March 18, 2012

A Tribute to Big Red

by Anna

Well, when we first laid eyes on Big Red, aka “Big Bad Red,” aka “BR,” we weren’t too sure about him…he was dirty, his floors were coming off and he had wires dangling from under his hood (we later discovered this was BR’s antennae). Our relationship was off to a rocky start. But as BR trustily led us down windy tracks, past vineyards, sheep, mountains, lakes, more sheep, glaciers and oceans, our love for BR began to grow. We’d cheer him on as he sputtered his way up steep hills, and we’d breathe a sigh of relief when he’d make it through off-road style dirt roads. By the end of 4 weeks our emotional attachment to BR was strong, bordering on true love. Johnny and I had to bid ado to BR in Nelson…it was sad, but we had a good ride.

Check out some glamor shots of Big Red below and an overview of the adventure he led us on through the South Island!

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March 17, 2012

Golden Bay and Nelson

by Johnny

After an amazing day at Fox Glacier we packed up Big Red and headed all the way to the northwest of the South Island, over Takaka Hill to the seldom visited Golden Bay, a place Lonely Planet describes as “laid back to near horizontal.”  Golden Bay’s tiny main town of Takaka is basically a one-lane street full of colorful cafes and craft shops and must be where 95% of New Zealand’s hippies call home.  I haven’t seen this many dreadlocks since my last Phish show.  We based ourselves about ten minutes down the road in Pohara at a little motel right on the beach.  After doing some serious driving over the previous couple of days, it was a perfect spot to chill out for a little bit.  We spent three nights there and easily could have spent a couple more.

Our beachfront motel in Pohara View from our deck…letting Big Red take a breather
Sunset over Farewell Spit
Driving around Pohara
Another night, another great sunset The empty beach at Pohara
“Downtown” Takaka Takaka’s cafes and shops
Takaka had cool murals everywhere

During one of our days in Golden Bay, we visited the wild, almost deserted Wharariki Beach, which required a 30-minute hike through some farmland to get to.  It’s definitely the most remote beach I’ve ever been to.  We navigated some deceptively steep sand dunes and found a perfect spot for a picnic.  Afterwards, we swung by Kaihoka Lakes, where the owner of our motel told us they filmed most of The Hobbit.

Hiking to Wharariki Beach
Wharariki Beach Just us and some birds
Archway islands off Wharariki Beach
Lunch time
Kaihoka Lakes
Hobbit land

Our main reason for visiting Golden Bay was to spend some time in Abel Tasman National Park, one of New Zealand’s top attractions and another one of the country’s nine Great Walks.  We planned on taking a taxi boat into the middle of the park and maybe doing some sea kayaking, but unfortunately due to a road closure from some recent flooding, we made a detour to the far north end of the park.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we got to explore a less visited, more remote area of Abel Tasman, and also because some really strong winds came in later that day that would have made kayaking impossible.  Anna and I did the four-hour hike from Wainui to Mutton Cove, and we must have only seen three or four other people the entire time.  The scenery was incredible and reminded us a lot of Kauai.  Hard to believe that we were just hiking to a glacier a couple days ago.

Abel Tasman National Park
The hiking path was a little treacherous after some recent flooding
Mutton Cove More Mutton Cove
We felt like castaways Perfect spot for a peanut butter and Manuka honey sandwich
Easy to find some solitude in New Zealand

Our next stop after Golden Bay was Nelson.  Nelson is often used as a jumping off point for the southern parts of Abel Tasman, but having just visited the northern part, Anna and I pretty much spent our time walking around the decent-sized downtown, saying farewell to Big Red, trying some of the areas many microbrews, going to the local market (where yours truly worked this morning), catching up on some laundry and our blog, and getting ready for our next WWOOF stint at Windsong Orchard.  Our favorite spot in Nelson had to be The Free House, an old wooden church that’s been converted into a neighborhood pub and houses some of the region’s more interesting brews.  To top it off, you can get some amazing Indian take-out across the street and eat it in the beer garden.  Yum.

