Victorian Villas and Vineyards

greytown

New Zealand’s most complete main street of wooden Victorian buildings – that was what attracted me to Greytown. Nestled in the vineyard-rich Wairarapa, just north of Wellington, it was recently voted New Zealand’s most beautiful small town. I can’t really dispute this. The day my fiancé and I went there, the sun had gilded every surface. In fact, it was almost too hot to walk around!

greytown

Using my umbrella as a parasol, I felt like a proper Victorian lady promenading down the high street. It seemed as though each shop was a fancy boutique, mostly catering for middle-aged women. There were a few nice-looking cafes and bakeries, and a bicycle shop old-fashioned enough to make hipsters drool. I got more enjoyment from the architecture than the shops themselves, although there was one shop that I spent a little too much in… the chocolate shop.

greytownSchoc Chocolates is right next to Greytown’s historical village. The shop is actually inside a tiny Victorian cottage, and the chocolate they make there is divine. There’s a range of interesting, and often experimental flavours, but my favourite is their Earl Grey tea dark chocolate. The aroma is intense without being overwhelming, and the chocolate feels velvety in your mouth. You can’t help but eat it slowly, savouring the aftertaste of every piece.

greytownThe historical village itself was unfortunately closed when I was there. From the outside, though, it looked unbelievably pretty, especially as dappled light was filtering down through the trees. The walk back towards the centre of town was a slog in the heat, but the houses along the road were pleasing to look at. To cool off, we had a drink in The White Swan, an old, wooden building with a large balcony. We’d run out of things to do in Greytown, so we headed to the nearby village of Martinborough.

martinboroughMartinborough is entirely surrounded by vineyards. It has a few fancy boutiques, though nowhere near as many as Greytown, including an old-fashioned sweet shop, a predictably impressive wine shop and a disappointingly expensive bookshop. There’s a selection of good restaurants around the village green, serving, naturally, local wines. My fiancé and I went to a little place called Pinocchio. It was expensive, but he was treating me, and the food was orgasmic.

cat martinborough holiday parkAs a side note, the Marlborough TOP 10 Holiday Park was a brilliant place to stay. We were in a rental campervan, and though we didn’t need to plug in, there weren’t any convenient free campsites around. This place had unlimited free Wi-Fi, nice facilities and a friendly pussycat.

So, in conclusion, if you’re a wealthy, middle-aged lady with a liking for designer clothes and fine wine, the Wairarapa Region is for you!

New Zealand Has Its Own Stonehenge!

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

I love stone circles. I’m not a ‘spiritual’ person, but such ancient monuments fill me with awe. My favourite is the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, which I visited last year. My sense of awe was only slightly dampened by the various tourists trying to ‘fall through’ the stones. (The Outlander TV series was at its most popular and the lure of dashing, eighteenth century highlanders waiting to be the tamed by modern, sexually enlightened time travellers was potent.)

Of course, there were nowhere near as many tourists at Brodgar as there were when I visited Stonehenge – the Stonehenge. I often joke that the thick ring of tourists revolving around the circle made it look like it had an extra layer of megaliths, each wearing a different, brightly coloured anorak and speaking in a loud, American accent. Nevertheless, it was awesome to behold. I lingered so long the bus almost left without me. I can still see my teachers rolling their eyes.

So, when I heard New Zealand had its own Stonehenge, I had to see it. I was apprehensive, though. I mean, how could it possibly live up the original? Well, it couldn’t. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t trying to.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Stonehenge Aotearoa is located between Masterton and Martinborough, near the bottom of the North Island. Most people who haven’t been think it’s a replica of England’s Stonehenge, and are worried, therefore, about it being tacky. I was in the ‘I want it to be awesome, but will be probably be disappointed’ camp. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect. I mean, wrongly assumed it would be the sort of tourist attraction with a café.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

