Only in New Zealand

It’s going to be hard to leave New Zealand.

From the start of our voyage, New Zealand was the big goal on our horizon. In addition to Auckland being Corroboree’s birthplace, it would be the farthest Eric and I had ever sailed or traveled, and we planned to make it one of our longest stays. Although a few circumnavigators we met had been unimpressed by the country, almost everything else we read and heard about it was overwhelmingly positive and often ecstatic. When we arrived last October we were avid to see for ourselves.

Now our departure nears, and as is surely obvious from my last few months’ posts, we have loved every minute here. So as my final paean to New Zealand, I’d like to share some of the special and surprising places we discovered on our travels around the country. Some are truly unique to New Zealand, others were unique experiences for us. All will be fond memories in the years to come.

First, museums, because if there is such a thing as a “museum addict,” that’s us. We can’t seem to pass them by, and once inside we feel compelled to view every single exhibit and read every last plaque for fear of missing some fascinating tidbit. We spent hours in the Maritime Museum in Auckland, which traces the country’s seafaring heritage from Maori war canoes to the Kiwis’ 1995 America’s Cup winner, Black Magic. The crunch came when we each took the “test” to see if we have what it takes to be a yacht designer. After adjusting the basic parameters of length, beam, mast height and keel depth for a hypothetical America’s Cup yacht on the computer screen, guess what? We both passed!

Black Magic
Eric passes the yacht designer test

At the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim we wandered among Sir Peter Jackson’s collection of World War I planes and memorabilia. Interestingly, the museum interior is cloaked in semi-darkness with spotlighting on the individual displays. Though it feels strange at first, it focuses your attention on the drama of the scenes. While Eric gravitated to the technical details of the planes, I pored over the stories of the pilots, the aces, who flew for both sides. They were so young, some still in their teens when they signed up, with an unquenchable passion for flying that didn’t diminish even when their comrades were shot out of the sky. Many didn’t return home, and gazing on their photos in that darkened space was both inspiring and haunting.

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
The crash of the Red Baron’s plane

In Hamilton, the Classics Museum brims with memorabilia and over 100 immaculate vintage cars. Bright and colorful, it was a blast from the past, especially if, like me, you grew up in the Motor City in its 50s and 60s heyday. Arriving late in the afternoon, we had the place to ourselves save for two other gentlemen who soon departed, and when we exited through the retro Jukebox Diner, we discovered even the reception clerk (and possibly Elvis) had left the building.

Classics Museum
Classics Museum retro diner

Our most unusual museum find was Steampunk HQ in the Victorian district of Oamaru. Steampunk, as you may know, is a genre of science fiction, often set in 19th-century England, that features steam-powered technology à la H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Housed in an 1883 grain elevator, the building has an eerily-lit interior with delightfully bizarre displays. It was the kind of place our daughter Kira and her husband Seth would love, and half the fun of the visit was imagining them there beside us, sharing the sights. I have no idea whether steampunk museums exist anywhere else in the world, but if you love quirky and there is a such a place anywhere near you, go!

Steampunk HQ
Inside Steampunk HQ

Next, architecture, and New Zealand being a relatively young country—“still in its nappies” as one Kiwi put it—its historic districts don’t date any further back than the Victorian era. Nevertheless, it boasts some impressive public edifices from bygone days. In Dunedin, the 1906 railway station must have been a source of immense civic pride when it opened and is said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand today. Likewise the 1908 Bath House in Rotorua; now a museum, it is closed temporarily for restoration. In Christchurch, the cathedral began construction in 1864, while the nearby Arts Centre, formerly a college, dates from 1877. When a series of devastating earthquakes struck the city in 2010-11, both were severely damaged. But whereas the Arts Centre has steadily rebuilt and rebounded, the cathedral restoration has been stalled due to disagreements between the Anglican Church and heritage groups. It’s a sobering sight, in more ways than one.

