Volcanic Hills Winery

We are always eager to visit anywhere with the word ‘winery’ or ‘vineyard’ attached to the name and so, after a few hours absorbing the sulphurous splendour of Whakarewarewa, we sought the more mellow tones of Volcanic Hills Winery. While the wine making facility is located at ground level, the tasting room, high on the side of Mount Ngongotaha, can only be reached by a 900 metre ride on the Skyline Gondola.

The Skyline complex offers cafes and restaurants as well as luge, ziplines and mountain bike tracks for the thrill-seekers. We prefer our thrills on the more sedate side. Volcanic Hills was established in 2009 with the tasting room opening three years later.

There are no grapes grown in Rotorua, instead the best grapes are sourced from various wine regions in New Zealand and the finished product is only available at cellar door and hand chosen outlets, restaurants and hotels. We enjoyed a five wine tasting, guided through by a very knowledgeable Larissa, wife of winemaker Brent Park. The gondola continued its circuits on one side of the window

while magnificent views across the town and lake filled the rest.

Lake Rotorua was formed around 200,000 years ago following the eruption of a volcano and is the second largest lake in the North Island. The resulting caldera is about 16km wide, although with an average depth of only 10 metres.

Mokoia Island is a rhyolite lava dome in the centre of the lake, created when magma was pushed through a crack in the caldera. It is now a bird sanctuary and home to several rare species.

We wandered around the complex but, tempting though the restaurant was

we stashed our bottles of 2019 Hawkes Bay Rose and 2019 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and made our way back to Matamata as the sun descended on another wonderful day.

Hamilton Gardens – Paradise

I am always on the lookout for beautiful gardens to visit on our travels and was very excited to discover Hamilton Gardens is only an hour drive from Matamata, perfect for a day trip. The world class gardens are situated alongside the Waikato River, an area that was once a thriving Maori settlement and home to Ngaati Wairere chief Haanui. Sadly, after European settlement, the land was used for other purposes including a rifle range, sand quarry, go-cart track and finally the city’s main rubbish dump. In the 1950s, the Hamilton Beautifying Society lobbied for a public garden and, with most development occurring since 1980, the gardens now occupy 54 hectares.

Passing by the Events Centre, we were drawn to a huge wood carving depicting real and imagined life in the gardens. The intricate carving was created from a single camphor laurel tree which grew on the river bank, far too big to capture in one photograph.

At Hamilton Gardens, the emphasis is on different types of garden design rather than plant collections, exploring the history, context and meaning of gardens. The individual gardens are presented in three separate themes – Paradise Gardens, Fantasy Gardens and Productive Gardens – too much to cover in one post so I will start with the Paradise Collection. Each garden radiates from a central court, in this case it is Cloud Court featuring statues of Egyptian gods Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and Sobek, the crocodilian ‘Lord of the Waters’.

We started in the Japanese Contemplation Garden, entering into a karesansui, or dry landscape garden, of the Muromachi era from the 14th to 16th century. Often called ‘Zen gardens’ because they are found in Zen temple complexes in Japan, these are designed for quiet contemplation and study.

Beyond the pavilion, a pool surrounded by Japanese Maple trees infuses a serenity felt by even the smallest inhabitants.

The traditional gardens of the Arts and Crafts period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the inspiration behind the English Flower Garden. Walls and hedges create a series of outdoor rooms, each with a different planting theme, that are linked by pathways terminating at an arbor, fountain or seat.  

It is easy to see why the gardens of this era are often referred to as ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’.

The art of Chinese gardening dates back to the Han period, at least 2,000 years ago and this influential art form has been called the ‘mother of gardens’. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden represents a traditional Chinese garden from the Sung Dynasty, 10th to 12th century, when a social class of mandarins, scholars and the landed gentry created and maintained these distinctive gardens.

The winding path led to a blooming Wisteria bridge and would eventually reach a pavilion with views of the Waikato River.

Instead, we retraced our steps, past the giant bronze half turtle-half dragon, the Celestial Yuan of Taihu, symbolically protecting the garden from floods.

The 20th century brought the minimalist design of the Modernist Garden, particularly on the U.S. western seaboard and northern Europe in the 1930s. Elements such as swimming pools, barbecues and outdoor eating areas dominated with little ornamentation or formality. Not really my idea of a garden.

In stark contrast, the colourful Indian Char Bagh Garden was stunning. The symbolic four-quartered garden was designed for the Mughal aristocracy and spread throughout the Muslim world between the 8th and 18th centuries. The Mughal emperors, descendants of Genghis Khan, expanded their empire eastwards from Persia into northern India from the 13th century onwards. The design was adapted to local conditions but the basics of geometric layout and a focus on water and irrigation remained integral. In harsh climates, the subtle trickle of water combined with floral perfumes made for a sumptuous living Persian carpet.

