Steep cascading falls, world famous wine, boutique coffee and a lot more, this beloved Pacific Ocean country has a divers and breathtaking journey ready for the taking.
Coromandel: Best for beaches
It is early morning at Cathedral Cove. All is calm. A bright, aquamarine sea laps lazily at an expanse of pale sand that stretches back to a wall of thick fern forest. High cliffs curve out either side of the beach like great sheltering arms and huge limestone outcrops stand guard by the shore. In the distance, more stacks of green-topped karst dot the seascape, poking out of the water like curious porpoises.
The stark beauty of the scene seems timeless, but this cove was formed over eight million years of water and wind gouging at the soft stone (a volcanic mix of pumice and ash called ignimbrite), and it’s a process that continues today. Coromandel local Mike Grogan spends most days viewing this beach from the water as he leads clusters of brightly coloured kayaks to the cove. ‘The coast is always changing in subtle ways,’ Mike says with a crinkle-eyed smile. ‘When a storm is coming, you know it will be exciting and that things might look a bit different when you arrive the next day.’
As the sun rises higher in the sky, the distinctive thwapping sound of flip-flops can be heard, and visitors and locals alike begin to emerge from the ferns to lay out their towels. This idyllic cove is perhaps the best-known of the beaches that stretch along the Coromandel Peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, but there are plenty of others to choose from. ‘We’re just spoilt,’ says Mike. ‘There’s such a variety of beaches, and some are so isolated that you could go there 350 days a year and you’d have them all to yourself.’
Just 10 minutes’ drive down the road is one of the most extraordinary beaches in the world. Groups of people in bright bathing suits clamber over reddish rocks brandishing spades hired from a nearby surf shop for £2.50 an hour. They’ve come to dig on a particular stretch of sandy beach to create their own seaside hot spa.
Here, at the rather unimaginatively titled Hot Water Beach, there is an underground channel of hot water that gushes up to the surface when you dig in the sand. The trick is to pick a spot that’s not too far back along the beach, where the water is very hot, but mid-way, allowing the seawater to flow in and mingle with the hot spring water and create the perfect temperature.
diggers put the finishing touches to their pools, the sky overhead suddenly darkens.
Clouds begin to muster on the horizon and the sea turns from its aquamarine hue
to a dark jade. A few cries of dismay go up as people realise that it’s time to
head indoors. A storm is coming – maybe a big one – and the evolution of this
Visit Coromandel. Cathedral Cove Sea Kayaking operates daily tours; half-day tours from £50.
Where to eat
A five-minute walk from Hot Water Beach is the stylish Hot Waves Café, with local art on the walls and a selection of light, organic meals such as homemade asparagus quiche and salad, and snacks like raspberry and white chocolate muffins (mains from £6.50; 8 Pye Place; 00 64 7 866 3887).
Where to stay
Located in the town of Hahei between Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, The Church cottages, separated by bushy greenery, were built with reclaimed timber and modelled on a 1916 Methodist church (now The Church Restaurant) – their wooden floors and arched windows with leadlight accents have a decidedly devotional feel. Cottages range from self-catering to single hotel-style rooms, and there is even a three-bedroom house (studios from £60).
King Country: Best for Maori bush food
Soft hills stretch to the horizon, their sheep-nibbled grass surfaces oddly rumpled as if draped in creased linen. Handsome farmsteads stand among pastures dotted with white, woolly forms, and the only sound is the shushing of a stream curving sweetly across the landscape.
It is a scene of pastoral perfection worthy of Wordsworth – or Peter Jackson – yet this was once one of the wildest parts of New Zealand. In the 1800s, the British struggled to tame this land and the rebels who hid in its thickets – after 30 years of Land Wars between settlers and native people, it’s here that the Maori warriors made their last stand.
Not all of this forest has been conquered, however. Close to Taumarunui, a small town in the south of the region, chef and Maori food expert Charles Royal guides a battered 4x4 along a dirt track. All around as far as the eye can see is a blanket of dense virgin forest. ‘This bush reminds people of the old days,’ he says. ‘It all used to be like this.’
Charles brings guests here to teach the secrets of foraging for Maori bush food. He stops the car and rummages in the undergrowth, emerging with an armful of plants. There’s horopito – a green leaf with scarlet edges and a peppery taste – and the heart-shaped leaves of the kawakawa plant, used for herbal tea. There’s the spiral-tipped fern known as bush asparagus, small bush tomatoes and puffball mushrooms.
From a fallen tree trunk, a Maori delicacy is extracted – a huhu grub. Charles pops it in his mouth and chews off its head. It has, he assures the group with a smack of his lips, a delicious taste like peanut butter.
These secrets were not easy to come by: Charles spent years talking to guarded Maori elders. ‘I would have cups of tea with them until they got used to me,’ he says, ‘then I’d ask subtle questions. They had to be sure I wouldn’t exploit the knowledge.’
