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A New Zeal for New Zealand


© St. Petersburg Times

Far below the Equator -- closer to Antarctica than to Australia -- New Zealand may be distant, but it is on an upward ride. In 1999 it will host the Asian-Pacific Economic Summit, to be attended by President Clinton and other world leaders. At year's end, with its east coast abutting the International Dateline, it will be one of the first places on the planet where people will gather to celebrate the new millenium.

And in the year 2000, New Zealand will defend its tenacious hold on the America's Cup, then host a spin-off of tourists from the summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Meanwhile, after a dizzying whirl of market reform, so freewheeling it sent the postal system over to private enterprise, New Zealand is a capitalist's darling and a memorable addition to a traveler's portfolio.

The island nation is romancing U.S. tourists and investors, alike. Rewards await both -- after a 13-hour flight to Auckland from Los Angeles.

But that puts the only hard part of a trip to New Zealand behind you. The rest is easy. There is no language barrier; the country was settled by the British after Capt. James Cook discovered it in the 18th century. Luxury hotels and bed-and-breakfasts abound, and sparkling cities and spectacular countryside tempt with urban and rural attractions.

Most visitors arrive in Auckland, the North Island city that is home to about one-third of the country's 3.5-million residents. Its harborside downtown, whose skyline is now punctured by a towering "needle" named Sky City -- is reminiscent of Seattle or Toronto.

Seafood is king in the "City of Sails" and is shipped far and wide from the busy container port. In contrast, the port offers $5 ferry rides across the bay to Devonport, a quaint, turn-of-the-century town where fish-and-chips are standard fare.

Auckland is a good place to assess thriving commerce and take the pulse of the people. They're casual, unfailingly friendly and eager to talk. One subject you'll hear discussed is the strain of geographically imposed isolation.

Auckland is also a good place to get acquainted with the country's indigenous culture -- that of the Maoris. They are the Polynesians who preceded Cook to the islands by 800 years. The free City Museum holds the nation's finest Maori artifacts; its carved, high-prowed war canoes are stunning. Visitors can watch costumed Maori dancers present a traditional "challenge" each morning in the galleries; there are English explanations.

A day in the Rotorua district south of Auckland offers close-up views of Maori architecture and crafts, as well as an appreciation of the national effort to preserve the culture of the people who comprise 15 percent of the population.

Wellington -- about the size of St. Petersburg -- sits on the upper shore of Cook Strait, which divides New Zealand's North and South islands. The nation's capital, it is hub to government and home to embassies.

But, more visible, is its maritime preoccupation. Downtown streets lead to Queen's Wharf, a wide harbor quay flanked by waterside seafood restaurants and a stately sailing museum. Traditional buildings are a foil for the contemporary, jaunty sails that provide partial cover to the bustling esplanade.

This is where crowds watched the recent inaugural regatta promoting New Zealand's defense of the America's Cup. Wellington is the only site in the world where giant ocean racers come so close to shore that the seawall offers premium viewing, according to St. Petersburg's Ed Baird, who skippered the U.S. entry in the match race against Team New Zealand. (For the record, the U.S. lost the kick-off regatta.)

The wharf is a magnet for locals and visitors, but the residential hills that buttress downtown also beckon. The best way up is on the cable that climbs from a Lambton Quay station. For a dollar, a San Francisco-style car lifts riders to the Wellington Botanic Gardens on the hilltop. The view over the city and harbor below is framed by tropical flora, a much-photographed and painted scene.

Wellington can be seen best on foot, and the high gardens are a good starting point for a downward stroll. Short detours are worth taking: to narrow, crooked, Ascot Street crowded with pastel, clapboard cottages in Victorian trim; to Old St. Paul's Gothic Cathedral, clapboard, too.

As the sightseeing walk curves back downtown, it passes the gated complex where the New Parliament -- fittingly nicknamed The Beehive -- is a visual jolt alongside its traditional predecessor.

The fertile Wairarapa Valley, seat of New Zealand's burgeoning wine industry, is a short train ride outside the city. Whites have gained more recognition than reds, and wine is a good gift to bring home.

Christchurch, about an hour's flight from Wellington, is the principal city on the nation's South Island. It's easy to see why the city is described as "more English than England."

Spread on the flat Canterbury Plain just over the Cashmere Hills from Lyttleton Port on the Pacific, its urban center fans out around an Anglican cathedral and Botanic Gardens. Camellias the size of pancakes and trees that evoke Sherwood Forest help make the gardens among the most beautiful anywhere.

At their edge lie the city museum and the Arts Centre, a complex of craft studios and trendy cafes. Both are worth a visit and can be reached by foot from city center hotels or on the $4 tram that shuttles visitors around downtown.

Christchurch's great visual link to its British roots is the Avon River, meandering through the city and suburbs. Around every turn, weeping willows draping low banks give way to postcard scenes of straw-hatted punters poling wooden skiffs.

