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New Zealand - Day 12 Queenstown

Posted in NZ2013, Travel, Uncategorized on March 22nd, 2013

Sleep was glorious. We made it as least as late as 9:30 before finally waking up. And then it was possible to have a leisurely morning enjoying the view from our balcony, without having to rush to drive somwhere. We finally made it up and out of the room a bit after 11 for some exploration of Queenstown before our rafting trip. First stop was a local fish-and-chips food truck that parked right about the corner from us. They were frying up fresh-caught local blue cod so we got a double order of that and ate looking out over the lake. Then it was off to do some shopping or at least window-shopping, since Queenstown is rather the fancy, expensive town. There were some amazing clothing shops selling gorgeous 100% NZ wool clothing, but the prices were just a bit too high for us. We also scouted out bars and restaurants for the evening, but did not see anything that looked too amazing.

We made a brief stop back at our room to drop off everything we didn’t need and then strolled up to Shotover Street to Queenstown Rafting. There was a brief safety talk (in short, listen to your guide, don’t be an idiot) and then they piled us into a van and drove us to the base camp. We got geared up with wet suits, life jackets, and helmets before climbing into a second van. This van took us up river to the launch point for rafting. It was a big van and had a long trailer holding the rafts attached to the back of it. The road to the launch point is a narrow-ass twisty-as-hell gravel road that used to be the old miners road, during the gold rush days in Queenstown (second most gold found in a river after the Yukon). Driving it should probably be considered an extreme sport, especially when you’ve got a full van and a trailer to haul around. There is at least one turn where the road is so narrow that not all the van’s tires are actually on the road.

In order to keep people from thinking too much about the plunge to certain death that lurks mere centimeters away, the rafting guides kept up a running patter that is half safety instructions and half impromptu stand-up comedy (usually at the expense of the Australians). There were a couple really good jokes told, the best being:
Q: What does a Kiwi call a sheep in high grass?
A: A satisfying encounter.
And so forth. Eventually, we arrived at the launch-point and were split up into groups. Each raft was supposed to only have 5 people in it (except in cases where there was a group of 6 they didn’t want to split up), but there were some language issues with this Korean guy who managed to erroneously end up in our raft (so we had 6 and someone else had 4). Our guide was Stephano, from Argentina, who spent his winters working in NZ and his summers in Switzerland. Not a terrible life.

The first part of the river is relatively tame and the guides use it to teach you all the commands you’ll need to survive. The most important ones are “Forward” and “Get Down”. If you don’t paddle hard when you hear “Forward”, you’ll probably hear “Get Down” since your raft isn’t going to hit the rapids the right way. Choi, our renegade Korean, had very limited English skills, necessitating some extra work needed with commands like “Jump Right” and “Hold On”, but eventually it seemed like everyone was getting it. The bane of this part of the trip were the sandflies which were out in force today. Since we were mostly covered in thick neoprene, there was limited target areas for the flies to attack, so they swarmed all over our hands. Our guide’s suggestion of keeping your hands wet and relatively still did work to alleviate some of it, but both Beth and I ended up with bites on our wrists and fingers.

Stephano was not pleased with having an overly heavy raft, so after the first small rapid, he conferred with the trip leader and ended up giving away one of extra people. Our final raft make-up was Beth and I in the front, Choi in the center, and then a couple from Australia in the back (Ting, who was originally from Malaysia, and her boyfriend, who might have said 4 words the entire trip). The main part of the trip were the rapids that occur in the second part of the river. When the river is running higher (like when my sister and I rafted it 5 years ago), most of these rapids are class 4 and 5. The day we went the river was running a bit lower (which was at least partially related to the drought conditions) so nothing was worse than a class 4. But the lower river did make it a more technically challenging trip, since there were so many more exposed rocks that had to be navigated around.

