Saturday night: we arrived in Auckland on Jetstar after a 4 hour flight. Their planes really need a makeover! I would have preferred Air New Zealand – we flew with them to the US last year and their planes and service are amazing. The Air NZ flights from Melbourne to Auckland were at really inconvenient times so we chose Jetstar because it was a nice late-afternoon flight that would get us into Auckland at 9pm local time. We checked into our hotel – The Pullman, right in the CBD with a view of the harbour.
Sunday: top of the boys’ list was a visit to Hobiton, the set of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, deep in the NZ countryside. We booked tickets online and hired a car. Warning: although it’s advertised as being 90 minutes’ drive from Wellington, it was well over 2 hours each way, so it’s quite intensive trying to do this tour in one day. If we’d been staying for longer we would have continued on to Rotorua and stayed there for a night or two, but we were on a tight schedule. Hobiton was worth the drive if you’re a fan of the movies (I must admit I’ve never seen them), you get a 2 hour guided tour of the outdoor set, pretty interesting, followed by a jug of cider in the Green Dragon Inn. The weather was glorious so it felt a bit like being in a little English village in the summer! Back in Auckland we met up with some Kiwi friends, and the grown-ups went for a delicious meal at a restaurant overlooking the marina.
Monday: we spent the morning at the Museum of Auckland. It’s in a beautiful heritage building set in parkland, lots of space around it for the kids to run and burn off some energy before we went inside! There is a fantastic Maori cultural performance that really struck a chord with my younger son, who has been practising the dances and warrior movements ever since. In the meteorological section there is a ‘volcano house’ that simulates the experience of being in Auckland when a volcano erupts. Fun and also interesting, with lots of other volcano-related exhibits around it. We also enjoyed the War Museum, which is part of the Auckland Museum, telling the story of New Zealand’s role in the major wars.
After the museum we explored the nearby Parnell area, where I had read that there are good shops and cafés to be found but I couldn’t find any, I’m not sure if we were looking in the wrong area. Nevertheless we did find a sweet bakery called Pukeko and in another Parnell bakery my son tried a cronut. He is a doughnut aficionado and has been wanting to try a cronut forever. Verdict – delicious! Back in the CBD we visited the lovely old Smith & Caughey’s department store, their Easter display was amazing, and we also loved the Civic Theatre, in incredible restored 1920s picture palace, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. We were tired after all this walking so we took some food back to our hotel, had a feast and went to bed early.
Tuesday: I had been invited to have a tour of Seedling’s flagship store in Remuera, so I jumped at the chance! Glad I did because WOW, this is one seriously inspiring store. As well as a huge space to showcase Seedling’s amazing toy range, the store is also a party venue. When children arrive they are welcomed into a huge room with dress-ups and a circus-style photo backdrop. Then it’s into the main party room which has hanging banners specially designed to turn it from a knight’s palace into a flower garden, a space station… little guests get to do a Seedling activity and eat party food, and then of course play lots of party games. There is also a tea party room, with gorgeous painted furniture (I would have my birthday party here!) and a cake decorating station, mini milk bar and coffee shop. I seriously love this space and I came away with lots of ideas for our next store. Seedling’s collection, which encourages kids to be active and creative, is truly inspiring, did you know they have recently collaborated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop store and the Chelsea Flower Show? Wow, yet another Kiwi export that is taking the world by storm! Seriously amazing.
After a lunch at the impressive Britomart district down on the harbour we caught a ferry across to Devonport. It’s only a 10-minute trip but it seemed like I had been transported back to ol’ Blighty as there is a seriously British feel to this seaside town. I could hear Brit accents everywhere and there was a British provisions store and pubs too. Fun! We stopped at Yoghurt Story for a treat. Aucklanders sure like their frozen yoghurt, there are yoghurt bars everywhere you look! We liked the Yoghurt Story chain best as the décor is really fun, with swing seats for kits and big retro machines serving out the yoghurt, and tonnes of lolly toppings! We saw another beautiful old theatre in Devonport, and I also came across a great store called Nord run by a Swedish lady, with exquisite homewares, authentic fur throws, and cute Scandi gifts. Another big day over, and the sun shone for us the whole day. Yay!