Because Christchurch is the launch site for scientific expeditions to the South Pole and McMurdo Research Station, the U.S. maintains an outfitting base adjacent to the Antarctic Centre at the airport. Permission must be obtained to gain entrance, but the Centre -- winner of New Zealand's "Best Tourist Attraction" award -- is open for a nominal admission fee. Visitors wander through artful displays, marvel at an IMAX-type film and romp in the new chamber where below-freezing temperatures keep snow in perpetual readiness for play.

South Island is considered one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. It sweeps south from Christchurch through pastures and hills dotted by sheep as plentiful as snowflakes. At the far end lie the spectacular Southern Alps. Rising above them is snow-capped Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest point at 12,000 feet. It is visible on a clear day's flight into Queenstown, an alpine resort perched on the abrupt rise of mountains ringing Lake Wakatipu.

A multitude of activities has put fast-growing Queenstown on the sportsman's map. Away from the ubiquitous souvenir shops that define the small downtown you'll find jet boat rides, whitewater rafting, four-wheel-drive safaris and skiing (June-August). The suspension bridge where bungy jumping originated is nearby.

Less challenging than some of Queenstown's activities is a ride across the lake on the TSS Earnslaw, a vintage steamer. It docks at Walter Peak sheep station. That's where stockmen, doubling as showmen for visitors, bark out commands that send sheepdogs bounding into the hills to round up their woolly charges. One of the sheep is then sheared, in a nearby shed, the stockman's electric clippers sweeping the body with skill and speed. In little more than a minute, the animal's coat is a pile of curls at its feet.

The stockman explains that New Zealand's famed circuit-riding shearers work at the rate of 300 sheep per day, earning about $1 per clip. In a nation that claims 50-million sheep, there is no shortage of work.

A "must" out of Queenstown is a trip to the country's legendary natural sight: Milford Sound, a fiord cut from the Tasman Sea on the west coast. It can be reached by foot (a four-day hike over the Milford Track), tour bus (all day, $150) or by plane or helicopter ($300 per person, weather permitting).

But a more flexible way to visit Milford Sound is to hire a driver and van holding six; at $300 for the day, it's a compromise in price, too. The road from Queenstown winds through rolling pastureland before entering Fiordland National Park, a bird-filled rain forest. Ferns cover the terrain and brush the sides of the road as it rounds gorges and hugs rocky cliffs with dramatic overviews.

The scenic drive ends at the boat landing where big catamarans, called Red Boats, wait to cruise Milford Sound. Some trips include an hour's stop at an underwater marine observatory ($32). The catamarans, clean and comfortable, are stocked with fresh deli food and have narration via loudspeaker. Plying close to shore, they catch waterfall spray off cliffs and close-ups of fur seals on shore. Bottle-nosed dolphins escort the boats to the mouth of the Tasman Sea.

The open upper deck affords expansive views of the fiord. In sunlight, its deep blue waters are matched in intensity by emerald green growth on enveloping canyon walls. In intermittent rain, the tableau is a study in grays. Either way, Milford Sound is breathtaking.

Back in Queenstown, a quick trip to the Bird Park Zoo provides one of the only opportunities to see New Zealand's national symbol, the flightless and nocturnal kiwi. A few are housed in a dark building where the setting replicates the outdoors. If you go New Zealand is about the size of Colorado, about 100,000 square miles. Because its population of 3.5-million furnishes an insufficient critical mass to fuel independent growth of its highly developed economy, the country actively seeks offshore capital investment. English and Maori are the official languages. The New Zealand dollar equals about 70 cents U.S. Time is 17 hours ahead of EDT.

Getting there: From Tampa Bay, the trip can take from 24-30 hours, depending on domestic connections and west coast layovers. Auckland is served from Los Angeles by Air New Zealand, United, Air France, British Airways and Qantas. Packages are available which make a trip with a stopover in Tahiti cheaper than direct flights to Auckland; check with your travel agent or airline.

Getting around: Contrary to what the kiwi suggests, New Zealand is a pacesetter in the air with a domestic network that is a model: flights are on time, planes are spotless, service is attentive and food is plentiful. Because the country's crime rate is negligible, there are no security checks for domestic flights. Air New Zealand and Ansett are the domestic carriers.

Rail connections also are available. Cities and airports have major car rental companies. Driving is on the left, and, as in Britain, roundabouts facilitate traffic at intersections.

The weather: Weather is Wellington's liability; wind off the water can be fierce, and more days are wet than dry. Savvy visitors don't venture far without rain gear -- and they should steel themselves for bumpy airport landings.

New Zealand's seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere. That makes December-February popular months to visit, though "shoulder seasons" on either end mean fewer crowds. The risk is more rain.

Staying there: Executive hotels, country retreats, seaside and alpine resorts, as well as bed-and-breakfasts, are scattered throughout the country.

The Maoris: New Zealand's original inhabitants have kept pressure on the government for jobs, educational opportunities and redress of grievances triggered by 19th-century land seizures. Today, Maoris hold 15 of the 120 seats in Parliament, as well as three Cabinet posts and the deputy prime minister's post. Nevertheless, isolated agitation exists. Freelance writer Royce Haiman lives in St. Petersburg.

Originally published August 24, 1997

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