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Trip Report New Zealand the Second Time Around

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Background – We are a couple in our mid-fifties who enjoy the combination of hiking during the day while enjoying good food and fine wine in the evenings. We spent the month of February, 2008 on the south island and declared it to be the perfect vacation for us. We went back for 5 weeks with the intention of revisiting some of our favorites, seeing some of the south island we hadn’t time for previously, and giving the north island a fair shake. We know in advance that this will still not be enough time. Early on in the planning phase I lobbied for some time in Te Anau and the Catlins, but the driver – my husband (since I won’t try driving on the opposite side of the road) – wasn’t as enthused. Sometime after I had the first portions of the trip booked, we found that we could add a week at the end of the trip. For multiple reasons we decided that the extra time would be spent on the North Island. All this is my way of saying that if I had known at the beginning of the process that I had 5 weeks to play with I definitely would have planned 3-4 nights in Te Anau. But there is no way I am complaining!

Please note that this itinerary does not include the west coast, glaciers, Milford Sound, Christchurch, etc. as we spent lots of time there on our last trip. Here is the plan:

4 nights – Queenstown
3 nights – Lake Tekapo
2 nights – Arthur’s Pass
1 night – Murchison
3 nights – Tasman
1 night – Blenheim
2 nights – Wellington
2 nights – Martinborough
2 nights – Napier
4 nights – Lake Taupo
2 nights – Rotorua
3 nights – Coromandel Peninsula
2 nights – Matakana
5 nights – Kerikeri
1 night – Matakohe
1 night – Auckland

Jan. 31 – We decided to follow summer from south to north in hopes of the best weather, so we flew from San Francisco to Queenstown via Auckland and Christchurch. We flew Air New Zealand on a 777 with a seat configuration of 3/3/3. I think that ANZ has added rows to their coach cabin since we last flew them as it was incredibly cramped. Let me say that this is the first time I have been uncomfortable on a triple 7. Given the row configuration, we opted for the center section so that the unrelated person sitting in our section would be on an aisle and not have to climb over us to get out. This actually worked out quite well.

Three movies, 2 melatonin enhanced naps and 23 hours later (door-to-door) we arrived at our condo in Queenstown. Villa del Lago We stayed here the last trip based on input from Fodorite Melnq8. These condos are on the Frankton arm of the lake, not quite in the thick of Queenstown proper, but an easy 15-20 minute walk along the lake into town. The management – Lynne and Keith - and staff are exceedingly nice and the units are well designed with fireplace, laundry and adequately equipped kitchen. All have lake views, and this time we were given a lake front unit. It was nice to be back, welcomed, and in a familiar place.

We headed into town to have breakfast at Joe’s Garage. Turns out the town was packed for the NZ Open, it was Sunday morning and the place was busy with an estimated wait time of 40 minutes for food. The owner suggested we try a new place called the Post Office Café. He said the food was good and the place could use some business. As we headed out we thanked him and said we would stop by another time during our stay. He was right. The café was pleasant, the food was good and we had an enjoyable breakfast.

We stopped in at the Alpine grocery to grab some things for a light dinner (better wine prices at the liquor store next door) and walked back to the condo, again along the lake. The rest of the day was spent primarily trying to stay awake until we could reasonably hit the sack. The jet lag has definitely been worse for me as I age…

Groceries note: We have found that the grocery store in the shopping center near the airport is the nicest with the best variety. Alpine is convenient as it is in the CBD and is fine if you don’t have a car or just need a few things. The store up the hill on Gorge Road (One World?) has gone downhill in my opinion.

Flight note: If flying into Queenstown, snag a seat on the right side of the plane as you face front. The snow covered spine of the southern alps will be in view.

To be continued ...

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    February 1 – We began the day early with a walk into town, a great breakfast at Joe’s Garage, and the decision to hike the Ben Lomand Saddle.

    The trail begins at the base of the gondola in town and there is the option to eliminate part of the hike by taking the gondola up. I wish we had taken that option. This first section is quite steep and the gondola ride would have saved time, energy and my knees. Did I mention that it was 90 degrees? The first portion of the trail which is mostly in the shade took me 1 ½ hours. Once the trail goes above bush line it is estimated to take another 1 ½ hours to reach the saddle and expansive views. I literally ran out of steam within sight of the saddle. I have many excuses – jet lag, heat, lack of hiking due to the “season of eating” (the holidays), blah blah blah. I was very disappointed, but down we headed.

    Once off the trail we bought a cup of cold cherries from a roadside stand, tossed back a cold beer, picked up our rental car and headed out to the condo. We had dinner in, including Advil for the knees.

    February 2 – The weather continued to be in the upper 80’s – 90 degrees. We decided to make this our wine tasting day and headed off to Bannockburn, skipping the wineries closer to Queenstown. Our overall impression of the 2008 pinots from this area is that they are too light for our taste. Everyone’s palate is different, so please don’t skip a winery based on our experience. The 2006 vintage, which we enjoyed on our previous trip, were wonderful - very lush and full bodied. We arrived just prior to tasting time, ran up to Mt. Difficulty winery to make a lunch reservation, and began the rounds.

    Remarkables winery – new to us, across from Carrick. This is a one man operation complete with a hand-cranked crusher. We tried the riesling (so so), purchased an interesting gewertz/pinot gris blend, felt the Bannockburn pinot was too light and the Gibbston pinot too green. This winemaker could put out some interesting wine in the next few years. We will be curious to see how he does.

    Carrick – we arrived along with a large group so it wasn’t the best tasting experience. We sampled their 2009 sauvignon blanc, dry Riesling, off-dry Riesling, the 2008 Crowne & Cross pinot and the ’07 pinot. We enjoyed the off-dry Riesling for its full mouth feel and a bit of flint. The pinots were very light.

