Nick Jenkins . Pictures . Words . Travel

Nick Jenkins : The Opinionated Traveller

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Auckland and the North Island

Sept 1997 12:11:46

I spent a fantastic two weeks in New Zealand. I went there to rescue my girlfriend from the clutches of her biological father who was being a bit overbearing. It was a fairly new romance for us and New Zealand was to be our 'honeymoon', so to speak.

In a traditional honeymoon style we chose to visit New Zealand during one of the many months of the year it spends underwater. The rain however did not dispel the magic.

We hired a car and headed north-west of Auckland with the eventual plan of rounding the top of the North Island and heading for the Bay of Islands.

Our first day's driving did not see us get very far and we ended up just short of the west coast. We stopped in a small hotel, off the beaten track, in Maungaturoto. The hotel was a converted house and the rooms were small, leaky and furnished with bed which produce an orchestral set of squeaks every time you drew breath. Mel and I tried for the full 1812 Overture but had to settle for a version of Bolero.

Later we wandered out to a local eatery to see what food we could secure. The only food available in the end was fairly inadequate fast-food but we made do and retired to our hotel room and squeaky bed early.

The second day we drove west, a little and then north, pausing only for breakfast and the largest caffe latte ever seen, served in a soup bowl. Mel's jealousy was unbounded when she found I had got the latte by mistake and only the promise of further giant coffee experiences kept the peace. The scenery on the west coast was beautiful, rolling green hills down to slate grey sea. Things were getting better.

That night we stayed in Rawene about two thirds of the way up the west coast of the North Island. We had hoped to make it as far as Kaitaia but missed the last ferry across the Kohukohu and had to be content with finding a bed-and-breakfast locally. This turned out to be a stupendously bad decision.

Since it was distinctly the off-season we can forgive our hosts for being unprepared but I suspect the environment would not be much better during the summer months. The particular bed-and-breakfast we chose was a homestay run by an elderly couple who had lived there some eighteen years. Now homestays I am normally uneasy about, since it is more a case of being an uninvited guest in someone's home than a paying customer in a B&B or a hotel. But this turned out to be the homestay from hell.

Our second mistake (after stopping) was to accept our host's assurance that there was nowhere in the small town to eat and we should dine with them. Now although they had been living there for eighteen years I suspect their taste buds had emigrated long ago. Dinner consisted of a "prawn cocktail" from frozen shrimp that even the most desperate cetacean would reject and steak with vegetables that had obviously seen a lengthy period in the inside of their freezer. Our hosts also let slip that a previous guest had, while searching for the light-switch in the basement, inadvertently switched off the freezer. Dinner finished early after that.

Later the next morning, after we had cross the ferry into Kohukohu, Mel turned to me, gripped me by the lapels and informed me that she would do me physical harm if we had to stay in a place like that again. I got the impression the holiday could have gone down hill from this point so made special efforts to select better accommodation.

Not fully trusting the locals, we determined that the next night we'd spend in a self catering chalet. Believing that our cooking couldn't possibly be worse than what we just experienced we felt safer going it alone. After that we'd splurge on some luxury accommodation for the next couple of days.

In order to make the most of our self catered evening we planned a cordon-bleu menu of scallops with bacon and veal in white wine. The first step would therefore be to locate some supplies, notably veal and scallops. Scallops proved a difficult hurdle but one we eventually surmounted. Veal proved to be an entirely more complicated proposal however.

Despite the fact we had been driving for two days through field after field of veal-on-the-hoof we couldn't seem to locate any of the ready-to-eat variety. We called into Kaitaia and Whangaroa and managed to locate a couple of butchers. In the first we inquired about the possibility of acquiring some veal. "Veal ? Veal ?", declared the butcher, "I don't know where you'd get veal round here." The next butcher up the road agreed with his sentiment. "Veal", she said dreamily, "I can't remember the last time I saw that". We fared no better in another butchers and eventually retired defeated with some chicken breast as a substitute.

We spent the rest of the day looking around Pahia and then took the opportunity to ride a jet boat out and through the Hole-in-the-Rock, an eponymous local landmark. The Hole is only about two boat lengths wide and quite low. The surging sea makes a trip through the middle a very entertaining ride. The captain lines the boat up with the exit of the tunnel and loiters outside the entrance waiting for a lull in the waves. When he spots his chance he opens the throttle wide and plunges through, the rocks whizzing by seemingly at arms length on either side of you.

