|Photo by Freeimages.com/Bert Huizenga|
by The Daily Telegraph, May 20, 2016
“You’ve never had feijoa before?” A look of incredulity spreads across Brownie’s face. Er, no. Never had it. Never heard of it. Couldn’t start even guessing how to spell it. Sounds painful, though.
Reaching into his backpack, Brownie – Nick Brown, guide for a dramatic day-hike on the slopes of Mt Taranaki – pulls out a small, nobbly green nugget: a kiwifruit with alopecia. Then he issues the user instructions: score a line around its middle, twist it apart and suck the floral nectar from its creamy flesh. I detect hints of pineapple and strawberry, with a long note of guava lingering on the palate. Turns out I’ve timed my New Zealand trip for peak feijoa season – a serendipitous delight of an autumn visit to the other Down Under, which (I’ve now discovered) is one of the world’s largest producers of the South American fruit.
I’m guessing TS Elliot never came to New Zealand; April here is far from the cruellest month. In fact, autumn – broadly, March to May – and spring (September to November) proffer a magician’s hat packed with surprises.
We’re all familiar with New Zealand’s supermodel looks. It's no wonder Telegraph Travel readers voted the twin-island nation their favourite place on the planet for the past four years, and that visitor numbers boomed to more than 3 million last year. Yet while most flock here in high summer, international arrivals dip in the shoulder seasons; in April or October they’re roughly half those in the December peak, meaning spring and autumn travellers enjoy low hotel and vehicle-hire prices, and quiet hiking trails amid those epic vistas. I encountered other unanticipated benefits, too – bountiful feijoa being just one.
There are caveats. Some facilities, particularly on walking trails, are shut or unstaffed outside summer, while attractions fill up on school and public holidays such as Anzac Day (late April) and Labour Day (late October). And of course New Zealand is know for its Weather, capital W; the four-seasons-in-one day bon mot is widely toted here.
The subtropical North Island is favoured with the more consistent climate, but as a whole New Zealand enjoys higher temperatures and longer daylight hours than the UK in comparable months; on average, both Auckland and Christchurch boast over 30 per cent more sunshine hours each year than London, Edinburgh or Birmingham. It’s telling that the country’s Maori name, Aotearoa, often translated as “Land of the Long White Cloud”, can also mean “Long Lingering Day” or “Long Bright Land” – come in spring or autumn and you’ll still lap up more sun and clear skies than you would in Blighty.Sold? Free up the fingers of both hands to count the reasons for a shoulder-season visit to New Zealand.
Take a hike
That first feijoa tastes all the sweeter, seasoned with golden autumn sunshine and the smugness born of solitude in nature. The flanks of Mt Taranaki, a picture-perfect volcano to rival Fuji or Cotopaxi, warm my back as I drink in a 270-degree panorama: the Tasman Sea pounding the shore at New Plymouth, the distant peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – Peter Jackson’s Mount Doom . Yet we passed only seven other trampers on the track that day, three of those were on Department of Conservation duty.
Granted, the recently minted Pouakai Crossing is not the busiest of New Zealand’s trails, hosting a few thousand walkers each year compared with the 100,000 who stream across the Tongariro Crossing. Yet most who tackle the “World’s Best Day Hike” do so between December and February.
“You need to hire a guide for the Tongariro outside summer – with snow falling any time between March and November, it’s a true alpine trek,” smiles Rob Needs of Top Guides . “But you’ll have the trail virtually to yourself – and the landscape is softer, more luminous with a coat of snow.”
The off-season effect is equally pronounced on the most famous Great Walks. Marquee multi-day hikes such as the Heaphy and Routeburn and Milford Tracks are indeed among the finest in the world. They’re also among the busiest: places for the main trekking season, starting late October, are snapped up rapidly once booking opens in May. But come earlier to avoid the need to book, and to amble peaceful trails lined with blooming alpine flowers. Milford Sound, endpoint of that eponymous trail, is at its most spectacular in “waterfall season”, too. Hiking after the season’s eased in March and April, is also rewarding, with more settled weather.