The thing is, it wasn’t built as a tourist attraction. It’s a passion project, built on the farm of a couple of retired astronomers by members of the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was never meant to be a replica of the original Stonehenge, but an accurate calendar for its specific place in the world. Yes, it was built on a similar scale to the original, but it combines modern scientific thinking with the starlore of many cultures, including Māori. The small gift shop is more focussed on educational gifts than spiritual.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There’s an explanatory video to watch to before you make your way out to the circle, through a modest but lovely garden. Though the site promotes science and education, it still attracts the druidic crowd. It holds equinox celebrations, which include storytelling and music. Apparently, the acoustics are something else! Beside the entrance, there’s an old school building set up with a cinema screen, which will hopefully see more use in the future.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

As for the circle itself, it’s underwhelming, but still pretty damn cool. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s concrete. The lines are disconcertingly clean, but of course they are – the pillars and lintels are brand new! They haven’t been subjected to thousands of years of weather, or Victorian souvenir hunters with chisels. You have to appreciate Stonehenge Aotearoa for what it is, not what it isn’t.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

There are a few interesting touches, such as an analemma, an obelisk and a statue of Artemis. There’s also a star sign tracker – an accurate one. Apparently, people are always disappointed to learn that their star signs are wrong! I’m really glad I visited Stonehenge Aotearoa. I’d recommend it to anyone travelling down to, or up from Wellington.

stonehenge aotearoa new zealand

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

waimangu volcanic valley

Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the youngest geothermal system in the world. Tourists were flocking to the area before it was even formed, to see the Pink and White Terraces. Then, in 1886, Mount Tarawera erupted. Over a hundred people died, the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed, and Waimangu was born.

pink and white terraces

A painting of the Pink and White Terraces

Pronounced with a silent ‘g’, Waimangu means ‘black water’. It was named for a geyser – the largest in the world at the time – whose water was dark with mud and debris. Unfortunately, this geyser was only active from 1900 to 1904, but it saw many tourists during that time. Four people died in 1903, when the geyser took them by surprise, and another two in 1917, when an eruption destroyed a nearby accommodation house.

The ruins of the accommodation house weren’t pulled down until 1970.

As far as I know, no tourists have died since, though various eruptions continue to shape and reshape the valley.

waimangu volcanic valley

It’s quite expensive to visit Waimangu. My fiancé and I only did the self-guided walk and that was $42 each! It included a shuttle ride from the bottom of the track back up to the café/gift shop, but still… If you add the Lake Rotomahana boat cruise, it’s another $43 each. Lake Rotomahana is where the Pink and White Terraces were. There are a few bubbling hot springs and geysers along the shore that are inaccessible except by boat.

It turned out my fiancé and I couldn’t have done the cruise if we’d wanted to, as the boat’s engine had just given up the ghost. We got chatting to an employee about it as we were waiting for the shuttle. Apparently – and I apologise if I’m remembering this wrong – the boat had an ex-1950s double-decker bus engine, and, well, try finding a replacement one of those in New Zealand!

So, the walk. Upon leaving the visitor centre, we were confronted with this rather nice view…

waimangu volcanic valley

… and it only got better from there. As we followed the gravel path down the valley, towards Lake Rotomahana, a smorgasbord of geothermal delights presented themselves. First came a lake half smothered with pinkish red algae so thick it looked like a rubber mat.

waimangu volcanic valley lake red algae

Then came a lake that appeared to shiver in the sunlight, but was actually bubbling with heat. Wisps of steam eddied over its surface like spirits performing a dance.

waimangu volcanic valley cathedral rocks

Then there was the stream, steaming away in full technicolour.

waimangu volcanic valley

There were lots of other interesting geothermal features on the way to the lake, but the stream is what stood out to me.

waimangu volcanic valley

It takes about two hours to get down to the lake, which is why it’s nice to be able to take the shuttle back. There’s a total of three shuttle stops along the walk, so you don’t have to do the full track. The best stuff’s in the first two-thirds, not counting the beautiful lake views. Take sturdy shoes, sun protection and a drink bottle.

waimangu volcanic valley

So, I suppose the question is should you visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley over the many other geothermal sightseeing attractions available in and around Rotorua? If you’re short on time and/or money, no: there are places with more spectacular geothermal features than this. If you’ve already visited a few of those other places and are looking for something different, yes: it’s a lovely walk.

