By Pauline Stewart
“I would love to buy a house here one day,” says Sarah, “If I can afford it.”
Sarah Titus and Joshua Davis arrived in Whitianga with their daughter Freya, on 3 February 2023 to stay for one school term. Sarah is a Professor of Geology and her husband; Joshua Davis is Professor of Mathematics. Both teach at University in Minnesota USA, a long way from New Zealand.
Sarah has been working since November with 24 American geology students from her University In Carleton, Minnesota. It is a research field trip which she has organised for geology students. The course she teaches attracts geology students from all over the United States – studying volcanoes, rock formations and geological history. “Minnesota is simply not tectonically active and New Zealand is the opposite, “says Sarah. “The students are second and fourth year university and they come from all over the USA. Not all universities have geological departments but the field research study in New Zealand as part of their course is a big attraction. We also hire local geologists to assist our research and who travel with the students.” Joshua added, “I teach mathematics and computer science and my particular field of teaching, applied maths, services the data required by geology students so, at university, our departments work together.”
In Whitianga, Sarah and Joshua are working on their own research projects as part of a sabbatical. The students also did the Tongariro Crossing as part of their time here.
Joshua and Freya joined Sarah on Christmas Day in the North Island and found their way to Whitianga for the start of school.
Q: How did they choose Whitianga from all the North Island?
Sarah normally teaches in the South Island, so their vacation stay was going to be the North Island. Both Sarah and Joshua grew up in Minnesota, middle north USA, so being near the sea was a strong factor in choosing. They did not want the east coast near Napier, due to the risk of tsunamis. (It was easy to understand how Sarah took earthquake and tsunami likelihood into account when choosing where to stay for 12 weeks.) Their winters mean snow and often blizzards, so warm and sunny was another important criterion. After narrowing it down to either the Orewa area north of Auckland or Coromandel Peninsula, they emailed several schools asking who would take their daughter Freya, an international ten year old student, for one term. Mercury Bay Area School was the only one that responded to their email and it was a positive response. So, their choice was easy -Whitianga it was!
About perceptions and experience of aspects of life in New Zealand and especially Whitianga.
Q: How have you felt about the weather? “We have blizzards, thunderstorms and tornadoes in Minnesota, but we don’t have cyclones and we know we have experienced an extra dose of those. When we compare this summer-autumn to winter in Minnesota, all I can say is, I have been wearing shorts for three months.”
Q: Have you been doing the tourist thing?
Most weekends we go out and try to do a visit to another part of the Coromandel. We have done many of the prescribed attractions such as Glass Bottom Boat, Cathedral Cove Tours, Windborne Sailing, and Hot Water Beach. We have visited and enjoyed Whangamata and Coromandel town, Driving Creek Railway and Colville.
We enjoy slow tourism – walking and exploring the vegetation especially the native bush and forests. We have noticed that there are a bunch of businesses who do not rely heavily on the tourism dollar and that is also attractive to visitors because it’s not just tourism.”
The more constructed attractions are similar to some American tourist attractions. We think they are charming in one sense in that they are what a strong small town offers but at the same time, the staff are very competent, and the attractions are not junky or too shiny or plastic. Often things of this nature can be like that in USA.
Q: How has eating out been? ‘We love the number of cafes in Whitianga, “says Sarah. “I like to go to a café and work on my laptop. (I don’t take a table in a good position in case I offend anyone). I love the cabinet food. We do not have such an excellent selection in the states. We don’t have muffins and scones and pies. Joshua has been busy sampling pies. We love slices too, the Tam slice is our favourite. The seafood is a real treat - green lipped mussels are so good and the scallops are remarkable. We love the fruit - never had a golden kiwi or a ruby red one before, feijoas are amazing. We haven’t really missed any American food.
Q: How have you found accommodation?
“We weren’t able to find a three-month apartment.” To live Airbnb style for that length of time is too expensive. It’s been wonderful to be able to walk to the stores. We love 4 Square, even walking to New World and Countdown.
Q: Cost of living? The price of food doesn’t shock us comparing it to the US dollar, but the fuel here is very expensive and so is rent.
Q: What have you noticed that is different or special about Whitianga?
“The waterways - this is very special, and we can see you are adding a lot of new neighbourhoods. In fact, google maps are out of date; there are more Waterways than the maps say - the development is so rapid. Whitianga is a town that, when we come back in five years, will look different. You can see that there is investment in a lot of housing stock and so an influx of new people will be inevitable, “says Joshua.
Q: What about friendships and forming them during your stay in Whitianga?
That has been a little more difficult. “Freya is on the swimming team and that has helped us get to know people. She qualified for the races in Thames,” says Sarah. “Joshua and I met each other through competitive swimming. We love the fact that the school swimming has a social aspect. In addition, I have got to know some of the baristas by name (lots of time in cafes).”
Q: Would you come back? “Of course,” says John. “Remember what Sarah said about buying a house? New Zealand should be very attractive to Americans because of two main things - the natural scenery and the Māori culture. Both of those require good and affordable accommodation and transport. Lord of the Rings did a lot for New Zealand in the states. It was the stunning scenery.
Among our friends, when we talk of New Zealand, we get many questions around, ‘Why do you go there? They are not sceptical questions but more like, ‘What am I missing? Should this be a destination on my bucket list?’
There is a big market of Americans. The message needs to be, “Come to this beautiful place – it’s not out of the way – we offer complete package deals.”
Caption: Minnesota, USA family, Sarah Titus and Andrew Davis with daughter Freya, enjoying the sights of Mercury Bay.