Traveling without a plan

Opening ourselves up to new experiences is part of the intrigue of travel. Our best travel stories are of the unexpected surprises along the way… positive and even seemingly negative at the time. Things that happen which give us a jolt, put us on a different trajectory, let us see a situation in a different light.

My first trip to Europe in the summer of 1976 with Jay was this way… as backpackers we alternated between camping, hosteling and our favorite – pensions – small inexpensive European hotels that often included a home cooked breakfast. Our parameters were certain cities or towns we wanted to visit and our airline tickets back to the states at summer’s end. I think we had one guide book, otherwise we would get tips from other travelers and check in at the tourist centers at the train stations.

This past February when we decided to escape the NW grey and spend the month in New Zealand I found myself fretting about how to plan a month away. How to know exactly where we wanted to go, how long we would want to stay in an area… not to mention feeling the responsibility of having to make those decisions and then implement them by doing all the research and reservation making.

So, we decided to pack our guidebooks, bring my laptop, book a hotel for our arrival in Auckland… and leave. What freedom and what fun. We found some towns we wanted to linger in and other areas where we just kept on driving. The flexibility allowed us to totally change our plans on the South island in order to spend time with our niece in Queenstown – a city we had not planned on visiting.

An offshoot of this attitude is that last minute travel can translate into last minute flight deals or other last minute savings. Emailing a day ahead for lodging in Nelson, NZ for 5 days, the reply came saying the cottages were booked but we could have the villa for the same rate. If you have access to the internet simply search on “last minute travel” and the city or area you are heading to.

This Sunday reading the New York Times travel section, I learned that the Frugal Traveler has just begun a new series “Getting Lost“. Taking it even a step further than we did, his intention is to show up in a place, and figure it out… with the goal of getting lost (literally). Here is an excerpt:

“Which is why I’ve lately been wondering, how does it feel truly not to know where you are? Are the guidebooks, GPS devices and Internet forums pointing us in the wrong direction? In our efforts to figure out where we’re going, have we lost something more important?

Hence this new series, “Getting Lost,” in which every few months I will try to lose my way all over the globe, from developing-world megalopolises to European capitals, from American sprawl to Asian archipelagos. (For the moment, I’ll avoid deep wilderness and deserts; I want to survive.) It’s a challenge that requires special preparation — that is, nonpreparation. In the past, I’ve researched destinations to death, zooming deep into Google Maps and uncovering unusual restaurants in the darkest corners of the Web. Now I am avoiding maps. I am shying away from Chowhound and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum; I will not ask my Facebook friends who they know in Moscow or Addis Ababa.

I am, in short, trying to break free of the constraints of modern travel, of a culture in which every minute is rigorously planned, and we grade destinations based on how they live up to our expectations. I want to have no expectations. I plan to show up with neither hotel reservation nor guidebook; instead of devising my own itinerary, I will let the place itself guide me, and in doing so, I will, I hope, find myself caught up in moments I never could have imagined.”

Isn’t part of the reason we travel to get out of our known environment? Embrace the mystery? We all have our own comfort level around how much to let go, but what might happen if we challenge ourselves to embrace some, if not all, of the void?


New Zealand Travel Books

Good travel books can be an essential ingredient for trip preparation as well as a ready reference while on the road. Though there are other travel books on New Zealand, the three below were the ones we used for planning our trip. We ended up packing them all, and used them almost every day as we roamed around the country.

You may click on the book images or titles below for more product information and reviews at Amazon.com.

Eyewitness Travel Guide: New Zealand

This guide presents a visual tour of New Zealand. Every page has multiple color photographs so I recommend it to the visually inclined, like myself. The images got me psyched for the adventure ahead. This book is packed with information. As most guide books do, it begins with an overview of NZ including the landscape, flora & fauna but also featuring architecture, National parks & reserves, Maori culture & art, NZ artists & writers, wines, and sporting events. The bulk of the book divides NZ into seven areas with excellent street maps of the major downtown areas and roads maps of interesting areas with suggestions of what to see and do. Geared toward culture more so than off the beaten path adventure. A small guide that easily fits in a purse or day pack.

National Geographic Traveler: New Zealand

Our first time using a National Geographic guide book. The author devotes a good 50 pages to the history of NZ and the Maori culture with perspectives of the two islands in terms of the arts & literature, food & drink, and land & landscape. He then divides the two islands into nine areas and interweaves history, interesting facts and tips throughout the book in sidebars. This is a medium size book that’s easy to pop in a day pack. There are color photographs but they are small and fewer than might be expected from National Geographic.

Fodor’s: New Zealand

Fodor’s was a gift from a good friend. Due to it’s size we were not planning to bring it along. Once in hand we appreciated all the detail and information it contained so we packed it as well, knowing that traveling by car made it a little easier to have extra stuff.

Other New Zealand Travel Books

Other guide books for New Zealand worth checking out include: New Zealand Driving HolidaysFootprint New Zealand, Frommers New ZealandLonely Planet’s New Zealand (Country Guide) or Lonely Planet’s New Zealand’s South Island (Regional Guide).


Queenstown, NZ

We arrive in Queenstown in the evening about 7 hours after leaving Dunedin. The Taieri Gorge train takes us part of the way and then a bus completes the trip. Our niece, Jaime, is in Queenstown visiting from Maryland and we are very excited to see her, so we quickly settle in our hotel and rendezvous with her for dinner. A bit groggy from travel and the late hour we walk around the town, checking menus and finally decide on Flame Bar & Grill. Jay is ready for ribs and they have a table free on the second floor balcony with an expansive view of the waterfront. Our server suggests an Australian red to go with the ribs, add a greek salad and we are good to go. Great wine, good food and wonderful conversation catching up with Jaime!