    Mount Difficulty – We enjoyed both the Rieslings but my notes are scant and my husband’s notes are in a suitcase in New Jersey! This is a memorable place to have lunch on a terrace perched out over the valley of vineyards. While the day was warm, there was a delightful breeze and we were glad that we had made the reservation earlier in the day in order to have a spot outside. I enjoyed the Target Gulley Reisling with lunch while the driver looked on.

    Felton Road – we purchased a Riesling and enjoyed a lengthy discussion with the server and a couple from Auckland as to where we should go in Martinborough.

    Bannock Brae – there was some discussion as to whether to make this stop. Even though we share a tasting and make use of the dump bucket we had had plenty of wine by this point. Because they were closed on our previous trip, had the open sign out even though it was unscheduled, and we don’t know if we will be back again, we went for it. The tastings are conducted on the back patio of the winemakers’ home. We enjoyed the Goldfield’s Pinot and purchased 2 bottles.

    As we headed back to Queenstown we stopped in at Amisfield. The ’08 pinot gris was quite refreshing with a floral nose and a dry finish. We can get this at home so paid the tasting fee and moved on.

    Note: We don’t haul wine home except for a very few exceptional bottles from wineries that don’t have U.S. distribution. The purchases we make on the road are for consumption when we are self-catering.

    We had a nice dinner in and then walked into town to enjoy the sunset over the lake.

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    Report Continued:
    February 3 – Very hot again. We ditched our plan to walk the Mt. Judah trail near Glenorchy as it is exposed and I did not feel like a repeat defeat. The DOC recommended the Mt. Crichton Loop Track which turned out to be perfect for the day’s conditions. The trail head is just past 12 Mile Bay and begins in the shade along 12 Mile Creek. It is steep in places but with spots of relief. The downhill section is on good track for the most part with a few steep switchbacks. (Has anyone else noticed that trails in NZ utilize very few switchbacks? ) I was glad for my sticks on the way down. We took about 3 hours with a lunch stop overlooking Lakes Dispute and Wakatipu.

    We returned to the condo where I spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the sun on the dock and occasionally talking myself into Wakatipu’s cold, cold water.

    Dinner was at The Fishbone restaurant. We never would have noticed it if it hadn’t been recommended to us. It was casual, simple, quick and the fish dishes were excellently prepared. We had starters of a farmer’s garden tomato salad and seared Nelson Bay scallops followed by the fish of the day. It turns out that the tomatoes were the first ones of the season picked from the chef’s garden and he came to our table to find out how it was – very good.

    February 4 – travel day to the Aoraki area. We were on the road by 10 after turning back to retrieve our Camel Back water bladder that we had left in the fridge. We definitely needed it as the heat wave continued. It hovered near 90 all day. We observed while driving past all the Bannockburn wineries that if we were to do this again we would plan an overnight somewhere around Cromwell and wine taste on the way instead of retracing our tracks in and out of Queenstown for a day of wine tasting. There’s not a whole lot going on in the area as far as accommodation goes, but there are some places in Cromwell.

    The drive was uneventful except for a road construction delay at Lindis Pass. The landscape is starkly beautiful, reminding me of the high desert plateau where I grew up in western Idaho. The hills were covered with lupine which were not quite done in by the heat. I later learned that lupine is classified as an invasive plant, but it sure was pretty. Along the way we saw some amazing rock formations, located them on the map to be the Clay Cliffs, and decided to take a side trip as we had plenty of time. It turns out that the cliffs are on private ground and after following the signs you find yourself at a gate with a pay box. We felt it was worth the $5 to get a close-up look.

    Go to Lake View Homestay for one reason - location, location, location. On Mt. Cook Hiway, it is perched on top of a hill with 360 views – one of which is straight down Lake Pukaki to Aoraki. It is a purpose built homestay with one wing dedicated to guests. Three bedrooms line a hallway which I assume can be rented by a party traveling together. There is a deck overlooking the mountains and the end room – which we had - has full length corner windows – again with the view. The room could be enhanced by having a water kettle. One word of caution to those who might be sensitive to cigarette smoke: while the guest wing is totally closed off from the main part of the house, and we never saw anyone smoking, there is a heavy smell of cigarettes in the owner’s portion. It was only an issue during breakfast time.

    Lake View is only 30 minutes from Mt. Cook National Park so we had a quick cup of tea, unpacked our bags and headed into the park. Arriving at 4, we asked for trail suggestions that would get us back well before dark. Here is where we learned that we were not yet attuned to the New Zealand accent. We were asked if we minded steeps. We said no and were sent to the Red Tarn track. We quickly found out that “steep” is step as in stairs, not steep as in elevation gain. We would have laughed but we were too busy gasping for breath as we headed up a never ending staircase fully exposed to the sun in 90 degree heat. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but our backs were to Aoraki the entire way. Not the best choice for a trail unless one is looking for heat stroke.

    We had a great late lunch/early dinner at the Mountain Hero Café in the park. We ordered smoked salmon salads and beers. The salads were large, fresh and tasty. The beers were cold and wet.

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    I feel your pain PJ - we hiked up to the Skyline Gondola from Queenstown as our second hike of the day after we'd hiked the Mt Crichton/Sam Summers Loop and I was seriously questioning my sanity before we reached the top. I love the Mt Crichton Loop - one of my favorites (on a very long list of favorites). I can't imagine hiking in 90 degree temps though, you're tougher than I am!

    I'm thoroughly enjoying your well written report and taking notes for my next visit.

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    February 5 – We woke in time to enjoy sunrise over Lake Pukaki with the snow-topped peaks catching the colors.

    It was hot, again. Back at the park headquarters we waited in line for help from someone other than the person who sent us up the Red Tarn. We were advised that given the heat, the only trail we wanted to be on that day was the Hooker Valley Trail. We were promised fresh breezes from the river, a walk along a cool rock face and spots to get down to the water. That is exactly what we got, along with beautiful scenery and a cloudless day to enjoy the sight of Aoraki. This was an easy walk with a huge payload.

