Magical New Zealand: coastal South Island

Since my last post five days ago, we’ve basically just been driving around. We spent three nights with an absolutely lovely family in Invercargill, and I’m writing now from a hotel in Dunedin. It has been a truly magical time, steeped in amazing scenery. We’ve had good food and even better conversations, and a tremendous lot of serendipity. I wish I could tell you everything, but it’s all I can do to just post this before falling asleep. So: pictures.

Oamaru to Invercargill

Most of Friday went to the nearly four-hour drive from Oamaru, on the southeast coast, to Invercargill, the southernmost city in the country. It wasn’t our first long drive in New Zealand — that honor goes to the three-hour trip from Christchurch to Oamaru — but this route was much more scenic. We started along the coast and eventually moved inland to agricultural areas. We reached Invercargill just after dark.

Beach near Oamaru, New Zealand

Sea plants on the beach near Oamaru, New Zealand

Grinning on the beach

Beach, South Island, New Zealand

Horses on a beach, South Island, New Zealand

Gorgeous clouds over a beach, South Island, New Zealand

Purple flowers

Seaweed wrapping around a rock on the beach

Lisa playing with a big piece of kelp (?)

Lisa playing with a big piece of kelp (?) in New Zealand

Lisa playing with a big piece of kelp (?) in New Zealand

Sea sponge and plants washed up on beach

Late afternoon grazing sheep, New Zealand

Around Invercargill

On our first full day in Invercargill, we drove out of the city to visit two picturesque waterfront towns: Bluff and Riverton. Both were pretty (and offered tasty food), but as it turned out, we were most delighted with two unanticipated stops within the city itself.

First, because we spent less time in Bluff than we planned, we decided to go to Riverton. But we didn’t have directions, nor a detailed map, so I said, “Let’s just go toward the coast.” The road we took did not lead to Riverton, but it did take us to Oreti Beach, the first beach we’d ever seen where you can drive directly onto the sand. It was a misty, overcast, atmospheric afternoon, and in that light the beach felt like pure fantasy.

Natural sand patterns, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Walkers on Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Stone and sea plants, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Light and sky, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Cars, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Looks like a crab but is plant matter

Erik walking in dunes, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Erik walking in the dunes, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Grassy dunes, Oreti Beach, New Zealand

Much later, on our return from Riverton, we stopped by the town museum and info centre. It was closed, but we decided to stretch our legs under the trees by the car park. I looked down at the tree roots and almost screamed to discover amanita muscaria. See, I told you — fantasyland!

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

Amanita muscaria outside the Invercargill Visitors' Centre, New Zealand

The next day was rainy, which was fine with us as we were ready for a break. We visited the local farmers’ market where we bought lunch and provisions for the next day’s drive: apples, a pie, a jiggly custard square, and a tray of biscuits.

Assorted cookies

After the market, we spent a few hours at the museum and info centre, where there’s a tuatara breeding facility. Although these ancient creatures look like lizards, they’re actually more closely related to dinosaurs! We didn’t see any of the adults, but there was a small tank of the baby tuatara, and they were the perfect artist’s models, because they don’t move very much!

Sketches of tuatara

We finished our day with an early dinner at a local pub. The proprietors greeted us very warmly, and we enjoyed our Sunday roast and cider in a cozy corner nook. I took photos, but they don’t look as delicious as the experience was, so I’m leaving them out.

Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins

Dunedin is actually between Oamaru and Invercargill, but we’d bypassed it on our way down (it was graduation weekend and we’d been advised there would be no accommodation whatsoever). Rather than return to the city via the same route, we took a longer and more scenic tour through the Catlins. Our Invercargill hosts had described the Catlins as “the back of beyond,” and they surely were. After we’d been driving for about an hour I said, “Is this the most rural place we’ve ever been?” Erik replied, “I was just thinking that!” We passed beach, pasture, mountain, and forest, all within a four-hour drive (though of course it took longer with stops).

Overcast in the Catlins, South Island, New Zealand

Roadside cows, South Island, New Zealand

Roadside cows, South Island, New Zealand

Sign for Slope Point, New Zealand

Signage and sheep at Slope Point, New Zealand

Sheep at Slope Point, New Zealand

Erik at Slope Point, New Zealand

Signage at Slope Point, New Zealand

Goofy aside: When we got to Slope Point I really had to pee. Since there was no one else around, I just went on the rocks. This is only the second time I’ve done that out in the open. The first time was in Iceland. So I have now “marked my territory,” kitty-style, in the far north and far south of the earth. 😉

Slope Point, New Zealand

Slope Point, New Zealand

Sheep at Slope Point, New Zealand

We stopped for a late lunch at one of the few cafés we passed along the route, a place called the Whistling Frog. Based on their signage and their location in the heart of the Catlins, I thought they’d be serving forgettable tourist fare. Instead, we enjoyed delicious meals and good leaf tea, and seats next to the fire. It was a wonderful break after hours of driving.

