“Would you like to sit next to the window?” offered Mrs. Evans, minutes before the Air New Zealand flight took off for Queenstown. “You might be able to spot Mount Cook if you’re lucky!” she said, her eyes sparkling with a generosity uncommon to our century of the mythical rat, which is forever scrambling. We live in a world where people love to race. And count, among other things, their tally of friends and pokes on Facebook. Luckily, and much to my disbelief, the multi-national rat corporations have thus far turned a blind eye to a pair of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, ‘the land of the long white cloud’ called Aotearoa. We’ve been searching for Shambala in the wrong continent after all. The land of the enlightened is closer to the South Pole than we think.NZ has some of the best wines. Stop at Villa Maria, the country’s most awarded winery. Photo: Anshuman SenOff to the winery Our group started on a bright winter morning in Auckland, at the Te Manukanuka O Hoturoa Marae, a community place held sacred by the Maoris. “The Powhiri is a traditional Maori welcome ceremony,” explained our host Mr Berryman, as we lined up outside the Marae in nervous anticipation. The proceedings began with the spectacularly intimidating ‘Wero’. A bare-chested spear-toting male warrior walked up to our leader and challenged him with threatening grimaces, before laying down a bunch of leaves on the ground. Quick to notice a sense of discreet panic in our camp’s leadership, Mr.Berryman concluded, “We are now satisfied you do not have hostile intentions. You may enter the Marae”. The walls inside were decorated with carved and woven panels representing the major clans. Our hosts greeted us with the hongi, gentle pressing of the nose.advertisementWith 100 gallery spaces in the region, Auckland Art Gallery remains a favourite for art lovers. Photo: Anshuman Sen Soon thereafter we drove up to the Villa Maria Winery (www.villamaria.co.nz), to celebrate our trip’s beginning at the picturesque Vineyard Caf. Mischa, the lone wine aficionado in our group, chose a 2010 Chardonnay for the table that went very well with the pesto infused grilled chicken. “This is possibly New Zealand’s most awarded winery,” said Mischa as we sniffed and swirled our way out of imminent jet lag. The founder of Villa Maria, Sir George Fistonich, started with just an acre of vines in 1961 and business has expanded steadily ever since. Villa Maria was also the first major winery in New Zealand to move to screw caps from the traditional cork.Wellington, the southernmost capital city in the world, is home to the Basin Reserve Cricket Club, every Indian batsman’s short-pitched nightmare. “The last time India won a test against the Kiwis here was in 1968,” informed Shekar whose passion for cricket trivia was surpassed only by his sense of humour. Wellington is also home to the Weta Studio (www.wetanz.com), made famous by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We drove down to the lovely eastern suburb of Miramar next morning for a peep into the hi-tech world of prop production and cinematic special effects. “All the costumes, swords, miniature sets and creatures that one sees in the LOTR were conceptualised and fabricated here at the Weta,” said Anna Abernethy, the Weta cave manager. The guided tour inside the studio gave us a behind-the-scenes look at all the work that goes into the evolution of a movie prop, from a sketch to a highly detailed working model. If Weta is a ‘must do’ in Wellington so is the Boulcott Street Bistro and Winebar (www.boulcottstreetbistro.co.nz), one of Wellington’s finest restaurants. Established by chef Rex Morgan in the historic Plimmer House, this restaurant is a great bistro with an old world charm. The Fillet Barnaise with Red Wine Jus was cooked to perfection.Also read: Actor Sidharth Malhotra talks about his leap of faith in New Zealand Next on our itinerary was the garden city of Christchurch, where we stayed at the Heritage Old Government Building, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. According to the general manager, Vicki Bretherton, the city of Christchurch has done well to recover from the February 2011 earthquake. “There is an air of optimism here and the innovative building and community projects reflect our vision for the future,” she said. The Red Bus Rebuild Tour, organised by the Canterbury museum, took us to the Transitional Cathedral, which has replaced the neo-Gothic structure destroyed in the 6.3 quake of 2011. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, this A-frame structure is made from cardboard tubes coated with waterproof polyurethane. Interestingly, the nearby Re:Start mall is made entirely out of shipping containers modified to house retail stores and cafes!advertisementHigh adventure in Queensland It’s not hard to understand why everyone raves about Queenstown, where we went next. The breathtaking scenery is intensified many times over by the plethora of adventure activities that are on offer. It’s safe to say that Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world. After saying goodbye to Mrs Evans at the airport, we sped off to the Rees Hotel in luxury SUVs. Named after the founder of Queenstown, William Gilbert Rees, whose larger than life portrait still dominates the lobby, the Rees Hotel is located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, with great views of the Remarkables mountain range.Half way through lunch in one of Eichardt’s private rooms (www.eichardts.com), I had no trouble accepting the hotel’s modest claim of being ‘New Zealand’s most exclusive lake front address’. Eichardt’s iconic status in Queenstown dates to the gold mining days when it gained popularity amongst prospecting miners and businessmen.The tasteful interiors were complimented well by the sourdough pumpkin bruschetta and Calamari in squid-ink tempura batter. Adam, our host, opened a bottle of Mount Edward Pinot Noir, made in Central Otago exclusively for Eichardt’s, by winemaker Duncan Forsyth.The Shotover Jet (www.shotoverjet.com) experience defies description. One only has to imagine a jet boat on steroids scurrying through a narrow gorge at break neck speed, grazing past rocks and boulders, to make sense of this crazy sport. I realised minutes into the ride that this was something truly special. Commandeered by Nick ‘Doofy’ Simpson, our ‘big red’ did a series of complete 360-degree spins on the spectacular Shotover River, spraying cold water onto our faces, in addition to the customary high-speed bends. Back in the office we were shown a video of the ride captured by a series of cameras both on and off the boat. “We have exclusive rights to operate in the Shotover river and we’ve been doing this for over 40 years now with an excellent safety record,” said Katherine Cahill who also presented us with a photo album and a DVD of us in the ‘world’s most exciting jet boat ride’.The beautiful spread of Queenstown. Photo: Anshuman Sen Even before we could dry ourselves, I found myself going up the Skyline Gondola for our 4-line Moa Ziptrek Ecotour (www.ziptrek.com/queenstown-new-zealand). Ready with our harnesses we zipped from one tree house to the other with a bird’s eye view of Wakatipu Lake. The more adventurous amongst us zipped upside down and handsfree, blurring the forest around us. “Ziptrek Ecotours are an exciting combination of education and adventure,” said our instructor-guide from Argentina who also talked about the company’s commitment towards sustainable development and ecological responsibility. “We have the world’s steepest tree-to-tree flying fox here, and you’ll be surprised at the number of 80 year olds who opt for it.” The minimum permissible age for a ziptrek is 6 years and the maximum weight allowed is 125 kg.advertisementDavid Gatward-Ferguson from Nomad Safaris (www.nomadsafaris.co.nz) picked us up from The Rees next morning, and we began scouring the Wakatipu basin in earnest for 4WD river crossings and The Lord of the Rings locations. “Our safaris can be customised to suit particular interests,” said David as we stopped by at the quaint and fashionable Arrow Town, famous for its bakery (www.arrowtownbakery.co.nz). “Some people only want to visit film locations, while others are happy to just drive around and stop when something catches their fancy”. The river crossings were truly spectacular and the Toyota Land Cruisers proved their mettle both in and out of water. “We work really hard to keep the vehicles in top shape, given the rough treatment they get from us.” David gave us a lecture-demonstration on gold panning next to the river and we drove up to Queenstown airport with an average yield of 1.3 gold specks. Not bad for beginners we were told. It is important to mention here that it’s illegal to pan gold using commercial equipment in Queenstown. Gold panning is restricted only to hobbyists.The amazing Milford Sound The Helicopter Line (www.helicopter.co.nz) based in Queenstown airport had organised a trip for us to catch the Milford Sound Scenic Cruise at one pm. After a quick ‘dos and don’ts’ briefing we took off around noon and flew right into the Fiordland National Park with its spectacular landscape of snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes. “We’ll try and land on a glacier, if weather permits,” crackled Brad Patterson’s voice on the headset as we skimmed over snowclad ridges and peaks. The highly trained pilots at Helicopter Line are experts at navigating through narrow gorges and landing on precarious terrain. Minutes later both our helicopters landed on a flat snowfield and we were given some time to look around and take in the views. Beyond the jagged outline of peaks and group photographs, one could see the flat blue silhouette of the Tasman Sea. If there is one thing you must do in Queenstown, it must be this.Nothing can be more thrilling than landing on a glacier in the middle of Fiorland National Park. Photo: Anshuman Sen We reached Milford Sound just in time to board our much-anticipated Lunch Cruise (www.realjourneys.co.nz). Anna Kerslake, from Real Journeys, had organised a special buffet for us, but I didn’t budge from the humongous seafood platter till it was impossible to