Sometimes a place doesn’t live up to expectations on the road. I know that has happened to me several times on trips. The hype gets too much and then it tanks.
But then there’s the flipside, when a place which maybe you weren’t super thrilled about visiting that ends up completely blowing you away or you find a spot that you weren’t expecting to enjoy so much.
Those are my favorite moments – I love travel surprises, it’s probably my inner child speaking, but still. I like to think travel experiences can’t always be planned out to a T or always be predictable. Do you know what I mean?
This happened to me at Moeraki. Have you heard of it?
Don’t worry, most people haven’t. A blip on the road between Dunedin and Christchurch, most people visiting New Zealand don’t even get to this part of the country, let alone go out of their way to visit Moeraki. If you somehow miraculously DO find yourself in this neck of the woods, it’s usually for a quick photo stop at the famous Moeraki Boulders, a couple kilometers out of the “town” itself.
A bizarre and striking geological phenomenon – which here in New Zealand considering how many bizarre and striking spots we have, might not be so much of a phenomenon – there are giant rocks, perfectly round boulders, seemingly washed up on a beach. How did they get there?
Who knows. We’ll get to that in a minute.
I don’t know if it’s horrible of me to mention, but I wasn’t even that excited to see the boulders.
Looking back, I could have easily just driven by them on my way north to PENGUINS (all caps) in Oamaru. But then someone mentioned on Facebook about an awesome restaurant in Moeraki, of all places, and I must go. I believe her exact words were something along the lines of “this place is my favorite restaurant in the world and I live in London.” Boom. Gauntlet. I do not take food suggestions lightly so I decided Moeraki was thus worth a stop.
As I winged a left off of the little road that’s considered an Otago highway, I trundled down an even littler road in my Jucy Campervan, on the lookout for Fleur’s Place.
Apparently this restaurant is a big BIG deal in the foodie world, which of course meant I was completely oblivious to it. I think this probably helped in the end because I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
While my Google Maps was talking me through the directions, I was really surprised not to encounter a single sign indicating the restaurant was nearby. In fact, the route into the town was completely nondescript and I couldn’t tell if I was on a main street or in a neighborhood. All sleepy and quiet with no one around, I thought for sure I was headed to a dead end and this place didn’t even exist.
In fact, I did hit a dead end when I ran into a barricade blocking the road I needed to head down. Looking past it, I realized it was along a cliff and part of the road had collapsed. Hello.
Debating whether I should skip Fleur’s – since the afternoon was getting on and midget penguins were waiting for me in the next town over – and just head to the boulders and make some ramen, again, I tried to give it one more shot and took a chance on the next road. Following these narrow, totally random streets I made my way towards the little harbor and saw IT at the end of the road.
Unimpressive and nondescript, this place look like a tin shed, a complete ramshackle mess. What was I getting myself into? I wasn’t even sure it was the right place except that it was packed with cars with a little sign indicating I had found the “Fleur” I was looking for.
But as soon as I stepped inside, I was transported! What a magical place!
A cozy, driftwood, piecemeal kind of building, it felt almost like I stepped back in time to another age. Beautiful art and quirky wall hangings cover the place from top to bottom, with beautiful glass windows giving great views out on the water. This place was going to be awesome!
With my mouth hanging open, eventually an older woman with untamable white hair and glasses, came over and we went through the whole awkward “party of 1” conversation with me before saying, “here you can sit at my desk,” and literally say me at an old, wooden table next to the bar yanking an accounting book off the corner.
Unbundling, I sat down and began to flick through a heavy cookbook she brought me about the restaurant; shifting forwards, I realized there was a little drawer facing my stomach – it really was a desk! I think my love for the place was solidified when the water was served in an old gin bottle.
Absolutely overwhelmed by the menu, when it was my turn to order, I asked for their help choosing between a couple of dishes, finally settling on the bacon wrapped blue cod with cockles and a variety of vegetables I had never heard of, suppressing the urge to make a “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” pun. Behave Liz.
Fish wrapped in bacon? Where have you been all my life?!
It was seriously the best meal I’ve had for as long as I can remember. And I love the philosophy behind the restaurant, Fleur was a great chef herself but came to Moeraki to build up a dream place. She gets everything locally and from the sea, as fisherman literally pull up right outside the restaurant with their catch of the day for her.
She’s worked with the local marae (Māori community) to learn cooking techniques for fish and vegetables that few others know, and built the restaurant up herself from pieces and articles she’s collected, and basically hoarded over the years. She wanted it to look like it would have fit right in a hundred years ago in the old whaling days.
Um Fleur, can we be friends? It was only as I was (reluctantly) paying the bill and getting ready to leave that I realized the woman who seated me and who kept chatting to me over my late lunch WAS in fact Fleur herself! Holy crap! Bow down!
In total awe, I completely fangirled over her, genuinely raving about my meal and how happy I was to have made the time to visit and find the place. It was heaven. She even offered me a job as a waitress, thinking I was just backpacking around New Zealand and looking for work. I would have totally said yes except I love Wanaka more than anything and I would make the worst waitress in the entire world and probably be fired instantly and pop this perfect bubble of a fantasy I had conjured up.
