‘We discovered a world full of surprises’
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be transported through time – whether to post-war Britain and the Sixties in Call the Midwife, or travelling back to Victorian times with The Railway Children. I have enjoyed acting in historical dramas, but I’ve always believed that these worlds no longer existed. Until my husband John Tham and I visited New Zealand.
There is a lovely old-worldliness to the place, which is charming without being old-fashioned. And it would be wrong to say that the country is behind the times. We found ourselves in a world full of surprises where we made new friends, discovered stunning landscapes, ate exceptional food and drank world-class wine.
The realisation that I was somewhere very special first occurred to me at Annandale on Banks Peninsula a week or so into our adventure when I was sitting on the porch of a converted shepherd’s cottage, which was nestled high on a hill, surrounded by 5,000 acres of prime grazing land. I marvelled at views of the Pacific Ocean and the snowy peaks of the Kaikoura Range from the comfort of our beautiful renovated cottage.
Inside, behind timbered boards in the kitchen was a fridge stocked with wine and our gourmet cook-at-home dinner, ordered before we left and organised on trays, with simple instructions. John laid a log fire and we watched the sun set as we treated ourselves to some vintage bubbles – pure bliss. This extraordinarily beautiful countryside was only 20 miles from Christchurch.
Our journey had started at the Bay of Many Coves, a lodge that could only be reached by boat. It is in the Marlborough Sounds, in the north-easterly corner of the country’s South Island and is a maze of channels and waterways created when the sea inundated and flooded an ancient river system. On a recce of the surrounding area, I clambered up a challenging trail to the top of the hills through ferns and bush forest and was rewarded with spectacular views across the bays.
For a few days, we were away from roads; we would walk the many trails or take kayaks and meander along the coast. After this period of complete quiet and relaxation, we were ready to start our exploration by car. New Zealand’s South Island is as dramatic as it is diverse, changing within a few miles from The Lord of the Rings territory to deserted beaches. John was keen to avoid Tolkien associations, but some of the landscapes do make you think of Middle-Earth. We ventured along the most northerly tip of the South Island along the Queen Charlotte Track, stopping all the time to view the zigzag of waterways stretching out endlessly before us. This first road led us to the Abel Tasman National Park, and the Resurgence Eco Lodge. The alpine-style cabin had an open-air bath enclosed by shutters. It was here that I learned about the outdoor bathrooms that are so much a part of Kiwi tradition. I soaked in warm water looking up at the forest while listening to the tui, the little native bird, gurgling its bell song around me. I was in the middle of a conservation area surrounded by wild woodland. At the nearby Abel Tasman Coast Track, I swam in the turquoise waters along the coast and found my way inland along tracks lined with tree-ferns and waterfalls. I could have stayed here for much longer, but we had an itinerary to follow and had to move on.
Back on the road, I sampled some of the delicious local delicacies on the route south to Annandale and Banks Peninsula. I tucked into fresh greenlipped mussels in Havelock and, as John was driving, I didn’t hold back in tasting local vintages from an estate in the Waimea area.
Following our visit to Banks Peninsula, we stayed at a B&B called The Red Barns on the outskirts of Christchurch at Tai Tapu. Owners Sally and Murray welcomed us into their family home, which is a former dairy.
Christchurch is still being rebuilt after the devastation caused by the 2011 earthquake. It is mind-blowing to conceive the power the Earth holds over us – 10,000 homes were destroyed on that one fateful day. Despite the crushing blow of the quake, I found a city of proud and resilient people. At the Botanic Gardens, the huge trees remained firmly rooted. The roses were a riot of colour. The pieces of transitional architecture I spotted as we wandered the streets were touching. The cardboard cathedral and the shopping mall made of shipping containers stood out as monoliths of resilience and hope.
The next day, we were off to Governors Bay and Ohinetahi gardens. These private gardens were created in Jenny Agutter travelled with New Zealand In Depth (01298 74040; newzealand-indepth. co.uk). A similar 12-day itinerary staying at all of the luxury lodges mentioned in this piece will cost from £6,950 per person including accommodation, all breakfasts and dinners, car hire, transfers and helicopter ride. Cost excludes international flights and activities. 1977 by the architect Sir Miles Warren, who has recently submitted plans for rebuilding the cathedral in Christchurch. This very personal space is not large, but the creative use of the fall of the land, the valley in the middle and the old trees makes it seem larger. As you wander through, each area is distinct: there is a formal lawn with a herbaceous border, a rose garden with sculptures, the valley has a hanging bridge across it. The rhododendrons were fabulous.
Lunch was spent at a café known for the chocolate it makes from Samoan cocoa. Overlooking Governors Bay at Rapaki, it specialises in outrageous confections from bars and truffles to cakes and puddings.
Heading from the east to the west coast, we left the car at Christchurch station, where we boarded the TranzAlpine train to Greymouth. For me, the train remains a simple and meditative way to travel with the metronomic sound of the wheels rolling over the tracks and navigating mountain passes while looking at the scenery. From the carriage windows, I took in the Canterbury Plains, before navigating the gorges and mountains that rise into the spine of the South Island.
There was a stop at the halfway point for a couple of nights at the Wilderness Lodge at Arthur’s Pass, located on a working merino sheep station surrounded by native forest and a national park.
When we arrived, I was struck by the setting. The lodge was hardly visible among the trees, and inside it felt like I was perched among the branches looking through foliage to the mountains beyond.
I took a walk around the lodge, where I met the estate’s farmer Neil and his trusty sheepdog, a border collie called Blue. Neil was as craggy as the mountains with a gentle nature and great enthusiasm for the farm. Blue obeyed Neil’s every whistle and call, singling out sheep or herding them together. Later, I fed one of the orphaned lambs abandoned by its mother and needing hand-rearing.
Back on the train, we headed to the north-west coast where the station was reminiscent of those on the Worth Valley railway line used for The Railway Children. We picked up a car at Greymouth and headed down the north coast towards the next destination, stopping on the way at Hokitika, a delightful town renowned for pounamu, the much treasured local jade. John, who is Swedish, was delighted to discover a glass-blower trained by a master glassmaker from Sweden.
On our way to Lake Moeraki, we made a pit stop at Okarito Lagoon. On the way, I saw a road sign warning us to be aware of kiwis – not the fruit, but the rare protected bird native to this part of the world after which New Zealanders are named.
During a memorable stay in Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, we went
Jenny and John on their travels
lodge at the Bay of Many Coves can only be reached by boat