Christ Church Cathedral in Nelson The hills around Nelson
Sampling some New Zealand craft Brew at The Free House Indian food and brew…mmmmm!
The yurt and garden at The Free House Don’t worry Anna, I’m know what I’m doing
Some breakfast crepes at the Nelson market Nelson Market
March 13, 2012

West Coastin

by Johnny

After a beautiful drive from Wanaka and through the Haast Pass we arrived to New Zealand’s West Coast, a region with over eight percent of the country’s land mass but less than one percent of its population.  And we thought the rest of New Zealand was uncrowded.  Our first stop was the tiny township of Fox Glacier, located in the shadows of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman (NZ’s second highest peak) and surrounded by endless acres of farmland…dare I say, one of the most gorgeous settings of anywhere we’ve been in New Zealand?  We chose to stay in Fox Glacier as opposed to the more visited Franz Glacier because here it’s possible to hike to the glacier’s terminal face if you don’t want to fork over the bucks for a guided tour on top of the glacier.  Perfect for us, since we plan on spending our remaining funds on massages, yoga classes and fruity drinks in Indonesia.

We only had one full day to explore the area, so we were thrilled when we woke up to a picture perfect sunny day without a cloud in the sky…much different weather than the last time we tried to see Mt. Cook from the other side of the Southern Alps.  We set off early for a walk around nearby Lake Matheson, highlighted by Mt. Cook’s mirror-like reflection in the lake’s still waters.  After a quick coffee break, we headed off to hike to the terminal face of Fox Glacier.  I’m gonna keep it real with you…glaciers just don’t really do it for me.  I appreciate their power and endurance and the way they’ve shaped the earth as we see it today, but to me they just look like muddy blocks of ice.  Give me a waterfall or raging river any day of the week.  Call me old-fashioned, but I like my beer cold, my music loud and my bodies of water flowing.  Next we drove along a gravel road to an old gold mining settlement at Gillespies Beach.  Now, I think it’s pretty cool when you’re on the corner of Jamboree and PCH and you can see the snow-capped San Bernardino mountains in front of you and Balboa Island behind you, so I was blown away by Gillespies Beach.  Here we were on a New Zealand beach with the sparkling blue water of the Tasman sea in front of us and a crystal clear shot of the imposing Mt. Cook behind us.  Pretty awesome.

Walking path around Lake Matheson
Mt. Cook’s perfect reflection in Lake Matheson
Another view of Mt. Cook from our walk around Lake Matheson
Hiking to Fox Glacier Thar she blows!
At the terminal face of Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier from a different point of view…not a bad spot to be a cow
Gillespies Beach Tasman sea on one side…
…and Mt. Cook on the other
Mt. Cook in the late afternoon
Enjoying our last hours of sunlight in Fox Glacier

After an action-packed day exploring the area around Fox Glacier, we headed to our next stop on the West Coast, Hokitika. I’ll be honest…this might be the most forgettable place of our entire trip. This town makes Modesto look like St. Tropez. The grey weather combined with the empty streets and the eerie driftwood sculptures on the beach made us feel like we were in the setting of a Stephen King novel or something. However, we made the most of our time here with a trip to the nearby Hokitika Gorge, a whitebait pizza (a local delicacy) at Fat Pipi’s and a nighttime visit to the glowworm dell.

Hokitika Gorge The color of the water was incredible
Making Anna nervous
Good ol’ Hokitika
At least the pizza was tasty The local whitebait pizza
March 12, 2012

Wanaka and the Best Drive Yet!

by Anna

After seeing my parents off at the Queenstown airport, we drove for about an hour to our next lakeside destination, Wanaka. Unfortunately it was pretty frigid and gray when we arrived, but our accommodation for the night, Wanaka Bakpaka, was super cool and had a cozy hang out area with million dollar views of the lake. We made the most of our evening with a yummy Indian meal at the Spice Market (where our friends Dennis and Robyn had just been a few weeks earlier and loved) and then caught a flick at the very unique “Cinema Paradiso.” Attached to a funky cafe and with just one theatre where you could choose to sit on everything from a couch to a convertible Beetle, it was definitely a one-of-a-kind movie experience. There was even a short “intermission” half way through Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, and we couldn’t resist the array of freshly baked, steaming cookies lining the counters of the cafe. Any place that offers wine, cookies, lazyboy recliners and movies is a winner in my book!

