An unforgettable week in New Zealand

I had already decided I wouldn't scream. I didn't want to give the cameraman what he was waiting for. I didn’t struggle when they bound the rope tightly around my ankles; what would be the point? And when the men shouted at me to look straight-ahead and yelled in my ear “5,4,3,2,1, jump!” I did so. And despite my best intentions, through pure involuntary terror, I screamed like little girl. And that was that, my first bungy jump. Like ballooning in Kenya and surfing in California, New Zealand is the place to bungy. Split in to the North and South Islands it’s a country roughly the size of the UK but about only 250 miles wide and almost 1000 miles long. With a population fifteen times less than the UK there is plenty of open space to enjoy. I warn you now, that without my thesaurus to hand, superlatives like amazing, breathtaking and stunning are a little overused in this piece - but I stand by every one of them. New Zealand is a special place.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaoQYoK9pUk[/youtube]

Eddie Cantor famously said it took him 20 years to be an overnight success. It took New Zealand 25 million of years and Peter Jackson's 'Lord Of The Rings' for the world to notice just what it has to offer. The 40% surge in visitors since the movies were released is proof for many that the largest product placement in cinema history has worked its magic.

I started my trip in the capital, Auckland; not a great place for a day of sightseeing. After the Sky Tower and America's Cup Museum there's little else for the meandering day-tripper to do. Instead of wasting your time around the shops, head out to the suburbs and check out the very relaxed Ponsonby and Parnell. The following day we flew to Queenstown, the South Island's adrenaline playground nestled in a jaw-dropping backdrop of mountains, lakes and rivers.

We hired a camper van at the airport, found a park just five minutes walk from the town centre and headed straight for the cable car to the top of the mountain. As you would expect, the views are stunning, and the Luge ride up there is a must; buy at least two rides - you'll love it.  After taking in lunch (and the views) we drove out to the Shotover River for some whitewater rafting. The road is the old gold miners’ route and is as hair-raising as the rapids. Once we were wet-suited and booted, Kyle, our guide, gave us little nuggets of historical and geological information on the river's quiet sections and drilled us on how to deal with each looming section of rough water. Each rapid has it's own special name so 'Oh Shit' is followed by ‘Jaws’ and then the finale: the ‘Mother In Law’. It’s a course so perfectly paced you feel you could be on a massive theme park ride, or as Kyle put it, "Disney with consequences".

We rounded off the day with a brilliant high-speed jet-boat ride and dinner at the lakeside Botswana Butchery with it's perfectly crafted cocktails and steaks.

A road trip in New Zealand is something you actually look forward to. The roads are virtually empty, well maintained and you can't get lost.  The 45-minute drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. It's no surprise that much of 'Lord Of The Rings' was shot here. There is little more than a cafe, hotel and post office on the tiny main road, but you're not here for the shopping. If like us you’re short on time, dump the car and head straight for the 1-hour circular ‘Lagoon Walkway’. As you can see from the photographs, it was breathtaking. On the drive back to Queenstown, make a stop to explore the delightful tea garden at the Little Paradise Lodge.

Bill Bryson wrote a sentimental homage to the now redundant roadside attractions once scattered along the original Route 66, like 'The World's Largest Ball of String' providing a welcome distraction for any weary driver. We still have these in Britain. Only a few weeks ago at South Mimms I came across 'The World's Most Expensive Cornish Pasty' and I regularly encounter 'The World's Most Ineffectual Tea Pot'.

New Zealand offers roadside attractions with a bit more zing. It's littered with salmon farms, aviation museums, and a chance to try your hand at panning for gold, so the journey is as much fun as the destination. If, for example, you want a photograph of a leaning clock tower sticking up your bum, may I recommend the Puzzling World? It's like the leaning tower of Pisa, only with better toilets.

The following day we took a drive out to the very pleasant Lake Wanaka and then on to the spectacular Mount Cook where Sir Edmund Hilary did his training for Everest. There is a nice museum and obligatory café from where you can take in the stunning mountain views. Close by is Lake Tekapo where I refreshed in the outside pools, sauna and plunge pool. That night I parked up at one of the many DOC (Department of Conservation) run sites in the area; an idyllic spot by Lake McGregor for just $6 a night.

The following morning, a few miles down the road, I saw a sign for glider flights. I’ve always fancied doing that, so popped in, and yes for $350 they could take me up there and then. Sitting in the front and controlling it for about 10 minutes in the air was, I have to say, one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. It was very windy and trying to keep us being blown all over the place was exhausting. I loved it, but felt nauseous for the rest of the day.

Next stop was Sumner beach near the port of Lyttleton then beautiful Christchurch, a real gem of a city. Based on the famous Oxford college, it's no surprise the architecture and botanical gardens are redolent of a quaint British town. It’s one of those places you visit and say to yourself “I could live here”. After two nights it was back to Auckland and now it’s back to work. I cut my trip short by a few days to join the Queen Mary 2 in Cape Town on Saturday, and a week later I fly from Mauritius to Newcastle for “Let There Be Love” - a Nat Cole concert with John Wilson conducting the Northern Sinfonia.

You'd think that if I can jump off a bridge with nothing but a bit of elastic tied around my feet, anything would be possible. But singing Nature Boy with jet lag? Now that’s a challenge.