Grabaseat Destination: Hokitika

Sometimes when you’re visiting a small town, you’ll see a sign advertising something and you’ll think “nahhh, that can’t be what it sounds like”. A good example of that is the sign in Hokitika advertising ‘Sockworld’ – could this be a tourist attraction entirely devoted to socks? Yes. Yes it could. 

They’ve resisted the temptation to put a giant sock in the middle of Hokitika, although we notice there is a giant clock. Do you think the builder misheard the instructions? Coulda been worse, we suppose – at least he heard an ‘L’ in there.

Ignore us, we’re just being immature. Hokitika is actually one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. The West Coast sunsets are legendary, you have those massive Southern Alps behind you, and then there are all these pretty little surprises, like the turquoise blue water in the Hokitika Gorge, native gemstone ‘ruby rock’, and the Glow Worm Dell at the north end of town.

Hokitika is the closest airport to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Both are worth a visit, but it can get pretty cold up there so make sure you buy a warm pair of socks – we know just the place.

It’s also the home of New Zealand’s Pounamu/greenstone industry. The stone is retrieved from the rivers nearby and carved by local artists. Maori tradition says that it’s bad luck to buy pounamu for yourself, by the way, so make sure you do the right thing and come away from Hokitika with just the nice necklace, not the 600 year curse on your family.

There’s a saying in Hokitika: ‘everyone who lives here is a lifestyle millionaire’. Then, a few years ago, someone in the town won $11.5 million on Lotto Powerball, which sort of took the shine off that particular motto. “Everyone who lives here is a lifestyle millionaire, except for that lucky prick who’s an actual millionaire” doesn’t sound quite as good as a tourism slogan, does it? Maybe “Hokitika: Sock it to them” is the way forward. 

Grabaseat Destination: Auckland

Auckland. Have you heard of it? Our best tip for a visit to the Big Smoke is to make like an Aucklander and get a car. Sure, you’ll be putting more traffic onto the already congested city roads, but as someone wise once said: ‘if you can’t be part of the solution, be part of the problem’.

Seriously though, a car is the best way to see Auckland’s cool secrets. Wandering around the Viaduct and going up the Sky Tower are all very well, but you’ll get better memories travelling out of the CBD and into the surrounding suburbs. Mount Eden, for example, is free to climb and it’s the same height as the Sky Tower. If only there was a casino inside it.

Mt Eden the suburb is brilliant, with plenty of interesting shops, but then most of the city fringe is like that: Ponsonby, Parnell, Newmarket. Each has its own flavour, and can definitely justify a morning of shopping followed by some lunch. Or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, take a trip over that beautiful harbour bridge to Takapuna – it’s like Ponsonby but with a decent beach, and fewer actors.

Speaking of beaches, it’s worth including a day trip to Auckland’s west coast while you’re here. Rugged surf, black sand, awesome views – Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam likes it, and when it comes to beach endorsements, he’s pretty much your go-to guy. 

There’s plenty on the drive north of Auckland too. Call us infrastructure nerds but we really like the drive on that new motorway bypass of Orewa. Long tunnels, massive bridges, fresh black tarseal … guys? Guys, come back!

About an hour north is Matakana wine country, with a decent Saturday market and enough retail outlets to keep the poshest JAFAWAG happy. And if you love wine you must head over to Waiheke Island while you’re here. Take the car, convince some fool to be the sober driver and explore one of the best boutique wine regions in the country (we’re just kidding by the way, being a sober driver is REALLY COOL – say that to them, see if that works).

Grabaseat Destination: Hamilton

Taking the mickey out of Hamilton is soooo 20th century. These days, it’s a cool University town, with some of the best nightlife in the country and enough interesting stuff to easily fill a long weekend visit.

Half of Hamiltonians are under 30, making for a buzzy inner city on most nights of the week. Unlike it’s smug big brother Auckland, most of Hamilton’s bars and restaurants are in one walkable stretch – the sheer number of people wandering around looking for fun makes every Saturday night feel like New Year’s Eve.

Hamilton knows that, historically, it’s had a bit of an image problem. So the city has compensated by packing the calendar full of events: the site of 30 balloons hovering over the lake is enough to melt the heart of the hardest bogan, while even the city’s cultural elite must feel an excited flutter at the first roar of the V8s.

Part of the problem for Hamilton used to be that it had 16km of Waikato River running through the middle of town, but didn’t do anything with it. The only way to see the bloody thing was to walk across the bridge, but you couldn’t linger too long or police and ambulance staff would turn up and try to talk you down.

