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 a hot lamb sandwich – an old-fashioned Kiwi treat.
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 youths 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, I was told.
But what about the food? Well, the portions were huge – fish and two eggs for the man’s lunch. There were also fresh-cut-in-the-kitchen chips and mushrooms in a delicious creamy sauce. The large café looks like it used to be car showroom, but this tiny town high up in the King Country likes bikes most – for fun and farming. It features two bike shops.
We’d taken the less popular western road 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, soft green hills peppered with sheep. I missed out on my hot lamb sandwich – sold out by 12:30pm – and settled for mushrooms instead before pushing on to Wellington. Napier, Gisborne and Tauranga were also on the itinerary.
Wellington – easy bushwalking and graffiti burgers
As desk-jockeys, 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. This was Wellington in late January. There are stops for the blooming rose garden and at the summit Cable Car café for ice creams. An easy walk. Now for some culture.
Wellington’s less visited gallery is The Dowse in Lower Hutt. Its At the Beach exhibition turned out to be quite relevant to our everyman and woman-style road trip. It showed how New Zealanders have always been adept at enjoying themselves on very little, often camping by the beach. Free fun was the kids playing in the sand, the men going fishing and girls sunning themselves in cute sun-tops they’d made at home. There’s a reason New Zealand has world-class fashion and beachwear designers.
This theme of making a lot out of little continued when 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 green avocado flesh, certainly don’t leave you feeling hungry.
Rimutaka Hill Road – still scary
This particular 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. It was many degrees above Wellington’s wintry 14°C degrees. We passed fields of faded golden-yellow stubble and then came across a gem – real fruit ice creams from a roadside tin-barn grocery. These have become a delicious way to use up New Zealand’s excess summer fruit.
Now we were deep in the wop wops 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. This may have been a blessing. And the nearby Tui Brewery was being refurbished. Tui was what people drank before craft beer became the cool beer. The 1931 building is oddly elegant. I definitely fancy a future visit.
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. Perfect for exercising, we thought. 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. A summer sport for everyone.
We did get a bit sunburnt and our legs ached for New Zealand, 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. Apparently, another top-secret New Zealand gem.
My real joy in Gisborne is its peaceful Turanganui river though. 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 – no rapids here. It ends in clear, shallow pools you can paddle through until your canoe scrapes bottom and you have to regretfully paddle back.
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 34c degrees the day we arrived.
Gisborne has other delights, including inexpensive riverside eateries, but on our way there from Napier we were headed for Morere Hot Springs and its mini rainforest, called the Wharerata Forest. Another cheap and cheerful adventure for everyone. We came across grandmothers and lots of kids and heard that people with arthritis love the natural mineral pools for their soothing effect. However, before I was allowed the joys of a hot soak, I had a short but sweaty hike ahead of me. My husband informed me I’d never do it after a soak. He was right.
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 nikau 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 (native pigeon). A well-fed specimen was begging for treats by the springs’ entrance.
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 degrees. Then, turning pinker by the minute, we gazed out at the rainforest through an unglazed window. Bliss for a city work-stressed pair. Māori have long enjoyed the restful joys of mineral hot pools. A wise people.
I had one more treat in store for me. 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
I might have felt like a snooze but this was a road trip, so 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 them. To me, it’s the most gorgeous pancake, especially the savoury variety – the galette – which is made of buckwheat. I can’t eat gluten, so I fall on any galette I come across. I did with gusto at Whakatāne’s Café and Creperie. We recovered strolling along Whakatāne’s pretty waterfront walk.
More deliciousness awaited us on the road outside Whakatāne to Tauranga. Blueberry heaven in the form of the BlueBerry Corner. Enormous real fruit blueberry ice creams, blueberry jam, blueberry muffins, chocolate, tea and soap. So many uses for this bounteous summer crop.
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. As I dragged my still-sore bike legs around, I saw people in jandals – the coastal path is smooth – 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 metres from our feet 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 ended up with that Kiwi staple: the kebab. It was perfect. The Turkish café has become a mainstay of many New Zealand towns.
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 a couple of hours’ drive from Auckland when the traffic’s good. There is a family-friendly set of pools you can swim in and private pools for a mineral soak. We opted for these. The legs still ached and driving makes you stiff. Not as cheap as the Mōrere pools but more swept up. I definitely had a glow on after two mineral soaks, and a small eczema patch on my hand had also disappeared.
Home was Auckland two hours later. Would I take another trip down roads less travelled? Yes. I loved the winding back roads we took to Te Aroha, once out of Tauranga. Also, for me, bike-riding the Napier coast was a new and very special discovery. Our trip also made me think some of these New Zealand gems are nearer home than we think. Once you get out on the road, there are so many unexpected things to be discovered.