We caught the 9:00am Interislander ferry from Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island to Picton on the South Island. We checked in before 8:00am as instructed and were sorted into an entry lane based on the height of our vehicle. We sat there for a while watching tractor trailers be loaded into the cargo deck before being allowed to drive on. We drove to the back of the parking deck and looped around so we would be facing the correct direction when it was time to disembark. Then we walked up to the 7th floor where we found a nice seating area with a view out the front of the boat. The ferry takes roughly three hours and passes through the Cook Strait, which with its long list of shipwrecks is one of most dangerous waters in the world. Peggy, Mike, Jess, and Angie played Tichu while the boys played Dota Underlords on their phones and Abby read her book and enjoyed the views from the top deck.
When the ferry docked in Picton we drove off the boat and continued on to Blenheim. Blenheim is the largest town in Marlborough, which is one of our favorite wine regions. We stopped for lunch at the Brancott Estate where we had a delicious meal and good wines. Brancott Estate is a winery we recognize from home (it has an iconic red barn on the label), and it was fun to see it in person. Brancott Estate claims to be the home of the first Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, although at least one other winery in the area makes the same claim. The views from the restaurant were stunning, and the winery has a short walking path that looks out over the grape vines and took us past some rescued falcons that are being rehabilitated.
We continued on to our Airbnb in Blenheim which turned out to be a four-bedroom house with a nice kitchen and a great outdoor patio. We were all a bit tired of eating out, so we picked up some rotisserie chickens and made a nice taco dinner which we ate outside on the patio. It was amazing how late it stayed light in New Zealand!
The next day, our Hop N’ Grape tour guide, Maurice, showed up around 10:30am with a big van to take us on a full-day tour of some local wineries. He had an itinerary of five wineries lined up. Three quarters of all wine produced in New Zealand comes from Marlborough, and the region is primarily known for its Sauvignon Blanc. The first Sauvignon Blanc was produced in 1974 and grows particularly well in the climate of the region. Other wine varietals are produced, albeit in smaller quantities, and we had lots of opportunities to try these as well.
We started with Mount Riley. The tour there was rather unconventional because there was no one working when we arrived. Maurice showed us the grape vines and described the process of trimming them back. He talked about the amount of wine that can be produced from a single vine – it’s quite a bit! Then he took us into the winery and talked about the wine production. The winery had huge tanks ranging from 10,000 liters to 60,000 liters. We climbed up some steps where we had a great view down over the grape vines. After showing us around the winery, Maurice took us into the tasting room where he poured us generous tastes of seven wines. We enjoyed trying to figure out what we could taste in each wine, but we did not love any of them. We were at Mount Riley’s for quite a long time chatting about the wine.
The second winery was Hunter’s, and it was clear from the moment we showed up that we were late. The woman leading our tasting admonished Maurice for not sticking to the schedule and led us out into a beautiful garden. The environment at Hunter’s was so much more pleasant than at Mount Riley’s that we wished we had more time here. The wine was also much better. To get us back on schedule though, the woman rushed through the tasting and had us back on the road thirty minutes later.
Our third stop was Rock Ferry, which also happened to be where we were eating lunch. We ordered lunch before heading into the tasting room where we had the best tasting of the day. We liked most of the wines at Rock Ferry better than almost all of the other wines we had tried so far. In part, this was because Rock Ferry offers their best wines at their tastings! The second to last wine, the Trig Hill Pinot Noir, was one of our favorites. Unfortunately, they only export to Australia, so we will have to come back for it. We had just tasted the final wine, a Tempranillo, when the chef came in and told us our meal was ready. Six of the eight of us had ordered the grass fed beef, so there was not much diversity in the food at the table, but it was really good!
After lunch we went to Cloudy Bay. Cloudy Bay was the only winery of the day we were already familiar with. The tasting was very solid; the wines were as good as we expected them to be. Our taste buds were getting a bit fatigued from so much wine though, so it was getting hard to taste anything new. We did enjoy lounging in the bean bag chairs and egg swings in Cloudy Bay’s garden. The fifth and final winery was Framingham, and while we enjoyed these wines more than the Mount Riley ones, we were not particularly inspired by any of them.
The next day we had a long drive ahead of us to Christchurch. There were two routes we could take to get there: the coastal route which was estimated to take 4 hours and 20 minutes or the mountain road which was estimated to take 5 hours and 50 minutes. The mountain road had a beautiful lake and a waterfall we could stop at along the way. The coastal route had seals, beautiful views of the coastline, and a sheep shearing show. Some people were tired of riding in the car and favored the shorter route; others thought the scenery of the longer route made it worth it. We opted to take a blind vote to decide which way to go. Each person wrote his or her vote on a piece of paper, and when the votes were tallied, the coastal route was the clear winner.
The coastal route delivered the promised views, and a few seal sightings. We stopped at a pullout just before Kaikoura to watch the seals hanging out on the rocks. They were sunning themselves and swimming in pools. The baby seal above nudged its mom and made her follow it up the rocks. Afterwards, we drove out to the point in Kaikoura where we hiked up a small hill and had a picnic lunch with a view out over the ocean. We could see a few seals from up there as well. In theory, on a clear day, you can see all the way to the North Island
After lunch we went for a short walk along the boardwalk and watched some mama ducks try to keep track of their ducklings who kept venturing away. Then we hopped back in the car and drove to The Point Bed & Breakfast to see the sheep shearing show which is offered twice a day every day. When we arrived we were directed first to a pen where a lamb was waiting for its bottle. The lamb was pretty upset that we did not have any milk and made her disappointment known with some loud “baas“. The farmer came out a short while later with a full bottle and handed it to us to feed the lamb. She was so cute!
