Sunday, February 28, 2010

NZ Trip Report

For our Chinese New Year holiday this year, in order to get as far as we could from the chaos of Beijing during the holiday, and from potential throngs of Chinese with the same idea, we decided this year to head to New Zealand. It’s hard to imagine, but it takes just as long to get from Beijing to NZ as to get to NY, 13 hours or so just to Auckland, but then we connected and flew down to Christchurch, the main city on the South Island. We decided to focus our visit just on the South Island, since there would be no way to do justice to both islands in the 15 days we had to spare, and it seemed to us that the South Island holds more attractions for us than the North Island--wine, scenery, animals, etc. Besides which, part of the objective of this trip was to see if we could find a house to buy, with a view toward one day relocating here full-time, and we had decided that we’d rather live on the South Island, which has more tourist potential, since we’d like to run an inn down the line.

Rather than go into excruciating detail on all the aspects of this trip, I think it might be easier on you, the reader, just to list a few highlights here. We made more or less a circuit of the South Island, with Christchurch as our base and going counterclockwise initially, and then making a bit of a run through the middle of the island to form a reverse “S” shape (actually more of a & shape...).

Christchurch:

As the main city on the island, and the commercial center, we did not expect much from CHC, but in fact it is a charming town, with some lovely architecture, nice restaurants and cafes, and friendly people. The most “English” of NZ cities, it even has men in straw hats propelling flat-bottomed boats (punts) down the Avon River that cuts through town. We only spent one night here, though we’d surely like to spend more time here down the line.

Kaikoura: (Photos)

As you go up the coast from CHC the first sizable town you reach, about 90 minutes away, is Kaikoura, which means “A Meal of Crayfish” in Maori. Until not that long ago there was nothing much in Kaikoura, but in the past decade or so it has boomed, based largely on the fact that just off shore is a deep canyon that teems with marine life, which in turn draws in dolphins, whales and other sea creatures that people will pay good money to see. We parted with a good deal of cash to join a boat trip to go and swim with the local dusky dolphins. This turned out to be incredible fun, decking ourselves out in wet suits and clambering into the water to spend about 2 minutes at a time interacting with the dolphins, who would come right up to us to check us out. When we weren’t in the water with them, we enjoyed watching them do their acrobatics in the water, and also enjoy seeing other creatures, including orcas, sunfish and even a sperm whale. We looked at two houses here, but in the end we decided that, while Kaikoura was a great place to visit, we wouldn’t want to live here.

Blenheim:

On the northeast corner of the island is the wine growing area of Marlborough. Marlborough has established a reputation for fine Sauvignon Blancs but also produces some excellent other wines, including Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. During our stay we visited more than ten wineries, and really did not find a dud in the bunch. But our favorites were Spy Valley (from which we expected nothing, with such a seemingly silly name, but they are named for the international listening station located just up the road from their vineyard), Fromm (which specializes in red wines, made in the European style) and Bladen (small family run farm that grows wines that the owners like to drink, including Riesling and Gewurtztraminer). We stayed in a lovely B&B here called Uno Piú, run by a guy from Istria (Italian Yugoslavia) and his NZ wife, which was a highlight of our time in Blenheim. We also looked at a house here, but we decided we did not really like Blenheim as a town, so we nixed that idea.

Nelson:

As you round the northern end of the island going west you first cross the town of Picton (which is where you catch the ferry to go to the north island) and then you go through the area of Marlborough Sounds, which is dotted with beautiful cays and inlets and is very beautiful before you hit the town of Nelson, NZ’s first capital and a pretty large town for an island with only 800,000 inhabitants. We looked at a house here that ended up being our second favorite, though we didn’t really like Nelson that much either; it was way too much of a city for what we’re looking for, with not that much to lure a visitor here--most visitors only would use Nelson as a provisioning stop before heading into the Abel Tasman national park or to kayak through the Sounds. But we stayed at a great B&B here called Awatea that friends of ours in Beijing turned us on to, run by a gay couple who built the house in the town of Motueka overlooking the entire area. We also had a very nice meal in the most unlikely of restaurants called The Gothic, a converted church where they specialize in stone grills, where they present diners with a very hot square stone on which you cook your meat yourself.