Highlights from Our NZ Trip

New Zealand continues to amaze me. Even after all these years, I’m finding new places to visit and being re-enchanted by old ones. My recent New Zealand campervan trip was a perfect example of this, a journey of discovery and rediscovery. I’ll be writing more detailed articles about each of the places I visited, but first, here’s a list of the highlights…

1) Waimangu Volcanic Valley

This is one of the many ‘geothermal wonderland’ attractions you can visit around Rotorua. I’ve been to a few of them over the years, but this was my first time at Waimangu. It’s a pleasing walk, following a steaming stream down towards a picturesque lake. The colours along the stream are beautifully psychedelic, as you can see.

2) Stonehenge Aotearoa

I only recently learned of the existence of New Zealand’s very own Stonehenge, and I have to admit my expectations weren’t high. I mean I’ve seen the actual Stonehenge, as well as Castlerigg, Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. I was pleasantly surprised, however. Stonehenge Aotearoa is totally worth visiting.

3) The Putangirua Pinnacles

I’d wanted to see the Putangirua Pinnacles for years, but they’re rather out of the way. I’m glad I finally made it, although the walk there was more difficult than I’d imagined! It was used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and is an excellent example of badlands erosion. Marvelling at a landscape so different from what one usually encounters makes for a great day out.

4) Rivendell

This is a place I didn’t plan on visiting, but when a nerd sees a sign reading only ‘Rivendell’ they can’t not follow it. The light was fading and there wasn’t much time until the park gate would be locked, so I rushed off to find the House of Elrond. Or, at least, the patch of forest they’d filmed it in. It was quite lovely, actually.

5) The Edwin Fox

I first saw the Edwin Fox on Neil Oliver’s Coast: New Zealand. It’s right next to the Interislander ferry terminal in Picton, the last surviving Australian convict ship in the world. It was built in India, saw service in the Crimean War and ended up retiring in little, old New Zealand. It’s really cool to explore.

6) Founders Heritage Park

Nelson is best known as the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, but Founders Heritage Park is worth visiting too. It’s an especially pretty historic village, featuring a windmill, a church and a charming street of shops. I recommend taking a picnic on a sunny day, as the café only sells freshly baked cookies! Look out for event days.

7) Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum

This place is so cool – and I’m not even interested in planes! There are two sections – WWI and WWII – that you pay for separately. If you only have time for one, do the WWII bit, but they’re both awesome, with dramatic displays that bring the pilots to life. It’s all wonderfully atmospheric.

8) Kaikoura

Kaikoura is famous for whale watching and crayfish eating, but my favourite part was going down to the beach and seeing the seals. The snow-capped mountains in the background were just a bonus! You can go kayaking with the seals, which I really wanted to do. They are some quite nice shops in Kaikoura too.

9) Castle Hill

My immediate impression of Castle Hill was it would be the perfect filming location for an epic fantasy story. There isn’t an actual castle there, of course – New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but the natural rock formations are incredible. Adding to the epic scenery, the hill is surrounded by mountains. It’s now officially one of my favourite places in the world.

10) Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass Village in Arthur’s Pass National Park is the best place in the country to encounter wild kea. And boy did I encounter them! You can find out more about kea in this article, but basically, they’re super-intelligent vandal-parrots that like breaking into campervans. Here’s a photograph of one trying to break into a rental campervan’s roof hatch – directly above my head.

DSC_0781_edited

11) The Canterbury Museum

I only wandered into Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum because it was free. I ended up being quite glad I had. As well as a Victorian street, a gallery filled with antique furniture, ornaments and clothes, and various other exhibits, it has a replica of that mad paua house – know the one I mean? This old couple who lived in Bluff covered every inch of the inside of their house with paua shells, and left their collection to the museum!

12) The Giants House

The Giants House belongs to an artist in Akaroa. You can pay to wander around her garden and I highly recommend you do, especially if you’re a fan of Gaudí or Hundertwasser. The brightly coloured mosaic sculptures are simply delightful. My nana visited it years ago and she won’t stop going on about it!