“I’ve got one mate who skied every month except January and February last year,” claims Rob Needs. While that might be a freakish record even for New Zealand, it’s true that the long ski season means it’s possible to carve a black run in the morning, hike or bike a snow-free trail in the afternoon then sip a sundowner amid spring blossoms. The main ski season spans July and August but the two ski areas on Mt Ruapehu, Turoa and Whakapapa, don’t close till late October – in 2014 Turoa was open till 9 November. By then, most overseas snow bunnies have fled and temperatures are mild. Between them, the two comprise New Zealand’s largest ski zone, encompassing dozens of runs including nearly 50 classed black or black diamond, plus a number of lift-accessed backcountry areas.
Take to the open road
Campervans aren’t just for hippies or surfers: climbing into the Kombi is a cultural norm in New Zealand. Between December and February, campsites are busy – booking ahead is vital, ideally well in advance. Spring and autumn offer flexibility: turn up, plug in and stay as long as you like – if you find the site with the perfect view, there’s no rush to move on. Costs take a dip, too. “Our campervans are far cheaper in spring – as much as 50 per cent less than summer rates,” reports Keith Marsh of Maui/Britz motorhome hire. “And availability of vehicles and campsites is better, too.”
Admire the ‘garden city’ in bloom
While Christchurch’s CBD dusts itself off post-earthquake, much of its central west remains the epitome of idealised England past: punts, boathouses, well-tended flowerbeds. From September, the Botanic Gardens and sprawling Hagley Park don capes of gold and indigo – daffodils and bluebells – while cherry blossoms, magnolias and rhododendrons harmonise the symphony of colours. (If a spring downpour threatens, dip into the Gardens’ hip new Ilex café within the glasshouse complex, or shelter in historic Cuningham House conservatory.)
Wellington also cherishes its floral wonders, celebrating with a lively spring festival among the tulips of the Botanic Garden.
Early settlers ensured New Zealand has its own leafpeeping season, too, planting birch, maple and poplar that flame with fall colours in April – look for the poplars in central Otago, Canterbury and along the Whanganui River, a legacy of Anglican missionary Richard Taylor who reputedly established spinneys at Maori settlements.
There are no bunnies to be seen at the former Rabbit Island Station as I prep my cycle on another golden April morning. Instead, the Little River Rail Trail snaking southeast of Christchurch is lined with sheep – of course – harrier hawks, spoonbills and hundreds of water birds: herons, black swans, pied oystercatchers, paradise shelducks and the red-faced swamphens called pukeko. With jagged volcanic ridges looming over my left shoulder and the bird-bustling expanse of Lake Ellesmere glinting to my right, this is, as billed, a Great Ride – one of 23 thus branded as part of the 2,500km-long Nga Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trail. And with amber foliage luminous on trees flanking the near-empty track, I couldn’t have timed my ride better.
As well as sparse company on the trails, pedal-powered outing in shoulder season means better availability of bikes. “In summer, our entire fleet can be booked out way in advance,” reports Abby Dixon of Natural High cycle tours, my guide for the gentle ride to Little River. “The other benefit of a spring ride is that bikes get overhauled – and many new ones are bought – over winter. So a bike hired in September will be in tip-top condition, or even a brand-new model.”
Savour the freshest flavours
Autumn in New Zealand isn’t just about the mellow fruitfulness – apples, pears, those lush feijoas – it’s also the time to try Bluff oysters plucked from the Foveaux Strait between South Island’s lowest extremity and Stewart Island. Though the season officially runs March to August, limited quotas mean May is your last realistic chance to slurp these plump bivalves – and also when the Bluff Oyster & Food Festival takes over the small fishing town.
Naturally, autumn also sees vineyards bustling with grape-pickers; a visit to wine regions such as Marlborough will be rewarded with the heady scent of fermentation and vines in golden fall finery. Expect special wine-themed events, too – east of Wellington, the Wairarapa Wines Harvest Festival raises a glass to its finest pinot noirs each March.
