I love west Auckland’s bush and coast, but staring at epic landscape imagery all day at work has convinced me I really am missing out on other parts of the country.
Active is not a word you’d use to describe me – but there’s so much natural beauty here, and the best way to experience it is just to get out amongst it. And the best thing is our national parks are free to visit. Here are a few New Zealand hikes I’m pretty sure will be worth the walking.
Aka the greatest one-day walk in New Zealand. Just look at the colour of those lakes. Middle-earth in real life. Just a few years ago I would’ve been all ‘Go walking for a full day? Are you nuts?!’ but here I am.
The last (and only) time I visited Cathedral Cove years ago, I barely even knew it existed. I’m so glad that my friends knew about it!
Whilt it was an easy outing from our base in the Coromandel then, this time around we made it a day trip from Auckland. It’s just over 2 hours one way, which, I think, is about the acceptable maximum for a day trip. I generally think you should be able to easily spend as much time at your destination as you do travelling (round trip), otherwise it’s a bit of a waste. Then again, I live in a tiny country so my standards when it comes to distance are skewed.
Everything was different from the moment we got there. Parking was impossible. Odds it’s not even worth driving up to the car park; just turn into the paddock on the right hand side off the road that’s full of cars, and take the bus up. The Cathedral Cove ‘park and ride’ shuttle bus costs just $3, and allows you to ride both there and back again.
The beach was absolutely packed – it brought to mind some European beaches – and there were so many commercial tours out on the water, from glass bottom boats to kayaks. But I think this made me appreciate Cathedral Cove even more, somehow. Losing myself in the turquoise waters, surrounded by limestone cliffs, I felt at peace for the first time in so long. The Coromandel region sells itself as “good for your soul” – and it was.
The one thing that was just as I remembered it? The hike. The walk from the carpark down to Cathedral Cove is signposted as 45 minutes, but you can nail it in half the time – we always do. It’s crazy beautiful, though, winding through forest and over clifftops with amazing views out to sea and the islands, so maybe allow some time to stop for photos. The track has some climbs and dips but nothing too taxing; you can definitely navigate in jandals, though I wouldn’t recommend bare feet.
I suppose it was inevitable that such a fabulous spot would only become busier, despite its secluded location (which, I think, is a real blessing). I can’t really resent others for wanting to enjoy it, too.
Three unexpected things happened while I was in the Bay of Islands recently.
I was part of a team that successfully paddled a waka
There were probably around a dozen of us: a group from my organisation, plus four actual international tourists, a couple from the US and a couple from the Netherlands. We rowed a little way up and down the Waitangi River, singing and chanting as we went, as tradition dictates. Let me tell you, it is hard going; my arms were burning after just a few minutes.
We were invited onto a marae
We were lucky enough to have Taiamai Tours owner and tribal chief Hone Mihaka as our guide. Along the way, after he’d shared a few stories about the land and its history, he invited us to visit their marae, and we paddled over to the banks.
I’ve been on large, more ceremonial marae before, but never to one like this: intimate, raw, rustic. We stooped to ease past the low roof, making our way over the dirt floor to the simple wooden benches lining either side. What a sight we must have been, still swathed in our garish lifejackets, but honoured and humbled to be there.
The young boy who’d performed the welcoming ritual to invite us onto the grounds spoke for a little while, haltingly. Then it was our turn. Impressively, both the tourist couples also stepped up to say a thank you. We wrapped up with a waiata (song) – luckily, we’d been practising at work for occasions such as these.
I learned something about my neighbourhood
The last thing I expected was to learn something new about my suburb back in Auckland. I’d never given any thought to its name, but apparently it has a bit of a dark history. In anticipation of tribal uprising and potential war, a blockhouse was built down at the bay. On the plus side, it was never really needed.
My intermediate school was big on arts, culture, and music, led by a fantastic Maori teacher, and all this made me nostalgic for those days.
For me, this trip was a reminder that Northland isn’t just about dolphins, beaches, Cape Reinga and the Waipoua Forest; it’s also got a rich cultural heritage, including the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Next year, a coworker is heading off on a RTW trip – an extended honeymoon – sound familiar?
Particularly if you’re in/from New Zealand, this kind of travel makes sense.
