Bilbao and its Guggenheim

Bilbao and its Guggenheim

Think of Spain’s Bilbao and what comes to mind? Ferries, industrial port or perhaps the most iconic building – The Guggenheim Museum.

Set on the northern coast of Spain, Bilbao is much like any other city you pass through; enormous, all-consuming and  a tad impersonal. Remember that my views are coloured by being a predominant introvert who finds the vibrations of cities easily overwhelm my senses.  

And as we drove inadvertently through the centre of Bilbao’s hub, with congested streets, towering six story buildings rising like vertical umbrellas, I was left with the same detachment that I feel in many of the cities we visit. Had we made a mistake coming here?

Still we have come to appreciate after three years on the road, that travel is made up of a myriad of experiences. Each one we either love or tolerate and yet all of them are necessary to broaden our cultural horizons. So we valiantly continue to put cities on our agenda; some we end up adoring like Zagreb, Bratislava and Seville and others just don’t really do it for us like Vienna, Salzburg and Florence. 

Guggenheim's home - Bilbao old town view

You really could be forgiven for thinking that Bilbao is just about the ferry. And yet in the last twenty years, it has taken its rightful place on the tourist map. Its most significant draw is the masterpiece of the Guggenheim museum and whether you are an art lover or not, this building is renown around the globe for its architectural brilliance.  I’m neither a great artist nor an art fan if I’m honest, although sometimes there are things that are so iconic that visiting is a given.  I love that visiting somewhere new can influence how I think and feel or affect my perspective on life. And that’s why a visit to a place as iconic as the Guggenheim felt important. With its curves and light attraction everything about this building attracts the eyes and creates intrigue. Despite the art within being priceless, the building itself makes a statement all of its own.

Guggenheim museum view

With a tantalising tease of the cityscape from our lofty campsite at Kobeta, we took bus 58, which goes every 15 minutes from right outside the campsite into Bilbao old town. The €1.35 fare was a steal, allowing us to save our energy for the promenade along the river Nervión. 

On a still winter’s day, this city aspect was pleasing to the eye, providing a moving atmosphere that coloured our memories.  Our city preview from the previous day was fast fading from my mind. The architecture bordering the river, (that has its source in Burgos), is an eclectic mix of colonial, modern and medieval and it fringes the river banks with a certain je ne sais quoi. Whilst Bilbao, as the most active shipping port second only to Barcelona, has obvious roots in industry, make no mistake – this city is rebirthing and presenting its creative transformation to its European counterparts. Check out our gallery of pics below. 

For now though let me share with you the virtues of the Guggenheim. Although I am not steeped in knowledge about the museum, I just knew I wanted to visit. I had heard its reputation for being one of the most incredible pieces of architectural art in the world and that alone made me want to go. And there’s no doubt that it is more grand than the grandest thing you can imagine.

Our arrival at the Guggenheim could not be mistaken as this magnificent curvaceous beauty seemed to rise up from the industrial port’s ashes with grace and power. It is not an understated building and with pieces of artwork around the outside, I was captivated before I even entered its doors. Yet enter we must, as this was an experience I had been waiting for.  

We paid our €16 per person and passed through the well guarded security. There are three levels, each one offering a slightly different artistic theme. The first, Room Zero blew my mind and messed with my balance. A mirrored room gives an impression of Alice in Wonderland and as I watched the looping video, the way the images bounced off the glass walls is quite magnetic, making 3D seem like child’s play.

Accompanied by our audio guides, which come as part of the entrance fee, we learnt about the museum’s design by Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry. The huge project came to fruition in October 1997 and has transformed the dockland water’s edge image beyond all recognition.  

Built in titanium, glass and limestone, this is a masterpiece, which in different lights takes on completely different faces. And in many ways, you could almost be satisfied by seeing the outside of the museum such is its craft and beauty. Although the inside will challenge you in more ways than one.

Guggenheim Close Up
The Guggenheim curves
The Guggenheim's artwork

With an open atrium in the museum’s heart, Bilbao’s newest creation cries out to be admired. Splendid are its curves. Magnificent are its angular glass windows and resplendent are its halls that house such dynamic pieces of work. From Picasso to Van Gogh, Andy Warhol and a host of other artists from decades past, the Guggenheim is a centre-piece for self-expression and an almost eccentric interpretation of the world. Well that’s how it seemed to me.

The first floor was a real challenge.  The descriptions on the walls alone introduced a whole new language to me that provoked intellectual thought.  If only I had been able to photograph them, I could have convey their linguistic demands more eloquently. 

The halls are intriguing, leaving you wondering whether these minimalistic white washed walls were a stroke of brilliance or an obscene waste of money. One room simply had two televisions playing news from CNN. Another had memorabilia stuck to the walls with an edition of The Sun catching my eye. To the modernistic gallery of contemporary work that challenges our concept of space and time. The modern world confronted by artists set on complementing progression and challenging the very heart of the world’s evolution.

One of my favourite pieces was The Tent without a Signal. A 10ft tent-like construction, which inside simply held a circular set of metal benches. An odd sight for an art museum, although the artist has made a huge statement to  technology and how it consumes our lives behind our devices. The tent covering is made from metallic fibres that scramble mobile phone signals, rendering them useless. The space is therefore held as a sanctuary to profound silence that allows the audience to truly contemplate the depth of their souls. This seriously appealed to me as a Meditation Teacher.

The other incredible hall is a permanent feature called The Matter of Time. Artist Richard Serra’s ‘rumination on the physicality of space and the nature of sculpture’ offers a playground for adults. With enormous spiral structures made from steel you are invited to walk through their metallic form. It felt oddly like a Universal truth – such a small speck in an expanse of space. Weaving my way through the curves and the mazes, I felt transported into an out-of-world experience where for a moment, fear set in as I realised that I could be on another planet. And yet when viewed from the upper atrium, their structures were so simple and yet the steel designs challenged my spirit through that simplicity.

