Wednesday, September 26, 2012

New Zealand adventures, Part I

New Zealand adventures, Part I
by Gregory Speck

If you're up for getting as far away from things as possible, yet want to remain comfortable and entertained, remote and exotic New Zealand offers a special flavor of Polynesian culture and British dominion, featuring unique resorts among natural wonders amid charming historic cities. 
 
Its gateway metropolis of Auckland is about 16 hours west of Los Angeles, and in layout and atmosphere is quite similar to charismatic Sydney nearby in Australia, spreading as it does around a breathtakingly beautiful beach-fringed and island-studded harbor and bay, which itself opens into the glorious gulf of Hauraki on the Pacific; graceful boats abound here, from the America's Cup winner to spacious catamarans that take you out to visit a world of dolphins and whales.
There are around 50 volcanoes within the vast urban area, many of them enormous green cones now grazed by distinctive flocks of rare sheep, surrounded by lovely parks of towering trees, such as One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park, all within the immediate vicinity of captivating neighborhoods, such as Parnell and Ponsonby, as well as Auckland's wonderful eponymous cultural museum, its superb zoo, and its handsome historic harbor. 
Auckland Museum.
One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park.
Scenes from the Auckland Zoo.
No one is quite sure when the Maoris arrived or from whence they came, but they do regard as their oldest myth a tale of a great navigator from Hawaii, whose war with the resident sorcerer led to earthquakes, eruptions, and tidal waves, as if Neptune fought Vulcan right here in the Atlantean age.  Their elaborate and sophisticated carvings also reflect a polytheistic dynasty, and are to be found on the imposing interior walls of their majestic wooden temples, and on their gigantic oceanic boats.  
 
Abel Tasman.
Captain James Cook
New Zealand got its name in 1642 as Nieuw Zeeland, when a disoriented Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman sailed south from Indonesia (the Tasmanian devil is his most notorious namesake, among many in the area, from sea to island to wolf/tiger).  Four of Abel's hapless crew were killed by the Maori natives in Golden Bay at the northern end of the south island, so no European returned until 1769, when the intrepid British traveller Captain James Cook arrived with his French cohort Jean-François-Marie de Surville.
 
Cook himself lost nine crew members to Maori cannibals on subsequent tours, but barely complained, knowing what was good for business from abroad, so by the 1790s whaling ships regularly visited the north island, and fur sealing became a major incentive for violent entrepreneurs on the south. 
 
Then in 1814 the first Christian mission to convert the natives was established on the north in the picturesque Bay of Islands, opposite the notorious town of Kororareka, "the hellhole of the Pacific," according to the moralistic Anglicans who had come to clean it up. 
 
They were appalled by the nightly drunken orgies on the beach, with wanton sailors from New England whaling ships publicly revelling with naked prostitutes in and out of the still standing bordellos of quaint Russell, as it is now known;  resentment was further exascerbated by the lascivious abandon enjoyed by the many debased Australian penal colony parolees who made it here to this south seas outpost of debauchery. 
 
By the 1820s more rectitudinous Scottish and German settlers began to exploit the extensive forests of tremendous trees for lumber export, and sheep farming created a very profitable flax industry from all that wool, not to mention the mutton.
 
Against this decadent but rigorous backdrop of imperial colonial expansion through agriculture, shipping, and trade, towns around the young nation sprouted up, with combination Polynesian and Caucasian populations, fostering the many so-called Maori, musket, and military wars, fought almost throughout the 19th century. 
 
Of course, the pivotal 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, presented by the Crown to the residents of New Zealand, who were represented by 40 of their illiterate tribal chiefs, has ever since remained the great document of that nation's still contested inheritance.
 
British envoy William Hobson.
Written and signed by the British envoy William Hobson on the very grounds of the original Anglican missionary, the treaty states that Queen Victoria hereby announces the terms of British citizenship to her new subjects;  between the interpretation and the translation a number of ambiguous disagreements were overlooked. 
 
A resentful antagonism by the Maori population toward their European arrivistes has thus persisted, not to mention the feud of Kiwis with Aussies, and so the big news when I arrived on Waitangi Day, was a major demonstration advocating rebellion along the lines one once saw in South Africa; here the Maoris are far outnumbered, but in South Africa the blacks counted 12 to 1 against the whites.
 
In any case, the policy of once officially abhorred miscegenation (political expediency and sociological reality) has worked wonders over the centuries in at last calming things down, and after nearly 200 years of strife between Maori and white, no one feels entirely white; since all the Kiwis seem so mixed up you will feel yourself as normal as a Hobbit.
 
