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This article appears in Volume 23: The Adventure Issue.
Issy and I are traversing a sharp incline on Hillary Trail, one of the most dramatic walking (or “tramping”) routes on New Zealand’s North Island. To our right a hulking volcanic cliff shoots up from the ocean’s edge, while on our left the mountains roll on as far as the eye can see, blanketed by manuka and makamaka trees and psychedelic palms. Keen walkers cover a path of 69km over five rigorous days, snaking through the wild Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland through sand dunes, beaches, ancient Māori settlements and sheer cliff faces. The key to successful tramping, we’ve been told, is “sure-footedness”, something we struggle with strolling from one café to another, let alone navigating steep hills and root-laced paths.
Order Volume 23 Hillary Trail requires steely perseverance, high-grade walking equipment and knowledge of the local terrain – which may explain the strange looks we get from passers-by, who seem bemused that we are attempting this staggering route in linen dresses (muddied from a recent face-plant), sodden plimsolls and the hot-pink knitted sunhats our guide was kind enough to lend us. Needless to say, we are not professional walkers. Which is why we’ve decided to cheat, cutting through Hillary Trail on a short beginner-level hike to the famous black sands of Karekare Beach where our guide’s wife will pick us up in her 4×4 and hand us both a cold beer.
New Zealand is a country for adventurers. Its eye-watering landscapes provide the perfect springboard to tick off a lifetime of wilderness wishes. The North Island is home to Auckland and Wellington, thriving cities that exist like two siblings, sharing the same core but with utterly different personalities. However, even at its most cosmopolitan the promise of nature is always in the air. While the North Island is a luscious palette of greens and blues, of volcanoes, rainforests and yawning coastline, over on the lonelier, wilder South Island the colossal southern Alps dominate the horizon, lining the sky above manicured vineyards, lakes and heathery hills. This part of New Zealand is well-known for adrenaline-fuelled offerings such as mountain climbing, sky diving and bungee jumping, if you can stomach them – and most locals can. A deep connection with nature is threaded into the Kiwi DNA and New Zealanders use the land as their playground.
The abundance of space and low population density mean that you often find yourself standing entirely alone at the foot of a mountain range, top of a cliff or edge of a glittering lake. While the idea of leaping from a plane at 4,000m may appeal to some, we choose to spend our time in the country with our feet firmly on the ground. The truth is that simply being here, exploring the sweeping landscape and breathing in the warm, pure air, is adventure enough.
The sensation of landing on the other side of the world can be a little surreal. Luckily, Air New Zealand softens the blow with restaurant-quality food, bouncy cotton pillows and enough films to keep us red-eyed and resisting sleep for 24 hours.
After touching down in Auckland we check in to Hotel DeBrett, a boutique hotel in the city centre with plush rooms, glossy bathrooms and a palm-filled bar/restaurant. Around the corner by the quay locals wander the boutiques and bars of Britomart or pile into Xuxu for steaming baskets of handmade dumplings and yuzu-spiked cocktails. After shaking off our jet lag we spend our first proper evening in the “Sky City” sipping pints at the Brothers Beer brewery in the City Works, a complex of cafés, bars and locavore eateries.
It’s difficult to imagine a sunnier, more easy-going city than Auckland. Its culinary scene is blossoming, with fine-dining destinations popping up alongside all-day cafés and enough artisanal coffee shops to keep you wide-eyed late into the evening, when you can sample the city’s bars and music venues. Over in Ponsonby, arguably Auckland’s coolest neighbourhood, minimalist shops line the leafy, low-rise streets. We pull up a couple of sunny street-side chairs at Saan, a modern Thai restaurant serving sizzling plates of fish, shredded salads and punchy cocktails. Now and then a truck passes by with surfboards strapped to the roof, a reminder of the sparkling water that traces the city’s edges. “The best thing about Auckland is how quickly you can be in nature,” a local tells us. “You can go from extreme skiing in the mountains to the beach in a couple of hours.”
