From Land’s End to John O’Groats to… Bluff?

New Zealand keeps cropping up in the most unexpected of places. A few weeks ago, I embarked upon a road trip around Scotland with my Kiwi fiancé and our Kiwi friend. We drove from Edinburgh, up through the Cairngorms National Park (not without incident,) and on through Inverness. I wanted to visit Orkney, having been desperate to see Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar since I was a kid, but to do that we needed to catch the ferry from the northernmost tip of mainland Britain, John O’Groats.

Ring of Brodgar Abigail Simpson

The Ring of Brodgar

You may have heard the phrase “from Land’s End to John O’Groats”, Land’s End being the southernmost tip of mainland Britain, in Cornwall. In New Zealand, we have an equivalent phrase: “from Cape Reinga from Bluff”. Cape Reinga is famous for its lighthouse and Bluff is famous for its oysters. Many New Zealand motorhome holidays are based around the idea of seeing the country from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

So we arrived at John O’Groats and made our way down to the pier. It was a fine summer day, so we “only” needed jumpers, scarves and anoraks. It was colder than a fine winter day in the North Island of New Zealand, a fact that we found quite amusing. We passed the expected Land’s End/John O’Groats sign, but then I noticed something unexpected. The sign had a picture of New Zealand on it, along with a downwards arrow pointing towards Bluff.

The sign

Of course, we all got unduly excited at this random international mention of New Zealand, and asked a confused fellow tourist to take a picture of us next to it. (Getting unduly excited when New Zealand is noticed by the world at large is a very Kiwi thing, and perhaps shows that I’ve become more of a Kiwi than I thought.) There weren’t any other mentions of New Zealand around, and a Google search didn’t give any clues as to a special connection between John O’Groats and Bluff, so…

We shrugged and got on the ferry.

In some respects, driving around Scotland did feel a lot like driving around New Zealand – especially the South Island. A lot of New Zealand’s nineteenth century colonists came from Scotland. Alice, the Kiwi friend we were travelling with, remarked that it was no wonder they’d felt so at home in New Zealand – all that dramatic, mountainous scenery! There was also the fact that Scotland has rather a lot of fields of sheep, which, if you’ve ever done a New Zealand road trip, you’ll know is kind of New Zealand’s thing.

Sheep with Stone Circle Abigail Simpson

Except there are fewer stone circles in the fields of New Zealand…

In fact, seeing all the Scottish sheep souvenirs reminded me fondly of my adopted home – not to mention the New Zealand wines on every restaurant menu!

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.

Out of the Frying Pan…

People are always saying how warm and sunny New Zealand is.

In 2014, my Kiwi partner and I were in Britain visiting relatives, and he was baffled to find that the British summer was warmer and sunnier than the New Zealand summer! Surely this wasn’t the norm?

Well here we are in 2018 and we’re about to visit Europe again.

Yeah.

Summer temperatures in Auckland usually waft around 25˚C. At the moment, in the dead of winter, it’s 15˚C. In three days, we’ll be landing in Zürich, where it’s currently over 30˚C. Britain’s facing record temperatures, and everyone here in New Zealand is wishing us comically pessimistic good lucks.

Care to join?

The Laid-back Attitude of New Zealanders

In two weeks, I’m leaving New Zealand for six months. I’m flying with Tim to Switzerland via Singapore, before visiting his family in Germany; then flying to Ireland and visiting my family in England. We’re going to explore Scotland and Sweden; Spain and Italy. We’re going to spend a fairytale Christmas in Germany, before returning to New Zealand via Malaysia.

Will I miss New Zealand? I’m not sure. I feel like I’ll miss the attitude of its people more than the country itself, but time will tell. I’ve been craving a “proper” European Christmas for eighteen years. The sort of Christmas with snow flurrying through medieval villages, leaded windows glowing with amber light, markets infused with the aroma of roasted chestnuts, and church bells ringing with melancholy joy.

Maybe I’ve idealised it. There are some things New Zealand just can’t compete with. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by historical buildings once more. I’m looking forward to savouring the food of my childhood. I am, however, almost dreading returning to Edinburgh, the place in which my parents told me we were moving to New Zealand, and I threw the largest tantrum of my life.

