Wednesday, September 30, 2009

WHY SHOULD YOU GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD?



WHY SHOULD I GO TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD?
In one word: adventure. The wild and wonderful South Island of New Zealand offers everything from remote trekking to whale-watching. Within an area the same size as England and Wales, you can float over tranquil meadows in a hot-air balloon, get up close to a glacier, enjoy the fruits of the southernmost wine-making region in the world, and even get a glimpse into Antarctica.



WHERE SHOULD I START?
Christchurch, capital of the South Island - and a city that will probably feel comfortably familiar, with Gothic-style architecture, punting on the river and plenty of green spaces including the vast Hagley Park. The centre of Christchurch is compact and easy to explore on foot; there is also a tram service which starts in Cathedral Square and makes a loop across the Avon river and past the park. Tickets, valid for 48 hours, cost NZ$12.50


A couple of free museums are well worth visiting. The Canterbury Museum on Rolleston Avenue (00 64 3 366 5000; http://www.cantmus.govt.nz/) has a Maori gallery; it opens 9am-5.30pm daily. And at the striking new modern art museum, Te Puna O Waiwhetu on Worcester Boulevard (00 64 3 941 7300; http://www.christchurchartgallery.org.nz/), current displays include an exhibition of the Canterbury Arts and Crafts Movement, until 27 February. Open daily 10am-5pm, until 9pm on Wednesday.


The Arts Centre (00 64 3 366 0989; http://www.artscentre.org.nz/), which runs along Worcester Boulevard, was converted from the buildings of the old Canterbury College. It contains artists' workshops, caf├ęs, and Rutherford's Den, the rooms where the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who split the atom began his distinguished career. The Den opens 10am-5pm daily. Admission is free.


Christchurch's airport is one of the leading aviation hubs for researchers in Antarctica - and a short walk from the airport, at 38 Orchard Road (00 64 3 353 7798; http://www.iceberg.co.nz/), you find the Antarctic Centre. This is a working Antarctic research centre, but there are also -interactive exhibits, rides, and the chance for visitors to experience Antarctic conditions. The centre opens 9am-8pm daily, admission NZ$20




HOW SHOULD I TRAVEL FURTHER AFIELD?
You could just step into Christchurch airport, which is the centre of the South Island's air network. Air New Zealand has a busy domestic network serving Nelson, Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown. All the South Island's airports are small, so check-in times are short and the whole process is very relaxed. If you book well in advance online at http://www.airnz.co.nz/, you can travel very inexpensively. For example, a Christchurch-Queenstown return can cost as little as NZ$168




New Zealand's railways are in decline, but two scenic journeys have survived and are well worth including in your itinerary. The TranzCoastal runs down the coast and through the lush Canterbury countryside from Picton to Christchurch, stopping at Blenheim and Kaikoura on the way. The TranzAlpine chugs across the mountains from Christchurch to Greymouth, a useful jumping-off point for a visit to the Fox or Franz Josef glaciers. Both trains have an open-sided observation carriage, and the guard points out interesting landmarks on the way. If you book in advance on 00 64 4 495 0775 or through http://www.tranzscenic.co.nz/, you can buy a supersaver ticket from Christchurch to Greymouth for NZ$50




The South Island has a range of long-distance bus services, such as Atomic Shuttles (00 64 3 322 8883; http://www.atomictravel.co.nz/), whose drivers may even be prepared to make a detour to drop you at your accommodation. The journey from Christchurch to Queenstown, for example, costs NZ$45, Blenheim to Nelson is NZ$20




SHOULD I TAKE THE WHEEL?
You could - and many visitors are thrilled by the lack of traffic and the scenic roads. But bear in mind that New Zealand has a very poor accident rate. An alternative to renting a regular car is to hire a camper van, from a company such as Pacific Horizon (00 64 4 233 8881; http://www.motorhomes.co.nz/), and take your accommodation with you. Daily rates start at NZ$79




