I saw my first Yellow-eyed penguin from the hide at Bushy Point, but I was at least a hundred meters above the beach and even with binoculars it was hard to appreciate their unique size and markings. Several times I tried going on a Penguin Place tour and couldn’t fit it in with the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre. I was determined to make it work this time!
Located on a private sheep farm on the Dunedin peninsula, Penguin Place is dedicated to the conservation and welfare of Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho. Their efforts to restablish habitat and educate the public also benefits Little Blue penguins. I went in the winter months (April-September) so they only offer one tour a day at 3:45 p.m. In the summer months (October-March) there are 90 minute tours running from 10:15 a.m. to 6:16 p.m.
One advantage of going in the winter is the tour group is more likely to be small. There were just a half dozen of us as we bumped in the bus, through the sheep ranch, and toward the trails that lead to the network of hides.
We had plenty of time to ask our questions as we waited in the hide and looked out at the beach waiting for a Yellow-eyed penguin to return. A large sea lion was hanging out on the beach probably sending “stay away” vibes to penguins. We were not disappointed though. There were two Yellow-eyed penguins who stayed on land all day. One was just a few feet from the hide and another was some distance below the hide but away from the beach and visible to us. We also saw several single and pairs of Little Blue Penguins in their wooden hutches along the trail.
All of the money from the penguin tourism goes back into rehabilitating penguins in the hospital and conserving the breeding grounds. In spite of the extensive efforts by people and the NZ Department of Conservation, the numbers are shrinking. When I first took an interest in hoiho there were 400-600 breeding pairs on the NZ mainland, and now there are just 266 breeding pairs. There is also a sex imbalance with three males for every female. It is hard to state with certainty what is causing the decline but it is likely warming oceans and changing food supply. Participating in this guided tour is a small way to do your part for the species. And we need to all make changes to address the climate crisis.
Before I visited the Royal Albatross Centre I thought of the Albatross as a super big gull. They are so much more AWE-some. They are super big with wings that fold twice. They spend most of the lives flying at sea. The young take a year to mature and when they are ready to attempt flight they just step off a cliff without any training or practice! These are just a few of the wonderful albatross facts I learned on the tour.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and answered all of our questions. She said that if we were lucky we would see an adult coming back to feed their chick.
The Centre does a marvelous job of educating people about the unique grandeur of the Royal Albatross. Both the Centre and the bird deserve the adjective “Royal.” They provide many different ways to communicate the size and majesty of this bird. You can see the folding 3 meter wing span in the skeleton, and the stuffed albatross are weighted to approximate an actual bird’s likely weight. One of my favorite fun facts is the full grown chick actually is too heavy to fly, so the parent begins to force them to walk to dinner to get them to lose some of the baby fat.
There are a variety of tours, with the most basic hour long tour at the top of an hour, starting for $52NZ per adult. It is a steep climb up to the glassed in viewing platform or hide. Along the way there are a variety of gulls nesting on the hillside and sheep mowing the grass. I did see people with some mobility challenges making the trek and taking their time. The visitor centre also has a gift shop and cafe. There is ample parking but it is located at the very end of the peninsula, so allow 45 minutes to an hour to get there on the narrow, windy road with traffic stops for roadwork. It is worth the effort.
As I planned my day in Dunedin I read about a restaurant and garden Glenfollach. I went online and made a reservation without realizing that it was Father’s Day Sunday in New Zealand. I requested a booking before noon so I could enjoy my lunch and drive on to the end of the peninsula for the Royal Albatross Centre. When I first arrived there were only a few people already enjoying coffee and the view. By the time I left the restaurant and deck were full of families celebrating fathers.
Because of Fathers Day there was also a 3 course meal option. It sounded super so I ordered it, along with a ginger ale and tonic and enjoyed the attention to details in the venue decor and table setting.
To say my meal was delicious is inadequate. Every course was very interesting and combined flavors and textures beautifully. I was so thankful to enjoy another great New Zealand meal.
There is a beautiful garden to enjoy if you do have a long wait for a table. Booking ahead is advised. Glenfollach isn’t more than 15 minutes into the Peninsula, so accessible from downtown Dunedin.
My travel rule of thumb: visit a botanic garden, especially if it is free. When traveling on business a good garden makes an excellent place to get some steps in and breathe fresh air. Not all gardens are created equal. This summer I had the opportunity to go to the Missouri Botanic Garden and it is world class. And I started my NZ trip with a stay at the world class private garden, Paripuma. Alas, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is looking frumpy. It was winter and they have had their hands full with rebuilding glasshouse structures after the earthquakes; nevertheless, even before “the big one” I felt the garden was more Ode to Mother England than a celebration of New Zealand. In the photos above you see lots of lawn, some legacy trees and a lot of (yawn) planted annual beds.
Even with that critique, there is hardly a prettier downtown than Christchurch ANYWHERE in the world. Well, maybe Adelaide, Australia. They have optimized the Avon River and the parks and gardens in a way that you must make time to walk through.
The garden that I’ll be sure to visit again is in Dunedin.
This garden is built on a steep hill (much like Wellington’s) and yet maximizes the attractions with different gardens and lots of plant variety and statuary. Plus I LOVE a knot garden! I just wish there was a viewing platform for the knot garden.
They welcome children in Dunedin and design for their enjoyment: a train, free food for ducks, playground equipment, and space to make your own fun. It was Father’s Day Sunday in New Zealand on the day of my visit and I saw loads of families taking advantage of the garden on an almost spring day.
It seems an almost silly thing, but I found this little stick structure and ended up sitting for a little while admiring it, wondering who built it and admiring their handywork.
The best gardens help you forget that you are in a city and take you into nature. Dunedin Botanic Garden does.
Both gardens are free to enter. Both have cafes where you can get a coffee or tea or something more substantial to eat. Both make their cities more livable and enjoyable.
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.