x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The whirlwind tour of New Zealand

Far-flung but ferociously fought over for centuries, the island nation offers tourists a range of experiences – lush vistas, world-famous hot springs, hip urban enclaves and rich cultural history.

Akaroa is derived from the Maori for 'long harbour'. Rosemary Behan / The National
Akaroa is derived from the Maori for 'long harbour'. Rosemary Behan / The National

"No, you can't do New Zealand in a week." That's what a travel writer friend said when I told him I had been invited on a whirlwind tour of both the North and South islands - Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown, Milford Sound and Christchurch - all in seven days. "Well, it'll be fun, but that's all." When I factored in the flying time - 17 hours - and the jetlag - New Zealand is nine hours ahead of the UAE - it didn't even sound like fun; it sounded crazy.

That's when I decided to bounce the idea off Anthea, a New Zealander I met on a camping trip in the United States four years ago and always promised to visit. Despite my insistence that I should probably come later this year for two or three weeks and see the country properly, she was having none of it. "What an awesome invitation! You should definitely come over here! There is so much awesome scenery to see. See you soon."

And with that I'm boarding Emirates' A380 service bound for Auckland. Yet as day turns to night and night turns to day (our flight leaves at 10am one day and doesn't arrive until 2pm the next) - I almost forget I'm on a plane at all. Eight hours in and I'm in the relaxation area on the top deck, watching our route unfold on a large screen, nibbling canapés and making small talk with Luke Wilkshire, an Australian footballer who plays for Dynamo Moscow. Luke, who is sporting black Maori arm tattoos, is en route to Sydney for a holiday. Despite the flat beds in business class, he reckons that "staying up all night" is the best cure for jetlag, as you're sure to sleep the next night.

I decide to test his theory. Certainly the huge personal TV screens, dozens of movies and endless rounds of brie and fig brioches, salmon mousse tartlets and passion fruit and peach ice cream do much to prevent boredom - although the stop in Sydney, where we all have to disembark and go through security with all our hand luggage, is irritating.

Nothing, however, has prepared us for the scene at Auckland airport. I feel surprisingly OK when we land, but at least three flights seem to have arrived at the same time, and as hordes of jaded passengers try to make a beeline for the exit, their escape is quickly halted by queues five deep.

Passengers are waiting for "biohazard" screening - with uniformed officers quizzing travellers, filling out forms, cases being scanned, bags being unpacked, items sealed and confiscated and suspect walking boots decontaminated, it's like something out of a science fiction film. Or, as a retired American cruise passenger from California put it: "It's like arriving at Ellis Island in the 1800s. And I already feel like I've been run over by a truck."

Some 90 minutes later I emerge blinking into the arrivals hall and am met by my driver, Norbert, who remarks on the bad weather "back home". This being an ex-colony, he means England, but I explain that I've come from Dubai. Out into the car park and it's a bright spring afternoon. Already it feels like suburban England: a soft blue sky, low-rise industrial buildings, the muted chatter of friends being reunited and the familiar road system of the place are uncannily reminiscent of my erstwhile homeland. I wonder - have I come all this way to see this?

En route into town, at least Norbert's running commentary is easy on my jetlagged ears: although the North Island where we are is more populated, the South Island is 100 sq km larger, "so some people call it the mainland"; although there are 40 million sheep, dairy is the largest industry in the country (in fact, the sheep-person ratio has halved in the past 10 years, so with a population of four million, there are now just 10 sheep for every person); New Zealand's biggest city is surrounded by two bays, with the Tasman Sea on the west side and the Pacific on the east ("if you wanted, you could dig a canal between the two bays and cut the North Island in half"); and despite being built in a highly volcanic area, "the last eruption was 700 years ago, so you'll be OK".

As we drive into the city and the water and boats come into view, I'm reminded slightly of Southampton, on England's south coast, and still underwhelmed. Yet arriving at my hotel, which is situated next to the Sky Tower, which looks like Seattle's Space Needle, I'm happy to find the New Zealand chef Peter Gordon's restaurant, Dine. New Zealand's cities may not be the most exciting in the world, but their restaurants are worth travelling for. The staff are charming, and after a crayfish amuse bouche, an excellent main of seared shichimi John Dory on Parmesan gnocchi with poached fennel, cucumber, baby squid, tomato and kaffir lime broth is served quickly.