Then the farmer led us into the barn where he introduced us to a big Drysdale ram, “Ram-Man”. Abby and Eric fed Ram-Man out of the palms of their hands. Ram-Man was huge and had very long wool! He will be sheared soon, but he requires a special sheep shearer because he is so big. The farm shears its sheep twice a year and has a flock big enough to shear two a day for the show. The farmer retrieved a ewe from the back, held her between his legs, and began to shear her with an electric shearing tool. We had had our first exposure to sheep shearing on TV just a few days earlier at a sheep museum on our way from Napier to Wellington. At the museum, they were showing clips from a sheep shearing contest in which the shearers sheared a sheep in under a minute. This farmer was much slower than that – he jokes that the world record holder sheared 497 sheep in eight hours and his record is two sheep a day!
When the sheep was sheared, the farmer talked to us about different kinds of wool and its uses. He explained that wool prices are very low now and one sheep’s worth of wool sells for only about NZD 2. Sheep farming was New Zealand’s primary agricultural industry for 130 years, but sheep populations in New Zealand have dropped to roughly 27 million from a peak of 70 million in the 1980s. New Zealand is now known for other industries like dairy farming, wine production, and lumber. He showed us some old manual cutting shears and other shearing tools. It is hard to imagine shearing a sheep with the large scissors, but he said some shearers still use them on Merino sheep because their skin is much more delicate and easier to nick. For the finale, the farmer brought out two large curled ram horns and let us pretend to be rams. We had a good time making silly ram faces.
We got back in the car and continued our drive to Christchurch, the final destination on our New Zealand itinerary. It was Thanksgiving, so after checking in to our hotel in an old government building, we went out to Inati for dinner. The restaurant is focused on serving seasonally inspired dishes using locally sourced produce and the menu is organized around the themes of Earth, Land, Sea, and Nectar. We opted for the eight-course tasting menu which was six small plates, one large plate, and a dessert. The food was beautifully presented and brought together lots of interesting flavors. The small plates were creative and delicious. The large plate was mutton presented in two ways: one which was delicious but fatty, and the other of which was less good. By this point, many of us were starting to get full. It turns out eight plates might have been too many, but it was just like Thanksgiving is supposed to be!
The next day we started to explore Christchurch, and it quickly became one of our favorite cities in New Zealand. Christchurch suffered a severe earthquake on February 22, 2011 in which 185 people died and thousands of buildings around the city were destroyed. In the center of the city only eight buildings remained standing including the Christchurch Cathedral pictured below, which is technically standing, but definitely not functional.
The city has made great strides to rebuild and there are lots of new buildings and vibrant areas with shops and restaurants. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. There are buildings all over still being held up with scaffolding and braces. We walked by one building which looked like it had not been touched since the earthquake. There were books scattered all over the floor and tables flattened underneath them. There was a poster in the window that referred to a sale happening in March.
We decided to take the Christchurch Tram around town on the first day, and it turned out to be a good mix of tour and transportation. The tour guide pointed out some of the destroyed buildings including the Pyne Gould Corporation building which suffered a catastrophic collapse killing 18 people. Three of the people who died in that building worked at Jess’s company, Marsh. There are still partially destroyed rebar-enforced concrete columns standing on the site, but they cannot proceed with any new construction because of the endangered black-billed gulls that are now using the area as a roost! He also pointed us in the direction of the “Cardboard Cathedral” which was built to replace the badly damaged Christchurch Cathedral. The cathedral was built in 2013 using 24-inch cardboard tubes, steel and wood.
Nearby, we saw the temporary earthquake memorial with 185 white chairs representing each of the people who were killed. We also visited the the memorial across the street to the 115 people who died when the CTV building collapsed leaving only a single wall standing.
Later on, we visited the Botanic Gardens where we saw a lot of big, old trees and enjoyed smelling all the different kinds of roses in the rose garden. We saw a one-legged duck that was very adept at hopping around and some very cute ducklings that were charging the nearby cafe looking for treats!
On the last day, Jess, Peggy, and Eric took a quick spin through the Christchurch Art Gallery which was free. There was an interesting exhibit of Maori art and some contemporary art pieces as well as some traditional European art, which by contrast were less interesting. There was quite a bit of video art, which we have to admit we did not really understand. Mike, Abby, and Chris had gone off to see the Antarctica exhibit at the Canterbury museum which was full of interesting documents, artifacts, and stories from various expeditions to Antarctica. We joined them there and took another quick spin through that museum before visiting Quake City, the museum dedicated to the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.
When we first walked into Quake City, we were shown an aerial photograph of downtown Christchurch before the earthquake. Then slowly, paper cutouts of buildings were placed over eight buildings in the photograph to indicate the only buildings left standing. It was a very eye-opening way to demonstrate the amount of destruction the city suffered. The museum chronicles the emergency response and stories of survivors from the day. It also has exhibits outlining the recovery efforts and the new technologies being deployed to reduce the impact from future quakes. It was very well done with lots of interactive displays.
For lunch we went to the Riverside Market, tucked away down a side alley off the main shopping street. It is filled with little restaurant stands selling everything from sausages and cheese to pho and pizza. No matter what you were in the mood for, you could probably find it here. We all went separate ways and came back with delicious food including classic New Zealand meat pies which were worth the hype!
With that, our whirlwind Thanksgiving tour of New Zealand was complete. We squeezed in so much fun, good food and delicious wine, it went by in a flash! Peggy, Mike, Chris, Abby, Angie and Kevin were all boarding flights this afternoon to head back to the U.S. Jess and Eric were off to pick up a camper van a few blocks away for five more days of exploring the South Island.