Dunedin Railway Station
The former Bath House, Rotorua
Arts Centre, Christchurch
Christchurch Cathedral

New Zealand’s modern architecture is far less remarkable, the notable exception being the love-it or hate-it Parliament building in Wellington, aka The Beehive. We took the official tour, and since no photographs of the interior are allowed, you’ll have to take my word for it that the décor and furnishings are attractive but not elaborate. It felt like a no-nonsense sort of place, and with a unicameral legislature of 120 representatives, we guessed it might be quicker and easier to get things done than in a larger democracy. And so it has proved. On 10 April, less than a month after the horrific massacre in two Christchurch mosques, the New Zealand legislature passed a law banning semi-automatic weapons. Never again, the country said, and meant it.

The Beehive, Wellington

One style of architecture you might not expect to encounter in New Zealand is Art Deco, yet two North Island cities took it to heart. In a way, they had to. Napier and Hastings were devastated by a 1931 earthquake and ensuing fires that killed 256 people and injured thousands. The destruction was so thorough that the survivors had to rebuild from the ground up. Happily, this was the era of Art Deco. In Napier, especially, the residents embraced it, and strolling the palm tree-lined streets today, you get a vibe of Miami Beach.

Art Deco, Napier
Art Deco, Napier

Another pleasant feature of many New Zealand cities we visited was their botanical garden. Not a few of them were established in the 19th century, as if it was unthinkable to the good citizens to have a proper city without one. We strolled through acres of handsome shade trees and sweet-smelling flowerbeds, past sculptures, fountains and duck ponds. In Hamilton, they go a step further with examples of more than a dozen garden styles from England, Italy, India and elsewhere around the world. Very thoughtful of them in case you can’t visit all these places in person.

Indian Garden, Hamilton
Tudor Garden, Hamilton

In the category of truly unique to New Zealand is what has to be the coolest hardware store on the planet: the E Hayes Motorworks Store in Invercargill, home to the World’s Fastest Indian. If you aren’t familiar with this story, look for the delightful movie of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, a Kiwi motorcycle racer who in 1967 set a world record for an under-1,000 cc at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Along with Burt’s Indian, the huge store displays the owner’s private collection of antique motorcycles, cars and engines, all right at home amidst the aisles of nuts, bolts, paint, lawn mowers and camping gear. A one-of-the-kind place, and Burt’s record, by the way, still stands.

The World’s Fastest Indian, E Hayes Motorworks, Invercargill

Also in the truly unique category is Baldwin Street in Dunedin because if you thought the steepest street in the world is in San Francisco, you’re wrong. Though it starts out gently, the top section of Baldwin has an average gradient of 1 in 3.41 and 1 in 2.86 at its steepest, earning it the Guinness title. Also, did you know that New Zealand has a grove of genuine California redwoods? They were planted in 1901 as part of a reforestation project in Whakarewarewa Forest near Rotorua. Feel free to use these odd facts to win a pub bet sometime.

Baldwin Street, Dunedin
Redwood Grove, Rotorua

An enlightening activity for us was gold panning in Arrowtown. No doubt you can try this at Old West tourist attractions in the United States, but never having done so, we jumped at the chance. New Zealand, you see, had a gold rush in the 1860s that drew miners from Australia, Asia and the USA. In Arrowtown, the river was panned by a small community of Chinese men, and the restored site tells their daunting story. Because as we quickly discovered, panning is backbreaking work, made even more uncomfortable by the constant biting of sand flies. Separated from their families in China, living in shacks, ostracized by the other miners and townspeople, the men had no one but each other to call friend. As with most gold rushes throughout history, few of the miners anywhere in New Zealand struck it rich, and most of the Chinese never made it home.

Gold panning for tourists, Arrowtown
Gold panning in the river, no luck
Restored Chinese miners’ settlement, Arrowtown

An unexpected event we stumbled upon in Lake Taupo was the annual New Zealand Ironman Competition. Some 1,300 people signed up to swim a 2.4-mile course in Lake Taupo, cycle 112 miles, then run a full 26.2-mile marathon in loops through town. We watched it in spurts throughout the day and were astounded to see participants well into their 60s and possibly older gritting it out. We felt exhausted just watching them.

We loved Lake Taupo, too
Ironman NZ, Lake Taupo

Of course, we’ve seen many more wonderful sights, large and small, during our stay. Now it’s time to say goodbye to New Zealand and point Corroboree toward Australia where new experiences await. But we’ll leave a bit of our hearts in New Zealand. Maybe someday, the fates willing, we’ll come back.