Thursday, March 29, 2007

Good Friends in Wellington

We really really liked Wellington - and were very taken with the hills and winding streets. It has a great harbour-front that makes for a very pleasant walk (or in our case, silly four-man bike ride). For the kids, the stand out attraction was the Te Papa museum. We never made it past the first gallery.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Forgotten World Highway

The Forgotten World Highway is a spectacular drive. Particularly in stormy weather with rock falls all along its winding length. It is a heritage trail taking in many historic sites including Maori fortified villages, waterfalls and abandoned coal mines. But it's also a long drive - and we had decided to head on to Wellington, so we didn't stop and look around. Twelve clicks are unsealed ... and the banjos are playing - particularly at Whangamomona, a village that has declared itself independent from the rest of New Zealand. They won't last long though - a nation unprepared to serve a cup of coffee at 10am is unlikely to be a going concern, it seems to me.

We pushed through Stratford to Wanganui and lunched at Stellar, but wished we hadn't. The gourmet pizzas were very boring and we retired to Vega, across the road, for a decent cup of coffee ... only to wish that we had eaten there instead.

The drive down to Wellington was OK but not exactly memorable. The most exciting bit was in the immediate approach to Wellington where the road seemed to be only just reclaimed from the sea and looked as if it might be taken back if a particularly big wave decided to have a go.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

From Napier via Gentle Annie to Ruapehu

We found Napier to be an unexpected delight. Despite having read about the Art Deco architecture, we really had no concept of how prevalent the theme was until we arrived and took our first drive through town open-mouthed. We managed to incur a speeding ticket in Napier, but I really don't understand how when we seemed to crawl around the place gawping at building after beautiful building!

I think the fact that we took one photo in Napier - this one of the harbour - simply indicates how overwhelmed we were. I don't think we could have decided which building to photograph. We loved the 1930s shop fronts, but the older houses - particularly on the headland - also delighted us and we spent one morning doing u-turns in steep narrow streets on Bluff Hill as we explored every inch of the place. The Harbour and West Quay were worth several hours mucking around in, watching fishing boats come and go. The Kiwi Adventure Centre had a St Vincent's-style cafe in the same building which served up a fantastic cooked breakfast.

It was the kind of town that suggested good fish and chips could be had. We were disappointed by one chippy, but thrilled by the deep fried oysters at a pub in the town centre (how completely indulgent ... and not something you'd expect to taste good at all!). We stayed at the reasonably priced Grange "farm stay" - - where the accommodation in a loft was very comfortable and spacious and the hosts were very nice (and knowledgeable local wine makers). We did feel though that Napier was the kind of town that one would enjoy most WITHOUT toddlers ... it had a couple feel to it. Not surprisingly, Little J and E weren't really inspired by the historic architecture or the wineries. So we didn't hang around Napier, but rather set off into the interior of the North Island - into King Country.

As we drove up into the high country the countryside took on a bleak appearance - a bit like Kiandra or the Yorkshire moors - and we thought this small church was absolutely intriguing. We stopped and wondered over for a closer look but got spooked by the grave of a small child dating back only a couple of years alongside graves from the 1800s. All the tombstones had Maori inscriptions and the community centre next door gave us the feeling that we had wandered into tribal lands. We beat a retreat hoping we hadn't offended anyone unseen.

After a long drive over what we later learned was "Gentle Annie", we hit Waiouru and yet another excellent cafe designed to make a cup of coffee with children a pleasant experience. Only trouble is you have to then convince them to get back in the car. One child each and we departed screaming and kicking to push on to our next farm stay just short of Taumaranui. Our hosts divided their time between sheep breeding and running a cafe in town (deciding where to have dinner was therefore not a problem). Again we lucked spacious accommodation in a converted garage with a great breakfast part of the deal. And I'll admit - there were times when cable television was welcome to transfix Little J and E at the end of a long day.

