Houston Interior Designer Pamela O’Brien Shares Interior Design Inspiration from Her Summer Travels to Australia & New Zealand 

By: Pamela O’Brien 

Every summer, I take a break from my Houston interior design firm and go out in search of interior-design travel inspiration. This year, we discovered it Down Under in Australia and New Zealand. Follow along as I share my travelog. 

Vacations of Summers Past

Summertime always conjures up visions of vacations for me. When my family lived in northern Virginia, we’d take trips to the East Coast and Florida beaches. Some of my fondest memories center around summer entertaining and decorating. I loved eating lobsters off old, weathered picnic tables in Maine, buying citrus preserves and coconut spread in campy little fruit stands off Floridian highways, driving past the over-the-top Victorian architecture in Cape May, N.J., and taking in the kitsch of the boardwalks. As a kid, I thought it was all simply amazing. 

My parents were great about exposing us to whatever the area had to offer. We focused on colonial life in Williamsburg, Va., Revolutionary War heroes in Boston and Philadelphia, and fun in the swampy South.

We moved to Salt Lake City when I entered third grade. Although we had always traveled, our trips took on a whole new meaning during this time. Moving to the West upped the ante on adventures and eye-popping natural beauty to a level I had never experienced. We camped or took long road trips, once venturing as far as Banff in Canada. Jackson Hole, Wy., was a several-times-a-year favorite. We hit many national parks and were proud purchasers of a Golden Eagle Pass every year. My mother’s favorite park was Bryce Canyon, with its glowing red rocks. I was partial to Zion, with such diversity in the sights and types of stone formations.

Many memories hover around the decor. The lodges at the national parks wowed me. I remember admiring the Old Faithful Inn with its crackling fire, Navajo blankets, and timber wood accents. We stayed in the cutest, tiniest cottage for a night in Bryce at the end of one long trip. It looked like a miniature log cabin and was very sparsely decorated, the type of lodging you’d expect a camp nurse to stay in. There were twin metal beds with striped blankets and a few rustic wooden furnishings. It was not posh, but it was so charming. 

Getting Design Inspiration Down Under

Because Houston is always hot in the summer and just seems to be getting worse, my husband Jon and I have taken to enjoying winters in the Southern Hemisphere. Last summer, we visited South Africa with its magnificent vistas, amazing wildlife, wonderful handicrafts, and charming Cape Dutch architecture.

Fast forward to 2023, and we’re headed Down Under. Jon had a course he wanted to take in Newcastle, Australia. He’s always wanted to go to New Zealand, and we figured we’d never get closer. He did this same course 10 years ago, and I accompanied him to visit the sights in Melbourne and Sydney together. This time I decided to just be a local and hang out in Newcastle for the week while he worked.  

Settling In

We started our first day out well, arriving in the early-morning hours. Happily, the season’s best winter market occurred that day, just 10 minutes from our hotel. We strolled to the Olive Street Market to walk off the jet lag, chat with local artists and vendors, and try a delicious gozleme for a light lunch. We didn’t know what gozleme was, but they had the busiest stall, so we gave it a shot. It turned out to be sort of a Turkish quesadilla with fresh dough rolled and filled with a tasty chicken and cheese mix and then grilled before our eyes. Yum! We made a few other purchases and then made our way to walk the wharves until our room was ready.

Kangaroos and Wine

We felt surprisingly good the next morning and happily spent the day on a charming wine tour of the Hunter Valley. It was a glorious day — crisp, cold, and full of beautiful Australian hospitality and wines. The best part was having kangaroos visit us at the last stop!

Kangaroos and Wine

Living as a Novocastrian

I had a luxurious week as a Novocastrian, the term New Castle residents call themselves. I filled my days with hot yoga at YogaBodyWorks, long walks along the harbors and beaches, local tours, and delicious coffees. I had a personal tour of Fort Scratchley because I was the only one in line for the 2:30 spot. I learned a lot about life in early Australia, the local military maneuvers, and explosives. Of course, my favorite parts were seeing the officer’s quarters and the enlisted men’s barracks. Positioned on the far point in a very windy spot along the coast of the South Pacific Ocean, every room was outfitted with a strategic coal-burning fireplace.

Fort Scratchley Gun

Beautiful Newcastle Beach

I enjoyed a Newcastle Afoot architectural walking tour with my fantastic tour guide, Becky. Newcastle is a coal town with a railroad influence. The depots and restored rail buildings were charming. The local museum was interesting, with information about coal and steel works. 

