CLIVE, NEW ZEALAND — Sometimes, things look better on paper than in reality, as we discovered today as we explored Taupo and Napier, two famous tourist destinations on the North Island.
Taupo is on New Zealand’s largest lake, nearly twice the size of its second-largest lake, Lake Te Anau in Fiordland National Park. Mount Ngauruhoe and snow-capped Mount Ruapehu rise above the opposite shore of Lake Taupo. There’s a beach and a cycle trail along the lake, plus gelato and boat-rental stands. The whole town had a touristy beach-community vibe.
Our apartment at Sails on the Lake had a balcony with a great view of the lake and the mountains, a hot tub and a kitchenette, but we chose to dine out tonight, as the vibrant downtown area offered a promising selection of restaurants with outside seating and views of the lake. We counted ourselves lucky to score the last table with a view at busy Dixie Browne’s without reservations, and unfortunately, that’s when our luck ran out.
The otherwise very friendly waitress seemed lost regarding our questions about the menu and beer selection, and once the food arrived (lamb shank on mashed potatoes for Beth, snapper with rice and béarnaise sauce for Torsten) we realized that this was really more of a bar food kind of place more suited to burgers and steaks. The “rich cranberry and rosemary jus” on Beth’s lamb shank was just a brown gravy, and the fish was better without the béarnaise sauce.
After that, we briefly stopped by the local grocery store for some breakfast fixings and enjoyed the sunset over the lake from our apartment.
The next day, on our way to Napier, we stopped at Huka Falls just outside town. Our hotel’s manager suggested it as a worthwhile stop. The falls are the largest on the Waikato river, which flows out of Lake Taupo and at 425km is New Zealand’s longest. The river is also used to generate hydroelectric power in eight power stations along its path, accounting for 15 percent of New Zealand’s electricity (which is generated 100 percent by renewable means).
We later learned that the falls are also New Zealand’s most visited natural attraction.
This explained the throngs of people who were trying to get into the parking lot. We parked on the side of the access road to avoid the craziness as much as possible and walked the short distance to the falls area, which was equally crowded with people taking selfies and posing for pictures on the bridge over the gorge.
It’s a shame that the large crowds and their behavior detracts from the otherwise stunning natural setting: A river about 100m wide being forced through a narrow gorge, creating rapids of light green-blue water culminating into a giant waterfall at the end. We started to hike the river trail, and after a few meters, the crowds already thinned to a trickle and it became peaceful again.
The drive to Napier went swimmingly, and we thought it was a nice, easy drive. And then we hit the mountains on the eastern coast, with all the by now familiar switchbacks and curvy driving. Shortly after we passed Te Pohue, we and our very underpowered, 13-year-old Nissan Sunny needed a break, so we stopped at a picnic area and dug into the sandwiches Beth had whipped up in the morning: Cheese, tomatoes, avocado, orange bell pepper. Even though the area was just off the road, it was quiet enough to listen to some of the unique bird songs in the area — one sounded like a “game over” sound from a video game, with a chipper tweeting and then a lowering “Brrrrr” at the end.
Napier, which together with Hastings further inland forms another “Twin Cities,” is known for its Art Deco architecture, which was built after an earthquake destroyed the city in 1931. On the way into town, though, we had to drive through a lot of very modern, ugly strip-mall and big box store architecture. Napier is also the site of an attempted German U-Boot attack in January 1945, at the end of World War II.
The U-Boot U-862 sank some freighters off Australia and escaped to New Zealand, where it went around the northern tip at Cape Reinga and eventually to Napier. The city or the freighters were not darkened at night, which surprised the Germans. Nevertheless, when they tried to sink a fully lit freighter leaving the port, they missed, moved on and eventually were ordered out of the area.
For whatever reason, I was transported back to the 1940s and as I walked the oceanside promenade, the thought that there might be a U-Boot just off the coast was an eerie feeling. The ocean front left us cold — a lot of dried-up grass, few trees and in general just an open, not very inviting place, compared to what it could be.
We did see a few cool and unique parks, though: A skating park with a grand stand and a “playground” which was designed to help teach kids about road rules. There was a complete network of roads, including roundabouts, cross-walks, road signs and even traffic signals. The kids who were playing there weren’t paying any heed to any of it, though, and were running red lights, biking on the wrong side of the street, etc.
We eventually turned around, picked up some gelato, and explored the downtown pedestrian shopping area, which did have a lot of cool art deco buildings, and although there was a large number of shops catering to tourists, it seemed like a place where locals would also come to go and shop. We briefly toyed with the idea of taking a guided walk, which would have started at 5 pm, but decided against it.
Instead, we drove to our place for the next two nights in Clive, which is about half-way between Napier and Hastings. The cottages we stayed at were really nice and spacious, and the landscaping was meticulous. There even was a wall of jasmine, whose strong fragrance Beth enjoyed when we walked into the courtyard. Since we had a late, large lunch we were happy with polishing off our remaining cheese and crackers on the porch.
On my way to the car to pick up something, I ran into the owner Neil and his new puppy. We chatted for a good long time (Neil and I, the puppy hadn’t learned how to speak yet). He works with dairy producers and cheese makers to help them automate their processes and travels a lot internationally for work. He had just returned from Australia and had also worked in Tillamook, Oregon, and in Plymouth, Wisconsin.
His last visit to Wisconsin was the week before the election, and he was incredulous about how people there could vote for the current White House occupant. It seems to be a recurring theme in our travel that Kiwis are a well-traveled, international-minded bunch who are very aware of what is going on in the world, and none too happy about how US policy will affect them and the world.