The Old Kind of Summer

            After last year’s wash out, I looked ahead to my two week break from work over the festive period with not a little trepidation. With such a short window of opportunity to escape the city and see something new of my adopted country, a repeat of last year’s post-Christmas deluge would have been disastrous.

            The start of December 25th did little to assuage my concerns, with a nondescript morning drizzle proving near fatal for our barbecue brunch dream. But as the day wore on and bellies were filled with emergency oven-cooked ham and chicken, the clouds began to scatter and the sun brought its Christmas gift to us at last.

            In the six weeks that have followed, I could probably count on one hand the number of times it has rained with any real conviction. It has felt like a delayed refrain of my first summer here two years ago, when I arrived from a wet and windy European autumn into the most sustained period of warmth and sunshine I had ever experienced. But the heat has not been good news for everyone. As our friends across the Tasman cope with raging wildfires and homes turned into ovens by an unprecedented heat wave, the plants in our garden beg for water with the dying breaths of their withered leaves.

            For me, the joy was in being able to make the most of my time away from the office over the new year and hot-on-the-heels public holiday later in January. The past month has reinvigorated my love of New Zealand in many ways after a year of hard work and scant chances to venture beyond Auckland’s confines. And while Northland, Otago and Wellington were not entirely new for me, return visits to each allowed me to explore further and deeper than previous trips had allowed.

            With Christmas’s indigestion now dissipating, we took to the road on the penultimate day of the year and travelled the not inconsiderable distance to Doubtless Bay in the Far North, where Holly’s friends had hired a bach from which to party in the new year (and celebrate her 30th birthday, if I’m allowed to mention that?) The journey reminded me how long and stretched New Zealand’s islands are, for what appears on first glance of the map a mere nubbin on Auckland’s head is actually an extensive twisting peninsular that requires a six or seven hour drive to reach its very top.

            Our destination was not quite that far, but the area around Doubtless certainly had an ‘end of the line’ feel with its vast white sand beaches and isolated settlements. This, of course, was exactly why we came and the unspoilt coastline with its craggy inlets and turquoise waters provided an ideal haven from our urban toil. 

            Though I have gradually adapted to the ways of Kiwi life (I can even walk in jandals now, you know – heck, I even say jandals now), at some things I remain resolutely British, as I found to my chagrin during our time up north. What started as an innocuous saunter to the beach closest to the bach turned into a double whammy of humiliation when, firstly, my pathetic bowling skills were brutally exposed during an impromptu game of cricket with Holly’s friends and, secondly, I made the rookie’s error of failing to take off my not inexpensive Ray Ban sunglasses when paddling into the sea, only to lose them to perpetuity when a cruel wave plucked them off the top of my head.

            Despite such setbacks, I left the Bay with a feeling that I’d reconnected with New Zealand and I knew that I’d miss these lazy days of sand and sun if ever we were to leave here. But there was no time for being philosophical as we made the long journey back to Auckland via a series of scenic stop-offs. The little fishing village of Mangonui, with its self-proclaimed “world’s best” fish ‘n’ chip shop, was probably the pick of the bunch, its winding harbour-front pathway and buzzing cafes providing a welcome respite from the oppressive car heat.

            One night back home in Auckland and we were off again, this time on a plane down to Queenstown in the South Island, which has become something of a favoured destination for us over the past two and half years. It continues to amaze me that so many North Islanders have never made the short trip down to what remains for me one of the most beautiful places on earth. Though the thrill of the South Island’s formidable mountains and crystalline lakes dims a little with time, I find there is something new and wonderful to behold there every time I go down. Even that classic postcard view out to the Remarkables over Wakatipu from the Queenstown lake front offers fresh excitement with a new season’s light and this time, the juxtaposition of searing thirty degree heat with the sight of mountains ice-capped from a freak snow fall a couple of days earlier provided the magic. 

            As I found last year when giving friends and family from England the guided tour, seeing familiar places through the eyes of strangers also fills them with new energy. On this trip, our companions Simon and Felicity were the ones new to Queenstown and they seemed to fall under its spell as quickly as I did the first time I came here. We didn’t just re-hash old itineraries though. A personal highlight for me was the day we stayed at the charming Willowbrook B&B just outside of Arrowtown, an ideal base from which to explore Wakatipu’s diminutive neighbour Lake Hayes. 