Arriving in the dark to a new destination always adds an element of intrigue. Waking in the morning to a sunny day we are ready to see the stunning setting that we have read about. Queenstown sits on the shore of Lake Wakatipu framed by jagged mountains called The Remarkables. These days tourism is the new gold, and it is a very popular destination for adventure seekers. Jaime has an exciting tandem paraglide, and there is bungee jumping, jet boating, white-water rafting and skiing in the winter.

Waterfront, Queenstown, NZ
Waterfront in Queenstown, NZ
Boats on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, NZ
Boats on Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, NZ

Downtown, The Mall, is an outside area with many restaurants and shops. Even in late February the place is humming with people – sitting in the cafes we hear languages from all over the world. In the afternoon we stroll through the Queenstown Gardens. A nice respite from the downtown area.

Beautiful old tree in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Beautiful old tree in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Pond in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Pond in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Rose in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Rose in the Queenstown Gardens, Queenstown, NZ
Sculpture "Fleur" in the Queenstown Gardens, NZ
Sculpture "Fleur" in the Queenstown Gardens, NZ

Our stay in Queenstown is a brief one as is our visit with Jaime who will leave in the morning. On a recommendation from a shop owner, we book reservations at The Bunker for dinner. As the reviews stated it is a hard to find gem, hidden away down a back alley in the middle of the town. But the search is worth it… once inside the intimate dining room I feel removed from the world and ready for the incredible dining experience that is to come. Our server is a pro who guides us well through the wine list and menu. Jay choses the pork belly, Jaime steak and for me, duck. All our entrees are artful presentations featuring heavenly meats that melt in ours mouths. Unable to imagine dessert, Jay orders two dessert drinks for our amusement – a Tiramisu and a Toblerone. They taste divine but the lasting image is of our server preparing them. For movie fans think “Love Actually”, and picture the scene where Mr. Bean takes his time artistically wrapping the bracelet for  Alan Rickman with seemingly endless flourishes.

Jaime has one experience left on her Queenstown list, so our last morning together we shuttle up the peak on the Skyline Gondola. A grey sky mutes the image but the view of The Remarkables, the lake and the town below is incredible.

Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
View from the top of the Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ
View from the top of the Skyline Gondola, Queenstown, NZ

Later in the day storm clouds began collecting over Lake Wakatipu…

Storm brewing over the lake in Queenstown, NZ
Storm brewing over the lake in Queenstown, NZ

Walking back to the hotel from dinner we stopped to watch a local dance class…

Dance lessons in Queenstown, NZ
Dance lessons in Queenstown, NZ

Our last morning we have a few hours before the airport shuttle picks us up, so we take a walk along the lake into town. Jay craves one last treat from Patagonia Chocolates – they might be known for their chocolates but Jay will remember the ice cream (dulce de leche, chocolate with hazelnut, white chocolate with hazelnut) and I will long for the hot chocolate with fresh ginger. Their teeshirts catch my eye, and being a chocoholic I especially like the tee our server has on, “Save the planet – it’s the only one with chocolate”.

Feeding the ducks, Queenstown, NZ
Feeding the ducks, Queenstown, NZ

Dunedin, NZ

Our first stop on the 226 mile drive from Christchurch to Dunedin is Oamaru. An historic seaport town nestled on the South Island’s east coast. While Oamaru’s early wealth was founded on gold, it was agriculture that provided the driving force for a thriving commercial port and harbor area. Although commercial usage has steadily declined over time, the original structures remain intact and the area is undergoing a revival. The Woolstore Cafe is in a restored building and there we enjoyed the day’s special – lamb burgers with fries. Once again I was delighted to find gluten-free “slices” – wonderfully moist, cake-like treats: chocolate hazelnut and a pear honey (my waistline is not in decline!).

Oamaru Bay

During our stay in Christchurch we were advised to stop and see the Moeraki Boulders on our trip south. The boulders are situated some 40km south of Oamaru at Moeraki on State Highway One. It is a five minute walk along the beach to the boulders. From a distance they are not impressive in size, but up close the details become apparent. A little research revealed there incredible history… the boulders were embedded in the soft mudstone cliff at the beach and the forces of the sea have eroded the cliff away, exposing the round formation of the boulders. The boulders were formed by the crystallization of calcium and carbonates around charged particles, as one website described it – “a process similar to the way pearls are formed”. Although this process took four million years.

Moeraki Boulders

Originally we had planned to end our journey in Christchurch, but our friends, Sally & Bruce, encouraged us to continue south to Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. Dunedin is home to the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university and the Otago Polytechnic. The University accounts for about 20 percent of the city’s population and this weekend was the start of the semester so lodging was booked downtown. Online we found a room at the newly opened St. Clair Beach Resort and after driving through the city found ourselves at the oceanfront where surfers were rallying and practicing for the next day’s Asia Pacific Long Board Championship. An excited Jay was soon talking to his buddy, Mark (surfer dude), via Skype – holding up the MacBook (see Jay’s  review of the Ultimate Travel Computer) so Mark could see the surfers. Enjoying the sound of the surf and tired from a long day of driving, that night we dined nearby at Salt – a great little restaurant about two blocks from the hotel.

