Friday, August 22, 2008

Nelson, NZ: a Bogus hostel but good organic beer

[since I don't know how to make a caption, I'll start this post with a much-needed description of the picture. No, this is not me pictured with the fruits of a New Zealand state police drug bust. Those are locally grown and organically produced hops, used in making Founder's beer. See more below]

After a great couple of days in Wellington, Sally and I flew across the Cook Strait and landed on the South Island in Nelson (oh, this was after passing through ZERO security at the Wellington Airport!). The views were stunning for the entire 40-minute flight with ocean, islands, and mountains. We walked off the plane and were greeted with views of snow-capped peaks in three directions and a temperature of about 60 degrees. Beautiful.

After picking up our rental car--and of course again purchasing the full coverage insurance--Sally and I headed to our hostel, the Palace Backpackers. Wow. First of all, it was perched on a hill about 50 feet up from the main drag, and because it was poorly marked, we drove by it about 3 or 4 times before realizing where it was. We then tramped up stairs, past the cracked concrete walls and a mangy-looking cat, and encountered a few seedy-looking types playing guitar and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Things seemed a bit better when our Dutch/German host kindly welcomed us and showed us around. Because we were in a bit of a hurry to get to our only reason for being in Nelson (the Founder's Organic Brewery (see infra)), we didn't mind when we were shown our less-than ideal room with a view. Fortunately for us it was all our own and was more than adequate in size. But because of our haste, we failed to realize that the most basic requirement of lodging wasn't exacly being provided: cleanliness. No joke, when we crawled into bed later that night, I thought I wasn't the only thing crawling in that bed. And I knew that if I thought it was gross, Sally must have thought it was DISGUSTING. But, because of a big day and her insane ability to fall asleep immediately, Sally was quickly dozing while visions of bedbugs danced in my head. Verdict: the hostile was bogus (or in our vacation parlance: it was "boges.")

Fortunately, though for us, that was not all we had in store for Thursday. The Founder's Organic Brewery was all that it was cracked up to be and more. About 10 years old, it is a small outfit, and family-run, with all their hops grown locally in Nelson and certified organic. Sally and I were treated to a tasting and the bartender/owner/6th-generation brewer showed us around back to the kettles (pronounced in Kiwi like a plural version of the capital of Ecuador), the cold-storage rooms, the bottling machine (still done by hand), and everything else. It was very cool. Attached are some pictures from the event that made Nelson a success, despite the naesty bogus hostel (which we departed from the next morning at 7:00 am without breakfast and sans shower).

Wine Tours By Bike

So once we arrived in Blenheim, and made sure that our hostel was adequate (clean being the number one priority), we headed off to taste the wines of Marlborough. Of course, the Kiwis do it a little differently... so we called this company, Wine Tours By Bike and this is what we did...

The owner, Nigel, picked us up at our hostel at about 10:30 and drove us to his house and office. We picked out a couple of bikes, adequately equipped with a saddles on the backs made for carrying 4 bottles of wine each. He then gave us a map of the wineries in the region, with his personal recommendations, biking distances, and instructions to be back by 5:00 or we would be calling a cab for ourselves, and that was really it! He sent us off with a, "You picked the perfect day! It's beautiful out! " Not that that really jinxed us, because we did, for the most part, have a beautiful day. About 55 degrees, sunny, but so so so WINDY!! We biked to the first winery, the Wither Hills winery, no problem. We spent about 30 minutes there and then decided to bike to one of the farther vineyards to get the longest stretch finished at the beginning (while we were still completely in control!)

All we had to do was cross 3 roads, and then on the right hand side, after the 3rd road, we would be there. Let me tell you, that sounded easy. But once we started going, it was uphill, and directly into the wind... and it was gusty, so strong, and unrelenting. It took us about 45 minutes to bike what Nigel assured us would take about 15-20 minutes. At one point, we both got off our bikes, took another look at the map to make sure we hadn't gone too far, and thought (at least, I thought), "This is not going to be worth it..." but we finally made it and it ended up being the hardest part of the whole day.

