When I was a teenager in school my hero was Captain James Cook, the British sea captain who made three voyages of circumnavigation around the world, before being killed by cannibals in the Hawaiian Islands, which he discovered. I read his thrilling ship’s logs from cover to cover, and often went to sleep with images of sailing into the mysterious Bay of Islands, Dusky Sound and Queen Charlotte’s Sound, all beautiful safe anchorages he found in New Zealand. His mission was one of scientific exploration, especially the discovery and recording of new plant species, which he found in such abundance that the ship’s floral artist gave up trying to complete his plant portraits during the trip, settling for a pencil outline and a watercolor rendering of one flower and a leaf so each subject could be completed on his return home.
Last January my wife and I totaled up our air miles and discovered we could afford a trip to New Zealand.
We landed in Auckland, rented a car and immediately drove 5 hours north to the Bay of Islands. We found a house to rent on a secluded beach near the historic whaling town of Russell, with a spectacular view of Cook’s anchorage, for only $50 a night!
Every mile of road in New Zealand is like a botanical garden, where vast forests of tree ferns, dragon palms and rata trees with magnificent red blossoms come into view at every turn. Also, there’s no congestion – just miles of deserted beaches and good roads that you can travel along without ever encountering a traffic jam! January is a particularly good month for touring New Zealand because it’s their mid-summer season and we had a chance to see some of their spectacular perennial gardens in peak bloom. Moreover, it’s a pleasant experience to be able to temporarily leave the cold and rain of Bucks County for balmy summer weather reminiscent of San Diego!
After several days in the scenic Bay of Islands we drove through the kauri forest (similar to California’s redwood forests), then went back to Auckland and took in a few sights, including their Domain Conservatory with it’s colorful displays of tuberous begonias and tropical water lilies. We had a book by Alison McRae that showed where the most interesting gardens were located, and after visiting heron a 5,000-acre sheep ranch just south of Auckland, she helped us plant the rest of our trip.
We drove south to Wellington by way of the high, desert road. Though not a true desert, the volcanic activity in the region is so recent, most of the landscape is treeless, with vast stretches of tussock grasses shimmering in the constant breeze. A short diversion off the desert road leads to verdant canyons and valleys in the shadows of snow-capped dormant volcanoes. One of these shelters the luxurious hillside garden of Gordon Collier, named Titoki Point. Gordon, New Zealand’s leading garden writer is especially skillful at creating colorful tapestries with foliage plants. Along streams and pod margins he contrasts feathery tree ferns and clumps of bamboo with heart-shaped, savoyed leaves of giant blue hostas, fleece-like colonies of Japanese hakonecloa grass and massive umbrella-like leaves of Chilean gunnera.
Several hours drive south we entered Wellington, the port city and capital of New Zealand. Though it’s famous botanical garden was our first stop, with it’s large rose garden, Victorian-style conservatory and other theme areas, most of all we enjoyed a little-known preserve further up the hill, devoted to indigenous New Zealand plants, including vast numbers of grasses, flax hybrids and giant forget-me-nots – many of them used imaginatively in landscape settings.
From Wellington we took the ferry across windy Cook Strait to South Island, sailing for hours through the smooth, sheltered waters of Queen Charlotte Sound, exactly as Cook had done just two hundred years earlier. We drove down the wild and scenic east coast to Fijordland, visiting mist-shrouded Milford Sound since roads still don’t go to Cook’s favorite anchorage, Dusky Sound, and then drove to nearby Queenstown which reminded me of Switzerland. This part of New Zealand grows the most spectacular lavender I have ever seen, and it is spellbinding to see huge drifts of it against snow-covered mountains rising in the distance. At nearby Ivercargill – the southern most New Zealand city – I visited a prolific New Zealand garden book author, Olive Dunn. In a space of less than an acre, she cultivates the most beautiful and inspirational garden I have ever seen. Full of beautiful color harmonies, many of her groupings were inspired by Impressionist paintings.
Next stop was Dunedin, with it’s expansive botanical garden and perhaps the world’s largest rock garden, brimming with alpine plants. With it’s large Scottish community, many other public gardens abound, including Lanarch Castle, which crowns a hill with sweeping views of the bay, and Glenfallock – an exuberant woodland garden that extends up the slopes of a verdant ravine.
From Dunedin it took all day to drive to Christchurch because of so many specialist plant nurseries located within sight of the road – growers of roses, garden lilies and dahlias in particular. Known as the Garden City, Christchurch has a rich English heritage, and a beautiful city center park with the River Avon flowing through and statues to honor both Queen Victoria and Captain Cook.
The botanical garden reminded me of Kew Gardens, England, and it was fun simply driving slowly through residential areas looking over low walls and fences at front yard gardens brimming with color.
Just two hours drive north of Christchurch is Gore Bay, one of the most beautiful coastal communities I have ever seen. With sand dunes, cliffs and a magnificent stretch of beach, it has no development and just a few quaint beach-side houses with gardens spilling down to the beach.
The whole leisurely trip took three weeks, and I’d return every year if time and finances would allow it. The people are friendly and extremely hospitable. We saw no poverty anywhere, and enjoyed every minute, especially the frequent roadside stands that sold every kind of fresh locally-grown fruit imaginable, including juicy watermelons, plump black cherries as big as small plums, luscious sweet apricots – and a very favorable rate of exchange into the bargin.