Monday, June 20, 2011

Martinborough & the Wairarapa

With just under 4 weeks left until we leave New Zealand, we set out on our last NZ excursion this past weekend to visit Wairarapa, the most southeast region of New Zealand's North Island.

There are still many things I wish we could have done or visited. A short list would include:
  • Tramping (Kiwi for Trekking) the Milford Track, a 3 day hike across the Southern Alps that represents itself as the "finest walk in the world"
  • Tramping the Tongariro Crossing, a single day hike (it takes 11 hours) across the 3 volcanoes in the central North Island
  • Basking on the fine beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula
  • Exploring the Waitomo Caves, near Hamilton
  • Touring Northland & Bay of Islands Regions
While the largest town in the area is Masterton, we chose to stay in Martinborough, a town well-known as a gourmet and wine destination. We had visited once before in February for the Martinborough fair but only stayed for a couple of hours.

Our apartment for the weekend
This weekend we stayed at the Claremont where each room is named after a grape varietal. To kick off the weekend on the right foot, we drove a short 15 minutes to the boutique town of Greytown for tapas at Salute!. Great food!

On Saturday, we grabbed a quick breakfast at Cafe Medici and then set off to explore Cape Palliser, the most southerly point of the North Island.

Even under gray mid-winter skies, NZ is a beautiful place. After staying at our cottage in Palmerston North for a few weeks, we start to lose sight of what's so great about NZ. Thirty minutes out of civilization and I find I can no longer suppress the urge to stop the car in the middle of the road (there's no traffic anyway) and get out to take a few pictures.

Surfing Palliser Bay
You'd be disappointed in New Zealand if you stuck to the cities and towns. The magic is in the small places.

Surf crashing on a nameless deserted black sand beach off Palliser Bay
We drove along Palliser Bay to the tiny Maori fishing village of Ngawi, a town with the remarkable claim of having more bulldozers than people. The bulldozers are used to pull the fishing boats &  trailers into and out of the ocean every day.

Cape Palliser and Ngawi
A couple of kilometers along the precarious gravel road past Ngawi, we found a large fur seal colony lounging in the grass a few feet off the side of the road.

At the end of the road, we found the Cape Palliser lighthouse.

Harrison and the girls trying to look excited about the climb.
There wasn't much interest in making the 252 step climb, but I swung the momentum by setting out alone - couldn't resist the photo op! Cassandra then Mackenzie then Harrison & Trish soon followed.

... can't breathe ...
The views from the top were fantastic!

Cook Strait

As we returned to Martinborough, the weather finally broke. We made a quick pit stop to pick some Tylenol for Harrison and a Pinot Noir for Trish and I. Since the wine store was next to the cheese store, I couldn't resist a little bit of Molly's cheddar. I asked the lady behind the counter if she was Molly. She answered flatly that Molly was the name of the cow whose milk was used to make the cheese. Oops.

I am far from a wine connoisseur, but have always been satisfied with my tendency to prefer wines in the $20 - $50 range. The Ata Rangi winery produces some of New Zealand's most available wines. This might not be a good thing, but figured I would drink as close to the source as possible. I broke my usual rule and bought Ata Rangi's signature wine, the 2009 Pinot Noir priced at $75 NZD ($60 Can).

WOW! It was fantastic! It may be one of the best wines I've ever tried and stood well on it's own as well as with Molly's cheddar and the lousy BBQ ribs we ordered in for supper.

So why travel to a hotel in order to stay in for dinner? Well, our weekend rental was more of an apartment so came with a kitchen and a dining room. The weather outside was cold and rainy, the fire in our apartment, nice and warm. Harrison was not feeling well. I was starting to feel pretty damn good with my Ata Rangi Pinot Noir. And yes, we had pay TV (Sky TV) and there was a ton of great movies slated for Saturday night.

I know what you're thinking. Lame. Another factor was that although Martinborough is gifted with many good restaurants, most of these are based on the vineyards and their menus feature delectable gourmet choices paired to the wines they produce. What's the problem then? Harrison, Cassandra and Mackenzie. NZ diners would probably not have a problem with kids intruding onto their gourmet experience, but my pocketbook would object to paying top dollar for food that the kids would instantly judge as "disgusting".

