If you want to visit gardens in NZ, as the locals would say, “Good on ya!” This is a country of gardeners. New Zealand’s soil and climate make for beautiful gardens and everything seems to grow here.
During 2016, Rich, my husband, driver, photographer, and I, flower fanatic, writer, gardener, visited 102 gardens during seven weeks in New Zealand. Viewing the world through the lens of a garden furthers our education in history, geography, sociology, botany, art, and cultures, especially horticulture and agriculture.
The New Zealand Garden Trust exists to guide visitors to the best gardens in the country. “It is an arm of the Royal Institute Of Horticulture. The Trustees appoint up to eight assessors whose job is then to assess gardens to an international level every three years giving them a rating of between 4-6 stars for quality.” (Penny Zino, Trustee) Some of the 100 gardens are public but nearly half are private gardens which you visit by appointment. The Trust guide provides an email contact, and often a link to the garden website. Open hours are noted and some allow visitors even when they are not home to greet you. One of the great delights for us was to meet the gardeners and hear their stories.
There is an admission fee to tour the private gardens. Carry cash, these are private residences, they are not set up for credit cards. Entry fees range from $5 to $15 per person. Many times an honesty box set out for you to pay. Be honest it is worth every penny for this access and it helps them keep the lawns mowed. Bring your own picnic food, very few have cafes.
Spring (mid Oct-early Dec) is a great time for garden festivals and tours. The New Plymouth Taranaki PowerCo Garden Spectacular is held annually beginning the last weekend of October and runs for ten days through the first weekend in November. During our visit 45 gardens were open. The event is so popular that a parallel Fringe Garden Festival runs the same time and another 40 gardens were made available for visits. Other towns, like Akaroa, do home and garden tours.
Traveling to Gardens
You will see more if you drive. Consider renting a car directly through a NZ rental agency. You have better service available throughout the country (we had a flat tire.) Some in-country agencies can arrange a ferry crossing between the islands.
You must have and know how to operate a Navigation (Navi) system. We used three, a phone with Google maps (this depends on cell towers) and a Garmin device with satellite service. We used a paper map of the entire country and picked up the local maps at the ISITE (tourist info) centers.
New Zealanders drive on the left side of the highway, (when the roads are wide enough to have sides, but you always stay left.) The tourist advice for driving is “NZ roads are different, allow more time.” This is so true, don’t estimate driving time as you would for a U.S. freeway. Straight roads are the exception, not the norm. The roads wind through mountains, along the coasts, through the bush and it is a constant curvy drive. There are many one-lane bridges with designated right of way.
The speed limit is 60 mph (100Km) and they enforce it. Drivers rarely speed, passing lanes are limited and slower drivers are expected to lay by to let others pass. Driving through Waihola (a small town on the South Island) the city council greeted visitors with this sign: “Slow Down, No Doctor, No Hospital, One Cemetery.” Allow yourself time to enjoy the journey.
If you are from the USA, accustomed to driving on the right side of the road, driving will be a very active endeavor. I managed the navigation and relayed directions. Every night we checked our driving plans using wi-fi access to help keep data use low. We double checked our route on the paper map to give us a sense of direction. Rich had driving duty. I did drive but it made him nervous (he didn’t like being on the opposite side of the road) so this worked out best for us. Though during the trip we met solo travelers who handled the driving and navigation on their own. That said, the Maori language is used for many roads, and place names.The phonetic sounds of the English speaking Navi guide and the road signs won’t match.That adds another driving challenge. If you truly want to see the country the freedom provided in driving on your own allows you to explore as many of the gardens are not accessible by public transportation.
Seeking out gardens reveals the country you are visiting. Our best example of this was Fisherman’s Bay garden, near Akaroa, South Island. The Navi said it was a 14 kilometer (8 miles) drive to the coast, through the countryside, passing flocks of sheep, herds of dairy cattle, and farmed deer. We drove through mountains, past waterfalls, grand trees, and had frequent glimpses of the coast. In the middle of wide open space, our Navi said we “had arrived.” There was no garden to be seen, no house, no tree. We continued on, at times thinking we were going to drive off the cliff into the sea. We were on an adventure. Finally, we saw a sign for the garden pointing on down the road. What seemed to be several kilometers later we arrived at the farm of Jill & Richard, and their spectacular garden with a view of the bay.
The sheer beauty of garden locations, designs, and plants, is reason enough to visit. One of the best reasons is, so far, much smaller crowds. We were at Sir Miles’ Ohinitahi, a garden of International Significance for four hours. During that time two other couples came and left, the rest of the time we had the place to ourselves. We avoided crowds.
We traveled extensively with gardens as our destination. We saw golden pheasants, parrots, heard the Tui birds sing in the early morning and a bell bird call in the afternoon. We met a friendly black swan. We saw coastlines, harbors, bushland, art, and more. We really did see a vast amount of this beautiful country through the lens of a garden.
We had all our accommodations through Airbnb and we chose those properties that appeared to have gardens of their own. We chose a private suite within a home. This way we enjoyed meeting our hosts and many more gardens. Some locations are remote and hosts will offer to cook an evening meal for an additional fee. This was always a great option, it was a home cooked meal, a shared table, and great conversation.
Many times we shared a glass of New Zealand wine and were given great local recommendations. We stayed on an organic kiwi farm, an off the grid farm with sheep, goats, dairy cattle, chickens, (chooks) and vegetable gardens. We stayed at the end of a long, long driveway with a grand view of the harbor.
In Portobello we offered a ride to a young French woman, named Laura, she was traveling alone and the bus service she had planned on left her stranded. She went with us to Hereweka Garden which was along Hoopers Inlet Road. She said she had never seen such a beautiful garden. I introduced her to fuchsia flowers and she was smitten. We had a wonderful visit with her and enjoyed seeing our adventures through her eyes. We dropped her back in the city center near the youth hostel where she was staying.
It is important to be flexible in traveling. When a local resident looks you in the eye and tells you there is a better road to travel than the one you had planned, you should do it. Which is how we arrived at the Ahuriri River bed filled with acres of lupines. For as far as we could see pink and blue lupines filled the river bed. They grew densely in the sandy, rocky soil and most were over five feet tall. This spectacular scene was not our destination. We were on Highway 8 to see Lake Pukai and Mt. Cook. Serendipitously we drove toward a popular scenic view point and right into the brief blooming of lupine wildflowers.
We traveled for 45 days in NZ visiting 102 gardens. I don’t expect anyone else to follow such an ambitious itinerary. Decide how long you have, where you want to visit and make your plan accordingly. Pick five, or ten gardens and plan a route. Travel makes our world smaller, it builds connections and helps us believe in our shared future.
For every garden, there is a gardener who has a vision for making a beautiful place. Gardeners are committed, determined and hopeful people. Visiting gardens wherever you travel will be an excellent adventure. As we revealed our travel plans to John, one of our Airbnb host, he said with a smile, “It’s all Tickety Boo!”