It’s the colours, the seas, sounds and islands, the other-worldly peaks, the altitudes and the attitudes of New Zealand that attracts Australians for that international getaway.
On my first of many later trips ‘next-door’, I was immediately startled and seduced by the dark moody colours of the landscape, which I had half-expected to be just like Australia’s. It is not. And before that, there was the dense layer of low white cloud that dipped almost to ground level as if about to merge with the land as we descended blindly to the runway in Auckland.
Climate – the atmosphere – at times suffuses the land itself, permeating the environment so that it seems unnatural to separate the two; in such key locations as the volcanic hot springs, at one extreme, and the millennia-ancient ice fields, on the other, the quality of the air and the surrounding landscape seem inseparable.
There are many layers to New Zealand’s uniqueness. Setting out from Auckland in the North Island, a three-hour drive delivers you to the remote, peace-filled Bay of Islands off the far north-eastern coastline. A slightly more meandering route takes you through quirky little towns and natural picnic spots, such as Whangarei, a district replete with walking tracks through coastal mangroves, native bushland and around the Whangarei waterfalls. A Limestone Island in Whangarei Harbour acts as a creche for hatchling kiwi birds and, at the far tip of the western side of this narrow northerly arm of the Northland region (stretching from Auckland to the northern tip of the North Island), Waipoua Forest shelters New Zealand’s largest Kauri tree.
The Bay of Islands itself is a quiet haven of secluded coves, beaches and forested shores that also include Kauri rainforest. People come to the bay for sailing, cruising or kayaking around its 144 islands, diving and snorkelling, or just walking the coastline. There are passenger ferries and a car ferry. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a historic landmark in this area. Often called the birthplace of the nation, this is where, in the 1800s, Maori chiefs and European settlers signed important agreements to secure independence and peace.
Back down in the city, Auckland itself is abuzz. There are wonderful Asian eateries (try Federal Street), sophisticated hotel restaurants, nearby open-air farmers’ markets and, in between, at Auckland Museum in the Domain parklands, He Taonga Maori – Maori Court – a significant trove of Maori and Pacific treasures to explore.
Auckland Harbour (or Waitematā Harbour) is a treasure trove on its own. Rangitoto Island, with its beautiful cone profile and youthful 600 years, tops the list of the region’s 48 (dormant) volcanoes. It can be reached by ferry from downtown in under half an hour for a blissful day of picnicking, forest or summit walking, exploring black lava caves or just watching sea, sky and birds. Waiheke Island, a scenic lunch destination among vineyards and wineries, is another short ferry ride from the city.
Travelling south from Auckland, Rotorua, within the Pacific Rim of Fire in the Taupō Volcanic Zone, geothermal hot springs and mud pools bubble away, promoting peace of mind and body within cupping mountain and forest surrounds.
A final stop in the far south-eastern big toe of the North Island, Wellington nurtures a more recent and well-deserved reputation for cool. Its maze of inner-city alleyways offer many surprises and its stylishly laidback bars, cafes and eating houses have brought it fame as the country’s culinary capital. Top-class eating is on offer, from classy Logan Brown in Cuba Street, or Ortega Fish Shack above the harbour in Mt Victoria, to brilliant sourdough for your picnic (at Leeds Street Bakery), pizzas and artisanal chocolate in Hannahs Laneway, or local fish and chips, whitebait and boutique beers.
Being out and about in Wellington demands a drive – or nature-trail walk – to the top of Mt Victoria to gaze over city and harbour. Wellington Botanic Garden ki Paekaka (in Kelburn) nurtures 25 hectares of displays, collections and native forest and offers more of those spectacular harbour views. Take the firetruck-red Wellington Cable Car from the heart of the city to the top of the gardens, then stroll back down.
Another Wellington wonder not to be missed is the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum on the waterfront. Its six floors are panelled in grey and yellow stone, and its interiors are burnished with gleaming native timbers. Te Papa is on a new mission to represent the cultural diversity of Wellington society.
WOW is New Zealand’s annual triumph of theatrical fashion and performance art, more fully known as the World of Wearable Art. This is an awards event showcasing truly wild and wonderful fashion that melts boundaries between installation art, performance and fashion. WOW began life in the South Island’s oldest town, Nelson, across the narrow Cook Strait on the shore of Tasman Bay but quickly migrated to Wellington and is now an international design competition, usually held annually. This year WOW, the extravaganza, is on from September 29 to October 16, at TSB Arena on Queens Wharf. A WOW-themed Northern Explorer Train Travel Package, from Auckland or Hamilton to Wellington, is on offer for October 8.
Scooting back across to the South Island, you will arrive in a land of miraculous natural wonders. The South’s contrasting high-point to the North Island’s volcanic and hot-springs zone of Rotorua and Taupo, is Fiordland National Park, which embraces Milford, Doubtful and Dusky sounds, on the island’s wild west coast.
The famous sounds lie strategically between the high mountain ice fields and the Tasman Sea. Their dark waters fuse but do not blend seawater and mountain runoff, the two strata maintaining their identity with fresh water lying on top of the salty depths. Inky black waters are the result and wildlife is abundant, even corals. Doubtful Sound shelters bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and penguins. Its waterfalls are breathtaking, but it is less accessible than the more famous Milford Sound.