It's still only 9pm, but conscious of the need to stay awake as long as possible, I wander outside and around the central business district, which, on a Tuesday evening, is dark and silent except for one loud but empty bar on Queen Street. "Is this it?" I wonder, hot-footing it back to my hotel and instant sleep.

I wake at 4am, and, unable to go back to sleep, put the kettle on, answer some e-mails and hit the gym and swimming pool. By breakfast time at 7.30 I'm feeling OK, so I get a ticket for the Sky Tower as soon as it opens. At 328 metres in height, it's New Zealand's tallest man-made structure. From the Sky Deck at 220 metres, the highest point open to the public, Auckland looks much more impressive. The Hauraki Gulf is full of small islands and the Harbour Bridge is comparable to Sydney's. The bay is full of sailing boats and the docks are lined with cruise ships; on the other side, the city sprawls for miles but is dotted with well-maintained Victorian-era parks and a chain of distinctive grassy volcanic cones.

Down at ground level, I'm picked up by Melissa Crockett, the director of Mohio Tours, a company offering specialist individual and small-group tours of the city and surrounding area. I've opted for a private day tour of some of Auckland's more alternative inner-city boroughs, and, after a greeting in Maori (Melissa is of mixed Maori and white New Zealand descent), we make our way to the Karanghape Road for a caffeine jolt at Miller's Coffee Roaster, which serves coffee in its lounge in the mornings only. The "K road", as it is known, is a grungy, arty area reminiscent of London's Shoreditch. For several hours, we duck in and out of art galleries and studios, Art Deco arcades, learning about the history and architecture of the area.

Next it's on to Ponsonby, a more gentrified but still-hip neighbourhood nearby, where, after admiring some beautiful weatherboarded houses, we enjoy a wood-fired salmon, rocket and feta pizza at Prego's restaurant and some shopping in the numerous fashion boutiques. I'm still feeling surprisingly alert, so we visit three more art galleries. I like the Whitespace Gallery, run by Deborah White, who takes the time to show me around and gets me interested in the uncompromising figurative painter and sculptor Mary McIntyre, now 83 and still a riot at a party, apparently. Afterwards, there's still time for a trip to the Auckland Museum, housed in a magnificent Greek-style mansion overlooking the city. Melissa does a great job of condensing hundreds of years of history, culture, language and custom into a 20-minute tour of the Pacific Island and Maori artefacts on the ground floor. Maori was a spoken language until heavy European colonisation in the 1800s. Of the display, particularly interesting is the enormous, intricately carved war canoe, similar to the ones used by the first settlers of New Zealand, or Aeotearoa ("land of the long white cloud" or "continuously clear light", among other possible meanings) and the carved Maori meeting house, in which a particular tribe's ancestors are symbolised.

It's 5pm, and there's just time to drive to the top of Mount Eden, a high grassy crater offering spectacular views of Auckland's skyline. The city is a different place to the one I saw yesterday, and it's all down to Melissa, who then, with a Maori blessing, is gone. It's been a very long day, so I head (with Melissa's recommendation) to the Chuan Spa at the luxurious Langham Hotel nearby. It's a great tip - I go for an hour-long "Chuan harmony" massage with frankincense, mandarin and lime oil. The treatments at this spa are all based on traditional Chinese medicine and Tiffany, the therapist, hits all the right points because after all that travelling, I'm dead to the world.

That night I sleep through until 6am and at midday we take a short Air New Zealand flight to Rotorua, the country's geothermal heartland and a Maori stronghold. I'm surprised to find that despite weight limits on hand luggage, there is no security screening of us or our baggage before boarding the flight. On board, there isn't even a cockpit door. Aren't the pilots worried about hijacking? "I don't think so, and screening isn't really cost effective," one says. We come in to land safely at Rotorua's smart but tiny airport beside Lake Rotorua. It's a dramatic descent - the lake fills a giant caldera - and the surrounding landscape of bright green fields, small farm lanes and cropped, rounded hills looks like Tellytubbyland.

We're met by our Australian driver, Phil, who launches into a succession of mother-in-law jokes and tells us that Rotorua, which is sometimes referred to as "Roto-Vegas" thanks to the profusion of cheap, ageing motels, is a "horrible, smelly little place" thanks to the smell of sulphur that hangs over it. "No one has yet been able to prove whether the sulphur causes long-term damage," he says, which seems unfortunate as the town has made its name as a health resort.