I was literally so moved by my experience at Fleur’s that I took like 3 photos. Total. It felt so special, so local and chill, I couldn’t even bring myself to bring 21st century gadgets into it. Except sneaking a picture of my meal.
Later on, once I took my glee and happiness to social media, I realized what a big deal this place really is. Usually you need a reservation and people have dined here such as Rick Steves and Gweneth Paltrow, which I found astonishing considering this place might take the cake for most randomly, fabulous restaurant in the world.
The Coffee Diaries on the coast
From there I decided to head over to the famous Moeraki Boulders for a coffee and a bit of relaxing before journeying north. It was a beautiful afternoon and I popped the back of the van open and put the kettle on for some hot water to take with me as I walked for a while down the beach towards the famous boulders.
After a big meal I was keen for a walk and a little pick me up, otherwise I would need a nap and wouldn’t get anywhere.
As it turns out, the boulders were the place to be, with a bunch of school kid groups hanging around, hopping from boulder to boulder and knocking each other into the waves.
One thing I love about New Zealand is the sheer friendliness of everyone. Pretty much no matter where you are around the country, if you walk by someone in a “non-crowded environment” which is to say, everywhere, it is normal to look them in the eyes and say “hello, how’s it going?” or offer up some other greeting. You can always spot the foreigners because they DON’T do this.
It’s a very kiwi attitude, and I love it for many reasons, one of which is that it opens up the floor, or in this case a beach, to the possibility for some good conversation.
It didn’t take long for me to adopt the friendly greetings to just about everyone I meet here, hopefully they don’t think I’m crazy, and show that I am always game for a chat.
At first glance the boulders are really weird looking. Like giant dinosaur eggs plonked down on the earth, they are perfect spheres protruding from the sand, some as tall as me and others with cracks like a skull, or looking like they had been opened up in an explosion.
Propping my pack up on one of them, I took out my thermos and poured myself a Starbucks VIA ® vanilla latte to warm up my chilled hands between shots.
After taking a million and a half pictures, I was setting up my tripod to take some selfies when I noticed a group of local teens and either their science teacher or an informed parent with them visiting the boulders. It was one of those “trying to wrangle the kids to pay attention while nobody was listening to him” moment with the kids running around like crazy and clearly caring about everything but geology. Understandable. I probably wouldn’t have paid attention either if I got to go on school field trips to the beach.
Always keen for a lesson and to learn a little bit more about the places I visit, my ears perked up as he tried to explain the history behind the boulders using a lot of boring vocabulary like “erosion” “calcite” and “mudstone.” Teetering between running for my life with boredom and curious to know more, I stuck around.
While they scampered off I asked him if it was true about the whole mud thing or was it just aliens? It’s times like these when I wonder that people even talk to me! Why did I say that? To a complete stranger?
Luckily he laughed (and thank god because I wasn’t done taking photos and I totally would have had to leave in shame) and said it was probably aliens. We started chatting for a few minutes while I grabbed my coffee, starting off with the whole “what brings you to New Zealand (you American, you) and why on earth did you come to Moeraki?” conversation.
Sometimes I think people just need to talk and be heard by someone (especially when you’re a high school teacher, where your words tend to fall on deaf ears all the time). I totally get it – I was a teacher for two years. Thank heavens that’s over with!
I didn’t even catch his name, but once I started to show the slightest interest in learning about Moeraki and the history of the area, he was off! Sometimes it takes just a little careful prodding and showing genuine interest in something to get people to open up and share. I like to think the smell of my fresh coffee also lightened his mood!
I now know more than I could have ever imagined about these wild and crazy rock formations; I would definitely make my 7th grade Earth Science teacher proud!
Though in my head I still like to think of them as being left by aliens. Or dragon eggs.
He went on to explain that local Māori legend tells the story that the
eggs boulders are the baskets, gourds and sweet potatoes (kumara) that washed ashore during the wreck of the large canoe Arai-te-uru, which crashed at Shag Point nearby, on a journey from Hawaiki. The reef that juts out is the petrified canoe’s hull, and the name Moeraki means “drowsy day.”
It was slightly overcast and hazy the day I was there, and I would say “drowsy day” was a pretty accurate description, especially after my massive lunch in town. Thank god for coffee in unexpected places!
For me, sometimes meeting people when I am traveling along can make the difference between having an average day and a truly memorable one that inspires me to share it on here later. It never ceases to amaze me what people will share when asked, and how friendly people really are around the world if you just give them the chance. A smile, a hello and a question can get you far.
I had zero expectations for Moeraki and it totally blew me away. Between the beautiful unique beach and sharing a moment with a total stranger, and getting to learn a lot more about a place than I ever expected, to dining in a haphazardly constructed shack of a building that ended up housing the best meal I’ve had in years, I couldn’t be more surprised. Moeraki, I think I love you.
Have you ever been surprised by a place like this? Do you have any great coffee diaries moments to share from your travels?