Raglan's Raglan and Kawhia's Cool

Surf's up when we arrive in Raglan. We haven't yet seen the ocean but it's easy to tell because there's zillions of surfboard-clad vehicles all vying for a park on the main street, where salty individuals lounge outside cafés. Nearby at Manu Bay, famous for its left-hand break, the surf pounds in. Every summer surfers from around the globe compete here in the international surfing competition so we're not surprised to see locals making the most of the good swell.

At the Raglan Surf School, Matthew, a transient snowboard instructor, tells us he always returns here. “Raglan’s Raglan, you know. It’s known for the sun, the waves - it’s a world-class surf break,” he says.

This windswept stretch of coastline, with its small village hugging the harbour beneath the benign gaze of Mt Karioi, has long been a popular haunt. The history of the town can be traced back nearly 1,000 years to the Tainui, while the first European land sale took place in 1850. Back then, early settlers relied on boats as their main form of transport and Raglan remained an important port until shipping was diverted to Tauranga in the 1960s.

The town has several fine buildings, such as the Harbour View Hotel, built in 1866 and repaired in 1903 after fire damage; the 1874 immigrant cottage at 1 Bow Street; and the old school in Stewart Street. Traditional-style Kiwi baches form the majority of dwellings and a link to Raglan’s more recent past, while large, architecturally designed houses prove that the beach is fast becoming a popular lifestyle choice for many.

Raglan is an interesting mix of the old, the new and the funky. There's a surfeit of good eateries and hip places to hang out at and the town also boasts more than its fair share of artists’ studios and design stores.

Activity-wise there's lots to do: you can take your pick from surf lessons, harbour cruises, fishing, horse trekking, kayaking, paragliding, skydiving, tandem cycling, kite surfing, swimming and hiking. Popular walks include hiking Mt Karioi, Te Toto Gorge, Karamu Walking Track and the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls.

We take a scenic drive to Kawhia around Mt Karioi, past Papanui Point and Ruapuke, joining up with Te Mata Road prior to Bridal Veil Falls. The four-kilometre trip to the falls is a worthy side trip and it’s a short, ten-minute hike to see its cascading waters.

After a quick stretch of the legs we plough on following muddy, unsealed roads, giving brief glimpses of the azure expanse of Aotea Harbour. It looks so tempting, we make another diversion to check out the sandy harbourside settlement of Aotea. It’s ruggedly serene: waves crash on the bar but the sheltered waters behind are still, there’s no sign of life in the village, bar squawking gulls, and the store – a brightly painted caravan parked near the shore – is closed.

Nearby in Kawhia, a once thriving port in the 1850s, another sleepy scene awaits. The main street, boasting the Kawhia General Store and a couple of eateries, leads to the wharf. Nearby is Kawhia Seafoods, where legendary fish and chips are served, and the Kawhia Museum, housed in the former Kawhia County Council building. As well as offering information on local Maori and European history, it has an interesting collection of treasures, including, moa bones, kete and adzes, and a large display on the Kawhia whaleboats, bought here in 1910 by rowing enthusiasts.

Kawhia has a rich Maori history. Along the shoreline is the ancient pohutukawa tree, Tangi te Korowhiti, where Hoturoa, captain of the Tainui waka, moored upon arrival in New Zealand during the 14th century, and Ahurei, a small hill south of Maketu Marae, where the vessel later came to rest. Beside the carved meeting house at Maketu, we see the Kawhia home of the Maori Queen, and nearby the site where Hoturoa established a school where 12- to 17-year-olds learnt to use traditional weapons.

The first European settlers arrived in the mid-1820s. The newcomers set up flour and flax mills in the region and exported many goods, including potatoes, wheat, apples, onions and pigs, until the land wars in 1863, which heralded an exodus of settlers from the King Country till 1881.

Kawhia was also once a busy port, but its popularity declined as New Zealand’s road and rail network grew. Today, it’s a peaceful backwater that can be reached via minor roads from Waitomo or Raglan, or from Otorohanga via State Highway 31. Its waters are popular with fishermen, as well as wind- and kite-surfers, who congregate at the harbour mouth. A short drive leads to Kawhia’s wild ocean beach and Te Puia Springs, where, if you dig a hole in the sand at low tide like we did, you’ll be assured of a hot bath.

Waitomo Glowworm Caves

A visit to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves is something of a rite of passage for young New Zealanders. The caves were first explored in 1887 by a local, Tane Tinorau, accompanied by an English surveyor, Fred Mace. They entered the caves via the Waitomo Stream, negotiating their way underground on a raft built from flax stems. First, they discovered the glowworms and then, using candles as light, they explored the lower levels of the cave. Later, on an independent trip, Tinorau discovered the upper level and an easier access. Authorities were advised, government surveyors mapped the cave, and it was officially opened to tourists in 1889.

I join a small group and enter the cave with Richmond, a local Maori guide with an extensive knowledge of the geology of the area. He tells us that Waitomo’s limestone was formed about 30 million years ago when the region was under the sea, and is composed from the bones and shells of billions of sea creatures. Over the last 24 million years, the limestone has buckled and been submerged, then separated into huge blocks. Rain then eroded the rock between the cracks and joints, creating the caves we see today.