Punakaiki: (Photos of Motueka to Punakaiki)

The west coast of the island is nicknamed the “Wet Coast” since it gets about five meters of rain a year. It’s dotted with several industrial looking ports at the north end before giving way to more pristine areas, so finding a place to stay in the northern portion is a bit challenging. We opted for the village of Punakaiki, which is home to a geological oddity in the form of what they call “pancake” rocks, limestone deposits off the shore that have been eroded by the waves and wind to resemble stacks of pancakes. There are also blow holes here where the surf shoots out from among the rocks to form interesting jets of foam. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time we were here, which diminished the appeal of the rocks, and it was the wrong tide for the blowholes, so Punakaiki was a bit of a washout for us.

Glaciers:

The South Island has two large glaciers that are distinguished for being so close to the sea at such a moderate latitude. As I understood it, this is brought about by the volume of rain that the coast gets and the proximity of the Southern Alps, which turns the rain at altitude into snow, the weight of which compresses the lower portion of snow into ice, which then slides along the gravel sides of the mountains--sometimes at a rate of a meter a day--toward the sea. At Franz Josef and Fox glaciers you can easily walk up to the ice face of the glacier while wearing shorts and a t-shirt, since it can be pretty warm here, though when we were here it was raining and a bit chilly. You can also ride in a helicopter up to the higher reaches of the glacier, which we tried to do but heavy cloud prevented us from taking off. There are activities you can do here in the rain, such as visit a hot water spa, but for the most part, people come here to see the glaciers and then get out.

Central Otago: (Photos of Glaciers to Alexandra)

About an hour south of Fox Glacier the western coast road pretty much grinds to a close at the town of Haast and you have no option but to head inland heading east. This is not to say that the island ends at Haast, but the area to the south of there is mostly a national park and is dotted with fjords that would make driving impossible. The drive through Haast Pass in the Southern Alps is festooned with beautiful scenery, including a few waterfalls and some lovely alpine scenes of rivers running through green valleys dotted with sheep, and as you reach the eastern side of the mountains you enter the area of Central Otago, with its unbelievably beautiful lakes. We stopped first in Wanaka, one of the action centers of Otago, with bungie jumping, jet boating, and all that, none of which interested us. But Wanaka is still a nice town, with some great restaurants and shops and some good wineries. Otago is one of NZ’s fruit growing regions, and wine has become a big thing here in recent years, particularly Pinot Noir. The winery closest to Wanaka is Rippon Vineyard, which just two days before we arrived was named best-in-tasting among NZ pinot noirs by the NY Times, so of course we did a tasting and found that we concurred with the NYT opinion. We stayed the night in the nearby town of Cromwell, at a B&B run by a former World Bank finance specialist and her partner. Cromwell and adjacent Alexandra, with their fruit groves and vineyards, have the most extreme climate in NZ, and the biggest temperature range, reaching the mid-30s in summer and dipping into the -10s in winter, with ample snow. Thus we did not even bother to visit the houses that we had been considering here. But we really liked Otago, with its wide range of agricultural products and historical interest, great food and wine, and very friendly people. Otago was the site of NZ’s gold rush in the latter half of the 1800s, and attracted migrants and investment from all over the world. It’s the home to NZ’s first university (in Dunedin) and it has converted the old and disused railway line into a very popular bike and walk trail. Definitely an area to explore further.

Oamaru:

We had never heard of Oamaru before finding a house listing here that really interested us, and we had little expectation from the town before we arrived. But little Oamaru is a real gem, and should become more of a feature on NZ visitors’ lists. Located on the coast just two hours from Cromwell, it is considered NZ’s best preserved and best built town, largely due to the fact that it was built using the local limestone that was also used to build nearby Dunedin. It was also a very wealthy town (and still is), originally due to the shipping of lamb and wool from here to the UK. It is the place where Admiral Peary landed after his Antarctic expedition and is home to two colonies of rare penguins, the yellow-eyed penguins and the blue penguin, which is the smallest penguin species. Our arrival in Oamaru coincided with its annual Wine & Food Festival, for which our hosts arranged tickets (good thing, too, since it sold out long before the event) and which we enjoyed immensely, tasting the wines and foods of the area and enjoying a performance by NZ’s hottest singer of the moment, Gin Wigmore. There are some amazing restaurants here, including one that British food writer Rick Stein named the only place that he would get on a plane to visit (or something like that), a place called Fleur’s just outside of town in the village of Moeraki. There are some amazing wines coming out of the Waitaki river valley just north of town, too. And on top of all that, we LOVED the house we came to look at. Built in 1889, it is reputed to be the largest single-story all-wood house in the South Island, built by a fabric merchant and fitted out with furnishings and details that the original builders brought back from Europe, including a ceiling in the lounge that came from Florence. It’s a real stunner.

