Thursday 11 February 2021

From the sublime to the you-know-what

With thanks to Auckland Unlimited for this famil

One thing I have learned to do, in all the hotel rooms I have stayed in during this cobbled-together and now coughing-up-blood career as a travel writer, is what to do about a noisy fridge. It seems so obvious, but it took me ages to discover it: you don't even think about trying to get at the inevitably impossible-to-reach socket, to turn it off. No, instead, all you do is open the door and turn the thermostat down to 0. It's that simple. You're welcome.

Unfortunately, it's not so easy to deal with mosquitoes, so I still had a somewhat disturbed night, despite it being otherwise so dark and quiet. Still, I forgot all that, sitting in the morning overlooking the gloriously unspoiled black-sand, surf-rimmed Te Henga Bethells Beach far below, with weka darting over the lawn and John delivering a fine flat white and (5th-generation Bethell) Trude bringing an unexpected but very welcome hot, crisp cheese croissant. I liked their boutique cottages, quaint, quirky and comfortable, and full of welcoming and personal touches.

But I couldn't linger so, turning the fridge thermostat back up again, I set off down the hill and away again inland and northwards, to my first stop of the day: Kaipara Sculpture Gardens. Owner David got down off his digger to welcome me and explain that, with the garden centre up and running, he wanted to add art to the experience, so the garden alongside, which is lovely enough on its own, has been punctuated with sculptures. Big, small, all types, changing every year, it was a real delight to wander around discovering them. Some were silly, of course - it's art - but others I did admire, even covet; and I wished I had time to follow the wilder conservation trail down the hill.

My itinerary is themed 'art/history/nature' and my next stop was at Wellsford, to visit the Albertland and Districts Museum. I'm getting used now to being the only visitor to these places and consequently the focus of the docent's attention. I do like an enthusiast, and they always are. The focus here is the settlers who were sucked in by the scam of their day, ie sailing here in 1862 for 90+ days all the way from England to start a new life on what we'd today call shovel-ready land. Except what they found was untouched, dense, virgin bush. 

It was hard, for everybody, for a long time, but they persisted and, eventually, got to use the pianos, printing press, china tea sets and other niceties they'd brought so optimistically. It was interesting to browse around all this stuff, study the model ships, rows of portrait photos, and WWI memorabilia including two examples of the "dead man's penny" - big medals given to the families of those who died.  More cheerfully, there was the first ever Buzzy Bee ever made, along with his mates Richard Rabbit, Peter Pup and Dorable Duck.

Skipping through Wellsford - awful place, totally ruled by huge noisy trucks rumbling through its middle - I headed, irritatingly, south again, down to Matakana and the colourful joys of Morris & James. I always enjoy looking at their big, bright, shiny pots and platters - even if the woman busy decorating one of them didn't seem to appreciate being photographed - and it would have been the day's highlight if it wasn't for what came next.

Not included on my official, but annoyingly illogical itinerary, the Sculptureum is somewhere I've wanted to go for ages. It's a winery, but also a fabulously well presented collection of idiosyncratic art works from all over the world, no expense spared. Very eager, and Russian, Inna gave me a brief intro and let me wander by myself - literally, since it was the end of the day and no other visitors were there. I was captivated. Beautiful, gorgeous, intricate, colourful glass; works by Picasso, Chagall, Rodin, Cézanne; animal sculptures in all sorts of materials; flowers ditto. 

Then a neat palm and Mondo grass garden with more of the same, but much bigger; then another indoor gallery solely dedicated to, to my delight, a chandelier by none other than Dale Chihuly. And then another garden with massive driftwood sculptures - ie, life-sized whales and elephants - plus real rocks and boulders, and interesting inspirational quotes. I ran out of time, sadly, and rushed the end - it's a two-hour experience, minimum.

Back in Matakana, with its famously arty but dismayingly smelly public loos, I toyed with the idea of going to one of its quirky cinemas that evening. My leisurely and delicious MMK dinner outside on the river bank was, however, interrupted by Plume Villas ringing and wanting to know when I'd be checking in because they wanted to lock their gate. It wasn't the best introduction, and when I got there and wandered around the otherwise pleasant gardens I was put off too by the multiple big, red, bossy signs. And then there was nowhere to plug in my computer, except at the kitchen bench. And then, when I turned out the lights I discovered there were very bright security lights right outside. That stayed on till about 1am. Sigh...

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