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. 😊

 

Favourite Places: Exploring Makara Walkway with Welly Walks

Makara Beach is easily one of my favourite spots around Wellington. Just a short 30-minute drive from the city center, you’ll feel like you’re the only person on the island.

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I’ve been here several times, as Brett is an avid spear-fisherman and the rocky shorelines makes for ideal conditions. The first time we drove to Makara, the beach was dark and gloomy – but I haven’t had a bad day since. Even when Wellington is windy and cold, Makara seems to be in its own world with low winds at beach level, calm waves and clear waters.

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Mana Island is just visible from the main entrance of Makara Beach

Although we are approaching Autumn, this past weekend felt like a summer day – with warm temperatures and not a cloud in the sky. This is how I’ve come to know Makara Beach, and have experienced my best Wellington days out here, sitting on the (rocky – not sandy) beach and searching for shells and sea glass.

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A few weeks ago, I found an iPhone App that lists different walks around Wellington, with Makara Walkway being one of them. So when Brett told me he was going diving with a friend (meaning that I didn’t need to sit on the beach and keep watch) I took the opportunity to explore the hills around the beach.

The Welly Walks app guides you through the hike (which is easy enough to navigate on your own), but also tells the history of the area. The gun emplacements and bunkers near the summit were originally built following the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbour. Although they were commissioned by the start of WWII, these grounds never saw any action and were de-commissioned in 1944 (credit to the Welly Walks App for the history lesson).

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Mana Island & Kapiti Island in the distance

As with any ocean look-out built during WWI/WWII, the views are incredible, as it was necessary to scout out invaders. The irony is that these grounds have now become a place of peace and reflection for hikers or picnickers – a complete turnaround from the original strategy of their placement.

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To get to this viewpoint you can either hike from the beach or (the most popular route by the looks of it) park near the B2 turbine and take a short walk.

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Part of the hike crosses over farmland, so you’re bound to make some new friends along the way 🙂

The B2 turbine is also a site to see, as it’s the only wind turbine in the area that pedestrians can access up close. I personally find the wind turbines to be very calming and peaceful to watch, and although they seem to always be turning in full force around Makara Beach, there was hardly any wind at ground level.

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B2 Turbine (FYI for you lazy people: parking access is just around this hill)
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Shepherds Gully Fault

Although the app suggests to take the Opau Bay route and walk back to Makara along the beach, I went back down the way I came, for a couple of reasons. The beach is very rocky and somewhat annoying to navigate (which I know from experience), and the views near the beginning of the trail were secluded and incredible, and I wanted to re-visit these places on my way back down to the beach.

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Gun emplacements, with Opau Beach to the left; South Island in the distance
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View from the hike up/down that I wanted to re-vist 🙂

The hike took about two hours to complete, including numerous “photo op” stops. The climb to the top is relatively steep, but worth every aching muscle once you see the incredible views for yourself.

I don’t often repeat hikes (as I like to see as many new things as possible), but I would definitely do this one again and perhaps spend a bit more time relaxing at the top and enjoying the views.

And as much as I loved Makara Beach before, this hike has solidified it as one of my favourite places in the Wellington area.

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NZ’s best one-day walk: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is at the top of New Zealand’s To Do list and rated as the “best day hike” in the country. With sparkling lakes nestled high up in the mountains of Tongariro National Park and surrounded by craters and volcanos, this 19.4km day hike covers a variety of eco systems. Brett and his parents had never completed the hike before, so the choice was easy when deciding on a weekend getaway.

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The forecast boasted temperatures up to 23 degree Celsius and clear skies. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of hikers were among us as we dislodged from the shuttle bus at 7:00am and felt the crisp morning air on our skin. I was very content with my decision to pack a down jacket and mittens.

An hour into the hike, as we made our way up the “Devil’s Staircase”, I couldn’t help but wonder what brought each person to hike the trail. For every person there was a varying level of fitness, age, and clothing options (there will always be a person on the trail in jeans, and I pity their chaffed thighs the next day).