Ting provided the entertainment for the trip, since she started screaming before we hit any rapid with the volume and intensity increasing as the motion of the raft did. But despite her vocal proclivities and Choi’s marginal comprehension, the crew did a good job of paddling and Stephano did a great job of steering and we hit every rapid perfectly. The rafts all stay close together, giving you a view of the other rafts running the rapids as well, so we saw a bunch of groups that did not do as well as we did. No raft flipped and there was only one unintentional over-board situation (and the girl who fell out was shaken up, but nothing worse), but quite a few of them got stuck in at least one of the rapids which necessitated from interesting acrobatics to free them.

There were 6 named rapids in all (Cascade, Toilet, Oh Shit, Pinball, and two more I can’t remember), plus a 170m dark tunnel (originally built as an unsuccessful attempt at diverting the river for mining purposes). After we finished shooting all the rapids, we drifted a bit more downstream before finally arriving back at the base camp. Stephano spent the last part of the trip talking about all the injuries that he’d seen on the river; the most common were broken noses and wrists suffered when failing out of the raft, but when the river was running really fast, people get hurt in all kinds of ways. Beth was horrified by the litany of accidents he ran over and did not seem to think the risk was worth the reward of the trip (though she did have fun on the river, minus the fly bites). Hot showers back at the rafting place and then back on the bus to go back to Queenstown. We walked back to Nomads’ and started looking at places for dinner. There wasn’t anything that seemed amazing, so we decided to head back to The Bunker and give their tasting menu a try.

This did not end up being the best of decisions: while the wine pairings they did were superb, the food itself ended up being very disappointing, especially for the price that we paid. The initial amuse was possibly the best thing of the evening, a shotglass of cold tomato borscht with smoked mussels and an heirloom tomato bruschetta, served with a local sparkling wine made in the Champagne style. The sparkler was pretty damn near perfect, the soup spicy and smokey, and the tomatoes soaked in local olive oil. We were off to a good start, but that did not last long. The next course was local crayfish with gnocchi. The crayfish were not very good and the sauce they were in was completely forgettable (I in fact do not remember what it was). The wine was a stunning Fume Blanc from Amisfield Wine Company, so at least it wasn’t a total loss of a course. We moved onto the second appetizer course a bit more downspirited. This was local abalone served in a sort of pieroggi in a cream sauce. The abalone wasn’t bad—nice and chewy as fresh abalone should be—but it wasn’t really good either. The wine was another stunner, though, the Reserve Chardonnay from Gibbston Valley. I’m not a fan of almost all Chardonnay’s but this one was exceptionally well done. A quick intermezzo which was grapefruit sorbet topped with a stonefruit compote was lovely and then we got our main. It was local salmon (locally-farmed, since wild salmon really isn’t a thing in NZ) with some green veggies in a red pepper sauce. Again, not bad, but not anything special either, but once again the wine was the star—a Dry Riesling from Peregrine that balanced perfectly with the fish. Then it was a cheese course, which was basically the same cheese plate we had had the night before, but with only 2 cheeses not 3. Beth was outraged. The wine was the Amisfield Late Harvest Riesling, which went really well with the cheese. The final course was their crème brûlée, which was pretty terrible. A good crème brûlée should be caramelized on top and a taut custard underneath. This one was burnt on the top and rather soggy in the center. We were not impressed. The wine was a Pinot Noir desert wine from Wooing Tree which we were fans of.

After the disappointing dinner we weren’t much motivated to go out further, so we wandered back to Nomads’ and made an early night of it. The next day we were off to visit the wineries of Central Otago, including all the ones whose wines we had enjoyed so much at dinner. We also had lunch reservations at Amisfield, which was supposed to be one of the best winery restaurants in the country, so we were looking forward to a better culinary experience.

New Zealand: Day 3 - Wine and Friends

Posted in NZ2013, Travel, Uncategorized on March 14th, 2013

At 6:15am we woke up. Beth looked at me and said, “It’s 6:15am. What’s going on?” She does not always wake-up well. But she was fully rebooted within a few minutes and we scurried about getting everything packed up. We were out the door before our host awoke and off to sit in the long line for the ferry. Parked the car on the lower deck and headed off the to the upper deck to enjoy the cruise across the straits. Spent a good chunk of the uninteresting part of the cruise working on this blog then went up to the observation deck to watch us pull into Picton.

