There is nothing a free country revels in more than a good row about its identity. New Zealand has just emerged from a corker: a referendum on whether to adopt a new flag.
It’s more than just a question of whether a rectangle of cloth should have a silver fern, a blue background or keep a design cut-and-pasted from a flag belonging to a country on the other side of the world. The debate was about what New Zealand means in relation to a place that’s remote and far from its shores. That place would be ‘the rest of the world’.
For an Old World visitor like me, it was a puzzling experience being caught up in the fringes of this brow-furrowing search for identity. To me, the New Zealand brand couldn’t be stronger. It has its national symbols: the kiwi, the fern, the long white cloud. It has its colours: the black of the rugby jerseys, the green of the land. It has its signature vowel sounds. It has its promotional video: small-scale productions called The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And it has one hell of strapline: 100% Pure. Pure land, pure food, pure air. That’s the promise and that’s what you get – and millions of visitors, especially from Asia, want exactly what New Zealand has got.
It’s not complicated: it’s all about the nature. So when the association that runs the marvellous chain of luxury lodges that runs from Kauri Cliffs in the north of the North Island to Fiordland in the South was looking for a new experience to offer its guests, the solution couldn’t have been simpler: get people closer to nature. The so-called ‘luxury with a conscience’ packages are designed to shine a light on some of the battles New Zealand faces to keep itself pure – as well as giving guests a glimpse of practical environmentalism at work.
I had 10 days criss-crossing this extraordinary land. Let’s tell the story in landscape format, taking five features that the country has in common with the rest of the world – but which are uniquely special when you encounter them in New Zealand.
Mountain: Fiordland Lodge
After dinner – and a fresher, better value, more heartwarming dinner you’ll struggle to find – you wander out of Fiordland Lodge, sit on a bench and gaze. Around, hectare after hectare of rolling pasture. Above, the universe, quite a lot of it visible to the naked eye. Below, lake. Beyond, mountain. It’s elementary, my dear traveller.
I looked at Mount Luxmore and thought: how long will it take to get up there? I had my answer early the next morning. About seven minutes. My guide, Steve Norris from Trips and Tramps, had helpfully brought a helicopter with him. We whisked over Te Anau, soared upwards and alighted gently next to the lodging on the celebrated Kepler Track. I felt a bit of a wuss next to the hardy souls who’d trekked up there and were now having a communal breakfast after their communal night in the bunkrooms. (You could tell the snorers: they were the ones getting glared at.)
But then I was there to work; or at least watch someone else working. As we descended the soggy trail, we kept an eye open for small, squat wooden boxes. We were hoping – I use the word advisedly – to find the remains of a dead rat or stoat.
This mountain, so peaceful and majestic, is really a battleground. The battle is one that indigenous species like kiwi and takahe have been fighting ever since Westerners arrived, bringing various alien and hungry animals with them. It’s an unfair battle: a bit like pitching the Kaikoura Under-11 rugby team against the All Blacks. Hence the traps. An entrance, a fresh farm egg, a steel trap and – snap.
The haul from the dozens of traps was a mere two decomposing rats and the remains of a stoat. This is good. When the scheme started, they’d find a predator in every box. Either the traps are working or the rats and stoats are smarter. In any case, it’s very little and very late.
Meadow: The Farm at Cape Kidnappers
I’ve a long list of Things New Zealand Does Superlatively Well. Here’s the first: picnic spots. Cape Kidnappers is 20 minutes out of Napier. The restored 19th century farmhouse, now overlooked by a set of very high-end lodges, gazes over 2,400 hectares of pasture, forest, cliff and fearsome golf links. When I say ‘farmhouse’, I mean the kind of farmhouse owned by a billionaire US hedge fund supremo who wants a little rural bliss – which is precisely what The Farm at Cape Kidnappers is.
My favourite spot is the wildflower walk a short wander from the farmhouse. A hunk of a weathered pine table overlooks the valley. But you want to get closer to the earth. The freshly mown grass is crying out for blankets, baskets, cold wine and grateful bottoms. If you have read books by the British author Enid Blyton you will be right at home. Come back after dark and you might see a near mythical creature – the kiwi itself.
