We’ve all heard it! “New Zealand’s weather can be unpredictable – sometimes four seasons in one day” This occasionally means that the tour you’re hanging out for is cancelled or certain highlights of a tour excluded. This happened to us recently when we booked a Swim-with-Dolphins-Tour. “It’s for your own safety, seas too choppy”. After my initial sulk, I imagined how I would cope with being swept out through turbulent seas, accompanied by the smiley dolphins I’d booked to see in the first place (well, they’d still think it was part of the game wouldn’t they?) Looking even further ahead, I could see how such a tragic turn of events would complicate Michael’s life – having to face the endless round of strident questions from bewildered family members. Tours aren’t cancelled or changed to deliberately annoy us – it’s a safety issue. But there’s good news! In New Zealand, plan B options are in abundance. We found a fabulous little high tech museum nearby – NO pontificating official following us to each exhibit (love the word “pontificate” might use it again). We could have taken a gourmet cooking class at the cooking school close by, just chilled out and watch someone else to the cooking then eat the results (great way to meet the locals). From a 4-wheel high country tour or vineyard/ wine tasting, we had plenty of alternatives. Plan “B” options can be arranged at very short notice, (though it helps if your travel agent actually lives here) It’s all done with a few clicks on the I-phone/I-pad and off you go…but enough of this pontificating!
We arrived at Vangionis at 7.00 and the place was ‘buzzing’. The cutest little maitre d’ looked thrilled to see us. Thrilled! As it was a chilly autumn night, we avoided the outside area – great in summer though. Ok the restaurant gets noisy but it’s casual and child-friendly so that’s to be expected. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on Jean-Paul’s explanation of the menu, his accent is so beautiful (that’s NOT actually his name by the way). We shared a very nice pizza with a Greek salad (not one wilted leaf in sight). For our last night, we chose “The Little Bistro” – aptly named as it turns out. Michael is 6ft 3ins and was forced to fold in and out of his seat like a pack of cards but did well. Did we like “The Little Bistro”? We loved it! You’re sitting so close to other diners, it’s really ok to join in a conversation with total strangers – a novelty we enjoyed. The food was artfully prepared and I appreciated the staff acknowledging my birthday – complementary dessert wine and a wee candle with my chocolate mousse – slightly miffed when no one broke into a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ (just kidding – not). Oh, and another thing, we got to see our little French maitre d’ from Vangionis again – waved furiously at us from across the room. You gotta love small towns!
With the minimum of domestic conflict, Michael and I set off for Akaroa packed to the ‘gunnels’ with clothing for all seasons (you have to in this country – you can experience 4 seasons in the one day and no…neither of us have mastered the art of travelling light) – stopped briefly at the Little River Café/Art Gallery (fabulous food and coffee). Briefly lost Michael on the way back to the car, who has this habit of instantly materialising from one place to another in seconds!
Stopped at The Giant’s House in Akaroa and although it was wet, I have to say the garden positively sang to us! I think it must be the French music playing for the benefit of visitors that allows this magnificent garden to flourish. And what an achingly gorgeous garden – has to be a mammoth task for just one person to maintain. Josie Martin, the owner is an accomplished artist and sculptor. She has purple hair and I think that’s important for what I’m going to say next. Josie’s giant mosaic sculptures are organic with a fantasy element to them. After walking around the property twice, we still couldn’t do it justice. Admittedly I tend to remember the perverse, but the glass nipples should also be noted as should be public toilet that my opinion, is another work of art – this attraction is well worth the $20 entrance fee. You have to see it – now promise me!
We’d finally reached the stage, as we do at this time every year, when we wanted to treat ourselves to a premium experience – someone to take care of us! So we’re driving up the incline drive to Maison de la Mer and note our names have been written on the ‘Welcome’ blackboard (isn’t it lovely to be expected) and yep, there were the owners, Bruce & Carol Hyland ready to greet us. What a beeoootiful property! It looks fabulous on the website but even more scrumptious in reality. Elegant, French , beautiful displays of china and antiques in this petite lodge….love that word ‘petite. It was lovely to enter our warm suite and hear soothing music being played on the stereo – to see my favourite long stemmed white roses, reclining in a vase by the bedside. Since September last year and (you know the date) our nerves have been a little jangled. Carol will never know how much those white roses mean to me!
We’re really enjoying the other two couples staying here and is not a chore to spend an hour in the evening chatting over drinks and nibbles – Well “nibbles” doesn’t exactly describe it – think weeping blue vein cheese, figs, homemade guacamole dip, wafer thin cheese rounds still warm from the oven. Enough! Ok, not quite. The breakfasts are an event – served on a long French oak table laden with unusual, but tasteful cutlery and plates, a tall candle flickering in the centrepiece. Enough! – I need to tell you about the two different dining experiences we’ll be having at Fangiornis and the Little Bistro, but here’s some more of Maison de la Mer.
…and that means, thinking about the sort of New Zealand experience we’d like to have, setting dates, booking flights – THEN setting our budget (yes, in that order folks) New Zealand roads are excellent but they’re not Autobahns and some roads are winding.. Sure, on the map it looks as though it will only take a couple of hours max but in reality it will probably take longer….and you’ve only booked for one night somewhere and gee it’s such a pretty place and you would have loved to have seen more and gosh you’re so tired and the next morning you have to set off again!
We love mixing it with the ‘locals’, popping into some of our great little pubs along the way – I pretty much guarantee you’ll get an authentic experience. Like most places, we usually find some real ‘characters’ in NZ rural pubs and small bars. There’s always some old geezer with a story and a bit of local gossip and these guys forget NOTHING! There’s a very popular little pub in Nelson – oh-so-cute – called “The Free House”…ok, the beer’s not free but it’s the only pub in Nelson serving cask-conditioned beers (“real ales”) from genuine hand pumps – take a look at those genuine handcrafted pumps!
We’re picking up the laptops and heading down to Wanaka for a week in May. Have to check out a boutique winery called ‘Archangel’ (great name) and revisit our favourite Central Otago winery, Wooing Tree. Hope the weather stays friendly. Now if I can just get the hang of my new smartphone…
Let’s talk service standards in our restaurants/cafes. Do we know the true meaning of ‘excellence’? In some places we do but it’s not always the top end restaurants that deliver the most satisfying experience. Recently Michael and I received quality service (observant and attentive) in New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington.
First the genuine welcome when you walk through the door. In some places, just to be acknowledged is a challenge (you know the places). Monsoon Poon is one of these ‘buzzy’ ethnic restaurants with atmosphere to burn. Smiles galore, nothing forgotten (isn’t that a ‘given’?) quality food delivered with efficiency & speed. By looking in the overhead mirror, you can observe the artistic skill of the chefs.
I’m a big fan of observant restaurant staff. Wellington Italian restaurant Fratellis has such a maitre’ d who quickly saw our dismay at being seated beside 12 lovely, but noisy people celebrating a birthday party. He relocated us immediately to a much quieter table. Dining out in Wellington New Zealand is easy because most of the popular restaurants are within walking distance to the CBD area. We stayed at the Museum Hotel which has the award-winning Hippopotamus restaurant. Plus it it’s an excellent location if you don’t have a car. Remember to visit Zealandia at the Karori Sanctuary. It’s a gorgeous nature experience and you don’t have to be a mountain goat to walk through it. I fell totally in love with the Kakas and managed to get up close and personal with them.
I left with the uncomfortable feeling they would outwit me any day of the week. Love Wellington, it’s always treated me well.