It’s a cool 16 degrees Celsius inside as we wander through the upper levels, then take the stairs down to the 46-foot-high ‘cathedral’, where stalactites, stalagmites and other cave decorations adorn the cave floor, ceiling and walls. But the highlight for most comes at the end of the tour: an awe-inspiring boat ride through enormous caverns lit by the radiance from millions of glowworms.

Leaving the caves we head out to explore Waitomo’s scenic karst landscape, a mix of rolling, fertile farmland, with tall poplar trees marking cave skylights, and wonderful rocky outcrops stacked metres high, like carefully arranged chocolate chips.

The gravel route to the coast winds up to Haggas Lookout, from where the mountains of the Tongariro National Park can be seen on a clear day, and then continues on to Mangapohue Natural Bridge. Here, a ten-minute stroll leads to an impressive arch - all that remains of an ancient cave system.

Further on, another track meanders through the Piripiri Cave, although this one is best explored with a torch and solid footwear as the ground is slippery and steep. Nearby, at the Marokopa Falls Scenic Reserve, another easy ten-minute hike leads to the cascade, plunging 30 metres down a cliff face to the valley below.

Hot Water at Lake Tarawera

Rotorua has a surfeit of lakes to explore including the scenic route past magnificent redwood forests to the crystal-clear Blue and Green Lakes. Just past the Buried Village, we catch our first glimpse of Lake Tarawera and Mt Tarawera, the latter’s brooding gaze a forbidding reminder of the havoc it caused during its eruption in 1886. But today the mountain is a sleeping giant that oversees the picnicking families on the lake shores and anglers practising their casting in eager anticipation of the season.

At Tarawera Landing, there’s the option of a lake cruise aboard the MV Reremoana, but we've already booked a pick-up by Clearwater Charters from the wharf at Pukeko Landing, a well appointed three-bedroom cottage overlooking the Otumutu Lagoon. Reached via a pretty garden path that zigzags down to the water’s edge, it has its own private jetty.

At 2.30 pm sharp, we hear the hum of an engine, and a quick glance out the window confirms the arrival of Paul from Clearwater Charters, behind the wheel of Clearwater Pride. As we motor out into the lake, Paul provides details of the history of the area and points out the best fishing spots. I'm told all Clearwater vessels are equipped to cater for the novice through to the experienced angler, whether for trolling, jigging, or casting a fly – in season of course.

We motor into Ariki Arm past Red Beach and Wattle Bay, where splashes of the yellow flowers contrast sharply with the native bush, to the steaming waters of Hot Water Beach in Te Rata Bay. Here you can dig your own hot pool in the sand, or if you wish, wrap your catch in tin foil and steam it in the sand. Paul also recommends eating trout from Lake Tarawera as sashimi, fresh off the line.

Before heading back, we call into Te Wairua just south of the bay, dock, and walk a short distance to a magical private hot pool set in a tranquil glade amongst the trees. It’s an idyllic place to visit for a private hot spa and an unforgettable experience.

After a hot splash about, it’s back to Pukeko Landing for the night to enjoy yet another soak, this time all bubbles and water up to the chin in the enormous spa bath, pinot in hand, and the windows fully open, framing picture-postcard views of the sunset.

Wai Ora Lakeside Spa

 

Spas have made a huge comeback in the past decade, and our destination of choice today is Wai Ora Lakeside Spa at Hell’s Gate, home to New Zealand’s first mud spa complex. It’s a gloriously relaxing place where you can cake yourself with detoxifying mud, bake in the sun, and then take a long, hot soak in a warm thermal pool.

Hell’s Gate – a ‘violent acidic sulphate geothermal park’ its other descriptor – is the perfect place for a gentle stroll before succumbing to the temptations of the spa. Highlights include an accessible mud volcano and the beautiful Kakahi Falls, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere. My guide, Patrick Tamati, tells me that, unlike many of the other local spas, this park is owned and managed by the sub-tribe, Ngati Rangi Teaorere, which has always appreciated the extraordinary healing powers of the springs.

“In the 1880s, when spas became so popular, our people fixed a roof over the top of an open pool and called it a spa,” says Patrick. “Two shillings paid for your accommodation, food, and your laundry to be washed.”

These days, to spa here is a much grander affair – and in my case a highly anticipated treat. I slip into a hot private mud bath. It feels wonderful and as I begin to rub thick mud over my face and limbs, it’s strangely reminiscent of playing in mud puddles as a kid. Its oozing warmth is the ultimate decadence.

Hell’s Gate has always naturally pumped excess water and mud into Lake Rotorua. To create the mud baths, a dam was built to allow the purifying mud to settle, so in effect nothing is taken out of the park that wasn’t already on its way out. The mud, which I’ve caked on thickly, and which is now beginning to dry and crack, is totally natural and untreated, although the pH levels are monitored to ensure they remain at a steady 5.0 to 5.5. To create a comfortable temperature, geothermal water is diluted with water from freshwater springs located on site, or if heating is required, steam from the park is used.

After 20 minutes wallowing, my spa attendant and masseuse, Deborah, advises that it’s time to wash off. This is achieved using cold spring water – excruciating and liberating all at once. Immediately after this, with skin tingling from the mud’s moisturising minerals and whole-body exfoliation, it’s straight into a toasty non-chlorinated sulphur pool to unwind while listening to the soothing splash of a hot-spring waterfall. Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, it’s on to a relaxing full-body massage with aromatic manuka oil, followed by a refreshing cup of pure manuka tea.

Bliss!

