NEW ZEALAND: Off-Season is On Point

The North Island, New Zealand.

I had two reasons for wanting to visit New Zealand off season, in August. Years ago on a desultory jeep trip across Tibet, I couldn’t stand visiting one more monastery filled with Chinese men posing as Tibetan monks or eating another bad meal of yak meat or driving over another rocky mountain range to end up in another barren valley that looked precisely like the last half dozen barren valleys we’d already visited. Yes, the Potala Palace in Lhasa is a claustrophobic wonder of the world as its tight corridors and cramped rooms smother you with hanging fabrics and air redolent of incense and burning candles. However, five days and many smaller places of worship later, I desperately needed a change in scenery. That arrived in our sixth and last day in Tibet when, at eighteen-thousand feet and standing on one of the least green places on earth, my seven fellow travelers, four guides, four drivers and I were witness to magnificent views of the Annapurnas and Mt. Everest (the Chinese government forbid us to enter base camp). From that rocky pinnacle, we descended toward Nepal and within minutes the arid land began to gush water, our four jeeps immediately traveling along a boiling stream and surrounded by several waterfalls as the green cliffs grew in depth around us. The jeeps actually passed under a few of the lesser waterfalls. This aquatic spectacular went on for what seemed like hours, and when we finally got to the Tibet/Nepal border, I had to exclaim, “I’ve never seen anything like that!” Another tourist replied, “Well, if you’re into waterfalls, you should go to New Zealand.”

Since New Zealand has been experiencing California-style droughts during its summer months (January-March), I thought late August/early September (their always-wet winter) would be a good time to quench my thirst for seeing falling water in New Zealand. Also – and here’s reason number two – I’d be escaping the heat of Manhattan in late summer. I looked forward to the 55-to-65 degrees Fahrenheit I’d find that time of year on New Zealand’s North Island. I planned only a few days on the South Island, where I could expect truly winter weather, including snow.

In my fifty years of overseas traveling, I’ve found many popular destinations to be very tourist-friendly off-season. Venice and Seville, especially, were far more congenial during the winter. But would the same be true of small South Pacific islands where beaches and mountains, not architecture and museums, were to be the major attraction?

One thing became clear immediately. The North Island is green — electric green, in fact – during its late winter days.  I’d only seen that kind of green in Ireland, England and Big Sur in 1994 after a hundred-year storm dumped two feet of rain in one day, turning the San Francisco Peninsula into an island. Repeatedly, the North Island brought back fond memories of the mid-and-northern California coast as well as the English countryside.

New Zealand is the only place I’ve ever visited that lives up to that overused expression about the weather changing every ten minutes. I arrived in Auckland after a twelve-hour flight from Los Angeles (on Air New Zealand), and immediately invested in an umbrella and a stocking cap, which I rarely took off for the next three weeks. Never extracted from my suitcase were two pairs of shorts.

Auckland (pop. 1.7 million) might be a great place to visit when they’ve finished rebuilding it. Detours around construction sites made walking difficult and car travel impossible. Fortunately left relatively untouched in recent years are the Edwardian townhouses of Parnell Village, the city’s oldest suburb. And right in the center of downtown, near the wharf, an intricate network of small alleys and lanes remain nestled between bustling Queen Street (Prada, Gucci, Tiffany, that kind of store) and Albert Park with its row of Victorian houses, now language centers for the University of Auckland across Princes Street.  I quickly adopted tiny Vulcan Lane as my favorite go-to dining area. The Maori discovered New Zealand, the English tamed it (“the most deforested spot on earth,” a guide told me), and the Asians are now feeding it. From Vietnamese to Cambodian, any Asian cuisine is available within a two-block walk. On Vulcan Lane, however, I found the perfect French bistro, Le Chef

Driving Creek Railway

But you don’t go to New Zealand for its cuisine. You do go to visit its beaches and islands, even during the winter. My favorite boat trip from the Auckland harbor was the two-hour trek by water across the Hauraki Gulf to the Coromandel Peninsula. There the roads are rough, the villages quaint. I indulged in the folly of the Driving Creek Railway, the mad creation of Barry Brickell, who built the tiny railroad cars and laid the 115 meters of track by hand over a lifetime of work through the native forest that was his backyard of regenerating kauri, rimu and ferns. It’s billed as “New Zealand’s steepest railway.” It’s certainly the most zigzagging one I’ve ever traveled.

