Leaving NZ – Revisiting Marlborough Sounds (and Hawke’s Bay)

Snow on the mountains; view from our Ruby Bay houseIt’s getting rather cold, now that it’s autumn (end of May); this picture was taken from the balcony of our house in Ruby Bay, looking in the direction opposite the bay.  Snow on the mountains.  And, alas, time to leave NZ.  We’ve gotten 3 email reminders from Immigration that our time to leave is fast approaching (efficient, that office).   So we’re off to Auckland to sell back our car.  We get to do the Marlborough Sounds/Cook Strait ferry trip again – hopefully in sunshine this time – but our primary aim on the way back to Auckland is to see the Tongariro National Park – and maybe hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the most popular day hike in NZ.  We’ll see; it’s pretty iffy this time of year, when snow can make it impassable.  Oh yeah, and we’ll visit (or revisit) some wineries on the way back – why not??

We finish cleaning the house, pack everything into the car, and head off to Picton to connect with the ferry.  We’ll be making the same trip between the North and South Islands that we did in December, but in reverse.  That first trip was made through the middle of a fog bank (Dec. 12; “Marlborough – The Sound, The Wine“). Hopefully this time will be different!  As we pull away from Picton, early early in the morning, we are greeted by bright sunshine fore and aft.  All Right!!!

The water is calm, the temperature cool, the air crystal clear; it’s a perfect morning.  We’re navigating the same Queen Charlotte part of the Marlborough Sounds as before, but the view is strikingly different from our earlier trip; the view of the mountains meeting the water is very pretty, but it’s missing the atmospherics of the fog that I had so decried on our first trip.  Below are pictures from along the route.  At one point Ginger finds me (it’s a big boat!) to that say there are dolphins playing in our wake; alas, when I get to the stern they are gone.

Suddenly, around a bend (there are many bends!), I can see a clear demarcation in the water; we are about to enter Cook Strait, and our calm water is going away!  Pretty dramatically!

Oh yeah, there is a (pardon the pun) sea change in the water!  The waves are crashing on the rocks, and this big lumbering boat is swaying pretty hard.  Perhaps in the upper right picture below you can get a feeling for the large swells, although it feels much rougher than it looks in the picture.

There are some very pretty views to be had as we pull away from the South Island, and these help take our minds off the rolling ship.

The middle of the Strait is pretty uninteresting unless you like to count the swells rocking the boat.  Some of the passengers soon take to fresh air, hanging over the railing, but we’re good.  Ginger took a Bonine before boarding, and I buy a ginger beer as therapy.  A couple of rocking hours later we approach Wellington and its bay on the North Island, and the water becomes both calmer and prettier.

We showed you Wellington before (Dec 5, 2013, “Wellington City and WOW!”), so I’ll just On the road to the Waipara Valley - and wine!end this section with a shot of the beautiful mountains (and winding road!) on our way to a quick stop in the Martinborough wine region.  We plan to have lunch there and revisit a couple of our favorite wineries.  We can’t stay long because (1) I’m driving and can’t drink much, and (2) we’re due in Napier where we’ve scheduled a few days to further explore wineries in our favorite wine region, Hawke’s Bay.  Work, work, work!



We covered these wine regions in a previous post (Dec 6, 2013; “Napier, Hawke’s Bay, and … Martinborough?“).  Martinborough is not small, it’s tiny; but they do have some wonderful wines.  They’re almost on the way to Napier and Hawke’s Bay, so the small detour won’t cost us too much.  One of our Martinborough favorites, Murdoch JamesBesides, we really want to revisit some of our favorites.  Alas, Coney Wines was closed, but we did find Murdoch James open.  Yummmmmmm!  Fortified Pinot Noir may sound weird, but it’s really good!  Then off to Hawke’s Bay.  The wineries here are spread over a large area, and we missed a lot of them the first time through; but we’ll make up for that now!

Map of Hawke's Bay WineriesAs you can see from the map, the wineries (the small numbered squares) are scattered over a large area.   Intervening cities and the distance between wineries make it hard to visit very many in a day.  The first time through we concentrated on the northern ones (as well as sight-seeing in Napier), so didn’t cover much territory – but we loved what we covered!!  This time we’ll concentrate on the more southerly wineries.  Alas, there’s no way we can do them all; next trip, right?  Below are pictures of a couple that we really liked  – Alpha Domus and Elephant Hill, and below that the elegant Craggy Range.

Some of our favorites are shown below, but we shouldn’t forget Black Barn, and certainly not Church Road.

Next post, Tongariro National Park – for me, the highlight of our NZ trip!

Marlborough – the Sound, the Wine

There is a certain excitement in leaving the familiar and going to the new.  The pulse quickens.  The Unknown.  The New Page starting to turn.  We are leaving the North Island, which we thought was beautiful, and heading to the South Island, which everyone says is much more beautiful.  We know the South Island has taller mountains.  And Glaciers.  Fjords.  And a lot fewer people.  We hear the wise advice, to always have a full gas tank; civilization is not always nearby.  The smell of adventure is in the air.

Fog is there too.  The first picture is Wellington in the (virtual) rear-view mirror of the ferry.  The right picture is a bit further out, the North Island becoming a foggy memory; literally.

