A Travellerspoint blog

Into the wilderness..., 28th & 29th November

sunny 25 °C
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We knew we should have started early on our long drive from Blenheim to Hokitika on the edge of mountain country, but the lure of the wineries took over again. And since we’d been unable to visit all our favourites on Tuesday, we chose to call in at the Montana Brancott Estate and then Cloudy Bay. I was so pleased, at last - wines that taste just as I expect them to taste - lovely! Brancott have a delicious not-for-export desert wine, a bottle of which is in my bag as I type, ready for Christmas.

Diane & the iconic view from the very swish Montana Brancott Estate visitor centre

The very elegant Cloudy Bay cellar door sign... their wines are just as classy!

Everyone we spoke to had told us to visit Nelson (although we hadn’t intended to do so) and to stop at Havelock on the way for the best green-lipped mussels anywhere, so we set off in the opposite direction to where the sat-nav wanted us to go. Mussels and mussel chowder went down well with a glass of sauvignon blanc, sitting in the sunshine on the slipway at Havelock. Nelson was an attractive seaside town built around a splendid marina full of big white yachts, and so eventually we actually embarked upon the great journey south...

Monkeh & kiwi friend enjoying the sunshine at Havelock marina

Just one of the giant green mussels...

Of all the God awful, boring trips! Mile after mile of yellow gorse and nondescript hills. After about 4 hours (all one stretch of about 80km without seeing another car), we finally came to ‘gold rush’ country and the scenery managed to become both boring and scruffy! The best bit of the trip was crossing a single lane road bridge (of which there were many) which was shared with a railway track - you actually drive along the rails, half expecting to meet a train coming the other way!

Boring straight road and nondescript hills!

Five and a half hours after lunch in Havelock we finally arrived at Hokitika and checked in at the ‘Shining Star Chalets’ which are right on the beach. It’s not a swimming beach, the tides and currents are far too strong, but it’s very dramatic to see the waves crashing onto the sand and pebbles. The beach is festooned with huge pieces of driftwood, mainly trees and their roots, which resemble great tangled Neolithic sculptures.

Monkeh was disappointed not to see a penguin!

Diane admires the driftwood on Hokitika beach

As we are so far south, the days are longer, and so we had to wait until 10.00pm before it was dark enough to cross over the road and follow a short track to visit ‘Glow Worm Dell’. This turned out to be a little glade all festooned with the magical fairy lights that are glow-worms at night. So sweet, and so unexpected.

New Zealand glow worms. (Honest! The camera had trouble with their puny glows...)

At the end of a very long day, we slept like logs, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves crashing on the shore.

Diane and the crashing waves of Hokitika

Posted by GinSmugglers 10:57 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Wellington to Blenheim, 26th & 27th November

sunny 25 °C
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The InterIslander ferry from Wellington North Island to Picton on the South Island is a very slick operation. You check at the terminal, just like at an airport and your luggage vanishes along a conveyor belt, just like at an airport! Boarding was fast and we managed to get some seats right at the pointy bit at the front, thus securing wonderful views all around as we travelled across the Cook Strait and down through the dramatic Marlborough Sounds to Picton. The crossing takes just over three hours and during that time the skies clouded over and a few spots of rain began to fall. Not a good omen.....

And so we say farewell to sunny Wellington...

Monkeh joins the InterIslander ferry crew!

And so we say hello to somewhat gloomy Picton...

We quickly picked up our second hire car, the same model (Toyota Corolla) but this time blue and with rather better air-conditioning, and set off on the 30 minute drive to Blenheim. Fortunately, it brightened up and the rain never did set in, but we weren’t really impressed with the whole Picton area which was largely unremarkable and just a little run down looking.

Blenheim is similarly unremarkable (but at least it is warm & sunny, thanks to its unique microclimate), lacking the quaint charm of Martinborough and the dramatic scenery of Hawke’s Bay. What it does have is wineries, dozens and dozens of wineries, as Blenheim is the home of the Marlborough wines.... every one you’ve ever seen on a supermarket shelf: Montana, Oyster Bay, Villa Maria, Wither Hills and lots more we’d never heard of. What’s also amazing, given the extent of the winelands, is that back in 1970 there wasn’t a single vine growing in the area!

tn_SAM_1263.jpgKeith & Diane pose amidst the splendid Marlborough vineyards

Today we booked a wine tour with the cheerfully named ‘Bubbly Grape Tours’, who literally ‘drove us to drink’ in and around the vineyards of the region. The various winemakers set up proper tutored tastings for us at a number of ‘cellar doors’, and so we enjoyed tasting the wine ranges produced at Mount Riley, Wither Hills, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Giesen, Bouldevins and St Clair, which, along with a lunch stop, actually took us all day. Keith made copious tasting notes which will undoubtedly prove utterly useless once we’ve deciphered his handwriting. Obviously the star of the show here is the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc but the Pinot Noir is very good, and they are also producing Pinot Gris and Chardonnay plus an increasing amount of Gewurtztraminer, Riesling and Viognier. Honestly, if I’d actually drunk all the wine that was poured for me during the day (as Keith did), I’d probably be in hospital by now, but in any case by mid-afternoon it was all tasting much the same! We were a bit disappointed not to get into the famous Cloudy Bay winery, as they were too popular, but there’s always tomorrow, when we can call in as soon as they open......

