Before we head off to give you a taste of the North Island south of Auckland we want you to have a look at both our transportation and the sort of campgrounds we found in New Zealand.  To be frank about it, our van was a bit on the lower end of the scale though not as bad as the van we rented in Australia.  But the campgrounds were superb–the finest we have encountered anywhere in our travels.

First have a look at our camper.  It is based on the Toyota van found almost anywhere in the world, had a four cylinder diesel engine, and included all one needs for a minimal van camping experience.  Here are a couple of pictures to give you an idea of what it was like:DSC03770

DSC03718The first picture is of the van itself so that you have some sense of its size, compared to ducks!  It was about the same size as Dan the Van but had a very different layout.  The second photo is of the interior from the rear with the hatchback open.  The seats you see have storage beneath them and when the visible table is dropped between them, the added plank that is hidden under one of the cushions is in place, and the cushions rearranged, it forms a pretty comfortable bed about the size of a queen.  No need for Dave to sleep with his arm in a closet as was the case in Australia.  Visible beyond the seats and the table are the stove on the right and the sink (which we never used) on the left.  Both have storage beneath.  And beyond them, of course, is the cab with two seats for driving, with the controls on the right side as in England and Australia.

What more than compensated for the shortcomings of the van was the quality of the campgrounds themselves.  Here is a look at our van settled into the campground in Hastings, part of the Hawke Bay wine country.  Note Dan the Van’s cousin in the background.DSC03714

Water and electricity are always provided to your campsite and each also includes a picnic table.  More importantly, all campgrounds have a kitchen that is beyond anything one would expect.  It is never just one set of appliances but is usually three to six stoves with ovens, refrigerators in which to store your food, and cleanup sinks to wash vegetables and dishes.  Here is part of the setup at Hastings:DSC03720

DSC03722What you don’t see in these photos are the refrigerators and ovens, but trust me, they are there!  So one doesn’t cook in the little kitchen in one’s van.  Rather, you carry your necessary things to the provided kitchen and do it there.

Campgrounds also include a ‘recreation room’ or ‘TV room’ to be used by anyone staying.  Here is the one at Rotorua, complete with huge TV, fireplace and lots of couches.  It also has an adjoining room with tables to eat or work at.DSC03603

If there is any sort of a view, most campgrounds will also provide outside areas (patios, porches or terraces) to sit in and enjoy, and all include multiple barbecues for the guests to use.

Enough of these practicalities–let’s get on the road and have a look at some of our favorite places to the south of Auckland.  Top of the list is the Hawke Bay area, famous for its wine.  Napier and Hastings close by were both devastated by an earthquake in 1931 and their restoration has left a couple of towns with a strong Art Deco flavor, carried through right down to the vehicles of the era one sees on the streets.Napier, Hawkes Bay, NZ

There is a fun atmosphere to both towns and in early February Napier holds an Art Deco weekend where everyone dresses for the era and cars from that period flood into town from all over the country.  When we were headed back to Auckland from here just before it began we must have passed a hundred autos from that period on their way to Napier.  It is also the site of an enormous lumber exporting operation huge port area where logs themselves are loaded onto ships, most headed to Japan we were told.Napier, Hawkes Bay, NZ_2

The region’s other claim to significance is the many vineyards and wineries which seem to be everywhere.  To be honest, we did our best to visit and enjoy all we could, not just for the fine wine but also for the the wonderful wineries where tastings and meals take place.  A personal favorite of friends from Santa Fe is the Black Barn Vineyard with its lovely outdoor patio for meals under thick grape vines.DSC03674

Another favorite was the Mission Estate Vineyard, the oldest in the area and founded in 1851.  It is now centered in a beautifully restored seminary and possesses all the elegance one would expect of such a venerated establishment.Mission Estate Vineyard, N Havelock, Hawkes Bay, NZ

Our other particular favorite was the Elephant Hill Winery and Restaurant, oh so stylishly modern and set close by the sea with vineyards framing the outdoor cocktail area and inside a beautiful wine tasting area as well.Elephant Hill Winery & Restaurant, Te Awanga, Hawke's Bay, NZ

We also spent some time around Lake Taupo, a giant caldera in the center of the island formed with a volcanic eruption about 26,500 years ago.  It is about twenty-five miles across and the volcano erupted last in 180 AD throwing out enough ash to paint the skies red so that it was noted in by both the Chinese and the Romans.  The lake today is beautiful blue and clear and rimed at the north by still snowcapped mountains, and of course we had to take a little cruise out on a lovely old ketch for the afternoon.

Lake Taupo, NZ_3

The boat took us to interesting carvings on rock at the water’s edge in a cove done by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell and friends in the late 1970’s and depict the mythic Maori navigator Ngatoro-i-rangi, one more example of the importance of navigators in the Maori’s history.DSC03810

We found the town of Taupo interesting for the rather whimsical artifacts we found everywhere.  The fence built of old bicycles you see at the top of this post is one example and stretches for perhaps a quarter mile along the road above the lake.  Another is the stands furnished to lock  bicycles to in town–also fun.

Lake Taupo, NZ

Even the drains for storm water are whimsical and artful as witnessed by this one at the side of a road, a strong reminder not to discard chemical waste down it.Lake Taupo, NZ_2

There were two or three other things we stumbled on wandering around the North Island.  One was the town of Tirau, a small agricultural community like so many others we passed through.  What made it rather unique was the way corrugated steel roofing was used everywhere, even for buildings, usually with artistic intent!  Here are a couple of esamples.

This is the Visitor Center for town, looking a whole lot like a happy neighborhood dog!Corrugated art, Tirau, NZ_2

And here is a Main Street shop, called Wild Spirit, just a whole lot like so many of the local sheep!

Corrugated art, Tirau, NZ

And on the way out of town was a rather interesting replica of the local school bus, but all told there were probably twenty separate corrugated art projects in the town as a whole.Corrugated art, Tirau, NZ_3

We also encountered a gypsy caravan encampment and faire on the outskirts of Wellington on a rather gloomy and windy day.  Things were breaking up at the end of the weekend, but the vehicles were still colorful and interesting that remained.

Gypsy caravans, Wellington, NZ_2

Gypsy caravans, Wellington, NZFinally, on our way back to Auckland to catch a flight back to San Francisco we stayed for a few days in a lovely little town called Coromandel which lies just across the Hauraki from Auckland.  It is all white clapboard and very nineteenth century and the product of a bit of a gold rush which took place at Driving Creek in 1852, and on the outskirts of town is the Driving Creek Pottery, created by famous potter Barry Brickell.  He found an excellent deposit of clay up the mountain and built a little railroad to it so that he could bring the clay down to where his pottery and kilns were.  Over the years he reforested the mountainside with more than 17,000 native trees including more than 9,000 kauri and one would never know today that it was once totally denuded of vegetation in the course of gold extraction.  The railroad also grew so that now its narrow gauge tracks extend all the way to the top with both switchbacks and tunnels, and the pottery is still in operation today.

Driving Creek Railroad, Coromandel, NZ

Driving Creek Railroad, Coromandel, NZ_2

We absolutely loved New Zealand and so wish we could have traveled to the South Island as well as that is even more spectacular from all accounts and the raves of friends who have visited.  But we will make it back someday–it is only down under across half the earth!