Butler Point Mangonui - Whales and Macadamias

Mmmm-mmm, Mangonui macadamia nuts. They’re tantalisingly smooth, with the faintest hint of coconut, and a buttery aftertaste that lingers long after the last morsel has gone. Where to find them? At Lindo and Laetitia Ferguson’s place on Butler Point, Hihi Beach, Doubtless Bay.

The pair planted some 400 trees of the Queensland variety about 40 years ago.

Here in winterless Northland, the nuts are picked mid-year and Laetitia says that the picking is extremely labour-intensive.

“And then there’s the husking. The outer layer has to be removed within 24 hours so they can begin to dry,” she says.

The nuts are next placed in onion-bags to dry slowly over a period of two weeks or so before they are heated in a silo (which can hold up to 800kg) and vacuum-packed.

“Drying them properly is a key step in the processing,” says Laetitia, for while a raw macadamia nut has a lovely flavour, similar to fresh coconut, if they’re not properly dried, they don’t preserve well.

At Butler Point, these nuts are added to everything, from soups and salads through to pasta dishes; they’re even used to coat fresh fish fillets from the harbour. Laetitia makes macadamia-nut butters with both roasted and plain nuts, which taste heavenly on hot toast or crackers, or added to Asian-influenced cooking. Macadamia pesto is also a highlight, made with generous quantities of garlic and basil. And of course, everyone’s favourite, chocolate-coated macadamias, are available in their small shop as well.

Macadamia nuts are not the only reason visitors come to Lindo and Laetitia’s property. Encompassing the whole of Butler Point, a peninsula reaching into the Mangonui Harbour, it features park-like surroundings, a pa site (fortress), and a large grove of mature pohutukawa trees – perfect for picnicking under during the summer. But it wasn’t always this way. When Lindo stumbled across the property some 40 years ago on a fishing expedition with a friend, there was no road in and no electric power, and the old Butler homestead was in disrepair.

“Where the macadamia nut trees now grow it was a jungle; the sheep kept the grass down. I had to really persuade Laetitia to come and have a look,” says Lindo.

But when she saw it, she couldn’t miss the potential. They constructed their own home, then restored the original 1830s homestead, which was originally built by the Anglican Church and barged to Butler Point from Paewhenua Island Mission Station.

They also set about rediscovering the history of the place. Mangonui was once a whaling base, a provisioning R&R port used by US whale boats, some of which moored here rather than in the infamous Bay of Islands, known in those days as the ‘hellhole’ of the Pacific.

“There were 30 or more whale boats here at a time,” says Lindo. “So many they moored side by side across the harbour, and you could walk over them all the way from Butler Point to Mangonui.”

The ‘Butler’ in question was the captain of a British whaling boat, which had anchored in Mangonui Harbour in 1839 after crossing from Sydney to Russell. An enterprising man and experienced sailor (he was just a young lad when he ran away to sea), he noted there was no local trading post or ship-repair facility, so seized the opportunity, and stowed his captain’s hat and came ashore. Purchasing a parcel of land across the harbour, he grew vegetables and raised pork for the whalers, while on another block at Butler Point, after barging the homestead across, he set up a warehouse and a wharf to provide a ship-repair yard and a base for exporting kauri to Australia.

Over time, the Fergusons have pieced together the region’s whaling history, and have turned the old homestead and its grounds into a whaling museum dedicated to the era. The 30ft-long whale boat, Elisa Butler, designed to carry six whalers, gives a taste of what life at sea must have been like, while a purpose-built space houses other relics, like harpoons, whale bones, and old rum bottles; plus more delicate items made from whale teeth and bone, such as carved brushes, hairpins, pens, whistles, dice, spinning tops, tools, walking sticks, and spoons. It’s a forgotten pocket of New Zealand with a wealth of history.

The Great New Zealand Chocolate Trail

Rocky Road from the Seriously Good Chocolate Company in Invercargill

Rocky Road from the Seriously Good Chocolate Company in Invercargill

Encarta Dictionary: English (UK) – Chocoholic: a lover of chocolate who is apparently addicted to it…

Mmm… chocolate… I have to confess, I’m a raving chocolate fiend – especially when it is handcrafted. Boutique-style chocolate is just too good to resist! Whenever I travel the next fix is never far away, and believe me, there’s many a wicked stop to be found nationwide. In the past I’ve been known to go 100 kays or more out of my way, just to swing by my all-time favourite chocolatiers. Here's a list of my all-time favourite treats, guaranteed to induce a cocoa-induced stupor:

Mangonui: Butler Point

For tantalisingly smooth chocolate-coated macadamias, with the faintest hint of coconut and a buttery aftertaste that lingers long after the last morsel has gone, call into Lindo and Laetitia Ferguson’s place at Butler Point, Hihi Beach, Doubtless Bay. It’s signposted from SH1 or you can take a 150m boat ride across the harbour from Mangonui. 

Kerikeri and Blenheim: Makana

Makana Confections creates endless varieties of irresistible chocolate treats such as chocolate dipped apricots, coated macadamias, chocolate ginger as well as an array of truffles. The macadamia butter toffee crunch is also pretty good, as are the citrus jelly squares!

Mangawhai: Bennetts

Bennetts of Mangawhai crafts a variety of unbelievably good chocolate by hand. Every delicious mouthful oozes fresh cream fillings and tangy flavours such as blackcurrant, lemon cup, and feijoa, extracted from fresh and freeze-dried fruit. Shelf life is limited due to the fresh ingredients, however, they’re so incredibly tasty I can’t imagine this poses much of a problem!

