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.

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