A RTW ticket with multiple stops can cost the same as a single return ticket to, well, almost anywhere in the world. STA’s cheapest RTW tickets start at just under $2000 – that’s the same as a typical return flight to London.
Our currency is strong right now
So you get more bang for your buck. Our money basically gets halved in the UK and Europe, but it’s been a lot worse in the past…
You can squeeze more out of your time away – experiencing more, staying longer.
And tying back to my first point, on a per day basis it’s cheaper. Your costs are lower when you travel slower, staying put in places rather than moving around like a speed demon cramming everything into a few weeks or a few days.
Plus, play your cards right and you can seriously cut down on jetlag. Another colleague reckons she loses a couple of days at either end of the trip every time she goes back home to the UK. On our RTW trip, though, we had zero jetlag. We worked our way around the world and it worked out perfectly in regard to time zones and flights.
I’m not much of a small town person, and one of the reasons for that is simply that I love food. And usually, cities are where it’s at for eating.
But the West Coast surprised me with amazingly simple, fresh pub grub and café eats. (I already raved about the degustation dinner at Te Waonui.) If you’re ever travelling up or down the coast, here are a few places I heartily recommend.
We arrived in Greymouth around lunchtime on a Sunday on the TranzAlpine only to find most of the town shut. One place that was open was Freddy’s, tucked away upstairs on Mackay St. A couple of doors down was a chain cafe that we actually spotted first, but when faced with a franchise vs an indie? I’ll almost always try the local offering.
While the sweet treats in the cabinet looked tempting, what we really needed was a proper lunch. I went for the classic fish and chips and was not disappointed. Generous plate, with a side salad to boot. If I recall right, my lunch buddy had the whitebait fritter special – not as big but apparently excellent.
We decided to follow the path of least resistance and dine in. If you’ve got the dosh and the desire for a somewhat upmarket dinner experience, the Ocean View restaurant is the way to go. But we wanted something more casual and a little cheaper, so we opted for the Coasters bar (it’s in the building in front). There were locals winding down with a beer after work, and a wall paying homage to local sporting talent that have done the town proud over the years.
I ordered the paprika hotpot, which arrived steaming and topped off with a fluffy pie crust. I’m still not quite sure how you’re supposed to actually go about eating a dish like that, but I think a bit of mess is inevitable.
Afterwards, it was back to my room for a soak in the spa bath while listening to my happy playlist on Spotify.
Donaldo’s is a neat spot in Westport – Carter’s Beach to be specific – looking out to the ocean that was humming with locals when we popped in for dinner.
I must confess, I don’t really get the appeal of whitebait. But I figured I’d give it another shot while I was here. It was prime whitebaiting season, after all – what better time to sample it? And while the whitebait fritters were crazy fresh, I can’t lie … I still think whitebait is plain and boring, no matter how much lemon or salt you add. But hey, a lot of people love it.
In short: whitebait ain’t for me, but this is a great place to eat whitebait if you do.
Denniston Dog, in the main Westport township, came highly recommended. We wound up eating here not once but twice – first, an early breakfast, then for afternoon tea in anticipation of the plane ride home.
I’m personally leery of anything Mexican down under, but my buddy had the breakfast quesadilla and had good things to say about it. I went for the breakfast stack myself and was absolutely blown away – every aspect was out of this world. I cannot fault the crispy hash brown, the perfectly poached egg, the hollandaise or any of the accompanying veggies. Also recommended: the cabinet snacks and the fresh fruit smoothies.
Know what amused me most about Hokitika? Tourists picking up handfuls of sand off the beach and placing it safely into a plastic ziplock bag, presumably to take home. Cute.
Okay, and maybe the armchair sitting in a puddle.
So, what’s Hokitika all about?
It’s a small seaside town on the West Coast, between Greymouth (north) and glacier country (south) – Franz Josef and Fox Glacier – the kind of place that’s a lunch stop or overnight stop for most visitors. (It’s also known for its end-of-summer Wildfoods Festival.) And lately, it’s been enjoying a burst of attention thanks to its inclusion in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning novel, The Luminaries.
Here’s what we got up to in Hokitika.
Getting to grips with greenstone
I learned some fun new facts while in Hokitika, touring one of the local greenstone shops. Greenstone (or pounamu in Maori) is nephrite jade and it’s highly prized, yet if you do happen to find any on the west coast beaches of the South Island (only in these areas, though!) you can collect it and bring it home with you. There is a 5kg limit in place when it comes to taking greenstone out of New Zealand.
