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Christchurch Cathedral at dusk, December 28, 2010

I started writing this post back in MARCH (see Part I and Part II), but then the chaos of moving to Singapore took over and I never got around to finishing it. In the spirit of tomorrow’s big All Blacks vs. Wallabies game (held in New Zealand), I figured I’d put some good NZ karma out there.

In typical Kate fashion, I’ve managed to procrastinate yet again to the point that anything I write about the South Island seems both inconsequential and out of touch in light of the devastating earthquake that shook Christchurch on February 22. My heart goes out to all those who were affected; across the board, Kiwis were among the friendliest, most good-natured people I’ve ever met, and at the very least I know this means they’ll be OK in the long run. But this doesn’t detract from the sadness and tragedy of the earthquake and its immediate aftermath. It’s rare that I’d implore others to give to charity, but if you’re interested, here’s a link to the New Zealand Red Cross Earthquake Appeal.

With all that said, I figure there’s nothing better I could do for the South Island than to share some more photos from our wonderful trip there. First up was perhaps the greatest wine region I’ve ever visited…

The Marlborough: Way back in 2004 when I was taking my university’s most failed class, we watched a video where an English wine expert named Jancis Robinson visited a friend at the Cloudy Bay vineyard in New Zealand’s Marlborough Region, which has become one of the world’s best areas for sauvignon blanc. Not only was I captivated by the misty, mossy, mountainous region that so contrasted with more familiar wine areas like France and California, but I was smitten with the wine at first sip.  I added Cloudy Bay to my mental filing cabinet of “places to visit some day in the abstract future,” and that was that. Fast forward five years, and the moment the hubs raised the possibility of moving to Australia, I swear one of the first three things I thought was, I can visit Cloudy Bay! Kangaroos & surfing? Psaw!

And so, I very much looked forward to this segment of our trip, and the wine didn’t disappoint. The region is accessed either by ferry (from Wellington to Picton, about a 3-hour trip through the gorgeous Marlborough Sounds), or by a short 20-minute flight from Wellington (or Christchurch). I think either will offer gorgeous views en route. This is what we saw from our little plane (to the right):

Marlborough Sounds

And this is what we saw to the left:

After arriving in Blenheim, we picked up our car from Thrifty and made the short (like, 7 minutes short) drive to town. Blenheim is kind of the bustling metropolis of the Marlborough region, but that isn’t really saying much. I had an inkling about this when I was looking for a place to stay and noticed that almost everything listed on TripAdvisor was a motel. We ended up staying at a place called “Chateau Marlborough” that’s allegedly a 5-star hotel, yet lacked air-conditioning and had the most ghetto, depressing bathroom I’ve seen since middle school. And cars pulled up to spaces right in front of rooms, which certainly gave it a motel feel.

Anyway, we arrived in Blenheim on December 26 (Boxing Day), so a lot of stuff was closed, though thankfully not the tasty Indian restaurant  we found down the street. But seriously, if New Zealand had tumbleweeds, we would have seen them. At one point we were walking down the main street and it was completely silent, until an old man in a George Costanza-style scooter zipped past. Blenheim had a preponderance of old people on scooters, I don’t know what that was about.  Anyway, we were lucky that  Countdown, which is the Kiwi version of Woolworth’s (owned by the same people with basically the same logo), was also open.  I LOVED the supermarkets in New Zealand because, just like in Massachusetts,  they actually sell wine and beer IN THE SUPERMARKET, meaning we didn’t have to schlep to a separate, overpriced bottle shop. Not that we were buying that much booze, but whatever.

So we woke up on the morning of December 27 and rolled the dice in hopes of renting bicycles to ride up to the Marlborough’s many vineyards. God bless Spokesman Avantiplus, which hooked us up with a great map, nice Trek hybrid bikes, helmets, locks and enormous pannier bags for $50 (NZD, so like $37 USD) each for the day. Because we ended up with, like, 12 bottles of wine between us.

Bottom line: I loved riding bikes to and between all the vineyards. It took us about 30 minutes to get out there, but the roads were flat and the scenery was beautiful, with lots of farmland, vines, and fresh fruit & honey stands (unforch many were closed for the holiday weekend; I guess I’ll let it slide).

