Prize winner.

Prize winner.

The New Zealand road that would bestow upon me a royal experience began in a mysterious fashion.

After leaving the dappled orchards of  sunny Nelson, I plunged into the eerie netherworld  of the Buller Gorge where  dark green  slopes framed the roadway.

This was a landscape not to entertain but to command awe. The forest seemed primeval. Far below a dark river turned silver in its rapids.

I drove cautiously through a half-tunnel. On one side was the mountain wall and overhead a rocky roof. On my right it was sheer drop to the great beyond.

I emerged safely on to the road  heading south,  a narrow passage between the Alps and the tumultuous Tasman Sea.

Something told me I was in for something special. A sea mist veiled my view of the ocean just metres away. It then  swirled open  for a glimpse of powerful waves crashing on a rocky shoreline, and  just as quickly closed again.

My destination was Hokitika, a small seaside  settlement known for its greenstone, mountain backdrop and rugged shoreline.

As I checked into the Seafront hotel next to the  town beach, Karen the receptionist  gave me a jolt when she handed me the keys: “ You’ve got the room where Prince William stayed.”

I asked her to repeat, and sure enough, I  had heard right. When on a recent  official visit without Kate, the heir to the British throne had needed accommodation.  What better than a room with a view?

Pushing open the door to my upstairs realm, I half expected a red carpet, an oil painting of a nobleman and a table set for tiffin.

Instead, I found comfortable simplicity and a  balcony with view  fit for a king.  It was not of any  tame blue sea of postcard-land but rather a grey, swirling and energising ocean.

Sculpture

While I was  enjoying freshly caught fish in the hotel’s restaurant that night , Karen left her post to give me some tips: “Tomorrow you should check out the  entries in the  driftwood sculpture competition on the beach.” I took that advice on board and grabbed  the opportunity to pester her  for information about Prince William.

She was good enough to feed me a few morsels. “We asked him to sign the guest book but apparently that is not something that is done,” she said, adding with a mischievous twinkle:”But that photo of him over the bar was taken from a distance without formal permission….In the morning, he did a solitary walk along the beach, head down looking at the  stones.”

Good enough for a prince , good enough for me. At 8am the next day I  hit the beach  and it soon it became  obvious why William  had been preoccupied on the beach.

The Hokitika beach has more jewels than the Tower of London. Every few paces I stopped to admire and stow in my pocket a stone of a different colour: green, white, pink, striped, black…

Then I checked out the driftwood sculptures. A cow, complete with udder and cowpats, was the deserved winner.

My  royal experience was not yet over. I headed two hours south to  Fox Glacier and joined four others passengers  in a helicopter  ride to a snow-filled basin ringed with a semi-circle of peaks. It proved to me  that nature’s kingdom provides the ultimate palace.

One is the All Black hero and the other is a rugby adviser and travel writer.

One is the All Black hero and the other is a rugby adviser and travel writer.

As we returned by minibus from the helipad, Toby the driver told me that the crowd we could see  on a football pitch was waiting to greet rugby players undertaking  a PR tour.  I joined the swelling numbers of locals, who ranged from grandparents to eager young women, to  tykes in footy gear.

A helicopter  appeared above the forested foothills, descended slowly and soon disgorged  five men. They  included  the All Black captain Richie McCaw, who is  treated like royalty in his homeland.

After patiently signing the umpteenth autograph and  posing for the millionth picture, Mr McCaw was standing free. As quick as Sir Walter Raleigh with his cloak, I jumped next to  His Rugby Highness and handed my camera to a friendly bystander.

Snap.  The royal road had given me something special.  A  portrait with the King of New Zealand.

END

(Thanks, Tourism NZ ).