Onetangi Road 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec “Reserve” (Waiheke Island) – After a picture of this half-emptied bottle hit Facebook, one friend asked me if what I was tasting was representative of Waiheke Island’s climate. My answer, then and now, was that it’s really hard to tell. There do seem to be some fairly distinct mesoclimates on what’s a relatively small island, but I suspect that the greater differences are competency-related. It’s perhaps worth noting that this winery doesn’t appear to exist anymore. As for the wine itself, it’s green beyond where even a traditionalist would wish it to be (better Waiheke Island Bordeaux-style blends retain an appealing proportion of varietally-essential pyrazines), and getting to that strange point where the green is mixed with a gummy purple texture that’s just not all that appealing. It’s not bad, but blind I’d guess some supermarket Chilean wine from an operation that didn’t have the money to slather industrial winemaking makeup over the thing. (12/11)
Kennedy Point 2005 Merlot (Waikehe Island) – Blueberry soup with biting tannin. Ick. (3/09)
Kennedy Point 2007 Syrah (Waiheke Island) – Cassis, blueberry, and cranberry with a long, sugary finish. No good. (3/09)
The Road to Isengard
“Daaaaaaa-daaaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaaa…da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa…daaa-daaa….” The song enters my head, unbidden, and forces itself all the way to the tip of my tongue. Only a tremendous force of will keeps me silent. I glance at Theresa, and she at me, the simultaneous repression evident on both our faces. We grin, then burst into in the grandiose theme music from The Lord of the Rings, managing a few bombastically off-key measures before dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter.
We’d been warned. Twisty, at times precarious, and almost impossibly scenic, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road carries extra baggage these days; a rather striking portion of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was filmed in this area. Worse, this is a fact immediately obvious to even the most casual observer; every expansive vista and secluded hollow is eerily familiar. I say “worse” because the aforementioned impossible scenery scarcely needs another way to distract the unwary driver from the task at hand. The road describes a long series of irregular swivels, hugging the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu, then rising far above the water into steep, tree-covered slopes before plunging lakeward once again. After a sharp northern turn, the trees fade to be replaced by the smooth, grassy slopes of the Richardson Mountains, rising up several thousand meters to meet a cold, grey sky.
“It’s distracting,” the locals advise. “You’ll want to pay attention to the road.” I’m learning how right they are. Especially with my wife sitting next to me, now quietly humming a different theme from the movie. I shrug, capitulate and join her.
The Great River
I’m not sure if it would be uncharitable to describe Glenorchy as a frontier-town exurb of Queenstown, but as it doesn’t appear that a resident can survive without frequent trips to the markets of the bigger “city,” I think the characterization is accurate. But what Glenorchy lacks in infrastructure – though it is not without businesses, though most seem oriented towards the feeding, watering, and bedding of tourists – it makes up for in sheer enticement. It is, in one sense, the end of the road (the paved road, at any rate) that brings one to Queenstown, and it perches tantalizingly close to the end of the Milford Sound access road. Close, that is, but not touching; it is emblematic of the modern New Zealand symbiosis between commerce and environmentalism that the twenty-mile bridge, road, and tunnel system that would make the Queenstown-Milford journey a quick hour and a half (rather than at least four) remains unbuilt, and is likely remain so. Any other country would probably do it in a heartbeat, but not this one. Convenience would be…well, convenient, but it would be a tragic shame to spoil the remote beauty of this location.
As for us, we’re in Glenorchy for another of those seamlessly integrated tourist experiences that New Zealand seems to have perfected, wherein multiple modes of transportation are woven into a tapestry of activities that accommodate all levels of interest, adventurousness and athleticism. After our long, emotionally overwhelming day at Doubtful Sound, we’re up for no more than a half day’s excitement, and so after a early (and chilly) lunch under grey and gloomy skies, we make our way through Glenorchy’s few but well-ordered streets to the headquarters of Dart River Safaris.
Elsewhere in the region, jet boating is an activity built around speed and implied danger. Boats on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers spin and skid at shocking speed, clattering over rocks in four inch-deep water and narrowly careening under low-hanging branches and away from razor-sharp shoreline cliffs. Here on the Dart River, it’s less about adrenaline and more about sightseeing. To be sure, there are face-soaking spins and perilous near-misses of both rock and branch, but the epic hour-and-a-half ride gives both speedy and still opportunities to gaze at the incredible scenery. The river itself is barely up to the name: a few meandering rivulets of churning turquoise glacial runoff over rocks and sand – certainly not deep enough for anything except these shallow-hulled speedsters – but the valley it describes cuts a deep and dramatic angle between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains, and high riverbanks show that, during the springtime runoff, the aquatic story must be a very different one.