13) Oamaru

Finally, I returned to Oamaru! The gorgeous Victorian Precinct has a steampunk art gallery, a museum in which you can dress up in Victorian garb, vintage clothes shops, an old-fashioned bakery, a whiskey distillery, and one of the best second-hand bookshops in New Zealand. On top of that, Oamaru has penguins, lovely public gardens and a cheese factory. I can’t wait to write more about it.

14) The Moeraki Boulders

I’d been to Moeraki Beach and seen the boulders before, but – damn – they’re cool, aren’t they? Like alien eggs about to hatch, as my friend put it. I don’t remember there being quite so many tourists on my first visit, though! It was difficult to get pictures without people in them.

15) Larnach Castle

I know I just said New Zealand doesn’t have any castles, but it has this colonial mansion on the Otago Peninsula. It’s actually worth a visit. There’s a café in the ballroom that does posh tea and scones, and the house and garden are fun to explore. It’s an odd but pretty mix of stately home and colonial villa.

16) Lake Tekapo

One of the loveliest sights in New Zealand is the small, stone Church of the Good Shepherd perched beside the bright, turquoise water of Lake Tekapo, against a backdrop of snowy peaks. When it’s not swarming with tourists, that is. You’d probably have to go at dawn to get a decent shot. I retreated, defeated.

17) Rakaia Gorge

Excuse the inevitable pun, but Rakaia Gorge is gorge-ous. The bridge is kind of iconic. I just passed through this time, but there’s a campground and a stunning walkway. All the braided South Island rivers are breathtaking.

18) Whitecliffs Boulders

Like the Moeraki Boulders, but in a forest – sound appealing? I thought so, and they were even more magical than I’d imagined. It was like walking around inside a fairy tale! Bugger to get to, but I guess I’ll write about that another time.

So those were the highlights of my latest New Zealand campervan trip. I had such a good time. Now it’s back to reality. Circe, my tortoiseshell-tabby kitten, hasn’t left my side since I returned!

Garden Views

chinese bridge hamilton gardens

Yesterday was the first day of spring. The sun was shining and I couldn’t resist the allure of one of my favourite places in New Zealand…

fountain italian garden hamilton

… the Hamilton Gardens. Armed with my camera, I dove through the Father’s Day crowd to the Italian Renaissance Garden.

statue wolf romulus remus italian garden hamilton

Tim and I will be saying our wedding vows in the Italian Garden next year. I hope the weather’s just as nice!

statue italian garden hamilton

italian garden hamilton

swallows statue

See the swallows perched on top of that statue? They’re probably nesting in the Japanese Garden again.

indian garden hamilton

As usual, the Indian Garden was bursting with colour…

chinese garden hamilton

… and the Chinese Garden was perfectly peaceful.

chinese garden hamilton

statue cave chinese garden hamilton

Many visitors miss this little statue, tucked away inside a little cave at the edge of the pond.

chinese bridge hamilton gardens

The Ethics of Owning a Cat in New Zealand

A few years ago, a certain would-be politician became New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One. He denounced cats as sadistic serial killers and called for their eradication. Not only did he want every stray cat to be killed, he wanted people to stop owning cats altogether. Of course, the national outrage was great and ensured many ailurophiles would never vote for him, regardless of what his party’s cat policies actually were. The thing is, though, he wasn’t wrong.

I love cats. I’m known as a crazy cat lady. I’ve just spent the better part of five months fostering seven kittens and their mother. I’ve watched them grow from this…

weekoldkittens

… to this…

kittens

… to this…

kittens

… and now my fiancé and our flatmate have adopted three of them between us, Lennon, Loki and Circe. In fact, this whole article is nothing more than an excuse to show you our most adorable cat pictures!

Why, then, do I agree with New Zealand Cat Enemy Number One?

Well… I do and I don’t.

kittenThe thing you have to remember about New Zealand is, before humans colonised it, there were no cats. In fact, there were no land mammals at all. (Well, there were bats, but they only ate insects.) In a world without mammalian predators, New Zealand’s native birds, such as the flightless kiwi and kakapo, thrived. Then humans came, bringing with them rats and dogs and possums and cats, and bird numbers plummeted – the flightless birds didn’t stand a chance! Now, many of New Zealand’s native birds are endangered and cats certainly don’t help.

