By Mark Bradley
Forget Jimmy Buffet. Cancel your trip to Key West. I have found something better than a Cheeseburger in Paradise. It’s called Villa Margarita, an eclectic boutique bed and breakfast near Wellington, New Zealand that offers guests a commanding view of Pauatahanui Inlet in a chic private villa set high on a lush hill (www.villamargarita.co.nz).
I met the owners, Mark and Margarita Owen, on the movie set of “Bridge to Terabithia” near Auckland where I had touched down January 23rd after my 12 ½ hour flight on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles. Their ten-year-old daughter Carly was acting in the movie and I was working as the chief assistant to my friend Pat “Action” Jackson, child actor Josh Hutcherson’s tutor.
Margarita, of Cuban/American descent, and Mark, a native of Wellington, invited me to stay with them for the weekend. When Mark offered me the chance to join him on the scenic drive south through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island I jumped at it.
Traveling the world these past few years, I have met some interesting and accommodating characters but Mark and Margarita Owen top my list. We had our first cultural exchange back on the movie set in an after lunch whiffle ball game where I invited them to join the Kiwi(New Zealand) team in a spirited game with Team USA.
Margarita’s ready smile and enthusiastic approach to life carried over on the field as she made a tumbling catch on a tricky pop up at first base. Mark was equally determined on a windblown fly ball to the outfield.
I soon recognized they were sincerely interested in getting to know us and as Mark and I made our daylong drive south it became evident that his ingratiating smile and wit would provide an interesting adventure.
Our first stop was Rotorua, the cultural capital of the Maori tribe, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Rotorua is known for its bubbling mud pools and thermal springs along with its Maori heritage.
“The best view of the town and Lake Rotorua is a quick gondola ride at Skyline SkyRides. “Should we give it a go mate?” Mark cheerfully suggested.
“Yes, carry on,” I chirped back in my best Kiwi accent.
What he didn’t tell me was there were a few surprises waiting at the top of the mountain. Remember that here in New Zealand the seasons are reversed so it is their summer and, although I missed the wood burning stove in my cozy Maeystown cabin, I was enjoying the semi-tropical warmth of another pleasant 80 degree day.
You can imagine my surprise when I found a full fledged luge(sled) run at the top of the hill. Even though the steep, curving course was concrete and not ice, one still had the feeling of hurtling down the run like the lugers at the Winter Olympics in Turin. Riding the chairlift back to the top of the run I heard a loud swooshing sound and blood curdling screams.
I spied what appeared to be a large carnival ride with people strapped into a three seated pod going back and forth in a huge pendulum motion extending out over the edge of the mountain. Upon closer inspection, I found it was “SkySwing”(www.skylineskyrides.co.nz ) a modified version of bungee jumping.
Some might call it “kiddy bungee” but when they strapped me in and cranked us 150 feet up in the sky, the ensuing freefall evoked a response from me that we can’t print in a family newspaper.
A much more refined stop awaited us down the road where the turquoise colored water of the Waikato River cascades over Huka Falls just outside Taupo. Taupo is known as the trout fishing capital of the world and the elite travel from around the globe to fish here.
The lodging of choice is the Huka Lodge(www.hukalodge.co.nz ), a historic, elegant retreat from which they helicopter out to the surrounding wilderness with guides finding the best streams.
Mark and I chose to enjoy a cheese and meat tray along with a fine New Zealand pinot noir at our outdoor table when suddenly the serenity was interrupted by the sound of a helicopter landing just behind us. Two fishermen got out and the pilot quickly took off, roaring overhead on his way back to the trout streams. Such is the life of the rich and famous.
It was time to go and as we traveled further south around Lake Taupo approaching the volcanic plateau, Mark pointed out in the distance the three biggest mountains on the North Island. Ruapehu, the tallest, was snowcapped and Mark, an avid downhill skier, was fortunate enough not to be on it when it last erupted in 1996.
Of course, the ever present sheep dot the hillsides everywhere and occasional corn fields made me feel right at home. The sweet corn here is some of the sweetest I’ve ever had—no offense to the good farmers of Illinois.
As nightfall approached, we passed the white cliffs of the Rangitaiki River and sped towards Wellington. We reached a scenic overlook just in time for a colorful sunset over the Cook Straits and a glimpse of the South Island.
Tomorrow it was time to explore Wellington and experience the charm of Villa Margarita.
TO BE CONTINUED