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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Buying A Car To Travel New Zealand

A cautionary tale by David Morris.

The best way to tour New Zealand is by car. With your own set of wheels you travel when you want, go where you want, and stop when you want. Coach options don’t allow that.

If you're travelling New Zealand for two months or more, buying a car can be an economical option. Cars are relatively cheap here because we import tens of thousands of used Japanese cars every year. You can buy a reasonable runner from about $1000 upwards.

The problem is selling it again when you are about to leave. If you don't get a sale by departure date you can end up nearly - or actually - giving it away. Be especially careful if your plans involve departing around late March or later. By then there are hordes of backpacker hopefuls trying to sell off their old cars, station wagons and vans. It's a murderous buyers market from then on.

Auckland airport’s car park regularly clears away vehicles abandoned by departing travellers because they were unable to sell them in time.

If I were a rich man (if only) I would buy cars at that time of year and sell them again as the summer heats up and the visitors arrive.

One way to avoid the problem is to buy with a guaranteed buy-back. Strictly speaking it should be called buy and sell-back. Under this arrangement you buy a car from an operator who gives you a guaranteed price at which they will buy the vehicle back when you've finished with it.

Other options are to buy the car either privately (directly from the owner) from a car dealer or through the auction system. While you can pay under $1000 for car - easily - don't expect such a vehicle to perform well or be reliable. They are, almost without exception, rubbish.

Private purchase

Best hunting ground is the car fairs which are held on Saturday and Sunday mornings Or through a newspaper called Trade and Exchange which is published every Thursday. Another option is TradeMe,, an online auction.

The car fairs are, however, the stalking ground of the unlicensed and illegal dealers. They are there in droves looking to snare the unwary traveller. As soon as you have driven the car out the gate they are gone and there's no way of ever tracking them down.

One safeguard when buying is to ask how long they have owned the car. Ask to see the registration papers. Ask if they are the current registered owner. If they aren't then be suspicious. Be Very Suspicious. In many cases they are dodgy old bombs that have been given a quick-fix on any obvious problems. You'll be lucky to make it half way down the island in them.

In my considerable experience, privately owned cars - especially older ones - are often in poor repair and readiness. Remember, you are going to ask this vehicle to run steadily for several hours at a time on a round trip of 6000-8000kms. Most privately owned cars haven't had proper tuning and maintenance for years. Expect to spend money - $150 to $300 - on them before starting out.

There are now a couple of places where backpackers can take their car/vans to display for sale. Backpackers Car Market, 33 Battersea St, Christchurch or 20 East St, Auckland. From my own observations prices are not cheap - probably because the sellers are trying to turn a profit on the vehicle in order to finance the next stage of their trip. You may, however, be able to squeeze a deal if their departure day is looming.

You’ll also find lots of vehicles offered for sale on the noticeboards of backpacker hostels. Again, I urge caution. These vehicles have already done one long, hard run around NZ – and often more than one. The current owners (and probably earlier owners too) have no incentive to spend any more on the vehicle than absolutely necessary. They often fail to even do that. If they do have to pay for repairs they usually get the cheapest, dirtiest quick-fix possible. So you will buy their leavings and once they’ve sold the vehicle they’re usually on the next plane outa here – you’ll have absolutely no come-back against them.

If you know nothing about cars, either get it checked by a qualified mechanic or give it a miss. If you are starting from Auckland, go see my mate, Glen Stewart of South Pacific Autos. Ph 636-3364. He will give you an honest appraisal and won’t charge you a fortune for it. (See below under Car Dealers for more information about him).

Alternatively, if you want a full-on inspection the AA does that at a cost of $165. Be aware, however, that any car under $5000 (and a lot of cars over that) is going to have faults. Don’t let a list of minor problems put you off.


Auction is a wholesale market. You'll buy cheaper here than anywhere. But it is also totally a "buyer-beware" market. There are some hideous things lurking inside cars at auction. Trust me - I've been caught with 'em from time to time. For cars over $3000 best option is Turners Car Auction.. There are few cars offered for under that price.

Sale And Guaranteed Buy-Back Operators.