Paua Shell
On Sunday, we decided to celebrate Father's Day with some shopping. First, we picked up some trinkets at Paua World, a store that specializes in crafts made from the Paua Shell.

Then it was back to the vineyards, particularly Ata Rangi, to buy some wine to bring home. I ended up purchasing another bottle of the 2009 Pinot Noir. The good news is that my palate didn't lie. Most wine critics rate it either a 96 or 97. The bad news is that the same wine critics estimate that it will be at it's best in 5 years.

Castle Point on a nice day. Our day was much worse.
On the way home, I wanted to take a 2 hour detour to Castle Point, but once again the heavens opened and Trish and the kids helped me to realize that a rugged coastline, a cool lighthouse and spectacular beach would all suck in the pouring rain.

So I kept driving back to Palmerston North and wondered when our next New Zealand adventure would present itself.

With 4 weeks to go, we're now fully focused on coming home to Canada. This idea dominates our thoughts with all the things we need to take care of before we leave on July 16 and the excitement at seeing friends and family and sleeping in our own beds, swimming in our pool and playing with our toys.

Tune in again soon for our opinions on the Best of New Zealand and my advice on How to Plan Your Visit to New Zealand.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Bula! (Fijian for Hello!)

Fiji's Coral Coast
How many North Americans have been to Fiji? Judging from my own circle, very few. Even less have been to the other South Pacific islands like Tonga, Vanuatu or the Cook Islands.

5:45 am in the Baldry household
So as part of our New Zealand experience, on May 22 we decided to take a break from the fall weather in Palmerston North and fly 3 hours north to Fiji, the most developed and well known of the South Pacific islands, for a week in paradise.

Girls are ready!
We flew to Auckland and then onto Nadi, the second largest city on the largest Fijian island of Viti Levu. Our resort, Outrigger on the Lagooon, was a family-oriented resort on the Coral Coast near the town of Sigatoka about half-way between Nadi and the capital city of Suva.

Harrison finds something at the duty-free store
Fiji is a popular vacation destination for Australian & Kiwi tourists traveling on package deals, similar to Mexico and Caribbean destinations for North Americans. As such, quite a few people at work had been to Fiji. I initially expected Fiji to be similar to Hawaii - both are volcanic islands in the tropical pacific ocean. I didn't expect Waikiki or Maui, but rather the smaller Hawaiian communities that we saw on Kauai. The people at work told me to expect a more "third world" experience outside the resorts.

I was expecting the Fijians to be Polynesian like Hawaiians or the Maori for that matter. However, the indigenous Fijians look like they could be African: tall, round faces, afro-textured hair. The other significant ethnic group (35% of the population) is the Fijian Indians who were initially brought to Fiji by English colonists to work sugar cane fields in the 19th century. There is considerable friction between the two groups as the indigenous Fijians feel that the Indians are "taking over".  Migration patterns seem to suggest that the Fijian Indians have got the message and this population is on a steep decline.

Harrison at the Sigatoka Market
We didn't spend much time outside the resort, but what little I saw of Fiji would seem to agree with the comments I'd received at work. I found the stark difference between lush luxurious resorts and the extreme poverty in many of the towns that we drove through on our way to the resort similar to what I had seen previously on trips to Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Mexico's Mayan Riviera.

A family bure, our pad for the week

Our resort was beautiful. The grounds were impeccable. I rarely saw anyone cleaning anything which made me think that a lot happened at night. Because we were staying in a larger room, we qualified to have a personal butler or talai service. Harrison had visions of ordering one french fry at a time and then sending them back if the ketchup was not applied just right. It didn't work out to be that special and I'm not sure I would have paid any extra money for it if wasn't complimentary. Zac (anglicized from something much less pronounceable) and Salote were available from 4:00pm onwards and would appear close to 5:00pm with a glass of champagne for Trish and I and soft drinks for the kids as well as some snacks to hold us off until supper. After returning from supper, we would find our bed turned down with flowers spread over the bedspread and some kind of liqueur and tart (baked good not floozy) on our table. Nice touch.

