You can thank Lord of the Rings for bringing New Zealand onto the mainstream travel list.
As it turns out, there are no hobbits roaming around the country, but that hasn’t stopped hordes of Americans from descending on the North and South Islands in recent years.
Numbers have been rising steadily over the past five years, up from 205,289 in 2002 to 225,629 in 2006. Once perceived as a far-off destination, New Zealand now is easily accessible to U.S. travelers on non-stop flights.
A trip to New Zealand is about experiences: whether it’s driving along the spectacular coastline, tasting an award-winning Pinot Noir, jumping off a bridge (or building, or ledge), walking on a glacier, or catching an All Blacks rugby match (it’s the national pastime).
In fact, you can’t step off a plane or into a hotel without being peppered with flyers touting all the experiences the country has to offer … but stepping off the brochure is easy to do.
Christchurch is the largest city in the South Island, but it maintains a small-town feel. Its posh city center proudly showcases its British heritage (there’s even an Avon River meandering through the city). Christchurch also is an excellent jumping-off point for day trips and short flights throughout the South Island.
Christchurch is considered to be the “last stop” before Antarctica, but don’t think that it’s located at the end of the world. You can fly nonstop on Air New Zealand or Qantas from Los Angeles to Auckland and transfer to a short domestic flight to Christchurch. Air New Zealand also flies non-stop from Vancouver to Auckland three times a week. Shoulder season, when prices are lower and the heavy crowds have dissipated, runs from October to April.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s no shortage of moderately priced hotels in Christchurch (the Crowne Plaza near the Convention Center starts at about $175 a night). But to get the real local flavor, stay in one of the many B&Bs that have sprung up in New Zealand over the past few years.
The Classic Villa on Worcester Street combines the hominess of a B&B with the amenities of a hotel: inviting rooms, a full-on morning spread, gracious hosts who can point you to a variety of activities in Christchurch and beyond, free Wi-Fi, a conference room, and flat-screen TVs in every guest room.
You can’t miss the cheery pink exterior of the Italian-style villa, which recently was refurbished into a five-star luxury accommodation. It’s centrally located directly across from the Arts Centre and steps from the Botanical Gardens and Cathedral Square.
Your host Peter is a wealth of information on activities in Christchurch, and he also can arrange for a gourmet picnic basket and other special requests. Rates range from about $190 to $345 a night. 17 Worcester Boulevard; 377-7905, www.theclassicvilla.co.nz
A farm stay is another uniquely-Kiwi option for travelers. So how about an alpaca farm? Just a 30-minute drive from the city center, the Silverstream Alpaca Stud farm is a surprisingly upscale accommodation, where you can get up-close-and-personal with a herd of 150 alpacas. Each unit sleeps four with a self-serve kitchen and can be rented for $185 a night. www.alpaca-stud.com
For a list of New Zealand B&Bs, check out www.bnb.co.nz/index.html. Ask if the accommodation has a Qualmark stamp, which is New Zealand’s standardized “mark of quality.” You also can find a list of accredited accommodations, from luxury hotels to backpacker hostels at the Qualmark Web site: www.qualmark.co.nz
WINING AND DINING
Christchurch is compact enough that you can find good eats within walking distance of the city center. Pan-Asian cuisine abounds in New Zealand—everywhere you look there’s a Japanese, Thai, Indian or Indonesian fusion restaurant (there’s even something called “Cajun Asian”). This is thanks in part to the Kiwi sense of wanderlust that took many locals to Asia and back home again.
Over time, New Zealand chefs have developed a unique “Pacific Rim” style, blending Asian flavors with regional ingredients, like seafood and homegrown lamb. One newcomer to this scene is Chinwag eathai, which is already packed with in-the-know locals sampling items, like fresh oysters, grilled scallops with peanut sauce, and red curry duck with cherry tomatoes. 161 High Street; 365-7363, www.chinwageathai.co.nz
Wandering the streets, you’ll notice several food carts stationed in Cathedral Square and outside the Arts Centre during market days. Don’t miss this opportunity to try out some Kiwi “street food,” which gives you plenty of bang for your buck. Tiny yellow carts hawk everything from kebabs to Chinese food to fresh-baked potatoes. One can’t-miss treat is CJ’s, a funky hand-painted cart serving up piping hot mini-doughnuts along with espresso, hot chocolate or tea.
On warm days, the Strip along Oxford Terrace is packed with both locals and visitors dining at one of the many riverfront cafés and restaurants. Although you won’t find any bargains here, you also won’t find a bad meal—most establishments boast seasonal and regional ingredients. Even the quasi-Tex-Mex Coyote Bar (or, as they say, “Kiwi cuisine with a twist of Santa Fe”) had a separate local flavors menu, featuring items like Canterbury lamb and New Zealand seafood chowder. 126 Oxford Terrace; 3666-055, www.coyote.co.nz
To really immerse yourself in the local scene, head off the main strip into an area that’s been dubbed SOL (South of Lichfield). This area was only revitalized in the past couple of years, where historic buildings were converted into a cluster of trendy cafés, pubs, bars, nightclubs, and galleries. The allies behind these hotspots are filled with chairs and couches (designed, in part, to deal with the recent indoor smoking ban), where revelers can congregate late into the night. One favorite hangout is Toast Bar, an easy place to sit outside, grab a beer or a cocktail, and watch the late-night party scene in full swing.
