In November 2009, I went on a road trip around the top of the South Island. As with any road trip, the car and comfort are vital to a successful getaway. From Ace Rentals (www.acecarrentals.co.nz), I got a Subaru Legacy with a CD player, I took a stack of 20 CDs and I had a fantastic trip.
Many of our guests at The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel (www.greatpons.co.nz) know the South to be dramatically beautiful with good food and wine abounds.
Yes, you can do a bungee jump or ride in a jet boat. But, they ask, “What else is there?” I stayed at a number of inns, all without fail, have a commitment to the environment and are great hosts. I recommend them all.
Below are some observations from that trip that I hope you may find helpful and interesting.
A South Island Road Trip
Leaving Christchurch, I head for Arthur’s Pass and on to the West Coast. My first stop is Springfield, an old railway town known for its Rewi Alley memorial. Alley was a New Zealander who went to China in the 1920s and set up schools and hospitals. Most foreigners fled when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, but Alley chose to stay and never left. When New Zealand opened relations with China again we were well served because of him.
Rewi Alley Memorial
There’s a beautiful memorial and small Chinese garden presented by the Chinese in his honour. Just as well known is the doughnut, erected in honour of the fictional town of the same name that is home to television’s Simpson’s. Sadly, some knucklehead tried to burn the donut down. It currently remains up in its charred state.
I stopped at the railway station and chatted to a lanky blond who served me a lamb and rosemary pie and told me a little of the history the rail line. An old bird on a walking frame with two spaniels who had been one of the cafeteria queens when the West Coast trains were powered by steam wandered along the platform in the early morning sun. She was good company and we talked about the line, some of the characters who worked there and some of the relationships that had been established. Railway people have a culture of their own. The West Coast line is in strikingly beautiful country, but its hard yacker maintaining the line and the road.
My next stop was Arthur’s Pass village where I did the Bridal Vale nature walk. It may be only 2.5 kms but it took more than an hour and a half. The sweeping views of the fantastic trees, which included large stands of mountain beeches, were breathtaking.
I then picked up a hitch-hiker, Jordan, a 20-year-old exchange student from Texas. His parents were medical academics at the Baylor School of Medicine in Dallas. New Zealand Olympian Peter Snell has been on staff there for more than 40 years. We drove on down, stopping at Karamea Junction, the home of King Dick Seddon.
We then called in at Shanty Town, a working model of an old gold mining town. It is an authentic site rather than the often-kitsch crap found at similar sorts of tourist attractions overseas.
I rested that night at the Rosewood B&B, hosted by Rhonda and Stephen (www.rosewoodnz.co.nz; +64 (03) 768 4674) the warmth of their welcome is legendary. The beds are great and the breakfast generous.
Rosewood B & B
I headed up the coast road to Westport, stopping at the Pancake Rocks. The sea roared and in the brisk wind, I knew I was alive. The coast is doing it pretty rough economically. All the tourist businesses and pubs seemed to be on the market.
I lunched at the Tauranga Bay Café on fresh whitebait, which I washed down with the local Monteiths beer as twenty or more seals splashed around at my feet.
After my lunch I headed to Karamea. The remaining small mining towns are prosperous, and the miners are proud of their industrial heritage and their contribution to NZ. Their coal not only powered our economy but was regarded by the British as some of the finest for use in their steam ships. The coal is now exported to China for use in steel mills.
I arrived in the early afternoon on the Karamea plateau, which has a reasonably good choice of accommodation, being the town closest to the southern end of the Heaphy Track. It also offers fishing and really good walks of various lengths.
I stayed at a small eco-retreat owned by an old friend, Roger Barton. Roger is one of nature’s gentlemen – a vegetarian who eats seafood and makes an excellent home brew. We talked long into the night with another guest, Darren, a humorous Englishmen.
Roger has lots of local knowledge, and the following day, Darren and I walked around local beaches and did the Nikau Walk, which Roger recommended. It’s a 30-minute walk and, at nearby Scott’s Beach is another great walk. Scott’s is also a great place for a picnic and a skinnydip.
The author on the Nikau Walk
Roger supplied the picnic hamper, which would rate a Michelin star, plus beach towels and a beach umbrella. The local pub, the Karamea Village Hotel, is the de facto bank, as there are no ATMs in Karamea town. As isolated as it is, it’s one of NZ’s great country pubs with great pub grub and a friendly barmaid to boot.
A lot of the local characters reminded me of the stories of Damon Runyon. The local sports hero is an axeman who has won Australasian Honours. His picture proudly graces the wall.
Once the picture would have been of a rugby player. This rich agricultural plateau of around 1,000 acres used to support four rugby teams, and now they struggle to field one team. However, the great All Black teams of the 1930s were full of bushmen, and who knows, if this guy picked up a ball, what he could do.
