Just Back From

Spectacular New Zealand: The Entire Country Is Middle Earth

by Dawn Hagin
Castle Giant boulders strewn around the hillside at Castle Hill. All photos by Adam Policky.

If you ever get the chance to visit New Zealand, you might as well justify that long flight with three weeks of hang time — at least. The better to enjoy the mystical landscapes, top-notch food, and sheep as far as the eye can see. Dawn Hagin, chief inspiration officer at Lark Hotels, just returned from a memorable holiday.

So, what brought you to New Zealand?

I visited expat friends who live in Golden Bay — the northwestern area of the South Island — but also made time to explore other parts of the country.

What was the best tip you got before you left?

If you only have time for one city, make it Wellington. The food and cultural scenes are top-notch and the national museum, Te Papa, is the perfect welcome to the country.

How did you get there?

We flew Air New Zealand (great airline!) into Auckland, then took a domestic connection to Wellington. Domestic flights on JetStar are inexpensive, fast, and easy. In fact, when we took a 30-minute flight from Wellington to Nelson on the South Island, we had no security queue or passport check. It was like getting on a bus.

Whahariki Beach, New Zealand

The majestic and otherworldly Whahariki Beach.

Nugget Point Lighthouse, Otago, New Zealand

The dramatic coastline and Nugget Point Lighthouse in Otago.

Tell us about your itinerary?

1. Two days in Wellington: Shopping quirky Cuba Street, visiting local breweries, strolling the harbor. For a cozy dinner, Havana Bar is a quaint small plates restaurant comprised of two historic cottages.

2. Two weeks in Golden Bay: This was my favorite area overall. It has fantastic summer weather and the funky, arty village Takaka.

3. Two days in Canterbury and Christchurch: We drove through the stunning mountains of Arthur's Pass, stopping for numerous viewpoint photos and to climb the giant rocks at Castle Hill. In Christchurch, we surveyed the pervasive destruction from the 2011 earthquake that stills mars the city. Efforts to rebuild — slowly but surely — are starting to break through the rubble.

4. Three days in Otago: We wandered the steep streets and stellar museums of Dunedin. I enjoyed stops at the art museum, cultural museum, and Chinese gardens. We explored the dramatic coastline and untouched wilderness of the Catlins. Tunnel Beach, Nugget Point Lighthouse, McLean Falls, and Purakaunui Falls each offered dramatic views and unique natural beauty.

5. Five days camping in the Southland: We took a ferry tour of Milford Sound and camped along the clear creeks and purple lupine fields in Fjordland. One highlight of our Fjordland stay was the Lake Gunn nature walk through a primordial forest of moss-covered red beech trees. Another campsite stay in Glenorchy enabled us to hike part of The Routeburn, one of New Zealand's great walks. The hike led us beside turquoise pools, waterfalls, and craggy vistas.

6. Three days in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island: We visited the Hobbiton movie set; the mineral spas and Maori cultural center in Rotorua; and the geysers, mud pools and other thermal features of Waiotapu.

Most memorable experience:

There were too many to choose just one. I especially enjoyed a farm stay at Te Hapu, a 950-acre sheep and cattle farm on the northwestern coast of the south island. The magnificent land offers a breathtaking (and borderline scary) trek to a cave along the steep sheep paths overlooking the sea, a labyrinth of seaside tunnels, and hikes up verdant hillsides.

Whahariki Beach was another. The majestic and other-worldly beach features sphinx-like rock formations, grand sandstone arches, dancing sand, coastal caves, and a lively fur seal colony. My husband and I arrived at sunrise as the full moon was setting and the seals were just waking up. We were alone on the beach for an hour, and, after that, only two couples joined us. It was spectacular.

I also enjoyed kayaking in the waters off Abel Tasman National Park. We powered through semi-choppy seas and schools of harmless moon jellyfish to picnic on a sandy beach. We spied a blue penguin — the smallest penguin species in the world — and paddled under rock arches and up to small islands full of nesting cormorants and other seabirds.

Purple and pink lupine, New Zealand

Fields of purple and pink lupine.

 The steep sheep paths overlooking the sea at Te Hapu.

What did you know on the last day that you wish you'd known on the first?

If you don't like the weather in New Zealand, just wait fifteen minutes. It can be raining one second and sunny the next; the wind will pick up and almost blow you off your feet, followed by a glassy calm moments later. You have to be prepared for everything.

This was especially great:

The lamb: Lamb burgers, lamb chops, lamb pies, and especially the takeout lamb shoulder and scalloped potatoes at Pedro's House of Lamb in Queenstown.

But this wasn't:

Sand flies (also known as black flies). If you do anything outdoorsy, beware. These biting pests can attack eight months out of the year in En Zed.

This was touristy and worth it:

Hobbiton. At $79 per person, the Lord of the Rings movie set is not cheap, there are lots of other tourists, and you must stay with your guide — all things I generally hate. But — the twelve-acre "town" looks exactly as it did in the movies. It's set within a 1,300-acre sheep and cattle farm and seems to be inhabited. Smoke drifts from chimneys, tiny clothes hang on wash lines, real gardens bloom. It's charming.

What's the local specialty?

Anything having to do with sheep — the aforementioned lamb, merino wool clothing, shepherding dogs, you name it. Also: the wine. Especially good are the Marlborough Savignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinto Noir.

Hobbiton, New Zealand

Hobbiton: touristy but terrific. 

Tui, New Zealand

The glorious fantail in his natural habitat.

Speed round of favorites:

1. Meal: La Rumbla in Arrowtown. A world-class Spanish tapas restaurant in a tiny gold-rush tourist town north of Queenstown. The menu changes daily.

2. Neighborhoods to explore: Just south of Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula offers a great bike trail, an albatross colony, and New Zealand's only castle, Larnach.

3. Site/place/thing you did: At Castle Hill, giant boulders are strewn around the hillside like they were tossed there by a restless giant.

4. Cafe/casual hangout: The Hanger coffee cafe in Wellington. Killer coffee and the avocado (local tip: just call it "avo") and harissa toast with poached eggs and drizzle of Manuka honey equal heaven.

One thing I didn't get to visit, but wanted to:

Stewart Island — where it is still possible to spot kiwi in the wild and see many other endangered birds.

Any surprises?

I was shocked that it really didn't matter if a place was a Lord of the Rings filming location or not. The entire country simply is Middle Earth.

I can't stop thinking about:

New Zealand birds and birdsong. Birds are the only animals native to New Zealand and they are everywhere. The friendly and flitting fantail follows you along trails and fields, hovering around you like pint-sized helicopters. The curious and lionhearted little black robin hops around your feet as you hike, pecking at your boot strings and staring fearlessly back at your camera lens. The glorious blue-black tui fills every morning and dusk with a variety of melodic tunes.

The Instagram moment:

The fields and hillsides of blooming purple and pink lupine, with the craggy mountains beyond.

Number one tip I'd give a friend:

This is not a quick trip. Give yourself at least three weeks to explore.

Would you go back?

In a heartbeat.


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