The house of a thousand shells

The joy of seeking out and finding the strange

I was unable to take my eyes off the shiny paua shells surrounding me, glistening as if Ariel herself had polished them. In Christchurch, New Zealand back in September, I stood in a re-created house that was once much further south—in the town of Bluff, about as far down as you can go on the South Island.

I remembered my visit to the Paua Shell House only this weekend while at the New York Times Travel Show listening to Dylan Thuras, a co-founder of Atlas Obscura. His lively presentation at Manhattan’s Javits Center was meant to inspire his audience to be a little more curious and willing to seek out the strange. As I noted the spots I’d find interesting to visit one day, I also started to reflect on some of the bizarre places I’ve recently been. For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t get the shell house out of my head.

The Paua Shell House wasn’t a planned stop on our itinerary. (Had I browsed Atlas Obscura beforehand, I surely would have clicked to learn more about Fred and Myrtle’s place.) I only stumbled upon this spectacularly odd one-time home because we visited the popular Canterbury Museum, where the House currently stands, breathing iridescent life and fun into museum-goers from around the world.

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The living room in all its paua glory

The museum attendant who welcomed us to the exhibit was a Massachusetts native who’d settled in New Zealand many years ago, which explained the rather unexpected New England accent. Though the museum was set to close soon, he gave me a brief history of the home while Sean walked a sulking Eliza (ah, past her naptime!) around the rest of the museum. We thought she might not be able to practice self control while in a place full of breakable objects, many at eye level.

According to the Canterbury Museum, the home’s original owners (and the world-famous shell collectors) Fred and Myrtle Flutey first attached a single paua shell to their living room wall more than 50 years ago. Slowly, they added more than 1,000 of ’em to adorn literally all of their walls. Word spread, and somehow they racked up 1 million visitors to their home. They greeted guests in person and shared their love of the shells and their collection of “kiwiana kitsch” (i.e., quirky items from New Zealand), ensuring a lively experience for all who entered.

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A glimpse of Kiwiana on display (with a non-Kiwi on display too)

What a feat it must have been to move and re-assemble the house more than 300 miles away. Understandably, some Bluff residents didn’t want the plucky house removed, but for many visitors, it’s much easier to reach the home at the Canterbury Museum than it would be in Bluff. Still, I envy those who were able to tour the home in its true form, mere minutes from the ocean and with a loving (and shell-loving) couple guiding them around.

But as tempting as it may be to go to almost the ends of the earth to find such a place, you often don’t even have to go very far to seek out notable places. Last year, I read Julia Wertz’s book, Tenements, Towers & Trash, during our last month in New York, and it proved to be the perfect personal swan song for leaving the city to travel.

I took Sean and Eliza to see overlooked destinations within walking distance of our home. One of the places we visited was Ferrara Bakery in Little Italy, where we enjoyed Peronis while reading about its humble beginnings in 1892. Ferrara credits itself as America’s first pasteria and espresso bar and is seemingly still run by the original family. Until then we had done our best to sidestep the over-touristed streets of Little Italy in favor of other neighborhoods nearby with fewer visitors. While Ferrara may have been less obscure than many other spots on our list, taking in the history of an establishment in business for 135 years practically in our backyard was well worth our afternoon, even if we passed on the pastries to keep our pre-dinner blood sugar in check. We could’ve gone to any of our favorite hangouts instead but it felt fulfilling to see a spot with a vibrant history that ended up feeling worthy of the hype. (Then, Sean pointed out a homemade ravioli shop across the street that he’d been “intending to visit” for years. I told him he had to go, so he did, practically skipping home with his box of fresh stuffed pasta for dinner.)

We’re firm believers that travel is more about having a curious-explorer mindset than it is about roaming far away. Wherever you may be, there are almost certainly some strange and wonderful places waiting for you to visit only a short drive from home, or even a walk away. In fact, I’m starting to compile a new list of strange and unusual spots in place where we regularly spend time and plan on doing even more research in advance of our trips. After all, there’s nothing wrong with going to the Eiffel Tower, but wouldn’t it be even more fun to tour Gustave Eiffel’s secret apartment at the top?

Next time you too might want to dig into a few resources I’ve found useful in seeking out curiosities:

Anyway, before I left the shell house in Christchurch I watched the video that included deeper background on the couple, Fred and Myrtle, bringing their home and personalities even more to life. There were goofy commercials for McDonald’s and Tip Top Bread, which likely allowed them to continue doing what they loved. Their home, and their lives, were in some ways ordinary and yet so extraordinary. Perhaps we should find ways to make sure our travels are too.

# # #

If you go:

Canterbury Museum
Rolleston Ave, Christchurch Central
Christchurch 8013, New Zealand
(Google Maps / TripAdvisor)

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