The next morning we woke up early, packed up Big Red, and headed to Mt. Iron Track for an hour-and-a-half trek up to the top of the mountain to check out the view. We were happy to have increasing blue skies and sunshine and rewarded ourselves after the hike with a Red Star burger. We read that there is a bit of a rivalry between Queenstown’s Fergbuger and Wanaka’s Red Star, so we thought we’d do our due diligence and try both. We went for a vegetarian option at Red Star with falafel, beet relish, hummus and sweet chili sauce. With a side of Kumara fries (NZ’s sweet potato), it couldn’t be beat! Sorry, Ferg, my vote goes to Red Star.

All fueled up and ready to go we hit the road with Big Red for a six hour drive to Fox Glacier. Everywhere we have driven in New Zealand had been pretty jaw-droppingly beautiful, but this drive was the most scenic and stunning yet. We passed by glacial lakes and rivers and through the Southern Alps on Haast Pass. Every now and then a waterfall would appear plunging off a steep ravine and then at next glance we’d be driving past bright green pastures of sheep and cows grazing beneath snow-covered peaks. We drove through Mt. Aspiring National Park and the tiny town of Haast, where we stopped at a coffee cart that was kind of in the middle of nowhere for a “flat white” and a “long black” (I love that no matter where you are in New Zealand, you can always find an amazing cup of coffee!). After passing through Haast, the terrain all of a sudden took on an almost tropical feel and suddenly we were skirting sheer cliffs along the coast. We curved again through the lush tropical ferns away from the coast and reemerged at Bruce’s Beach, a windswept stark beach, littered with driftwood. And when I say driftwood, it was more like whole trees lying gray and bleached along the beach. Many of the trees still standing looked as though they’d been permanently blown in one direction and stood like lopsided sculptures along the sand. Not long after passing Bruce’s Beach, we made it to our final destination, Fox Glacier, where we were literally at the foot of Mt. Cook and the glaciers that distinguish its surface. It was amazing how drastically the landscape changed within 6 hours of driving…it was hard to believe that we were still in the same country at the end of the day!

March 11, 2012

Queenstown

by Johnny

Queenstown would have to rank as one of our favorite places we’ve been in New Zealand even without the added bonus of getting to spend time with my brother.  It’s such a cool place.  There’s an energetic buzz and social vibe in Queenstown that’s been lacking in some of the other New Zealand spots we’ve been.  Plus, the setting is incredible.  The cafes, restaurants and bars are full of people sharing laughs and beers and stories from their morning’s hike, bike ride or other adventure.  The beaches and parks are full of people picnicking and playing frisbee while street musicians play nearby.  We spent five nights in Queenstown and easily could’ve spent more…especially since the house we rented was directly on Lake Wakatipu with incredible views of The Remarkables.  Some highlights from a great stay in Queenstown: stopping for an infamous Fergburger on the way into town, daily walks through the Queenstown Gardens, riding the Skyline Gondola to Bob’s Peak and watching the paragliders, pizza and beers with Jay and Vaughan at The Cow, day trips to historic Arrowtown and Gibbston Valley…and of course being treated like royalty by Jay.

First stop…Fergburger! Our first meal in our house…what a view!
Our house from the back… …and the front
Lake Wakatipu on our doorstep Ladies on the lake
Our view was like living inside a painting
We spent a lot of time in the Queenstown Gardens Our daily commute to town
View towards Queenstown from the gardens
Queenstown beach An ideal setting for a town
Susan and Big Pete high above Queenstown after riding the Skyline Gondola
Off he goes Weeeee!
 Lakeside piano serenade at sunset
Special pie for a special guy
Bros Dudes
Historic Arrowtown Arrowtown charm
Anna’s Graceland…Chard Farm Chard Farm tasting room
The vineyards at Chard Farm
Watching the bungy jumpers at Kawarau Bridge Bungeeeee!
Bye, Queenstown…we’ll miss you
March 8, 2012

Good Eats

by Anna

WARNING: DO NOT READ ON AN EMPTY STOMACH!!!

