Christchurch and Canterbury Feature

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The Chatham Islands

Although officially part of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, 800 km (500 mi) east of the South Island, are a land apart. Bearing the full force of the open Southern Ocean, the islands are wild and weather-beaten. The air has a salty taste to it, the colors of the landscapes are muted by salt spray, and the vegetation is stunted and gnarly. Many unusual plants and birds are about—including the extremely rare black robin—and the empty beaches invite fishing and diving (although the presence of sharks makes the latter unadvised).

Locals here refer to the mainland as New Zealand, as though it were an entirely separate country. Just two of the 10 islands are inhabited—the main island and tiny, neighboring Pitt Island. Most residents are either farmers or fishermen, but tourism is increasing. The Chathams were first settled by the Moriori, a race of Polynesian descent, about 800–1,000 years ago, although there are now no full-blooded Moriori left. Māori and Europeans followed, and conflicts broke out between the separate populations throughout the 1800s. By the end of the 19th century, however, tensions had died down after the Native Land Court intervened in key disputes, and the new settlers established the strong maritime culture that still prevails on the islands.

When booking to fly to the Chathams, it's imperative that you make lodging reservations in advance. There is only one round-trip flight a week from Christchurch, but you can return earlier through Auckland or Wellington, and Air Chathams (03/305–0209,www.airchathams.co.nz) is the only carrier. The islands are 45 minutes ahead of NZ time and, therefore, the first place on Earth to see the sun each day. Check out the Air Chathams Web site for more details on the islands, their natural history, accommodation, and activities. Allow at least three days to visit—you'll rarely get the chance to visit anywhere this remote. And don't forget to try the crayfish (lobsters).

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