The little ones meant trekking the three volcanos - Mountains Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - was not an option. But we could drive up past Whakapapa Village and get a good dose of Mt Doom and Mordor ... and the savage black rock-strewn landscape was eerie and draped in fog.

With walking not an option, we drove around the volcanoes and stopped for lunch at the bottom end of Lake Taupo. Then we chanced upon a trout farm and everyone was happy learning about trout and feeding the fish.

King Country is the heart of the North Island - and we were sorry to push on ... but once we heard about the Forgotten World Highway, well it had to be driven ...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Rotorua with Toddlers

So here's the view from the breakfast table at Te Ana ( not bad eh?

The night we arrived, our host had other arrangements and couldn't feed us. But she did direct us 20 minutes through the countryside to the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. I had managed to forget to pack a swimsuit, but New Zealanders think of everything and it was possible to hire one. The hot springs complex also had a cafe with very kid-friendly meals (nachos, spaghetti, salads, soups, etc). We all had a marvellous time - the water was deliciously warm and as much a novelty for J and E as relaxing for D and J. We arrived by 6pm, swam until 8pm then had our dinner and went home very warm and very very zen.

A picture's worth a thousand words ...

By the next morning, the kids were right at home at Te Ana. They were a little confused about our hostess's name though and rechristened her "Feather" - a nickname that stuck and one that she fortunately liked! Feather is an old hand at the B&B thing and she produced outstanding cooked breakfasts. Anyone who knows my husband knows that he likes to get in on the cooking action too and so we teamed up one night to satisfy our urge for roast NZ lamb shanks.

Te Ana is no longer a farm stay - but the rural setting is beautiful and restful and we really enjoyed not being in Rotorua - akin to the high beam of the NZ juggernaut. We did get out and about and check out the famous volcanic sites. Rotorua is literally a hot bed of things volcanic. It was intriguing to drive along and spot whisps of steam rising up out of the very green, almost English countryside. The Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland was a good choice for our volcanic experience - not too many people, pleasant walks and spectacular sights. We were amazed by the various mud pools and silica formations. In the centre of Rotorua, there is a park with mud pools in the middle of it. Houses built in the same area have tapped into hot springs and basically access free hot water! Everything is very amusing, but also slightly disconcerting. We visited the site of a village that had been buried in a volcanic eruption in the 1800s. Up until the time of the eruption, the silica terraces had been considered one of the great wonders of the world. The eruption wiped them from the face of the planet. Disconcerting? The thought that it could happen again.

Rotorua obviously has many tourist attractions - The Caterpillar Experience was not riveting as it did not involve actually driving the machines. Big J was keen to give the Agrodome a go - attracted by promises of sheep dogs performing, but the whole thing was geared and timed to busloads of Japanese tourists, so we gave it a miss. We took a gondola ride instead and were surprised to discover that little kids could be taken on the luge. A great time was had by all of us careering down the mountain. Big J couldn't stop laughing. Once at the bottom of the luge, the only back was by chair lift. Each parent was accompanied by a child. E may never get the grip marks off her arm, and Little J was simply told "if you move, I can't save you".

Friday, March 9, 2007

On the Road ...

I really can't explain it - but there was a collective sigh of relief when we got back in the car and headed out of Auckland. I hope the family that drives together stays together because we like to hit the road together.

Our timing wasn't great - we ended up in morning peak hour moving from Devonport towards the centre of Auckland - but there was amusement to be had. We had our windows down and admired a Holden AWD station wagon alongside us. I can imagine how hicky we would have appeared - freshly back in Australasia and thrilled by things as simple as the sight of a Holden. But, yet again New Zealand did not disappoint.

New Zealand is what Australia was twenty years ago ...

In the crawling traffic, when we realised the driver was aware of our admiration, we told him through open windows that we liked his car. A conversation ensued on the merits of said vehicle. After some minutes, our new friend asked "You lot over from Aussie, then?" We nodded enthusiastically, let him know how excited we were to be there, gave him a summary of our itinerary, had it approved, on only the one proviso that we had to return again to go fishing in Northland. We promised to do so as our lanes diverged ...