Still, we're here to give the springs a try, so Phil takes us first to the nearby Polynesian Spa, which offers "hot mineral bathing and spa therapies". It's a beautiful site at the lake's southern end, close to where the first government bath house opened in 1882 (the spectacular neo-Gothic Bath House Building nearby, dating from 1908, now houses the Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens; a neat collection of bowling greens at the front sit where swamps once were).

We get changed and bathe in a selection of four outdoor lakeside pools that are fed cooled alkaline mineral water from the natural springs. All have lovely views through trees across the unspoiled, gravelly shoreline of the milky-blue lake and hills beyond, though as the temperature of the water is between 36 and 42 degrees, it takes stamina to enjoy them for very long. Afterwards, my skin feels soft and supple, though ideally, one would spend half a day dipping in and out of the alkaline and acidic pools to get maximum benefit.

But it's time to push on. We drive to the Te Whakarewarewa valley on the outskirts of town, where we visit Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre, for lunch and our next thermal experience. It turns out that the first part combines both as our Maori guide Shane leads us down a scenic path along a valley to a small covered dining area next to a geyser. We're amazed to see that the food - prawns, eggs, corn on the cob - has been speed-boiled in a woven pouch in the geyser, just as Maori settlers first did when they arrived in the area 600 years ago. The food, which thankfully does not taste or smell of sulphur but is delicious, is accompanied by hunks of home-made bread and dips such as horopito hummus. Looking around us, the scene seems almost primeval - so it's a surprise to learn that foreign tourists have been coming to the area since the 1800s, and even more so that a team of renowned female Maori guides showed visitors around (striking black-and-white photos are on display at the exhibition inside).

Shane guides us back up the path to the Pohutu geyser, one of 65 in the valley and, at 35 metres in height, the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. It's erupting when we arrive, and the changing winds soak us periodically in its rapidly cooled steam. In the past, Maori regarded geysers and thermal activity as the work of gods; an exhibition at the Rotorua Museum, which has an exhibition showing the devastating result of an earthquake in 1886, shows how the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates converge on New Zealand, which forms part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Shane gives us a brief but insightful summary of the Maori belief system, including the "12 heavens" and family structure ("in my culture the concept of being an individual does not exist. I am a reflection of my parents and they are a reflection of their parents").

I could have stayed longer at Te Puia, but Treetops Lodge is calling. A luxury hunting lodge in the hills an hour out of town, the journey there, through pristine farmland, is startling because in the 4pm light, which cascades across luminous green fields and undulating volcanic cones, now grassed and grazed except for trees growing on the tops, everything, including the herds of sheep in soft meadows filled with wild flowers, looks ethereal.

The lodge is a modern construction set on a secluded clifftop in an 800-year-old, 1,000-hectare wooded estate - an ideal country retreat. The main lodge is both grand and cosy, with high-ceilinged living rooms and a large open fire. There are just four rooms in the main building and a handful of private villas in the surrounding forest, so the sense of space and calm is as luxurious as the property. After a five-course dinner, we take a guided stroll down the hill with torches to see glow worms nestled like small stars in a rocky hillside; it's ever-so-slightly spooky and my friend Deena clings to me for most of the walk, but the fresh air is ideal for countering the effects of dinner.

There are more than 70kms of private hiking trails available at Treetops, and although I'm staying only one night I'm determined to sample one, so we're met at seven the next morning for a walk to Bridal Veil Falls. We're dropped off part-way along the track, and continue on foot through virgin forest made up mainly of ancient towering tawa, mahoehoe and rewarewa trees. The final part of the trail is on boards, which cross streams and finish with steps up to the foot of the pretty 25-metre waterfalls. The air is deliciously fresh and clear and I make a mental note to return for a week sometime, to explore more of these trails and the lodge's other activites, which include riding, indigenous food courses, fishing, hunting and helicopter flights.

After a cooked breakfast, Phil picks us up in a bus - he's crashed the small van he had previously so there are fewer mother-in-law jokes on the way to the airport. Our next flight, to Queenstown, is fantastically scenic, and I'm lucky to be sitting on the right-hand side as we can clearly see the entire chain of the Southern Alps, covered in snow and cut through with glacial blue rivers, which form the backbone of the South Island. The site of the airport in Queenstown makes for an equally dramatic setting (apparently, it's one of the trickiest airports in the world to land in, thanks to the weather and proximity of the mountains), and the town itself, on the northern shore of the 80km-long Lake Wakatipu, is one of the best looking I've ever seen. Even the suburbs and local primary school, situated at the end of the lake, are gorgeous, and the centre is filled with boutique shops, fine restaurants, Indian tourists and backpackers with gold credit cards. Throw in sun, a beach and more than 400 adventure activities, and it's not surprising that Queenstown is one of New Zealand's most visited places. As well as providing the base for the filming of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Queenstown has also featured in several recent Bollywood films, including the hit I Hate Luv Storys.