These are professional car dealers or rental car operators. In general terms you will pay more but get a safer, more reliable car from them The only buy back operator I know of in Auckland is Downtown Rentals. - my own family's business. 31 Neilson St, Onehunga, Auckland. (Call first - don't just go there - I'm not always on site). Cars from $990. Station-wagons from $1590. Fully equipped SleeperVans from $2490.

These are vehicles that have been used in our rental car fleet - thus we know their history and we know that they have been well maintained during that time. The cars are tuned and serviced before delivery. They are road-ready to run with a recent Warrant of Fitness - a legally required safety check that must be done every six months. We also offer a warranty against major breakdowns.

The buyback price is half the purchase price, with a minimum deduction of $900. Thus, for instance, a $1500 car will have a buyback [price of $600. It is not compulsory to sell it back to us . . . if you can get a better price, take it, but at least you have the certainty of a minimum cash-back on the day you leave. (We’ll even give you a free lift to the airport).

Car Dealers

Car dealers in this country must be licensed. If you are buying from a dealer of some sort check that they are licensed. In general, dealers don't sell cars less than $3-4000 or so - it's just not worth their while. But if you are looking for a better class of car then they are a safe and reliable bet. They will also usually re-purchase the car when you've finished with it.

For cheaper cars try a mate of mine, Glen Stewart of South Pacific Automotive. He's a mechanic (does a lot of work on my cars) and a car dealer. He won't put you crook. (That's a Kiwism for “won't cheat you”). He's wanted by the authorities in 25 countries (according to the tales he tells) - but he's as honest as the day is long. His phone number in Auckland is 636-3364.

Again, look in Trade and Exchange for screeds of offerings from dealers.

Transfer of ownership

Our system of registering ownership is so simple it often causes a look of disbelief in the eyes of a traveller when I explain it to them.

The first thing to realise is that the "ownership papers" are not proof of ownership. They are merely a record of the persons who are registered as owners - or put another way, a register of people who claim to be owners.

You can, literally, walk into any Post Shop in the country and on proof of your identity, register yourself as the owner of any vehicle in the country. But the fact that you have registered yourself as the owner doesn't make you the owner. To be the true owner you have to have bought it off the previous owner.

Thus, whether the "registered owner" is, in fact, the legal owner is a matter of contract law not of mere registration.

If you buy a car from someone who is not the legal owner then you have no legal title to the car. The true owner can reclaim it.

If you are buying from a private person you must therefore be careful - ask them for their address and phone number. Check out whether they are listed in the phone book at that address. Don't accept just a mobile number - get a landline number.

If the vehicle has only recently been put into their name be particularly wary. Ask why. To be honest, in that situation I'd give the vehicle a miss unless you have a good and certain address for them - like, you've been to their house and met them.

I had a van stolen from me a while back - a little toe-rag working for me as a mechanic "sold" it to someone who walked in off the street. He just failed to either check with me first, or to hand over the money. Within 24 hours it was on-sold to a well-known dealer who is always at car fairs selling vans to tourists. Two innocent visitors bought it off him and had absolutely no idea that the vehicle they bought was nicked. They were stopped when they tried to cross Cook Strait on the ferry. $2400 down the drain. “Not my problem,” says I when I re-possessed the vehicle. I felt sorry for them – but it was either them or me that took the hit. I preferred it to be them.

To transfer a car into your name is easy: Go to a Post Shop and fill out a form. It'll cost you $9.25 and take about five minutes. You'll need proof of identity - a passport or driver's license and a local address.

Safety checks, registration and Road User Charges

For a car to be legally on the road it must have a Warrant of Fitness (usually called a WoF), must be registered (i.e. the tax must be paid) and if it is a diesel-powered vehicle the Road User Charges must be paid up to date.

The WoF sticker should be at the top right corner of the windscreen. It will have the expiry date printed on it.

If a car does not have a current WoF don’t buy it. Under any circumstances. The risks are just too great. Make sure that the warrant will be valid for at least the length of your stay here. When you come to sell it again you may have to get a new warrant check . . . at that time you may well discover a lot of unexpected costs in order to have the vehicle brought up to standard. WoF checks can only be carried out by Government licensed testers.