Wednesday: our last day in Auckland so we went our for a slap-up breakfast in the Westmere area near the bay. We then took a long walk down to Auckland Zoo, admiring the pretty houses and the great views over the bay. We all loved Auckland Zoo, it is very family-friendly and big enough to spend a few hours there, but not too huge. The animals looked very happy and well cared-for, and we loved the hippos, the pigs, and the Kea birds best. The spider monkeys were very entertaining, jumping and playing in the trees with their babies on their backs, but the real star of the show was Pabu the red panda, who was born in the zoo. What a sweetie! I was impressed by the food at the zoo café, it was well-priced with lots of healthy salads and kids’ options. There was also a really good children’s animal-themed play area, water taps everywhere and interactive shows throughout the day. Top family-friendly marks!
After a swim at the pool in our hotel we went for a pizza at That’s Amore in the CBD, a totally amazing little café that we’d discovered earlier in our trip. The owner is extremely passionate about making traditional Naples style pizzas using local ingredients, and Paul voted their pizzas among the best he has tried (he is pretty obsessive about pizza as our friends will know, he even compared That’s Amore to the legendary Tony’s Pizza in San Francisco, which we made a pilgrimage to last year). I have to agree that the food here was very good indeed, and were I to move to Auckland I would be eating here a lot. It’s only a tiny place and not easy to find, but it’s a gem! I had planned an evening treat for everyone to mark our last night in Auckland, a visit to the theatre to see an acrobatic performance by the Canadian troupe Vague de Cirque. It was spectacular, and pretty funny too. There seems to be a really vibrant theatre and film scene in Auckland, I am a bit jealous!
Thursday: Our last morning in Auckland. We took a stroll around the Ponsonby area. Visited the very cool Douglas & Bec shop (they have just opened their first Australian store in Collingwood), and lots of little vintage clothing stores around the area. Also a fab children’s bookshop to stock up on reading matter for our journey to Wellington. I love the old milk bars around Auckland, they are everywhere! They are called Dairies here (retrotastic!!) or sometimes, if they are more of a mini-supermarket, they are called Superettes. Love! There is also a cool clothes and homewares chain called Superette, I popped into the Ponsonby store, great décor. Ponsonby Road is full of character and we spent a whole morning exploring, before stuffing ourselves on dips and boreks at an old-school Turkish café. Then we headed out to the airport for a one-hour flight to Wellington. So long Auckland!
Somehow between Auckland and Wellington summer turned to winter and we arrived in the middle of a huge downpour. And a freezing wind. But we live in Ballarat so a bit of Antarctic weather doesn’t bother our family. We headed out for a walk around the city just to get our bearings (and to buy socks, because I only brought my Saltwaters, duh!). We ended up in Cuba Mall eating yum tacos and quesadillas at Viva Mexico café. That evening we stayed in the hotel and watched a family movie with room service. In Wellington we stayed at the Novotel, a fairly basic hotel but family-friendly and the food was surprisingly good, so we ate and snuggled up in our room, I love family movie nights! Travelling so often with our kids and sharing hotel rooms has its challenges but it is also something that has brought us close together and we have a LOT of funny family memories about pyjamas locked in hotel safes, blocked loos, terrible room service meals and strange encounters in hotel lifts!
Friday: Ok I’m going to be honest, Wellington is not in the top 10 prettiest cities we have visited. It does have amazing buildings befitting a historic capital city, and lots of beautiful art deco architecture, but sometime in the 1980s a lot of bad planning decisions were made and it is kind of hard to see all the beauty now unless you really look for it. I also have to address the matter of wi-fi. Wellington, you seriously have to get some free wi-fi in your city! The connection in our hotel was useless and we struggled to find a single café, bookshop or restaurant in the city that offered free wi-fi. We even huddled desperately outside a McDonald’s but to no avail! It felt like we were back in the 1990s. Having said all of that, there is a quirky, down-to-earth vibe in Wellington that it is hard not to fall in love with so we can forgive the lack of wi-fi and the ugly buildings. Wellington is ACE!
On Friday morning there was a brief hiatus from the rain so we went back over to Cuba Mall and the area all around it, checking out the vintage and handmade shops, loving all the little pop-up coffee shops and cafés, and admiring New Zealand designers. My favourite shop was Made It, a store stocking handmade fashion, accessories and gifts from local designers. The store was really well put together and very inspiring, I bought a few gifts to bring back home. I must also mention Iko Iko, who have two stores in Wellington and who we know well, having supplied their stores over the years. Iko Iko share our love of colourful, quirky and retro design and they put on a great show, their shops are so cool! Wellington is small enough to get around on foot so you can really see every part of the city and discover the unique vibe, from the upmarket harbour area to the more down-at-heel theatre district with its strip clubs and old cinemas.
