Annabelle New Zealand Forgotten Highway

Exploring New Zealand with Annabelle Thorpe

April 29, 2015

We sent travel writer Annabelle Thorpe on an exciting New Zealand itinerary that combined highlights of everything that the North Island has to offer. Now that she’s returned, Annabelle is here to share her adventures for your own vicarious enjoyment.

Before I visited New Zealand, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect.  It’s so unspoilt, everyone told me; so beautiful and peaceful; the scenery is some of the most stunning on the planet.  So I was prepared to have to stop the car on my road trip every few minutes to take photographs of sweeping vistas, pristine forests and dramatic canyons. I’d expected the people to be lovely, the food to be great, the wine to be eminently quaffable.  But the beaches?  The great swathes of empty white sand, backed by lush green hills, with perfect waves rolling gently up the shore?  I wasn’t prepared for those.

The gorgeous beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula came at the end of a week’s road trip, in which I covered over 1,000 kms, driving from the up and coming town of New Plymouth, in the south-west of the North island, to Lake Taupo, deep into Maori lands and on up to Kuaotunu Bay, at the north-eastern tip of the Coromandel.   New Zealand’s blissfully quiet roads meant that even the driving – around 3-4 hours a day – was a pleasure, with different routes taking me through vast swathes of forest, rippling hills and spectacular coastal scenery.

Annabelle New Zealand Hangi Dinner Kohutapu Lodge

Above: A Hangi Dinner at Kohutapu Lodge

My journey started in New Plymouth, where my warm welcome from Daniel, the chatty hotel manager at the King & Queen Suites, set the tone for the whole trip.  The King & Queen is part of a clutch of businesses that are redefining sleepy New Plymouth, and on my first evening in town I met them all; the gang from Social Kitchen, just up the road, from the Ozone Coffee Roasters next door, and the team from the landmark Govett Brewster gallery, opposite the hotel.  Somehow I found myself at dinner with twelve people I’d just met; a fabulous, wine-fuelled evening that left me feeling as if I’d been in town for weeks, rather than just a few days.

New Zealanders are like that; they have a quiet, laid-back charm that makes you feel at home as soon as arrive anywhere.  The people that I met on my trip were one of my favourite things about it; at my next stop, the gorgeous Oreti Village, right on the banks of Lake Taupo, the ebullient Alex whizzed me around the estate in his golf cart, telling me stories of how he’d built up Oreti over thirty years.

Perhaps the most extraordinary person I met was Maurice Toetoe, a Maori grandfather, whose son and daughter-in-law ran the third place I stayed, Kohutapu Lodge.  The journey to Kohutapu is the kind of drive that puts the ‘road’ into road trip; mile upon mile of empty tarmac, stretching through the gargantuan Whirinaki Forest – the largest planted forest in the southern hemisphere.  Kohutapu is situated way beyond the middle of nowhere, tucked away deep in land that has just been given back to Maurice and Karl’s tribe, the Ngati Manawa.

Staying at Kohutapu is quite an experience; Nadine and Karl believe that tourism can be a force for good in bringing both awareness and income to their local village of Murupara.  They offer the chance to experience Maori traditional crafts, from weaving and cooking to eel fishing.  Or you can – as I did – simply sit and enjoy the gorgeous lakeside views, drink a cold beer and watch the spectacle of a traditional hangi dinner being prepared.

Annabelle New Zealand Maurice Rainforest Manawa Lodge

Above: Maurice and I in the rainforest

The real joy of staying at Kohutapu was spending time with Maurice; the following morning he took me to the Ngati Manawa’s Marae – the Maori equivalent of a town hall and community centre – and told me stories of his childhood, when life was incredibly different.  He drove me up to the rainforest and we walked together, while he pointed out different trees and shrubs and flowers, blew through leaves to call to the birds and generally gave me a glimpse of a truly extraordinary life.

The great thing about a road trip is the diversity of places you get to see and stay, and my next stop – the luxurious Manawa Ridge, could not have been more different from Kohutapu.  But once again the welcome, from Willem and Carla was incredibly warm, and within minutes of arriving I was sat on my private terrace, with tea and home-made cookies, looking out across a sea of blue-green hills, rippling out to the horizon.  We ate supper together that night, out in the courtyard with the barbecue sizzling in the background and all I could think was one thing;  only one night?  I could do with a week!

But my disappointment at having to leave Manawa didn’t last long; as the glittering coastline of the Coromandel stretched out before me I knew I’d found my favourite part of the North Island.  What was most astonishing was that even though it was a summer Sunday, the beaches were wonderfully peaceful; when I swam in the warm, clear waters on the stunning beach at Kuaotunu, there was only one other person in the sea.

Annabelle New Zealand Kuaotunu Beach

Above: Kuaotunu Beach

Kuaotunu – a small, quirky village with a gorgeous stretch of beach – was the perfect place to end my trip.  Again, somehow I squeezed an amazing amount into just one night’s stay; chatting
over tea and cake with delightful Lorraine at Kuaotunu Bay Lodge, tucking into wood-fired pizza at Luke’s Kitchen, the village’s one (but fantastic) eaterie; meeting the wonderfully eccentric stargazer and B&B owner, Alastair, and learning a little astronomy.

So what was the best thing about my trip?  It’s far too difficult to answer; the beaches perhaps, the people definitely, the insight into Maori history – which was completely unexpected and totally fascinating.  Perhaps it was the sense of a country that’s somehow remained wonderfully unspoilt and is determined to remain so.  It’s difficult; I just can’t decide.  Clearly I’ll have to go back.

Annabelle Thorpe is a travel writer, novelist-to-be and lover of crisps. You can find her writings in The Times, on Twitter and at her personal blog. Want to experience the excitement of New Zealand for yourself? Get in touch with us and we’ll be happy to show you the way.