Ex-England captain’s Kiwi travel tips for Rugby World Cup 2011

By Guest Contributor
August 25, 2011

By Phil Vickery

Vickery visited New Zealand for the first time as an actual tourist in June. Poised to return as part of the ITV commentary team, he reflects here on his summer trip when he took a helicopter tour over Auckland, got up close to wildlife on the Otago Peninsula and soaked up the sights, sounds and great coffee of the world’s coolest little capital – Wellington.

I love New Zealand but never really got chance to enjoy it as a tourist when I toured there with England. I was always there to do a job and it was non-stop training.

This time was completely different. I went to eat, drink, have fun and experience as much as possible, and just enjoy the build up to the start of the Rugby World Cup which kicks off on September 9th.

I really loved seeing New Zealand through the eyes of a tourist and I didn’t even have jetlag too badly. I have to credit a jam-packed trip for that – there’s only so much a business-class flight can help! My advice to fans would be to do the same – keep busy outside the matches and go out and explore this spectacular country.

I’d suggest checking out the Real New Zealand Festival which is running alongside the Tournament – this is the first time a destination hosting the games has gone this far in putting such a huge festival together for visitors, and will ensure that our 19,000 of so visitors from UK and Ireland have plenty to keep them occupied between matches.

They are more than 1,000 events planned, including the Rugby Haka & Hangi Festival taking place in five Wairarapa, Tararua and Hawke’s Bay towns to quirky regional wine and food events like the West Coast’s Whitebait Festival, and for wine lovers – the Central Otago’s Pinot Noir Experience.

Everyone arrives in Auckland. It feels like a real lifestyle city surrounded by water, beaches and boats – yet it has great shopping, world-class restaurants (a few favourites listed at the end) and a love of great cocktails with interesting ingredients – feijoa (a local tropical fruit; bit like a guava) vodka for example.

I loved that I was based in the city centre but could walk down to the harbour, hop on a ferry, and 25 minutes later I was on an island in the middle of nowhere.

This was the very beautiful Waiheke Island with its vineyards, lovely coves and some very chic homes. I will never forget the lunch I had at Mudbrick restaurant, looking out across the water to the Auckland skyline. The food and wine they have in New Zealand and people’s enthusiasm for it blew me away. They really enjoy life over there.

I got a real buzz doing the SkyWalk around the top of the tower at Sky City in Auckland. It’s 192m above the ground and you walk round on a small wire platform with nothing between you and the pavement. You’re harnessed in, but the rope feels slack so it doesn’t seem like you’re held on, and then the guide gets you to lean over the side. Pretty terrifying!

The views were awesome though and I got a good look at Eden Park, ‘spiritual home of the All Blacks’ and location of the big England versus Scotland match on October 1st. You can jump off the tower by the way too – but I drew the line at that!

From there I flew down to Dunedin on the South Island, which was about an hour and a half with Air New Zealand. England are going to be based down there for their first three matches and I thought the brand new Forsyth Barr Stadium was absolutely awesome, particularly its fixed roof (a first for New Zealand). The atmosphere on a match day is going to be phenomenal. And from a player’s point of view, the surface was amazing – it’s a mix of artificial and natural grass, which will play hard and fast. The England lads will love it.

It all got me thinking that this is a great model for the northern hemisphere. It could really change the way leagues and timings happen – you won’t have to worry about the elements at all, which would be a massive bonus.

Dunedin itself was great: Really buzzing with all the students. I wanted to go surfing but just didn’t have time. Instead I spent a day on the Otago Peninsula next to the city. My guide was a fantastic guy called Perry Reid from Nature’s Wonders Naturally. His enthusiasm was infectious and I could have spent days there, surrounded by the ocean and the wind. It was paradise. We saw penguins and seals, and they had no fear. It was just a real privilege and an experience that rugby fans will be able to easily access in-between matches.

Wellington was wonderful too and brought back good memories – England beat the All Blacks there in 2003 before we went on to win the World Cup in Sydney! I got chance to talk to Conrad Smith (the current All Blacks centre), which was fun. The pressure on those home team boys is immense. Everyone you talk to, whether it’s an All Black or a cab driver, is determined this is going to be a great tournament; you really get a sense of that.

I felt really at home in Wellington – small and vibrant with a big creative scene. Fuelled by a cool coffee culture (there are more cafes per capita here than in New York), the next buzz is for local boy Peter Jackson’s next film The Hobbit. Filming is in full-swing during the Rugby World Cup so fans may spot a few famous faces down there… Orlando Bloom, Stephen Fry etc.

I really enjoyed a visit to Zealandia which is a sanctuary for all sorts of local wildlife. It’s not far from the centre and is like walking through Jurassic Park – one for the kids if you are taking the family. To top it off we had a great evening out at a place called Matterhorn on Cuba Street. Apparently it was voted best bar in New Zealand for a few years running and with the innovation and quality of its cocktails I can see why!

To sum up I think this World Cup is going to be fantastic because the Kiwis are hard to match when it comes to passion for rugby. It was a privilege facing the All Blacks performing the Haka when I used to play against them. It’s great at Twickenham but when it’s on their home turf it’s something else. You just have to look into the players’ eyes and you can immediately see the pride and the passion.

Where else can you experience world-class rugby and choose from hundreds of arts, food and wine events? The Kiwis are putting so much into it so fans can expect one huge party! They’ve had a tough time with the earthquake in Christchurch earlier this year so it is great we can give them our support.

My advice? Go and watch the rugby but have a holiday too, it’s such a beautiful place, take your time.

Extra tips on places to stay, eat and drink:

Auckland

Twentyone at SkyCity Auckland offers a sophisticated and luxurious space designed by award winning architect Tom Skyring. Enjoy the delicious tasting plates and relax with your choice of beverage from twentyone’s extensive wine and cocktail list. Also here is the just-opened Red Hummingbird

Housebar at Hotel De Brett is removed from the bustle of the city streets. Enjoy the classically inspired cocktail list, choose a local boutique beer, or indulge in a glass of wine from a carefully selected list of NZ vineyards. Now restored to its former glory, and beginning to attract back an eclectic mix of patrons; most with great stories and memories.

Bellota: Designed by one of New Zealand’s most famous chefs, the Peter Gordon inspired ‘modernised rendition of the authentic Spanish Tapas bar’ greets guests with a cellar cave-like entrance.

O’Connell St Bistro is an intimate dining room of 12 tables, created in the theme of a modern European back street bistro, with a cosy and well stocked bar.

SPQR is the place to be on Ponsonby Road and it’s always buzzing. Soft lighting and the fireplace in winter create a warm, comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. Depending on the time of day, music ranges from opera to lounge to happy house.

Clooney is a transformed former industrial warehouse has become an exquisite dining space, creating a personalised and intimate setting.

Dunedin

St Clair Beach Resort is perched directly above the white sands of St Clair Beach and represents Dunedin’s finest beachfront living. Built with the environment in mind, this boutique hotel offers 26 contemporary rooms.

Speight’s Ale House meal is situated in the heart of the historic Speight’s Brewery and has an extensive range of Southern fare, including steaks, blue cod, lambs fry, venison, pork, lamb shanks, and seafood chowder.

More information on getting there and away:

Go to www.realnzfestival.com for a full event listing for the Real New Zealand festival and www.newzealand.com/rugby for a rundown of matches and travel options. England Rugby Travel is one of the official travel agents offering fully escorted or tailor-made travel packages to RWC 2011.

(All opinions and recommendations are the columnist’s own)

Main caption: Phil Vickery is photographed at St Clare’s Beach, Dunedin, New Zealand

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