    Back at the Mountain Hero Café I discovered the joy of Schweppes Lemon Lime with Bitters while my husband had another smoked salmon salad. We gathered up the courage to venture in to Twizel for dinner and discovered that Poppies next to the I-site was several steps above what we expected. We ordered gravlax, a terrine of some sort, mussels and a salad. We also had wine, but my notes are non-existent. We were back at the Lakeview Homestay in time for a glorious sunset.

    February 6 – “big” travel day to Tekapo. It seems like moving this small distance would not be worth it and normally we avoid 1 night stays, but we had a reason. If the weather were bad it would give us 1 more day to see Aoraki. On the other hand, it put us 45 minutes further down the road to Arthur’s Pass which was going to be one of our longer travel days.

    We dropped our bags and took off to the Mt. John summit and lakeshore trail (3-3.5 hours). The temps had dropped a bit and there was a slight breeze. The trail is a steady uphill, but not steep. It breaks out of forest to expansive views. There is a pleasant place to enjoy a picnic lunch at the summit as well as a small café. The downhill portion of the loop begins on a good track until reaching another observation spot and hitching post. At this point it rapidly deteriorates into a hot, dusty, rocky horse trail high above the lake. When you do reach lake level there is a nice looking beach area. My recommendation would be to hike as far as the hitching post and then retrace the track back down Mt. John. Once you reach the trailhead you could then walk along the lake at lake level for a bit.

    We stayed at Lake Tekapo Luxury Lodge which was a lot of money for a nice room overlooking the hiway with the lake in the background. We both got the impression that the owner was tired and looking forward to the end of the season. The room was very comfortable, well-outfitted and pleasant but we would not stay here again. We are finding out that we prefer homestays mixed in with self-catering.

    We had an unremarkable dinner at Kohan and took a late evening walk to the Church of the Good Shepherd and the sheep dog monument.

    Frankly, Tekapo didn’t do anything for us. We found ourselves wishing we’d waved as we drove through. However, if you are into astronomy and book ahead the Mt John observatory has 4 telescopes, one of which is reserved for tourist groups. If we had been able to get in on this it may have changed our attitude.

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    I'm amazed at your run of hot weather, when I was there January, everyone was complaining about "no summer".

    It's good to get a report on the Lake View, I saw it on the way in. Looks like a reasonably good choice in that area.

    Ouch on Lake Tekapo Luxury Lodge. I would agree that Tekapo isn't an overnight destination in most cases. I did the same thing, since I walked Hooker Valley the morning after a one-night stay inside Mt. Cook (at the YHA). My lodging in Tekapo was a dump..and still too expensive for what I got!

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    mlgb - I admired your photo videos. Don't go to Lake view Homestay for the food (microwave eggs with Franco American spaghetti one morning). Stick with the continental... We met people further down the road who loved the place they stayed in Tekapo. When our trips are over we plan to exchange notes and I will post when I get their info.

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    PJ - Thanks for the memories. Like mlgb said, we had very cold weather there in Dec/Jan. We also stayed at the Lakeview Homestay in the same corner room as you did - fantastic view! Our breakfast was considerably better than yours was, though. Agree about the smoke smell. There was never anyone smoking in our presence, but clearly he or she is a smoker.

    Also agree with your assessment of the Pinots. They were thinner than I expected, but the Reislings, which I usually do not like, were much drier than the ones we usually see in the U.S.

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    February 7 – Travel day to Arthur’s Pass
    This was a pleasant drive on our first cool, gray day. We stopped briefly in Geraldine, but as it was Sunday morning the place was closed for the most part. We did due diligence shopping for sun screen and insect repellent and headed on down the road.

    We checked in to the Mountain House our first experience with backpacker’s type housing. While it is not the type of lodging I would want for an entire trip, Mountain House was exceptionally clean, well-stocked, cozy and warm. We had a private queen room in a 3 bedroom cottage. There was one full bathroom, one separate WC and one room with a shower and sink. The lounge had a fireplace and was stocked with guide books and maps. The kitchen included more than most rental houses I have been in. The gardens were pretty and there was a laundry room. I think a large part of the experience hinges on your cottage mates. The first day we shared a late afternoon bottle of wine, discussed each other’s plans and went our separate ways. A 3 person family moved in the second day, took over the kitchen and treated the bathrooms like a personal Water World.

    We hiked 2 short trails – Devil’s Punch Bowl and Bridal Veil. These were just enough to get the travel kinks stretched out and to feel like we earned some dinner.

    Dinner was at The Wobbly Kea, a large warm dining area complete with a bar and lounge. My favorite spot was the couch turned to face the window. It was a great space to nurse a beer and watch the world cycle by. Portions were huge here. We had lamb shanks and chicken curry the first night. There was so much curry that it made lunch for the two of us the next day.

    February 8 – We hiked Scott’s Trail. This trail confirmed my husband’s observation that Kiwis don’t use switch backs when a water course will do. We had been told (warned?) by the park ranger that Arthur’s Pass is the most undeveloped of all the national parks, and overall that is a good thing. Scott’s Trail pretty much went straight up over tree roots and stones. It was not a difficult elevation gain, just very hard walking. Sticks were of no use due to the narrowness and ruggedness of the track. It opened up to some pretty amazing views and then we began the difficult (for me) descent. One of the comments in the guest book at Mountain House described it as “boulder hopping on roller blades.” I took it slow and enjoyed the beer at the end of the day.

    Dinner was at The Wobbly Kea again. We sat at the bar with our beers until “our” spot on the couch opened up. We ordered dinner from the couch and moved into the dining area when the food came up. We each had a soup and split a huge order of wonderfully good fish and chips. The Wobbly Kea is the perfect, casual, friendly place for the setting.

