Why Wales is the perfect alternative to New Zealand

Chris Leadbeater
While it is impossible wholly to replicate a sunrise over Waiheke, there are several elements of the Kiwi realm that can be duplicated - getty

If there is one thing we can be reasonably sure of in this time of uncertainty, it is that regular visitors to these pages will be missing New Zealand. Back in November, readers of this newspaper named the twin-island nation on the other side of the globe as their “Best Country” in the Telegraph Travel Awards - for a remarkable seventh year running.

It is not difficult to understand this deep-seated state of affection. With a landscape that veers from deserted beaches and fluttering vineyards to glacier-carved lakes, enormous sheer-sided fjords and Alpine peaks - while throwing in several slabs of cosmopolitan urban life that, somehow, do not impinge on the natural beauty of it all - here is a corner of the planet which enchants its visitors at whatever time of year they choose to stop by.

The “problem” is that, for now, visiting is off the menu. New Zealand closed its borders to overseas arrivals in March, and has (largely) kept them locked ever since. In doing so, it has all but eradicated internal transmission of Covid-19, and limited deaths to 22. But having had such success in controlling the virus, its government is in no rush to reopen the airports - and it could be that the country remains ring-fenced for many more months.

What to do in this interim of unspecified duration? While it is impossible wholly to replicate a sunrise over Waiheke, there are several elements of the Kiwi realm that can be duplicated - with a smattering of denial and suspended disbelief - a little closer to home...

Fiordland National Park

Off the menu: Milford Sound; Doubtful Sound

The alternative: Norway

Sognefjord - getty

For many visitors, the deep gouges in the left-hand flank of the South Island are the main reasons to fly to New Zealand. Indeed, its fjords are so impressive that they earned the instant admiration of one of the first European visitors. Doubtful Sound was so-named by Captain James Cook in 1770 - an acknowledgement of his fear that, in sailing in, he might not be able to navigate out. There is something eternally graceful about the fjord (and its colleague Milford Sound), the sky reflected on the surface of its water, framed by walls of rock. But you can locate the same effect in Scandinavia, where the west coast of Norway was similarly “scarred” by glaciers. The kingpin is the epic Sognefjord, which forges inland for 127 miles - and takes a side-turn into the smaller, lovelier Aurlandsfjord.

Do it: Discover The World (01737 888 095; discover-the-world.com) serves up a seven-night “Norwegian Fjord Highlights” road-trip - which includes a ride on the Flamsbana railway to the tip of the Aurlandsfjord at Flam. From £1,353 per person, including flights.

Aoraki/Mount Cook

Off the menu: New Zealand’s highest mountain

The alternative: Chamonix

Aiguille du Dru - getty

New Zealand’s highest mountain is a winter beast. The Tasman Glacier, which slides past it with imperceptible but relentless momentum, is the country’s longest ice-flow; Aoraki/Mount Cook lifts its summit to 12,218ft (3,724m), its head usually covered in snow. It is among the planet’s most beautiful peaks, its reflection visible in the likes of Hooker Lake.

However, it is not impossible to “replace” it close to home - if you don’t mind swapping its frozen aesthetic for the French summer. At 12,316ft (3,754m), the Aiguille du Dru is almost the same height as the giant of the South Island. It is arguably as dramatic too - coming to a fierce point (“aiguille” is French for “needle”) as it rears up from the Mont Blanc massif. There is no need to climb it to admire it - this is an opponent only for serious competitors. It can be seen, and photographed at leisure, in the Chamonix valley.

Do it: A week’s half-board stay at the three-star Hotel Gustavia in Chamonix, flying from Gatwick on August 12, costs £839 a head with Inghams (01483 945 770; inghams.co.uk).

Marlborough

Off the menu: New Zealand’s biggest wine region

The alternative: Burgundy

It's far closer than NZ - getty

Taking up the north-east shoulder of the South Island, Marlborough is New Zealand’s viticultural heartland, accounting for three quarters of its production and 80 per cent of its exports. So you will have no problem sourcing a bottle or three of Cloudy Bay, even in these pandemic times. But if you like to explore areas alive with the rustle of vineyards, as well as sip the results, you need to think laterally. A good proportion of Marlborough’s wine is made from pinot noir grapes. The same is the case in eastern France, where the Burgundy region devotes a lot of its efforts to plucking said soft fruits from the hillsides of the Saone Valley, and squeezing them into bottles of lightly quaffable pale red delight.

Do it: Grape Escapes (01920 468 666; grapeescapes.net) sells an “Essential Dijon” tour - available as a three- or four-day package - which dashes to the pretty capital of Burgundy for winery tours, tasting sessions and gourmet food. From £495 per person (flights extra).