Spring brings a glut of seafood and fish. The arrival of scallop season is marked on the Coromandel Peninsula – reputedly where you’ll find New Zealand’s finest – with the Whitianga Scallop Festival. On South Island, Mt Cook king salmon season kicks off in October, a treat for fishers and feeders alike, while the brief window for West Coast whitebait, highly sought after for the fritters that are almost a national obsession, runs from September to mid-November. As you’d expect in Kaikoura – whose name translates as “crayfish feast” – crustaceans top the bill at Seafest, on the first Saturday of October.
Ride the river wild
“Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au”: so incant the Maori of the Whanganui River region. I am the river. The river is me.
The hypnotic rhythm of the mantra drifts through my head as I drift with the current, now and then dipping my paddle to shatter the jade reflections of tree ferns and nikau palms. Enveloped in the gorge’s deep folds, the only other sound is the gentle hubbub of the river, punctuated by the fizz of occasional rapids.
New Zealand’s earliest inhabitants were migrants from Polynesia arriving in waka, or canoes. Perhaps that’s why most kiwis, of European or Maori heritage, are happiest on the water. Indeed, the ninth of the country’s designated Great Walks is no foot trail but a river, the Whanganui Journey, a three- to five-day canoe trip through the lush gorge. Warm, long days in autumn encourage leisurely paddling, while in spring the river flows high, reducing the strain on shoulders.
That’s the low-octane option. Many of New Zealand’s best whitewater rivers run wildest around October, promising the most exhilarating rafting. In September and October the Kaituna River, tumbling over the world’s highest commercially raftable waterfall, becomes engorged by heavy spring rains in Rotorua. Likewise the Shotover near Queenstown and the Rangitata south-west of Christchurch run high and strong in spring, fed by meltwater from the Southern Alps.
There’s no guaranteeing a rain-free visit to New Zealand, summer or not. But if clouds threaten, simply delve beneath the surface. Tolkien fans head to the film set of Hobbiton, where queues can be 75% shorter outside the busy summer season – it’s always dry inside Bilbo Baggins’ subterranean snug. Similarly, there’s no weather in the glowworm-lit depths of the Waitomo Caves, where temperatures remain constant year round. Alternatively, take a dip in a natural hot spring – try Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel, or the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs.
Enjoy animal encounters
Attempting to follow the path of a speeding fur seal among a forest of waving kelp is astonishingly disorientating. For the most part, I catch glimpses only of the spiralling wakes of these aquabatic mammals as they circle and dive and soar around me in the Pacific waters off Kaikoura. Then, abruptly, a pair of gleaming eyes appears before me, nose pressed to my mask, whiskers pearled with air bubbles. Our gazes lock, just for a moment, then the seal is gone with a perfunctory farewell nibble of my flippers.
Diving or snorkelling with seals and dolphins is one of the big-ticket activities in Kaikoura – one demanding forward-planning in high summer, when dolphin-swim sessions can be booked out weeks in advance. Whale-watching here, too, is in high demand in high season.
But while sperm whales and other marine mammals can be spotted off Kaikoura year-round, and chances of seeing humpbacks are greater in winter, shoulder seasons promise other wildlife treats. Orca forage in Wellington harbour as early as April and as late as October, while Bryde’s whale is seen mainly in springtime in the Bay of Plenty, Hauraki Gulf and off the east coast of Northland.
A few thousand endangered yellow-eyed penguins, known as hoiho, nest in the far south-east in September, with chicks fledging early autumn; watch platoons of these charmingly comical birds waddle up the beach to their nests in early evening on a tour with an expert guide.
September’s also the time to see breeding royal albatross arriving to nest at Pukekura (Taiaroa Head) on the tip of the Otago Peninsula; a year later, also in September, their offspring will take their first tentative flight.
Bag a bargain room
New Zealand’s popularity is a double-edged sword: in high season accommodation is at a premium. But in shoulder months rates fall, last-minute bargains appear and advance bookings are less important, so you can plan a stylish stay for less. For example, The George in Christchurch – the Telegraph’s top pick – has about 10% off rack rates in September. And nearby Otahuna Lodge – a grand historic pile with the air of an Edwardian hunting lodge – knocks NZ$900 (about £450) off half-board rates between May and September.
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