Visiting New Zealand

Saturday, February 10th , 2018

new-zealand 5472 Glenorchy view 2-crop-v2.JPG  

New Zealand is slightly larger than the UK in terms of land area, yet its population of 4.7 million is smaller than Scotland. The largest city by a wide margin is Auckland, with a population of 1.4 million. This is in the North Island, which also has the capital Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island. The most spectacular scenery, made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films and TV series like “Top of the Lake”, is mostly in the South Island, which you access by a three and a half hour ferry ride from Wellington to a little place called Picton. Near the southern tip of the south island is the city of Queenstown, from which you can reach the spectacular scenery of the little town of Glenorchy and, with a lengthier drive, the fjord area of Milford Sound, with beautiful waterfalls, peaks and wildlife including dolphins. The north island has the geothermal area of Rotorua and Taupo, as well as the Art Deco architecture of Napier, amongst other attractions. The countryside in the north island is reminiscent of England, with rolling farmland. The South Island feels more like Scotland or Norway, with its mountains and fjords, but with a milder climate and more exotic flora and fauna - you don't see too many palm trees or flightless birds in Scotland.

The South island is bisected by the Southern Alps, with the western coast boasting a series of nature reserves featuring sights such as the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers, and assorted beautiful beaches and seal colonies, such as that at Tauranga Bay. The west coast highway can be quite slow going and petrol statins are at a premium, but it has some spectacular scenery, with gorgeous forests, hills, lakes and beaches along the way.

This trip was primarily sightseeing rather than culinary in nature. If planning a trip then bear in mind that January seems to be a bit like August in Paris, with most high end restaurants shutting down for weeks at a time. The first five restaurants I tried to book in Auckland (French Café, The Grove, Sidart, Kazuya, Meredith’s) were all closed, as was the supposedly best Indian restaurant (Cassia) and the first two Malaysian restaurants I looked into. After that I gave up on finding anywhere cooking anything ambitious. I did find an excellent pizza place called Dante’s Pizzeria, whose Neapolitan style pizzas were genuinely good and would be up there with the very best in London.

Lake Taupo had a surprisingly good Indian (strictly speaking, Nepalese) restaurant called Malabar Beyond India. Dishes were nicely presented and had lively spicing, and the restaurant would prosper in a much more competitive spot than here. Napier is a beautiful city on the east coast of the north island. It was flattened by a huge earthquake in 1931 and was rebuilt from scratch in the following couple of years. This meant that the entire city at the time was built in Art Deco style, and fortunately many of the original buildings have been carefully preserved. It is a much more complete expression of Art Deco than Miami Beach, for example, which has just a limited set of buildings on the beach front. The Napier beachfront is lovely, with well-maintained gardens. We tried a pretty ropey Indian restaurant called Indigo, which curiously had a remarkably good wine list, but only a passing acquaintance with how to cook Indian food. There was also a prettily located and very good winery restaurant in the Elephant Hill wine estate, located on the cliffs of the exotically named Kidnappers Cove. Napier has a lovely climate, with low rainfall and plenty of sunshine, and the gorgeous architecture make it a very appealing place to visit.

Wellington is the capital of the country, in the south of the North island. There we had a good meal at Whitebait, and also a pleasant evening at its casual sister Charley Noble. The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton in the South Island needs to be booked well in advance. Incidentally, although the ferry can transfer vehicles, car hire companies will not let you take cars from the north to the South Island, so you have to give back your car at the Wellington ferry and pick up a different car when you land. 

Once in the South Island, you can either head down the east coast to Christchurch, which is still recovering from the traumatic 2011 earthquake, or drive down the west coast to Queenstown. From either location you can then fly off to your next destination. We followed the west coast, starting from Picton, where the ferry lands, and moved on to Nelson, which has numerous wineries nearby, and a pleasant seafood restaurant called the Cod and Lobster. We drove south to Westport, which is nothing much to look at in itself but has some gorgeous views over the sea near Tauranga Bay, and a prettily located restaurant called The Bay House, which boasts stunning views. We continued south to Franz Josef, which has a couple of glaciers nearby that you can visit by helicopter if you are lucky with the weather. Bear in mind that around half of the scheduled helicopter trips are cancelled due to the weather, so if this is something you are keen on doing then allow enough time in Franz Josef to give yourself decent odds of overcoming the vagaries of the weather. From there we drove south to Queenstown.

Not far from the city (a 45 minute drive) is the beautiful setting of Glenorchy (pictured), a little town featured in the TV series “Top of the Lake” and with scenery that appears in several scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” films. From Queenstown you can reach the rather remote but very beautiful fjord area called Milford Sound. This is not that far as the crow flies (less than sixty miles), but by road involves a quite lengthy and scenic but somewhat challenging drive of about four hours. There is just a single hotel lodge with an adjoining camp site; it is quite isolated, with internet only accessible via satellite at an entertaining price, and in addition the area is notorious for its clouds of biting sand flies. You can alternatively stay a couple of hours away at a little place called Te Anau, when there are a few more accommodation options. If you don't fancy driving then you can access Milford Sound by air if you are lucky with the weather, as there are flights by plane and helicopter to Milford Sound from Queenstown airport that connect to cruises of the lake there. The major issue is that the weather at Milford Sound is notoriously unpredictable and exceptionally rainy and misty. It rains here 182 days a year on average, with annual rainfall of 6,412mm per year, compared with 1,152mm for Cardiff, the UK’s rainiest city. Even if it is a perfectly clear day in Queenstown the flights may not be able to take off or land due to bad weather at the landing strip at Milford Sound, and indeed a lot of these flights never make it off the ground. The official line is that “at least a third” of scheduled flights are cancelled according to the tour company I spoke to, but the reality seems far worse than this. At the hotel where we stayed I was told that one set of unlucky guests recently stayed for eight days in Queenstown, tried to fly to Milford Sound every day and never got there. Just as at Franz Josef, you need to either be lucky or allow enough days in Queenstown to give yourself decent odds of getting a day clear enough to fly in. Otherwise you need to make the journey by road if you want to see the place. I actually suspect that Milford Sound may be a mythical place made up by the Queenstown tourist board to encourage tourists to stay there in the forlorn hope of flying to it: “Ah yes, it is so beautiful. Maybe stay a few more days in Queenstown and the weather may clear up” followed by an evil cackle as they rack up yet more nights of hotel fees. 

Queenstown itself is a quite small city (population 28,000) in a very pretty location, on a lake overlooking some impressive mountains. In the city you can take a cable car to the heights above the city to see the spectacular view below. The city itself has limited attractions other than being a centre for adventure hikes and being near a twee gold prospecting era village called Arrowtown, but it is the ideal base to explore Glenorchy and the elusive Milford Sound. Dining wise we tried supposedly one of the best restaurants there called Botswana Butchery, which was pretty disappointing. After that I gave up on the posh places but did find a very pleasant curry place called The Bombay Palace, and another called Taj Indian Kitchen, which was a touch inconsistent but did a good biryani. I also had some decent izakaya style food at Daruma, which managed a surprisingly good prawn tempura. Another pleasant enough place was an izakaya called Tanoshi, which serves okonomiyaki, the savoury pancake that is served in Hiroshima and Osaka.

From Queenstown we flew on to Sydney, where the dining scene is rather richer. I will cover that next week.

In other news, the France 2018 Michelin Guide was announced. Three stars to Marc Veyrat at Maison des Bois near Mont Blanc, and to Christophe Bacquie of the Castellet Hotel near Marseilles. Bras was duly delisted at their own request, meaning France has 28 three stars. It now also has 85 two star restaurants and 508 one stars.