New Year in New Zealand

North Island trip 1After two weeks on a boat in the Solomons we overnight in Brisbane and then fly on to New Zealand. I realize that my mental map of the world is wrong as it is only a 3hr 45min flight and we are travelling more east than south! First impressions of Auckland are low rise housing and volcanos everywhere. We are staying on the North Shore in Takapuna, a popular commuting suburb in one of the few high rise apartments with great views over downtown and the skytower in one direction and Rangitoto, the island volcano that dominates the view to the East. It is also very English - the fashionable suburb at the end of Lake View road is called Devonport, our apartment is next to the croquet club and there are dogs everywhere.

We have arrived two days before Christmas and are looking forward to spending the holiday period with old friends Missy, Maree and Meredith. They were successive family assistants to us in London when Louise and Tommy were growing up and now are back in Auckland - Missee and Maree have families of their own. On our first day in town we walk along the north shore beach (dogs everywhere) and climb a couple of the small volcanos which are good lookouts over the harbour and were gun defences in WW2. Auckland is surrounded by harbour and inlets on all sides.

Downtown Auckland from Takapuna

Downtown Auckland from Takapuna

A second discovery is that the quality and variety of food and drink is fantastic. Takapuna has some great local restaurants - we enjoy the Asian Tok Tok on our first night and the following evening we cross the bridge to Ponsonby, another suburb for cocktails in Farina and dinner in Mekong Baby. We also spent Christmas Eve exploring north of Auckland including wine tasting at Kumeu River winery and lunch at Hallertau Brewery. Driving around we notice two other distinctive NZ features - bright blue agapanthus on every verge and alongside many gardens, and huge leylandi pine hedges around fields, orchards and vineyards - presumably as protection from the wind.

Many of the place names and street signs are in Maori. Up until now my only knowledge of Maori customs has been the haka performed by the All Blacks. The Auckland Museum provides a lot more information. I am amazed how young the country is. According to boards in the museum the first polynesian settlers arrived in New Zealand around 800 years ago and the European settlers only turned up in the early 1800s. The Polynesians had been migrating eastwards from Australia and New Guinea over the past 1500 years and reached NZ last. The museum has a great collection of Maori art, carvings and artefacts as well as full sized meeting houses and war canoes. There are also rooms dedicated to other islands as well as the trade between the islands. It is interesting to see many cultural similarities in weaving, jewellery and design.

Maori carvings in Auckland Museum


On 27 December we and most of the rest of the population head north towards "Northland". Our friends have booked a place near Matapouri above Whale Bay and tell us that the traffic is only this bad about once per year as we all sit in jams or try to avoid them on dirt back roads. As the kiwis are keen surfers and fishermen many cars are loaded with surfboards or towing boats. One advantage of avoiding the jams on State Highway (SH) 1 is that SH16 on the west of the peninsula has amazing views over the hills and coastline.

When we reach our stay at Whale Bay it is spectacular. A main house or "bure" looking out over the coast (below), an equally comfortable "boat house" used by the owners and full of great art and books, and additional accomodation in a bunkhouse and shed - nicknamed the "murder shed" by Tommy as it is quite far from the rest. Our friends start teaching us the names of the NZ birds which are all around us. The Tui (below left) with its distinctive calls and mimics, apparently due to a double voice box, and the big fat New Zealand Wood Pigeon (below right) which sounds like a small helicopter as it flies carrying its huge weight. We also see a Morepork owl in the twilight and a number of fantails. In the morning a mother quail and her chicks march across our lawn and under the house.

Bure at Whale Bay

Tui and NZ Wood Pigeon

The days pass quickly. Nick and Logan are up early before the kids wake to go surfing at Sandy Bay which has an impressive break. We are more leisurely taking our time over breakfast before heading out to explore the lovely beaches - Whale Bay (below left) and Matapouri Beach (right). In the evenings we enjoy BBQs along with fine NZ wine. We had bought a box ourselves and then Missy and Logan give us another fine collection on Christmas Day so we are not going to run out! On the 29th we all head out on a boat to the Poor Knight Islands where Tommy and I dive and the others snorkel. See a write up of the diving here.

Northland beaches

The next day we say goodbye to our friends and head back to Auckland to catch the ferry from Half Moon Bay to Waiheke Island. Aucklanders love Waiheke and several had told us to go there. It is a very popular getaway and many folks in the city have second homes on the west side of the island. The eastern side is much wilder with just a few wine estates and multi-million dollar properties! We have been told that "Waiheke is the warmest place in NZ" and the sun comes out as we arrive. We are staying just off Onatangi Beach in a little modern apartment half way across the north of the island.

We can see that another reason people love Waiheke apart from the weather is more amazing food and drink. On New Year's Eve we go winetasting up the road from our apartment at Tantalus (below) before a great lunch next door at Te Motu. Here we have some great tasting plates including a memorable snapper with bonito flakes and black garlic sauce. The wine is pretty good too with very tasty Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. After lunch we drive to Man O'War Bay in the east - very hilly with dirt roads, sheep and vineyards. As well as the vineyards there is an interesting site in the north east corner of the island - "Stony Batter" was a secret defence post in WW2 where huge gun emplacements were built in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. Dinner at Oyster Inn (again good and friendly) and back to Onetangi in time to see the New Year in at Charlie Farleys at the bottom of our road.

Tantalus winery

Man O'War bay

On New Year's day we are off again, this time to the Coromandel Peninsula. Some friends in Switzerland had recommended a guest house in the north of this beautiful spit of land. We stop on the way in Thames to learn about gold mining and the 1860s gold rush. Some local enthusiasts have rebuilt a "stamper battery" which was used to crush the quartz which the miners dug out in big chunks hoping to find gold and silver. Some mines were very successful with huge finds while about 90% found nothing. The unsuccessful miners ended up working in the other mines and dying young from silicosis, mercury poisoning or in shaft collapses. The road up the west coast of the Coromandel is named after the Pohutukawe "NZ Christmas trees" that line the route. More breathtaking scenery.

Kaeppeli's turns out to be as beautiful as promised. Our little cottage (below) is perched on a hillside above Kuaotuno with a field of goats next door for company. Our host, Jill, provides a very friendly welcome and Luke's bar in the village has more great beer and food.

Kaeppeli's guesthouse

Walking in the Coromandel

We spend our last full day with Tommy enjoying the local countryside. A trail right next to our cottage leads up and down through the woods between Kuaotunu and Makarangi. There are fabulous tree ferns, huge cut down pines, more tuis and fantails and lots of NZ walkers and trail runners out enjoying their holiday. From ridges we get views of nearby peaks and bays. In Ring Bay a band is setting up - we hear it later as well as our neighbour who plays the bagpipes! A swim on the beach and BBQ on our balcony ends a great day.

Next post - central and southern North Island.