I can still picture it, the Italian restaurant with the bright windows; the dark street gleaming with recent rain; the red-and-white-checked table cloths. My dad complaining that his pasta was “pap” whilst my sister fed hers to her imaginary dinosaur. The big reveal followed by me dashing into the ladies’ room and punching the hand dryer. I put the hand dryer on thinking no one would hear my sobs.

But anyway. I think I will miss New Zealand. I’ve lived here nearly two-thirds of my life and I love how laid-back the people are. It’s difficult to imagine the sorts of political scenes we’ve seen coming out of Europe happening here, purely because New Zealanders are less prone to being whipped into extreme states. New Zealand crowds are sometimes awkwardly apathetic.

They’re notoriously difficult to get a cheer out of. I’ve witnessed British and American entertainers trying and managing to elicit only a half-hearted “yay”. One American celebrity cried, “I love you guys!” in that fake way that American celebrities do, and you could almost hear the crowd thinking, “Bullshit. Now do what you’re here to do and you’ll deserve some applause, but don’t go thinking you’re better than us.”

The laid-back attitude of New Zealanders is no better exemplified than by a recent address by our prime minister. It was made from her couch, a few days after she’d given birth, holding her baby. Her voice was croaky and she wore no makeup. When she goes back to work – running the country – her partner will be a stay-at-home father.

Even if you didn’t vote for Labour, you have to agree that it’s a cool image for New Zealand, and I’ll miss being a part of it. I mean don’t get me wrong, New Zealand has its problems. There are still those that believe that our prime minister, as an unmarried mother, should not be celebrated. Just the other day, a friend of mine with a foreign accent was the victim of a shocking xenophobic attack.

On the whole, however, the voices of hatred seem quieter in New Zealand. How much of that is due to manipulation by the media, I don’t know. It will be interesting to compare for myself the general atmosphere in Britain, in Germany and in other European countries to the general atmosphere in New Zealand.

But now I must go. I must get back to working, packing up the house, cleaning, preparing for the trip AND being involved in my theatre troop’s latest show. We open in three days. Yes, life is hectic. Yes, I shall be very relieved to get to Europe and relax. We’ll be taking our trip a lot slower than we did last time!

To read more about our previous Euro trip, see A New Zealander’s View of Britain and European Stereotypes: Confirmed or Busted?

To read more about my infamous tantrum in Edinburgh, see Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand.

To find out more about the show I’m involved in, see The Meteor Theatre.

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

Crossing the Ditch

koala at dreamworld

Much as New Zealanders claim to hate Australia, they seem to love going on holiday there. Of course, this is partly to do with Australia’s relative proximity to New Zealand. The rest of the world is so bloody far away, that visiting Australia is often referred to as “crossing the ditch” – aka the Tasman Sea.

I crossed the ditch when I was fifteen. I went to the Gold Coast for a couple of weeks with a friend and her family. It was the middle of winter, but the pavements were quite literally hot enough to fry an egg on. I sat on a grass verge and my armpit got bitten by an ant half the size of my finger. Yup, we were definitely in Australia.

sleeping koala

The main attractions of Australia’s Gold Coast are the theme parks, (Dreamworld, Movie World and Water World,) Australia Zoo and Surfer’s Paradise. Back then, I absolutely adored theme parks and, living in New Zealand, I missed them. (New Zealand’s only theme park, Rainbow’s End, seems really lame when you’ve been to the likes of Alton Towers and Disney World.)

Dreamworld was great. As well as the rides, there were tigers to marvel at and koalas to hold. You can’t go to Australia without holding a koala!

I forgot what an awkward smile those braces gave me…

Australia Zoo was great too. It’s certainly the most… umm… epic zoo I’ve ever been to. I even got to see Steve Irwin doing his whole “look at this croc – isn’t she a beauty?” thing. (He was still alive then.)

Surfer’s Paradise was exactly as you’d expect, all manicured palm trees and sunshine gleaming off of tanned abs. I much preferred the more peaceful beaches of New Zealand.

baby koala

See the baby koala face?

In fact, much as I enjoyed the holiday, I came away thinking that I most definitely preferred New Zealand to Australia. I could never live in Australia with its oppressive heat and homicidal wildlife. I prefer the singing of tui to the laughing of kookaburras. I’ve never felt any desire to go back to Australia. Instead, I can’t wait to see more of New Zealand.