Beyond the pavilion, some were making the most of this glorious day on the Waikato River.

We retreated through the decorative entranceway

and made our way to the Italian Renaissance Garden. Many of the elements of earlier Medieval gardens have been retained such as high surrounding walls, square beds and arched trellis work.

The Renaissance designers introduced a strong central axis linking different compartments of the garden and included antique sculptures. A perfect example is the copy of the original 5th century Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who, as babies, were thrown into the Tiber River, which carried them to Platine where they were suckled by a she-wolf and then raised by a shepherd.

I could imagine enjoying a beverage on the vine covered terrace but there was much more to see.

Whakarewarewa

We were looking forward to experiencing some Māori culture while in New Zealand and Rotorua is the place to do just that. There are a few options available but we chose Whakarewarewa because it is the only one that is an actual living village. The full name is Whakarewarewa-tanga-o-te-ope-taua-a-Wāhiao (The Uprising of the Army of Wāhiao) and was first occupied in 1325. The full name was adopted when, 300 years ago, a Warrior Chief named Wāhiao, gathered an army to avenge the killing of his father. They waited, hidden by geothermal steam and then performed a Haka before charging into battle.
After lunching on a tasty Hangi Pie at the Geyser Café, we entered the village through the memorial archway. Commemorating the fallen soldiers and tribal members who served in the two World Wars, the inscription, Te Hokowhitu a Tū, acknowledges the war god Tūmatauenga and was the motto of the Māori contingent.

Tourism came to the village in the 1800s when the Europeans began arriving in New Zealand. They were fascinated by the geothermal activity and local way of life. Before the bridge was built in 1885, the only way visitors could enter the village was to be carried across the river by the men, often in return for a penny. For generations, local village children have jumped from the bridge to retrieve the coins tossed in by visitors, earning them the nickname ‘Penny Divers’.

The Te Puarenga is also known as ‘Floating Blossom’ due to the yellow sulphur deposits that float on the surface as they make their way downstream.

Just over the bridge is a wharepuni, or sleeping house, traditionally built with natural materials such as tree ferns. A bit too close to the hot springs for my liking but apparently handy to make use of the heat.

The Ancestral Meeting House is named after Wāhaio, the traditional carvings tell stories and legends of his people and their tribal connections.

With time to spare before the afternoon cultural performance, we wandered past thermal lakes, mud pools and steam vents

to the bubbling waters of Te Roto a Tamaheke. Named after a chief living in the area many years ago, the lake has a number of hot springs that heat it above boiling point.

Before the entertainment began, we were introduced to some of the quirks of the Māori language. The explanation of the vowel sounds, none of which are pronounced the same as in the English language, was highly amusing. We were surprised to learn that ‘Wh’ is vocalised as an ‘f’ sound, an interesting concept when the name of the village is shortened to Whaka. The local performing group, Te Pakira, opened the show with a waiata-ā-ringa, an action song where the use of fluttering hand movements support the lyrics, symbolising shimmering waters, heat waves and such like.

A beautiful rendition of the love song, Pokarekare Ana, brought a tear to the eye. First sung at an army camp at Auckland in 1914, the song tells of Paraire Tomoana’s courtship of Kuini Raerena.

Next came the moment we had been waiting for – the Haka. The loud chanting, foot stomping, thigh-slapping war dance accompanied by poking tongues and staring eyes certainly stirred the blood. For me, it is the highlight of any All Blacks rugby game.

The skill and accuracy displayed in the stick games and Poi dances was boggling. The poi is a ball (or two) on a chord that is twirled in perfect unison with others and the direction can be changed by striking the ball on a part of the body, creating a percussive rhythm.

The performance over, we joined our guide for a tour of the village. The guiding tradition began over 200 years ago as tourism developed in the area and became a formalised profession for local Māori guides. The Catholic Church was built in 1905 and, due to the ongoing geothermal activity, in the cemetery the deceased are placed in tombs above the ground.

Retracing our steps down Tukiterangi Street

we turned left at Tuhoromatakaka, the family house built by master carver Tene Waitere in 1909 for guide Maggie Papakura.

The first inhabitants of the village discovered that food can be cooked by harnessing the heat from the ground and the steam box hangi is still used by the twenty one families living in Whakarewarewa.