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    February 9 - travel day to Murchison

    We awoke to a gray morning and made our way down through the Otira Valley with the mists swirling about and the mountain sides vibrant with the red of the blooming rata. It was a stunning sight, but one that we were not able to adequately catch on camera. As we had traveled the west coast on our previous trip we made our way to Murchison via the east side of Lake Brunner. There were no other travelers and we enjoyed the peaceful, green, farmland scenery. By the time we reached Reefton – 1st town in the southern hemisphere to be electrified – it was a brilliant, sunny summer day.

    We pulled into the Murchison Lodge early afternoon and quickly decided to forego biking or hiking in order to wander down to the river’s swimming hole. Unless one is into white water rafting or fishing Murchison is treated as a stopover on the way to or from the west coast. The comfort of the lodge, the hospitality of the hosts and the beauty of the setting had us bemoaning our one-night stay. Merve and Shirley just smiled – “That’s what they all say.” To top it off, Merve is a masseur who made quick work of the knots and tension in my husband’s back, neck and shoulders. He’s also a mean man with the juicer and the breakfast grill.

    We learned that everyone else had tried to book our room, the Riverside Room. It is a large, comfortable room with balcony, and beautifully tiled bath. It is also the only room on the riverside of the lodge. The full house of guests gathered over various shared bottles of wine joined by Merve and Shirley who made certain everyone knew of the town’s (limited) dining options. One restaurant was closed for the evening so we found ourselves at the Commercial Hotel for a “traditional” meal of gray lamb, gray peas and mashed potatoes. The fresh tomato salad was outstanding.

    February 10 – drive to Tasman

    This phase of the trip was planned in order to revisit our favorite hosts from our previous trip: Noelene and Peter Bean of Larchwood House. Tasman is a tiny spot on SH60 between Mapua and Motueka at the base of the Moutere Inlet and is well located to visit wineries, Abel Tasman NP and Nelson. There is a current road works project to construct the Ruby Bay bypass which will take significant traffic away from this stretch of SH60, with plans for new walking and bike lanes.

    We drove along the Buller River to the entrance of Nelson Lakes NP at Saint Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti. After visiting the park center and taking a short loop walk at the lake we were off again, stopping at Neudorf winery (always good) where Jackie made suggestions for other wineries to try in the next few days. We pulled into Larchwood House where we were greeted like long lost friends. It did feel a bit like coming home.

    On our previous visit, Noelene discovered that it was my husband’s birthday and she surprised us with a birthday cake. Coincidentally, it was again my husband’s birthday and I had arranged ahead of time for us to have dinner together at Larchwood House. Upon our arrival Noelene presented my husband with a beautiful ginger cake and we immediately sat down to lit candles and “Happy Birthday to You.” (The ginger cake was sent down the road us when we left and we stretched it out until Martinborough.) Then Noelene pulled out all the stops. Dinner was one of the most flavorful, well-prepared home meals I have had. There was fresh garden salad, rack of lamb, roast potatoes and capanota. Every ingredient was superb. She had gone to Wellington on business and flew back with the lamb racks in her carryon. Dessert was a custard tart with fresh pears. Without consultation, she had made all our favorites. Of course there was wine from their cellar and the trunk of our car.

    February 11 and 12

    The next two days were filled with gallery hopping, wine tasting and generally hanging out in the beautiful garden at Larchwood House. We had spent most of our time the previous trip hiking in Abel Tasman NP and elsewhere. As the weather was cool and rainy I was glad to take in this other side of the area. We headed into Nelson to visit WOW the World of Wearable Arts Museum. I highly recommend this. I have a special interest in textile art, but these pieces are in the stratosphere of creativity and type of materials used. My husband was equally enthused and we both enjoyed the portion of the car collection that was included in the standard ticket price.

    We gallery hopped in Nelson, agonized over the choices, purchased a hand-woven throw and threw caution to the wind when we purchased a large ceramic sculpture to be shipped. Too many times we have regretted passing up a piece we both liked due to shipping charges. We had agreed prior to this trip that we would ship things within reason. We also purchased a small rimu bowl with amazing craftsmanship at a woodworking gallery in Mapua.

    We visited Waimea Winery for their dessert Riesling, all of which was gifted along the way. We also stopped in at Rimu Grove and Te Mania for pleasant tastings and some purchases.

    Early evenings were spent with Peter and Noelene over cocktails and munchies. Dinners out were at The Smoke House in Mapua as well as the Wharfside. We preferred the Smoke House this trip. We have made it a habit to purchase the smoked salmon available from their take-away next door as it makes wonderful cocktail snacks as well as roadside lunches.

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    Fantastic - one of my favorite parts of the SI! You're the first Fodorite (other than myself) I've ever seen mention Tasman, a speck on the road no one ever seems to notice. It's good to hear that the Smoke House is back to it's former glory, it had taken a turn a few years back. I'm now seriously considering a stay in Murchison on our next trip later this year. Loving your report!

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    Melnq8 - Thanks. I think we have similar tastes. I planned the bulk of our first trip around your reports.

    A photo link will be coming soon!

    Thanks to all who are staying with me. For some reason I feel like blabbering away on this report instead of just listing accommodations and restaurants.

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    Photo links

    2010 trip

    2008 trip

    February 13 – Marlborough Wine and Food Festival

    When we realized that we would be at the top of the North Island for the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival, we tweaked the itinerary in order to take in this event. Fortunately we had a several month lead in order to secure lodging and ended up with a fabulous find at Stonehaven Vineyard Homestay. John and Paulette could not have done more to make us feel welcome and at home. Paulette made sure I knew in advance to show up as early in the day as we wanted, drop our bags and accept a lift to the event from John. That way they didn’t have to worry about their guests drinking and driving.

    What can I say about the wine festival? We are glad that we went, but we don’t need to go again and it wasn’t a highlight of our trip. The venue was the Montana Brancott Estate and the price of admission was a hefty $48 + fees. Once inside, each winery charged for tastes ranging from $2-$5 per taste. A few wineries had a pricing structure so that you could taste a range of their wines. The food offerings were more of the type found at street fairs and carnivals, rather than a celebration of the local bounty. If you feel this is sour grapes on my part, the other house guests – from Auckland and the UK - brought up the same issues. I was shocked at how many young people were there and how drunk they all seemed to be. A pretty expensive way to get blasted.

