Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Two Weeks in New Zealand

Onereo Beach on Waikehe Island, one of New Zealand's best.

Every vacation, no matter how close or how far from home, raises the questions of what sights to see and what activities to do. (And which ones to skip.) Needless to say, my recent trip to New Zealand required much planning. We had only two seeks to explore a country the size of England but with four climate systems, both Polynesian and European histories, and dynamic natural landscapes.

Our flight landed in Auckland at 5:30 am. Thankfully, our hotel allowed early check-in. After a 12 hour flight, all I wanted to do was lay down! But there wasn’t going to be too much of that because we had a whole new time zone to get adjusted to. So, off we went on a self-guided tour of the city, with the help of four maps (just in case one wasn’t enough.) Walking along Hobson Street, we ended up at Viaduct Basin. Built in 2000 for the America’s Cup Regatta, the area is still thriving with restaurants, apartments, shopping and, even though this was not boating season, just enough yachts to add that picture postcard view. This area is a great place to stroll, take photos, or just sit and enjoy the sun, and let the fact that we were finally in New Zealand sink in! (A long time dream of ours.) Before we knew it, it was almost noon and we were getting hungry. We soon came to realize that this is not a bad place to be hungry because there was literally restaurant after restaurant for a good couple blocks. All I knew was that I wanted fresh seafood (must have been all that ocean breeze.) Fresh seafood was what I got at Waterfront Cafe. We ordered mussels in white wine, a calamari salad, and the best tasting oysters I have ever had in my life! Period. Hands down. No contest. Fresh, crisp, clean, euphoric!

The rolling hills of Stonybridge Vineyard on Waiheke.

The following day, we did more self-guided exploration, visiting the Auckland Museum and Sky Tower. But on day three, we planned to explore one of the smaller islands that are also considered part of the city. Auckland has an impressive ferry system with some ferry companies extending their service to include tours of the various islands. We chose Fullers Ferry company and its full-day tour of Waiheke’s vineyards. From Stonybridge to Wild on Waiheke to Mudbrick, the views were simply breathtaking! I have never been to Italy or the Mediterranean but the vineyards here reminded me of photos I’ve seen of such places. Rolling hills. Varying shades of red, orange, yellow, blue, green. An afternoon sun that turned the ocean into a sea of glass. Glistening. And might I add, very romantic. There’s no doubt about it: Waiheke is stunning.

Wine-tasting in Waiheke.

Branches of olives on the Rangihou Estate.

Also part of the tour was a stop at Rangihou Olive Estate. Just like the wine growing areas of Europe and the Mediterranean, Waiheke is ideal for olives. Rangihou grows different types of olives and therefore produces different flavors of oil. However, one thing was consistent: delicious olive oil in every bottle. We sampled five of their productions, including a batch that was being pressed as we pulled up to the compound! Talk about fresh! Depending on the type of olive used, the qualities of its flavor profile really stand out the fresher it is. And in case you were wondering how to determine freshness: there should be a date on the bottle; the key is to purchase within two years of this, the production, date. And always make sure to buy dark bottles and store in a cool dry place since light denatures the good fatty acids in the oil turning it rancid.

On day four, there was something foul in the air. Literally. We were in Rotorua and that smell was sulphur, due to Rotorua’s location on geothermically active earth. But nothing about this noxious odor is indicative of what Rotorua had to offer. After three days of Auckland’s vivacity, we were now in the center of the north island for the next three days. The goal: to experience some of the country’s most popular and beautiful natural wonders and it’s proud Maori culture.

The view of Lake Rotorua from our room at the Koura Lodge!

The following day after breakfast - wonderfully prepared by our hosts Tom and Louise of Koura Lodge I must add - we set out for the sites along Terawera Road, stopping first at the Blue and Green lakes. Next was the Buried Village. This was an area of Maori activity and high tourist traffic (by the standards of that era) during the late nineteenth century, thanks to the areas Pink and White Terraces - pools of hot water enclosed by step-like formations from silica deposits from two geysers. As the name suggests the buried village is... well... buried. Mt Terawera erupted on June 10, 1886 killing 150 people and destroying the terraces, along with the nearby village. The landscape and demographics of the region were also forever changed for, as our guide noted, so popular were the terraces that, had they still been around, the main tourist hub for the region would have been this village and not Rotorua. Even though the terraces no longer exist, a walk through the area was well worth it. And don’t miss the twenty minute trail to the impressive Wairere Falls.

