Island Bay, a great place for kids

Where in Wellington do you find a hermit’s island, fishing boats, rockpools, a pirate ship, a haunted house, a treasure trove of books, dolphins, seals and penguins, fish and chips and ice-cream? In Island Bay of course. That’s why it’s such a great place for kids.

Tapu Te Ranga
Tapu Te Ranga

With flocks of seabirds wheeling above its rocky peaks, waves pounding its seaboard side and cut from the mainland by a narrow but treacherous looking channel, Tapu Te Ranga, Island Bay’s island, smacks of adventure. It was here, long ago, that the mysterious hermit of Island Bay lived with his goats. Long before that, the Tangata Whenua, or people of the area, took refuge here in times of war. Long, long before that, the legendary Kupe climbed its highest rock, to search for the octopus Te Wheke. Adventurers unable to resist the urge to explore Tapu Te Ranga are advised to be judicious in their choice of transport (reliable) weather (fine) and tide (definitely not outgoing) and to take water!

There are plenty of adventures to be had within sight of Tapu Te Ranga, on Island Bay beach – swimming, of course, sand construction projects, diving and bombing off the jetty, leaping around rocks and exploring rock pools. There’s also plenty to see, especially if you happen to be there when the fishing boats, followed by screeching seagulls, chug in from Cook Strait.

The story of commercial fishing in Island Bay dates back to the late 1800s when fishermen from the Shetland Islands and from Southern Italy migrated here to fish the rich waters around here. Many of the descendants of those fishermen still live in Island Bay today and many of them are still in the fishing business. Island is often called little Italy and an important feature on the local calendar is the annual blessing of the fishing boats.

Just over the road from Island Bay beach, Shorland Park’s pirate ship has fulfilled countless young adventurers’ Treasure Island and sea-faring fantasies for almost half a century. There’s a hillside slide, a paddling pool, a sandpit, a roundabout a band rotunda and lots of lawn to race around on when the pirate games have played out. When they have, it’s probably time for a little ghost spotting.

The former Convent of the Sacred Heart, Erskine College, stands against the hills at the city end of Island Bay. It’s grim-faced grey, neo-gothic building. A creaking gate opens onto a shadowed garden of overgrown trees and thick shrubs. The air seems chilly. Rows of blank windows reflect the clouds. It’s the kind of place that fires the imagination with stories of ghosts. This probably why Peter Jackson chose to set his film The Frighteners here!

Island Bay Bookshop
Island Bay Bookshop

Back down in Island Bay’s main street, Island Bay Stationers, with its incredible collection of children’s literature, has been feeding young imaginations for over 40 years. Generations of children, including my own, remember hours happily browsing and choosing books with the kind and gentle assistance of Mrs Fay Far who established the collection. This Island Bay institution is still full of reading treasures – for kids and parents alike.

Not strictly speaking, in Island Bay, but a bracing march over the hill and along the coast road, or a short drive of the same, you’ll find the Island Bay Marine Education Centre with a small aquarium and a touch tank – interesting stuff for budding marine biologists!

Beyond this, you enter a marine reserve where all kinds of interesting sea creatures make their homes. It’s beautiful walk, with stunning views out to sea, where often, you’ll see the inter-island ferries sail past and if you’re lucky, dolphins cavorting in the waves, or, if you’re even luckier, you might catch a glimpse of a penguin.

Further on still, on the windswept, sea-battered point where land ends, you’ll come to Red Rocks, home to a large colony of seals. Grandpas, grandmas, mums, dads, kids and baby seals lounge and play, chattering among themselves. It‘s fascinating to watch. The seals are quite untroubled by tourists and sightseers, until, of course, they get too close!

To end a day at Island Bay, there’s nothing better than fish and chips on the beach, or in Shorland Park, with an ice-block for dessert. The best place to find those fish and chips is Island Bay Fish and Chips at 137 The Parade Island Bay. Right next door, there’s a dairy for the ice-blocks!