Napier: Silky Oak Chocolate Company

When you step inside the Silky Oak Chocolate Company the smell of rich cocoa nearly bowls you over. Behind glass partitions, chocolate made from couverture can be seen in various stages of creation including its mouth-numbing chilli-chocolate blend, which is exquisitely wicked. Also onsite is a museum dedicated to the history of chocolate and a chocolate garden.

Greytown: Schoc Chocolates

Fortunately Greytown’s foodie boom includes the divine Schoc Chocolates, maker of organic and preservative-free chocolates and truffles. Deliciously bitter dark chocolate is a specialty here, as is a signature lime-chilli range – all the rage in these parts. Locally sourced products are used to create orgasmic confections on site such as the Te Tera pinot noir truffle, and ginger and wasabi truffles. There’s a four-week expiry date on all Schoc’s products, which in my world anyway, is rather redundant.

Geraldine: Coco

You know you have found heaven when you enter the sweet-smelling confines of Coco on Geraldine’s Talbot Street. This chocolate-lovers’ paradise offers a fine selection of delectable goodies such as pralines and truffles that simply should not be missed. What’s more, there’s no need to feel at all guilty as only the best of ingredients are used, including specially imported Barry Callebaut Belgian chocolate. You can even wash it all down with a mug of delicious hot chocolate. 

Arrowtown: Patagonia

Patagonia Chocolates in Arrowtown is tucked down a little alley. This shop brings all the rich goodness of the classic Patagonian style of making chocolate together in one place. You can watch the time honoured art of Rama making, and sample its fine range.  Patagonia Chocolate stores can also be found in Queenstown and Wanaka. 

Invercargill: Seriously Good Chocolate Company

Tubs of oozing chocolate await and delectable truffles are churned out by the truckload at The Seriously Good Chocolate Company in Windsor, bordering Queen’s Park. Simply follow your nose here for great coffee, tea, and a glorious finger-licking feast of very naughty delight: hot chocolate topped off with factory off-cuts, truffles of every conceivable description, chocolate mud, Rocky Road, Southern Rabbit’s ‘droppings’, ‘tuatara’ chocolate eggs, chocolate sauce, chocolate wax, orange chocolate jam… and so the list goes on, and on. You can even book into a chocolate making class or take a factory tour.

Seriously Good Chocolate

Seriously Good Chocolate

River Valley

 

 

Outdoorsy types who enjoy a bit of comfort at the end of the day will love it at River Valley’s award-winning adventure lodge located on the banks of the Rangitikei River in a sheltered papa-cliff canyon.

Set amongst mature trees, the riverside guestrooms are extremely comfortable and well equipped, with tiled ensuite bathrooms, king-size beds, and quality linens. Skylights provide natural light and a view of stars at night, and thoughtful touches include a choice of tea tree or lavender soap, hot water bottles, magazines, an extensive range of teas, and coffee-making facilities. Alternatively, if you’re looking to get right back to nature, you can camp in an allocated area along the river and make use of the self-catering facilities and laundry area.

All guests have access to the main lodge building. Cleverly constructed from river stones and natural timbers, it is perfectly in keeping with the environment. It provides a meeting place to chat with fellow guests or enjoy a home-cooked meal or snack at the onsite café/restaurant and licensed bar. Outside, terraced courtyards with tables sprawl like individual ‘rooms’ between large river rocks and pebbled gardens filled with rhododendrons, hebes, kowhai, lancewood, and moss-covered punga.

River Valley is hosted by all three generations of the Sage and Megaw families and everyone has a role. Even old Mr Sage takes part, driving the shuttles to and from the rafting departure point. Scenic rafting trips run from October to April but Grade Five raft trips run year round, subject to water levels and weather conditions. Then there’s river sledging, kayaking, or riding a flying fox or trolley over the river; horse-riding, hiking in the local forests, or playing a round of golf. Or treat yourself to a sauna, spa, or massage at River Valley Spa, then simply enjoy a good book beside the river.

River Birches

River Birches is built on the site where legendary fisherman, Zane Grey, trekked through bush seeking out the trout-filled pools of the Tongariro River in 1926. Within a few years of his visit, Bert and Effie Boulton established one of the first river cottages and named it ‘The Birches’ planting exotic trees about it, including silver birch, copper beech, oak, and redwood. The old cottage is long gone but the established gardens around River Birches remain a haven for local birdlife.

The accommodation at River Birches consists of a large self-catering cottage and a lodge. The lodge has three well appointed guestrooms, all featuring super-king-size beds with down quilts and pillows, ensuite bathrooms with showers, large baths, and complimentary bath and hair products and robes. Tea- and coffee-making facilities are located in each room as well as modern gadgetry, including an iPod mini sound system and docking station, Wi-Fi and broadband internet access and an IDD phone service. The Admiral’s Room where I stayed, comes with its own private cedar hot tub, perfect for a soothing soak after an adventurous – or lazy – day. Quiet and relaxing, this is a luxurious place to stay.

Memories of Mokau

When you’re a kid, the perfect holiday mix includes plenty of sand and sea, ice creams as big as your head, BBQ bangers and toasted marshmallows, and a good dose of exciting yet educational local activities organised by Mum and Dad, who are eager to inspire and create those never-to-be-forgotten ‘first time’ experiences.