It’s early autumn right now, however, and it’s cold. We bundle up, take our seats, and with a ear-piercing roar head due north, into the teeth of the wind. Our driver stops, periodically and usually after one of those trademark jet boat spins has soaked us all in icy droplets, to point out some key feature of the landscape. Half of them are purely geographic, but the other half are – inevitably – somehow related to The Lord of the Rings.
“See that hillside there? That’s the backdrop for Isengard.”
“Remember when the Ents attacked Orthanc? That’s the edge of Fangorn right there.”
“That really pointy mountain…the one with all the snow on it…that’s Zirak-Zigil, where Gandalf smoked the Balrog.”
I can’t help but feel momentarily sorry for those on the boat who have no idea what he’s talking about. That said, of all the phrases I never expected to hear outside the confines of a fetid, acne-infested basement game of Dungeons & Dragons, “smoked the Balrog” must be very near the top of the list. In my mind, I see the opening to The Two Towers, and – digital creatures aside – it is in fact exactly as he describes it. Years ago, pulling into the Grand Canal of Venice, I’d felt like I was in the midst of an elaborate and impossible movie set. Here, I have that feeling again…except that it is the entire country that is the set.
The music wells up once again. Thankfully, no one else can hear me humming over the roar of the boat’s engines.
The Old Forest
We continue our race upriver, the snow-draped peaks of the eastern and western ranges looming ever closer, occasionally stopping for a brief and slow-paced detour into some crystalline-emerald pool away from the bubbling froth of the river, to simply enjoy the (relative) silence. Near the end of the trip, however, disaster strikes…or rather, it strikes our companion boat, which gets stuck on a midstream rock. Their driver jumps into the frigid waters in attempt to dislodge the vessel. No luck. Some negotiation ensues, and soon several passengers have joined him in an attempt to move the boat, which eventually succeeds. I wonder what level of compensation would be required to get me into that water, and fervently pray that I won’t have to find out. I do ask our driver what happens in situations like this.
(Continued here, with an extensive photo essay from the Dart River…)
Wake in heavenly peace
All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.
All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.
All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.
It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.
Put me in coach
At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.
The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).
We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.
Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”
Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.
However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
It would be a peaceful, remote beach lapped by cold southern waters, its beauty preserved by its very remoteness. It would, but it’s not, because the town and its beach are littered with agitation. “No reserve!” is the slogan repeated on signs, placards, graffiti on dozens of walls and houses…we’ve waded into some sort of simmering anger, but we’re completely oblivious as to the cause. Yet here in Port Molyneux, they’re certainly exercised about something.
We’d arisen early enough, but last-minute packing, cleaning, and more lengthy reminiscence and chit-chat from host Bill led us to depart from the Otago Peninsula little later than we’d intended. Today’s voyage is one of the chanciest of the entire vacation, because its success or failure depends largely on the quality of Southland’s highly unpredictable weather. Plus, time is also a looming concern. If it rains, it’s a quick but disappointing trip to our next bed. If it doesn’t, we’ve got to pick and choose from among far too many enticing options, lest we miss dinner at the other end. But a passage of the ultra-remote Catlins, unquestionably one of those paths less-trodden (which, for an already remote area, is saying something) by tourists, is something we must at least attempt.
Much is made, by Kiwis, of the potential dangers of the road. Twisty and often unpopulated by cars, it is unsealed for a few dozen kilometers (though the government is in the process of rectifying this), but I grew up on gravel roads and am not much intimidated by rocks under my wheels. And, truth be told, one can easily proceed through the Catlins without ever really experiencing true remoteness and anything wilder than the road; towns, at least on the eastern half of the drive, are pretty common and easily accessed, services are abundant, and there’s no real lack of infrastructure. But traveling the Catlins that way would be a mistake, one we’re determined to avoid. As long as the weather cooperates.
A man’s home…
Of all the things and places toured by visitors to New Zealand, a castle is one of the most unlikely. This is a country of natural wonders, of breathtaking scenery, of environments so unique they can never be truly captured by word or image. Castles…well, Europe is stuffed to the gills with ’em, and some pretty damned impressive ones as well. What could this far-flung corner of a far-flung country possibly offer in comparison?
