Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Way To Whangarei

We set out for a leisurely drive up to Whangarei, stopping first at the Smashed Pipi and Pipi Gallery in Mangawhai, where we had a coffee, before visiting the rural wineries in the area. There are four wineries in the area and we managed to take in three of them, whilst noting that there were some plots for sale on Pigeonberry Lane, so there might well be more there by the time we get around to coming back!

The first stop was at Te Whai, where we were served by Nicola, who, we found out, is just completing the EIT Grapegrowing and Winemaking course that I am embarking on, so we were able to discuss a bit of science over the wine tasting. We tried two styles of chardonnay, one unoaked and one given the 100% oak, malolactic fermentation treatment to give a rich, creamy, almost toffee- flavoured wine. Then a pinot gris, a pale merlot rosé, and syrah in two ages – the most recent (2014) and an older 2012. As we have to either drink or carry back what we buy on the plane, we didn’t buy any wine here, although they are all good.

Next door is a boutique winery – just 2 acres – of the Estuary Vineyard. This is run by Donato, a recent arrival from the Amalfi Coast in Italy, who has a very virtuous, hands-off approach to winemaking, with minimal spraying; whilst maintaining the highest quality, trimming his vines so they don’t produce too many bunches, thus concentrating the grappa (as he calls them). We tried his two chardonnays, one unoaked and one oaked (although not to the extent of Te Whai’s), and also his vioigner, a subtle, fruity white. Again, we liked them all, and were moved to buy one bottle of the unoaked chardonnay for immediate consumption.

A bit further down the road is Millars, and we chatted with the owner, Ross Millar, about his grapes and production. He’s been on the hill for over 10 years, along with near neighbour Lochiel, and sees the more recent arrivals above as a good thing as they start to bring a critical mass to the area, and attract people to visit. We tried his wines – a pinot gris and viognier, a subtle gewürztraminer that wasn’t too in-your-face, as some can be, with the Turkish delight, a syrah rosé that was almost a red, with characteristic pepper and tannins, and finally his syrah. Again, all showed the essential characteristics of their grapes.

We skipped the last vineyard and headed straight to Waipu for some lunch at the Waipu café and Deli, who were fast selling out of tarts and tortillas. We sat there and finished our crossword, then drove up the remaining kms to Whangarei, our final destination for the day. We checked into the motel and walked into town, to the Town Basin, where the main “touristy” bit is, and bought a t-shirt. We checked out the clock museum, one of Whangarei’s star attractions, and booked a table for dinner at the Love Mussel.

Leaving Auckland

After checking out of the hotel, we went to visit long-lost rellies Danny & Marti, who live in North Shore. We walked down the road to the car hire pick-up spot and drove away in a new Corolla. We’d planned our route with meticulous care, so naturally took a wrong turn almost immediately on leaving the motorway, and took a rather circuitous route to their house. We found it eventually though, and met Danny and Marti. We chewed the fat over a cup of tea before heading off to the Northcote Tavern for a light lunch, then drove away north on SH1.

 …As, indeed, it seemed, every other bugger wanted to do at the same time. There comes a part in the SH1 when it turns from a 2-lane motorway into a one-lane road, and this caused a substantial tailback. Fortunately our hire car had Bluetooth so we were able to listen to the choons from my phone, until the traffic thinned out a bit. We branched off at Warkworth to find our next night’s accommodation, the Salty Dog Inn at Snell’s Beach. We checked in, dropped off our bags, and headed straight out again to go to Goat Island Marine Reserve, the reason for our visit.

Goat Island is famous for having some of New Zealand’s best snorkelling. It also had loads of people on this particular hot, sunny day in summer...no shit, Sherlock! If there were fish to be seen, they were keeping well out of reach. I did see one, and Nicola saw a plurality of fish, but I reckon you probably need to go there when it’s a bit less crowded to get the best experience. I think I’ll stick to the Great Barrier Reef in future for my snorkelling adventures.

That said, it was a nice drive and a pleasant beach, and the water wasn’t cold. After washing the sand from our shoes, we drove back to our accommodations for an evening meal in the Salty Dog and some beer and wine.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Waiheke Island

Day 2 in Auckland promised to be as hot and sunny as day 1. Our plan was to go to Waiheke Island.

We went for breakfast at Imperial Lane, just around the corner from the hotel They do a really tasty honey-cured bacon there - in the words of the man from Dilmah, "Do try it!" Then after a quick Skype with the rellies back in Blighty, we headed out to the ferry terminal to book some tickets.

Both the wine tours were fully booked, so we got ourselves vineyard hopper tickets which allow you to hop on and hop off the vineyard bus at your own pace. We started off in the main town, Oneroa, and had a quick refreshment before setting out to the first vineyard, Mudbrick.

