Thursday, July 31, 2014

New Zealand, part 2 of 2

So when we left off, I had just finished up with the overnight cruise on Milford Sound and taken the bus back to Queenstown, since my scenic flight was cancelled on account of too many clouds.

Looking northward along the beautiful Lake Wakatipu
on the trip back to Queenstown from Milford Sound

We got back to Queenstown obviously much later in the day than had been expected in the original itinerary (which called for a 45-minute flight rather than a six-hour bus odyssey), so I scrambled to squeeze in another activity in the waning daylight, a zip trek adventure up on the mountainside that was just a short walk from the hotel I was staying in. I took the Skyline Gondola on a scenic 900-meter climb up Mt. Ngongotaha to the Rotorua "adventure complex" at the top, which features seriously hardcore mountain biking, luge, bungee jumping, a sky swing, and ziplining. Though the ziplining experience itself was enjoyable, and the company, Ziptrek Ecotours, incredibly admirable for its stance on sustainability and preservation, I think this would have been a lot more enjoyable had the scenery been better. As it was, we were ziplining through swaths of largely denuded pine forest, as most of the lower boughs of the trees were quite free of foliage – and moreover, the soaring Douglas Firs that we sped through aren't even native, but rather had long ago been introduced from North America. Anyway, the experience of ziplining (sometimes called "flying fox") was fun, though honestly, I should have left my Nikon and the giant zoom lens in the hotel room. I was so fearful the thing would end up bonking me in the head, I was reluctant to get too crazy on the upside-down ziplining (though I did do it somewhat inadvertently once), and my futile efforts to get a good shot probably prevented me from getting the full enjoyment out of the experience. The final line (it was a four-line "trek") was the longest and the views, finally, were great, as the large clearing afforded a terrific view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Looking down on Queenstown as I rode the Skyline Gondola up the
mountain to do my ziplining; my hotel is at the lower right, just
on the edge of the beautiful Queenstown Park

The bungee and sky swing platform – the steep
grade of the mountainside would make this jump
particularly terrifying!

One of the "treehouses" from which
I flew on a zipline; note the stairs on
the right leading to nothingness:
that's the launch point
Looking up at one of the treehouse platforms
(Photo courtesy of Ziptrek Eco-tours)

This was the final line of the experience, and indeed the only one that
yielded any sort of scenic views (Photo courtesy of Ziptrek Eco-tours)

Impressive scenery at a winery in Central Otago
I stayed two more nights in delightful Queenstown, enjoying some great meals during my time there, and took a great tour of five wineries in the Central Otago region. There's something quite special about drinking wines right at the place where they were made and talking to the people who actually made them. It was a great experience on the whole, with the one standout being Carrick, a winery in Bannockburn. It's not that their wines were head and shoulders above the other wineries' offerings, but it was the food and experience that made it so memorable. My little group stopped there for lunch and we enjoyed these incredible tasting platters of antipasto goodies, local cheeses, smoked salmon, a tasty bacon hock terrine, salami, prosciutto, salads, fritters, pickles, piquanté peppers, fresh fruit, a couple of different spreads, and freshly baked breads. The four of us, after tasting a half dozen Carrick wines, opted for a bottle of their crisp Sauvignon Blanc (a varietal New Zealand excels at) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

This old Presbyterian church has been converted
and re-appropriated to serve a much more
practical use: tasting wine!