I also enjoyed the hip design at The Kingsley Hotel, we stayed at a nearby hotel because Jon likes staying on the water but I made excellent use of this other accommodation.  I stopped in for delicious post-yoga coffee and admired how they integrated the ribbed and rounded design motifs in the lobby and bar area. The hotel was an original Brutalist design and was painted and lightened to feel airy and chic inside and out. There were lots of 70’s-inspired velvet furnishings and these cool, birdcage-like chairs that were a lot of fun. We also booked a window table at the bar and restaurant on the top floor and had stunning nighttime views of Newcastle and the harbor.

Newcastle Train Station

Kingsley Hotel Decor

Of course, I had to visit a few design and home shops while I was there. The styles were very on-trend, with earthy tones, homespun fabrics, and natural flora used in many displays. I especially liked the large grass and branch arrangements I saw at several places in town. This chic little coffee house embodied much of the trendy design I saw in Newcastle.

Chic Coffee Spot

Home Décor & Gift Shop

Next Stop, New Zealand

Before we knew it, we were headed to New Zealand. It was the winter holiday for school children in much of Australia and New Zealand. For many, that meant skiing! There wasn’t enough snow yet, but Queenstown’s ski crowds were thick, and it felt like a proper Alpine village. We headed straight for the magnificent landscape, first visiting Milford Sound with its breathtaking water, forests, and waterfalls. The next day we marveled at the stunningly beautiful area around the Rob Roy glacier. It was truly spectacular, looking like Scotland and the American West simultaneously. I could not believe how many colors the winter landscape provided, from the blue of the glacial rivers to the tree bark, grasses, and berries. It was stunning.

Milford Sound Waterfall

Southern Alps Landscapes

Stunning Glacial River

Taking in the Scenery

We flew to Rotorua a few days later. This is the seat of the original Maori culture and is also the youngest geothermic land mass on the planet. Given my childhood experiences of exploring national parks, I adore geothermal attractions. We hit the jackpot here! We visited the area’s most interesting geothermal area at Waiotapu and saw acid green pools, bubbling springs, gurgling mud pots, and exotic tropical vegetation. Our hotel had a natural thermal tub that we enjoyed. Again, it was pretty cold out. So the temperature of these mineral waters was perfect after a long day of seeing the sights.

Steam Rising from Hot Springs Behind Us

Unbelievably Green Devil’s Lake

Learning About Maori Culture 

We also visited a local Maori family and attended a traditional dinner and show. It is a fascinating culture, and the fact that they traveled thousands of miles across the ocean in canoes simply astounds me. Their strong, competitive nature is evident in their architecture. Buildings often feature a gate adorned with faces and warrior figures. They emphasized the eyes in war with tattoos and makeup and used abalone shells to create the white of the eyes in their carvings. These reminded us somewhat of the totem poles in Alaska. Like the totems, the Maori used these carvings to tell stories and pass down knowledge.

With our Guide in Front of a Maori Meeting House

Maori Architectural Carvings 

Stars, Wine, and Rugby 

Our next stop was the vibrant coastal city of Auckland. We wandered around the harbor a bit, dodging a few raindrops, and then headed to our dinnertime sail. Jon got to captain the boat and “yacht chat” with the captain. I finally got to see the Southern Cross in the night sky, having been too cloudy earlier in the trip. Stars are significant to the Maori since they were critical to their navigation. Think about it. There isn’t much else to look for in the South Pacific. It was fitting to see the stars and be on the water that evening because it was a Maori holiday called Matariki, during which they celebrate their ancestors and stargaze. 

The next day we visited the unbelievably beautiful Waiheke Island for a gourmet wine tour. We had the most delicious oysters we’ve ever eaten and sampled good wines and food pairings at four different venues. What fun! I was wined and dined out, so we stayed in our super cool room in the QT Auckland for the rest of the evening and watched the All Blacks win the rugby game on TV.  Apparently, we bring really good rugby mojo because last year in Cape Town, there was a huge local match, and the local team won despite the odds. 

Auckland from the Water

Our Room at QT Auckland

The End of Summer Vacation

We ended our stay with a morning walking tour with the charming Liz of Aucky Walky. She showed us the sights, new and old, and we stopped for tea and chocolates. It was the perfect way to get some steps in before our flight.

Auckland Art Gallery

Jon and Me in Uptown Auckland

And then, we were off and back to Houston! (In case you didn’t know it, Air New Zealand has a non-stop to Houston. It’s a very pleasant airline, and our flight home was about six hours shorter than the inbound flight.)

No matter where I wander, travel inspires me. Until next time, find your inspiration or call us, and we’ll help you discover it.

 — Pamela

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