New Zealand: Heaven on Middle-earth
Ross Hattaway visits New Zealand ahead of the 2017 Lions rugby tour.
Lions and kiwis doesn't sound like a fair mix - a top level predator and a small flightless bird - but when it involves rugby, it is one of the greatest sporting and travel experiences you can have.
The British and Irish Lions will be in New Zealand next year, playing in seven regions over six weeks, and over 20,000 supporters will travel with them as they try to beat the world champion All Blacks.
For most fans, the focus will be on the rugby, but the rugby is only one attraction in this breathtakingly beautiful country.
The tour covers the length of New Zealand, with nearly 1,000 miles between the opening match in Whangarei, in North Auckland, and the southernmost game in Dunedin. There is so much to do and see, and with at least three days between games, supporters will have every opportunity to get out to the places between games, and make the most of their trip.
And the destination is only part of it - the whole nation will be following the tour and looking forward to meeting the travelling supporters and showing them the best of their part of Aotearoa.
Our trip last June was a year ahead of the tour. We arrived in Auckland on a one-stop flight from Dublin, via Dubai, to weather quite similar to an Irish summer, even though it was midwinter there.
Lunch and a visit to Eden Park, home to two test matches, with rugby legends Bryan Williams and John Kirwan, set us up nicely for the journey north to the regional capital of Whangarei, which will host the opening game of the tour.
Our guide in Whangarei was another All Black star, Ian Jones, who showed us around the region and gave us an insight into what representing his country and his home place meant to him. This stunning area is worth visiting in its own right, and at under two hours from Auckland and a bit more, or a short flight, to the games in Rotorua and Hamilton, it is an ideal base for the start of the tour.
Whangarei is also a short drive from the must-see stop of the Bay of Islands. The tour opens officially here in Waitangi, which is where, in 1840, a treaty between the Maori people and the Pakeha, or European, immigrants, was signed. The official ceremony and Maori welcome will be in front of the original house, with several hundred people taking part in the traditional challenge and welcome to the visitors. We faced a challenge and a welcome from 10 people, so the Lions welcome should be very impressive, and rather scary.
From Waitangi, the road leads north to Paihia, a quiet hamlet outside the tourist season and the entry point to the Bay of Islands. We stayed on the waterfront, in holiday apartments, and had a scrumptious dinner of local seafood, including fresh oysters, at Charlotte's Kitchen on the pier.
It really was all go on this trip as we got a flavour of what Irish rugby fans could expect to savour and enjoy next year. The answer is, a lot.
The next day, we were up early for a boat trip around the Bay. Driving a 40-foot RIB around the Bay of Islands every day must be one of the world's better jobs - this place is truly beyond superlatives.
We were taken around the whole bay, including a drop-off on an outer island with a look-out at the top, where the next stop is Chile. We then had a dolphin escort out to the famous Hole in the Wall Rock, at the edge of the ocean, followed by a wonderful lunch of local cured meats, smoked fish and delicious cheeses at the Duke of Marlborough pub in the pretty resort village of Russell.
We dined like kings for the whole stay in fact. A short drive through olive groves took us to Kerikeri for our flight south.
The following day, we had the pleasure of meeting up with another former All Black, Brent Anderson, the national director for non-professional rugby. Brent showed us his home place, the surfing mecca of Raglan, on the wild North Island west coast, and Hamilton, where the Chiefs had beaten Wales the night before.
Hamilton is a bustling river city, with good food and bars but don't expect to stay here next year - Fielday, New Zealand's biggest agricultural show, is on and accommodation is booked out a year ahead. We stayed in a lovely B and B outside Matamata, very close to Hobbiton, the film set for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, another reason why the Irish have visited these shores.
A short drive south is Rotorua - Rotovegas to the locals and the centre of geothermal tourism. Must-sees and dos include Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti by boat, and the national carving and weaving schools at Te Puia, as well as the geysers and mud pools.
For the adventurous, there is, at Skyline, very challenging mountain biking and the thrills of downhill racing on the luge track.
The Rotorua region is steeped in Maori culture and is the de facto home ground for the Maori All Blacks. Luckily our host, Tiki Edwards, is the national development officer for Maori rugby. With Tiki, we met former Maori All Black Darrel Shelford and Matt Te Pou, victorious coach of the Maori All Blacks on the last Lions Tour in 2005.
We also had a once-in-a-lifetime and very intensive haka lesson with Tiki at Haka World, which is as much about immersion in a Maori world view as learning the steps. This was brilliant, and Tiki was very kind about our efforts.
From Rotorua, we flew to the political and foodie capital, Wellington.
Kiwis have high expectations of their food, and nowhere more than here. It is a compact and liveable city, built around the harbour, with only 15 minutes walk from our hotel at one end of the waterfront to the rugby stadium, the Cake Tin, at the other, and endless cafes, hotels and bars in between.