Around lunchtime the rain started to fall again so we caught a taxi over to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, in a modern building on the waterfront. Our taxi driver was so friendly and gave us lots of Wellington tips (Wellington has great cabbies!). Te Papa was AWESOME! We spent 4 hours there, which as anyone with active kids like mine knows, is a long time in a museum! The museum is architecturally excellent, built right into the bay so that you really feel the connection with the environment. There are many interactive elements for kids but it manages to be educational also (I dislike those science museum where the kids just run around pressing buttons but don’t really learn anything, and also those dull museums where everything is behind glass with long descriptions – Te Papa really strikes a good balance). We explored the Environment section and took a simulated submarine voyage down to the bottom of the ocean to see the ‘black smoker’ underwater volcanoes. My older son loved the simulation of extreme Kiwi activities like bungy jumping, a great way to experience the thrill without the danger for a 12 year old! We also spent ages in the cultural history section, learning about how New Zealanders have lived over the years, major events like the Rainbow Warrior, political activism, immigration and childhood. The boys did not get bored at all, but there was a well-placed children’s section next to the history exhibits where you could take a break if you were travelling with younger kids. We ate at a pretty good Malaysian restaurant for dinner and then headed back to the hotel exhausted.
Saturday: more rain, so we couldn’t go out on a boat or on foot, so we headed back to Te Papa again, where sunshine arrived in the form of a Caribbean community day. I grew up in a town with a big Afro-Caribbean community so I was pretty happy about this. The boys made tin drums and then there was much dancing to the Steel Pans band who had travelled from Auckland. The museum visitors got really into it, and I met a lovely lady called Rachel from the band who was English like me but now lives in NZ. When the band had finished playing there was a workshop and my youngest son proved to be a natural at the big bass drums, so much that the band wanted him to join! We had lunch at the café, which was really impressive – kids could fill a bag with five items for just $7.50. This included marmite sandwiches, muesli bars and carrot sticks with hummus, as well as tiny teddies, jelly etc. Fantastic. Lunch for the four of us came to $24.50 and was delicious. At certain Australian museums we’ve paid over $60 for mediocre, greasy food, with hot chips being the only appealing option for vegetarian kids, so this was really refreshing! After lunch we went back to the History section as I was keen to visit Golden Days. I think I already mentioned that there is a vintage-loving vibe in Wellington, well this is the only museum I’ve visited which has an exhibit where you get to sit in a vintage armchair or garden chair and watch an antique shop come to life around you!! Seriously this was brilliant, the idea is that you are locked in an old store overnight and the shop objects each tell stories that are displayed on a cinema screen – around themes like love, vacations, disasters, sport etc. I am a bit of a museum nerd and I have visited some very odd musuems (eg the parasite museum in Tokyo and the alcohol museum in Stockholm) but this was a pretty unique experience for me!! As we were leaving the museum the Caribbean event was just finishing so we took part in a last conga dance and headed out into the pouring rain. There was an underground craft market on the harbour, I think it happens every Saturday, and also a pop-up container exhibit that was pretty awesome, to show some of the ideas that young people in Christchurch have come up with to rebuild their city after the 2011 earthquake.
We were on our way to the Wellington City & Sea Musuem, which has apparently been voted on of the world’s top 50 museums. It is just a small museum, with three levels, but it gives a very good idea of Wellington’s history as a city on the sea (my hometown is also a seaport so I always love a good maritime museum!). Downstairs is an excellent exhibition on the 20th century, with 100 objects, one for each year, to recount different aspects of the city’s history. Quite a few of them are interactive, to keep the kids happy. There was also a ‘wall of love’ where visitor have written love notes to the city. The thing that most left an impression on us was an exhibition about a ferry disaster in Wellington harbour in 1968, in which over 50 people died. As well as objects from the fatal crossing there was an extremely poignant documentary showing. I wouldn’t recommend this for very young kids, but it is well worth seeing. After the museums we walked across the harbour to the theatre district where we ate a hearty meal at Sweet Mother’s Kitchen, a very quirky ‘soul food’ kind of restaurant that is obviously popular with locals, it was packed even at 5.30, and I drank some excellent Waiheke wine.
