Passing through the Lewis
by Thor Iverson
If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the Kiwis love their breakfasts. We figure that the average New Zealander must burn about three million calories before lunch, given the size of the morning repasts they eagerly supply to visitors both foreign and domestic.
This morning, Shirley is at the door bearing freshly-laid eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, the ever-present muesli, milk, and the makings of coffee…so we don’t have the heart to tell her that we’re only halfway through yesterday’s bounty. Well, no matter. We’ll bring the remnants with us.
Spring following spring
If there’s another thing we’ve learned, it’s that New Zealand isn’t exactly for lovers of flat. Fiords, glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, islands both small and large…it’s rare to find any sort of level expanse, as probably befits such a geologically youthful landmass. We’re leaving one of the very few – the fertile plains of Canterbury – for one of the very few others, a destination with tiny plots of flatness surrounded by the usual tumult and jumble of Aotearoa’s coastline.
But first, we have a long – a very long – road to travel.
At first, the way is gentle, shooting straight through the vine-covered Waipara – we wave to Pegasus Bay and Black Estate as we pass – but in the town that gives the wine region its name, we turn northwest, abandoning the coastal road (towards Marlborough) to our memories of a trip three years in the past, and start the winding climb to the thermal retreat of Hanmer Springs. The town is much-heralded by local tourist organizations, but on our arrival it appears to be…well, a spa. That’s it. Just a spa. Oh sure, there’s a (tiny) town attached, and the setting is rather dramatically beautiful, and spa towns have a long Old World history…but we’re not here for spas; New Zealand has more than enough naturally-occurring restoratives for our purposes.
And so, at Hanmer Springs we follow the (mostly) westward road…unless you’re a sheep farmer, it’s the only road…which absolutely redefines scenic isolation. Rivers, mountains and valley vistas are even more dramatic than they might be for their complete lack of competing tourism; it’s as if we’re the only automobile on this two-lane highway. The Lewis Pass crossing passes uneventfully, and we swing ’round to the north via the amusingly rebellious micro-village of Spring Junction, a town seemingly populated by a few hundred motorcycles and one rollicking bar.
The road flattens for a time, but it’s an illusion provided by the smooth cut of a river valley – the spiky, tree-covered mountains persist on either side – and soon enough, the road starts yet another steep incline into the Brunner Range, before falling, precipitously and with a final series of writhing curves, into the gentle village of Murchison. From here, it’s but the remainder of a gentle descent – albeit, at times, wildly curvy – to the agricultural and pictorial cornucopia that is Nelson.
As a result of the many twists in the highway, I fear my long-suffering wife is a bit nauseous…but, thankfully, the roads soon straighten. Wakefield and Brightwater come and go, just waypoints in a long series of part-residential, part-industrial, part-commercial streets that crisscross this fertile crescent. Every dozen structures or so, there’s a vendor of local produce, and in between those are artists and artisans of every stripe. Our road dead-ends at the beautiful, sun-brightened waves of Tasman Bay. It’s then that it hits us: this is California. Cheaper and much less insincere, but California nonetheless. No wonder so many Americans move here.
And the sun shines on the bay
We find our final New Zealand lodging without much difficulty, but entering its garage proves a bit more difficult. The Harbourlight Villa (365 Wakefield Quay, Nelson…currently for sale, and thus off the rental market) is right on the main coastal road, and its narrow and mostly blind entrance onto a high-speed byway is a bit of a heart-stopping experience. Thankfully, the interior of the garage is a rotating disk, so a car can be repositioned forwards for a similarly jittery departure.
The villa itself is majestic, with expansive windows open to a wide view of the Bay and the peaks of Abel Tasman in the distance, and though the upstairs can be a bit noisy from passing traffic with all windows ajar, the downstairs master bedroom is insulated and quiet, with a small garden-like enclosure attached. Otherwise, all is modern (especially the kitchen), colorful, and pure architectural and highly-designed fun.
Theresa settles onto the patio, which overlooks both bay and street, with her journal and a glass of wine, and draws curious – and occasionally yearning – stares from virtually every passing pedestrian, while I join the aforementioned walkers for a leisurely stroll of our environs. Despite the traffic, our street is mostly residential, and there’s not much to see aside from the beautiful waterfront views. Eventually, however, hunger pangs arise, and we nervously extract our trusty automobile from its garage with an accelerator-pounding lurch, but more sedately meandering towards town in search of the seafood for which the region is well-known. It doesn’t take long. Local clams are available in abundance, and a quick pan full of them…with wine, bacon and chiles…both compliments and contrasts their briny sweetness.
Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Not very showy, but what’s here is clean pear skin and windblown minerality. It carries just a hint of spice and fatness. I liked this bottle a little better at the winery; now, it seems somewhat wan.
Black Estate 2003 Chardonnay (Waipara) – Butterscotch oak and minerals tasted through a thick screen. It gains fat with food, but what it persistently lacks is complexity…or, for that matter, interest. Despite the weight gain, I think this is “better” – and it’s not good – by itself.
Sated, we retreat once more to the patio, watching the descending sun light up the bay in a rainbow of fires and shades. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and seems to go on for hours. But it’s also tinged with a measure of sadness, for now our New Zealand adventure really is coming to a close. Just a few days remain. How will we spend them?
Amongst olives, grapevines, and sweaty, churlish winemakers, of course. And, also, antisocial importers. Can’t forget them.
Disclosure: the Black Estate Chardonnay is a gift from Russell Black.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.