Our hotel, the Museum Arts, was moved across the road, on railway tracks, to make room for the new national museum, Te Papa. It was at the Welsh test here that we learned about the dirty All Blacks, and their even unluckier companions, the dirty dirties. And it has nothing to do with what happens on the pitch.
We spent the next day with 1970s All Black captain and wine buff, Graham Mourie, in Martinborough, across the Rimutaka hills from Wellington. Martinborough sits on a 20m deep gravel bed and is famed for its wines, especially Pinot Noir.
We visited two wineries, but you could spend a week here. First was the award-winning Ata Rangi, with its wonderful silky varietals. Clive Paton, the founder, scored a try for Wairarapa Bush against the 1977 Lions. We then had a gorgeous lunch of organic lamb and vegetables, outside in the winter sunshine at nearby Coney Wines, with an entertaining guided tasting by proprietor Tim Coney. More Que Sera Syrah, anyone?
Christchurch is recovering from the devastating earthquakes of some years ago, but large areas are still levelled, including the city centre. We flew over the city and the empty areas, where there will be no rebuilding, are truly sobering. Our Christchurch Helicopters pilot for the day was two-time world cup winning All Black captain and bagpipe player, Richie McCaw.
No trip to Canterbury is complete without a jet boat ride, and we had the full white knuckle experience on the Rakaia River, at the foot of the Southern Alps, with Discovery Jets.
Even some golf at the nearby Terrace Downs resort (where visiting rugby teams train and recuperate) did little to dump the adrenaline.
Our next stop was Dunedin, the most Celtic of New Zealand's cities. Like Wellington, it nestles round a beautiful harbour and it is a foodie's paradise, with styles and prices for all tastes. It also has two excellent breweries, Speight's, in the city centre, and Emerson's, which is beside the Forsyth Barr rugby stadium. Their Mexican chocolate chilli porter is a rare experience.
Our guide was Kees Meeuws, former Otago and All Black prop and fine artist. He showed us his city, with highlights including the surf beaches of St Clair and St Kilda, the world's steepest street and the magnificent views from Signal Hill.
One Dunedin activity we didn't get to see was nude rugby. This is something of a tradition before big tour games. The players wear ribbons in team colours and their numbers are painted on, but apart from boots, socks and gum shields, that's it - hardy people, these southerners. Our informant advised us that the warm-up is pretty ugly, and it doesn't get better.
Our last stop was back in Auckland, where we took the ferry out to Waiheke Island, the slightly raffish community at the edge of the Hauraki Gulf. We visited the Cable Bay Winery, one of several out here, but didn't get as far as Stoneybatter, at the southern end of the island.
If you are going to follow the Lions next year, the rugby is a given. You need to do two other things while you are there - visit the main centres, and then get out of the main centres.
Kiwis, like the Irish, are very proud of where they live and where they are from, and want to share what they have. If you take that step, it is likely that you will find fabulous food, excellent coffee and a very warm welcome.
The whole nation will know why you are there, want to meet you and show you who they are. You should let them - after all, it would be rude not to. And as for the dirty All Blacks, you'll just have to ask a local.
A selection of Lions Rugby tailor-made packages are available to purchase, including the Flight and Ticket Tour 3. Over 24 days rugby fans can explore the regions of New Zealand in between three test matches. The first match will take place at Eden Park, Auckland, where the Lions will challenge the reigning world champions on June 24, 2017. The second match will take place at Westpack Stadium, Wellington on July 1, 2017 where visitors can see the Lions take on the Wallabies. The final of the three matches in this package takes fans back to Eden Park on July 8, 2017 where the Lions will end their tour in a match that's not to be missed.
The Flight and Ticket Tour 3 starts from £2,999 per person and includes flights, tickets to three test matches and a Lions merchandise pack. tours.lionsrugby.com/packages/newzealand.com. For more information visit www.newzealand.com
Take Three: Top attractions
The tallest building in New Zealand is a tourist treat, with spectacular views from the observation deck. From here you can see over the city, the harbour and the north shore. While you’re there, splash out and try the equally spectacular fusion food in Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club, the cuisine pioneered by this Kiwi chef. You can also watch people doing the sky walk, a metal walkway around the outside of the building.
Duke of Marlborough Pub
Picture a pub with a wide verandah, fronting onto a gently sloping beach where the water laps quietly and the small boats come and go. The Duke of Marlborough, Russell, Bay of Islands, is an institution, with local produce cooked and served with a Kiwi twist. Pub lunch nirvana, and well worth the drive or the ferry trip, especially in uncrowded June. Such is the presentation, you end up contemplating your food before eating..it.
Situated between Hamilton and Rotorua is the film set that all Tolkien fans should visit. Set in rolling farmland, it was originally built for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then scrapped and rebuilt for The Hobbit. Resurrected by a local farmer, with the support of Hobbit and LOTR director Peter Jackson, it is one of New Zealand’s top tourist attractions, with over half a million visitors.
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