Thursday, 30 April 2009

Slow, Slower & Almost Stopped – Backwards to Waiheke

There’s a bit of an urban myth that pilots, having glided their fly-by-wire Airbii or Boeings in over Manukau City or its harbour, welcome their Crackberry-addicted and laptop-toting passengers ‘to Auckland, where the local time is 1953.’ It would be funny, were it not so true.

The thing is, New Zealand is the one of the World’s cul-de-sacs. No-one, since the dawn of Man, has yet found a plausible reason to be ‘just-passing’ New Zealand. It’s as far as you can go, the end of the line, a terminus country. It’s somewhere that quite a few folks visit, passing on their way in the steady flow of locals on their way out. It’s a country that one or two have escaped to, in search of that utopian ‘better quality of life’, but despite almost 700 years of human presence, has managed to hang on to a population only two thirds the size of London’s.

The South Island (commonly: ‘the one with the sheep and the scenery’) troubles itself with less than half the number of people than call Manchester home.

The North Island (‘the one with the Politicians’) clings on to some semblance of modernity with the capital, Wellington, and the most populous city, Auckland within its shores.

Together, they form 95% of the land area of a country that has been described as ‘beige’ by Billy Connolly and one that has just woken up to the fact that the designations North Island and South Island actually have no legal validity.

The politicians have decided, therefore, to have a contest to decide the official names of the two rocks at the end of the Earth but, apparently, the Kiwis are quite keen on maintaining the status quo. For which read: can’t be bothered to vote. So, instead, I’ll make a suggestion:

North Island: Saga

South Island: Gaga

Job done.

Anyway, if New Zealand has the air of England under Anthony Eden, then the island of Waiheke (Why-Heckie) is more Larkrise to Candleford, if not Flintstones. Traditionally a weekend retreat from the urban frenzy of Auckland (yes, really – they think that Auckland’s a frenzy), Waiheke has only relatively recently come under the control of the municipal authorities.

Never a country to trouble itself unduly with planning rules or building standards, the former lack of regulations of any kind on the island seem to have rendered a goodly part of it a cross between Soweto and Magalluf. It’s not a happy combination.

Thankfully, perhaps, drivers are unlikely to chance upon Waiheke by accident. The peculiarly Kiwi approach to road-signage (minimal, incomplete, non-existent) puts off all but the most determined of navigators who, when they finally spot the only sign which does bear the name ‘Half Moon Bay’ – the port for the island’s car ferry - will see that it points up a hill and away from it’s intended target.

There is, on the face of it, a choice to be made between two ferry companies: Sealink and Waiheke Shipping. The latter lost its maritime licence in mid 2008, only to see it reinstated a few months later without any publically-announced changes to its operation. Run by the Subritzky family, their barge puts one quietly in mind of a Pacific version of Para Handy’s Vital Spark, and the Chief Engineer also makes the teas and coffees.

That sinking feeling washing over us, we booked instead with the Sealink competition, only to find the credit card statement showed ‘Subritzky’ and the two companies' offices on the slipway at HMB looked suspiciously close for comfort.

There is, in fairness, one quite separate alternative to the slightly suspicious Subritzky combo: Fuller’s, who sail directly from the City (and Devonport on the harbour’s North Shore), but this is a passenger-only service to Matiatia on Waiheke.

The Snot was loaded cautiously aboard and off we set for the island.

The crossing was commendably swift and thankfully supermarine, although our arrival at the vehicular wharf at Kennedy Point came at the expense of the Captain having to suspend his game of cards with the crew.

Again in true New Zealand style, the friendly, chatty arrangements to be met at the wharf by the lady from the accommodation agency through which we’d booked our temporary Castle Continentalclub came to nothing, and we sat in The Snot for half an hour looking like the lost tourists we were.

A call to the office elicited the news that said lady had quit the company the day before, and left no note of our arrival. Thankfully, the sole remaining employee hopped in her jalopy (if it’s a new car in New Zealand, it’s almost undoubtedly Hertz or Avis) and came to rescue us. Not much help for anyone else now trying to call the office, of course…..

She led us to our shed, through the streets of shanties and eventually round the back of the Retravision electrical shop’s service yard. It’s fair to say that, at this point, prayers were being offered up to anyone who would listen, but most specifically to St Regis of Starwood or any of his canonised co-brands.