It’s not just that cats – yes, even pet cats – hunt the native birds. They also contribute to the spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can harm other animals. My little sister studies wildlife conservation, and she goes on whole rants about why we shouldn’t have cats, or should at least limit ourselves to one cat per household. When I told her about our fostering plans, she got annoyed that we were rescuing unwanted cats rather than putting them down. It’s not that she doesn’t like cats either – we grew up with them in our home.

kittenswithswordsThat’s where I draw the line, though. I see nothing wrong with getting cats off the streets, desexing them and giving them a good home. I agree that you should have to desex your cats by law, unless you have a breeder’s licence, and that you should take steps to protect the native wildlife around your home. Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to have an indoor-only cat, but I also feel like it’s kind of cruel to keep cats inside their whole lives. For me, the best solution seems to be building a cat run in the garden, especially if you live in the country.

If you live in an apartment, I suggest taking your cats for walks on leads. Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s becoming more and more common. Maybe it’ll be the norm soon. We’re going to try it with ours… Wish us luck.

I guess I feel a bit guilty. Owning a cat in New Zealand is a bit dodgy, ethically speaking. But I’m not going to not have cats because cats are gorgeous and funny and cuddly and enrich our lives infinitely. If New Zealand ever decided to ban cats, (which it won’t,) I would seriously consider emigrating. I have a purring kitten on my lap as I write this and it just feels right.

gingerkittens

Bulls: A Town Like No Udder

bulls sign

Yes, that was really what was written on the sign: A Town Like No Udder. We were unable to suppress our groans as we drove past it. We knew Bulls was famous for bad puns – that was why we were stopping here on our way back from Wellington – but the small town had already exceeded our expectations.

We parked on the road outside a café with the following sign in the window:

Sighing, we proceeded to explore.

New Zealand is teeming with small, boring towns that have chosen a single quirk to double down on, thus turning themselves into tourist destinations. Or, at least, towns you’d get out and look around in, as opposed to just driving through. Katikati, for example, is full of murals, whereas Tirau is full of giant, corrugated iron things.

tirau sheep

Bulls, of course, is full of… well, actually, quite nice boutique shops. We were pleasantly surprised by that. The antiques shops were especially cool, although I failed to spot a sign that said COLLECT-A-BULL, which – come on – surely, I must have missed, because if there isn’t one, that’s a serious oversight.

First, though, I needed to relive myself. Thankfully, I found some public toilets labelled RELIEVE-A-BULL at the information centre, which was labelled…

bulls sign

INFORM-A-BULL. Nearby stood an outlet of the fast-food chain Subway that had declared itself SUBMERGE-A-BULL, and the local police station: CONST-A-BULL. It had a cute – if PREDICT-A-BULL – mural on its side.

bulls police

But that wasn’t the only mural in Bulls. This one looked oddly familiar:

bulls american gothic

I found it opposite the local Plunket building. (Plunket is a New Zealand charity that provides free health services to children under five.) Incidentally, the sign on the side of that building said NON RETURN-A-BULL.

As I made my way towards the centre of town, I appreciated the milk churn-shaped rubbish bins encouraging people to be RESPONSE-A-BULL.

bulls bin

The hub of the town, opposite some FASHION-A-BULL shops, is the old town hall:

bulls town hall

Very SOCI-A-BULL. Though one mustn’t forget the MEMOR-A-BULL museum or the CURE-A-BULL medical centre, which, for some reason, has a Trojan bull outside of it.

trojan bull

We had a late lunch at a posh café – DELECT-A-BULL – and squeed at a collection of BLING-A-BULL wedding tiaras. (Though I think I’ll keep it simple with a flower garland for my wedding at Hobbiton.) I liked that the library was READ-A-BULL, and guessed that the church would be BELIEVE-A-BULL, but I was wrong. As we drove out of Bulls, I leaned into the window to check. It was FORGIVE-A-BULL.

bulls