04 October 2022

Cruise through spectacular Milford Sound
Singing the praises
Singing sensation Hayley Westenra has travelled the world performing. But her heart belongs to her native New Zealand, a land that she says has moulded her singular style. Here she shares some of the magic with you.
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ho you are, how you behave, the success you achieve – all these can depend to a great extent on where you come from. I’ve been extremely lucky to find fame at a very young age and already I’ve travelled the world. But it’s to New Zealand, where I was born and brought up and where my home remains, that my thoughts always return. And however long I am in the singing ‘business’, I will always acknowledge my debt of gratitude to this wonderful nation. It may sound terribly corny, but New Zealand is truly the perfect country in which to grow up. It gave me such wonderful opportunities to develop my career.

I know many in the UK consider my nation to be a far-distant outpost of the former Empire, somehow seeming like an idyllic England of many years past. Well, it is true that with its beautiful landscape and low population it can seem a relatively calm and laid-back place. But we Kiwis feel we belong to a vibrant young nation – and the rest of the world seems to be coming to appreciate that too. Much of this is due to film director Peter Jackson, whose Lord Of The Rings trilogy and King Kong were shot in New Zealand. And fellow Kiwi director Andrew Adamson recreated Narnia here in his blockbuster movie of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
Take a punt in Christchurch
It’s the South Island’s largest city with a population of about 500,000. To me that’s an OK size, but when I return there after performing somewhere such as New York, it can seem a little like a ghost town. It’s a very British sort of place and there are trams that run throughout the city. With quite a few songs, when I sing them I picture myself walking along a beach. It’s usually the one at Sumner, a suburb of Christchurch about 20 minutes from my home. It’s so serene and beautiful and I know it influences the way I sing certain songs. I think that if I had grown up in a busy city, I would sing quite differently and choose a different repertoire. But living in New Zealand, I guess I am compelled to sing the way I do.

I’ve travelled around most of the country. When I was 11, we went on a big tour around the North Island but we mostly holidayed every summer in the same place – Golden Bay on the South Island. Funnily enough, there are bits of the South Island that I’ve never visited – I’ve never really been way down south. I’ve done the big tourist places: Milford Sound, Dunedin and Queenstown. I like being down there. I did a big show in Queenstown right on the lake, with the jagged peaks of the Remarkables Mountains, South Island’s most spectacular ski area, in the background. It was really beautiful. New Zealand will always be my home; the place I want to go back to. And, of course, it’s where my family and friends are.

Where we live in Christchurch we are so close to everything. We are about two and a half hours’ drive from the ski fields and 20 minutes from the beach – perfect. But it’s the space and the clean air I particularly love. The name of my album, Pure, has a lot to do with the way I see New Zealand. People say that my voice, my music and the treatment of the songs on the album are all pure. But it’s also where I come from. I think that is reflected a lot in the songs that I’m singing. Two songs on the album are well-loved, emotive Maori songs, Pokarekare Ana and Hine E Hine. I have an affinity with Maori music, having grown up singing it. These indigenous songs are beautiful and the vowel sounds are gorgeous. When I am away from New Zealand, songs such as Pokarekare Ana immediately bring memories of home and family.
In such a young country, you’re always aware of where your family came from. My heritage is a mix. I’m part Dutch – my father’s family were from Holland via Ireland. I also have Irish heritage on my mother’s side – my great grandmother was from Ireland – and there is a bit of Welsh in there too. I grew up in Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island.
Visit the Maori Cultural Museum
"We Kiwis feel we belong to a vibrant young nation – and the rest of the world seems to be coming to appreciate that too."
There’s another good reason why I am always keen to learn more of the Maori culture – my great-grandfather was Maori, yet another ingredient in the Westenra melting pot! I have happy childhood memories of learning to weave the flax plant, a traditional Maori craft, at our favourite holiday spot of Golden Bay. Our summer camping holiday there is a fixed annual event – it really is a must. It doesn’t matter how crowded my schedule is. We have a family-sized tent with two big rooms and bunk beds. Getting ready for our holiday is always a big event and it’s quite a mission to get everybody on the road. I’m the eldest of the three kids, which means that I’m in charge.
I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not. There’s quite a number of camp sites along Golden Bay. We’ve been to different ones but we’ll always have one right on the beach, near Farewell Spit. It’s a seven-hour drive for us to get there but it’s always worth it. The family, parents Jill and Gerald, sister Sophie and brother Isaac, goes for two weeks over Christmas and New Year. New Year’s Eve is the big night with bonfires and marshmallow toasting.

Christmas in New Zealand means the beach, sun and sand, but we still have the Christmas cards with snowmen on them and we sing carols and White Christmas – all in blazing sun. Nearby is a town called Takaka, where there are busy little markets and the people are so relaxed and friendly. Friends from abroad who come to New Zealand are gobsmacked by the beauty of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown and the wild beaches of the West Coast. I really miss all those places when I am away. I yearn for the space we have in New Zealand. When I’m staying in London, it feels really cramped and I want my big backyard at home. And I miss the lifestyle we have – where we can go to the beach and ski in the mountains all in the same day. It is a very long way from London or New York to New Zealand; as a country we are pretty isolated.

Having been abroad and gone back, it’s like: ‘Oh, we really are quite a distance from anywhere else.’ But I like the serenity of the country. It’s very peaceful. Some people may think it’s a little too peaceful, but not me. There aren’t many places like New Zealand where it’s really so untouched and pristine.

Original article published in Mar 2006. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

"It’s very peaceful. There aren’t many places like New Zealand where it’s really so untouched and pristine."
Witness some amazing scenery all over New Zealand
The beauty of the Franz Josef Glacier
Enjoy vibrant Queenstown
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