In the lower left corner of the windscreen, is a label with a date on it. The tax on the vehicle has been paid up to that date. It costs about $20 a month to register. In order to register any vehicle it must first have a current WoF.

Road User Charges are levied on diesel vehicles at a rate of 3.8c per km for cars and vans. They must be paid in advance and you must have a sticker on the windscreen giving details of the mileage purchased. If you are not up to date the penalty is three times the amount of RUC owing, thus if you are in breach it can be very, very expensive. Before buying a diesel car make sure the RUCs are up to date. If not, demand that the owner purchase enough RUC to make it legal because you, as the new owner, become liable for any unpaid charges.


Insurance is not compulsory in this country – and the sad fact is that the drivers most likely to hit you are the least likely to be insured. You don’t have to worry about personal accident insurance – that’s included as part of the registration cost of the car and is provided by the government operated Accident Compensation Commission.

You can get short term third party vehicle insurance from the National Auto Club. Many of the backpacker hostels also offer car insurance packages.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Temperance in Wellington, New Zealand, Is Such Sweet Revenge

There is a delectable irony about Wellington’s newest bar complex, The Temperance.

It’s in a 100 year-old heritage building that was originally the headquarters of the New Zealand Temperance Union - a bunch of wowsers who fought to bring prohibition to this country.

Fortunately they were thwarted – the votes of tens of thousands of New Zealand soldiers overseas in the First World War scuppered that mad notion.

Today the building has had a $4 million refit to create four floors of pub and club entertainment.

Isn’t that sweet retribution? So go to hell, you killjoys. You who would presume to know better how the rest of us should find our pleasures.

Mark you, the busybodies are still at it today. They’ll tell you what sort of shower you’ll take, what light bulb you’ll read by, what foods are good for you. But that’s not important right now . . . though it might be on Election Day.

On the ground floor of the building is The Atrium . . . a fairly standard up-market Wellington watering hole.

But on the first floor is Madame Jo Jo’s. When I saw the name on the directory in the foyer I sez to meself, I sez “Ullo. ‘ullo. Wot’s this then? Madame Jo Jo’s? Sounds like . . . you know . . . nudge, nudge, wink, wink . . . know wot I mean, know wot I mean?"

So I pushed button one and was swiftly transported to a world of soft lights and dark shadows and the silhouettes of three young women artistically displayed – not real women, dopey – just cut-outs on the wall. But it did give one cause to pause and wonder what earthly delights, what heavenly transportations lay beyond the curtains.

Whereupon, the mental picture of my darling wife and children, weeping as they watched the impending moral despoliation of their beloved husband and father, flashed upon the inner eye.

So I pushed button four and went up to The Millard.

Now anyone who knows anything about rugby in this country immediately knows what that means. The Millard Stand was the main grandstand at Athletic Park, home of Wellington rugby for many, many decades until they shifted to the very flash, very poshe new Caketin, or whatever expensively sponsored naming they have given it.

There’s an irony in a minor key here. If for nothing else, the Millard Stand was notorious for its precipitous, nay dizzying, steepness. From the heights of the higher rows one looked way, way down onto the verdant sward below which, from that altitude, seemed more like a postage stamp issued in memory of the Green Party.

From those heights, nose bleeds were a hazard. Oxygen may have been called for, even by front row props or hookers (are we back at Madame Jo Jo’s?). Strong young lads may have contemplated whether one could paraglide away from it all . . . or even bungy straight down into the middle of the affray below.

But, I digress.

This Millard, appropriately on the top floor of the Temperance, is the official bar of the Wellington Rugby Union and is equally appropriately decorated with all sorts of rugby memorabilia. A theme bar, no less.

But what of the desirable, the alluring, the temptational Madame Jo Jo’s? Well, no, it’s not a place in which young (and not so young) men may find solace in the arms(?) of gorgeous young temptresses. It’s an up-market night club. Mind you, said young temptresses may still be found there . . . and be on for no more than the cost of a night’s cocktails.

Thinking about that, though, the professional option may be cheaper.

So back to The Atrium bar on the ground floor in search of food and drink. How mundane after the momentary promises of sporting delights, of the field rugby and sofa rugby variety.