And did you know that we actually import a lot of greenstone – from Canada, Asia, and other regions? If buying a local greenstone product – a carving, a necklace, etc – is important to you, look closely to see if it’s genuine New Zealand pounamu. Or, if in doubt, ask.
So, head to one of the many, MANY greenstone shops in Hokitika. See if you can take a tour and see the master carvers at work.
Walking through the treetops
The west coast is the wettest region in New Zealand, so it stands to reason that the greenery here is particularly lush. At Treetops just south of Hokitika, one of the newer attractions around, we went for an amble through the forest – 40 metres in the air.
I always seem to forget/underestimate just how afraid of heights I am. These bridges are engineered so that they do sway and flex under pressure, which was mildly terrifying even on a calm sunny day with nobody else around. That aside, it was a nifty thing to have experienced. If that’s your kinda jam, remember: Treetop Walk!
Alas, I’ve still yet to visit the Hokitika Gorge, which is a total stunner in photos. Next time?
This time around I was even more on edge in general (as I have been for a couple of months) and the weather was similarly awful – this is, after all, one of the wettest parts of the country. But despite all that, this was exactly what I needed. A work trip with a healthy dose of leisure slotted in, with luxury and pampering making up for the typically wild weather.
Franz Josef is a tiny little tourist town (population approximately 400) that revolves around tourism – glacier walks, kayaks and scenic flights; horse treks; 4WD adventures; skydiving. Luckily, there are other activities you can do in wet weather!
As the rain intensified overhead, we sought refuge at the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef. The public pools are incredibly nice, with 36, 38 and 40-degree pools, all nice and large so you aren’t squeezed up against half naked strangers. They’re under cover, so if it’s raining as it so often does, you can still enjoy the water. There’s also private pools out a little way into the forest, surrounded by trees and paired with their own changing rooms – these have heated floors and deluxe showers. Little covered alcoves at the end of each pool offer shelter from the elements; it was surprisingly cosy in there despite being restricted to maybe 35% of the pool area since we wanted to avoid the icy rain.
Best of all, the pools backed onto Te Waonui, the five-star resort we were booked into. This is quite possibly the fanciest place this pleb has ever stayed at. Glasses of kiwifruit juice and fresh hand towels were brought to us at reception as we checked in. Branded umbrellas at the entrance were a nice practical touch. Service was outstanding, as you’d expect.
It may not look like anything particularly special, but this is the most wonderful bed I have ever laid in. It was like sleeping in a cloud. 8 hours was not enough. (A lifetime would probably not have been enough.)
Heated bathroom floors (I need these in my life). A heated mirror to clear steam. A speaker in the bathroom that amplifies whatever is playing on the TV. An adorable little deck opening out onto the forest. I could so get used to this.
While I’m not normally one for fine dining, I really don’t have any other words to describe the five-course degustation aside from exquisite (and not overwhelmingly fussy). Each course had approximately 5 options, and between the two of us, we sampled 10.
Highlights: I found the ostrich carpaccio, seafood (hapuka, clam, octopus and squid ink) risotto, and L&P ice cream with fondant particularly innovative. The kumara croquette and spinach/potato gnocchi were both divine (though the accompanying venison and cheese, respectively, not as impressive – I’d expected the cheese to be melty, or at the most, a little bit stringy, but instead it sat solidly in gobs around the pasta). I even mustered up the courage to down some beef cheek – I think it was actually rather good; I just couldn’t get past the mental ick factor. Current menu in full here.
And, importantly, the portions are good-sized. We both went to bed well satiated.
Sadly, our glacier flight and heli hike were canned due to the weather, so instead we popped into the West Coast Wildlife Centre for a bit. I’ve seen kiwi before and I’m not sure I’d personally pay full price $35 to go through the centre, but perhaps the guided tour ($55) may be better value.
I also got to do a couple of things I missed the first time around through the West Coast.
With brief snatches of almost decent (or at least less wet) weather, my colleague and I managed a quick walk to a lookout over Lake Matheson (the postcard-famous mirror lake – on a fine day, that is).
We also paused at Lake Ianthe between Franz Josef and Hokitika to stretch our legs.