Leaving the museum, we were engulfed in a mist – as if in one last artist act of creativity; the Guggenheim’s moat came alive, piquing my curiosity. Every last bit of detail is invested in provoking the artist within. I highly recommend visiting this sensory journey that is so much more than a museum. It is architecture, craft, imagination and self-expression in their very purest forms. And it has to be experienced, just once in your life.

Bilbao has been built on a foundation of industry and trade and yet is embracing its evolution into a contemporary city. It does still have some way to go, although with UNESCO bridges and of course its brain-child the Guggenheim, Bilbao is redefining itself year on year.

The Guggenheim mist

 

Facts for your visit

  • The Guggenheim museum is closed on Mondays.
  • Not all the Guggenheim exhibitions will always be open as often they will be setting up halls for new presentations, so better check before you visit.
  • There are no photos or videos allowed in the museum halls so don’t be tempted as there are guardians everywhere.
  • The Guggenheim Bar is very nice offering a good deal on the local delicacy Pintxos – Tapas. 3 Tapas and a drink for €9.
  • Don’t take large bags into the Guggenheim, as you will be required to store them in the cloakrooms.
  • The shape and lights of the museum interior may cause some issues if you have sensitive eyes or migraine tendancies, so be aware of this before you enter.
  • The Guggenheim is disabled friendly with lifts to each of the three floors.
  • Getting around Bilbao is easy with the buses and trams that zig-zag the city’s network.
  • Within half a day we had absorbed all we wanted from the city, most of which was within the hub of the Guggenheim itself. Unlike, say London, there are very few other major draws, except perhaps the 17 bridges that span the river and the Artxander funicular that takes you up to the mountain of the same name, giving you a great panorama of the city.
  • If you are visiting the city with your camper, The Kobeta Camping Aire (43.25955 -2.9636), which for €15 per night inclusive of electricity and services, gives you a great spot for watching the city and visiting by bus.
  • If you come with dogs, remember that they are not allowed on buses without a muzzle, nor will they be allowed in the Guggenheim museum.
  • And a sensible note! Wear comfortable shoes, as just walking from the old town to the Guggenheim and back again will reward you over 12,000 steps and 9 kms. Trust me, my blisters will confirm this very well.

 

Overall I am so glad we visited and it reaffirms my thinking; despite my lack of love for cities, they hold great secrets and cultural treats, so visiting is an essential part of a traveller’s itinerary and my education, which feels influenced forever. Check out our final gallery below.

 

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A letter to Travel

A letter to Travel

 

Dear Travel

When you were our holidays, we loved the precious time you gave us, where we had the space to retreat, rejuvenate and reconnect.  Into the mix you would offer us a brief glimpse into the culture of our temporary home. Whether that was food from the local hostelry, a street market that would tempt our culinary delights, or perhaps even a regional celebration that honoured a local custom. You encouraged us to dip our toes into a way of life that seemed far removed from our own stressful existence. Returning home we would often recall our experiences and studiously review our photo album, sighing with a longing that accompanies that inevitable back to reality.

Sometimes because of the way our lifestyle panned out, you were simply days out or short breaks away; we loved the escape you opened up for us, which quite simply used to get us away from life’s grind. A day-trip in the car or a city break gave us a destination to blow away our corporate created cobwebs. A rare treat to remove ourselves from the daily routines of professional and domestic chores which, in that moment, made us feel alive.  Whilst these may have been all too short, sometimes they were all we could squeeze in amongst the stress ball of life.

 

And then three years ago, you showed up in all your glory –  Travel, the full frontal experience. You gave us a chance to fill our lives with adventure, freedom and choice – riches beyond our imagination. And whilst we look back at our vacations and short breaks with fondness, they neither fulfilled us nor changed our lives. Their healing necessary although their longevity impermanent.

Yet the opportunity to enjoy every inch of your personality has been profound. You are the greatest teacher, the most flamboyant of moments and you provide the most deep-rooted memories that exceed every expectation. We feel privileged to have connected with you at such a deep level. To have shaken hands with your hospitality and ridden the rollercoaster of adventures that have taken us to the peak of joy and the depths of stress. Each one proving that we are alive and free.

You are not, it must be said Travel, always joyful. You are at times like a teenager throwing tantrums that capture us in your trail of destruction like a shoal of fish. Testing, pushing, stretching – although it is in these tempestuous moments that our characters are defined, refined and honed. Our coping mechanisms are so much more resilient because of your challenges. 

Travel, you have taken us on a journey that with each step makes our heart beat as fast as a pair of star-crossed lovers on their first date. Around every corner you gift us with fresh vistas that take our breath away. You present us with stunning sunrises that herald a new day and powerful sunsets that gather the joys of that day underneath their rose-coloured veil. 

For the last three years you have invited us on your journey of discovery revealing far more than just the cultural uniqueness of the countries we have visited. You have subtly mentored us to look within and understand more about our nomadic selves, uncovering the simplicity of life that exists beneath the stars. With your help, each day we remove ourselves from the corporate and commercial hub that imprisoned us and start to relish the truth that is entwined around life.  How little we need to thrive; how little our materialistic possessions define us and how much more freedom we have when we grab the reigns from life’s galloping horse. 

With these gifts that sit underneath our eternal Christmas Tree, how enriched our life has become. Each morning we awake with gratitude as the sun dawns and with eager anticipation we await the day’s lesson. It’s not always an easy class, as sometimes you throw a curve ball or two to stretch us. Although thanks to your solid foundation we cope so much more easily with those tests.  Our stress from the old days are a dim and distant memory as deep wounds heal themselves and a fresh perspective graces our minds. 

Home for us now can be found wherever our tyres stop for the night. That temporary abode is as homely as any brick wall and front door. We have embraced the open road and the wide open spaces that span the globe. And so when our wheels stop from their incessant roll, we breathe in the peace from the sanctuary that you have carved for us; beside the beach, in the bosom of the mountains or nestled beside a babbling brook.

Is this why when we return to the source of our birth ‘home’ that we feel so unsettled?