We left the second winery at about 12:30, and headed to the third, Highfield Estates, which Nigel had told us had amazing food and wonderful wines. We were greeted by a beautiful building up on a hill above its vineyards, old wood, and a lovely lunch room with spectacular views of the Southern Alps. We tasted 7 different wines there (yikes!) and shared the lunch platter for two, which was unbelievable. It had bites of mussels, salmon, seafood chowder, homemade bread, New Zealand olive oil, local olives, lamb, grapes, oranges, and everything else Kiwi. It was so awesome and a great way to break up the day.

After Highfield, we biked all the way to the farthest winery, Mahi, which was tiny, but I think our favorite. The lady was so nice (wining and dining her distributors who were there at the time) and the room really made the place. It was nice and toasty, with a fire going, and dark wood everywhere. We ended up buying 3 bottles there, mostly because they don't import to the US like the other wineries we visited.

After Mahi, it was about 3:00, and we booked it to the 5th winery of the day, Isabel Estates, which I think had the most beautiful setting of them all. We took a few "self pictures" there and tasted 5 of their wines.

After Isabel (about 3:45), we headed to a winery that wasn't far from Nigel's house (keeping in mind that we didn't want to pay the cab fair, and were in no condition to drive). I was thrilled to make the connection that being uphill, with the wind to our backs going away from Nigel's, we now had the benefit of downhill, wind to our backs. At the time, it was an exciting discovery.

We arrived at the last winery, to be greeted by a girl who had the most unusual accent. Turns out she was from Oregon and moved to New Zealand to be with her Kiwi boyfriend. Anyway, it was really good, and the best Sauvignon Blanc we tasted all day (the Marlborough "bread and butter" wine). We ended up buying a bottle and booked it out of there to get back to Nigel's by 5:00.

There are two fairly large details that I've left out here...

1) We went to 6 wineries and tasted between 4 and 7 wines at each... do the math. That's about 30-40 wines... you can imagine the trend in our bike riding ability, the quality of our conversation, and the acuteness of our palettes throughout the progression of the day.

2) We were biking through wine country in New Zealand. The vistas and surroundings were absolutely GORGEOUS. We were surrounded by the Southern Alps and vast fields of wineries on every side of us. The pictures don't even begin to do it justice. I've never been in a more beautiful place.

So that was our day yesterday. It was totally amazing and an experience that we'll both never forget. Tonight is the rugby match between Tasman and Hawke's Bay. We were told to wear blue and red (I'm not sure which team that is, but whatever). Good tip. Tomorrow we are driving to Kaikoura, where we'll do what I've been looking forward to this whole trip... WHALE WATCHING!! Write more then!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The right place at the right time

So after walking around Wellington all day yesterday, we thought we deserved a nice dinner and drinks. We had heard about this restaurant, the Matterhorn, that is really relaxed and cozy and great for pre-dinner cocktails. It was off a little side street in this alley, kind of seedy almost, but as soon as we walked in, we were greeted by a toasty fireplace, good wine, and tv reporters!! They asked us if they could film us just relaxing and being normal (which, be honest, is never natural when you know you're being filmed).

So we didn't really think anything of it, finished our glasses and got a cab to this other restaurant, Dockside. It was truly dockside. The cab driver just kept driving until we were basically out on the pier! But it was AMAZING!! You could tell we were in the part of the restaurant that is normally out on the pier in summer, but they had enclosed it and put those big outdoor heaters out there; it was so warm and an awesome atmosphere!! We were there for probably 2 hours and I could have stayed longer.

But we headed back over to the Matterhorn for our last night in Wellington, our favorite city thus far, and then headed back to the hostel. Only to wake up to New Zealand's Breakfast (the morning TV show) to discover that the Matterhorn had won 2008 New Zealand's Best Restaurant!! That's why they had been filming us! We watched the coverage, but didn't see ourselves on the broadcast of clips. I just thought, "What if we got on the news in New Zealand? How weird would that be??" Anyway, it was kind of cool though, to know that we were there the night it was announced!

