∞ Originally published in the Vancouver Sun November 30, 2019. ∞

“This is the oldest thing your eyes will ever see.”

I squint into a telescope at Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park Observatory on New Zealand’s South Island and my mind bends around the sight of a 13 billion-year-old star cluster shimmering in deep space.

It’s cold, rocky and pitch black at the top of this peak. The International Dark Sky Preserve, designated in 2012 to advance South Island astronomy, is Earth’s southernmost working observatory. The Southern Hemisphere sky cedes magnified views of the Milky Way, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons and the Southern Cross, which Maori settlers used to navigate here in the 1100s. Our Dark Sky Project guides detail it all with scientific awe.

After a while I step away to sit silently under the stars. It’s like that here. The country, its wild spaces, soaring landscapes, rare species, spectacular stars and teeming seas held magic for me.

Be here now

I touched down in Queenstown, like most South Island visitors. Long a backpacker base for bungee jumping, skiing and assorted adrenaline sports, Queenstown is evolving a sophisticated food and wine scene alongside a wellness industry — some visitors now come to zazen, not zip line.

“There’s a recognition of the need to slow down,” says yogi Sandi Murphy of Nadi Wellness Centre. She’s been leading soul journeys here for a decade.

“New Zealand’s known as pristine and pure, and we are. The air is so clean. The light is amazing. The wide open spaces of the South Island are special. There’s an area near here,” she adds, “that is actually called Paradise.”

Before you head for Paradise, explore this lively ski town. Head to the wharf for snacks and mountain scenery. Wander cobblestone streets, shop, eat wharf side at pub-like Ivy & Lola’s and sip craft brews such as Altitude Mischievous Kea IPA.

Follow lunch with a lookout: ride Skyline gondola to Bob’s Peak for spectacular views, hikes and a luge for kids.

Check into The Sherwood: a rustic eco-hipster hotel with farm-to-table food and creative cocktails that was recently one of Expedia’s top 10 global sustainable stays. Come evening, there’s meditation, yoga, musicians in the bar and an outdoor fire to warm you after a fall feast of elderberry-glazed eel or pork belly with sides of foraged mushrooms, artichokes, garden greens. For dessert, try sheep milk tiramisu and mulled wine with star anise.

Paradise Found

To enter Paradise, pass Glenorchy, a gorgeous mountain valley and twee town 45 minutes from Queenstown where many hiking trails to upper Lake Wakatipu and Paradise begin. If you’re not here to hike, walk the lakeshore and breathe deep: the air smells of fresh earth. Some say New Zealand has the cleanest air on the planet.

From Glenorchy on to South Island’s next epic wilderness: Fjordland National Park. It’s the nation’s largest, with 14 fiords and 200 kilometres of coastline.

I’m travelling with Real Journeys by way of Te Anu town, through the park to overnight on their ship in Milford Sound. The half-day drive is beyond pastoral: sheep-speckled hills, deer-dotted fields, falcons diving overhead — New Zealand’s famed for flora and fauna.

Quiet timeless power

Well past Te Anu, we enter the national park, where glacier-fed lakes reflect beech forests, mists hover, rainbows arc over peaks, and waterfalls kiss cliffs. Like most views in New Zealand, it’s surreally cinematic.

An overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner offers more waterfalls, zodiac and kayak jaunts, views of albatross soar- ing out to open sea. After dark, don’t miss stargazing under
a sheet of titanium stars glinting off ice-capped fiords. This land has a quiet, timeless power — almost prehistoric.

Fly back to Queenstown via small aircraft over the Southern Alps and you’ll understand why the Maori word for the coun-try, Aotearoa, means “land of the long white cloud.”

Then hit the road west toward laid-back Wanaka, a smaller, chiller version of Queenstown. Bunk down at cosy Te Wanaka Lodge, linger over creative plates of Te Mana lamb or Cloudy Bay clams at Kika for dinner, and prepare for the next day’s adventure: wandering one of South Island’s best wine regions.

Arise from the deep

I head up island to the east coast fishing hamlet of Kaikoura. For families, there’s kayaking with fur seals, swimming with dusky dolphins, spotting blue penguins, orcas, humpback, blue whales — you’ll see something wild in these waves. For me, Kaikoura’s lure is a moment with one of the planet’s most majestic marine mammals. Sperm whales weigh up to 51 tons, swallow sharks whole, battle giant squid and echolocate at 280 decibels — just short of a sonic boom.

After a Maori welcome, the captain steers our catamaran to sea, three nautical miles off the coast to a deep trench where plankton collect and sperm whales — honorary locals with names like Manu and Kiaki — have been returning since the 1980s. An hour later we discover a massive whale “logging” above water to spout and rest. I catch my breath at the scale of it before the great beast sinks quietly into the deep.

In New Zealand, sublime extends under the sea.

Elaine O’Connor travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand. Neither reviewed this article.

New Zealand wine and cheese please

Drive South Island’s Central Otago region and eventually road signs alternate exclusively between wineries and cheeseries, like some kind of highway cocktail party.

Accept the invite and find unique wine and cheese, offbeat owners and charming stories for a taste of New Zealand’s land and culture. The country made its mark with Sauvignon Blanc, but Pinot Noir and newer varietals are making a splash. There are many vineyards to explore in Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara Valley and Central Otago.

Rippon, a biodynamic winery, is known internationally, yet when the owner planted vines in 1975, no one thought they’d grow in hard schist. In fact, it was ideal for Pinots and the family-run winery’s still making vintages from early vines, plus acclaimed Sauvignon Blancs, Gamays and Rieslings.

This is a land made for oenophiles and cheese connoisseurs: there are 500 wineries and many award-winning cheesemakers — this is the land of four million dairy cows, after all, and there’s an official tourism board cheese trail.

New Zealand cheese — goat Parmesan to wine-infused cheddars — is incredible and inventive: in addition to cow, sheep and goat cheeses, artisans experiment with deer milk Goudas and Havartis.

Wooing Tree Vineyard co-owner Steve Farqu- harson has also been experimenting. His Cromwell winery produced a first Pi- not Noir in 2005 and later an orange-tinted Chardonnay, Blondie, which we enjoy — with a platter of Whitestone Blue, Evansdale Brie and Ruby Bay cheeses, check — on his sunny tasting room patio.

“We didn’t have a name for the winery,” Farquharson muses, settling into a story, “but there was one tree on the property that was Cromwell’s Lover’s Lane. Half the town was conceived under it. They thought we’d cut it down: we kept the tree and got our name.”

Lovers engaged under its branches return for winery weddings.
Love — of adventure — inspired Fiona and Ian Aitken to pull up stakes from Scotland in 2008 and plant three hectares that became Aitken’s Folly vineyards. It was anything but.

“Some things in life are re- ally good decisions: this was one of them,” Fiona says, as she pours a tasting flight. The couple now boast seven vintages — including Chardonnay and a lovely Pinot Rosé. Kia ora!

If you go:
Rippon: Rippon.co.nz
Wooing Tree: Wooingtree.co.nz
Aiken’s Folly: Aitkensfolly.com
Evansdale Cheese: Evansdalecheese.co.nz
Whitestone Cheese: Whitestonecheese.com
The Deer Milker: Thedeermilker.co.nz

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