110 Lichfield Street, 968-4981
If you’re willing to splurge on your dining and accommodations, take a 20-minute drive to Otahuna Lodge in the tiny town of Tai Tapu. Located on 30 acres of grounds, this seven-suite destination retreat is a historic icon in New Zealand. Built in 1895, the manor recently was purchased by American ex-pats Hall Cannon and Miles Refo, who restored the home to its former glory (with a modern twist).
Every whim is catered to (including fresh-baked cookies at bedtime), and guests have plenty of dining options. After cocktails and canapés in the drawing room, you can dine privately in the sunken wine cellar, in the library, or in a number of other intimate areas of the home.
Dinner is a five-course menu prepared by Chef Jimmy McIntyre, who relies on fresh produce, herbs and mushrooms plucked from the grounds, fruits and nuts from Otahuna’s orchard, and even eggs collected from the chicken coop. He explains each dish with fervor, complemented by the wine musings from the lodge’s on-site concierge. 224 Rhodes Road, Tai Tapu; 329-6333, www.otahuna.co.nz/lodge/cuisine
ARTS AND CRAFTS
It can be hard to go off the brochure when it comes to the arts and craft scene. The Arts Centre, the hub of Christchurch’s Cultural Precinct, is a required stop. This stately neo-Gothic complex features workshops, stores and galleries where local craftsmanship is celebrated. Again, you won’t find many bargains, but you’ll see a woodworker carefully carving away at bowls, ornaments and masks. Wander down the hall, and you’ll find elaborate jade jewelry. Turn a corner, and you’ll find hand-dyed quilts, paua-shell necklaces and authentic Maori-style carved bone ornaments. A Sunday market brings all of these items, and more, into the open air. www.artscentre.org.nz
Even the most jaded museum-goers will be wowed by the Christchurch Arts Center Te Puna o Waiwhetu, which showcases the works of New Zealand artists (particularly from the Canterbury region) in comprehensive and dynamic exhibitions. But for the sake of straying off the beaten path, there are plenty of other galleries to visit:
On Lichfield Street, Allegory Art Gallery is housed in one of Christchurch’s historic buildings, where artist and designer Simon van der Sluijs showcases his paintings. 113 Lichfield Street; 366-4925, www.allegory.co.nz
For a more global perspective, the Bryce Gallery is filled with both classic and quirky paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, and jewelry from artists around the world. 122 Riccarton Road; 348-0064, www.brycegallery.co.nz
And, just steps away from the main Arts Center, The Arthouse highlights contemporary New Zealand artists through paintings, drawings and sculptures. 62 Gloucester Street; 366-6029, www.thearthouse.co.nz
Although the bus services are dependable and domestic flights are plentiful, renting a car is one of the best ways to view New Zealand’s stunning scenery and to wander in and out of small towns in between destinations.
About 15 minutes from Christchurch is the port town of Lyttelton—once a Maori settlement and now the second-busiest port in New Zealand. Tiny little London Street is the only bustling road in town, but it’s where you’ll find Lyttelton Fisheries, touted as serving the “best chips” in all of New Zealand.
The unobtrusive little shop was named the regional winner of the 2007 Crisco Oils Best Chip Shop Competition, and it has been singled out for preparing healthier greasy fried foods (only 3.72 percent fat content, compared to the national average of 9.2 percent). Healthy or not, it’s worth the drive to sink your teeth into perfectly plump fried scallops and crumbed “groper” fish, while gazing out into the sea.
The hour-and-a-half drive to Akoroa is another worthy experience, if you can stomach the seemingly never-ending climb up and over a mountain to get there. Make sure you’re comfortable driving on the other side of the road, because you’ll be hugging hairpin curves with sheer cliffs dropping off your left side.
But once you reach the top, the sprawling view of Akoroa’s still blue waters pooled in the heart of an ancient volcano.
Interestingly, the colonial little village is marked by French street signs as it used to be a French and British settlement. There are no crowds—just a few languorous locals and savvy visitors sprawl out on the beach, go kayaking, and linger over lunch, while enjoying the perfect views. www.akaroa.com
Other easy drives from Christchurch include the Scottish-influenced college town of Dunedin.
Queenstown is a quick flight on Air New Zealand and Qantas; an overnight tour that includes a scenic flight over Mt. Cook National Park and the Tasman Glacier departs from Christchurch, which starts at $300 per person.
By Managing Editor Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.
Don’t miss the rest of our Off the Brochure series uncovering the hidden gems of the world’s most popular cities.
These travel tips could also give you some great ideas for fun in New Zealand:
And New Zealand is definitely an up-and-coming culinary destination. Check out some other ideas for foodie fun in our Culinary Travel section.