Pleasant enough bar, as bars go. Huge screens carrying a couple of sports channels, though given that it was the Time Of The Chattering Heads – Deaker on Sport et al – there wasn’t a lot of point since the sound was off.

If one is hungry do try the leek and pork sausages – a Welsh version, perhaps, of the much-loved bangers and mash. Three substantial sossies, served on a bed of mashed taties. Not bad value at $17 given the congenial surrounds.

So here’s a toast to The Temperance, and Madame Jo Jo whoever she may be, and may the ghosts of the Temperance Union ladies fly screaming into the dark night of their own open-all-hours licensed hell.

For more on Wellington's attractions have a look at

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Famous fighter planes stars of New Zealand museum

Picture the scene: The famous World War I fighter ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, has just crashed his equally famous dreidekker (triple-winged) red Fokker Dr1 aeroplane.

He lies dead alongside the wreck. Aussie soldiers gather around it and start ripping souvenirs from it.

You don’t have to imagine: You can see it, just as it really was on 21 April, 1918, in a dramatic diorama at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum, about 5 minutes from the centre of Blenheim in Marlborough, New Zealand.

The museum, opened in 2006 by a couple of aircraft enthusiasts, Jane and Graham Orphan, has 21 World War I fighters on display. Some of them are replicas built for various movies, others are original and include some that are the last remaining examples of their type in the world.

They are on loan from film director Peter Jackson's own air armada - believed to be the largest private collection in the world. He chairs the 14-18 Aviation Heritage Trust that manages the collection. His team of set-builders, who were responsible for Academy-award winning films Lord of the Rings and King Kong, built dramatic museum dioramas so realistic you expect to see the figures move at any moment.

It’s not just the aircraft that are on show. Among other treasures is a cloth cross cut from the starboard (right) side of von Richthofen’s plane by those same scavenging Aussies, a napkin ring made from fuel intake pipes on his plane and silver trophies he kept as souvenirs of his 80 kills.

Many of the aircraft at the museum are in flying condition and are the stars of the Classic Fighters airshow set for Easter Weekend 2009, April 10-12.

Learn more about the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum at

For more information on Blenheim and Marlborough go to

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Auckland, New Zealand, is tops for quality of life, and cheap too.

Its official: Auckland, New Zealand, is not only one of the best cities of the world in which to live, according to a recently published report from the international consulting group Mercer, but it's also cheap living.

On the quality of life index Auckland ranked 5th behind Zurich, Vienna, Geneva and Vancouver . . . not bad company to be keeping.

It ranked well ahead of Sydney (10th), Melbourne (17th) and Wellington, New Zealand.

Cities were ranked on such considerations as personal safety, schools and education, climate, personal freedom and political stability as well as quality of life and housing.

Which only goes to prove what Aucklanders have known all along. It really is a great place to work, live and visit.

Mercer’s most recently announced worldwide study, the cost of living in various places, puts Auckland well down the list at 78th which puts the lie to claims one hears occasionally that the cost of living here is on a par with that in Britain and Europe. In fact it is slightly cheaper than San Francisco and keeps company with cities like Beirut and Casablanca.

For more on Auckland's attractions have a look at

For more on the Mercer study go to

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forget seeing the world, see the whole universe from Mt John

By David Morris

High in the hills of New Zealand’s remote Mackenzie Country, in the backblocks of a country that is fairly much the backblocks of this planet, might seem an unlikely place for discovering new planets in the universe.

Mt John Observatory has, however, been an integral part of a world-wide team that has recently discovered the smallest planet in the universe, about 8000 light years away, outside of our own solar system.

You could find out more about that particular story by going to the website of the New Zealand Herald but wouldn’t it be just so much more exciting to get it right from the source, from the astronomers at the observatory itself.

In a remarkable entrepreneurial leap for scientists, the observatory has opened its doors (and telescope window) to visitors for day or night tours.

The observatory is just outside the township of Lake Tekapo in the middle of the Mackenzie Basin, a vast grassy inland plain first discovered by the notorious 19th century sheep rustler James Mackenzie.

