Simon Walters tours New Zealand and watches the All Blacks

  • The Mail on Sunday’s Simon Walters took a tour encompassing both the north and south of New Zealand
  • Highlights included a visit to the Woolshed Vineyard, which produces Mud House wines in Marlborough
  • He also enjoyed Rotorua’s Kuirau Park’s thermal springs  and watched the All Blacks in action

New Zealand's spectacular, exotic beauty was forged by earthquakes and volcanoes over millions of years

New Zealand’s spectacular, exotic beauty was forged by earthquakes and volcanoes over millions of years

Arriving at our Thames B&B, we’re told by the landlady that in the event of an earthquake, we should assemble at the cattle grid.

We’re not in England’s Thames Valley – this is the historic town of Thames, 90 minutes’ drive south-east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island.

This country’s spectacular, exotic beauty was forged by earthquakes and volcanoes over millions of years. 

The South Island looks and even sounds like the Scottish Highlands, with an alpine zing to purge the midges and mizzle. Parts of the North Island resemble Jurassic Park – think 1950s Guildford transplanted to Papua New Guinea.

It’s no surprise that Kiwi film-maker Peter Jackson used his native country as the backdrop for The Lord Of The Rings. It’s a wonder he didn’t need CGI techno-trickery to tone DOWN the landscape.

About a third of New Zealand’s four-and-a-half million people live in Auckland, with the rest – roughly the population of Birmingham – spread over a country slightly bigger than the UK.

Simply being in NZ is an exhilarating breath of fresh air to anyone from the choked M25 zone. Our trip was part holiday and partly an opportunity to follow the British Lions rugby tour.

Air New Zealand has won an Airline of the Year award for the past four years. Its stylish Business Class and Premium Economy menus were drawn up by Samoan-born and New Zealand-raised Michael Meredith, and Peter Gordon, who is part-Maori, part-Scot. 

My favourites were prawns with spring pea puree and Bloody Mary jelly, followed by chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella, pine nuts and honey. The airline even conducts blind tastings to ensure that its New Zealand wines are just as good at altitude.

The fact that it was NZ’s autumn was our excuse to take up Air New Zealand’s unique offer of a free Los Angeles stopover to enjoy some southern California sunshine.

A two-hour drive from LA took us to Santa Barbara, a picturesque resort whose magnificent, red-tiled courthouse evokes its Spanish roots, and whose wooden pier with lobster bars put rusting, kiss-me-quick English equivalents to shame.

We stayed at Santa Barbara’s elegant Cheshire Cat Inn in the beautiful, split-level White Rabbit room, with a sun-drenched balcony overlooking the Santa Ynez mountains.

North Island's Coromandel Peninsula boasts long stretches of idyllic beaches including this one, Cathedral Cove

North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula boasts long stretches of idyllic beaches including this one, Cathedral Cove

The inn’s quirky theme honours Alice In Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, who came from Cheshire – home county of Christine Dunstan, who runs the Cheshire Cat with her laid-back southern Californian partner Jack Greenwald.

After a few days, it was on to New Zealand, arriving in Christchurch, still scarred by the 2011 earthquake that killed 185. There had been an earthquake hours before we landed – thankfully, tiny by comparison, but a reminder of the ever-present peril in this postcard paradise.

Driving south to Dunedin – so Scottish that we had haggis and whisky for breakfast – we spent a glorious day exploring the craggy Otago Peninsula. We saw rare royal albatrosses with wings like wind turbines crash-land on a cliff to feed fluffy chicks too fat to move; we watched baby-blue penguins waddle up the beach at dusk for a cuddle, honking amorously; and we nearly tripped over a snoozing sea lion on windswept Allans Beach.

New Zealand’s endless miles of neat wooden bungalows, with pretty Victorian ornamentation, white picket fences and soporific verandas, filled me with nostalgia for my childhood in a wooden bungalow by the River Thames near Windsor. 

Sadly, many of those bungalows have been replaced by caravans or carbuncles.

Woolshed Vineyard (pictured) produces Mud House wines - the fifth-biggest-selling NZ label in Britain- in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island

Woolshed Vineyard (pictured) produces Mud House wines – the fifth-biggest-selling NZ label in Britain- in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island

There are two sets of initials a visitor to New Zealand should know: the All Blacks rugby team are the ABs – and SBs are sauvignon blanc wines.