Soldes! saldi! sales!

If not the realization of the ultimate dream, then it’s certainly a happy circumstance when the fashion-following traveler lands in Paris, Rome or London in the season of the Soldes, the Saldi or the Sales.

Harrod', London, Travelstripe
Harrod’, London, Travelstripe

Some years ago, I found myself in London for the last week of the winter sales, so one morning, when the weather was fine, the sky clear and the air mild enough for a pleasant walk but chilly enough to make little forays into warm shops a pleasant prospect, I trotted up to Oxford Street to hunt down some bargains. “50%, 60%, 75% off!” screamed the giant red letters on shop window after shop window. “Final days!” urged others. It was compelling, irresistible.

 Soon I was part of a shopaholic sisterhood dashing from store to store and floor to floor. Side by side we rummaged with grim intent through mountains of tangled t shirts, and twisted cardigans with missing buttons. We scrabbled through shelves of low-rise, skinny, stretch jeans with 12 inch waists and six foot legs. We flipped through racks jammed with dresses, jackets and shirts in dreadful colours and impossible sizes. I was beginning to lose heart. Clearly, London women were either 7 feet and 7 stone or 7 feet and 20 stone with a penchant for synthetics in purple, silver and mustard. There was nothing here for me.

 I shifted the search to menswear where the target market was evidently the super-sized chap with flamboyant taste. There were racks of XXL shirts in lurid stripes and tables piled with loud checkered caps. I gave up and headed to children’s wear and a room a-wash with steals in frilly hot pink. It was here, finally, that I scored the day’s great bargain hunting triumph. Beyond the racks of pink and frills, in dim and all but deserted boy’s wear, I fossicked patiently through shelves of jeans until I found one, the last, I think, in size 7-8.

 As I marched home through the now dark streets I found myself pondering two fundamental sale-shopping truths. Firstly it pays to hit the sales early, before all the real bargains are snapped up (those dedicated shoppers who camp on the pavement the night before the sale starts certainly know a thing or two) and secondly sale-shopping is not for the faint-hearted, it takes determination and lots of it.



Conquering Christchurch’s Port Hills in a Gondola

There are several routes through the rugged Port Hills; zigzag up the Bridle Path tramped into the tussock by the early settlers; cut straight through the centre via the Lyttleton tunnel; zoom around hairpin bends on the spectacular summit road; or like us, take the Gondola and swing straight up a sheer cliff face in a glass bubble on slim wire cable.

View of the Port hills from the Gondola
View of the Port hills from the Gondola

Accustomed to leaping virtual tall buildings, if not mountains on their Nintendo DS and their PSP, the kids laugh madly as a rocky hillside hurtles towards us, but we adults clutch each other’s sweaty hands in panic while, beyond a sign which tells us not to be alarmed if our capsule stops, the flat ground drops swiftly away.

As we dock at the summit a couple of school teachers lead a troupe of miniature mountaineers, all in high-visibility gear, over the skyline. We are indeed in the land that nurtured the Sir Edmund Hillary.

We picnic on a vertiginous slope. In front are the modest towers of Christchurch and beyond them, the Canterbury Plains stretch away to the Southern Alps. On one side the Pacific Ocean vanishes into the horizon. On another there are folds of dun coloured hills, Lake Ellesmere and a roll of surf on the Tasman Sea. Behind us Lyttleton Harbour lies like an opal in its volcanic crater bed. Impervious to the view but not the dizzying height and space the kids dance madly on the edge of the land and make wild leaps at the sky.

As we lurch off one side of the summit for the return trip in our glass bubble, the tiny hikers set off through the tussock on the other. We watch the line fluoro yellow hats until they vanish behind a ridge. Just in front of us a red sail drops from a cliff. We follow it as it circles the fading evening sky.

“Can we do that tomorrow?” ask the kids.

At Eat Deli Bar in Fairlie, they can do anything

High winds, heavy snow, fallen trees, power cuts – none of these stopped the “can-do” Cantabrians at Eat deli Bar in Fairlie.