    Now for the good. There were wall-to-wall wineries as far as the horizon – over 100. John recommended some of their favorites on the drive over, and we had a small list of places we wanted to try, but it quickly deteriorated into a shot gun approach. We did manage to find some gems. We enjoyed Fromm’s second label La Strada ’08 Syrah, Forrest Wines label The Doctor’s ’09 Arneis and The Valley’s Brancott ’09 Riesling. My husband ended the day with a full glass of Riverby Estate’s ’09 Noble Riesling. We wanted to try Dog Point Vineyard but there is only so much one’s palate can take. We borrowed a cell phone from Lisa of Sherrington Grange and arranged for John to pick us up. We stayed at Sherrington our first trip and had arranged for Lisa to bring us a wheel of her blue cheese.

    Back at Stonehaven we had time to take in the beautiful surroundings of a well designed house surrounded by vineyards, gorgeous gardens, with an inviting pool and wonderfully gracious hosts. John and Paulette visited with us for an hour before John headed out to pick up more guests and Paulette started to prepare dinner for those who had been savvy enough to reserve. Paulette arranged for us to have dinner at Gibbs Winery Restaurant which was a short drive away. It was a pleasant, pretty restaurant, but given our day we would have been better off with a simple snack enjoyed on the balcony of our room.

    Breakfast the next day was a fun affair, served in the pool house with all in attendance. Judging from the quality of the meal, I would eat at Paulette’s dinner table any time. This is definitely a homestay I would return to and for more than one night.

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    February 14 – Ferry to Wellington

    We headed down the road to Picton and the ferry terminal. Picton is definitely a place to move through although there is a pretty little park at the harbor’s edge. After a brief walk around the town we turned in our rental car and waited to board the 1:15 Inter-islander. The day was sunny, the water was calm and I was armed with my seasickness wristbands. My husband thought I was overdoing it but I get motion sickness on the ferries in San Francisco Bay and I was not about to take any chances on a 4 hour trip. I stayed topside in spite of the wind until the very last turning into Wellington when the wind was so strong I was unable to move until a kind gentleman pulled me inside. There was always something to look at on the trip and I am glad we took the ferry after hearing the tales at breakfast about pilots flying into Wellington airport sideways.

    Once we collected our bags we realized that my usual obsessive trip preparation had a huge hole in it. I didn’t really know where we were to spend the next two days. I kept running into dead ends when trying to book a Sunday/Monday stay in Wellington until one B&B owner told me he would refer my request to friends of his who were overseas at the time. They didn’t have a web-site but he sent along a photo of a nice-looking Victorian. Sure enough, I received an email from a couple on the Cote d’Azur stating that they were certain the dates would be fine. A few months later I sent a “just checking” email and they responded that they were in Hawaii but that we were on their calendar. Ann would pick us up inside the ferry terminal at the Avis desk. At that point I just put my faith in my past experience that every Kiwi was polite, considerate, caring and a great host.

    Trouble was, the terminal was emptying out and there was no one anywhere near the Avis desk who looked to be a stranger looking for a stranger. Fine, we’ll take a cab. Only I don’t have an address. Do we have a cell phone? No. Do we have coins for a payphone? No. I found a phone that took credit cards and dialed the phone number with trepidation. She answered! “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” And she was.

    To describe Ann as bubbly makes her sound a bit too perky so let’s just say she is enthusiastic. We received a running commentary on sites and things to do while she drove us to her home. And then we entered a page from Architectural Digest. It wasn’t marred in the least by the fact that Dartry was just finishing up the ironing in the lounge. Do you remember the scene in Love Actually when Laura Linney’s character does a private little happy dance? That was our reaction when we were shown into our suite. The king bed was dwarfed in a huge high-ceilinged room with an antique table in the bay window, a fireplace, a concealed mini-kitchenette “in case you just want to order in”, an entertainment center and nice bath. Wow.

    It was Valentine’s Day and we had no dinner reservations, but Ann sent us on the early side to her favorite neighborhood restaurant, Floriditas . Floriditas is a casual restaurant serving fresh, very good food. I had one of the best risottos I have ever eaten. Everything we ordered was great. Partway through our meal I looked at the couple sitting at the next table, turned to my husband and whispered, “Milford Track?” Here we were, half-way around the world, sitting next to a couple from Auckland we had met on the Milford Track two years before.

    February 15 – Walking around Wellington

    We woke to a sunny day so decided to take advantage of the weather and save the museum for another day. We wandered aimlessly for a bit, just getting our bearings, and then we strolled past Parliament and into Old St. Paul’s. This is a beautiful little wooden gothic style church. I surprised myself by choking up a bit when the docent proudly pointed out the 48-star American flag left by Marines on their way to fight in the Pacific.

    We spent the bulk of the day touring the Botanic Gardens, reveling in the summer blooms and enjoying the many trails. There is an attractive looking café near the rose garden and we wished that we had taken advantage of it.

    After multiple glasses of wine and great conversation back at Ann and Dartry’s, Ann suggested a dining itinerary based on the fact that we wanted a salad and something light. (Actually I wanted to go back to Floriditas but felt that I should adopt some of Ann’s enthusiasm.) Even though her plans for us were all within walking distance Ann wanted to drive us to dinner so that she could point out where she wanted us to go after dinner, so off we went in her little car. The restaurant she originally suggested had a line out the door – turns out they have a two-for-one offer on Mondays – so we ended up at Monsoon Poon Overall it was too “happening” and noisy for our old foggies’ taste, but the Asian fusion menu with strong Indian leanings was interesting. The next stop was The Library which bills itself as a reading room, lounge bar, with live music and sweets & treats. Their card doesn’t have an address so all I can tell you is that it is on the second floor just around the corner from Chow which is at 45 Tory Street. The Library is a bit like the old fern bars without the ferns and the pick-up scene. It was a very comfortable space to enjoy a glass of wine or a late night coffee.