One of them must have been listening because, despite the inauspicious arrival, CastleContinentalclub itself turned out to be really rather lovely – and our new angel of the accommodation agency, Joanne, absolutely fantastic (though clearly overworked).

In an ideal World, the unlovely building with the red tin roof twixt our house and the sea wouldn’t have been there, and the advertised washing machine would have been a mite more useful had it been connected to water or power, and not left standing in the middle of the garage like a lifeboat adrift at sea.

The angelic Joanne came up with a super solution however: the use of some adjacent lettings with multiple laundries, and also dropped by without delay to complete some items missing from the inventory. She then administered a swift Kiwi kick-up-the-butt to the contract cleaners, who returned to make a better job of cleaning the balcony barbecue than they’d previously managed.

Not exactly the smoothest of arrivals, but all was well in the end.

Our accommodation was located in Waiheke’s largest favela, Oneroa (on-er-oh-a), a higgledy-piggledy collection of tateramas and coffee-shops catering largely to the daily influx of grockles on the Fuller’s passenger ferry. Landed, bussed about and then washed away again at teatime, their blue-rinses are somewhat incongruous as they sip their fair-trade latte, served slowly by a tie-dyed grunger who’d rather be doing anything but feeding the capitalist machine.

Looking carefully down the alleys and passageways which wind between buildings whose very existence owes more to MDF than civil engineering, there are a few decent eateries to be found – the Skinny Sardine and Vino Vino to name but two.

The latter restaurant owes its name to Waiheke’s latest wheeze to draw in the boatloads – the race to cover the most unlikely patches of earth with grapes. Now, it’s to the island’s credit that no-one actually claims that the vines or their output wines are any good. No, they’re just there. Most of the vineyards play host to a restaurant (suggestions that planting a vineyard next to your restaurant is merely a landscaping exercise are entirely unfounded) and these provide additional opportunities for busloads to be parted with the contents of their purses and wallets, or to attract mainlanders for their nuptials.

Cable Bay, for example, is one of the latest additions to the Waiheke ‘Wedding Factory’ scene and, perhaps to help make the young loves feel at home, is built very much in the style of a provincial British primary school of the mid 70s.

Despite being open for a couple of years, it seems not to have occurred to its owners that building a drive might take precedent over a swanky sign, but there again neither have they troubled themselves to plant very many vines, either. Or perhaps the vast and patchy lawn out front is designed to allow uninterrupted views from the classroom/restaurant.

Which would be fair enough, were the view not entirely uninterrupted by anything of note for miles and miles and miles, other than a modern art installation reminiscent of an earthquake-wobbled windmill and, with the essential assistance of military-grade binoculars, Auckland city in the very far distance.

Of course, neither focused winemaker nor restaurateur might be expected to deal with such practical matters, concentrating instead on the delivery of luscious libations and delectable dinners. Cable Bay however, in at least a demonstration of remarkable consistency, declined to bother with decent food or wine either.

Little of which would appear to conspire to make Waiheke a particularly attractive destination for the World traveller. However, you’d be wrong in assuming that because, apart from the early celestial discovery of Joanne and CastleContinentalclub, Waiheke’s charms are more subtle and reward not those who swarm around the jampots, but those who explore a little further.

Actually, the first reward comes just by turning eyes away from the island for a moment. The aforementioned alley-accessed restaurants sit above Oneroa Bay, a sheltered and protected bay of warm, shallow waters ideal for sea-swimming, kayaking and watching the passing boats.

It’s far from paradisical, but it’s lovely nonetheless and, from the terrace of Castle CC or those restaurants, the sunsets over the sparkling Pacific waters are beautiful.

A little away from the main street of Oneroa, you’ll also find The Boatshed. On an island which is severely underserved by accommodation options of quality (or size), The Boatshed stands out as a beacon of stylish and luxurious comfort. Boasting uniquely individual rooms and first-class food, The Boatshed is at the pinnacle of comparable hospitality offerings - not just on the island but, arguably, in the greater Auckland area.

Just one thing though: don’t expect it to be anywhere near the sea. Any part of the hotel being used as a boatshed would require global warming on an epic scale, or a flood of biblical proportions. Located half way up the hillside, its creatively-licensed title is forgiven by its excellence, however.

