Matiu/Somes Island, Wellington, New Zealand

Matiu/Somes Island is perfectly situation in Wellington Harbour. From its humble beginning as native Maori land, to a quarantine sight, gun emplacement and research centre, this island has served as a unique piece of New Zealand’s history over the past several centuries.

Getting there

Check metlink.org.nz for the ferry departure schedule, then purchase tickets and board the ferry at Queen’s Wharf in Wellington. The trip was about 15 minutes and although I sat at the top to admire the harbour views, I held on tightly as the catamaran rocked viciously through the choppy waters.

Upon arrival at Matiu-Somes, I received a warm greeting from a Department of Conservation (DoC) Ranger – a welcome contrast to the offending journey.

Arriving at Matiu/Somes Island
The main trail makes for an easy walk, even in your fancy shoes.

Exploring

Once I caught my bearings, I set off on the trails. It was a typically overcast and windy day, which made for an ironically peaceful walk with few other visitors on the island. I’d say that this is a hiking trail for City Slickers: you can wear your fancy new sneakers – and maybe even a pair of dress flats – and you will come out un-scathed.

From multiple viewpoints along the trail, you’ll be rewarded with one-of-a-kind views of Wellington City and the surrounding suburbs, along with the vastly untouched coastal line of Matiu/Somes (my favourite spot is about about 50m from the lighthouse).

The perfect spot to stop for lunch.

If you’re quiet, you’ll be delighted by the island’s friendly birds and may even come across some of the other animal species if you get your timing right. The island has accommodation for large groups and even boasts several campsites if you’re feeling adventurous. The trails are an easy grade, only steep near the summit, and boasts several picnic tables for families to enjoy a relaxing day.

But there’s more to this island than the bright chirping birds, impeccably manicured trails and incredible views. This island has a past – several of them, in fact, which you learn about through the interpretation sites scattered along the island trail.

A dark past

In brief, the land originally belonged to several Maori iwi (tribes) and was then (captured) by European settlers, who used this island to house gun emplacements during WWII. Shots were never fired, and the land was eventually transformed to a high-security quarantine for both animals and humans as they entered New Zealand. And throughout it all, the harbour’s lighthouse, perched on the coast’s edge, continued guided ships into Wellington’s harbour, as it does to this day.

There are still traces of history left on Matiu/Somes, such as a monument dedicated to those who died on the island – generally those who were quarantined with diseases. The gun emplacements also hold a permanent position at the summit, one of many sites throughout Wellington that reminds us of the world’s dark past.

Several things, however, have drastically changed. Volunteers and the Department of Conservation (DoC) have worked over the past several decades to rebuild the land by planting thousands of native seedlings and reintroducing species that were once found on the island. It’s now a research centre and protected land for a variety of animals and reptiles, including the famous weta, tuatara and skink. Red-crowned parakeets and small penguins have also been happy to call this rodent-free island home, and grounds even boast a herd of sheep to keep the grass short.

The section surrounding the lighthouse is now unrecognisable from the past, having been restored from volunteers over several decades. And the recently erected Maori waharoa (monument) has a prominent home at the Wharf.

Wahroa monument at Matiu/Somes Island

To me, the island is about more than just the nature conservation – it’s both a nod to the past and a hopeful outlook to the future. The amount of effort that has been put back into Somes Island is genuinely impressive, and the care taken to preserve this piece of New Zealand’s history does not go unnoticed.

When I first arrived on Matiu/Somes Island, I was looking forward to a bit of exploring and hoped to see a nice bird or two – but when I left, I had learned so much about this island, the history, and the measures in place today, and this island means so much more to me now that I have been here and heard their stories.

War bunkers
My grandchildren play
Hide and seek

-Nola Borell, 2015

*Credit to DoC interpretation sites on Matiu/Somes Island for the history lesson. And check out http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/wellington-kapiti/places/matiu-somes-island/ for more detailed info.

12 Things to love about Wellington, New Zealand

Lonely Planet gave Wellington the title of “Coolest Little Capital in the World”. And while it initially didn’t seem like a vast departure from anywhere I’d lived before, I soon became privy to the quirky and quintessential features of my new home.  Here’s what I love about this capital city.

1. The green space is incredible

Native bush and hectares of forest within minutes of the central downtown area makes Wellington the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts. Whether it’s the Skyline Trail, Town Belt, Te Ahumairangi Hill or any of the reserves along the waterfront, this city has an endless number of trails for when you need to become one with nature. I love taking a lunchtime stroll through the Botanic Gardens to feel a world away in just a matter of minutes.