    I woke with a start that night thinking OMG I have no idea what this place is costing us! And I bet they only take cash! Here are the details as I know them of this fabulous homestay. Ann and Dartry Lamb bootstrapped themselves to where they are today. They now own 3 houses in a row on Buller Street called City Villas. They turned them into 6 flats, 5 of which are rented out, 1 in which they live and have the B&B. When I noted that they must have an amazing painter as the high gloss walls in our bath were flawless, Ann nodded to Dartry. They do all the work themselves. She does all the decorating, sews the draperies, upholsters the furnishings, refinishes the floors, etc. etc. They don’t maintain a website as they travel 6 months out of the year. They rely on word of mouth. Their email is [email protected] The price is $150 NZ per night.

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    February 16 – Te Papa and drive to Martinborough

    Visiting Te Papa is a great way to begin to learn about the Maori as well as the colonization of New Zealand. We spent over 3 hours absorbing as much as we could until the feet and brain cells could handle no more. Well worth the time.

    We grabbed a quick and very good lunch at Chow, another of Ann’s suggestions. I had a very good green curry and it was all I could do to keep my fork out of my husband’s roast pumpkin salad. I’d return in a heartbeat.

    We picked up the rental car (Hertz for a new car was far less expensive this trip than Apex for an older model), swung by City Villas for our luggage, told Ann and Dartrey to be sure to see us on their next tour of the world and hit the road for Martinborough by late afternoon. There is one serious stretch of narrow, winding, steep road on the way. Where was the masseur when we needed one – my husband for gripping the wheel and me for white knuckling whatever I could find?

    We settled into Aylstone, a pretty place in a lovely setting. It needs to be taken to the next level (replace the hollow core doors and provide hooks in the bath) but the room was huge, the public spaces were lovely and the vineyards were at our door. We had considered booking at Pinot Villas, self-catering cottages just off the square, but realized we would not be self-catering in the heart of wine and dine country.

    Dinner was at Tirohana Estate The set menu is a good value for good food in a pretty setting. Service was casually pretentious if that makes any sense. It was too chilly to dine outside, but I imagine it would be a wonderful lunch spot on a warm day. We weren’t wild about their wines, but selected a 2008 Pinot Noir. We were close enough to have walked but were glad we hadn’t as it was extremely dark out there in the country.

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    February 17 – Martinborough wine tasting

    The restaurant on Aylstone’s property is closed on Wednesday so we were directed to Medici for a free breakfast. It was quite good with ample portions and a pleasant atmosphere. We filled up for a day of wine tasting.

    Even though it was raining we decided to walk to a few of the many wineries that were nearby. We find that visiting 3 wineries plus sharing a bottle at dinnertime pretty much maxes us out. We choose Martinborough, Ata Rangi and Palliser. We weren’t enamored enough with any of Martinborough’s to make a purchase. Everything from Ata Rangi was lovely to our taste and we had a wonderfully informative tasting there. They have U.S. distribution and we were assured that they were well-represented at local restaurants so we went on our way.

    Many people recommended that we visit nearby Greytown for its antique shops and galleries so we decided to combine a trip there with a visit to Palliser on the way out of town and hopefully find a laundromat along the way. We didn’t see Palliser’s drive on the way out of town, couldn’t find a laundry and didn’t find much of interest in Greytown. The drive was nice though. We stopped in at Palliser on the way back. Their rather huge sign was hidden by trees. That’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it. It was the end of the day and we had a rather perfunctory tasting. We did purchase a dry riesling. We don’t drink riesling or chardonnay at home, but enjoy the style that we find in New Zealand.

    Dinner that night was at the overhyped Wendy Campbell’s The French Bistro. That said, our meals were simple, well prepared and made with excellent ingredients. There was no “wow” factor in the dishes, but that is in keeping with the label “bistro.” We had a wonderful Ata Rangi Craighall 2008 Chardonnay. In fairness, to describe the restaurant as overhyped shows my San Francisco Bay area restaurant bias. There are easily 5 restaurants within walking distance of my home that are as good. In a city, this would be a nice neighborhood haunt. In small town Martinborough it is “the place to go.” Meow.

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    Now I'm feeling better than I didn't eat at the French Bistro! I liked the explanation given to me of the Ata Rangi Pinot Noir vintages..the odd years being "bloke years" and the even years more feminine...smooth and balanced.

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    February 18 – Drive to Napier and Wine Tasting

    Due to the unusually cool and wet summer the North Island had experienced, we were treated to beautiful green hills through-out the countryside on our drives.

    We stopped at Havelock North to get a local map and began our tasting spree of Hawke’s Bay wines. Our first stop was at Black Barn Vineyards. We didn’t care for the style of these wines and thought they were overpriced. We thought they were more a winery as lunch destination. There was an interesting little art gallery onsite. All in all it is a pretty place to stop in at on the way down the road. Next up was Te Mata Estate Winery. Unfortunately, my notes are sketchy, but I remember that they had a pleasant rose and that their “signature” pinot was thin and not well-balanced to my taste. Our last stop of the day was at Craggy Range Winery. I recommend a trip out to Craggy Range even for those who do not enjoy wine tasting. The countryside is lovely and the winery site is amazing with an architecturally interesting modern facility. There is a restaurant onsite as well. We very much liked the Craggy Range 2008 Pinot and bought some to haul home.

    Our Homestay for the next 2 nights was Bay Bach about 5 minutes north of Napier. Jill and Ian were very nice and breakfasts were wonderful, but I was extremely disappointed not to be in the room featured on the web site. I confess that I didn’t ask for the large room facing the garden as I didn’t pay attention to the fact that there was more than one room to let. My oversight. Our room was quite a bit smaller, although comfortable. I would stay here again as long as I asked for the large room. Overall, we felt that we would have preferred to be in the countryside around Havelock North as that was where we concentrated our time.

