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City adventures at the edge of the world
New Zealand (New Zealand)
Member Name: larsbaby
New Zealand (New Zealand)
Date: 24/12/09, updated on 25/12/09 (95 review reads)
Advantages: Great scenery, friendly people, excellent food
Disadvantages: British weather in the spring
Having been to New Zealand on my recent holiday, I thought I would share some of my experiences. This is just a summary, but stay tuned for subsequent reviews going into more detail on some of the places and restaurants mentioned!
Our journey began, after an unbelievably long set of flights, in North Island and the largest city, Auckland. Auckland was something of a surprise to me; I found it quite American in feeling and it reminded me to a large extent of the Canadian city Vancouver. It was green, laidback, cosmopolitan and large; I felt immediately at home. With the help of Lonely Planet, we were guided to Food Alley for dinner; a down to earth, authentic Asian food court filled with dozens of enticing looking stalls, all turning out huge portions of excellent food. The Korean BBQ squid was a great start to the culinary part of the journey. We were to visit Food Alley another 2 times in the next 4 days, so great was our first impression of it. We spent 5 nights in Auckland, and never got tired of trying out the superlative Asian cuisine, helped by it's proximity to Asia. We tried Japanese and Chinese too, and even had a coffee with meat pie for breakfast once at the local coffee chain, Esquires. Being huge fish fans, we also managed to have a great seafood platter at the fish market, as well as having a good look at the impressive local catch. The gurnard are huge! We didn't partake in drinking so much but New Zealand is noted for it's many micro breweries, one of which we tried, as well as a very authentic Belgian Beer café called Occidental.
Auckland Museum, set in the scenic Auckland domain area of gardens, sports fields and sculptures, was an excellent place to visit. There were some fascinating exhibits about Polynesian culture and New Zealand's contribution to the Second World War effort. The nearby Wintergarden, with its tropic house, was also interesting.
There are various areas of interest in the city centre; from the central shopping area around Queen Street, to the bohemian and slightly seedy Karangahape Road (known as K Road), to trendy Ponsenby with lots of cool bars, restaurants and cafes. Posh Parnell sounded a bit sniffy to me but I gather it's worth a visit for it's boutiques and gourmet dining. The city waterfront offers dining with a view.
Several islands, called the Hauraki Gulf Islands, can be reached from the city, and we spend one day visiting Rangitoto island, 20 minutes away by ferry, an extinct volcano which has only existed for around 600 years. It was a nice way to get away from the city for a few hours. For those of you interested in wine tasting, Waiheke Island offers guided tours, or just stay on the island and drop in to some of the many wineries. We took the tour and it was great fun, also taking in an olive grove; fascinating stuff and great wine!
Onto the capital city via the 12 hour Overlander train. The views were pretty spectacular at times, all mountains, waterfalls and sheep, and the witty and informative commentary given by the guard was a real treat. We were informed of the highlights, such as viaducts, and a special corkscrew path up one hill. You can also go to the back of the train where there is an observatory arrangement of sofas where you can watch the world go by. Unfortunately due to a landslide further down the line our journey was cut short, but the replacement bus ride for part of the way more or less followed the same route and offered some equally breathtaking views. So back onto the train we got at Palmerston and to Wellington.
We stayed in Wellington for 2 days and it rained most of the time, unfortunately. I did quite like the place though; there was a large, busy, area full of trendy bars and restaurants around Courtenay Pl, full of trendy, self important looking young people; the media set perhaps? Shopping on Lambton Quay was interesting, and I really liked Cuba Street, where we had an excellent fish and chip lunch in Wellington Trawling Sea Market, followed up by a tasty cappuccino and white chocolate cheesecake at Espressoholic. Cuba street seemed a popular dining, drinking and shopping area and I felt a really good vibe there. The pretty and extensive Botanical Gardens are also worth a visit, with the nearby old cablecar museum interesting, which has the history of the cablecar which is preserved and restored there; fascinating stuff.
The highlight for me was the amazing Te Papa, The Museum of New Zealand, which we spent a large amount of time in. A huge, interactive museum, it had many exhibits about natural history and Maori culture. I found it fascinating (and disturbing) to find out about how imported species have wreaked havoc on the local wildlife. Pride of place was for the giant squid, a preserved squid caught by some local fishermen and donated to the museum. Groups of schoolparties came and went to gawp at the impressive specimen.
We proceeded on to the next part of our trip - a journey to the South Island. This was first via a ferry to the South Island from Wellington. I can recommend booking the upgrade to the lounge which cost us £10 in advance with Trailfinders, or $40 on the day. For this you get access to a quiet lounge with included food and drink including cooked buffer breakfast and sandwiches; considering it'd cost you £10 for food in the on board restaurants it's definitely worth it. As the weather was wet and windy the views weren't that great but we could see some mountains vaguely in the background. At South Island, we arrived at the little port of Picton, which has a pleasant main shopping area you can stroll around while you wait for the next part of the journey, the Tranz Coastal train to Christchurch. As with the Overlander, this scenic, comfortable train came with informative commentary and easy on the eye views. Try to get seating on the left, and you'll be treated to a coastal view with the occasional seal, dolphin or whale if you're really lucky. We got off one stop before Christchurch, Rangiora, as we were staying with some friends who'd emigrated. Rangiora itself is a small town with shops and Rangiora Bakery, notable as it has a branch in Christchurch and does excellent pies.
