Tuesday, March 5, 2013

New Zealand in 12 Days: Part II

See Sharon's post about the first part of our trip here.

After Kaikoura with its overhyped seal colony (only two seals? WTF?) and the amazing experience swimming with dolphins (300 dolphins!! That's more like it...) we made our way north to Blenheim. Blenheim is the center of Marlborough wine country, which is the most renowned wine region of New Zealand -- although, like Australia, wine regions are common. Whereas Australia is deserts surrounded by wine country surrounded by beaches, New Zealand is mountains surrounded by wine country surrounded by beaches.
Worst seal colony ever.

The drive was spectacular. The ocean was on our right side most of the way and rolling hills hugged our left. Each hill was slightly different. Some had horizontal striations from the wind and sported a few golden shrubs shaped like cauliflower heads. Others were a deep green and covered in pine trees. Lord of the Rings was right to film here, I remarked, because this place was magical.

In Marlborough we had a couple wineries on our list that were recommended by a Kiwi colleague of Sharon's. We got to one and it was closed -- it was nearly 4:30 in the afternoon and it was Christmas Eve.The second winery was a 15 minute drive and we weren't sure it would even be open. It was likely the gods of wine were passed out at this point and wouldn't be in a position to help us. We decided to cut our losses and head back to Highfield, a winery we'd passed that was open. As an added benefit it resembled a Tuscan castle. Tacky? Perhaps. Awesome? Definitely.

Despite some clouds forming, we opted to sit on the patio for a tasting. We went through a number of whites and reds, all the while pretending we actually knew something about wine and that our noses could pick up the hints of lemon or sassafras or rhubarb or whatever it was we were supposed to be tasting. (Okay, I'm speaking for Sharon and me here; it's highly possible Alex and Esther do know what they're doing.)

On the way to our hotel we stopped at the Wither Hill Winery, which was about to close despite a dozen people still hanging around for tastings. They no doubt sighed when we walked in and added to the queue. While the building was impressive and the view out front to the vineyards wasn't too hard on the eyes either, we didn't think any of the wines were that great. We did notice the smell of the oak barrels containing wine in the basement. Sharon decided she wanted to infuse our future house with the same smell. I like wood as much as the next guy (...wait a sec…) but didn't necessarily want the musty oak smell in my abode.

For dinner our hotel recommended a restaurant called Accent in the heart of Blenheim. Blenheim was a nice little town but didn't have the charm of some other wine region centers I've seen. Thinking the few open restaurants in town would be swamped given the holiday, I booked ahead. We were all caught a bit off guard when we walked into the restaurant --d├ęcor-wise, it was like a trip back in time to a retirement home. It was also mostly empty. It was run by an older couple: Merv (in the kitchen) and his wife Helen (hostess and waitress).

One of the specials on the menu was muttonbird ravioli. We asked Helen what it was. The description started off well enough: muttonbird is a seabird from the south of New Zealand's south island and is only available for a limited time each year. How can we not try it, we thought. Then the description turned south. "It's a very tough bird," Helen said. "And very fatty. Generally it's baked for an hour, then you scrape off the fat that's risen to the top, and then you eat it. We actually bake it for three hours and scrape the fat off every hour to make it more palatable." By this point the girls were totally grossed out. I admired her for her honesty. It was like she was trying not to sell us the muttonbird. Alex and I asked what it tasted like. "Well," Helen said, "It's like anchovy-flavored duck."
Muttonbird. Yep, ate one of these guys. Not tasty.

Anchovy-flavored duck. That's not a match made in culinary heaven. Still, Alex and I agreed to share it. After all, this was an opportunity we couldn't pass up, no matter how unappetizing it sounded. It wasn't quite as bad as I expected, but all the same I'd never eat it again. The rest of the courses we ordered were fairly tame: steak, lamb, barramundi.

A stream of young twenty-somethings kept passing by outside en route to a club down the street. We briefly entertained going once dinner ended but, being old and lame, we went back to the hotel. We'd had a jam-packed couple days and Christmas day was going to be another early morning. As Toby Keith sang, "I'm not as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was." The problem is you have to pick and choose when to be that good: Christmas Eve in Blenheim was not that time.

Christmas morning we were up early and back on the road, continuing our path along the top end of the south island. Our destination was Abel Tasman National Park, in the northwest corner of the island. We weaved along the only road, first through the broad valley of Marlborough wine country, then through evergreen covered mountains. We made several pit stops so Alex, the official trip photographer, could snap a shot. I was generally too lazy to get out the camera Sharon and I brought, so I'd just point at whatever Alex was shooting and take a few photos on my iPhone. Copying off a better photographer is really a stress-free way to document your trip, I found. 

At one point we drove across a short bridge and, peering over the side, saw a spectacularly clear creek. We decided we had to see it more closely so parked the car and walked back to the creek. It was the color of a blue diamond and so clear we could see to the bottom. Alex and I walked down the hill and just stared for a while. We could have easily spent a day there if we had the time.

Every boy is born with a gene that compels him to climb trees, run through mud, and swim in creeks. Even though I wasn't wearing a suit, I couldn't resist jumping in. Water like that just beckons to you.

How could we not jump!

Next up: Abel Tasman, a vicious game of Monopoly, and fighting with tigers (okay, so maybe there's not actually anything about fighting with tigers...)

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