New Zealand: Drive time

Sep 30, 2008

by SUE HOFFART

From Christchurch, a 400km route takes in plains and alpine vistas, craggy coast and emerald fjords and vine after voluptuous vine of premium wine grapes. Welcome to Marlborough, in the top right-hand corner of New Zealand’s South Island.

No-one should tackle this much jaw-dropping scenery on an empty stomach. So the artisanal bakery at Amberley, about an hour north of Christchurch, makes an ideal first stop. London-trained chef Rachel Scott makes fantastic bread from airborne yeasts, locally grown organic wheat, pure South Island water and sea salt harvested from Lake Grassmere to the north. She sends loaves all over New Zealand and is an enthusiastic ambassador for the region.

Related: New Zealand: The Great Armada

Just north of the town, the Waipara Valley wine district is a striking patchwork of broad plains, burnt hills and leafy vines. Pinot noir grapes thrive in the cooler night temperatures and summer days are typically hot and dry. At Pegasus Bay Winery you can enjoy a chilled sauvignon semillon in a shady corner of the expansive garden or indulge at the acclaimed restaurant.

Back on the road, the Pacific Ocean comes into view and State Highway 1 turns into a narrow ribbon wedged between the sea and the sharply rising Kaikoura Ranges. On winter days that are especially frigid, the snow can literally meet the ocean.

Less than two hours from Amberley, the former whaling station turned seaside tourist town of Kaikoura is an essential stop. More than a million visitors a year see the resident population of sperm whales in the exceptionally deep waters off the coast, yet this overgrown village retains its pre-boomtown appeal. Shops are low-rise, the horseracing track and fire station occupy prime seaview real estate and the Mayfair Theatre still plays movies on old-time projectors and reels.

Mayor Kevin Heays explains what the fuss is about. “This is the only place in the world that has whales year-round. The ones that stay here are the bachelors – they’re too old or too young to chase women.”

Heays recommends dinner at a roadside shack that sells fresh crayfish and whitebait, with six fat scallops for $NZ8 ($6). Back towards town, a 163-year-old wooden building sits on pilings made from whalebone. Two dozen chunks of whale vertebrae were used to shore up the historic house back in the days when timber was scarce and whale carcasses littered the shore.

Stay overnight at Hapuku Lodge, 12km north of Kaikoura. Its luxurious tree houses boast mountain views on one side and ocean vistas from the glass-walled shower. If you’re keen to see a whale, join pilot Dan from Wings Over Whales. He zips off the end of a minuscule runway to loop above the ocean until he spots a grey submarine shape below. Then he circles the plane around so you can watch 42 tonnes of whale ploughing through the water.

Related: Queenstown | Adventure meets Luxury

Continuing north, the coastal road offers seal sightings as the infamous warm, dry nor’wester buffets the vehicle. On the approach to the country’s largest wine-producing region, splashes of green break the parched brown hills. There is even a glimpse of Cloudy Bay, immortalised on the label of the eponymous sauvignon blanc.

On the 129km drive from Kaikoura to Blenheim, allow plenty of time for ogling the scenery. While Blenheim may well be the birthplace of New Zealand’s distinctive, world-beating sauvignon blanc, this region also grows more than half of the nation’s pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling crops – about 12,000ha of vines in all. The 100-plus wineries range from grand architectural statements to small family-run operations where the work-booted owner leaves the vineyard to chat and pour tastings. More than 40 are open to the public. Drivers need to watch for cycling wine tourists who brave the wind, wobbling a little more and more as the day wears on, their baskets weighed down with bottled booty from places like Fromm Winery La Strada (voted third most-exciting wine company in NZ) or with organic wine and olive oil from Seresin Estate.

Kathy Lynskey also makes highly respected wines and smooth extra-virgin olive oil under her own label. While drinking in Blenheim’s Hotel D’Urville bar, she recommends the hotel restaurant, noting, “You could shoot a gun down the main street in winter. It’s dead.”

Even the famous vineyard-based Herzog restaurant and winery, one of New Zealand’s best fine-dining establishments, shuts down for a couple of the cooler months. The rest of the year it welcomes diners into a warm, elegant cocoon where everything is just so, from stemware to staff and the glorious glass-domed cheese trolley. All this with a stellar international cellar (the house wines are excellent, too) and European-with-a-twist menu, courtesy of winemaker Hans Herzog and his restaurateur wife, Therese.

And only diners can book the romantic old cottage for two, where the nor’wester whirls about the surrounding vines like crashing ocean waves. Stay overnight here and devote the next day to more tasting and diversions such as the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Former pilots give guided tours and spin great yarns among WWI fighter planes staged in fantastic dioramas, courtesy of NZ’s most famous movie director, Peter Jackson.

Related: New Zealand: The call of the wild

The information centre stocks art trail brochures that lead to potter Fran Maguire. She is as engaging as her vibrant, tactile work as she ushers visitors into her studio beneath the starkly beautiful Wither Hills.
A cluster of shops on Rapaura Road, Blenheim’s vineyard-lined golden mile, is home to a good olive oil specialty store, while the neighbouring mud-brick shop stocks wine from selected local vintners who don’t offer cellar-door sales. Nearby, Allan Scott Wines – family-owned and operated – has earned local respect for quality wines and the generosity of its community involvement, although visitors tend to focus on the tasting room and lunch in the leafy courtyard.

