Chasin’ the Sun…With Wine…On Bikes: One Last Week of Fun on the South Island–Mar. 10-16

We’ll see how this blog goes; you see, I shipped my journal home this morning before realizing that I still needed to please the masses with tales of our final week on the South Island of New Zealand.  I can vaguely remember the events of two weeks past, but I guess you’ll just have to live with something less longwinded than my normal tome of vacation notes.

After a lovely night in Wanaka, we woke up to yet another gorgeous sunrise over a pristine lake, and I thought that maybe we could just stay here in that one wonderful spot for the next 3 months, but we couldn’t…The Hoff’s battery would go dead…plus we had more to see.

The South Island has two well-known glaciers, Fox Glacier and the Franz-Josef.  They are one of the major attractions for tourists to the South Island, and we were curious to see how they compared to our glaciers at home.  The drive up there was a treat in itself, though, as we passed through a really pretty river gorge surrounded by the Mt. Ascribing Range and then moved on to the coast and our first views of the Tasman Sea.

The Fox Glacier is just a few kilometers in from the coast, which I understood to be a rare thing at this latitude.  I would love to tell you that it’s name derived from some cool shape or from crevasses whiskering the ice, but I’d be telling ties; instead a former Kiwi prime minister named it…after himself.  The thing that is neat about it, though, is that it advances and retreats significantly, and cameras have documented the changes well over the years.

Our weather had taken a turn for the worse on the drive, but we were lucky to have a break from the rain when we got to the glacier.  You can hike up to a viewpoint that looks right up into the glacier, and Sarah and I rocked up the hill to get a better view.  If Sarah and I had never seen a glacier before (by the way, I don’t know what a glahseeay or a glaysier is, but according to a lot of people I heard talking, they had those things here too), I think it would have been more impressive in and of itself, but it was really pretty tame looking–I’m not complaining; it’s just a reminder of how lucky we are to live where we do.  However, it was pretty to cool to see the scars on the cliffs that bore evidence of the patterns of change in the ice; we read that if a glacier is retreating in 2012, it means that there was a poor snow year in 2007, which I thought was interesting.

It poured all night, and the next morning showed no signs of letting up, so we skipped the Franz Josef since we wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway.  After stopping at the glacier’s interpretive center and wading across the street for a cup of coffee, we decided to head up the coast in search of the sun.  We pretty much drove the rest of the day–most of the morning was along the scenic West Coast Highway, but you couldn’t see anything but windshield wipers that day.  Our goal was to get up to the Abel Tasman Peninsula the following day.  We ended up staying at a campsite in the middle of nowhere that charged too much money; I think it was probably because they had to pay for the printing costs of the 273 “informative” signs that reminded me how I could improve everything from my ability to save them work by wiping the counters myself to how I could save them work by picking up the shower mats myself to, believe it or not, how I could save them work by going #2 more efficiently (now if I am an expert at one thing in life already…).  We got out of there early the next day.

Life on the Abel Tasman was a whole lot sunnier.  We had come up  here to tramp…er, hike…around, but we ended up saving that for the next day because we found out you could take a water taxi up the shoreline and then make your way back on a daylong hike along the coast.  That meant today we could just find a nice place on the sunny sand beach of Kaiteriteri–the water was a little too cold to swim, but it felt good to bask in the sun…sort of like that first warm sunny day in spring…don’t worry P-Town, that lovely spring day will come soon…August is just around the corner.


The water taxi proved to be a good way to go; not only did it enable us to hike more of the coast, but we also got to enjoy great views of the many bays and beaches from our speedboat in the water.  They had a pretty smooth launch sytem:  they loaded us all onto the boats which were on trailers pulled by giant John Deeres; they drove the tractors down into the water before dropping the boat and heading out.  Before heading up the coast, we detoured to Split Apple Rock; I’d describe what this looked like, but I’m trying not to be longwinded.

As I said, the whole boat ride was really pretty, and the sun was gleaming brightly on the water, but one other highlight was the tiny fur seal pup that was sunning itself on the rocks while his family frolicked in the waves.