A fairly simple, yet wildly colorful, tasting platter
of cheeses, meats, and dried fruits

The tasting table: better than a pulpit

Settling in for a meal started with fresh-baked breads

One of the most memorable meals of the trip – a lovely tasting platter
complemented by a bottle of wine at Carrick Winery

A postcard-perfect view from the back deck at the Carrick cellar door

Autumn comes to Central Otago

Looking out from the winery's cellar door

Rows of vines with a beautiful palette of colors and textures as
a backdrop in the Kiwi autumn

Another scenic shot with a
directional sign to one of Otago's
 notable wineries, Mt. Difficulty

The daily menu at Fishbone... note the breathtaking
prices (for reference, 1 NZD = 85¢ USD)
Another memorable dining experience was at a popular restaurant in town called Fishbone where I got to try their famous Bluff oysters from the cold waters at the very southern bit of the island (the seaport town nearest to where they're from is called Bluff, hence the capital 'B'). Permit me to go off on a bit of a tangent here... I've never quite understood the whole oyster thing, frankly. I'm convinced a lot of people just pretend to like them so they can appear chic and trendy or whatever. I mean, really... they're slimy, they're really expensive these days, and it's basically like swallowing a squishy piece of raw muscle that tastes like salt, with a splash of ocean water tossed in for good measure. You can't even really eat them in the sense of chewing and savoring them. You have to gulp them down like you're swallowing a pill. I guess some people chew them up, but I think for a lot of people, that would trigger a pretty strong gag reflex. I grew up on the Gulf of Mexico and had more than my fill of oysters as a youngster. In those days, of course, they weren't all nouveau and trendy like they are today. We'd go to this little divey joint, I guess you'd call it an oyster bar, and sit at the counters which were – if memory serves – filled with crushed ice and scattered with a bunch of fresh oysters from the Gulf. You'd get an oyster knife and just have a field day. Cheap, disgusting, and not remotely haute cuisine. Back then, the only way I could get an oyster down without it coming right back up was to sandwich it between two saltine crackers (the crunchy offsetting the slimy, in my child's logic) with a generous dollop of cocktail sauce. I remember, perhaps a decade ago, visiting the tourist trap hell known as Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco where I nearly passed out when I was told a platter of four oysters cost $9. Seriously! And they're probably double that cost now. I mean, come on, they're just oysters... not exactly the speediest or most elusive of beasts. It really can't take all that much effort to catch them! We've got a place here in KL that serves these special oysters from off the Normandy coast that cost RM38 each. That's about US$12 per oyster. Now, admittedly, this is a pretty good oyster. I've had them, and they're indeed not your run-of-the-mill pieces of slime. And also admittedly, Malaysia is a very long way for these little guys to travel from Normandy, France. So yeah. But what's the excuse in San Francisco? What's the excuse in New Zealand? That's what I thought.

My lone Bluff oyster: World duly rocked,
life forever changed. Except not really
Okay, anyway, back to Fishbone. So I had my big famous Bluff oyster, hoop de doo, and it tasted exactly like a mouthful of ocean water. It was alright though, as it was only one – the full serving of six would have done me in (and at US$25 for the serving, I was a bit mortified). But I looked very, very cool as I sucked that one lone oyster down, I'm sure. So yeah, the rest of the meal was great (prawn tacos and baked flounder, yum), and the dessert was New Zealand's pride and joy, pavlova, a meringue-based dessert that was somehow simultaneously airily light and richly decadent. Great restaurant, with nearly everything sourced locally. But to eat well here, or nearly anywhere in Queenstown for that matter, come empty of stomach and full of wallet. Food is just not at all cheap as a general rule in New Zealand. A meal for two at Fishbone could easily approach US$200 if you throw in a bottle of mid-grade local wine (about $60). Yes, the food in New Zealand is, on the whole, outstanding. No place in the country is more than about 80 miles from the ocean and plentiful grazing land, clean air, and unspoiled water have allowed New Zealand to develop a fine reputation for quality food, particularly lamb, beef, dairy products, and seafood. Fresh, local, delicious. But oh, you will pay, my friend. You will pay.
One of my yummy prawn tacos at Fishbone

It looks like Eggs Benedict with the bizarre addition
of capers, but nope... it's NZ Pavlova, a meringue
dessert; the greenish bits are passionfruit seeds

