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The Southern Alps surrounding Queenstown

Image: Shutterstock

You’re in a funk. You’re not unhappy, per se, not depressed or dissatisfied with life in any major way. You’re just feeling sort of, you know, dormant, in a funk. Then again, funks are temporary, and this one shows no signs of lifting. How do I know this isn’t more serious than a funk, you ask yourself. Get on a plane, comes the answer. Go as far away as you can

The farthest place you can go, at least according to FurthestCity.com, is the Cocos Keeling Islands, halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, roughly 11,000 miles away. It is a decidedly unfriendly destination to Houstonians, however. For one thing, the trip takes several flights over several days. For another, there are only “two restaurants on Cocos and one coffee shop,” says the islands’ website. What to do, you ask yourself. Go nonstop as far as you can where there’s more than two restaurants and a coffee shop, comes the answer.

The minute that you step onboard Air New Zealand’s new flight to Auckland, the torpor begins to dissipate. Maybe it’s the recessed lighting bathing the cabin in a purple of unknown origin, or the brisk and efficient flight attendants, or the bouncy flight safety video, a rap number inspired by the All Blacks, New Zealand’s beloved national rugby team. Whatever, soon you feel split off from yourself, something akin to the liberation New Zealand itself must have felt when the Colorado-sized country’s two main islands, North and South, split off from Gondwana during the Cretaceous period and spent eons alone in Oceania, the last major land mass on earth without humans.

At first glance, it seems impossible that one dinner menu can contain such a diverse selection of dishes, much less an airline dinner menu, but here they are, the impossibly tame (roast beef and potatoes) right next to the adventuresome (seared hapuka fish in a coconut miso broth), dishes with nothing in common but their deliciousness. You’ve had pinots and chardonnays, of course, but not from places with names like Central Otago and Waiheke Island. Each exotic sip takes you further and further from yourself, and soon there is only moonlight as you glide over the Pacific, effortlessly hopscotching the International Date Line—you don’t know what happened to Tuesday and you don’t care—and trading one hemisphere for another. By the time the clouds part for Auckland and the 14-hour journey ends, you’ll be nothing but a body in motion, which is a very good thing, as there’s nothing New Zealand loves more than a body in motion.   

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Setting off on the Aukland ferry

“I’m here to kidnap you,” says a voice. You’ve barely left the ferry in Devonport, a quaint suburb of Auckland, when an elderly Kiwi practically throws herself into your path.

“I’m just visiting,” you reply, for some reason.

“I have an appointment at 1:30 but I’m free till then. And I like kidnapping tourists.” You notice that the woman is wearing a Trump for President T-shirt. “Come on. I can ride you up Mt. Victoria. My car’s right here.”

She points an arthritic finger in the direction of a blue, ’90s-era Toyota with dings aplenty and one wheel parked up on the curb. Her name is Mrs. Nicholson, and she appears to be batty.  

“Sure,” you hear yourself say.

Mt. Victoria turns out to be a 285-foot mound of soft, benign green rising gently out of a neighborhood of million-dollar clapboard houses. (“That’s not a mountain, that’s a bump,” concluded a pair of Swiss tourists Nicholson once kidnapped.) It’s just one of 48 or so dormant volcanoes that Auckland proper is built atop, she tells you. Other things you learn on the way up Mt. Victoria: people often mispronounce her first name (“it’s Adrianne, with legs like a man”), the Trump shirt is a mere attention-grabber (“a girlfriend in the States sent it to me as a joke”), and her recent 70th birthday was something of a bust. She’d planned to celebrate the day by skydiving for the first time, but it was too cloudy. 

For Nicholson, who’d spent her 60th bungee jumping (“I would have touched the water but I’d only gotten my hair done the day before, for my birthday”), and plans to be in a body harness on her 80th, walking around the edge of Auckland’s Sky Tower (“no handrail, nothing but thin air and the city 192 meters below” promises the website), this was a singular disappointment. For all her smiling brio, Nicholson, like most of her countrymen, is passionately committed to being undeterred. Indeed, a volcanic energy may be detected behind almost every soft, benign surface in New Zealand, and it’s these landscapes that truly set the place apart. Yes, the luminous valleys and cobalt lakes are jaw-droppingly beautiful, the black sand beaches incomparable, the glaciers and fjords and rainforests all breathtaking. But New Zealand’s greatest marvel, what will impress you the most—the thing that’s worth traveling 14 hours and 7,500 miles and missing Tuesday for—is, well, the zeal of its people. 

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Depot: Auckland's hottest restaurant

Image: Spencer Vogel

“I know her,” says the Langham Hotel concierge with a loud laugh. “She kidnapped me and my partner too!” Handsomely decorated in what the hotel calls an Elegant British style, the Langham is a bastion of overstuffed chairs and burled wood paneling and cozy opulence on a high hill in downtown Auckland. It might have been a bastion of snootiness and pretension too, one suspects, if not for its staff, most of whom laugh as loudly as the concierge, seemingly thrilled to work in such a grand old place, where the suites are comfortably large and the views breathtaking.

You’re in the lobby to meet Elle Armon-Jones, the British-expat proprietor of The Big Foody, which offers Auckland gastronomy tours. Together, you stroll up and down the city’s steep, volcano-sponsored streets—even the walk/don’t walk signs are animated, you notice—on a beautiful October spring afternoon, pausing at the city’s 1923 fish market, where each day 18 tons of up to 65 different varieties of sea creatures are auctioned off to buyers in 200 countries. But “it’s a country of 4.5 million with 28,000 fishermen,” Armon-Jones tells you, so there’s plenty left for the locals—terakihi and kahawai and John Dory fish and fist-sized abalone known as paua, their singularly iridescent shells lined up like marquee lights on ice.  