This remote location, along with the fact that it’s stuck in the middle of the even more remote South Pacific Ocean, means astronomers can gaze into space unpolluted by urban-generated light.

It’s one of the things that really hits home with visitors – when you look upwards and outwards from a place like this you realise what an incredibly beautiful thing the night sky is . . . and how little we city-dwellers see of it in our every-night lives.

Observatory tours are run by Earth and Sky Tours, operating out of Lake Tekapo township.

The day tour is a unique opportunity to visit a fully functioning scientific observatory where astronomers from the University of Canterbury and Nagoya University in Japan, amongst others, are conducting exciting research.

Learn about the exciting new M.O.A. project which uses the largest telescope in New Zealand to observe over fifty million stars each clear night, searching for dark objects in distant space. It was as part of this project that they came upon that tiny planet circling a small star 8000 light years away.

You’ll also get panoramic views of the Mackenzie Basin - including Mount Cook and the majestic Southern Alps as well as learning about the interesting geological features and history of the area.

The tour lasts an hour and costs $15 for adults, $5 for children.

The night time tour takes you to the observatory high above the town where you explore features of the southern sky. The tour company provides the equipment and the guidance, all you need to take are keen eyes, warm clothes and a desire to see, learn and experience.

Navigating through the Southern Sky using a telescope, binoculars and the naked eye, you will explore amazing sites such as our own Milky Way Galaxy, the Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri - our closest neighbouring star at only 4.3 light years away, and Sirius - the brightest star in our sky.

View and learn about our closest neighbouring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, which grace our night sky along with constellations such as Orion the Hunter and Scorpius.

You may also have the opportunity to see star clusters like the beautiful Jewel Box, awe inspiring planets, immense clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies which test the limits of human imagination.

Tour lasts 2 hours, including 30 min travelling time and costs $68 for adults, $35 for children.

You Can find out more about the Mt Cook region and the Mackenzie Basin at

Declaration of interest: I have no connection whatsoever, commercially or personally, with the Mt John Observatory or Earth and Sky Tours. I just like what they do and wanted to tell you about their gig.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Let’s be careful out there in the NZ rain-forest

A salutary warning from David Morris.

Another tourist has died out in the New Zealand bush, the second in the last three weeks. They are tragedies that just didn’t need to occur. This time it was a young Polish guy who got trapped by rising floodwaters in a bush stream. Last month it was an Israeli girl who strayed off a well-marked commercial track.

Many visitors come to New Zealand with trekking (in this country it’s called tramping) high on their list of must-dos. They want to experience the pristine wilderness that has disappeared or been desecrated in so much of the rest of the world.

What they don’t realise is that the NZ bush is an unforgiving mistress. It is real easy to die out there . . .and every year many do. Some of them are experienced hunters and trampers, which just goes to show that even years of experience don’t always save your hide.

In 1990, for instance, a troop of professional soldiers were trapped in adverse conditions on Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park. Despite the fact that the party included experienced army instructors, five young men died from hypothermia in a storm that lasted for a couple of days

What chance, then, a kid who has hardly ever been out of a big city? Better than you think if you follow the rules of survival: Be prepared, don’t take risks.

At the same time, in the same Ruapehu storm, was a young Japanese guy who set out to climb to the summit of the mountain. When the blizzard came in he dug a snow cave and stayed in it until the storm had blown itself out. The mountain rescue team that headed uphill to get him presumed they were going to bring back a body. Instead they saw a little black speck, high up on the mountain, making its way down towards them. He survived where the solders died because he did what he had been told.

There are some simple precautions that an adventurer can take that will make the difference between life and a lonely death.

Rule 1: Give the outdoors the respect they are due. It is not a big Disney theme park out there. You can die very easily. Choose a trip in keeping with your experience and ability, Preferably go with other people, preferably those with more experience than yourself. Be conservative in assessing your abilities. If you’ve never done a lot of trekking don’t start by taking on a three or four day track through rough terrain. Indeed, limit yourself to no more than a half or full day walk.

