Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tourist Trail Diversions

The goal of getting “off the tourist trail” is often talked about. While the tourism industry in NZ is well-equipped to handle your traveling needs without inhibiting your adventurous spirit, it is still nice to experience corners of the country without any tour guides or queues! For the sake of Blog4NZ I’ve decided to share a few of my favorite hidden gems that I’ve experienced thus far. I have found it extremely helpful to stay in small backpackers (hostels) where the managers truly know and love their area. I am a BBH member and tend to find smaller, homier respites within this community. Some of my favorite spots were by local recommendation from a hostel owner, and now I will share them with you! To save myself from stressing about ranking each spot over the others, I will present them in the order I experienced them, which happens to be roughly a north-to-south arrangement.

Lonely Bay

Lonly Bay from Shakespear Lookout, Cooks Beach,
Coromandel Peninsula, North Island

While visiting Whitianga, I stayed (with my road-trip friend, Nate) at On the Beach Backpackers. It is actually a YHA backpackers, but we were there before the summer season so it was not very crowded! They have free kayaks to borrow so first thing in the morning we took the manager’s advice and paddled across the harbor and around a point to Lonely Bay. We dismounted the open-top kayaks (however gracefully) and proceeded to spend the rest of the morning on a deserted beach, just the two of us!
There are rock formations on either end of the beach that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring – I climbed up to the top of one of the higher rocks and just sat for a while, getting lost in the massive expanse of ocean in front of me! We sunbathed and frolicked in the surf, and saw 2-3 other people come down a foot path but leave after a brief minute. There were a few boats that passed by but for the most part it was just us and our kayaks! I did a little exploring and scrambled up a steep bank to Shakespeare’s Lookout where I came across an access road and a monument with a fantastic view. The spot was so special that when my family came for the holidays I insisted we visit again during our one day spent on the Coromandel! With my family we approached by car from the other side of the inlet (near Hahei), visited Shakespeare Lookout, and then took the long staircase down to Lonely Bay. In early January it was a bit more populated than late October, but it was still a lovely place to spend an afternoon!

Spa Park on the Waikato River

Spa Park on the Waikato River, Taupo, North Island

During my tour with Flying Kiwi, we stopped near Taupo to check out Huka Falls. We were encouraged to bring our togs (“swimming costumes” as the word was defined for us) and enjoy the walk from Huka Falls up the Waikato River into town. The whole walk was spent admiring the brilliantly blue rushing waters and wondering where, exactly, we were expected to swim. Alas our question was answered as we came upon a bridge with a few swimmers huddled underneath! We ducked into the bushes to change and despite it being November and the ice blue waters looking rather frigid, enjoyed a nice warm swim! How is that? There is a hot spring that feeds (via cute little waterfall) into the Waikato river. Getting too close to the waterfall wasn’t an option as it was boiling hot, but too far away from the bridge and you might go numb! There was a perfect mix of hot and cold somewhere in between and it made for a lovely little spa! Again this spot struck such a positive cord in my memory that on my family’s drive from Palmerston North up to the Coromandel, I planned for us to stop halfway in Taupo and enjoy a dip in the river-spa! I’m so happy to have gone back because the timing made it a very different place. Traveling in the first days of January during peak tourist season, the swimming area was much more crowded than before. We still went in and soon discovered that because it was so warm out, you had to be much further from the spring in order to be comfortable! I was impossible to even approach the bridge without burning your feet (and yet, back in November there were only a select few of us who jumped in the freezing part for fun but were quickly found huddling under the bridge to warm up!) The river water was still cold, but it was as if Mother Nature expanded the hot area in order to accommodate a larger crowd during the summer months – perfect!

Swimming hole in the Maitai River

Enjoying my underwater camera, Maitai River, Nelson, South Island

Slightly less dramatic but definitely just as serene (assuming you catch it when the kiddos are in school) is a swimming hole recommended to me by the Green Monkey backpackers in Nelson. They gave out a great little map with all of the hostel’s favorite spots around the city and I spent a bit of time there so got to check out several of them! The Maitai River runs through town and there is a great walking/biking path that follows alongside it. Just outside of the developed housing area the path turns to dirt and leads to a perfect little swimming hole. There are a couple benches and some big rocks to climb down, then a nice pool deep enough to accommodate the rope swing hanging from the other side! There is even a step-ladder built into a tall tree for the real adventurous jumpers (no, thanks!) The spot is certainly popular for city kids to come cool off, but it can be tranquil if you catch it on a quiet day or are able to plan for a visit during school hours! I have been back many times and often had the place to myself, or shared it with a few other swimmers. I was even able to swim “laps” as the river is deep enough for a good stretch! So if you are in Nelson and looking for a place to cool off, then head up the river to the local swimming hole! Also, another special spot in Nelson (and nearby the Maitai River) is the Centre of New Zealand – a steep walk to the top of a hill with panoramic views of the surrounding area and a monument marking the geographical center of the country!

West Coast beach on the Truman Track

Truman Track beach, Punakaiki, South Island
(photo credit: Louise Humphreys)

Another local recommendation was in Punakaiki. My road-trip-climber-friend Louise (thanks for the pic!) and I were curious about any local climbing and were told to walk to the end of the Truman Track (a very short, family friendly trail) and up the coast on the beach to find some good bouldering. The trick is that access is tide-dependent and we unfortunately missed our low-tide window. Instead, we explored as far as we could, found some nice tide pools, caves, and fascinating rock features that housed a variety of wildlife. We did some climbing around on the rocks and spent a couple hours just playing. One of the coolest parts of this beach in particular was being able to see sand being made! The farther away from the sea, the bigger the stones were, and the pebbles got smaller and smaller approaching the water. It was one of many lovely stops on our road trip, but I think the area is fairly representative of the West Coast. The portion of the coast we saw was beautiful and I’d love to go back to actually get to where we intended to go!

Cave Stream Scenic Reserve

Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, Castle Hill, South Island

On my South Island road trip with Louise we planned for a few days of climbing at Castle Hill. Nearby was another planned destination: the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. We had explored a few caves along the West Coast, but they were never more than a couple hundred meters deep. The Cave Stream, however, is 560m of following – and walking through – an underground stream. It was certainly a step above the fenced off caves we had encountered earlier! The signage instructs you to check the depth of the first pool as normal flow is about waist deep. The cave is not to be attempted in heavy rains since waters rise quickly, but we hit it on a perfect afternoon! It was great to be free and able to access the cave unguided, as both Louise and I have significant outdoors experience and are often wary of paying for guided tours. We brought our head torches and layered with synthetics to explore the limestone passageways of the cave, and it was definitely an experience! Walking upstream, you had to climb up short waterfalls and wade through pools that were waist deep at times. There were a few little areas to explore but it was easy to get back to the stream as you could always hear it. The cave was maybe 5m high at times but squeezed down to less than a meter at the very end. Don’t worry though, there were no real claustrophobic sections, just heaps of darkness. It was great and I would totally do it again, I just only wished it went on for longer!


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