Thankfully there are now some beautifully maintained walkways around the river. Or, if you time it right, the Round-the-Bridges and the Hamilton half marathon are two excellent ways to see the best parts. We know, running doesn’t sound like much of a holiday to us either, but apparently lots of people are into it.

Make sure you visit the world-class Hamilton Gardens – a sprawling, magnificently conceived collection of themed gardens that runs along the south east edge of the river. Entry is free and there’s something for everyone – whether you’re an elderly begonia enthusiast with a passion for renaissance landscaping, or a teenage couple scouting for a decent park bench to have your first pash.

Grabaseat Destination: Dunedin

Yellow Eyed Penguins – no they’re not the Los Angeles hip hop quartet who rose to fame with their singles ‘Where is the Love’ and ‘My Humps’. You’re thinking of the Black Eyed Peas. The penguins are one of several rare and exciting species you’ll probably see on a trip to Dunedin, along with fur seals, Royal albatrosses and Hooker’s sea lions (no we’re not sure how they got their name, but a paying client’s a paying client, right?).

Dunedin’s really big on the natural stuff – as well as the wildlife, it has amazing beaches, cliffs, parks and gardens – but then it also has this kind of weird arty vibe too which helps it stand out from every other city in the country. An arty vibe will do that – remember that guy at school who never mixed very well at parties but kept painting those really lifelike, soulful portraits of the PE teacher that made you think the two of them must DEFINITELY be doing it? Well Dunedin is like that guy.

You want to know where the city got that ‘alternative’ feel from? It was founded by English and Scottish families who moved here from across the Tasman because they felt Australia was too warm. Now, we can think of plenty of reasons not to live in Australia, but the higher temperatures are not generally one of them. What sort of person chooses a new home because they like how cold it is? An interesting person, for starters.

City highlights include the majestic Larnach Castle, which is New Zealand’s only castle – so maybe everyone should drop ‘Larnach’ and just refer to it as ‘The Castle’. We have two important pieces of information about the place: you can stay overnight there, and it’s probably haunted, so … sleep well!

You should also probably visit Baldwin St, the world’s steepest street – each year in July, the locals roll Jaffas down it in a well-loved annual event. That’s Jaffa with two F’s, by the way, not one (although we suspect the odd Ponsonby wanker with oversize sunglasses gets an occasional nudge in the right direction.)

Grabaseat Destination: Gisborne

Congratulations, you’ve already made the most important decision about your Gisborne holiday: travelling by plane. Geographical isolation is definitely part of Eastland’s charm but boy, many’s the fanbelt/mixtape/relationship that’s been destroyed while trying to get there by car.

The Gisborne area holds a very special place in our history. Did you know this was where Captain Cook first set foot in New Zealand, in 1769? Even more amazingly, the place he landed is called Cook’s Cove. How much of a coincidence is that? Even if you find history boring (and if you’re learning all this stuff for the first time from us, we’re going to assume you do), the cove is really beautiful – you can walk to it from nearby Tolaga Bay via a natural rock cavern. 

Gisborne is the first city in the world to see the sun, unless it’s overcast like it was on the morning of 1 January, 2000. Bummer – oh well, at least all our computers didn’t rise up and destroy us like people said they would. Where were we? Oh yes, the first city to see the sun: it sticks around quite a lot too, which is good for sunbathing and making wine. Not at the same time, obviously. Wow, this guide is really going off the rails.

Speaking of rails, check out the vintage steam train, which takes you on a spectacular three hour beach loop along the East Coast. The website describes the timetable as ‘occasional’, so you’d best check with the tourism office when you get there.

Other highlights in the area include bathing amongst nikau palms at the Morere Hot Springs, zooming down the natural rockslide near Rere falls, or heading up Kaiti hill for an incredible view of Gisborne and the surrounding region. The township looks good up close, too – there are plenty of heritage buildings, lots of pretty gardens and a spot where three rivers converge, which is lit up by coloured lights at night. Romantic, right? Look, if you can’t get any action after taking your date to look at that, then we can’t help you.

Grabaseat Destination: Queenstown

Almost two million people visit Queenstown every year – we know this, because we tried to buy a Fergburger at 11 o’clock one Saturday night and most of them were in the line ahead of us. Queenstown during peak season is not your typical, quiet lakeside town: it’s absolutely cranking. Think of it as New Zealand’s Las Vegas, but with less fat American families.

