Nature at your doorstep in New Zealand

From a close encounter with dolphins to bathing in a natural jacuzzi, a trip to New Zealand is full of awe-inspiring moments

It is just past 9am on a beautiful early summer’s day and the sun is already strong and high in a bright, cloudless sky. The water is clear and relatively calm as my  kayak slices through rippling waves in Tasman Bay on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

Mine is one of four kayaks making their way up the Kaiteriteri coast in Abel Tasman National Park, past pristine crescents of sand, granite cliffs and sheltered emerald inlets on our way to Split Apple Rock, a mass of round granite about 10m tall, which was at some pre-historic time cleft in two, as though struck by the hammer of a Maori god.

New Zealand native Amy (AJ) Carrick, our bubbly guide from Wilsons Abel Tasman (www.abeltasman.co.nz) tours points out native birds and Maori landmarks along the way.
After 45 minutes, we arrive and find that Split Apple Rock does, in fact, look like two perfect halves of an apple propped open in the shape of a “v”.

Most of the group is still posing for pictures with this intriguing landmark when AJ yelps, gesturing ecstatically towards the northern horizon. “Look over there! Dolphins!” she says. Their dark dorsal fins are barely distinguishable from waves in the distance, then one after another leap into the air and a few of us shriek in excitement.

There are at least 100 common dolphins moving swiftly west about 200m from our kayaks and AJ is as excited as the rest of us, smacking her paddle on the surface of the water to mimic the tail-slaps dolphins use to communicate, hoping to divert them towards our direction. We wait for a few minutes, but it doesn’t work. “We don’t often see them so close to shore. They must be chasing something,” AJ says as we paddle away.

Suddenly, as though they have sensed our collective disappointment, the dolphins are back, diving between our kayaks. One surfaces next to me, then another, and I can barely figure out where to look.
  • Getting there

  • Air New Zealand offers daily flights between Singapore and Auckland. From there, travellers can drive 1 1/2 hours to Hamilton or three hours to Rotorua . From Auckland, Air New Zealand operates at least two daily flights to Rotorua; at least 15 daily flights to Wellington; at least eight daily flights to Nelson; and at least 13 daily flights to Christchurch.

  • Where to stay

  • NORTH ISLAND

    Solitaire Lodge

    Tucked away on an isolated headland on the banks of Lake Tarawera, the 10 luxury suites of Solitaire Lodge are where you go to escape into the stunning landscape. The lodge has a private beach and a jetty where guests can fish or pick up a complimentary kayak to explore the lake. Prices start at NZ$1,550 (S$1,559) a couple a night. Go to www.solitairelodge.co.nz

    SOUTH ISLAND

    Wakefield Quay House

    A charming bed & breakfast that is full of character. Overlooking Tasman Bay in Nelson, the heritage 1905 villa provides relaxed but luxurious guest house accommodation. There are only two rooms for rent, both with spectacular sea views, starting from NZ$295 a night, with breakfast included.

    Go to www.wakefieldquay.co.nz

    Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses

    Cosy fireplaces, first-class amenities and a breathtaking location at the base of the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Range, this contemporary lodge on a working deer farm 12km north of Kaikoura is the ideal contemporary luxury lodge.

    Couples and families alike will adore the five tree houses. The onsite restaurant is divine. Rooms start at NZ$730 a night. Go to www.hapukulodge.com

  • Where to eat

  • NORTH ISLAND

    Chim Choo Ree, Hamilton

    Expect a laidback hipster vibe and fantastic modern Kiwi cuisine in a beautifully converted art-deco building on the end of Hamilton’s main strip. You cannot go wrong with anything on the menu, but the brioche crayfish roll (NZ$22), goat curd tortellini (NZ$19) and lamb navarin (NZ$38) are especially delicious. Save room for dessert.