In Coromandel Town, I also paid for a taxi to take me to the aptly named Cathedral Cove on the other side of the peninsula, but didn’t have time for the walk to see the Waiau Waterfalls. The Coromandel Peninsula deserves at least a full day, not just a full afternoon. I wish I’d booked a night in a hotel there.

Cathedral Cove

Back in Auckland, I also bought tickets in the following days for the fifteen-minute boat ride to the historic town of Devenport, which was worth about fifteen minutes. Slightly more intriguing is nearby Waiheke Island, which can best be described as the Napa Valley with views of the ocean. Public and tourist buses make the rounds of a half dozen vineyards. For $10 a vineyard, you can sample the wine. But even on vacation, I don’t like being inebriated before dark.

Hauraki Gulf is also home to several bird sanctuaries. I wanted to visit one or two islands, but during the winter the boats to and from the Coromandel Peninsula are infrequent and give you a good seven-hour visit on the amenity-free islands of Rotoroa, Rangitoro and Tiritiri Matangi. I’d once spent three hours on a Channel Island off Santa Barbara, California, and had to beg a boat captain to return me to the mainland only an hour later. I passed on the bird sanctuaries.

The best way to see New Zealand is by car, and while I’ve driven on the “other” side of the street in Ireland and England, I’ve always performed that scary task with another set of eyes. Traveling alone in New Zealand, I wisely opted for the InterCity public bus service, which turned out to be not only very economical (about $5 for every hour traveled) but very hospitable. Tickets are sold at nearby Information Centers (marked with a small “i”) where the employees go out of their way to tell you if the bus might be ten minutes late so “you have time to grab a cappuccino next door.” Some of the drivers are also excellent guides, and there’s no restrictions on your asking them questions while they drive.  Yes, every once in a while I’d see a sign for a waterfalls only ten kilometers away that I could not visit, but like the country’s weather, the scenery from the bus window is ever-changing. I spent over forty hours on InterCity buses, and the only slightly less than spectacular landscape was the two-hour ride between Auckland and Wrangarei.

Again, you don’t visit New Zealand for its cuisine or to see some of its small towns, Whangarei being the major case in point. Whangarei (pop. 57,000) sums up Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s song “Another Winter in a Summer Town” from the musical Grey Gardens. Granted, it might look less desolate during warmer weather, but there’s no disguising that look of a failed open-air shopping mall (as many empty stores as Christopher Street in the Village) where the restaurants serve that famous New Zealand cuisine known as “takeaway.”

What Whangarei does offer is the Whangarei Heads, half an hour by car and also accessible by Trail Drop, a shuttle service. Like much of New Zealand, the Heads brought to mind favorite spots along the the Lizard in Cornwall, England, and California’s Lost Coast. A favorite walk took me through a cow pasture to the idyllic Smugglers Bay. How much more Daphne du Maurier can you get?

An endangered Kauri tree

If the people of Whangarei didn’t know how to build a town, they do know how to leave well enough alone when it comes to the nature reserve on the other side of the Hatea River. Various trails off and along the river define the word “sylvan.” There’s the one-hour trek via stairways up to the lookout atop Mt. Parihaka; it takes in the Heads, Limestone Island, Whangarei Harbour and all of Bream Bay. But my favorite walk (about three hours there and back) remains the one to Whangarei Falls. Not to overwork the California comparison, it reminded me of Big Sur’s Limekiln Park. In place of the redwoods, there are the endangered Kauri trees and lots of fern trees and other varieties of filicinae that you don’t see anywhere else. On a midweek afternoon that went from sunny to drizzling to overcast to downpour and back to merely cloudy in under an hour, I had the waterfalls and its pool below all to myself. I even walked behind the Whangarei Falls, the water on one side of me, a green wall of small ferns and hanging vines on the other.

