Land of the rings

New Zealand is in mourning after the Christchurch earthquake, but it continues to welcome visitors. Pól Ó Conghaile celebrates one of the world’s greatest destinations

A DECADE or so back, Lord of the Rings location scouts flew the length and breadth of New Zealand in search of a convincing Shire. The pressure was on to get the location for this idyllic village, where viewers first meet Frodo Baggins and his hobbit chums, absolutely right.

From the air, the scouts spotted a sheep and beef farm outside the small town of Matamata. It was flawless. The rolling hills of Waikato seemed a carbon copy of Tolkien’s rural England, and a noble old pine stood by the lakefront — a perfect match for the Party Tree.

Notified about the find, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson travelled to meet the Alexander family, who own the Waikato farm. He knocked on the door.

“Come back later,” he was told. “We’re watching rugby.”

It’s a story that by now has spread all over the world — as much an illustration of how sleepy rural New Zealand seemed before a movie franchise transformed it into the Land of the Rings, as how utterly obsessed every last Kiwi seems to be with their national sport.

You can imagine, then, the anticipation stirring ahead of this September’s Rugby World Cup. New Zealand is the host nation and the All Blacks are favourites — but there’s one little problem. The All Blacks haven’t won the Holy Grail since 1987.

Of course, there’s more on New Zealanders’ minds than the Rugby World Cup right now. February’s earthquake in Christchurch was a jolting tragedy, and Tourism New Zealand has been working alongside government and industry to support the local response.

The message is brave and defiant. “New Zealand is open, welcoming and operating as normal,” it says. Visitors are advised to avoid travel to certain parts of Christchurch, but actively encouraged to visit the rest of the country. You’ll find latest updates on tourismnewzealand.com.

One of the Canterbury attractions touted as operating normally is Kaikoura, a famous staging point for boat trips seeking out encounters with Giant Sperm Whales. Kaikoura is also visited by the world’s largest dolphin, the Orca, as well as fur seals, migrating Humpbacks and the endangered Wandering Albatross. Get lucky, and you’ll get an sampling of Pacific marine life.

But Whale Watch Kaikoura (whalewatch.co.nz) is interesting for another reason too. The company is owned and run by the indigenous Kati Kuri people, Maoris said to be descended from Paikea, the Whale Rider, who legend tells came to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands on the back of a whale.

Prior to the company’s set-up in 1987, many local Maori were unemployed. Kaikoura was in decline. But Kati Kuri leaders believed the local Sperm Whales held the answer. So it proved: whale watching is now one of the country’s top draws.

New Zealand’s Maori communities have suffered appalling discrimination and continue to record poorer outcomes in education and employment than other New Zealanders. But tourism has opened up whole new opportunities for their culture.

Take the sightseeing tours around Mount Taranaki, the 2,518m volcano standing above the harbour town of New Plymouth, where Ireland play the USA on September 11. Taranaki Tours (taranakitours.com) takes you through goblin rainforests, to Dawson’s Falls and around the lower slopes of the moody mountain itself, sprinkling the tour with insights into Maori culture.

“I think tourism is a way the Maori can once again stand tall and be who we are,” as one of the Taranaki Tours guides told me. His words are echoed in the Te Papa Museum in Wellington (the name means “our place”), which tells the story of the Maori and their experience in Aotearoa — the land of the long white cloud — after they arrived from Polynesia some 1,000 years ago.

Rotorua, a hissing hotspot of springs and geysers, is another stop full of Maori moments. The whole spa thing feels a bit touristy here, as do the staged hangi feasts, but if you can swing a home-stay or linger after the traditional hongi greetings (where visitors touch noses), you’ll get something from it.

Wellington is my favourite city in New Zealand — a mini-metropolis that rebooted in the noughties, ramping up the confidence and cosmopolitanism thanks in no small part to the success of Peter Jackson’s Weta studios. It’s surrounded by Lord of the Rings locations like Mount Victoria (Hobbiton Woods) and Kaitoke Park (Rivendell), but I’d advise starting with the city centre.

It’s a boutique visit, only 2km or so wide, and huddled tightly between harbour and hills — giving a lovely, fresh waterfront feel. Gourmet coffee, an organic salad at Nikau at the City Gallery, the 1970s-style ‘Beehive’ parliament building, or kayaking in the harbour — it’s got all the swank and sophistication that can be lacking in the Kiwi countryside.

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city, but part of its charm is the closeness to nature.

There is grape-grazing in Martinborough, hiking and horse-riding in Wairarapa or, in typical New Zealand style, you could take a 4WD tour in a Mercedes Benz Unimog army truck (cattours.co.nz).

On this note, New Zealand is famous for its wacky take on adrenaline sports, and rightly so. This is a country where you can go canyoning, caving, jet-boating, rafting, zorbing, heli-skiing, snowboarding, diving, surfing, hiking and skiing in the Southern Alps. Adrenaline is a currency.

My own heart-in-mouth moment came at the Nevis bungy-jump (bungy.co.nz) outside Queenstown. Standing 134m above a canyon in a cable car suspended above the precipice, I poked my toes over the precipice, took a huge breath, and dived into what felt like certain death. Eight seconds later, I was still falling. My whooping and roaring filled the whole canyon.

If you’re travelling in September or October, of course, you may have less interest in bungy jumps than the adrenaline rush of rugby itself. If so, you’ll find the best memorabilia and All Black anecdotes at the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in Dunedin.

Even if you can’t make September (the prices are already astronomical), you can catch Super 15 games right up to July, and Tri-Nations games in Wellington and Auckland. Tourism New Zealand on its website (newzealand.com/travel/UK-Ireland) suggests several rugby road trips too.

New Zealand is breathtakingly diverse. All of this, without even mentioning Tongariro National Park or the glo-worm infused caves of Waitomo, the glaciers of Mount Aspiring National Park or the deep fjords of its southern tip. I guess that’s why it proved the ideal landscape for Lord for the Rings.

The sights

The harbourside capital of Wellington, whale-watching in Kaikoura, Maori tours of Mount Taranaki, and steel yourself for at least one bungee jump, skiing in the Southern Alps.

The shopping

Merino wool and adventure gear are good bets as lasting souvenirs, and you may pick up a little something in the malls and boutiques of Wellington and Auckland. The local paua shell is pretty too.

The food

The key to eating in New Zealand is to eat what comes from the country. Rotorua is the place for traditional Maori hangi feasts (cooked in underground ovens), Canterbury is known for its lamb, and if you go grape-grazing in Marlborough, try the scallops with your Sauvignon Blanc.

Flights and packages

Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.co.uk) flies from London via Hong Kong or LA; Qantas (qantas.co.uk) flies via Singapore and Sydney; Etihad (etihadairways.com) flies via Abu Dhabi and Sydney, Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.co.uk) flies via London and Singapore.

TravelMood (01 4331040; travelmood.ie) has return flights from €1,183pp.

Trevor Brennan Rugby Tours (1890 253171; trevorbrennanrugbytours.com) has a 9-night tour taking in three RWC pool games, including Ireland V Australia, for €3,999pp.

Airport info

Irish passport holders do not require a visa to enter New Zealand, providing they are visiting for three months or less. Strict bio-security rules require the declaration of all foods, plants, homeopathic medicines, sports and hiking equipment on arrival. See biosecurity.govt.nz

Picture: Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and has outstanding volcanic features.

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