I WAS HOPING TO STAY SOMEWHERE MORE LUXURIOUS
The South Island has an increasing number of good hotels. Choose a smaller, boutique hotel if you want luxury, such as the George on Park Terrace in Christchurch (00 64 3 379 4560; http://www.thegeorge.com/) where rooms start at NZ$260 (£97), with an extra $19.50 for breakfast; or Eichardt's Private Hotel on the waterfront at Marine Parade in Queenstown (00 64 3 441 0450; http://www.eichardtshotel.co.nz/). Rooms start at NZ$1,375, such as the lovely Lemon Tree Lodge at 31 Adelphi Terrace in Kaikoura (00 64 3 319 7464; http://www.lemontree.co.nz/), a private house with four en suite rooms and a hot tub overlooking the ocean. Prices start at NZ$125 for a double room including breakfast.


In the main tourist areas there are also serviced apartments that can be rented on a weekly or daily basis. Look out for the Vintners Retreat at 55 Rapaura Road in Renwick, near Blenheim (00 64 3 572 7420; http://www.thevintnersretreat.co.nz/), or the Glebe at 2 Beetham Street in the centre of Queenstown (00 64 3 441 0310; www.theglebe.co.nz), where a one-bedroom unit will cost NZ$240 a night.


Elsewhere there are plenty of motels, as well as backpackers' accommodation, including BBH Backpacker (http://www.bbh.co.nz/) which has hostels all over the South Island. Shared accommodation starts at around NZ$20 per person.




THE ANIMAL LIFE: ALL SHEEP?
The sheep population of New Zealand outnumbers the humans by about 18:1, but there are plenty of other animals and birds to see. One of the most breathtaking of New Zealand's wildlife experiences is to go whale-watching in Kaikoura, the only place in the world where whales can be seen all year round. Boat excursions are run by Whale Watch (00 64 3 319 6767;

http://www.whalewatch.co.nz/), based at the Whaleway Station - yes, the trains come in here, too. The trips are weather-dependent, so can be cancelled at short notice; in general, conditions tend to be better in the early morning. It is worth making several bookings in advance; no charge is made until you actually check in. Sightings can't be guaranteed, although you are unlikely to return without at least seeing some New Zealand fur seals basking on the rocks, pods of dolphins jumping around the boat, and albatross soaring overhead.



There is also an albatross colony - the only mainland breeding colony in the world - at Taiaroa Head (00 64 3 478 0499; http://www.albatross.org.nz/) on the Otago peninsula in Dunedin. The Albatross Centre is open daily from 8.30am; hour-long tours take place daily except Tuesday morning, and cost NZ$25. Nearby is the Yellow Eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve (00 64 3 478 0286; www.penguin-place.co.nz), open daily from 10am until sunset, where the birds can be viewed at close quarters from observation huts.




MUST I GO BUNGEE JUMPING?
That is certainly one of the reasons why so many people go to Queenstown. The sport was started here by A J Hackett in 1986, and it is still possible to jump from the original bridge over the Kawarau river; more than a million-and-a-half people have made the jump so far, paying NZ$180 (£68) for the privilege. But there are more than enough other activities in Queenstown if you don't like the idea of bouncing upside down on a bit of rope, the best known of which is jet-boating. This involves a 45-minute ride in an open boat which can travel at terrifying speeds - sometimes over extremely shallow water - performing 360-degree turns as it goes. Prepare to freeze, even in summer, get soaked, even though you will be given a waterproof cape, and scream with enjoyment throughout. The Kawarau Jet departs from Marine Parade, and trips cost NZ$85.
Alternatively, go to the top of the Skyline Gondola (00 64 3 441 0101; http://www.skyline.co.nz/) for NZ$6 (£2.25) per adult and hurtle down the luge track, or go whitewater rafting (00 64 3 442 7318; www.raft.co.nz). And in winter, nearby Coronet Peak and the Remarkables are New Zealand's main ski fields.