The impressive architecture of the Wither Hills winery...

Diane in her natural element in the cellar at Wither Hills...

We’re very excited about the world premier of ‘The Hobbit’ movie in Wellington tomorrow. There’s so much on the local TV news about the preparations, and the Hobbit-themed Air New Zealand airliner landed today, bringing in many of the stars of the film - who are all much taller than you would expect them to be!

Was this the guilty cruise ship?

I hope not to mention my ailments again on this trip, but we think we know the likely cause of my recent mystery sickness bout. Whilst we were in Napier, we mentioned in a previous blog that there was a cruise ship in the harbour. It later transpired that there was a big outbreak of Norovirus onboard and apparently the cruise ship passengers spent the day that we were also in Napier, busily spreading the virus around the town. My symptoms exactly matched those of the virus, so, we’re blaming that, and I’m pleased that it wasn’t that lovely pork that I ate at The Mission restaurant.

Posted by GinSmugglers 11:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

From North to South

sunny 20 °C
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I thought after Keith’s post yesterday that I should reassure my nearest and dearest that I am alive and well in Kiwi land. It’s ironic that I can travel and eat everything in Thailand, Egypt, Tunisia or The Gambia with no ill effects whatsoever but here in the antipodes, I’m recovering from my second bout of sickness.

Upset tummies notwithstanding, we’ve seen and done so much in the 17 days we have been travelling thus far. Hong Kong has disappeared in a memory blur but we had a nice sea-sidey break in Cairns with the added bonus of near-perfect conditions for the eclipse. We were absolutely blown away by the beautiful scenery of The Coromandel Peninsular, the geysers and volcanic landscape of Rotorua and the lakes and mountains of Tongariro. In the south of North Island, the landscape is less rugged and dramatic with green rolling hills and of course, mile upon mile of grape vines producing all that lovely wine!

Just a thought about cameras, based entirely on my own observations of course. It started in Cairns where naturally, people who intended to photograph the eclipse had some very sophisticated camera gear, but there was this one man in our hotel, who we noticed at breakfast on the day before the eclipse. He was wearing a huge camera on a strap around his neck, he didn’t take it off to help himself from the buffet where the long lens bumped against the tables. He didn’t take it off to eat, meaning that he had to sit well away from the table. In four days, we saw him many times, always with the camera strapped on. It’s not as though he was alone, his wife was with him but obviously she couldn’t be trusted to mind the camera. Of course we wondered where he put the camera at night..... Since then we’ve seen people lugging the most enormous cameras around, in fact, the size of the camera often seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the person. This is a beautiful country but do you really get the most from the experience if you only really look at it through the viewfinder of a camera?

Right now in Wellington, we’re waiting to take the ferry across the Cook Strait to reach the South Island. The North Island is the more heavily populated and yet the roads are almost all one lane each way, even the State Highways although they do have passing places! There are so few cars that driving is a doddle. All the hotels seem set up for people touring, with laundry facilities and irons and boards in all of the rooms. Many of them have not only tea making facilities but large fridges and microwaves, too. We’ve been very impressed with the very high quality of the food we’ve been served although it’s definitely ‘London prices’ as it’s hard to find a main course in any kind of restaurant for less than £15. A glass of Sauvignon Blanc costs about the same as in the UK but, ironically, buying a bottle can be more expensive here where it’s made.

I had expected New Zealand to be much like Australia but it isn’t. Apart from the fact that it looks very different, the whole feel of the place is different too. Tiny quaint little towns, often with a 1950’s sort of atmosphere and the ‘greenness’ of everywhere. The people here are lovely too, so helpful and so interested to hear where you are from and where you have visited and of course, so many of them are keen to tell you how they can trace their heritage back to a particular town in England or Scotland. In Art Deco Napier, a gentleman in striped blazer and straw boater, posing by his 1930 Ford asked me where I was from. ‘England’, I said. ‘Aren’t we all, my dear’ he replied!

Posted by GinSmugglers 15:18 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Martinborough & Wellington 26th November

sunny 21 °C
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Our dinner at The Mission, Napier, on Friday evening tasted every bit as good as we had hoped! Diane had the pork (served a bit pink) and Keith had the beef (rare, of course), both with delicious accompaniments. Unfortunately we had to wait about for a while before being seated, despite having a reservation, as they were running a bit late with an accountants’ convention (we kid you not)!

Keith & Diane enjoying a bottle of The Mission wine, on their terrace overlooking Napier

Diane, with her suspiciously pink pork! (Keith’s beef in the foreground)

Next day, after breakfast, we took a stroll along the Napier’s Marine Parade, where we found some locals recreating the 1930’s for the benefit of the cruise ship passengers.

Locals in the 1930’s style

Diane wanted to swap this for our hire car!