Whangerei Falls

In Whangarei, I stayed at the perfectly pleasant Discovery Settlers Hotel, well-located near the walking trails and the river, where there are a couple of decent restaurants.

My fondest three days in New Zealand were spent in and around Paihia (pop. 1,700), north of Whangarei. This is a snap judgment, my having spent only three weeks on the North Island, but the towns with English names tended to be far more quaint than the ones with Maori names that veer toward the strip-mall approach to city planning. Paihia is the least offensive of the latter that I visited. I stayed at the Sanctuary, high on a bluff overlooking the Bay of Islands, which is an even more spectacular body of island-studded water than those at Auckland and Whangarei. For half the money, I could have stayed right in town and on the bayat the Waterfront or Breakwater Motels, both of which looked fine from the road. But at the well-named Sanctuary I enjoyed the sunrises over the small town of Russell across the bay and only fifteen minutes by boat.

Paihia

Russell (pop. 812) is the oldest English settlement in New Zealand, and boasts the country’s first pub (still operating, now the Duke of Marlborough Hotel), its first church (the Christ Church, still there, surrounded by a very English cemetery), its first whorehouse (long gone), and the priciest lodgings in New Zealand, the Eagles Nest.

A twenty-five-minute walk from downtown Paihia is the beautifully maintained Waitangi Treaty Grounds, an old farm. It’s where the Maori and the British signed their treaty in 1840. It seemed a bit odd to pay $40 to see a farmhouse that isn’t all that different from many in my native Iowa. But it’s historical. Better than the Treaty House are the war canoes (“ngatokimatawhaorua” in Maori), each of which needs a minimum of seventy-six paddlers to maneuver.

It was getting late. I didn’t have the five hours it took for a roundtrip walk over boardwalks through mangrove forests to Haruru Falls. There were so many waterfalls in New Zealand. I could miss one.

Dune surfing on the giant dunes of Cape Reinga

Russell or Paihia is a good departure point for two must-do tours on the North Island. Number one is the six-hour trip (on Fullers or Explore) up to Cape Reinga. It’s where the Tasman and Pacific Oceans collide, the wave action on the day being very dramatic. The cape exudes that desolate last-outpost ambiance that you get in Mendocino, California, or Land’s End, Cornwall. Only different. The huge dunes there truly brought back memories of spending a night in Morocco’s Sahara Desert or climbing the Red Dunes of Namibia. The dunes of Cape Reinga have the advantage of being near the ocean, making them appear truly huge, and being very wet this time of year. They’re much easier to climb than the dry African variety.

Russell and Paihia also are good departure points for taking day trips to any of the bird sanctuaries (some with hotel accommodations) in the Bay of Islands. Instead, I left Paihia on a Fuller Tours boat to spend three hours going gawking at the Hole in the Rock. This island features a major nature-built tunnel that dwarfs that big picture window at Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made love in The Sandpiper. The Rock’s opening is so enormous that the large Fuller boat sailed right through, with at least an inch on each side to spare. This boat trip is also great for dolphin watching.

Waitomo’s Glowworm Cave

I used the city of Hamilton, two hours south of Auckland, as my point of departure to visit the geysers at Rotorua and the caves of Waitomo. It might have been better just to stay in Auckland. The InterCity bus schedule, at least during the winter, forced me to cancel an afternoon trip to Rotorua. I wasn’t too disappointed. A friend had said the geysers there were just a lot of bubbling mud. The caves, on the other hand, are something else, thanks to the world-famous glowworms.

Known to exist only in New Zealand and Australia, glowworms are small maggots that attach themselves to the ceilings of Waitomo’s Glowworm Cave and Ruakuri Cave, dropping a sticky string from their rears to attract flying insects. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much in the terms of luminescence, so was happily delighted to witness these maggots’ Christmas-tree effects. Also worth a visit is the Aranui Cave with its many stalactites and stalagmites. I did worry about exploring caves in a country as earthquake prone as New Zealand, but made it out alive.

