It has been several years since I watched the little blue penguins arrive home just after sunset to the Little Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru, New Zealand. In my two previous experiences I delighted in seeing the penguins up close. On my second visit I paid extra to be in the VIP seats (recently added), and on this visit I decided to go with the basic rate. This was the first time I felt a little let down, and then I went into the parking lot and a little blue penguin charmed me completely and unexpectedly.
I planned my trip to time with the Little Blue Penguins breeding season. They spend four to five months at sea eating, returning to their breeding colony for mating and rearing young. The penguins are beginning to return, and yet I braced for smaller numbers because last year many Little Blue Penguins starved due to the ocean food conditions.
Only 16 penguins came ashore in the first raft. About as many had spent the day on shore and waddled down past the viewing platforms to get a drink of water. The crowd waiting for an hour past sunset and then the cold made waiting longer intolerable. The numbers were low and the announcer sounded so bored. Plus they’ve added announcements in Mandarin–perfectly understandable given the makeup of the guests–but adds to the general sense of boredom.
If you do pay extra for the VIP seats, you get a better shore view and you get to see the nests as you walk back to the visitor centre from a boardwalk, but you have to stay in the cold longer.
The next day I scooted to the Otago Peninsula for more birding. The Royal Albatross Centre has penguin viewing in the evening and a colony of Little Blue Penguins.
I found this interesting book by Ken Stepnell (see above) and this lovely knitted Little Blue Penguin.
Back in Oamaru, a very accessible place to see penguins, I left worrying about the population numbers and without being able to see the penguins very closely or for very long. And then I walked into the parking lot and saw a couple of penguins, with this one penguin hanging out longest and allowing me to film him (sans flash) doing his penguin thing. Delightful! (Listen at the end for the penguin calls!)
There is a sign as you enter old town Oamaru that says Steampunk HQ. It could just as easily say Eccentric HQ. This is saying something for New Zealand.
An eccentric is someone who dances to their own tune with very little concern for cultural norms. They often pursue their passions single-mindedly and with an unusual perspective.
There are a lot of eccentric people in America, but per capita, I’d place a bet that New Zealand has more. I’ve met Kiwis pursuing excellence in playing piano at midlife, people making films self-taught, lots of poets, and more. In Akaroa is the Giant’s House garden. In Nelson, someone started the World of Wearable Art.
In David Harbourne’s book, Penguins Under the Porch, he profiles many people in the Oamaru area with an eccentric streak. I’ve just shared Dot’s Castle . Just down the highway is Fleurs Place where Fleur makes the most amazing seafood where her closest neighbor are the Moeraki Boulders. There is the community of steampunk officiandos and people who love dressing up in Victorian dress.
I stayed at a proper Bed and Breakfast. Federation House is over 100 years old and for several decades it has been the restoration project of owner and host, Rodger McCaw. I enjoyed an off season room rate and Rodger showed me round the whole house in the morning. The views from the common room and some bedrooms is incomparable. The decor is quirky and comfortable. It was fun to remember the individuality of the classic B&B.
If you are driving down Highway 1, Oamaru is great place to stay a night or two.
I was enjoying coffee with Ole and Karen and telling them of my travel plans. Karen shared a tv clip on Dot’s Castle and they both thought the food at the Riverstone Kitchen was really good. I decided to make it my destination for lunch. It took a lot longer to drive there than anticipated (and I don’t think I took any wrong turns). I arrived an hour before the dining room was closing, and I needed to eat and get underway to not miss the little blue penguins return to Oamaru.
I did a quick turn through Dot’s “best Bloody shop for miles.” It was an interesting collection of home design items, but all breakable, largish items that are like dead weight when you travel. She also offers an interesting plant selection–again not great for overseas travelers. After my week driving through South Island, I could understand the draw. The mostly small towns that dot the countryside don’t offer a lot of shopping options. Here in one stop you will likely find something you want or need or at least have fun trying.
I was pretty hungry by the time I sat down to order, and I’d been self-catering for a couple of days, so I was ready for a proper meal. I ordered the brussel sprout salad and fish and chips. I also discovered Hopt elderberry flavored soda. It was all so delish and satisfying. The Riverstone Kitchen was started in 2006 by Bevan and Monique Smith and focuses on local flavors and produce. Their dad (Neil) and mum (Dot) manage the dairy business that allows Dot to build the family castle from locally quarried stone.
I also enjoyed gazing out at the kitchen garden and castle in the distance. Children played and people walked dogs on a long stretch of lawn with hedgerows. I recommend making a stop at Riverstone part of your road trip on South Island’s Highway 1.
Imagine waking up to this view every morning. Or coming home to this view after a long day at work. You’d never want to dine out again. Building here requires that you tackle a heck of a slope and invest in very tall pilings to bedrock. And growing a garden comes with some extra challenges. Nonetheless, the beautiful New Zealand outdoors feels a part of every room in this home. My friends Ole and Karen have been living in this three bedroom, two bath home for over a year and they love it.
The design and finished home have won awards including a Gold Medal in the house of the year awards for Canterbury and are under consideration for a national award. It was described as “It’s the hygge high-life harbourside for these Scandi design fans.”