Inside the Whistling Frog Cafe, The Catlins, New Zealand

Inside the Whistling Frog Cafe, The Catlins, New Zealand

Lunch at the Whistling Frog Cafe, The Catlins, New Zealand

At one of our earliest stops that day, the man at the Lignite Pit — a pretty lake made from a former coal mine — gave us a free Catlins map and suggested that we visit a spot called Nugget Point. Hours after that conversation, we turned off the main highway and made our joggly way up the gravel road to the point. The road was quite narrow and it wound up a cliff with no barrier between us and the sea down below. Scary really, and the walking track was no less so.

Sign, Nugget Point, New Zealand

Trail and lighthouse view, Nugget Point, New Zealand

The “nuggets” that give the point its name:

The nuggets of Nugget Point, New Zealand

Gridded observation deck, Nugget Point, New Zealand

The return walk to the car park:

Trail, Nugget Point, New Zealand

We’d been lucky not to pass any cars on the way up, but I wasn’t sure we’d manage the same on the way down. As we neared the base of the mountain road, I looked at the edge of the curve ahead and noticed what looked like a smooth, pale brown, sculpted rock. My thought process was instant and accurate: “That looks like a statue. There was no statue when we drove up. Therefore it can’t be a rock. Therefore it must have come there on its own, which means… it’s an animal!”

Sea lion on the road to Nugget Point, New Zealand

Sea lion on the road to Nugget Point, New Zealand

Sea lion outside car window on the road to Nugget Point, New Zealand

We referred to it as a seal, but now we think it’s a sea lion. It was awkward and beautiful and just… a surprise. The whole rest of the drive to Dunedin we could not stop buzzing over this encounter. One of the highlights of our entire trip, I suspect.

Edwardian Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

It’s so weird that our South Island trip has ended up so historically-minded, but somehow it has (not so surprising I guess, given my tastes, but I didn’t plan it this way!). First there was Victorian Oamaru, and today, an Edwardian mansion and a Victorian so-called castle.

This morning we went to Olveston, a marvelous historic home in the hills above Dunedin. We didn’t know the place existed until last night, when we arrived at the hotel and the manager/owner (a friend of Erik’s brother Elbert) gave us some brochures from the city’s most popular attractions. After a short but very steep walk, we joined one of the morning tours. Like Newhailes, the stately home we visited outside Edinburgh, until it was given to the city, Olveston was occupied by members of the original family and has retained its intimate, lived-in feel. But unlike Newhailes (which is, after all, much older), the home was built for modern convenience, and inside it feels spacious, airy, welcoming. Photos aren’t permitted inside, but you can take a virtual tour at the website (use the “previous” and “next” text at top to navigate). I couldn’t help gasping at many of the beautiful rooms, especially the well-appointed kitchen and scullery with their complete set of blue-and-white Delft ware, and the billiard room with its pool table bigger than our bed.

Exterior of Olveston House (built 1906), Dunedin, New Zealand

Best of all, because the family made its fortune importing musical instruments, the drawing room contains a gorgeous 1906 Steinway grand piano — and the guide asked if anyone wanted to play it! A lady from Brisbane gave it a try, then Erik and I took a turn. The bench was upholstered in pale green and its sides curved up; it was just the right size for duets. We seated ourselves in it and realized that the sheet music on the stand was open to Schumann’s Träumerei — a piece that, coincidentally, Erik’s sister-in-law spontaneously played for us at our wedding lunch, exactly seven years ago. Together we managed to sightread the first page of it, on that lovely old piano. That was a completely unexpected treat.

Our Olveston visit was such a pleasure, it could have been enough for the day, but we’d already planned to drive the Otago Peninsula. It wasn’t a long drive to Taiaroa Head, at the end of the peninsula, but the road was as curved as a sulcus, and ran right alongside the water. We took it slowly.

Driving the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

Driving the Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

In one inland spot: a kitty!