Rule 2: Plan and prepare. Know where you are going. Get information on the terrain and likely weather. If you are in a Department of Conservation (DoC) area – national park, reserve etc – talk to the local rangers. Talk to hostel managers. Go to the MetService website for up-to-date forecasts . . . and believe what they tell you. In other words don’t go in blind. It might look easy on a map, but when the weather turns foul and the terrain is rough you are in the red zone. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (MSC) publications 'Going bush?', 'Hypothermia', and 'Survival' are essential for trip planning. Collect a copy from or visitor centres nationwide. Explore the DoC website - it’s an absolute goldmine of information and advice. Do this before you even arrive in the country.

Rule 3: Tell someone where you are going and what time you will be back. Tell the hostel manager, the park rangers, the police, a friend. Who cares, just tell someone who’ll respond if you fail to turn up. Tell them you will check in with them when you return. That way if you don’t check in they’ll raise the alarm. Deaths occur because it is a day or two before anyone notices you are missing. Sometimes even longer. DoC headquarters and huts have log books for you to record your intentions. Use them. And above all else, for god’s sake, when you end your trip, do log out. Search and Rescue in this country is done mostly by volunteers. They get called out, often in atrocious conditions, they leave their work or business, leave their family and responsibilities and head into the mountains and bush to look for you. They can be there for a couple of days before it is realised that you are sitting with your feet in front of a fire many miles away. Believe me, they will not be amused.

Rule 4: Be prepared, mentally and physically, for bad weather. It doesn’t matter if you are only going for a one hour walk, be prepared to spend a night or two in the open. You have no idea how easy it is to get off a bush track and not be able to find it again. It’s late afternoon by now, night is closing in and with it can come freezing rain and wind. Hello hypothermia, goodbye world. The weather right through this country is very changeable. A stroll in the sun this morning can end up a hard, head down slog in driving wind and rain.

Rule 5: Take appropriate clothing. What you take will depend on the adventure you are planning. If it’s a half day trip, at least carry a waterproof parka and a warm jersey. If you are staying out overnight you’ll need to plan for really foul weather . . . overtrousers, gloves, hat, longjohns, t-shirts as singlets, sturdy boots, 2 or 3 pairs of warm socks. Wrap the woolies in plastic bags to keep them dry. Your pack should have a plastic liner to keep stuff dry.

Rule 6: Take the right equipment. If you carry only one thing, make it a whistle. Don’t go into the bush without it. Why? If you get lost you’ll start shouting for help. Guess how long your voice will hold out? Not long enough. In a day or two when the searchers are slogging their way through the mud and the slush and the undergrowth they’ll be calling to you . . and they won’t hear your feeble, croaky reply. But they will hear a shrill blast on a whistle. Take matches and firelighters – the sort of lighters used to start a barbecue - or even just a candle. All in a waterproof container. A torch, first aid kit, a survival sheet (buy them at outdoor shops), map and compass. All this gear amounts to no more than a kilo in weight. You can carry it easily in a day pack, yet it is the difference between life and death. You can buy a survival pack at outdoor shops.

Rule 7: Take food for two or three days longer than you expect. Even on a short hike you should have a heapin’ helpin’ of chocolate bars, muesli bars, biscuits, scroggin (nuts and dried fruit mixture). Maybe some dried soup. There is nothing better, when you are feeling lost and miserable, than to be able to start a fire and boil up a mug of instant soup. Oh, yes, you’ll need to take a mug and a billy. Tea, coffee, sugar, sachets of powered milk. Maybe something like cheese, salami - the fat content is high value energy.

If nothing else, these precautions allow you to stay warm and dry and reasonably well fed. That will keep your morale high. People die simply because they give up under the misery of the cold and the hunger.

Let me say again: The mountains and the rain-forest in New Zealand are beautiful beyond measure, and perilous to match. They are not a kid’s playground, a walk in the park.

The Boy Scouts’ motto had a lot going for it: Be prepared.

And live.

David Morris writes a travel guide to New Zealand. Read it at He also runs a rental car business called Downtown Rentals at

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Baking Italiano-style In Kaiwaka. (Where?)

Kaiwaka in Northland, New Zealand, a village of some 537 souls (according to the 2006 Census), sits astride State Highway 1, 20 clicks north of Wellsford.