My car for a couple of days... the Aussie/NZ version
of Chevrolet called "Holden" or something like that
Moving on to the next phase of my journey, I rented a car and headed out from Queenstown en route to Lake Tekapo. The first few hours of the drive were incredibly scenic, and I made a number of stops, even briefly tempted to try bungee jumping at the place where it all started (on a commercial basis, at least), but figured that jumping out of a plane was enough for one trip. Unfortunately, the blue skies didn't last through the day, and with spectacularly uncooperative weather descending like a mantle onto my shoulders, the evening and at least the first half of the subsequent day was the most dismal stretch of the entire trip. The scenery at Tekapo should have been stunning. I should have taken an incredible sightseeing flight around the mountains and glaciers. I should have gone to an observatory for nighttime stargazing in one of the world's darkest "dark sky" locations. Precisely none of that happened thanks to an entire afternoon, evening, night, and following morning of low clouds and persistent light rain. I stayed in a nice apartment at a resort called "Peppers" that would have probably been great under better conditions, and I did indulge in another terrific tasting platter (similar to the one at Carrick Winery) for my dinner that night, along with a couple of outstanding wines from Marlborough and Central Otago. Pretty much nothing else about that day was memorable, though.

The beautiful suspension bridge spanning the Kawarau River gorge,
now home to AJ Hackett bungee jumping

This is where commercial bungee jumping all began
I suppose if you're going to be terror-stricken
in a bungee jump, the stunning scenery
in the area surely must help a bit

The "tasting board" with a glass of Pinot Gris at
Peppers Resort in Lake Tekapo

The kitchen at the resort apartment I stayed
in... used only to make coffee the next morning

As I proceeded the next day towards Christchurch, the gloomy weather held on, but pockets of sporadic sunshine and the evocative atmospherics that cloud and humidity can combine to provide actually yielded some pretty special photos. I stopped in a quaint town called Ashburton for a quick lunch and a tiny bit of exploring. But "quaint" turned rather rapidly into "dull," so I pressed onward. Just before I rolled into Christchurch, I detoured to do some jet boating on the alpine Waimakariri River, a real thrill ride speeding along at 50-60 mph on the shallow, clear blue glacial water and taking in the gorgeous scenery along the way. The abrupt turns, 360-degree spins, and of course the steady light rain that started about halfway into the ride all contributed to a really good time, if not to any particularly great pictures. So though there aren't any photos from the jet boating that are worth sharing, take a look at some of the scenery from the road trip... be sure to click on and enlarge these photos (which are not presented chronologically). The beauty of the region really came across nicely that day, and once again, it's pretty amazing how much some of these photos remind me of my home state of Colorado!

A damp mist created saturated colors and great atmospherics

Dew drops and light fog

The contrast between the bright white low-level clouds and
dark, shrouded mountains made for a great scene here

This was really nice... not too far out of Queenstown, I stopped at
a little rest area by Lake Hayes and this was the view
Another study in contrast, with focused bits of sunlight
splashing down on the landscape in the distance

Another lovely lake near the border of Otago and Canterbury

One of my very favorite photos from the trip... so much color!

Same lake as before, entering the Canterbury region along
Route 8, called the Twizel-Omarama Highway

This was well into the Canterbury region, after Lake Tekapo...
a true sense of space and solitude in the area, to be certain

A mobile advertisement! This flight-ready vintage biplane near Lake
Tekapo serves as a marketing tool for a locally based flightseeing outfit
(though the flights offered are not in this aircraft)

One of my favorite images, and I can't quite even remember where
I snapped this – somewhere between Queenstown and Lake Tekapo!

Welcome to Christchurch!
I arrived in Christchurch late that afternoon and was pretty astounded at how obvious the destruction from the earthquakes of 2011 still was. In February of that year, Christchurch was devastated by a quake that hit on a Tuesday right at the busy lunchtime hour. Six months earlier, the area had been rattled by a 6.3 temblor, and though the February quake wasn't as powerful, it was much shallower and much closer to the city center. The violence of the ground shaking was among the most intense to have ever been recorded in an urban area. Buildings – many already weakened by the previous quake – collapsed throughout the city, significant liquefaction occurred just east of the downtown area, and damage throughout Christchurch was widespread. In the destruction and collapsing buildings, 185 people perished. Two substantial aftershocks, the latter of which was as strong as the main quake, struck the city in June of that same year, causing still more damage.