Standing at the Impressive Wairere Falls.

By the second day in Rotorua, we realized that three days were not enough to explore this region. Even so ,we were able to visit Wia-O-Tapu, an excellent example of geothermal activity, and an excellent opportunity to get close to what’s beneath the Earth’s surface. Maybe even too close. Well marked paths took us around sulphur lakes, bubbling mud pools, sunken craters. Another must do is a Hangi - traditional Maori meal- and a Maori concert. deciding which concert to choose was a tough choice because they were all so highly rated. In the end, we choose the Mitai because of their convenient shuttle service: a delightful perk, especially for my husband, since he did all of the driving - driving on the left side of the road took much getting used to!

On the Boardwalk in Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland.

We drove from Rotorua to Wellington on day seven, a drive that was necessary but grueling. It took us about six hours to get there and another hour or so to get lost before we found the hotel (next time, we are definitely getting GPS world edition.) And it rained all of the two days that we were there. While we didn’t get to see much of the city, we had the chance to visit Te Papa - the immense new museum that’s highly interactive, and dedicated to New Zealand’s dynamic cultural and natural history. Taking one of the complimentary tours was a great way to see the main exhibits in one day.

When you think of New Zealand, what comes to mind? Mussels and wine, no? This was to be the next segment of the trip. The following day, we took the Interislander ferry to the Malborough Sounds. If New Zealand is the mussel capital of the world, then Malborough Sounds is the mussel capital of New Zealand. As the ferry approached the Picton Harbor, it was clear that we left the gloom of Wellington behind as we were greeted by an impressive full double rainbow. Picton is the hub for exploring the wine growing areas of the Sounds and a good place to see how mussels are farmed. Luckily we were able to do both in one day, on one tour, and luckily still, we arrived in the off-season so we were the only ones on the tour.

Picturesque Picton.

Our driver and tour guide was Aussie, and, as his name suggests, he is from Australia. He came over for a month’s vacation - it’s been seven years since. He explained that once his relatives visited for him here first time, they too were mesmerized. Now, his parents and sister call Malborough their home. I couldn’t help feel a tinge of jealousy as we left Picton and proceeded to Blenheim. Vineyards and mountains were the only structures that interrupted each other. Sheep and cattle were grazing. It was still early and cool enough in the morning that there was also a slight mist in the valleys. Everything about this area spoke of a harmony between nature and humanity. Yes, given the opportunity and timing, I too would move here.

Our first stop was Saint Clair winery (on vacation, it’s never to early for wine tasting ) to taste for ourselves why Malborough wines are some of the best in the world. The advantage of being the only people on the tour (and booking the Icon’s package) was that we had the option of visiting an additional attraction of our choice. Being more of a chocaholic than I am, my husband requested that we make a quick stop at Makana Chocolate factory. The fact that chocolate is not intrinsically New Zealand means nothing to him and the thousands of visitors to stop at Makana each year. Just goes to show how universal the taste for chocolate is and how good it is here.

We had lunch at the Slip Inn (the braised lamb here was very good) in Havelock, superbly located on the marina from which our boat for the mussel part of the tour would depart. And what a tour it would be! It turned out that this was one of my most memorable events of the entire trip, for both positive and negative reasons. Its easy to see way many Kiwis have their summer homes here. This area was created when the northern tip of south island sub-ducted under the pacific continental plate, resulting in numerous hilly peninsulas and islands of all shades of green, that protect the water in most of these sea valleys from the tumultuous cook strait. The result: miles of coastline for beach frolicking, for romantic walks, for the ultimate seclusion. And the prefect ocean conditions for growing mussels.

The one negative aspect of the tour started out as a challenge: to eat a raw mussel. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy fresh oysters but the thought of eating raw mussels seemed abnormal.

“People have them raw all the time! Here, tell ya what, we’ll cut it in half so you don’t have to eat the whole thing.” That was Aussie.

“Do you have some sort of hot sauce?” my ever-so-caring husband chimed in. “Maybe the hot sauce will make it easier for her,” speaking about me in the third person, and not looking me in the eye. He had already tried the raw version, convinced me that I had to try it because it was better than oysters, and now, seemed to be secretly laughing at my momentary digust.

Eyes closed, head tilted back forty five degree angle, mouth opened, in went raw tabasco-drenched mussel. Mouth closed. Chewing. Chewing. Not too bad. Somewhat sweet. Wait. What’s that? Bitter! Oh god! Chew some more. Even worse! To spit out or not to spit out? That’s not lady-like. Just swallow! Get it over with! Will never do that again!