The ferry across the Cook Strait is supposed to be gorgeous.  The route leaving Wellington Harbor passes by land masses on both sides, but that world progressively shrinks as we

enter a foggy cocoon.   Except for the physical presence of the ferry, reality is reduced to an eerie gradient of blue, a cold penetrating wind, and a discomforting sense of sightlessness.  This fog is a tourist’s nightmare.  To get to Picton, our South Island destination, we will pass through the narrow channels of Marlborough Sounds, described as a profusion of spectacular bays, inlets, islands and peninsulas rising abruptly from the water.  It would be a shame to pass through it and yet miss seeing it.

After hours of this cold and formless world,  craggy land masses emerge suddenly from the mist.  At last we can see something!  As we travel on, the view seems to get better.  It

fades in and out, but there is hope.  Perversely, behind the ferry the fog is lifting, the sky showing, the light better.  For perspective, the white boat in the right picture is another

huge car-carrying ferry behind us.

And then the fog mostly lifts, and we have our first real view of the Marlborough Sounds.  The ferry is moving toward the setting sun, the light reflects off the water, and the effect is a bit ethereal.  I could have done better with the circular polarizing lens that I left in storage, a victim of paring down to “the minimum things one needs to carry through life” (we have learned something about this topic; perhaps a good subject for a future reflective post?).  The Sound is spectacular, the sea is liquid mercury, the cloud patterns and colors endlessly varied!  Repetitive waves of mountains beckon to the horizon.  Come, follow me.

We like these pictures, and editing them down to just a few is too hard, so rather than

pick and choose we’re posting them all.  Hope they’re not too repetitive.

The Good LifeWe pass some real outposts, homes obviously with zero road access and zero neighbors to make noise.  Intriguingly pioneer; the homes are surely too small to be getaways for the rich and famous.

All too quickly we arrive at Picton (left picture), a small town that looks much more inviting the next day in sunshine (right picture).  We were impressed by the number of yachts and sailboats in their harbor, which appeared to be about equal to the number of residents.  When I asked if there really was one boat per person, the disappointing answer was no, the boats are mostly owned by wealthy NZ’ers and stored here unused for all but a couple weeks in summer.  Like the world over, the really wealthy seem to own too much that sits unused – and somewhat flaunted.

There are apparently some great hikes along the backbone of the Sound – the Queen Charlotte track – as well as opportunities to hike just pieces of it via water taxis or kayak trips.  Alas, I have sprained my ankle multiple times lately (just a few days ago in Wellington); it isn’t healing very fast and is weak and susceptible, so we’ll do hikes another time.  Parenthetically, getting old sucks.  We’re also anxious to get to Nelson, which we suspect could well become our “roost” city.  We do take a ride along part of the Queen Charlotte drive, which skirts the southernmost Sound.  There is not one straight stretch of road to be had on this drive, but the views are nice, with a lot of hidden, enticing bays.

Before we run off to Nelson, however, there is business to attend to.  We are very close to the Marlborough wine region, the region that put New Zealand wines on the map and redefined Sauvignon Blanc.  This is not to be missed.  And not only for the wines!  The region, with its sheltering mountains and abundant sunshine, is strikingly beautiful.

Our B&B wasn’t too bad either – these images show just a part of their garden.

Let me show you some of the wineries.  There are about 50; unfortunately we didn’t get to all of them. I was somewhat constrained by Ginger’s insistence that I stay sober enough to drive, and we only had 1 1/2 days there.  This definitely calls for a return trip!  This picture shows the Brancott wineryBrancott Estate, the country’s largest winery.  The picture is a bit misleading: the vineyards actually continue to the right and left to give a 180º view, going to the mountains.  In spite of the immensity of the vineyard (they employ 5 separate vintners), they produce very good inexpensive wines, as well as some really good single-vineyard reserve wines.  We were impressed, but not nearly as much as when we tasted the wines of other nearby wineries (many of them boutique).  What you get with the smaller wineries is closer to perfection.  Machine harvesting works, but grapes are damaged, all grapes are accepted, etc.  The smaller wineries can pay much closer attention, damage nothing, select only the best fruit, etc.  And it shows in the wines.  All this attention is, of course, labor intensive; you can can watch the workers in the fields adding their sweat to the wine’s nourishment.

Let me show you some of the wineries we liked.  Like Cloudy Bay, available even in Ohio.

Oh my gosh, a winery we’ve never heard of, and that may be producing the best wines in NZ:  the tiny Hans Herzog Estate, making fabulous wines and still experimenting with single rows of unusual grapes on their tiny acreage.

This is Highfield Estate, a beautiful winery that’s looking a bit neglected, but is still producing fabulous stuff – and in a fabulous location!  It’s currently up for sale due to the death of one partner.  His kids aren’t interested, nor are the offspring of the surviving 85-year-old Japanese partner.  Anyone in for forming a co-op to buy a winery????

Wither Hills – a big winery, but producing some great wines.  Check out the pipette there – we’re doing a Pinot Noir barrel tasting.

OK, I know, I’m boring you.  But I must mention Fromm, and Te Whare, and Seresin.

‘Nuff for now.  We’re off to Nelson!