Isn't it mainly nostalgia one feels in New Zealand? Bits and pieces of soft, comforting memories warm one's mind, just beyond the grasp of consciousness. Or have some of us lived here in a dim past lifetime? Is that what it is?
Maybe it's that we're reminded of a long-ago childhood. It's all here: the crisp clean air, the rich fertile soil, crystal waters that we thought we'd never see again.
Wandering up and down the New Zealand landscape warms the heart, enriches the soul, makes one stronger and more resistant to the clamoring pressures of our daily lives. It restores one's faith in all that makes life bearable.
I think so often of Betty and Richard Croft, living their quiet tranquil lives in Te Puru, a couple of hours out of Auckland.
Betty, born in Tasmania, spilling over with never-ending nurturing warmth. Earth mother. Richard, steeped in politics, unable to ignore any opportunity to make a new friend anywhere, anytime. By Betty's definition, Richard "fits into the environment."
A man for all seasons. The Crofts are prime examples of that special Kiwi quality I call "sophisticated innocence."
Betty is like my Aunt Kate in Wisconsin. Before one's luggage is in the house, she's in the kitchen, mixing up pie dough. Childhood memories flood the mind.
That Sunday morning my husband and I arrived at their tiny white house, clinging to the side of a steep fern- and tree-covered bluff just above the road up the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. We were there only a few minutes before Richard was on the telephone inviting over his Labour Party friends to meet "the Americans."
Then, with no fuss or bother or even a rattling of pans, scones and pikelets appeared on the table, along with Betty's homemade jams and a pot of hot tea. Pure, unadulterated pleasure.
You think, "This is the way life should be. What else do I need?"
You get more. More hours and days of Betty's concern for your comfort, your feelings. Richard's penetrating conversation, revealing his deep awareness of the world, his down-to-earth humor.
My shyness was overcome by the charm and wit of their friend, Peter Jensen, retired attorney and seaman, born in Denmark 82 years ago. He's a tall, brawny man, muscles bulging from under his T-shirt, his leathery skin burned brown by the sunshine of sea and shore. He seems to know everything and has been every place you mention. He quotes Shakespeare, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Steinbeck.
Putty in His Hands
In spite of his irascibility, he knows how to talk to women.
His attractive son, Carl, came in later with his two little pea-pod, blond, blue-eyed daughters, Micah and Fairley. Sturdy and rosy-cheeked, they smiled shyly.
Carl is tall and slim, with blue eyes the color of a storm-tossed sea. He doesn't say much. He smiles and listens, with a gentle charm that intrigues.
In his father's backyard, adjoining the Firth of Thames, Carl has a trimaran sailboat up on blocks, waiting for the day when his work as a geologist is behind him and he can begin his dream voyage across the Tasman Sea to Australia and maybe beyond. Even in this New Zealand land of dreams, there is the reality of earning a living.
Another friend was Ted Howard, a bearded, young Labour Party man who has stood for Parliament with the hope of eventually winning election. He has a quiet intensity and soft-spoken sincerity.
In his skiff, Howard fishes commercially for flounder in the mud flats of the firth and makes computer installations on the side. He carries a small computer with him and pulls it out to write notes or keep track of his appointments.
Garden Near the Beach
The next day we saw Peter Jensen working in his garden, just a few meters from the beach. He stopped to chat and show us his son's trimaran. It lay just steps from the shoreline sand in front of craggy, sandy banks covered with ice plants and trailing orange and gold nasturtiums.
Jensen said he spends a lot of time fighting a battle of wits with rats. On calm mornings the rugged old man takes his nets out alone in his worn fiberglass dinghy and sometimes returns with unwanted stingrays. He buries the remains deep in his garden to decay naturally. Unfortunately, that attracts the rats, pitching the battle.
On the South Island, riding in a rental car along a winding road below Coronet Peak, between Queenstown and Arrowtown, you wonder if you've been cheated by not having been born in this beautiful land.
The tug of nostalgia was strongest for me in the Queenstown area. It's like going back home after a much-too-long absence. People greet you with open arms. They'll put the kettle on and bring out the best cups and saucers and a plate of cookies or tea cakes from the pantry.
The warm sun shines down on this picturesque part of the country, and you marvel at the strewn-out puffs of white cloud hanging low in the azure sky. That's another thing you've noticed. The sky is different here. The clouds seem closer.
