It’s time to be tourists in our own country, Aotearoa – while the rest of the word tries to fight off Covid-19, New Zealand is firmly open for business. There’s never been a better time to get out and explore – here are the places the Capsule Collective can’t wait to pay a visit.
During lockdown we watched the full Lord of the Rings trilogy as a family for the first time. Mostly because I knew it would take us a long time and we had hours to kill, but also because the beauty of this country in those sweeping scenes still blows my head off. It was nice to remind ourselves that those epic landscapes were still out there even as we were spending our days plodding around our own pleasant but non-descript shire like a bunch of shaggy-haired hobbits. Now that we are free to roam again, and what a privilege that is (god bless you Jacinda and Dr Ashley) here are the places I want to go the most:
As a girl who grew up in Christchurch my heart will always belong to Te Wai Pounama and a place where I can see the Southern Alps from my window. A frosty morning on the Canterbury Plains, where the grass crunches under your feet and the air is so cold that it makes your face hurt, floods me with a special kind of nostalgia that I’m looking forward to re-experiencing. My kids hardly know the city I grew up in and I would love to drive them around my old haunts (those that are still standing) and regale them with tales of yore, when their mother was just a young girl with a brace face and a spiral perm trying to make the best of what the good lord had given her. Surely they would love that?
One of the many ways that I’ve failed them thus far is that they’ve never seen snow in real life. They’re no strangers to squally showers and mould in the wardrobe but landscapes covered in a blanket of white they know not. My husband is from London and therefore no stranger to freezing conditions, but he has never been skiing in his life so I think a trip to Mt Hutt or Cadrona is on the cards for us. I love an excuse to wear fluoros and sit in a spa at the end of the day and I’m sure the actual sport will be enjoyable too. If we pass a wide shingle river and a turquoise lake surrounded by tussock then I will have satisfied my every need and will reluctantly return to the damp subtropical paradise that is Auckland in the winter
The Coromandel is hands down the best place in North Island and I’m sorry for anyone who hasn’t realised that yet. There’s a feeling you get as you drive over the Kopu Bridge that tells you you’ve gone to a better place but you’re not dead yet and that’s a winning combination. My absolute favourite spot (and I’m almost loathe to reveal it) is Otama Bay on the western side, just past Kuaotunu – home of the legendary oversized Tip Top ice cream The Kuaotunu Killer. Call in at Luke’s Kitchen for a pizza and a jug of sangria, usually served by beautiful Argentinian wait staff but maybe it’s probably just permanent residents there now, and then head over the hill to the most beautiful beach in the world. I’m talking squeaky silica sand, translucent water, rocky outcrops and Great Mercury Island giving a cheeky wink from the horizon. The beach is wrapped lovingly in the arms of two headlands and it is the perfect place to be at sunset as the sky turns red, pink and orange over the hills. It’s also an incredible light for taking selfies you can then flaunt to overseas-based friends and relations. Obviously winter puts paid to frolicking in the waves unless you’re the hardy type and you own a wetsuit but the great thing about the upper north island is that while it does indeed rain every day, it seldom rains all day and thus you can get out for a wild walk at some stage in proceedings. Like most of New Zealand there’s nothing to do there except commune with nature and admire the majesty. But if you can achieve that through a picture window while lying under a blanket eating a cheese platter then what’s stopping you?
I didn’t travel around the country a lot when I was a kid – holidays were either to Waiheke Island to visit my great aunt and uncle (yay) or to the beautiful Russell in the Bay of Islands, where we holidayed every summer. At the time all I wanted to do is go somewhere – anywhere – else, but of course with the lens of maturity came the realisation that my parents were taking me to some of New Zealand’s best spots. I’ve made up for it in recent years thanks to a job where, at one point, I was on a plane every month visiting another corner of our country. But of course, there are always new places to see – so here are my picks for where I’m beelining to.
I’m literally planning on heading north – as far as it’s possible to go. First, I’ll pop in to see my parents, who moved from Auckland to the beautiful east coast town of Ruakaka. Small and sunny, Ruakaka, which sits just half an hour south of Whangarei, has what might just be the best beach in the country. I’m talking white sand, crashing surf and crystal clear water – and it goes on, and on, and on for… well, longer than Mum and Dad’s little ginger mutt of a dog can walk, put it that way. Grab an Auckland-standard flat white from the cafe by the surf shop, Bach, and get your walk on.