We head to Nelson this afternoon, which is the beginning of New Zealand's wine country. We're there for one night, then move on to Blenheim, where we'll do a wine tour by bike, and then watch a national team rugby match!! I guess that's about it for now. Write more from Blenheim.

One for the Nerd Record Books

Calling all those with stamp collections, pocket protectors, or glasses held together with masking tape: Sally and I have a story for the Nerd Record Books, one certain to make my old man proud. Yesterday Sally and I spent over an hour alone with the cartographic expert at the Alexander Turnbull Library (the map division of the National Library of New Zealand) poring over centuries-old maps of New Zealand. Readjust your spectacles...yes, that's right. Nerds.

All this started a few years ago when Sally was studying in Europe. On a weekend trip in Amsterdam she found an old map of Europe for me, had it framed, and it's graced the study ever since. Because I used to teach Geography as part of World History, I have lots of maps myself and am starting a little nerdy map collection. So, Sally and I decided we would try to find an old map of New Zealand while we were here.

At a bookstore in downtown Wellington yesterday, we found a book of maps that said it was from the "Alexander Turnbull Library." Instead of buying a book of maps, we thought we'd go straight to the source to see if we could perhaps buy a print or a copy of some of these old maps which were exactly what we were looking for. We thought we got proper directions, but ended up in a library on the wrong side of town. After walking several miles for other sightseeing purposes previously in the day, we decided to cab it back to the other side of town to the National Library. Once there, the reference librarian "enquired" (one of the many words they spell differently here) as to why we wanted to see some old maps. She actually put me on the phone with the "cartographic curator of the Alexander Turnbull collection." Without exactly lying, I calmly and confidently told her that I had a private collection of maps and that my wife and I were in search of a "late 18th, early 19th-century map of New Zealand." It worked.

We went up to the second floor of the National Library and had to wait for Rita (the map expert) to open the locked door for us to clear security! Hilarious! She then walked us down a long corridor and into the Alexander Turnbull Collection room. There were maps on the walls, maps in file cabinets, and then long, wide drawers which pulled out to reveal more maps. After looking around for awhile, we realized that we were just really being shown the old maps and that we couldn't buy a print or a copy like say at the gift shop. But not one to disappoint, when we pushed a little, Rita said she could probably arrange something for us. After about 45 minutes of excitedly looking at old James Cook maps of New Zealand from 1770, Rita was convinced that we were legit and as equally as nerdy as she was. The result: she took a copy of an old map of New Zealand off the wall and handed it to us! It was a pretty decent one, just held up by tacks, but the holes were outside of the actual map. And for good measure, she then decided that we could have another one, this one from another wall, and one of much higher quality, in Italian. We thanked her profusely, signed a form stating our nerdy purpose for viewing the collection, and went on our merry way. Nerdy mission accomplished!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Monday night's dinner at Logan Brown

After dropping off the dinged-up car at the Wellington Airport on Monday (oops!), Sally and I checked into our hostel, which is nice as far as hostels go. We have our own private bathroom and a tv, so it's basically just a cheap hotel. Wellington is a very beautiful city ("cute" in female-speak). It's not nearly as big as Auckland, its skyscrapers are smaller and fewer in number, and it's cleaner. And it seems like there's still more to do here in Wellington. Thus, two enthusiastic thumbs up.

We decided to act on a "splurge" recommendation for dinner Monday night at Logan Brown (thanks Laura Anthony!). As we approached, we became more and more concerned that we weren't going to be allowed in the joint because it looked soooo nice. Our fears were hardly allayed when as we were about to enter, two guys in suits walked out. In sweaters and jeans (though granted, there were NICE sweaters), I finally decided to just take the plunge. Kiwis are cool and laid back, right? Long story short, they sat us and it was no big deal. But there was no one dressed more casually than we were.

