nice toilet block. We parked our campervan so the back doors faced directly onto the Pacific Ocean, the theory being that we would open them in the morning for a glorious sunrise. But it was winter and, predictably, cloudy. The site is called Clifton Road Reserve and you can find it using this free camping map.

Napier

I can’t believe I ever thought Napier was boring. Now I can’t wait to go back!

The Mists of Tongariro National Park

Taranaki Falls

What rotten luck: we arrive at one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and it’s shrouded in mist! The dramatic vista of snow-capped volcanoes is simply non-existent, the landscape smothered by a heavy, white silence.

Tongariro National ParkWe should have expected it, I know, embarking upon a campervan trip in winter. On with the anoraks it is. Now we’re here, we can still walk to Taranaki Falls – the backdrop just won’t be quite as impressive. Fortunately, the backdrop turns out to be impressive in its own way. The mist makes me think of Celtic fairy tales. It’s moody in a good way. As we stroll through it, the clouds let through a single beam of late afternoon sunlight, which gilds it briefly. But still no volcanoes.

Tongariro National ParkThe Taranaki Falls Walk is a two-hour loop track starting and ending in Whakapapa Village. Follow the road that branches off from the main road, behind the Chateau Tongariro. It’s one of the best – and easiest – walks in Tongariro National Park, perfect if you’d rather not commit a full day to the Tongariro Crossing. There are steep bits, but the views are worth it. Or, at least, they usually are.

The first half (or second, depending on which way you walk the loop) follows a stream through a forest. After that there’s a bit of a climb up to the falls. Presumably, when it’s not raining, it would be a lovely place to stop for sandwiches. The path continues to climb to the top of the falls. The view’s as blank and white as the pages of a new notebook. At least my partner looks rather cool standing at the edge of the cliff, silhouetted against the mist.

As we walk back towards Whakapapa Village, I feel like I’m in a nineties computer game in which the landscape hasn’t loaded properly. There’s nothing beyond the path, which could go on forever for all I know. It’s only an hour back to the village, but it feels much longer. We just have to keep walking and hope for the best.

Tongariro National ParkHalfway back, the rain starts to bucket down. I have an umbrella in my pack, but my partner doesn’t (and the fact that he’s nearly a foot and a half taller than me prevents us effectively sharing.) The rain’s so dense it renders his glasses useless. Imagine that, being unable to see anything beyond path and even that’s a blur! I’ve never been so relieved to see a DOC sign as it materialises out of the mist. We’ve made it! The world is real!

The next morning, as we’re about to drive away from Tongariro National Park, the cloud lifts and the snow-capped volcanoes shine in all their glory. Bloody typical.

Campervan in Tongariro National Park

Join us next week as we move on to the Art Deco decadence of Napier!

High Tea at the Chateau Tongariro

Tongariro National Park is home to the most stunning scenery in New Zealand’s North Island. It contains three major volcanoes, Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, which, come winter, are adorned with snow. Nestled at the foot of Ruapehu is a gorgeous 1920s hotel, the Chateau Tongariro. From the outside, it looks almost like a cake with delicate layers of sponge, pastel blue, pink and yellow. On the inside, it’s all red velvet and golden chandeliers, far too opulent for the likes of us, peering sheepishly around in our damp anoraks and hiking boots.

Chateau Tongariro

Like many tourists before us, we gaze longingly at the menu of the Ruapehu Room before deciding it’s too expensive. Besides, they won’t let us pass beyond the ornate panes of glass with their gilded letters dressed as we are. We opt instead for High Tea overlooking Ngauruhoe, a friendly alternative for the riffraff, it seems. We book a table for the next day when, hopefully, the weather will be better. So far, the national park has been entirely shrouded in white, which, while pretty in its own way, rather defeats the purpose of coming here.