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Waitomo's Cave of the Spirit

Stars twinkle in the inky blackness, constellations never before seen, emitting beams of light tinged with green. A myriad galaxies swirl by, like so many Milky Way’s, with such dizzying regularity that I’m starting to wonder if I’m not on some intercosmic mission.

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Mokau Motel

Sunset from Mokau Motel

Sunset from Mokau Motel

 

Perched on a hillside overlooking the harbour estuary and mouth, the heads, Mt Taranaki and clusters of baches and Kiwi bungalows, Mokau Motel, built in 1973, is of concrete-block construction – solid and soundproof. Owned and operated by Murray and Laurel Reed, only its third owners in 35 years, it provides a comfortable and panoramic place to stay.

What’s more, staying here is a bit like visiting friends: there’s a scoop net to borrow for fishing, lettuce in the veggie patch for those wanting to gather some fresh leaves to pop into their picnic sammies, and if you’re short on bait, Murray often has some to spare; all you need do is ask. When you return with your catch, there’s a filleting table and hose at the ready.

Within easy walking distance is the river, estuary and ocean beach. Whitebait Inn, with its huge rolled ice creams and fresh fish, is conveniently located at the base of the hill below; and River Run Café, the local butcher (who also sells whitebait), and the Tainui Museum, with its old photographs of the region, are all but a five-minute stroll away. Further afield are Dollyview Gardens (a collection of porcelain and knitted dolls, plus a succulent display) and popular scenic attractions such as the Two Sisters, the Whitecliffs Walkway, and hikes to waterfalls, including the Matapeka, Te Rerepahupahu and Mt Damper Falls.

Waitomo Caves Hotel

 

This is a great place for families with young children. My kids were convinced that we were staying in a fairytale castle, a notion bought on by the hotel’s old-world charm and character, prominent Victorian turrets, grand entrance, and wide staircase leading down from the upper floor. The girls spent many happy moments searching for the resident princess through the Fred Mace room with its wooden dancing floor (now a large function and conference area), the airy all-white conservatory-style breakfast room, and the dining room overlooking the terrace and sweeping driveway. Massive chandeliers and ’30s music added to the effect.

Poised on an escarpment overlooking the village, the Waitomo Caves Hotel provides a range of guestrooms to cater for all budgets. We stayed in the three-bedroom family suite, which offered sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and had everything we required: comfortable beds, a fridge, tea- and coffee-making facilities, and a large ensuite bathroom.

The hotel opened in 1908 to provide visitors to the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves with top-end accommodation. A regular coach service once transported guests from Hangatiki and Te Kuiti, and by 1928, the hotel was so popular that a new concrete wing, built in fashionable art deco styling with Cape Dutch pillars and façades, and thick concrete walls, decks and patios, was added to provide extra room.

Today, although faded, the hotel exudes an authentic feeling of days gone by, and is an unpretentious, family-friendly place to stay.

Rotorua - Hot Pool Heaven

Rotorua’s active volcanic wonderland of frothing geysers, bubbling mud pools, and natural thermal springs and spas is the North Island's epicentre of thermal delight. Only a 40 minute drive away at Wai Ora Spa at Hells Gate, these resources are put to good use. The facilities provide the chance to detoxify for a modest fee, then rejuvenate in the therapeutic waters of a toasty, non-chlorinated sulphur pool. The local Ngati Rangiteaorere has ancient legends about the extraordinary healing powers of the springs, and has operated this area as a public spa since the 1880s.

These days, slipping into a hot mud bath to rub thick oozing mud over one’s limbs is the ultimate decadence and it feels strangely reminiscent of playing in mud puddles as a kid. The mud itself is totally natural and untreated, but the pH levels are checked to ensure they remain at a steady 5.0 to 5.5. To create a comfy temperature, geothermal water is diluted with water from freshwater springs located on site, or, if heating is required, steam from the park is used. Washing off using cold spring water is simultaneously excruciating and liberating. Then it’s straight into a sulphur pool for a long hot soak to warm up.

If a mud bath is not quite your cup of tea, the chances are that the Polynesian Spa overlooking Lake Rotorua in the heart of the city will be. It caters for everyone, with family pools, adult-only pools, and private pools, as well as the peaceful lake spa retreat where you can relax while watching the sun set.

Other heavenly places to toast your tootsies include Lake Rotoiti’s Parengarenga Pools at Manupirua Bay (only accessible by boat), and Te Wairua at Lake Tarawera. This well kept secret is reached by hopping aboard a Clearwater Charters water taxi at Tarawera Landing. Once there, a short two-minute walk along a bush track leads to a natural hot pool set in a tranquil glade amongst the trees. The steaming waters of Hot Water Beach– also on the shores of Lake Tarawera–  provide the chance for a hot soak, once you've dug a hole in the sand.

Easier to reach is Kerosene Creek on SH5 just south of Rainbow Mountain. Here, a hot flowing stream offers a variety of pools and you can find your own warm spot among the rocks, and soak yourself in delicious warmth without parting with a single cent.