Dunedin: (Photos of Oamaru and Dunedin)

Though we could barely bring ourselves to leave Oamaru, we realized we had to continue our exploration. Dunedin is just an hour or so south of Oamaru on the east coat, and aside from being home to the University of Otago (NZ’s first), the first day of whose orientation week coincided with our arrival, it is a lovely town with a really lively feel to it. It’s also adjacent to the Otago Peninsula, which, like most of NZ, teems with wildlife and scenic spots. The inn where we stayed the night would have been a top contender for us had it been for sale, but the owners are quite happy in it, and why not? It’s a beautifully restored 1904 mansion with gorgeous woodwork throughout, stained glass windows, a remarkable plaster roof in the lounge and a nice modern kitchen. The guys who own it are yet another really nice and friendly couple, too.

The Catlins:

The southern tip of the South Island is capped by a rugged and wild area full of inlets and coves called the Catlins, an easy drive south of Dunedin on the way to Invercargill. Driving through here is slow going, not only because of the twists and turns in the road, but also because you want to stop every 100 meters to take a photo. We tried to limit ourselves to only a couple of detours off the road, but found that even so it took us about seven hours to travel the 143 km to Invercargill. The variety of animals you can run into here is quite broad, and we saw seals, sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins, all up close and personal. The penguins in particular were very cute--we found the male just standing in the shallows of the beach preening himself but then a female (we presume his mate) came out from her burrow up at the top of the beach and called to him, whereupon he began the long walk (more like waddle) up the beach to her, during all of which time she stood up there with one flipper held out to the side, as though directing him, or possibly in the penguin version of the hand on the hip pose that you would adopt just before berating your husband for staying out at the bar too late. In addition to the megafauna we also had a run-in with some microfauna, including the incredibly pesky sandflies, which irked us almost as much as they seem to irk the sea lions, who, while basking on the beach keep covering themselves with sand to try to keep them at bay. But I also ran into a bumblebee that I guess I somehow startled and caused to give me a sting. Fortunately I have proved to be non-allergic to bee stings and have survived to tell the tale. Arriving in Invercargill after this beautiful drive was an incredible letdown. The town is not that attractive and its range of services very limited, so we ended up traveling a further 90 km north from there to find a hotel for the night, in the even less salubrious village of Lumsden. So if you consider visiting the Catlins, do as the guidebooks suggest and start off in Invercargill and wind up in Dunedin. You’ll be glad you did.

Lake Tekapo: (Photos of Catlins to Tekapo)

The drive from Lumsden to Lake Tekapo takes you through Queenstown, one of NZ’s busiest tourist towns with its panoply of attractions, including skiing, bungee jumping, jet boating and lots in between. We only spent a few hours in town though, since we had places to be, but we marked Queenstown as a place to visit on a future visit. We also passed through some beautiful mountain scenery, with cloud-shrouded Mt Cook one of the highlights on the way to Lake Tekapo via Omarama. Lake Tekapo is a very small place, but it has a beautiful lake with water of an incredible turquoise hue and a small stone church placed just so along the shore to make for some lovely photos. Lake Tekapo is probably best viewed as a nice place to stay for a night en route from Christchurch to Queenstown, though perhaps with time more attractions will arise on the beautiful lake shore.

Akaroa:

Akaroa is the main town on the peninsula that juts out of the east coast of the South Island, just south of Christchurch. In the 1830s a group of French settlers were on their way to the area, prompting the British to send a warship down to plant a Union Flag and firmly claim the area for the British crown, arriving just two days before the French settlers. The area retains a French feel, with the police station calling itself the “gendarmerie”, for example, and French flags flying from the shops and houses. The peninsula is beautiful, consisting of the eroded remains of an extinct volcano, with bays and hills gorgeous views. We stayed at a tiny bed and breakfast called The Gables about 30 minutes from Akaroa with a very nice couple who used to run a restaurant in Christchurch and who now run culinary tours to Italy during the NZ winter. They have a very sweet Border Terrier and lavished attention on us.