A long, tragic, and occasionally scandalous history, for one thing…which is appropriate enough. Larnach Castle isn’t going to make anyone forget, say, Warwick, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion for a morning’s visit. The rooms are nicely restored, showing a level of historic extravagance that seems even more out of place (given its remote location, far from what would have passed for “civilization” in those days) than does the castle itself, and there are some entertaining decorative details: “sans peur (without fear),” the original owner’s family motto, is paired on an elaborate stained glass window with…those with an affection for puns can see it coming…several cats. Lodging and meals are available, though one has to book far in advance.
However, it’s the grounds that are the real draw here. Not only is the castle itself situated in a high point of the Otago Peninsula, providing (especially from its upper turret) wonderful panoramic views of the peninsula’s hills and harbor, but careful work has been done to make the grounds a showpiece for local plants and flowers. Neither Theresa nor myself have ever been particularly moved by matters botanical, but between yesterday’s hike and this morning’s excursion, we’re developing more interest than we’d ever imagined. In one especially artful corner of the grounds, with sheep covering the far-below valley floor like little maggots or grains of wiggling rice, a massive stump has sprouted a cleverly-carved door; something straight out of (or to) Narnia. (Unfortunately, the magical aura is a bit dampened when one peers behind the door; it turns out that it’s just a storage closet for gardening supplies. Mr. Tumnus is nowhere to be found.)
…is around his neck
We partake of a latish lunch, feasting from yesterday’s leftovers, including the Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), which is greener and leaner than it was the day before, showing more lemongrass, lime, and lemon thyme than the tropical notes it had sported previously. It’s still quite fun, though.
Driving east along the harbor, we pass an abandoned whaling station, a series of picturesque huts on elevated piers, and the rather depressed Maori settlement of Otakau (after which the peninsula is named), before climbing up the steep promontory at the end of the peninsula to Taiaroa Head. Far below us, waves thunder against ocean-etched cliff walls, with tangled colonies of bull kelp oscillating in the water’s relentless approach and retreat. A lonely lighthouse dots the tip of the peninsula, but what we’re here for is just a little bit inland.
On the rocky shore known as Pilots Beach, people congregate around a wretched stench. Blending into the rock are several dozen sea lions…many behind a protective fence, but some unconcernedly napping just a few feet from a curious public. They’re adorable, but wow does their waste smell horrible. And all around them, no doubt adding to the stench, are the crushed and rotted carcasses of unwary seagulls. We do spend some close-up time with these blubbery snoozers, but eventually the stench overwhelms us, and we scale a long path to a rather crowded car park. Anyway, it’s time.
“Which turn is it?”
Sue consults her notes. “The one to the petting zoo.”
I press the brakes, glance in my rear-view mirror. “What?”
“The petting zoo. Look, there,” she points, “up that road.”
“You know, I’ve driven this road a dozen times, and I’ve never noticed that.”
We turn. A few forlorn animals – mostly sheep, and where can one possibly find those in New Zealand? – stare balefully at us from behind a short fence. They don’t look particularly eager to be petted…but given a total absence of potential petters, there doesn’t seem to be much danger of that. Nor of ticket-taking, or indeed of any two-legged habitation whatsoever. So are these just a bunch of animals in a pen? “Hey, come pet them if you want!”
The sheep provide no answer, though they do continue to stare.
An end to summer
Most visitors to Waiheke Island’s Mudbrick will not set foot or wheel anywhere near a petting zoo. That’s because they’ll be at the winery’s eponymous restaurant, highly-regarded among Waiheke’s limited dining options, which is situated quite close to the Matiatia ferry wharf. Instead, we’re amongst tree-lined vineyards somewhere not too far from Stonyridge, still with Sue & Neil Courtney in tow, in a clean, functional winery completely removed from the touristed byways of the island. We’re joined by Nick Jones, co-owner of the property, and a youngish chap (yet another!) named Marty, who turns out to be the winemaker, and we’re here to taste some wine.
Nick wears a light blue “Playboy 50” t-shirt with studied insouciance, while Marty attends to the actual business of tasting. They’re relaxed, jovial, and inclined more towards humor than serious wine talk, which is just fine with us after a long day of wine visits. We thus skip the preliminaries and get right to tasting, with our quartet interjecting the occasional question into the casual levity.
A wrinkle in vine
“How do you go back to the place where everything changed…?” I asked, once, and from that question a travelogue was born. The “place” I had in mind was Milford Sound, on which much more can and will be written many narratives hence, but certainly other interpretations are possible. Here’s one:
David Evans Gander pokes his head around a doorway. He’s casual in working shorts and shirt, knee-deep in one of those endless tasks that consume every morning, afternoon, and night of a winemaker’s existence. “Just a moment.”
