Following the February 2016 PleinAir magazine historic trip to Cuba, publisher Eric Rhoads determined that he would create at least one painting trip to exotic locations each year. His goal: Paint in the world’s most beautiful places and visit places people might not go on their own.
After announcing the trip quietly, giving Cuba trip attendees the first opportunity to register, Rhoads revealed the trip at the Plein Air Convention. By just a few weeks later, the New Zealand trip was sold out.
On February 22, the group boarded Air New Zealand from Los Angeles, bound for Auckland on the North Island of New Zealand, before transferring on to Queenstown, in the lower part of the South Island. Queenstown is known as the recreation capital of the world, and for good reason: There’s lots to do. Not only is the town of 50,000 people (the fastest-growing city in New Zealand) surrounded by massive mountain peaks and lakes, it is near some of the most beautiful spots on the planet, including Glenorchy and Milford Sound and their vast mountain ranges.
The group made its weeklong home at the Millbrook Resort, a golf club and community in the countryside of the Millbrook area, just minutes from quaint gold-mining town Arrowtown and many award-winning wineries. Our first day of painting was on the picturesque grounds of the Waitiri Creek winery, with scenery so vast, it alone could have occupied a week of painting.
No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing the local sights, so the tour was a mixture of fine dining, sightseeing, wine tastings, and painting. (One surprise of the trip was the extremely high quality of the meals.) Part of our sightseeing included the Dart River jet boat, touring at high speeds through the World Heritage scenery in the Te Wai Pounamu wilderness, often referred to as “Middle Earth” because of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. We visited the unspoiled forests, valleys, and mountain ranges used in filming the movies, and the group was treated to some spectacular painting locations.
Since New Zealand has seven times more sheep than people, the group boarded the 103-year-old TSS Earnslaw and cruised Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak, where we were treated to demonstrations of sheep herding and shearing, and more amazing scenery to paint.
Though each location visited seemed even better than the last, one of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Milford Sound, inside one of New Zealand’s National Parks. We boarded the MV Sinbad on the sound (which is actually a fjord) for a tour deep inside the towering mountain ranges and waterfalls.
Following our time painting various locations around the South Island, we boarded a flight to Wellington on the North Island for a visit to the Weta Workshop, one of the most visited places in New Zealand. Weta is the workshop that created much of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, King Kong, and many other films. Based on a special friendship with publisher Eric Rhoads, the group was greeted by Sir Richard Taylor, founding partner of Weta.
After speaking to the group for about a half hour, Taylor personally gave a private behind-the-scenes tour — a tour not available to the public. Members of the group were required to sign non-disclosure agreements and asked not to take photographs, as they got to see props and designs being worked on for soon-to-be-released films.
We were also treated to the soundstage for the show The Thunderbirds and the Weta Cave, where Taylor signed books for the group. Dinner was then held at the beautifully restored Roxy Cinema, a must-see attraction refurbished by Tonya Taylor of Weta Workshops.
Auckland was next on the list. We boarded a ferry and visited Waiheke Island outside of Auckland, where we painted and dined at the Mudbrick Winery. Of course, because of the attention brought to New Zealand by the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, it was a must to visit the movie set called Hobbiton, which is where many of the Hobbit scenes in the films were shot. The group painted the Hobbit Houses and buildings on the property, and special access was arranged to the back lot of the movie set for painting — this is not on the public tour and not even open to employees.
Following our final dinner together, most of the group departed for home, while some stayed on to paint and tour the rest of the country.
New Zealand is a spectacular place to paint; its people are among the friendliest on earth. The group had fantastic experiences painting together, sightseeing, dining in the best restaurants in the country, and, best of all, making the deep friendships that come from lots of time spent together with new friends.