In spring, the hills and dales are ablaze with golden flowers of Scotch broom that someone brought here many years ago. Locals are gently amused by the bursts of admiration visitors show for the glorious spreads of beauty. To them it's a noxious weed to be destroyed, but something keeps them from doing it.
The camera-bug tourist stops often along this road and is never satisfied. There's always an even more inspiring view around the bend or over the next hill.
We often stopped the car beside the road to climb up the bank to a fence, snapping pictures in all directions, both of us saying over and over, "I don't believe this. It can't be real."
You're left with a strange sadness, knowing you've reached a place that is the ultimate dream and you can't stay. You've found it, only to have to give it up.
The Kiwis say to us: "Not to worry. It'll be here when you get back." They can be complacent; they don't have to leave.
Sitting in Daphne and Ivan Wright's dining room we found a view that anywhere in the world would be worth a fortune. Lake Wakatipu stretches out below, an incredible sapphire blue, deep in the trough of the Remarkables, a small range of towering, jagged, purple-brown mountains.
Tucked at the entrance to Frankton Cove, at what is called the central knee of the lake, is Queenstown, population 4,000, an internationally popular resort. Thousands of overseas visitors decided to buy property there a few years ago. Locals followed suit and, suddenly, Queenstown boomed.
We bought too, only because we had never seen anywhere in the world a spot that seemed so ideal for living. We didn't know if we could swing it to live there, but we had to give it a try.
Honest and Trustworthy
Sandy-haired, ruddy-faced Ivan Wright, with an open, kind, cherubic smile, was working for the developer of the Fernhill housing sections on the spectacular hillside area west of the town when we met him. Ivan helped us find the right lot and has been our correspondent in Queenstown ever since. He's honest and trustworthy, a good man to know.
Daphne is girlish and pretty. In our minds now we picture Ivan in his dusty coveralls, standing beside his bulldozer on a sunny hillside, cheerful and ready to chat.
The boom in Queenstown housing has slowed now and lots aren't selling easily. Speculative buyers are disappointed. There's a lot of building going on, condos and multi-storied hotels, but it's settling down and reality is taking over. We're making payments on our section and have hope of someday building a holiday house there.
In Arrowtown, 20 kilometers from Queenstown, life is quieter. We saw a beautiful land development there, with a 360-degree view of mountains, broom- and bush-covered hills, lakes, rivers, sheep, open blue sky. What more could one ask? We wished that we could trade our Queenstown lot for one there.
The Stone Cottage is on the main street of Arrowtown. It's a relic of the gold-rush days of the late 19th Century. It's a tearoom serving breakfast, tea at any time, lunch and possibly supper. The food is wholesome and generously served by a country woman full of hospitality. We started out with Devonshire tea and on other days went there for lunch.
We ate our Thanksgiving dinner there. The day before, we had asked about the menu and the cook, ready to please, asked details about traditional foods in America.
When we arrived for our holiday dinner we found the specials of the day to be sliced ham, sweet potatoes, a delicious salad and great pumpkin pie served with huge dollops of the usual New Zealand whipped cream. The cook could find no cranberries, so she made a sauce of some tangy-sweet dark berries that went beautifully with the ham.
We realized after we had finished that we were celebrating ahead of time. While we were having our Thanksgiving dinner, it was still Wednesday at home.
Although we were mostly visiting Queenstown those six days, we stayed at a comfortable motel (the Golden View) in Arrowtown run by a young couple who had recently bought it. We learned that he's a policeman in Queenstown.
Rainbows and clear blue skies. The wet eyes and choked-up throat that go with the Maori farewell song, "Now Is the Hour." The precious solitude of an alpine lake. The cold, creamy delectation of a Danish delight served in a large, crunchy cake cone bought at a sidewalk stand from a jovial, freckle-faced Kiwi. Nowhere else is it the same. All is still right with the world in Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.
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The Golden View Motel in Arrowtown is one of the new Golden Chain motels throughout New Zealand. The Bay of Islands Motel in Paihia is another of our favorites in that chain. Prices are in the moderate rate, $NZ30 to $NZ50 for two.
Contact Don and Margaret Hoare, P.O. Box 14-345, Wellington, NZ, for help in arranging home and farm stays throughout the country.
Look up Frommer's "Wonderful World of Budget Travel" for suggestions on how to meet New Zealanders in their homes.
Contact Roberta Conway, 11 Clissold St., Christchurch, for bed-and-breakfast stays in homes and on farms.