Maori and Glowworms – New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and the Coromandel Peninsula

Story and Photos by Katherine Rodeghier exclusive for Vagobond

As my paddle dipped into water the color of black ink, I kept my eyes peeled on the glowing red headlamp of the kayaker in front of me. Single-file, we slid across Lake McLaren, following the verbal cues of our guides whose disembodied voices echoed over the water.

Bay of Plenty New Zealand
Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most photographed spots in New Zealand. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Kayaking, always an enjoyable activity for me, takes on an added sense of adventure at night on New Zealand’s North Island. The uncertainty of navigating an unfamiliar body of water in almost total darkness has a big payoff though: the chance to glimpse some of the oddest insects on earth, glowworms.
Our flotilla of kayaks left the main channel and crowded into a narrow canyon where we flicked off our headlamps in unison. And there they were, thousands of blue dots, draping the canyon walls like Christmas lights. If you want to get all scientific, these are not worms at all, but the larvae of a winged insect similar to a firefly. They spin sticky threads hanging from the rock and switch on their nightly bioluminescence to lure prey.
Reluctantly, we left the glowworm grotto and headed back on the lake, where a full moon rose above the trees as if by magic, serving as a beacon as we paddled toward shore.
For visitors to New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and Coromandel Peninsula, such moments of magic and mystery are not uncommon. Perhaps that’s due to the influence of the Maoris and their myths about their worship of the natural world. These indigenous people who traveled here from Southeast Asia by way of Polynesia on outrigger canoes—according to one theory—brought beliefs and traditions that enrich the Kiwi character today.

New Zealand Mauao, Bay of Plenty
The sacred mountain, Mauao, overlooks the beach and Bay of Plenty in Mount Maunganui. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

In the town of Mount Maunganui, a small mountain sacred to the Maoris perches on the edge of the Bay of Plenty. According to myth, the spirit of this mountain, called Mauao, dragged it here as a result of a love triangle. It had been one of trio of mountains on an inland ridge, two male, one female, but when its love was not returned, it sought to drown itself in the Pacific. Just short of shore, the spirit of the female mountain called to it, pleading with it to stop. I spent a pleasant hour on a two-mile walking path around the mountain, peeking out through overhanging trees to watch surfers and swimmers off Ocean Beach.
When the British came, first to take gold and lumber from the North Island, and later to settle there, the Maori were suppressed, their land taken, their language banned. But their culture was never snuffed out. Today 14 percent of New Zealanders proudly proclaim their Maori heritage and 37 or the 120 seats in Parliament are held by Maoris.

New Zealand Maori Dance
Traditional Maori songs and dances are performed for tourists at Huria Marae in Tauranga. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Maori tribal life is centered around the marae, an ancestral house used for social and religious gatherings. In Tauranga, cruise ship and tour bus passengers visit Huria Marae to share in a feast of Maori foods, enjoy song and dance, and learn a bit about Maori culture. Both men and women are heavily tattooed in traditional designs, perhaps the most unusual of which is a woman’s chin tattoo bestowed on those of high esteem, usually later in life when they are gray-haired grandmothers.
One of the most popular tattoo designs is the spiral-shaped koru depicting the silver fern as it emerges in new growth. Representing new life, or peace, it unfolds into a long, silvery frond that’s the national symbol of New Zealand and logo of its wildly popular All Blacks World Cup-winning rugby team.

I saw plenty of large silver ferns on a day spent tramping (Kiwi for hiking) through the rugged Coromandel Peninsula with one of New Zealand’s foremost nature guides, Kiwi Dundee. A rugged, weathered gent with more than 25 years of guiding under his belt, he walks and talks through the bush, peppering his comments with puns as old as he is. In real life he’s Doug Johansen. He and his wife, Jan, named their tour business Kiwi Dundee Adventures after he was given the moniker in answer to the Aussie’s Crocodile Dundee craze in the late 1980s.