    Go to www.chimchooree.co.nz

    SOUTH ISLAND

    The Boat Shed Cafe, Nelson

    Fresh, simple and seasonal, eating at The Boat Shed Cafe, located in a converted dock perched on the water in Tasman Bay, is comforting, like dining in your best friend’s home and the host just happens to be a first-class cook. Order the pan-fried halloumi (NZ$14.50) and grilled sirloin steak (NZ$32.50). Go to www.boatshedcafe.co.nz

    Kaikoura Seafood BBQ Kiosk, Kaikoura

    A roadside stand (above) located on the beach

    1/2 km north of the Kaikoura Seal Colony, this no-frills seafood barbecue joint serves up garlic scallops, crayfish and whitebait fitters, grilled mussels, prawns, seafood chowder and whole crayfish with simple seasoning.

    Everything comes with rice and salad or as a sandwich and, at NZ$5 to NZ$10 an item, it is a steal, even if some of the seafood is a tad overcooked. Open every weather-permitting day from 11am till dark, or till 3pm on Saturdays, it is a great way to sample New Zealand’s seafood, au naturel. Go to bit.ly/2uY2pA8

It is probably the most awesome and inconceivable experience of my life and I am fumbling with my camera, hoping to record everything, while also trying to take it all in. They are bigger than I expected, some the width of my kayak, and lightning quick. One bump of a tail and I’m sure we’d be knocked sideways, but the pod skilfully manoeuvres around us and moves on.

This is typical New Zealand, I think, as we head back to shore. Surprises like this seem to be par for the course here, where nature is at one’s doorstep. Over the week that I spend here, my dolphin encounter becomes one of several awe-inspiring moments .

Later that afternoon I join a Wilsons Abel Tasman three-day kayak and walking tour of the national park. For a few hours, we follow a curving, earthen path lined with Jurassic-looking ferns and manuka trees before we arrive at Awaroa inlet, a 2km expanse of water and silt crossable at low tide.

All seven of us sink our bare feet into the cold wet sand and trudge across sharp shells on the river bed. The water is close to freezing point, making my feet stiffen and ankles ache so badly that I think I can’t possibly take another step. But we continue, drawn by the promise of a hot shower, a tasty meal and a cosy bed at Meadowbank Homestead – Awaroa, a beachfront lodge where we will spend the night.

Dusk is dropping its veil around us and in a couple of hours, the inlet will be submerged by the rising tide. I pause for a moment to admire the quiet and the stillness and the pale light shining over Awaroa, like I am in a lucid dream that I know is about to end. Have I ever seen anything so melancholy and breathtakingly beautiful?

Why have I never heard a traveller to these islands express anything other than a wistful longing to return?

On my trip, I fly through old growth forest with Rotorua Canopy Tours (canopytours.co.nz), gliding freely along 650m of zip line over tree ferns, native bush and past a 1,000-year-old pine.

I take a stroll among giants at the Redwoods Treewalk (www.treewalk.co.nz) near Rotorua, a 553m-long walkway suspended amid redwood trees, 12m above the forest floor. There, I sit on wooden benches built into the platforms to admire the magnificent 115-year- old trees up close and touch their soft, spongy, rust-coloured bark.

I bathe in a natural jacuzzi in Te Rata Bay, also known as Hot Water Beach, where boiling water from underground geothermal springs surface along the banks of Tarawera Lake, steam rising from the lake like a hot cup of tea.

The grass in New Zealand is literally greener. It is the brightest grass I have ever seen. And the rainbows – I see half a dozen, almost one a day – during my trip, ribbons of blue, purple, yellow and red arching perfectly across the sky. It makes perfect sense that the The Lord Of The Rings movies were filmed here.

What I like best is how accessible every adventure is. In New Zealand, there are so many ways to explore the country’s pristine outdoors, from the flowers in Hamilton Gardens (hamiltongardens.co.nz) to white water rafting, surfing or mountain biking and everything in between.

You can take a multi-day hike through the national park, but still enjoy multi-course meals at dining tables and sleep in a proper bed, as I do, snuggled under the covers after one of the most deserved showers of my life. I sleep like a log that night, thoroughly exhausted.

When I awake the next morning feeling fresh and fully rested, the sun is peeking out from the clouds as I pack my bag and lace up my sneakers. I am looking forward to a new day of hiking and boat rides and whatever else New Zealand has in store. Maybe an orca sighting?

I swing my backpack over my shoulder and walk out the door, itching to be up and exploring, with some of the most scenic and inspiring nature in the world right at my finger tips.