Auckland

Off the menu: New Zealand’s biggest city

The alternative: Valencia

Valencia - getty

Auckland is a tricky fish to replicate. It sits splendidly on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf, gazing north along the line of the Coromandel Peninsula, north-east towards the open Pacific, and east towards Waiheke - one of the islands which fringe its doorstep. A very specific set of elements to find - and that is before you bring in the Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. You certainly will not encounter a building of such height (1,076ft/328m) in Valencia. And yet, you can hear curious echoes of New Zealand’s biggest city in Spain’s third largest. Their urban populations are similar in size (1.46million in Auckland; 1.59million in Valencia), both peer at the sunrise from gorgeous stretches of coastline, both are happy to treat you to dinner on the waterfront (Viaduct Harbour in Auckland’s case, Playa de la Malvarrosa in Valencia’s) - and both know their way around a winery. True, those in the wider Valencia region are perhaps not as picturesque as those found on Waiheke - but the vintages they create are just as supple.

Do it: A three-night stay at the four-star Hotel Melia Plaza costs from £639 a head, with flights, breakfast and transfers, via Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com). 

Wellington

Off the menu: The New Zealand capital

The alternative: Swansea

The Gower Peninsula - getty

No, wait. The second city of Wales and the administrative centre-point of New Zealand have more in common than you might believe. Head-count is one thing. Neither Wellington (215,400 residents) or Swansea (246,466) is a great swirl of population - but this only adds to their smaller-scale appeal. True, the Welsh city does not have a starkly sloping lay-out, its streets angling downwards in the direction of the Cook Strait. But it can match its Kiwi counterpart for shoreline splendour - the Gower Peninsula and Rhossili Bay, a few miles away, are arguably the equal of any rolling-breakers location at the foot of the North Island. Admittedly, South Wales does not have a cultural institution quite as majestic in scope as Te Papa Tongarewa, which tells New Zealand’s story in epic depth - but the National Waterfront Museum (museum.wales/swansea) covers Wales’s industrial heritage, and its relationship with the sea, in a detail which is to be applauded.

Do it: The Music Fable (07782 137 868; themusicfable.com) is a five-star boutique hotel right on the Swansea seafront, offering 11 rooms and suites named after composers and musicians (Beethoven, Chopin, Elgar, Bach etc) - and accommodation from £250 a night.

Wai-Iti

Off the menu: New Zealand’s first Dark Sky Park

Alternative: Devon

Stargaze in Exmoor - getty

New Zealand has made a good enough fist of the corona-crisis that it has been able to move on with non-viral projects while the rest of the planet is still worrying about infection rates. Earlier this month, it announced that Wai-Iti Recreational Reserve was to become an International Dark Sky Park. The only surprising element of this news is that this 135-hectare enclave - at the top end of the South Island, near Nelson - is the country’s first such official space for undisturbed star-gazing. In this, it is a little behind the UK, which has a significant range of protected places where man-made light does not intrude on the view of the firmament. In fact, we have five of the International Dark Sky Association’s top-tier category - the International Dark Sky Reserve (see darksky.org). These include Exmoor National Park in Devon, which has had its designation since 2011.

Do it: Astro Adventures (01409 241 719; astroadventures.co.uk) offers self-catering accommodation with an astronomical accent in North Devon. As well as a pair of two-bedroom lodges - from £305 per week - the site has its own 20” Dobsonian Telescope.

The Southern Lakes

Off the menu: The landscape around Queenstown

Alternative: The Scottish Highlands

The Highlands - getty

As well as fabulous fjords, the South Island throws out water features so wonderful that people cross the planet to see them. There is no exact definition as to what constitutes the Southern Lakes, save that they are dotted across the South Island - and that their number might include Lake Te Anau, Lake Wanaka and Lake Wakatipu, all of which are found within reasonable reach of Queenstown. The latter certainly is. It is on Wakatipu’s long shore - 50 miles from end to end, making it the country’s longest lake - that the city sits.

It might seem obvious to look for substitutes in the English Lake District, but the much-discussed geographical similarities between the South Island and Scotland make it appropriate to look further north. Loch Ness is barely a half-match for Wakatipu in pure length - 23 miles. But its steep-sided banks and misty mystique are every bit as glorious.

Do it: Sykes Holiday Cottages (01244 356 695; sykescottages.co.uk) offers Allt Lodge, a three-bedroom timber cabin which sleeps six at Balnain - a short hop from the west bank of Loch Ness and the ghostly ruin of Urquhart Castle. Seven-night bookings from £1,040.