From Picton we drove west, initially snaking our way around Queen Charlotte Sound. We stopped a couple times to take photos; this was the first time that we really got the full effect of the New Zealand wild beauty, with the iridescent blue water curling up against sandy spits of beaches, while tree-covered mountains loom overhead. The road itself was as narrow and windy as any good NZ road tends to be. We made pretty good time and were down off the coastal mountains and into the heart of the Nelson region before too long. It was coming on lunch time, so we stopped off at a brew pub (?) for lunch. We had a couple salads (one with fried goat cheese, the other with local fish cakes) and a sampler of the beer they brewed there. 6 different beers, all of which were pretty decent. My favorite was the pale ale, while Beth’s was the hoppy red.

Then it was down into the heart of Nelson wine-country to find some wineries. The area is crawling with them and it was already getting somewhat into afternoon, so we had to be selective in the ones that we visited. The guide to the region that we had wasn’t very helpful since the one line descriptions of the places all sounded similar, so we just went with the ones that were closest to our route. First stop was at Richmond Plains & Te Mania. Two wineries in one tasting room! Efficiency! Te Mania was the first (and still one of the only) organic winery in the region and Richmond Plains is in the middle of its organic conversion. The woman working in the tasting room was the owner of Te Mania. She had come out to the region with her husband in 1990 with the intention of starting a winery, bought some land, and 23 years later is still there. We tried six wines there, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Reisling, a Gerwurtz, a Blanc de Noir (a white Pinot Noir), a Pinot rose, and a Resiling desert wine. Nothing was spectacular and we were pretty disappointed with the desert wine (a recurring theme in this region). We ended up getting a bottle of the Resiling and headed on.

Next stop was Seigfried Winery, which was a much bigger and more corporate environment. They had a fancy estate building and the woman doing the tasting was just an employee, not one of the wine-makers. Tasted their estate Sauv. Blanc (which we ended up buying), a Gerwurtz, a Wurtzer (a hybrid of Gerwurtz and something else which we both thought was inferior), their true Pinot, and a desert wine. Except for the one that we bought, we were pretty disappointed with the wines. Many of the wines from this region seemed to lack the character and definition that you tend to get from the more mature wineries over in the Marlborough area. A lot of good aromas, but in general the wine did not seem to live up its nose.

We were undeterred and headed on to Rimu Bay. True to its name, the winery sat up on a hill, with a stunning view down into the bay. It was a small tasting room and we had it all to ourselves. The woman working there wasn’t associated with the winery per se. One of her friends had made a lot of money working in derivatives and bought a couple hectacres of vines in the region. But he quickly realized that he had no interests in dealing with the land, so she and her husband volunteered to live on the land and take care of the vines in exchange for a chunk of the wine. Meanwhile, this guy Patrick whose parents were wine-makers in Napa decided he wanted to start a winery in Nelson, so he bought the land that became Rimu Bay, which happens to be right near the plot that our tasting room attendant lived on. Since she and her husband knew nothing about making wine, they trade work at Rimu Bay for Patrick’s help in making their wine. We never met Patrick but from the stories about him, he seemed like a mad chemist who mostly ran the vineyard for his own enjoyment; the tasting room was out of stuff because he had showed up a day or so before and taken the last few bottles for himself. For the most part, the wine was pretty average (and both Pinots were disappointing), but his Chardonnay was really exceptional. Way less oaky and more gentle that what you’d typically get in Cali. So we bought a bottle of that.