If you’re keen on something a little more tranquil, there’s so much in the Southern Lakes Region to love. Lake Wakatipu, with the mountains behind it, is probably the most beautifully scenic lake in New Zealand, and you can choose the speed you enjoy it: perfectly still while fishing for trout, moving slowly in a hire kayak, chuffing along on the Earnslaw steamship or blasting along full pace just up the river on the Shotover jet. Feel that pulsing sensation in your blood? It’s called adrenaline, and it’s a good way to get high without risking jail time or driving around dodgy suburbs looking for sneakers on powerlines.

Peak season is, of course, based around the snow season, which is meant to go from June until about October. Some years it starts a bit late though – if this ever happens, we find that sitting at your computer on one of the snow report websites and hitting ‘refresh’ every 30 seconds is very helpful.

If you prefer activities which involve sitting pretty much motionless while people bring you food and drink, you’re also in the right place. There are 75 wineries near Queenstown, including those of the famous Gibbston Valley. Pick one of them to visit, taste a few wines, then either purchase a bottle or do that little post-tasting dance: “yes, well, they’re all good … must come back and buy a couple of cases … gotta scoot right now though, um, my car is on fire”.

Other key destinations you can get to from here include Arrowtown (historic, charming), Glenorchy (serene, picturesque) and Fiordland (majestic, Lord-of-the-Ringsy). Yes, there’s so much more to this place than doing Jagermeister shots and singing along to ‘Come on Eileen’. But that’d a perfectly fine way to start.

Grabaseat Destination: Wellington

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Wellington. As if it needs our help. You already know that the people are cooler, the arts scene more vibrant, the coffee better-tasting. You already know that you can walk everywhere and that even when you don’t, the public transport is immaculate. Honestly, trying to sell you on Wellington feels like trying to convince you that Natalie Portman is quite good looking. If anything we want to run it down to give the other cities a chance.

The fact is, you’re going to love Wellington. Even if you’re some sort of un-pleasable monster, who doesn’t like cocktails or paintings or fashion or food or books, you’ll still feel at home here, because there’s a section of the city devoted to people who stubbornly don’t like any of the things that other people like. It’s called Cuba Street.

Don’t forget Wellington has the Hurricanes, too. It’s like finding out that the cool, popular boy who constantly tops your high school art class is also the best player in your first XV. We know, the Hurricanes aren’t the most successful Super 15 team by any stretch, but the locals are so supportive that every year they get some of the biggest crowds in the competition.

We’re not even going to bore you with a list of things to do while you’re here. Walk out your hotel door and stroll around the block: you’ll have a choice of six plays, nine restaurants, eleven bars and half a dozen music gigs in which to spend the next hour of your life. They used to have a What’s On guide, but now they call it What Isn’t On. It’s smaller.

Thank goodness they occasionally screw up. Like that “Wellywood” sign – ahhh, didn’t it make you feel better that even Wellington has stupid ideas some times? It’s called schadenfreude. We’re not proud of it, but it makes us feel so very, very good. 

Grabaseat Destination: Wanganui

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Recently, Wanganui has become most famous as the town that can’t decide whether to put a silent ‘h’ back into its name. Ex-mayor Michael Laws was against the idea – which seemed a bit rich coming from a guy whose own name has a silent ‘h’ – buteventually most people agreed it was the right thing to do and did it, apart from the ones who didn’t, who didn’t.

Our point is that all that public arguing might have given you the impression that Wanga- sorry Whanganui was a bit of a stressful place, when really the opposite is true. Some of New Zealand’s most peaceful, remote destinations sit on the shores of the Whanganui River, which flows through the town on the way from Mt Tongariro to the Tasman Sea.

The best way to see it all is by canoe – the guided five-day journey down the river has been described as “life changing”. We tried to search for a romantic canoe movie to get you into the mood, but all we can find is ‘Deliverance’. Yeah … so we wouldn’t advise watching that one. The locals along Whanganui River are much nicer, we promise – with townships, campsites and maraes scattered along the trip for friendly lodging and food.

Or, you can follow the road, which winds along next to the river and stops at all those dinky little towns on the way. Do it in a rental car or – get this – travel with the local postie on the “River Mail Run Tour”, with interesting facts and quirky conversation to keep you amused while he delivers post and groceries to households in the valley. The day trip will cost you the princely sum of $63, including hotel pick up and morning tea! Let’s see email do THAT.

You can also puff along the river in a 100-year-old paddlesteamer, based in town. That paddlesteamer was buried under mud for 40 years and restored by locals – honestly, the town is full of crazy stories like this, but you have to visit to discover them. Okay here’s one more: did you know Wanganui is one of the world’s major glass-blowing cities? We know! Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up.