As this was our last night in Auckland we’d booked a show, this time a screening of the classic film The Third Man at the restored Embassy Theatre. This building is seriously beautiful, from the tiles in the toilets to the sweeping staircase and the amazing audatorium, wow! One of the good things about your kids getting older is that you aren’t restricted to little kids’ movies, and we all loved the film. We treated ourselves to some lolly bags and this might be a good point at which to mention that new Zealand has ACE lollies. From huge dusty milk bottles, to pineapple lumps, chocolate fish, jelly airplanes, Kiwis certainly love their lollies and so did we! After the movie we snuck down through the tunnels underneath the auditorium into the basement of the Embassy, where there was a jazz band with a girl singer playing, just to listen for a few minutes.
When we came out of the cinema something very awesome happened to us – our oldest son is a fan of Flight of the Conchords (yes I know that their TV show has scenes that are a bit grown up for a 12 year-old, call me a bad parent, but I think Bret and Jermaine are actually great role models for a young man! We don’t let him watch the Simpsons or any of the bland American sitcoms that his peers watch, in fact we hardly let him watch TV at all but this is one exception). He particularly admires Bret Mackenzie because he wrote the music for The Muppets movie (and won an Oscar for it, yay!). We’d been talking during the week about how Bret is from Wellington, and he was on the TV news that morning talking about the new Muppets movie. Anyway, as we were waiting for a taxi outside the cinema, my son saw Bret going into the kebab shop next door. How weird! I am a bit shy, but as my son is such a big fan I decided to take the plunge and say Hi . It must get annoying to be famous and be recognised all the time, so I was a bit hesitant. But Bret could not have been more lovely. What a cool guy! He was just like his character in the Conchords (but taller than I expected), and he chatted to us about how he used to work in that kebab shop years before. Then he offered to pose for a photo with our son. My boy was so stoked to meet one of his idols, and I was stoked to find that someone who has become pretty famous is clearly so grounded and such a nice person. His wife was lovely too, and I apologised for interrupting their date night! We went back to our hotel feeling very happy!
Sunday: Last day of our trip (boo). Our flight was not until 3.40 pm (why are there no mid-morning flights between Australia and NZ??) but this turned out to be a good thing because it meant that we had time to visit the Weta Cave, which was only ten minutes from Wellington airport, in Miramar. Weta is the workshop producing the award-winning digital film effects for which NZ has become world-famous, and the base for Peter Jackson’s film company. The taxi driver who took us out there (the same one who took us out to Te Papa, it’s a small town!) had worked as a joiner on Peter Jackson’s huge production studio and told us lots of stories about celebrities who have visited and how much employment the movie industry has brought into Wellington. It is pretty cool that they have kept NZ as their base and not moved to LA. The Weta Cave had a shop with ‘collectibles’ that are hand-painted by the same artists who work on the films, but this didn’t really appeal to me. I did however love the 45 minute behind-the-scenes tour of the workshop. This is a popular Wellington attraction and the tour guides are all employees from the studio, our guide was a hair artist who has worked on King Kong’s hair, amongst many others. He was pretty hilarious, and told us about what it’s like to work at Weta, it sounds like a very cool company. The boys loved trying on the prosthetics, fake chain mail and beards, and the tour gave a real insight into how movies come to life. We have visited the Harry Potter film museum in London, and although Weta was much smaller, we enjoyed it just as much. I would have liked to have been able to take more photos but it is all top-secret! Other than that, we had a blast and it was a great way to end our trip. Off we went to the airport for a nice Qantas flight back to Melbourne and a drive home to Ballarat, where our pets gave us their usual over-the-top so-thrilled-to-see-us big welcome (we call our two dogs the ‘puparazzi’, every day when we come home they make us feel like celebrities!). It’s good to be home!
This was our first trip to New Zealand and we concentrated on the main cities on the North Island. We definitely hope to go back to explore the South island and also to visit the scenic areas of the North Island, but we will also visit Auckland and Wellington again, as both cities charmed us in different ways and we came back feeling very inspired and content! I’d highly recommend both cities for family-friendly holidays or a more grown-up romantic break.