Trout fishing Lake Rotorua

Sunlight glances off Lake Rotorua. Beneath its glassy surface some three metres below, brown and rainbow trout undulate sensuously. We’re 200 metres or more from the mouth of the Ngongotaha Stream and the flies on our lines gently pulse as we troll back and forth. Suddenly my line goes taut and the reel spins wildly – a strike! Under the expert guidance of Lindsay Lyons, a local fishing guide with more than 28 years experience, I manage to land a brown trout.

“It’s a wild hen,” says Lindsay, pointing out the snubby nose and intact pelvic and adipose fins. “She’s a beauty.”

It’s a good fish alright: four pounds at least and thick through the belly, with a glossy mottled-brown coat flecked with iridescent markings. Perhaps not the largest ever caught in these parts, but enough for a decent meal. In any case I’m delighted, and after the obligatory photo op, Lindsay carefully extracts the hook, gives the feisty fish what he calls “a quick mental adjustment”, and pops it into the cool box.

As an Eastern Rotorua Fish and Game Councillor and president of the Rotorua Fishing Guide Association, Lindsay encourages punters to keep their catch from the lake if they wish.

“Recreational fishing culls the trout and keeps the lake healthy,” he says, informing me that Lake Rotorua is a breeding lake and the only wild fishery in these parts.

“Sometimes the fish can be a bit slabby [skinny] at this time of year after spawning,” he says. “Little wonder,” he adds: “they spend the winter upriver chasing their women and not eating; they’re bound to emerge a bit worn out!”

We recast our lines and begin trolling in about 14 feet of water, which is apparently the optimum depth. Lindsay explains that even though Lake Rotorua is a wild fishery, some 250 hatchlings are released into the lake every year for research purposes. Data gathered about their growth rates provides a key indicator of the fishery’s health.

“The real beauty of Lake Rotorua is that it is open for fishing year round, even when the other lakes are closed between the end of June and the beginning of October,” says Lindsay. “And the fishing is so good I’ve got a policy that if you don’t hook one on a three-hour trip, you don’t pay.”

In season, there’s a myriad of other lakes in the region from which to choose. A keen fisherperson could easily spend two weeks here, and try their luck on a different lake every day.

Lindsay enjoys fishing on all the local lakes, and his six-metre vessel, Red Setter II, has the versatility to launch anywhere.

“Each lake has its own character,” says Lindsay. “Lake Rotoiti has lots of amazing inlets – it’s a sunken valley – and it offers the thrill of catching large trout followed up by a soak in hot springs which can only be reached by boat. Lake Tarawera has challenging trout fishing; the trout are much harder to catch. Lake Okataina provides total solitude; there’s not a building in sight.”

After hooking a few more trout, including a couple that are undersized – once unhooked, these flick their tails and beat a hasty retreat into the depths of the lake – we motor back to Lindsay’s property on the lake shore.

En route, Lindsay offers to cold-smoke my catch using manuka wood chips, his favourite way to eat them. It’s all part of the friendly service he provides his clients. I stay to watch as the fish are butterflied, placed to soak in a brew of salt, soft brown sugar, and port wine, then left to marinate in the fridge “for 14 hours or overnight”.

“Tomorrow I’ll dry them off, and smoke them for seven to eight hours,” Lindsay says.

Before leaving we make pick-up arrangements. My fish will be good to go in two days time, wrapped and ready for the homeward trip.

Pukeko Landing Lake Tarawera

This fully self-contained three-bedroom cottage is a special place to stay, and ideal for groups of friends, extended families as there are tons of beds, or for couples looking for complete peace and privacy.

A bach-like atmosphere pervades, but with underfloor heating, a gigantic spa bath with sliding windows framing picture-postcard views of peaceful Otumutu Lagoon, and its own jetty, Pukeko Landing is an idyllic haven, the perfect place for celebrating a special holiday or anniversary event.

The jetty is reached via a garden path, which zigzags to the water’s edge through punga ferns and magnolia trees to a private waterside lawn perfect for picnics and petanque, swimming and fly fishing.

There are three bedrooms from which to choose: the super-king master, which boasts the unforgettable bath, and two other rooms with an arrangement of bunk beds including a double. The living area is open plan, with comfortable couches, and steps out onto a deck with an umbrella, and table and chairs for alfresco dining. A paved patio fringed by boxed lavender bushes has sun loungers at the ready.

Food-wise, most guests choose to dine in, and there’s a fully equipped kitchen, BBQ, so bring your groceries with you. I really enjoyed staying here. It was peaceful and relaxing, and you could do as much or as little as you chose. The view from the bath was amazing!

Pukeko Landing, Lake Tarawera

Pukeko Landing, Lake Tarawera

Briarwood Greytown

Briarwood is a genteel provincial residence dating back to 1867. Exquisitely restored, this gracious building epitomises colonial charm, its classic Victorian features and timeless craftsmanship combining the beauty of heart totara with modern style and comfort. Apartment-style suites provide the perfect meeting place for old and new. The elegantly appointed dining room and lounge, supplied with fresh flowers, fruit and chocolates, front onto Greytown’s historic main street, providing a quiet vantage point to watch the world go by, surrounded by tasteful mementoes of bygone days – fishing prints, maps, and photos of early Wellington. A cosy wood-burner provides warmth for wintry nights, and DVD, Sky TV, the latest magazines, phone, espresso coffee, bottled water, and fresh milk offer all the comforts of home.