Snow in the Mackenzie Country
Snow in the Mackenzie Country

It had been the heaviest dump of early winter snow in decades, but now, a fierce wind had blown up and the thaw had begun. The snow was thinning on the hillsides, the paddocks were mottled with green, there were mushy ridges along the roadside and the rivers were running high, swift and milky. Still, ahead, were the mountains, glistening white against the cloudless blue sky, with the promise of perfect, magical snow.

When we stopped for the first morning coffee fix in the small high country town of Fairlie, it was strangely quiet. There were a few people strolling on the street and a few more sitting outside the backpackers’ pub in the sun but in the shops the lights were out and nobody seemed to be home.

Finally, at the far end of town, we found Eat Deli Bar. The door was open, there were tables and chairs outside on the sunny pavement, people in the windows and a man behind the counter. Although the kitchen was in semi darkness, a dim shape was at work at the bench and there was a promising clatter of dishes. Before I could gasp out a plea for a flat white, the chap behind the counter explained that an old man gum tree up country had toppled in the wind and brought the powerlines down – the electricity was out, the espresso machine was down and coffees were off.

“Yet you’re all still working” I said in disbelief.

“Yes, well, we’re Cantabrians” he replied “We carry on, no matter what. So we can offer you a tea and…” he gestured to a blackboard of exotic teas and a cabinet of mouth-watering cakes.

We could have driven on. It wasn’t far to Tekapo, power, cafes, flat whites and lattes. But like snow, a “can-do” attitude is irresistible, so we stayed and discovered mango tea and beetroot cake.

As they say, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Eat deli-bar at 76 Main Street, Fairlie, offers dining, deli and espresso. It was established by a pair of Cantabrians who met in the UK and decided to bring the coffee culture back home. The food is delicious, the place is warm, attractive and comfortable and the staff can do anything.

Animals in the wild at Orana Park

It’s a crisp, sunny autumn morning and Orana Park, New Zealand’s only free range zoo, just outside Christchurch, is busy with holiday visitors. Still, a few steps down the path,  we’re in empty territory. Across a stream a trio of hippos paws irritably at the ground.  A troupe of wildebeasts watches nervously from the next enclosure. Curious emus trot over to their fence to eye us as we pass, while behind us, a young tiger warns us off with a growl. On the far side of a lake, a young baboon swings in a tree as his mother instructs anxiously from below.

Giraffes at Orana Park
Giraffes at Orana Park

Orana offers a range of close animal encounters. You can hand feed Giraffes, or step into a cage within the lions’ cage to see, hear, smell and, yes, almost feel them tear their prey apart at feeding time. You can pet and stroke the farmyard animals and walk among native birds in a giant aviary. In the dark of the kiwi house you can watch, as, just behind a glass partition, the shy, earthbound and anomalous emblem of the nation so bent on scaling to and soaring from great heights, grubs away in the undergrowth.

And as if to underscore this New Zealand penchant for soaring and scaling, just a little further along from the Kiwi House, we come upon a queue. It’s longer than the queue for giraffe-feeding. It’s longer than the queue for the little train that trundles visitors around the park. It’s longer even than the queue at the cafe. Kids of all ages, mums, dads and even grandparents wait impatiently to climb a solid wooden platform and hurl themselves along the sagging wire of the flying fox.

Messing about in a boat on the Avon, in Christchurch

Although the earthquakes swept away much of Christchurch and with it many of city’s iconic attractions, some classic traditions remain. One of them is that age-old Christchurch leisure activity – boating on the Avon.

Boating on the Avon
Boating on the Avon

The Avon meanders through Hagley Park under bridges, past sculptured gardens and grassy banks overhung with weeping willows. It’s a setting that could be anywhere in England. I could be in an English storybook I think as we paddle erratically upstream, two adults and two little boys in a bright red canoe. I half expect Ratty, Mole and Toad from The Wind in Willows to come paddling round the bend towards us. But my crew mates are on a different fantasy track.