Lake: Azur Lodge
We’re supposed to pay due respect to the tribal myths that explain various geological features. I’m struggling with the Lake Wakatipu one. It involves a dog-headed man-fish called Kopu-wai. Even by the surreal standards of creation myths, this one is hard to pin down: something about him drinking the river dry and getting burned on the lake bed. If the original Maori inhabitants had the benefit of space flight, they’d see that the lake is like a huge serpent snaking between the mountains. But then there aren’t any snakes in New Zealand anyway, so that would have been a tough brief for the mythmakers to work with.
For someone like me who had just one night to enjoy the lake, it was sufficient to sit on the deck at Azur Lodge and gaze at it a lot. The lodge’s cabins are sprinkled down the hillside, all affording the same serene, timeless view of said lake and the Remarkables mountain range. You’re close to Queenstown, where the local statutes say that every visitor has to risk their neck bungee jumping, paragliding, skiing or doing some hairy adventure sport. I was on the road before they could catch me. What do you mean, you just sat and looked at it?
Tree: Hapuku Lodge
It’s the Year of the Monkey and everyone should get in touch with their fellow primates and spend at least one night in a tree. The only problems with arboreal sleeping (apart from the danger of falling) are that it can be draughty and a bit noisy. So you go to Hapuku, where you’ll find a treehouse with huge showers, double-paned windows, carpets with extra-thick underlays and super-comfy beds with Swedish slats and wool overlays.
You need the double-paned windows because Hapuku sits in the middle of a working deer farm. In rutting season, the stags let out a bellow echoing from the Southern Alps that sounds like some randy Norse god descending from Valhalla. Yet you also want to open the windows at the back to hear the rather gentler roar of the Southern Ocean as it meets the Kaikoura peninsula. As noise pollution goes, this is not a bad choice.
The farm was bought and the lodge built by a family of Kiwi/Californian architects, olive farmers and foodie entrepreneurs. In the US, San Francisco-based Michael Wilson had his own sawmill and a growing collection of rare and interesting woods. There is only so much you can do with a growing collection of rare and interesting woods – such things take up space – so when they started building Hapuku they shipped a load over to go with the plentiful source of prized Australasian species.
So at Hapuku you get a symphony in wood. In the main lodge, rooms and treehouses you will encounter furniture and artworks made from black walnut, Canadian maple, English walnut, local and Tasmanian oak, kahikatea (New Zealand white pine), elm, chestnut and sycamore. This once featureless stretch of farmland is now guarded by Totara trees. On the property there are two kinds of tree ferns, lancewood, pohutukawa (a remarkable and protean species known as ‘the New Zealand Christmas tree’), kanuka and manuka.
I don’t know if wood tourism is ever going to be a big phenomenon, but if you are drawn to travel the world experiencing interesting timber, Hapuku has to be on your bucket list. And it’s not even the main attraction. Some 12 kilometres down the road is the town of Kaikoura, known with some justice as ‘the marine Serengeti’, such is the abundance of marine life and sea birds cavorting in the nutrient-rich waters swelling up from the Hikurangi Trench.
Water: Bay of Many Coves
My heart sank when Murray McCaw said we were going to look at more animal boxes on Motuara Island. Frankly, I thought I’d done my share of looking at decomposing mammals on Mount Luxmore.
Murray, who runs the sumptuous, secret Bay of Many Coves lodge, took us on a launch from its pier through Queen Charlotte Sound, itself a part of the wider Marlborough Sounds, every inch of sound a photograph.
Motuara Island is uninhabited. But there was something living in the boxes we found off the trail: a small, fat penguin. It was a Little Blue Penguin, the smallest penguin in the world, and one of the grumpiest, given that we’d just disturbed the nice sleep it was having in its nesting box. Eco-marine havens like Motuara are the last hope for species under threat.
On the cruise home, we saw a monument to the man who started all the trouble. Captain James Cook landed in a place he imaginatively called Ship Cove in January 1770: today there is a military-looking monument that does little justice to the scientific nature of Cook’s actual voyage.
Back at the lodge, I hiked up the hill towards the Queen Charlotte Track through bush that quickly turns from manicured to primeval. High up, I gazed over the hard dirt track to the forested islands and turquoise water. It was a uniquely, purely New Zealand sight. I descended the track quickly, thinking there was only one thing missing from this wondrous view: a glass of purely New Zealand wine in the foreground.
Cathay Pacific flies to Auckland from Hong Kong seven times a week