Surfers at St Clair Beach in Dunedin

Waking the next morning to the sounds of loud speakers announcing the surfers we check it out for awhile from our balcony, then jump in the car and head out to the Otago Peninsula. Our destination is the Royal Albatross Colony at Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula. We drive out on Portobello Road along the edge of the harbor, then return on Highcliff Road along the top of the Peninsula enjoying the spectacular views of both routes.

Taiaroa Head is unique for the diversity of wildlife which abounds on this small headland. The albatross is one of eleven bird species which breed in the area and this is the only mainland breeding colony for any albatross species found in the southern hemisphere. The first Taiaroa-reared albatross chick flew in 1938 and this now protected nature reserve has grown into an established colony with a population of around 140 birds.

The breeding birds arrive at Taiaroa Head in September. The nest, built during early November, is formed by a bird sitting down and pulling vegetation and earth around itself with its bill. The white egg, weighing up to 500 grams, is laid during the first three weeks of November. The parents share incubation duty in spells of two to eight days over a period of 11 weeks – one of the longest incubation periods of any bird. The incubating bird sleeps much of the time its mate is away

Albatross with chick

When the chick has hatched, the parents take turns at guarding it for the first 30 to 40 days, and the feeding of the chick is also shared by both parents. Nearly 12 months after their arrival at Taiaroa Head, having cared for egg and chick over a period of some 300 days, the parents will leave the colony to spend a year at sea before returning to breed again. The chicks hatch during late January and early February; it takes about three to six days to finally emerge from the egg after making a hole in the shell. Albatross Breading Cycle For the first 20 days the chick is fed on demand, then meals decrease to three or four times a week. At 100 days the chick’s down reaches a maximum length of 12 centimetres. At this age the chick is fed larger meals, up to two kilograms at a time, of more solid substance. From early August the chick is fed lighter meals and in September, when fully fledged, it wanders from the nest testing its outstretched wings and eventually takes off with the aid of a strong wind. The young albatross will spend the next three to six years at sea; many then return to this unique headland to start another generation of Royals of Taiaroa.

Stomach contents of a deceased albatross

While away at sea the albatross swallows plastic debris – in the North Pacific debris is concentrated in two huge eddies – in these areas the surface water contains six times more plastic than plankton by weight. Adult albatrosses breeding on Hawaiian atolls ingest the plastic, probably mistaking it for food, and then feed it to their chicks. As a result, thousands of chicks die yearly in Hawaii because their stomachs fill with plastic leaving no room for real food.

Rare Stewart Island Shag mud nests

From the nature reserve viewing area we saw the rare Stewart Island Shag mud nests.

Lighthouse on the Otago Peninsula

The lighthouse is a short walk from the reserve with views of the ocean and seals camouflaged among the dark stones.

Sheep, Dunedin, NZ
Shade loving sheep along the roadside

Driving back on the Highcliff Road we came upon these wool laden sheep enjoying the shade; below is a view of the lush Otago Peninsula.

Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, NZ
View of the Otaga Peninsula

After a full day out on the Otago Peninsula we make reservations to dine in downtown Dunedin at Bacchus. Set in the heart of Dunedin in one of Dunedin’s historic buildings, Bacchus overlooks the Octagon (city center of Dunedin), and is known for it’s quality lamb and beef dishes and a first rate wine selection. We enjoyed a first class meal and good wine recommendations.

The following morning we check out at 10am (the standard time in NZ), return our rental car, check our luggage at train station and head to Plato for brunch. Plato is a relaxed eatery located on the harborfront of Dunedin and was recommended by our waitress at Bacchus last night. Hands down one of the best brunch dishes ever – Basque Eggs – free-range eggs broken over pan-fried potatoes, mushrooms, chorizo, tomatoes, feta and spinach, grilled with grated parmesan.

Walking into town we make a visit to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. As we made our way through the galleries the exhibit that stood out was Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.  Described as  “A collection of photographs that document the inaccessible places that exit below the surface of American identity.” The two images that stood out for me and contrasted each other were both in Washington State – a nuclear waste shot and the Olympic National Temperate Rainforest. The museum is worth checking out and this exhibit is there until May 9, 2010.

We eventually make it back to the Octogon to check out the South Island Bagpipe competition… here are Jay’s photos…

Bagpipers Practicing, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipers practicing for the South Island Competition
Bagpipers, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipers present themselves to the Competition Official
Young bagpipers, Dunedin, NZ
The tradition continues with these young bagpipers
Bagpipe Competition Judge, Dunedin, NZ
Bagpipe Competition Judges chat with an onlooker

Our train leaves mid-afternoon… we are taking The Taieri Gorge Limited train, Dunedin’s prestige tourist train operating from the historic Railway Station. This scenic train & bus tour will eventually land us in Queenstown, NZ. This historic train travels through the rugged and spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across wrought iron viaducts and through tunnels carved by hand more than 100 years ago.

Dunedin Train Station, NZ
Dunedin Train Station
Dunedin Train Station, Dunedin, NZ
Platform at the Dunedin Train Station
Historic Taieri Gorge Train, Dunedin, NZ
Interior of the historic Taieri Gorge train
Taieri Gorge Train, Dunedin to Queenstown, NZ
Gramma's traveling bears on Taieri Gorge Train

At one of our stops along the way, a grandma sets her bears out and photographs them. She tells Jay she will email the pictures to her grandchildren later as a fun way for them to follow her travels.

