Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2009

New Zealand: Grace, Civility, and Splendour

Reverie

Jade is an elegant semi-precious stone, not extravagant like gold or diamonds, and is also a placid multi-hued colour you will see everywhere in the land the Maori call Aoteoroa (“Long White Cloud”). Woven into the fabric of my travel memory, the colour of New Zealand jade, or greenstone as it is commonly referred to, evokes the kind of sighing reverie that great trips induce. New Zealand is such a destination: it charms, enthralls, and invigorates, instilling a sense of having really “been there.”

Aboard Air New Zealand — its decor a concordant blend of tranquil jade and pacific blue — I have my first inkling that this will be an incomparable travel experience and a really “good time.” The seamless service typifies the Kiwi personality as we will come to know it: gracious, welcoming, and respectful with a subtle and wry sense of humour implying self-assurance and spirit. This award-winning national airline is a fitting prelude to our visit to New Zealand during which we quickly discover that the Tourism Board’s promise of “100% Pure New Zealand” is indeed truth in advertising.

There are innumerable reasons to visit New Zealand but allow me to offer my top five:

(a) the diversity and accessibility of its natural and cultural delights;

(b) a history, geography, and culture guaranteed to captivate your senses, your mind, and your heart;

(c) the quality, security and comfort of Kiwi accommodation, transportation, and public spaces;

(d) the genuine welcome one receives from Kiwis;

(e) the excellent value given exchange rates. Oh, and did I mention the wines?

Now, through your mind’s eye may I show you a few highlights?

Contemporary and traveller-friendly Auckland

Auckland in North Island and the main arrival point, is like many Kiwi cities, a contemporary urban dream where land, sea, parkland, and human habitats are integrated in such a way as to blend an active, quality-based life style with the city’s natural resources. Fully accessible, whether on foot or by sensible public transport like the Link visitor bus service, Auckland has many alluring sites, each a destination and a starting point. I remember a leisurely ramble on a sunny Sunday morning: from the people-friendly central shopping core of Queen Street and a short stroll to Albert Park with its sculpted tropical gardens. Close by is the Auckland City Art Gallery, the first of numerous cultural centres to be discovered in New Zealand that ease you into a full understanding and appreciation of this nation of endless destinations. We could linger here awhile but there is much more to see and do. Shall we?

The Auckland Harbour bridge is like a balletic grand jeté over one of the most beautiful ports in the world. We don’t just go over this splendid structure; we are in transit, our lofty crossing giving us a brilliant new perspective of the city as we hasten on to Northland. We rise with the land and proceed northward up the eastern coast; perfect beaches and endless ocean on the left, dense rainforest on the right, the latter occasionally enclosing us in luxuriant green.

A New Zealand rain forest

Traversing the North Island from east to west we pass through rich rolling farm country and orderly compact towns, and reach our morning’s objective, Tane Mahuta, in the heart of the ancient glorious Waipoua kauri forest. The kauri is one of the world’s most prodigious trees and Tane Mahuta, the largest living kauri, is an awesome two thousand years old, 4.4 metres in diameter and 17.7 metres to the first branch! This “Lord of the Forest” is an important symbol of New Zealand’s natural heritage and an unforgettable sight; its massive spreading crown reigns over the lush rainforest that includes, among many other unique native species, huge delicate fern trees. We are inseparable from and protected by the forest’s millennial growth.

After a lunch among these arboreal giants, we make a return passage from the Tasman Sea to the Pacific, arriving at the aptly-named Bay of Islands. This muted resort area is a treasure trove of natural and historical riches, with no clanging commercialism.

Natural and other history

Here at Waitangi, we enter the graceful Treaty Grounds, the birthplace of New Zealand. The 400-hectare estate and prime historic site with expansive green lawns overlooking the ocean, is where the formal treaty was signed between the Maori and the British, establishing the partnership that today is New Zealand, “one people … fairly, practically.”

A fully carved Maori Meeting House (Whare Runanga) and an elaborate ceremonial war canoe are just some of the fascinating works of art and historical artifacts in this open-air heritage museum. Nearby, abundant shore birds — black shags and red-billed oyster catchers in particular — delight nature lovers as will many species throughout all of New Zealand. Imagine, a quiet walk through fern trees to a mangrove swamp and its nesting herons, quiet dinners in the charming town of Paihia, and my favourite, the ferry ride to the old colonial town of Russell with even more breathless views of the islands; some of the ingredients of this Northland cornucopia.

Another day, another spectacular drive. Our visually stunning and rhythmic peregrination continues southward again along the coast. Sensational seascapes follow, one after another, and then we pass through Auckland again and into the heartland to the south.

Heading south

Hamilton with its world-famous Hamilton Garden is a “cultivated” city that rivals any on the planet, including Christchurch (another delight yet to come.) The city could be renamed Floribunda or Multiflora; abundance not excess.

And then the road, bordered by wildflowers, takes us through horse country: green paddocks, foals and mares; a commercial sign announces, appropriately, “Meadow Fresh” dairy products.