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Botanic Garden entrance

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Johnston Hill section of the Skyline Trail

2. Wellingtonians are low-key obsessed with coffee

It’s no secret: Kiwis love their coffee. Wander into a random cafe, gas station or even a parking lot and you will almost certainly find a full espresso set up (no filter coffee that’s been burning in the pot for hours!). And since Wellington boats more cafes per capita than even New York City*, you’ll be sure to find the perfect brew.

*http://media.newzealand.com/en/story-ideas/cwc-2015-wellington-fact-file/

3. No one minds the rain

I moved to Wellington from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada – one of the most miserable cities (weather-wise) in the country. I arrived in Wellington fully equipped with rainboots, an umbrella and several raincoats, but soon noticed that when it rained, no one cared. Designer rain boots (i.e., Hunter) are non-existent, umbrellas are at an all-time low, and maybe on the odd occasion you’ll see someone put their jacket hood up. Wellingtonians just don’t seem to care about wet shirts, soggy shoes or frizzy hair. And you know what? I’ve become one of them!

4. Honk your horn in Mount Victoria Tunnel

Pass through Mount Victoria Tunnel and you’ll hear other drivers honking their horns. But – don’t be alarmed – they’re not honking at you. During construction in the 1930s, a woman was murdered by her lover and buried at the construction site. The honking can accomplish one of two things: saying hello to the ghost or an attempt to keep her at bay. Whichever reason you choose, make sure to give your horn a toot the next time you pass through.

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5. The impractical suburb shopping districts

I don’t know who did the city planning – sometimes it seems like it was just a “yolo” moment in Kiwi history when they built some of these narrow streets, but each suburb has its own little shopping area with cute antique and gift shops, bakeries and cafes, and convenience stores. They are completely impractical and often you need to drive a good distance to reach a full-sized grocery store or any amenities and services such as a dentist or gym. But I’ll be damned if you don’t think these shops are the most adorable thing about Wellington.

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Tinakori Village is home to perfectly impractical antique shops and cafes, set amongst stunning heritage homes from the late 1800s

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6. Craft beer and cider changed my life

The ciders and craft beers that come from Wellington are just so good. There’s no shortage of new breweries to try or Beer Fests to attend when you’re in Wellington. If you find yourself in the ‘impractical suburb shops’ of Aro Valley, check out my personal favourite: Garage Project.

7. It’s often walk-up access only

With most of the city built in the hills, Wellingtonians had to get creative. I quickly learned that many homes don’t have direct street access and can only be reached after a series of hidden pathways and crooked stairs. It’s truly incredible to see the ingenuity used to build these unique homes and I love finding new places where homes are crammed in. And the plus side of all the stairs? Buns of Steel!

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The only access to some homes on Dixon Street

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Do you want to take the stairs or the elevator?

8. Stilettos and heels have no place here

This is perhaps my favourite thing about this city. Stilettos are seldom worn and ladies instead opt for perfectly functional dress flats. This is likely due to the impracticality of wearing anything higher than three inches in this hilly city. And when Wellingtonian women do wear heels, it’s usually a chunky (comfy) heel or wedge. My feet have never been happier!

9. The bus drivers have mad skills

I vividly remember the first time I took the bus from Mairangi Road to Wellington CBD. I sat in my seat, white-knuckled as we rounded one blind corner after another. It took me nearly a year to feel comfortable driving a car in Wellington, due to the narrow, winding streets – many of which have cars parked blocking one lane. The fact that a bus can make it down all of these streets without a scratch is nothing short of a miracle.

10. The Gatekeeper: The Rimutuka Hill

Perhaps even more terrifying than Wellington’s narrow streets is the Rimutuka Highway – the gateway to the Wairarapa region of the North Island, home to beautiful vineyards, pristine farmland and the picturesque Taurarua Range. Unless you take the train and go through the hill, there is no other way. Bring a sick bag.

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11. The ode to great women

Wellington City has installed special crosswalk symbols throughout the CBD to pay homage to great people in New Zealand’s history, including Carmen Rupe, who guides pedestrians down Cuba Street, and Kate Sheppard, who will get you safely across several intersections near Parliament.