Akaroa, NZ

Akaroa Bay
Akaroa Bay

A scenic one hour drive from Christchurch, Akaroa is a quaint little fishing village located on the southern side of Bank Peninsula. Akaroa sits at the edge of a beautiful harbor inside the eroded crater of a huge extinct volcano. Originally a French settlement, the streets have French names and local restaurants focus on French cuisine. The French settlers who arrived to establish the town in 1840 thought they were the first colonists of a new French territory, however the Treaty of Waitangi was signed just days before they arrived, which gave Britain sovereignty over the whole of New Zealand.

Donkeys in Akaroa, NZ
Donkeys along the road outside Akaroa, NZ

We arrived in Akaroa amid a downpour, so Jay decided to keep driving beyond the town to give the clouds time to pass by. That’s when we came upon these two donkeys huddling in their shelter to avoid the rain. Later in town Jay learned that the larger donkey on the right had lost his good buddy – a goat, and had been despairing, so his family had gotten a second donkey to keep him company. Ahhh.

Due to the wet weather we did a quick walk around town, and began the trek back to Christchurch. Another recommendation was to stop at the Little River Art Gallery. This was easy as they are along the Main Road SH 75, the road to Akaroa, and their building stands out as a contemporary structure in a very rural setting.

Little River Cafe and Art Gallery, Little River, NZ
Little River Cafe and Art Gallery, Little River, NZ

The Little River Art Gallery was impressive, showing the work of top quality New Zealand artists. Sculpture, paintings, pottery, jewelry were on display. There is also a lovely cafe attached and there we discovered friands. Tasty little almond meal cakes originally from France. The server suggested we try the Blueberry Lemon Friand which was gluten-free. Here is a recipe:

Blueberry Lemon Friands

10 TBSP butter
2 cups confectionary sugar
1/4 cup gluten-free all purpose flour or regular
1 1/2 cups almond meal
6 egg whites
2/3 cup blueberries
2 tsp. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425° with convection. Grease 12 1/2-cup capacity friand pans or muffin holes.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Simmer, swirling pan occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes or until light golden. Remove from heat. Set aside for 15 minutes to cool.

Sift confectionary sugar and flour into a large bowl. Stir in almond meal. Make a well in the centre. Gradually add lightly beaten eggwhites, folding in until combined. Add butter and fold in until well combined. Stir in berries. Fill friand pans with mixture, about 3/4 full.

Bake friands for 5 minutes. Reduce oven to 375° convection and bake for 8-10 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar. Serve.

Christchurch, NZ

Revived after our 5 nights in Nelson we are ready to head to Christchurch. Jay was there in November/December of 1975 after a summer gig in Antarctica installing some electronics he had designed for a University of MD atmospheric project. We have been thinking about visiting since then, so I am excited to finally see it, and Jay is curious about how it will appear 35 years later.

Leaving Nelson en route to Christchurch, we decided to check out a couple vineyards around Blenheim. Our favorite for the wine was Lawson’s Dry Hills Winery. Visually very modest compared to others, but producing some lovely white wines. We enjoyed their Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Late Harvest Riesling immensely. Decided to buy a bottle of the Pinot Gris to enjoy during the remaining travels and tuck a Riesling away to share with friends back home. During this trip we have driven the coastal routes more often than not, never tiring of our first glimpse of the sea on a new shore. Today we travel down State Highway 1 and experience the South Island’s east coast – this area is known for crayfish, whale watching, seals, dolphins… an abundance of marine life to eat and view. There is stretch of road about 4 km that has signs indicating seals in that area and we spotted a few driving by.

Black Sand Beach on the way to Christ Church, NZ
A black sand beach on the way to Christ Church, NZ

The owner of Lawson Winery had suggested we stop at The Store for lunch. It is midway between Blenheim and Kaikoura in the middle of nowhere, located in a scenic spot along the highway (good signage). They have a large outdoor patio out back where we dined in the sun cooled by the Pacific Ocean breezes and entertained by the most aggressive seagulls we have witnessed yet!

After a fun, full day of traveling we arrive at Pomeroy’s on Kilmore, a boutique guest house located inside Christchurch’s ‘Four Avenues’ (just 4 blocks from the city centre) and our resting point for the next 3 nights. Pomeroy’s historic Old Brewery Inn is literally a stone’s throw away next door and once we are checked in we head over for a brew and dinner. Steve Pomeroy, the owner, is often about and ready to see to your every need. Hearing I eat gluten-free he had fresh gluten-free bread brought in from his favorite German bakery (which he had to do twice, because it was so good all the guests ate it). Another great feature of Pomeroy’s – the breakfast room. Every morning they have a continental breakfast of toast, cereal, tea, coffee, fruit, jams, butter… served in a lovely dining room furnished with antiques. Just like home.

Pomeroy's on Kilmore in Christchurch, NZ
Pomeroy's on Kilmore in Christchurch, NZ

Cathedral Square is a casual 15 minute stroll away – although there are many interesting distractions along the way. Our first evening we took a walk into town after dinner and spotted this sculpture – the next morning Jay returned with camera in hand.

911 tribute in Christ Church, NZ
A sculptural tribute in Christchurch to firemen worldwide.

This sculpture stands within a dedicated reserve opposite the Central Fire Station on the banks of the Avon River, and was created by Christchurch artist, Graham Bennett. It is a silent tribute to firefighters worldwide who risk their lives daily in the pursuit of their duty.

The plaque reminds us that “Firefighters are always in the front line and never more so than on September 11, 2001, when international terrorists hijacked four domestic American jet airliners and flew two of them, along with their passengers, into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. The two towers imploded and collapsed, and among the more than 2800 dead were 343 New York firefighters. All that remained of the twin towers, and the lost lies within was a mountainous pile of twisted steel and smoking rubble. In May 2002, five steel girders, weighing 5.5 tons were salvaged from the site of the World Trade Center and gifted to the City of Christchurch by the city of New York for use in a public artwork to honor all firefighters worldwide. The suspended component or “spear” in its red hot state fell from the 102nd floor of World Trade Center Tower piercing the subway below”.