And its ability to allow its guests to avoid some of the privations involved in reaching Waiheke even extends to arranging helicopter transfers from Auckland Airport – a worthwhile alternative to the car ferry.

Passing Ostend, the central lowland area of the island is home to mangrove swamp and the more commercial and prosaic of island businesses - here you'll find the main supermarket, for example - before the landscape becomes more rural and the Waiheke Golf Club drapes the foothills. Opposite the Golf Club is one of the island’s more notable businesses – the Shearing Shed barbers. Make your way up the farm track to a converted stable and, assuming that sheep and miniature horses aren’t taking precedent, gentlemen may be relieved of their flowing locks in a slightly Wild West set up.

Next along the road, and continuing Waiheke’s seeming obsession with place names beginning with ‘O’, is Onetangi (On-euh-tang-ee), but the real treat begins with a turning to the right, just before the town is entered.

This turn marks the entrance to the ‘Bottom End’, an area of Waiheke that has gone almost untouched by the hand of restaurant developers, and unseen by the busloads of daytrippers. The initially sealed, then unsealed road makes its way through what can only be described as a pastoral eden of rolling hills clad in emerald green grass and studded with the most handsome of cattle and cloud-like sheep.

Every twist in the road is to enter another scene from an Anchor Butter commercial. Through densely-ferned dells and past babbling streams, the road which loops around the Bottom End finally emerges across a tiny bridge and a cattle grid to the stunningly beautiful Man o’War Bay.

Named (like so much else hereabouts) by Captain Cook, it’s a place to spend a long, lazy day with a picnic and a few decent bottles of wine (from somewhere else in New Zealand, obviously).

The more adventurous can take the walking trail up to Stony Batter, but most would prefer to do no more than watch the lapping waters and the anchoring of the odd boat in this sheltered spot.

Which is surely what an island retreat is all about, is it not?

What Did The Romans Ever Do For New Zealand?

The answer, of course, being: nothing. Nor were they likely to, since they had no idea that it existed. However you’d have thought that the vast majority of those who’ve since settled Aotearoa - The Land of The Long White Cloud - would have picked up at some point that the Roman idea of building roads in straight lines, directly linking origins and destinations, was a not half bad one.

Well, they haven’t. Let’s take Auckland as an example. There are two motorways in the metropolitan area. One goes to the airport and one goes to the city. The two motorways are miles apart and separated by densely-packed suburbia. At no point has anyone apparently said: ‘look lads, this is a bit daft. If we’re going to call it ‘Auckland Airport’, shouldn’t we have a road that goes between ‘Auckland’ and the ‘Airport.’

Nope, far better to ram the traffic down a maze of side streets and clear off to London to make your fortune.

When, through accident or design, a straight-line road does occur, it’s invariably far too narrow for the traffic that needs to use it. The Auckland Harbour Bridge, hardly a thing of beauty other than in the dead of a moonless night during a power-failure, links the city centre to the burgeoning North Shore. It’s the only practical means of connecting the two (other than an unsurprisingly circuitous 40km route through the hills) but, in a remarkable lack of foresight for a rapidly developing country, was built as if it might get the odd horse and cart crossing it.

The original plan was to include railway tracks in the design, but whether for cost reasons or because they just forgot, it opened with just two lanes for road traffic in either direction.

Just ten years after it opened, a Japanese company was contracted to build additional lanes to be fitted to the outboard parapets of the bridge, and the nickname ‘Nippon Clip-ons’ was promptly applied. The increased width doesn’t even begin to deal with the levels of traffic now trying to use the crossing, and rush-hour jams regularly begin at 5.30am and extend for miles in each direction. And, as if drivers’ nerves aren’t frayed enough by the time they finally manage to get onto the bridge, they’re unlikely to be comforted by the 2007 press publication of a report which concluded that the Clipons are at risk of sudden and catastrophic failure in certain circumstances. Which would, presumably, be quite messy.