And last, but certainly not least…

12. There are beaches galore, and you can have your choice

There is no shortage of beach-side getaways – whether you want to bathe in the sun or dive into the crisp ocean water, there are nearly a dozen places in and around Wellington where you can get your water fix. On a hot summer day, Oriental Bay is scattered with locals and tourists soaking up the sun, but if you move beyond the city centre, there’s often more space to throw down a towel and pop open the chilly bin. Each beach is unique in its own way and just as beautiful as the last.

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Oriental Bay during a scorching summer day

What are some special features about the city you live in? I’d love to read about them in the comments below!

Favourite Places: Castlepoint, New Zealand

Castlepoint is more than just a beach-side destination. It’s a quiet getaway and vast departure from the daily activities of a busy lifestyle.

Even during the cold and rainy winter, spending an evening at Castlepoint is one of my favourite places to unwind. Brett and I have been coming to his family’s bach* since we first moved to New Zealand, and regardless of the weather, it’s an ideal weekend getaway for those in the Wairapara/Wellington region.

*bach = cabin/cottage/beach house, pronounced “batch”

Getting there
The two-hour drive from Wellington is complete with a heart-palpitating cruise along the Rimutaka Highway, a snapshot of the Tararua Mountain range, and endless rolling hills of farmland. The finale of the drive is a stunning view of the South Pacific Ocean. My favourite part is just before you enter the community of Castlepoint: green hills dotted with grazing sheep. I’m pretty sure Kiwis think I’m crazy for loving sheep as much as I do!

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Places to stay
There’s a campground at Castlepoint, complete with a nicely developed space for tents and camper vans. If you prefer to stay indoors, however, many of the baches along the waterfront can be rented for your holiday, along with the Castlepoint Hotel (located just before the entrance to the town).

Things to do
Castle Rock
The obvious activity is to walk up to the lighthouse for a stunning 360-degree view. This trail is well-maintained, accessible from the beach, and can be accomplished in nearly any weather condition (it’s also a great spot for checking out the water clarity).

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The Cave

Below the lighthouse is a beach-side trail – accessible at low tide – to a deep cave. Through the cave you can see light at the other end, which lets out on the opposite side of Castle Rock. Although tempting, the water on the opposite side is extremely rough and not fit for swimming! This area is also a popular hangout for the New Zealand fur seal. These cute blobs can be very territorial – especially if they have pups around – so keep a safe distance but enjoy the thrill. 😊

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Brett about to enter the cave…

Water sports
Throughout the year, it’s common to see people out boating, surfing, paddle-boarding, scuba diving, spear-fishing, snorkeling and on jet skis. In the summer months – pending that the winds take a day off – “The Gap” (aka Deliverance Cove) is an ideal place to lay in the sun amongst the calm waters.

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The Gap – view from Deliverance Cove trail

Hiking
I’ll admit that we don’t often check the forecast before driving up to Castlepoint, so most of my memories here involve high winds and pelting rain. However, we’ve stumbled across a few sunny days that make every rain drop so incredibly worth it.

On one such occasion, we hiked the Deliverance Cove trail, located behind the town of Castlepoint. This hike was very steep and is quite a test for those with a fear of heights. As you walk along the hillside, be cautious of the blowing wind.

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Can you see the tiny lighthouse in the distance?

The view from the top is incredible – with Castlepoint Lighthouse, the beach and The Gap on one side, and a view of sprawling fields and Christmas Bay on the other. We took a long rest at the top to really soak in the sun, watch the water for activity, and gaze at the glistening waters along Christmas Bay. Since that day, I’ve been waiting for ideal weather conditions to get back to the top.

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Christmas Bay

In the area
Amenities
The town itself doesn’t have a lot of amenities (stock up in Masterton if you need any groceries), however, there is a café, complete with classic Kiwi fish n’ chips, hot dogs and home baking. Across the street in the parking lot, you can often find a small camper van-style coffee truck, ready to serve you up a freshly extracted espresso.

Mataikona

Mataikona is a small community of homes further up the beach from Castlepoint. This area evokes a sense of seclusion and separation from the rest of the holiday homes nearby. And although the sandy beaches do not reach this settlement, the blanket of rocks along the coast make for ideal diving conditions, and is a popular spot for spearfishing. I highly suggest taking a short drive out this way to experience the uniqueness and contrast to Castlepoint.

. . . . .