As Americans who did not witness the carnage in New York City we were deeply moved to find the girders here, half way around the world. And reminded of the horror and disbelief of that day seeing the destruction done to these massive hunks of steel.

Art Center in Christ Church, NZ
An inner court yard at the Art Center in Christ Church, NZ

Exploring Christchurch by foot, we ended up at the Art Center. It is a hub for arts, crafts and entertainment in Christchurch, and is located in the neo-gothic former University of Canterbury buildings. This particular day is was gray and cool, so we were looking for soup, and found some great homemade black bean soup in one of the cafes here. After lunch we checked out some of the artist studios that inhabit many of the buildings and came across a textile class – kids sewing, quilting and weaving. Jay took some great photos – notice the cool quilt on the wall!

Kids making quilts at the Art Center in Christ Church, NZ
Kids making quilts at the Art Center in Christ Church, NZ
Art Center in Christ Church, NZ
A boy learns the art of the loom at the Art Center in Christ Church, NZ
Juggler in Christ Church, NZ
Sculpture of a juggler in Christ Church, NZ

A fine rain began as we walked through the Botanical Gardens on our way back to the room. The flowers photograph well, but I was also struck by the variety and beauty of the numerous old trees.

Botanical Garden in Christ Church, NZ
One of the many gardens at the Botanical Garden in Christ Church, NZ
Roses at the Botanical Garden in Christ Church, NZ

Another day we happened upon a group of Maori performance artists… each woman with a chin tattoo.

Maori Singing in Christ Church, NZ
Traditional Maori performance group in Christ Church, NZ

A little research revealed the following tale…

The word “tattoo” comes from the Tahitian word “tatau”. Captain James Cook used the word “tattow” when he witnessed tattooing for the first time in Tahiti, in 1769.

According to Māori mythology, tattooing commenced with a love affair between a young man by the name of Mataora (which means “Face of Vitality”) and a young princess of the underworld by the name of Niwareka.

One day however, Mataora beat Niwareka, and she left Mataroa, running back to her father’s realm which was named “Uetonga”.

Mataora, filled with guilt and heartbreak followed after his princess Niwareka. After many trials, and after overcoming numerous obstacles, Mataora eventually arrived at the realm of “Uetonga”, but with his face paint messed and dirty after his voyage. Niwareka’s family taunted and mocked Mataora for his bedraggled appearance. In his very humbled state, Mataora begged Niwareka for forgiveness, which she eventually accepted. Niwareka’s father then offered to teach Mataora the art of tattooing, and at the same time Mataora also learnt the art of Taniko – the plaiting of cloak borders in many colours.

Mataora and Niwareka thus returned together to the human world, bringing with them the arts of ta moko and taniko.

Nelson, NZ

Nelson, NZ House Sketch
Sketch of a waterfront house in Nelson, NZ

We arrived in Nelson in the afternoon after taking the ferry from Wellington (North Island) to Picton (South Island).  Nelson is a charming town with a Victorian flair to many of the homes.

Villa victoria, Nelson, NZ
Villa Victoria in Nelson, NZ

Landing in Nelson for 5 nights at the Victoria Villa we look forward to a respite within the vacation. Cooking our own food and driving less – yes! Like most folks we have a certain style of eating at home, which can be hard to replicate when eating out. Our habits tend to lean toward lots of green vegetables and some protein – low on carbohydrates – influenced by my gluten intolerance, with the happy side effect of healthier eating. What has worked well for us in New Zealand is to order one main dish and a side or two of vegetables to share. Note: Fresh string beans are in abundance this time of year and are on many finer restaurant menus as well as in the markets.

Favorite food spots in Nelson…

We can see the Boat Shed Cafe from our rental house and walked over our first night after a long day of travel from Wellington. Ignorant of its popularity we were almost turned away but landed a table for two on the outside deck. Warm and sunny we sampled our first Neudorf Vineyards white wine – a crispy Sauvignon Blanc – that went nicely with my grilled crayfish tail with fennel, chili & lemon and Jay’s grilled prawns with feta, black olives & cress. Our dining neighbors ordered the potato salad side, which looked fabulous, so a few days later we stopped in and picked up an order to go – just like moms and Anitas!

Boat Shed Cafe, Nelson, NZ
Boat Shed Cafe, Nelson, NZ

Our first morning strolling in Nelson we happened upon the Morrison Street Café and went inside for a coffee. My antennae went up when I saw all the gluten-free options – savory muffins, little fruit nut loaves, brownies… I ordered a coffee and a sampling of the gluten-free goodies – all yummy. We stopped in a few days later during a rainstorm and Jay had an amazing Affogato (two scoops of vanilla gelato with espresso). A very popular cafe for a good reason – good quality and good vibe.

Guytons Seafood, Nelson, NZ
Guytons Seafood, Nelson, NZ
Smoked Green Lip mussels from Guytons Seafood in Nelson, NZ
Smoked Green Lip mussels from Guytons Seafood in Nelson, NZ

Our last day we decided to walk into Nelson for lunch at Hopgoods which several sources had recommended. They were not open for lunch on Monday so we scouted out the surrounding restaurant menus on Trafalgar Street and settled on barDelicious. We enjoyed the young Canadian waitress who suggested a Pinot Gris and Rose wine by the glass and shared her 2010 Olympics enthusiasm. Lunch was delicious and creative – a Caesar Salad with bacon and a poached egg on top, and an equally delicious and fresh Salad Nicoise.