Framed by a hilly walking track that takes a little under two hours to complete, this graceful lagoon offers a tranquil afternoon’s respite from Queenstown’s busy tourist hub, not to mention the opportunity to burn off some of the calories inevitably ingested during a stay in the area. Speaking of which, the dinner we treated ourselves to that night at Arrowtown’s renowned Saffron was one of the finest meals I’ve had in New Zealand, even if the sluggish service took off a little of the gloss. 

            The trip also allowed us to give a second chance to Wanaka, the region’s other renowned lake that had left us feeling a little underwhelmed on our first visit two years ago. The weather again demonstrated the sway it can have over one’s perception of a place, the murky skies of our maiden trip replaced by unblemished blue on this occasion. Though I still don’t think the town itself is much to write home about, the views it affords out across the lake are, in the right conditions, something truly special. 

Much as we enjoyed such moments, the heat was unrelenting and nudged over thirty two degrees on our final day there. With so much time spent in the car, we were eternally grateful for the sudden appearance of the famous Cardrona Hotel on our drive back to Queenstown from Wanaka. Driven past and quickly photographed the last time we were here, the yearning for a pint of beer to quench four parched mouths was too strong to ignore, so we stopped and ventured in for a quick re-charge of the batteries. Little did we know that this, from the outside, tiny-looking tavern, opened out at the back onto an enormous beer garden complete with parasols and live musician. Were it not for the people we’d arranged to meet back in Queenstown (and the fact there are no taxis to call on should you venture over the drink-driving limit), we could quite easily have stayed there till evening drinking ourselves into a merry slumber…

The despondency we felt at returning to Auckland – and to work – in the second week of January was offset only by the knowledge that we had another trip planned to coincide with Anniversary Weekend at the end of the month. For this last hurrah of what was an incredible month of unending sunshine, balmy evenings and chirruping cicadas, we returned to Wellington for the first time since the road trip we undertook in the first weeks we arrived in New Zealand back in 2011.

The weather gods continued to look kindly on us, which is nothing to be sniffed at in a city notorious for its regular downpours and gale force winds. While we had kept to the confines of the CBD on our first trip, this time we took the opportunity to hire a car and venture a little further afield. The freedom of a vehicle allowed us to experience the glorious coastal roads that border the city and offer stunning seascapes out across to the tip of the South Island, whose northerly mountains were clearly visible despite the haze. One special drive south west of the city took us out to desolate Owhiro Bay, where a car park and information hut mark the end of the road and the start of a coastal walkway that takes you through the middle of a seal colony to the self-descriptive Red Rocks. This gnarly iron-rich outcrop, though only a few miles away from a bustling city, felt like a different country entirely, and as we dangled our feet in barnacle-clad rock pools beneath a blazing afternoon sun, we experienced one of those little moments where the rest of the world seemed not to exist. 

Within a few hours we were back in the urban reality of Wellington but though chaotic compared to the sleepy beaches we’d stopped off at earlier in the day, we were struck by how liveable the place felt. One thing that certainly helps is its abundance of drinking and dining establishments. Not far from penniless the last time we came here, we were fortunate to be able to splash out a little more on this occasion, and so enjoyed a cocktail and craft ale at the trendy Cuba Street bar Matterhorn before a rather indulgent dinner at renowned restaurant Logan Brown. Though usually out of my price range, a belated celebration of Holly’s birthday gave us the licence to partake in the nine course degustation menu, which topped even Saffron for its attention to detail, unusual flavour combinations and sumptuous presentation.

With the hours counting down to the twilight of another amazing trip, we made the most of our last day in Wellington to visit the Chocolate Fish Café, a lively waterside establishment on the Miramar peninsular that specialises in barbecued seafood and breakfast sandwiches and was reportedly a favourite of the Lords of the Rings cast and crew. An afternoon venture to the Westpac Stadium for a Wellington Phoenix football game followed by a round of sunset beers at a harbourside bar and an affordably tasty Thai at Tory Street’s Chow rounded off our trip in such style that the memories of a great summer should keep us going for quite a while – at least until the rain comes calling anyway…


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