“That was awful!!”

“Really? Maybe you just had a bad one. Try another.” Assuie again, only half-joking.

Raw mussel.

The first, and last time, I ever ate a raw mussel!

Delicious steamed mussels (the way they should be prepared) on the Greenshell Mussel tour in the Malborough Sounds.

That's a jelly fish I'm holding, a non-poisonous species.

Thus ended our tour of Malborough region: with me vowing to never eat another mussel (I seriously get a little nauseous at the thought of it now ) but absolutely thrilled and feeling so fortunate to have spent even two short days is such natural beauty. It seemed that every turn lead to a view that was more breathtaking than the last. More unbelievable but there it was, right in front of me.

The following day, we took the TranzCoastal to Christchurch. This train journey in itself can be considered a sight. Snaking along the eastern coast of the south island, we were treated to some impressive views of the Pacific ocean on one side and the Souther Alps on the other. At times it seemed that the tracks were literally on the beach, close enough for a good glimpse of the resident seal colony in Kaikoura.

When we arrived in Christchurch, it was raining and it rained incessantly for the only two full days we were to spend there. But that didn’t stop us from following through with our plan to visit a working sheep farm. Cantebury Leisure Tours took us thirty minutes outside of the city to a medium sized farm where we got to try our hands at sheep shearing. It’s amazing how much wool a sheep can grow in a matter of three to four months. Those adorable shaggy little creatures. New Zealand still produces most of the world’s wool supply and lanolin. Lanolin? where have I heard that word before? Ah yes, ten to fifteen years ago when moisturizers where still made of natural ingredients, lanolin was one of those emollients.

On tour of a working sheep farm.

Although newly sheared, these sheep are still so cuddly!

Finally on the last day of our trip when, it stopped raining and we did the one thing that was quintessentially Christchurch: punting on the Avon. The Avon is a spring fed river that flows through the city and out into the pacific ocean. While punting may look similar to a gondola ride, they differ in shape of the vessel, and method of propulsion: a gondola is steered with an oar while a punter uses a long pole to push his punt along the water.

Punting on the Avon river in Christchurch.

As we flew from Christchurch to Auckland later that day - to catch our connection back to the US - the the snow -apped peaks of the southern range were clearly visible through the airplane window; majestic, and beckoning as if to say, “You didn’t see me this time but I’ll be waiting.” Two weeks were surely not enough time to thoroughly explore this great country but enough to appreciate that New Zealand is in a league of its own. The youngest country in the world but by no means a follower. To experience New Zealand is to experience the myths of a an ancient people, the resilience of the new generations and their collective passion and reverence to the land and the way of life it has afforded them.


zabina said...

more tash more!!!

Sophie said...

Thanks for sharing, dear Natasha!!

What a lovely holiday you had with your husband!!

New Zealand is also on my list of beautiful countries to see & visit!!

Thanks for this lovely written post & beautiful & stunning pictures too!

Marina said...

love the picsss!!!

Rachel said...

That looks like an amazing holiday. My partner and I are planning on moving to NZ in the next few years and this post makes me even more excited!

Natasha said...

I so appreciate your enthusiasm! I'm working on a new trip, so stay tuned.

NZ is a captivating country; you definitely should do a trip there one day.

Glad you liked!

Ok, I'm officially jealous of you. ;o)

Pixie said...

I am soooooo jealous! I've always wanted to travel to New Zealand and your words and pictures make me want to go now even more!

Tristan said...

Say, I think you should put up tickets (one is fine) to New Zealand in your next Healthy and Gourmet Giveaway.

Natasha said...

Definitely keep it one your list of places to visit. It's amazing!

Haha! Wouldn't that be something? Thanks for stopping by.


Heather said...

I was just checking your blog for dinner ideas and I saw a reference link to your trip in New Zealand! If you get the chance to come again you should check out a restaurant called, "Fleur's Place." It's off the beaten path (in Moeraki, about an hour from Dunedin), but the seafood has been called some of the best in New Zealand, and you can't beat the atmosphere! Just some insiders scoop :)

Natasha said...

Thank you Heather! I have saved your suggestion for our next trip, which hopefully should be in the near future.
Take care!

Anonymous said...

That was lovely :)

Hi from NZ! I live in Auckland, and just happened to stumble across this as I was gazing your delectable recipes. So nice to hear you enjoyed yourself, it is a beautiful country!

Come back soon