25 Years Later, Traveler Finds New Zealand Aged Well

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- A 17-day independent tour through the North and South islands of New Zealand provided a fresh look at the country following a 25-year absence on this traveler's part.

The island nation has improved significantly as a travel destination, the enduring scenic wonders notwithstanding. To our delight, the choice of accommodations now includes an organized network of Victorian and Edwardian bed and breakfasts and sophisticated country inns.

Restaurants use and properly prepare the country's bountiful fresh ingredients from the land and sea, and unlike the bad old days, when it could be beans or spaghetti on toast after 8 p.m., full-service eateries are often packed at this hour.

Punting on the River AvonThe major cities of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have lots more to offer than their role as entry points before rushing off to the mountains, lakes, glaciers and coast. Culturally, the interpretation of Maori traditions, combined with a more open immigration policy, has resulted in a population no longer overwhelmingly dominated by the descendants of the original Anglo-Scottish-Irish settlers.

Our itinerary began in Auckland, near the top of the North Island, and finished at Milford Sound on the South Island's southwest coast. We stayed in bed and breakfasts throughout, chosen from the Friars' Guide to New Zealand Accommodation. For transportation, we used a well-integrated combination of trains, buses, ferries and rental cars. Travel passes, good for varying lengths of time, include rail, coach and interisland ferry, and the addition of a one-way flight provides a quick return north to Auckland for onward connections.

North Island

Most flights from North America land at Auckland early in the morning, and the hassle-free entry is a great introduction to New Zealand hospitality. From the airport, a half-hourly Air Bus commutes to the center of town, opposite the Ferry Building, which was built in 1912. From here we took a five-minute taxi ride to the Great Ponsonby Bed & Breakfast, located in a late 19th century neighborhood.

The frequent Link Bus passed within a block, making convenient loops to the 1,100-foot Sky City Tower, the Auckland Museum for Maori art and New Zealand settlement, the trendy Parnell District, the Maritime Museum and the waterfront. From the Ferry Building, Fullers' boats fan out across the harbor to take passengers to Rangitoto Island's volcanic park; to historic Devonport, where we took a walk and had a picnic, and to Waiheke Island, where we rented a car at the ferry dock.

Our Waiheke outing included vineyards and wine tastings and the popular Mudbrick Restaurant overlooking the sea, a gravel road loop through hilly sheep-farm country and lunch on an isolated beach. On two subsequent days, we toured Auckland's upscale suburbs; climbed Mount Eden and One Tree Hill, both extinct volcanoes within the city; visited a gannet-nesting colony at nearby Muriwai Beach, and circumnavigated the rugged Coromandel Peninsula.

Rotorua, a turn-of-the-century spa three hours from Auckland by car, bus or train, offered boiling hot springs; Maori art, crafts, architecture, dance and music; sheep demonstrations at the Agrodome, and a rainforest habitat for the kiwi and kea and other indigenous creatures.

To begin our journey south, we boarded Tranz Scenic's Overlander, occupying a pair of comfortable assigned seats for a scenic all day-ride to the capital at Wellington. Attendants brought morning coffee and afternoon tea and biscuits, and the buffet car served meat pies, curried chicken and freshly prepared salads and sandwiches. We found the rear observation lounge a friendly gathering spot for mingling with the locals who acted as our guides. The narrow-gauge line crosses farms and sheep ranches, winds through forests, valleys and a national park where 9,175-foot Mount Ruapehu put on a show of spewing steam.

Arriving at Wellington's grand harborfront railway station, we wheeled our bags up to the Tinakori Lodge, located in 19th century Thorndon, a neighborhood with restaurants, antique stores, hillside botanical gardens and a wooded hiking trail. The lodge is within easy walking distance of the city sights.

Fronting on the harbor, Te Papa, the new national museum, opened Feb. 14 and put Wellington on the must-see list for the creative interpretation of European, Maori and Chinese pioneering history and culture. Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Italian restaurants abound within a block and in the nearby Queens Wharf's food court.

The adjacent maritime museum shows an affecting documentary film of New Zealand's own "Titanic"-like disaster, which took place at the harbor entrance in 1968.

South Island

The often choppy Cook Strait divides the North Island from the South Island, and we enjoyed a happily calm, sunny three hours aboard the Interislander and reached Picton via scenic Marlborough Sound. We took a coach tour to nearby Marlborough's coastal, hill and valley country, which is New Zealand's most important wine region, and to Blenheim's botanical garden to see agapanthus, protea and hundreds of different roses in bloom.

From Picton, Tranz Rail's Coastal Pacific hugged the shoreline for half the four-hour ride south to Christchurch, an English-style garden city laid out by middle-class Anglo-Celtic immigrants in the mid-19th century. The River Avon, bordered by a tree-lined linear park, meanders through the city and botanical gardens, providing a footpath, boating and -- how English can you get -- punting. A useful tourist tram loops past the cathedral, art and natural history museums, antique center and leafy neighborhoods.