The girl who was a home-bird, who found the security of her house comforting and stabilising – now craves the open road. The itchy feet syndrome never feels so real as when we are drawn back to UK. Sometimes for three weeks, sometimes for three months, we have pitstops that are always purposeful and necessary although feel so strange. What a dichotomy. Returning to the nest yet not feeling at home.

Travel, this is your greatest puzzle. You have captured our hearts so gently and gracefully that we feel almost lost in the familiarity of our home country. And this is nothing to do with those we hold dear. They remain the same gorgeous and kind-hearted souls that we love unconditionally. No this is more about us and how we have been affected by your infectious path.  We have learnt to be mindful in every moment, although I must confess that our minds often wander to the day when we return to the road. 

We never really appreciated what it meant to have itchy feet as we lunged from one stressful situation to another in the corporate web of yesteryear – driven only by the next pay check or weekend retreat. Now blessed by a self-generated freedom, the generosity you have shown us makes us crave more. An addiction that feeds the soul, nourishes the mind and nurtures our human instincts for discovery, adventure and evolution.

With every passing day we find ourselves longing to return to your route-map and are thankful for the love and support we have to follow our dreams. Travel, you have enriched our lives and we look forward to our homecoming as our tyres hit the tarmac for yet another new adventure.

Travel, we thank you for the lessons, the discoveries and the personal realisations that have made us grow as human beings and, and with hope as our companion, may it be for many years to come. Draw us further into your web of intrigue and massage our life with experiences that create a page-turning book of intrigue, passion and discovery.

With love and gratitude..

 

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Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, remembered forever

Oradour-sur-Glane, an unassuming name on France’s map that looks like any other of its neighbours. Yet this innocuous village bears deep scars that speak a thousand words of horror.  It is a story that needs to continually be told so that memories of Oradour’s families can be kept alive and honoured.

On our pilgrimage to connect with Europe’s World War history, we have travelled east to Treblinka in Poland, south to Bovec in Slovenia and Kalavrita in Greece and west to the harrowing region of Ypres, Verdun and the cemeteries of northern France. So when Myles said he wanted to visit Oradour-sur-Glane, it made perfect sense. I have heard others talk about their visits to this village, ravaged by war, although had no idea about its history or what we could expect there.  One thing was for sure, our experience would undoubtedly be moving if our other commemorative visitations were anything to go by. 

From memorial stones and razed killing fields to the profound and stark images created by the Birkenau railway just west of Krakow. What would our souls be called to learn at this little-known village in central France?  Check out our memorial visits on this interactive map.

 

 

Our visit to Oradour-sur-Glane

It seemed fitting that our visit to Oradour coincided with All Saint’s Day –  1 November. An important day on the Religious calendar when the dead are remembered and celebrated. What a symbolic day to be visiting a memorial site where a village fell to its knees, at the mercy of an army set on retribution and annihilation.  

As we drove into the village of Oradour-sur-Glane just north west of Limoges, it was clear from the map that there were a large number of cemeteries around the outskirts. Nothing necessarily unusual about that per se. They were sheltered from the road by trees to create some privacy for those buried there. Yet the grim reality soon stood out, as this village turned from a name on Google Maps to a village martyr.  Separated from the new village by a road and underground walkway, the ruins of an entire community lay bare as we drove past in mesmerised silence. Only one expletive uttered from our mouths, which was one of incredulity. Oh my god! 

Parked up opposite the ghost village, images went through my mind about what unfolded here and, more importantly why. A story that would not really become any clearer as we entered the commemorative arena, built by its modern day citizens. 

The first thing that struck us as we walked to the entrance was a 100ft statue. A monument of a woman being engulfed by flames. Engraved words triggered the beginning of a story that we knew would not have a happy ending. The events that unfolded on 10th June 1944, told simply by this statue, began our Oradour journey. 

‘Ici des hommes firent a leurs meres et a toutes les femmes, les plus grave injure. 

Ils n’epargnerent pas les enfants.’

‘Here men made to their mothers and all women the most serious insult  – they did not spare the children.’

As we walked across a flat tarmac pavement towards the Oradour village plaque, we were taken down some steps generating a surreal feeling of going into another world.  Underneath the ground a shop, a ticket desk and a museum greet you giving you options. Turn right into the museum where upon you pay 2€. Or go straight on towards the ruined village, which is free to enter. As we had been travelling all day we only had time to do one or another, so we chose to visit the village, where we knew we would feel the soul of the place.

Through a dark tunnel, adding to the atmosphere of Oradour’s tale, we were presented with a photographic project that the community is still working on. Their aim is to collect pictures of every single inhabitant of this tortured village and honour them on this Remembrance Wall. And so like our experiences at Auschwitz, seeing the faces of young and old made the whole experience more real and poignant. This was no longer a story, or movie to immerse ourselves in – this was real life. This was a moment in time of people’s lives, captured by these images.

I felt my heart skip a beat as I saw families; generations of mothers, brothers, fathers, aunts and grandparents, dads and sons all lined up on both sides of the tunnel. The eldest I saw was 81 and the youngest just 2 months old. This truly set the scene for what were about to witness. 

Returning to the surface, the cleverly created tunnel that protects the village, really transports you from the new to the old. Streets in tact with pavements and electric cables for the tram that travelled through the beating heart of this place. Yet then the stark reality dawned on us as we saw the fire torn buildings, with chard rubble strewn where the rugs would have lain. Rusted shutters at the windows that now just let the wind course its way through. Signs for the garage, the café, the boulangerie, the sabot maker and the coiffure.  And the faint yet distinct smell of smoke still hung in the air making the massacre all the more real. The walls vibrating with the sobs of scared children looking to their mothers for answers. Fear trodden into the dust that has settled between the buildings holding secrets of their death. 

So what events unfolded here to create such a travesty?

 

Oradour’s Massacre – the why’s

There is some ambiguity about the reason for this insane massacre on a peaceful village where children played on their bicycles and cafés bustled with war-time stories. Because only 6 people survived and the commander who order the attack died days after, the real justification for this attack has many shades of truth. The definitive reason may remain buried beneath the rubble with the muffled screams of those who perished.

