For the second part of our visit to NZ we explore some of the rest of North Island. Over eight days we drive south through the centre of the island to Taupo, spend a day in the Tongariro National Park and then continue SW to Napier and Hawkes Bay. After three nights in wine country we head on to Wellington for a couple of nights before taking the ferry across the Cook Straits to Picton in South Island.
Most of the roads in New Zealand are wide two lane highways with additional passing lanes on the hills. In some places there are one lane bridges which can be a big problem with holiday traffic - we are held up for 40 minutes coming through Tairua on the East coast of the Coromandel peninsula. On the mountainous sections of the road from Taupo to Napier we came across frequent squashed possums - the Kiwis are delighted with this as the possum was introduced from Australia and has become a real pest, particularly destroying indigenous bird life. Trapping and poisoning possums is widespread.
Once we are out of the Coromandel we find long flat roads across the Huaraki Plains. This is real farming country with big fields and many herds of cattle. What to do on the way to Taupo? We debated between geysers at Rotorua and Hobbiton at Matamata. We opt for Matamata but on the way realize that I have neither booked on a tour or have enough time (they take 4 hours). I am in the doghouse. Fortunately a fine dinner with Kathy from my running club in London and her husband and friends cheers us up.
Taupo has a fabulous park - Spa Park. This runs alongside the Waikato River and I run along one of the trails, shared by walkers and cyclists to the Huka Falls. The path rises and falls through dense woodland (see above). I followed the walker's track back again. This was wider and less windy but still very up and down. A great 9km outing.
For our one day around Taupo we decide to head for the Tongariro National Park. This is 103km to the SW of Taupo (see map at the top). In the winter there is skiing on Mt Ruapehu - there is still some snow on its flanks in January although the peak is mostly shrouded in clouds. Having missed Hobbiton the day before this is one of the most famous settings for the Lord of the Rings films - Mordor. As Vicky and I set out on a 7km round walk to Taranaki Falls (above) we imagine Frodo and Sam struggling across the open moorland to reach Mt Doom - in fact Mt Ngauruhoe (above top). Our path goes through some beautiful birch forest as well as the open heath and the waterfalls are spectacular. Part of the route is share by one of the big multi-day hikes across the park and from time to time more serious walkers with huge packs tramp past us.
Back in Taupo we finish the day at the Wairakai Terraces - thermal pools that have been constructed to resemble the natural thermal terraces in Rotoroa. A very multinational mix of bathers are enjoying the pools set in pretty gardens. It is particularly relaxing as children are banned!
From Taupo we head down to wine country. The road from Taupo to Napier starts with straight roads through pine forests before climbing and winding through hills and gorges. Dropping down to the coastal plain you pass vineyards and a brewery in the Esk Valley before reaching Napier. We checked out the National Aquarium on Marine Boulevard. Loads of kids were enjoying their holidays in the playground and skate park as we walked along the seafront. The Aquarium itself was interesting but not amazing and to our disappointment the kiwi enclosure was being renovated. Napier itself seemed particularly sleepy in holiday season. It is well known for art deco buildings constructed after an earthquake in 1931. We enjoy a Malaysian laksa for lunch served by a sweet Asian couple.
One of the extravagances of our trip is a stay in a vineyard cottage at Craggy Range (above), one of the more famous wineries in Hawkes Bay. The cottage is provisioned with food and wine and our greeting again super friendly and helpful. We dine in Craggy Range's excellent restaurant.
Hawkes Bay is a large area and the terrain is very varied with differing soil types and outlooks. To the North are the "Gimblett Gravels" where we visit Trinity Hill and Te Awa and where Craggy Range grow some of their wines. The fast draining soil appears to be great for Trinity Hill's Marsanne Viognier, as well as some of the Bordeaux (Merlot/Cab Sauv) blends that we try. Wines towards the centre of the area have a different character while by the sea wineries like Te Awanga are growing grapes that benefits from the cooling sea breezes at night. Te Awanga was particularly interesting as head winemaker, Rod McDonald, has won multiple prizes for Syrah wines in recent years. The winery is relatively new and Rod was previously head winemaker for Villa Maria before setting up on his own. They also have some great branding and labelling - see above.
Hawkes Bay is particularly known for Chardonnay whites and Bordeaux style reds. The cooler weather in Martinborough, outside Wellington, and Marlborough and Central Otago in South Island is where much of New Zealand's Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir comes from.
Hawkes Bay is not just about wine. At Cape Kidnappers there is a famous Gannet colony and there are many bike trails in the vineyards and along the coast. There is also an impressive range of hills - Te Mata - above Havelock North and Craggy Range and I go running one day and hiking the next. The views from the top are spectacular and on our first afternoon more so as the wind is gusting at over 100 kph. The trails are also very varied with sections through Redwood forests and gentle traverses as well as more steep climbs and ascents to the summits.
