Saturday, July 6, 2013

New Zealand, part 2 (Taupo to Wellington to Marlborough)

We left Taupo and drove south to Wellington, which took about 5 hours. It was a chilly day and we saw some snow on the ground along the way.  

It's interesting that the roads in New Zealand are striped in the same way as American roads are. I don't think I've been in any other countries that put yellow lines in the middle and white lines on the outside other than those two. 

It was rainy when we arrived in Wellington, and it rained all the next day as well. We had turned in our rental car on arrival, so we didn't really have a chance to get out and see much. Carter went swimming in the hotel's indoor pool, and we went out for some surprisingly good Tex-Mex food.  We had only planned to spend two nights here, but I definitely want to come back and spend more time.

One thing that's been really interesting to watch on this trip is how Carter plays. At home he has a ridiculous number of toys and even has a playroom, but for this year, he basically has only the toys that fit into his backpack. I thought this might be hard for him, but it really hasn't been. Even while staying in small hotel rooms, he manages to find creative ways to play with the thins he has and the things he finds. In the picture below, he was using an empty wine carrier, the laundry basket, one of my shoes, his writing notebook, and a handful of small vehicles to create a spaceship for cars. I think I've mentioned before how much he loves playing with rocks, and that they can become any object he can imagine. It's really amazing how little a child needs to entertain himself.

He has an iPad, but he uses it primarily for three purposes: drawing (he has half a dozen different art apps), reading (since we don't have room to carry actual books, we have lots of his favorites on the iPad as ebooks), and watching videos (primarily My Little Pony).  I have to keep reminding myself that very few families get to spend an entire year together like this, 24/7. It can be intense at times with no routine, constantly moving, and living in small spaces together. And of course, we're his primary playmates right now, which can be challenging at times. We've started instituting nightly Special Time where we take turns spending one-on-one time playing with him, with no technology and no interruptions, just creative play led by him for half the time and one of us for the other half. That has really helped a lot, and he now seems more patient when we're busy packing or on our laptops, since he knows he'll get our full attention later. I feel like we're becoming better parents and we're developing an incredible bond with him this year, one I hope will strengthen our family for years to come.

It was gorgeously sunny the day we left Wellington, of course. We took the ferry across the water to the South Island.

It's a fantastic trip. After cruising out of the Wellington Harbour, the ferry crosses the Cook Straight for the first half of the three-hour trip and then for the second half, it cruises through the incredible islands at the top of the South Island. The water is turquoise blue and the islands are dramatic, and it was so, so beautiful.

The ferry was pretty comfy too. I think I was sorting pictures here.

Carter kept himself entertained with the iPad.

And just out the window there was incredible scenery. We went up to the top deck and took lots of photos.

The town of Picton is about a half hour drive from Blenheim, where we were staying.

Blenheim is the largest town in the Marlborough wine region. If you aren't familiar with New Zealand wines, next time you're at the grocery store, go check them out. The odds are that the vast majority of the ones you'll see are from Marlborough, and they'll be mostly sauvignon blanc. The sauvignon blanc from this area is very distinctive: minerally, vegetal, with citrus and tropical fruit flavors. It's one of my favorite wines in the world, so I was very excited to get here and try them! We headed to Cloudy Bay winery right after we picked up the rental car.

While Doug and I tasted wine, Carter played in these cool basket swings outside.

We stayed in a fantastic hotel in Blenheim, Chateau Marlborough. It was essentially an apartment and had a kitchen, so we were able to have breakfast in the room. After six months of having to get up and dressed and down to the hotel restaurant to have breakfast every morning, being able to get up and eat in our pajamas felt like an incredible luxury! 

One thing that I am loving about New Zealand is that many of the wineries have restaurants. And the food in these restaurants is very good, I have to say. On the first night we went to the Herzog winery's restaurant, and had amazing food. It was a cozy place, and we had a table near the fireplace.

We ate lunch at several other wineries. Happily, all of them had kids' menus. One item that seems to appear frequently on kids' menus here is the "platter", which is a plate of finger foods like cheese, fruit, bread, and crackers. Carter orders this every time it's on the menu, and he loves it. This is such a fantastic idea for a kids' menu!