One of the suggestions was that it was retribution for the capture of a German officer. Another that it was because of Resistance activity centred at the village. Or that it was simply German frustration over the D-Day landings that occurred just four days earlier.

The why’s are tough for us as we try to get our heads around such atrocities. Yet however you look at it, the reason for this act of terror can never be settled in any sane mind. What seems more poignant is the unfolding of events on that day in June 1944. A mere 74 years ago, where 24 hours saw terror run through this community leaving only the echo of the victims’ screams for mercy.

200 Nazis stormed the village on 10th June where upon they rounded up the community. Women and children were taken to the church and men and boys over 15 were gathered, ostensibly for the purpose of an identity check and a  search for explosives and weapons. Those held captive in the church, after a failed attempt to gas them, were shot and then set alight. The men were separated into 6 groups and taken to different barns, where upon they were shot from the knees down. Only intending to wound and prevent escape, the Nazis then covered them in straw and wood and set them on fire, left to die the most horrific death. 

Then they burnt the whole village, looted homes and businesses and left without any explanation. The Nazi troops  headed up to Normandy to join the fight against Allied troops from the D-Day landings. In Devine retribution, many of those soldiers and the Nazi commander Diekmann, who ordered the massacre were killed and in a cruel twist of fate never brought to justice. 

 

Oradour’s memory

Some time after the massacre and whilst the smoke still rose to the sky, French President, Charles de Gaulle ordered the village remains to be left as a memorial. To honour one of the biggest massacres on French soil, Oradour would serve as a reminder of the atrocities, the victims and the horror. Only 6 people survived; 642 were brutally murdered, including 205 children and each and every one will be remembered by generations to come. To walk in the footsteps of their terrified souls as they were led to their deaths is a surreal and sobering act. And if you are in the area, a visit to this village martyr to pay your respects is a must.

Whilst it seems the world has not learned its lesson, we can only hope that memorial sites like Oradour serve to remind us of the importance of kindness, love and respect. 

Check out our Gallery of photos from our current World War visit by clicking the image below.

 

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New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

New Zealand Road Trip – North Island

New Zealand – The Land of the Long White Cloud; two islands, two different climates, characters and charm. After our South Island excursions which you can read about here, what would North Island have in store for us? Despite views that south is best, we decided to split our time evenly between both islands. And we are so glad we did. In fact we had too little time in the north and missed a huge amount of this fabulous island. Although here are our Top 6 highlights from our North Island exploration.  Check out our Interactive Map below with all our POI’s and overnight stopovers. 

 

 

1. Marlborough Sound and Cook Straight

The first of our highlights has to be Marlborough Sound. Renowned to be the most beautiful ferry journey in the world, the trip from Picton to Wellington is certainly an experience. With a 3.5hr crossing through Cook Straight, named after Captain Cook, you will be invited to explore the joys of Wellington. Although think not of the capital, because appreciating the Marlborough Sound with its inlets, coves and bays is a must. If you don’t get to see Abel Tasman National Park, then this journey offers a taster of this incredible part of New Zealand. 

Before you know it Wellington is your host as you disembark the Interisland ferry.  New Zealand’s capital (not Auckland as many think), Wellington is one of the world’s classically understated capitals. I would put it in the same category as Bratislava, Slovakia and Zagreb, Croatia The first sight is a built up area of docks and shipping terminals although in the city’s heart you feel its youthful vibe and arty characteristics. We didn’t see much as our primary focus was attending the ICC World Cricket match between England and New Zealand. Although I guess in truth we saw more of Wellington than we expected because the match was dire. Still, the less said about that the better. 

Our two hours around the city gave us a great flavour and our one recommendation would be to take a trip up in the iconic Wellington Cable Car to the Botanical Gardens. The panoramic views across the Cook Straight, the docks and city is amazing.  Myles summarised the day up nicely, saying that it was “A great palate cleanser between the two isles and cleared the decks for an equally magically ride ’on t’other side’”.

 

 

2. Whanganui River Adventures, Pipiriki

We love taking the route less travelled and getting off the beaten track. Sometimes it get us into trouble, although on the whole we find some absolute gems. And Pipiriki is one of those treasures. With a gift from my mum for our anniversary, we decided on a Rafting and Jet Boat adventure up the Whanganui – what a top drawer choice. 

It was a 5 hour trip from Wellington, yet as we drove through the isolated valley to Pipiriki our spirits were raised by the landscape. It looked like it had jumped straight out of the pages of The Hobbit’s Middle Earth.  Our arrival at Pipiriki was just sublime and the Whanganui River Adventures team welcomed us with open arms. We stayed at their lovely campsite and with a good night’s sleep we were prepared for our next adventure.

Now rafting down a river through a stunning gorge sounds quite tranquil. What we didn’t realise was that there were five rapids to negotiate on this sedate meander downstream. Although that was for the return journey. In the meantime we had the most spectacular high-sided gorge to immerse ourselves in and its Maori history.  On top of that we also had a hike the the Bridge to Nowhere, which a fabulous sight. A bridge built literally in the middle of nowhere, to absolutely no where! 

Our trip back down the river was, in part on the Jet Boat which skimmed the surface of the mid-summer water with exhilarating hand-break turns. The final stretch of 10km back to camp was by canoe. We were told that it would be a Canadian Double Canoe, as if somehow that would make all the difference. Alas it still meant we had rapids to navigate. Despite the water level, this part of North Island benefits from more tropical weather so the rapids were still pretty fierce for us as first timers. I look back now and have very fond memories although it wasn’t without its challenges, check out our video below to see exactly what we mean.  

The rest of the trip was just insanely beautiful, especially as the sun started to change the visions in front of us. Like a stage, spotlights of the sun’s rays started to bounce off the gorge walls and light up the crystal waters. With echoes of the historical ghosts dancing amongst the gorge, it left us feeling that this river adventure would be on our Top 10 list. 