On to Rotorua and its great stirrings of geothermal activity, a robust and vital experience. In what is perhaps the best known site in New Zealand, we realize that we are treading lightly above a planetary ring of fire; we sense the dynamics of the Earth. In concert with the region’s natural wonders, Rotorua celebrates its cultural dynamic in the rituals and traditions of those “intrepid Vikings of the sunrise who sailed the great ocean of Kiwa and settled New Zealand a thousand years ago.” We accept an invitation to be welcome guests at a colourful ceremony that personifies a people in harmony with the land and the sea; role models for self-sufficiency, sustainable development — and self-esteem. This living lesson in the role of first nations in contemporary society includes the music, dancing, and story-telling of a South Pacific life-style and affirms not only the Maori legacy but all human culture.

And beyond the core of Rotorua there is much to explore, especially in the mountains that surround the lake and the town. Many magnificent walks such as the forest trek between the Blue and Green Lakes; the latter sacred to the Maori and therefore still in its ancient and unspoiled state, allow us to experience the natural and cultural synergy.

Contextual New Zealand

Refreshed we move on. The road across the central Animanawa mountain range of the North Island is thrilling with breathtaking views of peaks, valleys, and deep ravines. The high passes create a sensory crescendo but the road guides us slowly down from the heights and soon Hawkes Bay appears, another stunning ocean perspective. (In New Zealand, one is never far from the sea.)

On to Napier, the art deco city with its public and private buildings in delicate pastels and shapes reminiscent of innocent times, gentility and urban pride. Joining Highway 2 we make our way through small town New Zealand past our first vineyards near Hastings, over the Waipawa River to Waipukurau. And on our right always close by are the beautiful and supportive Ruahine and Rimutaka Ranges. On to Norsewood, Woodville, Mount Bruce, Masterton, Upper and Lower Hutt, and finally Wellington, the capital city and another astounding harbour.

Wellington too is a feast for the eyes. Built around a natural deep harbour the city flows along the shore as well as up the steep hillsides; its unique blend of architecture interacting with its marvellous natural setting produces a multi-dimensional perspective.

A “capital” city in all respects

Wandering quai-side along lovely Oriental Drive, our perspective changes as if the city is constantly in motion around the harbour. Bold and idiosyncratic, Wellington has a quirky blend of venues and styles: the Parliament Buildings — reflecting three styles and periods — the busy port, the modern infrastructure of a cosmopolitan, international capital, and quiet havens such as the botanical gardens which are reached by cable car, are just a few.

In a place of prominence on a harbourfront designed with people in mind is Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand. This daring, interactive, and contemporary museum of all things Kiwi is one of the largest of its kind in the world and is guaranteed to have something for everyone. A local favorite and very hands-on, Te Papa tells a great story. Every exhibit and every corner of the museum is an anecdote, a snap shot, a bit of poetry. Like all of New Zealand Te Papa celebrates the struggles and achievements of this nation of just under four million people, and like most great institutions it also tells the story of human civilization.

But it’s time for another transition, another passage. The delightful ferry ride from Wellington to Picton on the South Island is like a musical segue linking two related but slightly different melodies. The voyage itself is short but just right for another natural spectacle.

A transition

Standing on the foredeck we are engrossed in a new perspective, the panoramic ocean vistas framed by the rugged coastlines of both islands. For the first time, we become aware of how far south we are on this planet; somewhere out there off the starboard is Antarctica. Fresh breezes, aquamarine seas with frothy white caps, and the theatrical mountain scenery receding behind us sharpen our senses again.

From Picton we hurry on to the much anticipated Abel Tasman Park. We have heard a great deal about its supreme golden beaches and sheltered bays and its 23,000 hectares of national forested parkland. Its world-famous Coastal Track, we have been told, is accessible and “do-able” in numerous ways, in particular by using the ingenious system of water taxis that deposit you at your beach of choice from which you walk the distance you wish where you are picked up and returned to your lodging.

We are not disappointed. Moreover, we discover a myriad of additional delights: the coastal estuaries reveal at low tide an immense stretch of sandbars sheltering varieties of shore birds we have never seen.

Like the park, our accommodation is simple, ecologically synchronized, and exquisite. Sitting on our patio sipping another perfect Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region to the southeast, we are visited by California quail, a pair of Paradise Shelducks, Tuis making whirring flight sounds, delicate yellowish Bellbirds piping liquid songs, and the comical deep-blue-plumed and scarlet-billed Pukekos who dance for their dinner of bread crumbs.

As the long shadows of the setting sun deepen the dense greens of the Abel Tasman forest visible above a foreground of soft ornamental grasses in our private paradise, night slips in. The deepest nocturnal sky we have ever seen is sprinkled with stars, among them the Southern Cross. There is complete silence.

Marine life

From this state of bliss we retrace our steps through “sunny Nelson” and follow the eastern coast road to Marlborough and its superb vineyards. And then, all of a sudden, we are again a hair’s breadth from the jade-coloured sea.

