Four long-time friends are coming to New Zealand for a visit. We are delighted they are coming and go ashore the night before their arrival to pick them up at the airport. They are all experienced travelers and I know they could make their own way to Waiheke, but it’s such a long trip from Boston and they were arriving at 6:00 a.m. What’s more, we now have the campervan (Bongo) and can spend the night at a campground near the airport.
How wonderful to see Sally, Harry, Tom and Jean come through the arrivals gate at Auckland Airport! We share hugs all around and hear about their trip. They shared a flight with the New Zealand Women’s Netball Team. I can’t think of anything worse than having to deplane after a group of extremely fit 20-somethings who all changed into little black dresses and pearls to greet their supporters.
Meanwhile Sam had waited patiently in the van (nap time?) and was overjoyed to see her old pal, Sally. We all piled into the Bongosix adults, one dog, many bagsand headed off to find breakfast at the Wholesale Tree Company. After a tour of the nearby countryside, we took the car ferry back to Waiheke so everyone could decompress a bit. Our house on Waiheke is not big, but we all managed to find some space and one couple got the queen-sized bed while the other got the trundle twin beds. Whoever forgot to close their door, got Sam.
After a celebration dinner of New Zealand lamb (what else?) and Waiheke wines, we got up early on Sunday for the Onetangi Beach Races. Of course, getting up early is no problem when your body is still in another time zone. Tom and Jean assembled sandwiches from the leftover lamb and Sally baked cookies. The Onetangi Beach Races include classes for horses, tractors, waiters from local restaurants and horse-carts for the kids. There are also sand castle competitions for adults and kids, a fashion show and lots of sidewalk vendors. Harry tasted wine from a local winery and we bought beers from the local brewery to go with our picnic lunch. Sally ordered a tee shirt and Harry was charmed by the shell jewelry (or maybe the jewelry maker?). The weather was warm and sunny and Tom and Sally went for a post-lunch swim.
We then headed to Passage Rock Winery out along the Orapiu Road for more wine tasting. Under bright blue skies, the grapes under their nets were dark ruby red, almost ready to pick. Tiger, the new vineyard puppy, was intent on playing with Sam under the table. At eight years old, Sam doesn’t enjoy puppies as much as she used to so Tiger went off to scarf pizza crusts from empty tables. We had blue cheese and pine nut pizza, we had several kinds of wine, we had coffee, we had dessertswe had no more room. Lucky for us, we also had Steve and we set off to drive the Loop Road to Stony Batter. By now it was late afternoon and I couldn’t understand how the four travelers were still standing.
A Memorable Lunch
We spent the next few days exploring Waiheke and Auckland. Team Hull (so dubbed by Polly) had arranged to meet a friend from Hull who also was visiting New Zealand. Steve received an email from Leslie inviting us all to lunch with her and her friends at the Waiheke’s Mudbrick Winery. Counting a young friend of Tom and Jean’s, we were nearly a dozen. The afternoon was beautiful, perfect for a long, long lunch, and we spent it eating good food, drinking great wine and enjoying the company.
At this point, I decided to download the many photos I had taken of the Onetangi Beach Races and our wonderful lunch at Mudbrick. To my horror, none of the photos were in focus. It seemed something was badly amiss from a recent camera repair. Steve rushed the camera back to Fuji and waited while they investigated. We don’t know exactly what the problem was, but they replaced our camera with a new one. While that was a happy resolution, we still missed all those terrific photos.
We don’t think people should come 12,000 miles and only see a small island in the Hauraki Gulf. It was time for a road trip. Organizing six adults and one dog, when there’s a ferry ride and a kennel stop, meant a slow start. We dropped Sam at Brookby Lodge, “luxury dog accommodation”, in Whitford. I was concerned because this was the first time we had boarded Sam since she was in quarantine in 2003. Seeing Brookby, talking to the dog-friendly staff and signing Sam up for daily river walks allayed my fears a bit.
One more stop, fuel for the Bongo and Peanut Slabs for the travelers. Finally, we were off; Steve in the driver’s seat, Harry as co-pilot and the rest of us finding our seat assignments that would last the whole trip. We drove south to Taupo that first day, along State Highway 1, through Hamilton and onto the Thermal Explorer Highway. This part of the central North Island is known for its volcanic activity and, in fact, Lake Taupo is the caldera of an ancient volcano.
A constant traveler’s quandary: is it better to have reservations or just wing it? We did some of each with mixed results. We decided to try De Bretts campground in Taupo and spent two nights. Steve and I slept at a campervan spot and Team Hull took a “tourist lodge”, essentially a cabin designed for a family, one room with a double, three bunk beds in the hall and a pullout sofa in the main room. It was okay, not fabulous, but it was located next to a really good restaurant at the old Terraces Hotel.
What’s a vacation without acting like a tourist? The next day we took a jet boat ride on the upper Waikato River. What a hoot as we all hung on, laughed, got soaked, laughed, screamed and carried on like teens on spring break (thanks to Ruane for the analogy). A New Zealand rancher who wanted faster access to his high country sheep stations invented jet boats. His trip took several hours by 4x4 and only minutes using the river. The mother of invention scores again.
