3 September 2017

3 must-see, must-visit places in New Zealand

I was recently revisiting some old photo albums containing pictures from my last two holidays to New Zealand when the thought of writing this post came to me.  Specifically, I'd like to tell you about three places in this majestic island nation which, in my opinion, truly warrant a visit.

Each is beautiful in its own right; each a gleaming jewel in the exquisite crown that is Aotearoa (or "Land of the Long White Cloud").  And while they're hardly regarded as some of NZ's best-kept secrets, all three places are, shall I say, "less visited" compared to her other more well-known attractions such as Milford Sound or Tongariro National Park.  Nonetheless, I personally see them as must-visit, must-see places in NZ.  Here are the three.

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Russell is a leisurely (and scenic) 4-hour drive from Auckland

Visitors to NZ's Northland region looking for a place to spend a quiet weekend or simply a day out really needn't look further than the lovely town of Russell in the Bay of Islands.  NZ's first capital, the town is today fondly referred to by the locals as romantic Russell... and for good reason; her rich history, old-world charm, modern facilities and easy access to many Northland attractions make the town the perfect base for a romantic sojourn or family getaway.

Beautiful Russell on the Bay of Islands, NZ

Here there are two small supermarkets, a bakery, some antique shops, a news agent and a couple of really good restaurants.  My personal favourite - Sally's - serves everything from light snacks to lovely grilled sea bass to juicy steaks - all at reasonable prices.

Time stands still in these parts; days are best spent cruising on the supremely scenic Bay of Islands or, if you're feeling adventurous, angling on the bay or trekking to nearby Cape Brett.  In the evening, nothing beats watching the sunset over the harbour - cold beer in hand and partner by your side.

The Strand, Russell's main street which is only 700m in length

Russell is definitely worth a stopover if ever you find yourself in up north New Zealand.  But instead of booking your room in touristy Paihia across the bay, lodge up in Russell instead; you'll find accommodation types for every budget here.  Make an appointment with Russell; trust me, you won't regret it.

Sunset over the Bay of Islands, NZ

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Anyone who's been to NZ's majestic South Island will surely have visited Queenstown, the country's top holiday destination - and, from there, Te Anau and Milford Sound; it's almost like a ritual.

Most, however, will not make (or rather, aren't aware of) the short road trip from Queenstown to the sleepy town of Glenorchy 46km to the north.

 After all, this lovely alpine village is the country's #1 holiday destination with close to two million visitors each year.  Our last visit there in June 2002 was our second; the first, in autumn two years prior.  It was on this second occasion that Oi Len and I kinda ran outta things to do (despite the absolute multitude of things to see and do here) and I suggested we drive somewhere to see some "fresh" sights.  As we've already been to Wanaka, Arrowtown and Cromwell, we decided to visit Glenorchy - a mere 46 km away - for a change.

We were promptly warned by the receptionist with the goatee at our hostel.  "Drive carefully, mate.  THE QUEENSTOWN-GLENORCHY ROAD can get pretty twisty and precarious.  There's not much to do in Glenorchy proper but the views are lovely all the way.  Make sure your camera's loaded."  Ooooo.... sounds interesting.

The 46-km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy hugs the shores of Lake Wakatipu

The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy is considered one of the "less-travelled" parts of New Zealand - at least where tourists are concerned.  Tour guides in Queenstown will invariably take their clients to attractions like the A.J. Hackett Bungy at Kawarau Bridge or the jetboat ride on Shotover River or the leisurely cruise on beautiful Lake Wakatipu with optional barbecue lunch - but almost never to Glenorchy.  Which is a pity really for we found the 45-minute drive to be the most amazing we've ever experienced.  Anywhere.

The old steamer, TSS Earnslaw on beautiful Lake Wakatipu

The road follows the eastern edge of Lake Wakatipu; affording spectacular views of The Remarkables which rise sharply and abruptly from the lake's western shores.  The scenery is spectacular from the word "go".  And although it does take a while to negotiate your way out of Queenstown (no thanks to the number of holiday accommodations sprawling up at the town's edges), chill.  Round a few corners and you'll quickly find yourself in another world.  Literally.  Remote and pristine, this is where the views start to go from 'scenic' to 'breathtaking'.

You can't drive fast on this road; but with scenery like this, what's the rush?

Despite the relative straightness of the lake's edges, the road circumventing it is a bit undulating with plenty of bends and turns.  But it is the combination of these, the grand scenery and the enjoyable driving experience that made this road trip so firmly (and fondly) ingrained in my memory.  The mountain and lake views change incessantly as new peaks unfold before you and perspectives change.

Look familiar?  That's coz blockbusters like Vertical Limit, The Last Samurai,
Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia were all shot in the vicinity

Impossibly scenic, this drive is gorgeous any time of year.  But as Oi Len and I were fortunate enough to experience in winter '06, the cooler months are probably best when snow decorates the surrounding peaks - especially in the morning before they're melted by the midday sun.  But be put off not if the weather takes an abrupt turn (which happens regularly here).  Again as we found out first-hand, the cloud effects can and do add dramatic atmosphere to the scenery.  Ominous at times but beautiful nonetheless.  And if you happen to be here on a clear sunny day, lucky you! - for this is when the blue of the lake and sky, the white of the snow and the green-brown of the mountainsides make for some truly stunning scenery.  In short, whichever season you come, you will NOT be left short-changed as far as breathtaking panorama goes.