Leaving the wine region, the road descends into steep pine forest. It’s an incongruous setting for the final winery of the day. Johanneshof Cellars boasts a fantastic underground rock cellar. With a day’s notice or good luck – if a tour is already booked, they might include you – visitors can take a candlelit tour of the cellar, blasted out of solid sandstone to a depth of 20m.

Minutes away, the seaport of Picton is poised on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound. Phoenix palms frame the view at the end of the main street, with its scattering of art galleries (Oriel Gallery is the best) and inter-island ferry sightings.

The surprisingly authentic Seumus’s Irish pub is tucked back from the waterfront bars and eateries. Wall-hung plaques celebrate the fortitude of the Guinness Club members, each of whom has downed 100 pints of the dark brew. At the tiny, dark bar is Terry, a third-generation commercial fisherman who sells his catch from the back of his truck on Thursdays and Saturdays. He raves about Bay of Many Coves Resort. “You have to get a massage there,” he says, though admitting he’s never had one himself.

Massage aside, the resort is a stunning place to break the journey and experience the lush beauty of the Marlborough Sounds. Like most holiday homes and accommodation in the area, the resort has no road access. Visitors must leave their cars on shore and hop aboard the water taxi, which takes on its load of groceries, building materials and locals. The boat docks in front of a deep green hillside dotted with handsome, resort apartments. There are no trains, no passing traffic, no pollution to mar the evening show of silver moonlight on the water.

Related: Bird and Knoll's Guide to Auckland

Only birdsong heralds the perfect pink and gold morning before the water taxi makes the return journey to the dock at Picton. From here it takes an hour to negotiate the wickedly winding 37km journey to Havelock. Queen Charlotte Drive follows the topography of the coastline, offering tantalising glimpses of still, blue-green water and rugged farmland. At the village of Havelock, journey’s end, the road turns back towards Blenheim or continues on to the coastal city of Nelson. Both routes link to an alternative, inland route to Christchurch.

Havelock is a former gold town that proudly claims association with two famous New Zealanders: rocket scientist William Pickering and Nobel-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford. The two are honoured in a monument near the entrance of the marina, but these days Havelock is best known for its greenshell mussel farms. At the marina, a simple cafe serves them smoked, seared, grilled or swimming in chowder. The taste is wild and fresh, a bit like a morning on the magnificent Marlborough Sounds.

For more information visit Destination Marlborough

Stay

Bay Of Many Coves Resort - Enjoy uninterrupted water views from the balcony of your luxury apartment in this secluded, eco-conscious retreat.
Queen Charlotte Sound, Picton.

Hapuku Lodge - Guestrooms, stand-alone apartment and luxury tree houses in a spectacular and tranquil setting surrounded by a deer farm and olive grove.
Station Road, Kaikoura.

Herzog - Sample the label’s small, sought-after quantities of pinot gris, viognier and chardonnay – then visit the restaurant. Can’t bear to leave this lovely winery? Diners can book the charming vineyard cottage. Helicopter landing space available.
81 Jeffries Road, Blenheim.

Eat & Drink

Le Cafe - Fabulous water views and live entertainment spice up a lively cafe menu.
12-14 London Quay, Picton.

Kaikoura Seafood BBQ - Classic roadside shack near Fyffe House. Kaikoura means “to eat crayfish”, if you need any more encouragement.
194 Torquay Street, Kaikoura.

Nor’wester Cafe - Set in a 1920s bungalow, the Nor’Wester’s ambience is as warm as its open fire and native timber accents. Stocks Rachel Scott bread and chocolate truffles.
95 Main North Road, Amberley.

Pegasus Bay - Lauded food-and-wine experience. Dine inside in the company of contemporary artworks or outside in the splendid gardens.
Stockgrove Road, Waipara.

Twelve Trees Restaurant - Named for the venerable 75-year-old walnuts planted at the estate entrance, this indoor/outdoor garden restaurant features the estate’s own wines and the best of Marlborough produce.
Allan Scott Wines, Jacksons Road, Blenheim.

Seumus’s Irish Nook & Traditional Irish Bar - Guinness and blarney abound, to be sure, to be sure.
25 Wellington Street, Picton, New Zealand.

Related: Golfing in Queenstown

Wineries

Fromm Winery La Strada - Boutique operation whose classically styled wines capture the authentic local terroir. Godfrey Road, Blenheim.

Herzog - Sample the label’s small, sought-after quantities of pinot gris, viognier and chardonnay – then visit the restaurant. Can’t bear to leave this lovely winery? Diners can book the charming vineyard cottage. Helicopter landing space available.
81 Jeffries Road, Blenheim.

JohanNeshof Cellars - Fine aromatics aged in an atmospheric stone cellar.
State Highway 1, Koromiko.

Seresin Estate - Distinctive wines from the estate’s own vines, grown on warm terraces by the Wairau River.
Bedford Road, Blenheim.

Te Whare Ra - Marlborough’s original boutique winery is still tiny, personable and hands-on.
56 Anglesea Street, Renwick.

For information on local wine regions visit Wine Marlborough and Waipara Wine

See & Do

Blenheim Visitor Information Centre
Blenheim Railway Station, State Highway 1.

Fyffe House
62 Avoca Street, Kaikoura.

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

79 Aerodrome Road, Blenheim.

Oriel Gallery
35 High Street, Picton.

Wings Over Whales
Kaikoura Airfield.

Festivals

Havelock Mussel Festival

Kaikoura Seafest
First weekend in October.

Wine Marlborough Festival
Blenheim.
Second Saturday in February.

Source: Qantas The Australian WaySeptember 2007
Updated: August 2008

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