His fingers travel to the huge carved tiki pendant he wears around his neck. ‘We get a lot of Maori people who hear about this and want to learn the old ways.’ He looks out over the formidable forest that kept the British at bay all those years ago. ‘Look at it,’ he says with a grin. ‘It’s like a pantry.’
Visit King Country and Ruapehu. Two-day Maori food tours with Charles Royal are priced £435 (two people minimum).
Where to eat and stay
Situated by Tongariro National Park, The Park Travellers’ Lodge has simple rooms, helpful staff and the Spiral Kitchen, where you’ll find delicious modern dishes and a remarkable view out to Mount Ruapehu – recognisable as Mount Doom from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (doubles from £65).
Wellington: Best for coffee
You can smell it before you see it: the unmistakable scent of roasting coffee beans travels on the breeze down the hill toward Wellington’s city centre. The source is revealed to be a pastel-coloured warehouse with a broad roller door open to the street. Inside, a pair of muscled arms adorned with stylised Maori tattoos is heaving sackfuls of fresh beans into a vintage-looking roaster that’s hissing and growling like an old steam engine.
This is Havana, one of Wellington’s original coffee institutions, and this scene is far from unique in a city that’s becoming as famous for its coffee as for its gale-force, umbrella-shredding winds. There are now more than a dozen coffee-roasting houses in the surrounding streets.
In this town, coffee making is an art form. The speciality is a full-bodied, fresh-roasted coffee with a bold, almost fruity taste – a far cry from the traditional dry-roasted European varieties, which are often stale before they reach the cup.
Nearby Cuba Street is crowded with a host of independent cafés, from the edgy, artsy Midnight Espresso to the classy Floriditas. Each has a sign out front advertising the beans they use, like colours nailed to a mast. Here in Wellington, coffee allegiance is almost tribal: people are fiercely loyal and will drive across town to pick up a favourite blend. And as in any tribal culture, there are creation myths – the word on the street is that the founder of boutique roastery Peoples Coffee sings love songs to his beans.
Sanjay Ponappa’s espresso company, Fuel, started life as a small coffee cart and has now expanded into a successful network of cafés. A young guy in designer glasses, he takes a seat on the green vintage couch in his tiny Holland Street café, exuding an energy fuelled by enthusiasm and caffeine. ‘I travel a lot for work,’ he says, ‘and this city has the strongest coffee culture I’ve seen. If you give someone from Wellington a coffee that’s not perfect, they’ll send it back because they’re very discerning and they have highly developed palates. If you want to make coffee here, you’d better know your stuff.’
It’s a perfect Wellington day and, for once, the wind is little more than a breeze. On the harbourfront, a knock-kneed novice rollerblader, dragging himself hand-overhand along the rail, is being splashed with tiny droplets by a parade of children who rush by for another leap into the icy blue waters. Here, too, is the inescapable scent of coffee. This time, it’s coming from Shed 13 – the headquarters of Mojo Coffee, perhaps the best-known roaster in town.
Lambros Gianoutsos, one of the first coffee shop owners in the area to have an espresso machine, helped convert Wellington from a city of tea drinkers back in the 1970s, and now oversees Mojo’s roasting. ‘I have travelled all over the world,’ he says in a soft, Greek-accented voice, ‘through Europe and all the good places, and the coffee they serve in Wellington is the best. No competition.’
He nods with finality, then turns back to his vat of coffee beans as it begins to churn and rumble with a new roasting cycle.
Where to eat
If you fancy something further afield than the excellent Hippopotamus Restaurant and Bar at the Museum Art Hotel, head to the intimate Duke Carvell’s for delectable tapas-style dishes, including a spectacular flaming Greek cheese, and imaginative cocktails such as The Fairest of Them All – a Cointreau-based concoction with a chilli and black pepper kick (tapas from £7).
Where to stay
With prime position opposite the striking Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum Hotel is a delight, with organza-draped walls crowded with works from local artists. A cool and luxurious aesthetic runs from the designer-clad front-desk staff to its stylish rooms, which come complete with a chaise longue and bath big enough for two – or maybe three (doubles from £90).
Marlborough: Best for vineyards
‘Hey, don’t get too close – all that carbon dioxide could knock you out cold!’ Two visitors are leaning over a vat of crushed grapes, their faces inches from the layer of noxious gas that’s emanating from the fermenting fruit. They swiftly retreat.
The voice belongs to Brett Bermingham, a winemaker at Nautilus Estate winery, and he says it with an infectious grin – the folks around here have a particular spring in their step at the moment because a Nautilus sparkling wine has just won a coveted award at the Royal Easter Show.
The Marlborough wine region is famous partly for its precociously good wines – in particular, world-class pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs – but also for its sheer beauty. At every turn, straight rows of vines heavy with tiny, plump fruits roll out like bolts of green corduroy. In the distance, rocky mountains take on an orange hue in the sunshine, and overhead New Zealand falcons trace spirals in the still air, more effective than any scarecrow at keeping grape-hungry birds at bay. The felicitous mix of protective mountains, cool sea breezes and dry, sunny weather means Marlborough is one of the world’s best natural spots for growing grapes.