Mollie's Boutique Hotel is the perfect answer for escapees from Wonderland, given its rarified seductions of elegant guest suites hidden among fanciful decor, and its sensual delights of excellent cuisine and live opera concerts, all gently removed from the main bustle;  if you prefer to be sleeping there, then you can find the chic Hotel DeBrett, way downtown in the center city. 
Mollie's Boutique Hotel.
 Hotel DeBrett, downtown in the center city. 
Nearby all of it is the remarkable art gallery, itself part French chateau, part sleek streak, and the eccentric but lovingly preserved 19th century haunted museum mansions of Highwic and Alberton, as well as Ewelme Cottage, each with its own peculiar architecture and family melodrama. 
Auckland Art Museum.
 Highwic.
Alberton.
Ewelme Cottage
If you are in Auckland on a Sunday, do try the venerable old St. Patrick's cathedral for its exquisite ceiling beam woodwork and mesmerizing stained glass, or maybe that of Old St. Mary's church up beyond the Winter Garden in the park known as Domain. 
St. Patrick's cathedral.
Old St. Mary's.
The Winter Garden in Domain. 
There is even the spacious botanic gardens, out in the suburbs that themselves were clearly developed in the last few decades a la California, and of course the secluded cliffside beaches for naked adventurers.
As noted, it takes quite a while to fly this far around the world, but at the airport your rental car will await, and this time I chose Hertz (be aware that except for the multi-lane superhighways around the major cities, the "main" roads are only one lane in each direction, on the "other" side).  Since there are so many perfectly wonderful five-star guest lodges all over both islands, and so many national parks, primeval forest preserves, and seaside landscapes to experience, it makes sense to drive, if you dare (given the log trucks, the police speed traps, and the highest tech parking ticketry ever) among fairly distant destinations, rather than to fly, if you want to understand this land made more famous than it ever was before by "The Lord of the Rings."  
 