 

 

3. Thermal Wonderland 

The thermal wonders of North Island are out of this world. When people try to compare the two islands, my view is you can’t. North Island has a rawness where the earth quite literally opens up, like windows for you to see into its soul.  The only downside to this particular region is that it is most certainly not off the beaten track. It is full of visitors looking to see the geysers (that predictably go off at 10.30 each morning!!). There are thermal parks everywhere and so you must do your research to find the right one for you. Just beware that some Parks really are quite commercial, especially if you are keen to see the Haka dance by the Maoris.  

The drive north offered us a clue to the thermal activity we were about to experience; a trio of volcanoes filled the sky line. I’ve never had a close encounter with a volcano before and there was something very humbling about treading its molten larva pathways. What history has been strewn around this land. Seeing these active volcanoes up close, was amazing as there was a tantalising uncertainty about when it might blow next. Especially given the billowing pillar of white smoke coming from one of the smaller volcanoes. They are still very much alive and kicking and they commanded our respect. We highly recommend popping in to see the Whakapapa Village at the Tongariro National Park. We didn’t do the famous Tongarriro Pass hike, although it is said to be an experience all of its own.

The volcanoes were just an introduction to the geothermal adventure for our next two days and we were enthralled by the earth, quite literally steaming. It is called a living landscape and you can see why. It was such a surreal vision to see bursts of steam coming out of the vegetation like hidden dragons waiting to pounce. We visited Haka Falls and The Craters of the Moon a great introduction to the thermal landscape so iconic in North Island. Rotorua is the capital of the Thermal Wonderland and you will smell it before you see it. The sulphur aside, Rotorua is worth looking around and of course it is the centre for exploration of the thermal parks and Maori culture.

The thing that struck me most, as we visited a Wai-o-Tapu thermal park outside of Rotorua, was that New Zealand is a powerhouse of seismic activity and each Island has its own unique way of expressing it. The south is disturbingly unpredictable, secretive and threateningly powerful – whereas North Island is very transparent in its seismic expression. You feel it, see it, smell it and hear it. Every sense knows that just below the surface, there is a cauldron of fire from Earth’s soul being thrown into our world.  To be privy to these one-way conversations from Earth’s core was just incredibly primal and puts so many things into perspective. The futility of our materialist living put in its place with the volatility of the planet’s existence. I bow to your magnificence.

Wai-o-Tapu was mindblowingly beautiful with its myriad of colours going way beyond the spectrum of a rainbow. 7 colours is just insufficient to describe the hews and palette that we were presented with. This volcanic wonderland had a real treat in store for us. Iridescent greens, lime, burgundies, bright reds, intense crystal blues and opal, primrose yellows and snow-like whites. My eyes and imagination were in heaven. 

Closer to Rotaruo was the Living Village of Whakarewarwea,  which was the most authentic way to see Maori life without the obvious tourist traps of some of the other expensive parks. It allowed us to submerge ourselves into Maori culture, see the children who lived here and contribute to their way of life without feeling like too much of a tourist. We found ourselves loving this whole area at a spiritual level. Just one of those places that you just have to go to to experience as there is insufficient vocabulary to do it justice.  

Check out our Gallery of pictures from this staggeringly beautiful region.

 

4. Coromandel Peninsular

When you think of New Zealand’s North Island what jumps into your mind? The thermal activity I’m sure, perhaps the Bay of Islands or may be 90 Mile Beach.  What about Coromandel Peninsular? Not many people we talked to mentioned this eastern edge of North Island. So good enough reason for us to explore the area whilst indulging my camera lens in some iconic New Zealand coastline.

Coromandel Peninsular is home to the iconic Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, Cook’s Beach and a plethora of hikes, cycles and kayaking opportunities –  ooh plus a bit of natural hot-tubbing on the beach.

Hot Water Beach is stupendously beautiful, with magnificent surf that any Cornish dude would be willing to negotiate. With golden sands like velvet beneath your feet. Blue sea, trimmed with white foam and thunderous crashing waves -this is a heavenly place for all the senses. 

The surf aside, the reason you go to Hot Water Beach is to dig your own hot water jacuzzi in the sand at low-tide. The underground thermal spring waters that your digging reveal then wash over you. It’s somewhere between a mud bath and a hot water spa. So armed with our spade, we headed off. The beach was strewn with early morning revellers of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Whilst English may not have been spoken by everyone, there was only one language required – dig, shape, sit, smile and enjoy.

Creating our own DIY jacuzzi was a pretty unique experience and whilst it took us 20 minutes to get the right temperature, it wasn’t long before we too were languishing in a thermal induced heat being nicely stewed and looking like overcooked prunes. 

Hahei Beach and Coromandel Cove

How do you follow that? We took ourselves off to Hahei Beach and had a boat trip around the coast and out to the Islands. What a great introduction to the seascape that offered the most perfect setting for Pirates of the Caribbean. With secret coves, blowholes, caves, seals and sting rays, what a way to see this volcanic influenced coastline. If the boat isn’t an option for you, then you could experience the famous Coromandel Cove with its iconic formations either by kayak or by foot – either way you must visit here.

We found a sensational freebie campsite at Cook’s Beach, where we parked up right in front of a golden beach that we pretty much had all to ourselves. The sound of crashing waves would be our evening’s lullaby and our morning’s alarm once more. What a fabulous end to this amazing part of the world.

 

5. The Land of the Gannets – Muriwai

On our last expedition before returning to Auckland, we were in turmoil about whether to blast it up to Bay of Islands or just mosey our way to the city. Our six week road trip had taken a bit of a toll on us and we were travel weary. So we decided to head to Muriwai for our finale because I’d heard about the gannets here. I was a great spot to rest up.