I'd originally planned to get some lunch there but they were packed out and we hadn't booked. I'd also planned to do their wine tasting quickly then head five minutes up the road to Jurassic Ridge. That didn't happen either. Due to the the throng of people tasting wine, it took us nearly an hour to get through them, whilst also chatting to Rob, the cellar door manager, about his and our histories and adventures in the wine business, as well as the wines we were tasting. Most of the wine is not made with locally-grown grapes but sourced from Gisborne, Otago and Hawkes Bay. They do make a Syrah and Chardonnay from their own grapes, but as we have to carry whatever we buy back on the plane, I decided not to buy any.

We took the next bus back into Oneroa for a spot of lunch at Fenice, before going out to the end of the route to Casita Miro, a Spanish-themed vineyard out in Onetangi Bay. The tasting experience there is somewhat different: they provide five wines, each with a tapa on top, and explain them all in one go at the beginning. As I wasn't driving I was able to drink these rather than spit them, and the tapas were tasty, too. The final tapa in the tasting was a walnut marinated in the fortified wine we were drinking - a port-style drink - which we were quite taken with, so bought ourselves a small supply to take with us from the vineyard shop.

All this mucking about meant that, as we were walking down the hill to the bus stop, we saw some people we recognised from the tour earlier in the day coming up the hill. ANd no, the driver hadn't waited. It was an hour until the next bus arrived, so we made our way along the road with the help of a friendly local, and took a "normal" bus back to Matiatia Wharf to catch the ferry back to  Auckland. As we got off the bus the driver wished us a good trip "back to New Zealand", which got a chuckle.

Arriving back at 6:30, we went straight to Wynyard Quarter, Auckland's new entertainment area in converted industrial space, for dinner at Marvel's this seemed to be popular with the young folk, but we weren't the only people over 30 there. We enjoyed some seafood and a pav before heading back in the late evening sunshine.

Tomorrow, we head north.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Auckland Duck

No, it’s not some New Zealand recipe involving Anas platyrhynchos, akin to Peking duck or Bombay duck…I’ve finally broken my Auckland duck, and after over five years in New Zealand, deigned to visit the city rather than just use its airport.

Incidentally, why aren’t those two recipes called Beijing duck and Mumbai duck now? Just a thought.

We were up at the crack of sparrow to board the 6:30am flight to Auckland. The flight was uneventful and we caught the bus in to the city, dropped off our bags at the hotel, and set off to find some breakfast. Nicola armed herself with some leaflets from the hotel lobby, and we planned our assault upon the city.

First up was…up. We went up the Skycity tower. This is practically obligatory on a first visit to Auckland. From the viewing deck on the 51st floor, we were able to look out around the whole of the city. We’d picked a nice clear day for it, so we could see as far as the Coromandel peninsula in the distance. We could also look through the floor in places, as it’s made of glass. This is quite unnerving at first but you quickly get used to it. You can also do this in the lift when ascending and descending, but all you can see through that is a lift shaft, which is quite uninteresting (unless you're John McClane).

We popped up a further 9 floors to the higher observation deck,from which you can see much the same views, but without the explanatory notes on the  railings. After a quick coffee in the café on level 50, we came back down to earth and exited through the gift shop, ignoring the blandishments of the photograph seller who wanted $35 for pictures of us against a green-screened-in night view.

Next up, we boarded the hop-on hop-off tour bus, and went to Kelly Tarlton’s, Auckland’s famous aquarium centre. This has penguins! Loads of them, in a specially cooled Antarctic environment. There’s also a shark and ray tank which you can walk through, as well as more conventional aquatic displays. At the beginning is  a recreation of Captain Scott’s accommodation and base camp from his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

The catering wasn't up to the expected standard
We hopped back on the bus and headed off to the Auckland Museum. We took advantage of the café facilities on the ground floor for a spot of lunch, then decided that the blurb in the guide ("tells the story of New Zealand’s history…through the loss and suffering of war…natural history…Maori and Pacific treasures”) pretty much summed up Te Papa in Wellington; and as we’d been there last week and seen The Scale Of Our War exhibition, we were pretty warred out, so decided to give it a miss, and instead headed down to the Winter Gardens, which are two greenhouses in the Victorian style, housing all manner of exotic plants.  

Then back on the bus. This is the “blue circle” of the route, and we decided to stay on the bus for this section of the tour, and listened to the commentary, as this part of the route only ran once an hour, so getting off the bus would necessitate spending an hour at the location. We felt that the attractions either required more (Parnell), or less (Eden Park) than an hour, and anyway were feeling pretty slothful by this stage. We changed back onto the double-decker bus for the final leg back to Ferry building, and checked back into the hotel and reached our room.

That’s day one so far…tonight we go out to Euro, Simon Gault’s flagship Auckland restaurant. We’re familiar with his work in Wellington (Pravda, Shed 5, Crab Shack) so should be good.