This was very much a pool resort. The scene around the pool was fun for kids with lots of protected areas for small kids and tons of complimentary toys to play with. The resort animators were excellent. There was no swim up bar, but there were waiters & waitresses everywhere.

11:00am. Here's Brother John with our medicine.
The beach was a bit disappointing, although it's possible that this was just related to the timing of our visit as apparently 2 weeks before the beach had been closed because it had been badly damaged during a few rough storms. The resort is located along Fiji's Coral Coast, so the beach is made up of bits of coral that have broken off from the coral reef offshore. It's a little rough to walk on and there weren't many people that spent their days on the beach.

There was a coral reef about 200m offshore which meant that there were no appreciable waves to frolic in, but it did make for excellent snorkeling. I went out every day with Harrison and once with Cassandra. We saw beautiful purple starfish, sea cucumbers, eels, and no less than 100 different fish. And the water was about 80 F.  Sweet!

Best shell find ever. This was about the size of a watermelon.
Don't get the wrong idea though. There are many resorts on Fiji's outlying islands, usually the ones advertising beach weddings, that have icing sugar beaches worthy of the cover of travel brochures. However, getting there can mean a lengthy (4 hours) ferry ride and many resorts are adults only.

Everyone enjoying the pool in Fiji
The weather during our week was typical of most tropical islands that I have visited - warm and volatile. The temperature never went below 26C even at night. Of the 6 full days we spent in Fiji, 2 were flawless, 1 was wet and the others were a mix of sun and cloud.

Lunchtime spot
It was easy to recognize that the resort catered to families. The clientele was at least 98% Australian. The resort had lots of activities organized in the evening to teach you about Fijian culture as well as some fun stuff for the kids.

Kava ceremony
The first night we attended a Kava ceremony. Kava is a drink made up of the ground roots of a local plant mixed in a large bowl, like the one in the picture above. It really does taste like muddy water, but has local anesthetic properties (my tongue went numb) and if you drink too much, "it'll lay you back". After some incantations, we (kids too!) all had to take turns drinking from the same bowl. And, you've got to chug it back all at once; this is not a sipping drink. Trish tried to take hers in a few ladylike sips, but was strongly chastised by the ceremony leader.

There were two racing nights where 10 captured crabs (on Tuesday) and 10 toads (on Thursday) were placed in the middle of a circular platform. There was an extensive auction process where people wagered up to $125 Fijian dollars ($70 Can) to "buy" a crab/toad. If your beast was one of the first 3 to crawl or hop off the platform, you could take home between $250 - $350. The crabs were fun, but the action was much funnier with the toads as this pile of amphibian suddenly exploded off the platform and into the crowds, scattering bodies and spilling drinks everywhere. Retreating adults tripped over squealing kids crouched to catch the bounding toads.

Of course, all our kids were then infatuated with returning from supper every night to then spend an hour braving the bugs to catch toads lurking in the well manicured gardens around the resort. Harrison took a night or two to build up his confidence, but proudly caught 17 "big ones" on our last night in Fiji.

Fijian fire walking tribe
We also went to see a show where some members of a distant Fijian tribe walked across stones that had been sitting in a raging fire for some 6 hours. Apparently this tradition is steeped in Fijian mythology. It sounded cool, but was kind of long and drawn out and they ran out of beer. I also suspected that it was a hoax.

Despite the less than optimal weather, our vacation still earned enthusiastic reviews from all of us. Through all our travels, Harrison has maintained that his favorite destination is our habitual spring break spot in Mexico's Mayan Riviera. In his mind, our trip to Fiji earned itself a new spot atop the list of favorite vacations. The resort, the Fijian people, the snorkeling, the cocktails ... were all enough to make Fiji a special place to visit.

A couple more pics:

Quiet indulgence
Fijian night at the buffet
Ahh ... this is where Fiji water comes from.
Cassandra with an Australian friend
More Australian friends
At the time of this writing, we have 40 days left in New Zealand. Although, we have one last weekend away in the Wairarapa & Martinborough region just north of Wellington, our focus now is on packing up and coming home. I went to the hardware store today to buy tape and bubble wrap and have started to hassle the shipping company to get things organized. As much as looking forward to our return to Canada, we are all looking forward to our whirlwind tour of Singapore, Bali and Australia.