Jay was thumbing through a local book on Nelson arts scene and The Sprig and Fern Tavern caught his eye – no bigscreen TV, a neighborhood hangout, and over by “The Wood” – a park in the foothills on the east side of Nelson. We decide to stop in before dinner for a beer, glass of wine and a bowl of nuts. We pick up on the friendly feel and relax – as we watch the locals playing games and brain teasers, read the historic factoids on the blackboard and have a great conversation.

Neudorf Vineyard
Neudorf Vineyard sculpture and tasting room

Hanging around the house chilling is hard work… but mid-afternoon we decided to hit the road and head into the wine country that surrounds Nelson. Top on our list was Neudorf Vineyards. Navigating the countryside was challenging and needless to say we got lost, in the best sense of the word… and arrived at the vineyard 5 minutes before closing. Not a problem, we were warmly greeted in the tasting room and relieved when another couple walked in a few minutes later! Once again the Pinot Gris was a favorite. The late afternoon light filtering through the trees invited us to linger and we did.

Neudorf Vineyard
Neudorf Vineyard, behind tasting room
Neudorf Winery - window
An old window at Neudorf Winery

Things to do around Nelson, NZ

Valentine’s Day! An early rising to catch the 9am water taxi to explore the Abel Tasman National Park. For at least 500 years Maori lived along the Abel Tasman coast, gathering food from the sea, estuaries and forests, and growing kumera (sweet potato). Established in 1942 as a park, Abel Tasman is renowned for its golden beaches, sculptured granite cliffs, and world-famous Abel Tasman Coast Track. It was about a 90 minute drive to Kaiteriteri where we met Wilson’s Water Taxi and climbed up the gang plank to head out to Medlands Beach. Within the park one way to get around is by water taxis – they drop you off and pick you up on a very accommodating schedule. They can take you into the heart of the park and literally deposit you on a beach.

Island with seals and birds in Able Tasman National Park, NZ
Island with seals and birds in Abel Tasman National Park, NZ

Before drop off we took a complete tour of the coastline.

Wilsons Water Taxi, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Wilsons Water Taxi, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ

Another ingenious Kiwi invention… a beach friendly gangplank.

Medlands Beach, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Medlands Beach, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ

After a boat tour of the park we got off at Medlands Beach, walked to Bark Bay, and then back to Medlands where the water taxi picked us up a few hours later.

Bark Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Bark Bay path, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Bark Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
Bark Bay beach, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ

Another day we walked to Nelson from our rental house and after lunch in town decided to walk home via Queens Garden. The Gardens formally opened in 1892 to celebrate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria and were inspired by an intimate, Victorian garden. Though the garden is relatively small there is an abundance of magnificent old trees and plantings amidst ponds and a wandering creek.  The Suter Gallery, an eclectic art gallery on the western edge of the park, has a cafe that overlooks the garden and provides a tranquil shady place to enjoy a cup of coffee or dessert.

Queens Garden, Nelson, NZ
Queens Garden in Nelson, NZ

End of the day, another glorious sunset and the sounds of outdoor opera in Tahunanui Park blowing in on the westerly winds. We have fared well in Nelson.

Villa Victoria, Nelzon, NZ
Villa Victoria, Nelzon, NZ
Sunset view from Villa Victoria, Nelson, NZ
Sunset view from Villa Victoria, Nelson, NZ

Wellington, NZ

Often the motels in NZ have laundry facilities and that is where I was a few hours before hitting the road for Wellington. The old washer/dryer were quite slow and a very friendly lady from Wellington stopped by with her wash. She was curious about our travels and when she heard that we were off to Wellington, suggested we cut over to the westcoast and drive south along the Tasman Sea to Wellington… which we did. At her suggestion we took a western route through Palmerston North and down the westcoast, with beautiful views of the Tasman Sea… stopping in Paraparaumu for a break and some ice cream.

We arrived in Wellington in late afternoon.  The country driving of the past week was replaced with fast moving close quarters rush hour traffic.  Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and the seat of government. My acquaintance from the laundry room had also suggested we enter the city by the ferry terminals and drive along the waterfront. Doing that we passed through the Parliament district and we saw some fine historic buildings which set the tone for the city.

We checked out two hotels and decided to stay at the Museum Hotel. The Museum Hotel was initially located on the other side of the road, moving to its present site in 1993. Facing demolition to make way for the new Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, the 5 storey, 3500 ton structure seemed doomed, until Chris Parkin, the owner, began to investigate the possibility of relocating the entire structure. The hotel made a 120-metre journey down an inner city street on railway tracks.

Museum Hotel, Wellington, NZ
Museum Hotel, Wellington, NZ
Te Papa Museum, Wellington, NZ
Te Papa Museum, Wellington, NZ

Keeping with its museum past, wonderful art can be found throughout the hotel.  Here’s a picture of the lobby reception area:

Museum Hotel, Wellington, NZ
Museum Hotel - lobby, Wellington, NZ

Wellington is a very walkable town.  As we found through much of New Zealand, outdoor sculpture abounds.

Wellington Sculpture, NZ
Floating sculpture in Wellington, NZ

During an evening stroll we came upon this gentleman walking his dog.  The stairs behind lead to Boulcott Bistro.