If you head north from Auckland to the idyllic Bay of Islands you will find the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the original 1833 pre-fabricated Mission House is now an atmospheric museum, flanked by the almost magical Te Whare Runanga, a Maori meeting house erected to commemorate that 1840 event.  Inside a coronation throne echoing the more famous one in Westminster Abbey is on display, complete with a rock under the seat to resemble the so-called Jacob's Pillow, or Stone of Scone. Nearby is Whare Waka, a shed housing an elaborately carved ceremonial war canoe, a mysterious mangrove forest, and an excellent Visitor Center where you are treated to live performances of the Haka, or war dance.
1833 pre-fabricated Mission House.
A coronation throne in Te Whare Runanga.
An elaborately carved ceremonial war canoe.
A mangrove forest in Whare Waka.
Across the tranquil bay lies the once scandalous town of Russell, and above it the ultra-posh resort known as Eagle's Nest.  Developed by the American realty tycoon Sandy Biskind, this futuristic group of super-elegant villas seems like a James Bond set, with hundred-foot-long vanishing pools overlooking the dazzling waters far below, personal chefs who arrive at the private villas to prepare six course gourmet meals for the guests, who have included Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and enough bedrooms for a rock star's entourage. 
A look around Eagle's Nest.
As someone once said, "If you have to ask the price, you cannot afford it," and indeed the presidential villa rents for about $35,000 nightly, though it does come with a nice Porsche.  The other smaller but still very chic bungalows, which feature at least three bedrooms each, can be had for only $3,500 per night.  Game fishing, deep sea diving, jet boating, parasailing, sky diving, horseback riding,  and helicopter tours are of course on offer for the energetic, if one does not want to submit to the extensive menu of spa and massage programs on offer.
Down below at the Russell seaside you can board a fast boat to the remarkable Hole in the Rock, or visit the historic Pompallier Mission, where demonstrations reveal how early French settlers tanned leather to bind books that they printed within the building.  Outdoor enthusiasts may prefer to spend time at roaring Haruru Falls, and then to venture farther north to Kerikeri, to see the even more beautiful Rainbow Falls and the atmospheric Kemp Mission House, across from New Zealand's oldest stone building, now an evocative museum known as the Stone Store.
Riding a fast boat to the Hole in the Rock.
Pompallier Mission.
Haruru Falls.
Kemp Mission House.
The renowned Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, just up the road at spectacular Matauri Bay, is among the most luxurious on the island, and was created by the American hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, whose profits from Tiger Management have transformed his purchase of 6,000 acres 800 feet above the shining sea into a worldclass golf course.  Perched atop pristine beaches and anchored by a sumptuously furnished mansion, this showpiece hotel was designed by Wade Setliff and Kerry Avery, decorated by Virginia Fisher, and landscaped by Geoff Pickles. 
The very spacious guest cottages are tucked away in what seems a rainforest set for "Jurassic Park," with stately Kauri trees and enormous ferns abounding, exotic birds strutting about, and an attentive staff to anticipate your every whim, whether it is cocktails by the pool, a sybaritic picnic by the shore, a rejuvenating spa treatment, or 18 holes before a banquet at twilight.  The understated elegance of this wonderful resort have enchanted both Bill Gates and Bette Midler, too, so once you get there you may just want to stay.  When you leave be sure to do the Puketi Forest walk among the giant Kauri trees, larger than Redwoods but smaller than Sequoias, and check out Uretiti Beach, a favorite among nudists.
South of Auckland Hamilton Gardens in the city bearing its name offers a paradisical choice of styles in which to stroll, embracing English, Italian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese forms, and nearby, outside the town of Matamata, Hobbiton allows Tolkien fans the chance to visit the set of The Shire, where Bilbo and Frodo Baggins reside in the side of rolling farm hills. 
To the east near the Coromandel peninsula Bushland Park Lodge offers a rustic but deluxe retreat, combining the atmosphere of Big Sur with Black Forest cuisine in a sort of "Green Acres" fantasy created by Reinhard and Petra Nickel.  Across the verdant lawn and lily pond, beyond the huge open-air bathtub at their charming guest house, one can at midnight visit a colony of glow worms, who have set up their light show to attract insects for dinner, at a little waterfall in a now abandoned gold mine.
Inland from the vast Bay of Plenty, where you can repose in the dunes or splash in the waves on the inviting naturist beach of Papamoa, Rotorua constitutes a major center of tourist activities and exceptional hospitality choices.  The oldest of these is surely the handsome 19th century Princes Gate Hotel, which wooden structure was dismantled and moved to its present location outside the manicured Government Gardens. 
Within this floral park is the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, which was originally a vast bathhouse; since 1908 it has attracted a global clientele of patrons, who as early as 1874 have sought relief in the thermal springs and mud baths that steam and boil all around the lakeside town.
Among New Zealand's most captivating presentations of Maori heritage, this monumental Tudor-style museum also features state of the art but now antique bath house facilities, which by today's standards look like torture chambers.  If you want to feel shaken up just go into the volcanoe theatre, to see how the early Maori and English settlements, as well as the famed sulphuric terraces at adjacent Lake Terawera,  were destroyed in recent eruptions and quakes.  In contrast, the Polynesian Spa (just beyond the so-called Blue Baths nightclub next door) offers a full range of modern hot springs bathing facilities, where you can cook yourself in a rocky pool while gazing out over Lake Rotorua. 
The thermal wonderland of nearby Wai-O-Tapu will astound the most loyal fan of Yellowstone, with its bubbling craters of boiling mud, yellow fog steaming from the infernal bowels, deep lakes of vivid chartreuse, pools of opaque cerulean, and quivering caves leading to the unknown. 
Close by is the equally astonishing Waimangu volcanic valley, where geothermal activity has simmered into scarlet ponds, throbbed for ages along heaving cracks, and transformed the fecund land into a virtual fleshpot of geological oddities and botanical rareties. 
Rotorua is also possibly the best place to see Kiwis, those adorable flightless birds, the midgets of the ostrich family, known collectively as rattites, all of them relatives of the extinct New Zealand Moa, a giant ostrich, which several centuries ago was wiped out by the hungry Maoris.  Its Rainbow Springs wildlife park offers an exceptional ornithological experience to observe these highly endangered birds, thanks to their breeding and reintroduction programs, which are repopulating remote sanctuaries all over both islands.  Surprisingly, New Zealand covers a land mass larger than Great Britain, approximately that of Japan, basically equal to California, with which it enjoys many felicitous climatic and topographical features in common, though its animals are unique.
Te Puia at the Whakarewarewa thermal reserve offers not only reliably potent Pohutu, the Prince of Wales geyser, which ejects a steaming plume at frequent predictable intervals, but also an otherworldly hike through alien landscapes, as well as theatrical productions of Maori song and dance. 
On a bluff high above the extinct volcanic crater, which is now Lake Rotorua itself, Peppers on the Point guest lodge presides as a glamorous member of the Peppers hotel chain, which necklace of pearls is strung around the South Seas of Australasia.
Less central for those seeking privacy is Solitaire guest lodge, set in the jungle on a lake still famous for its unearthly terrace formations, long ago captured by daring painters, but subsequently lost to sudden violent eruptions, which have in fact killed many prominent personalities over the years. Down the way from that retreat, and past the famed buried village, still stands the majestic redwood grove, planted years ago to discover how compatible the big trees of our golden state were with the fertile land down under:  very much indeed.
Treetops Lodge just outside Rotorua is surely among the most irresistible resort/estates on the entire circuit, set as it is back in the mountainous jungle, with imported stag herds of European Red Deer (Elk), Indian Swamp Deer (Sambar), Japanese Sika Deer, Turkish Fallow Deer, and even Indian Water Buffalo roaming about with the frisky white Arapawa rams (Catalina billy goats) and occasional Alpacas.  The central stone fortress of this hunter's palace, the creation of famed naturalist John Sax, features all the ultimate amenities, from haute cuisine and impeccable service to baronial decor and thrilling activities, and guests reside in private villas hidden among the lush tropical vegetation.
To the south Lake Taupo itself beckons, first with its celebrated Huka Falls, a rushing torrent that cascades at your feet, and then with the charming Acacia Cliffs guest lodge, sporting a flower-framed view across New Zealand's largest and most recreation-oriented lake.  The exceptionally sophisticated cuisine by owner Rick Whitlock is matched by the hospitality of his wife Linda, and their European clientele have become regular visitors.