    It just so happened that it was Art Deco Weekend in Napier which was a nice surprise for us. In addition to the beautiful art deco architecture that the town in known for, all the local shop people, and many visitors, were attired in the finest styles of the ‘30’s. Incredible refurbished automobiles lined the streets for all of us gawkers to admire. We were later informed that some members of international auto clubs have their cars shipped to New Zealand for the parade that is held during Art Deco Weekend.

    Dinner that evening was at Elephant Hill Estate & Winery, another venue to take in if only for the setting amidst the vines and next to the sea. We shared risotto, Nelson Bay scallops, lamb and venison. (It was the first venison we had seen on North Island menus although our recollection from our previous trip was that it was on most South Island menus.) The wine list was not exclusive to Elephant Hill and it was nice to be able to taste a selection before choosing our dinner wine.

    February 19 – Gimmlet Gravel wine tasting

    We began the day by taking a few long walks around Napier, enjoying the deco scene again as well as a large scale log- to-lumber operation at the port.

    As for wineries, our hosts suggested we start at Unison, and from there we hit Trinity and Bridge Pa. The cellar door manager at Trinity was having a bit of a fit as a large tour group showed up unannounced just after us. It made for a rushed, crowded tasting, but it was an interesting one. Where else in New Zealand are they making Temperanillo? It was quite tasty too, but the price point was out of line. We paid the tasting fee and were off. The best was saved for last. The Bridge Pa tasting room is actually a tasting co-op called Triangle Red Tasting Centre. Three wineries are represented – Osawa, exporting most of its production to Japan – Bushhawk, young vines with limited production – and Bridge Pa. As it was late afternoon, the pizza oven was especially attractive to me. We began tasting the wine selection while our pizza went into the fire and finished up after we had eaten at a picnic table set up on a small patio looking out at the vines. Bridge Pa’s 2007 Reserve Syrah was lush and rich, and I had to purchase the 2009 Drama Queen Rose, not just for the name.

    Dinner that evening was at the Mission Estate Winery. As part of the Art Deco celebration they were featuring a set menu along with a band and dancing. Neither the food nor the wines by the glass were memorable, but the evening was festive and fun. A vintage Rolls Royce parked in the entrance drive set the stage. All the wait staff were in costume. Most guests, with the exception of tourists like ourselves, were fully decked out in 1930’s finery. We had a great time watching the dancers and listening to the Dixieland style band.

    There’s more to come…

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    February 20 – 23 – Lake Taupo

    These four days were the highlight of this trip, if any one time can be a highlight on a tour of New Zealand! Everything combined to make our stay at Omori Lake House perfect. The site itself is heaven on earth. The hosts, Raewyn and Neil, were fabulous. Their love for, knowledge of, and respect for the area and the culture is apparent. A couple from the UK were additional guests on two of the four nights we spent at Omori and the six of us spent hours around the dinner table enjoying Raewyn’s meals, sharing stories and many bottles of wine in the glow of the sunset, the moon and stars.

    Note about Omori Lake House: the photos on the website might make it appear to be a bit cold and utilitarian. It is anything but. The Lake House is a well-designed, warm home with wrap-around decks, fabulous views, beautiful gardens and large rooms. Our room (one of two) was larger than the one pictured on the website. If you book, and want a room with a bit more room, ask for the one with the bath. Omori is at the south end of Lake Taupo, about an hour’s drive from the town of Taupo, and much closer to Tongariro Nat’l. Park.

    We arrived late afternoon and enjoyed the traditional cup of tea, biscuits and getting acquainted chat. Knowing we wanted to do the Tongariro Crossing, they had already checked the weather forecast and let us know our options were wide open as only clear skies were predicted. We decided to have a break-in day of hiking before we made the 19k Tongariro trek. As the nearby restaurant was closed for a private party it was suggested we dine at the Lake House, which we did. Raewyn dished up an admirable meal, especially considering she had 2 hours notice.

    Immediately after breakfast the next morning, Raewyn outlined many half day hiking options and we set off for Tongariro National Park. There are several hiking options within the park besides the Crossing. We chose the Taranaki Falls loop which begins just up the road from the Chateau. It is a mostly level hike through tussock with the stunning volcanic peaks for backdrop. Once you arrive at the falls there are steps down to the river bed which you hike along until climbing back up to the trailhead. It is a pretty hike, an easy hike and one well worth doing. We then proceeded back toward Turangi and stopped off to walk the circuit of Lake Rotopounamu – Greenstone Lake. This is, again, an easy walk above the lake through cool beech forest. There are a few spots where you can get down to the beach level and many of the trees and plants have been labeled with botanical information.

    This was the only evening out of the four that we dined out. After enjoying a good chat, a bottle of wine and some nibbles, we ventured to Oreti in Pukawa – one bay over from Omori. My meal of salmon on roast kumara was very nice, but my husband’s rack of lamb was close to inedible.

    The following morning we arrived at the breakfast table, as instructed, at 6:30. a.m. Raewyn told us that we needed to have a good cooked breakfast before the trek and she and Neil would not think of us going off with just fruit and yogurt. By 11 a.m. I was very thankful for their wisdom! We left the house at 7 a.m. in order to catch our shuttle to the Tongariro Crossing trailhead at Mangatepopo Road.