Wellington Sculpture - man and dog, NZ
Wellington Sculpture - man and dog, NZ

We had a fine meal at Boulcott Bistro.  The place is buzzing with locals.  The food was fresh and simply delicious.  We shared a Snapper on a smoked fish brandade, in a pool of red pepper puree decorated round the edges by a clam nage, accompanied by fresh green beens with basil butter and broccoli with lemon and toasted almonds.  As we have at each evening meal, we tried wines from the region – tonight is was a Dogpoint Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (just northeast from Wellington).

Boulcott Bistro, Wellington, NZ
Boulcott Bistro, Wellington, NZ

After an early dinner we took a stroll along the waterfront…

Wellington Waterfront, NZ
Wellington Waterfront, NZ

lots of action…

Wellington Canoe Team
Canoe team bring their canoe in for the evening, Wellington, NZ

and a quote that sums up the spirit of the town…

Wellington poet Lauris Edmond quote
Quote by Wellington poet Lauris Edmond - part of Wellington writers walk

Hawke’s Bay, NZ

The drive from Napier to the wine country is a scenic and easy drive, just 11 miles south. While in Auckland, a local wine merchant in the Stables suggested half a dozen wineries that were his favorites. Among them, were Clearview, Craggy Range, Black Barn, and Te Mata Estate.  He recommended Black Barn for lunch.

Clearview had a selection of over 20 wines they were pouring.  It was a bit overwhelming, but we had a taste of most and by enlarge enjoyed them.  Clearview is located on the coast and has a nice outdoor restaurant.

Moving inland, taking a backroad route to Craggy Range, we felt like we were driving through the countryside of old Napa Valley – rolling hills, sheep, endless vineyards, shady lanes…   We could see the towering Craggy Range to our right and eventually crossed over the Tukituki river and drove back north a mile or so to Craggy Range Winery.  There we tasted their Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot – all excellent. We strolled the beautiful grounds and ended up making a reservation for dinner at their restaurant.

Craggy Range Winery, Napier, NZ
Craggy Range Winery near Napier, NZ

Onward in to North Havelock for a bit of shopping and searching for picnic foods at a local gourmet grocery store (Bellatino’s).  Picked up a yummy selection of cheeses, fruit, smoked salmon…

Onward to Black Barn.  Loved all their wines, but especially the barrel fermented Chardonnay.  It had a black pepper nose and crisp light grapefruit taste that was unique and satisfying.  Though we don’t like Chardonnay as it is generally made in California, the New Zealand Chardonnay’s are very good – drier and finer tasting.

Finally, we went to Te Mata Winery, just before closing at 5 pm.  As with most of the wineries, we tasted many extraordinary whites.  All the wineries are producing reds too, but most of them are not working for us.  They are designed for cellaring, and are not read for easy enjoyment now.

We had an hour or so before Dinner at Craggy range, so we drove to the top of Te Mata Peak. It’s a 15 minute drive to the summit and the view of the vineyards and hills beyond is breathtaking.

Here’s a view to the west, with a storm blowing through:

Te Mata mountain, NZ
Storm entering valley, seen from Te Mata peak, NZ

Here’s a view to the East with Craggy Range winery seen in the middle-ground along side the Tukituki river.

Te Mata Peak near Napier, NZ
Te Mata Peak near Napier, NZ

Dinner a Craggy Range was very fine.  We shared a woodfire roasted pork chop, with roasted garlic, and had a carafe of their wonderful pinot – grapes from the Otago region of the South Island.

Napier, NZ

Reading about the Art Deco architecture and beautiful coastline attracted us to Napier. We later learned that the town had been almost completely destroyed by a large earthquake in 1931 and in rebuilding the townspeople went wild for Art Deco!

Arriving in town without a reservation we canvassed the waterfront which is lined with accommodations of all sorts. Our first choice, Pebble Beach, was booked but they recommended the Shoreline Motel which had an oceanfront room with a nice deck where we ate breakfast both mornings. The hotel manager, another friendly, helpful New Zealander, suggested the Mediterranean Wine Bar & Bistro for dinner. After a day of driving we relished the stroll down the waterfront to the restaurant and enjoyed some delicious red lentil encrusted shrimps and tender grilled lamb.

The next morning we headed to the National Aquarium which is on the waterfront and was walkable from our hotel. Feedings are at 1o:00 am so we quickly made our way over in time to see that. There is a cool moving conveyor that tunnels through the enormous tanks of fish, sharks, rays, and large crayfish. We also enjoyed the kiwi area – a large dark habitat where several kiwi live. Not sure how the kiwi birds ended up at the aquarium but we enjoyed spotting them and getting a sense of how they root around with their long beaks. They are very cute. Sorry, no pictures allowed in the kiwi room.

It was pouring when we came out of the aquarium so we dashed back to the hotel and then drove into town for a bite of lunch. Afterwards we walked around the town, picked up some fresh plums and nuts at a local health food store and then headed to wine country – our real attraction to the area.

Aquarium Sea Tunnel, Napier, NZ
Aquarium Sea Tunnel, Napier, NZ
Aquarium, Napier, NZ
Aquarium in Napier, NZ

Mount Maunganui, NZ

Today is a short travel day – we are leaving Hahei in the Coromandel and driving to Mt. Maunganui.  Right out of town we stopped at Cathedral Cove Macadamias. Our first time seeing a macadamia tree, we learned about the challenge of growing and harvesting them in New Zealand. They have a small stand on the farm selling their various products. We bought some of their nut coatings for gifts and ourselves – Macadamia Dukkah, Lemon Kelp Sprinkle, and Chili Kelp Sprinkle. And for breakfast a jar of Macadamia spread. It felt good to support a local farmer.

