Like everyone else, I watched TV coverage of the terrible scenes of devastation from the earthquake in Christchurch earlier this year with shock and sadness. The human toll was tragic, the destruction wrought by Mother Nature on such a beautiful city heart-rending to witness.

The people of New Zealand are no strangers to nature’s power. Lying on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country is one of the most seismically active in the world and it has been shaped over time by earthquakes and volcanoes. It is those very forces which in part draw visitors, notably to the bubbling mud pools and geysers of Rotorua’s geothermal parks, on the North Island.

Whakarewarewa geothermal park © Tourism New Zealand

Christchurch will rise again from the rubble. But while the city may be off limits to tourists, the rest of New Zealand’s South Island is very much open for business and you can still use it as the gateway to tour the island. I did that last year on a family holiday to both islands.

There is so much to see and do throughout New Zealand that you have to plan your trip and manage your time meticulously. We could only spare five days on South Island and wanted to do a big loop to take in both coasts and adventure capital Queenstown. So after a dawn flight from Auckland, we picked up a rental car at Christchurch Airport and bypassed the city, driving two and a half hours north to Kaikoura for a close encounter with one of nature’s giants –sperm whales.

They live in the deep waters off the Kaikoura Peninsula year-round and have become the centre of a thriving tourism industry. You can view them by boat, plane or helicopter There is something magical about getting up close and personal to such magnificent mammals, however, so – having been entertained by a pod of leaping dusky dolphins when we stopped off en route at a coastal café for breakfast – we boarded one of the purpose-built catamarans operated by award-winning Whale Watch Kaikoura (www.whalewatch.co.nz), after an informative briefing at their wonderfully named base, the Whaleway Station.

They boast a 95% success, and we were not disappointed. No sooner had we arrived on site than one surfaced alongside, shooting a cloud of spray into the air from its blowhole. After a short while on the surface, the whale arched its back to dive back down to the abyss for food, its tail fluke curving and then slipping vertically below the waves.

We had three sightings, each with the backdrop of the empty Pacific or framed by mountains, before pressing on for our overnight stop.

There are several coast to coast routes across the South Island. The most popular is on State Highway 73, accessible directly from Christchurch Airport. It cuts through the Southern Alps via Arthur’s Pass. The scenic TranzAlpine train follows the same route.

We followed the Alpine Pacific Triangle Touring Route to overnight at Hanmer Springs, a quaint, alpine thermal spa town with natural hot springs to soak in, heading across to Greymouth on the west coast via the often-deserted Lewis Pass highway.

With a long drive to our next overnight point, Franz Josef Glacier, the preserved gold rush-era Shantytown (www.shantytown.co.nz) made an ideal stop to stretch legs and enjoy the steam train ride. Mount Cook – New Zealand’s highest mountain – and adjacent Mount Tasman tower above the west coast highway and Franz Josef Glacier is the main access point for hiking and other mountain activities. We had a scenic helicopter excursion booked with The Helicopter Line (www.helicopter.co.nz), but sadly the weather closed in and we couldn’t do it. Another attempt at the town of Mount Cook on the eastern flankStones on Bruce Beach © Peter Ellegard of the eponymous mountain a few days later was again sadly thwarted by low cloud. On a previous visit I had not only enjoyed spectacular aerial mountain and glacier views, but had even landed on Fox Glacier on a ski plane.

While driving down the west coast, be sure to stop off at Bruce Bay. Stones balanced on top of each other, some with driftwood, create a sea of sculptures on the beach; many bear poignant personal messages on the stones. Having added our own sculpture, the voracious midges forced us to seek refuge back in the car. As you turn inland beyond Haas, there are some lovely forest walks with waterfalls.

Wanaka is a pretty, laid back lakeside town offering lots of activities, but for all-action adrenalin and plenty to do by day and night, plus spectacular views of the sharp-peaked Remarkables mountains soaring high above serpentine Lake Wakatipu, nearby Queenstown can’t be beaten.

Dubbed the “Adventure Capital of the World”, Queenstown put New Zealand on the world map as an adrenalin destination. Jet boating originated here, and it was where bungy-jumping was popularised – both on the Shotover River.

Jet boating

I did a bungy jump at the original Kawarau Bridge site (www.bungy.co.nz) on my first visit to New Zealand some 20 years ago, stupidly thinking it would cure my fear of heights. It didn’t. This time, as on other subsequent visits, I was happy just to watch others throw themselves off the bridge while I took pictures. Been there, got the t-shirt, video…and mental scars.