High Tea

The next day arrives and we are seated directly in front of the grand Ngauruhoe Window. And we can’t see a bloody thing. This is what Ngauruhoe is supposed to look like:

Ngauruhoe

This is what we see:

Despite the weather, I’m very happy with our High Tea. It is, in fact, the best High Tea I have ever had. Firstly, the tea selection is divine. I can barely decide what to have and when it arrives, it’s with a couple of absolutely beautiful cups. By coincidence, I’m wearing a top with a similar pattern to my cup! My partner can’t resist taking a photo:

High Tea Chateau Tongariro

The food component of the High Tea is presented wonderfully. Each one of the miniature sandwiches is a taste sensation – fresh salmon, chicken and truffle pâté, etc. – and the morsels of sweets look too good to eat. There’s even a couple of tiny cups containing green tea crème brûlée. I’m in my element. Even the consistency of the miniature scones is perfect.

High Tea

When I’ve finished eating, I have a snoop around every corner of the lounge. There’s a billiards table and piano; a cosy fireplace and a bookcase. I want nothing more than to curl up with my Alan Bennett book and an endless supply of that posh tea, but I can’t. We’ve got a walk to do. Not the famous Tongariro Crossing, as it’s a tad dangerous to do in winter and, besides, it’d be a waste to do it without the views. Instead, we’re heading out to Taranaki Falls.

Chateau Tongariro

Wish us luck.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge

A natural bridge… Sounds cool, right? We thought so, which is why we went to see the Mangapohue Natural Bridge before leaving Waitomo.

The weather was lovely. Considering the especially rainy winter we’d had, we counted ourselves lucky. You might well ask why we’d decided to take a trip at that time of year. Simply, campervans are lot cheaper to hire in winter. It also makes for an easier trip, as you don’t have to worry about booking anything in advance, and a more peaceful trip, as you get beauty spots and sometimes entire campsites to yourself.

Mangapohue Natural Bridge was one such beauty spot. We began the twenty-minute walk with little idea what to expect. The path was gentle, leading us over a manmade bridge into a modest gorge. It continued as a boardwalk overhanging a stream. I remember the light being particularly pleasant: sunbeams had draped themselves amongst the branches above us like gauzy scarves.

As we made our way along the stream, a strange feeling started tingling inside me. “I’ve been here before,” I said. “With my parents.”

Then, as soon as the natural bridge came into view, I knew it. I didn’t remember being there as such, but I recognised the view from one of my own photographs! (I’d even used the photograph before on this blog!) How I managed to forget the sight of it, I’ll never know, because it was magnificent.

Straddling the stream was an enormous limestone archway, complete with scraggly stalactites.

From a certain angle, part of it seemed shaped like an old-fashioned lock, which gave me serious Alice in Wonderland vibes. Sunlight peered into the archway, jostling with a group of cabbage trees for a view.

We ascended a flight of steps curving up to a wooden platform, where we stayed for some time. It was a location straight from a fantasy novel, one of the more subdued scenes where the heroes stop to rest and the young would-be lovers sneak away for a moment, only to be interrupted by another party member as it’s too early in the narrative for them to kiss. If there had been any trolls under this bridge, they would have been friendly ones.

The rest of the walk wasn’t quite as epic, but that hardly mattered after we’d seen. As something free to do in Waitomo, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge is something you should definitely experience, along with the magical Ruakuri Walk.

When we got back to our campervan, it was time to get going to Tongariro National Park. We stopped for lunch in Taumarunui, a mostly dull town with a few quirky touches, such as this ornamental shop front…

We also popped into an antiques shop – because I can’t walk past an antiques shop – that turned out to be owned by a fellow British immigrant. We got talking, and even though she wasn’t a northerner, my accent started mimicking hers, getting stronger and stronger until we left the shop. Any other immigrants notice their accents doing that?

By the time we reached Tongariro National Park, it was almost sunset. We checked into what turned out to be an excellent campground, Plateau Lodge, in National Park Village, before driving into Whakapapa Village and up the side of Mount Ruapehu, a snow-covered volcano that’s popular with skiers. We didn’t enter the ski resort: we just wanted to catch some sweet views before bed. Which we did.

If you’re interested in hiring a campervan like this, by the way, visit www.wendekreisen.co.nz – that model’s also for sale, newly built, at Campervan Sales.

Anyway, cheers for visiting and make sure you pop by next week. I’ll be posting an article about what we got up to in Tongariro National Park, more specifically, High Tea at the Chateau!