Around noon we stopped in Whangamata for lunch and chose the Cafe Rossini‎ because the lunch special sounded good and they had wi-fi. The day’s special was a Thai steak salad, which we shared, a tasty spicy marinated steak on fresh salad greens.

Back on the road we soon arrived in Tauranga and checked into our hotel, across the street from Mt. Maunganui. This formerly volcanic mountain rises over 700 feet next to a beautiful white sand beach. The area is filled with cafes and we enjoyed some gelato during the afternoon heat before walking around the base of the mountain – the “easy” walk. The steep hike to the summit we would save until morning. Walking around the base we noticed that sheep were grazing on areas of the mountain. Jay had commented earlier on the practicality of the New Zealanders – and here was a perfect example – a mountain in an urban setting shared by locals, tourists and sheep.

Looking for a break from rich food we stumbled upon Zeytin Cafe, a bustling Mediterranean café on The Strand serving very reasonably priced good food and generous portions. The next day we returned for a carry out lunch to take with us on our road trip to Napier.

Mount Maunganui, NZ
Wild grasses on the trek up Mount Maunganui
Mount Maunganui
View from the summit of Mount Maunganui

Whitianga, NZ – Coromandel Peninsula

New Zealanders impress us as a very friendly and helpful bunch.  Several people in Hahei had mentioned a great dinner spot in Whitianga called Salt. Whitianga (pronounced Fitianga) is a short 15 minute drive north of Hahei.  The best part of the journey is the little ferry that takes you across the estuary into town.  It costs NZ$2 and lasts about 2 minutes.

Whitianga Ferry
Whitianga Ferry

Salt is two blocks from the ferry, waterside, overlooking the marina.  The place was bustling with thirsty hungry people, all seated outside on a perfect summer eve. The menu offered about five main courses and each one was tempting.  Our waitress offered her favorite – Duck cooked two ways with pumpkin puree and bok choy.  After a long hot day I was happy to be swayed.  Jay was in the mood for seafood and creatively chose three appetizers/entrees… a sublime Kingfish Sashimi with mirin and fresh wasabi, local oysters (raw with shallots & white balsamic vinegar and tempura with aioli drizzle) and a buttery crayfish tail.  Each dish was perfection and suggested wines both from the Marlborough region were spot on – The Edge Pinot with the duck, and a Jules Taylor Savignon Blanc with the seafood.  We had pledged we would not have dessert… oh well, the Chocolate Delice with homemade vanilla ice and crème anglaise somehow graced our table… heaven.


Thames, NZ – Coromandel Peninsula

After successfully navigating the roadways on the left side from Auckland we arrived in Thames for lunch! Our first look at the Coromandel area – lovely terrain with green seas, tropical lush vegetation, big skies full of clouds. We popped into a small organic food co-op on Pollen Street for some almond butter and rice crackers. I must eat gluten-free and I am finding NZ is very gluten-free friendly. Walking along Pollen Street we stopped at Danby’s for lunch and I was served a grilled chicken sandwich on gluten free bread! (not very common in the U.S. as yet). My grilled chicken, avocado, and fresh tomato sandwich was yummy as was Jay’s chicken sate wrap. Danby’s young wait staff was very friendly and helpful.

Danby's Cafe in Thames, NZ

After lunch we continued driving north along Rt 25 to Tapu where we took a back road shortcut over to Coroglen, and then Hahei. Much of the backroad was unpaved but drivable if one is alert, cautious and up for a bit of adventure. We were surprised to see wild hydrangea growing – bright blue – among the tropical foliage.


Hahei, NZ – Coromandel Peninsula

Pulling into Hahei we began to look for lodging. After some searching we found a Garden Studio at the Cathedral Cove Lodge Villas part of the Hahei Holiday Resort. Simple and clean the room is just a stone’s throw from the beach and was available for two nights. Yahoo! Jay quickly headed off to the beach for a swim and some reading.

Tonight we dined at The Church – a restaurant in Hahei serving “smart” food and housed in a historic Methodist Church. Both of us choose the evening’s special – baked Hapuka on a bed of rocket and black olive parsley risotto. Hapuka is a meaty white fish – sort of a cross between snapper and grouper. Delicious. Paired with the fish was an Amisfield Savingnon Blanc from the central Otago… quite lively on the palate with overtones of grapefruit – a perfect pairing with the fish.

Hahei, NZ
Flowers at The Church Restaurant in Hahei

Friday morning we headed over to Cathedral Cove, about a mile north of where we were staying. It was nice arriving early – parking was readily available, it was the cooler part of the day, and the trails down to the cove had fewer people on them. The hike down takes about 40 minutes, mostly down hill. We brought plenty of water for the trek. On the way down, the intense sound of locust were ever present, and resident grazing cattle would frequently be spied path-side.

Cathedral Cove Cows
Cows on the trail down to Cathedral Cove

The cove slowly reveals itself, first through the sound of the surf filtering through the trees, then glimpses of limestone bluffs rising from the ocean, worn by millennia of pounding waves. There are two beaches, divided by the “cathedral” – a cavernous hole worn through the bluff by the sea. At low tide you can walk through it, passing from one beach to the other. This is a beautiful spot, and a great place to swim and body surf.

Cathedral Cove, in Hahai, NZ
Cathedral Cove, in Hahei, NZ
Cathedral Cove, in Hahai, NZ
Cathedral Cove, in Hahei, NZ