Bedrooms open out to the private garden, a relaxing haven with a bubbling water feature. In the bathroom, underfloor heating and a heated towel rail sit easily alongside the claw-foot bath and shower, along with luxurious bath products. Breakfast is worth ordering in: when I stayed there was the choice of fishcakes flavoured with fresh coriander and served with cooked vine tomato and chilli sauce; farmhouse bacon and eggs with grilled mushroom and tomato; or pancakes with Canadian maple syrup bacon and banana. Picnic hampers are also available on request, as is a portable foot spa with aromatherapy products, a deep-tissue or relaxation massage and – for those with more prosaic needs – ironing facilities and internet/email access.

It's a great place to stay and an ideal base from which to explore the southern Wairarapa region.

 

 

Greytown

Taking a slow drive along Greytown’s main street, it’s easy to see how this provincial settlement has earned the title of cafe capital of the Wairarapa. I’ve heard people in Auckland call it the ‘new Parnell’, a place where you can buy anything from an 18th Century chair or Italian earrings to designer clothes and locally produced art, all within an easy half-hour stroll.

Greytown is a major weekend destination for Wellingtonians who brave the Rimutaka hill, a genteel day trip offering wine trails, antiques, arts, craft, specialty shops, and local produce – not to mention a quintessential country atmosphere – but with shopping to rival places with far more traffic fumes.

There are specialty stores like Vine, with its distinctive green façade and a great range of designer clothes and accessories; Invest, which stocks labels by NZ fashion designers; Emporos with its French fabrics, homewares and antiques; and sophisticated homewares are up for grabs at Finishing Touches.

Studios and galleries abound. There's Flax, a continuous showcase of contemporary New Zealand artworks sourced from talented artists from around the nation, and Greytown Gallery featuring New Zealand Birds including a range of classic and contemporary prints, plus books and CDs focusing on New Zealand’s birdlife.

Many people move or return to live in Greytown for the lifestyle, starting small businesses like the Farley brothers, Allan and Ian, who mould, cast, and hand-paint armies of tin-alloy soldiers for export all over the world. Each of these painstakingly crafted miniatures is a unique work of art, sought after by collectors.

Allan and Ian are locals through and through; it was their great-great grandfather, Samuel Oates, who brought the first wheeled vehicle over the Rimutakas 150 years ago.

“He loaded up his wheelbarrow with gum trees and headed over the hill from Wellington,” says Allan. On reaching Greytown, however, the trees disappeared. Later, one of the trees was discovered, planted outside St Lukes Church on Main Street. It can still be seen there today.

Cobblestones Museum, also on the main street, provides a fascinating insight into the region’s past. Among the pioneer buildings is Greytown’s first Methodist Church, erected in 1868; there’s the old Mangapakeha school, and Wairarapa’s first public hospital, which dates back to 1875. A 100-year-old threshing machine will interest today’s farmers. I loved the old coaching stables and cobbled grounds (1857) – it was easy to imagine old stage coaches pulling up, laden with new pioneers; the clip-clop of hooves filling the air.

Nearby, is the divine Schoc Chocolates, maker of organic and preservative-free chocolates and truffles. Deliciously bitter dark chocolate is a specialty, as is a signature lime-chilli range – all the rage in these parts. Locally sourced products are used to create orgasmic confections on site. There’s a four-week expiry date on all Schoc’s products, but that seems a little redundant to me: a longer life than a couple of days anywhere near me would take a freak of fortune!

Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheeses & Middleton Model Railway

Biddy Fraser-Davies at home at Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheeeses

Biddy Fraser-Davies at home at Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheeeses

It's a real treat calling into Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheeses, where Biddy Fraser-Davies started out producing an impressive range using the milk from just one cow, the hardworking Gwendolyn. Today she has a few more – all have names – and you can watch the milking process, taste the cheese, and even purchase fresh clotted cream, homemade butter, plus a wide variety of handmade cheeses, all cured onsite.

The cheeses change all the time, and the flavours dependent upon Biddy’s mood on the day. Tastings are on offer, so I sample the Cardamom, Wairarapa Cider, Caerphilly Brine Cheese, and garlic cheese – all are delicious! Biddy tells me that she originally started to make cheese because her house cow, Gwendolyn, was providing 29 litres of milk a day, “and I don’t take milk in my tea”.

While Biddy's busy making cheese, her husband, Colin, devotes his time to the Middleton Model Railway, housed in a large building behind their front paddock. Modelled to ‘OO’ scale, the main layout is based on British Railways in the English Midlands. Colin has collected model trains since he was a child, but only opened his collection to the public a decade or so ago. As well as the main track system, there’s a model Thomas for the kids, and a display of working vintage model trains, including a Hornby Dublo, a Tri-ang, a Marklin, and a Trix train. The interactive tracks are a thrill for railway enthusiasts – not to mention those of us whose inner child longs for our own real train sets with working bits.

Colin's a keen railway enthusiast

Colin's a keen railway enthusiast

Masterton Marvels

Henley Lake, Masterton

Henley Lake, Masterton

Masterton has to be one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets. I can’t help but wonder why it’s not a tourist Mecca, as everything visitors or lifestyle junkies could hope for is here, centred around Queen Elizabeth Park, with its historic cemetery, super-sized duck pond, ‘Kids’ Own’ playground, steam train, mini golf and bowls. Teens to seniors are catered for, and they pursue their games side-by-side with equally serious intent, separated only by a low fence.

