Napier, New Zealand

Never try to plan your birthday when you’re on the road…

 

I had the perfect plan for my 22nd birthday: 

We would wake up early and spend a full, fabulous Tuesday on the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. I would finally be able to knock it off my bucket list after leaving it behind last time I was in New Zealand. Sunshine and smiles for year twenty-two.

Except that’s not what the weather forecast was thinking. Not only would my birthday bring rain to Tongariro, but being that it’s still kind of winter, there were also warnings for a dangerous cornice [kor-nes • an overhanging mass of windblown snow or ice usually on a ridge], making the already expert-level adventure too treacherous for us to pursue. Though disappointed, I agreed that we would have to pass on the crossing this time around. If I have made it across the Pacific three times already, what’s a fourth? This just gives me one more reason to come back to the great NZ - to finally do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing once and for all. 

Alas, we suddenly had an extra three days to fill and the world right in front of us!!!!!! So we spent the day in Taupo hashing out the details for a suitable backup plan. How about instead, we plan a road trip and drive the East Coast Road like the nice guy on Mount Maunganui recommended? We could go all the way to Gisborne, and then spend two days hiking one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, Lake Whakaremoana! I’d still be able to wake up on a trail for my birthday - another perfect plan! 

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And yet, our plans were foiled again. We were to hit the trailhead early after spending the night in Gisborne, but against my will, my body had decided to shut down. I woke up with excruciating stomach pains and body aches - thank you jet lag, exhaustion, and dehydration. While my will power told me to do the hike anyway, uncontrollably crying into a cup of tea told me that I would have to take another pass. Time to take a rest day.

We grabbed a “world-famous” pie from Osler’s bakery on our way out of town, and headed straight for Napier. Neither of us knew anything of the place, but it was the nearest city en route to our next destination in Wellington. We arrived midday and splurged for a private room. If we were going to be taking a rest day for my birthday, we were damn sure on getting the optimal amount of rest possible. I literally slept the day away.

So finally, we woke up on my birthday with one last perfect plan. We would take a walk down the beach and spend the day at the National New Zealand Aquarium. How could we go wrong? 

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Needless to say, it went swimmingly.

I love aquariums. They had an interactive seashell display. They had a coloring station (thank you Kim for the beautiful birthday card). They even had a TUNNEL through one of the tanks. A TUNNEL.

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As if the day could even get any better, we went to a killer restaurant for dinner. We got all dressed up - lipstick, heels, and I even straightened my hair. All I have to say is that if I dedicated space to it in my pack, I better be using it.

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Napier is apparently known as an art deco capital of the world, so we made a reservation at Masonic Hotel’s 1930s themed restaurant called The Emporium Eatery & Bar - the only place in New Zealand to have made it on the world’s 100 best bars!

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They make a mean Old Cuban. AND WE EVEN FOUND PIZZA.

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After a delightful birthday dinner, we strolled back to our 2-bed private for dessert: that apple, pineapple, passionfruit pie from the cafe of tears the day before. Kim even got some candles :)

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The next morning, on our way out of town, I found an intriguing brochure. Not just any brochure though, a treasure map to murals around the city. Each mural spoke to a different theme of ocean conservation, featuring larger-than-life paintings of marine creatures crawling around urban community spaces. For more information, click on the following image!

Marine conservation + art + urban community planning = literally the coolest thing ever. 

So of course, I dragged Kim around the city for another two hours while I gawked at paintings of seabirds, turtles, fish, whales, sharks, and even penguins. 

I wouldn’t have been able to come up with a more suitable birthday surprise than an urban treasure hunt for ocean conservation themed murals. Good thing we ended up in Napier.

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Exploring Northland, New Zealand

Our first stop, after picking up some coffee and our rental car that we’ve fondly dubbed The Cherry, was far north in the Bay of Islands. This far flung string of islands goes around in a curve on the northwestern side of Northern New Zealand and makes for a very scenic four hour drive from the airport in Auckland. 

We weren’t originally going to go this far north, but we got lucky and a family friend offered us the use of their lovely vacation home in Russell, so we took it (duh). We took the drive from Russell to Auckland and back and stopped many times along the way. Here are a few our highlights and favorite discoveries we made.

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The Gallery & Cafe Helena Bay Hill

We pulled over at this gallery & cafe because we were driving through what we thought was the middle of nowhere and were just surprised and intrigued enough to stop. Once we got out of the car, we were really glad we did.

This little treasure is located along Old Russell Road and is featured in The Lonely Planet. Upon getting out of the car, we were greeted by both a stunning view over the hills to the sea and two giant newfoundlands. Having just left home and Brandy, my family’s newf, this was a crazy amazing thing to see. 

We got to meet the owner, who told us a little about the place and how it started, and walk through the amazing sculpture garden he’s created outside the gallery. The art inside the gallery itself is also beautiful. Lucky for us, and our wallets, it was a little out of price and size range for us. I simply settled on a little, silver lily ring (as a birthday present to myself, of course).

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Russell

Our desire to walk to Russell from where we were staying a little further north died about a mile into our trip. This wasn’t before we managed to find a tiny foot track next to the main road which was called Jim’s Walkway. It’s a riverside trail that’s inhabited by a surprising number of kiwis, the elusive national bird of New Zealand. We didn’t see any on this walk, since they’re nocturnal, but it was fun just knowing they were around. 