Jet boat photos
Nearby were the Craters of the Moon, a thermal area of boiling mud and steam vents administered by the Department of Conservation, where we spent several hours. This geothermal warmth allowed Maori to settle in this high plateau area of the country despite winter snow. Luckily De Bretts also had warm thermal baths, allowing the weary travelers to recuperate in time for dinner. Good wine, good food and a group of aging bikers at the next table. Seems there was a meeting of an antique motorcycle club in Taupo and they were all assembling next morning. The old motorcyclists in our own group couldn’t resist seeing the bikes the next morning. The motorcycles were terrific: mostly old, in varying degrees of restoration, all well loved. The group headed off, oldest bike first, on a daytrip to Napier. One biker told Tom that the trip should only be a couple of hours, but by the time they stopped for mid-morning tea, lunch, late-afternoon snack and to repair the inevitable breakdowns, it would take all day.
Back in the Bongo, we drove along the shore of Lake Taupo and to the Desert Road via Taurangi (scene of a late-night volcano scare on our road trip with Robin). Views of Mt. Ruapehu, across the great and golden desert, showed lots of early snow on the peaks. After Waiouru we drove to Ohakune where we would spend the night. Of course, we had to stop at the giant carrot and take group photos. What else can you do when faced with a 60-foot carrot?
After checking our campgrounds for the night at Ohakune (reservations this time), we drove around the base of Mt. Ruapehu to the Whakapapa ski fields in the Tongariro National Park. It took longer than anyone anticipated to get around the base of the mountain. We arrived at the ski area five minutes too late for the last chairlift ride to the summit. Groan. We contented ourselves hiking around the volcanic slopes and with spectacular views to Mt. Ngauruhue, another volcanic cone, and to Mt. Taranki.
At Ohakune for the night, Team Hull was about to know each other even better. Their cabin had four bunks in one room, obviously designed for 20-something skiers. The crew of the Bongo had a quiet spot near a burbling brook. While the campgrounds were not too flash (as they say in New Zealand), they did have gorgeous shower rooms, complete with heat lamps in the shower dressing stalls. Our first afternoon in Ohakune, we had a great lunch at a local café. After that our meals went downhill including dinner at a spectacularly bad Italian restaurant. The chef took our orders scowling after each request, like the chef in the movie Big Night, only with much, much worse food.
Because we had delayed the start of our road trip, we now found ourselves in the central North Island with few road choices. We didn’t want to backtrack through Taupo, so we took the Taihape-Napier Road, a route that gave us some of the most spectacular scenery of our trip. Some of this road was unpaved and much of it was twisting and hilly. With the clear air and bright blue sky of early fall, the views went on forever. This is ranching land and we were stopped along the road by a large flock of sheep being moved by a rancher on a quad bike and a pack of sheepdogs. Steve and I saw several great locations for freedom camping and we all regretted not buying those sandwiches for lunch. Once again, the road took much longer than we anticipated. After miles of jogging along unpaved road, we finally came to pavement. It felt great after all those bumps. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. It seems the bit in the middle (called Gentle Annie) was so bad that just a small stretch of road was paved, then back to washboard, dust and potholes.
In the late afternoon, we finally drove into Hawke’s Bay, an area known for food and wine. Our first stop was Matariki Wines where we tasted a cabernet sauvignon and a truly memorable sangiovese (2002). Harry bought some of the cabernet; Jean and I were seduced by the sangiovese. Matarik had no café and we were famished and now a little giddy from the wine. The woman in the tasting room suggested we try Trinity Hill for lunch and called ahead to make sure we could still get food.
At Trinity Hill Winery, we declined the wine tastingwe were famished and a little too tipsy by thenand asked them to bring a bottle of their signature wine and three platters to share. We were shown to a table on a balcony overlooking the grape vines and settled back. The food was wonderful, the wine was excellent, the view was great, but most of all, it was a magical moment with old friends.
After food and wine, we still needed to find accommodation for the night in Napier. We found an interesting campground by the sea but it had no sheets (strange but true). We looked at some luxury cabins, but they were too pricey. Off we headed to downtown Napier to look at a campground with vacant cabins. As we pulled in, it was clear that this was not going to do. The caravans were squashed on top of each other and the common areas looked grim. A scouting party went to check the cabins and came back in shock. The place reminded me of the campground version of Tiffany’s Motel, also in Napier, where Robin, Steve and I had spent a very, very bad night. The weary travelers packed back into the van and headed off to look at one more campground. We were all worried for Steve by this time; he had been driving six adults around in the Bongo on bad roads for hours and hours. Finally, we made it to the Napier Top Ten Holiday Park. Team Hull rented a two-bedroom cottage and the campervan area was clean, level and quiet. Hallelujah.
