NOW I KNOW WHY EVERYONE LOVES AWESOME NEW ZEALAND
The very thought of zip-wiring, bungee jumping or throw-ing oneself out of planes would turn some of us into cowardly prunes. But this is New Zealand, where adventure in the great outdoors, however contrived, has become one of the defining themes of a boom in visitor numbers that seems to be taking even Kiwis by surprise.
But how they are loving it. It’s as if the whole country has come into a windfall that shows no sign of abating.
In 2013, New Zealand welcomed 190,000 visitors from the UK, while in 2016 that figure soared to 221,000.
Queenstown is a case in point. Once a sleepy spot beside the extraordinarily beautiful Lake Wakatipu (48 miles long and three miles across at its widest point), it’s now the country’s adventure capital with a New World can-do spirit that at first can be disarming, but it soon grabs you and makes you ponder: ‘Why can’t we be as nice as these people?’
Or as proud of their country. And why is there no litter in the street (recycling bins every 100 yards or so in many areas must help)? And why does one feel nothing other than 100 per cent safe?
During my eight-day visit, I never once encounter any unpleasantness, any rudeness of any kind, and for all its fresh air and adrenaline-fuelled action, this must be why it is constantly named one of the most desirable countries in the world to visit. People even hitch-hike in New Zealand, for heaven’s sake.
It helps that no one’s here. You’re at the far reaches of the globe and, more important, you feel you’re at the far reaches. New Zealand is not much bigger than Britain, but with 60 million fewer people.
The question is: how to do it? Auckland, obviously, has to be on the list because it’s New Zealand’s only proper city, with a population of more than a million and one that seems to blend Maori and Kiwi culture to good effect.
But stay in Auckland at the end of your trip, rather than at the beginning. It might seem crazy to take an internal flight after the long, long one from the UK, but that’s what we do, arriving in Queenstown just in time to take the Skyline gondola up to the 450m-high viewing station, past bungee jumpers, mountain bikers and hearty trekkers. Queenstown feels like a ski resort without snow, a student town where every night is party night, but without the beer brawls and ritual vomiting.
SMALLer and more sedate is Wanaka, about an hour’s drive north. On the way, stop for a pint — as Prince harry did (or was it two?) — at the old Cardrona hotel, which, with its Fifties petrol pump and quaint, creaking bar is a joy to behold.
If you’ve ever wondered what parts of Britain felt like circa 1954, then this will do the trick.
Set on its own glorious lake, Wanaka offers a dazzling array of activities. We try ‘ jet boating’, something New Zealand claims to have invented. Mind you, we also learn that New Zealand invented ‘ flat white’ coffee and bungee jumping, both hotly disputed, not least by Australia.
Jet boating involves going at great speed along water that at times is only ankle deep. From time to time, our driver does a 360-degree turn, where we get wet, but not drenched
before roaring onwards down the World heritage Site Matukituki Valley, where lord Of The rings was filmed.
ahead are the glacier fields of Mount aspiring defiant against the scorching midday sun.
Wanaka to Mount cook, New Zealand’s highest peak (3,754 m), is a further two-hour drive — and a thrilling one, especially when Tasman lake comes into view, its water so invitingly blue that you’ll want to dive in. Don’t. It’s almost always close to freezing, fed by the surrounding glaciers.
The hermitage hotel is the place to stay — largely because it’s the only place if you want a hotel with all the trimmings.
Our room looks across to the summit of Mount cook, which in 1948 was a training mountain for edmund hillary and his team before they conquered everest. Its scale is bewitching.
at one point, our guide asks us to guess the distance between the mountains on one side of the valley to the other. ‘a mile?’ I proffer. ‘ Two- and- a- half miles,’ he says.
We get up close and personal with icebergs on a boat trip on lake Pukaki and pause close to the glacier wall, which sadly is receding by 80m a year.
One night we sign up for stargazing. We’re taken to an airfield where four telescopes are set up in a row. The master astronomer explains what’s going on above us in such a way that he eclipses dear Brian cox in all those gushing telly programmes.
The skies here are some of the darkest on the planet. That comes as no surprise. In fact, so many of the superlatives associated with New Zealand come as no surprise.
I’m not sure that I could live permanently in a country where a story about increased parking fees at a Wellington hospital is the lead item on breakfast television.
But for a refreshing, lifeaffirming holiday where you’re welcomed with warmth and good humour, nothing quite beats it. TRAVEL FACTS QATAR Airways ( qatarairways.
com, 0330 024 0125) flies daily to Auckland via Doha from £879 return. One-bedroom suites at Lakeside Apartments in Wanaka ( lakesidewanaka.co.nz) from £138 and doubles at The Hermitage Hotel ( hermitage.
co.nz) from £101 per night. Lake Wanaka by jetboat costs £126 pp for a half-day at ecowanaka.
co.nz. Visit newzealand.com.