From Christchurch station, we took the country's most popular train, the daily Tranz Alpine that winds across the central mountain spine awash in the shades of lupine to the Tasman Sea port of Greymouth, where coaches connect to Franz Josef Glacier and 12,349-foot Mount Cook, or Aorangi, the country's highest peak.

Our next train, the Southerner, aimed south, a leisurely five-hour, coastal and farmland ride into Dunedin, an architecturally distinctive university city settled by Scottish Presbyterians. Dunedin's thriving commercial center, historic homes, well executed Settlers museum and Larnach Castle, a Scottish-style 19th century private hilltop home, will fill a day.

Based at the Edwardian-style Averleigh Cottage, within earshot of the breaking waves, we spent a second day on a nature cruise to see seals, sea birds and a royal albatross nesting ground and drove out to a protected colony for rare yellow-eyed penguins created by an enterprising sheep rancher.

From the opulent Dunedin Railway Station, the Taeri Gorge vintage tourist train offers a four-hour ride out through the countryside into a deep canyon. A one-way trip can be combined with an onward coach to lakeside Queenstown, where our driver dropped us off at Queenstown House overlooking the town. Queenstown is a major year-round tourist center for winter skiing and summer activities such as rafting, hiking, flightseeing and riding the mountain gondola car and steam-powered Kingston Flyer.

My favorite outing was aboard the well maintained Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamboat, circa 1912, that puffs across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak, a sheep station attraction that can be combined with an outdoor barbecue or a carvery dinner in a Victorian-style homestead. To reach Milford Sound, a fjord on the southwest coast, most options overnight outside the park at lakeside Te Anau.

Far more creative is Fiordland Travel's two-day combination Back Country Bus and Milford Wanderer overnight cruise. The trip began with a boat ride across the lake connecting to a 14-seat minibus that traveled over a good gravel road through gated sheep stations and deep into remote valleys.

We made stops to brew tea and have lunch and eventually returned to the main mountain pass road down into Milford Sound. At 4 p.m., we boarded the 75-passenger Milford Wanderer, a replica sailing scow with basic four-berth cabins and shared sets of showers and toilets, to cruise through the fjord, whose sheer cliffs are drenched in waterfalls, then out into the Tasman Sea, where we spotted dolphins, seals and penguins.

Travel pass holders took a one-way flight back to Auckland, but our return was more stylish -- a week's coastal cruise aboard the Seabourn Legend and then a flight home.

For more information on travel to New Zealand, contact: New Zealand Tourist Board, Phone: (310)-395-7480, Fax: (310) 395-5453, Web: www.nztb.govt.nz

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We were booked into bed and breakfasts in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Queenstown, all chosen from the Friars' Guide to New Zealand Accommodation. We found the guide provided accurate information and many useful details about locations and nearby activities.

Auckland

  • Great Ponsonby Bed & Breakfast. A beautifully decorated late 19th century, eight-room complex in the main house and out back in a separate unit. Location: A quiet neighborhood with many restaurants, and frequent bus service to the city center/waterfront, which is 10 minutes away. Rates: $65 to $79, Fax: (011) 64-9-376-5527, E-mail: [email protected]
  • Waiheke Island near Auckland

  • Gulf Haven Bed & Breakfast. A two-bedroom house with two self-sufficient suites in a separate building. Location: 35 minutes by frequent ferry from Auckland and free pick up service at dock. Secluded house overlooks sea, and lovely garden path winds down to the water; good walks, including into town. Car rental is advised for island tours. Rates: $42 to $81, Fax: (011) 64-9-372-8558, Web: nz.com/webnz/bbnz/haven.htm
  • Wellington

  • Tinakori Lodge Bed & Breakfast. A remodeled 1870 house overlooking city, with nine rooms, three with private facilities. Location: 19th century Thorndon neighborhood, which is home to several restaurants; 10 minutes on foot to city center and botanical gardens. Rates: $50 to $63. Fax: (011) 64-4-472-5554, E-mail: [email protected]
  • Dunedin

  • Averleigh Cottage. A stylish two-bedroom Edwardian house with private facilities in a lovely garden setting. Location: St. Clair seaside suburb has two restaurants and beach. Bus service is available to the city center four miles away. Rates: $95, Fax: (011) 64-3-455-6380, E-mail: [email protected]
  • Queenstown

  • Queenstown House. A small hotel with eight rooms overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Location: a 10-minute walk downhill to town, dock, bus station, and a wide choice of restaurants. Rates: $76 to $87 Fax: (011) 64-3-442-8755
  • To purchase, the Friars' Guide, which costs $13, contact Carole Eastwood.

    Fax: (011) 640-9-478-1010

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