On the road less travelled. © Tourism Eastland

A road less travelled: on the trail of a hot lamb sandwich

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Before New Zealand became the Land of Dairy it was Sheepville – 60 million sheep and three million humans. So this road trip started with the promise of an old-fashioned Kiwi treat – a hot lamb sandwich. 

We’d taken the less popular western route from Auckland via Te Kuiti, Taumarunui and Taihape. We were on our way to Wellington, on a short road trip holiday. Once beyond Auckland, we soon found ourselves travelling through hummocky green hills, peppered with sheep.

I was promised my iconic sandwich at Taumarunui’s Training Café. A bit like Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurants in the UK, it trains unemployed youth as chefs. This one has Māori kaupapa (values) and support. It seems to work. One lad has just gone off to a top Queenstown restaurant.

But what about the food? I missed out on my hot lamb sandwich – sold out by 12.30pm – but the portions were huge; chips fresh-cut-in-the-kitchen and mushrooms in a delicious creamy sauce.  

Wellington – easy bushwalking and graffiti burgers

We wanted a walk in Wellington, but nothing too challenging. Wellington’s Botanic Gardens fit the bill. Acres of easy bush-style walking, sheltered from wet, windy wintery weather, despite it being late January. We stopped for the blooming rose garden and at the summit Cable Car café for ice creams. 

Opening night of Summer City at the Wgtn. Botanic Gardens...

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We wandered down Wellington’s bohemian Cuba Street next day and found the graffiti-styled Ekim Burger café – all army camouflage netting, barrel tables and ripped car seats. The kitchen is an old caravan – an update on the food truck. It doesn’t feature on the 'Best Places to Eat' list, but it’s a lot of fun and the burgers, spread with the summer’s abundance of avocado, certainly don’t leave you hungry.

Remutaka Hill Road – still scary

This Remutaka road is the one less travelled to Napier for a reason – it features scary, jaw-dropping drops. It’s a narrow mountain road and while upgrading has made it safer it is still a challenge. We focused on its end: the Wairarapa. A huge wine and fruit garden, this big farming valley was also warm – many degrees above Wellington’s wintry 14°C. We passed fields of faded golden-yellow stubble and then came across a gem – real fruit ice creams from a roadside tin-barn. A delicious way to use up excess summer fruit.

Now we were deep in the backcountry. We passed through Woodville – an extensive wind farm adorned the ridgeline behind it. We were tempted by the town’s possum fur factory but it was closed. The nearby Tui Brewery was being refurbished. Tui being what people drank before craft beer became cool. The 1931 building plonked in the countryside is oddly elegant.

Napier – beyond the Art Deco obsession

I like art, but you can make too much of a few stylish buildings. Napier does have other attractions, like kilometres of flat cycleways. A 20km ride, no sweat. Oh, yes, it is. But so enjoyable. I loved the green bicycle I hired. And I loved that I didn’t have to be an elite sportswoman to enjoy riding it. There are beaut cafes along the seaside cycleway, and we saw kids with their mums cycling gently along too. 

We did get a bit sunburnt and our legs ached, but it was well worth it. Apparently, the area has over 200km of cycleways: Napier’s hidden treasure.

Gisborne and Mōrere – kayaking for beginners and rainforest hot springs

The road between Napier and Gisborne is edged with dusty honey-coloured fields – it’s dry out here – until you hit the protected green vineyards near town. The wines are lovely. I especially like the liquorice tasting German-style gewürztraminer. 

My real joy in Gisborne was the peaceful Turanganui river. Only 1200 metres long, it’s perfect for a not-too-skilled kayaker. Overhung by trees in its upper reaches, it is cool and tranquil. It ends in clear, shallow pools you can paddle through until your canoe scrapes bottom and you have to regretfully paddle back.

Who saw the sunset tonight? #Tairawhiti #paradise 🌞

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Nearer town – the Turanganui is a town river – there is a flat river path beloved by all kinds of walkers. There were families with pushchairs, snappy dogs and kids hauling themselves out of the river. The summer sport is jumping off the old railway bridge and wallowing in the cool water. It was 34°C the day we arrived.

Getting soaked

Gisborne has other delights, including inexpensive riverside eateries, but we were headed for Mōrere Hot Springs and its mini rainforest, the Wharerata Forest. We came across grandmothers and lots of kids and heard that people with arthritis love the natural mineral pools for their soothing effect. 

The short under-a-kilometre trail we chose was still a challenge on a hot day. However, our reward was a visit to a land out of time. Towering nīkau palms shaded us as we crossed over clear blue streams. These feed the mineral pools. Native trees include pukatea, tawa and kohekohe, along with rimu, mataī and tōtara. The native birds love this balmy forest, especially the kererū. 

We emerged perspiring from our forest walk to find children playing in the clear, see-through-to-bottom Nikua stream. There are plunge pools nearby, but we headed for our private pool – $3 extra on top of the modest $12 entrance fee. 

Snug in our wooden cabin, we edged ourselves gently into the mineral waters. We had to – it was a piping 40°C. Then, turning pinker by the minute, we gazed out at the rainforest through an unglazed window. Bliss. Māori have long enjoyed the restful joys of mineral hot pools. A wise people.

I had one more treat in store. My hot lamb sandwich, courtesy of the nearby cafe. It was hot and succulent, smeared with mint jelly and totally satisfying. The perfect foil to our wonderful but sweaty rainforest walk and hot pool soak.

Whakatāne and Tauranga – French crepes, blueberry heaven and white sand

Onwards – to Whakatāne and French crepes. A lot of French people have made New Zealand home, bringing with them their wonderful cuisine.

The crepe is humble street food to the French. To me, it’s the most gorgeous pancake, especially the savoury variety – the galette – which is gluten-free and made of buckwheat. We ate with gusto at  L'Epicerie, Whakatāne’s Café and Creperie and recovered strolling along Whakatāne’s pretty waterfront.

More deliciousness awaited us on the road outside Whakatāne to Tauranga. Blueberry heaven at BlueBerry Corner. Enormous real fruit blueberry ice creams, blueberry jam, blueberry muffins, chocolate, tea and soap.

Ice-cream stuffed, we headed for Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. This little resort has become like Brighton is to London – an easy-to-reach holiday spot. Unpretentious, it boasts an amazing white sand beach and a gorgeous walk around the Mount. It takes an hour but is a walk for everyone: serious runners in flouro lycra; Asian ladies taking things a little more gently and pony-tailed young women on a team-building exercise toting a purple hula hoop. Go figure.

Pristine little white beaches kept appearing as we hiked around the little hump of a mountain. I longed for fish and chips on the big beach around the corner but as rain was threatening, we ended up with that Kiwi staple: the kebab. It was perfect. 

Homeward bound via more hot pools

Yup, we do love ’em. Mineral pools outside Rotorua are a treasure worth discovering. The Te Aroha pools are just a couple of hours’ drive from Auckland. There are family-friendly pools and private pools for a mineral soak. We opted for the latter. 

Home was Auckland, two hours later. We loved the winding back roads we took to Te Aroha, from Tauranga. Bike-riding the Napier coast was a new and very special discovery. Our trip also made me realise some of these New Zealand gems are nearer home than we think. 

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