You haven’t seen abundance in such variety since the Langham’s restaurant Eight, hands-down the greatest cafeteria on the planet. A sort of ’round the world in eight stations, the place has more cooks than most eateries have patrons—salad chefs and sushi chefs, chefs delivering hot naan from a cast iron oven at the Indian station next to chefs plopping New Zealand prawns and giant, green-lipped mussels into vast boiling cauldrons.   

“They are an immensely lucky people to have such a bounty,” Armon-Jones tells you while sampling some terrific local fare at Depot, Auckland’s hot restaurant of the moment—buttery hapuka, lamb ribs, snapper sliders. “But they also know what to do with it. They’re terrific inventors and innovators.” The reference was to chef Peter Gordon, considered by many to be the founding father of fusion cuisine, although she might just as well have been talking about AJ Hackett, the father of bungee jumping. 

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Descending into Queenstown

Image: Shutterstock

Which brings us to our next stop, the South Island’s Queenstown, a two-hour plane ride away. The self-proclaimed adrenaline capital of the world, Queenstown is a popular destination year-round for a nation of thrill-seeking Kiwis, who like to speedboat through Shotover River Canyon at 50 mph, bounce down hills in giant plastic balls (Zorbing, it’s called), skydive and heli-ski, all of it against a backdrop of spellbinding beauty. So majestic are the snow-capped (and aptly-named) Remarkables Mountains, so unearthly blue the lakes, so green the pastures, it’s as if nature herself is a thrill-seeker. Which of course she is, sometimes with disastrous consequences. 

“I saw cars jump three meters off the ground,” says Steve Norton, who runs Around the Basin bike tours and happened to be in Christ Church on the day of the city’s devastating earthquake in 2011. “Everyone ran out of the buildings and into the streets.”

Norton’s gripping account of the 10-second quake, which killed 185 people and destroyed 10,000 homes, provides an interesting counterpoint to the stunning cycling trip he leads you on, from the crystal clear Arrow River to the rich vineyards of the Gibbston Valley. The path takes you over high bridges that swing over terrifying gorges, on fragrant paths through mountains covered in thyme, and along meadows offering the softest of landings for paragliders, all the way to Kawarau Bridge. To this day, dozens of intrepid types still fork over $130 daily for the privilege of being tied up and thrown off the 140-foot-high structure where bungee was born in 1988, Hackett having drawn inspiration from the Vanuatu land-divers who leapt from cliffs with legs tied to banyan vines.

“We Kiwis are a restless people,” muses Norton as you watch body after screaming body free-fall toward the river, then bounce, scream and fall again. 

Days of restlessness and heart-pounding excitement crave nothing more than their opposite. Hence, Matakauri Lodge, on a bluff overlooking enormous Lake Wakatipu, the polar opposite of pedal-to-metal Queenstown, and perhaps the greatest little hotel in all the world. Most of its 12 suites are swanky cottages tucked into forested areas on the Matakauri grounds, amid the sweet scent of flowering kowhai trees and the melodious chirping of tui birds. In glass-walled bedrooms, tucked between sheets of impossible thread counts, you watch as day breaks over the Remarkables and sunbeams shock the lake to shimmering life. 

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Exploring Queenstown's beauty by bicycle

Image: Spencer Vogel

Whole afternoons might be lost gazing at dramatic cloud patterns from the Matakauri infinity pool, although whole evenings are best lost in the lodge itself, at candlelit tables by the windows. The sun sets slowly and incompletely in this part of the world, and watching mountains become silhouettes while enjoying chef Jonathan Rogers’s artfully plated and soul-stirring dinners must surely be one of the southern hemisphere’s finest pleasures. 

“I was here at six, took a break in the afternoon for my daily run, came back for canapés in the afternoon, and now dinner,” says the waiter, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his day is 15 hours long and counting. His only explanation: “It’s just such a stunning place to be, I think. How are you finding it?”

How are you finding it, you ask yourself. Glorious, comes the answer. You feel rejuvenated, filled with a rapturous ennui, which is not to be confused with the old funk. Four days in New Zealand has effectively scrubbed that from you, perhaps forever. 

It’s now impossible to believe that you ever balked at a 14-hour journey, or that anyone would. 

“We sent out invitations and no one replied,” you remember Mrs. Nicholson saying atop Mt. Victoria. She was talking about the 1870s, when erroneous fears of a Russian invasion led the New Zealand military to turn the mountain into a fort, complete with an elaborate network of tunnels that housed cannons and such. Victoria, once again armed and ready to defend the city during World War I, once again did so needlessly, as the enemy never showed. After being snubbed by WWII, the fort was abandoned, although the tunnels are still there, opening onto barely lit rooms deep inside a dormant volcano. There, Mrs. Nicholson made her one and only demand of you, the same demand she makes of all her kidnappees: “Sing a song from your native land.”

Maybe the dark took away your self-consciousness, or maybe you feared what Nicholson might do if you didn’t sing—abandon you to a dank, scary underground far from home. Anyway, you did it. You sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas” deep in a mountain in New Zealand, all the way up to the “sage in bloom” part.

“Keep going,” she commanded.

And you did, all the way to the end. Nicholson nodded her approval, tourists in neighboring tunnels clapped faintly, and never had a ransom payment left a man so giddy and exhilarated. 

Air New Zealand begins nonstop service from Houston to Auckland on Dec. 15. Details on the five-times-weekly flights, which start at $1,375 roundtrip, may be obtained at airnewzealand.com. A good local option for information and vacation planning is Let’s Travel Together, an officially sanctioned partner of the New Zealand Tourism Board. Contact Melodye Martinelli at 713-681-4001 or at letstraveltogether.com.

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