The area is full of alternative lifestylers who run small businesses and organic farms, making home brew and cultivating impressive herbal gardens! There is even the odd still or two.
We drove down to the Karamea Market, a small affair with alpaca wool jerseys, natural products and a few tie-dyed hippies.
The local clothes shop has real bargains, including boots, walking shoes and even tramping equipment traded in by some who have walked the Heaphy Track. One of the best bargains I spotted: a pair of Reeboks for $30!
At a local café we enjoyed a market-day special of a freshly baked muffin and a great coffee. Roger established this business years ago before passing it on to the current owner. It is always great to see someone build on an established business and maintain the quality.
Well fed with the bonus of extra caffeine, I headed back out of Karamea to the Takaka Valley in Golden Bay. From Karamea town towards the Karamea bluff, I was seduced again by this bush-lined slow and winding road with Weka jumping in and out of the bush … If only I had a pot and a few herbs, I could have made a meal of this fine native food.
Driving through the old scow port of Little Wanganui, where my partner Sally’s Cousin Peter was on a scow that ran aground there in the 1960s, I pass the old pub. Today it looks a little sad – empty now, as the whitebait season has ended. The rural pubs were once the heartland of the small communities and are now struggling – victim to rural depopulation, a result of agriculture becoming more mechanised and profitable. They even struggle to get a football team together these days. Unless tourism becomes a replacement industry, the days of these little pubs are numbered.
I travel down to the Ngakawau Bridge and turn off, not for the Charming Creek walkway, but to the Rough and Tumble Lodge (www.roughandtumble.co.nz; +64 (03) 782 1337) this was established by an American/Kiwi couple, Susan Cook and Weasel Boatwright, who enable others share this paradise.
As much as I wanted to stay and enjoy their hospitality, I needed to make tracks if I wanted to be with my old friends in Takaka tonight.
The Buller Gorge was so stunning and wild it took my breath away. Unfortunately, I could not stop at the café that in a former life was the colourful Berlins Hotel, a stopping point for long journeys back in the day. I headed on to Murchison.
At Murchison, I stopped at the Bridge Café, where the grub did not match the beautiful site and ambience.
I drove on to the Kawaiti Junction, the site of an important incident in the history of our railways. The late Sonja Davies, a former MP and feminist stalwart of the Labour movement, and friends sat down on the line to protest against its closure and to campaign for its extension to Nelson.
They were arrested for their efforts. With the number of logging trucks you meet on the roads of the region their critics might now think they were right.
There are now information boards explaining the significance of the site and it is a popular picnic spot.
I decided to stretch my legs and walk the 20-minute Kawaiti walk. I was not alone. A couple of sprightly women armed with Sonja’s biography, Bread and Roses, were also doing the walk.
As well as bush and a river views, the walk takes in a tunnel and a bridge.
Kawaiti Junction is a good place to stop. I would have been better served with a thermos flask of tea and a slice of bacon and egg pie than my lunch in Murchison.
In Motueka, I bought some great Nelson wines and headed up the Takaka Hill – one of the many roads built during the Depression with pick and shovel.
I stopped at the summit of the hill and looked out to Golden Bay, where, in 1642, Abel Tasman was the first European to land in New Zealand.
Golden Bay is perhaps one of the most colourful places in New Zealand. A common perception is that it is filled with crusty old tie-dyed hippies and general alternative lifestylers, but Golden Bay folk regard Golden Bay as the centre of the universe and their view is that it is the other folk, who live over the hill and further away as the alternative lifestylers.
There are many interesting and varied people making Golden Bay their home. I turn off the main road to go to the hamlet of Kotinga, where I am visiting old artist friends of mine, Sarah Hornibrooke and Dave Prebble.
Dave and Sarah’s daughter Claire has won the supreme award at the internationally renowned event World of Wearable Art. She is a classic example of Golden Bay’s creative
Claire Prebble's award winning design
Sarah and I walked around Takaka, an attractive town with great cafes and galleries hawking the wares of local artisans. The Monza Gallery is world-class.
Takaka has great watering holes. The Telegraph Hotel is warm and interesting. Snapdragon is a working distillery, where Terry Knight produces a range of liquors and condiments with a basis of honey and fruit. Terry provides generous tasting nips.
Takaka is beautiful and so are its people. There is plenty of high counter-culture fashion and even the Rastafarians look clean!! Trenchtown Takaka is not!!!
The Takaka Valley is wealthy from dairying, but there is still one factory, which processes organic goods.
Of course, Takaka’s other big wealth is its creative talent. Painters, potters, weavers, sculptors, even a chocolate-maker, are dotted throughout the valley. Even the smallest hamlet is a fun place for food and entertainment.