Josh Scott is sitting under a pretty vine-wound trellis in his family’s winery, the Allan Scott Estate. He grew up in a vineyard, so the bug bit him early – he was expelled from school at 14 for making bootleg wine to sell to his schoolmates. ‘We used to strain it through mum’s pantyhose,’ Josh says with an appropriately impish grin.
Grapes have only been grown in the region in a serious way since the 1970s and 80s, and Josh’s father, Allan, was one of the first to do it. ‘This area used to be full of sheep farms, and orchards growing apples and kiwi fruits,’ says Josh. ‘No one really knew what they were doing with grapes.’
The lack of established customs has allowed Marlborough vineyards to be unusually innovative. They were among the first to use screw-caps on the bottles instead of corks – considered a blasphemy elsewhere – and one, the Yealands Estate, is aiming to be the most sustainable in the world. (Their vineyard is totally eco-neutral, their wine comes in biodegradable plastic bottles, and instead of using lawnmowers to tame the grass between the vine rows, they use baby doll sheep, bred to be just knee high so they can’t nibble on the vines.)
‘It’s easy to get passionate about making wine,’ Josh says, as he rises to get back to work, ‘because it’s like an artform. Every batch we make is subtly different – like creating a new painting every year.’
For further information
Visit Allan Scott Family Winemakers, Nautilus Estate and Yealands Estate for cellar room tastings. Find out more on the Marlborough region.
Where to eat
Herzog is one of New Zealand's most lauded restaurants, featuring fine-dining dishes such as lamb carpaccio with sweetbreads and a bible-thick menu listing wines from Herzog’s boutique organic estate (mains from £27).
Where to stay
In the heart of wine country, Marlborough Vintners Hotel consists of 20 self-contained suites bordered by vines. The décor is simple and contemporary, with a deck for taking in incredible views (from £150).
Milford Sound: Best for fjords
When it is raining, Milford Sound roars. Water pours from the sky onto rounded green peaks and cascades down in a thousand haphazard waterfalls, making a noise like thunder. Winds whip up the broad surface of the Sound and even drive some waterfalls back up the sheer rock faces – they flow unnaturally towards the clouds.
Milford Sound is a spectacular waterway that stretches nine miles inland from the Tasman Sea, flanked by rainforest-clad mountainsides that reach 1,200 metres into the air. It was carved over thousands of years by an ancient glacier, which makes it, in fact, not a sound but a fjord – it was mistakenly named by Welsh explorers who were wistfully reminded of the sounds at home, which were simply large ocean inlets.
Local Maoris believed the fjord was a creation of the demi-god Tu-te-rakiwhanoa, and named it Piopiotahi, meaning ‘Place of the singing pipio bird’. Both place names are sadly now incorrect, as the last pipio bird stopped singing in 1906.
Undaunted by the colossal downpour, a large blue vessel, the Milford Mariner, cuts through the choppy waters until, after a while, the rain falters and stops. Passengers emerge onto the decks, leaning over the rail in the hope of spotting a telltale dorsal fin. Three species of dolphin reside in the Sound, but they are hiding today.
Instead, it’s the turn of the New Zealand fur seals. A small girl in a pink poncho emits an excited squawk as one appears on the starboard side, spiralling lazily just under the surface of the water, his slick flanks reflecting the tentative sunshine above. As if on cue, several more turn up, and they spend the next hour playing and diving like lightning to hunt for fish. At night, they often climb up onto the aft deck for a nap.
This waterway is just one of Tu-te-rakiwhanoa’s many creations in the area – a dozen vast sounds along this coast reach inland like outstretched forefingers. Milford is the most accessible, with a paved road and visitor centre, but Fjordlands National Park comprises three million acres of fjords and virgin rainforest, much of which has seldom been witnessed by man.
One of the few who have explored its full extent is local helicopter pilot, Kim Hollows. ‘Milford Sound is beautiful,’ he says, running a hand over his shaved head. ‘And there are more places just as beautiful, but you can only see them from the air because there are no roads, no tracks, no huts, no people. The fjordlands are wild, and the landscapes are so visually dramatic.’ He smiles. ‘It’s a unique corner of the world. We are very lucky.’
For further information
Milford Mariner overnight cruises start at £175 per person, twin or double share.
Where to eat
The town of Te Anau is 1.5 hours’ drive from Milford Sound, and The Sandfly Café is in the centre, serving homemade classics, from foccacias to soups and salads (mains from £5; 9 The Lane; 00 64 3 249 9529).
Where to stay
With striking views of Lake Te Anau and the mountains beyond, Te Anau Lodge was formerly an old convent. Cosy and modern rooms retain some of the charm from the days when holy sisters walked its halls (from £120).
The article 'The perfect trip: New Zealand' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.