My sister once said if she could live anywhere in the world, it would be New Zealand: it’s small enough to avoid major world political drama, it’s on the opposite side of the globe, and they speak English. Christine and I took our honeymoon in New Zealand in 2009 and we realized that in addition to these points, it’s also beautiful. Our trip consisted of a driving tour of the country, starting in Auckland on the North Island and concluding in Queenstown on the South Island. For the purposes of this blog, I’ve only focused on a few highlights.
Our flight arrived in Auckland in the early morning. While this gave us the whole day to explore the city, it also thrust us into rush-hour traffic. While rush-hour traffic is intimidating enough in any unfamiliar city, add in the fact that this was Christine’s first time driving on the left side of the road (yes, my wife was gracious and brave enough to do all the driving), we had just completed a 12 hour flight (24 hours total traveling time since leaving Columbus), our GPS was not yet functioning, and almost immediately we hit a roundabout. With steady nerves and resolute determination, Christine braved the traffic and, aside from a honk or two, managed to acclimate quite admirably to the new driving conditions. Spotting One Tree Hill (the namesake of one of my favorite U2 songs), we managed to find our location using a paper map, collect our bearings, and make it safely to the hotel. Upon checking in, our first order of business was walking down to the waterfront to get a beer.
Auckland is a sizable port city and a nice transition point from the Western world to New Zealand. Like most Pacific Rim cities, it has a large Asian population, which means a large selection of both Asian and Western fare to choose from. I was delighted to discover two English traditions here and throughout the country: meat pies and tea. While fond of both, I’m a bit disappointed that they didn’t have the staying power on the American continent that they did in some of the other former British colonies.
Our first dining experience in New Zealand was at Kermadec. Located on the waterfront in Auckland, Kermadec showcases New Zealand’s broad array of fresh seafood. The meal here was exceptional. The two dishes we had, John Dory and monkfish, were prepared simply, allowing the flavor of the fish to shine through. Even the salad of rocket (arugula) was simply dressed in olive oil, a little lemon juice and shaved Parmesan; it was one of the best salads I’ve had. I can’t say enough about fresh, quality ingredients (says the man who just praised meat pies).
If Auckland is the commerce/trade center for New Zealand, Wellington would be the cultural/arts city. We immediately fell in love with Wellington. It didn’t hurt that we were staying at the Ohtel, a renovated, 10-room hotel featuring decor and furniture from the 50’s and 60’s era. It was truly unique stay in Wellington, close to both the waterfront and plenty of restaurants and shopping.
Across the street from the Ohtel was the Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. Te Papa contained exhibits of art, history, and culture of both the Maori and British. It was very comprehensive and gave a nice introduction to those of us who weren’t familiar with the history and culture of New Zealand. It’s one of those museums you could easily spend a few days exploring. And it’s free, which is incredible for the caliber of museum it is.
Wellington was also our departure point for the South Island. Sitting above deck for the three-hour ferry trip across the Cook Strait was a bit chilly, but afforded me the opportunity to see dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life. It reminded me of the time in high school when I saw the Northern Lights in Alaska: the cold weather actually took a back seat to what I was witnessing.
Our accommodations in the Marlborough wine region on the South Island were nothing short of charming. We stayed at the Cranbrook Cottage, a bed and breakfast located, literally, in the middle of the vineyards of this wine-growing region, just outside of the town of Blenheim.
Our stay here was both quaint and cozy; our only neighbors were a small herd of cattle, some chickens, and the owner, who hand-delivered fresh breakfast every morning. And fresh breakfast was indeed fresh: eggs collected from our neighboring hens, herbs and vegetables grown on the property, fresh butter, and home-made bread and granola.
After breakfast we were able to explore some of the wineries in the area. While Marlborough’s viticulture has been established long enough to develop some world-class wines, it is also young enough that it hasn’t attained the commercialism of Napa Valley. It’s a relatively small area with critical acclaim and known primarily for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir varietals.
We visited two wineries, Wairau River Wines and Cloudy Bay Vineyards. Both wineries produce a nice Sauvignon Blanc, a crisp white that pairs well with the plethora of seafood available in New Zealand. While the Sauvignon Blanc we tasted throughout our trip hovered from decent to amazing, the Pinot Noir was a slightly different story. It tended to be either pretty bad or really good. Both Wairau River Wines and Cloudy Bay Vineyards produced some of the best Pinot Noir we tried; it was an excellent accompaniment with New Zealand’s other omnipresent protein, lamb.
The last leg of our trip took us on an overnight cruise in Milford Sound. The tour included a bus-ride to the boat through mountainous roadways half-covered by avalanches, a rain forest, and a really scary tunnel that was wide enough for only one vehicle to pass through at a time. A bit harrowing, we made it safely and were able to enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery of the trip.
Milford Sound was apparently misnamed by the trappers/sailors who stumbled upon it: it’s actually a fiord. Carved out by the receding glaciers from the Southern Alps, the channel is deep and features sheer mountain cliffs rising straight out of the water. Standing in the shadow of 4,000 foot cliffs is an extremely humbling experience. And exposed rockface testifies to the two tectonic plates and shearing force that lie just below New Zealand’s surface.
Our flight from Queenstown to Auckland and, ultimately home, was bittersweet. New Zealand is like no other place on earth and while we were ecstatic to have spent two weeks traveling the country, there was so much more we wanted to see and experience. I have to agree with my sister: if I could live anywhere in the world I would, without hesitation, choose New Zealand.