Things are arguably worse once the city limits are finally reached. For here, showing remarkable courage in the face of blinding common sense, recent New Zealand governments have presided over the closure of almost all of the country’s rail network. Accordingly, the bulk freight which used to amble from forest, farm and factory to port and processing along the iron road, now shares the winding lanes which twist and turn through every ditch and dip that the landscape possesses, cheek by jowl with the swarms of aged (non-rental) Kiwi cars. Although, in fairness, it still used to share the roads, even when it was on the rails....

Yes, rest assured that if there’s a way to get from A to B that goes via C, D, E, F and G, then the good road builders of New Zealand will have found it. Meanwhile, the signpost erectors will have given up before they’ve even started and just assumed that if you’ve got that far, you must know where you’re going.

So it’s perhaps little wonder that almost the only thing of note to have emerged from New Zealand since Hillary planted his flag on Everest is the twin-drawer dishwasher. Oh, and Hayley Westenra. Everything else is stuck in a traffic jam just outside Auckland.

Which is, in itself, an extremely round about way of saying that practical day trip options from Auckland are very few and far between. There’s one though, that given half a chance and a good alarm clock, you really should get up in time to make.

Rotten Eggs in Rotovegas

Rotorua is the capital of New Zealand’s principal geothermal region and, on occasion, is referred to as the country’s answer to the Nevada tourist magnet that sits astride a well-known Strip. It’s quite clear, however, that no-one who repeats the Rotovegas nick-name has ever been to the home of The Venetian, The Bellagio or The Mandalay Bay; Barry Manilwow or Elton John. Indeed, it’s questionable whether they might have even been to a city at all. Anywhere. Of any kind.

For Rotorua is, basically, a very unremarkable sprawl of motels, petrol stations and DIY stores, with a small central business district and a couple of golf courses. Oh, and it’s by a lake. Which stinks. I don’t mean in the manner of the odd waft of something not quite discernible. I mean that it perniciously hums with the throat-catching claw of hydrogen sulphide, which bubbles, seeps and spurts through rock, soil and water at almost every opportunity.

And that, of course, is exactly why you’ve driven for three hours to get to Rotorua, and not to gamble in a vast casino or frolic in a hotel of limitless luxury. At its heart, there is the most handsome of former bath houses, a Tudor pastiche in the mould of many a British municipal park pavilion, but on a grand scale. Now a museum, it’s surrounded by the beautiful Government Gardens, around which the spa-seekers of days gone by would promenade in their fulsome skirts and stiff collars, trying not to wretch as they inhaled.

The bathhouse has been superseded by the modern and not-desperately attractive Polynesian Spa, but it’s here that visitors may ‘take the waters’ in various ways. The best option, assuming that a soaking is all that’s desired (as opposed to a varied selection of massages and rubs) is the Lake Spa Retreat package, which affords visitors comfortable changing facilities and complimentary towels, and then access to five lakeside pools whose thermal waters are cooled to varying degrees. The water is no more than knee-deep though, so this is not a place for wannabe Duncan Goodhews.

To swim in warm waters, heated geothermally but not themselves mineralised, the restored Blue Baths are the place to head, between the Polynesian Spa and the Museum.

Ideally though, these aqueous activities should be undertaken in the afternoon, for the early start from Auckland is dictated by the need to travel another 30kms beyond the town to the so-called ‘Thermal Wonderland’ at Wai-o-Tapu.

It’s here that visitors are entertained by the Lady Knox geyser which, aided and abetted by a paper bag full of washing powder, thrusts skyward daily and promptly at 10.15am.

The geyser itself lies before the main entrance and ticket office for the park, so arrival in advance is required to afford plenty of time to park, purchase tickets and then drive back a little way along the access road and down a side turn to a secondary parking area.

From here, it’s a short walk to the viewing terraces and the daily show which, despite the commercialism, is still a fairly awesome display of the forces at work beneath our feet. When Lady Knox has done her stuff, the assembled throngs make their way back to the main park entrance, however you may wish to give them a head start by retracing a route back along the access road a little further, to some frankly weird bubbling mud pools. Having considered the likely effect of falling into one of these spluttering pits of clay for a few minutes, a return to the park entrance will probably have allowed the jam of visitors to have cleared through and spread out amongst the further attractions.

