Riverton: Just wild about the South's Riviera

By Eleanor Ainge Roy

It's small but perfectly formed and too good for a flying visit, writes Eleanor Ainge Roy.
Riverton Harbour. Photo / Deb Racz
Riverton Harbour. Photo / Deb Racz

Fondly referred to as the Riviera of the South, Riverton is a leisurely 30-minute-drive from the Southland hub of Invercargill. Green farmland gives way to sandy coastal tussock and then you hit Foveaux Strait; grey and roiling on the weekend we visit. The village itself is sheltered by a scooped out, idyllic inlet, which looks like the sort of place the Famous Five would have spent their "hols" fossicking about for mysteries.

The small main street of Riverton is dotted with artists' studios, an excellent local history museum (do visit), and a plethora of cafes, vintage shops and local goods stores.

At the small, well-stocked supermarket we buy essential supplies for our crib-weekend; indulgent food, bottles of wine, chocolate and even a couple of gossipy magazines (it is a holiday).

After passing through the village you cross the Riverton Bridge with the sea rushing to greet you from either side, swirling beneath the bridge and tempting local kids to jump.

A modernist-ramp along the foreshore of the village leading to the bridge is a great place for walkers keen on a gentle stroll, as it is largely flat and graded - good for kids in prams or older people who may just want a quiet toddle.

Pastel-painted wooden fishing boats are dotted around the inlet, clinging to the end of rickety wooden piers. Looking out toward Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island, Riverton seems like a seaman's paradise; a charming bolt-hole to shelter from the unpredictable moods of the sea.

It is too cool for a summer beach weekend of swimming and surfing, so I've left my togs behind and stocked up on books instead.

We drive along the undulating Bay road that clings to the coast (Riverton is surprisingly hilly), lowering our speed to a snoopy 20km/h to scope out the wealthy homes. In the last decade the famous simplicity of Kiwi cribs has increasingly been replaced by larger, modern houses, all concrete and muted colours. Thankfully, the majority have been tastefully built and are in keeping with the genteel elegance of this southern artistic hub.

Our bach, directly opposite the beach, is an old classic: straight-forward, hand-hewn and snuggly. In a stretch of fairly new homes, it is one of the few in the old-style, with soft mattresses, a cupboard of board games and one small touch of modern luxury - a bath.

That night, we settle ourselves on the wide front porch, and gaze out at the pastel blue of Taramea Bay. It is right before Christmas and there seem to be few people holidaying in Riverton, just a handful of children chasing the waves, older couples slowly walking along the shore (the village has become a popular place to retire for Southlanders) and a couple of horses picking up to a canter as the sun begins to dip.

The evening passes easily with huge plates of pasta, wine and our novels. That night - after a hot bath in rainwater - I snuggle down into the soft, worn sheets and fall quickly asleep, getting a deeper and more refreshing rest than I have in many months.

The next day we sleep in and after coffee on the porch (the crib really only needs a porch, the view is the best entertainment) we schlep up the hill to the Beachouse Cafe. I am craving an omelette, which isn't on the menu, but the chef is happy to make one and I tell him to throw in anything he has.

A Southland-size omelette appears with chorizo, mushroom and goats cheese, and thick, buttered slices of sourdough toast - I am in breakfast heaven. The cafe is on a rise above the sea and I would have eaten there for every meal if I could.

We spend a few hours over breakfast, in no rush to do anything or go anywhere. I take half my omelette back to the crib (it was huge, potentially four-egg huge) and we walk the easy 30 minutes into the village for a potter.

Over the next few hours I manage to do all my Christmas shopping from the main street. I pick up small gifts such as soap and fresh spices from the rather Auckland-ish organic food shop, locally-knitted socks and baby jumpers from a knitting store, second-hand treasures from the well-priced vintage shops, and some practical gifts from the overflowing hardware store.

As I finish my shopping (cash only in a few places), my mother disappears into the Te Hikoi Southern Journey museum. When she doesn't emerge 40 minutes later I follow her in, and we tour slowly through the novel-esque history of the local area, which includes gold-mining, whaling and sealing, a real frontier settlement.

That night, a ferocious southerly blows in and we batten down the hatches, closing the large glass doors to the beach and watching from the living room as the weather whips itself into a fury. The next morning, after another blissful sleep, I text the owner of the crib and ask - beg - if we can stay one more night. After only two days we're deeply ensconced in the Riverton routine of long beach walks, reading and huge meals.

The crib owner texts back immediately - "Of course," he says, casual and accommodating. I sink back into the porch, sipping my coffee. "We can stay!" I shout to my mum, still pottering in her nightie at 11am.

"Oh good," she says, discarding any plans for proper clothes or schedules today. "I wasn't ready to leave."

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Air New Zealand flies Auckland to Invercargill, via Wellington or Christchurch, with one-way Seat fares starting from $134. Riverton is a 40-minute drive from Invercargill Airport.

- NZ Herald

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