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Mad about the balls

Jonathan Ray takes the family to New Zealand, which hosts next year’s rugby World Cup

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

17 February 2010

12:00 AM

Jonathan Ray takes the family to New Zealand, which hosts next year’s rugby World Cup

We armchair sportsmen have a cracking few months ahead of us. We have the football World Cup in South Africa this summer, the Ashes in Australia this winter and, best of all, the rugby World Cup in New Zealand next year.

As everyone knows, the Kiwis are sports-mad. I was there a few weeks ago with Marina and the boys — Ferdy, eight, and Ludo, six — and the first thing we did after landing at Auckland was to head straight for the so-called Domain, the vast park which surrounds the superb War Memorial Museum. It’s a great spot for clearing the head after a 27-hour flight, but crikey it was busy, thronged with folk chasing, kicking, throwing or hitting balls of all shapes and sizes. As well as tennis and kickabouts, we counted at least 20 cricket matches going on. Imagine that in Regent’s Park.

‘Is this all they do in New Zealand, play sport?’ gulped an anxious Ferdy, who has so far resisted the lure of the ball, whatever its shape or size.

‘No, they sail boats,’ replied the equally unsporty Ludo, pointing beyond the park to the twink-ling sea where hundreds of yachts bobbed about. With more such craft per head than anywhere else in the world, Auckland is popularly known as the City of Sails.

It will host several rugby matches and is bracing itself for visitors. I thought I’d get the boys in the mood by taking them to the museum for the daily demonstration of the haka by fearsome-looking Maoris. They loved it and spent many a happy hour sticking their tongues out at passers-by and slapping their thighs.

We took the ferry to quaint Devonport (which reminded the boys of Hairy Maclary), ‘did’ the Sky Tower and hung out in boho Parnell. We also ate extremely well: on the waterfront with the boys and at Peter Gordon’s Dine on our own.

Ours was something of a whistlestop tour of NZ, but there can be few countries so easy to travel around. With only four million inhabitants, in roughly the same area as the UK, the roads are all but deserted. And with barely a rail network to talk about, everyone flies everywhere. So well-run are the airports and so slick is Air New Zealand’s service that check-in is usually no more than 15 minutes before take-off.

We all loved Wellington (‘Windy City’) where several matches will be played, and Marina and the boys declared the Te Papa Museum the best they’d ever visited. We had a great lunch at St John’s Heineken Bar before hunting for kiwi, tui, tuatara, kaka and weta (oh, look ’em up) in the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary only moments from the centre.

The last time but one I was in New Zealand, on my tod, I visited the city’s Westpac Stadium for a wine tasting. The Lions had been walloped 48-18 by the All Blacks not long before and the immaculate green sward was covered in water sprinklers. ‘Don’t worry, chum,’ I remember a gloating Kiwi saying. ‘They’re just sluicing away the Lions’ blood and broken teeth.’

I called Professional Babysitters (+64 4 476 4469 if you insist) and took Marina to one of my favourite watering holes, Matterhorn in Cuba Street, followed by post-prandials at Motel, the most discreet of bars. It was this evening, if no other, that persuaded Marina that she wouldn’t mind returning.

Well, that and the several days we spent camping out in a whare (pronounced ‘furry’) in Mistletoe Bay in the heart-stoppingly beautiful Marlborough Sounds; the go-carting and Pinot Noir-sluicing in Queenstown; the walk on Oamaru beach to the boulders, picking paua shells from the sand; the whale-watching at Kaikora (not as good as Walker Bay in South Africa, but I let that pass); Greenhill Lodge in Hawkes Bay, with our own private chef and bath-time in the Victorian roll-top outside on the terrace; heck, she and the boys even liked Invercargill (hosting one of the matches) right at the foot of South Island, if only because of the awesomely fine local speciality — whitebait — and the fact that they’d all seen Anthony Hopkins as septuagenarian Invercargillian motorcyclist, Burt Munro, in The World’s Fastest Indian on the plane out.

None of us can wait to go back. The boys might remain indifferent to rugby, but they were enthused enough by our trip to have a go at cricket. ‘As soon as you buy us a racquet,’ said Ludo.

Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.

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