The entrance building includes a café and essential taterama but, beyond its portals, the really spectacular stuff is quickly reached. Since the volcanic demise of the famed Pink & White Terraces of Mount Tarawera in 1886, Wai-o-Tapu really is the most spectacular of Rotorua’s attractions, but one that seems relatively untouched by the coach-touring hordes – perhaps due to the early hour of the geyser eruption.

There are sinkholes and silica terraces, the champagne pool and more bubbling mud, sulphur lakes and rainbow falls, all interlinked by footpaths and walkways which come within inches of subterranean exhausts which would skin the unwary alive, were they to stray beyond the marked tracks.

A day-trip from Auckland would necessitate that back-track to Rotorua to take the waters, but to make the absolute best of the available time and having re-visited Rotorua, the traveller should, once again, re-pass Wai-o-Tapu and travel along the Thermal Explorer Highway towards Lake Taupo.

For here, just before the town is reached, are the Huka Falls and, just upstream of them, the preferred accommodations of visiting Royalty and celebrities – the exclusive Huka Lodge.

The falls themselves are a most impressive 20 metre wide torrent, through which the Waikato River, 100 metres across immediately above and below the cascade, is forced with thunderous velocity. The swirling waters turn from white to green to blue and back again as they tumult, and thrill-seeking visitors with a little more time to spare can take a jet boat to within touching distance of the lowest fall.

There is a free car park and small kiosk, and a bridge and walkways cross and surround the falls, providing plenty of photographic opportunities. It won’t be a lengthy pause on the return to Auckland, but a memorable and worthy one nonetheless.

The drive back to the city may afford more opportunity to pay attention to the towns passed through earlier in the day, as the road North West from Taupo soon completes a loop and rejoins the route initially taken to get to Rotorua.

Tirau offers up its somewhat bizarre Tourist Information Office and public loo, Cambridge its white clapboard church and Hamilton endless beautifully-kept floral displays along its wide grass verges. It’s a great deal to have packed into one day, but hopefully the opportunity for that restorative bathe in Rotorua will have eased the strain and arrival back in Auckland will not coincide with terminal exhaustion.

Bright Lights, Quite Small City: Auckland

Auckland is one of those cities which proudly trumpets its ‘liveability’. Residents enjoy the waterfront location and the opportunity for boating and fishing, the cafés, restaurants and suburban boutique shopping, the parks, museum and visiting musicians and theatre companies. There are surf beaches near at hand and the Sky Tower has brought some altitude to the skyline. There are certainly very many worse places to call home (lunatic transport-planning aside).

For the visitor however, particularly one who has travelled to the diametrically opposite side of the World at not-inconsiderable expense and possibly some discomfort (especially, if they’ve been none-too-close to the nose of the plane), then Auckland can be somewhat underwhelming. While New York might wow the tourists, but its frenetic pace prove wholly unattractive to a potential permanent resident, Auckland holds no such awe for the short-term visitor, but may equally represent his or her idea of a paradise-like long term home. As is so often the case, it’s horses for courses.

The Westin Lighter Quay is a great base for the city visitor, though the compactness of Auckland’s centre means that few of the major accommodation options are in any way inaccessible. The likely first port of call on a tour of the downtown area will be the Sky Tower, if only to ascend to the top and acquire bearings and an overview of the city’s geography and topography. Maintaining the peculiarly Kiwi tradition of taking something and jumping off it, there’s a tethered bungee jump from just above the main observation deck, despite the partially-glazed floor being more than dizzying enough for some.

The Tower sits atop a complex which includes a casino, hotel and several bars and restaurants, but it’s all rather restrained in a very Auckland-like way. The surrounding streets are lined with a selection of department and chain stores, a few narrow shopping arcades and abundance of fast-food emporia and gift shops, many of which are run by and with the Asian population in mind. It’s therefore not an uninteresting display of wares, but Auckland will never be described as a retail paradise.

The Domain is Auckland’s principal city park, 75 hectares of landscaped gardens and specimen trees, dominated by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and home to a Winter Garden, sports fields and areas which play host to major cultural events. Whilst attracting significant numbers of visitors each year, the Domain is again a fairly passive pleasure; a pleasant place to lose a few hours wandering, lounging or reading, but not somewhere that will provide you with iconic views for your photograph album.