The largest hot spring in the village, Parekohuru, is used for cooking leaf & root vegetables and seafood. Every 45 minutes or so, the pool pulsates and the water rises. The water level then drops and bubbles rise to the surface, hence the name ‘Champagne Pool’. I must say, I prefer my champagne on the cooler side.

At this point, I was distracted by the spectacular cloud formations.

Storms weren’t forecast but the nearby pools, Purerehua, told a different story. They are affected by the change in atmospheric pressure and when the water level drops, it means a change in the weather is imminent.

Many families in the village bathe in the communal baths known as oil baths because of the oily texture and mineral deposits in the water. It is very good for the skin as well as treating the aches and pains of arthritis and rheumatism.

The view from the Pōhutu Geyser lookout was quite ethereal. There are three active geysers aligned on the sinter terrace, a rock made of very fine-grained silica formed from the waters of the hot springs. The blue pool in front of the terrace is not fed by its own hot spring but collects water from the geysers.

The activity of each geyser affects the others with the largest, Pōhutu, erupting hourly up to a height of 30 metres. Its closest neighbour, Prince of Wales Feathers, always precedes Pōhutu but only to a height of 9 metres. The original name was Te Tohu (The Indicator) but it was renamed in 1901 on the occasion of a visit from the Prince of Wales because the geyser’s plume resembled the feathers on his coat of arms. The third geyser, Kererū, is named after an endemic New Zealand pigeon because the behaviour is as erratic as that of the bird. Unfortunately, we didn’t witness the full spectacle but were most impressed by the display we observed.

According to Māori myths and legends, the Whakarewarewa thermal area was created when Te Hoata and Te Pupu (Goddesses of Fire) travelled from Hawaiki in the form of fire to relieve their brother’s chills. Along the way, they created New Zealand’s volcanoes, mud pools, geysers and hot springs. I think they excelled themselves.

We meandered back through the village, reflecting on the lifestyle in this amazing part of the world

and the stunning landscape beyond.

Mudbrick

There was no shortage of spectacular views, along with magnificent food and wine, on our Taste of Waiheke Tour. Just when we thought we’d seen it all, our third and final winery, Mudbrick, delivered in spades. The initial vista was very impressive across the Hauraki Gulf, Rangitoto Island and Auckland in the distance but there was more to come.

We made our way to the terrace for an introduction to the winery, its history and a spot of tasting.

Robyn and Nicholas Jones bought the land as a lifestyle block in 1992. Both accountants, they had no experience in winemaking or hospitality but obviously had incredible vision. They spent weekends at the property planting everything from shelter belts to vines on the bare block as well as completing a multi-purpose mud brick building. The café soon followed and, 18 years later, is now a world famous restaurant. With glass in hand, we embarked on a tour of the vineyard while learning more about Mudbrick and the process of making their award winning wines.

There wouldn’t be many better places in the world to have a house.

As we climbed higher, the views became even more stupendous.

At the top, we had a 360 degree view of Waiheke Island from the helipad. Yes, you can arrive and depart Mudbrick by helicopter.

We returned to the restaurant

and wandered for a while around the flourishing potager garden.

Vegetables, herbs and edible flowers provide fresh ingredients each day to grace the plates presented to diners. Any organic waste from the restaurant is returned to the soil in the form of compost, recycling at its best.

Our day on Waiheke Island was almost over, what an exceptional day it had been.

Bywater banquet

Just in case you didn’t get enough of Hobbiton from my previous post, here is another instalment. When planning our visit, we couldn’t decide whether to do the Movie Set Tour or the Evening Banquet Tour. The obvious solution was to partake in both, after all, it was to be a once in a lifetime experience. The evening sun shed a different light on the hobbit holes and the lovely gardens.

From Bag End at the top of the hill,

the Green Dragon Inn shone invitingly across the water.

Working up an appetite and thirst, we meandered our way to lower ground.

The Green Dragon was one of many inns in the Shire and was actually situated in the neighbouring settlement of Bywater, though it was frequented by Hobbits from both villages. Arriving at our destination, we explored the inn with a complimentary Southfarthing beverage in hand.

We had been here on the morning tour but this time, there was only our group in the whole place. Apologies for the quality of this photo, I could possibly blame the ale?

As the light faded outside

we moved through to the dining room, greeted by tables laden with traditional Hobbit fare.

Is it my imagination or does that lady sitting across the table look like Pippin?

Having indulged in second and third helpings in true Hobbit style, we wandered around the garden while tables were magically transformed for dessert.

Once feasting concluded, lanterns were randomly dispersed among the guests and we ventured into the night to make our way back through the village, past smoking chimneys and hobbit holes glowing warmly, another adventure concluded.