If Whangarei is a failed mall, Hamilton appears to be a small city built around a successful one. Besides being only an hour away from the Waitomo caves, this city (pop. 165,000) is rightfully more famous for its Hamilton Gardens. The roses weren’t in bloom, but the camellias, tulip trees, and magnolias made up for it. Beyond those large areas of flora, Hamilton Gardens is unique for its small courtyards that offer a variety of doors that open to a wide variety of individual pocket gardens: Suddenly, you’re transported to India, the Italian Renaissance, the American Southwest, Japan, or China. My favorite was what they call the Concept Garden. If Mondrian were a gardener, this is what he’d have created. I missed seeing the Surrealist Garden, under construction, although illustrations made it look Magritte and Dali’s love child in full flower. Unbelievably, the Hamilton Gardens are free of charge.

Haku Falls

From Hamilton, I took the two-hour InterCity bus ride to Lake Taupo to see Huka Falls. Having read that this “11-metre high waterfall is the most visited and photographed natural attraction in New Zealand,” who could resist? It’s where the country’s longest river, the Wakato, is squeezed through a ravine of hard volcanic rock, the result being a blast of 220,000 liters of water every second.

Almost as thrilling is the steep two-hour descent from Lake Taupo to the Pacific Ocean via InterCity.  Think of Highway 101 leaving the Transverse Ranges of Los Angeles County and entering the flatlands of Ventura County and you get the idea, only much more claustrophobic since the road (very typical in New Zealand) is two lanes, not six or eight.

On the coast, Napier (pop. 63,000) is that sleepy seaside town that in 1931 experienced a 7.9 earthquake on the Richter Scale, and within two years had rebuilt itself in an art deco style derived from Hollywood movies.

Just my opinion, but art deco is one of those accent design elements. Gorgeous here and there, it can become rather fey when you line up block upon block of such stream-lined pastel buildings. The ninety-minute tour of Napier offered by the local Art Deco Center is worth taking. You visit various office and hotel lobbies that you might not otherwise think to see. I stayed at the lovely County Hotel, which brought a decidedly English country home flair to its art deco. Much more Hollywood is the nearby Masonic Hotel.

Napier is set in the middle of Hawke’s Bay, which unlike all the three other bays I’d visited on the North Island, featured not one island. It’s just wild open sea all the way to South America. One thing about the New Zealanders: whatever the ocean-side town, they invariably build a flat, seemingly endless promenade along the waters. Several of them rival the famous one in San Sebastian, Spain.

The four-hour bus trip to Wellington took me around Mt. Hector; again, I was reminded of California’s Lost Coast. On the sunny Saturday afternoon that I arrived in Wellington (pop. 412,000), this college town was out in force as many young locals took advantage of the city’s many open-air restaurants, theaters, and museums. The promenade even features its own South Seas lagoon. Top attraction here is the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, offering a definitive study of the Maori culture on four of its five floors. Sad to say, I have no reference point for almost any art that isn’t Euro-centric, and of course spent more time on the top fifth floor with its samplings of Warhol, Miro, Dali, Pollock, and Picasso. Amazingly, the museum is free.

Nearby Cuba Street is the major shopping thoroughfare, and is closed to traffic; but the city’s narrow network of streets and slightly asymmetrical grid make this small city ultra-congenial for walking and browsing in shops.

In Wellington and Auckland, I stayed at the Mercure Hotels, stylish buildings that are near the water in both cities. On my visit to Wellington, Sunday turned rainy, which put a real damper on the waterfront. I took the cable car up the side of the hill the city covers, and passed several office buildings and then Victorian houses and then the Victoria University campus. Last stop is the Botanical Gardens. Here again are those magnificent New Zealand views of a bay and its islands. Only the din from the nearby highway threatened the green serenity.

I have a weird affinity for old cemeteries, and found a great one: the Bolton Street Cemetery with its tiny pathways, crumbling staircases and Spanish-moss-laden trees. As Blanche DuBois put it, “Only Poe, only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice.” What makes this resting place truly bizarre, unfortunately, is that the aforementioned highway barrels through the graves, leaving one half of the cemetery on the steep hillside and the other half in a deep and shaded hollow. Over 3,000 graves of the city’s original settlers had to be relocated. If they can build tunnels through the sides of mountains, why not under historic cemeteries?