But I did jump at the chance to go jet boating again, with Shotover Jet (www.shotoverjet.com). Exhilarating and fun, it takes your breath away as the “captain” weaves the craft from side to side through the narrow canyon at high speed, missing rocks by inches before throwing it a 360-degree spin to bring it to an abrupt stop.

For a more sedate experience, cruise Lake Wakatipu aboard the veteran steamship, TS Earnslaw (www.realjourneys.co.nz). It sails several times a day but my favourite is the dinner cruise. As daylight faded, we disembarked at Walter Peak Farm for a wholesome buffet dinner and a sheep-shearing demonstration, then on the cruise back everybody joined in a sing-song to old favourites such as Roll Out the Barrel being played on the out-of-tune piano. All it needed was Chas and Dave.

Allow a full day to see Milford Sound, in the spectacular Fjordlands. A coach journey through magnificent alpine scenery is followed by a cruise down the sheersided fjord past basking seals and cascading waterfalls. Both times I have done the cruise, rain and low clouds obscured the amazing views, although the experience was still well worthwhile.

My first visit there was in winter and as we set off on the journey back the rain turned to snow, causing avalanches which blocked the road and forced us and another coach to turn back. Milford’s hotel, closed for the winter, was hastily opened to accommodate us and we were fed from the tour boat kitchens. Next day dawned sunny and clear, allowing me to finally enjoy Milford’s spectacle. We even made the national news when we were rescued and flown back to Queensland on emergency flights aboard a fleet of small aircraft.

Before leaving Queenstown we also popped into nearby Arrowtown, a former mining town now popular for its historic buildings, restaurants and craft shops.

The drive back to Christchurch Airport from Queenstown is a comfortable six hours, but we had lots of time and took a couple of detours to Mount Cook village and Lake Tekapo town, to visit its tiny lakeside church.

North Island

The North Island may not be as dramatic as its sibling, but it has just as much to offer visitors. Auckland is known as the “City of Sails” and for good reason. It straddles the isthmus linking the main part of the island and the far north, and on sunny days it seems the whole population is out enjoying the water, whether on sailing boats in the Hauraki Gulf as we did aboard my brother’s yacht – he has lived there for 30 years – or on a sight-seeing harbour and islands cruise.

Auckland - city of sails © Peter Ellegard

If you don’t want to go out on the water, enjoy the lovely view of the city across the water from the old fortifications at Devonport. You can also get a great view of the city from atop one of its many dormant volcano cones. And thrillseekers can get a buzz by launching themselves off the Sky Tower with the SkyJump (www.skyjump.co.nz), a 630-foot cable-controlled base jump.

The city has several beaches, while a short drive away on the west coast lie the black-sand beaches of Piha, on the Waitakere Peninsula, popular with surfers and sunbathers.

Just three hours south of Auckland on the Thermal Express highway is Rotorua, and a little further beyond lies Taupo. Both have a sizeable tourism industry built on their geothermal attractions and other activities. Rotorua is also renowned for its Maori cultural experiences. One of its best-known is the “living thermal village” of Whakarewarewa (www.whakarewarewa.com), where Maori villagers still live among the bubbling mud pools, hot spring and geysers. Here you can get a great view of two of New Zealand’s
most active geysers, the Prince of Wales’ Feathers and Pohutu. You can also watch Maori performances and enjoy a geothermally-cooked hangi meal.

The Mitai Maori Village (www.mitai.co.nz) offers visitors an excellent insight into Maori heritage through a cultural performance which also includes warriors paddling canoes, a hangi meal and a forest walk to see glow worms. You can combine it with a night visit to next-door Rainbow Springs with its trout pool and collection of native animals and birds, among them the endangered and delightful kiwi.

Other musts include the Buried Village (www.buriedvillage.co.nz), with its moving account and trail telling the story of the violent eruption of Mount Tarawera in June, 1886, which killed over 150 people in Te Wairoa village, and Hells Gate Thermal Reserve (www.hellsgate.co.nz). Here, you can explore Rotorua’s most active geothermal field as well as enjoying a mud bath and sulphur spa.

The Coromandel Peninsula, just two hours from Auckland, is a holiday hotspot for New Zealanders and is beginning to attract more British visitors, thanks to its natural beauty and stunning beaches. We spent a long weekend there holidaying just like Kiwis, renting a typical bach, or beach house, and having barbies at night under the stars. The pristine, white sands of crescent-shaped Whangapoua Beach were literally paces from the deck of our three-bedroom house.

