Thursday, 24 January 2013

My top ten New Zealand hits


Well, I'm back.

I've actually been on my travels a bit since I last wrote here - for a month's holiday in New Zealand (above), would you believe. Now, it's an extraordinary country, and impossible to summarise. Is it Scotland in the South Seas? A warmer England? An American satellite? Another (and remoter) Australian state? Or a mix of all of those things, with a dash of idiosyncratic Kiwi something running through the mixture?

Well, I don't know. To be honest, I'm still a bit overawed by the experience of rushing through an entire country in just four weeks. But I'll do my best to turn travel guide and pick up my top ten hits. There were some misses, of course (I'll come back to these tomorrow), but in general it is an extraordinary place. Especially notable? Well, try these:

1. The Routeburn Track (and other Great Walks). Well, this really was a walk. Up to the Routeburn Falls, across the Harris Saddle, then through the most extraordinary Alpine landscape looking across at the Darran Range, and then on to Lake Mackenzie before falling through a beech tree landscape to the roadway at the Divide, it's a two- or three-day walk that's enough to take your breath away. Jagged mountain peaks? Check. Bright blue and green lakes? Tick. Lovely company at the huts? You bet.

2. Napier, art deco capital of the world. Now, there's not that much at Napier if you don't like Art Deco architecture. I must confess that I'm fascinated by it. A destructive and deadly earthquake in 1931 meant that the whole city was rebuilt along just those lines, with all the clean Hercule Poirot-style modernity that involves. Bright colours, a laid-back attitude, a great modernist hostel and a quiet beach lined with fantastic Art Deco stages and the National Aquarium... I couldn't resist it. Reader, it was great.

3. Nelson's pubs. Now, Nelson, at the 'top' of the South Island, has a bit of a Wild West feel to it. A grid system in the centre of town, hot weather and its role as the entry point to the Abel Tasman National Park all give it something of a frontier feel. Me? Well, I went dancing to some gypsy jazz at The Free House - a pub with lots of good beers on tap, a yurt for bands in the garden and a lovely feel all round. It got a bit hot and sweaty in there by the end of the night, but it was all sorts of fun.

4. The Otago Peninsula. I have to confess that this was where I felt most at home. This may well have been because the outdoors looks just like Cornwall, allied to a lot of pubs, bars (and fish and chip shops) that feel just like you're in 1950s Scotland - a fact explained by the Peninsula's proximity to the 'Scottish City of the South Seas', Dunedin. But it's a beautiful coastline, it's got two sorts of penguins (including the rare yellow-eyed guys), and lots of empty beaches. I sat on a beach with wild penguins. I opened my mouth in joy like one of The Muppets. It's not often you can say that, now is it?

5. Kayaking with dolphins. Yes, I know this one's a bit corny, but there's a reason some events are laid on... It's that tourists love them. And as I paddled out of Akaroa near Christchurch with The Educator (read her blog here, by the way), and as two sets of dolphin mothers brought their rare calves right up to us, I couldn't believe my luck. Yes, my arms hurt from the kayaking. No, I didn't regret it.

6. Wellington's waterfront. Now, I don't mind an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Nor am I averse to some fine dining. Or sitting out in the summer sun while doing both. Where to do this in New Zealand, you wonder? Well, look no further than the reclaimed waterfront of the capital, Wellington. This city can be so windy that they put ropes out in the street. I am not kidding you. But on a lovely January summer's day, it was a boon to sit out there having a 'relaxed' Friday evening. It felt a bit like my own adopted home of Bristol, actually, with all its entertainment-by-the-water. But let me tell you: it was no worse for all that.

7. Wanaka and Queenstown's lakes. Wanaka and Queenstown have got reputations as 'party capitals', or just as places where you equip and re-equip before you head out into the wild. One expects to see loads of twenty year olds hanging around in sports gear, shouting 'sweet' and 'wicked' (sorry if you like those expostulations, by the way). But they're actually lovely places to sit on a sunny afternoon, by the sparkling waters of Lake Wanaka or Lake Wakatipu. The water is extraordinary, and the moutains rise from the lakes. It's a sight most Europeans (or at least most non-Swiss Europeans) will gape at.

8. Flying over Mount Taranaki. Mountains, eh? You wait ages and then hundreds of them come along all at once. But the most impressive, the most stunning, the (well) most mountain-like of the lot is Mount Taranki on North Island. We only flew over it, on a very clear day it's true, but it stands sheer from the plain, shrouded in snow at the top and more than a little sense of danger. For all the reasons Peter Jackson set his Lord of the Rings adaptation in his native New Zealand, the presence of a very real, pointy and brooding Mount Doom slap bang in its middle most have been near the top.

9. Christchurch's Re:Start shopping centre. More about this in a future post, but just to say here: it was so heartening, and so humbling, to see a new city centre rise from the rubble of the old. Right next to Christchurch's fallen cathedral, and to an old city centre reduced in many parts to dust, here was a load of shipping containers which had become a multi-coloured riot of shops, coffee bars and buskers' havens, full of flowers, hope and (yes) a five-a-side football pitch. It filled me with hope, and that's not an easy task either.

10. Pancake rocks and the Punakaiki rainforest. Want to feel like you're in Jurassic Park 4 (or 5 or 6)? Look no further than one of the world's densest and most impressive areas of temperate rainforest. You don't need all that heat, all that danger, all that trekking, to see a rainforest and be awed by its primeval sense of time failing to pass: you just need to buy a 'plane ticket to New Zealand. On a windy, silvery night on a wild coast, surrounded on all sides by sheer banks of silent forest, I certainly thought that I had found a lost world, as well as a beautiful, beguiling one.

Right. That's it for the New Zealand tourist board. Hopefully I'll be looking at some free government-funded travel after this effort. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

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