We spent the next day tasting wine in Hawke’s Bay or at least trying to taste wine. After a slow start, we got to Church Road Winery for lunch and decided to try their wine over lunch. Unfortunately, lunch took so long to come that we all lost our enthusiasm for this winery and their restaurant. We all ordered salads and platters, what we thought were quick and easy. It took almost three hours to have lunch and we all left with a sour taste in our mouths.
We went to Black Barn next, and enjoyed the architecture as well as a wine tasting. Then on to Craggy Ridge that had good wine but suffered from too-pretentious tasting room staff. Although we purchased some fine Pinot Noir, none of us was as happy as our first day at Matariki. We decided to push on to Gisborne the next day; we’d had enough snobby wine people, but it meant another long day of driving for Steve. What’s more the weather had turned bad in sunny Hawke’s Bay.
After a grey morning drive, we stopped at Osler’s in Wairoa, an award-winning bakery known for excellent pies and tarts (as well as cookies for the road). We made Gisborne in time for lunch and a stroll along the waterfront. Steve and I remembered a beautiful campground just north of Gisborne that we had seen during our trip to the East Cape. We knew this location would be special and booked for that night. After lunch, we picked up dinner stuff at the supermarket and headed out to Tatapouri. We took two cabins and a campervan spot. Because it was out of season, we could choose any spot we wanted to park the van. Our spot was far away from everything in the campground and right next to the crashing surf. Finally, a great location. We spent the afternoon walking and enjoying the spot. At evening we all convened in the campground kitchen to grill up steaks, slice tomatoes and microwave potatoes. Dinner was wonderful, sitting under the stars, listening to the waves break nearby, enjoying good wine by lamplighta special dinner indeed.
During the night, it started to rain, making everything less lovely and very muddy. For all of us, the great location at night was greatly diminished by bright-as-day security lights that even reached to the Bongo. Steve and I got up early and went to the kitchen carrying an armload of coffee and breakfast stuff. In the grey light of a rainy morning, the state of the kitchen was appalling. I walked around looking for somewhere to put our things down; somewhere that wasn’t crawling with flies and assorted other bugs. There was none. We decided Gisborne looked good for breakfast. Meanwhile, Team Hull was not doing much better. Everywhere they went, they tracked mud. So much for the lovely location of Tatapouri-by-the-Sea.
After coffee and muffins in Gisborne, we headed through the Waioeka Gorge. We had driven this route in the spring, in the pouring rain, and once again it was raining. Not so bad this time, but we really would like to see this spectacular route in the sunshine. We made it to Opotiki by lunch and found a favorite spot, the Hot Bread Shop and Illy Café. Good food, nice break. I took the opportunity to call about Sam and let the kennel know we’d be picking her up the next afternoon. They assured me that Sam was fine. Not only had she had a great time at camp, she had developed a special fondness for the swimming pool.
We drove along the coast road, State Highway 2, from Opotiki towards Mt. Maunganui, our planned stop for the night. Tom loves kiwifruit so we stopped at Kiwifruit World in Te Puke and bought gold kiwifruits that I knew he’d like. We then headed to Papamoa Beach where the campground was a nice mix of spectacular camping sites and tourist cabins. Team Hull had a great cabin with two bedrooms, living room and full kitchen. The Bongo had another wonderful site, on a cliff overlooking the beach. Both Sally and I got up before the sun to walk the beach. Unknown to each other, we headed in opposite directions. It was a pearly grey dawn over the beach and just as it started to lighten the surfers showed up. Apparently this is a pretty good location for surfing.
Our final day on the road we had to be sure to get to the kennel by 5:00 and to the ferry by 6:30. If we made the kennel, the ferry would be no problem. We continued along SH 2, stopping to visit the antique shops of Paeroa where Steve bought an old Automobile Association “Itinerary” for the South Island. Probably from the 1930s, it’s an early Trip-Tik and some of the routes look pretty interesting. By late afternoon, we made it to the kennel and a wildly happy Sam.
Back to Waiheke
We were all glad to be home and comfortable. The road trip was fun, but we probably drove too much. When will we learn? There’s a lot to see in New Zealand and we often underestimate how long it will take to get somewhere.
Home late, we did takeaway one more time. We’ve all decided the axe must fall and we will all eat better and lose weight, tomorrow. Right. Last full day on Waiheke was spent in Oneroa, shopping for last minutes gifts, and swimming at Palm Beach, packing and readying to go home. While I’m sure everyone wanted to go home, I would (and do) miss each of them enormously.
For our final dinner, we went to the butcher and got more good New Zealand lamb. Jean and I contributed our prized bottles of Matariki Sangiovese. While I had intended to make a great dessert, a Sticky Date Pudding for Tom, Sara Lee did the baking, but at least we had Kapiti Honey and Fig Ice Cream.
Next morning we packed up the Bongo one more time and went to the Beach Café at Onetangi for a last Waheke lunch. We took the ferry and brought everyone back to the airport. Hugs all around. Such very good friends. We will miss Sally and Harry and Tom and Jean very much until we see them again. Sally has mentioned coming back one more time to do some serious tramping (hiking). I think this would be a fine idea.
Photos of our trip