Sunday, March 18, 2012

New Zealand's Wild West

The West coast of New Zealand's South Island is very wild and rugged. Bordered by the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps, this area averages an inch of rain a day. This means rain forests, raging rivers swollen by melting snows, fiords and glaciers - amounting to some amazing scenery and incredible photos - like this one of the rain forest meeting the sea.
The northwestern corner of the South Island is particularly rugged and has some amazing rock formations such as the Pancake rocks, part of the Paparoa National Park near Punakaiki, also making it an ideal habitat for penguins and seal colonies. This area of New Zealand was also known for it's gold mining history around Ross and Greymouth, and in more recent days, unfortunately, for some mining disasters, most notably at Pike River.
As we drove towards Westport, our destination for the day, the roads became increasingly windy and the wind stronger. With names like Cape Foulwind I don't suppose we could expect much else! We were on the hunt for food and a decent cup of coffee but so far, hadn't found anything promising. So we continued to drive into Westport.
Westport's main street reminded us of the Wild West - in America! The clapboard style houses and shops were very reminiscent of a Wild West town. When you took into account the wind blowing down the street we wouldn't have been in the least surprised to find tumbleweeds rolling past.
Anyway to that cup of coffee. Westport isn't terribly large so we were almost at the end of the main street and hadn't seen anything that looked like it served a decent cup of coffee when we spied a restaurant that appeared promising, judging by the number of cars outside. The Town House, which we were later to find out, had recently relocated with a name change (from the award winning Bay House at Cape Foulwind) and was already getting quite a reputation as a great place to eat. It was a combination of good food, coffee and a relaxing ambience where you didn't feel out of place if you wanted to read the paper. It was pretty late for lunch but they still offered us the Brunch - Kevin having the Town House breakfast of chorizo, sausages, bacon, eggs, onion jam and aioli and I had the more modest but very tasty mushrooms on toast - both the food and coffee were fantastic - what a find.

Next we needed to find somewhere to stay. The tourist bureau seemed the best place to start and being a Monday night of a long weekend we were pretty optimistic that there would be lots of choices.  Their first suggestion (once they determined our preferences) was a gem. When we arrived at Archer House we were impressed by the lovely old house and the magnificent gardens. Set on half an acre, they often hold weddings in the gardens. We were even more impressed when we walked inside. Our hosts, Jackie and Charles, informed us that so far we were the only guests for the night and, as such, could choose our room - would we go for the opulent red room, the leadlight lit green room or the relaxing blue room? The blue room won out for its spaciousness and lovely aspect onto both the side and front gardens. All ensuite bathrooms were ultramodern. We were then shown the study, the TV/lounge room, the kitchen and the conservatory - all of which we had free rein. Our hosts then told us they had recently had a Prince of a South Seas Island staying with them and, given the service and quality of the fittings, we could certainly understand why. We were asked our preference for wine, given some snacks to have with our drinks and also use of the washing machine. They then said they would return in the morning to make us breakfast. We had this totally amazing house with its many antiques and artworks all to ourselves for the night. Wow!!
That night we ate at the Deniston Dog - not the best restaurant we have eaten at but the food was reasonable and they served the New Zealand classic of Whitebait patties. Unfortunately, because it was a public holiday, they had severely underestimated the number of staff they needed so the service was really slow. They did apologise profusely for this and it helped fill in the night.
While this part of New Zealand may not be on many people's wish list it does provide an opportunity for nature and eco tourism away from all the hype of adventure tourism for which New Zealand is noted.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Queenstown - New Zealand's Adventure Capital

Queenstown, New Zealand, is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakitipu and lies in the shadow of the the Remarkable Ranges. We were in Queenstown for a family Christmas holiday and our accommodation was at Peppers Beacon. As we walked into our spacious three bedroom apartment, our senses were assailed by the aroma of freshly baked bread and the breathtaking view of Lake Wakitipu. What better way to start our holiday then sitting on the balcony, looking out over this amazing view and eating freshly baked bread with butter and jam!
We had been told about the amazing food and wine from this region of New Zealand and couldn't wait to try it. Our first foray out into the vineyards was to Gibbston Valley Winery for lunch. There were eleven of us and after some banter with our very friendly "Kiwi" hostess we let her have free rein in the ordering department. We were definitely not disappointed. We started with an array of tapas style entrees that we shared and then we had amazing main meals followed by equally delicious desserts. When it came to the wines we had a private tasting at our table then settled on the chilled rose, a sauvignon blanc and an amazing pinot gris. What a way to while away the afternoon. A tour of the cellar topped off a very enjoyable day.

Queenstown calls itself the adventure capital of the world and when you see the amount of sporting activities on offer you can understand why - jet boating, white water rafting, paragliding, parasailing, snow skiing and, of course, the thing that New Zealand is most noted for - bungee jumping. So how many of them did I do? None, I'm afraid to say but we really were going to do the tandem paragliding from the  Skyline Gondola, however, the weather changed and became too dangerous to attempt - oh well - next time! Our eldest son, Ryan did attempt the bungee jump and the Jet boating - two things off his bucket list.

What we did do when we went up the Skyline Gondola was to have lunch in the restaurant with the best view of Queenstown. It was Christmas Day and we had a very enjoyable lunch - we didn't have to cook or clean up or drive home - and there was even two complementary rides on a luge - I did do that. Although not quite as thrilling as, or with the adrenaline rush of, a bungee jump or paragliding, it was still enjoyable. A very relaxing way to spend Christmas with all the family.
Coffee, or should I say, a good cup of coffee, can be very hard to find. We have found the best way to get a good cup is to ask the locals. We were directed to two places - Vudu Cafe and Joe's garage. Both of these hit the mark and Joe's Garage served an amazing breakfast, which was really appreciated before our long drive to Milford Sound.
For our final night in Queenstown, we decided to have dinner at a rather unusual sounding restaurant - Botswana Butchery. The name conjures up all sorts of images but the reality was that it is, apparently, one of the best restaurants in New Zealand. Situated on the shores of Lake Wakitipu, this two storey dwelling offered various areas depending on the type of evening you wanted - outdoor barbecue areas, trendy bars and private dining rooms. We were all totally impressed with the menu, which did seem a little on the expensive side, but then it was in New Zealand dollars so, with that 30% discount, it wasn't so bad. My rabbit risotto followed by Eton Mess was amazing. One of the best meals I have had in quite a while. A perfect way to end the Queenstown part of our holiday.
One of the best things about Queenstown is that it is a good stepping stone to quite a lot of other attractions. From here you can do a day trip to Milford Sound to view the amazing Mitre Peak and cruise on the fiord, drive into Wanaka - some would say even more beautiful than Queenstown- and Lake Hawea, or drive out to Glenorchy and Paradise where parts of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit were filmed, and if you're feeling like a long drive you can go to Dunedin to the Chocolate factory. It is quite easy to fill a week to 10 days in the Queenstown area and feel like you have had a real holiday at the end of it.