It was getting close to the end of the tasting day (since almost everything closed by 4:30), but there was one more place nearby (Glovers) that was open to 5. The description was extremely generic, but we figure what the hell. We drove up and noticed one other car in the lot (which might have held 3 cars if they squeezed really hard). We walked into the tasting room, which was empty, and were confronted with a wooden table whose entire surface was covered in a sea of bottles, mostly unlabeled. As we waited, the winemaker wandered out from the back with his other two guests; he had been showing them his brewing apparatus and they were sampling the beer that he had made. The tasting did not have much rhyme or reason. He poked around the table until he found something that looked interesting and then poured it out for us. We tasted a couple whites, including a really solid Sauv Blanc and then moved onto reds. The first Cab he poured for us was phenomenal, an experiment he had done which resulted in a much lighter and delicate wine. A complete revelation compared to the tannic-y oak monsters from Cali. Then a couple more Cabs (none good as the first) and then he pulls out the limoncello that he made. Only 60g of sugar per liter compared to the 300g that you normally get in the Italian version, so much more the bitter lemon flavor came through. Delicious. And then he goes into a backroom and comes back with something that “[he had] just threw together recently” and hadn’t even gotten around to labeling any of them. It was a rose Cabernet and it too was amazing.

During all these tastings we had been chatting with the other couple that was there. Their names were Ursula and Dan, from Amsterdam, and they were spending a month in NZ after spending two in Australia. She was a medical student and had front-loaded her courses to give herself a semester off to travel and was making the most of it. We chatted about wine and politics and travel and the failures of the US education system. Ursula’s English was basically flawless, despite the fact that she’d never been to the US or the UK, which she attributed to a strict English aunt who used to wrap her knuckles whenever she did not speak English. Though I doubt the aunt is the one who taught her to drop slang like ‘asshole douchebags’ with the nonchalance of a well-practiced America. The ‘tasting’ went on for over an hour, well after the winery was officially closed. We discovered that our Dutch friends were headed the same place we were, off to hike the Abel Tasmin trek, so we might run into them again. Then we discovered that they didn’t had a place to stay down in Marahau, so we gave them the address of the place we had booked and we decided that we’d try to meet up for dinner.

We finally left Glovers with three bottles of his crazy concoctions and continued our coast drive. We made a brief stop to pick up food for the next three days and then rolled into The Barn where we were staying for the night. Our adorable ‘room’ was a tiny little cabin that held a bed and our luggage and nothing more. As we were finishing checking-in, Ursula and Dan rolled up and rented a camp site (since all the cabins were booked). We spent an hour or so getting our packs all set for the trek and then drove down to the beach to eat dinner. The menu was smoked salmon, NZ cheese, avocado, rye bread, nectarines, chocolate cookies, and a bottle of wine which we ate as the sun slowly set (though not over the ocean, alas). Ursula and Dan showed-up again and we talked some more while watching the stars start to come out. The sky down in NZ is just stunning; on most nights in most places you can see the entire Milky Way spreading out through the entire sky. Drove back to The Barn and it was time for sleep, because we had an early wake-up the next morning to get to our ferry into Abel Tasmin.

Trackback Test

Posted in Uncategorized on March 19th, 2007

As of yesterday, I didn’t have trackback working on this blog. I also could not use the Akismet spam blocking plugin. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with my host, aplus.net. Now I’ve never had any real problems with these guys, though there are people on the web who have had their share of bad things to say about them. Fair enough, but I’ve never had any real problems. I was having Server 500 errors a while ago and they fixed it in a day once I reported it to them.

Now I think that the problem with the trackback and the spam plugin have to do with port 80 being blocked on my host. So I got an email from them today claiming that they’ve fixed the problem. The spam plugin now works. However, it appears that the Dashboard does not work (and I think they both use the same mechanism. I don’t care about the dashboard. I do care about trackbacks. I’ve held off on a couple posts because I want to have trackbacks working before I post. Not being able to build a web of interconnected posts betweens sites defeats the purpose of blogs. So I’m throwing this up here to test the whole Trackback thing. Hopefully this next link registers a trackback.