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The USA national team crossed the Cook Strait to play in tonight’s final Rugby World Cup match.

This will be the Eagles’ only venture to New Zealand’s South Island, and it’s a small trip, to the northernmost edge of the region, Nelson. The city is named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British naval hero, and the street names bear references to Nelson and his famous battles.

Nelson also has plenty of other things to be proud of. The city lays claim to being the site of the first ever rugby match played in New Zealand under recognized rugby rules, in May of 1870. It is the center of wearable art in New Zealand, and a gateway to some of the best whitewater rafting, flyfishing and kitesurfing locations in the world.

It is also the birthplace of Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), the father of nuclear physics and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. He has nine streets, a wine label, a crater on Mars, a crater on the Moon, a mineral, and two parks in two countries named after him.

So when you talk about a rugby game, even a World Cup rugby game going on in Nelson, it’s not their first rodeo.

Drive South from Nelson and you start to weave through the sheep farming and wine country of the South Island. Six hours down the road is Christchurch, which continues to suffer small earthquakes even as the city rebuilds. Christchurch was wisely taken off the World Cup schedule due to the devastating earthquake of February 22. Christchurch’s airport bustles with people moving in and out, working to bring the city back. But further afield, between Nelson and Christchurch, the region is still vibrant.

North up the coast as you drive between staggering cliffs on the Northwest side and surf thundering on the rocks on the Southwest side, you might see a surprising road sign: Seal Crossing.

Yes, that’s right, New Zealand fur seals – the kind that can rotate their rear flippers and gallop around (like California sea lions). But unlike sea lions in the USA, these animals seem less threatening, more friendly. You can pull over and watch the colony bask on the rocks from a turnout in the road (there’s an official one, and an unmarked one a little further north that’s just as good). Or, you can walk right up to them and have a chat or take a picture. The seal in the photo on the right sat upright with his mouth open, unashamed – a hint that perhaps other travelers had shared a picnic, maybe from the crayfish (rock lobster) stands along the coach.

Travelers can take a moment to stare out over the surf and realize that the next landmass over the Southern Ocean is Antarctica. The sea shines a bright blue and looks very cold.

Near the seals is a town called Kaikoura, where rugby fans have been flocking to take the Whale Watch tours to see sperm whales and other cetaceans. Kaikoura is a seaside town dotted with shops and wrapped around a small bay. There Hislop’s Café specializes in locally-sourced, organize and whole foods. This is where you can be sure your seafood is fresh out of the water. It’s a warm, wood-lined place that’s a great break from your drive and from the ocean wind. Lunch, some wine … maybe a coffee … pretty soon you’ve been there for three hours.

Between Kaikoura and the seals is a unique place to stay. The Hapuku Lodge lists its location as Kaikoura but in fact it’s in the tiny hamlet of Hapuku. Owner Tony Wilson bought the land because he fell in love with the setting, with the mountains in one view, and the ocean in another. He raised deer (for the antlers) on the property and, since he was trained as an architect, began to design a lodge. Wilson played rugby at UCLA while pursuing his degree, which might be why his partner is an American.

The lodge has grown over the years, with rooms created as individual tree houses. It’s the ultimate boy’s dream – your tiny tree house converted into a high-end hotel room, with brilliant views out of three directions.

Tear yourself away from the views long enough to eat, and that’s an experience in itself. An excellent chef brings local food to its fullest potential, from the homemade granola for breakfast to the Canterbury Rack of Lamb.

The South Island of New Zealand has taken a hit since February’s earthquake. Certainly the Rugby World Cup goes on, and Nelson, Dunedin and Invercargill are all still venue cities. But the link between the northernmost Nelson and Dunedin and Invercargill in the South is a tenuous one. Fans might forget that while parts of brave Christchurch are in rubble, the region as a whole stands tall, tall and beautiful.