Hanmer Springs: (Photos of Akaroa to Hanmer)

Our last stop was the resort town of Hanmer Springs, about 90 minutes from Christchurch starting off along the same road that we took to Kaikoura earlier, though turning off into the mountains. The scenery along the road was stunning once again, and we had perfect weather--blue skies, puffy clouds, warm temperatures. By sheer accident we made a reservation at the leading resort in Hanmer, the Braemar Spa, where our room came with a private hot tub on the deck and a huge spa in the bathroom. The town itself is not that big, though it has loads of shops and restaurants that cater to the throngs that come from Christchurch for the weekend, and all the skiers and other thrill seekers who come year round. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant as a favor to a friend who wanted a review to determine if it would be a good place to hold photographic seminars; indeed the meal was excellent, and their service was outstanding--when it turned out that the bottle of Pinot Noir we ordered was no longer available, the restaurant offered us a more expensive bottle at the same price. Definitely would recommend this place to anyone visiting Hanmer.

Overall:

New Zealand was an amazing place to visit; the people, scenery, food, and wine were all outstanding, and it’s so uncrowded! I cannot think of a place that was so much fun to visit, and where you can drive nearly 4000 kilometers (as, surprisingly, we managed to do in 16 days) without ever encountering a boring or unattractive stretch. I highly recommend a visit to anyone who has not been there!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Tea Shopping, then a Long Walk in the Cold

This afternoon we decided to trek out to the Maliandao tea market to stock up on some pu'erh tea. Pu'erh tea has become our favorite kind of tea, and it is distinguished by the fact that, alone among the teas, it actually improves as it ages. It is sold in both loose leaf form and in pressed disks, with the disks preferred by those who plan to store the tea for a long time. The Maliandao market, located in the west of the city, is really nothing more than a several-block-long street lined with shops selling tea leaves, teapots, and tea paraphernalia of all kinds. It's a bit overwhelming to try to shop for tea in a place like this, since you really have no way of judging by external appearance whether one shop is any better than another.

We wandered through one of the multi-stall buildings looking to see if we found a shop that looked promising, and after making a few cursory stops in a few stalls to ask about their selection of pu'erh we found one large stall with a good-size crowd of Chinese customers tasting and buying the teas. The woman who was giving one group of customers samples of tea behind a traditional tea table addressed us, asking what we were looking for, and when she heard we were looking for pu'erh tea to age she gave us what seemed to be reasonable prices for a range of teas and had us sit down to sample some.

Pu'erh disk tea comes in two forms, raw and cooked. The raw tea makes a greenish brew, while the cooked tea comes out brown, almost like a Western black tea. We started off comparing two cooked teas, one that sells for RMB 150 ($22) per 375g disk, and one that sells for RMB 260 ($38). The first one was not a bad tea at all, though it took several brews before you could taste much in the cup. (When brewed the traditional way, in small teapots that hold only enough water for four small cups at a time, pu'erh can be brewed multiple times, in some cases as many as 15-20 times, with each subsequent brew showing different taste profiles.) The RMB 260 tea tasted good much sooner, and developed a much rounder and fuller flavor, so of course we decided to buy a few disks. We also tasted a raw tea, which we enjoyed a lot as well (the raw tea and the cooked tea bear little similarity to one another).

After we agreed to buy three disks of the raw tea in addition to the three RMB 260 cooked teas, the saleslady said she wanted us to try one of her super-high quality teas. From the very first cup, this tea had a very nice flavor and very 'round' taste (I don't know how better to describe it), but for RMB 3000 ($430) per disk, it seemed way too pricey to drink!

We must have gone through about 25 cups of tea by the time we left the store, and having had only a very light lunch our heads were swimming from the caffeine. We wandered around the market a bit longer, though, looking for some small teapots to use as single-serving pots for guests. This idea sprung from a dinner we had last weekend, where our hosts served each of their guests a small pot holding whatever tea they had chosen on a small tray. After stopping in several stalls we finally found one that had nice purple clay teapots from Yixing at very reasonable prices so we got a half dozen.

At this point we figured it was time to head home so we left the market and tried to find a cab. Unfortunately, it was just about 5pm, and it had begun to snow. We were thus facing not only the change of shifts for the cab drivers, but also a mad rush of people trying to get home for dinner and others who just wanted to avoid walking in the snow. It was therefore impossible to find a cab at the market, so we started to walk to where we might find a cab more easily. But we were not the only ones with this idea, and we wound up walking more than a mile, getting progressively colder and more miserable as we did so, until we finally found ourselves on a major east-west road where we decided we'd be best off taking a bus instead of waiting for a cab. As luck would have it, we landed on a bus that headed more or less in the direction of our apartment, though it proceeded at a glacial pace and was unheated, so were only marginally warmer inside the bus than we were on the street. Once we got past the Forbidden City we decided we stood a good chance of finding a cab and hopped off the bus. Luckily it wasn't long before we found a cab and we were soon in our toasty house.