A rainy day was not the best time to take the twenty-minute boat ride across the bay to the small town of Days Bay (pop: 100). Where were those half dozen vineyards of Waiheke when I needed them?

The following day I had planned to make the three and a half hour crossing of Cook Strait to the South Island and then on to Christchurch for two days. The sun and the rain continued to play with each other. These sun showers always look so phony in the movies, but they’re almost a constant of New Zealand’s winters. Unfortunately, the strait was too rough to cross and the weather report gave no hope that it would improve the following day.

I considered a few options. I could take the Scenic Northern Explorer train back to Auckland and see the Tongariro National Park and the upper reaches of the Whanganui River. The train makes stops at the National Park Village and Ohakune, the perfect get-off point for canoeing or snow skiing. Or I could have flown to Christchurch. Instead, I opted to explore the North Island’s west coast and take the six-hour bus ride (again on InterCity) to New Plymouth and Mt. Taranaki, home to Paul Falls and Bells Falls. I almost got off in the smaller town of Whanganui (pop. 40,000). Despite the Maori name, its main street recalled something out of small-town America, turn of the century. There’s even a Victorian opera house. The town is close to the ocean and the Whanganui River, the longest navigable river in the country. 

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. “Its shiny windowless facade of undulating chromium looks like something Jeff Koons might have dreamed up.”

Given my flash tour of this river town, New Plymouth (pop. 57,000) didn’t disappoint with its Devon Street East and long promenade along the Tasman Ocean. Next to the bus station is the King and Queen Hotel, which is half historic Victorian (with amazing atrium of restaurants and shops) and half new (but architecturally complementary).  Not to be expected is the hotel’s most famous neighbor, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery with its permanent collection of Len Lye’s sculptures. From its shiny windowless facade of undulating chromium, the museum looks like something Jeff Koons might have dreamed up. There’s nothing else like this Andrew Patterson-designed building on the North Island. The Govett-Brewster isn’t the only place in New Plymouth where you can find Lye’s spidery, moving sculptures. “Wind Wand” along the promenade stands against the Tasman as the town’s major icon. 

Sculptor Len Lye in front of tapa cloth, New York, 1968. Photo William Vandivert

It’s a small world: Reading a description of Lye’s artwork, I learned that in the late 1960s and early 1970s he had a studio over the Bleecker Street Cinema in Manhattan’s West Village. Back in 1972, I took film classes at New York University in classrooms atop that famous movie house.

While New Plymouth has an attractive, well-preserved hub, as with so many places I visited in New Zealand, the city center soon generates into the worst of America – strip malls and endlessly wide streets without traffic lights that turn pedestrians into the foreign enemy. Intriguingly, these towns and small cities appear to be vital, unlike the towns I knew from my childhood in Iowa. I wonder if New Zealand’s very limited highway system keeps people from traveling long distances to do their shopping. In Iowa, the nearest Wal-Mart is never more than a quick fifty miles away on a wide and long  interstate highway.

The winter is probably not the right time of year to visit Mt. Taranaki, or, at least, the most reliable time of year. Rob of Taranaki Tours tried to dissuade me from making the trip. “You won’t see much due to the weather,” he told me over the phone.

“Well, this is the only day I’ve got, so let’s do it,” I said.

Rob was right. I never got to see either Paul Falls or Bells Falls. I did, however, experience one travel first and one travel revelation. The trip to Mt. Taranaki showed me why New Zealand’s North Island kept reminding me of England. As we approached the rain forest of Egmont National Park, Rob pointed out all the lovely pastures for sheep and milk cows along the road. It could have been Somerset along Bristol Channel in England. “Now,” he said, pointing up ahead. “This is what the country looked like before the English arrived!” Yards ahead of us, the pasture found itself quickly swallowed by the rain forest’s thick, high wall of solid vegetation. And then began the snow. Who knew you could have snow in a rain forest?

Mt. Taranaki

I managed to see only two waterfalls, but traveling off-season delivered other rewards.

  • Robert Hofler is the lead theater critic for TheWrap.com. His reviews were nominated this spring for an L.A. Press Club Award. His most recent book is the biography "Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne: A Life in Several Acts."

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