Taking to the river in a canoe is certain to unleash almost anyone’s inner brave and as we paddle upstream, the boys hurl war cries at a passing punt. “How!” replies the boater-hatted punter, raising an arm in salute and spinning his craft dangerously towards us. My husband’s latent pirate comes to the rescue “Heave ho, me hearties!” he bellows. Churning up great fans of water on all sides, we lurch into safe waters. The spirit of the river is infectious. “Ship ahoy!” we shout to other river-folk! “Ahoy, land lubbers!” we call to watchers on the bank. “Ahoy there!” they shout back.

As they say in The Wind in the Willows, “there’s nothing like messing about in boats” And happily, in spite of everything, you can still mess about in a boat on the Avon.

Burke’s Pass, more than just a gateway

Turn inland from the coast at Timaru, halfway down the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, head towards the mountains, through the tiny settlement of Pleasant Point, through the picturesque town of Fairlie, climb up through the hills and you’ll come to Burke’s Pass. Burke’s Pass proudly proclaims itself “The Gateway to the Mackenzie Country” and indeed, that’s how it began.

Burke's Pass
Burke’s Pass

After the sheep rustler James Mackenzie had forged a path into the high country at the foot of the Southern Alps, other graziers followed. Burke’s Pass became a staging post, the last outpost, in fact, before the Mackenzie Country. There was a pub, a general store, a tiny church, a handful services, along with a huddle of houses and workmen’s huts.

These days Burke’s Pass is much more than the gateway to the Mackenzie Country and certainly much more than a staging post. A population of artists and creators have tapped into the essential character of the place.  There are businesses selling wooden goods, local souvenirs and memorabilia.  Vintage cars are parked about the place. Artist Julie Grieg works here, on beautiful paintings that portray the lives of the Mackenzie Country farmers, their tough merino sheep, their hardy collie dogs and the magnificent but merciless country where they lived and worked.

Oases of civilisation in the Waitakere Ranges

For all its wild, deserted coastline and its vast, untamed and uninterrupted bush, the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park has some picturesque and equally appealing oases of civilisation.

Carving at the Arataki Visitor Centre
Carving at the Arataki Visitor Centre

Firstly, there’s Titirangi. Once a service town for the farmers and bushmen who worked in the region in the early days, for over half a century it has been an enclave for artists, craftspeople, writers and musicians. It is a pretty little village, with lovely and beautifully restored old buildings, from quaint colonial to sleek art deco cinema. Nestled deep in the bush between the hills, in a truly inspirational setting and blessed nowadays with some great cafes, restaurants and shops, it’s a great spot to limp into after a great day out in the bush and on the beach.

Then there’s the Arataki Visitor Centre. Arataki means pathway to learning. At the centre visitors of every age can learn the story of Te Wao Nui o Tiriwa and Te Kawarau o Maki, the tangata whenua, or original people of the area. They can learn about the park’s flora and fauna, out its history and its future. Here Park staff offer help planning tours of the region and advice on how to get the best out of all it has to offer, safely. Designed by the local, Karekare architect, Harry Turbott, the building is a fine example of a modern, truly bi-cultural New Zealand architecture. It features a large pou (post) at the entrance and stunning interior whakairo (carvings). Fashioned out of two giant kauri from the surrounding forest, they depict the ancestors of Te Kawarau o Maki. The sweeping decks on the outside of the building offer panoramic views over the park and a great vantage point from which the less intrepid and capable can enjoy its vast and rugged splendor.

Finally, there’s Elevation. Hidden just under the brow of one of the Waitakere’s highest hills and 361 metres above sea level, this restaurant is worth visiting for the view alone. Look back and you take in the city of sails one side to the other and the Auckland region from coast to coast – the 28 volcanoes, the flats of South Auckland, the beaches, the parks – the lot. Look ahead and you take in forest as far as the eye can see. It’s breathtaking.  Elevation also serves up some really mean cuisine!

