The next morning, we hightail it out of Rotorua, but we don't get very far. Tucked away deep in an 800-year-old forest just outside of town is Treetops Lodge, our first taste of luxury on a trip that will see accommodations range from campsites and hostels to ecofriendly inns and historic hotels. Everything at this boutique lodge is fashioned from the land, all without disturbing the thousands of pheasants and deer on site. But the coolest animals are the Australian brushtail possums, normally considered pests in New Zealand but more like resident mascots here.
Now, I know American possums are basically glorified rats, but these cute little buggers are more like small dog-raccoon hybrids. Every night, they turn up for a bit of masterful chef Bruce Thomas's leftover venison crepinettes or organic lamb, which they quite politely eat right out of our hands. Who can blame them? As far as high-end, all-inclusive luxury lodges go, this place has stellar food. We decide to call it a night after James gives me a snooker lesson on the lodge's old English kauri-wood snooker table, one of just 10 left in New Zealand. Let me tell you, the mechanics of pool might help you a bit, but snooker ain't easy (though that could be blamed on the Tohu Marlborough Pinot Noir).
By the time we reach Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island, the town is buzzing. Regarded throughout New Zealand as the arts-and-cultural hub (and throughout the world as the home of Rings and King Kong director Peter Jackson), it's sort of the country's San Francisco. We swing for the fences here by trying to get into a bar that is so trendy even Liv Tyler was reportedly given the heave-ho during the filming of Rings. Motel Bar is located in an alley, at the top of a flight of dark and dank stairs - kind of like every inconspicuous bar in Los Angeles is. I don't know what Tyler did, but we walk right in. We toast the North Island over the best Negroni I have ever had (and the most expensive, at $11).
Days Five through 11: Wellington to Queenstown
You could fly domestically to the South Island, but then you'd miss taking the hopelessly scenic Bluebridge ferry across the Cook Strait. As we sail out of Wellington, we see the finish of Leg 3 of the Volvo Ocean Race, an around-the-world professional sailing race. If you have never seen an America's Cup-type sailing event, let me tell you that it's quite a spectacle. The Movistar and ABN Amro One boats sail past so close to us that we nearly catch the spray across our faces.
Two hours later, the ferry approaches Queen Charlotte Sound, and we circle a few times. (The narrow gap that leads into the South Island is only big enough for one boat at a time.) Soon, the rugged vastness of the South Island comes into focus, a stark contrast to the more developed North Island. We land in Picton and speed off to Nelson, en route to Abel Tasman National Park.
Before hitting the park - one of the South Island's most beautiful and most visited attractions - we grab breakfast at Zest Deli, a prime example of New Zealand's organic, forward-thinking café culture. Various organic olive oils, tapenades, chutneys, and honeys line the walls. And the onion-ham-and-cheese scones must weigh five pounds. I opt for the homemade toasted muesli, the best I've ever eaten - and likely the best I'll ever have. I drop $7 for a tiny container of it to take on the road with me.
We camp that evening at Kaiteriteri Beach Motor Camp, a gorgeous beach resort outside the park. Its cornmeal-textured beaches are sparsely populated, as camping is the main accommodation here. Being a city boy myself, and James being an Aucklander, we don't actually have a lot of
tent-construction experience between us. But how hard can it be? Three hours and five guys later, we're all tucked in.
There are two ways to see the pristine coastlines of Abel Tasman National Park: by kayak and by foot. There are no roads inside the park. We opt for a one-day kayak trip, and it does not disappoint. Crystal-clear lagoons and postcard-perfect sands emerge from every corner of this coastal bushland, one of New Zealand's most environmentally protected regions. We munch on steamed green-lipped mussels, a specialty of the area, on the secluded Medlands Beach and wallow in our surroundings.
From Abel Tasman, we're supposed to head south to Queenstown, but we drive entirely out of our way to visit the Mussel Inn, contender for the title of Coolest Bar in the World. It's located in Golden Bay, north of Abel Tasman, near Takaka, one of the most secluded parts of the South Island. There is only one road in and out of Golden Bay, SH60, which is also home to another one of those morbid road signs (this one reads "Blood spilt, life guilt"). More jovial, however, are the penguin-crossing signs. The Mussel Inn is a self-described "Kiwi woolshed meets Aussie farmhouse." I call it a rustic, eccentric craft brewery that's like no other (there is a cell-phone collection nailed to the telephone pole outside). They make 12 killer brews, with names like Strong Ox Strong Dark Ale and Black Lamb, some of which include local manuka-tree tips or New Zealand-harvested habanero chiles. We use them to chase the excellent pan-fried John Dory. It's a historical evening and more than worth the extra miles, if not the whole flight over from the States.
Over the course of driving the next few days, it becomes apparent why Peter Jackson sticks to filming here: It's full of near-mythical terrain that varies wildly around every turn. We see mirror images of California's Big Sur coast and of Napa wine regions, of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, and of Brazilian Atlantic rain forests. You never know what you might come upon next. There are surging rivers, majestic gorges, endless vineyards, soaring peaks, and, for something a little different, restaurants serving possum pies. (Yes, you read that last line right.)