Into the scrum

From Nelson to Dunedin, Mark Chipperfield nominates the highlights of the Rugby World Cup — on and off field.

New Zealand may not be the birthplace of rugby union football but it sees itself as the game's spiritual home. Like the national fascination with the weather, rugby binds New Zealand - blurring the gap between North and South, Maori and Pakeha. Hosting the Rugby World Cup next month means more to New Zealand than worldwide media exposure, lucrative sponsorship deals and a boost to its economy (not that these things are unimportant). It is a chance to show the best the country has to offer: snow-capped mountains, rolling vineyards, quirky country towns, a vibrant food culture and laid-back lifestyle.

Cup anticipation is building across the country. "The preparations are complete," says my cab driver in Wellington, Russell. "There's nothing more we can do. All we need now is for the visitors to come."

Cup fever is not confined to Wellington and Auckland. Every town and hamlet is involved - staging community events, from street fairs to gumboot throwing, or "adopting a second team" (Marlborough residents are learning Russian and putting up street signs in the Cyrillic alphabet).

More than 1000 events, from the Bay of Plenty to Stewart Island, are being co-ordinated by the REAL New Zealand Festival. "The grassroots support we're getting is fantastic," says the director of the festival, Briony Ellis. "What's really great is that these events are really representative of the way Kiwis like to celebrate."

While the main games will take place in Auckland and Wellington, organisers are keen to involve the entire nation, describing New Zealand as "an auditorium of 4 million people". There is a brace of rugby-themed events and public viewing areas equipped with giant screens even in places such as Queenstown, which isn't staging a single game, and Christchurch (one of the original host cities, before the February earthquake).

Even those who decide to dash across the Tasman at the last minute will find a warm welcome. New Zealanders are throwing open their doors to fans who can't find a hotel room. A former All Black, Andy Leslie, says it's a Kiwi tradition to welcome people from overseas - and Australian rugby fans are like family. "Every sporting club in New Zealand has its doors open to welcome people," he says. "No one will be left without a bed."

Nelson

Claiming to be the "birthplace of New Zealand rugby" - the first game was played here in 1870 - Nelson is fanatically supportive of the Rugby World Cup. Apart from hosting three matches (including Australia v Russia on October 1), the city is staging a variety of rugby-themed events, including a performance of Russian music, an international wine challenge and an Italian festival during the six-week event.

Eating and drinking

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The Nelson-Tasman region has some of the best produce in New Zealand. The Morrison Street Cafe (244 Hardy Street; +64 (0)3 548 8110; morrisonstreetcafe.co.nz) is typical of the stylish cuisine available and was voted best cafe in Nelson last year. For something more casual, try the Hot Rock Gourmet Pizza Pasta Bar (8-10 Tahun-anui Drive; +64 (0)3 546 4421; hotrock.co.nz), with the city's only wood-fired pizza oven. Many vineyards have their own eateries, such as Cafe in the Vineyard at Waimea Estates (59 Appleby Highway, Hope; +64 (0)3 544 4963; cafeinthevineyard.co.nz). For elegant but relaxed dining, try Hopgood's (284 Trafalgar Street; +64 (0)3 545 7191; hopgoods.co.nz). The menu features excellent local seafood and other regional produce - don't miss the slow-cooked pork belly or 48-hour beef rib. Fans of craft beer will be well rewarded in Nelson. Housed in a disused church, the Free House (95 Collingwood Street; +64 (0)3 548 9391; thefreehouse.co.nz) serves a brilliant range of local and imported beers. Equally impressive is the Sprig & Fern Brewery (134 Milton Street; +64 (0)3 545 7117; sprigandfern.co.nz), which produces award-winning craft beers, ciders, ginger beers and alcoholic lemonades.

Signature experiences

Nelson is an arts hub and perfect if you love ceramics, glass, jewellery, painting and sculpture. The Nelson Saturday Market (Montgomery Square, 8am-1pm) is a great place to buy local artists' work. The city is rich in colonial European architecture; see the art deco Christ Church Anglican Church and Mapua Wharf. The Botanics Reserve - the site of the first game of rugby in New Zealand - is another popular sight. A re-enactment of that match, followed by the Russia-Italy clash, takes place on September 20.

Nearby attractions

Known as the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson has three national parks on its doorstep, with mountain biking, kayaking, fly-fishing and sailing available. Many hikers come here solely to tackle the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Kahurangi National Park is popular for its craggy ranges and rugged coastline - and the country's biggest population of great spotted kiwi. Nelson is also handy for the Marlborough Sounds, famous for their breathtaking scenery.

Insider tip

Don't miss the All Star Tailgate Party before the Italy v US game (September 27). Another highlight is the RugBEER Hopfest (September 17-October 1), a celebration of local craft beer being held in a giant yurt.

More information See nelsonnz.com.

