Driving through the countryside of New Zealand is like travelling through the pages of a picture book. A picture book about fat contented cows, teapots and scones, teal glossy ducks and chickens under bushes. A book filled with farmyards, hill sides and neat fenced meadows.
At every dip and fold of green on green we expect to see Little Boy Blue, Little Bo Peep and Mary with her lamb. Velvet bright hills are splashed with golden gorse and mauve pink blooms and liberally patched with snowy pom pom sheep. Mountain tops are wrapped gently in a tulle of milky pearl mist. This is Heidi country with its smattering of white on the peaks of distant mountains, its rain washed sky, thick etch of dark pine forest and cows lumbering to the dairy. This is the kind of scenery that makes you catch your breath as you wait for the next picture perfect page to appear.
And on every signpost Maori names sing sweetly like a beautiful Polynesian chorus: Paekakiriki, Pautahunui, Kapiti, Raumati, Paraparaumu, Waikanae, Otaihanga, Otaki, Taupo, Peka Peka, Te Horo, Te Waka, Tararua, Te Manuao, Waitohu, Waikawa, Wanganui…
How pallid and dull the western place names sound in comparison: Queen Elizabeth Park, McKay Crossing, Woodville…
Our first stop is Napier – an Art Deco town filled with pastel pretty buildings that transport us back to the 1930s. Wandering around in rain jackets and runners, we chance upon a wonderful restaurant Bistronomy which is owned by James Beck. Later in our trip I read a fancy culinary magazine which informs us that Beck worked with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Lucky we dressed so well to eat in his restaurant! It is also a treat to visit some of the very picturesque vineyards scattered around the region of Hawkes Bay.
Of course we have to visit the famous hot springs of Rotorua. I love this place. The earth reminds us of its presence all over this town. We hear the deep gurgle of its belly, we see the bubble and burst of grey viscous mud, we sniff the turgid sulphur laced air. It is impossible to ignore the fact that this scenic town is located squarely on the Pacific Rim of Fire. All around us the land fizzes, erupts and steams like a boiling saucepan. We can feel the fire gods dancing beneath us.
Travelling up the coast we arrive at the Coromandel Peninsula where green hills slope down to sandy beaches. We stay in Whangamata – a sleepy seaside town which boasts an excellent café, Six Forty Six . We drive around the peninsula and lunch on scrumptious seafood chowder in the holiday hamlet of Hahei.
From Coromandel we make our way up to the Bay of Islands. I am fascinated by the romantic sound of this place and I am not disappointed. The little town of Keri Keri is delightful. We are welcomed by a lovely couple (Carl and Justine) at Kauri Park Motel and our room is tucked in a fragrant garden. Keri Keri offers us two great dining experiences. The first is at Cafe Jerusalem where we eat yummy Israeli food and the second is at a restaurant called The Italians which is fabulous! This place could be in Italy – red checked tablecloths, a slightly scruffy bar, pictures of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Madonna, family photos of the chef Cesare Stella, wax crusted Chianti bottles and some of the very best Italian food we have ever eaten (including in Italy).
We catch a ferry from Paihia to Russell. The history here is palpable and we are transported to the country’s first sea port and European settlement . This quaint town retains its layout and buildings from 1843.
And finally, four perfect days in Auckland, staying at the home of our dear friend, Shoba. There are pockets of real grace and elegance in this city. Ponsonby and Parnell beguile us with their gracious homes, beautiful tree lined streets, world class restaurants, boutiques and bookshops. The Women’s Bookshop and The Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby are simply splendid. New Zealand does bookshops, pots of tea and excellent cake with aplomb! What a very civilised country!
We love the Auckland Art Gallery where we marvel at oil paintings of significant Maori leaders and dip into a gorgeous exhibition by a New Zealand female artist Frances Hodgkins. Food in Auckland is outstanding . I have to mention The French Café which was truly fabulous and also the delicious cafes, bars, restaurants and market stalls clustered in the enticing hub of Ponsonby Central.
Our friend Shoba takes us on an hour’s drive out of Auckland to Matakana Village Farmers Market where we taste delectable organic local produce in a fairy tale setting before making our way to the marvellous Morris and James Pottery Café to gaze at stunning ceramics and laze over a yummy lunch.
Our last day in Auckland includes a drive to Mission Bay and a tasty whitebait omelette at Café on Kohi.
And so our travels to Aotearoa come to an end but we leave with a profound fondness for this lush green country and its warm, friendly people. Beneath the tea cosy tapestry of farms and cottages appliqued with felt cows and woolly sheep is the heart beat of a culture that goes back to the mythical islands of Hawaiki. It is impossible to ignore the indelible tattoo of Maori language, stories and symbols on this land.
The word Aotearoa is made up of the three parts: ao = cloud, dawn, daytime or world, tea = white, clear or bright and roa = long. The common translation is the land of the long white cloud. We love the poetry and cadence of this word. Across the Tasman, long before white men arrived with their foreign words and colonial labels, was a country called Aotearoa… and it is still there…
© Anita Patel, 2015