Cat along the roadside, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

View from road to the Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

View from road to the Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

At the head is the Royal Albatross Centre, the only mainland albatross colony in the world. Erik and I have been fascinated with albatrosses (I keep wanting to call them albatri, like octopi) since he saw the stuffed one in the Auckland Museum and couldn’t believe how huge it was. When we looked them up online, we learned that they mate for life (after a sometimes years-long courtship process involving charming dances), can soar for hours without flapping their wings, and live on the sea for years at a time (without touching land). Just read the Wikipedia entry — it is soooo interesting!

At the centre we also learned that the royal albatross spends its oceanic life in the winds circumnavigating Antarctica, and that if conditions are right, it can fly from New Zealand to Chile in just nine and a half days. We spotted a few of these magnificent birds in the sky above the centre (didn’t get good pics though), and as part of the centre tour, we also got to see some of the months-old chicks, who were so fluffy that one of our fellow visitors couldn’t stop commenting that “they look so cuddly!” They really did, and the guide said they’re not afraid of humans, since they evolved without land-based predators. One of them busied itself rearranging its nest; it was the cutest thing.

Nesting baby albatrosses, Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

I also made a fast sketch from the observation point, while we were hoping the parents would come feed their chicks (they did not):

Quick sketch of the view from the Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula, New Zealand

We left the albatross centre around four to make it to Larnach Castle before closing time. This is really a stately home, not a castle; it was built in the 1870s by a businessman and politician (who would eventually shoot himself in Parliament, after discovering his son and his much younger third wife having an affair!). When I looked up Larnach Castle yesterday, I noticed a line on the website announcing that this month only, the castle is open to the public for dinner (normally this privilege is reserved for guests of the castle accommodations). So I called this morning and booked us in for dinner.

It was a spectacular drive uphill to the castle.

Late afternoon hills on the road to Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Late afternoon water view from the road to Larnach Castle, New Zealand

View from road to Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Once there, we made a quick-quick tour of the gardens.

Pink and green succulents, gardens, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Lisa on a big chair, gardens, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

View, gardens, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Just before five, we entered the castle, where we learned we were the only ones for dinner that night! Apparently this is quite unusual. They asked if we wanted an earlier dinner since it was just us, so we moved it up half an hour, and then spent the remaining time exploring the public areas of the house. It’s quite a contrast from Olveston, which has been well cared for since the beginning; after the often tragic deaths of the members of its original family, Larnach Castle went through several rapid changes of owner, even going through periods of neglect and vandalism, before its current owner bought and restored it. To me the amazing thing about visiting, though, is that there is no tour — we were given a map and then allowed to wander at will. Again, photography not permitted inside, but I made a couple of sketches, and took photos from the outdoor viewing area of the fourth-floor tower.

Sketch, bedroom, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Family motto in stained glass, which I sketched from behind (hence the mirror-image text) because it was easier to see from the stairs than the foyer.

Sketch of family motto (mirror view), "Sans Peur," Larnach Castle, New Zealand

The tower and views:

Sunset view from tower, Larnach Castle, New Zealand
Tower, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Lisa and Erik, tower, Larnach Castle, New Zealand

Quick sketch of view from Larnach Castle tower, New Zealand

Very quick sketch of mountains

When it came time for dinner, we wondered if we’d be seated in the dining room, but found that the staff had set up a table for us in the much smaller and cozier gentlemen’s drawing room. We’d seen the room earlier while wandering about, but now — with candlelight, a space heater, and a concealed music player with Mozart on the lineup — it became an intimate dining area for two. The maitre d’ brought our food and then mostly left us alone with the door closed, so we had a very private meal in this period room with its Italian marble fireplace, original bookcases, and glass cabinets of Victoriana. In between courses, she reappeared and told us a bit about the house and family; I learned that the desk on which I’d placed my purse and sweater once belonged to Buffalo Bill!!

We left nearly three hours after we sat down to dinner. It was a very lovely evening, and what’s more, the meal was only $65 NZ per person ($55 US), which I consider perfectly ridiculous for a three-course dinner in a historic home (and the maitre d’ gave us a private tour of the house, between the main course and the dessert). Of course normally it’s not so private; the dinners are usually offered to guests of the castle lodgings, with everyone seated together at a single table. But we really lucked out!

Larnach Castle, New Zealand, by night

And as we were leaving the car park, a hedgehog trundled out from the shrubbery and crossed the road in front of us. First the sea lion, now a hedgehog!

Hedgehog crossing the road

View of Dunedin’s lights on the drive back:

View of Dunedin, New Zealand, night lights
Tomorrow we leave for Arrowtown.