scavenge the last bits of crayfish and calamari. It was a bright afternoon and the open-air deck was full of tourists and iPads. The fiord at Milford Sound is dotted with waterfalls on either side and we traversed its entire length under the watchful gaze of the magnificent Mitre Peak.On our way back from Milford Sound our helicopters climbed up the vertical length of Sutherland Falls to make a spectacular landing at Lake Quill. Even though we spent only a few minutes at the lake, I can play out the vision in my mind at will. The helicopters dropped us off at the Walter Peak High Country station where we got a touristy glimpse into the Kiwi farming lifestyle. The impressive ‘working sheep dogs’ demonstrated their skills at herding in sheep from the hillsides, which was followed by a rough and ready sheep shearing session. We stopped over for some lemonade and muffins at the lakeside Colonel’s Homestead before boarding the vintage steamship TSS Earnslaw (www.tssearnslaw.co.nz) back to Queenstown. Affectionately called the ‘Lady of the Lake’, this is believed to be the oldest working coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere. “She turned hundred last year and it was a real honour for me to have steered it on its anniversary,” said Graham Moore-Carter who has been the Senior Launch master since 1980. “If she was a person she’d be a temperamental old lady.” he added with a wink, as we climbed down from the skipper’s wheelhouse to the engine deck below where stokers still shovel coal into the furnace the old fashioned way. “We receive instructions from the skipper through traditional telegraph bells.” There is absolutely no scope for miscommunication on board the TSS Earnslaw. There is a pianist onboard and a caf that also sells wine and beer.The Skyline Luge in Queenstown is a 800 metre gravity ride winding down through the trees atop Bob’s Peak. Photo: Anshuman Sen Our last evening in Queenstown was spent at the Matakauri Lodge (www.matakauri.co.nz). To call it spectacular would be an understatement. Located on the banks of Lake Wakatipu, with fantastic views of snowcapped mountains, this 11-suite property is the benchmark for luxury hospitality in New Zealand. I settled down with a Lagavulin on the rocks, next to the fireplace in one of the drawing rooms and watched twilight fade into the stillness of the night. We had an early leisurely dinner at the dining hall. Chef Jonathan Rogers’s version of modern New Zealand cuisine showcased local seasonal produce, and we were not disappointed to say the least. After dinner we retired to the television room for the season’s first Rugby test match between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. Mischa was kind enough to explain to us the nuances of Rugby while the game was underway, and in a matter of minutes converted most of us into All Black fans. It wasn’t an unhappy coincidence that the All Blacks beat the Aussies quite comprehensively that night. All that cheering helped, I was told.High life in Auckland We took a morning flight back to Auckland the next day and took a ferry (www.fullers.co.nz) to Waiheke Island. Only 18 km from Auckland, Waiheke is New Zealand’s most densely populated island and is a popular holiday destination in summer. We drove straight to the Stonyridge Vineyard for a vegan meal with owner and winemaker Stephen White. “I’m really into Yoga, so I feel I have some sort of an emotional connection with India,” said Mr. White, also a former yachtsman, “I wanted to make a world class Bordeaux-style red wine in Waiheke. The Stonyridge Larose is just that.” The Larose is New Zealand’s most expensive wine and is listed amongst the top cabernet blends in the world.We made our way to Ecozip Adventures (www. ecozipadventures.co.nz) after lunch for some more zip lining. Beautifully located, with great views of the bay and Auckland in the distance, the dual zip lines here allowed two persons to ride side by side. The three zip lines here were longer and way above the tree canopy, so the experience was totally different from the one we had in Queenstown. The walk up to the office through a native forest was equally exciting and all of us had worked up a healthy appetite by the time we reached the Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant. I ordered an old-fashioned beef steak and some Pinot Noir to go with it. It was quite late when we reached the Delamore Lodge and it was only until next morning that I could appreciate its wonderful bay view and Mediterranean inspired architecture.Back in Auckland I met Julia Cooke and Sharon Nightingale for lunch at The Sugar Club (www. thesugarclub.co.nz), Peter Gordon’s highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant in the Sky Tower. I’ve had some great food during my stay in New Zealand, but the grub at the Sugar Club was undoubtedly the best. The Bularangi Harley Davidson boys were waiting for us when we took a lift down 53 floors from the restaurant. I sat behind Peter ‘Donks’ High and we drove all over Auckland on his Harley Davidson. Talk about one for the road. And I’ll definitely be back for more.