Middle Earth, alpine valleys and geothermal landscapes are always hogging the attention when it comes to New Zealand 'must-do's', but how often do we get to see New Zealand's tropical side? Just a 2 1/2 hour drive north of Auckland lies Tutukaka, Middle Earth's exotic older sister with a few postcard-perfect views up her sleeve.
I first heard about Tutukaka while searching for New Zealand dive spots online. I was taken by images of lush coastal bush hanging over pristine white beaches and crystal blue water - hardly what I'd imagine as a typical New Zealand view. Looking at the photos I had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps the saturation had been turned up (in which case I would be very let down), but Tutukaka did not disappoint!
Having hiked volcanoes, climbed glaciers and kayaked some of New Zealand's National Parks, visiting Tutukaka to scuba dive Poor Knights was one of the items still left on my New Zealand bucket list. For Labour Weekend, Joe and I hopped a plane to Auckland, rented a car, drove north up the coast and arrived in Tutukaka in the afternoon with time left to explore.
Welcome to Tutukaka
Pulling up to the gates at Pacific Rendezvous, we are struck with incredible 360-views of the ocean with cliffs and tiny islands scattered about. Our temporary home is slightly dated but has all the amenities, floor-to-ceiling windows and views to make up for where it might be lacking in decor. In this case, it's what's on the outside that counts!
Within minutes of arriving, we suit up and follow a path through the forest to a private beach. Despite the holiday weekend, there is not another person in site. Ah, the beauty of living in a country of 4 million people. The beach is scattered with star fish skeletons and in the bay little boats are bobbing up and down. I dip my toes into the icy water and am quickly reminded that this is not a tropical island. However, it still feels like I am a world away from Hawke's Bay. We set up our beach towels and start snacking on pistachios, as a one-legged seagull starts eying us up. We relax on the beach for a while, admiring the view and enjoying some entertainment courtesy of a flock of seagulls who have not yet figured out that pistachio shells are not worth fighting for.
Around 4:30pm we watch the dive boats return to the bay from a long day out at Poor Knight's. I am struck with excitement and bit of nervousness about my first cold water dive tomorrow. For dinner we indulge in some delicious freshly caught blue fin at Schnappa Rock, one of maybe 3 restaurants in Tutukaka. We make it an early night since we have a dive in the morning.
The following morning we report to Dive!Tutukaka around 8:30 for our gear hire and boat assignments. It is a gorgeous day - clear skies, lots of sun... and enough wind to really rock the boat. After an hour and a half of staring at the horizon in hopes of avoiding sea sickness and clutching a barf bag in my pocket, we arrive at Poor Knights. The water is a calm deep blue with enough visibility to see some action happening below the surface. I am relieved and ready to jump in!
Our captain gives us a brief history lesson of the islands while the rest of the crew sets up our gear (talk about customer service!) Hundreds of years ago, Poor Knights islands were occupied by a sub tribe or hapu of the Ngatiwai people. In the early 1800s, most of the island's inhabitants were massacred my another Maori tribe, and the survivors abandoned the islands declaring them to be wahi tapu (sacred place). In 1922 Poor Knights was declared a scenic reserve, and today it is famous for being on Jacques Cousteau's list of the world's top five diving sites.
After our history lesson, we suit up our 7mm wet suits and hoods. I feel like the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters, but am ready to wear whatever will keep me warm!
Finally we take the plunge into the deep waters, and I start to feel comfortable as my dive skills return to me.
The terrain at Poor Knights is very different from any of the Caribbean dives I've been on. Kelp beds dance back and forth revealing volcanic rock speckled with tiny bright and colorful sea creatures. Spiny sea urchins occupy every nook and cranny and below us we spot eagle rays and carpet sharks napping in the kelp beds.
My very favorite new sea creature definitely has to be the nudi branch. Every time I see one I want to shout NUDI!!!! This very colorful sea slug can be found along the rock formations and range from the size of my knuckle to the size of my hand. If I'd had enough air, I could have stayed underwater all morning searching for these beautiful and colorful little treasures.
For our surface interval, we cruise over to the largest sea cave in the world, which is nestled in the side of the island. The acoustics are incredible! We shout into the abyss to hear it echoed back to us ten times over.
We return to the sunlight and enjoy sandwiches on the deck while watching a school of dolphins show off at the bow of the boat. This is the life!
After an hour we return to the water for our second dive where we discover 2 more carpet sharks, an eel and a huge nudi branch.
I love the sense of relief and relaxation after a day of diving, when you can finally peel off your dive gear and quench your thirst. Joe and I climb to the upper deck and curl up in our towels drinking hot 'Milo' and basking in the sun. I am amazed at what a relaxing and worry-free day this has been. The Dive!Tutukaka crew runs such an incredibly fun and professional operation, literally taking care of everything - from carrying your gear to set up and clean up. Once our boat reaches shore, we indulge in some much needed pizza and beer at the marina.
On Sunday I awake at 7am to the sun spilling into my room from the Pacific. In the distance I can see a silhouette of Poor Knights 20km away. I sit on the balcony, eating breakfast, watching the dive gear dry and enjoying all of the rock formations reflecting on the clear turquoise water.
Soon we've packed the car and are ready to begin our day of relaxation. We drive through small towns and stop at a corner store to buy ingredients for sandwiches. We open up what we call 'back seat deli' where we make and eat our sandwiches in the car.
After about 15 minutes of meandering along winding roads past green hills full of cattle, we arrive at our destination - Whale Bay. It's rated the top beach in New Zealand and I can see why.
We hike through a forest of ponga trees to get to the beach. Overhead a tui is ruffling its feathers as it calls to its mate on the neighboring branch. If you've never heard a tui, imagine a mocking jay from the Hunger Games. They have such a unique and distinct sound.
Finally we arrive at the beach. Golden powdery sand meets the clear blue water, all set on a backdrop of rolling green hills that remind me I'm still in New Zealand. Today is a day of total relaxation.
We lay on the uncrowded beach sunning ourselves and find shade in the trees that fold over onto the beach from the cliffs above.
Around us people are kayaking, snorkeling and free diving. It is mostly quiet apart from the singing tui mixed with the sound of small waves crashing. This tranquil escape is the perfect place to relax, unwind and get back in touch with nature... not that you're ever too far removed from nature in New Zealand.
We end our day with a hike to the lighthouse on a cliff. I look back toward Tutukaka admiring all of its curves as the sun sets over the hills. All in all it's a pretty perfect day and a perfect way to end our little holiday.
Tutukaka provides a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere that enables you to forget your troubles and unwind. It's the perfect place to spend a weekend away and feel like you're on a tropical island (without the price tag!) I'm so thankful I found the time to experience it, and if you're in New Zealand, I hope you'll discover Tutukaka too!
Many thanks to Dive!Tutukaka for sharing their fabulous photos from our dive and for creating such a great experience for us!