We heard Muriwai before we saw it – surf waves as tall as buildings – or so it seemed to my eye. It was like a thunderous applause for the kite surfers working their magic. It’s a deafening roar, as if a thousand lions are calling their loved ones.  This part of North Island is seriously wild and you can’t help than to feel alive when you feel the wind on your face, the salt upon your lips and the primeval elements of nature colluding. In fact this area in Maori legend is known for the war against the Father of the Elements, the Father of the Forests and Father of the Oceans. And you certainly get full force of all three as you stand precariously on the cliff edge, watching, listening and feeling the effects of the battle.

Add to this the Gannet colony that is perched on the cliff edge, close enough for you to get right up close – if you have a strong enough stomach and nose for it, that is. Truly amazing. Just a dream for the photographer in me. If you love Mother Nature at her best, then this is worth driving west for.

Check out our Gallery of images of this magnificent area.

 

6. The Big Smoke – Auckland

So to our final recommendation, Auckland. It is fair to say that you could have a week in this area alone, with the neighbouring vineyards, the harbour and the city itself. Although given we’re not huge city lovers, having just a day to explore before we flew back to UK was taster enough. And what we saw was great. It is certainly a lively and vibrant place.  From its beaches, marinas to its shopping area and Sky Tower, there’s plenty to entertain. The Tower is definitely a highlight for us and whilst we took the lift up and down, if you have one of those adventurous spirits in you, then you could always take the Zipline down instead!

Take some time to see the city as some of the skyline images are wonderful.  

Aotearoa, you thrilled us with your natural beauty and culture, you inspired us deep within our bellies to travel more and see the world. And so with gratitude we thank you, with respect we honour you and with pleasure we will remember you for all our remaining days. It has been memorable for so many reasons. It has been a journey that will undoubtedly give us many stories to tell. 

New Zealand is most certainly one of those places you need to come to in your life, just once and may be twice. The Land of the Long White Cloud, we applaud you. 

Complete your New Zealand journey by checking out our 11 Highlights from our South Island trip by clicking here.

 

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New Zealand Road Trip – South Island

New Zealand Road Trip – South Island

New Zealand was the trip that changed our lives, beyond all recognition. Although on the face of it, it was a celebratory Bucket List holiday for our Anniversary, it ended up being so much more. Read why it changed our lives here.

Six weeks to explore New Zealand’s two islands – would it be enough, would we get to see all our highlights without getting too exhausted? Well we were about to find out as our adventures began at Christchurch on South Island. We had chosen to hire a motorhome to cover our entire trip and so with our trusty steed, Baz a Swift Bolero from Iconic Motorhomes we set out like intrepid explorers. Armed with a dash of adventure, a pinch of excitement and a whole basket full of joy we drove off for some fun. What would this ‘clean, green’ adventure playground offer us?

Here are our 11 Highlights as we tripped the light fantastic around the most iconically beautiful islands in the world. A bold statement perhaps. Yet The Land the of Long White Cloud presents the most incredible scenery, activities and memories, which is why tourism accounts for around 6% of their GDP.

Check out our Interactive Map below for a comprehensive route plan, POI and overnight stops along the way with co-ordinates.

 

Our Compass Headed West

Our virgin journey from Christchurch was nerve wracking as we familiarised ourselves with the speed, size, width and general noise that a van makes when you’re hurtling down the highways. Although given our past experience with motorhomes, it didn’t take long to find our groove. Our first stop for a couple of nights to ground ourselves was Akaroa.

1. Akaroa Peninsular

Our first stop was in a volcano crater, created thousands of years ago. A mere 50 miles south east from Christchurch, this was an incredible initiation to the New Zealand landscape. The town named after the Maori for ‘Long Harbour’ was claimed by the French who arrived on the shores of Banks Peninsular, only to find that the English had beaten them to it. Still, the town today is very much French influenced with road names, shops and architecture all in style Français. 

I had hoped that one of my ultimate bucket list activities might well be achieved on day 2 of our trip; alas the weather prevented us taking a boat out into the harbour for me to swim with the Hector Dolphins – the rarest and smallest dolphins in the world. Sad that it didn’t happen, although it was just not meant to be.

Still having Akaroa as our first destination was lovely and with undulating hills, bays, azure blue waters, this was a great insight and preparation for what was to come. If this was impressive, what would the rest of South Island share with us? We stayed at Akaroa Top 10 Camping for two nights. 

 

2. Lake Tekapo

From Akaroa we headed west towards the beating heart of this stunning landscape where the mountains are king and the visitor simply minions, reverent to their magnificence. The scenery was incredible and I can’t find enough superlatives to describe what our eyes captured. The topography undulates with mesmerising curvaceousness.

Lake Tepako was our first stop with the Church of the Good Shepherd, an iconic symbol of the lake and surrounding hills – if hills is not too much of an insult. Had it not been for all the tourists it would have been a magical place – oh we were one of those tourists. Our overnight stop was in an amazing site over-looking the crystal blue waters with clouds kissing the mountain tops. Pines lined the shores completing a canvas of rainbow colours.

 

 

3. Mount Cook/Aoraki and Hooker Valley

If you were to list the top three photos that summarise New Zealand, then the shot looking across Lake Pukaki to the towering giant of Mount Cook would be up there. On a clear day, then that snow peaked baby, which is the highest mountain in New Zealand, will fill your lens with magnitude and grace. They say you can tell the forecast at the Park by the amount of cloud covering the mountain. If you can’s see it, then the weather is bad. So it might help make your decision about the journey to the Park. 

If the weather gods are shining, then taking Route 80 transports you into the spiritual land of the Mount Cook National Park, where the famous Hooker Pass hike, glaciers and icebergs await you. We camped on a DOC site, which had very few facilitates and is naturally wild, although fabulous in its rawness. This is nature at its best and we were camping right in the centre of it. 

The Hooker Valley walk was a delight for our eyes and ears as we ventured into the heart of the mountain wilderness. The wind called us, or so we thought and yet as we turned the corner, there in front of us was the raging torrent of snow-melt run off, coursing over boulders and through gorges. Our path took us over the tumbling waters by way of a suspension bridge and on deeper into the valley almost nose to nose with the Mount Cook Glaciers. Living, breathing, moving feats of Mother Nature’s subtle power. 

