Tour of New Zealand's North Island - 2007

We arrived in the capital Wellington on a damp Friday evening and cautiously manoeuvred our almost brand new hire car through the heavy rush hour traffic in search of our B&B.  It proved to be yet another Edwardian time capsule built in 1904 with all the comforts of home.  Our helpful hosts served us wine and canapés on arrival, and then booked our restaurant for dinner and ferried us there.

Next day we took the cable car a hundred yards away to the top of the hill and walked back down through the Botanic Gardens.  I fulfilled my ambition to see 'The Beehive', New Zealand's parliament building, with a guided tour and then we lunched at 'The Backbencher' pub opposite, full of life size caricatures of their more well-known politicians.  We didn't recognise many, but the food was good!  As it was Mardi Gras we walked along the waterfront and enjoyed the carnival atmosphere, canoe racing, diving, ethnic dancing and the impressive Te Papa museum.  Arriving home weary from our long walk we were invited to use the hot tub in the garden, and benefited from a timely soak and water jet massage accompanied by a couple of glasses of crisp white wine.  NZ life in a nutshell!

Begonias in the Botanic Gardens The New Zealand parliament house

'The Backbencher' pub Elsa enjoying the hot tub

Driving north up Highway 2 I was surprised to find the terrain rugged and steep, with the road frequently tortuous and perilously narrow as it wound its way through the mountains.  After a final section through the vineyards of Hawkes Bay we arrived in Napier, famous for its Art Deco buildings, reconstructed after a massive earthquake destroyed the original town in 1931.  Not surprisingly it reminded me of the English seaside towns of my youth.  But we found nearby Hastings just as engaging despite living in the shadow of its more well-known neighbour.

Conservation House, Napier Art Deco shop, Napier

Our next stop was perhaps the most famous place in NZ - Rotorua.  It has a reputation for being smelly because of the hot springs, but we did not find it so once away from the geysers.  This was our first close encounter with the Maori culture, and we were fascinated by the buried village and its replacement, the thermal village.  Our two Maori guides gave us a clear insight into their traditional way of life and how it operates today, embracing their language, customs, cooking, bathing, art, crafts, singing and dancing.  New Zealand has no truly indigenous people, but the Maoris are descendants of settlers from the South Sea islands who arrived centuries before the Europeans.  Once again I felt uncomfortable about my English forebears who just took what they found.

Thermal hot springs at Rotorua Maori welcome

The Kiwi Sanctuary in Rotorua is seeking to save the country's iconic bird from extinction by collecting eggs susceptible to predation and rearing the young birds for release back into the wild.  We saw these nocturnal birds in a simulated night-time environment, and hoped the programme would save them from European introduced predators.

Our final drive north took us past Auckland to the Bay of Islands, quite the most beautiful place we visited on our tour.  We stayed at a luxurious B&B perched on the cliff edge high above the bay, and enjoyed a stunning view from the panoramic windows in our room.  Peter, our German born host, was a fantastic chef so we enjoyed three of his amazing gourmet dinners and far too much excellent wine.

Sunrise from our room Hole in the Rock, Bay of Islands

Determined to make the best of our penultimate destination, we spent the first day visiting the famous Hole in the Rock and watching dolphins, and our second taking a flight to the northernmost tip of the North Island to see Cape Reinga.  Landing in a light aircraft on an undulating grass strip mowed in a farmer's field was exciting, but rewarded with a 4x4 drive to the lighthouse, coffee and muffins with a paddle at a pretty beach, and tobogganing down the enormous sand dunes.

Cape Reinga Peaceful beach, Cape Reinga

Ancient Kauri tree, 14 feet in diameter

Bidding farewell to this beautiful place, we drove across the northern tip to the west coast and then turned south to see the mighty Kauri trees; this one was over fourteen feet in diameter.  Sadly, the hardwood was so useful for construction and shipbuilding that thousands of them were felled by the early settlers, and only a few of this size remain today.  The grain markings are so distinctive and the surface sheen so unlike any other wood, that we spent a small fortune buying a Kauri bowl in Auckland.  It was our only real extravagant purchase, so we are delighted to have such a rare piece as a memento of our holiday.

We returned to Auckland for a couple of days before our flight home.  Once again we were treated like kings at our 1902 B&B: afternoon tea and sandwiches on arrival, gin and tonic before dinner, a ride into the city the following morning as it was Sunday and there was a restricted ferry service, and the usual help with places to visit and where to eat.  Auckland is a big city, housing almost a third of the country's population, with crowds and traffic to match.  However, we enjoyed our trip up the Sky Tower and watching the foolhardy jump off the top attached to a wire, and we indulged in a little shopping.

Overall a lovely holiday, with much to talk about over the dinner table.  It was rather longer than we usually take but worth it, especially in view of the long journey needed to get there.  If you decide to take a holiday in New Zealand then I urge you to travel independently, so you may enjoy the fantastic hospitality of the small boutique accommodation and discover its little gems in glorious isolation.  This was perfectly illustrated by our visit to Cape Reinga; we arrived at 9.30 am in a light aircraft holding six passengers, enjoyed the magnificent views all to ourselves and were gone by noon - before the ninety daily coach parties arrived!

And yes, there were long white clouds everywhere we went.

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