Then we set off on one of our longest drives, from Napier to Martinborough. Indeed, it would have taken almost as long to drive directly to Wellington. It was a fairly boring drive (by New Zealand standards), only marginally relieved by the prospect of being diverted from our route for a Christmas Parade through a Scandinavian-themed sheep-farming town. But we were glad that we had included Martinborough in our tour, as it is a delightful small town that seems stuck in a time warp...

Our olde-worlde hotel in Martinborough

Diane, modelling the French doors of our room

The other nice thing about Martinborough is that it is in the centre of yet another wine district. This one is nowhere near as big as the one around Napier, but it does have the tremendous advantage that many of the ‘Cellar Doors’ are within easy walking distance of where we stayed. So, we visited four of them in fairly short succession. It would have been more, but we got trapped in one by a sudden shower, and Diane was not very impressed by the wines anyway. Keith (lush!) thought that some of them tasted pretty good, especially some of the Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. Some vineyards charged a nominal tasting fee, but others were completely free.

The tasting board at Palliser’s vineyard, also incorporating the Pencarrow label

We had dinner in the hotel’s Bistrot, and retired for the night after a luxurious soak in their victorian-style cast-iron bath. Except that Diane did not get much sleep as she was struck down with a nasty attack of food-poisoning. The pink pork from The Mission in Napier seems the likely culprit, as Keith did not fall ill and had eaten the same food as Diane ever since that particular meal.

Diane could not face breakfast, and did not enjoy the long switchback journey over the top of the Rimutaka mountain range which separates Wellington from most of the rest of North Island.

We could not check in to Rydge’s Hotel Wellington straight away, as we were very early. But they took Keith’s mobile number and promised to call when our room was ready. We had just enough time to explore some of the outer suburbs (by car, as Diane was still too feeble to walk any distance), which at least afforded us some nice views.

View of Wellington & the Harbour

We returned to the hotel when called, and Diane retired to her sickbed, giving Keith her blessing to see something of the city. So Keith topped up the hire car with fuel and returned it to Avis, and then spent a relatively short time looking around the Maori exhibits in the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa.

Maori shell trumpet horn

Wellington is festooned with banners advertising The Hobbit film, getting geared up for their world premier on Wednesday (after we leave here – shame!), and New Zealand Post has issued a set of commemorative stamps featuring the leading characters.

The Bilbo Baggins postage stamp

The Gollum postage stamp

Keith returned to the hotel to find Diane rested, and feeling a bit better, but still quite frail...

Posted by GinSmugglers 22:52 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Napier, 23rd November

sunny 25 °C
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We finally got our Skydive photos and videos onto a memory stick, using the facilities of the local Internet Espresso café, so here are a couple of examples (each) to whet your appetites...

Diane & Monkeh, skydiving above Lake Taupo!

Diane shakes hands with her video cameraman, whilst skydiving!

Keith, skydiving above Lake Taupo!

Keith, plummeting into Lake Taupo!

We started our tour of the Hawke’s Bay Winelands by visiting the charming town of Havelock North, and hence to the stunning high viewpoint of Te Mata Peak. The vistas of the bay, the vineyards and the coastal towns were simply stupendous.
Unfortunately, the drive up was a bit scary (Diane had to close her eyes, despite having been able to throw herself out of a plane just days earlier), and the summit was plagued by some sort of flying insects, possibly flying ants. They didn’t actually bite, but they were very irritating nonetheless.

Monkeh, enjoying the sun on Te Mata Peak

Then we started wine tasting, visiting the Black Barn Estate (excellent Sauvignon Blanc), the Te Mata Estate (another excellent Sauvignon Blanc) and the Red Barrel winery (a very nice Syrah, and also a tasty rosé made from Pinot Noir), all near Havelock North. Followed by the Elephant Hill Estate, which was a bit along the coast towards the wonderfully named Cape Kidnappers. We were a bit disappointed that there wasn’t actually an elephant -shaped hill, but they did have a delightful elephant statue.

Diane and the Elephant Hill Winery statue (vines in the background)

We really enjoyed the wines at Elephant Hill, particularly their estate Sauvignon Blanc and their rosé (from a blend of grapes). Our hosts David and Sallie at Whangamata (see earlier entries) had recommended this place for lunch, so we stopped to sample their food (and partly to soak up some of the alcohol). Well, we were very impressed – the food could easily have been Michelin star quality. We only had what they called entrées, but they were perfect for a light lunch.

Next we travelled all the way back to the foothills above Napier itself, to the beautiful Mission Estate. We enjoyed their wines, too, and so we were happy to follow David & Sallie’s other suggestion, to book ourselves into here for dinner. The restaurant has a very good write-up in all the guidebooks, and it has a fantastic view over Napier and the bay, so we are very much looking forward to our dinner later today.

Diane at the Mission Estate entrance

Keith & Diane in the Mission Estate garden

On the way back to the hotel, we drove to the viewpoint of Bluff Hill, which is a central hill and suburb of Napier, overlooking the docks and the Marine Parade, including our hotel. There was a cruise ship (the Dawn Princess) moored up in the docks, so the setup reminded us a lot of the Casino Park area of Funchal, Madeira!

The Dawn Princess in Napier docks

Posted by GinSmugglers 21:32 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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