Before Christchuch, we spent some days with my friend in his country home with a huge garden that doubled as a small olive grove. It seems that space isn't such a premium in the countryside there, so emigrating Brits often buy houses with acres of land, not realising that this will be a burden as much as an advantage. Luckily my friend made a relatively sensible choice of housing, and it was nice to relax in the (occasional) sunshine there, even partaking in the annual local BBQ, where many of neighbours, on hearing we were visiting, came over to out pitch and asked us how we were enjoying it. It was nice to meet some real locals whilst tucking into local lamb burgers. I also enjoyed watching a couple of ducks coming up to the house to be fed; you don't see that at home much.
Our friends also took us for a drive around Lyttleton, where we took the Goldola for great views over Cantebury. We also went up summit road to see the city from above.
My friend recommended that we visit Queenstown, where he reckoned had the best night life in New Zealand. You can also get bus or coach trips to fjordland, most notably Milford Sound, which is apparently spectacular and a real must see. However, we got off to a bad start when my friend couldn't come with us as his toddler was running a temperature (he was fine in the end). The first day there, we spent looking around the compact main mall, full of bars, restaurants and tourist shops, and enjoying the sunshine. The views from the town of the surrounding area are amazing; picture postcard mountains could be seen from our apartment window; truly spectacular. We planned to visit Milford Sound the next day, my birthday. That night we dined at @Thai, a busy restaurant which offered tasty Thai food as well as a selection of enticing pies such as Thai Green Curry. We noted a lot of bars, though as it was Monday they didn't look so busy. There was also a Gondola, but it looked too steep for us; I gather the view is great from there and there are various activities up there such as watching the Haka being performed. On my birthday however, the wheels fell off spectacularly. Milford Sound flights were cancelled due to the weather, and as we didn't fancy the 12 hour coach trip we elected to stay in Queenstown. It absolutely poured it down for most of the day, so we hid in cafes and had an excellent burger at Halo, a cool joint next to a church. By the time sunshine appeared, Ms Larsbaby didn't feel well, and couldn't eat the fish & chips we ordered in a shack by the side of the bay (they had excellent looking seafood platters, incidently). So after 1 tasty wheat beer at the impressive Dux de Lux, we had to return back to the apartment; so from 3 people to 1 in a day. Unlucky me! I can tell you, apart from drinking, there is little to do in Queenstown when it pours. The Williams Cottage, the oldest building in town, offers a interesting if brief diversion and the underwater aquarium enables you to look at fish, eels and diving ducks, but after that you're stuck. I must say I found Queenstown to be the most overrated place I have ever visited, but I guess my circumstances didn't help.
Onto Christchurch then, thankfully. Christchurch is known as the most British of New Zealand cities and we found this to be the case. I certainly saw less people of Maori or Asian heritage here, although the dining seemed just as cosmopolitan as everywhere else. It's nice strolling around the main centre, and the Botanical Gardens and their interesting greenhouses offer nice scenery. The nearby compact but well thought out Canterbury Museum had particularly interesting exhibits, with a big collection of categorised stuffed birds, and an Antarctic exploration section. Christchurch is used as the gateway to the Antarctic for surveys. Victoria park offers more quiet in the middle of the city and will really remind you of home. One place we really liked (and made up for my birthday at) was the bar area of Poplar Street, with many bars opening onto the street competing for custom. We settled on the Twisted Hop and tried its many microbrewery varieties. It was a really buzzing area and I enjoyed drinking there a lot. There also was another Belgian beer café near to Victoria Park and we couldn't resist having a Duvel there.
The end of the holiday was spent once more relaxing with my friends, as they introduced us to local delights such as hokey pokey (basically Crunchie chunks) and a pavlova, which the kiwis seem to be inordinately proud of. On the last day they took us to an out of town microbrewery / café called Brew Moon. I tried the beer platter there, which was just as good as all the other stuff I'd tried on the trip; they certainly know how to make dark ales.
I found the kiwis a very laid back and friendly people. In this respect I found them similar to Aussies, although I noted that, when I visited Australia, people would approach you offering help if you had a puzzled look whilst looking at your guidebook map; this didn't happen once in New Zealand. I gather they're very proud of their British links, and perhaps this reserve comes from there. I also noted the proliferation of European goods in the shops, from clothes to cookware, all very expensive. Again, this is apparently due to their feeling of closeness to Europeans. I'm told they don't have much time for Australians, which I found suprising but, from what I saw, true.
I really enjoyed my time in New Zealand and I'd recommend it to anyone, though maybe either taking more time or visiting less places in the time we did. I'm sure you would have noted that we spent little time in the great outdoors, and this is due in part to the fact that neither me nor Ms Larsbaby drive; to see the country properly you certainly need a car. I would say our trip wasn't typical of many visitors, but we love seeing cities so it suited us. It certainly is a good place to chill out in. It's a beautiful country with friendly people and typically British weather at times, so you'll fit right in. It may not be as cheap as it apparently used to be, and it's certainly not a good place to take an empty suitcase in anticipation of retail therapy, but for nature and adventure lovers, or even foodies like myself and Ms Larsbaby, it's a fantastic place to visit.
Summary: A long way away but worth it!