Saturday September 22, 2012
New Zealand - Blue skies and everything nice
Story and pictures by REGGIE LEE
Much has been said and written about New Zealand, but this writerís take on what he loved about the country might surprise you.
IíVE always wanted to visit New Zealand, and when I finally made plans to go, I knew that my time there would be great. I just didnít know how great it would be.
After spending two weeks in South Island, I have to say that practically everything I saw, did and experienced was wonderful. If pressed to name my absolute favourite thing, I would find it difficult to do, but here are my Top 10.
New Zealand must be one of the cleanest places on earth. When I was there (in May), the autumn air was fresh and crisp, providing an invigorating boost as I set out every day, despite being bundled up in my warmest clothing.
I have never seen skies as blue as I did in South Island. The first couple of days I was there, it was wet and grey, but then the sun came out and I saw some of the most amazing rainbows.
I donít know why people bother buying bottled mineral water in New Zealand because the water straight from the taps is the sweetest and purest I have ever tasted. I had the most delicious-tasting water on a boat, of all places, when I joined an overnight cruise on Milford Sound. We were assured that the water came from the nearby springs, and to be sure, it tasted like nectar.
Fall in South Island was magical, with a nip in the air and trees turning golden. I saw little kids kicking gleefully through fallen leaves, disturbing the migrating ducks that were everywhere.
As I drove through the dark and (to me) scary Homer Tunnel coming back from Milford Sound, everything before me had magically turned into a winter wonderland, with snow still falling. There was frost on the ground on most mornings, adding a sparkle to an already spectacular landscape.
I canít sing enough praises about all that I ate throughout my stay. One of the best seafood meals I had was, oddly enough, not even in a restaurant but at a roadside shack on the way to the seal colony in Kaikoura where you can get, according to the sign, world-famous barbeque seafood.
I made my choice from a list of daily specials, picked up a fresh-brewed coffee from another shack nearby, then sat facing the ocean while I feasted. I also had the best fish and chips outside of England from a tiny takeout place in Hokitika late one night.
Everything from seafood to beef, venison, lamb and pork was exquisite, whether cooked Western or Asian style. The portions were all huge, which made chowing down extremely satisfying on a cold night.
There werenít many fruits in season but I bit into succulent pears that simply oozed juices. What can I say about the abundance of cheeses, chocolates and smoked meats except that most of my baggage allowance was given over to these delectable morsels. I envy the Kiwis because they truly live in Godís own kitchen garden.
Iíd like to sidetrack a little to say how impressed I was with the service I received at every establishment I went to, big or small. There was always a cheerful greeting that was heartfelt rather than put on, and a genuine desire to please. A bottle of water would invariably be placed on the table which, of course, wasnít charged for.
Generally, I would see only one person manning the entire floor of the restaurant (which made a welcome change from the swarm of ill-trained foreigners that we are used to in Malaysia) but service was efficient and courteous. I also liked the practice of going up to the counter to pay your bill, which not only saved time but also underscored the fact that tips were not expected. How novel.
Now I know what youíre thinking. Heís going to go on about the wine and beer. But no, I want to pay homage once again to the water in New Zealand, which contributes, in no small part, to the brewing of the perfect cup of tea or coffee.
There was no more delightful way to while away an afternoon than sitting at a cafť, al fresco, and drinking a delicious cuppa while admiring the view of snow-capped mountains or lakes as clear and still as a mirror. There was always an accompaniment of fresh milk with my tea, which reminded me once again of just how English New Zealand is.
Of course, Iím also going to wax lyrical about New Zealandís wines and beer. Their crisp chardonnays and semillons could give the Australians a run for their money, and, at such affordable prices, would win hands down in my book. A smoky shiraz or more robust pinot noir made the perfect accompaniment to my steaks and lamb chops, especially when imbibed in front of a roaring fire.
Macís Gold. Speights Pilsner. Wanaka Ale. Cardrona Draft. Ahh, these names are now a fond memory of some of the best draft beers Iíve ever tasted, thanks to New Zealandís water. Many of them are craft brews, unique to a particular region, which makes them all the more special.
Along with other nature lovers, I experienced indescribable joy in observing wildlife in their natural habitat. I found the kiwi, the national symbol of New Zealand, to be one of the shyest of birds, scampering away every time I approached with my camera.
Some other birds, though, were obviously unafraid of predators and flew right up to me as if wanting to make friends. Playful seals, happy dolphins, majestic whales, they are all to be found throughout the year, which makes New Zealand a treat for animal lovers.
By right, this should take the No.1 spot, because the scenery in New Zealand is jaw-dropping. Picture-perfect mountains vie for attention with glassy lakes and stunning fjords. Driving through kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills and green pastures, any one of which could have appeared in Lord Of The Rings, I would turn a corner and suddenly come upon a brown, bleak landscape that reminded me of a Star Wars movie. Never have I come across such diversity in terrains.
Ask someone else the top 10 things they like about New Zealand, and theyíll probably give you 10 different answers, but since this is my list, I have to put New Zealand roads near the top.
There are no impressive six-lane highways. On the contrary, once you get out of the city, the country roads are mostly single lane, but so well planned and constructed that driving along them is a dream. The speed limit is 100kph which may stifle a speed demon but affords me more time to take in the beautiful surroundings.
Speed limit signs are clearly marked before bends and winding stretches, so that as long as you adhere to them, youíll be safe and secure. As itís a country of only 4.2 million, there werenít that many cars on the road, and I hardly saw any billboards, which was a pleasant change.
As opposed to Australians who can come across as bolder and brasher, the Kiwis I met were generally milder-mannered, many of them possessing a dry wit.
There were indications of this in some of the names they gave their places. Mt. Difficulty boasts some of the best wines, probably due to its tough terrain. In Wanaka, I kept coming across stores with names such as Aspiring Hairdresser and Aspiring Chemist. This made me wonder if they somehow had not made the grade yet, until I discovered Mt. Aspiring nearby.
New Zealand is a nation of genuinely nice people. I suppose there isnít much that stresses them. No traffic jams. No pollution. No fear of criminal activity so they can leave their houses and cars unlocked. No rude motorists who cut into your lane or steal your parking spot. For the first time ever in my travels, the immigration officer who stamped my passport upon departure asked me if I had enjoyed my stay. He was confident, of course, that I would reply, ďVery much.Ē
No doubt there will be those who go to New Zealand and rave about the many world-class sporting activities from skiing to skydiving and bungy-jumping. But when confronted with a mountain, Iím more likely to ask if thereís a cable car going up. So I found that the most delightful thing about my trip to New Zealand was the many opportunities it allowed me to just slow down, and even come to a complete stop.
I enjoyed sipping a soup bundled in my jacket and scarf and sitting outdoors, watching people go about their day; staring at the stars in the still of the night on a boat in Milford Sound, listening out for the splash of seals and penguins; Sharing an isolated black, sandy beach with a long-haired bull who had somehow escaped from his pen. He did eyeball me and gave chase half-heartedly but thatís a story for another time.
Now back at home, I dream about the times I just sat still and took in the wonder that was New Zealand.
> How to get there: Malaysia Airlines flies to Auckland, from which you can catch a connecting flight to South Island.