Rock pinnacles

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel © Peter Ellegard

Coromandel’s popular Cathedral Cove is only accessible by boat or on foot via a long path and steep steps. A huge arch carved through towering cliffs links two beaches guarded by offshore rock pinnacles more reminiscent of Thailand than New Zealand.

Also popular is Hot Water Beach, named for the hot spring water which flows underneath and which seeps up through the sands. For two hours either side of high tide, a throng of people squeeze into a small area and shuffle their feet in the sand or furiously dig with shovels to find the spring water and create a personal hot spa.

The island’s sub-tropical top end is called Northland. The main draw here is the Bay of Islands – a leisure playground of beautiful beaches, charming towns and tiny islands. We took a Dolphin Discoveries cruise (www.explorenz.co.nz) from Paihia to see the area’s iconic Hole in the Rock and watch dolphins playfully dance in the bow-wave. When there are no calves, unlike on our trip, you can swim with the dolphins. A key attraction is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the 1840 treaty signing with the Maoris led to the birth of New Zealand.

At Paihia, you can also board an off-road bus to visit New Zealand’s northernmost point, Cape Reinga, and drive along 90 Mile Beach as well as “surf ” down huge sand dunes on boogie boards.

South of the Bay of Islands, the Poor Knights marine reserve is a mecca for divers, accessed from Tutukaka.

To the north is Matauri Bay, with the offshore Cavalli Islands. It was here, almost 25 years ago, that campaigning Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was given a traditional Maori warrior’s burial at sea after it had been bombed by French secret service agents in Auckland’s harbour, killing the engineer. I dived it five years later, marvelling how marine life had colonised the vessel in such a short time. It was a moving experience, made more so back ashore when I trekked up a sacred Maori hill. At its summit overlooking the bay is a memorial comprising a basalt rock and semi-circle of stones surmounted by the Rainbow Warrior’s propeller.

Staying at the nearby, luxury Kauri Cliffs golf resort – built since my first visit – last year, I retraced my steps to take in the view once more. It is just as moving today as back then.

We couldn’t leave New Zealand without paying homage to its oldest and grandest residents, so on the way back to Auckland we drove over to the west coast to visit the giant kauri trees of Waipoua Forest. The largest, Tane Mahuta – Lord of the Forest – measures an incredible 45 feet in circumference and 169 feet tall.

Nature can be brutal in New Zealand but it will also leave you in awe. Every time I visit it gives me a natural high.

New Zealand facts

When to go

Seasons are opposite to those of the UK. The climate depends on where you go, but New Zealand is generally warmer and is sub-tropical in the far north. In Auckland, temperatures reach 27C in January and fall to 8C in August. South Island is colder, with Queenstown the main ski resort.

Getting there

Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.uk) flies from London Heathrow to Auckland westwards via Los Angeles and eastwards via Hong Kong. You can also fly from Heathrow to Auckland via other gateways including Bangkok (Thai Airways: www.thaiairways.com), and from Heathrow to Auckland and Christchurch via Singapore (Singapore Airlines: www.singaporeair.com), Hong Kong (Cathy Pacific: www.cathaypacific.com), Sydney (Qantas:www.qantas.com.au/uk) and, from both Heathrow and Gatwick, Dubai (Emirates: www.emirates.com).

Getting around

New Zealand is roughly the same size as the UK, and is easy to drive around each island. It is far less populated but also has fewer fast highways. The Interislander ferry (www.interislander.co.nz) links the North and South islands, between Wellington and Picton. Several domestic airlines fly between both islands. You can also rent motorhomes and campervans with companies including Maui (www.maui-rentals.com) and Britz (www.britz.com).

Tour operators

Operators offering New Zealand include Austravel (www.austravel.com), Trailfinders (www.trailfinders.com), APT (www.aptouring.co.uk), Scenic Tours (www.scenictours.co.uk), Bridge & Wickers (www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk), New Zealand in Depth (www.newzealand-indepth.co.uk) and 1st Class Holidays (www.1stclassholidays.com). Rugby fans wanting to follow the World Cup in New Zealand in September and October can book through Gullivers Sports Travel (www.gulliverstravel.co.uk).

Tourist information

Tourism New Zealand: www.newzealand.com

 

All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to New Zealand.