Just across the road is The Wool Shed, with its sheep-shearing displays, and information about all facets of wool production. The Golden Shears Hall of Champions pays homage to the greats of this most Kiwi of occupations.

A little further afield a mixed barrel of attractions can be found: Henley Lake; Magoo’s Street Rods on Edwin Feist Place; and The Pointon Collection, just out of town. Here, Francis and Gaye Pointon run a garage and a country harvest shop and garden, alongside a vast collection of vintage and veteran cars and motorcycles. There’s garage equipment, signs, tools, spares, and restored working displays, plus an incredible collection of clothes. Spanning a century, the latter starts with Victorian frills from the 1860s, and takes you through to the extremes of the colourful ’60s of more recent times. Francis can usually be found tinkering away in his garage, while Gaye’s interests lie in the garden and her crafts. The museum is housed in an atmospheric old WWI military prefab from Featherston Camp, which also saw life as a dormitory at Pahiatua Polish Camp. If only walls could talk, I think, as I wander around.

We depart, bound for the magnificent Lansdowne House, one of Masterton’s first homesteads, and now a tranquil retreat for road-weary travellers. Constructed on the site of New Zealand’s first commercial vineyard, this three-storey Tudor mansion has all the style and elegance of a grand English country estate. It was built for love in the early 1920s by Hugh Williams, a solicitor and wealthy land owner, who fell for Helen Jones, ex-governess to the children of the Governor of Fiji.

An independent woman, she took up a job as a barmaid on her return to New Zealand. When Williams proposed, Helen refused, saying she was not of his class, but he finally won her over. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that Helen was not welcome in the homes of Masterton’s upper circles, and so Williams decided to build his wife a house of some 12,000 square feet “… so special and so grand that all the ‘so-called’ elite, both here in Masterton and beyond, will beg for the privilege of an invitation to your beautiful home”.

Today, Lansdowne opens its doors to guests from all around the world. It’s a magical environment, and invites relaxation, thanks to the efforts of its owners and hosts, Kadia and Richard Merralls, who left their lives in Auckland to restore this massive home to its former glory.

It's a great base from which to discover Masterton’s rich history and explore the surrounding countryside. The vineyards of Gladstone are a short drive away, or you can head out to the ruggedly beautiful coast.

Riversdale Beach is popular with the locals, but it’s Castlepoint that lures us. Here, the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean vents its might in giant rollers against wind-blown bluffs; the panorama overlooked by an awe-inspiring lighthouse. I brace myself against rocks studded with embedded fossils, the remnants of life’s profusion from another age, and watch as the waves send their salty spray sky-high. The plumes burst in the afternoon air, and are swept by the wind across the warm, sun-kissed plains and vineyards of the Wairarapa to become one with the bounty of the earth.

Castlepoint

Castlepoint

Trout fishing in Turangi

Looming large as we head up State Highway 1 towards Turangi are the three crowns of Tongariro National Park, their distinctive volcanic peaks piercing the clear blue sky. The regal bulk of Mt Ruapehu dominates, ominous and powerful with its snowy cap and temperamental crater lake. In its shadow sprawls Mt Tongariro, its raw, reddened craters glowering in the sunlight, while the charred cinder cone of Mt Ngauruhoe coughs and grumbles at their side.

As the barren lunar landscape gives way to gentle hills, lush oases with bubbling brooks, and huge, twisted thickets of native bush, we arrive in Turangi and check into River Birches, a lodge situated on the banks of the Tongariro River. After a tour of the property, our hosts settle us in, and then hook me up with a local trout fishing guide, Bryce Curle.

The river is running high but we head out anyway, Bryce giving me the lowdown on the lifecycle of the trout as he scouts for a good fishing spot. We stop beside a smooth pool with brown and rainbow trout undulating in the current beneath its glassy surface. Bruce wades into the river and picks up a stone, revealing classic trout tucker: live nymphs and caddice. My rod is then set with a weight-forward floating fly line and a nymphing rig. The latter has a small nymph on the bottom, a weighted nymph above, and a strike indicator attached so I can easily identify a strike.

Slowly we work the pools, intent on the task, casting the lines in and out of the water with a gentle mesmerising motion. Suddenly, a sharp whistle pierces the air. Bryce’s rod bends tautly and the reel spins as the line is taken: it’s a strike! A beautiful brown trout leaps out of the water, bucking furiously. It puts on a good show, writhing two or three times before it tires, and is guided into the shallows to be scooped up in the net. It’s a fine fish, thick through the belly with a glossy, mottled-brown coat flecked with iridescent red markings.

Carefully the hook is extracted and the trout placed back in the river. Then it’s time for a casting lesson. “Look where you’re aiming,” Bryce says, patiently coaxing me over and over until he’s satisfied that I’m landing in pretty much the ‘right’ place. The indicator floats merrily past and I practise mending the line, then wait for it to become taut again before casting upstream.

Suddenly the indicator disappears – a strike! I yank my rod upwards and holler for help. Bryce calmly guides me through what proves to be the hardest task of all, hauling the fish ashore, but before I know it, I’m eyeball to eyeball with my very first landed brown trout.

If you’ve been put off fly-fishing by the tedium of lean pickings in less bountiful waters, then this is certainly the place to rediscover the thrill of angling. Be warned though: once hooked, it’s hard to give up the lure of rods and waders to dip into the region’s other highlights, like hiking or mountain-biking the Tongariro River walk, or experiencing the river by kayak.