For a pair of women, this was a fitness goal. They slurped from their Camelback water bags – replenishing the liquids in their bodies surely just as fast as it was being sweat from their pores. Halfway up the Devil’s Staircase they urged each other to carry on.

A group of young girls were inadequately prepared, as they wore taboo jeans and fresh sneakers – complete with Marc Jacobs backpacks. I think I would have cried with them, had I been in their presence during the muddy descent on a latter part of the trail. Oh to be young and impractical.

For myself, it was the curiosity. In every country, there is always a “thing” that must be seen: the Statue of Liberty in NYC, Stonehenge in England, Machu Picchu in Peru, etc. This trail is the “thing” of New Zealand’s North Island.

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So up we went, single-file like an army of ants on the ultimate pursuit of what had been promised to us if we just continued to put one foot in front of the other.

About two hours into the hike, Mount Ngauruhoe towered over our army. Without a cloud in the sky, the peak was threatening and dominant. Only the bravest of hikers would take the chance climbing to the top – a track I will save for another lifetime.

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Near the turnoff to Mount Tongariro we were greeted with a bird’s eye view of the Blue and Emerald Lakes, along with the steaming Red Crater. This was the highlight on the hike: the landscape that was promised to us tourists whom had travelled from around the world just to catch a glimpse. And it’s true: the Emerald Lakes were as green and jeweled as the photos, and Blue Lake sparkled in the afternoon sun, with its untouched sand begging for a beach comber to set up their umbrella. I was fortunate enough to distance myself between the other hikers and capture some photos without anyone in sight.

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The lakes were surely the highlight of the Crossing, followed by 10kms of switch-backs down the other side of the mountain ranges. The view of Taupo Lake was breathtaking, but trust me, it’s a harrowing feeling to see the parking lot below and know that you are still three hours away. Eventually, with sore toes and fatigued legs, we made it to the parking lot below and we had completed our journey.

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. . . . .

Now back in my flat in downtown Wellington – a fair distance from the mountains and their hidden gems in the sky, I’ve taken some time to reflect on the experience.

At the time I felt that this was not “magical” whatsoever – and I still stand by that statement to an extent. The stench from the sulfuric gas of the nearby volcano was enough to make my stomach turn, regardless of how long it had been since I ate breakfast. And aside from my 30 seconds of staring at the Blue Lake before another army of hikers passed, the mood of the hike is not that of reflection and tranquility.

But there’s something to be said about the must-see “things” around the world and the expectations that are set. And this is something that I need to constantly remind myself of. It’s important to remember that there are many, many others looking to fill the same void in their life when visiting these popular destinations: the curiosity, the achievement, crossing something off the Bucket List. I was initially surprised by the number of tourists eager to hike the Tongariro Crossing, but I shouldn’t have been.

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And although I didn’t initially believe there was enough opportunity for reflection, perhaps there was. I remember looking around at the others and wondering if the ancient Maori tribes (iwi) would be horrified to see how many people were trampling on their sacred land (albeit with trendy Marc J backpacks in tow). But I think they would be proud of the number of people who had come from around the globe to appreciate the landscape and beauty that the Crossing offers. Although the trail is now commercialized with toilet facilities and man-made stairs, it is well-preserved and clean considering the traffic that flows through each year. (And yes, I did yell at anyone who went near the water… the tourist brochure says not to touch it!).

If I were to summarize the Tongariro Crossing (other than in the previous 850 words of this post), I would advise you to bring plenty of patience, for you will need it on the ascent, the decent, and everything in between. There are many, many others on the trail, but do not let it spoil the hard work that you put in to get there. Because it’s not easy hiking uphill with hundreds of strangers whilst hungry, thirsty, and sick to your stomach from the Sulphur gas vents in the hills beside you. But I think that’s what makes it a unique experience, and now that I think about it: That’s exactly what I was looking for.

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