Feast on food steamed in the ground

The Maori are the indigenous population of New Zealand, a Polynesian people who settled on the islands between 1250 and 1300 CE. You can learn about their unique history, culture and architecture at Te Puia (www.tepuia.com), 70ha within the historic Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, near Rotorua.

There, members of the Maori community lead tours of the park.  Things to see include the Wananga school of Maori arts and crafts, which showcases intricate weaving and wood carving; traditional Maori buildings, including the beautifully carved Te Aronui-a-rua meeting house; a kiwi bird enclosure that allows visitors to view the endangered national symbol upclose; and the geothermal pools of boiling mud and the Pohutu geyser.

Pohutu geyser is the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere and also the most consistent in the world, erupting once or twice an hour, shooting boiling water up to 30m in the air.

The Maori have used the region’s geothermal energy to cook food for centuries and visitors can sample hangi, a traditional way of cooking by placing meat and vegetables in leaf-wrapped baskets and lowering them into a deep pit lined with hot rocks, in which food steams in the ground’s natural heat.

In the evening, the hangi is served in a buffet dinner as part of the three-hour long Te Po experience. It starts daily at 6.15pm and includes a tour of Te Puia, a powhiri (traditional Maori welcoming ceremony), a cultural performance of Maori song and dance in the Te Aronui-a-rua meeting house, dinner and a visit to Pohutu to see the geyser lit up at night.

The tour costs NZ$117 (S$118) an adult and NZ$58.50 a child between five and 15 years old.

Visitors can also explore Te Puia on their own or join guided tours during the day. They run every hour from 9am to 5pm and cost NZ$52 an adult and NZ$26 a child. Family passes and cultural performance packages are also available.


Get a taste of hobbit beer

Since 2001, when the first The Lord Of The Rings movie was released, New Zealand has been synonymous with “Middle-Earth”, the fictional setting of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary stories.

Much of the country’s dramatic landscapes became filming locations for the The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, but The Shire, the land of the hobbits, is the only set which remains.

The set is built on the Alexander farm, a 505ha working sheep farm in the heart of the North Island’s Waikato region. Visitors can explore the extraordinary set of lush rolling hills, verdant pastures and hobbit holes, the pint-sized homes where hobbits lived, by joining the Hobbiton Movie Set Tour (www.hobbitontours.com).

The two-hour tours depart daily from The Shire’s Rest, the set’s main entry point, every 30 minutes, from 8.30am to 3.30pm. Additional tours are added at 4 and 4.30pm between Sept 1 and April 30, and at 5 and 5.30pm between Dec 27 and Feb 28. They cost NZ$79 (S$79.50) an adult, NZ$39.50 a child from nine to 16 years old, and children eight years and younger tour free with a ticketed adult. Tours also leave from Rotorua and Matamata at additional cost.

The tours lead guests around the 5ha set, where 44 Hobbit Holes have been dug into the hillside. The details are incredible: from hobbit clothes hanging on the line to dry and iconic, brightly coloured round doors to tiny tables and chairs and loaves of bread. The guide’s stories about The Shire’s production and details about the filming of movies make it an entertaining tour, even for people who are not Tolkien fans.

Pose for pictures by the infamous Party Tree before stepping into The Green Dragon Inn, where many a hobbit would gather for a pint, to enjoy a drink from The Hobbit Southfarthing range of beer and cider, only available on the Hobbiton Movie Set.


Pick some organic tea leaves

New Zealand’s only tea plantation is 10 minutes from Hamilton in the North Island’s Waikato region.

Started in 1996 by Taiwanese businessman Vincent Chen, it had just 130 tea plant seedlings. Now, Zealong Tea Estate’s (www.zealong.com) 48 ha plantation has more than 1.2 million plants thriving in the region’s pristine air, soil and mild climate.

Zealong’s organically grown teas are hand picked then processed and packed onsite, resulting in wonderfully smooth and aromatic green and black oolong teas.

I am particularly fond of the black tea, which is not astringent like most black teas, has notes of honey and a natural lingering sweetness.

