A 20-minute plane journey takes me 16,000 feet above Abel Tasman National Park.
I’m sitting with six people – three other skydivers, two camera crew and the pilot. I’m wearing one harness and my skydiving partner Kevin has two parachutes. I checked.
I’ve had two tantrums and have screwed up five tissues now stuffed limply up my sleeve. I’ve told my family 18,715 kilometres away via GoPro that I love them.
At 16,020 feet I put two feet out of the plane door. I’m counting the rivets on the wing: one, two, four, six…
It takes around six minutes to fly back down to Earth. That’s 90 seconds of freefall at 200 kilometres per hour, 360 degree views, two mountain ranges and an endless cloak of blue, blue sea… check out the video below.
It then takes two large glasses – 250 millilitres – of Marlborough’s finest sauvignon blanc at nearby local the Sprig & Fern to rewind the last 90 minutes, and a leisurely three-hour tramp along Abel Tasman’s gorgeous coastal track the next day to forget the experience of seeing the Earth meet the sky upside down.
But this is New Zealand. To work off the calories from its farm-to-fork dinners and sinfully good wine, you’ll need to sharpen your senses (and your waistline) with a burst of adrenaline first. Here’s a slightly risky, quite a lot rewardy, guide to seeing the best of New Zealand.
Burn: Jumping off the Auckland Sky Tower
Some won’t count standing on a 32 centimetre-thick pane of glass, 220 metres up Auckland’s Sky Tower, as much of an act of daredevilry. Whatever – it’s terrifying, despite a reassuring plaque stating the glass is ‘as thick’ as the concrete floor I’m edging around. Towering views over Waiheke Island (more on that later), the Edwardian Britomart Transport Centre down by the waterfront and Auckland’s urban sprawl are a momentary distraction.
Glass floor too tepid? The SkyJump is a bungee jump that whisks you 192 metres down, or on a non-windy day try the SkyWalk, which involves edging around the top of the tower, strapped to the thing.
Risk rating: 3/5 (or 4/5 if you jump off it)
Earn: Wine tasting on Waiheke Island
From Auckland, Waiheke Island is a 40-minute ferry journey into the Hauraki Gulf, and punches well above its weight in terms of wineries – its 20-plus vineyards, growing mainly pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grapes, make up one per cent of New Zealand’s annual wine output. Not bad for 92 square kilometres.
Days here involve little more than barrelling down the groomed hills on two wheels, taking a bracing walk along any of the beaches (Onetangi Beach has water that’s as clear as the Kiwi air) before stopping for a seafood lunch at The Oyster Inn. If you’re short on wine time, try Cable Bay, Mudbrick and Jurassic Ridge vineyards, the nearest to the ferry pier – all with trademark turquoise sea views.
Reward score: 3/5 (more if you make it to all the vineyards in one afternoon)
Burn: Kayaking the Marlborough Sounds
When I tell my kayak guide Daniel that I live in Hong Kong, he grimaces. ‘Too busy,’ he says. He’s used to the serene setting of the Marlborough Sounds – a series of drowned valleys and serrated green hills at the top of the South Island – that he kayaks almost every day.
After a morning of paddling through its blue-black waters, even those accustomed to the squall of Hong Kong could get used to listening to nothing aside from the caw-caw of some cormorants, the swoosh of the oar slicing through schools of mini jellyfish, the grind of jetskis bouncing past and, well, the sound of my own voice.
Risk rating: 2/5, provided you don’t bump into the Interislander ferry
Earn: Marlborough wine tasting
If kayaking works up your wine thirst, you’re in the right place. Surrounding the unremarkable town of Blenheim are dozens of world-class vineyards growing New Zealand’s best-loved grape, sauvignon blanc. There’s Brancott Estate, the oldest in the Marlborough wine region; glossy Allan Scott; and a name you’ll recognise from your local off-licence – elegant Oyster Bay.
You’ll need some food to soak up the wine. Arbour, almost next door to Brancott, is run by local chef Bradley Hornby and does a neat line in unpretentious, cosy dishes – pork jowl, blue mussels – with glasses of next door’s wine. A seat at the kitchen prep bench can be booked for added excitement.
Reward score: 4/5
is ideal to explore on two wheels. Pedal through sprawling Hagley Park, alongside the trams that thread through the city centre (past Cathedral Square, still on its knees from the 2011 earthquake), around the offbeat RE:Start container mall and on to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s triangular, multicoloured Cardboard Cathedral. It won’t take longer than a couple of hours to cycle everywhere – spot the larger-than-life wall murals by local street artists as you go – allowing for some well-deserved breaks to sit in the sun with a coffee from the excellent Caffeine Laboratory.
The real adventure happens in Port Hills on the outskirts of Christchurch. Swap your road bike for a fat one and grunt up the Rapaki Track – a steady, accessible walking and biking track with views over nearby Lyletton Harbour and gorse-covered Victoria Park. If you’re thinking about this article while halfway up it, there’s some Instagram-worthy shots of New Zealand’s Southern Alps from the top. Honestly.
Risk rating: 2.5/5. The further you get from Christchurch, the higher the score
Earn: Christchurch pub crawl
Christchurch’s Victoria Street is the ideal road for a pub crawl – it’s only 800 metres long, and almost every establishment will serve you something cold and refreshing from a nice-looking bottle.
Garden bar Little Neighbourhood does storming cocktails and pizza, with a sense of humour (in February the ’Hood announced it was open to celebrate Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl 13 years before – of course). You’ll find wine at Saggio di Vino and lashings of black lacquer and Asian fusion at King of Snake down the road. Further towards the city centre, behind a mural of lips by French artist Tilt, is Christchurch Casino. Which is where the retox will end with a subsidised gin and tonic and a much, much lighter wallet.
Reward score: Depending on your hangover, we’ll say 3/5
Where to recover
The Langham, Auckland
Considering Auckland is New Zealand’s biggest city, it’s surprisingly light on luxury hotels. The rarefied environment of The Langham, around the corner from hippy Karangahape Road, is by far the best option: with a sweeping ballroom, suites overlooking Auckland’s greenery and an outdoor pool and a Jacuzzi, it’s great place to kickstart a longer North Island tour. langhamhotels.com/auckland
QT Museum Hotel, Wellington
Freshly rebranded as a QT property, the former Museum Art Hotel in downtown Wellington has lost none of its zing. The lobby could pass for the atrium of a modern art gallery, full of giant paintings and installations. The rooms are no less contemporary, with slicks of black lacquer, cosy-funky sheepskin rugs and lots of rose gold. The in-house restaurant Hippopotamus does a good boozy afternoon tea. qthotelsandresorts.com/wellington
Hotel Montreal, Christchurch
With an aesthetic focusing on blues, whites and polo, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a chinzty restaurant in England’s West Country. This boutique property suits Christchurch’s European flavour well. Large suites are homely and well-designed, with fat sofas, reassuringly thick carpets and boutique teas (important). Plus there are road bikes to hire from sister property The George, so you can razz around nearby Hagley Park. hotelmontreal.co.nz
Cathay Pacific flies to Auckland from Hong Kong seven times a week. A three-times-weekly service to Christchurch from Hong Kong launches on 1 December