While being in such close proximity to Chef Jay during our stay in Queenstown, there was no lack of good eating to be had! On his day off Jay graciously invited us over to his new “cottage in the countryside” for dinner. After a quick stop to check out the quaintly-preserved mining town of Arrowtown on the way, we drove further into the hillsides and sheep pastures, past a hand-written sign advertising “Horse Poo” and down a narrow dirt track to Jay’s place. His new ‘bachelor pad’ that he’s sharing with his friend Vaughan could seriously be in the pages of Town & Country magazine. The most picturesque little cottage greeted us, surrounded by green rolling hills, sheep and the jagged peaks of ‘The Remarkables’ in the distance. Jay, being the debonaire host that he is, had even put bouquets of wildflowers on the table to welcome us. We had such a wonderful afternoon, enjoying the sunshine and some bottles of Amisfield wine, while Jay brought us smoked salmon with cucumbers and dill yogurt on baguettes…I LOVE having a chef in the family! Following the appetizers Jay presented the main course of lamb with roasted vegetables…yum! Everyone oohed and aahhed over every bite, and there was not a single drop left of sauce or lamb when we were finished. We could have stayed all night, but alas, we had to head home before the dirt roads got too dark…plus, we didn’t want to put the neighboring sheep in jeopardy of being in Big Red’s way.

Jay’s new home
The Remarkables in the distance Jay’s “backyard”
Bouquets of wildflowers made it all the more charming
The chef’s notes The chef’s bounty
Clearly, I was having an awful time!
Jay prepares smoked salmon appetizers Jay and Vaughan hard at work
Mouth-watering lamb with roasted veggies
Enjoying the sunshine Great food + great company = happy people

Our culinary treats didn’t end with our evening at Jay’s house. Seeing as our first lunch at Jay’s restaurant, Amisfield, had been so amazing, we decided that it was necessary to pay it one more visit while in Queenstown. After we drove the scariest road of all time along the edge of a gorge for a little wine tasting at Chard Farm and stopped off to see bungy jumpers flying into the gorge from the Kawaru Suspension Bridge, we settled back in at Amisfield for a lunch fit for kings. Rabbit rillette with apricots, bruschetta with carmelized onions and broad beans and crispy pork belly were just a few of the delectable treats that graced our table. Jay also surprised us with some items we didn’t order, and we ate everything down to the last crumb. Johnny and I savored every bite, as we knew we’d soon be back to peanut butter and honey sandwiches as our standard meal!

All I have to say is that if you ever find yourself in Queenstown, make the trip to Amisfield, because the food is unreal (and you’ll also get the added bonus of seeing Jay in action)! Thanks, Jay, for everything (including all of our bottles of Amisfield wine!).

Amisfield
Rabbit rillette with apricots Mom & Dad
Savoring every bite! Bruschetta with caramelized onions and broad beans
Zucchini & tomato salad with home-made cheese Crispy pork belly with figs
Dessert smorgasbord
Compliments to the chef!!
March 7, 2012

Tramping Through Middle Earth

by Johnny

After a final night in Te Anau, we made our way back up to Queenstown…a town where we had so much fun that we’ll need multiple blog posts to do it justice. On one of our days in QT (am I hip or what?), the macho team of Johnny, Jay and Big Pete left the women and children at home and set out for a day of tramping (what the Kiwis call hiking) on the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s nine “Great Walks,” a series of multi-day walking tracks through some of the country’s best scenery. The Routeburn Track is one of the more popular Great Walks as it traverses both Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks and offers a variety of landscapes and stunning views.