Hiking in New Zealand
Doug Johansen, otherwise known as Kiwi Dundee, is one of New Zealand’s foremost nature guides. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Doug points out the massive kauri trees, cut for lumber and masts on 18th-century sailing ships, the entrance to an abandoned gold mine, and hushes us to silence to listen to the bird calls in the canopy above. He also explains the volcanic origins of the peninsula and points out Hot Water Beach where, at low tide bathers dig pools in the sand that fill with hot water from thermal vents a mile out in the bay. Hot enough to cook mussels in five minutes, bathers must add cool ocean water to bring their sandy hot tub to a comfortable temperature.
I missed the low tide, so I had my soak at the Lost Spring, a day spa in Whitianga. Owner Alan Hopping began drilling on the site seeking the hot water he knew was down there somewhere. Twenty-five years later he finally found it and opened his hot pools to the paying public in 2008.
The Kiwis love sports, nature and wildlife, all found in abundance on the Coromandel. The peninsula, just two hours from Auckland, is where the Kiwis come to play, spending their weekends and holidays at a campground or bach (beach house). Beaches are particularly attractive on the eastern side where cliffs tumble into the sea, scattering rocky outcroppings and tree-covered islands into the ocean. A favorite is Cathedral Cove, a natural sandstone arch accessible by kayak or a hike down a path from the town of Hahei. It’s part of the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve in Mercury Bay. Off limits to fishing, it’s a great spot for boating, swimming and snorkeling. Jump in and with luck you might find yourself frolicking with a blue-eyed penguin diving and dashing off shore. It’s another of New Zealand’s unusual creatures, but much more slippery and a whole lot faster than a glowworm.
If you’d like to explore the wonders of New Zealand why not check out the cost of flights using our amazing Vagobond Flight Tool.
Once you have the tickets arranged, use our hotel search engine for New Zealand Hotels to find the perfect place to stay on New Zealand’s North Island.

Wellington, New Zealand – A Fantastic Foodie Walkabout

Story and Photos by Katherine Rodeghier
Neil Miller gave up his day job to drink beer.

Food tour guide Stephanie Cutfield expounds on kumara, the prized New Zealand sweet potato. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
Food tour guide Stephanie Cutfield expounds on kumara, the prized New Zealand sweet potato. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

A political speech writer in New Zealand’s capital city, Miller had a fondness for the suds and started moonlighting as a beer writer for a local beer magazine. Then he began blogging about beer. Then leading beer-tasting tours. Soon beer became his occupation as well as his avocation and the allure of politics fell by the wayside.

“Wellington has a reputation as the best beer city in New Zealand” Miller told me when I joined one of his Wild About Wellington walking tours. “We don’t make a lot of beer, but we drink a lot of beer.”

Generous sample sizes of beer are set up for tasters at The Malthouse. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
Generous sample sizes of beer are set up for tasters at The Malthouse. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Young and hip, Wellington is no stodgy capital city. Nearly 60 percent of its residents are under age 50, compared to 45.1 percent in New Zealand as a whole. Last year Lonely Planet placed it at No. 4 in its list of Best in Travel cities. Compact in size, it’s a miniature Hong Kong, with hills ringing its horseshoe-shaped harbor. While Auckland is spread out, you can get almost anywhere in the Central City on foot, which is why walking tours, particularly those devoted to food and drink, are so popular.

The first stop on my walk with Miller takes me to The Malthouse at 48 Courtenay Place in the heart of Wellington’s nightlife district. On Thursday through Saturday nights this street is jammed with young revelers, some of whom have imbibed a bit too much. But as this was a weekday afternoon, I feel reasonably safe from getting vomit on my shoes, so I settle into the warm and cozy bar to hear Miller give his spiel.
Kiwis consume 77 liters of beer per person per year, making New Zealand the 14th biggest beer-drinking country in the world (the Aussies out-drink them, however). Miller says Wellington may be the not-so-flashy little brother to Auckland, which produces more beer, but here it’s all about high-quality beers. We sample four: Three Boys India Pale Ale; Tuatara Pilsner; Epic Pale Ale, a very hoppy brew using hops from the U.S.; and Tuatara London Porter, an old-fashioned English-style beer that English home brewers and American microbreweries have been bringing back. Between tastings, servers bring out platters of pizza.

We barely make a dent into what The Malthouse has to offer. Rated Best Bar in New Zealand by Beer & Brewer Magazine, it serves the broadest range of beers in the country. It even has a “hopenator,” a device that looks like a fancy espresso machine that infuses flavors to beer, such as coffee bean, chocolate, even fruit. The Malthouse’s 168 beers, including 30 on tap, range in alcohol content from 3.7 percent to a whopping 18.2 percent for the $30-a-bottle Tokyo from the BrewDog Brewery in Scotland, so potent it has been denounced by Scottish Parliament.