The only downside: spotting the only elusive Kiwi bird of our trip. This was bad because, sadly, the poor little guy was on the side of the road and appeared to have been run over by a car. Apparently kiwis (which are so cute and gentle) are nocturnal but also suffer the misfortune of having bad eyesight, meaning they’re easily susceptible to becoming roadkill. RIP, little guy:

Moving on, our first stop was at Allan Scott, recommended by another couple we’d met at Breckendridge Lodge for its sparkling wine. Interestingly, this was the only place where we had to pay to do a tasting (I think it was like a whopping $2 each or something) — everywhere else it was free.

Just across the street from Allan Scott was the place I’d been dreaming of for years: Cloudy Bay. Seriously, I don’t think I’d approached a place with so much excitement since I visited Six Flags over Texas when I was 12.

Look how the sign matches the actual scenery in the background!

Cloudy Bay is known for its Sauvignon Blanc – all of which was excellent – but we were also quite taken with the Gewurtzraminer and late harvest Riesling dessert wine. Basically, it was all really good. The staff was also super-friendly, and the grounds were obviously gorgeous as well:

As I’m not exactly used to drinking multiple glasses of wine before noon, I started feeling just a tad bit tipsy (although riding a bike with a nice breeze in your face is a really good way to clear your head). Luckily for us, the next stop on the wine trail was actually a beer place (that also serves food). As the hubs loves beer even more than wine, he was happy to pop in to the Moa Beer Brewery, which we’d been hearing about on the radio when driving across the North Island. Until this point I’d never even heard of the Moa, an ostrich-like flightless bird that went extinct in New Zealand some time after humans arrived in the 16th or 17th century. You learn something new every day!

With a life-sized moa statue in Queenstown

After a rather delicious bread and dips plate at Moa, we headed up to Rapaura Road and took a left toward the biggest concentration of vineyards. At some point the sky clouded up and it actually started to drizzle, which was slightly less than pleasant. So we were a tad bit soggy when we rolled up to Hans Herzog, equally famous for its bistro as it is for its wine. Check out this gorgeous salad:

Upon exiting Hans Herzog (the wines were good, but perhaps too complex for my palate), the day took a bit of a dive when the hubs’s bike chain broke. To Avantiplus’s credit, they immediately drove up from town to swap out his bike within about 20 minutes. On the other hand, it was still kind of raining and we weren’t close enough to any other winery to kill some time. Feeling beneficent, the hubs insisted that I ride to the next vineyard where he’d hope to catch up with me. So I pressed on to Huia.

The rest of the afternoon passed by in a bit of a blur (not because I was drunk, but more because it was a long day and things inevitably start to blend into each other, particularly when you’re recalling them 10 months later). We also visited Nautilus Estate, Gibson Bridge (which the bike lady recommended to the hubs for its award-winning Pinot Gris) and Mahi. By that time it was past 5pm and the other places had closed anyway; I think it was for the best. Seven wineries and one brewery are plenty for one day, particularly when you have to bike home at the end of it. Of course, the bike aspect made it all rather guilt-free, and was truly one of the highlights of our entire trip, despite the murky weather.

As we were still underwhelmed with Blenheim, for dinner we opted to drive half an hour to the town of Havelock, the green-lipped mussel capital of the world (seriously, they have a festival and everything). Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worst and we encountered a bit of a downpour. The mussels at The Mussel Pot were great though!

I had hoped to go kayaking in Marlborough Sounds the next morning (look at this picture and tell me you wouldn’t want to do the same!), but sadly the weather didn’t cooperate as rain continued to come down in buckets. So we set off south toward Christchurch.

I’ll save Christchurch and Queenstown for another post, but suffice to say the best wine we had all trip came from Pegasus Bay in the Waipara Valley. It’s also supposed to be one of the best winery restaurants in the world, but unfortunately they were booked out by the time we arrived. We loaded up on Pinot Noir and Riesling to make up for it, though. I supposed I had preconceived bias, but I thought Cloudy Bay more than lived up to the hype I’d built up in my mind, and that rarely happens.

Even if you don’t like wine very much, the Marlborough is just such a gorgeous and laid back place to visit. I hope to make it back some time soon, though I’ll probably look for a different place to stay, and I won’t go on Boxing Day.