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Castle Rock, Lighthouse, The Gap, Deliverance Cove trail (far hill), and town of Castlepoint

Perhaps the reason I enjoy Castlepoint so much is that it’s one of the first places Brett and I visited when we moved to New Zealand. With the stress and uncertainty of relocating to another country, Castlepoint was a close destination that we could always go to for a mini retreat.

I still remember our first evening at the bach. We sat on the front porch, bundled in blankets, and drank ciders as we watched the sun set behind Castle Rock. Castlepoint always reminds me of that perfect, care-free feeling we had that day, and is why I always look forward to going back – despite the weather forecast. 😊

 

My Top 5 Tourist Fails

Have you ever experienced a “Pinterest Fail”? It’s when you find a recipe for “THEBESTCHOCOLATECHIPCOOKIESEVER” and they end up looking like this:

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Pinterest cookie fail, circa 2012

True story.

Well, the same thing can happen when travelling… and I like to call these “Tourist Fails”. You travel across the province/country/world to do THEBESTTHINGEVER and something (usually the weather) presents the unexpected and you end up with less-than-perfect travel photos. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you do it anyway – rain or shine, my friends.

So, here are my Top 5 Tourist Fails (so far):

Tourist Fail Number 1: Stonehenge, England, United Kingdom, March 2010

I visited Stonehenge shortly after they built a gate to keep tourists from touching /stealing /breathing on the stones. If you cannot tell by the look on my face, it was cold and windy as hell. I think I lasted 10 minutes outside before running back to the bus. Also, the brochures don’t mention that Stonehenge is located directly beside a busy highway and massive parking lot (albeit with a highly convenient coffee shop and loo). This is the best photo I got.

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It’s so bad that I’m not even mad about it anymore.

Tourist Fail Number 2: Machu Picchu, Peru, South America, October 2011

You know those days when you regret not checking the weather forecast? To this day I’ve never seen so many ponchos in one place. Thankfully, my trusty North Face windbreaker has been with me through it all. And we went for pizza afterwards. Which gave us food poisoning. Check off the ol’ bucket list.

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Pro Tip: Take the self-guided tour in reverse to avoid the crowds

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This was the first leg of our four-week South America trip

Tourist Fail Number 3: Cape Palliser, North Island, New Zealand, December 2016

Yes, even many years later I have failed to check the weather report. You can read all about my trip to Cape Palliser and the seal Nursery visit in my Cape Palliser blog post.

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Tourist Fail Number 4: Loch Ness, Scotland, United Kingdom, April 2010

This one isn’t weather-related but I honestly thought we would see Nessie (please refrain from laughing). I was travelling the UK with a friend from high school on a serious shoestring budget. We were so cheap that when we got to the castle at the end of the 90-minute walk we didn’t even want to pay the £10 to see it up close. Then we walked the return 90 minutes and took the bus back to Glasgow. Let’s just erase this from memory now.

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Nixon belts were still cool back then, okay?

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My first time seeing herds of sheep… Prepping myself for New Zealand, I guess!

Tourist Fail Number 5: Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada, October 2015 & 2016

In 2015, my sister (the Machu Picchu one) came to visit me and we drove 10 hours from St. John’s to Rocky Harbour for a three-day weekend. The boat tour season at Western Brook Falls was over, so we set off to hike the Green Gardens trail instead. Yes, it may have rained, hailed and snowed, but trust me, cracking an ice-cold Iceberg beer at the viewpoint over the lush grass and sea stacks made the journey more than worth it.

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Pro Tip 2: You can totally use your shoe to open a beer, and socks as mittens when in a pinch.

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Bonus Fail:

I went back to Gros Morne in September 2016, this time with Brett before we moved to New Zealand. The ferry was still running at Western Brook Falls and I was so excited to finally get on it.

I’ll just leave these photos here.

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So naive about how cold it would be on the water…

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At the end of Western Brook Pond (the famous view is from the top of these cliffs)

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The North Face jacket is still present – under Brett’s hoodie. Seriously, it’s effing cold out there.

Funny enough – looking back through old photos to write this blog post made me realized that I actually enjoyed having these unexpected and less-than perfect travel experiences.

Postcard photos and “everything was fantastic” vacation stories are a dime-a-dozen, and if I’m going to travel that far to see something, I want to see it from a new perspective and in a unique way – not identical to something I pulled from Pinterest.

Travelling has taught me the value of being flexible and having the ability to laugh at myself… and most importantly to check the weather forecast more often 😊