We complete our road trip through New Zealand’s glorious North Island.
Back in Taupo we turned southeast along State Highway 5, bound for Napier. We passed through relatively uneventful farm and forestry country before winding our way through the dramatic forested ravines and valleys of the Maungaharuru Range, then down onto the coastal plains of Hawke’s Bay.
Forestry is NZ’s largest export industry and it was a bit distressing to see so much once-lush land given over to pine plantations. One unimpressed Kiwi told us that nothing grows for decades on the degraded land left barren after the plantations are clear-felled. “Maybe strawberries,” she grumbled contemptuously.
Road-weary, we finally pulled into the funky early 60s-era Sunset Court Motel at Napier. While the exterior is a smidge passé, the period-appointed rooms were spacious with kitchenette, lounge and large bedroom. Memories of childhood travels flooded back in these kitsch but welcoming lodgings.
We had specifically picked this week to visit Napier for the world-famous Art Deco Festival.
True to NZ seismic form, a major earthquake tragically leveled Napier in 1931. There was considerable loss of life and little but rubble left of what was once a thriving city.
It was decided that reconstruction would be in the unique international architectural style of the day, and hence the city boasts some the world’s best-preserved Art Deco precincts.
Each year the residents turn out in their 1920s and 1930s finery, vintage cars roll in from all over the nation, and galas, dinners, dances, concerts and events are staged around the clock, celebrating Napier’s rise from the rubble 85 years ago.
Everywhere you look, they are in period costume: the publican in waist coat and pork pie hat; the hairdresser in short sequined flapper dress with headband; the spiv on the corner in a fedora, drain-pipe tweeds and silk shirt; ladies sitting in cafes with bell cloche bucket hats, flowing floral frocks and sensible pumps.
There, in a hotel doorway, a debonair chap in blazer, bowtie, boater and spats. We even spotted three ‘gangsters’ hanging around the ANZ ATM!
Jazz tootled out of the bars, restaurants and clubs, and it was pretty dang obvious that Napier was puttin’ on the Ritz, as it has done each February for the last 30 years.
The Hawke’s Bay area has turned into a food and wine Mecca in the last few decades, so the surrounding region is just as impressive as Napier and it’s sister city, Hastings.
We were lucky to have good friend and local Sue Walke in town and she took us out on an afternoon tour seeing the sights and tasting the bites.
After lunch in town, we headed over to Te Mata Peak where the lookout provides magnificent views of the plains and the lofty range. It was a bit of a grey drizzly day, but when the sun broke through you could see forever.
Then it was on to the impressive Black Barn Winery for a tasting (snapped up a great Syrah), Chalk ‘n’ Cheese then over to The Figgery for more toothsome dainties.
New Zealand is doing great things with food and wine tourism in many of its rural regions, but we think Hawke’s Bay may just be Best in Show at the moe.
The next morning we had breakfast in town among the gathering sea of flappers and wise guys, then set off on State Highway 2 on the relatively long run south to Wellington.
We cruised along for a few hours, pulled in at Woodville and went into the perfectly named Nibbley Pig Café.
Being a couple of nibblers ourselves, Jacqui had grown a penchant for scones, jam and cream up on Mt Ruapehu, and I dived into a fine gourmet lamb pie. The Kiwis remain masters at anything involving lamb, hogget and mutton. Say no more…
Further down the road we stopped for a rest in Greytown, but were lured into a den of iniquity called The Lolly Jar, where hundreds of sweets were lined up in class containers, old style.
We decided to take the mixed lolly bag route, and were astonished at our gluttony, not to mention the $15 price tag. (I recall buying the same tonnage of sugar at the Cottesloe Vans corner store in the 1960s for 5c.)
“Going over The Hump, eh?” asked another boutique owner. “That’s what we call the road over the range into Wellington.”
“That’s our intention,” I said, instantly wishing it wasn’t.
It was a very wiggly road up the range and a very winding road down the range (especially being tailed by a road-train), but the white knuckles soon resumed a pinko-grey hue as we entered the outskirts of the capital.
After a few wrong turns in the CBD we found our comfy digs on trendy Cuba Street, before popping out to the 178 Cuba café for a bite and the drink. That night we took a stroll down to the waterfront, where there always seems to be something doing. On this evening a concert was booming out, then the next day, a boat race, the next day, a marathon.
Many national capitals are dull places, teeming with dreary civil servants and an inexplicable paucity of joie de vivre, but not Wellington.
We loved the can-do, easy-going attitudes, inclusiveness, funky street life, progressive attitudes and world-class attractions.
The next morning we went down to the fabulous modern Museum of New Zealand, or Te Papa Tongarewa. It is a great facility and features exhibits of national arts, culture, geology, flora and fauna and much more.
It was packed with locals and visitors when we visited, but undoubtedly gave us the best understanding of the extraordinary land we were travelling through. It’s must if you are visiting Welly.