It is a super comfortable for a high-style home. They used a lot of clever devices, such as the plastic chainmail screen in the bedroom that allows the view/light in with more privacy. They also are using a humane rodent trap in their garden. The rat puts its head in to check out the bait and CO2 knocks it out permanently–and the rat never knew what hit it. I was super excited (given another winter of rodent battles after my roof replacement) until I realized that it doesn’t transfer to California as easily. In Auckland there are NO native rodents and they are all invasive and bad for birds. Whereas, I wouldn’t want to exterminate squirrels or skunks passing through my garden and if I put it under the house or in the attic I wouldn’t know I killed anything until I smelled the corpse!
I enjoyed seeing a lot of new living situations for my Kiwi friends. Ole and Karen have a fresh start after the earthquakes in Christchurch, other friends have moved into stylish, but smaller apartments for their retirement years, and other friends put in new features in their longtime home to make it even lovelier to live in. I am pleased for all of them. And once again struck by how gracious living in New Zealand is (and not just for people with means).
When I first visited Christchurch in 2010 I enjoyed the Botanical Garden and walking along the Avon River; however, I thought the City felt stodgy and old-fashioned. They had already had several big earthquakes and I experienced a couple of small ones when I was there. The following February the downtown was largely destroyed by another quake and then rattled by hundreds of additional aftershocks. I didn’t visit again until 2012. The National and Canterbury governments were still grappling with the magnitude of damage. Houses were being “red-tagged” and individuals were moving to other parts of New Zealand to keep their children in schools and to find work. On this visit (my third or fourth visit), I was impressed with progress made, and by the new spirit exhibited by the art and buildings created downtown. Christchurch is cool.
The downtown has been opened up and its relationship to the Avon River has been redefined. The pathways and landscaping enhance the pedestrian experience. Plus a real investment has been made in public art. I walked from my hotel, the Crowne Plaza Christchurch to the Margaret Mahy Playground. This new complex is awesome for kids and families. Even early in the morning the number of children using the playground was exciting.
I walked along the river walkway towards the Christchurch Botanic Garden. I passed through Victoria Square and took a slight detour to the Commons–a collection of businesses in pop-up type buildings. Along the way I enjoyed the public art.
On my return I walked through the Cathedral Square. A Farmers Market was setting up and vendors were setting up and early arrivers were sipping coffee on the edges. There are signs of determination to rebuild the Cathedral in its old glory. I can understand the attachment to the old buildings at Christ College and the Cathedral. But the energy is all coming from the new forms and functions in the city and makes Christchurch an exciting place to visit.
I love free range eggs in New Zealand. Most accommodation have kitchen facilities and so it is possible to buy eggs and bread at the market to make breakfast or an omelette for dinner. I bought a half dozen eggs on South Island and another half dozen in St Heliers. And both times I chose Woodland free range eggs.
I noticed the egg stamp in St Heliers and logged on to see where my egg is from, so I typed in FR (free range) 112. And Trace My Egg told me it is from Hillview Farm in North Otago. It is a great idea.
Three years after the Kaikoura earthquake, the community has recovered and is fully open for tourists to enjoy the natural beauty of this unique area. Unlike Christchurch, the area has not experienced much shaking since the midnight wake up quake on November 14, 2016.
It does take longer to get there from either north or south on Highway 1 due to the extensive roadworks. This is targeted for a March 2020 finish, but this is hard to believe given the extensive damage and the remaining work. Allow an extra hour to drive from Blenheim or from Christchurch. It is worth the effort as it is a absolutely stunning area of New Zealand.
Some of the rocks along the coastline shifted more than a meter, but the New Zealand Fur Seals do not seem to have noticed. When I stopped in Flaxbourne for a coffee, I asked about the wonderful trail to a waterfall and seal nursery close to Kaikoura. The young woman teared up and said it wasn’t there since the earthquake. I felt terrible. Then I stopped at Ohau Point Look Out to admire the fur seals. I saw the road works and rocks at the spot I thought was the same as the place where the seal nursery had been. When I got to the information centre in Kaikoura they reassured me that while people no longer can hike up to the waterfall, the transportation works created a tunnel so the seals can still use it. It was such a magical place and I am glad I was able to experience it.
Almost everyone I talked to in Kaikoura had a story about where they were and what they did when the quake occurred. There were a lot of people running around town naked! Because when you are thrown out of bed just after midnight and then sirens go off to move you to higher ground in case of tsunami, you don’t necessarily take time to get dressed and find your shoes. I drove by the Kaikoura Boutique Hotel and was happy to see it is open and looking great. The proprietors were Christchurch refugees, so when I heard about the Kaikoura quake I sent up a special prayer for them.
I wouldn’t hesitate to stay overnight in Kaikoura, I just needed to push on to Christchurch so I could have coffee with friends in the morning. However, I would keep my shoes and a sweatshirt or jacket handy by the bed at night, just in case.
I have visited Kaikoura before, and enjoyed the very long but wonderful walk around the headlands. There are also whales, dolphins and little blue penguins to observe. Kaikoura has one of the world’s most productive marine areas and is a few hours from Christchurch and even closer to Blenheim. It scores 4.5 out of 5!