 

 

4. Clay Cliffs of Omarama

After some research, I found a spot that appealed to our introvert personalities. En route to Queenstown from Mount Cook, we visited an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ location that took our fancy. Few tourists come to New Zealand’s Clay Cliff’s of Omarama, partly because of the road quality and partly because Queenstown is the more obvious draw with visitors’ tight schedules. 

We braved the road, which was a good three miles of dirt track with pot holes, although wow, it was worth it. Imagine a Country and Western movie and you have this unique geological gem. Thousands of years old, these gravel and silt peak and cavity formations have been created by glaciers. They are so different to anything else you will see in New Zealand and for that reason alone, worth visiting. For a $5 donation at the road’s entrance, you can experience this incredible place, its silence and natural history. 

 

5. Queenstown Area

The views heading south west continued to inspire us and every spot the scenery changed. Mountains morphed from curvaceous and voluptuous undulations, tropical rainforest covered valleys, towering, craggy giants to then flat plains covered in fields of sheep, cows and red deer. Each view spectacular in its own right and well deserving of the respect they command.

Then we reached Queenstown. This is New Zealand’s adventure playground Mecca and a centre-piece for so many visitors, although it wasn’t for us and the weather had a part to play in this. Couped up in a car-park style Top 10 Campsite we felt claustrophobic and the beauty we expected from New Zealand temporarily hidden from sight. There were a couple of nice spots in the surrounding area; The Golf Club at Kelvin Heights was amazing, Arrowtown was charming and the infamous Bungee Jumping site at Karawau Gorge was definitely worth watching for an hour. Although apart from this, we were glad to leave Queenstown and was the least memorable part of our trip.  For many though, the draw of the adrenalin activities would make this an unmissable focal point for their holiday. 

6. Fiordland; Doubtful and Milford

I had imagined that with our visit to New Zealand in their mid summer season, that our weather would at least be better than back ‘home’. Although we were sorely disappointed, so do be prepared on South Island for the weather to change rapidly and to get really cold up in the mountains. Whilst cold fronts are typically unheard of, it does happen, just like any other weather anomaly – so come prepared.

Unfortunately these weather fronts do affect the full experience of the Fiordland region. Clear weather really does favour this natural architectural beauty, shaped by millions of years of glacial activity. Still, we decided that we weren’t going to come back to this part of the world, so to not visit both Fiords seemed a travesty. Depending upon the time you have on your itinerary you may have to toss a coin and chose one or another. So perhaps my descriptions below may help you choose.

 

Doubtful Sound

There are only two days in my life where I have been as excited as our trip to Doubtful Sound just south of Te Anau; Disneyland when I was 13 and my Wedding Day. I really don’t think I can adequately describe our experiences, which involved a ferry, a coach and then our three hour exclusive cruise on the most stunning fiord. How do I describe it and give you a sense of our experiences?

Imagine a stream and enlarge and lengthen it by a million. Imagine the colour blue and intensify it by 100. Imagine a hill and stretch it by 5000 and colour it with a few cotton wool buds tickling the tops of the mountains for good measure. Oh and add dolphins, penguins and seals. The final thing needed to your imagery is the sound…. Imagine only the sound of lapping waves on the catamaran’s hull, the eery vibration of a mountain’s towering presence, the cry of a seagull and the crashing of the waterfalls full of the recent snowfall melt. If you add a shake of magic and dash of rainbow colours and a sense of Christmas Eve excitement, you can share just some of our experience. At one point the captain turned off the engines so we could listen to Mother Nature’s orchestra and I have to say that the serenity made me cry with joy. On top of that I had dolphins swimming right alongside the boat, which just topped it all off. This is one of my New Zealand highlights.

Milford Sound

There’s no doubt for me that Doubtful (pardoning the pun) will hold a special place in my heart and yet travelling the route to Milford Sound, added even more colour to our travel log. The road itself was interesting with lakes that look like mirrors reflecting the mountain backdrop and tunnels that carry you through the most stalwart, granite mountain monsters and hairpin bends that rival the Swiss Alps. And then there was the Sound itself – we decided on a small boat cruise that had only eight passengers, making it quite an intimate affair. It was just like the brochures show; iconic, dramatic and so totally different to its southern sister. Sheer mountain faces, characterful shapes that enticed your imagination, caves, seductive clouds skimming the giants’ heads and waterfalls that gushed out of what seemed like thin air.

As I reflect on the two sensational experiences, I realise that each held a completely different energy within them. Doubtful was feminine – gentle, embracing, alluring, curvaceous, nurturing, satisfying and unforgettable. Milford was more masculine – tall, strong, powerful, dominant, a little jagged and over too quickly, leaving you wanting more. I’m so glad we did both Fiords as they were both special in their own ways and both taking just a little bit of space in our hearts. 

 Gallery of images – click below to see our Fiordland images.

 

Westlands and New Zealand’s Southern Alps

7. WanAka

Our destination en route north was WanAka – I purposely put a middle capital A, as a number of our ’speed reading’ Facebook friends missed out this crucial letter and gave this beautiful town a rather sorry nickname. The non-tourist road to Wanaka was simply stunning. There were more twists and turns in it than in a Jive. Good old Baz, the motorhome managed admirably and our prize was the oasis town of Wanaka, which, no surprise was held in the clutch of yet more magnificent mountains and with its own beautiful, azure lake.

With plentiful hiking and cycling around Wanaka’s peninsular you will get to experience yet more non-touristy South Island. You will find deserted beaches, forest paths and riverside-hugging biking tracks. Add to this the abundant smell of the authentic Tea Tree bush making a visit here for a couple of days feel like a healing zone.  