Afterwards we strolled around Cuba Street and surrounds, checking out the bookstores, boutiques, collectibles outlets and wonderfully vibrant cafes and bars. The town is quintessential NZ, but also has a fine fusion of the best cultural precincts of Europe tossed in.
Even though the weather was still a bit wet and dull, we decided to essay a mission up nearby Mount Victoria for an overview of the city.
We parked the jalopy at the base and set off up the steep walk trail through old pine forest and lush vegetation toward the summit. A gentle rain veiled the mountain.
“Would you be hunting the Hobbit Hole?” came a loud voice from behind us, smashing our sylvan idyll.
We spun around to see a gnome-like citizen in purple polyester slacks, Crocs and camouflage jacket dragging a small, grubby trolley.
“Didn’t know there was one,” I answered, a little startled by our forest companion.
“Yes, it’s down that trail. It’s where the Hobbit comes out of its hole – well, the CGI hobbit comes out of its hole…
“Surely you know the opening line? ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’”
It seemed no square metre of turf in all the nation is without some Hobbity significance, or none of its good citizens without a parable concerning the same.
He turned out to be a chef on a mushroom hunt, a gourmet goblin, and while keen to chaperone us to yet another Middle Earth milieu, we ran in the opposite direction instead.
He succeeded in relating a recipe for chocolate ganache as we disappeared into the swirling mist and dripping foliage.
We reached the top but the city was obscured by low cloud; however the weather cleared on our descent and we caught sweeping views of the city through the trees.
That night, being on Cuba Street, we decided to go revolutionary and dined at Fidel’s, a popular eatery and homage to El Pesidente Castro.
The walls are festooned with classic old black and white snaps of Fidel and Che plotting their campaigns and coups. Great food and a lot of fun.
We decided that we didn’t have nearly enough time to take in all the sights in Welly, and again the road beckoned. We had to be back in Auckland the day after next, so set off north, this time up the west coast of the island on State Highways One and Three.
We passed through the holiday beach towns like Otaki and Levin, favourites with Wellingtonians at this time of year, hitting the pretty township of Whanganui about noon, where we stopped for lunch.
It was pleasant enough, apart from Jacqui becoming trapped in one of those decompression chamber-like, stainless steel public lavatories, and enduring a mysterious, yet solicitous man mumbling through the door that he was trying to save her. She’s still asking me why I didn’t come to her rescue.
Then it was onward towards the Taranaki promontory, renowned for its beautiful central volcano, which dominates the region.
We pulled in at the picturesque coastal town of Patea for a breather, and watched surfers paddling out into the swells marching in off the Tasman Sea.
This is the beginning of the Surf Highway, a route that does a 180-degree sweep around the Taranaki coast, and we spotted many cars with boards stacked high on their roofs.
But it was time for us to cut across the cape to New Plymouth on the north shore, where we would be spending the night.
I’d read somewhere that Stratford was an Antipodean mirror of its Shakespearean provenance (a break from the pervasive Hobbiton!), and plays were often performed. But it was a quiet Sunday arvo in the old town and we didn’t spot any Elizabethan types strutting about reciting sonnets or talking to skulls.
There is a slightly incongruous neo-Tudor clock tower in the centre of town, which was perhaps as close as we would get to The Bard on the day. So it was onwards – Plymouth Ho!
We pulled into New Plymouth in the late afternoon, checked into comfortable self-contained digs on the hill behind the port, slipped into our togs, toddled down to the beach and plunged into the Tasman.
The cool salt water felt good after a long day out on the macadam. The locals were out in force and enjoying the afternoon sunshine after the day’s heavy rains.
That evening at sunset we drove to a high point at the back of town and looked south to see mighty Mount Taranaki swathed in pink and golden clouds, a mesmerizing sight, and arguably the most beautiful vista of our entire trip.
The next morning we popped down to nearby Lake Mangamahoe, hoping to catch the mountain in the morning light, but the clouds had come in again and the volcano was obscured. Nevertheless we took a delightful walk around the pretty lake, an important flora and fauna sanctuary.
Then it was a back on the road for the run north to Auckland Airport. Every day we passed through enchanting countryside, and the road north of New Plymouth did not disappoint.
Soon the Shearing Capital of the World loomed ahead of us: Te Kuiti. It boasts the planet’s biggest shearer as an entry statement. The map in the town Information Bay seemed to be wildly inaccurate, designed for extreme confusion in the hunt for a cafe, so we snapped pictures of ourselves beneath the humungous farm hand and pointed the grill north once more.
We had wanted to pull in to check out the fabled Waitomo Caves outside Otorohanga, but only had time for a sanga, cappo and a quick look around. These are some of the world’s finest tourist caverns, but the glowworms, boat tours and abseiling into the bowels of the earth would have to wait for our next visit.
We dropped off the trusty wagon at the International Airport and flopped into chairs in the flight lounge, tired but entirely satisfied with our North Island odyssey.
Ascending Perth-bound into the clouds over the Tasman, we started discussing how soon we would return and do it all again on the South Island. Stay tuned!
Starfish Photographs: Peter Rigby