Next, back to the childhood haunt Russell. It is still quite possibly my favourite place in New Zealand, perhaps thanks to the memories of the happy family holidays with my extended family. But as an adult, its sleepy, romantic beauty appeals to me anytime I get overwhelmed with the pace of Auckland. It’s serenity belies its violent past – Kororareka, as it used be known, was once dubbed the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific’ thanks to the violence between Māori and Pakeha, as well as the general lawlessness of its residents and visitors. However, such a colourful past makes it perfect for history buffs – and of course, Waitangi, with its gorgeous treaty grounds and new museum – is right across the bay, easily accessible via ferry. The jewel in Russell’s crown however has to be the historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which sits right on the waterfront and proudly states its prestige as the oldest licensed hotel in New Zealand. It’s gone through quite the refurbishment in recent years and now boasts luxe rooms and a restaurant that is simply beyond words.
But then, I’ll be heading to Cape Reinga, which I still can’t believe I’ve never been to, via the Hokianga Harbour. One of the top items on my bucket list is to boogie board down those delightful sand dunes and I’ll be damned if I get to the end of this hellish year without ticking that off.
I can proudly say I have ticked off all the major wine regions of New Zealand, but the first chance I get I’m heading back down to my favourite – Central Otago. First, a stop in glorious Queenstown, of course. It’s impossible not to be moved by the snowcapped Remarkables, the vast Lake Wakatipu, the friendly locals and the oh-so-good Pinot Noir. While I’ll be giving the adrenaline a miss this time, thank you very much – 2020’s been enough of a bloody rollercoaster without the need to chuck yourself out of a plane – I’ll be making the 40 minute drive to Glenorchy. Well, I say 40 minutes but plan on at least two hours, because this is the most beautiful picturesque drive you will ever take. I guarantee it. Glenorchy, a town at the foot of the entrance of the Routeburn Track, is tiny – though features an excellent pub, trust me, and an incredible accommodation option, Camp Glenorchy Eco Retreat. Don’t let the ‘Camp’ in its name put you off – as well as the nicest campground I’ve ever seen in my life, there are also gorgeously, rustic luxe, sustainable and eco-friendly cabins that you instantly want to curl up in. Plus, the site actually makes more power than it uses, which gives you a nice warm feeling inside even before you plonk yourself by the open fire with your bottle of red.
Look, I was a lucky kid. My dad worked as cabin crew for an airline, and by some great fortune he still liked to take us places during his holidays – even despite the fact my brother and I were prone to arguing over who wasn’t sticking to their side of the back seat. Thanks to the cheap flights and discounts I got to see a fair bit of the world as a youngster, but what mattered most to my parents was that we explored NZ. We froze our toes at Mt Cook, ate fresh crayfish from the wharf in Kaikoura (as well as asking for Cajun seasoning on everything because it was the early 90s), took every road-trip imaginable out of Christchurch and spent long summer days at Tawharanui. But, unfortunately, thanks to deadlines, bills and a rather persistent longing to get a dose of sunshine during winter, it’s a habit I haven’t kept up in the last two decades and have spent far too little time exploring NZ. Well now, I simply must go. Bills be damned, it’s my civic duty. So, where to? I’ve made the rather impossible request of my boyfriend that we try to see snow falling this year. I’ve seen it on the ground before and had a few pretty disastrous attempts at snowboarding on it, but I’d really like to see the stuff in action, like in the movies. I feel like it’s the magical experience we deserve after what 2020 has so far served up. Although, I am aware I may be setting myself up for trouble, given that catching snow in the act seems to be trickier than I thought AND I have taken to wearing his puffer jacket on the couch each night even while the heat pump is on – and it’s still only autumn, and Auckland. I’m keen to see something new, but if I was dishing advice on places to see that I’ve visited before, I would get thee to:
Mariua Hot Spings, Lewis Pass. In a lucky break I got to spend a few days here on a wellness treat for a magazine story. But it was genuinely SO good and magical, I’m positive I’ll return at some point as a paying customer. We started each morning at the foot of the snow-capped mountains, meditating on the edge of the ice cold river – so clear and clean you could literally drink from it, forest bathed, did pilates, yoga, abstained from coffee and spent HOURS in the natural hot mineral pools. Despite my reservations, I loved the retreat – lack of caffeine and all – but I’d go back to Mariua just for a chance to soak in those pools and grab a coffee from the café – yes, regular non-retreat folk can partake in all the caffeine they please. It’s the most relaxing place I’ve been, set far away from civilisation in the mountains, with these sensational hot pools that used to serve as a healing stop for the wounded and wary coming back from war. Nowadays, for $69 you can get a day retreat pass, soak to your heart’s content plus do yoga, wellness classes or use any of the facilities, from the plunge pool to the saunas. If you’re too relaxed to hit the road, there are camping, glamping and hotel style accommodation options available. Oh, and apparently it’s majestic when it snows.