The Christchurch earthquakes made global headlines in 2011, of course, but they were in and out of the news fairly quickly, and having been there now, even three years later, it's easy to say the media seriously understated the destruction wrought on the South Island's largest city. Arriving on the scene in 2014, it wasn't immediately evident there had been a major earthquake in the city, but it was quite clear that something was going on. Following the series of quakes, over 1,000 buildings in Christchurch's central business district were demolished. That's a staggering number of buildings for a relatively small city (about 375,000), underscoring how grievously these earthquakes affected Christchurch and the whole of New Zealand. Even during my visit, numerous condemned buildings still stood, vacant, silent, cordoned off, awaiting their impending doom. Now, the entire CBD is effectively a massive construction zone, a veritable blizzard of orange cones, blocked streets, redirected travel, and temporary fencing. It's a stark testament to the devastation that was wrought by the 2011 earthquakes.

Note the pneumatic tubes snaking about overhead
Yet, after spending some time in Christchurch – a truly engaging and charming city, I found – and talking to its proud and resilient residents, it seems certain that the Christchurch of tomorrow will be an even stronger city. One particularly fascinating denizen I met there owns an eclectic, funky café built in the space that once housed the High Street Post Office. His place was among the first businesses in the CBD to be re-established after the February 2011 quake, and even that accomplishment took a year to achieve, so complete was the damage. The popular C1 Espresso Café serves up great coffees, pastries, and other light fare in a truly funky and hard-to-pigeonhole environment. The café also offers the very unusual experience of having some of the food zipped directly to your table by clear pneumatic tubes, the same kind you see at the drive-up bank teller or in large supermarkets, used for sending cash to the office from the registers. The tubes at C1 have been modified and adapted to deliver not bank deposits or cash (sadly), but rather a trio of delicious sliders and crispy fries, all cradled in a metal cylinder and zipped from kitchen to table at 60 mph via overhead pneumatic tubes. Pretty cool.

Delicious sliders and crispy fries at C1 Espresso Café

Scallops and streaky bacon...
there's no way this was going
to be anything but yummy!
My final meal in Christchurch was something purportedly resembling Mexican, I guess, but though it was very tasty, it was also nothing resembling either real Mexican or Tex-Mex. Sadly I can't remember the name of the place, but I could find it in a pinch, I'm sure. It was a fitting end to a short, but enjoyable time in Christchurch.

From there, I drove to the airport the next morning, dropped off my rental car, and grabbed an Air New Zealand flight back up to Auckland on the North Island, where I had a leisurely lunch – sushi of all things! – then caught my nonstop and still-lengthy 11-hour flight back to Kuala Lumpur. New Zealand is indeed far from everything (except perhaps Australia), but that isolation no doubt contributes greatly to its remarkable appeal. Enjoyable activities, loads of adventure, great wide-open roads, outstanding food and wine, and the fascinating Māori culture (which I didn't even get to touch on here!), all set against a stunning backdrop of natural grandeur and unspoiled, sparsely populated spaces, New Zealand is easily one of the world's most heralded travel destinations, an isolated island nation that is perhaps among a choice few Holy Grails of tourism for global wanderers. I thoroughly enjoyed my very rapid eight-day vacation there, and have already started making some tentative plans to (hopefully) return again next year... to the southern sensation the Māori call Aotearoa.

Natural, wide-open, clean, and beautiful... just as the tourism ads
proclaim, it's indeed 100% pure New Zealand

1 comment:

barbmerchant said...

Loved the story of oyster eating---I started eating raw oysters because you did when you were about 8 or so---between saltines with cocktail sauce. And yes, some photos look a lot like Colorado--beautiful Thanks for posting.