Call me an insufferable hipster, a mock-adventurer or a goddam Westerner, but there is nothing I like more when travelling than a roadside café, unexpected, anonymous, empty, but always welcome, cosy, irresistible.
I hereby declare my love to these places. In all my travels, they have been anchors. Places where you stop in your crazy tracks, suspend space, look through a window and consider the path lying behind and the path lying ahead. Places where you can, for a few minutes, maybe even an hour, take out your travel notebook and tattoo your sensations with the tip of your pen, before they vanish in the meanders of age and successive travels: how it feels to be there; what it is like to sit alongside the road in your muddy hiking pants and twice-worn trekking shirt, in need of nothing, only waiting for the cup of simple, hot filter coffee that is going to be brought to you. With brown sugar — or raw sugar, as the kiwis say.
I came back last week from a 7-week, 5600km road trip in New Zealand. We drove, hiked, climbed, photographed, wrote. I am now in the first post-travel week. The week during which your body and mind retrieve their habits and patterns, but also during which something else, probably a part of your mind, retrieves a selection of people and places and makes you wish you were in that specific geographical spot, right now. That part of your mind may go for the spectacular (the Tama Lakes Track in Tongariro National Park, the milky way through the trees of the Minnehaha Walk and its glow worms in Fox Glacier, the hundreds of streams flowing down the Taranaki stratovolcano). But it may also go for the mundane; the anonymous. The muffled atmosphere of a man-made place where you were served fresh scones.
There are 8 such places, 8 cafés, that I would like to mention from that trip through New Zealand. (Well, two of them aren’t actually cafés per se; one is a second-hand bookshop and the other is a hostel. But my title sounded better that way.)
The order in which I name them is unimportant; it just reflects the order in which we reached them on our itinerary. Also please make a mental note that we travelled New Zealand during the winter season, in a small campervan, without a smartphone, without booking places in advance and most of the time without looking places up in guidebooks. That may have added just a tad of extra charm to the places we visited!
The Lazybones Café, in Athol*
Here we are, sitting at a wooden table in a small, empty town between Te Anau and Queenstown, between two thick sheets of fog. There are a chessboard and a pot of raw sugar. You must stop for these places. You drive through these small towns and then you just forget about them. They were not on your travel plans and the scent of fresh scones floating through their door just dissolves before anyone could smell it. The lady in the café has just brought her cat back inside. He must be three-month old, ish. My Americano is perfect. Aromatic, balanced. Out the window, the empty road, the crisp morning air, the oblique winter light and our van. There’s a fire going, and the cat is sitting right in front of it, smug.
South Westland Salmon Farm & Café, Paringa
I’m watching birds while sipping on my (free) refill of filter coffee, standing on the wooden platform of the café’s terrace. New Zealand’s birds are stunning. Here’s a white heron! A fantail! A pukeko! This is a lovely café, spatious, homey. The banana-rapsberry muffin is terrific. It’s definitely worth taking that side-road from the main road on your way to or from Fox Glacier.
Picnics, in Franz Josef Glacier
Yesterday, we hiked Robert’s Point Tramping Track over grit, ice and snow. Today, we’re dealing with sleepiness and cramps. Franz Josef Glacier is a very simple town, but nice in the winter: it’s almost empty. This morning, we’re too lazy to cook ourselves breakfast. We saw a café earlier, further down the road. Let’s check it out… Oh wait. There’s a sign there. Oh my, it’s pink. Like, really pink. It says “European Bakery”. Curiosity awakened: “European”+“Bakery” = “Boulangerie” in the mind of a Frenchwoman, and you’d better get out of her way, because the last place in which she had a decent croissant is now 20 000 km away.
Picnics opens early. There is a lady inside. She comes from England. She is lovely. Yes, ok, everything is pink. But everything is piled too. Piles of homemade donuts, scones, brownies, cupcakes, pains au chocolat, breads, rolls — even pies and pasties for those of you who do not have a sweet tooth. Every single thing we taste makes us wish time would stop. Why hike the area? Why travel at all? In Franz Josef, there is a (pink, but) cosy, lovely (say it again with a British accent) place where a lady makes a fresh pot of filter coffee for you and serves you the best donuts you ever had. I am not asking for a croissant: I don’t need to anymore. I am discovering what donuts really should be, and I am buying a fresh loaf of walnut bread for the road.
A bench on the Truman Track near Punakaiki
Sometimes you don’t need a café. You can just pretend it is there. I am conscious that what I am going to say requires a lot of conditions to be fulfilled, but if it’s winter, if it’s early morning, if it’s sunny, if it’s not too cold, and if you stayed overnight at Punakaiki’s Beach Motor Camp, then just gulp down a cup of hot, hastily brewed tea and drive your van (if you’re travelling New Zealand by car, just get the hell out of my article) to the start of the short Truman Track. A few yards before the end of the track, there’s a wooden bench. Right now, we are sitting on that bench, with a tray of walnut bread (see Picnics), fruits, marmelade and tea. Enjoy your own tea room, watching and listening to the waves and sea birds all around — and make sure you don’t leave anything behind you, and do not feed the birds.