It’s not what you’d call the cuisine capital of the country, but it does have one seriously redeeming gastronomical saving grace: La Nonno, an Italian bakery and cafĂ©.

Apart from a superb range of artisan Italian-inspired breads and pastries they bake a pie to die for. (My doctor tells me if I don’t lay off the pies that’s exactly what will happen to me . . . but what would he know? I won’t live longer, it’ll just seem longer).

Try the butter chicken pie, not exactly an Italian classic, I realise, but a wonderful manifestation of the pieman’s craft.

Even if pies aren’t your comestible of choice, the coffee alone is worth the stop. Again, maybe it’s the Italian influence – you gotta admit, the Italians do do wildly good coffee – but this cup is a cut above the rest of the run-of-the-road cafes along the way.

A highly recommended stop.

Read more about Northland on my webpage at

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wairarapa in New Zealand Is a Way Cool Place To Go

Took a trip last month from Wellington through Napier and Taupo on my way home to Auckland.

Made me realise what an under-rated destination the Wairarapa region is. To start with it's physically beautiful - soft, gently rolling grassy downlands; the main road meanders easily along the flats between two lines of hills. The farmland is absolute picture postcard stuff.

Everybody waxes lyrical about Martinborough with its big rep as a wine growing area (for good reason), but some of the other towns are equally as interesting, Greytown and Carterton especially. These are classic Kiwi country towns that everybody ignored for decades . . . thus they were never upgraded with a bulldozer and have retained that wonderful snapshot of life in Victorian and Edwardian colonial New Zealand.

Greytown, a thriving country village, is a living museum of Victoriana. It was once the leading township in the region, but the railway by-passed it in the 1870s and the town slumbered on for the next hundred years. Fortunately, because of that deep sleep, it never got modernised, so there they all are - those delightful, authentic old buildings. The advent of the Martinborough wine growing region and resulting steady stream of tipplers travelling to and fro has revived Greytown's fortunes and it is now well serviced with great accommodation options and some superb cafes and restaurants.

Here are just a few suggestions:.

The White Swan. A hotel in the town. You could be forgiven, looking at it, to think that it's been serving the needs of the road-weary for a hundred years. In fact it was a service station only a few years ago, though in fairness the building itself began life in 1890 as a railways administration block at Woburn near Wellington. It was trucked in and refurbished with 13 themed suites and studios - mostly with an Eastern flavour. Tw/dbl $139-$269 per night.

Bright House another landmark. In 1856, enterprising local blacksmith Richard Bright combined 2 small cottages to qualify for a land ballot. It is thought that this orignal lower half is the oldest remaining dwelling in Greytown. The upper storey, built in the more stately late Victorian style, was added in 1891, the staircase being artfully designed to make the transition appear quite natural. You can stay there for $NZ150 a night.

At Wakelin House Restaurant and Courtyard Cafe in Carterton you can dine in a genuine antique. The house was built in 1872,. replacing an earlier cottage on the site occupied by Richard Wakelin, NZ's first journalist and founder of the Wairarapa Standard newspaper. Menu is Italian influenced - dishes include Carpaccio (marinated beef fillet), Salmoni Affumicati Penne (salmon in a creamed dill sauce with penne). Mains $24-28.

Or how about Cuckoo Cafe. Worth the visit if only for the decor - eclectic tatt I'd call it, but another writer described it at "delightfully bohemian in pink" - pink because that's the colour they've used to tart up the tatt. Does breakfast and lunches 11-4. Just a great place to utterly waste a Sunday morning doing brunch and reading the paper.

For wildlife enthusiasts - or if you have kids (which sometimes amounts to the same thing) - or if you just want to take a timely stop try the Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre. Here you can get close to some of NZ's most precious and endangered birds like saddleback, stitchbird and kokako. Indeed with "nest-cam" you can get right inside their nest. These are some of the rarest bird species in the world and they're being patiently nursed back from the abyss of extinction. Among them, is the kaka - a natural knockabout clown who never fails to amuse watchers at feeding time.

I'm as guilty as anyone in underselling this place . . . I'll have to update the information on the Hawkes Bay / Wairarapa page on my website at

Give me a day or two and it shall be done.