Wellington

It houses most of New Zealand's pollies and public servants but Wellington is also a great food, party and rugby town. Visa Wellington on a Plate (every August) is the country's premier food festival. Australia will be playing its first pool match against the US here on September 23 and, in all probability, the quarter-final at the city's Westpac Stadium. Supporters will find plenty of waterfront bars in which to celebrate a win or drown their sorrows.

Eating and drinking

Wellington has more than 360 bars, cafes and restaurants, from high-end eateries such as the stylish Logan Brown (192 Cuba Street; +64 (0)4 801 5114; loganbrown.co.nz) and Hippopotamus (90 Cable Street; 04 802 8935; hippopotamus.co.nz) to vibrant bistro fare at Floriditas (161 Cuba Street; +64 (0)4 381 2212; floriditas.co.nz) and spicy south-east Asian hawker food at Monsoon Poon (12 Blair Street, +64 (0)4 803 3555; monsoon poon.co.nz). Wellington is in the grip of craft-beer mania, so check out Little Beer Quarter (6 Edward Street, Te Aro; +64 (0)4 803 3304; littlebeerquarter.co.nz), Monteith's Brewery Bar (corner Ganges Road and Agra Crescent; +64 (0)4 479 4157; monteiths.co.nz) and beer shrine Malthouse (48 Courtenay Place; +64 (0)4 802 5484; themalthouse.co.nz), which stocks 140 types. For great coffee, try Cuba Street; Fidel's (234 Cuba Street; +64 (0)4 801 6868; fidelscafe.com) does a fine breakfast.

Signature experiences

The iconic Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa charts the Maori and European impact on Aotearoa (Cable Street; open daily from 10am, +64 (0)4 381 7000; tepapa.govt.nz). And take a trip on the historic cable car (280 Lambton Quay; +64 (0)4 472 2199; wellingtoncablecar.co.nz).

Nearby attractions

Just across the Cook Strait is Marlborough, New Zealand's most famous wine district. Closer to hand is the Wairarapa, a region producing some of the world's finest pinot noir. Adventure types should head to the Hutt Valley, while Porirua, just 20 minutes' drive from Wellington, has sandy beaches, gentle walks and old-school Kiwi charm.

Insider tip

Wellington is a foodie's paradise. Get to grips with the astonishing range of produce available by booking a Zest Walking Gourmet Food Tour (zestfoodtours.co.nz). Sunday Gourmet Tours cost $NZ135 ($108), including tastings.

More information See wellingtonnz.com.

Rotorua

The unofficial Maori capital of New Zealand will be in full rugby mode for the Cup, hosting several pool matches and staging an epic arts program called Rotorua Entertains (September 9-October 23). Apart from the geysers and thermal springs, Rotorua is a centre for adventure sports - from mountain biking to white-water rafting. Easy air access from Auckland and Wellington makes Rotorua a perfect pre- or post-match destination.

Eating and drinking

Even its most avid fan would not claim that Rotorua is a centre for gastronomy. Cheap and cheerful is the order of the day - unless you stay at a high-end lodge. For fine dining, try Mokoia (Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort, Holdens Bay; +64 (0)7 343 5100; mokoiarestaurant.co.nz). Locals swear by the Moroccan dishes at Abracadabra Cafe & Bar (1263 Amohia Street; +64 (0)7 348 3883; abracadabracafe.com). In all likelihood you'll find yourself eating pasta or a burger at Seismic (1158 Whakaue Street; +64 (0)7 348 2082; seismicgastrobar.co.nz), a modestly priced "gastrobar". For a quick coffee or snack, all roads lead to the Fat Dog Cafe & Bar (1161 Arawa Street; +64 (0)7 347 7586; fatdogcafe.co.nz), the city's quirkiest hang-out.

Signature experiences

Plunging into a thermal spa is the universal desire of every visitor. The easiest place to do this is the Polynesian Spa (1000 Hinemoa Street; +64 (0)7 348 1328; polynesianspa.co.nz),which has a wide range of public and private geothermal pools. For something that is a little more romantic, try the Blue Baths (Queens Drive, Government Gardens; +64 (0)7 350 2119; historic-venues.co.nz), a magnificent art deco complex nearby. For an insight into Maori culture, visit the Tamaki Maori Village (+64 (0)7 349 2999;maoriculture.co.nz), which combines storytelling, dance, ceremony and a traditional hangi (earth oven) feast.

Nearby attractions

For more sulphur fumes, the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, 20 minutes' drive south of Rotorua, offers the ultimate geothermal fix, with giant geysers and the country's biggest bubbling pool. Adventure seekers will want to take on the Kaituna Cascades. Kaitiaki Adventures (+64 (0)800 338 736; kaitiaki.co.nz) has a range of white-water rafting and kayaking trips. Walking tours of the Whirinaki Forest Park with Te Urewera Treks (+64 (0)7 366 6055; teureweratreks.co.nz) provide a gentler escape. One-day treks cost $NZ175 for adults, $NZ145 for children.

Insider tip

Getting around Rotorua can be a problem unless you have a hire car. Grumpy's Transfers & Tours (+64 (0)7 348 2229; grumpyslimo.co.nz) provides a low-cost shuttle service from the airport (from $NZ10) and escorted regional tours.

More information See rotoruanz.com.

Dunedin

After playing second fiddle to Christchurch for so long, this outpost of Caledonian culture is now centre stage for the World Cup, following the devastating earthquake that flattened its northern neighbour. The city has a new, all-weather stadium and its compact size and youthful population will make Dunedin the perfect place to party during the Cup - or a base for ecotourism adventures after the competition ends on October 23.

Eating and drinking

Known as a city of students, Dunedin was a late starter in the cuisine stakes. But the standouts are Pier 24 Restaurant & Bar (24 Esplanade, St Clair Beach; +64 (0)3 456 0555; stclairbeachresort.com) and the Plato Cafe (2 Birch Street; +64 (0)3 477 4235; platocafe.co.nz). One is bright and contemporary while the other is grungy and edgy. Try both. For a rugby-friendly vibe, pull up a stool at Speight's Ale House (Speight's Brewery, 200 Rattray Street; +64 (0)3 471 9050; thealehouse.co.nz). Oddly enough for a city of students, Dunedin lacks an iconic pub. Albar (135 Stuart Street; +64 (0)3 479 2468) is a fun alternative, with live music. The Moonbar (7 St Andrew Street; +64 (0)3 479 2018; angusdunedin.co.nz) serves the best cocktails in Dunedin.

Signature experiences

Dunedin is a base for various eco-experiences on the Otago Peninsula. The city's attractions are limited, unless you have a strong interest in Victorian Gothic churches. Though a standout sight is the city's magnificent Edwardian railway station. Passenger trains no longer operate but there is a daily tourist service to Taieri River Gorge; return fare $NZ91. There are excellent walking tours of central Dunedin (citywalks.co.nz).

Nearby attractions

Otago Peninsula, just across the water from Dunedin, is a sanctuary for albatrosses, penguins and sea lions. A number of land and water tours are available. Elm Wildlife Tours (+64 (0)3 454 4121; elmwildlifetours.co.nz) conducts small-group trips, including a visit to the Royal Albatross Colony. Guides are knowledgeable - and trained to deter aggressive sea lions. Also on the peninsula is Larnarch Castle and Gardens (+64 (0)3 476 1616; larnachcastle.co.nz). Built in 1871, the country house is open to the public and has guided tours, a restaurant and accommodation. The gardens are magnificent.

Insider tip

While most visitors charge out to the Otago Peninsula, it's worth heading in the opposite direction and spending at least a couple of hours on St Clair Beach. It's a lovely place for a sunny lunch, a quiet sundowner and a dip in the heated saltwater pool.

More information See www.dunedinnz.com.

Queenstown

The fact that no RWC matches are to be played in Queenstown hasn't stopped this tourist magnet from joining the party. The lakeside hub will be hosting teams from England, Georgia, Ireland and Romania - and plenty of their supporters - during the Cup. Special events include New Zealand on Screen, a travelling show of Kiwi cinema; Taste Queenstown, a "mini food, wine and art festival"; and an All Blacks v France veterans match on September 18, with some of the great players of yesteryear.

Eating and drinking

You will find plenty of bars, pubs and casual eateries in New Zealand's premier party town. At last count there were more than 150. Most are affordable Thai, Mexican and sushi joints. And there are some fine-diners, too, including Eichardt's Private Hotel (4 Marine Parade; +64 (0)3 441 0450; eichardtshotel.co.nz), the poshest address in town. For delicious hand-rolled pizza, try Cow Restaurant (Cow Lane; +64 (0)3 442 8588; thecowrestaurant.co.nz). Queenstown is a happy hunting ground for barflies. Speight's Ale House (corner Stanley and Ballarat streets) serves a decent selection of local beers, while Barmuda (Searle Lane) has a funkier vibe, plus a good wine and cocktail list.

Signature experiences

Skiing, snowboarding, bungy jumping, jet boating. The ski season runs from June 1 to August 30 but many ski fields stay open until October. Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of the AJ Hackett bungy-jumping empire, operates year round.

Nearby attractions

Need even more alpine scenery? Queenstown is within easy driving distance of Mount Aspiring National Park, Lake Wanaka and the Fiordland region. Lord of the Rings fans can visit the townships of Glenorchy and Paradise, which featured in the films. Historic Arrowtown is another popular destination, offering golfing, horse trekking, fly-fishing and wine-tasting.

Insider tip

Non-stop outdoor adventure takes its toll. A session at LeSpa at the Sofitel (8 Duke Street; +64 (0)3 450 0045; sofitel.com) should sort out any aches and pains. There's a hamman steam room, spa and infrared room, while the menu includes a greenstone massage and manuka honey facial.

More information See queenstown-nz.co.nz.

Mark Chipperfield travelled courtesy of Emirates and Tourism New Zealand.

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