I'm writing from the charmingly-dated lounge of a 30 year old boat crossing the fairly-rough waters of the Cook Strait. I'm watching waves crash against the starboard side, audibly pounding its belly, splashing mist up onto this 8th deck window. We're sailing from New Zealand's North Island to its South, three hours across open sea unlike any body of water I've ever crossed.
New Zealand is a weird and wonderful place. Looking around, depending on the region, it could be the Caribbean or America's arid southwest. Other times, perhaps Montana or Ireland or the jagged coast of Wales. It seems that no matter which direction you look, the landscape shifts and changes to reveal yet another personality. Today I could be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico or the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic. If the sun comes out from behind the clouds, it's more likely the former. Now, under a hazy grey, it feels the latter, spooky and uncharted.
We started our New Zealand leg in Auckland, its most-populated city. It lays across giant hills dotted with 1960s brutalist architecture as well as more-colonial buildings; it reminded me something of Montreal. A university town, there's no shortage of adorable dudes in inexplicably short shorts and cute girls in high-waisted skirts; New Zealand is a place where bathing suits seem to be the default and shoelessness is encouraged. (And well-defined calves are a national treasure.)
So Auckland would be our landing pad, a place to get our lost bearings, figure out the date, sleep a little and get acquainted. We had no big plans, only adjustment. After two quick days we would rent a car and meander south, eventually to Wellington (the capital) where we'd meet this boat.
I don't know quite how to explain the feeling I get here. It's something like scepticism, or maybe just awe. You see, in each town and city there's an almost Edward Scissorhands-cleanliness, an idyllic quality that is startling to this North American. It's so tidy and liveable. People move about as if given stage directions; The Truman Show comes to mind.
I mean, even the ugly people are hot.
The smallest of small towns seem sophisticated and set-dressed. Mainstreets thrive in every place, each sustaining a butcher, a baker and a woollen-clothes maker. If there's crime or poverty, we certainly haven't seen it. And out in the limitless countryside, lambs chase cows playfully under the warm breeze of the South Pacific while a pony tells jokes to a herd of llamas. Or something. Like I said, it's hard to explain. It's overwhelming.
But I'm the kind of person who thinks, "Well, I'm sure Canada is this to a visitor." But it can't be. Between the vast grassy mountains and the aquamarine coastlines, it certainly must be the most-beautiful place on the planet.
Our road trip began with a meandering drive from Auckland to Tauranga. After spending 5 weeks in Florida, I found surprising comfort in a return to the metric system, kilometres clipping along faster than those dastardly American miles. Known as "Surfer's Paradise" (though we were only interested in the second part) Tauranga is on the north island's east coast. We'd spend just one night in a charming apartment on the beach where we'd swim for the first time in the Pacific Ocean, eat local summer corn in February, and hike to the top of our first mountain.
Mount Maunganui - an extinct volcanic cone overlooking the Bay of Plenty - is only 232m tall, but considering our level of expertise and abysmal fitness, it was plenty. And luckily breaks are encouraged, with lots to see. (There were more DILFs than you could shake a stick at up there! Oh, and scenery.)
On the road again, it would be another few hours across majestic mountain roadways to Napier, a charming seaside town in the Hawkes Bay Region. In 1931 it was devastated by an earthquake, levelling most of it and dredging 4000 hectares up out out the sea, where much of Napier lies today. Pretty cool.
We stayed in a cabin just outside of town, apartment-style on the beach. Oh, the beach. The first thing we do whenever we're spitting distance to a body of water is hurry to the shore. At first we were disappointed when we stepped into black rocks the size of kiwis; it felt more like a riverbed than a beach. But as we got closer the crashing waves, the rocks shrunk. And shrunk. Smaller still until they ranged from bits no bigger than tiny ball bearings. Underfoot it felt like a spa treatment, hot and aggressive on the soles. Before long we'd find ourselves stretched out, inches deep in the stones. The best part? No sand in your gitch.
