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Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.

NanoStockk/Getty Images/iStockphoto

She was about five weeks old, her status officially threatened, and her survival was a question mark. If I was looking for a life metaphor during my trip to New Zealand, I probably couldn’t have found a better one than this tiny kiwi bird. When the conservation officer located her, pulled her from the bramble deep in the woods and told us her name, I almost couldn’t believe it: Sacred Journey.

Even if I’m not so much for the sacred, I was on a journey. I had had a fairly brutal couple of years, and was seeking the escape that travel quite literally offers. I have always found travel invigorating, and thought that maybe it could be healing too, even transcendent. Because a vacation is not just about vacating your home; it is more than a move along the map. It’s about vacating your life, a little bit, and getting into a new headspace – or at least acquiring a new perspective.

In 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand to report on a contingent of Canadian writers appearing at the Christchurch writers’ festival. It had been a bit of an annus horribilis for me, and in the middle of that rotten year, I found some peace on Middle Earth, with its green rolling hills, no-nonsense friendly people and excellent wine. I was inspired by the spirit of Christchurch, which was (and is) still very much a construction zone after the 2011 earthquake. On Waiheke Island, off Auckland, I sat at a hillside winery with new friends and for that couple of hours all that mattered was the view, the conversation and the Syrah.

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When an opportunity to return to New Zealand in 2017 presented itself, it felt like a godsend. Another chance to hit pause on real life in a faraway land of islands where there are famously more sheep than people, the people have a special spirit about them, and you are never too far from a spectacular body of water.

The Maori greet nose-to-nose, with a sharing of the breath. The universal term “Kia Ora” – which you will hear again and again, beginning with your first contact with the Air New Zealand flight crew – is one of those versatile phrases that means many things: It’s a greeting, a thank-you, a you’re welcome, a farewell. But its actual translation, one of my Maori guides on this trip explained, is “to be living.”

Nutured by nature

For those who can afford it, the Farm at Cape Kidnappers offers the epitome of living well. On a breathtaking property in Hawke’s Bay, the purpose-built lodge in farmhouse style is carefully crafted and furnished with treasures from around the world – vintage brown leather boxing bags from Ireland, barn doors from Mexico, stone tile imported from a monastery in Tibet. Its golf course has been ranked number one in New Zealand and 16th in the world (sixth if you exclude the U.S.).

Fresh off the plane, I was driven with a group toward the cape to see “the gannets.” Everyone was very excited about this. Once I figured out that gannets were birds (I still have a lot to learn when it comes to flora, fauna and wildlife), I asked guide Andrew Broderick what they looked like, so I would know if I saw one.

“Like an oil painting,” he responded.

There were hundreds of them, nestled and nesting on the edge of the land, periodically taking off into the gusty wind and floating on it, circling overhead. These regal birds, with their fuzzy yellow heads, black wingtips, and faces that look like they’ve been outlined in black marker were captivating – and loud, their high-pitched calls competing with the roar of the ocean. I didn’t want to forget the magic of the moment when I hiked down the cliff through the bushes and encountered my first (and second and 300th) gannet. I took about 8,000 photos.

The rooms, a short, scenic stroll from the main lodge, offer a primo healing environment, with breathtaking views, what should be an award-winning bed and a bathroom that had to be bigger than some studio apartments back home in Vancouver.

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As I soaked in sweet orange and petitgrain bath foam in a tub I could almost swim in, I looked out the window onto the pastoral landscape and could hear cows mooing and tui birds singing their multinote songs to each other, possibly drunk on flax nectar.

There would be more indulgent, healing experiences in New Zealand: baths with a view, local wines, too much food. But more than anything, I wanted to be in nature. And so on my first full day in the country, I ventured with a conservation group into the pine forest at Cape Sanctuary (or Te Matau a Maui) to track kiwi birds.

Sacred Journey, or Tapu Hapai in Maori, was one of about 100 chicks released under a privately funded restoration project that is supported by tours like this.

The sanctuary is working to restore endangered populations – including what they call the world’s weirdest bird: kiwis lay eggs but are sometimes referred to as honorary mammals - they have whiskers, marrow on their bones and they dig burrows. They don’t fly. The population is declining and the birds are classified nationally as threatened. In areas where there is no predator control, most are killed in their first few weeks of life. This program removes eggs from the nest to a nearby lab, where they can incubate away from predators. The chicks are later returned to the sanctuary and monitored.

While we followed quietly behind him, sanctuary manager Beau Fahnle made his way through the woods holding a radio receiver that looked like an old-fashioned TV antenna high above his head, looking for Sacred Journey, following a frequency transmitting from the tiny band attached to her leg. She was well camouflaged and probably asleep when Fahnle finally located her and brought her out for a health check. Each of us was given a short time to co-hold the bird with Fahnle, who is also comfortable with “kiwi catcher” as his title.

“It’s not rocket science; it’s much more complex,” he says of his work with endangered species. “You’re playing God all the time.”

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Maori-inspired meditation

The Redwoods Treewalk in Rotorua North Island.

chameleonseye/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you’re looking to be in nature, New Zealand has your back, and then some. One sunny afternoon, I sailed on Lake Taupo to view the magnificent Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. That night, I rambled over suspension bridges on a tree-top stroll through Rotorua’s Redwoods Treewalk, the darkness illuminated by David Trubridge Design lanterns.

On the South Island, in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, I hiked out to the Tasman Glacier’s lake, which is growing at an alarming rate; our guide told us it did not even exist 30 years ago. Still digesting that definitely not fun fact, we were taken for a thrilling boat ride among little icebergs that included a taste of glacial ice our guide fished out of the water at my request.

In Napier, back on the North Island, my group experienced nature from a Maori perspective. The Maori are the Indigenous people of New Zealand; they arrived hundreds of years before the Europeans. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, an agreement between Britain and the Maori, was signed. Maori language and culture are a central part of the country’s identity, and trip to New Zealand would feel incomplete without some sort of Maori cultural experience.

We were fortunate to take part in traditional food-gathering techniques on the Ahuriri Estuary. There was joy when our guide Cameron Ormsby pulled up his fishing net and found a parore, a fish they smoke with manuka wood; and then shock and sorrow when we discovered that the same net had caught and killed a little blue penguin. I pictured the penguin becoming separated from its family, and thought about the comforting chaos of that gannet colony, and I considered how fleeting life is.

Ormsby and his partner Hinewai Hawaikirangi said a prayer for the penguin and took it away for a proper burial. Then we tucked in to fresh seafood the couple had prepared, including a yellow-bellied flounder, also from the estuary, and talked about food, fashion, family, politics while sitting under a lush plum tree.

In our real lives, we are often too busy discussing and conquering the little details of life – schedules, work crises, domestic duties – to consider life’s big questions. Being away from your world offers the luxury of a different perspective and more time to ponder and discuss the big questions, sit for a drawn-out meal, walk along the shore and listen to the waves.

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As I toured through the city of Napier’s centre, I appreciated the art deco architecture, but also considered how it came to be: This is a pretty town built on devastation. In 1931, the 7.8 magnitude Hawke’s Bay earthquake and subsequent Napier fire killed at least 256 people and reduced the seaside town to rubble. But it also caused a shift in the landscape – suddenly there was land where there had been sea – and the opportunity to start again, almost from scratch. The locals vowed to rebuild and, through the 1930s, a new town rose with wider streets, an underground power system and the sturdy, more earthquake-safe art deco architecture that makes this place a must-visit.

Napier was rebuilt after it was reduced to rubble by a 1931 earthquake and fire.

GordonImages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In vacation mode, I am in the right headspace to think about the metaphor of the place. Or to notice, elsewhere, the satisfying crunch of walking over cockles on an estuary at low tide, or the laboured delight of plowing through pebbly sand during a sunrise hike – and then surprising a seal basking in the rising sun.

In Rotorua, with its geothermal features, it’s not unusual to encounter steam rising from hot springs or even spouting geysers and bubbling mud pools. I planned top-notch, on-theme experiences At the Polynesian Spa, with its purportedly healing waters, I plunged into a series of increasingly hot geothermal mineral pools with a view of the lake, then hung out on a geothermally heated lounge chair. I swear that my right knee, which has been hurting for two years, felt okay for a few hours afterward. (Not any more, however, I am sorry to report.)

In Rotorua, it’s not unusual to encounter steam rising from hot springs.

mastapiece/Getty Images/iStockphoto

At the Wai Ora Day Spa, which bills itself as a cultural destination, I booked myself in for a traditional Maori mirimiri massage. Based on treatments Maori warriors were given before and after battle (to psych them up and then reward them), the massage starts and ends with a spiritual prayer. My masseuse, Rachel Tahuriorangi, swept her fingers down my legs, over my feet and out into the air, and repeated the motion with my arms and hands.

“We like to flick out all the bad energies,” she explains. It’s a personal take on a ritual practice; her auntie, she tellsme, doesn’t do the flicking. “She doesn’t know who she’s flicking it to.” Tahuriorangi figures her flicks are sending the bad energy to the Creator, who knows what to do with it.

But I also found spiritual inspiration in unexpected places. In Roturua’s Ohinemutu Village, my Maori guide Josephine Scott took me past the steaming geothermal pools to St. Faith’s Anglican Church, completed in 1914. It’s an amazing place – a blend of Maori and Christian symbols that acts as a metaphor for the mixture of Indigenous and colonial people that make up the country. There are Maori carvings and weavings of flax adorning the interior, including the pulpit and altar. On a window wall looking out on the lake, an image of Jesus in traditional Maori garb is positioned so that he appears to be walking on water. “A Maori Jesus in a Maori robe walking on our Sea of Galilee,” remarked Ms. Scott, as the Lord’s Prayer played softly in Maori over the speakers.

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In Whakarewarewa – a cultural attraction but also a neighbourhood where Maori live and work (they call it “the living Maori village”), I tasted corn boiled in one of the natural hot pools. Visual artist and musician Jason Phillips, who has a shop there, played traditional Maori instruments including a putorino and a hue ponga ihu for us. Sunk deep into one of the couches in his studio, I noticed that he was standing under a First Nations dream catcher, suspended from his ceiling.

Cycle past rivers, pastures, cows and sheep on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

J_Knaupe/Getty Images/iStockphoto

My journey through New Zealand wasn’t all spas and Hawke’s Bay Chardonnay. My anywhere happy place is on a bicycle, and on the South Island I found cycling heaven on the Otago Central Rail Trail, a dismantled rail line that has been transformed into a 152-kilometre bike route stretching from tiny, historic Clyde to Middlemarch, near Dunedin, traversing pastures and rivers with the mountains all around. I pedalled past curious cows and nonplussed sheep, over bumpy viaducts and through old railway tunnels (okay, I walked through those, as advised; it was dark). A bike feels like the perfect speed to see a new place: you’re not going so fast that you miss stuff, or so slow that you tire of it.

Life is a highway

Do one thing a day that scares you, Lululemon’s bags advise us. But really, who has the time? Day-to-day life is busy enough with its particular brand of scary – drudgery – but on holiday, we have the time to consider and access the kinds of things that might scare us. And facing fears, they say, is good for growth. So, near the town of Lake Tekapo, airsick-prone, scaredy-cat me climbed up into the front seat of an Air Safaris Cessna next to the pilot and prepared for takeoff. I was quietly panicking (I have motion sickness issues) but I didn’t vomit (hurray) and the ride was a thrill. We spotted climbers high on the mountain, the bluest water I have ever seen – Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki, and views of the Tasman Sea in the distance.

But for certain the scariest thing I forced myself to do in New Zealand was … drive. I am generally a good driver and I love a road trip, but the idea of navigating an unfamiliar place on the left side of the road terrified me. I had tried it once, years ago in Ireland, and didn’t make it out of the parking lot. But this time I got comfortable; I navigated the roundabouts like a pro and became so confident that I was actually stopped for speeding (the kind police officer let me off with a warning).

On the last day of my journey, on my final triumphant left-side-of-the-road expedition, I drove from Lake Tekapo to Christchurch. When Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning program started to fade out in the middle of an interview about architecture, I scanned for a clearer signal. The tuner stopped on a music station, in the middle of a song, at the beginning of a verse: “Well, some say life will beat you down,” Tom Petty sang. “And break your heart, steal your crown.”

I didn’t spend as much time in Christchurch as I had hoped – the GPS lady and I were fighting that day – but I made my final stop a sacred one: the Transitional Cathedral or, as it’s colloquially known, the Cardboard Cathedral. It was constructed primarily from cardboard and steel shipping containers following the 2011 earthquake that left much of the town in ruins, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral. Architect Shigeru Ban’s simple A-frame structure is both an airy refuge and a testament to the beauty that can rise in the wake of – and not just in spite, but because of – unexpected shattering events.

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It might not sound like much: A challenge at the wheel of a rental car, a radio lyric, some churches, some birds. But it was out of this world. And when you are out of your own world, in a different space, you are able to not just see but to really notice and contemplate things – the gannets, the nose on a local Pinot Noir, a glacial lake that didn’t exist when you were born. And in that environment you are somehow more capable of noticing things about your own faraway life. The escape might be temporary, but its impact can be long-lasting.

Tom Petty is dead, the glaciers are melting, the kiwi bird is vulnerable. But then you hold a little Sacred Journey and you feel hope about the world, your world. We are all learning to fly, in our various ways. Holidays help.

Marsha Lederman was the guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand. Neither reviewed this article.

Your turn

Come for the transportation, stay for the entertaining safety videos (and the award-winning in-flight wine offerings). Air New Zealand offers direct flights to Auckland from Vancouver (as well as Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston and Honolulu).

Stay (all prices in NZD):

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, Hawkes Bay

At $1,195 ($1,109) to $1,565 (per person, based on double occupancy) per night, this spectacular lodge offers supreme luxury in a pastoral, oceanfront setting. The property is a sanctuary, with pool, private spa and an award-winning golf course. The suites are large, well-stocked with oversized baths and separate showers, and private balconies with magnificent views; guests can sleep with the doors open to the lush, rolling hills. For group gatherings (and generous budgets), the four-bedroom, four-bathroom owner’s cottage is a palatial retreat ($13,500 per night, for a maximum of eight people; or in a two-bedroom configuration, $9,500 per night, for a maximum of four people).

Art Deco Masonic Hotel, Napier

The Art Deco Masonic Hotel immerses visitors in the city's architectural style.

Kirsten Simcox Photography

An art deco jewel in an ideal location, this boutique hotel (with dynamic rates, ranging roughly from $159 to $1,200 per night) immerses visitors in the architectural style of the once earthquake-ravaged city. Some rooms have French doors that open up to a communal rooftop terrace; others have street views. The Emporium Lounge on the main floor is a glamorous spot for evening drinks or afternoon high tea.

Olivers Lodge and Stables, Clyde

The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, Hawkes Bay, has converted 19th-century buildings into luxury accommodations.

For $245 to $555 per night (seasonal), experience these beautifully restored heritage buildings in an old gold rush town. A 19th-century general store, elegant homestead, former stables and barns have been converted to luxury accommodations loaded with character. Some rooms have clawfoot tubs in sunny ensuites; all include access to the lushly landscaped courtyard and gardens. Cyclists can load up on a large, fresh breakfast (included with the room rate) before heading out on the Otago Central Rail Trail. There is also a restaurant, craft brewery and café on site.


Mister D Dining, Napier

Lots of great options, but not to be missed is the experience of injecting a fresh doughnut with the filling of your choice (custard, in my case) using a syringe.

Vine Eatery, Taupo

Extensive wine list and great food (tapas to share is fun) in a casually upscale setting.

Paulina’s Restaurant, Clyde

Big city-quality dining (minus the attitude) in a tiny town.

Editor’s note: A caption incorrectly identified a photo location as Olivers Lodge and Stables. In fact, it is The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, Hawkes Bay.
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