If the weather is compliant (and remember, of course, that Auckland is on a narrow isthmus between the Tasman and the Pacific, so it’s prone to clashing maritime weather systems in the skies above), then a cruise across the harbour from the downtown ferry terminal, to Devonport on the North Shore, may be just the job.

Thanks to the maritime link, Devonport is actually easier to reach from the city than other, arguably similar, ‘Auckland villages’ on the Southern shore. It’s a comfortable mix of colonial architecture and contemporary lifestyle, with art galleries and craft shops, delis and bakeries, cafés and bars to suit most interests and tastes. Try Manuka on the main street or, just around the corner, the Stone Oven Bakery and Café – but get there early if you’re looking for lunch – they fill up completely.

A walk beyond the immediate seafront parks and streets can take the visitor up Mount Victoria which, for many years, was a military defence post and the gun emplacements can still be explored. From here, there’s a fine view back South to Auckland City, East to Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands and, in the far distance, the Coromandel Peninsula.

Looking North takes in Takapuna and its crater lake, and the East Coast Bays of the NorthShore which march along the coast with expansive tendencies, contributing to the inexorable clogging of that woefully inadequate Harbour Bridge, which completes the 360 degree panorama as it drapes itself across the Western horizon beyond the naval base.

New Zealand’s Most English City: Christchurch

Wherever I’ve travelled in the World, or at least whenever I’ve done so with at least one other person, I’ve become distracted by the propensity of travelling companions to remark on the similarities between the far-flung place just arrived in, and some part of the sceptred British Isles.

This belief/need to believe that we are actually in familiar surroundings has obviously been prevalent for quite come time; witness the British-born place names which litter the hitherto largely-well named corners of the Globe.

Now, I will reveal to you why I am so distracted by these comparisons between Wigan and West Virginia, Falkirk and Fukuoka: it is because not one of these places ever looks even vaguely like the location that the desperate-to-feel-at-home traveller convinces themselves that it does.

Nowhere, it is my avowed contention, looks more like anywhere but itself. Indeed, were the World a litany of exact facsimiles of natural landscape or built environment, then the very act of travelling would be rendered a good deal less interesting than it actually is.

So, get this: Christchurch is not an English city. Nor is it New Zealand’s most English city. It is a fairly large town (if you insist on making domestic comparisons) miles from almost anywhere, on the other side of the World, in New Zealand, that does not look like it is anything other than just that. And, if I may absolutely and irrefutably prove my point by reverse argument, it is by saying that in all my travels around England, visiting almost every city and a good many towns, not once have I heard so much as a single, solitary soul say ‘ooh, this is just like Christchurch on South Island in New Zealand.’

That being dealt with, I’m happy to report that Christchurch is also quite a nice place. True, the entire place closes down at 5.30pm each evening. Almost no-one lives in the city centre and there’s clearly a lack of money to keep businesses going or vacant plots developed. A particularly derelict shack is advertised by an enthusiastic (if not delirious) estate agent as ‘benefitting from years of deferred maintenance.’

Perhaps Christchurch is the spiritual home of the ultimate understatements. It was from here that Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off on his ill-fated quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, with his expeditionary companion Lawrence Oates uttering the immortal words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ before heading into an Antarctic blizzard and the most honourable of suicides.

The best, though rather kitsch, way to get around ‘Chch’ (as the locals write it, but never say it) is by one of the restored trams which loop the city centre and afford the rider unlimited hop-on and hop-off travel for the price of a daily ticket.

There’s a handy commentary and warning of approaching stops and sights, but it’s no municipally-subsidised public service. It’s priced, instead, for the visitor market – so enjoy it as a tour rather than calculating the dollars per kilometre equivalent cost.

The recurring theme of Christchurch is undoubtedly parks. There are green spaces at almost every turn – some simple expanses of lawn and regimented trees; some, like the Botanic Gardens, World-class examples of their type. It’s a hard heart that fails to acknowledge just how pleasant the surroundings are, though some of the architecture runs the horticultural excellence a close race.

Regent Street is a fabulous example of the Spanish Mission style and, at the other end of the scale, the Christchurch Art Gallery is a modern palace of soaring glass and steel, encasing sinuous balconies and international-standard exhibition space.