In Kaikoura the Seaward Mountain Range meets the southern ocean in one of New Zealand’s prime marine sightseeing zones. If you are looking for whales, dolphins, seals, marine birds, and excursions of all kinds, this is where you want to be. And if seafood is your predilection, Kaikoura will fulfill your expectations many times over. I recommend the green-lipped mussels.

From Kaikoura to Christchurch the road clings to the cliffside twisting and turning from time to time. Driving has become a matter of concentration, and yet… if you look off to our left you will see wide pebbled beaches, thundering rollers of a dark green sea, and slate-grey volcanic rocks on which indolent fur seals loll, quite content in their private space. The shapes and textures have become rugged but not bleak. Suddenly we descend and the road hurries us into Christchurch.

A South Pacific sense of place

We can see why this is called “the most English of New Zealand cities” but Christchurch is also the best of both worlds, a traditional, sophisticated, not overly conservative city in a temperate climate where gardens and parks are a priority.

We meander, delighting in the familiar, in particular the magnificent rose gardens as well as indigenous and exotic species like the beautiful crimson flowering pohutukawa (Christmas) tree. The Avon River, a serpentine stream really, winds ribbon-like through the city subdividing the core into tidy parcels, maintaining the human scale and slowing the urban pace. Cafés beside the river, trams, cobbled streets, elaborate stonework give the impression of Englishness but the art, the colours, the luminous sunlight and the unmistakable soft Kiwi vowels assert the distinctiveness of this New Zealand city.

Christchurch is also a hub for numerous exciting excursions. Particularly spectacular is the TranzAlpine day trip over Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth on the west coast, during which we are reminded again of the enormous diversity of New Zealand: a multi-level and lateral landscape.

From the most English of cities we drive to what is perhaps the most Scottish: Dunedin. The expansive views of the evocative Canterbury Plains — the comforting backdrop of the southern mountain ranges, and the sense of ease and quiet productivity of life here — are a preamble to picturesque Dunedin, a Victorian and Edwardian community gathered around its central Octagon.

Rare views

And just a few kilometres from the centre, the Otago Peninsula stretches out into the South Pacific. Wonder of wonders. On a windswept headland we are granted access to the carefully guarded Royal Albatross Colony, the only mainland colony on the planet of this stupendous bird.

At Penguin Place, we again enjoy the privilege of visiting a protected breeding colony, that of the Yellow-eyed Penguin, an industrious, immensely charming, and vulnerable bird. To our delight (and that of our guide) an enormous and rare male Hooker’s sea lion pulls himself up onto the wild beach fronting the colony. These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences!

But, if I had to choose a supreme destination in New Zealand, a pièce de résistance, it would probably be the next stage in this eclectic journey: Fiordland. The name alone elicits hushed tones of awe and reverence.

Fiordland

In Fiordland, part of a larger World Heritage Area, we find ourselves in medias res naturalis. Imagine yourself anywhere in this region of snow-capped mountains, blue-green glacial lakes, and serene fiords. Everywhere you look, you feel and experience beauty on the grandest scale imaginable. Every vision and every sensory experience is original, untainted; every outlook is poetic. On Doubtful Sound, timeless and out of time, the captain turns off the engines and we become part of this sublime environment in which the only sounds are the tremulous notes of Bellbirds, the sonorous splash of water cascading into the deep black Sound, and the whisper of breezes on our soft human flesh. This is life at its most contemplative and most eloquent.

There is so much more to tell but I think it is time to just “let it be.” I’ll save the rest for another time. We fly home soon from Christchurch.

I am sitting at home listening to the exquisite Kiri Te Kanawa singing Po Ata Rau (from her CD of Maori songs).

“Farewell! Your journey begins — you are travelling to far-off lands across the waters. Travel well, and when you return I will be waiting — waiting for you.”

It is a blissful, siren’s song. I have been charmed.

Kia Ora Aoteoroa. Until the next time.

Kia Ora is the inclusive Maori greeting signifying hello, goodbye, welcome, good wishes, respect, and acceptance.

Planning Your Trip

There are many excellent guides on New Zealand. We found Frommer’s New Zealand especially useful. Written by Adrienne Rewi, a native New Zealander, it is comprehensive, practical, and very user-friendly.

There are numerous inclusive travel packages to New Zealand available, but for those who like to make their own arrangements (we made all our bookings through the Internet), New Zealand is the most Internet-connected country we have visited.

Start at the New Zealand Tourism Board website (www.newzealand.com). It will take you everywhere you want to go and offer you many ideas and suggested itineraries.

Concerned about the long flights? Try a Pacific hop-skip-and-jump as we did. Air New Zealand, a Star Alliance partner, (www.airnewzealand.com) has excellent connections through variations major cities around the world. We were also able to plan our itinerary so that all our flights were day-time ones.

More New Zealand

For another glimpse of New Zealand read The Sweet Sound of Doubtful

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