View of Blenheim from our hotel room balcony.

Many of the vineyards have sheep in them to keep the grass short. At one winery, we were told that most wineries use a special breed of sheep that are too short to reach the grapes on the vine.

As we've seen in other places, most of the wineries had either a place for kids to play or a box of toys in a corner to keep them entertained while their parents tasted wine. I know I've said this half a dozen times, but this is SUCH a good idea! Many of the restaurants I've been to in New Zealand do this as well, and it's not uncommon to see small children playing in a corner of a restaurant while their parents linger over a meal. At home in Austin there are lots of restaurants with outdoor play areas, which we love, but this is such an easy and inexpensive thing to do. I wish more restaurants in the US would do this! (Not to mention the wineries...)

We went to quite a few wineries, some of which we were familiar with and some we weren't. The most common (and frankly, best) wine made in this region is sauvignon blanc. The wineries here will tell you that they are also good at Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but Doug and I beg to differ. We tasted quite a few thin, watery pinot noirs and way too sweet pinot gris before privately agreeing that sauvignon blanc is really the star in this area.

Wairau River: The restaurant was amazing; the wines were solid, but nothing extraordinary.

Georges Michel: We didn't really like any of the wines we tasted here.

It was such a beautiful day!

Brancrott Winery: Beautiful wine tasting room (they also call these cellar doors here), but the wines were nothing special. We did buy a bottle of their highest-end, oaked sauvignon blanc, and then didn't like it very much when we opened it a few nights later.

Allan Scott Winery: Fantastic restaurant, solid wines, and a surprisingly good gewurtztraminer. We bought a bottle and enjoyed it that evening. This is particularly amazing because we never buy gewurtztraminer!

One of the things we've really enjoyed about our time in Australia and New Zealand is buying bottles of wine at the wineries and then drinking them in the hotel room in the evenings. When we were in Asia, we spent a lot of time hanging out in the Hilton lounges and drinking beer, and surprisingly few of the Hiltons in Australia and New Zealand have had executive lounges. But instead, we've been spending our evenings drinking all of this lovely wine, and it's been so much fun.

There was a lovely garden at the Allan Scott Winery with a giant chessboard. Carter enjoyed rearranging the  pieces to make different things. 

One of our very favorite wines from this area is Whitehaven. When this arrives in our local stores, we buy it by the case. Sadly, they don't have a tasting room, though. We drove by the winery and took a picture.

One of our surprise finds was Spy Valley, named after the nearby joint American-New Zealand intelligence gathering base. We loved everything we tasted here and bought several bottles. This is definitely a wine we'll be looking for at home!

Spy Valley had a chalkboard and a box of chalk, and that kept Carter very busy during our wine tasting.

He drew this map of the world, which was surprisingly accurate for the places we've been. I've always said that travel is the best geography teacher, and it really seems to be true.

Beautiful vineyard at Spy Valley.

We liked much of what we tasted at Wither Hills, but nothing stood out enough for us to buy.

We drove out to Yealand Winery one afternoon. It's south of Blenheim and has one of the largest vineyards I've ever seen. There are places where it stretches as far as you can see in both directions. The owner of the winery is Peter Yealand, who seems to be something of a character. The winery had a ten-minute film about how he had revolutionized the wine industry in New Zealand and also sold a biography about him. The wines  were solid, but nothing remarkable. The scenery in the area was stunning, though.

I had to pull the car to the side of the road and take a video of these adorable sheep and lambs. 

I think this will be one of my big memories of New Zealand: vineyards and sheep!

We also visited the Drylands cellar door, though we had tasted these wines in Auckland. 

We also tasted at Hunter's which was apparently one of the first wineries in the area. Again, nothing stood out to us as special, though the wines were all well-made.

After four days in the Marlborough region, it was time for us to move on. We flew in a small prop plane from Blenheim to Wellington, and then from Wellington down to Queenstown, near the bottom of the South Island.

Wellington was the location of much of the Lord of the Rings film production, and they are very proud of that fact! This gigantic art was on display in the airport.

After a beautiful flight down the coast with snow-capped mountains in the background, we arrived in Queenstown. My next post will be all about our time in this gorgeous place. 

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