SOMETHING GENTLER?
Admire Christchurch and the Canterbury plains from above in a hot-air balloon. Trips are organised by Up, Up and Away (00 64 3 381 4600; http://www.ballooning.co.nz/), and cost NZ$220 (£83). If you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, Hanmer Springs is a mountain village, an hour-and-a-half's drive north of Christchurch, with natural thermal pools. The thermal reserve is on Amuri Avenue (00 64 3 315 7511; http://www.hotfun.co.nz/), and is open daily 10am-9pm. Entrance costs NZ$10. Or you could head north to Nelson, a small, attractive coastal town noted for its high concentration of art galleries and studios.
Nelson is a popular destination in its own right, just along the coast from Abel Tasman National Park - the smallest and most popular of New Zealand's national parks. There are daily excursions from Wakefield Quay in Nelson (00 64 3 548 8066; http://www.exhilarator.co.nz/), but for longer visits it is only accessible by foot, if you are a serious hiker, or by aqua taxi (00 64 3 527 8083; http://www.aquataxis.%20co.nz/) from Marahau. Accommodation in the national park ranges from Department of Conservation huts (http://www.doc.govt.nz/), which start at NZ$5 a night and are spaced three hours' walk apart, to luxurious lodges such as Awaroa (00 64 3 528 8758; http://www.awaroalodge.co.nz/). Rooms are well-appointed, have views over the bush and wetland areas, and prices start at NZ$230 for two people. This is a good spot for sea-kayaking, which is a good means of reaching otherwise remote beaches. The Sea Kayak Company (00 64 3 528 7251; http://www.seakayaknz.co.nz/) can provide equipment and organise trips, with prices starting at NZ$65 for a half day.



WHICH OTHER NATIONAL PARKS SHOULD I VISIT?
The beautiful Fiordland, which covers the south-west corner of the island, and consists largely of lakes and fjords. The lakeside towns of Manapouri and Te Anau are good bases, and the best way to explore, since there are few roads, is to take a boat trip through Milford or Doubtful Sounds, narrow fjords that open into the Tasman Sea.
The newest of New Zealand's national parks is Stewart Island, off the southern tip of the South Island and a 20-minute flight from Invercargill. This is an excellent area for walking with plenty of short trails, as well as the tough 75-mile Northwest Circuit along the north coast of the island.




MAORIS AND MIDDLE-EARTH
Most of New Zealand's Maoris are in the North Island, but some traces of Maori culture can be found in the South Island. An insight into Maori life is provided by the half-day tour run by Maurice Manawatu in Kaikoura (10 Churchill Street; 00 64 3 319 5567; http://www.maoritours.co.nz/). It includes a visit to the sites of local pas, or fortified villages, a bush walk, and a stop at Maurice's home to share a drink and food - an important Maori tradition. Tours cost NZ$75.
At Kotane Wildlife Centre in Christchurch (60 Hussey Road; 00 64 3 359 6226; http://www.willowbank.co.nz/), and at the top of the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown (00 64 3 441 0101), you can see performances that include a traditional Maori welcome, the haka; the price is NZ16.
The scenery that formed the backdrop to the movie versions of J R R Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy has become an attraction in its own right, but you need not have seen the films to appreciate the beauty of the landscapes. The movies were shot all over New Zealand, but many locations were in the South Island, particularly in the mountains around Queenstown.


"When David Gatward-Ferguson, owner of Nomad Safaris, first gazed across Skippers Canyon all those years ago, he instantly felt he was looking at 'The Road to Mordor'," says a local tour company (00 64 3 442 6699; http://www.nomadsafaris.co.nz/), which started running trips to the area before the location scouts arrived. The company will take you to see the Pillars of the Kings in the Kawarau river; the Ford of Bruinen, an amalgam of the Arrow river and Skippers Canyon; the Remarkables and Deer Park Heights which were the location of several scenes in the three films.


The scenery around Glenorchy also provided several cinematic backdrops, and Mount Potts, a vast sheep station west of Christchurch, was turned into Edoras.