Auckland’s Wild West Coast

The spectacular, densely-clustered, thickly forested hills of the Waitakere ranges are bordered by a stunning coastline of soaring cliffs, dramatic black sand beaches and wild surf.

Piha Beach
Piha Beach

Turning off the main highway, we wind down a perilously narrow road. The bush crowds in on either side. Huge ponga trees fan overhead. There is no sign of civilization – no glimpse of a house between the trees, no passing car. The road flattens beneath us and the bush thins. We reach the wild, west coast at Karekare Beach. It’s a movie set land and seascape. On one side is the lonely windswept beach with its black sand and wild unruly surf, which formed the spectacular back-drop to scenes in Jane Campion’s The Piano. On the other side, steep cliffs soar skywards, their feet in thick bush. A sm of white water cascades down a strip of dark rock.

We leave the car and follow a steep narrow path through the bush to a crystal clear pool at the foot of the falls. Everything here seems larger and brighter than life; the tall pukapuka trees, with their soft broad leaves, (known to the locals as the Maori toilet paper!) the harakeke (flax) of Jurassic Park proportions. Even the delicate silver fern, our national emblem seems twice its usual size.

Back in the car we press on to Piha, another star beach, this time of the TV series Surf Rescue. One of New Zealand’s best surfing spots, it is also and one of its most dangerous beaches. The wind whips the iron sand off the beach and hurls it in our faces. A cold drizzle sets in and the black cliffs look dark and gloomy. The beach is deserted. But this, our guide assures us, is when Piha is at its most beautiful and powerful.

There’s a small square of weather-beaten of houses on the flat stretch of land just back from the beach. A few more cling precariously to the hillsides. It’s a wild and savagely beautiful place. There’s a feeling here that civilization is tenuous and that at any moment, nature could sweep it all away.


The Waitakere Ranges National Park

To the West of Auckland, little more than an hour’s drive from the CBD is the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, or Te Wao Nui o Tiriwa (the great forest of Tiriwa)

The Waitakere Ranges National Park
The Waitakere Ranges National Park

700 years ago, the Tangata Whenua (people of the land) Te Kawarau o Maki, hunted and gathered here in a forest rich with berries and birds and along a coastline rich with seafood. With the arrival of the pakeha, the area became the domain of farming and forestry. Dams were built to float logs downstream and mills were set up to log them. Thousands of hectares of bush were destroyed.

Fortunately much of it survived. Nowadays, Te Wao Nui o Tiriwa is a giant playground, which includes more than 16,000 hectares of native rainforest and coastline. There are 250 kilometres of walking tracks, dotted with stunning, secluded spots for fishing, swimming and surfing, picnicking and camping.

Within the park are some of the country’s oldest and tallest kauri trees, as well as other precious natives, like rimu and kahikatea. Indigenous birds, like pipiwhaurauroa or the shining cuckoo, tui, kereru and piwakawaka, or fantail thrive here. Te Wao nui o Tiriwa is also home to Kauri snails, pupu rangi, pepeke (Hochsetter’s frog) and pekapeka ( long-tailed bat). At dusk, titiwai or glow-worms light the bush darkness.

Thanks to Operation Forest Save, a campaign by the Auckland Regional Council, large areas of bush have regenerated and larger numbers of native birds have returned. However, many pests continue to threaten the area, most particularly possums which devour 20 tonnes of vegetation in the Waitakere Ranges every night.

Also located in this great forest and fed by the abundant rains it attracts, are the huge reservoirs, built between 1910 and 1970, that Auckland city’s water.

Many bush loving, brave and ingenious refugees from the big smoke make their homes in the Waitakere. Often, they’re harder to spot than the timid bush-dwelling birds. Letter boxes and the beginnings of driveways hint at habitation, but few rooftops break the line of the bush. By law here, you cannot displace a tree. If a tree stands where you plan to build your house, then the tree must remain and you must build around it. The bush is sacrosanct.