We began our hike at the Routeburn Shelter near the town of Glenorchy, located about an hour from Queenstown. I’m glad Anna and Susan declined my offer to hang out in Glenorchy while the dudes hiked because the “town” consisted of a general store, a tractor and six sheep. From the Routreburn Shelter it was about a 90-minute walk through fern forests, across swing bridges and over gorges to the Routeburn Flats Hut, an ideal setting for a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich. After a quick lunch break, it was a steep, hour-long climb up to the Routeburn Falls Hut. Routeburn? More like Calvesburn. Heyo! After taking in the Shire-esque views (cut me some slack…I’ve gone three New Zealand blog posts without mentioning Lord of the Rings), we made our way back down to our car. Big Pete beat the spring chickens by a solid half an hour. I’m convinced he started going downhill and just couldn’t stop himself. It was an incredible day of tramping, although it made me wish I had more of my camping gear so that I could properly do one of the Great Walks. Hey, with Jay living out here now, maybe Anna and I will have to make a return trip.

I have to give a quick kudos to the New Zealand Department of Conservation. I’ve never been in a place where the outdoors are as easily accessible as they are in New Zealand.  All the hiking trails, lookout points, etc. are well-marked and have incredibly well-maintained facilities.  I mean, the two huts we hiked to on the Routeburn Track were nicer than 90% of the places Anna and I stayed in Southeast Asia. With over thousands of kilometers of hiking trails in New Zealand, it is truly an outdoor enthusiasts Shangri-La.

March 5, 2012

Fiordland

by Johnny

With our bellies full from an amazing lunch at Amisfield Bistro courtesy of Jay, we made the drive along Lake Wakatipu down to Te Anau…the gateway to Fiordland.  We had a day to kill before heading to Milford Sound, and the rain let up just enough for us to explore the town of Te Anau and go on a little hike at nearby Lake Manapouri.  With a handful of restaurants and shops and a nice lakeside path, Te Anau is definitely worth a night or two to break up the long drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Of course, the main reason for coming to Te Anau is its proximity to Fiordland National Park, home to Milford and Doubtful Sounds.  Fun Fact: Milford and Doubtful Sounds are technically fiords, as they were created by retreating glacial activity and not running water.  These sounds are regarded as two of the most spectacular sights in New Zealand…which must make them two of the most spectacular sights on earth.  We chose to explore the more popular Milford Sound and hit the road early to make it to our 10:00am cruise.  Whoa!  The 119km drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound along the Milford Highway is an adventure in itself.  We passed the rolling farmland near Te Anau Down and the beautiful Eglinton Valley before taking in the reflections at Mirror Lakes.  Next we drove through beech forests and wetlands until we headed into the long, dark, wet, one-way Homer Tunnel.  I have panic attacks on Splash Mountain at Disneyland, so let’s just say this wasn’t my favorite part of the drive.  After the Homer Tunnel it was another white-knuckle 20km drive down impossibly windy roads and across one lane bridges until we arrived at the boat terminal with just enough time to grab a coffee and for me to change my underwear.

Our tour of Milford Sound was something I won’t soon forget.  We cruised by the imposing Mitre Peak, alongside steep cliffs, right next to waterfalls (made all the better from the heavy rainfall over the past couple of days), past seal colonies and out to the Tasman Sea before heading back again.  The vegetation was pretty incredible as well.  With over 200 days of rainfall a year, Fiordland National Park is technically a rainforest.  I’ve never seen such lush, almost tropical, trees clinging to the side of sheer cliffs.  One guy on our boat hit the nail on the head when he said, “Milford Sound must be what happens when Hawaii and Alaska have a baby.”  After our cruise, we stopped at a couple more viewpoints we missed along the drive before making a picnic and heading back to Te Anau.  What a day!