Anyway, we got a drink at the bar, which turned out to be a great idea. Our bartender was very nice and willing to chat. So in addition to making an amazing vodka tonic, he recommended some great places for us and also steered us from some of the more over-done touristy places. Cheers for that. Dinner was amazing. It was definitely expensive, but we had one of those semi-circle booths tucked away in a corner, we had great service, and the food was amazing. It was well worth it. Wellington is known for its fine dining, and I think we hit a home run on night one.

Beautiful Wellington

Greetings from Wellington. The city is very beautiful. Sally and I were discussing and we've concluded that the city is probably most like Oslo, Norway in appearance, but it has some characteristics that make it quite unique.

It's like Oslo because it is right on the water, it's hilly, and all the homes are wooden. But in driving around some neighborhoods on the way to our hostel, we both thought that the homes reminded us of Key West if you can believe it. Very bright-colored paints on the wooden homes with small to no yards and though we're now at the southern end of the North Island, there are still palm-like trees and other tropical-looking vegetation about. Perhaps a little more closer to home--the city also reminded us of Cincinnati--at least the Northwestern part in driving in. It was like driving in to the 'nati from the north on I-71--very steep, green hills, the highway plunging down to the water. So there you have it--Wellington is just a perfect combination of Oslo, Key West, and Cincinnati. Yeah.

P.S. (this is Sally) there is one ugly thing in Wellington... it's called the Beehive... it's the parliament building and it truly looks like a beehive. It's circular, kind of has a volcano shape, and these really ugly separators between the windows. It's tall and wide and so so so ugly. The old parliament building was pretty though.

Te Papa

Well yesterday we spent a good part of the day at the national museum, the Te Papa. While we only went to 2 out of the 5 floors with exhibits, we spent almost 4 hours there. It was totally awesome!! The second floor, where we started, was all the geological stuff... like volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc... telling the story of how New Zealand was formed. It was all interactive and definitely designed for little kids, but it was so cool!!

The fourth floor, the other floor we went to, was all about immigration to New Zealand. They had all these stories of families, real families, who emigrated from Ireland, Croatia, England, etc... to find a better life here. It was really cool because they told where the families (or their descendants) are now and what they're doing in New Zealand. There was also this heartbreaking story of these Polish children during World War II who had lost their parents and all their relatives and the government of New Zealand said that they would take them in and make them citizens if they could make the trip over. So hundreds of these starved, orphaned Polish children made this journey to New Zealand to escape WWII and the Holocaust. It was really a cool story and some of the entries from the diaries of these kids was so sad, yet still so strong.

After the Te Papa we walked around the harbor (where there is a big plaque dedicated to the Polish children who came) and found this really cool brewery, Mac's. We watched Bevan Dogherty, the Kiwi triathlete, win bronze, New Zealand's 7th medal of this Olympics, and had a pint of Mac's pale ale. SO GOOD! And the actual brewery is right on the harbor so you can watch all the action.

I think all in all, we LOVE Wellington! It's not a huge, huge city, like Auckland, and the shopping streets, restaurants and cafe streets, bar streets are all well-defined with a bunch of pedestrian streets so it's so EASY to get around. It's beautiful, surrounded by water, with mountains rising up all around. We have a gorgeous day today, still very cold, so we'll see what we end up doing. We were thinking we would kayak in the harbor, since we heard that is a quintessential experience here. (Freezing cold water sports seem to be our thing this trip!)

Tomorrow we fly to Nelson, just across the harbor (it was cheaper to fly than to take the ferry) to start the second half of our trip on the South Island. The South Island caters much more to the winter, so it should be hopping! They are having a record year for snow is Queenstown, so the skiing should be a blast! Write more from the south...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dude's car got a little dinged up...

Well, you would think driving on the left side of the road would be the cause of any accident, should there have been one. Instead, Lee failed to see a parked car, directly behind him, in the parking lot of the hotel. No amount of excuses can justify backing into a parked car. The evidence speaks for itself.

We're just so glad we ate the NZ$200 for comprehensive insurance in the rental car agreement.