This town is, in a word, charming. It’s a small, oceanside town that reminded me a bit of a town in the Hamptons (New Yorkers, you know what I’m talking about). It’s mostly a summer attraction, so since we were there in winter there were many places that were still closed, but that didn’t take anything away from it.

We visited the main dock, which is old and beautiful, walked along the beach and got some of the best crab sticks we’ve ever eaten from a place called Crusty Crab. We also got to explore the oldest church in New Zealand: Christ Church. It, like the town, is both small and beautiful. 

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Strolling into an intriguing woodworking shop had me trying to play the guitar again, for the first time in a long time, and MJ dying to buy everything in sight. She didn’t, but only because we’re a tad pressed for space in our bags.

We got lucky with perfect weather the whole time we were there and got to watch two spectacular sunsets over the bay. The best part? As we were headed out of our home around 8 a.m. to head back to Auckland, we caught a 10 second view of a kiwi crossing the road into Jim’s Walkway. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture, you’ll just have to take our word on it!

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The Mermaid Pools, Matapouri

THIS was incredible. I mean absolutely stunning. We didn’t even know about the mermaid pools until the day before we left Russell. We found them while looking up things to do along the drive back to Auckland and decided we had to check them out.

This drive along the coast took us through some beautiful bays and beaches which were hard to resist stopping for. But once we got there, we were glad we hadn’t.

To get there, you have to drive to beach at Matapouri Bay, which is beautiful in and of itself. Bring good walking shoes because the pathway to get to the pools is steep and rocky. We’re talking literal ropes strung along trees so you can pull yourself up. But once you’re over the hill, it’s a sight to see. 

These shallow pools are an incredible turquoise color, which contrasted against the dark blue ocean and the clear blue sky we had was amazing. It was COLD and we didn’t bring our swimsuits (why?!), but we couldn’t resist. After our first, seriously COLD, skinny dip of this trip (amazingly timed between 3 groups of people coming and going) we hiked back to the beach and set out again.

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Whangarei Falls, Whangarei

This was our second stop on the way from Russell to Auckland. These famous falls are beautiful and there are many ways to view them. 

You can view them from the top, from a bridge that’s perfectly placed a little ways back from the falls, or from right at the base. I think you could even swim, if you really wanted to. We opted out since we were still cold from the mermaid pools. 

There’s a longer track that you can take that goes back along the river away from the falls. MJ had seen it before on a previous trip to New Zealand and we were both itching to get in to town, so we skipped out.

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If you ever find yourself flying in or out of Auckland, consider making the trip up north to the Northland. A place we hadn’t even considered visiting turned out to have some of the most beautiful places we’ve gotten to see so far.

Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel, New Zealand

Upon the suggestion of my dear friend and director of EcoQuest, Kim and I decided to take the long way back from Whatianga. Instead of coming back the way we came, we looped around the peninsula to the town of its namesake, Coromandel. 

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Driving Creek Railway is a bit north of the town of Coromandel, but well worth the drive. DCR is not only a scenic railway, but also an art gallery and creativity garden. Barry Brickell, DCR’s founder, originally purchased the land for its reserves of yellow plastic clay. Once he got his workshop and kiln up and running, Barry began to draw sculptors from all over the country to come to his co-op - being that it was the only pottery workshop in New Zealand. Soon, Barry was hosting artists from all over the world to come be a part of his homegrown pottery haven.

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While Barry was first and foremost an artist, he quickly became an engineer and builder when the next available clay reserves were moving up and up the mountain. Again, being an artist, Barry didn’t have much money to dedicate to building a railway. So, he reused old tracks and carts from abandoned gold mines (reduce, reuse, recycle)!

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As if Barry’s bohemian heaven wasn’t already amazing, it turns out that he was also a naturalist and conservationist. Before his ownership, most of the land was poor quality farmland and cleared pastures. So instead, Barry used this opportunity to revegetate his land with native bush species such as Kauri, Totara, and Rimu trees. He even built a fenced in, predator proof sanctuary on the grounds for native wildlife.

Art? Trees? Conservation? This place is the most wholesome endeavor you will find anywhere, ever. Barry Brickell didn’t even set out to build a tourist attraction - it only opened recently to the public. Now, it’s protected under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant - all 23ha. 

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I sat on the creaky rail car as it carried us all the way up the mountain, through 5 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 2 bridges. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the craftsmanship of this railway. Each tunnel was lined with beautifully crafted bricks and glass accents. Little clay creatures hid amongst the ferns. Expressive faces peacefully waited for you around every turn. The entire track was adorned with sculptures, making it one big creative, engineering masterpiece.

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At the very top awaits the Eyeful Tower (ha ha, very nice Barry). If not for the sculptures along the way, the railway is worth the ride even just for the view at the top. We climbed up the pagoda-esque structure and out onto its balcony for an awe-inspiring view of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Hauraki Gulf. Again, we were blessed with another blue sky day.

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On the way back down, the ride is both comforting and inspiring. Being surrounded by so many pieces of creative beauty right alongside such expansive natural beauty is really quite magical. Driving Creek Railway is, through and through, the definition of a hidden gem.