And then we were out of Auckland and among soft green hills. Such a welcome change after the alien landscape of southern New Caledonia. The road was straight and uninteresting and lunch was an unimpressive affair at a roadside tourist trap. As we drove towards Rotorua, it slowly dawned on us that tourism was important to New Zealand. The excellence and ease of planning a holiday in New Zealand over the web had been the first clue ( and the roadside craft and food centres and the thousands of winnebagos left us in little doubt. The trick would be to keep out of the way of what D described as New Zealand's Tourism Juggernaut.

And so - despite interest in seeing The Lord of the Rings village of Hobbiton (, we ditched the idea, only to learn later that nothing remains of the movie set but a few holes in the hillside. A sight we did not need to spend close to $75 to view.

What do you call a New Zealander on a street corner with a sheep under each arm?

We pushed on to Rotorua, skirted it and headed straight for our first rural bed and breakfast experience. The surrounding countryside was like nothing we had ever seen (athough reminiscent of parts of Yorkshire, and summoned a particularly vague childhood memory of a place called Buttertubs Pass). How to describe it? Green, lumpy, rolling (but steeply) ... and it became immediately clear why New Zealanders are the subject of jokes about sheep ... they were simply everywhere. Major industries numbers two and three spotted: wool and mutton.

The scenery kept getting more and more pleasant and suddenly we arrived at Te Anau which did not disappoint.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Land of the Long White Cloud

We decided on a month in New Zealand because we needed a real break and we wanted a driving holiday. Everything we'd read suggested a month would be reasonable to cover both the North and South islands. We also expected to enjoy a driving holiday as, even by four and three years old, our small children were used to their father hauling them long distances.

New Zealanders are not big on signage.

Auckland must be the only city in the world for which there are no directions from its international airport. We drove out of the airport in a kind of a daze - the kind of daze where you don't believe a situation can be true, but it is. There must be a sign - there'll be one round this bend telling us the way to the centre of Auckland ... but there wasn't. Instead there were road works - big, complicated road works ... that led us off into suburban Auckland. After fiddling around for an hour or so, where we followed streets seemingly at random, and our collective sense of direction proved completely unreliable - children sustained all the while by potato chips - we fumbled our way to the city centre and across Auckland Harbour to Devonport and the lovely old Esplanade Hotel.

When New Zealanders say children are welcome, they mean it.

The Esplanade Hotel in Devonport ( is a nicely restored turn of the century pub, sitting on the corner opposite the ferry terminal. It seemed to us to offer the opportunity to be out of the city centre, but get there in a pleasant manner (by boat). We had gone searching for child-friendly hotels, and were stunned in early research by how many places specifically ruled out children. (Such a sterile way to live one's life. The people who can't stand to have children around are also, no doubt, those that are intolerant of smokers in the open air and upset by dog poo ... ie people who can't cope with life.) And we hit gold. The room was a bit small but the restaurant adjoining offered fantastic fare (ahhhh ... the oysters) and waitresses who intrigued small children. Emma on a Working Holiday from England seemed to pull one trick after another out of her hat ... colouring-in pictures and crayons, toys, books, culminating in the totally captivating singing monster ("Happy, happy birthday!") and his friend the Elvis-crooning frog. The kids developed a fixation on these new friends and were crushed that they had disappeared by breakfast the next morning. The Boys on Breakfast were no less thoughtful of kids than the Girls of the Night Before and alongside Eggs Benedict produced said mechanical marvels to enjoy breakfast with us.

We spent our 24 hours in Auckland getting ourselves together - hair was cut, essential toiletries were purchased, the playground was played in, fish and chips were eaten, the ferry was ridden on, the suburb was strolled ... until we decided that the city was not where we needed to be. Suitcases were piled back into the hire car, and we hit the open road ...