Alec and Phillipa Mandis are the couple behind Awesome Walks, which they operate from their “house in the sky” in the Henderson Valley. Their guests choose a walking route from a network of over 140 tracks threading through the Waitakere Ranges, 17,000 hectares of dramatic native rainforest and coastline, returning at the end of each day to a vintage caravan containing hot showers, cosy beds and home-cooked meals. Our walk (tailored for two self-confessed “exercise-repellers”) takes us through winding bush tracks shaded by manuka trees and along coastlines lined with pink, feathery toetoe plants. Back in our van we settle in with a bottle of local wine, our legs pleasantly buzzing from the day’s hike. We agree that our childhood aversions to walking might be on the turn.
The next morning, after stocking up on Phillipa’s homemade bread and manuka honey, we set off towards Fairy Falls. This four-tiered waterfall cascades down to a pristine natural pool surrounded by kaori and palm trees. With only the occasional ankle roll we trace the steep ridge down to the water and cool off before battling stepping stones, uneven rocks and stitch-inducing hills back to the car.
When Aucklanders want a weekend away they head to Waiheke, an art- and wine-drenched island just a 40-minute ferry ride from Princes Wharf. Waiheke is cosseted by expansive vineyards that produce some of the country’s best wines. At lunchtime local tour group Ananda points us in the direction of Te Motu. Set in the parakeet-green “vineyard valley”, this elegant winery is home to The Shed, an award-winning restaurant serving locally sourced dishes to match a dizzying array of wines.
After sampling a solid flight of wines we drop by the home of artist and native New Yorker Gabriella Lewenz, whose ochre-painted house beams from a hilltop. Dressed in sun-bleached denim with her dog trotting beside her, she leads us to her studio where the light streams through a stained-glass window onto abstract, organic oil paintings inspired by the surrounding land. “There’s a certain quality of light here that I haven’t found anywhere else,” Lewenz says. “Everything is big and refreshing. The food tastes fresh, the air smells clean – it’s changed the way I paint.” Soon after waving goodbye we find ourselves strapped up and soaring high above Waiheke’s vineyards, beaches and bush treetops with EcoZip, dispelling any wine-induced lethargy.
A couple of hours navigating twisting, bush-lined roads brings us to the coastal town of Coromandel, home to famous hiking and biking routes, the Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve and Hot Water Beach, where geothermal hot springs bubble up through the sand between tides. On our blissfully meandering drives we stop to buy fresh plums, tomatoes and watermelons from hand-painted, unmanned honesty boxes on the roadside. We spend an afternoon on mountain bikes following the Hauraki Rail Trail from the gold-mining town of Waihi. The route passes farmland, forests, an old rock quarry and the Karangahake Gorge, a winding canyon formed by the Ohinemuri River. We’re told the ride takes around an hour. Three hours later we return, mud-splattered and gasping for breath. Map-reading has never been our forte.
Nicknamed the “coolest little capital in the world”, Wellington is a compact city of boutiques, breweries, roasteries and independent galleries and is infectiously laid-back. While the whole of New Zealand brims with craft coffee, Wellington boasts some of the best. You’ll find third-wave cafés on every corner, from the Mad Men-esque Coffee Supreme and sunflower-yellow-tiled Milk Crate to bicycle shop-cum-café Peoples Coffee. At Prefab, an all-day eatery with an on-site roastery, locals devour plates of freshly baked sourdough, fluffy fritters and filled doughnuts on tables scattered around a revamped warehouse.
We stay at the kaleidoscopic QT Museum Hotel, which overlooks the harbour and houses one of New Zealand’s largest private art collections, handpicked by legendary local collector Chris Parkin. Every inch bursts with contemporary paintings and installations including a life-sized hyperrealist portrait of a local busker and a candy-encrusted skull. There’s also Hippopotamus, a flamboyant French restaurant, and Asian lounge bar Hot Sauce.