Glaciers sculpted the landscape here and carved out the vast fiord-basins of the sounds. Westland Tai Poutini National Park shelters the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. These glaciers are dramatically close to the ocean yet cupped by rainforest rich with endangered native birds such as the Okarito brown kiwi. Franz Josef Glacier falls in a steep plunge from the Southern Alps to near sea level, its forever-shifting crevasses and ice caves framing and revealing its famous blue ice.
It’s an easy walk along a river-valley track to the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier but try, too, to secure a helicopter seat to hover over the ice fields. Looking down, erratic spines of black rock pierce the dense white blanket. It’s as if the world is made entirely of snow and these sharp needles of obsidian-dark rock are pushing up from their subterranean realm towards light and air.
On the coast 20 kilometres west of Fox Glacier Township, black-sand Gillespies Beach shelters a remote seal colony. Nearby Lake Matheson, with more walking trails and views, frames stunning reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the country’s highest peaks.
Among South Island cities, heritage-rich Dunedin on the southern east coast, is second largest. Queenstown, with its skyline gondola, is two hours from Doubtful Sound, with lake-side forest walks beside nearby Lake Wakatipu in the footprint of the Remarkables Mountains. Largest South-Island city is Christchurch, half-way down the east coast. It has a heroic recent history. Close to the epicentre of the 2011 earthquake, volunteer armies sprang up in the decimated city, green pockets sprouted on top of debris, debris was salvaged and recycled for new life. Today, recovery and renewal is everywhere, energy and controversy, too, notably around the famous neo-gothic cathedral, still being rebuilt. But a wonderful legacy of the near destruction of the bluestone cathedral, was the rise of the light-filled “cardboard cathedral”, with its massive tubular beams and vast triangles of coloured glass, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.
The city, too, has risen like a phoenix. Visitors shop in boutiques in the restored Victorian tannery on the Heathcote River, dine and tour on the gleamingly revived historic Christchurch Tramway car, ride the rebuilt Gondola for views over city, Lyttelton Harbour and the Canterbury Plains, and tour the much-loved Botanic Gardens, just 15 minutes from the centre.
And there’s always a different mood waiting, out of town. A 90-minute skip from Christchurch to the apple-shaped Banks Peninsula, leads romantics to the French-settled village of Akaroa, built on land bought from local Maori chiefs by a French whaler and finally sold to the New Zealand government in the mid 19th century. I half-expected to see Jacques Tati lope out of the Little Bistro in the village; indeed, the whole place has the seaside air of Monsieur Hulot’s holiday. And there’s more evidence of that eccentric New Zealand ‘attitude’. The Giant’s House, a fabulously carnivalesque sculpture garden, meanders precariously on a hillside overlooking the village. Artist and horticulturist Josie Martin revived the landmark old house, filled it with art and colour and sculpts its ever-expanding garden peopled with a menagerie of gigantic, Josie-built, mosaic-tiled characters; Gaudi touches the South Pacific.
From the North’s largest Kauri tree to the Giant’s House in the South, the country is a definitive statement of a unique natural world and abundance of attitude.
Take me there
Fly: Qantas offers non-stop flights from Sydney to Auckland/Wellington, from $393/$405 one way.
Sights: Te Papa Tongarewa (tepapa.govt.nz); the Giant’s House, Akaroa (thegiantshouse.co.nz)
Tour: Northern Explorer Escape to WOW packages are available in October (greatjourneysofnz.co.nz)
Explore more: newzealand.com
Top 3 NZ deals
5-day Winter Queenstown
Self-drive a favourite region or the length of the South Island and stop off to explore Queenstown, with four nights’ accommodation at the sophisticated, stone-and-cedar hotel, Heritage Queenstown in the shadow of the Remarkables mountains. Cross Lake Whakatipu aboard the coal-fired 1912 steamship, TSS Earnslaw, to Walter Peak High Country Farm then cruise back to Queenstown Bay; on Milford Sound, take a snug window seat aboard Milford Haven, as you cruise the famous cascade-watered, peak-wrapped fiord.
Price: from $955 per person
9-day South Island Dream
Discover the best of the South Island, including less-known high points, travelling in a small group with an experienced guide through rainforest regions, mountains and farmland. Explore cities with stays in Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown, Te Anau, gateway to the Fiordland, Haast, Franz Josef and Latimer. Visit Westland National Park; cross the Canterbury Plains; cruise Doubtful Sound by catamaran, visit the gold-mining region of Arrowtown and more.
Price: from $2995 per person
16-day Ultimate New Zealand
This guided, small-group tour explores the best and the unexpected in both the North and South islands; from Lake Aniwhenua, Whirinaki Rainforest and Huka Falls to the southern sounds. Beginning in Auckland, travel to Rotorua hot-springs region; in Lake Aniwhenua see Maori rock carvings and taste a ground-cooked hangi; visit wineries, the art-deco town of Napier and the capital Wellington before taking the ferry to the South Island. From Nelson and Picton, cross the Canterbury Plains to Dunedin and Te Anau, gateway to the fiords.
Price: from $5399 per person