You can try the teas in the estate’s retail shop or take a tour to learn about its history, how the tea is grown and processed, and pick some tea leaves before enjoying a private tea ceremony where visitors learn how to identify leaves, colour, aromas and flavours, and how to pour the perfect cup.

The tours cost NZ$49 (S$49.30) a person and NZ$25 a child from six to 11 years old, and are run at 9.30am and 2pm from Tuesdays to Sundays, or can be arranged separately for groups.

Visitors can also enjoy Zealong’s Signature High Tea with a selection of delicious tea-infused sweet and savoury treats for NZ$45 a person, or NZ$85 with the tour.

Admiring the views of the plantation while nibbling on an onion tarte tatin and sipping a clean, light cup of tea is an unexpected delight.


Explore the countryside on bicycles

Nelson, a city at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, is an ideal base to explore Abel Tasman National Park and the bucolic Nelson countryside famed for its apple orchards, quirky cafes, picturesque seaside villages and enigmatic artists who live there and exhibit their work in nearby galleries.

There are few better ways to explore the region than by bike and Wheelie Fantastic Cycle Tours (www.wheeliefantastic.co.nz) makes it easy for travellers by offering a range of fully customisable tours.

Travellers can choose from self-guided, guided and vehiclesupported tours based on itineraries which have been designed to help people discover the area’s unique hidden gems. For instance, the Moutere Winery & Artisans Day Tour takes cyclists to the region’s most scenic wineries to sample their award-winning wines, with stops at New Zealand’s oldest pub, artisans’ studios and other historic locations on the roughly 30km route.

Or try the Mapua Magic Day Tour which drops cyclists off at the top of a hill followed by a downhill cycle along quiet country roads, past fields of sheep and country towns and views of Tasman Bay, with stops for lunch and coffee along the way.

Prices vary by itinerary and duration. You can choose a half-day, single-day or multi-day ride, and can focus on flat seaside routes or mountain trails. The itineraries start at NZ$120 (S$120.70) a person for a self-guided tour, which includes bike rental, a helmet, day bag, meals and/or food and beverage discounts, and a route map.

The bikes can be picked up at Wheelie Fantastic’s base in Mapua, a small town outside Nelson, or they can be delivered to you.

Travellers who are content to explore the region on their own without a pre-organised itinerary can rent mountain bikes, carbon road race bikes or electric bikes on a half-, full- or multi-day basis, starting at NZ$40, and rent children’s bikes, child seats and trailers starting at NZ$25.

Bikes and tours should be booked at least one day in advance.


Check out wearable art and cars


Kaleidoscope, by Australian Tess Tavener Hanks, made of acrylic, nylon and mirrors, at the National WOW Museum & Nelson Classic Car Gallery. ST PHOTO: LYDIA VASKO

In 1987, a New Zealand sculptor named Suzie Moncrieff, who lives and works in the Nelson area, wanted to take art off the wall and put it onto human bodies. So she organised the first World Of Wearable Art show and exhibition where artists created works that needed to be worn to be experienced fully.

The event quickly grew from a handful of Nelson area artists to attracting hundreds of dazzlingly intricate and inventive submissions from artists all over the world. The competition grew so big that it eventually moved from Nelson to Wellington, where finalists compete for more than NZ$165,000 (S$166,000) in prize money and internships with some of the world’s best creative companies.

Visitors to Nelson can see some of the award-winning pieces at the National WOW Museum & Nelson Classic Car Gallery (www.wowcars.nz). The museum, which opened in Oct 2001, is an odd combination of the two collections – one section showcases wearable art and another series of galleries holds more than 100 classic and vintage cars – but it works.

The pieces of wearable art are stunning interpretive garments, costumes and dresses made of every material imaginable, from wood to steel, acrylic panels and even discarded bullets. Once you are done admiring them, head over to the gob-smacking warehouse of cars, housing everything from turn-of-the-century Fords to vintage Ferraris and Chevys and a Redbull F1 race car.

Entry to the museum costs NZ$24 a person and NZ$10 a child from five to 14 years of age. With family concessions available, this exceptional museum is well worth the visit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'Adventure at one’s doorstep'. Print Edition | Subscribe