After an obligatory trip to local cult restaurant Fergburger for a snack, we take a gondola ride up the mountainside for an even better view of the area. Opposite we can see a range of spiky mountains called the Remarkables, and opposite, beyond a landscaped promontory and across Lake Wakatipu, is Walter Peak Farm, a remote farming station to which an old steamship, the TSS Earnslaw, makes faithful daily visits across the lake.

I join a half-day "Safari of the Rings" with local guide and film enthusiast Tim, a town planner during the week who likes to conduct tours "just to meet new people". With two Brazilians and two Mexicans, Deena and I set off in the back of a Land Rover, marvelling at the scenery around Glenorchy, a tiny farming settlement at the end of the lake.

That afternoon, we board a scenic eight-seater flight operated by Real Journeys for the 45-minute trip to Milford Sound. As it's New Zealand's best-known tourist destination, I was secretly preparing for disappointment, but the flight there alone, over Lake Wakatipu to Fijordland, was worth the trip. Once there, however, a relaxing 90-minute cruise of "Milford", as it's known, blew us away: wild, unspoilt, and, with its rugged, vertical cliffs rising straight out of the water, as dramatic a backdrop as you could ask for. Yes, Anthea, this trip has been worth it. The flight back to Queenstown takes us on a slightly different route, and again we look down and across at the peaks, valleys, hanging lakes and moraine rivers of Fijordland: unlike Lake Wakatipu, there's no hint of Scotland here, it's more like Patagonia.

In Christchurch, our last stop, there is more than a hint of Englishness. It's not surprising, given that Christchurch was formed by Anglican groups in Canterbury, England, specifically to encourage immigration to New Zealand (the Christchurch Museum has a fascinating collection of memorabilia from the first immigrants' one-way trips to the new country), but I'm forced to do a double take when we pass by Christ's College, the premier boy's school, with crowds of pupils dressed in boaters and striped blazers; and when we walk across a bridge over the grassy-banked River Avon and see tourists being punted languidly along, I feel like I'm back in Oxford.

There are still signs of damage from the recent earthquake, and some buildings are still awaiting demolition, but the rhythm of the city goes on almost unaffected (it's perhaps a sign of how few people there are in New Zealand that a major city can suffer an earthquake measuring 7.1 in magnitude and have no one killed).

I'm keen to see more scenery, so the following day I head out of town to the nearby Banks Peninsula on the Akaroa shuttle bus, which is driven by local guide Graham, who again gives a fantastic potted history of European whaling and settlement in the area, explaining that Akaroa, the gorgeous little town we're headed for, was effectively a French settlement under British control (Captain Cook and his crew first sighted the peninsula in 1769 but initially thought it was an island).

The dainty harbourside is backed by several streets made up of colourful and historic weatherboarded houses set in pretty gardens; there are museums, shops, cafes and art galleries but I don't have time to explore them, as after lunch at the Harbour Fish Shop (fresh hoke and chips $10; Dh28) I take a cruise around the almost impossibly scenic harbour. I see pods of Hector dolphins, penguins, seagulls, fur seals, cormorants and shearwaters, despite the heavy dark clouds that descend on the brooding cliffs either side of the mile-wide harbour. For a moment I ponder the sheer audacity of James Cook, Yorkshire born and bred just like my mother - who set out in his Whitby-built ships to conquer the limits of the known world.

It's been a fascinating journey that has barely scratched the surface of the unlikely links between my home country and this - yet already it's time to leave. That night I meet up with Anthea in a restaurant back in Christchurch and we agree that while I've missed a lot, I've seen a lot, too. And what I've seen has been "awesome".



If you go

The package Emirates Holidays (www.emirates-holidays.com; 800 5252) offers a seven-night trip to New Zealand, covering Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown and Christchurch, from Dh19,140 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return ­international economy class flights from Dubai, accommodation and all taxes