The best spot to pull over mid-journey

Like I said, the entire drive is an easy 46 kilometres on sealed roads; so unless you're travelling to Glenorchy by bus, you'd be doing yourself (and your travel companions) grave injustice if you didn't pull over at some point to soak in the scenery and - while you're at it - fill your lungs with some pristine Otago fresh air.

One of the many photo stops along the way

Many consider the 121-km Milford Road further south the most scenic drive in New Zealand.   I believe that's simply because they haven't yet travelled the Queenstown-Glenorchy road.  I've (proudly) driven both and on this score, I beg to differ.  Strongly.  Personally, I think the latter easily takes the cake by virtue of her far superior panorama which so perfectly combines the beautiful Lake Wakatipu, grey-blue skies, snow-capped mountains and lush plains.  And in a country abounding in scenic roads and stunning landscapes, that says a lot.  So am I saying this is the most scenic drive in the land?  Having driven this and a great many Kiwi scenic routes, yes.  Without doubt.  Why do you think so many car adverts are filmed here?

The road hugs the shores of beautiful Lake Wakatipu all the way
from Queenstown to Glenorchy

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Of the three places I'm introducing to you here, the next (and last) is probably the most well-known and hence, the most visited.  Welcome to CAPE REINGA, NORTHLAND.

Map of the North Island with Cape Reinga at her northernmost tip

The name of the cape comes from its Māori name - "Te Rerenga Wairua" which literally translates into "the leaping-off place of spirits".  The Māori believe that upon death, the spirit of the deceased travels to the sacred pohutukawa tree which sits at the tip of Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island - as northerly as man can go in New Zealand without getting wet - and then slides down a root of the tree before leaping into the sea below. The spirit then emerges onto Ohaua - the highest tip of the Three Kings Islands some 55km yonder in the Tasman Sea - for a final farewell before rejoining his ancestors.

Cape Reinga, Northland, New Zealand

Cape Reinga is located about 100 km north of the nearest town of Kaitaia and marks the end of State Highway 1 which runs the entire length of New Zealand's two islands.  Until 2010, the last 19km of this highway was unsealed gravel road.  For this reason and due to her sheer distance from literally everything else, it would be a fallacy to say that the majority of visitors to New Zealand have come by.  However, with the sealing of this stretch, Cape Reinga has seen a surge in the number of visitors which these days total about 120,000 a year.  For better or for worse, this figure is likely to rise considerably with her improved accessibility by road.

The famous lighthouse at the tip of Cape Reinga

Cape Reinga is lovely - it truly is.  I've been asked before; what's there to see and do in Cape Reinga?  Well, what's there to see is the meeting point of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean.  With this knowledge in mind, try standing near the edge of the cliff and you'll be overcome by this all-consuming feeling of sheer space and utter freedom; with strong winds pounding your eardrums and nothing but deep blue seas and open skies as far as the eye can see.  Personally, my senses were overwhelmed as I stood there.  I felt as if I could (and indeed wanted to) fly.

Oi Len and I at Cape Reinga (spring '06)

And what's there to do?  Nothing.  But that's the whole point.  Come not for the sake of snapping a few I-was-at-Cape-Reinga pics and be on your way.  Stay.  Find your own quiet spot around the lighthouse.  Sit.  Shut your eyes.  Have a moment of quiet contemplation.  Refresh your senses.  Nourish your soul.   For you won't find a better place to do all these than at Cape Reinga.  Trust me.

That's the Tasman Sea in the background

Since early-2007, Cape Reinga has been placed on the tentative list of UNESCO; waiting to receive World Heritage Site status.  How deserved and apt, I say, when this finally happens because Cape Reinga is a place like no other.  Open, beautiful and sacred, this was where I finally found peace with myself and with the world.  And if you do come by one day, I pray you will too.

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So there you have it - three places in New Zealand I'm extremely fond of and which I feel everyone ought to visit at least once in their lifetime.  All three are slightly off the tourist trail and most mainstream tours won't bother taking you there.  But if you ever end up in Paihia (and chances are you will), hop across the harbour to Russell.  Have lunch there.  Hell, stay a night and enjoy her sunset and her supreme serenity.  In the morning, drive or join a local tour to Cape Reinga.  Allow an entire day for this outing; the cape is definitely worth your time.  And while you're there, rediscover yourself.

Queenstown, South Island.  Go ahead; enjoy all the thrills and spills this village has to offer.  After that's done, rent a car, drive the Queenstown-Glenorchy route and let the breathtaking scenery take over your senses and your mood.  And when you get home from your Kiwi sojourn, proudly tell your friends that you've just been to three of the most beautiful places in New Zealand.  My personal favourite?  It has to be Cape Reinga.  I have asked Oi Len to take me here after I'm gone; for I too want to take that leap to Hawaiki - the other side.  This is my final wish.

Have a pleasant day, everyone.