For many Americans, “New Zealand” evokes images of craggy peaks, frothy trout streams and adventure vacations that involve things like trekking or—heaven forbid!—bungee jumping. There’s another side of New Zealand, though, that doesn’t require Vibram soles or leaps of faith. This New Zealand is sophisticated, cosmopolitan and cultural, as evidenced in the abundance of museums, cafes, shops and elegant hotels we found during a recent trip to Auckland, Wellington and Nelson.
Our first stop was Wellington on the North Island, where we spent an intriguing afternoon exploring the Museum of New Zealand, or Te Papa, which is Maori for “our place.” Completed in 1998 at a cost of more than $500 million, Te Papa offers four levels of innovative and interactive experiences. There are historical exhibits about the island nation’s 65-million-year-old geologic past and its first settling by humans some 800 years ago, as well as more contemporary displays like one we saw about the Lord of the Rings film trilogy just prior to the exhibit’s departure on a six-stop international tour.
With a good dollop of culture under our belt, we were ready for a dose of Kiwi creativity, and there’s no better example of that than the Montana World of WearableArt show and competition. This eight-day creative extravaganza held every September is part Cirque du Soleil, part Lion King and all spectacle. WOW, as the event is known, takes art off the wall and puts it on the body, or more specifically bodies—hundreds of strong, lithe, moving figures dancing and writhing to some of the most haunting Maori-influenced music, by New Zealand’s Oceana, that you’ll ever hear. Accompanied by an ever-changing spray of light and color, the scene is impossible to forget. “The 145 creations dazzled and WOWed on the catwalk last night,” one Wellington newspaper article observed. “From bike helmets to pipe cleaners, anything goes when it comes to putting together entries in the Montana World of WearableArt show.”
At one point in the sold-out, 3,000-person arena, the lights suddenly went off, the music took on a Twilight Zone rhythm and a hole opened in the ceiling 60 feet above. Out of the darkness descended a dozen acrobats clad in jumpsuits outlined by tiny white lights. They floated gracefully, seemingly defying gravity, to the stage. And that was just one act.
Many of the entrants in WOW are designers, so the event attracts fashionistas and media types of all stripes. Among this year’s WOW winners was Auckland fashion designer Rodney Leong, whose piece The Love of Icarus enclosed a comely model in a bubble made of 20,664 plastic collar stays. Others’ pieces included Sir Zuki, a warrior assembled from used car parts, and A Touch of Glass, a wedding dress with a bodice crafted from stained-glass panels. Of course, any wearable art contest worth its cutting-edge salt needs a touch of the risqué, and WOW did not disappoint: In the Bizarre Bra category, for example, the winning entry featured a young woman on whose shoulders perched a pair of miniature golden construction cranes. Cables extended downward to support the lovely lady’s breasts. The second-place winner was our choice for best-named entry—a buxom lady with a pair of large shoes covering her chest was entitled These Boobs Are Made for Walking.
The Love of Icarus: 2006 Wow competition winning entry.
WOW was the brainchild of local artist Suzie Moncrieff, who started the festival in 1987 in the town of Nelson on the South Island, just a short plane hop from Wellington and our next destination. While the picturesque pastures and rolling vineyards surrounding Nelson certainly are more tranquil than an evening at WOW, they also complement a very active artists’ scene.
Everywhere we went in Nelson we were charmed by the welcoming Kiwi spirit of the people we met. We visited Hoglund Art Glass; Neudorf Vineyards, a family operation known for its crisp Chardonnay; the Lodge at Paratiho Farms, a Relais & Châteaux inn situated on 2,000 verdant acres; the studio of painter Sally Burton, whose oils are as rich and colorful as the South Island countryside; Hopgoods, a restaurant imbued with Marin-style chic; and the Wakefield Quay House, a bed-and-breakfast fronting Tasman Bay that serves the best scrambled eggs on this planet or any other.
Good food, good art, great scenery—Nelson is a tough place to leave, but depart we did, as no trip to New Zealand is complete without a visit to Auckland, the nation’s largest city and home to a third of the country’s 4 million residents. Touring Auckland was made simpler by connecting with Melissa Crockett of Potiki Advertures, who took us on a scenic day trip around the city and outlying areas. Crockett and her business partner have Maori lineage in their blood and are passionate about preserving the culture. One of our stops was at the Maori Cultural Center at the University of Auckland, where we saw students learning the traditional methods of weaving flax and carving hardwood. A day or two with Potiki Adventures—on their itinerary or yours—is guaranteed to provide insight into the Maori culture.
While in Auckland we stayed at Mollies, a boutique inn recently named Best New Small Hotel by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. Owned by Frances Wilson and Stephen Fitzgerald (former New York City opera coach and former opera set designer, respectively) and overlooking Auckland Harbor, Mollies is a unique experience. From the minute you step through the front door and hear the sounds of opera wafting in the air, you know you’re in for a treat. Meals are delicious and the setting couldn’t be more romantic, with rooms full of antique furniture and nighttime candles flickering here, there and everywhere. Mollies also boasts seven baby grand pianos—six of them in the guest rooms. Many of Wilson’s current New Zealand–based opera students double as hotel staff, and it is not uncommon to hear an impromptu before-dinner concert or voices singing throughout the day.
Mollies is just a few blocks from Ponsonby Road, a stylish shopping and dining district renowned for its international outdoor cafes, hip bars, trendy shops and galleries, and an endless array of nooks to noodle around in. We spent our last day in Auckland lunching on crepes in the courtyard of Strawberry Alarm Clock, shopping for a vintage watch at Shell Shock and buying magazines for the flight home in a shop that seemed to have thousands of them. We found time to select the perfect gardenia for Wilson (it was her birthday) at the Garden Party and look for faded jeans at Le Cigale. As the afternoon grew late, we parked ourselves on the upstairs porch of Rocco’s and toasted our trip to Auckland with a cold Chardonnay.
New Zealand sounds sensational, you say, but what about that 13-hour flight between there and San Francisco? Worry not: getting there is a snooze, literally. We left SFO on Air New Zealand, had a tasty dinner, watched The Devil Wears Prada and easily fell into a comfy sleep that wasn’t interrupted until the attendant brought us a hot cup of coffee and word we’d soon be landing in Auckland. The return trip—also a night flight—was equally smooth.
And not once during our stay in New Zealand did we even think about bungee jumping. Maybe next time.
View of Wellington and harbor at night.
Air New Zealand: Direct flights from San Francisco to Auckland leave daily. For reservations and information, call 800.262.1234 or check online at airnewzealand.com.
Numerous tour companies have special New Zealand itineraries:
Back Roads: backroads.com
Classic Journeys: classicjourneys.com
Geographic Expeditions: geographicexpeditions.com
For general information: log on to the Tourism New Zealand website: newzealand.com