 

 

8. Haast Pass

Westlands, is all about the most famous glaciers and mountain passes. I must say that we navigated more hairpins than an Elizabethan monarch’s hairdo – blimey it certainly tested my driving skills. Every bend was a wow, an OMG or some similar expletive. There were gorges with topaz blue waters thundering through them, carving out their presence on the granite rocks below. Snow-capped mountains towered above us, coming in all shapes and sizes. Rainforest, still ruling the roost with 20ft ferns dominating the skyline and roads lined with brilliant orange Star Gazing lilies and crocosmia. In fact I don’t know about 50 Shades of Grey, I think we saw 50 shades of the Rainbow. 

Now I mention our next overnight camp, Lake Paringa, partly because it was beautiful, right beside the water’s edge, although more for the pest warfare that began that day. People consistently mention the Battle of the Sandfly in New Zealand, particularly on the West Coast and we took heed of their warnings and duly purchased a spray to ward off the little blighters.

The sandfly makes the mosquito look like a cuddly teddy bear, and those Scottish friends amongst you who know the pleasures of the Blue Cross mozzies, I’m sorry to say that they are child’s play compared to New Zealand’s sandflies. They look so innocuous as they land on your spray coated skin and believe me they will find access to any piece of flesh they can, especially if it is unprotected. At the time their bites seem innocent, yet it is a day or two later when the chickenpox itching starts and they swell up your ankles and you look like a teenager with acne within 24 hours. It’s bad man so beware.

 

 

9. The Glaciers; Fox and Franz Joseph

At the planning phase of our trip, Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers weren’t on our list. Given that we had seen the Tasman Glacier at Mount Cook, both of us felt like we had ‘done’ glaciers. Well that was until we saw the Helicopter Flights that landed right on the top of these magnificent giants.  Despite the cost, ($270 equating to around £137 per person), I had a sudden wave of Carpe Diem and before we knew it, we have reserved a place on the tour that included a snow landing which was key for me.  To quote the Carpenter’s song I really wanted to be: ‘…On top of the world, looking, down on creation…’ I wanted the rawness of the height, the space, the silence; Mother Nature in her most natural and organic state and to be at one with it. 

We were lucky enough to have our flight upgraded and without any additional cost we were blessed with a trip up Franz Joseph, flying around Mount Cook, a snow landing and down Fox Glacier for 40 minutes.  To cut a long story short, the trip was sensational with such a perfect weather day for it. So many people don’t get to do this because the conditions are too bad. It totally met and exceed my expectations.

 

 

10. Hokitika

As you head north towards Abel Tasman, there is the opportunity to have a short stopover at Hokitika. It is renowned for its driftwood and each year there is a competition down on the beach, which is definitely worth viewing. Hokitika itself is like a Wild West town although is quite charming.

 

11. Abel Tasman National Park

The northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island is paradise supreme. This National Park was first colonised by Dutchman Abel back in the 1600s, who is credited for being the first European to land on New Zealand shores, 100 years before James Cook.

Abel Tasman is the most incredible coastal vision I have set my eyes on and being a sea baby, I feasted on its lusciousness and allowed it to feed my soul. Golden sands sparkle like gold bullion. Dense forest canopies keep the sunshine at bay. And the exotic blue seas come right out of the Caribbean movies. We just needed Hale Berry to emerge out of the sea to recreate that famous James Bond scene. There is a real rawness about these shores that just brings out artists and nature lovers.

Limestone and granite mountains plunge straight into the crystal coves and beautiful bays create a safe haven for a host of flora and fauna so unique to this area. The peaceful inlets provide shelter to the abundance of crayfish, green lipped mussels, clams and blue cod, most of which are sent to the Asian market. What a treasure chest of delights that is Abel Tasman.

For the energetic and physically driven, the AT heralds the famous tramping track that can take from between three to five days. Pathways hug the coast, taking inward turns into the heart of the forest. Then there are teasing peaks of the tumbling cliffs below, revealing brilliant blue seas that invite you to dive right in. Water taxis buzz like bees up and down the coast dropping off trampers as they negotiate sections of the park to suit their abilities. Campsites and watering holes are sporadically located along the way for the more serious walkers to stay overnight. 

The sound of the cicadas sing like an electric fence without a break in their circuit. Conducting their harmony was the odd Tui and Bellbird, which sound a bit like R2D2. The musical orchestra was heaven for the ears. For the eyes, a feast of coastal rainforest, granite outcrops holding precariously poised pine trees and romantic beaches that just invited a naked swim! For the soul, well just being in this special place was enough to fill any heart full of joy, beholding the vistas that just melt you. 

This National Park is an absolute must if you love nature, coastline, hiking and water. 

 

11. Queen Charlotte Drive – en route to Picton

Our final South Island destination before our northern leg was Marlborough Sound and the Queen Charlotte Drive. It is famous for its wineries although we were heading for its watery surprises. This sea flooded wilderness was littered with little inlets and islands and yet reminded me so much of Doubtful Sound. It was strewn with voluptuous mountains and curvaceous coves, sheltering tiny isles with inhabitants looking for seclusion, their only links to land by boat. Yet again, off the beaten track we found ourselves an amazing free campsite – Double Bay Reserve that we shared with only four other vans and our own private beach. 

Arriving in Picton we treated ourselves to a cruise up Queen Charlotte Sound and this was no ordinary tourist cruise. It was a working boat. During our 3 hour trip, there were eight drop offs that allowed the disembarkation of both human cargo, trampers for the famous Queen Charlotte Track and, more surprisingly freight. There were suitcases for remote lodges in secluded cove, boxes of beer and wine supplies and the odd 58” Widescreen TV! It was great to be part of this working cruise and see how life in the Sound is sustained and nourished. 

From Picton, you are at the point of no return when it comes to South Island. After the highs of the Fiords, The Alps and the mountainous National Parks, the remaining task is to take the ferry over to Wellington. And from this point, your North Island adventures can begin.

 

 

Our closing thoughts on South Island

New Zealand’s South Island is truly beautiful and so much more than our 11 Highlights. It is a place where someone or something has created the most incredible natural tapestry for us to enjoy. Raw, untouched and precious. A land that needs to be treasured and honoured for all its splendour. What would North Island offer, if this is what South Island is all about? Tune into our northern highlights here. 

 

 

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