Our final leg of the North Island was a rather big trek: 4 hours cross-country, through mountains and curvy roads, past about 700 000 sheep and as many cows. As if location scouting for Jurassic Park we turned off onto empty backroads, driving until we agreed it was far enough. We had a budget-friendly picnic of homemade sandwiches and a cheap bottle of wine in a meadow near a river. When you ask if I'm an adventurer, I'll tell you that I am.
The black shingle beaches of Napier.
Some highlights form the North Island. Our hike up Mount Maunganui will be remembered for a long time.
The Manawatu Gorge is the only "water gap" in the Southern Hemisphere. This occurs when flowing water carves a path through existing rock.
LOCATION: Written on the ferry, posted from Kairkoura, Canterbury, New Zealand
DATE AND TIME: Tuesday, February 11, 2013 8:30AM NZST/Monday, February 10, 2013 2:30PM EST
A NOTE ON THE LOGISTICS
I know people are interested in the how's and what's of a trip like this. Briefly, I'll say that we are staying in a lot of AirBnB's and using Hotels.com -- We want to keep things cheap, cheerful, safe and reputable. We likely won't go the hostel route, unless we spend much more time in places like New Zealand: Expensive! We're aiming to balance our travels between places like this, and much more affordable locations like Thailand and India. Splurge + save.
Because we're renting a lot of furnished/apartment-style dwellings, we're taking advantage of the fittings: fully-equipped kitchens, etc. Where possible, we will eat at least 2 of 3 meals at "home". So far so good. While it might be a grocery store roast chicken and a quick salad, we will surely save a ton of money if we aren't at restaurants every day. Breakfast, coffee, grab-and-go sandwiches: That stuff adds up! Besides, it's fun to feel like a local for the day, popping into a shop for bread and provisions. And wine. All while affecting an accent you think is super convincing.
A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHY
If you follow me on Instagram, you've seen many of these photos. I hate to say it (and might come to regret it some day) but I haven't pulled out my "proper" camera more than twice since starting our trip. And I can't say I care. I might get into the groove as time goes on, but for now, my iPhone is capturing images the way our parents might've in the 70s - with the ease and portability of a Polaroid. And I love it. Please join me on Instagram for up-to-the-minute mini-blogs from whoknowswhere.
Accommodation: The Waldorf St. Martins ★★★
Super clean, great size, perfect location. Awesome customer service.
Food: We ate in the hotel, which had a well-appointed kitchenette as well as two lunches out. The most-notable was fish and chips at the Auckland Fish Market in the very cool Viaduct Basin. This area has been recently repurposed as a mult-use neighbourhood with apartments, restaurants and community projects. Plenty to see and do with great food, wine bars and plenty of people-watching.
Accommodation: The Budget Crossroads Crib ★★★★
No frills, spitting distance to the beach, everything you need. In an amazing neighbourhood. We loved it, but not for the ultra-fussy. Wifi included, worked well. New Zealand is notorious for terrible/expensive/hard-to-come-by wifi, so it being included is important.
Food: We were here for a hot second, so we ate in the apartment. A quick meal in the small kitchen was all I could handle throwing together. But we had local summer corn in the middle of February, so I'm not complaining.
Accommodation: Bayview Snapper Holiday Park ★★½
This is a campground, make no mistake. But the "self-contained units" are quiet, well-appointed and very clean. Beach-front. Comfortable.
Food: The first night we had dinner at The Gintrap in the Port of Napier. We assumed it would be a run-of-the-mill pub, but the food was surprising. Local fish and chips with a great salad and terrific slaw. While expensive, we were pleased that it was legitimately good and thoughtful. Well-prepared. Otherwise we ate in our cabin - More corn on the cob!
Accommodation: The Ibis Hotel ★★★
Perfect for our purposes - A place to crash before catching the ferry just down the street. It was under $100, super nice, and right in the heart of Wellington. A welcome reunion with a king sized bed. The city of Wellington offers free wifi when you're out and about, which is great.
Thank you for reading.
★ RATING OUT OF FOUR BASED ON OVERALL EXPERIENCE.