While entertaining this was probably not as entertaining as the time our skipper got to ride through the Hole as a passenger - in a helicopter. Apparently a NZ company were filming for an advert and they need some local advice on where the best features of the coast lay. Naturally they took along a boat skipper who could point out the highlights but one who very soon regretted pointing out the Hole. Before you could say "Nooo, I don't want to die!" the pilot banked the helicopter over and skimming the crest of the waves plunged through the narrow tunnel.

Our own boating experience was breathtaking, if a little bumpy, and was punctuated by the expert narrative of our captain. We learnt more about Maori's and New Zealand heritage in a forty minute boat ride than I did in most of the rest of the holiday. That night we retired to our chalet and celebrated our new found holiday with scallops and veal substitute.

The next day we made the short drive to our next port of call, Russell, just across the water from Pahia. Russell was the one time capital of New Zealand and we had booked two nights in the Orongo Bay Homestead.

Orongo Bay is a lovely two-storey stone building in Russel Bay, across the water from Pahia in the bay of islands. It is not necessary to catch the ferry from Pahia to reach the bed-and-breakfast but it is certainly the fastest way.

The Orongo Bay Homestead was originally the American ambassador's residence in New Zealand when the capital was located in Russel. As such it features a grand wine cellar (well stocked), landscaped gardens complete with peacocks (George and Mildred) and a view over the oyster beds in Orongo Bay.

Orongo Bay is run by Michael Hooper and Chris 'Wharenga' Swannel who are two of the nicest hosts I ever have had the pleasure of meeting. Their attention to detail, good taste and boundless affable natures make the stay at Orongo Bay delightful.

To offer a small illustration, the small introductory leaflet left in your room explains that the house cat, "Riesling", should not be allowed in the bedrooms and particularly on the bed. This is so that guests allergic to animals will not suffer any inconvenience as a result of his presence. As a one time asthma sufferer this small but important point was gratefully appreciated. The brochure also states that while Riesling is affectionate by nature and you are free to indulge him, "should his attentions transcend the leaps and bounds of good taste" you should feel free to send him packing.

In my first phone call to Orongo Bay, Michael asked me whether or not we'd like to attend a small dinner he was hosting their on the Wednesday night. I replied that we'd be delighted and we sorted out some small details like whether or not we ate oysters and drank wine (yes to both!).

Later it transpired that there was nobody else attending the dinner but ourselves. Michael had just used the ruse of a pre-organised dinner to put us at ease and to deny me the chance to protest that he shouldn't go to any trouble.

As it turned out the dinner was one of the highlights of our trip. Michael is a food and wine critic and an excellent cook in his own right. Because there were just the two of us there we took dinner at the coffee table in the living room, in front of the fire place.

There we feasted on mushroom soup (from handpicked shitake mushrooms), squid-ink fettuccine with oysters and a desert I fail to recollect, creme brulee perhaps. Each course was wine matched to Michael's expert standards and was supported by a plethora of condiments and side dishes. A sorbet between courses was, of course, also offered. And that was the "light" meal.

At this point we crawled back upstairs only to discover that in the meantime Chris has snuck upstairs to leave a carafe of water and some chocolate truffles on your pillow. Just in case you hadn't quite reached exploding point before bed time.

Breakfast at Orongo Bay is no less fulfilling or startling with a range of fresh baked pastry, fruit, a cooked selection, natural muesli and 'bee pollen' instead of sugar. Be forewarned if you visit Orongo Bay you are quite literally in danger of a culinary excess.

The second night at Orongo Bay we decided not to risk an internal rupture and dine with Chris and Michael but to venture further afield. Although Michael was very disparaging about the quality of restaurants available he eventually felt able to recommend one on the proviso that he ring up and book for us. That night when we arrived we were given silver service by the restaurant staff, mainly I suspect because they were terrified of the prospect of a bad review at Michael's hands.

The next morning was our last on the road so we clambered out of bed, bid a fond farewell to our hosts, signed the rather enormous bill and crawled into the car yet again stuffed to the gills. The drive back to Auckland was fairly long and drawn-out and punctuated only by some fairly dismal weather.

At some stage in the journey I got to reflect on the terrible quality of New Zealand drivers. It was probably the bit where the gentleman in a station wagon passed me on the outside of a blind, double-white-line bend, in the rain.

We stayed over night in Auckland intending to rise at a leisurely time and make our way sedately out to the airport. A misjudgement in two hours of the time of the flight however resulted in a run to the airport which has, I'm sure, still got the speed cameras ticking over. Rental cars have their uses.

Still we were successful and Mel made her plane with seconds to spare. I spent another couple of hours returning the hire car and lurking in the airport lounge before winging my way home to Sydney.

Next time I'd like to see some of the South Island too.