In Onekaka, the Mussel Inn (www.musselinn.co.nz; +64 (03) 525 9241) is renowned for its food and home-brewed beers, and you are likely to come across musicians holidaying there.
The Mussel Inn
Collingwood is not the most charming town in the valley. Its pub has a restaurant with an ambitious menu. Sarah, Dave and I chose the blue cod and chips, which were excellent. We ate them at a picnic table by the sea and washed them down with a beer.
On Collingwood’s promenade is a chocolate shop. We spend up large on the divine chocolates. Weight watchers, here we come.
Te Waikoropupu Springs, known locally as the Pu Pu, have beautiful clear water in which you can see the colour of the rocks as well as your own reflection and that of the forest cover. We walked around the springs through re-vegetating forest which includes fine examples of the great matai trees that once dominated this valley. All this to the accompaniment of birdsong.
The waters of the Spring are tapu (sacred), so you cannot swim or drink from them.
The clear waters of the Pu Pu Springs
Pohara is a small coastal community where Abel Tasman’s unfortunate crew landed. There is a monument to Tasman and the tangata whenua.
Today Pohara is a resort area, and the star is the Sans Souci Inn (www.sanssouciinn.co.nz; +64 (03) 525 8663), which has perhaps the best food in the Valley. We enjoyed a dinner of organic lamb, ratatouille and puy lentils, which was partnered with a local sparkling and a pinot noir – wines all reasonably priced.
The Sans Souci Inn
The inn has a garden on the roof and a bathroom decorated with the most beautiful cut glass and tiles, clearly influenced by Hundertwasser, the architect of a similar building in Northland that has become something of a Kiwi icon.
It has the most beautiful grounds and only a hop skip and a jump to the golden sands of Golden Bay.
In the morning, I left Dave and Sarah’s and head out of Takaka. I picked up a couple of hitchhikers along the way with interesting takes on the area. Yvette, a teacher from Toulouse, had come to Golden Bay on the recommendation of French friends. Daniel, an English gardener, was fascinated by the New Zealand flora he had previously known only from books.
I dropped him off at
The Resurgence (www.resurgence.co.nz; +64 (03) 528 4664), set on 50 acres, enjoys a reputation for fine food (when I pulled up, the aroma of freshly baked bread was wafting out of the galley), accommodation and its romantic bath with a bush view. Peter and Clare are committed to sustainability but there is no compromise on comfort.
I travelled on to the port city of Nelson, which still retains the independence and the free-thinking culture that has nurtured pacifists and alternate lifestylers.
Nelson is the birthplace of WOW: The World of Wearable Arts. The city boasts a Museum of Wearable Arts, which is coupled with a gallery of classic cars, works of art in their right.
Nelson is a foodie mecca. The Saturday market gives the port city a cosmopolitan feel. My bed that night is to be at the home of an old friend Jeanette and her husband Tony.
They have a deck which looks out over the sea and screams pina colada. Jeanette and Tony prepare a delicious meal which is complemented by Tony’s home-brewed beer.
Leaving Nelson for Picton, the view from the coastal road of the sea glistening in the morning sun sets the scene for a great day.
Heading into the Rai Valley, small townships appear around the odd corner, but the best things are some of the prettiest roadside picnic spots, some with swimming holes.
There are two choices for the drive to Picton, one through the wine district of Marlborough and the provincial capital of Blenheim, the other
Since I was last there, 10 years ago, Picton has had a makeover.
Tourism is now a major focus and helps sustains much of the town. I have a beer at the Oxley, one of the few buildings with its heritage exterior still intact.
The pavements have had a mainstreet makeover and the town centre is full of gift shops, internet cafes and tourists.
My first choice of stay was McCormick House (www.mccormickhouse.co.nz; + 64 (03) 573 5253), which has the same friendly, down-to-earth culture as the Great Ponsonby. Unfortunately, they had no vacancies. Fortunately, a 10-minute drive out of Picton along the
The dawn chorus in this peaceful spot was beautiful. I was invited out fishing by Gary, a friend of my hosts’. He was good company and we caught some kawai, which we smoked and ate for lunch along with delicious roast vegies from Ross and Des’s garden.
I made my way back into Picton and returned my rental car. I wandered back to Le Café on the Picton seashore. The food was excellent and the coffee arrived promptly. I made my way to the Interisland line ferry terminal.
The sun gods were working overtime as I embarked on the Aratere for my trip to Wellington. On board I had a great lunch – freshly made lasagne washed down with a glass of fine Marlborough merlot.
The ‘Aratere’ Interislander Ferry
Wellington was dramatically beautiful, the afternoon sun on the hills turning the brown colours of Pencarrow to gold.
Welcome back to the North Island.