A Monteith Black is paired with blue cheese, red wine-poached pears and caramelized onion at St. Johns Bar. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
A Monteith Black is paired with blue cheese, red wine-poached pears and caramelized onion at St. Johns Bar. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

We pass on the Tokyo because it’s time for some serious food. We stroll down to the waterfront to St. Johns Bar at 5 Cable Street. Miller describes it as having a “colonial Humphrey Bogart look, like the Raffles Bar in Singapore.” Originally an ambulance building, it still has a 1930s Art Deco style to it.

We sample three beers here, all made by brewer Monteith. Chef Kit Foe pairs each to a dish he’s created. With the Radler, a flavored lager, he serves us pork belly with honey glaze and apple and ginger chutney. The Celtic Ale accompanies venison on a mushroom tart. The earthy red ale brings out the caramelization of the meat. For dessert, the Black, a Schwarz Bier, goes with a triple cream blue cheese served with red wine poached pears and caramelized onion. Sweet.

Wellington has more restaurants, cafes and bars per capita than New York City. On Zest Tours’ Gourmet Walking Tour I find out how seriously Wellingtonians take their food.
We start out walking down Cuba Street, a once debauched, now bohemian section of the city with ethnic restaurants, cutting-edge shops and cafes catering to the literati. Victoria University is just up the hill.

Our first stop is Havana Coffee at 37 Wigan St. We head to the back where master roaster Joseph Stoddart is pouring Cuban coffee beans into the roaster set at 203 degrees Centigrade. The only New Zealand coffee roaster to carry real Cuban beans, Havana Coffee is one of the three original roasters that opened in Wellington in the 1990s. Now there are more than a dozen catering to the city’s coffee craze. I look around and see burlap bags of beans piled along a wall labeled with their country of origin: Peru, Colombia, Bolivian, Zambia, Ethiopia, India, Vanuatu. I move into the café and order a flat white, the Kiwi lingo for an espresso served with two-thirds steamed milk. It comes with froth in the shape of a silver fern, the national symbol of New Zealand, and is almost too pretty to drink.

Master Roaster Joe Stoddart tends the roaster at Havana Coffee. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier
Master Roaster Joe Stoddart tends the roaster at Havana Coffee. Photo by Katherine Rodeghier

Next stop is Moore Wilson Fresh at Lorne and College streets. Why is our guide taking us to a grocery store, I wonder? But this is no ordinary market; it’s where local foodies and chefs shop. A family business specializing in gourmet fresh foods from small, local providers, it’s all word-of-mouth rather than advertising. When it opened in 1998, it drew lines zigzagging through the parking lot. I walk over to the produce bins and pick up a gold kumara, the prized New Zealand sweet potato, and peruse a refrigerator case of game meats, including bacon made from wild boar. In a tasting kitchen, our guide has arranged for us to sample single variety apple juices, aged New Zealand cheddar and a selection of Ruth Pretty jellies. I especially like the feijoa chutney—can’t get this at home.

We continue walking, stopping at 19 Allen St. and the Kura Gallery, selling in ethnic art and a range of contemporary and indigenous New Zealand gift items. But we’re not here to shop, but to taste New Zealand honey from a display set out just for us. The Kamahi has a lily-of-the-valley scent, the Rata a medium flavor from the flower that grows on New Zealand’s South Island. My favorite it the Manuka because it not only tastes wonderful, but is said to have medicinal properties. I make a note to pick some up at the airport on my way home.

The hour is getting late and I’m ready to bail on the walking tour to allow time for an afternoon nap. Then I learn we’re walking across town to Bohemein Chocolates, 109 Featherston St., and can’t pass up a chance to sample my favorite treat. Owner George Havlik, a pastry chef who chose to specialize in chocolate, is waiting for us. He uses the best Belgium chocolate and mixes it with all sorts of unexpected ingredients, which, oddly enough, work. I taste the pineapple black pepper ganache, the wasabi cream and the balsamic vinegar and honey ganache and I’m sold. There will be no waiting to buy at the airport this time. I make my selection, stuff my chocolates into my jacket pocket and head back to my hotel. No time for a nap? Who cares. Between sleep and chocolate, chocolate always wins.

Wild About Wellington
Zest Food Tours

%d bloggers like this: