Top 10 experiences in New Zealand

A Rugby World Cup in the world's most fanatical rugby country? It could only be New Zealand (and I speak as a Welshman).

But believe me - I've been 14 times now - New Zealand is so much more than rugby we would all have been mad not to take full advantage of getting away from the rugby. Pleasantly perverse, is it not?

So we all came back to the UK intent on telling anyone who would listen that, never mind the poor old £, this is a place that has to be visited. We know it is the other side of the world and it takes too long to get there but in everything else it is wonderfully, comfortingly close to home.

So here is a World Cup top 10, in no particular order, and I use 'World Cup' as loosely as the All Blacks' grip on the Webb Ellis trophy seemed to be for too many of those agonising 80 minutes on 23 October:

1. The Central Otago wine belt. We all know about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc - can't get enough of it in my house - but if the colour of preference is red the Pinot Noir has to be the best there is. But following advice by keeping it for nine years to enjoy it in its full maturity? Impossible.

2. Bay of Islands. Can there be a more idyllic setting on the planet? (The Lions began there in 1993.) And don't be taken in by all that stuff about the Hellhole of the Pacific (Russell). If you have ever passed through Heathrow Airport, you will know a more precise meaning of 'hellhole'.

3. Eden Park on World Cup final day. I know, I know - Eden Park and its environs do not appeal to everyone, Kiwi or otherwise, but as with every previous final you just had to be there to understand the overwhelming extremity of the tension even without 24 years' hurt, and I'm not even a New Zealander.

4. Kiri Te Kanawa's concert in Auckland. The diva has these homecoming events so seldom that to be there in the Vector Arena on the eve of the final was a rare privilege, even allowing for the absence of synchronicity between Dame Kiri and the television screen behind her. There again, it's surely better always to watch the woman herself than the image.

5. Away from it all in Devonport. Yes, yes, I realise this is a humble commute for many. But for relief from Auckland's bustle and specifically the World Cup, what could be more agreeable than 10 minutes of perfect peace and then a leisurely stroll through the streets of Devonport? And then . . .

6. Mount Victoria. 'Mount' may give a slightly exaggerated impression of the modest climb out of Devonport, though the view on all sides is mountainous. If you stumble into the folk-music club in The Bunker on the way down, you will be welcome. 'Folkies do not like rugby,' the lady told us. There we were thinking it (rugby, not folk) was a national obsession.

7. Taieri Gorge railway. If we think we have it tough, a venture into the South Island interior is a poignant and useful exercise in trying to work out how the settlers 'won' the land. This stunning journey out of Dunedin demonstrates how what should have been insurmountable obstacles were actually surmountable by human muscle and ingenuity.

8. Arthur's Pass. On a similar theme, the Tranzalpine Express from Christchurch to Greymouth (and back again) is one of the railway wonders of the world. But this is also a phenomenal journey of twists and turns and steep gradients up and down the Pass by motor, if you prefer. Unforgettable either way.

9. Invercargill taken over by the Pumas. A timeless memory of the 2011 World Cup - when a Kiwi-Scottish town received a friendly invasion of Argentines who turned NZ's deep south into an extension of the Pampas, and painted Rugby Park in sky blue, for the game with Romania. The most joyous memory of the entire tournament.

10. Christchurch in Auckland. Never mind the World Cup, here was the true inspiration of the entire trip, our journalistic brothers and sisters from The Press newspaper proclaiming their city's intention to come back even stronger from their ghastly earthquake experience. It's already happening. Quite humbling.

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