    We hit the trail around 8:30, along with many busloads of other trampers. Everyone quickly spreads out at their own paces but this is not a hike for those who enjoy solitude in the wilderness. We had been told that during the peak summer months the trail averages 1,000 hikers per day. There is not much I can say about the hike that hasn’t already been said. The steps up to the South Crater are many and seem to never end, but they do and it is easy to pull over to catch your breath. Slow and steady does it. The climb to the Red Crater doesn’t seem bad after the earlier climb, and the rewards are magnificent. The terrain and views are unlike any others I have seen. I was glad I had my sticks as the descent from the Red Crater to the Emerald Lakes is an actual slide of ash and scree. Many people ran it down. Those of the more timid persuasion (me) tried various tactics. Once I figured out to stick my poles out front, dig my heels in and slide it was a great deal of fun. From the Emerald Lakes there is another short climb and then the long, long, long descent begins. About 2 ½ hours worth of descent on a trail pitched for maximum shin impact. By the time one leaves the tussock and enters the forest on the trail meandering alongside a creek, most people are just looking forward to the day’s end. That said, I would do this walk again in an instant. When the trail climbed out of the crater and we left the sight of the Red Crater with Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom for those followers of the Lord of the Ring) standing vigil behind it, I left a piece of my heart behind as well.

    Note for the future: If we were to do this again, we would consider driving to the trail’s end in the morning and arranging for the shuttle to pick us up there and take us to the trail head. That way we wouldn’t have to wait for the shuttle at the end of the day, and we wouldn’t have to worry about how much time we were taking on the descent.

    We were greeted like conquering heroes when we returned to Omori Lake House by both our hosts and their new guests. There was a multitude of appetizers “for the hikers,” many bottles of wine – theirs and ours – roast lamb with wonderful sides and a fabulous dessert. We talked and laughed for hours until I broke up the party in the wee hours, knowing that Neal and Raewyn had been up earlier than we had and that they had been working to take care of us all day.

    We began our last day around Taupo with thoughts of more hiking. And we did take in a few “baby walks” - Rimu Walk on SH #32, about 30 minutes, and the first part of the Waihaha Tramping Track, also on SH #32 and about 30 minutes. Both were worthwhile, but we actually spent more time driving than hiking. There is a lovely roadside picnic spot on SH #32 which overlooks the Western Bay of Lake Taupo and which we zoomed right past in our hurry to take a soak in the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. Unfortunately, they were closed but we totally enjoyed having the excuse to return to the Lake House, do some laundry, catch up on editing photos and napping.

    One more wonderful evening at Omori Lake House with much discussion of the U.S. political situation(s) and we were off to Rotorua the next day.

    February 24 – Drive to Rotorua

    Our hosts in Rotorua, The Lake House Bed and Breakfast, had emailed suggestions for site-seeing on our way from Taupo. After fond farewells to Raewyn and Neil, and a quick stop at Scenic Cellars in Taupo to replenish our traveling wine cellar, we hit Spa Park in Taupo where a hot springs hits the river forming a nice pool. There is a restroom near the parking area where one can change and then it is a short walk downhill to the river. If you want to rediscover your inner child, there is a small zip line in the park uphill from the parking lot near that same restroom.

    Huka Falls was the next site on our list and there is a trail from Spa Park along the river which ends up at the falls. Or you can drive to the falls area. It is definitely worth the short side-trip. The best way to describe it is that it is a side-ways water fall of incredible volume and color.

    Further up SH #5 is the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Area. The Saxbys, our hosts-to-be in Rotorua, had sent us a discount coupon for 10 % off the entry fee. I have read many accounts that state if you have been to Yellowstone then these are no big deal. I haven’t been to Yellowstone since I was a child and I found this area to be worth the price of admission and the short amount of time (1 ½ hours) it took to enjoy. Equally fun, and free, were the mud pots just up the road from the thermal area’s parking lot. It is signed, so if you can find Wai-o-tapu, you can find the mud pots.

    We arrived at our B&B late afternoon. We had a pleasant room in this lakefront house. It is hard to compare, having just come from such an ideal spot, but we looked forward to some pre-breakfast kayaking and were very glad not to be directly in Rotorua town. We had a really nice dinner at a small resort practically next door, the Wai-Ora Spa

    February 25 – Rotorua

    We had a disappointing start to the day as it was very cool with rain projected so we opted out of the early morning swim or kayak. Ken outlined several interesting hikes for us and we headed into town first. Our first stop was Kauri Park which was not that impressive in light of having seen Wai-o-Tapu the day before. However, there is something to be said for the novelty of thermal pools in the midst of a town. It then began to pour rain so we scrapped our plans to hike and headed through the Government Gardens to the museum. We began our visit with the viewing of a hokey film on the New Zealand creation story and the earthquake at Tarawera. It was definitely worth seeing if only for the “cheese” factor. The museum exhibits included a well-done feature of the Maori which we felt rounded out what we had learned at Te Papa.

    It continued to rain so we ducked into Relish for a light lunch where we enjoyed two very nice salads. We were back at the B&B just in time to get ready for our ride to a hangi at Mi Tai. .

    Our hosts in Omori told us that we should go to a hangi, even though they were a bit commercial, and our hosts in Rotorua said that they felt Mi Tai did the best job. There were some aspects of the evening that made me understand the term “RotoVegas” but overall I was left with a greater understanding of the Maori culture. The performance began along the banks of a spring as the tribesmen rowed up chanting. We were then directed to the theatre where we were seated in the front row which made for some flinching on my part during the haka and when the long spears got to twirling around! Dinner followed the performance and then we took a nighttime walk down to the tribe’s cold water spring to see the glow worms. Included in our ticket price was door-to-door shuttle service.

    February 26 – Unplanned return home

    I end this report on a sad note. The morning we were to go to the Coromandel Peninsula we received word that my husband’s father was dying and we needed to return home. Our hosts and Air New Zealand pulled out all the stops for us and we were able to get on a flight to San Francisco that evening. We hit the ground running and made it on to another flight out of San Francisco to New Jersey.

    My memories of my father-in-law will be forever tied to my memories of this wonderful trip, the fabulous sights of New Zealand, and most especially, to the incredible hospitality and generosity of the people of this marvelous land.

    The links to the places we had planned to stay our last 12 nights are below:

    3 nights -
    2 nights -
    5 nights -
    1 night -
    1 night -

    We will return!

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