Heading south on the SH 2 towards Wellington we drive past large sheep and cattle farms in open countryside before the route becomes more hilly with gorges and windy roads. Just over half way, after about 2.3 hours we stop at the Pukaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre. This is a chance to see some of New Zealand's rarer birds. Sadly there are still no brown kiwis but we do see an amazing white kiwi in a nocturnal enclosure. Also a kokako and tieki (above) as well as the kaka, blue duck (whio) and various parakeets.
In Wellington we are staying at the very convenient QT Museum hotel by the waterfront and opposite the Te Papa National Museum. The waterfront is very different from Auckland with walkways and old storehouses converted to bars and restaurants. The world's oldest working steam crane ship (above) is on view and other public buildings like the convention centre and Wellington Museum are right there. The atmosphere is laid back and relaxed - people lounge or lie on the wide benches outside Te Papa, business folks head into work on scooters (rented via Uber) or wander past eating ice creams.
The magnificent Te Papa museum has so much of interest that it seems impossible to get round in one go. We start with NZ Art on the 5th floor which is mostly modern with established artists such as Colin McCahon although there are some older portraits of both Europeans such as James Cook (above) and of 19C Maoris. On the 4th floor the art continues with a great show of Samoan tattoos with photographs from Mark Adams and others. Also on this floor is an excellent collection of Maori culture including carved panels, meeting houses and canoes (weka), and some beautiful ceremonial staffs and greenstone clubs. There are also exhibits explaining land theft, the misunderstanding of the Waikiki treaty and notable 20C Maoris who have helped to drive change.
On the second floor is a dramatic exhibition created by Peter Jackson on the doomed Gallipoli campaign. Built around greater than life-size tableaux of Kiwi soldiers crouched in trenches, manning machine guns and struggling in mud, it is a real sound and vision experience. Here and throughout the museum there are also many ways in which children can explore and investigate the themes.
We spend much of the rest of the day in Wellington walking. We catch the cablecar (funicular) to the top of the botanic gardens where there are great views over the harbour. The gardens themselves are lovely with a huge collection of NZ trees, ferns, shrubs and flowers. Lots of visitors like us are following the peak to city walk which eventually brings us back into town from where we walk along the harbourfront home. Dinner in Ortega Fish Shack is excellent with a fine ceviche and delicious fish of the day.
After 1625 km of driving in North Island we drop off our car and board the Kaitaki Interislander ferry for the 3.5hr crossing to Picton and the South.
The ferry takes a bit over three hours to go from Wellington to Picton. It can take much longer if the sea is rough as the entrance to Troy Sound is super narrow with rocks very close to the surface on either side of the channel. In calm seas we cruise through just as we did at the equally narrow exit to Wellington harbour. Once inside Troy Sound about half the trip is spent cruising along the sounds between the mainland and islands. In the 19C some of these sheltered bays were shore whaling stations. The whalers would be based on land and scan the sea for whales taking to their small rowing boats to try and harpoon Southern Right whales as they passed. If successful they would tow the carcass back to the beach and cut up and render the blubber in big pots, pouring the whale oil into barrels for shipping to Australia. In the early days the whaling stations were quite often attacked by Maori tribes.
First stop is Blenheim in Marlborough wine country. We start with a lovely lunch in the garden of Rock Ferry, Next day we "get serious" with visits to Hunter Wines, Fromm, Wairau River (for lunch) and Te Whare Ra (pronounced tee far-ee ra). Marlborough is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc (think Cloudy Bay) and 85% of the vines here are SB. The hot days and cool nights are perfect for the Sauvignon Blanc grape which also does well on the gravelly soil. Other whites include chardonnay, reisling, pinot gris, gewurtztraminer and albarino while much less red wine is made here. Of the reds the most common is pinot noir followed by a syrah - more gentle than the fierce South Australian varieties. I will do another page on wines of New Zealand but in the meantime our favourites were the Hunter Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Fromm's Syrah, Wairau River's Pinot Noir Reserve and TWR's dry Riesling. And TWR got winery of the day with its lively and interesting owner/vintner Anna Flowersday (above). Most unusual wine is Hunter's Offshoot Petulant Naturel SB 2019 (top right) - made by the young winemaker with residual yeast in the bottle and crown capped. It fizzes when opened and once the yeast has settled is a very refreshing summer drink.
There is more to do in Blenheim than taste wine. We hike (and I run) in the Wither Hills which give great views over the landscape (above) and we also visit the Wairau estuary and Taylor dam looking for birdlife. The birds in NZ are wonderful - trees and hedgerows are full of sparrows and finches, yellowhammers and skylarks sing to us on the heathland and in the wetlands we see the Royal Spoonbill as well as swans, shags, stilts and Pukeko. See a selection below. Next stop the Abel Tasman national park and then South Island West coast.