New Zealand’s reputation for natural beauty has become so well known that it’s practically cliché. With its dramatic mountains, glacial lakes, wildflower-filled valleys, and meandering fjords, it’s become the darling of Instagrammers the world around. Thousands upon thousands of photos have snapped backpackers as they pose in front of impractical vintage jeeps with their wide-brimmed fedoras and wind-blown flannel shirts. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, images of New Zealand no longer elicit that tingle of wanderlust like they once did. Sure, they’re still beautiful, they’re still impossibly picturesque – but they’re just overplayed. Even the best songs get boring when you hear them too many times. Don’t get me wrong, when the chance to visit arose, I was still incredibly excited to go. It was a new country, with new adventures! But I’d been so saturated with photos of New Zealand that I lacked that anticipation I normally feel when a new destination. There was no aura of mystery left.
Well. All of those jaded thoughts vanished right out of my head the moment we landed into Auckland International. New Zealand’s reputation is well-earned. It’s a simply enchanting place to visit. Even the airport is wonderful with its Lord of the Rings themed décor.
This trip wasn’t exactly planned out. We had to leave Australia in order to change over to a student visa, and New Zealand just happened to be the cheapest tickets at the time. Without the slightest clue of what to do on our short getaway, we consulted one of those ridiculous ‘10 things to do’ lists for Auckland day trips. Most of them didn’t sound all that appealing with the blustery autumn weather outside – ocean kayaking in high winds? Pass. Instead, we ventured north towards Piha Beach, which sounded just promising enough to warrant a trip.
Leaving Auckland to the north, we quickly found ourselves driving along impossibly windy roads that careened along forested ridges and verdant valleys with homesteads with charming names like ‘The Lucky Kiwi Ranch’. The coastal forest in this area is truly remarkable. Stumpy pines mingle with fern trees that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, and oversized plants boasting spurts of floppy spikes lend a vaguely tropical feel.
After a few hours of battling my perpetual carsickness, we descended along a steep, zig-zagging road down to the beach. I’ve always wanted to see a black sand beach in person and I finally got the chance here. In truth it’s more of a deep chocolatey, charcoal grey, than a true black, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Strewn across the beach were the tiniest, most perfectly spiraled white seashells. They were barely bigger than my fingernail, but had washed up by the thousands. Obviously some sort of tiny, perfectly spiraled white seashell massacre had occurred here.
We strolled along the abandoned stretch of beach, watching as the high winds turned the tops of waves into misty spray. A sizeable rocky outcrop divided the beach in two, the top crowned by a flock of seabirds circling on the winds. As we climbed the narrow pathway leading to the top, the Lord of the Rings theme song played in my head. The scene was simply too striking not too. It begged to be hummed. There may have been some enthusiastic arm conducting when I wasn’t holding onto the railings.
At the top a beautiful Maori carving marked the ancestral tidings of the area. Apparently it was the preferred strategic outpost when neighboring tribes attacked, although it was hard to imagine a battle in this idyllic setting.
Our skin thoroughly exfoliated from the sand-blasted winds and our hands in desperate need of something warm to wrap around, we went in search of the nearest café. Sometimes in the remote corners of the world you have to be satisfied with gas station coffee that tastes vaguely of iron, but other times you find gems like the Piha Café. With floor to ceiling windows and softly worn wooden floors that are the architectural equivalent of a hug, the Piha Café was a more than welcome sight. Ferns in macramé hammocks and hand-painted, wooden surfboards hung from the ceiling. We settled into a table by the window, overlooking the same rocky outcropping we had just explored. The menu offered cozy delicacies like roasted carrot and sweet potato soup, fresh baked bread and scones, and warmed paninis with melty cheese. A few cups of coffee and an assortment of meal-sized snacks later, we were too full to manage anymore hiking. It’s times like those that I’m glad I always carry a book with me. There’s just something so wonderful about reading a good book while the rain drizzles on outside.
All photos by Kelsea Lee