A ferry journey to the South Island takes us through towering fjords bearing down over tiny, white-sailed boats. At Picton Harbour we hop onto a gleaming catamaran for a Seafood Odyssea Cruise. Glasses of icy wine in hand, we glide through the smooth waters of the Marlborough Sounds, a cluster of ancient, forest-covered hills and sandy bays sliding into the Pacific Ocean. The thick greenery is broken by the odd wood-pannelled “Bach” – typical Kiwi holiday homes with small, coloured boats tied to the jetties. We spend the entire day with our legs dangling off the front of the boat feasting on regal salmon, cloudy bay clams and meaty greenshell mussels. Sea-slicked seals flop on the rocks while a school of small dolphins race in the wake of the boat, leaping through the water under our feet.
Red-faced and salt-soaked we drive to Marlborough Lodge, a luxury estate in the green hills of Marlborough wine country. This former convent’s restaurant serves gourmet food and its ten elegant suites have wrap-around balconies overlooking miles of combed farmland and corridors of plump grapevines. The city of Nelson is the gateway to the South Island’s mountain trails, beaches and natural springs. After a virtuous morning of smoothies and bliss balls at a health-food café on Rocks Road we drive inland towards Mahana Estate, a vineyard specialising in organic, terroir-focused wines. Its sun-flooded restaurant overlooks Tasman Bay and the mountain ranges and serves vibrant-looking dishes using hyper-local produce. We sip on an amber-coloured pinot gris and look out over the vineyards, which are bursting with fruit and veiled in white netting in preparation for the upcoming harvest.
In the staggering (literally, in our case) Abel Tasman National Park we pull on our unsuitable walking shoes to tackle the area’s world-famous coastal track. The pathway cuts through the park’s stunning beaches, coves and looming granite cliffs, which look as if they’ve been chipped away by a sculptor’s tool. Wilsons, manned by a team of friendly locals, runs multi-day hiking and kayaking breaks and offers two beachfront lodges to unwind in each night. It is only at dinnertime, after several hours of walking with our backs drenched in sweat, that we truly appreciate the taste of cold New Zealand wine.
After a quick trip from Nelson (internal flights in New Zealand, we learn, are like catching a bus) we land in Christchurch and check into the boutique hotel The George. The city has been reimagined following the earthquake that struck in 2011 destroying much of its neo-Gothic architecture. We head for lunch at Universo, a plant-filled bistro set in the undulating Christchurch Art Gallery. Ordering enough to sink a fishing boat, we lap up ceviche, confit-chicken gnocchi, beef-cheek pappardelle, tahini-grilled cauliflower and bread with a medjool date and goat’s-cheese butter.
Black Cat Cruises sets off from Akaroa Harbour and offers visitors the chance to swim with wild Hector’s dolphins, the world’s rarest endangered oceanic breed. On this particular day the choppy waters and a cold wind bring out their mischievous side. One by one, our small group slides into the water while a pod of ten dolphins dive and flip around us, coming so close I can make out the patches of black around their eyes. Above the slosh of the waves and the delighted yells of the group, I can hardly hear the shouts of our skipper. “This is unbelievable!” he yells. “You almost never see this many!”
After a dry-mouthed, white-knuckle drive along a flint farm track on the edge of a cliff face we realise that somewhere along the way from Akaroa we’ve taken a wrong turn. With no signal on our phones and nothing but giant mountains around us, we pull up on a grassy mound for a breather. Moments later a yellow campervan stops next to us and a smiling woman and her son wind down the window. “You’re lost, aren’t you?” she laughs. Ten minutes later, after she’d spun around and guided us all the way, we arrive at the base of a long, almost vertical pathway.
Planted in secluded locations around New Zealand, PurePods are glass eco-cabins offering minimalist luxury and the chance to go entirely off-grid. They feature a fridge full of fine food, 360° views and are made entirely of glass, so that both the stars above and the grass beneath are visible. With no wifi or phone signal you pass the time playing cards, reading and studying astronomy maps. It’s a rare thing to find yourself so utterly isolated in nature. We are high on an empty hill with no one to hear or see us but a flock of curious sheep. There is only one thing to do – open another bottle of wine, blast a power ballad and take off all our clothes.
Air New Zealand flies daily from London Heathrow to New Zealand via LA as well as via Asia and North America in conjunction with its partner airlines. Return flights via LA start from £776 in Economy and £2,390 in Premium Economy.
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
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