We wait. It’s dark and cool inside, strangely silent outside.
A half-dozen moments later, he re-emerges with bottles in hand, ducks behind the counter of the now-closed winery café (really more of a pizzeria, to the apparent delight of most visitors) to retrieve some glasses, and groups us around a picnic-like table.
“So…how was Stony Batter?”
Rock is their forté
My first day in New Zealand was a bit of a blur. Not so much from jet lag as travel lag, a sense-dulling miasma of displacement and the nasty, filmy feeling of twelve hours of recycled airplane air battling the onrush of a world of new experiences and sensations. Among those sensations was a marvelous little wine – just a glass – shared with Theresa and Sue Courtney at Nourish. I’d spent the morning at Goldwater and Stonyridge, tasting a lot of wines that were – whether better or worse than I’d expected – familiar. But here, at this terrific little bistro, was a glass of sun-filled viognier that rose above all my expectations, especially for this highly cranky grape. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Passage Rock 2001 Viognier (Waiheke Island) – One of the rarest of wine discoveries, a delicious viognier from somewhere other than Condrieu. Not that it tastes like Condrieu. There’s the requisite midpalate fatness, but it’s braced on both sides with excellent acidity and a lovely floral delicacy. Best of all, there’s no alcoholic heat.
Passage Rock. Few wineries I’ve not visited hold a special place in my heart, and none whereat I’ve tasted only one wine. And yet, there was something about that deliciously brief taste of viognier…well, if I ever got back to Waiheke Island, I vowed to visit. To see what it was all about, to get at the heart of the matter…no, I must admit, my aim was more personal: to try to recapture and relive that memory.
Sue talks about our morning while Evans Gander pours the wine and I study our surroundings. Passage Rock would be, in the absence of Stony Batter, the most remote of Waiheke Island’s wineries, and the facilities obviously represent a sort of haphazard expansion; needs-based, rather than designed. And while the vines fanning out from the main buildings replicate a descent to the sea found at our morning visit, it’s a gentler, slower, shallower descent to a much more distant shore. Which only adds to the feeling of isolation.
Soon enough, however, the first wines are in front of us and we’ve work to do.
A large, flightless mass akin to a colorful heirloom chicken scuttles across the yard, pausing every few feet to investigate a potentially edible morsel. Cliff and I emerge from our apartments at the same time to watch, which only serves to increase the velocity of its scampering and nibbling.
“It’s a weka, I reckon,” opines Cliff.
Swans, geese, ducks and gulls congregate in multiracial harmony on a beach that adjoins the Matiatia ferry wharf. Neither begging food from passersby nor twitching in fear from same, they bask in the sun, preening and squalling as the ferry noisily chugs, groans, and squeaks into its berth. Our guests have arrived.
A not-so-stealthy and rather ridiculous-looking black, blue, and white bird with a vivid orange beak and grossly un-proportionate legs stumbles around the roadside, occasionally veering onto our already too-narrow road. Were there ever need for a visual link between the bird and the dinosaur, this sight would settle all doubts. We slow down, then swerve as best we can to miss it, but it seems not-at-all put out by the cloud of dust that now encompasses it. Neil Courtney, concise as ever, answers my unspoken query: “pukeko.”
New Zealand is for the birds
It’s a sunny, hot day on Waiheke Island, though cooling ocean breezes keep the temperature just a shade short of uncomfortable. We’ve picked up Auckland-area wine writer Sue Courtney and her husband Neil for a day of wine tasting, a reversal of our usual arrangement (in which they cart us around mainland wine regions), and definitely some sort of payback for Sue’s guidance on our previous visit. That is, assuming the Americans’ driving on remote gravel roads through the wilds of Waiheke doesn’t give them both premature heart attacks. I do note that Sue’s breath seems a little quicker than usual, though Neil is his usual stoic self.
Sue’s arranged for us to start our day with a tour at the reclusive and remote Stony Batter winery, and it’s impossible to turn down the opportunity. Built on the massive expanse of an historic reserve better known for its old gun emplacements and tunnels, Stony Batter is less a winery than a all-encompassing agricultural project that covers a rather large percentage of the northeastern quadrant of the island, a project unlike any other on Waiheke. The owner, apparently an unimaginably wealthy gent, has an obvious desire for privacy (the entrance to the reserve is blocked by a forbidding gate, though through apparent negotiation hikers are once more allowed on the property as long as they don’t touch, look at, smell or otherwise offend the vines), but has equally obviously spared no expense in covering the area with a crazy-quilt of experimental vineyards.