February 29, 2012

Chef Sherwood

by Anna

As Johnny mentioned in a previous post, we lucked out timing-wise on the New Zealand portion of our trip to see his brother Jay! Having just returned home from a three month cooking stint in Northern Italy, Jay was only in California for a couple of weeks when his fellow chef and friend Vaughan, a Kiwi whom he had met while cooking in San Sebastian, Spain, called him to see if he’d be interested in moving to New Zealand to work at Amisfield, a winery just outside of Queenstown. And with that Jay became a temporary New Zealand resident three weeks ago!

Since we had just missed Jay’s move to Italy by a couple of weeks on the European leg of our trip back in October, we were ecstatic that we’d finally have the chance to see him…and in New Zealand to boot! We were looking forward to lots of quality time with Jay once we got to Queenstown, but upon realizing that our drive from Lake Tekapo to Te Anau would take us right past Amisfield, we decided we had to make a surprise visit.

It was a rainy day, and Amisfield was packed. Once the friendly host, Tom, discovered that we were related to Jay, he gave us a wink and nod and told us he’d finagle a table for us just as soon as we’d tasted some wine. After 10 months, we couldn’t have been happier to see Jay’s face, and it was especially cool to get to see him in his element – the kitchen! He took us on a quick tour through the kitchen, garden and vines, and then used his employee perks to get us six bottles of the delicious wine that we had just tasted. We then proceeded to have the most delicious lunch of all time with a fabulous bottle of Pinot Noir. Everything was amazing, but the best part was obviously getting to see Jay!

It wasn’t too sad to have to say goodbye, because we knew we’d be seeing much more of Jay once we got to Queenstown after a few days at Te Anau and Milford Sound.

Chef Jay!
Hungry men Ladies who lunch
Zucchini bruschetta
New Zealand lamb is simply the best!
Before After
Johnny and Jay post-lunch with our bounty of wine
February 28, 2012

Mackenzie Country

by Johnny

After a great couple of days in Kaikoura we packed up Big Red for our longest driving day of our South Island tour.  One thing we’ve quickly realized, though, is that travel days in New Zealand are kinda awesome.  The scenery everywhere is just stunning.  It’s definitely one of those “the journey is the destination” type places.  After driving south for about an hour we cut inland via the Inland Scenic Route 72, a beautiful drive through the region where the Canterbury Plains meet the Southern Alps.  We passed friendly farming town after friendly farming town, stopped for a great lunch in Oxford, and finally arrived at our next home base at Lake Tekapo in the heart of Mackenzie Country.

The town of Lake Tekapo is basically a gas station, a tourist information office and a couple cafes…in fact, we brought the town’s population up from 315 to a whopping 319 during our three nights there.  But whatever Lake Tekapo lacked on the cultural front it made up for tenfold with its natural beauty (are you noticing a theme, here?).  We rented an awesome cabin located a couple steps from the lake and just around the corner from the town’s famed Church of the Good Shepard and collie dog statue.

The sediment left behind by the stony-bottomed glacier that formed Lake Tekapo causes it and other lakes in the region to display an incredible icy-blue, turquoise color.  It’s like no lake I’ve ever seen before.  We spent our first afternoon admiring our new surroundings and BBQing some burgers in our cabin.  On our second day we hiked up to Mt. John for some lunch at the Astro Café, where we took in views of the entire Mackenzie Basin before coming back to our cabin and running into some serious New Zealand “traffic” on the one-lane bridge.  Later that night the clouds parted, and we were treated to some of the clearest skies and brightest stars we’d ever seen.  The entire Milky Way was visible…pretty awesome.  I’ll run out of adjectives if I keep talking about how beautiful the area is, so here are some pics.

On our last day in the area we drove an hour to Mt. Cook National Park.  At 3,755 meters Mt. Cook is New Zealand’s tallest peak, and it’s where local legend Sir Edmund Hillary would prepare for his summits of Everest.  We hiked into the nearby Hooker Valley, which took us across a couple swing bridges and up to the end of the Hooker Glacier.  Unfortunately it was a little cloudy that day, and we weren’t able to see Mt. Cook in all its glory, but it was cool to see it jutting up into the sky and living up to its Maori name, Aoraki, meaning “Cloud Piercer”.