Polynesian Spa, Rotorua. A few years back, Kelly and I took a strange weekend away in a little campervan which we didn’t understand the finer running points of, so nearly froze to death when the mercury dipped below freezing overnight. Despite that, it was an incredible few days – there’s so much to see in Rotorua. Hell’s Gate, Whakarewarewa, Redwood’s Treewalk… it’s all sensational. Maybe there’s a theme going here but my highlight was going to Polynesian Spa. I’d taken a dip in the pool before, but I’d never tried the spa. I did some sort of mud wrap thing – I’ve looked it up online and it must have been the Signature Mud Wrap which is conveniently on special at $145 for an hour. Honestly, it was heaven. They did this thing after they’d slathered me in mud, where they wrapped me up in foil and blankets like I was a glorious little baked potato. I floated out of the place and was so relaxed my calm, youthful face gave Kelly a fright.
One of the YouTube videos I watch often when I need to be feel amazed, but I also need to cry, is Joanna Lumley’s In The Land of the Northern Lights. Joanna Lumley is the most perfect travel host because she is endlessly amazed by everything, and also, the tiniest bit ridiculous, which is a combination I relate to. I first saw this clip a decade ago and it is still one of the most beautiful pieces of television I’ve ever seen: Joanna has travelled around looking to see the Aurora Borealis, the natural phenomenon where green light dances in the night sky. The scene is set, and the universe delivers a display so otherworldly that Joanna weeps the entire way through it. The most magical piece of music, Solveig’s Song from Peer Gynt, plays in the background of the clip. Honestly, I am crying again writing about it.
This year, I want to see the Southern Lights in a place I visited a lot when I was a child: Tekapo. Between the ages of two to five, my parents took me to the Tekapo Alpine Inn, because kids were free before they turned five. I have three distinct memories: dancing with my dad in the hotel dining room, the famous dog statue and also playing with my Tropical Barbie Hammock set. Sadly, the Barbie is long gone, but the spectacular nature of Tekapo exists. I have done a shameful lack of South Island exploring; I haven’t even been to Queenstown. If my mother could crack in now, she would explain that I have actually been to Queenstown, because she was pregnant with me on a trip there. But – very simply – I couldn’t see out, so it doesn’t count. This year, my boyfriend Shahab and I are planning to do a week’s trip around this region (two weeks, if we can afford it). In Tekapo, we’ll be making a beeline for the Dark Sky Project, which takes tourists out to experience one of the brightest and most spectacular night skies in the world. You get bundled up in their fancy giant coats (as an Aucklander, I am never prepared for Proper Cold), and given a hot chocolate, as you are taken to look up at the skies. I cannot wait. No matter if there are green lights dancing or not, I know I will look up at the stars and go full Joanna Lumley as I weep “thank you, thank you,” for being able to see this beautiful part of our country.
For the first 18 years of my life, every school holidays was spent driving to Whanganui to visit my maternal grandparents, and we would always stop at Taupō along the way, where my dad grew up. When my grandparents grew older, they moved into a retirement home in Havelock North. Hawke’s Bay is one of the most beautiful and sunny parts of the country but sadly, after my grandparents both died, I haven’t been back. This year, I would like to take Shahab on a road trip (him driving, so I can nap freely) through all these areas of the country that once made up a big part of my life. An important point to add is that back when my grandparents were alive, I was in my early twenties and I didn’t drink, so all of those beautiful wineries were absolutely wasted on me. Now, I’m in my mid-thirties and I’ve really realised how wrong I was about wine (and, also, olives). I’m in the winery prime of my life, and I intend to use my time well. First stop, Mission Estate.