The last 18 months or so have been strange, at the very least, one even for us in New Zealand where we had a lot more freedom within the country than in most places.
For several reasons, earlier this year I had to get from Wanaka to Auckland so rather than take the fastest way home Clare, our mother and I packed ourselves into my small car and headed north to see some of the sights of New Zealand.
Here are few of the highlights from our road trip including several little gems we weren’t expecting to find.
Our starting point and one of my favourite places anywhere in the world. If you’re not familiar with Wanaka it is a great small town on the edge of a lake surrounded by beautiful mountains. Not only does it have some great hikes and ski fields there are craft breweries and wineries to round out the experience. As Wanaka is such a fabulous spot (I might be biased) I’ll write a separate post on it later!
Haast is reached from Wanaka by a road that winds alongside Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka before passing through the very small township of Makarora and going over the Haast Pass before heading down the other side.
There are some great short walks or places to stop on your way including the Blue Pools for an hours walk or beautiful waterfalls right beside the road such as Thunder Creek Falls or Fantail Falls.
The Haast Department of Conservation Visitors Centre is great spot to stop to gather information on walks. They recommended a couple of short walks that we might not otherwise have stopped at.
The first was a short walk near Jackson Bay, south of Haast, to Lake Ellery. The track meanders beside a stream through beech forest to the lake. Just make sure your footwear can cope with a little mud.
While you’re near Jackson Bay we highly recommend stopping at The Craypot for a delicious fish and chips by the edge of the water. Just make sure you have insect repellent for your ankles!
The other spot near Haast is Ship Cove and simply by walking the two tracks that go in opposite direction you can see how different the landscape can be within just a few hundred metres – one way towards the wild west coast beach on the Dune Lake Walk and the other into what you might imagine a prehistoric landscape to be on the Kahikatea Swamp Track. Once again, we’d recommend the insect repellent!
Fox Glacier & Franz Josef
Lake Matheson is one of my favourite short walks. If you are exceptionally lucky you might be there on a very still day with no cloud and you’ll see the postcard view of Aoraki Mt Cook reflected in the mirror like lake. More likely though you’ll be there when there is either wind, cloud, or both. It still makes for a fabulous walk in a gorgeous landscape.
We stayed at the Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef in one of their Deluxe Retreat rooms. Sitting amongst the punga ferns on the balcony with a glass of wine, watching the sun set on the snow-capped mountains was a great way to finish the day. If a Deluxe Retreat room doesn’t work for you they have all sorts of other options from the Holiday Park for your campervan, a flashpackers or motel rooms.
We didn’t have time to do the walk to see Fox Glacier on this trip, but we did get to the Franz Josef Glacier viewpoint. A gorgeous walk through amazing New Zealand flora and the view of the glacier at the end is breathtaking.
Heading north we took a detour out to the coast at Okarito. The Okarito Lagoon is famous for its birdlife and in particular the Kotuku or White Heron. There a boat and kayak trips available on the lagoon but as we time limited we quickly stretched our legs on the Pakihi Walk which gives great views of the Southern Alps and the coast.
Our timing for arrival in Punakaiki couldn’t have been much better. The tide was close to high, the weather was good, and the sun was getting close to setting. This all made visiting the Pancake Rocks extra special. The blow holes are best at high tide, if you don’t mind getting a little damp from the fine mist they create. The sun setting also provide the most beautiful light to watch the sea and sky in.
We stayed at the Punakaiki Resort, just down the hill from the Pancake Rocks, and right on the waterfront with very tasty food available, that we hadn’t been expecting.
Blackball & Reefton
The next part of our trip was not the most direct route. All of us love both food and gin so we willingly we headed south again to seek out a couple of favourites.
The first stop was the tasty Blackball Salami to pick up some salami for lunch and sausages for our dinner that night.
From there we followed the Buller Gorge to Reefton to visit the Reefton Distilling Co who make one of my favourite gins – Little Biddy. They use a wide range of botanicals including a lot of locally foraged native New Zealand flavours. It makes such a difference to be able to meet the distiller while tasting the full range of gins!
Driving into Marlborough from the south during the harvest season we were welcomed by vast vineyards as far as we could see. It seems like the entire valley is carpeted in vines on scale much greater than any of New Zealands’ other wine regions.