Up The Garden Path, in Motueka
That one will be packed, any day, any season. The locals know it. Of course they had lunch there today! Where else? It’s Saturday and we bought two sacks of local apples and pears at the market. It’s the West Coast, it’s the north of the South Island. It’s winter, but the sun feels warm. We feel like having a drink at the terrace of a nice café. I ask the lady at the i-site what is her personal favorite place for coffee in town. Somehow, I memorize her answer wrong: I keep asking my way for “The Garden Around The Corner”. But people know what I mean. Sacks of fruits on our shoulders, we quietly stride along High Street for a while and finally find it. Up The Garden Path is exactly what it is named after. Walk through the large gates and up the garden path, between the wooden tables and the benches and the flowers. Enjoy a lovely afternoon having an excellent lunch, coffee and nap. Bring a book. Try to sneak into the toilets just before they close for the night. With enough luck, they won’t find you and you’ll be able to spend the night in this secluded little paradise, dancing under the moon between the flowerbeds.
Tasman Bay Backpackers, in Nelson City
If you randomly find this place and cannot spend more than one night there because you hadn’t planned on staying more than one night in Nelson City, then go ahead and cry — I won’t judge.
We are parking our van in the small parking lot — if the hostel is not crowded, you are welcome to sleep in your van and use the hostel’s amenities, for a much cheaper rate. The garden is lovely. We stop and consider what we see for a few seconds: it smells like love at first sight… The owner shows us around the cosy living room (there’s a fire going), the nice dining room, the well-equipped kitchen. The wifi is free, the breakfast is free. There’s a stray cat — named Backpacker —craving for cuddles, there are guitars and there is kiwi music playing in the background. Merciless, the owner gives us the final blow: every night at 8pm, every guest is welcome to come to the kitchen with their plate and receive from the owners their share of oven-fresh, home-made fudge brownie a la mode. We sit down on the sofa, receive a stray cat on our lap, open our laptop and write to our family and friends to tell them we found paradise, that we love them and that this is were we want to stay and die.
Foxton Villa Café & Gardens
Again: a roadside place, found at random; a place which doesn’t have any particular charm when seen from the road, but which vibrates. Like a pulse. A green isle, infused with classical music, simple but elegant. There is a cat in the garden, and you can enjoy a cup of coffee or a proper cup of tea with scones. This is Foxton, this is the main road, this is winter, this is unexpected. One doesn’t plan to stop at Foxton Villa Café & Gardens. But this is what makes the beauty of these places. More than on a track through the mountains and rainforests and glaciers, you disappear into them precisely because stopping there was neither planned, nor productive, nor expected. We are enjoying a cup of coffee and we still hear, muffled, the cars passing on the main road. We are sitting, motionless, suspended between two dots on the line of our itinerary; we are free.
We stand up; there is a garden. We take a few steps. There is more garden ahead! The other couple sitting there must have seen us disappear among the trees, bushes and flowers. I am not sure we reappeared.
Ministry of Books, in Sanson
I love books. I think I love them more than my wife. Of course, that is not true. Don’t tell her I said that. But she knows I go crazy in second-hand bookshops. Yet, not all second-hand bookshops were created equal. And I need to tell you about this one.
We are driving from Tongariro National Park to Wellington, in one go. The sun is setting. We are on the main road, in Sanson; we must take the next right to Wellington. Suddenly, we see something from the corner of our eyes. I have a pressentiment. You can “feel” these places. They pulse like a heartbeat. You can still “see” them in the dark or behind a wall.
The traffic light is green, so I turn. I shudder: we won’t be coming back to New Zealand, at least not for a long time. I continue to turn until I can park on the small parking lot opposite the shop — like it is all a misunderstanding, a terrible mistake, like I hadn’t actually planned to turn right at the traffic light and just leave. We walk to the entrance. This place is called “Ministry of Books”. Entering it is like suspending space. This is the highway, this is a very plain building. But inside are thousands of books, dozens of rare books, all of them in wooden shelves. Browsing through them, I find an old volume published in 1948: “The Great Australian Loneliness” by Mrs. Ernestine Hill. A travel journal with photographs, written by a woman. After a while, we exit the shop, still a bit dizzy from our discovery. We hop back into the van in silence, and drive on.
*Sadly, the Lazybones Café has been sold just a few days after our visit. But it has now new owners, and will go through some changes. Let us wish it the best in its new adventure!
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