Cathedral Square is the centre of daytime activity in the city, with market stalls and pavement cafes occupying the space between the Anglican Cathedral, some of Christchurch’s most historic buildings, a little modern sculpture and some pretty unremarkable, stumpy tower blocks. The tram and almost all bus routes converge here.

Those of a sweet-toothed disposition could do very much worse than seek out the Copenhagen Bakery on Armagh Street. Indeed, those of a savoury-toothed disposition won’t be disappointed either, at this award-winning café, patisserie and bakery with its cascading displays of freshly-crafted goodies. It’s also a particularly good choice for breakfast.

Beyond the hotel iterations, the dusk-induced closure of almost everything in central Christchurch tends to restrict the choice of restaurants for dinner. Two that stand out, however, are Cook ‘N’ With Gas on Gloucester Street (specialising in New Zealand lamb and beef) and the quirky wine bar cum Italian restaurant The Bicycle Thief on Latimer Square.

Named after a 1948 Italian film - 'Ladri di Biciclette' – it’s a small but popular after-work drinking spot, which merges into an atmospheric restaurant serving excellent pizza, pasta and other Italian specialities. The barman, in particular, is worthy of note as the mixer of mean cocktails and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his spirits, wines and beers.

Despite Christchurch’s exceptionally friendly daytime disposition, the lack of organised or commercial activity after dark does leave the city centre somewhat at the mercy of less salubrious residents and blow-throughs. For this reason, it’s wise to make use of one of the plentiful cabs for the ride home, which of course the restaurant will be happy to call.

The Muffin At The End of The Earth: Akaroa

Christchurch sits on the Pacific edge of the agriculturally-rich Canterbury Plain, although a little inland from the coast. Shipping is handled through nearby Lyttelton Harbour, a birds-eye view over which may be gleaned from the gondola skyride, a 15 minute drive from the city centre.

The city’s seaside resort is New Brighton, about 20 minutes drive East North East of Christchurch. It would be a hugely charitable but ultimately untrustworthy reviewer who could find much positive to reflect on the place. Bluntly, it’s a dump and a place guaranteed only to sap the life from even the most uppered of life-enthusiasts.

If you happen to have a few tens of millions to invest in a complete redevelopment of this sad and sorry relic of a probably still fairly inglorious past then do, I beg of you, head straight to New Brighton and deposit your funds with the biggest demolition company you can find. Those of more modest means would do just as well to avoid it like the plague which, judging by the general level of desolation that pervades the place, most folks do already, despite the superior shopping opportunities.

As with so much in New Zealand, just a little more effort and time rewards the investor with hugely more abundant rewards – and so it is once again for the day-tripper from Christchurch. Instead of heading East and losing all will to maintain a beating heart, the road South to Akaroa will likely make that same heart flutter and soar as breathtaking vistas open amidst mountain passes and ocean inlets.

Leaving the city to the West initially, and then South towards Lake Ellesmere, the scenery is largely flat with cattle and sheep pasture, and the odd vineyard and soft fruit orchard lining the road until the lakeshore is reached. Skirting the banks for a few miles, the road then turns East and heads higher and away from the water again, towards the spine of the Banks Peninsula. The views in the rear view mirror are tantalising as the road twists and turns uphill, before it plunges downhill again towards the Pacific.

It can only be assumed that the awesome scenery somehow exhausted the creativity of whoever named the hamlet of Hilltop, but it’s here that the main road downhill should be temporarily abandoned, and the similarly lamely-named Summit Road taken instead. A more apt title might have been ‘Hairy Wobbler Road’, for the combination of stunning views, hairpin bends and sheer drops from this sheep-track-with-a-crust-of-tarmac do not necessarily make for the most leisurely of traverses. It’s a simply superb route though, before ultimately the altitude must be lost once again to reach journey’s end, the former French whaling station of Akaroa.

Again, with the exception of a whale-watching boat trip, there’s not a great deal to do here, but what a sublime spot to do not very much.

The village is a delightful collection of colonial cottages and commercial premises, many of which have been converted into the cosiest of self-catering accommodations.

The harbour front is lined with interesting shops, restaurants and cafés, park benches and lawns and, from one of those cafés – By Jo’ve – the most amazing warm Raspberry and White Chocolate muffins.

Believe me, they’re almost worth flying Economy to get there for.