The New Zealand SB boom is exemplified by the Woolshed Vineyard, which produces Mud House wines in the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island. Outwardly, the Woolshed ranch has hardly changed since it was a sheep farm, but the sound of shearing has been replaced by that of Mud House SBs being swirled round the palate by brilliant young winemaker Cleighton Cornelius.

Despite its NZ roots, Mud House was sporting enough to sponsor the British Lions – another reason to buy its excellent wines, including sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, which have made it the fifth-biggest-selling NZ label in Britain. After sipping several, and without, ahem, depositing all in the spittoon, we took a ferry to the North Island, passing many hidden sandy coves glinting in the moonlight.

From there, we headed north to Rotorua, New Zealand’s unofficial Maori capital. The Maoris came to New Zealand some 500 years before Captain Cook landed here in 1769, but no one is sure where from. Guesses range from Hawaii to Indonesia. They arrived on fast, ocean-going multi-hulled canoes – paddled prototypes of the flying catamaran that won the America’s Cup for NZ while we were there.

Mail on Sunday's Political Editor Simon Walters pictured with his wife Jenni

A geyser at Rotorua’s Kuirau Park thermal springs

Mail on Sunday’s Political Editor Simon Walters pictured (left) with his wife Jenni, and (right) a geyser at Rotorua’s Kuirau Park thermal springs

Maori chiefs handed sovereignty of New Zealand to Britain in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. But for all the claims of trickery by perfidious Albion, and inevitable ongoing tensions, some say that NZ has made a greater success of integrating two ethnic groups with starkly contrasting cultures than any other country.

The early Maori are said to have been drawn to Rotorua because the thermal springs were good for cooking and healing. Rotorua’s Kuirau Park is speckled with geysers spouting mud and puffs of pongy sulphur gas.

A more fun way to experience New Zealand’s primeval underfloor heating is at Hot Water Beach, on the Coromandel Peninsula tourist trail further north. Dig a hole in the beach, let the cold waves dilute the boiling sand and you have your own bubble bath. But beware: get the mix wrong and you’ll be scalded where it hurts.

We ended our tour in Auckland, where we joined thousands of British rugby fans who swapped beer, banter and ballads with the locals in harbourside bars and restaurants.

The epic Lions games with the All Blacks were brutal. But we were touched by New Zealanders’ deep concern about tragic recent events in Britain, and for the chaotic current state of UK politics, which they regard as more unstable than any of their volcanoes.

Simon wrapped up his tour of New Zealand with a visit to Auckland to watch the epic Lions games with the All Blacks (pictured)

Simon wrapped up his tour of New Zealand with a visit to Auckland to watch the epic Lions games with the All Blacks (pictured)

We stayed in Auckland’s Ponsonby district, a kind of mini-Notting Hill with yet more quaint bungalows. They make for a novel skyline, with skyscrapers and the ocean right behind them.

We twice bumped into ex-Irish and Lions rugby pin-up Brian O’Driscoll in Ponsonby and were a mere rugby hand-off from AB star Beauden Barrett – though a friend laughed off our celebrity sightings, saying: ‘There are so few people in New Zealand, you soon get to meet them all!’

As we marvelled at the country’s visual majesty, we wondered whether, after a while, the effect dulls.

Beneath a stunning crimson sunset, I found myself chatting to an English chap admiring the same view, a one-time union official who emigrated to New Zealand a decade ago.

We worked out that, bizarrely, in the 1990s we were at the same Labour Party conferences – the same bars, even.

Had the magic faded?

‘Not a bit. I gaze at it in wonder every day,’ he said.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk) offers daily flights from Heathrow to Auckland via Los Angeles, with free stopovers. Return flights cost from £814 in Economy, £1,935 in Premium Economy and £4,151 in Business Premier.

Mud House wines (mudhouse.co.nz) are available from Tesco – sauvignon blanc currently £7.25, pinot noir £10.50. Other stockists include Majestic Wine, Waitrose and Morrisons.

The Cheshire Cat Inn, Santa Barbara (cheshirecat.com), has rooms from $199 (about £150) to $475 (about £360) per night.

 





Courtesy: Daily Mail Online

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