Our hike was nice as well; we ended up hiking something like 20 km that day.  At first, we were a little disappointed, considering that this was one of The Great Walks, that we weren’t getting any views of the coast; afterall, the boat had dropped us off on the beach!  Finally, though, we came out of the numerous forested ridge sections and spent the rest of the day enjoying high viewpoints that overlooked pretty blue bays and coves of the Tasman Sea below us.  I was glad that we didn’t choose to do the entire 4 day trek here, but I was also really happy that we came up and did the 20 km portion we saw that day.

From the Abel Tasman, wine country was not far way.  Our day got off to a slow start, though, when we were pulling into the next town away from Kaiteriteri and realized that we had left our laptop charging at last night’s campground.  We raced back at high speeds exceeding 30 mph (the road was really, really curvy) as one of us tried to ensure the other (I’m not naming names, but her initials are Sarah Raff) that there are good people in this world, and most of them are senior Kiwi citizens, and that the laptop would still be there.  Luckily, I was right.

Anyway, we finally made it out to a couple of wineries on the highway towards Nelson, which is sort of the gateway to the Marlborough region famous for its Sauvignon Blancs.  Both wineries were okay but nothing special, although the pinot was getting better as we headed north on the island.  We had more tasting ahead of us later in the week, though, so we headed on to Nelson before exploring too much of the area.

Nelson is supposed to be a cool town, but we were due for a workday–journals, travel plans, blogs, picture labeling…all kinds of fun.  Our campground had pretty nice facilities and a shady picnic table to set up shop, so we had a nice time whittling away the list of tasks.  We also made a friend who was from Colorado, and we had a nice time visiting with him that evening.

Blenheim is the city in the heart of wine country in this region, and so we moved on the next day.  We have developed a system for discovering good boutique wineries: (1) stop in at visitor’s center…assume they will give you the names of the largest wineries, (2) stop in at large winery if they have a picnic table, and you are hungary…if not, proceed to (3) find boutique winery usually right next door to big winery, and (4) pick that person’s brain.

We followed all four steps and got some great recommendations from a really cool pourer at Auntsfield Estate, which had some pretty good wine of its own.  The winery also had some of the oldest vines in the area, and we were tickled to see that “Oregon puts pinot on the world map” made the timeline decorating their walls!  To top it all off, the pourer clued us in on a great little swimming hole off the side of a country road in a place called Spy Valley–nicknamed for a joint Kiwi-U.S. “communications” site that does some sort of observations of something out there.  As you can see below, it looks more like the world’s largest golf range. 

Anyway, the swimming hole was a great way to finish the day with a refreshing dip; actually, it was more like a quick splash followed by several frantic dashing strokes back up onto the rocks beside the water–it was pretty cold, but it felt good enough that we repeated the process several times.

Our final full day on the South Island was one that I think we will always remember fondly.  We rented bicycles from our campground and rode about 6 miles out to the wineries, focusing on mostly boutique wineries.  Most of them used organic methods, produced high-quality but limited yieds, and did almost everything by hand.  The star of the day was Te Whare Ra (the house in the sun), who had 8 wines that were all delicious.  We really enjoyed visiting with the woman who makes up one half of the husband/wife winemaking team; it was interesting to hear her take on wine–let it be what it wants to be, and make wine that you like to drink–and together we decided that someone should make a shirt that says, “life’s too short to drink merlot”!

We visited several other wineries that day–Mahi was another really good one with handcrafted wines and a lovely pourer who had also traveled to Italy and Turkey last year.  Their pinot could match up with many Oregon wines. The whites of Marlbourough are crisp and good and the pinots as close as we’ve found to home, and we were surprised to find that the region has a lot more to it than Sauvignon Blanc…they even had us liking chards! 

Anyway, as good as the wine was, the best part was riding around on our bikes, among these cute little cellar doors and endless fields of grapes set right below the surrounding coastal mountains.  Sometimes, we forget that we are celebrating our “many moons” this year, but today was not one of those days.  Although, we could have stayed on the South Island for another month without exhausting our travel wish list, this was a pretty darn good last day.


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