I’m quite a big fan of Riesling (and not Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc) so our first stop was Framingham Wines where we tasted some of their great wines. From there we continued onto Huia Vineyards where we were taken through an enthusiastic tasting by one of the family that own this organic and bio dynamic vineyard. We enjoyed their wines so picked up some for that evening’s meal.
Our accommodation that night was on the far side of Blenheim in an area we hadn’t visited before Riverlands. We’d booked an Air BnB that looked more interesting than most – Misty River Retreat. It is a cute but modern place on the edge of the Opaoa River where you can walk around the wetland area and even feed the alpacas. A small deck at the front was a great spot to enjoy some of the treats we’d picked up on our trip. An early morning walk around the wetland area as the sun rose started the day of our ferry across the Cook Strait well (and fortunately the weather stayed good so it wasn’t a rough crossing).
Our time in Wellington was very art focused as there were two exhibitions that focussed on artists we have a close connection to at the Adam Art Gallery, at Victoria University, and the Dowse Art Museum, in Lower Hutt. The Jane Dodd exhibition Wild Domain even featured pieces that we are lucky enough to have. The two galleries are well worth the visit with them both having a fabulous programme of exhibitions.
We also made a quick stop at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand to experience Chiharu Shiota’s Web of Time and walking through the amazing two level web. We had first experienced Chiharu’s work when she represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 2015 with her installation Key in the Hand so we knew it would be worth the stop.
Heading north out of Wellington we hoped to be able to stop for some short walks once we reached Taranaki and get a view of the iconic Mt Taranaki. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t play ball with us so Clare has yet to be convinced that Mt Taranaki actually exists!
We chose to stay out of the town in Oakura, a black sand surf beach south of New Plymouth, at the Ahu Ahu Beach Villas. The villas sit above the beach and are made from recycled materials with some fabulous quirky touches.
As you may be aware we do love good food. On our drive up we had tried to book into recommended places in New Plymouth but, as we were a bit late making the bookings and it was a Saturday night, we couldn’t get a table. Boy, were we pleased in hindsight that we didn’t. We decided to eat out in Oakura at the Black Sands Bistro. We knew that they had wood fired pizzas, but we didn’t know much else. Black Sands Bistro is located right on the edge of the beach in half of the Surf Club, with a simple fit out and welcoming atmosphere (it turns out the couple that own the bistro used to live in Wanaka, so we had quite a bit to chat about).
We were overjoyed to find out that they had an exceptional wine list, including lots of interesting natural wines, as well as an interesting bistro menu. Our meal there was the best we had on our road trip.
Before we continued north the next day, we wanted to complete Clare’s tour of Ozone Coffee locations around the world. Ozone Coffee started in New Plymouth before making its way to London (with a location just a few minutes from Clare’s home) and Auckland. Clare’s favourite for brunch, in addition to the coffee, is their Kedgeree and she had eaten it at all the other Ozone locations. What we discovered though was that their New Plymouth location doesn’t have it on their, very simple, menu as they focus on the coffee. After a moment of great concern we discovered that the café Monica’s Eatery at the Govett-Brewster Gallery, across the road, not only had Ozone Coffee but Kedgeree too – crisis averted.
The Govett-Brewster Gallery is a great art gallery that is the home to the Len Lye Centre in striking building that looks like it is made from rippled mirrors. Len Lye was an artist that worked with film and kinetic sculptures and was well ahead of his time. You may have seen some of his work recently as Dries Van Noten used some of Len’s works as prints in his Spring Summer 2021 collection.
Forgotten World Highway
Rather than head straight back to Auckland we decided to take the windy and less travelled route. It is so much the road less travelled it has become known at the Forgotten World Highway. The Forgotten World High winds its way for 150km over saddles and includes a one-way tunnel as well the more usual one lane bridges.
We couldn’t have finished our road trip with anything more uniquely New Zealand!
What to Pack
Travelling up the west coast of New Zealand requires versatile basics for short walks that you can dress up a little with accessories when you head out for the evening.
This is what we recommend:
An extra layer: Pleated Zip Through Sweat
Rain jacket: A few of our favourites include Patagonia, Team Timbuktu, or Gorman
Shoes: one pair you don’t mind getting muddy and other pair for the towns and galleries.